It’s six in the evening, and already black as pitch outside. Welcome to an American Midwest winter. I stand at the window by my desk and frown at the picture-postcard scene. It is simple and beautiful, right out of a Thomas Kincaid painting, but cruel.
Inside my room the monitor hums and glows, soft and maternal. My PC has been a comfort in my long and lonely days but it is useless to me now. Turning away—Wot, turn your back on your dear darling computer? Are you out of your mind?—I kick at a sneaker lying on the floor. It flies across the room and thunks against my closet door. My room is a wreck. There is a huge mound of socks under my bed, left so long I’m sure by now they’ve fossilized. I remind myself all the time to clean up, but never do. So what else is new.
Nobody seems to be online tonight. I've checked all my usual haunts a dozen times or more: ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, various chat rooms and message boards, and my email account. I've waited hours, but to no avail. Nothing and no one. I have a lot of online friends, scores in fact, but nobody wants to talk to me tonight.
But of course. It's a Saturday night. And most people go out on Saturday nights. Most people have lives.
The computer's hum is irritating now and I flip off the power switch without bothering to shut Windows down properly. This will upset my operating system and it will spend about twenty-seven thousand hours carefully checking for viruses next time I turn it on, but right now I don't really care. I sift through the piles of junk on the floor, find my jacket cowering under a slippery stack of outdated magazines, and head downstairs to go for a walk.
No such luck. My mother is sitting by the front door, reading a book. She looks up and sees me putting on my coat and barks, "Where are you going?"
"Just for a walk," I answer.
"But it's dark outside! You could get hit by a car. Or get kidnapped by some psycho."
That's always my mother's excuse. Whenever I want to go somewhere by myself she tells me no way, I'll get kidnapped. She honestly believes there are serial killers lurking in every shadow. I don't know why.
"My jacket's white," I point out. "I'll be visible and I'll stay off the road. And I don't think psychos hang around little places like this." I don't really want to go for a walk but at least it's something to do and I'm sick of this house and I'm sick of this life.
"Nonsense. It's fifteen degrees outside. You're staying in."
Disgusted, I zip up my coat and start to open the front door. I'm almost seventeen years old; I'm perfectly capable of going for a walk by myself.
"Catherine Alice Cardell."
The warning in her voice stops me cold. Giving up—I'm not about to get punished for doing something I didn't want to do in the first place—I push the door shut.
"Look, Mom, I'm bored. I've got nothing to do."
"You can clean your room," she suggests.
"You always say that."
"It always needs doing."
With a sigh I unzip my jacket, take it off, and hang it up on the pegboard. I take my time doing it, trying to let more minutes slip away. Coral, my 'net friend from British Columbia, said she'd be on ICQ at eight. If I can wait that long I can just chat with her and all the loneliness would melt away. If I can wait that long.
Once my jacket is hung up all nice and neat again, I go upstairs to my parents' bedroom where my father is playing Minesweeper on his laptop. We're a very computer-oriented family. Me, my mother, my father, and my older brother all have our own. My father has two. I wouldn’t mind another one myself.
"Is there something you wanted, honey?" my father asks me.
"Nothing really. Just bored."
"Why don't you phone a friend from school and go out with her? I'll drive you to wherever," he offers.
"Good idea," I say, somewhat halfheartedly. Privately I am thinking: What friends? That was the whole reason I dropped out of high school three months ago, back in September. I didn't have any friends and everyone hated me.
I leave the room and head back to my own where the computer sits on my desk, its screen dark and cold. "Lucky you," I say to it. "It must be nice to be a machine. You never have feelings, never get lonely or sad."
But eventually it breaks down and then its owner sighs and tosses it out. Or cries and tosses it out, like you.
"Shut up," I tell the voice in my head, and sit down at the desk again.
I check the clock. 6:05.
Come to think of it, my father's suggestion isn’t such a bad idea after all. I didn't have any real friends at school, but there were a few girls who were halfway nice to me. Preps mostly, whom I neither liked nor disliked, merely tolerated. I could look up their numbers and call them, and maybe one would feel sorry for me and agree to go out to the bowling alley or something. Just to talk. I'm not sure how I'd like spending an evening with a prep, but it'd sure be better than this.
