“The Computer Nerd” Chapters 1 and 2

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming e-book, The Computer Nerd, coming to Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, and Kobo on October 20, 2015.

Note: Book is still under final revisions, so content may change slightly between now and release.

For more information, including book description and pre-order information, please click here: https://zippywings.wordpress.com/my-books/the-computer-nerd/

The Computer Nerd

by Jeremy Bursey

Chapter 1

“Out of Nowhere”

The Little Waffler smelled of seafood—raw, dying seafood. The odor bonded to the floorboards it lingered for so long. Anston could even smell it in his dreams. Though he’d spent only once a month on this vessel, that one morning haunted his subconscious with cities of calamari and skyscrapers made of mackerel. It never stopped. This particular morning a giant man picked his teeth with marlin.

He was just getting out of his clamshell taxicab when something jolted him from his slumber. The fishing reel was spinning out of control, and the whirring was drowning out the sound of the calming waves. He nearly tossed his coffee from the armrest it came so fast. The line took off, speeding hundreds of feet from the boat, racing for the darker regions of the water.

As his coffee settled from its near spill, he gripped the rod before it could escape. He yanked the handle back, trying to keep the catch under control. His feet, which were already propped against the stern’s inner wall, were feeling the full force of his 160 pounds resisting overthrow. His knees shook under the weight.

The power opposing him: immense. It must’ve been a shark, or a squid, or even a whale he was fighting. His arms strained from the force. If a body builder couldn’t handle this, he thought, then a computer nerd like him had no business trying. Of course, he had to try. It was his lucky rod, a present from his favorite father, the biological one with all the advice, the dead one. He had to hold on.

As he planted his foot against the stern wall, he hoped there was more strength in his arms than in the creature’s fins. As his knees began to rise, he also hoped his legs could handle whatever need for power was left.

With his right foot riveted to the wall, he carefully set his left foot to the deck floor and spun, and then propped the pole over his shoulder. He felt the force of the creature drive him downward immediately. The tug-o’-war match was uneven: this thing was winning. The rod was digging hard into his shoulder, and he was almost out of line.

To counterbalance the opposition, Anston threw himself to the floor, firming his body into a plank position. Now he had both feet against the stern wall and his belly flat to the deck, but his knees were collapsing from the pressure. He worried the creature would pull him right through the wall, if it didn’t flatten him or pull the boat down with him first.

With the pathetic arcing force of his forearm, he pushed his graphite rod in the opposite direction. It was enough to keep him in the boat, but not enough to keep his fishing rod in one piece if this struggle were to persist. The tip bent toward the water at ninety-degrees. Any moment it would snap.

“Someone cut my line,” he shouted. His two friends were inside the cabin playing cards, and he had no clue if they were within earshot.

His heart was pounding now. The coffee that was sitting on the table just over his head was moments away from being out of a job. His energy, thanks to that dichotomy of biology where caffeine and adrenaline had similar yet conflicting goals, was spiking while at the same time burning itself away. He was gritting his teeth as he fought to hold himself together.

He hoped someone had heard him, but he knew these guys well. Once they got into a heated match, they would tune out an atomic bomb hitting the next neighborhood over. Even as he strained with the sea creature’s might, he had that ugly feeling he would have to handle this himself. His friends were three steps behind useless once they’d set their attention to a card game.

But, even as he fought to keep the rod in hand, he was convinced he was engaged in a losing battle. His science of preference might’ve been computer-based, but he understood enough about biology, marine biology, and physics to know that he was on the path to a shattering defeat. He needed these guys to hear, and to care. He kept calling out to them anyway, even if he knew they were unlikely to respond.

Anston wanted to try his luck at gripping the reel’s handle, to spin the crank the other way and hopefully reverse fate, or at least stall the inevitable. But one false move and his rod had a date with the ocean floor. Coming from his dead father, this was not an option. The skin of his forearm started to welt.

“Someone cut my friggin’ line,” he shouted again. “Matt! George!”

It took a full minute of him screaming his throat dry for someone to finally respond. George, saddled with lines down his face and a scowl under his nose, emerged from the cabin entrance with a pair of scissors in hand. His neckline was stained with beer and his hair was tussled from lack of a bath. The parrot on his shoulder squawked.

“Keep your voice down, sheesh,” George said. “Matt’s winning, no thanks to you.”

He crossed the tiny deck and clipped the line. The release caused Anston to slam the pole against the floor, nearly cracking it. The force ricocheted the tip ring into the coffee, knocking it all over the chair. At least he was awake now.

“You’re welcome,” George said, as he trudged back to the cabin. “Matt! You better not be peeking at my cards, you nut-waggle!”

“Nut-waggle!” squawked the parrot.

