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Greetings, avid readers! I have some good news and bad news for the five of you. The bad news comes first.
Prepare for bad news in
3…
2…
1…
Bad news incoming: After thinking it over quite a bit, I’m afraid I have to inform you that this blog, and by extension, this story, is moving to the backburner. The story has moved in ways i hadn’t originally planned, and now I’m having a really hard time continuing. It’s not that I don’t like it, because I freakin love this story. But I had expected the action to pick up by now, and it hasn’t. This leaves me with three options, all equally unappetizing:
1) Let the pace continue to be wimpy, very slowly building drama. This would result in a rather boring, and exceedingly pedantic story. One of those books that you’re sure would be great if you could just get through the beginning.
2) Pick up the pace immediately, by introducing some “Act of God” GM shit which fundementally alters the story. This would be similar to me wrenching the steering wheel in the opposite direction all of the sudden. This would create two problems: first, that people who are enjoying the direction the story is headed now probably wouldn’t enjoy the new direction. Second, that a sudden jostling movement like that is noticable, and would be an artificial pickup. It would obviously a move intended to abruptly start the action, and it would simply be bad exposition. The mark of a sloppy author. You’re not supposed to see the puppet strings that move the characters, let alone my big god-hand sweeping in to change the characters or setting. Sloppy.
3) Rewrite the story in a way that keeps the original feeling intact while picking up the action sooner. This would by far be the most mentally taxing choice, and would be a big shank to all of you who have been following the story as it currently is. I wouldn’t fundamentally alter it in any way, it would be the same characters, storyline, and setting. Just clearing up extraneous parts of the plot. For instance, Nick and Joey’s date to the mall would be shorter, keeping only bits and pieces, and of course the conversation at Cold Threads, because that would be an important plot point later. The smoking circles at the end would probably be revised or removed entirely in some cases, which would bum me out because those are great for character development, and I also use them to mark the passage of time. Intermissions would probably be removed too, which would make me sad for the time reason to (not sure if you noticed, but each chapter is a single day, and time passes completely linearly, day to day. In places where a large chunk of time is missing, I put intermissions. Otherwise, a chapter immediately follows the one which precedes it. To the day. Neat.)

Well, as you may have noticed, I said that I was putting the story on the backburner, so I can’t have completely cancelled it. I don’t want to do that. But I’ve decided on choice three for the most part. I would continue to update this blog as I wrote new chapters, and they would go at their own pace. But when I finally go to print, a revised version, missing alot of the extra unneccessary points would be what I printed. On the plus side, for the hipsters out there, that means the version you read here would be the “Director’s Cut”, and would include things about characters that the main version didn’t. The long version would still be considered “canon”, and would mesh with the printed version, so you’d basically be getting a “behind-the-scenes” version by continuing to read the blog. I might even print the long version eventually, but I dunno…

Now, time for the good news. Spending less time writing this means spending more time writing other stuff, so hopefully I can get a ton of work up for you people to read. I haven’t made blogs for all of them yet, but I will soon. Being able to work on different projects at the same time will be good, because if I have an idea for one project, I have alot of trouble focusing on any others. So being able to freely bounce between works will be nice.

So there you have it. Thoughts?

Zach walked in to work. He sat down at his cubicle, or, more accurately, the cubicle assigned to him by the company. He logged on to his… Or rather, the computer assigned to him. He typed in his name, assigned to him by his parents. He typed in the password. The password was his choice. The password was his only choice. That choice, of course, was on file in a billion different places. On a list in the IT Department’s office, on the computer in the login records, in the files that made the logins work in the first place. In plain text documents, in encrypted text documents, in alternate data streams. Every time he typed that password, it bounced off of a million different bumpers before being properly destroyed. Every time he typed that password, Infiniti Incorporated knew exactly where he was. At his cubicle (number 27 to be exact) beginning a workday at 8:09 AM. One that should’ve begun at 8:00 AM. He would probably receive an automated email about that later today. The time buffer would make the email seem more human, more natural. The “Do Not Reply” message at the bottom would make it seem decidedly less so.
He stared at his empty desktop for a few minutes before getting to work. Sifting through emails, killing some time, and finally donning the dreaded headset. Finally, he pressed the line button, and called the switchboard.
“27, ready for callers” he said monotonously.
Less than ten seconds passed before his phone rang. He pressed the answer button, and began his work day.

At about 1:17, just after lunch, Zach got called in to his manager’s office.
“How are you doing?” His supervisor, Todd, asked. A stock question, but one that sounded sincere enough.
“Pretty good” Zach lied. No one ever feels “pretty good” when their boss asks to speak with them. At least, Zach never had. But it was always what he said. His supervisor’s next statement was noticably predictable as well.
“You’re probably wondering why I called you in here today.”
Well duh, Zach thought, why do bosses always say that? Of course I am. Otherwise, why would I even show up?
“I noticed you’ve been showing up late quite a bit lately.”
“Umm… Yeah… Sorry about that… I promise it’s not gonna be a long term thing.” Zach said awkwardly. Negotiation wasn’t really his strong suit.
“Alright, I just wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything going on outside of work that was distracting you. No relationship trouble?”
“Going on two years, sir” Zach responded proudly.
“No drugs?” Todd asked.
A smile tugged at Zach’s cheek, “no, sir.”
“Well that’s good. Just make sure it doesn’t happen again. I…” Todd looked up, and Zach followed his gaze. A woman whom Zach recognized as the receptionist peeked her head into the room.
“A couple of reps from corporate are here, sir” she reported solemnly.
“Son of a…” Todd exclaimed, “Aren’t they supposed to email first?”
“It looks like the email is down again. And the IT team’s still gone for that seminar.”
“Well that’s just great…” Todd grumbled, “Every time we get comfortable with everything, they roll out a new OS and have to steal my IT group for a week to teach them how to use it.” He sighed, “alright, send them in. Zach, you’re excused.”
An idea sparked in Zach’s head. “I might be able to fix it. I noodle with computers in my free time. I could see what’s going on.”
“Could you? That would actually help a ton. I have the key to the IT room, just take a look and see if something came unplugged or something. Don’t break anything you can’t fix, and don’t tell anyone. I’m technically not supposed to let any non-IT personel in there. Hell, I’m not even allowed in there.”
“But you’re the manager…” Zach began.
“Tell me about it” was Todd’s sarcastic response.

Zach wandered through the server farm in the IT office. The room was warm, borderline hot, from the servers’ cooling systems, trying in vain to pull cold air into the systems. Zach figured that this was why the rest of the office was always colder than he would’ve liked. Damn computers have to be kept comfortable he thought to himself. LEDs of various colors blinked at him, and next to each was a monochrome icon that gave no clue as to what it indicated. Some were solid, and some blinked in varying rhythms. Zach was sure that meant something, listed in some manual that no human being had ever read. He wandered to an LCD screen in the corner of the room. It was on a login page, just like the one that logged him into slavery every day. However, when he put in his credentials, the computer angrily informed him that his input was unacceptable. The computer wasn’t actually angry, but Zach had always read error messages like that in an angry voice. Probably something psychologically wrong with him, he had always figured. He was about to walk away, defeated, when he found a flaw that he could exploit to get into the system. The flaw in question was a sticky note, posted on the monitor, with the IT user name and password written on it. Zach entered the credentials on the yellow card, and the computer happily (again, in Zach’s personification) let him in. Then, as the computer loaded, a strange thought entered his head.
Zach realized at that moment that hacking was a lot like flirting. You either found some insecurity to exploit, or convinced the target that you were someone you weren’t. Whatever it took to get inside. He laughed at his own dirty pun. His laughter broke into the white noise of cooling fan hum, and he suddenly realized how strange that thought actually was. He’d been having thoughts like that a lot lately. Stoner thoughts.
He found the program that managed the email system (or, more accurately, the program that managed the program that managed the email system), and began to sift through the interface, opening whatever menus popped up, trying to find a setting that would explain what was wrong. One setting in particular caught his eye– A setting labeled “Backup All” with the box checked. Infiniti had logged every email he had ever sent or received, he realized. Every email out telling Jamie what a drag his job was, every email in telling Zach that he could get his penis enlarged for only $40. All of it was being logged in some remote server somewhere. A server that Zach noted the IP address of. Just in case. He eventually found the flaw, a program that had failed to launch that managed the ports on the email server. Just a weird, random hiccup that had occurred at the exact wrong time. Zach walked towards the door, and was halfway across the room when the warm embrace of temptation tugged at him. He was never one to ignore hedonistic impulse. He strode back to the monitor, pulled out his cell phone, and texted the information on that little yellow piece of paper, stuck carelessly to the monitor. Just in case he thought to himself.
He walked out of the IT room, closing and locking the door behind him. He turned, and found himself face-to-face with an Infiniti corporate suit. His legs tightened as his impulsive “cops” reflex leapt into action. Luckily, it was quickly replaced with a “don’t do that, stupid” impulse.
“Something wrong with the computers?” the suit asked, the sarcastic, man-of-authority kind of way.
“Yeah” Zach said awkwardly, “Well, not anymore. Fixed it.”
“Where’d you get that key? You’re not IT” the suit asked.
“Yes I am,” Zach quickly and pathetically lied, “They left me here to keep an eye on things while they were on the trip.”
“Do you have your ID on you?”
“You mean my IT ID?” Zach laughed awkwardly, “Yeah, I…” Zach mimed looking for an ID that he didn’t own, “I guess I forgot it this morning. Woke up a little late.”
“Okay. Well, if you aren’t IT, you don’t have to lie to me, you know. If someone gave you that key, you’re not in trouble, they are. In fact, if you expose a coworker who is maliciously violating our code of ethics (Zach held back a snort on the word “ethics”), you can be eligible for a bonus on your next check, as well as possible advancement opportunities. Keep that in mind.”
There it is, Zach thought to himself, typical corporate bullshit. “So you want me to narc on everyone else here, to make some extra cash?” he said sarcastically.
The suit either didn’t sense the sarcasm or didn’t care. “Exactly.” He said.

