They spent the next hour and a half cleaning up the mess. The smoke alarm’s battery eventually had to be taken out, because it kept going off. Mom threw Kincaid’s sheets and pillowcases into the apartment house’s washers downstairs, then helped clean her desk. Kincaid sat heavily at the foot of her bed, burned laptop in her hands.
“What...?” she kept asking, staring down at it. “What ... happened?”
Several of the keys—the U, T, B, and 7 keys—had melted beyond recognition. The keyboard had warped and separated slightly from the computer’s bottom, exposing its blackened guts. The screen looked ghastly, with a scary-looking burn mark like the shadow of some demon.
She pressed the Enter key. It went down reluctantly, bouncing lifelessly back up when she released it. She pressed it again and it stuck.
“I didn’t know computers ... could catch fire!”
Mom came back in with a clean set of sheets taken from the cabinet in the hall between their bedrooms.
“I didn’t either,” she said. “Help me get these on. I’ll pop the others in the drier and collect them in the morning before work. I think I’ll call you in sick tomorrow, how does that sound? It isn’t every day you put out a burning computer that almost burns you down, now is it?”
Kincaid enjoyed going to school. Still ...
“Thank you, Mom.”
Her mom appraised the room when the bed was remade, hands on her hips. “Doesn’t look like anything scary even happened in here now. How about some hot chocolate before we turn in?”
Kincaid, gazing around, sighed. They had dropped her laptop in the bag of trash, which leaned against the armchair. It had worked so well—for three years! No problems at all! Then—WHOOSH! It was on fire!
She gazed at Mom. “That sounds good. I won’t be able to sleep right away anyway.”
She woke early—5:14. She heard Mom rummaging around in the kitchen, so she got up and put her robe on. Mom was putting the battery back in the smoke alarm and was on a step ladder, reaching toward the ceiling and the alarm’s brace. She glanced down. “Oh, hey! I hope I didn’t wake you!”
“I really didn’t sleep all that well.”
“That’s better than me; I didn’t sleep at all. Want some breakfast?”
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
She walked around her to the kitchen table and sat, noticing her freshly laundered sheets and pillowcases in a big heap on the sofa. Mom got the smoke alarm secured, tested it, and descended the ladder, folding it and leaning it against the wall. “I’ve already called the school. God bless computers, eh? I didn’t even need to talk to a real person.”
“I need a new laptop, Mom.”
“I know, honey. They’re very expensive, and you know how tight a budget we’re on. But ... we’ll get it done somehow. Maybe before I head to work I can look up some possibilities online.”
Mom didn’t own a laptop or a desktop, but she did own a Smartphone.
“Thank you,” said Kincaid, fighting deep frustration.
Mom showered after breakfast; then Kincaid did. Half an hour later they met back in the kitchen. Mom was wearing her work clothes. The Smartphone was in her hand.
“I’ve looked up a bunch already,” she reported, scowling at the screen. Her voice told Kincaid, who pulled a chair up next to her and sat, that the news wasn’t good.
“The cheapest ... is this one.” She turned the screen so Kincaid could see.
It was a Marillon, a brand known for dying after a year.
“Four hundred twenty bucks—for that piece of crap? Seriously?”
“There are others—” Mom tapped each, displaying them full-size and showing her in turn—“but I’m afraid they are pretty much the same quality. I couldn’t even find plain notebooks like the kind Google or Microsoft make that are less than three fifty.”
Kincaid, deflated, looked away from the screen. “We can’t afford any of them! What are we going to do?”
Mom closed the screen and turned the phone off. “Look. We’ll get by. I promise. I’ve got an idea, and before you tell me it’s an awful one, I at least want you to go and look.”
Kincaid eyed her suspiciously. “What is it?”
“Just a few blocks up the street is a pawn shop. Now don’t look that way! They might have a used laptop we could afford. Just take a quick walk up there today and look around. Do you know the shop I’m talking about?”
“Yeah, but Mom ... we might as well buy the crappy Marillon. We have no idea what kind of abuse any crappy laptop in any run-down pawn shop has gone through! At least with the Marillon we can purchase a crappy three-year warranty for when it duds out after just one!”
“Or,” began Mom, “or you might just find something really special in that run-down pawn shop that someone had to give away just so they could make rent or get out of town!”
Kincaid peered at her as though she were crazy. “How likely is that?”
“Not very, admittedly. But will you at least go and have a look? Please?”