The door to the cabin slammed shut as the parrot’s voice drained to silence. Anston was once again alone, trying to control himself from hyperventilating. His heart was hammering. The blood rushing through his head was giving him a serious tension headache. But the calm was settling in from behind. The storm of battle was passing now.

He sat up, nursing his forearm. The welt tickled, but at a fair price: it would heal and his favorite fishing pole could stay dry another day.

He checked his watch: not even 7 a.m. In all of his monthly outings, that was the earliest the reel had woken him from his nap, and the only time the fishing rod had been put in mortal danger. If his coffee had only lasted, then he could get through the next hour of sitting around and staring at the quieting ocean. Perhaps his friends would let him join the card game instead.

***

The Little Waffler sailed into port around four o’clock that afternoon. The arrival of docked boats and the neighboring parking lot brought Anston relief. For nine hours he did nothing but read computer magazines and watch his friends play War, breaking only occasionally to hang out with the boat’s captain, who refused to let him stay in the pilot house for more than a couple of minutes at a time, citing ADHD as his reason for needing the extended solitary confinement, and not, he insisted, because Anston was mopey and annoyed him and talked about his fishing pole way too much. Anston was willing to take his word for it, but he was convinced the boat captain was just trying to spare his feelings. With the scent of saltwater etched deep into his clothes, and the nightmares of anglerfish threatening to jar him out of bed, and the depressing memories of constant shuffling around from one boring human interaction to the next, he was glad the trip was over.

Holding his rod, fish bucket, which had just a few fish because he had taken them from George’s stock when he wasn’t looking, and one-cup portable coffeemaker tightly to his side, he jumped the gap between the boat and the dock. The dull thud of wood beneath his shoes reminded him that everything was okay now, that no evil sea creature would threaten his father’s last gift to him anymore. Land was a fair maiden.

He cracked his back to loosen his body. Then he headed for the parking lot. When he got there, he found a homeless person next to his car begging for change. He didn’t have any cash to offer him, but he put his entire stock of fish in the man’s shopping cart. It was the least he could do for charity.

When he returned to his two-bedroom house a half-hour later, he was surprised to find a red Audi A3 in the driveway and a woman sitting on the front step to his porch. She was reading a paperback novel called Skimpy Delicious Tarts, which had a cover that featured two strawberry-filled Pop Tarts sitting on a dish in front of two half-naked romance models making out in a cloud of steam, and didn’t notice him getting out of the car. She licked her fingers as she turned the page, and licked her lips as she continued reading, but her stiff posture suggested she was getting bored with the book.

Anston recognized the woman immediately, but he was suspicious to see her there. Not that he had any reason to complain: she was beautiful in the amber glow of the setting sun, maybe the fairest lady he’d ever met, or at least recently. She seemed intelligent, friendly, and just controlling enough to keep things from getting stale, based on the few interactions he’d had with her. And she matched his physical preference closely enough to make him question why she’d even talk to him. Tall, blue-eyed brunette with no discernable tattoos, especially on her lower back, in a pink sundress and gold hoop earrings. And she was sitting on his front step. And he had no idea why.

“Rebecca,” he said, when he ascended the driveway to approach her. “This is a surprise. How did you find where I live?”

She flinched when he called out to her, and then hurriedly stuffed the book in her purse after sneaking in a couple more lines to read. Her face was awkward, but she quickly corrected the position of her lips to force a smile. She stood to greet him and opened herself for a hug when he came within reach. He had to give her a one-arm squeeze thanks to the fishing rod in his hand.

“Social media,” she said. “I had to research you.” She smacked him on the shoulder. “And it took a long time, buster. Why aren’t you on that new Facebook thing?”

Anston shook his head.

“I know a guy who knows a guy who knows the founder. I think it’s a gimmick. Won’t last. Look how quickly MySpace is dying.”

“That’s because we’re not on it together. Here, hold still.”

She was holding her cellphone—one of those brand new Apple iPhones that people had been standing in lines all summer to get—and she angled it so the screen was facing her. Then she wrapped her arm around his shoulder and pulled him close.

Anston shuddered when he saw his face digitally imposed in real time on the tiny rectangular screen. He immediately squirmed out of her grip.

“Whoa, whoa,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to take a picture with you. Something we can’t also do on your cellphone thanks to you not having one.”

He shook his head.

“Uh-uh, I don’t want my picture taken.”

She put her weight on one foot, leaned back, and folded her arms over her chest. She had a smirk on her face.

“Look at you, Mister Self-conscience, who thinks you’re uglier than you are, which you’re not.”

“Not worried about my appearance,” he said. “Knowing my picture is floating through cyberspace gives me the creeps.”

She shook her head in disbelief.

“It’s the digital age,” she said. “There’s no such thing as privacy anymore. Get used to it.” She wrapped her arm around him again. “Come on, say cheese.”