The group sat in their circle, doing what they usually did in that circle. Zach shared his day, and received a “told ya” from Charlie, who seemed convinced that this proved Infiniti’s corruptness. The rest shared their days, all somehow aware that Zach’s day had been more interesting. Eventually, Charlie decided to go to bed, and promptly kicked everyone out of his room. Zach followed Jamie to her apartment, and she fell asleep in his arms, as Zach mulled over his bomb virus some more. It had kept pressing into his mind, and when he was in bed, with no noise or light to provide a shiny thing to distract him, his own thoughts became deafening. At times it felt as if the ideas in his head were akin to the roar of a school lunchroom, random sounds, each a separate idea, but inseparable from the whole. The reason he never really got things done. He had a million started projects, and few finished ones. He made a silent vow to finish the bomb virus, just to prove Charlie wrong. He hoped he would remember the vow the next morning. He heard Jamie sigh, and looked down at her. Her soft, relaxed face was the last thing he saw before he finally slipped into unconsciousness.

The Doctor Who theme played loudly in Nick’s ear. Time for another sunrise. He shook himself awake, went to the bathroom, then walked up to Joey’s bed. He knelt down, kissing Joey gently on the forehead.

“Psst” he whispered into the sleeping boy’s ear, “It’s time to get up. Sunrise bud.”

“Mph…” Joey groaned, “Can we sleep in? Won’t there be another one tomorrow?”

Nick laughed, “Yeah, they’ll probably have one tomorrow, I guess. Alright bud, go back to sleep.”

Joey obliged. Nick, however, had already awakened past the point of no return. He picked some reasonably clean clothes off of the floor, and crept out of the apartment. The morning was still and silent, save for the deafening roar of singing birds. A lone truck barreled down the empty highway, howling at the hollow silence. Nick walked through the parking lot, past empty cars, cold and silent and strange. The air was cool, and a fog shrouded the horizon. Nick was alone in the world.

He walked down the street, going wherever his feet carried him. He walked past the 24 hour gas station, closed for renovation. Plywood boarded up the front, and the pumps were decidedly more missing than usual. Strange, he thought, to see a gas station with no gas.

He walked past a bank, it’s glass walls reflecting his likeness, albeit vaguely. He started to wonder if maybe that was how he looked to the rest of the world, a blur of what he looked like to himself. He wondered which one was the real him. Thoughts like that had been happening increasingly often as of late. Stoner thoughts.

His feet decided to walk in the street, and he followed. His feet squished through dew in the grassy patch between the sidewalk and road, a vain attempt to introduce greenery to a steadily greying urban landscape. It was at exactly this point he realized that he was barefoot. He looked down, never breaking stride, to make sure he was wearing pants. His feet walked, unconscious of the goings-on above his waist. He was now walking down the middle of the road. If a car dared break the silence, it had a good chance of hitting him. But he figured he’d hear or see it first, and get out of the way. He liked the feeling of risk a little. Feeling alive instead of being alive, he thought to himself, at least that’s what Zach would say. He turned around, his feet shifting so that he walked backward, still on the center line, headed towards Ankeny Boulevard, one of the main streets of the growing college town. He looked to the horizon, clearing up as the day became warmer. There was a blurry, vague light at the end of the road, and he could tell that the sunrise had begun. Let Joey sleep in, he thought, the view’s not good today anyway. He felt a sudden pang of loneliness then, a feeling he hadn’t experienced before. It was intense, as if he had just been told his entire family was dead. Or the entire apartment crew. His other family. It was swift, and it had cleared his head before the electrons told his body to shudder. Joey should be here, he thought, we should be here together.

He now stood still in the middle of the road. To his left was a church, Our Lady’s something or other, he was on the wrong side of the sign to remember. He stood in a small intersection, and watched as the light switched from green to yellow to red. He had forgotten about stoplights. How many had he run on his walk here? Who knew. He supposed that he was probably on security cameras, being watched silently this whole time. At the gas station across the street from the apartment, starting his journey. At the bank, reflecting on his reflection. In each intersection, taking a note that this object was crossing while the light was most definitely red. Maybe he’d get a ticket in the mail, he thought. He shrugged his shoulders. He’d just tell them someone else was driving, he thought to himself, and laughed, suddenly uneasy about breaking the silence around him. He turned to the road, hoping that his feet had a direction for him. They were still, and the stillness left him unsettled. He picked them up, consciously, trying to start them up again. He wandered haphazardly through the road, eventually settling on the sidewalk again, again reminded of the shoes that sat at home. His feet were beginning to hurt, but the pain drove him on. He would reach Ankeny Boulevard, or die trying. He walked alone, the silence of the wolves’ land swallowing him up.

Morning came to the rest of the world (that is, the world excluding Nick) in the usual way. Alarms rang, husbands grumbled and rolled out of bed. Wives woke the children and started breakfast (pig fried in pig fat for the adults, partially hydrogenated sugar for the kids). Men put on their ties, women their heels, and children their backpacks. A kiss goodbye for each of them, and off they went into the world, joining the teeming mass of people doing the exact same thing. Each one of them unique, and at the same time, utterly insignificant.

Nick walked past these people on his way home. Businessmen in cars, honking, already late. Children raced past him, giggling and chasing each other and asking how come he got no shoes, mister. He was separate from all of them that morning. He didn’t allow his head to fill with thoughts about getting ready for work, going to work, or getting home from work. He walked alone, his shadow the only one to walk beside him. And little kids. But that doesn’t go with the song.

He climbed the stairs to the apartment, suddenly aware that he was sweating. It was time for a shower anyway, he figured. He walked in, nodded greetings to Charlie and Sarah, and continued silently to the bedroom. He pulled off his clothes numbly, and opened the door to the bathroom. He pulled back the curtain, revealing a very surprised and very naked Joey. Joey looked Nick up and down involuntarily, then laughed.

“You’re being rather straightforward this morning” Joey smiled, the shower jets pressing his rusty hair tight against his pale face.

Nick caught himself looking at Joey’s nude body, and awkwardly averted his eyes. “Sorry, I was out of it, I didn’t even realize you were in here.”

“It’s a little late to close your eyes now, don’t you think?” Joey said, grinning at Nick’s embarrassment, “you don’t have to put any clothes on, I’m almost done. But don’t get any ideas, this isn’t the internet.”

“Nah, what ideas could I possibly get?” Nick joked back, “We’re just two gay men naked in a bathroom together. Nothing interesting about that. Might fall back asleep, actually.” The two laughed, both waiting for a move from the other that wasn’t coming.

Work was work, school was school, life was life. They got home, each at different times, as always. Unlike always, however, Joey was interrogated upon entering the apartment.

“So, I’ve got a question for you two…” Jamie slyly started.

“…What were you guys doing in the shower this morning?!” Finished Sarah.

Nick and Joey looked at each other, shocked. The panic on their faces made both Jamie and Sarah feel that their suspicions had been confirmed.

“Nothing!” Joey said, startled.

“Seriously, we didn’t do anything! I just walked in on him by accident, that’s all.” Nick explained.

“Seriously?” Sarah asked.

“Seriously” Nick confirmed, straight-faced.

“Bummer” Jamie said, genuinely disappointed. That was the last that was said on the subject.

The group sat in a circle, like they did every night. The weed smoking had become more relaxed in the days following Jamie’s interrogation, and now, in mid-April, it felt almost normal again. They still habitually checked the window, like the police would be in a marked van outside, but the hushed tone had faded.

“So I was thinking about it…” Charlie started, taking a long pull from the hookah in the middle of the circle, “and we should totally write a sitcom.”

“About what?” Sarah asked, looking at him skeptically.

“About whatever. This stuff. Our lives” Charlie exhaled, “just the shit that happens to us.”

“Be a pretty boring show” Jamie noted.

“Not necessarily. What do other people on other sitcoms do that’s so interesting? Nothing. You just watch it anyways.”

“Why?” Nick asked.

“Because it’s on TV!” Charlie responded.

“Not yet” Nick quoted. Nick looked over at Joey, who was being quieter than he had been recently.

“You do realize that you’d have to actually write a script? Like, do work?” Sarah asked Charlie.

“Yeah, but I mean, that’d be easy. You give me $10,000 a script, I’ll write whatever you want.” Charlie returned.

“Now you’re assuming that it gets picked up as a series” Zach pointed out, smiling.

When Joey stood to go to bed, Nick followed. When they reached the bedroom, Nick finally spoke up.

“Is something wrong, bud?”

“No, it’s… It’s nothing.” Joey said weakly, forcing a smile.

“Come on man, tell me” Nick said, stepping closer and taking Joey’s shoulders in his hands.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get up this morning” Joey said.