Kincaid sighed heavily. “Okay ... all right ... fine.”
Mom kissed her cheek at the door fifteen minutes later.
“I’ve ... got an idea,” said Kincaid, glancing at her sheepishly.
Mom deciphered her look immediately. “Hell no. Under no circumstances.”
“He has mo-ney! Lots of it!”
Mom’s look of defeat hurt Kincaid, who withdrew. “Sorry. Forget about it.”
“He wouldn’t even pay for your braces. Remember?”
“He forgot your last birthday. Your sweet sixteenth! Remember that? He forgot it! I had to remind him a week later!”
Mom reached a hand and cupped her cheek. “I know he’s your father. I got it. But honestly, sweetie ...” She shook her head, then gave a half-shrug. “I can’t stop you from calling him. That would be wrong. Just ... well, don’t go in with any illusions, all right?”
“I won’t,” murmured Kincaid. She glanced down at the floor between them.
Mom kissed her again. “I’ll be home six-ish. All right? I’ll see you then.”
“Love you, Mom.”
“Love you too, baby girl. Try to have a good day off. And—good luck at the pawn shop.”
Merle Stefansen was forty-eight years old (Mom was forty-four). He had married Mom on a yacht owned by his best friend and business associate when he was twenty-seven, she twenty-three. Five years later, Kincaid was born.
The marriage lasted until Kincaid was ten, but “it was over probably when you were three,” Mom had confessed once. “Honestly, it was probably over when we came home from the honeymoon,” which was on a private island off the coast of
Merle Stefansen left Mom and Kincaid with a paltry settlement, one, Mom reported bitterly, “the bloodthirsty sharks posing as his accountants wouldn’t even have to ledger.” When Kincaid turned fourteen, Mom told her why he had left her and his only child (to that point; he had since remarried and had two) destitute.
“When you were five, I ...” she had shrugged. “I had an affair with another man. I was tired of how your father was treating me and you. It’s no excuse, I know. But there it is.”
Kincaid always got a card from him on her birthday, with cash inside; and on Christmas she got the same thing, usually with more cash. Added together, they had summed the same every time—three hundred dollars. Kincaid had never told Mom, but she had always spent that money on her, spreading it throughout the year so as not to arouse suspicion.
Here she was, wishing that she’d saved last year’s haul.
She angrily shook her head and bit her lip. “I’m not like that; and I’m not like him!”
She glanced at the clock on her nightstand. It was just after one. She had spent the day napping, eating breakfast cereal, watching Star Trek: Next Generation re-runs, and thinking of Mrs. Vaughn’s English class and what the lesson was today.
Her nerdy behavior and unwillingness to treat school as torture had left her with only acquaintances, not any real friends. Her high grades didn’t help. She was interested in boys, but painfully shy around them, and so she had yet to go on a date of any kind, even though doing so was perfectly fine with Mom. “I’m biased, but I think you’re a very pretty young woman, and I think we need to do something about your shyness,” was a common refrain, occasionally followed by a trip to the mall to buy clothes that were “a little less on the bookish side, a little more on the flirty side.”
Instead, Kincaid withdrew into writing, even if all she could write in a given day was thirty-three paltry words. When such was the case, she’d memorize them and repeat them over and over again, looking for ways to expand on them, meditating on a phrase or a comma, adding new lines or subtracting them and starting over. It had become such an ingrained habit that she had become unaware that she was muttering during such introspective moments, causing her fellow students to label her “the mutterer.” The nickname, unfortunately, stuck.
She had been doing it all morning, and now the balance of the afternoon.
Nothing at all.
Damn hour is closing on two.
Homework at least done.
Someone pounding on the wall in the next apartment.
Mom’s still not home from work.
Maybe pizza tonight?
She caught herself doing it again, muttered a curse, and went to the bathroom to brush her hair. She finished, put on socks and sneakers, and stood with a sigh.
“Pawn shop. Yay,” she sang flatly.
The pawn shop wasn’t “a few blocks up the street,” as Mom had claimed, more like eleven blocks. It just seemed like a few blocks in the car at thirty-five miles per hour. Kincaid briefly considered turning around and fetching her bike, but decided to keep walking. She had already gone two blocks.
She caught herself grumbling again and cut herself off. This was a worthless excursion, she knew, but the day was lovely—mostly cloudy but warm, a slight breeze promising cooler weather tonight, maybe some rain. It was still the middle of the workday, for all intents and purposes, so
Street, where she lived, wasn’t busy.
