Saturday, 26 January 2008

Fiction Feature: THE LURKER

This little ditty from circa 2001 kinda slipped through the cracks, it got accepted and unless my memory chip has crashed I received a princely sum that allowed me to purchase fries with my burger, but I never heard from ye editor again.


She's got style. She replies to just about every message, posting funny one-liners or longer, common sense opinions whenever there's any hint of disagreement or argument. When newbies arrive and ask questions she acts as generous hostess, welcoming them to the forum and showing them the ropes. She starts them talking and makes them feel special. They come back because they know she's there, waiting to entertain, make jokes, tell stories. She's a cross between Grandpa Walton and Joan Rivers. Homespun wisdom delivered with chainsaw wit.

After a while I begin searching for her userid every time I go online, knowing she'll be at the root of any interesting message thread. Whenever the conversational ball begins to lose its bounce, she hits it again. She has a growing number of online friends who seek her company, sycophants who kiss up to her and enjoy being publicly shredded when they—deliberately—step out of line. Men in their forties and fifties mostly, life's at home's gone stale so they come here instead. This is a poor substitute for chatting up hookers in bars, but it's less expensive, and it's legal.

She never gives her age but it's assumed she's mature. Her command of the language says so. She knows lots of things. She can name all six lead characters in Friends, but also knows Mr. Ed talked to Wilbur. She remembers seeing Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon, but she can't remember Kennedy's assassination. She refers to her husband as her "significant other" but never calls him by name. Is there a husband? She's online every day and night. If he exists, he has his own interests.

She only signs her messages with her first name, never her surname. Her userid doesn't hint what her surname might be. When someone happens to mention what state he's from, she says she's from there too, and asks him if he knows her home town? Further information: she moved away twenty years ago and still gets homesick sometimes.

A first name isn't much to go on, but public databases are made for this kind of thing. I know enough to hack past the dumb user interface and go direct to an SQL command line. First name, home town, born between 1957 and 1963. There are forty matches, sorted alphabetically. I touch the screen, my fingertips lingering upon each name. Which one is she, I wonder? And how can I tell where she lives now?

Some weeks later, she tells one of her buddies she'll be offline for a couple of days. She's going to visit her sister for the weekend. She names the town where her sister lives. Long journey? he asks. She jokingly gives an exact mileage. Oh, very clever—she must have geography map software with a measurement tool. I kick up mine and zoom on the town where her sister lives, click on it, then move the mouse so the mileage ruler stretches to the exact distance she quoted. I make sure the number remains constant as I move the mouse in a wide circle, causing the ruler to sweep like the second hand of a watch. I must be very careful. Can't afford to make any mistakes.

Bingo. There are two candidate-towns, both the exact same distance from the town where her sister lives, one lying due south, one to the northwest. Wait, didn't she say she was going upstate to visit her sister? I scroll back to the message. Yup, that's what she said. She's heading north, which means she currently lives in the town to the south.

I double-click on her town and study the street map, my lips silently forming the names. Getting a feel for where she lives. There are scanned photographs of the annual carnival and parade, a trap for tourists, and another of the town's famous football stadium. The public database tells me that ninety-six women with her first name live here. I study their names and addresses intently, knowing she's one of them. But which one? How can I find out?

Phone records. Oh, I'm not interested in knowing who paid what, or what their account or credit card numbers are, I'm just interested in the numbers they called. This information resides in a less secure database. I find out the area code of the town her sister stays in. I write an SQL script to query the phone record database, asking which numbers called her sister's area code within the last seven days. She must have been talking to her sister to arrange the visit, right?

Right, and there they are, three telephone numbers alongside three names and addresses.

Two of the three telephones only called her sister's area code once, and they were short calls, neither lasting more than five minutes. The third number called her sister's area code six times, the calls varying in duration from ten minutes to thirty-seven minutes.


I drive to a payphone across town and call the third number. My hands are trembling, my heart's pounding. She picks up on the fourth ring. I know it's her because her voice is exactly how I'd imagined it would be, silky and smooth, filled with charm and warmth. She likes to like people, and likes them to like her in return.

I want to say something like, "I'm sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number, I hope I haven't inconvenienced you"—just so she'll talk to me, because I so desperately want to talk to her. But the words don't come and I slam the receiver down.

I call in sick to work. Stomach flu, I tell my boss, who doesn't care as long as he gets his monthly check from the employment opportunities people. He'll find someone else to push the mail cart around the office. I take a cab to the airport and buy a plane ticket with my savings. Four hours later and I'm looking down the street where the carnival parade marches every year. I drive my rental car past the football stadium and study the street map I bought at the airport. The town is well laid out and I have no problem finding her home.

She lives in a nice house. Manicured lawn, trees. There are two cars in the driveway, a Honda and a Beemer. Further down her street, there's a house for sale. I find a payphone and call the realtor to make an appointment to view the house. They quote me a time the following day. I tell them it's going to be a cash sale if I like the place, which I already do. Suddenly they have an opening at three that afternoon. I tell them I'll be waiting. I sit in my car outside the house that's for sale, watching her house. If anyone gets suspicious and asks what I'm doing there, I now have an excuse—I'm waiting for the realtor to arrive.