“Aww, come on, that’s alright. It was foggy anyways, you didn’t miss anything” Nick said, joking, “I got a much better view when I got back anyways.”

The two hugged, and retired for the night.

Sorry for the month long hiatus. There’s been some technical difficulties. I’ll probably start updating again from my iPad, but part of the next chapter will be missing until I can fish it out of my computer using Linux (hint hint zeke). It’s not important to the plot really, but it’s a detail I liked. Anyways, expect a new DNDR soon. Also, someone suggest a better name for DNDR. Peace out.

The sun rose the next day, just as it had every day for the past five billion years. That day, that entire lifetime, Nick thought to himself, sitting with Joey and watching the sun rise, is meaningless in the end. A speck on the face of time. They had started getting up to watch the sunrise every now and then since the fifteenth, trying to appreciate the things in life that get forgotten. Everyone in the apartment started to act different in that way– Smiling more, appreciating the small and the strange things in life. Since the fifteenth, Nick and Joey had watched only ten of the nearly fifty different sunrises that had occurred. It seemed so strange to them that this happened every morning, and no one seemed to notice it. There were no billboards, no commercials, or banners on lewd websites, advertising the divine beauty that every morning held. Now Nick and Joey sat, on the back of Joey’s car, parked in gravel in the country. They held hands, and waited in silent apprehension. The sun was just behind the horizon, they knew, because the sky was bright and painted red and orange and blue. The night was silent, except for Joey’s voice, which seemed uncharacteristically loud in the whispering dawn.

“Nick” he whispered, as if he didn’t want to interrupt the morning.

“Yeah?” Nick responded. Neither averted their gaze from the horizon.

Joey’s hand tightened around Nick’s.

“Thank you” was all that he said. Nick glanced over.

“For what?”

“Everything” Joey met Nick’s gaze, “You’re amazing.”

“Uh… Thanks” Nick said, trying to hide a grin that pulled at his cheeks, “You’re pretty awesome too.”

“Heh, thanks” Joey said.

Nick saw him shiver slightly. Without even realizing he had done it, he took his Soccer jacket off and put it over Joey’s shoulders.

The two sat, silhouetted by the rising sun, in a speck of time on the edge of eternity.

The rest of the day was pretty much like any other. They all worked, except for Jamie, who had class instead. Nick walked to work, enjoying the spring weather, and enjoying not having to drive his clunker car. Work was absolutely normal, except for Jamie, who had class instead. The world, even in all its change and blooming and dawning, was caught in a state of atrophy. The same cars drove on the same roads. The same people went to the same places. A portrait of all of the same. This continuity was interrupted only by a knock on the door of the apartment, at about 4:17 PM. After stashing what he had been doing for the past half hour somewhere safe, and turning down the Led Zeppelin, he answered the door.

“Hi, we’re from Faith Bible College here in town, we’re doing a project and were wondering if we could ask you a few questions, we’re taking a survey.” A clean cut, blonde bible boy said. His brunette counterpart, a girl who, save for the brown hair and “Jesus Loves Me” t-shirt, could have passed for Jamie, added “If you have the time.”

Charlie had the time. In fact, Charlie had nothing but time this afternoon. But he had better things to do than to than to talk to bible-bashers about losing his religion.

“I’m actually kind of busy.”

Is what he should have said. But Charlie, one who can never leave well enough alone, and could never pass up the
opportunity to educate a few Christians on how wrong they are, said “Oh, sure, come on in. Don’t mind the smell, I dropped a bottle of oregano in the oven.” The girl gave a smile that said thanks for lying, but I know what that smell is.

After a few hours of arguing, done surprisingly well by the Christians and expectedly poorly by Charlie, Nick and Joey got home. They had met after work for dinner at Pillagin’, a Mongolian grill in town. Now, at a quarter past six, they came home together, and noticed the two visitors while halfway into starting a decidedly unbiblical kiss. They caught themselves, however, and both pulled away awkwardly. They turned to Charlie, waiting for him to introduce his guests.

“Oh, these are my roommates, Nick,” he pointed, introducing them, “and Joey. These guys are…” he pointed at the well-dressed couple, but couldn’t think of their names. He was sure they hadn’t said them at all, but they had actually introduced themselves already, he was just too high at the time to remember.

“Jake,” the blonde boy said. Joey noted that he probably was captain of his football team or class president, based on his clean cut looks and oddly confident demeanor.

“And I’m Chris” the girl introduced herself. She had a similar confidence about her, which made Nick think to himself If she’s not president in ten years, it’s because she was born in Canada or something. Nick and Joey sat on the couch, next to Charlie and across from their visitors. They continued the conversation that they had been having before. Jake spoke first:

“But if you can’t see Him, then is there any way to prove that he’s not there?”

Charlie immediately responded: “Burden of proof doesn’t fall on the person disputing an outrageous claim, it falls on the person making it. Prove to me there isn’t an invisible dog on my lap right now.”

Jake already had an answer: “Well, in that case, you’re right. Having an invisible dog is an outrageous claim, so there is no reason to believe it’s true unless you can show me proof. But isn’t it a rather outrageous claim to say that the universe magically spawned from nothing?”

“But I’m not arguing that it spawned from nothing. I’m not saying how it did form, only how it didn’t. If you want to discuss the Big Bang, we can, but that’s separate. I’m just saying that there’s really no evidence of a God.”

Chris: “Well then why are we here? You think it was all random chance that we ended up like this?”

“By definition, yes. Imagine we had evolved with gills. Then we would think that that was normal, and think that gills were divinely inspired. There’s nothing novel to the fact that we stand upright, have thumbs, or ears, or nipples. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t think anything of it.”

An awkward silence.

“But look at well we function. We are symmetrical, have depth perception, have opposable thumbs…” Chris started.

“Which is just as much a testament to the providence of evolution as it is proof of a higher power.” Charlie returned, adding, “Any argument that simply shows how lucky we are could prove the efficiency of evolution as effectively as it proves an intelligent designer.”

“How can you really claim that there’s no God unless you have seen every last inch of the cosmos?” Jake said, slightly angrily.

“Because I’m a man of science,” Charlie affirmed, slightly angrily, slightly confidently, and somewhat arrogantly, “and I don’t believe things just because some carpenter who might have existed promises them!”

Really awkward silence.

“I’m gonna get pizza,” Joey said weakly, breaking the silence, “what kind do we want?”

“Pepperoni,” Charlie said, without waiting for a vote. Joey looked over at the guests.

“Pepperoni sounds great” Chris said calmly. Her hand tightened slightly around Jake’s, calming him down as well, “but we really shouldn’t stay too much longer. We’ve got to get back to the college. Father O’Brien will be wondering where we are. I tell you what, I’d really like to continue this conversation, would you mind if we drop by some other time?”

“Sure” Nick said, making sure Charlie couldn’t get a word in.

“Great, thanks for having us, see ya” Chris said, standing up and opening the door. Jacob followed.

“Yeah, see you guys some other time.”

The door shut. The entire apartment was silent for a moment.

“How ‘bout that pizza?” Nick asked.

The group sat around an open box of pizza, passing the bamboo water-filtration device around. The conversation was basically a re-hash of the conversation with the Christians earlier, only without the Christians there to point out how wrong Charlie was. After only a few hits, Joey and Nick both decided to go to bed. Waking up for sunrises requires an earlier sleep schedule than the average human has.

“Nick?”

“Yeah?”

“Did I ever tell you why I’m not a Christian?”

“Umm… No I guess not. Why?”

“Because I want to tell you.”

“No, I mean why aren’t you?”

“Oh. Well, I guess it was senior year. I was starting to realize that I was… different… And, well, a Bible-basher told me point-blank that I could either be gay, or be Christian, but never both. He gave me an ultimatum. And I chose.”

“Oh.”

“And now that I’m with you, I just… Well I’m glad I made that decision.”

“It’s not really a choice though, is it?”

“Nah, I guess not. But if it were, I’d still choose to be with you.”

“Cool. Me too.”

“You’d choose to be with you too?” Joey looked over.

“Yep. Who wouldn’t?” Nick replied, smiling.