The street was lined with apartments and smaller houses sandwiched in-between. It was considered the poor part of town, but it didn’t feel poor, or like a slum. The apartments were kept up, the houses too.
The street began a gradual climb. At the summit, on the left, was a small strip mall, just coming visible. The pawn shop was in it. On the right, across the street, was a gas station, a 7-11, and a used computer game store. Kincaid knew from long experience that what followed, and what wasn’t visible from here, was an elementary school (left), a day-care center (right), and then, on both sides, modest older homes until you got to Palm Avenue, where fast food restaurants crowded the corners.
After the upcoming pawn shop failure, she decided, she’d walk on and grab herself a large order of French fries.
She got to
and waited for the light to turn. Across the street was the strip mall. There
was the pawn shop, in the approximate middle, looking dodgy, gloomy, and
The light turned and she crossed.
She’d forgotten about the Giant Pizza King restaurant two doors down from it. Owned by a Greek family who could barely speak English, they served much tastier fries than any corporate food outlet. Plus, it was just next door!
She glanced in. The owner waved from behind the cash register in the back. This was where Mom got pizza last night. She and Kincaid had gotten to know the family over the years. They were very friendly.
She waved back and continued towards the pawn shop, which, after a payday loans outfit, was the next store.
When she got there, she glanced inside the big picture window, which was protected by ominous black metal bars. Various items were on display: an old coffee maker, a toaster, a large knife, and a double row of cell phones. A couple of decorative lamps hung unlighted just higher than her head. Nothing had a price tag on it. She tried looking harder for computers, but didn’t see anything save a couple of clunky, ancient desktop models with enormous, bulky towers. Each was displayed on separate but identical desks.
“What a huge waste of time,” she grumbled, reaching for the door handle.
The place smelled like must and dust and age, and was dimly lighted. She looked around for a counter and someone dodgy standing behind it—tattooed up to the ears, gruff, with a three-day-old beard and a prison crewcut and a beer-stained T-shirt straining against a barely concealed pot belly over torn denims. But from where she was standing, a counter wasn’t visible, and neither was the requisite meanie. The store went on into dim depths she was hesitant to explore.
A security camera watched her from the front corner. She couldn’t tell if it was on or not, but it too looked ancient. She went to the clunky old desktops and inspected them.
They were ancient too. Next to one of the monitors was a CD case—Word 2003.
“Two thousand three?” she muttered, shaking her head. “Seriously? I was born in 2003!”
“It’s Word’s best version,” came a sultry female voice from directly behind her.
She wheeled about, startled. She hadn’t heard anyone approach.
The woman standing three feet away seemed completely out of place with the surroundings. She was radiantly beautiful, with medium-length jet-black hair in a simple pulled-back style; she had high cheekbones and sharp, appraising brown eyes, and was, Kincaid guessed, maybe Mom’s age or a little younger, and Mom’s and her height—five feet five. Her clothing was casual; she wore a plain white cotton button-down V-neck top and black denims and canvas hi-top tennis shoes. Her beauty instantly enhanced their quirky ordinariness.
“No other version of Word really compares,” the woman went on. “Especially compared to the latest version, which is subscription-based. If you can’t afford the subscription anymore, Microsoft gets to keep your hard work all to themselves!”
“I ... I didn’t know that,” sputtered Kincaid.
“Hi,” said the woman with a quick smile, holding out her hand. “I’m Lana.”
Kincaid, flustered, took it. “Hi. I’m ... Kincaid.”
“Pretty name,” offered Lana.
“Yours too,” replied Kincaid with a quick blush and smile.
“Thank you, Kincaid. Are you in the market for a new computer?”
Kincaid sighed. “Yeah. Mine ...” she shook her head disbelievingly “... caught fire last night.”
Lana blinked. “Fire?”
“Yeah! It nearly burned down our apartment!”
“Wow,” said Lana with a disbelieving shake of her head of her own, followed by a sympathetic chuckle. She gazed at the desktop models, which made Kincaid do the same. “I can tell you these are in great working condition, ready to go. I’ll even give you a no-fire guarantee: if one catches fire, bring its smoking husk back here and I’ll give you a full refund. How does that sound?”
Kincaid smiled. “Thank you. I ... I mean, the school has laptops for students, so I don’t really need one there ... but these seem a little too large for my bedroom. I don’t know. Do you have any laptops for sale?”