I go down to the kitchen, find a phone book, and flip it open. The first name that crosses my mind is Stephanie Abercrombie. Last year she was a short, big-boobed girl with hair too perfect to be real, who acted like an airhead and lived in the mall but was actually a mathematical genius and seemed to like me.
I go to the A's in the white pages and run my finger down the list. There are two Abercrombie's in the book: Abercrombie, Gregory and Abercrombie, Randall. I'm not sure which one is Stephanie's father, but it would be easy to check. So I pick up the phone and dial the number of Gregory Abercrombie.
The phone rings once. Twice. Three times. Finally a man with a soft voice picks it up and says,
"Hi, is Stephanie there?"
"You must have the wrong number. There's no Stephanie here."
"Sorry," I mutter, then slam the phone down. I'm irritated with myself and I don't know why. After a second to gather my thoughts, I dial the number listed for Randall Abercrombie.
A woman picks it up this time. "Hello?"
"Hi, is Stephanie there?"
"I'm sorry, Stephanie's out at the skating rink with Alex Rosseau. She won't be back till late. May I take a message?"
"No thank you," I say, and hang up the phone without saying goodbye.
Alex Rosseau. His name rings a bell. He's a senior and an athlete being recruited by every state school in the Midwest. Everyone thought he was the hottest guy in school but I never saw anything in him. He was good-looking, certainly, with that six-pack and those piercing blue eyes, but stupid and obnoxious. Worst of all (for me at least), he had no sense of humor. Why on earth would a smart girl like Stephanie be going out with an idiot like Alex? What is this world coming to?
I decide to call someone else, just one other person, then I'll quit. There are other girls whom I could tolerate a few hours with, but likely most of them wouldn't want to hang around me. But one other person; I'll just try one more time.
I dial the number for Christine Collins-William, presumably Tamara Collins-William’s mother.
"Hello, Collins-William residence."
"Hi, is Tamara there?"
"This is she."
Aha, I think. Tamara is a pretty girl with a husky voice who leaves her red hair long and loose all the time and wears very bright-colored clothes which she designs and makes herself. She also has a cool and funky personality, I remember.
"Hi, Tamara. This is Cate, Cate Cardell? I left school at the beginning of this year?"
"Cate," she repeats as if maybe she knows me and maybe she doesn't.
"I was in your science class in eighth grade," I push on hopefully. "I sat across the aisle from you."
"Oh, Cate!" Definite recognition in the voice now. "Everyone's wondering where you've been."
Weird. I didn't think they'd even notice I'd left, let alone care. "I dropped out," I say. "I'm getting my G.E.D. It's better than school."
"Yeah, school is hell these days. Finals are coming up and everyone in my chemistry class is worrying, cause it's worth half of our semester grade. And we have a new teacher in trig, and he's like eighty years old and an incredible jerk..." Her voice trails off.
I don't beat around the bush. I get to the point. "Anyway, I suppose you're wondering why I called."
"I'm, like, bored tonight. Can we go out somewhere together? My dad'll drive."
There is a long pause, and I already know what her answer is going to be. "Cate, I've got plans tonight," Tamara says gently. "I'm going out with my boyfriend."
I know she is lying. I can tell it from her voice. She doesn't have any plans; she just doesn't want to be seen hanging with me. She probably doesn’t even have a boyfriend. I sense this, I know this.
"Yeah, I figured," I say, trying to keep the disappointment out of my voice. I hadn't really wanted to go out with Tamara before, but now that I can't it feels like the world is going to end.
"Maybe some other time," she suggests, obviously hoping I'll say no.
And why should I disappoint her? "Nah, that's all right. I'll see you around, Tamara. Bye." I hang up before she can say another word.
The phone book still lies on the kitchen counter. The picture on the cover is of a mountain sunset and it’s beautiful and I hate it. I pick the book up and hurl it across the room. It slaps down on the linoleum floor in the corner. I don't bother to pick it up but hope the dog will come along and chew it into little bits.
"Fuck you," I say into the empty air, and I'm not sure who I'm swearing at.
I check the clock. 6:15.
Oh well. Coral will be online in an hour and forty-five minutes. I can wait that long.