A HAPPY 4/20 TO ALL READERS, MORE TO COME SOONISH. MAY YOUR HEARTS STAY STRONG

We live in a world of things.
Big things, small things, good things, bad things.
Ours is a physical world, made up of things, made up of smaller things. There’s nothing wrong with this fact, as things provide our sustenance, our happiness, and our very being. People are things, made up of things, just like everything else. What, you can’t think of people as things?
Corporations can.
Governments can.
Everyone who decides what happens to you as a person, doesn’t see you as a person. You’re not a customer, you’re a number. Don’t let any business ever tell you otherwise.
Now of course, it wasn’t always like that. Small businesses, run by one or two people, with only ten employees, are different. They have the time and capacity to see each employee, and each customer, as just that. A person. With separate wants and needs, and they’ll go above and beyond to fulfill those needs, if they see them.
But most of the world isn’t run by small business. It’s run by corporate America.
Corporations decide what commercials you see. They decide what you want. They decide what your kids want for Christmas next year. They sell Santa Claus as their spokesman, because why not? They decide what you drive, what you eat, what you read. They have more power over your life than you ever did.
And they know it.
Advertisements are meant, ultimately, to convey one message, and one message only:
You suck.
They repeat it over and over again. You suck, but this sandwich makes you suck less. You suck, but people won’t notice if you use Rogaine. You suck, so wear these clothes to look cooler. The endgame of any advertisement is to make you less happy with who you are now, and in effect, more happy with who more stuff will make you become. But things have never made us happy. Never. Let’s look at an example.
What should’ve happened:
:Women spend a lot of time cleaning.
:Vacuum cleaners take less time to clean.
::Women have more free time.
What actually happened:
:Women spend a lot of time cleaning.
:Vacuum cleaners take less time to clean.
::Women must keep their houses cleaner now, because they can.
Look at cell phones. My generation knows that a cell phone is a cell phone. That any call on a cell phone is tentative, and can be ignored if the situation demands it. The generation beyond ours doesn’t. They view cell phones as really long-distance cordless phones. What do you do in your house if the phone rings? Drop everything and pick it up. So guess what adults do when their phones ring on the street, at the restaurant, or anywhere else that it’s annoying.
They pick up the phone.
They don’t have to. They could ignore the call, and pick up in five minutes, outside. But they have new technology that allows them to talk wherever, whenever. So they feel compelled to. Now they can answer emails, and talk without holding a phone to their ear (because that was such a chore). So they do it wherever they’re standing. Because they can, so now they have to. Because the precedent has changed. They’re expected to be available all the time, just because they could be available at any time.
You don’t own your stuff, your stuff owns you.
But let’s take it back a step. To the factory. Now, anyone knows that you don’t get anything you don’t pay for. If you buy a cheap junker car, you have to put in labor fixing it, making up for the cash you saved. So how can companies turn a profit? It should be mathematically impossible.
They externalize the costs.
What that means, in a nutshell, is that they take dollar costs, and transform them into costs that can’t be measured, or don’t go on the books. For instance, they pay children in China half of what they should be earning. The children get sick from the chemicals, that’s payment. They pillage indigenous people’s land for their raw resources, that’s payment. But those costs will never see the light of day. Because those aren’t dollar amounts. They’re write-offs. It’s not corporation’s fault that this is how business is done. It’s not America’s fault that their corporations are underhanded, when in foreign countries. And it’s not your fault your favorite brands pillage to create your products.
And while no one does anything wrong over here, children die over there.
So what can you do? I don’t know, you figure it out. Maybe buy something that can help you.
“The living should not serve the purposes of the dead. But the dead, if possible, should be used to serve the purposes of the living.” –Phillip K Dick, A Scanner Darkly

The group sat around the circle. Nothing sat between them, no smoldering glass or wooden vases. Not even a pipe being passed along the circle. They sat in the circle as a force of habit, for some semblance of normalcy. Normalcy that they desperately needed. They all sat, silent, waiting for someone else to make the first move. To ask the questions, or to give the answers. Jamie finally spoke.

“It’s alright guys, we’re not in trouble. If we were, why would I be here?”

Nervous laughter.

“They just asked me little questions. If I knew that internet piracy was a crime, if I was selling bootleg goods, other stupid stuff like that.”

“What did you say?” Sarah whispered.

“The truth. I know it’s a crime, it was just a couple of albums (I guess I lied there…), I’m not selling any, those sort of things. There was just one officer and an Infiniti liaison guy there. They seemed convinced, after all, they let me go.”

“Wait, an Infiniti liaison?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah. They’re the ones who caught me. They really gave us a scare, huh?”

“Wait…” Zach said, calculating, “Did they get a complaint, or did they just know you did it?”

“I don’t remember, what’s the difference?”

“Whether or not it was legal” Nick said, “do you still have the paperwork from the station?”

“Uh, yeah, here…” Jamie said, handing her yellow carbon copy to Nick.

“Fucking Infiniti better not be doing what I think they’re doing…” Zach fumed.

Nick skimmed the paper. Officer’s name, badge number, time, other useless information. He skimmed to the report itself. After speed-reading the chicken scratch, he looked up.

“It doesn’t say anything about a complaint. Just that Infiniti notified them.”

“Fuckin’ bullshit” Charlie stated.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Joey said, trying to defuse the situation.

“He’s right,” Sarah added, “it doesn’t say there wasn’t a complaint, it just doesn’t say anything about there being one. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all.”

“But it doesn’t not mean anything,” Charlie retorted, pessimism showing.

“What would it matter? I don’t know anything about copyright law I guess.” Jamie said.

Nick explained, “It’s not about the copyright. It’s about Net Neutrality law, or, more accurately, lack thereof. In the early 2000’s there was a movement called Net Neutrality, which called for ISPs to not be able to filter content. That is, they couldn’t throttle certain types of traffic, like torrent traffic, and they couldn’t block sites. It never really took with mainstream America though, so nothing was passed, and it sort of got forgotten.”

He took a breath, “Usually, when you get in trouble for infringing on copyright law, it’s because Paramount or Universal Records or whoever complains. They place a sting torrent up, then check and see who’s seeding and leeching it. Then they complain to your ISP, in this case Infiniti.”

“But if there wasn’t a complaint…” Jamie started.

“…Then it means that Infiniti’s watching network traffic on their own. Not illegal, thanks to lack of Net Neutrality, but certainly not good. It means they can check out any traffic they want.” Sarah finished.

“They’re watching everything we do” Zach spat.

“Not necessarily, they’ll only see it if they decide to look at it.” Nick said

“Besides, didn’t you say there’s only a chance that they’re doing it anyways? I mean, there might have been a complaint that’s just not mentioned, because the police didn’t talk to the studio or record label.” Joey added.

Uneasy glances.

“I guess you’re right. Besides, we’ve been encrypting our traffic since yesterday; Zach gave us those flash drives. Right?” Charlie said hopefully.

“Yeah, that’s right, it’s all encrypted. There’s no way,” Zach said, significantly less hopeful.

Nick and Joey sat in their room, on Joey’s bed. They had been talking, but now they simply sat, huddled in each other’s arms. They both felt as though they should speak, but neither wanted to ruin the moment. The only sound in the room was their soft breathing, nearly synchronized. Finally, Nick got up the courage to speak.

“Joey?” Nick sighed.

“Yeah?” Joey whispered back.

“There’s been something I’ve wanted to tell you. I was scared before, but, since what happened to Jamie, I just want to say it in case…” his voice cracked, and tears flooded his eyes.

“In case what?” Joey whispered, concerned. They looked into each other’s eyes.

“In case something happens,” …Nick struggled through tears… “I just wanted to say…”

He took a deep breath.

“I love you” he said in a hushed whisper.

Joey shivered slightly, and felt chills and goosebumps rise up his back.

“I love you too” he said back, tears matching Nick’s.

They kissed then, less of a couple’s first romantic kiss, and more of a deep, passionate kiss.

I could tell you they had sex then. I could give you all the dirty details. But I’d be lying. Nick didn’t get to see Joey’s humbucker that night. But neither one cared. Hours passed, every need they had was suspended for the time being. They had each other, and anything else… food, drink… were merely wants, and could wait until they were through. They took turns sitting on each other’s laps, because I suppose, well, what do gay couples do? There’s no real precedent. So they kissed, made out more accurately, unaware of the ticking clock or the fading sky. Aware only of each other. The only thing they ever needed, right there in front of them. But how could I, Nick thought—for it was times like these that romantic thoughts wound their way through the brain– How could I ever have lived without him sitting beside me? He thought about sharing his sentiment with the other, but knew that that would mean separating from the kiss. And that was something that neither was prepared to do, for a long, long time.

Eventually though, they did separate, as all good things must come to an end. After they finally pulled away from each other’s embrace, they sat, staring into each other’s eyes and souls, another solid five minutes. The smell of burning… something… meant that dinner was almost ready (and that Charlie was cooking it). They begrudgingly stood up, hugging again once they were both standing. They held each other tight, like one would get swept away if the other didn’t hold him. They both half felt as though that might be true. Nick spoke, over Joey’s shoulder.

“Joey?” he said.

“Yeah Nick?” Joey responded.

“I love you,” Nick said, confidently.

“Yeah, I know, I…” he sighed, “…I love you too,” he said, nearly laughing. Not the laughing that you do when saying something obviously untrue, but rather the laughing you do shortly before tears of joy show up.

The group sat around the circle that night, prepared to do their usual ritual if it killed them. The emerald hookah, Deku Vase, as it was called, sat in the middle of the circle, with a glowing orange coal on top. The group took hits of strawberry tobacco mixed with gonja, and talked about copyright law. They discussed whether or not Infiniti was snooping, and what they might have found during that time. They also joked, and shot the shit, and did everything else that weed smoking makes you do. Joey stared into the orange coal, losing himself, reflecting on earlier that day. Nick stared into his computer screen, waiting for words to appear from the pixels. He knew that he was emotional and tired, the best conditions for his writing. He finally typed a few lines, just to get something down.

My love’s not like a red, red rose,

Because he will never wilt.

My love is a white oak tree,

With golden-red leaves in autumn.

A slender body,

Beautiful and natural,

And silent,

But teeming with life,

Within.

Satisfied, Nick saved the poem, and closed his laptop. He joined the conversation for a few minutes, before he and Joey decided to retire for the night. They walked, hand in hand, to their room. They hugged, then they kissed each other goodnight. Tomorrow he would work, come home, hang out with Joey, and then go to bed. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Nicolas Kopfer’s tires spun, digging him deeper into a rut.

And he couldn’t have cared less.