Lana shook her head. “Just these. They were top-of-the-line for their time.”
Kincaid glanced at the logo on the tower of the left one.
Lana noticed immediately. “It wasn’t the same company back then,” she explained. “The original owner ran a tight ship and produced great tech way ahead of its time, right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Then he died, and his family decided to take the company public and global, and it was all downhill from there. These days the damn things won’t last even a year.”
That made Kincaid chuckle. “I was just telling my mom that this morning!”
Lana looked wistful. “It’s true. But these ...” she glanced at the machines “... these truly were top o’ the line. Better than. Back then you couldn’t buy one for less than ten grand.”
Kincaid blinked. “Ten thousand dollars?”
“Ten thousand dollars,” said Lana. “They were so good that I understand the
still uses them in many high-level capacities. The operating system is unique:
it doesn’t become obsolete. It’s self-upgrading. They were outfitted with more
memory than you can buy even today with current top-line models, regardless of
“Wow,” said Kincaid, staring at the closest one. “Can it handle the Internet, or does it have a modem?”
Lana smiled wryly. “Modems. How funny. I’ll be right back.”
She disappeared into the gloom for a moment, returning with two folding chairs, which she opened at the left computer. “Sit. Let’s take her out for a spin.”
“Okay. Sure,” said Kincaid, a little overwhelmed by this woman’s confidence and good graces. She sat while Lana powered up the machine by pushing a green button on the tower on the floor.
The computer booted up unnaturally quickly—just a few seconds.
“It was built for wireless before wireless was even a thing,” stated Lana. “Go ahead. Go to your favorite site.”
Kincaid, a bit flustered, suddenly couldn’t think of what her favorite site was. Almost instinctively, she typed in Dictionary.com.
The familiar blue header and search bar came up instantly.
“Wow!” exclaimed Kincaid. “My laptop wasn’t that fast, and it was just three years old!”
“These babies require almost no maintenance, and were built to last. Marillon used to fight against planned obsolescence. Do you know what that is?”
Kincaid had an idea. Still, she shook her head.
“Corporations build products with planned obsolescence designed into them. Basically, it means they make stuff that is purposely designed to break after so many uses or so much time has passed. That’s probably what happened to your laptop.”
Kincaid laughed without mirth. “That’s ... just ... evil.”
“Tell me about it,” grumbled Lana. “The world is spilling over with junk. We’re burning up because of our consumption. American know-how and ingenuity used to be all about making great things that lasted. I’m sorry that you’re growing up in the same country with the exact opposite mindset. It’s all about profit these days, not doing what’s right.”
It was then that Kincaid decided that she liked Lana. She thought that Lana and Mom would make great friends, and even for a moment considered suggesting that she meet her. But no. Not yet.
This computer—this clunky old Marillon—suddenly looked perfect. Still ... there was the problem of how much.
“Um ... I guess I should ask ...”
Lana was way ahead of her. “For you, Kincaid, I’ll let go of this old beauty for three hundred. Sound good?”
The exact amount, Kincaid thought, that her dad sent her every year. The exact amount, of course, that she didn’t have.
Three hundred was probably too much for Mom. Still, this seemed worth pressing her. For a moment she considered calling Dad again, but no ... she just couldn’t. Not that she feared him telling her no, which he almost certainly would, but that it would hurt Mom, who took fierce pride in providing for her, no matter how modestly, and who really had a beef—quite justified—with him.
Lana understood the hesitant silence perfectly. “Need to talk to your parents about it?”
Kincaid nodded and sighed. “My mom. Yeah.”
“I’ll throw in the Word 2003 disc as well—for free. You’ll really like it. Let her know.”
Kincaid stood, as did Lana. “I ... I don’t have any money ... but would you put it on hold for me? Are you open Saturday? Can we come in then?”
“I’m open till 4 on Saturday,” said Lana with a smile. “And I’d be happy to hold it for you. But if I don’t see you Saturday, I’ll have to take it off hold. Okay?”
Today was Thursday—which gave Kincaid a day to convince Mom to cough up the three hundred dollars. She glanced at the machine one more time, then at Lana. “That would be great. Yeah.”
Lana held out her hand, and Kincaid took it.
“It was nice meeting you, Kincaid. I’ll see you and your mom Saturday!”
“It was nice meeting you, Kincaid. I’ll see you and your mom Saturday!”