What Are You Looking For?


Mile Markers

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Enjoy Chapter Four of Hidden Bookmarks! (Unfinished Novel-In-Progress)



Chapter Four
Message Received

It was a handful carrying the monitor through the lobby, past the pool, and up the stairs. Then, a good fifty- or sixty-foot walk down the hall to their door, which Mom hurriedly unlocked and opened. The monitor was lighter than Kincaid expected, but it was still pretty heavy, especially when compared to a laptop.

   For a moment, she regretted not shopping for one. She’d have to start waking up a good half-hour earlier and rushing to the library every morning. There would be no guarantee that she’d get one; but she didn’t worry too much. Students were, by and large, entirely indifferent to their educations. Some even relished not having the supplies needed for class. Anything to piss off the teachers.

   Others vandalized them and still others sold them for drugs. The school district had received them as a gift from a wealthy retiree during Kincaid’s freshman year. He was a famous alum of some note, and the school had readily agreed. He had died soon after.

   Mom pushed the door open. “Get that into your room; I’ll get the tower. Hopefully no one has thrown out the doorstop out front. It was hard to find one heavy enough to keep the door open!”

   She threw her purse on the floor just inside and jogged back down the hall. Kincaid, grunting against the weight of the monitor, which was now getting quite unwieldy, hurried into her bedroom. She had cleared her desk in anticipation of this moment; smiling determinedly, she set the big monitor down on it as carefully as she could, then took a few minutes to get it properly positioned.

   It was big—it took up probably half the area of the desk. That wasn’t a problem, however: when she did paperwork, she liked doing it on the couch in the living room. The television or stereo never bothered her. She was one of the lucky ones: she could easily block everything out in order to concentrate. She heard Mom rush through the front door and into her room, tower in a tight hug. Kincaid helped her lower it to the carpeted floor near the desk.

   “Whew! That was an armload! I didn’t have room to get the instructions and cables. They’re still in the car. Go grab ‘em and I’ll get this set up, okay?”

   Jogging past the pool, which had been empty for years but was just days from being turned into a large organic garden, she entered the lobby, which Mrs. Caro, the landlady, was just coming into. She was very nice, a Filipino who had emigrated to the United States ten years ago.

   “Kincaid!” she said, smiling. “Was it you who propped open the door?”

   “Yeah. Sorry,” offered Kincaid, who knew doing so was against the apartment house’s rules. “I just got a big desktop computer. I’ll close it right away.”

   “I trust you,” said Mrs. Caro. “There are some residents here who value their privacy—I’m glad you didn’t run into one of those!”

   “No kidding!” replied Kincaid, who knew of at least two living here who would throw a hissy fit if they were to find the front door open.

   “Are you and your mom coming to the garden ceremony next Thursday?”

   “I think we were planning to,” said Kincaid. The garden ceremony was when the pool was going to be filled with dirt and the garden started—that is, after this coming Monday, when most of the volume was going to be filled in with cement.

   “Tell your mother hello for me,” said Mrs. Caro, who continued on towards her apartment, which was on the ground floor next to the laundry room.

   “I will!” said Kincaid, hurrying out the door to the parking lot.

   The car door was still slightly ajar. She got to it, opened it, and reached behind the passenger seat, where the instructions and the Word 2003 CD was waiting. With them in hand, she closed and locked the door, hurrying back to the front door and pushing the big cement block out of the way. The door creaked loudly and closed with a louder thump.

“I’d forgotten about the whole garden thing,” admitted Mom a few minutes later. She had hooked up the monitor to the tower, and had plugged the computer into the outlet just behind the desk. She stood and wiped her hands together. “Shall we see if you’re up and running? You do the honors.”

   The power button was on the tower, just below where CDs (and DVDs too?) went. Kincaid, smiling, bent and pushed it. The machine hummed quietly to life, the monitor brightening quickly. Six musical notes sounded out.

   “Hey, I remember that little ditty!” said Mom. “I’d forgotten that Marillon used to play that in all their commercials! Do you remember that?”