The extremely good fourteenth made the following fifteenth seem even worse. A dreary day, with just enough snow falling to make any day seem gloomier. What is an apartment full of liberal college students to do on a boring, dreary Sunday? They had two choices, smoke some weed or go to church.

Joey was allowed to take the first green hit from the new piece, being the one who both found the bong and discovered the flaw that made it cheap. After they loaded the bowl (with Apple Railroad, supplied by Charlie), took the first drag, and named the new piece (Mandela, also supplied by Charlie), it was passed around in the usual fashion. Nick and Joey each took hits sparingly, as usual, and Charlie, as usual, more than made up the difference. Zach was on his laptop, doing his rounds. It was about ten o’ clock in the morning, and while people sat around in groups, talking about nothing and whispering to themselves with half-closed eyes and weary heads, the group was in the apartment, having a religious experience of their own.

Charlie, as usual, started the conversation.

“Okay, so first things first,” he said, in the odd, high-pitched voice of someone trying to hold a hit in, “Did you guys finally kiss yesterday?” He exhaled.

Neither boy spoke, but the looks and grins exchanged between them answered the question effectively. Charlie stood up, walked to his dresser, and pulled out a small box. The box was ornate, and looked like a treasure chest. But the thing was held together by staples, Nick knew, and only cost about six dollars. He knew, because he had bought the thing, before Charlie had commandeered it for his own uses. Nick wondered momentarily what else in the apartment had belonged to someone else at one time. He decided it was better not to know. Charlie opened the box, which he had dubbed the “magic box”, and reached into the bottom. He removed an herb grinder, and opened it. Inside was a wad of dollar bills, which he then handed to Jamie.

“You won. February 14th.”

“Never bet against commercialism.” Jamie said dryly.

“Well, now that we have that out of the way, what else is going on?” Charlie asked. Looks were exchanged among the circle as everyone tried to think of something to talk about. Charlie rarely ran out of things to say.

Zach, previously buried in his computing, looked up, “My bomb virus is going well. Just got an idea on how to do it.”

“Well?” Jamie inquired.

“Port knocks.”

“Oh, well that’s good” Charlie said sarcastically.

“It means that I just write a program that pings the computer. The virus listens for a specific pattern, like a padlock combination.”

“Only way more badass” Sarah interjected.

“Exactly. I can just leave the virus hidden, and it will just sit, and listen for port knocks. I tell it to listen for a specific pattern, one that could even be hundreds of pings long, and when it hears it, it activates. I could even manually ping the code in if I couldn’t use a program for it, for some reason. Pick the lock instead of using the key if I have to.”

“But how are you going to hide it?” Charlie asked. He was always the most skeptical of the group, the “if I hope things fail, I can’t be unpleasantly surprised” type, and it was showing now.

Zach’s eyes shot back and forth, as he scanned the forum for the answer. He knew he had seen it earlier; he just needed to find it. After a few seconds of scanning, he looked back up at the group.

“Found it. I asked how easy it would be to find. This guy said ‘idk, depends on how well they have the antivirus scan set up. if he just wrote it, and used a type of signature or made it so it didn’t look like it did anything bad it probably wouldn’t be detected right off the bat’, so then he asked if it was gonna be a Linux computer, and I said no, ‘cause all of Infiniti runs on Finite OS or some derivative of it. So then he said to run Linux to plant it, ‘cause it’d be hidden in a directory that Finite wouldn’t even recognize. It’s perfect. I just boot Linux from a thumb drive, load the virus from that same drive, and leave it. It’ll just sit and wait and watch until I give the signal.”

“And then what?” Joey asked. He seemed unusually interested and outspoken today. Nick liked the change.

“Haven’t decided yet,” Zach answered him, “it could do all sorts of things. Haven’t decided what yet. That’s not the point. The point is, it would work.” Zach grinned broadly.

“I thought you said that it wasn’t worth your time to pursue this project, because it wouldn’t make sense to risk your career just in case Charlie’s right, which is an admittedly rare occurrence.” Jamie challenged him.

“I said it wasn’t worth doing. I didn’t say it wasn’t worth finding out if I could do it. I might even write the thing. Doesn’t mean that I have to actually plant it.”

“But you will, in the end.” Jamie said.

“Yeah, probably” Zach admitted.

“What can I say, I’m convincing” Charlie bragged.

“More like conniving” Sarah jested. There was light laughter among the group.

“You’re gonna get us bugged by the police or something,” Jamie joked. The group laughed, excluding Joey and Nick, who had just remembered a message that they were supposed to deliver.

“Umm… That reminds me…” Joey started, and then looked to Nick for help. Police looking for you at work was bad news, and no one likes to deliver bad news.

“We went into Cold Threads yesterday, and we talked to one of your coworkers—” Nick started.

“Was it Wendy?” Jamie interrupted.

“We don’t know who it was,” Nick said.

“Was it the gothic one?” She asked.

“They’re all the gothic one” Joey observed.

“Shorter, a little bigger around, black hair with red streaks?” Jamie described Wendy.

“Uh, yeah, that must be her.” Joey said.

“Oh okay. She’s pretty cool.”

“Uh, okay cool. Not the point,” Nick said impatiently. The bad news was becoming unnecessarily tedious.

“The point is,” Joey said, tagging Nick out of the conversation, “She said that the police had visited earlier.” Seeing no reaction, he clarified, “Looking for you.”

Uneasy glances were exchanged among the group. Charlie slowly stood up, and carefully made his way to a window. He cautiously split the blinds and peered out for a moment, looking for anything abnormal. He turned away from the wall, and found the group looking at him anxiously. He shook his head. All clear.

“What did they want?” Jamie whispered. If the house was bugged or being spied on, whispering wouldn’t make a difference, but it made the group feel safer either way.

“We don’t know,” Joey whispered, “They just looked for you and then left, I think. She couldn’t talk; the owner was in the back.”

“Well, shit…” Charlie started. The group looked at each other, waiting for someone to say something encouraging.

“Shit.”

A fog of uneasy tension covered the rest of the day. No one wanted to talk, or do anything. Everything they did that was fun also was illegal, and there was a chance that someone was listening in on their lives, building a case against them. The happiness that they had all felt yesterday just seemed gone; it seemed far off and long ago. The news that they were being watched had made a hell out of their heaven. Joey and Nick snuggled on the recliner in the corner of the living room, reading National Geographic together and trying to make a heaven of hell in their own minds. Charlie sat on the couch, watching The Simpsons, but laughing for effect more than as a reaction to the humor. He laughed not because he felt like it, but because he knew he should be laughing. So he did. Jamie and Sarah had gone to their own apartments in the complex, and Jamie and Zach sat together, talking and snuggling and trying to distract themselves, while Sarah sketched what was on her mind. The finished sketch had too much red and blue for her liking.

A few hours later, Zach and Jamie returned to the apartment, announcing that they were going to run a few errands. Eventually, they returned and found that Sarah had rejoined the group, and that the group was playing a pathetically dull game of Uno. The group managed weak smiles, but they were still obviously stressed. Jamie came in first, and handed out Zeppelin subs and bottles of pop to the entire crew. This lightened the mood slightly, as did Joey winning their Uno game in the next turn. Zach handed out keys, then went to his bedroom, returning with flash drives, which he also dealt out.

“I’ve been thinking, and maybe we should be more careful about locking the door from now on. If we haven’t been bugged yet, we’re asking for it.” The group grimaced at the word bugged, but Zach continued, “So I made copies of the key. One for each of us. I also made flash drives with encrypters on them. Install the first file, it’ll encrypt some of your internet traffic, but we should still lie low. The other file will compress your files into an archive that you can set a password to. The password is part of the algorithm, so the files can’t be cracked without it, period. The flash drives themselves also have encryption, so keep especially important shit on them. I know we all freaked out earlier, but maybe this isn’t as big a deal as we’re making it.”

Jamie continued the explanation, “The sandwiches are for eating. They’ll make you less hungry,” she joked, “The drinks work the same, but for thirst.” As they laughed, Nick found himself admiring Jamie in a new light. She was the entire reason that they were all depressed; she was the one being hunted. And yet she kept herself not only cheery enough to not let her fear show, but enough that she was trying to lighten everyone else’s mood. When, in all honesty, she was the one with the most right to be angry or sad or scared. That had always sort of been Jamie’s position in the group though—the peppy one. The one who made everyone else smile despite themselves. So here she was, handing out sandwiches while the police looked for her. Jamie noticed Nick’s concerned look.

“We’re going to make it through this. All of us.” Jamie said. Instead of calming the group like she had intended, it put them on edge. No one had considered the possibility that, if they had to run, someone might get left behind.

“She’s right,” Joey said, summoning a courage Nick had never seen in him, “We’ll be fine. It’s probably nothing anyway.” He sounded more confident than he actually was.

The rest of the night ensued in a fairly normal fashion. Normal, that is, for normal families and normal people. This evening consisted of eating supper while watching TV, not smoking any weed, and going to bed. They sat in the circle as usual, but with nothing in between them. They just had normal, mundane, not-high conversation. At about ten, after they decided to branch off into their own separate rooms, they did something new. After the girls left, they locked the door that was never locked before. Sarah put the finishing touches on her sketch, Jamie lied staring at the ceiling, Zach and Charlie mumbled dull conversation back and forth. Joey sat, shirtless, on the side of his bed, while Nick followed suit across from him. The two looked at each other, trying to think of something encouraging to say to the other. They both knew they wouldn’t sleep well tonight. Nick was tossing three words around in his head, trying to decide whether or not to say them. He couldn’t have known that Joey was trying to make the exact same decision.