He squirmed out of her grip again. Then he flashed her an apologetic smile.

“I’m not comfortable having my picture taken. Sorry.”

She twitched her eyebrows and shrugged. Then she stowed her phone back in her purse.

“Okay, if you’re that paranoid. Whatever. Well, to answer the question of why I’m here, I tried calling you a few times so I wouldn’t have to come here, but your voicemail is apparently full. Don’t you ever check your messages?”

Anston reached for his keys and unlocked the door. He glanced inside to make sure the living room was appropriate for company. He didn’t usually invite ladies over for the simple reason that he’d often leave items of questionable ownership lying around whenever he’d make an attempt to tidy the place and give up halfway. Some relics of his previous marriage would occasionally make their way into public view, and these relics sometimes fell into the category of garments of a personal nature. Needless to say, the ladies in the past who’d come to visit when he’d forget to put everything back in its place—deep in the recesses of his closet, for example—didn’t usually return. One day, he thought, he’d have to give his ex-wife’s old stuff to a thrift store. He just wasn’t sure when he’d find the time.

Once he verified the room was clear of misrepresenting evidence, he stepped aside to allow Rebecca in. She sashayed past him, making sure to draw his attention to her curving hips.

“What was your question?” he asked, when he realized he had completely spaced out for a moment.

“Don’t you ever check your messages?”

“Yeah. No one ever calls. You sure you couldn’t get through?”

“It’s why I spent too much of my day hunting for your address. You never confirmed our dinner tonight.”

Anston remembered making a date with her, but he couldn’t remember for which night.

“Oh, thought I had. Sorry.”

She half-turned to view him from the corner of her eye. The right side of her mouth was up in a smile, and her lips parted to show off those sparkling teeth. Her hand was in her purse, and then it was out holding an unopened bottle of tequila.

“For after dinner,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

She set the bottle down next to the answering machine.

Anston was ready to unwind after his hard day on the sea. It was nice to get away for a bit, but now he was home, and the brass hooks over the gas fireplace were waiting. They had been naked for two days and were ready to dress again. He set the rod in its safe place. The remaining vestiges of sunlight pouring through the gap between the window curtains glistened off the graphite surface, and he breathed a sigh of relief. His rod was home. His rod was safe.

Rebecca watched him set the rod in place.

“I thought you were working today,” she said.

He offered her a quizzical expression. What had he told her about his job anyway?

“On a Saturday?”

“I invited you to a picnic with some friends this afternoon, but you said you were working and couldn’t come.”

Anston thought back to the conversation, which they must’ve had over the phone at midnight several nights ago. He remembered her saying something about a picnic and him thinking he had no interest in meeting her friends or having ants crawling all over his sandwiches under a sappy tree. But he couldn’t remember telling her that he had to work. That would’ve been a blatant lie. He must’ve mentioned the fishing trip. He always went on the last Friday and Saturday of the month.

“Well, I was half right,” he said. “Sorry. I’ll make it up to you somehow.”

She grabbed his shirt by the neckline and smiled.

“You can make it up to me at dinner tonight.” She released his shirt. “The reservation is for eight o’clock, so you better get cleaned up real quick.”

She sniffed his neck. Anston was a little uncomfortable with that, and he backed up just slightly.

“I’d say take a shower first, but it’s a seafood restaurant, so you’ll probably blend right in.”

“Glad to know I’ll pass their admission standards.”

Anston was tired, but he was also nauseous from seasickness. Going to a seafood restaurant was something he didn’t really want to do tonight. Going to bed, or at least plopping in front of the television, was a much more attractive way to spend his evening. But he and Rebecca were still making an impression on each other, and he wasn’t ready to blow it with her. Not yet. It was too early in the relationship to claim that he owed her anything, but he was the kind of guy who thought beyond today, and he figured the less he upset her now, the better his future with her. The best thing he could do was to suck up his evening plans and assimilate into hers. It’s what his father would’ve told him to do had he been here to advise him. He just had to trust that the room would eventually stop spinning.

“Let me get my bearings in order first,” he said. “Had a rough morning.”

She checked the clock on her cellphone.

“You got ten minutes, so don’t dawdle. You’ll love the food there.”

“Says the woman who didn’t spend the weekend on a boat in the middle of the ocean.”

“If you’d actually been to work today—”

“Criticism noted. Let me finish putting my stuff away at least.”

Anston headed for the small door beside the living room that led to the garage. Rebecca called out after him.

“Anyone tell you how handsome you are when you walk away?”

After returning the bucket to the garage and the coffeemaker to the kitchen, Anston reached into his refrigerator for a can of Arizona iced tea and popped the top before bothering to shut the door. The first sip cured his mild dehydration. The next twenty stabilized his unsettled stomach. The last sip fed his hungry trashcan. Then he leaned against the wall and counted to a hundred. He could feel his body slowly recharging, but he knew he needed to sleep in order to fully engage his proper energy levels. He was so caught up in the fantasy of sleep that he’d forgotten about his company.