   Kincaid did, but only very vaguely. “Kind of ...”

   “Sit! I want to see what we need to do next. Lana said this connects wirelessly, right?”

   Kincaid, smiling expectantly while sitting, nodded.

   “These instructions ...” said Mom as she opened the manual “... they look handwritten!”

   She handed Kincaid the manual, who said, “That’s a nice font. Says here I need to set a log-in.”

   With that, she got to work. Over the next half hour, she set up her new-old Marillon, Mom helping. She synced to their router and modem (which were in Mom’s room), then tried connecting to the Internet. It happened almost instantly, the computer announcing it with a small window that popped up and disappeared a couple seconds later.

   “Whoa, that was fast!” exclaimed Mom. “Holy cow!”

   “I know!” said Kincaid excitedly. She half-turned in her seat and pulled Mom into a hug. “Thank you for this!”

   “Don’t thank me yet. You’re going to have to start getting up early so you can check out a laptop every day. You who loves sleeping till noon on weekends!”

   “Yeah ... that’ll kinda suck. But it’ll be worth it.”

   “Well,” said Mom, patting her knee, “I’ll leave you to it. I’m going to get some work done on my bookmarks.”

   She stood and left the room. Kincaid, smiling joyously at her new toy, turned and logged in to her Dropbox account, then started setting up her desktop, quickly losing herself in the tasks.

“You still breathing in there, or did the computer eat you Tron-style?” came Mom’s voice two hours later.

   Kincaid, blinking, glanced at the time in the bottom corner of the screen.



   She glanced at her clock on the bedstand to confirm it. “Holy cow!”

   She had just finished her homework, and had just sent her English assignments to Mrs. Vaughn. But seriously, it felt like maybe twenty minutes had passed!


   “Yeah! Yeah—I’m okay!” she called back, chuckling silently.

   “Come on up for some air and I’ll make some lunch.”

   “Yeah ... I’ll help. Hold on ...”

   The amazing thing about this old Marillon was that it ran so fluidly and silently and quickly. She had downloaded Spotify to the desktop and ran the executable file to install it, and then had double-clicked on it to start it. That last part was almost always a problem for her other computers, laptops all, which would load the program, but not completely, which inevitably forced her to start the task manager, close Spotify, then reload it, which then loaded completely. It had become such a routine that she didn’t even think about it.

   Until she started it on this machine.

   It loaded almost instantly, ready to go. A few seconds later, a small window popped up. It said:

This application is a friggin’ battleship!
I’ve done some techno whiz-bang stuff
to make it run faster,
and to keep tracking cookies and the like
from clogging up the works.
Click here for more details.

   The ‘here’ in the bottom sentence was linked. She clicked on it.

   The log was very detailed, but offered easy ways to change what the machine had done in order to load the program. She didn’t bother. She clicked out, put on her headphones, and started “That’s My Girl” by Fifth Harmony. That was when another surprise confronted her.

   The sound was amazing, like she had paid for the super-premium version or something! She went to the sound icon in the tray and clicked on it, then blinked at how many things she had to play with—a broad Dolby equalizer, several other sound enhancers, means to plug into speakers, and so on.

   “Wow ...” she had whispered.

   It was so impressive that she had a hard time listening to music and concentrating, so she took the headphones off and worked in silence.

   Two hours?

   She got up, gave the monitor a couple of loving pats, and went into the kitchen, where, as Mom watched, she stretched, reaching high to the ceiling.

   “I take it you like your new toy?” Mom asked with a grin.

   “I can’t believe it’s even real! I mean—you’d think that other people would know just how good those old Marillons are, and snap them up. If they ever showed up for sale at a pawn shop, you’d think they’d go for a lot more than $300!”

   “Yeah ...” said Mom circumspectly, reaching into the fridge to pull out some deli meat and mayo. “I didn’t think about that. Who knows—? Maybe they’re lemons, and we’re just two dumb but very cute girls who got robbed—?”

   Kincaid had already begun shaking her head before she had finished talking. “It’s ... Lana!