The next day started off normally, albeit more solemnly than usual. Then, at 2:25 pm, they all got the same message from Zach. That is, except for Jamie:

Police took Jamie. Just questioning. At the police station, will txt you when I know more.

Sarah arrived first, at 2:35. She had left her art class upon receiving the text, offering no more explanation than “gotta go.” Charlie was next, at 2:45. Numerous other gas station employees had owed him favors, and he was the type of person to keep track of them. All it took was one pleading phone call and the promise to hang out sometime to get an employee to take over his shift. Zach was already at the station, having had the afternoon off to begin with. Nick and Joey both found themselves trapped at work, and escaped with varying levels of success. Nick made up a story about having forgotten a doctor’s appointment and was able to reach the station by 3:20. Joey, the others knew, was powerless to escape from the Rough & Greene until precisely 4:00, and wouldn’t be able to join them until after then. At 4:20, a grimly appropriate time for the group to meet, he arrived at the station, still in his black and white work outfit.

“They found her at work,” Zach started, “They took her before she could even punch in. She used her one phone call on me, even though they said she didn’t need it, they’re just questioning.”

“About what, I wonder” Charlie said. He seemed as stumped as the rest of the group, for possibly the first time in his life.

At that moment, a police officer came through the back door, with Jamie following behind. She wore a smile, although it seemed slightly forced. The officer turned towards the group, and said “I just need to get some paperwork for her to sign, and she’s out of here.”

The group turned towards Jamie expectantly.

“It’s alright, they just had a few questions. I’m fine.” She forced a smile, “let’s go home.”

The next nine days elapsed pretty uneventfully. Work and class by day, circle and hanging out by night. Zach got a number of responses on his Bomb idea, most of which were copy-paste messes of the N-word. What you get for working with Anonymous. Then came the fourteenth.

Nick woke up to find that Joey was already out of bed. Strange, because they had discussed Valentines Day, since they both had it off. He better not have gotten called in today Nick thought to himself as he wandered into the bathroom. After an unremarkable piss, the likes of which aren’t even worthy of this sentence, he wandered out of the bathroom and got dressed. He decided that he would see what was on TV until he got hungry enough to make breakfast. He turned the knob on the door to their room, and pushed. No movement. It took his drowsy head a second to figure what had happened. He tried again. Nothing. Dobby must be on the other side he thought to himself, then laughed, at a joke that only he could have heard. Deciding that, whatever was going on, it wasn’t worth getting worked up over, he decided to spend his imprisonment taking a shower. So he did. It was an unremarkable shower, not even worthy of this sentence, let alone the two before it. He shuffled out, now slightly more awake, toweled dry, and pushed the door open, deciding to grab some fresh clothes off of his bed. He had just showered, after all. He shut the light off and opened the door.

Joey sat on his bed, staring at the door intently. Upon its opening, and the sight within, Joey’s eyes widened for a moment, then he busied himself with memorizing the carpet pattern. His cheeks flushed, then quickly started turning red.

“It’s okay, you know,” Nick said, “We’re dating now. You can look if you want. Not that I would have minded before.”

“No, I want to keep it a surprise.” Joey responded, eyes still transfixed on the ground. “Get back in bed.” He ordered.

“What? Why?” Nick asked, reaching for a towel to wrap around himself. He found something on the ground, lifted it, and discovered that he was holding a pillowcase. He shrugged his shoulders and cinched it around his waist.

“You woke up too early,” Joey explained, “Just get back in bed. Just for a minute.”

Nick noticed that Joey was unusually awake for… he glanced at a clock on the dresser… 9:07 on a day off. He was jittery too, or at least excited about something. Joey didn’t usually wake up this early, Nick figured, and he probably had a cup of coffee. Or seven, from the look of excitement on Joey’s face. The smell of coffee hit Nick’s nostrils as he lied back in bed, and he considered his suspicions confirmed. Joey scurried out of the room as Nick closed his eyes, nearly drifting back to sleep before he heard Joey say “Okay, open ‘em.”

Nick opened his eyes. On a small table beside his bed was a plate with eggs and bacon on it, in the shape of a smiley face, with a sausage patty functioning as a tongue. Beside it was a plate with three pancakes, and another small plate with buttered toast. A cup of coffee sat beside the whole production. Nick looked up at Joey, who was grinning from ear to ear.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Nick,” Joey said, beaming. He had a similar breakfast sitting next to his bed, although Nick noticed that Joey’s coffee cup was a 20 oz travel mug, with the Rent logo on it, while his own was a 12 oz mug, with a TARDIS that disappeared as the cup heated up, then reappeared as it cooled. Joey seemed completely unaware of his own meal, and instead awaited a response from Nick. That, or maybe he just stopped responding and needed to End Task. Nick again laughed at a joke in his own head, a habit that he was beginning to become increasingly aware of. Joey still stared, but Nick could tell that his cheeks were getting sore from grinning, and he wanted a response.

“Yeah, Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too…” he hesitated for less than a second, “…babe.”

Joey squealed for a second, then heard himself squealing, and choked the sound off. He laughed, almost manically. “Okay, cool” he said, probably responding to a thought in his own head rather than anything spoken.

The two had breakfast together, each grinning about the wonderful start to the day, and excited about the wonderful day ahead. As they changed into date clothes (not particularly fancy, but clean, which was more than they could usually claim) and wandered into the living room, they found Charlie and Sarah sitting on the couch, watching some grotesquely bloody action movie. Their hair implied that they had had a “breakfast-in-bed” of their own this morning. Now they decided to spend the day curled up watching a man dressed as a doctor slice hearts out of his still-breathing victims. Nick realized suddenly that the saw-like movie was a musical. Or a horror movie about people who sing all the time. Nick looked at the DVD case on the coffee table. From the producers who brought you Saw, comes Repo! The Genetic Opera. Romantic, Nick thought to himself, and smiled at his own joke. He made a mental note to stop doing that. A Do Not Disturb sign, a souvenir that Zach had stolen from the motel he and Jamie stayed at after prom, told the rest of the apartment that the two of them were having breakfast themselves.

“Where you guys going?” Sarah inquired, as a man onscreen groaned as his intestines were pulled out. Apparently the doctor was searching for something, and the intestines weren’t it.

“Going to Jordan Creek. Gonna wander the mall, then maybe see a movie.” Joey said. Caffeine had sapped his shyness away, for the moment at least.

“Remember to sit in the back” Charlie said, smirking, before planting an overacted kiss on Sarah.

“Have fun,” Sarah said, pushing Charlie’s face away with her hand. Nick and Joey mumbled their own farewells, and walked into the bright winter day.

Jordan Creek wasn’t technically in Des Moines, but it certainly wasn’t not in Des Moines. It was on the edge, where walking ten feet means you’re in a suburb, and God help you if you tell a citizen of said suburb otherwise. It was across the city, so it was a forty minute drive. So the two boys, in Joey’s blue car (because they didn’t want to get stranded by Nick’s battery), jammed to whatever songs the shuffle on their iPods hit next, and joked and talked about everything that the shuffle in their heads hit next.

The mall was crowded with all of the worst kind of people. Valentine’s Day people. Preppy couples who made sure to kiss where everyone could watch, groups of middle school boys who joked about how dumb the couples looked, but obviously were torn up by the fact that they weren’t getting laid tonight, even adults who argued in public, making things awkward for everyone else in the area who had to watch. Yes, all of the societal vampires were out today, and even a few people who thought they really were vampires. Like, with fangs and stuff. This was the crowd that Joey and Nick wandered into and felt odd in and they thanked God for that fact. They headed to the Frozen Shale Cream Co. for ice cream (or, supposedly, Frozen Shale Cream, which apparently cost way more). As they ate their ice cream and each other’s ice cream, they began to wander. They found themselves in the Disowned book store, and, after browsing through a respectable, but never big enough, graphic novel collection, Nick found himself having to drag Joey away from the in-store coffee shop, Joey yelping how he “just needed a boost.” They wandered into the Mango computer store, and Joey oohed and ahhed at the shinies while Nick explained to the salesmen that all computers, Infiniti and Mango and any other make, were all built by a single company in Taiwan, so couldn’t possibly be better or worse quality than any other. They wandered through Cold Threads, taking pride in being the brightest, perkiest people there. Goths glowered at them, and they beamed back. Joey even went as far as to nudge Nick and whisper, over the Avenged Sevenfold, “I think that guy’s a rave vampire. Look, he sparkles under the blacklight.” After scoping out t-shirts and jewelry, Nick settled for a fedora while Joey found himself a pack of Pop Rocks. As they stood in line, they overheard the conversation in front of them.

“Alright, thanks,” the customer was saying, adding “by the way, I’m new around here, can you tell me how to get to highway 420?”

“Well,” the cashier stated, “If you go just past my boss is in the back room, then take a right your number down, and keep heading straight, you’ll see me calling you later, and from there you should be able to get on highway 420, and stay on it for a while.”

“Okay, thanks” the customer said, picking up a piece of paper, which Nick caught a glance of as the man left.

“Okay, just so we’re clear… That guy just picked up a job application and asked where to find weed in the same transaction, didn’t he?” Nick asked the girl behind the register.

She gave him an intense look, “Shh…” she said, and jerked her head towards the back room, “but yes, yes he did.”

