Something inside me opened up. I stepped out of myself, to a place where I could see what I’d become just as clearly as I’d been judging others.
I didn’t do schoolwork because I had no discipline. I’d never one time worked at being a good student. I’d never forced myself to do things I didn’t want to do. I only wanted to play. The times in my life when I’d done hard work — unreasonably difficult labor, which I had done — had only been in service of having fun.
All the drama with the hackers was nothing more than me throwing gasoline on my own fire because it was a fun distraction from what I was meant to be doing. I’d been happy for the disruptions. I’d graduated high school not because I was clever and my teacher was stupid, but because she’d been generous and gracious. It had been years since anyone had openly mocked me for my stutter, but I still held the words of the past against the world of the present. I hadn’t pushed hard for my dance-plus-computer ideas — engaging other people to help me experiment — because I wanted to do it all myself, even though I didn’t know how, because I wanted all the credit, all the applause.
I manufactured my fears so that I wouldn’t have to risk failure — or, more often, so that I wouldn’t have to do any work at all. My paranoia was a protective edifice of lies around the truth, and the truth was that I was lazy.
I was a like a small, sleepy goat, a kid, nearly alone in a barren field picked clean of anything to eat. The pile of crap that he had amassed behind him was fantastical, but his muscles were too weak to push any of it aside. He had no choice but to go elsewhere, and the only route open to him was up a dangerous rock face. It was intimidating, even though so many must have gone that way before him. It would have been easier had he started up the mountain with the other kids, when there’d have been safety in numbers to help one another along. Still, better late than never.
Oh, but God, the mountain was terrifying.
“Derek?” asked Lizard.
I looked up.
“You went quiet for a minute,” she said. “You okay?”
“You said I’d be okay, didn’t you?”
“Then I will be,” I said.
“Because I trust you.”
“It didn’t sound like it.”
“I do,” I said, then I corrected myself. “I should have,” I said. “I can.”
I felt shattered. The worst possible thing I could’ve feared had come to pass. At least, I figured, that’s one thing I’ll never have to be afraid of again.
Lizard looked away. “When you ‘knocked’ on my dorm room door that time,” she said, “it scared me, because it reminded me of my ex-boyfriend, back home. One night he wanted me, he wanted my attention so badly, he pounded on my bedroom window so hard that he shattered the glass.” She hugged herself. “Blood everywhere. It was awful. And the look in his eye—” She looked up. “—it was the look you get, sometimes.
“He was crazy. But you, you’re not him. I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re okay. You just have ideas.” She shrugged, and smiled. “You just need to work them out.”
“Thanks, Liz,” I said. “Thank you.”
The music played for hours. The next day, I was home.
It took me several weeks, though, to realize that I no longer stuttered.
In the two years that followed, I started working and I kept working. I did what teachers needed me to do, and I got all my basic classes out of the way. When I returned to the university, my grades were never a question. I spent all my time working. It felt good. It was a kind of dancing, and I never really stopped. I got a design degree, and nearly got a minor in Astronomy.
I did also have to learn how to work well, of course. That came later. Thankfully, it happened a long time before I shot past a hand-painted sign in a desert, leaned against a tree, saying, “CALIFORNIA”.
But first, before everything after, came the Hacker Crackdown.