   “We don’t know her,” returned Mom. “Here—get some bread. The mustard is there—” she pointed next to the sink.

   Kincaid retrieved it, still shaking her head. “She ... I don’t know. Something about her ... I just ... trust her.”

   They made their sandwiches, got some iced tea, and sat. Kincaid noticed that Mom’s fingertips were splotched with paint—blue, mostly; a little white; and some gold. And a little glitter. She could smell the paint too, but it wasn’t too strong, probably because Mom had opened the big living room windows to keep the place aired out.

   “There are more mysteries around her,” Mom continued after swallowing a sandwich corner. “She’s a successful woman who opens a dusty, gloomy pawn shop clear down here in a backwater corner of America. Why here? Why not in the Gaslamp, or in some thriving bit of suburbia—Poway up north, for example, or east Chula Vista? Open a storefront in a big indoor mall. Surely she has the means! Or skip the mall and just open a digital storefront and sell there!”

   They finished eating in silence. Kincaid helped clean up, then went back to her Marillon. “I’m all done with homework,” she said before disappearing inside. “I want to load the Word 2003 and mess around with it a little.”

   “I didn’t expect anything else today,” replied Mom with a grin. “Just come up for air before dinner, what do you say?”

   “I will.”

   Sitting at the monitor, she glanced at the case containing the Word 2003 CD. Aside from a layer of dust covering it, it appeared fairly new, as though it hadn’t been handled too much. She opened the tray, placed the disc on it, and closed it. The machine whirred, the disc spun up, and the screen changed to the introduction screen of the old program. Kincaid smiled and clicked NEXT, and then followed the instructions as the program downloaded. When it finished, she opened the tray and put the disc back into its case, which she put in the top drawer of her desk. The icon had since appeared on the screen; she double-clicked it.

   A new, blank document was what she expected. She wanted to write some poetry, maybe begin a short essay or a short story. Since meeting Lana, all sorts of new verse and new plots and deep thoughts had begun crowding out her consciousness.

   She considered how she was going to have to start getting up half an hour earlier starting Monday. Sighing, she wrote:

Check out the laptop ....
no later than 7:30—full stop!
Wish the school had a thousand more
so that I can keep that half-hour snore!

   She read it over, had a quick, quiet chuckle, and went to delete it. Just before highlighting it, however, she stopped. “I like it,” she murmured, and so opened her poetry manuscript and cut and pasted it. She closed that document and went back to the new one. She went to start on an essay about her adventures getting this new-old Marillon when she noticed a new icon in the upper-left tool tray. It was in gold, outlined in black, and read:


   Grimacing, she murmured, “M-R? ‘Mister’? What’s M-R?”

   Without clicking on it, she directed the mouse’s arrow over it and waited. A small message appeared:

Message Received

   She scowled. “What—?”

   She clicked on it.

   The poetry manuscript reopened, her new poem highlighted in weird, swirly rainbow colors, as though they weren’t supposed to be there, or as though the machine might be malfunctioning. Disturbed, she hurriedly closed the document.

   The new one was still open. The weird MR icon was still there.

   She closed that document, waited for a moment, then reopened it. She didn’t expect it to remove the icon, but perhaps if she clicked on it, it wouldn’t remember to go to the old document, or, if it did, highlight it in such weird, otherworldly colors.

   She clicked on it.

   Her new poem waited, highlighted strangely again. She went to delete it outright, but as she did her cursor went over the poem, which brought up text that read:

One hidden bookmark.
Click to resolve.

   She stared, then clicked. The weird colors disappeared, replaced by the normal black highlight, which then brought up a small window with a single, normally highlighted bit of text:


   She put her mouse over it. New text beneath read:

Please double-click.

   “What the—?”

   She double-clicked. The text disappeared. The small window closed. As she watched, blinking, her poem swirled away in a little whirlpool for a moment, before coming back un-highlighted and none the worse for wear. A new icon appeared where the MR icon used to be. This was a red star—a nine-pointed one, if that meant anything—that blinked for her attention. She put her cursor over it, but it gave no message. Not until she clicked it. It disappeared, but a new message in a small window replaced it. This one read:

Your request has been received
and is being processed.
Thank you!

