“Hey, Patrick,” she said.
“It’s been a while,” she said. I said nothing.
“Jen really enjoyed meeting you,” she added.
“Yeah,” I said, “same here. She seemed cool.”
In a series of short bursts, each one word long, she said, “Jen . . . has . . . been . . . bugging . . . me . . . to . . . call . . . you. So I am. She thinks we should get together some time.”
“What do you think?”
“I think she needs to keep her hands to herself.”
“What have you been doing?” she asked.
“Busy,” I said. “I’ve been pretty busy.”
And unlike most of the rest of the times in my life when I would say that to a girl who I’d been desperate to hear from but who had failed to call me, I was sadly telling the truth.
I’d filled most of my free time with hour-long drives to the far side of Dallas, where some guy with a couple of Apple II computers and a bunch of little radios and a blackened warehouse appropriately fog-lit and a really good idea for making money from all of that stuff put together in exactly the right way was making a total crap-ton of money.
It was called Photon. You probably know it today, if you know it at all, as Laser Tag — but Photon was the first, as far as I know. You have two teams, each team has a base, you get points for shooting the enemy’s base and for shooting enemies. When you get shot, your gun goes dead for something like five seconds. That’s it. You have a helmet and a chest-plate with sensors, and a gun, and a gigantic load of batteries strapped around your waist. Also, it was crazy air-conditioned in there, and this was Texas.
You could not have designed a better trap for my spare attention. I started going there as often as I could. I had to borrow my mom’s mini-van — I think I already mentioned being on the near-side of the cool-kid bell curve — and I did so, regularly. Even the much older boys down the street, who’d originally introduced me to the world of geekery, were excited to hitch a ride with me to run around shooting at live bad-guys in a science-fiction set.
This will be important next time; it’s simply too much to get into this time.
My board had been expanding. I got a great deal on a hard drive from Frank, my first and best grown-up friend in that extended social circle; he brought his wife over and she marveled at me and my room, “It’s like, left-brain and right-brain, all together.” That gave me a colossal 15 megabytes online, all the time. My dad called it the Battlestar Galactica, it was so loud.
The thrum of life in my bedroom was fine. It was the code that was driving me nuts. The game kept crashing, so I had to pull features back until I got them working together again. I couldn’t imagine today a more insane way to develop software. Here’s what I did: code like a crazy person, reworking small feature by small feature. I could never have anything in the code be totally broken for very long, because the moment the phone would start ringing I would type RUN BBS and let someone explore the system in whatever state I’d left it in. The maniacally twisted part — or the lovely and delicious part, if you’re a modern user-experience designer with few scruples — was that I would then watch people interact with the game, taking notes so that I could make things easier next time, or at least less broken.
Little did I know that, thirty years later, I would still be doing very much the same thing, only larger. Also, I exited my teenage years having grown a pair of scruples, though that was later.
And there was more competition in town. Specifically, also over in Dallas, there was a totally new kind of system. Get this: you call a number, and you get switched between one of six or seven lines, all of which ran into a single computer. The computer had six or seven modems running, jacked into six or seven phone lines — meaning that six or seven people could all be online, on the same system, at the same time.
There was nothing to do there but to chat with the other people. That was novelty enough, believe me, even if it seemed like a low ambition for my taste.
After declining to help Wendy sneak out her window late at night, not even considering what I’d have to say to get my parents to let me take the car out at a late enough hour that her parents would be asleep, we talked on the phone a few more times. I once asked her about Jen, and she said she’d hang up if I mentioned her again. But then the next time crash girl called, she brought Jen up herself, sort of.
“I was thinking we should meet,” she said.
“Yeah, we talked about that.”
“There’s this thing. My brother’s doing it. I think you should come.”
“What thing? Where?”
“Pfft. Just this thing. He and a bunch of people — War Wager, X-Man, and like three other guys — are gonna meet at Chuck E. Cheese’s.”
“Are you kidding me?” I was actually a little hurt. I mean, I knew all those guys. I hadn’t met a lot of them in person, but that was uncool.
“They don’t invite you to those things because they’re afraid you’d think they were uncool.”
“Well it is kinda uncool for them to—”
“I told Mark I was inviting you, and he was like, ‘Sure.’ And…there’s this friend of mine, been saying we oughta meet. So you’d better come. You can come, right?”
Could and would but did not. It was Halloween, and of all early evenings, my sister had a rehearsal or a recital or some such business that an older high-school kid did not care about in the absolute least, and my mom needed the car. We actually passed the Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza and video-game parlor on the way there and on the way back. But mom didn’t want to be bothered with dropping me off and picking me up and it was a school night and she’d had a hard day and damn it, damn it, damn it.
I told myself: If the streetlight turns red at the intersection, I am going for it, I am running. The light was green, smooth sailing through the intersection. It was red on the way back, so I had a full minute to stare at the illuminated pizza and video-game parlor logo, seeming only slightly diminished beside the red, glowing K-Mart with which it shared a strip-mall storefront.
It had been months since I’d stolen long-distance. I’d been trying to stay in the lighter-side of the computer underground gray area, but that night I took the board down and kept the line busy calling a bunch of pirate boards in Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, downloading the most terrible information I could touch. Car hot-wiring instructions. Explosives recipes. Most of it was bullshit, but I kept going. I was angry at no one in particular. I was angry with everyone. All this to say I was sixteen.
She called the next day, after school. I explained what happened in a way that made me sound less like the twelve-year-old I felt like I’d been reduced to — and when you’re sixteen, in case you’ve forgotten, the difference between you and a twelve-year-old is not four years, it’s a lifetime. She was sympathetic enough.
“That’s awful. Aw, that really sucks. I mean, I missed seeing you.”
“How was it?”
“Oh, you know, no good. Bunch of uncool guys and some pizza, right? X-Man was there, though, so it wasn’t too bad. I mean, he’s a total loser. He’s like twenty-one — did you know that? twenty-one? I mean, wow! — and he was all excited about showing us his totally cool car. Ha. It was so cool that when he started it to give us a lift, it broke down and died right there, totally died. The radiator fell out or something right there. Shitty piece of shit.”
“Wow. That sucks.”
“Oh, no — it was funny. He’s a jerk, that guy. A real asshole.” She made a kind of purring noise, took a deep breath, and then made no sound whatsoever.
Finally, I said, “What?”
“Gotta go,” she said.
I glared at the handset, the one I’d fallen in love with at four years old when we’d first moved in, so delighted by all the tones its little buttons made. Even better, I remembered when a phone repairman had come to the green phone company switch box in our backyard and let me look at the tool he used. It looked like a kind of funky phone, but it had an extra row of buttons along the outside, which did different special things to the phone system. I’d always wanted one of those set so badly. But right then, I stared out along the far edge of the touch-tone pad, begging for a button that would end my misery.
My misery would only last another couple of days longer, and it would end with a phone call.