He began unbuttoning his shirt as he returned to his living room to check his answering machine, only vaguely aware of Rebecca standing just a few feet away. He didn’t own a cellphone—didn’t believe in them—if his friends couldn’t reach him at home or on the Internet, then clearly they didn’t know him—so all of his messages transferred to the device on the small oak table at the end of his sofa. As he got his shirt halfway open, he glanced at the message counter. His inbox was full. Rebecca had been right.

When Anston glanced across the sofa, he found Rebecca kneeling next to the gas fireplace, examining the logs that he rarely used. Even though it was early December and the cold evenings were beginning to stack on each other, he didn’t like his fireplace. He often worried about the flame jumping the firebox and hitting the floor. He used it only on the worst nights of the year when he couldn’t wrap himself in enough blankets or drink enough hot cocoa to warm himself up. Most days he tried to forget that he even had it. Rebecca was doing a nice job bringing it back to his attention, though. She was testing the durability of the fireplace screen, rocking it back and forth, when he noticed her kneeling there.

“It works, if you’re wondering,” he said.

“Might be nice to cuddle next to one night,” she said, as she erected to a standing position and gave him a seductive smile. She was hugging herself and squeezing tightly as she wrinkled her nose like a rabbit. The opening bell for trouble.

“Maybe. I’d have to clean the vents first. Nowhere for the carbon monoxide to go at present.”

She winked at him.

“No need to kill the mood.”

He watched her as she continued to examine the living room. When she reached out to touch the fishing pole, he stopped her.

“Please don’t touch that,” he said. “It’s irreplaceable.”

She offered him a quizzical look.

“I’m not gonna take it down or break it, silly,” she said. “Just want to understand your hobbies better.”

“It’s not a hobby. I fish because my father fished. That’s the last thing he gave me before he passed. I’d rather you didn’t touch it.”

She shrugged. Her mood dipped as she stepped closer to the sofa.

“Okay,” she said. “I understand.”

The vacancy in her eyes suggested she didn’t, but Anston would worry about that later. The important thing was that she didn’t touch it. He didn’t want the oils on her fingers to ruin the varnish on the handle. He’d just had it restored a few weeks ago and didn’t want anyone but him getting his or her fingerprints smudged in. It was the best way he could keep his father’s last gift to him in pristine shape, the shape it was in when he’d given it to him.

Anston returned his focus to the answering machine. Rebecca, who had noticed the high message count, had a stern look on her face. She was somewhere between amusement and legitimate concern when she stared at the calls indicator. She leaned against the sofa’s armrest beside him.

“You must be popular,” she said. “You say you check your messages often?”

Anston shrugged. He’d checked it every day, and the machine was empty when he’d left for the trip the day before. So this was a surprise.

Rebecca reached for his chin and pulled it in her direction so that his eyes had to meet hers.

“Just to remind you,” she said, “you did tell me you deleted your Match-dot-com profile after we agreed to give this a shot. Have you done that?”

He had, but not because she had asked him. He just realized sometime after they had started talking that he was bored with the idea of finding love on the Internet. He had to deal with computers and software and the people who didn’t understand either on a regular basis. Dealing with the Internet, too, was just a chore.

“Yes.”

“And you’ve stopped talking to your old girlfriends?”

Anston took her hand and removed it from his chin.

“I honestly don’t know why I’ve got so many messages. Stop worrying about me.”

But he was worried about him. He didn’t get fifty message in a month, much less in two days. He was nervous that maybe something serious had happened to a family member. A part of him didn’t want to listen to the messages for fear of what the numbers meant. But he also didn’t want to listen to them in front of this woman he barely knew, in case it was something personal. He was tempted to ask her to leave.

But then he thought about how that might look to someone who didn’t know him well. Potential girlfriends in the past had bailed on him over a misunderstanding. Claiming he wanted privacy would likely raise suspicions she had no need to believe in, if patterns were to hold. So, he decided not to say anything to her and just do what he would’ve done had she not invaded his space at all.

Overwhelmed by the vast number of messages—he usually had fifteen a week and thirteen were telemarketing robots—and because he suddenly remembered that he was on a time limit for the dinner reservation, he resolved to listen only to the first. He figured he could check the rest tomorrow when he had a better opportunity.

He hit PLAY. A voice he failed to recognize drifted between the sofa and the table lamp.

Mister Michaels, said the deep male voice. This is Doctor Niles Farea from the Happy Place Enrichment Facility. I’m afraid I need to speak to you over a matter of great importance. Please see me the moment you receive this. I’m afraid this cannot wait. Thank you and have a happy day.