“Cool.” Nick said, handing her the fedora to scan.

“Hey, you guys know Jamie, right?” the girl asked them. They looked at each other, as if checking if the other knew Jamie, then both nodded. “Tell her,” the cashier said, “That Mr. Popo came to visit her.”

“Like from Dragonball Z?” Joey asked, authentically confused.

“No, like Sting” she said.

“What?” Joey asked. His mind was running on caffeine and nothing else.

“She means the police” Nick stated. The cashier gave another intense look.

“Are those with this order too?” she asked, gesturing towards the pile of Pop Rocks packages that Joey had placed on the table. Joey looked up at Nick with a pouting lip and puppy dog eyes.

“Pick one” Nick said firmly. Joey didn’t need any more sugar.

Joey’s lip quivered, and his eyes deepened.

“One” Nick repeated.

Joey’s lip quivered again, his eyes seemed almost to tear up, and a small whimper issued from his throat.

“One.”

The two wandered the mall for a while, Nick breaking in his new fedora, Joey guzzling the five packs of Pop Rocks that Nick had bought for him.

“Ith weird,” Joey said, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, “The way it thounth, and feelth.”

“Joey, I think this is the most unattractive thing I’ve ever seen you do,” Nick joked with his boyfriend, “and I’ve seen you throw up.”

A look of overdramatic indignation shown on Joey’s face. He glowered, sticking the tip of his tongue out at Nick like a scorned Kindergartener. Nick laughed, and Joey giggled to himself.

They found themselves in Oriental Treasures, a Far-east specialty shop which every mall seems to have at least one variant of. Swords hung behind one counter, with knives in the display counter itself. As cool as these were, they were only given cursory glances by Nick and Joey as they walked in. The weapons were only for show, after all. Behind the other, smaller counter, were “vertical water-filtration devices” and hookahs, and under the glass were glass pipes. All of these things were for smoking tobacco, of course. The shop owner, who didn’t speak English very well, certainly didn’t know what else they could be used for, he told the authorities. If he happened to make a face like someone who was high, while fake taking a hit from one of the devices, well… he was just a man who really enjoyed his tobacco. Really enjoyed it. So when two boys walked into his store, only looking at the swords for a second, well, he knew they were in the market for a smoking device. A tobacco smoking device, of course.

“Welcome, welcome. Can I help you boys find anything?” the elderly Asian man asked.

“No, just browse—” Nick started.

“That one!” Joey said, pointing. The caffeine had made him more alert, one could say, and he found the perfect addition to their piece collection after only seconds of glancing wildly around.

The salesman turned, grabbing the vertical water-filtration device that Joey was indicating. The thing was made entirely of bamboo, and was simply a large shoot of bamboo, cut, hollowed, and drilled for stem placement. The salesman placed it on the counter, offering it for Joey and Nick to examine.

“This one, seventy bucks. Normally. But for you boys… Forty five.”

The two boys conversed as they carefully examined the …filtration device. Forty five bucks was a pretty good deal, especially for such a unique piece. Then, an error occurred.

“There’s a crack here” Joey said, pointing to the rim of the piece. As Nick followed his finger, he found that there was, indeed, a crack. One that he had already missed.

“It’s at the top, and it’s small, so it’s not too big a deal. I just hope it doesn’t hairline down further…”

“Well, if you still want it, tell you what. Twenty dollars.”

“Twenty?” Nick said excitedly. The Chinese man appearently mistook that excitement for scorn or sarcasm, because he quickly added:

“Fine, fifteen, and I’ll throw in a stem. How’s that?”

The two boys quickly agreed, paid the man, and left with their new oriental treasure. On the way out, they heard him say “Good advice, just remember: Go for it, you never know what happen next.”

The boys wandered for a little while, then Joey asked that they stop and rest. So they stood together, leaning on a railing, watching the ants swarm below. A group of two Israeli women were desperately trying to find volunteers for their demonstration of skin care products. Most people rudely ignored them, while a few gently said “no, thank you.” Nick noted that, when they simply said “no thank you” the women persisted, but if one raised their hand slightly and said “no thank you,” the women moved on. Like an agreed upon signal. Except, of course, for one man, who raised his hand too high and found himself receiving a high five from the saleswoman. Still, he avoided getting the presentation.

“Nick,” Joey said, somewhat sheepishly—the caffeine was wearing off, and the crash was hitting him hard—“I’m sorry I’ve been acting like a two year old all day. I had too much coffee, I’ve been so hyper… I’m sorry. I feel like I ruined—”

“Shut up,” Nick interrupted, “you didn’t ruin anything. I had a lot of fun today. It’s nice to see you come out of your shell every once in a while, you know.”

Joey grinned, “Yeah, well thanks buddy.”

Nick smiled back, and suddenly they both felt it. A pounding in their chests, and they felt the imminence of what was to come. Nick looked into Joey’s eyes, and Joey looked back into Nick’s. Nick placed his left hand on Joey’s hip, his right behind Joey’s head. Joey’s arms pressed against Nick’s back. Their eyes locked. They were about to do something, in front of God and all of Jordan Creek. Something that would make mothers cover their children’s eyes, and preppy boys gag, and gothic girls cheer and hoot and whistle. But the preps, and mothers, and goths, and mall, and God, weren’t there. Only the two of them, standing on a balcony on the edge of infinity. They looked into each other’s eyes, unsure of whether or not to continue. Time stopped.

Nick drove Joey’s car home, as Joey slumbered in the passenger’s seat, completely wiped out from the caffeine crash. Nick gently pulled the car into the parking lot, picked a spot, and carefully guided the car home. He got out, crept to the passenger door, and opened it. He unbuckled Joey’s seat belt, scooped him up, and began carrying him up the stairs. He shouldered the door open (the door was never locked) and fumbled for a light. The apartment was empty. Apparently, Zach and Charlie were off with their dates, probably doing unspeakable things. Or eating at a sit-down restaurant. Nick carefully laid Joey down in his bed, slipped Joey’s belt off, and pulled covers up over him, tucking them tight against Joey’s chin. He then kicked off his own shoes, and lied in his bed, not bothering to change. He lied awake for hours, going over the results of the past day. It looked like whoever won the bet would have to find out tomorrow.

Nick and Joey each sat in their beds, staring at the other. Both had recently awakened, after sleeping in on a snowy Saturday morning. After some mundane conversation, they had sat up, and now stared sleepily at each other. Both sat in their underwear, red boxers for Nick and yellow boxer-briefs for Joey. Joey yawned sleepily, and Nick scratched his head, working his fingers through messy, matted blonde hair.

“You work today?” Joey asked.

“Yeah, I close tonight.” Nick answered.

“Yeah, me too…” Joey responded, ending the conversation.

Both looked at each other, and smiles started to grow on their faces. Finally, Nick made his move:

“You wanna do something today then?”

Joey grinned sheepishly. “I guess. Yeah, that would be fun. What do you have in mind?” he asked, trying his best to sound coy and flirty. He was convinced that instead it had simply sounded gooberish, like something from a bad porno.

“Well, I don’t know… It’s kind of crappy out, so probably nothing outside… Wanna just make some hot chocolate and popcorn and watch Waking Life?”

“That doesn’t sound like too bad an idea, I’ll buy, if you want.” Joey responded.

“No way. I asked you out, so I’ll—” he stopped. They both looked at each other for a moment, before Joey slyly stated,

“Asked me out, huh? So then this is official?” Joey was grinning from ear to ear, and desperately trying to hide it.

“Well, I guess. We’ll see how it goes. It’s only official if you let me buy the stuff. Otherwise it’s just two friends hanging out. If one guy buys it all, well…”

“You want to be the man in this relationship then?” Joey giggled. His voice was still soft, but had a strength that it usually lacked. Nick’s cheeks started to turn pink. Joey never talked like this before. Honestly, Joey rarely talked this much at all.

“I’m willing to split that responsibility, but for the first date, yeah. I get to be, I’m the one who asked you out. You didn’t ever get the balls to ask me.” Nick chided, cheeks still red.

“Oh, I see how it is. Okay,” Joey stood up, his own cheeks reddening, “then get dressed, we’ll go to Rough & Greene and get the stuff to make hot chocolate and popcorn. We should hurry, before Charlie claims the TV for another all-day marathon of Planet Earth.”

“Fine.” Nick responded. He found himself staring as Joey got dressed, and, once he became aware of his own staring, he quickly turned away, and focused instead on his own wardrobe.

The drive to the Rough & Greene took twelve minutes, up from eight because of the bad weather. They took Joey’s car, so that Nick didn’t have to jump his. As they walked through the doors, Joey received a number of friendly waves and nods from his coworkers. The two did their best to hide their mission, because certain people in the public don’t take kindly to two boys liking each other, and the people who frequented the Rough & Greene tended to be those certain people. The two grabbed a cart, simply two roommates on a snack run, and started into the store.