Twenty minutes later, someone comes out the front door. A man wearing a dark blue shirt. I can't see if he's handsome but I'd guess he is. He jogs to the Beemer, gets in, starts the engine. He waves to the woman at the door. She waves back as he drives away. She stands there for a moment, arms folded across her chest, looking up and down the street. As if she's got a sixth sense; as if she knows something's not quite right. I hold my breath, hoping she doesn't see me. Then again, what if she does? She doesn't know who I am, doesn't know what I look like. She turns and goes back inside, closing the door. I start breathing again.

It's time we met. Face to face, not online. I feel like a movie fan on a bus trip through Hollywood, with the guide pointing out who lives in which house. Only today it's different—today I get to meet the movie star. I tie my frizzy hair up and put on the sunglasses and baseball cap I bought at the airport. I get out, take a deep breath, and march right up to her door. Hesitation gets you noticed. Acting like you belong there makes you invisible. I read that in another forum, where an ex-cop was giving advice to people writing crime fiction.

I ring her doorbell and stand there trembling in my tennis shoes. The urge to get back into the rental car and drive away chokes me. Breathing becomes impossible. I feel as if I'm going to faint.

At first she's only a vague shadow at the end of the hall. Then she becomes a person, tall and good-looking, wearing a pink sweatshirt and hip-hugging denims that show off her figure. She's tied her ash blonde hair up with a black silk ribbon. She looks thirty instead of the fortysomething she must be. There's a dog somewhere in the house, barking. She tells it to be quiet. She opens the door and smiles at me, her teeth white and perfect. I wish I could afford her orthodontist.

"Yes?" she says.

I've gone over this moment in my head ten thousand times. I've practiced in front of the mirror, saying the words over and over again. But now we've met and it's different in ways I could never have imagined. She's everything I've ever wanted to be. I would gladly give my soul to become her, to swap lives, to possess her userid and password so I could go online and talk with her friends, reply to their messages, share in their jokes, welcome the newbies, answer their questions, be wonderful and amusing and witty just like she is. I want to tell her how much I want us to be friends forever. No, not just that. I want her to tell people I'm her friend—want her to tell them they should ask me all those questions because I know lots of stuff, if only everyone would give me a chance, if she'd only step back for just a second and let me reply instead of jumping in ahead of me all the time, as if it's my fault I type slowly.

"Can I help you?" she says. Not impatient, not impolite, just curious.

I take off my sunglasses so she can see who I am. She frowns, puzzled, as if she should know me but can't quite remember my name. I want to tell her but I'm more tongue-tied than I've ever been before in my life. It's beyond simple nerves, beyond any speech impediment. My tongue and lips and teeth refuse to work together. The words stick in my throat and refuse to move higher.

Something in my head snaps because I can't articulate all the things I came here to say—and her expression changes. It's as if she's seen something that frightens her. Something in my eyes, maybe. Anger at being unable to communicate using human language at this important moment in our relationship. I want to scream, but I can't.

Her self-assurance drains away, taking the color from her face with it. She takes a step back and tries to close the door but I shoulder it open, hurting my arm. The pain doesn't matter. She retreats as I move into the hallway. And still no words come. She turns and runs as if I'm some kind of danger to her. I limp after her, frightened she'll leave the house by the back door. I have to tell her how much I love her—how much I need her to love me in return and let me share her spotlight. I'll get down on my knees and beg her if necessary. Please, let me be what you are.

She throws the living door open and her stupid little dog runs headlong into her legs, it's so eager to get to me. It doesn't even know it's tripped her up—doesn't look back and see her head hitting a statuette standing just inside the room, a proud African warrior carrying a spear. Splash of crimson. The statuette becomes a casualty, its head and one arm missing.

The dog snarls as it sinks its teeth into my ankle, but plastic doesn't feel pain. I search the house, going from room to room until I find the study where she communicates with the world. I slam the door, trapping the dog outside in the hallway. I don't know if she uses the PC or the laptop so I reformat both, wiping everything. I rip the phone cables out of the wall sockets, cutting her off, denying her online access.

I open the door and the dog runs inside, yapping madly. Before it knows what's happening I'm past it and out, closing the door. The dog goes frantic, barking and clawing. The noise becomes faint as I go back to the living room. She still hasn't moved. I want to believe she'll be okay because I can't bring myself to touch her, any more than I could bring myself to speak to her. I tell myself her husband will be home soon, that he'll call her name and pat her face gently until she opens her eyes.

Outside, I put my sunglasses back on. By the time I reach my rental car my hands have stopped shaking. I drive back to the airport, feeling happy and light-headed. No one who knew me would believe I had the guts to do it, not my boss or my "work colleagues" who snigger behind my back when they think I can't hear. I dismiss them from my thoughts and think about tonight instead. I'd logon as usual, but things would be different. Tonight everyone would talk about the things I want to talk about, and laugh at my jokes, just like it was before she rose above the horizon like the bright morning sun, casting her golden light over my forum and taking my friends away.

I still send her e-mails, asking when she's coming back, but she never replies.

The End

1 comment:

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