Anston grumbled under his breath as he slowly buttoned his shirt back to his neck. The Happy Place Enrichment Facility: there was a place he had no desire to see again. What the hell could they possibly want with him? He thought he had made it clear to them that he was cutting and running.

When he glanced at Rebecca’s face, he noticed her eyebrows were raised. She was also tapping her fingers against the sofa’s armrest.

“What’s the Happy Place Enrichment Facility?” she asked.

Anston shook his head.

“Nothing. It can wait.”

“I hope so.” She checked the clock on her phone. “It’s a hard reservation to get and I’d hate to miss it over something that can wait.”

Anston took her by the hand and pulled her to the front door.

“Let’s just go. I can’t wait to eat with you.”

He also couldn’t wait to squelch her line of questioning. The Happy Place Enrichment Facility was not a topic he wanted to discuss, ever. The sooner he could redirect her to less disturbing things, the better.

Problem was the topic was something he couldn’t drop so easily himself. Dr. Farea’s call was likely to sit in his thoughts for the next few hours, and that would drive him crazy. There was no way he could enjoy a dinner with anyone, including Rebecca, with the question lingering in his mind about why anyone from the Happy Place Enrichment Facility would feel the need to reach him. Keeping this matter to himself wasn’t going to work all night. He would have to trust Rebecca on this one, as hard as that might seem. If the facility’s doctors believed it was important to contact him tonight, then there was nothing stopping them from calling him again in the future. One way or another she’d find out what kind of hold this place had over him.

He squeezed his eyes shut as he silently accepted the urgency of what he would have to do now. He hoped he wasn’t about to ruin this new relationship with this stunning, provocative woman. But he knew the risk. He knew he was putting things in jeopardy. He still had to take it.

Outside, Rebecca headed for the driver side of her vehicle, and Anston headed to the driver side of his, a brown 1981 Maserati Biturbo that he had proudly bought from an Italian automobile collector a few years earlier and kept restored ever since. When she noticed he wasn’t meeting her at the passenger door to her Audi, she gave him an impatient stare.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

He glanced at his Maserati, as if he had made his first of several mistakes tonight.

“My car?”

“Why?”

“Er, how else am I gonna get there?”

Rebecca displayed her vehicle in the same way a game show vixen would display the box of jewelry for a contestant to guesstimate a price.

Anston shook his head.

“Uh-uh, I’m sure you’re a lovely driver, but I’m taking my own car, thank you.”

“Okay, but I know where the restaurant is, and we don’t have time for you to make a wrong turn. Besides, it’ll give me an excuse to come back here for some coffee and tequila afterward.”

Anston felt a lightness in his chest. He did like the sound of some after-dinner company. But the call from the Happy Place Enrichment Facility could not go ignored. He’d have to address it after dinner, and he was sure that Rebecca would not enjoy it there. He had to be straight with her on this one.

“Under any other circumstance I’d take you up on that. But, that call seemed urgent. After dinner, I’m gonna have to see what it’s about.”

“Okay, but—”

“Just trust me on this. I promise I’ll explain soon. Don’t let it ruin our dinner.”

Rebecca opened her mouth to protest, but she immediately caved. She was a smart woman. Even if she didn’t know what the facility was or why it had an interest in Anston’s prompt visit, she could read between the lines enough to understand Anston’s position. She gestured him to get into his car.

“Just follow close and don’t make us late.” She opened the door and started getting into her driver’s seat. Then she shifted midway and stood fully erect again. “And you owe me a midnight coffee for this.”

Anston winked at her.

“Deal.”

The problem was, even though he had wanted that midnight coffee and tequila with Rebecca, and though he had definitely wanted it with her tonight, he knew she was unlikely to ever spend another moment with him after the decision he knew he had to make. The problem was, even though she did not know what the Happy Place Enrichment Facility was, or why it would’ve called him, he did know, and he knew that whatever they were contacting him about could not go ignored, not even for a moment. The fact that he had already gone a day without hearing the message was likely trouble.

So, when they reached the intersection at Main and Cross and Rebecca went to the right, toward the restaurant, Anston silently apologized to her and went to the left, toward the Happy Place Enrichment Facility. Even though he hoped she would understand his decision one day, he figured she’d have moved on by then. Given his connection to the place, it was probably for the best that she got out of the game now while things were still normal.

Chapter 2

“A Crazy Story”

The Happy Place Enrichment Facility was neither happy nor enriching. Instead, it was a cold, featureless complex stuffed with ten-square-foot rooms, large enough for a cot and, in some cases, a window, all painted in brilliantly tooth-enamel colored walls. He’d call it a prison if the people living here were convicts.