Work does some funny things to the brain. The primate brain is based on pattern recognition, and so repetitive tasks, like any entry level job, begin to instill all sorts of strange useless knowledge. Italian subs get eight pieces of pepperoni, and eight pieces of salami. Hot chocolate is in aisle three. If someone comes in with their own cup for a fountain drink, pressing PLU 23 is faster and easier than pressing PLU 3 then price-overriding. All sorts of knowledge that no one really wants to know, and is useless upon leaving that specific store. Joey wondered if the location of popcorn (aisle seven) was one of the “trade secrets” that his employee handbook told him he was not to share. Or maybe he wasn’t supposed to sell rival companies the current price of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (59 cents, or on sale three for $1.25). Or maybe it was the secret to bagging (cans in bottom, no more than five, boxes on the outsides, bags and packages on top) that he wasn’t supposed to share with the world. Either way, their shopping trip took five minutes at most, less time than the drive had. Joey resentfully allowed Nick to pay, and off they went, into the blizzard building strength outside.

The drive home took fifteen minutes, up from twelve because the weather was getting worse. They hurried up to the apartment, shouldering the door open. The door was never locked. They headed for the kitchen, made their hot chocolate and popcorn, and then settled on the couch. Sensing both the impending cold, and an excuse to get closer to Joey, Nick left the room, pulled the blanket off of his bed, and came back. The two sat huddled together (for warmth, of course) for the next two hours, unaware of people coming and going behind them. At one point Nick thought he heard Charlie exclaim “Well it’s about damn time!” but he couldn’t be sure. As far as he was concerned, Charlie and the others were millions of miles away.

Zach sat at his desk, doing his daily rounds on his computer. First webcomics, then social networks and email, then other points of interest on the normal web. Then, it was time to sink into the darkweb. Freenet and tor had their own sites of interest, and if you could dodge the occasional child porn video and virus, were treasure troves of information and even companionship. Any writer who published on Freenet had to have at least a little html knowledge, and so was usually a more interesting conversation than a blogger up above. Zach wasn’t sure why he envisioned Freenet to be underneath the regular internet. He supposed that it was because if the internet were a city, the penthouses and corporate buildings would be more akin to the regular internet, and the seedier parts of the web—Freenet, tor, and certain corners of 4chan—were buried underneath, in the slums and sewers, just out of sight of the rich normal folk. But still capable of packing a punch against their oppressors, if they ever organized. Time and time again, the hackers known as Anonymous had proven that. Random schmucks who banded together for something greater, then quickly dispersed once the job was done, never to make contact again. At least, not knowingly make contact again. That was part of the beauty of Anonymous. Any random person that you ran into during your day could be Anonymous, even if most weren’t, there was always that chance. They were like the agents from The Matrix. Nowhere and everywhere at once.

So Zach entered a forum, known to be frequented by Anonymous, and, under cover of Freenet, posted a new topic: Remote Detonated Virus? Underneath he explained:

I was talking to some friends the other day, and one mentioned the prospect of a “Remote detonated virus”, that is, a virus that could be planted and made undetectable, but then respond to a signal sent from outside. I’m new to writing viruses, but I was wondering if such a project had ever been attempted before, how it was done or if it worked. Thanks.

Almost immediately, he had a response:

Cool idea. Part of the problem would be that any detonation signal could be traced to the IP it originated at. You might be able to string the signal through a proxy of some kind, I’m not sure how that would work. Also, in theory, your “signal” would have to be a second virus, programmed to worm its way into the target computer and find the virus “bomb”. That doubles your chances of getting caught, and your signal might just keep hitting a firewall. Basically, I’m wondering whether it would be better to send the bomb itself, instead of plant the bomb and send the signal. Seems like your chances of success would be greater if you removed the unnecessary virus. Hope this helps.

Zach quickly responded:

Thanks. Yeah, some of those things occurred to me last night, as I thought about it trying to fall asleep. Basically though, the reason I’m doing the bomb-and-detonator system is because the thing has some massive firewalling. I can get around it to plant the bomb, but I want to be sure that the bomb’s detonation isn’t traced to my computer. He hesitated, before adding: It would be like attacking Infiniti. I can get into their systems, maybe, to plant the bomb. But would there be a way to detonate it with something non-viral? Something that was just an .exe program. I would know where the bomb had been planted, so it wouldn’t have to search it out. I’m not even sure what I’d make the bomb do. Mass-delete, encryption, CPU crash, copy-paste to some online archive, I’m open to ideas. Also, where to plant it? If I had the option of Infiniti’s corporate computers or the servers themselves (obviously only one set) which would be better to hit?

Zach refreshed a few times, and, finding no new replies, decided to move on to bigger and better things for a while. He had been working on a brute-force password hacker for a while, but there was a bug in it somewhere that he couldn’t find. So he sat, scrolling through lines and lines of code, trying to find a problem that could be as small as a single letter out of place. After a grueling hour of searching while jamming to System of a Down (the album Toxicity, to be exact), he found the error (it was a missing closing parenthesis. His mission achieved, he glanced at the clock. It was almost noon, so he figured he ought to eat.

He headed out of his bedroom into the kitchen, passing the living room on his way. He saw Nick and Joey nestled together on the couch, watching some rotoscoped movie that wasn’t A Scanner Darkly. Zach thought about asking them what movie it was, but decided not to interrupt. There was a pool going with the not-Nick-or-Joey apartment crew, and interrupting would be cheating, to say the least. Also, both Nick and Joey were good about leaving Zach and Jamie to their own devices in the apartment, even when the two had thought that the apartment was empty, and had come running out of the bedroom ass-naked and began having sex on the living room couch, only to look up and find a petrified-looking Joey sitting in a recliner in the corner. Apparently he had been reading a book.

Zach rinsed out a hopefully clean saucepan, filled it with water, and set it on the stove. He threw a block of ramen into the pan, then snatched it back out when he realized that the ramen was to be added after the water was boiling. So he waited, staring at the water in the pan, listening to the movie playing in the living room. Something about dreams, or something. Hard to make sense of it, halfway through the movie. The watched pot began to boil, so he threw a brick of ramen in, pushing it under the surface with a fork. He always found it unnerving the way that raw ramen floated as soon as it hit the water, while other pasta sank until it was cooked. Probably some chemical he shouldn’t eat, he figured, but what choice did he have? A college budget doesn’t allow for healthy choices. If college killed him, he had decided long ago, then it would be better than if he did everything he could to avoid death and lived a meaningless life. It was thoughts like this – ramen’s done – thoughts like this that caused him to hack, to smoke. To do the ultimately unrisky, but heavily frowned upon, fun things that presented themselves. To raise a little hell, when necessary. It’s about sending a message, he recalled Heath Ledger saying, everything burns. With a plate of ramen in hand, he left the kitchen and found himself in the living room again. A boy, presumably the main character, was making out with a girl. He saw Nick look over at Joey, then, losing courage, return his glance to the screen. A few seconds later, Joey turned, and, finding that Nick wasn’t returning his gaze, focused on the screen as well. Kiss already Zach thought to himself, and left the room to avoid saying out loud. He returned to his programming, already in progress.

That night at the circle, one topic was on everyone’s mind. The piece between them today was a long, thin blue glass pipe, with a handle on one side. Charlie sat enjoying a cigarette, while the others sat exchanging glances, trying to come up with a topic to discuss other than the one already on their minds.

Finally Jamie blurted out, “So is it official!?”

Everyone looked at everyone else. Joey finally realized what she was asking, and looked to Nick for support.

“What do you mean, official?” Nick asked. Denying was useless, but they could still string them along for a while.

“I mean, well…” Jamie started.

“She means are you two going out?” Sarah interrupted. The two girls looked at each other, and giggled like Catholic schoolgirls learning about the reproductive system.

“Well…” Nick started, Joey adding “I don’t know.” They looked at each other, while the rest of the group stared intently. It was clear that if they didn’t answer, this conversation would go from interview to interrogation.

“I guess” Nick finally answered. Hi fives and giddy yells and laughter filled the room for a moment.

Charlie finally interrupted with “Wait, what day is it?”

There was a scrambling for cell phones, before Joey mumbled “February 5th.”

“YES!!” Charlie yelped, “I won, I won the bet! I had until the tenth!”

“No, maybe not.” Zach interrupted.

Charlie looked at him. There wasn’t anger in his eyes, but there was some kind of perturbed emotion. “What do you mean?”

“Did they kiss?” Zach asked, “the bet was for when they’d kiss.”

“Of course they kissed” Charlie stated confidently.

“Why ‘of course?’” Nick asked skeptically.

“You didn’t?” Charlie said, startled.

“No.” Joey whispered, adding “not yet at least.”

“You guys are messing with me.”

“Nope” Nick said, “Didn’t kiss yet. Just a movie day. We hugged yesterday, if that gets you anything.”

The rest of the circle smiled as a look of defeat crossed Charlie’s face. The bet was still on, it seemed.

The rest of the conversation was pretty mundane. Zach updated the others on his “bomb-virus” project, and happily celebrated the completion of his brute-force hacker. The others recalled their days, and drilled Joey and Nick for details about their day. What movie, who asked who out, who bought, whose idea the blanket was, did anything happen underneath it, and other embarrassing questions that friends ask of each other with the start of any new relationship. After receiving answers (Waking Life, Nick, Nick, Nick, and no, respectively) the group decided to call it a night.

Lying in bed that night, Joey and Nick were still awestruck by the day they had spent together.

“Did you have fun today?” Nick asked innocently.

“Yeah, I did. Only one regret.” Joey answered.

“Yeah, and what’s that?” Nick asked, joking “Who you spent it with?”

“No,” Joey said, grinning, “Not kissing the person I spent it with.”

“Well we’ll have to fix that here soon, won’t we?”

“Yeah, we will.” Joey said sleepily, and rolled over to fall peacefully asleep.