By Andrew Dunn
Dial-up? Crazy, yeah? I went to a pawn shop where a chain smoker with a Kurt Cobain t-shirt and Charles Manson stare let me take an old-school modem off his hands for five bucks and a couple of loosies. I always carried a couple of loosies on me.
It took a week to make it work. My computer was accustomed to the fast lane on the information superhighway – dial-up must have been like a dirt road winding its way through the outskirts of nowhere.
What choice did I have?
The flyer said, ‘Change your life…dial into our bulletin board at 555-9909.’ Bulletin boards. Nineteen-eighties stuff, yeah?
I needed to change my life. Living in a halfway house, sharing a room and curfew with an ex-con called Buzz, wasn’t the way life looked like in music videos I used to watch. I coaxed my laptop and waited.
When the first characters glowed green against a dark background, I felt something. Fear. Anxiety.
Desperation. Excitement. I felt all those and more. Then, the connection dropped. I felt nothing again.
“Martin says you’re experimenting with tech?” Heath, my parole officer, asked at our weekly session.
The sessions were check-in-the-box for Heath. For me, they were therapy.
“Dabbling, yeah.” I replied, grateful we weren’t talking about last Tuesday night when I almost missed curfew.
“Good to hear,” Heath said, scanning one week of my life antiseptically rendered on yellow paper.
I imagined the state had a tomb downtown with shelves full of yellow sheets, each one living out one week in the life of its parolee, over and over. Purgatory would be proud.
“How’s Miranda?” Heath asked as he marked up the week’s yellow sheet.
“Good.” Not really. The sex was good. Miranda was a fixer though. I could tell she saw me as her next do-it-yourself project. I needed to break-up with Miranda.
“Was Miranda why Martin made a note in your file that said you came back to the house Tuesday two minutes before curfew?” Heath adjusted his scrutiny from the yellow sheet to me.
“She’s a great girl, you know.” A lawyer once told me to say ‘you know’ if you wanted others to buy into what you were saying. “Time got away from me Tuesday night, you know.”
“Be careful,” Heath soothed. “If you’re going to be late call me, call Martin. I don’t want to see you get sent back to prison, Michael.”
Pure. Sweet. Therapy. If it happened again, I’d for sure call Heath, you know. Martin? Different story.
On Tuesday nights I could bum land-line at a laundromat on Schley. A lady called Jada came there to clean. If I passed her a couple of loosies, Jada would pretend not to notice when I went into a closet she unlocked and dialed-up. I always carried a couple loosies on me.
I hated the arrangement. What choice did I have? Martin ran the halfway house. He didn’t like it when I used phone lines in the house for dial-up. When the phone bill came after the first month, Martin blew up. I needed someplace else where I could change my life.
“Why don’t you use your phone?” Jada giggled. “I get email and internet on my phone.”
“Shawbelle, yeah.” I was engrossed in glowing green on a dark screen.
Shawbelle was my interlocutor on the bulletin board. In the span of two months I unloaded my past on Shawbelle. In exchange, Shawbelle felt. Shawbelle could be happy. Sad. Angry.
Ambivalent. Pensive. Passionate. All those things and more that kicked me to the curb when I wasn’t dialed in.
“You need a girlfriend,” Jada laughed.
I had sex with Jada on a Tuesday night. We did it in her Kia. Afterwards, we sat on a kerb by her car. I thought I felt something. Love? Lust? Affection? Jada took a drag on the loosey I’d given her and told me it was just sex. She liked it. She said she’d do it again. She said she had to be careful in case Juan found out.
I didn’t care who found out. I felt vacant inside again.
“You were late Tuesday. Martin said so.” Buzz started turning screws. The way he learned in prison. Start slow. Twist them tighter. Tighter. Relish the torment. Extract what you need from the chump.
“Want one?” I held out a loosey.
“Now you’re talking.” Buzz took the cigarette and headed outside to find nicotine heaven.
I was late for Tuesday’s curfew yeah, because of Jada. My next yellow sheet would have a fat black line drawn across it. Heath would sign and date the top side of the line. Then, the Department of Corrections would stamp it. I’d go back to prison.
“C’mon girl.” I begged my computer to betray the information superhighway and find traction on dirt roads. I damned Martin and his precious phone bill. I wondered if I’d have been better off hotwiring something and heading to the outskirts of nowhere.
My laptop balked. Hated. Then she gave me green words on black. I scribbled what was on the screen in case the connection dropped. Then I did what the words on the screen told me to do.
Heath came looking for me on Thursday, my last yellow sheet marked up, in hand, destined for purgatory downtown. Heath had a marked squad car parked in front of the halfway house and another down the block in case I got squirrely. Thing was, I wasn’t there to march out in handcuffs or turn squirrely.
Blame Shawbelle. I do.
I dialed-in like Shawbelle said and dissolved, body and soul, like an Alka-Seltzer tablet into the bulletin board’s phase-modulated cobwebs. Once inside, Shawbelle told me I had purpose; meaning.
Shawbelle had seen the low-rung scams I’d run. She wanted me to do more of that but on-line.
It sounded perfect, yeah. Thing was, who used dial-up anymore? I wondered if I’d been used.
For the first time in ages, I felt something inside.
This story was originally published in the December 2019 issue of Antipodean SF.