Anston passed the front gate, which no longer existed—a broken striped thing that used to be a gate, rather—and the guard shack that had once housed an old man in uniform but now housed a grease mark covering the remaining interior walls of a concrete husk. A sign on the shack wall read: “Help Wanted.”

The parking lot was close to empty, so Anston found a spot near the entrance. If anything happy was to come of this visit, it was that he didn’t have to walk far.

The entrance had broken glass and a piece of yellow tape across it. Another old man in uniform (not the one he had seen the last time he’d come here) sat on a barstool next to the wreckage.

“Visiting hours are over, son,” he said.

Anston reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He showed the man his identification.

“Doctor Niles Farea asked me to come see him,” he said.

The old man unclipped his walkie-talkie from his collar and spoke with his raspy voice into the speaker.

“Maxwell,” he said. “See if Doctor Farea is still in the building.”

Something unintelligible garbled on the other end.

“Thank you,” he said and snorted as if he and Maxwell had just shared an inside joke.

The old man looked into Anston’s eyes but said nothing. Anston turned away, a little creeped out from his birdlike stare. He really hated this place.

The pit of his stomach stirred. He wanted to ask this guy what had happened—really wanted to—but was afraid of the answer. This was the kind of facility, he was certain, that had made no reservations to oddity, and the truth would probably make him sick.

The walkie-talkie garbled again. The old man nodded.

“Anston Michaels,” said the old man into the speaker. More garbles. “Okay, I’ll send him in.”

The old man clipped his radio back to his shirt collar.

“You’re free to enter. Doctor Farea will see you at the reception desk. If you dare.”

Anston was waiting for a sinister laugh to follow his tacky joke, but the old man didn’t give him one. Just another matter of fact, apparently. He shrugged.

Anston was free to enter, the old man had said. Though he disliked the idea of a wasted trip, for once he hoped he’d wasted this one.

He rubbed his belly in an attempt to quench his nerves. It had never helped in the past, but he thought it might work this time. “Mind over matter,” his high school psychology teacher used to tell him. “Placebos work just as well as brand names,” that old teacher used to preach. Rubbing one’s belly in times of crisis, medicine to a tortured soul. Timeless truths from a 1980’s sage; this had to work.

It didn’t work. He still felt the remains of lunch stirring as he passed under the yellow tape, trying to avoid scraping his biceps against the jagged glass. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find his old psychology teacher incarcerated here.

The reception desk could’ve been a short walk—a case for most facilities. But this was the Happy Place Enrichment Facility. The reception desk here stood at the end of a two-hundred-foot corridor lit with fluorescent lights—most of them burnt out, the remaining few alternating between flickering and black (crack-head designers most likely)—and carved from exposed cinder blocks, polished with white paint. Each footfall leading to the desk echoed with a pulsating beat down the length of the corridor, exploding with a pop at the end. Anston fought the urge to hum techno-rave as he walked.

After breaking through the glass-ridden sphincter and down the facility’s white-walled intestinal track, Anston finally reached the room of reception, the place where all men were dissolved into mush, the place where they could either clog the building’s arteries or be flushed into the parking lot as dismantled souls. It was the place where the sane mind came to die.

No one was there. Anston forced himself to sit in a plastic chair while he waited. A lone copy of Entertainment Weekly lay on the coffee table in front of him. He wept silently as Brangelina became his only link to the outside world.

No man deserved this place.

A couple of minutes passed. Glass walls housing offices on either side of reception, each covered from the inside with closed venetian blinds, reflected the flickering lights overhead. As the strobe effect came from all directions, entrancing him, he found his eyes closing involuntarily. Blackness followed.

This was nice, he thought. Silence, save the buzzing of the air-conditioning, and his happy place unfolded—a meadow populated with the latest desktops, all ripe for the—

His body shuddered and his eyelids flung open. This was no time to sleep. The building had a way of implanting nightmares into its inhabitants’ minds. He didn’t want to see anglerfish jumping out of the meadow into his lap while he slept.

He dug his elbows into his thighs and propped his chin with his palms, forcing his eyelids open with his fingertips. Brad Pitt stared at him from the cover of the magazine, with Angelina Jolie next to him puckering her iconic lips. The caption, “Brangelina Dazzles Third-World Country,” smoked from its red-yellow hue. Then he noticed something odd about it. The cover bulged when it should’ve been flat. He opened the magazine to find a dying cigarette on top of a charred healthcare ad.

“Oh, my patient was looking for that,” said a deep voice from the right of the room.

Anston looked up to see a bearded man in doctor’s coat approaching from the hall between the reception desk and a glass office. He carried a cellphone.

“For what?” Anston asked.

“That cigarette. He couldn’t remember where he’d put it.”

Anston lifted the cigarette from the magazine and tossed it into a nearby ashtray. The impact killed what was left of the smoldering filter.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “So are you Doctor Farea?”

“I am. You must be Anston.”

Anston nodded.

“Nice to finally meet you. My predecessor spoke adequately of you, to put it nicely.”

Anston wasn’t sure what Dr. Farea had meant by “adequately.”

“Good?”

“Sure. So, I am glad you’re here. My news is urgent.”

Anston leaned against the back of the plastic chair. His thighs felt relief as he released his elbows from the impressions they’d left.

“Do I have to see her?”

The doctor dragged one of the plastic chairs by the leg with his feet and stopped it parallel to Anston across the table. He sat down, folded his hands, and frowned. He was very professional.

“Well, ‘have’ is a very loose term at the moment.”

“How so?”

“Well, I guess I should say that ‘having to see her’ depends more on her than it does on you.”

Anston dug his elbows into his thighs again. Somehow, he thought, the discomfort might dislodge unreality from his system.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I suppose the best way to answer that would be to first point out the damage to our front door.”

“Yeah? I saw that. Pretty disturbing image.”

“Onsite video shows that your ex-wife had a hand in creating that damage when she—”

Anston held up his hand in a halting position.

“Hold on, stop there,” he said.

He needed time to process the information that Dr. Farea was feeding him. As a former professional in the computer engineering field and a current professional in the information technology field, Anston needed to approach things in a problem-solution formula, and to achieve the formula he first needed to understand the problem. And the problem here wasn’t the broken gate, as that was a surface issue, and the surface issue was never the real issue. The problem here had a root cause. Most people, not even mental patients, didn’t just decide to one day crash a gate. The woman the doctor was speaking of, Anston’s ex-wife, or rather, the woman he had meant to divorce but never quite got that far—his estranged wife—wouldn’t just cause damage for the hell of it. She was here for another reason.

Anston lowered his hand. His mind was now properly primed for the information he needed.

“Start over,” he said.

Dr. Farea leaned forward slightly. His face was commanding and his breathing was steady. He had this calming demeanor in his eyes, something that the normal people probably appreciated whenever they had to talk to him.

“As a practicing doctor, Mister Michaels, I have taken an oath to protect the privacy of my patients. There are some elements to this story I cannot fully divulge. But those same elements are necessary for you to understand how dire the situation is we’re facing here, that you face. So, off the bat I’m in a complicated position.”

“I understand. But let me remind you that you called me.”

“Yes, of course. So, I will do my best to share the details in a way that does not compromise patient confidentiality while at the same time alerting you to the seriousness of the problem at hand. This includes the details about your wife, whom, if I have my information current, you no longer have direct power of attorney over.”

Anston gestured him to get on with it.

“You see, Mister Michaels, we’re more than a mental fac—er, an enrichment place. We’re a development center, a place where dreams happen. Our northern sector specializes in various chemical therapies, where the hyper can become stoic and the whiners can become content, so-to-speak. For those who fail to change their lives on their own power, we develop the resources to help them…through chemicals mostly.”

“Right, you make them ‘happy.’ I get it. What’s this have to do with my wife? Ex-wife?”

Dr. Farea oscillated his sights to various focal points around the room, with a strong focus on the table, the magazine, and the dead cigarette in the ashtray. From time to time he glanced at the wall. But he was limited in how often he made eye contact with Anston. As he thought about how to accurately answer this question, perhaps in an effort to squelch any mention of details that qualified as confidential, his eyes moved down to the table. His hands, which people would often use to emphasize important story elements, were still resting comfortably in his pockets. Whatever the doctor was about to say, Anston would have to pay close attention to it. Anston leaned forward to listen.

“Well, it seems that during her community time—off the record, we give them an hour a week to socialize, though most don’t realize it because they’re off in their own little world—she befriended one of our old-timers, a former colleague of ours, a chemist turned sociopath. For confidentiality reasons, I cannot give you his actual name, so we’ll call him, er, let’s say Brad Pitt. Well, the friendship seemed innocent at first because Mister Pitt had been induced with sedatives on a daily basis, so his tendencies toward rampant chaos had been nullified, and thus, his passions with it. But his mind was as clear as ever, something he hid very well from us, and he apparently used it to lure your wife, ex-wife, into a scheme that we believe culminated into what you saw upon entering.”

“Stop.”

The doctor looked up from the table. He was poised to continue his story.

Anston held his hand up again and took a moment to process the information. He spun the ideas in his head for at least half a minute, imagining this budding friendship between two “happy” people who somehow conspired to damage the facility’s front entrance, and what that meant to him economically and socially. Then he contemplated the missing pieces to the doctor’s short version of the story. When he lowered his hand, he glanced at the doctor and frowned. He reasoned that the best way to understand Farea’s point was to match his demeanor and tone.

“So, you’re telling me my wife escaped?”

The doctor’s frown dragged his eyes back down with it. Anston was certain he was looking at Brad and Angelina again.

“It’s complicated, Mister Michaels. We lost some highly potent chemicals in this transaction, as well as a couple of our best guards. You must understand that we’ve taken serious hits from all angles. But we’re committed to doing what we can to rectify the problem. Once we’ve finished securing the area and rebuilding our guard shack, we’ll be ready to take her in again should the police or Mister Sanders catch her and her chemist friend, Mister Pitt.”

Anston cocked his left eyebrow.

“Mister Sanders?”

He waited for clarification. Dr. Farea, who seemed quick to understand nonverbal expressions, something Anston was not particularly great at himself, not unless he knew the person well, bit his lip as he thought about how to explain this Mr. Sanders to him. He fidgeted in his seat as he considered his words.

“Er, how do I say this?” He was now avoiding eye contact. “We have a policy around here to leave the police out of our business as much as possible. We call them if we have an insurance issue, but for the most part we keep them away. Sure, they may apprehend our escapees if our escapees commit a crime, but as a rule we do not alert them to the possibility. We find that we do better to handle things ourselves. The police often just get in the way and complicate things. We try not to encourage that.”

He returned his focus to Anston. Anston was not a fan of his no-police policy.

“Mister Sanders is our guy who ensures the police aren’t needed,” Dr. Farea continued. “When our patients escape, he is the one we send to find them. He is usually very good.”

Anston shook his head in disbelief. He was certain he hadn’t heard Dr. Farea correctly.

“When they escape?” he asked. “As in, this is actually a thing that happens sometimes?”

“We do not alert the media to this, of course. As I said, we like to keep our issues within the family. But yes, we do have escapes sometimes. We do not usually have such violent escapes. Your wife and Mister Pitt are also very good, it seems. But I am confident Mister Sanders will catch up to them eventually. Hopefully.”

“Hopefully?”

Anston drew a labored breath. His stomach wanted to heave all that had survived his day of digestion, with his bowels wanting to expel the leftovers. He knew exactly what this situation meant. It didn’t take a rocket scientist, a psychologist, or a computer engineer to figure out what the doctor, in his most tactful way to warn of danger without damaging his oath, was actually saying here. Anston’s safety was now at risk. If his ex-wife was capable of such destruction to an innocent guard shack, then there was no telling what horrors she could introduce to the man who had volunteered her to this den of nuts. He was probably best to stay away from home, especially given the details of their last encounter.

He reached into the ashtray and picked up the cigarette. He twirled it around his fingers as he studied it. Such a simple object, so little to comprehend about it. How he wished he was a smoker so he could do something about the tension rising into his chest.

“Think I could get a room here tonight?” he asked as he set the cigarette back in the tray.

“I’m afraid we do not have the space to admit mentally functional people like yourself without the proper recommendation from another party. Perhaps you might consider a hotel for the next few weeks?”

If Dr. Farea was giving him that much of a window, then this Mr. Sanders he was swearing by must not have been that good.

“Perhaps I’m a laid-off computer engineer who has to moonlight as a tech support operator just to keep his refrigerator stocked and can’t actually afford that.”

“Then maybe you have friends or family who could put you up?”

Anston thought of Matt and George. They were probably passed out by now from their day of drunken card games, or still on the boat playing War, but it was worth a shot calling them.

“Could I use your cellphone?” he asked.

The doctor placed his phone in one of his numerous coat pockets.

“I’m afraid I don’t let people use my phone. I have a germ phobia.”

Anston stared at him, his mouth now ajar.

“You kidding me? You’re a doctor.”

“I work in a sterile environment. I never leave this building. I invent my own food if I can help it.”

“Then who do you call if you never leave here?”

The doctor thought about this.

“No one, actually. Everyone I know works here. And I pay my bills online.”

“Then why can’t I use your phone?”

“Because I’m a germophobe. Now, if you don’t mind, I have to get back to work. My patient was hyperventilating earlier because he couldn’t find his cigarette and I imagine he hasn’t stopped.”

The doctor stood, putting his hands behind his back.

“I’d shake your hand,” he said, “but I don’t know where it’s been. Have a happy evening.”

“What about reception’s phone?”

“Requires a password. Sorry.”

He spun away, leaving his chair where it was, and returned to the hall.

Anston stared at his back until he disappeared.

He hated this place.

(end sample)

If you like what you’ve read so far and want to find out where the story is headed, click here for ordering information and additional book info: https://zippywings.wordpress.com/my-books/the-computer-nerd/

Thanks.

Let me know if you’re looking forward to this.

UPDATE (9/25/15): I’ll be releasing a few more sample chapters between now and October 20, 2015, so check back often to see where the story is headed. Feel free to comment on any chapter you wish.

You can continue the story with Chapter 3.

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