   She gaped. “What...? What ‘request’? What message? What ... just happened?

   “Honey? Are you okay in there? Honey?”

   “Y-Yeah ...” she called, still staring. “That was ... really weird.”

   “What’s going on?”

   She stood after a time and went out to the living room, where Mom waited at her desk. She glanced up. “Trouble with the computer?”

   “No ...” she began. “I ... Something weird just happened with my Word 2003 program.”

   “Think it’s a virus?”

   “No. Not a virus. Something about the program thought that I made some sort of ... request. Then it told me ‘Message received,’ like I had sent it some sort of message!”

   “What did you write?”

   “Nothing! Just a quick poem, one I made up on the fly!”

   “What was it? Recite it!”

   “Uh ... let me think.

‘Check out the laptop ....
no later than 7:30—full stop!
Wish the school had a thousand more
so that I can keep that half-hour snore!’

   Mom laughed. “That’s really cute. Well ... from what I just heard, you made a wish, right?”

   It was Kincaid’s turn to laugh. “You think that old word-processing program somehow comprehended a silly wish I made?”

   “Do you have a better idea?”

   When she didn’t answer, Mom speculated, “Maybe there is some sort of game or other application that comes with Word 2003, and it’s programmed to look for certain words like ‘wish’ and the like. You think?”

   “I ... guess ...” she mused. “That seems barely plausible to me.”

   “Who knows?” said Mom with a bright smile, reaching to grab her hand. “Maybe your wish’ll come true! Won’t that be a mind-blower!”

   “Weren’t you the one who told me that fairy tales are nice, but not to believe in them too much?”

   Mom nodded considerately. “I did ... But sometimes you need to just let go and go whole hog with them. At least for a little while. Helps to get through life sometimes.”

She wasn’t a big social media fan, though she had an account on Instagram. The truth was, she really didn’t have any close friends, none at least that she’d call such.

   “I think maybe your selection criteria is a little high,” Mom told her during a time when it got to her, which it did on occasion.

   Kincaid had sighed. “I’m not interested in parties where everyone gets high and-or drunk and then hooks up with someone else high and-or drunk. That eliminates ninety percent of the school!”

   “I’m sure it’s not ninety!” Mom had replied, glancing up at her with concern. “Ninety? Really?

   “That’s just the start,” Kincaid went on. “I’m not an A-lister—tons of cash and connections and popularity. I’m not even a B- or C- or D-lister! I ...” She sighed again. “I ... just don’t like small talk. And big crowds ... they make me want to crawl into a corner! Is that so horrible? Why can’t I find a friend like that, who’s as much a wallflower as I am? I’m proud to be one! I like ... ideas. Not stupid gossip!”

   “You are, I’m afraid, my dear, sweet daughter, what is known as an introvert,” answered Mom with a sympathetic squeeze of her hand. “People take away your energy. Am I right?”

   Kincaid nodded angrily.

   “You search for substance and inspiration and serenity. I see it in your writing all the time. Mrs. Vaughn told me once how your essays are always so introspective and reflective.”

   “She did? You never told me that!”

   “I didn’t tell you because you were going through ... well, let’s call it a phase. You were trying to fit in with all those A-listers, remember? I didn’t think you’d appreciate a teacher’s praise. You told me such thing were for nerds. Remember?”

   Kincaid sighed. She remembered. It wasn’t a time she was proud of.

   “Thankfully it didn’t last long. You went to one of their parties and came home crying.”

   “That’s because Josh McAwley kissed me and I pushed him away! And they all started making fun of me, calling me a prude and lesbo and telling me I was stupid. He was, after all, the big, bad quarterback! I had to let him kiss me!” She shuddered. “He was all tongue ... yecch!

   Mom laughed. “You should’ve bitten it—hard. That’s what I would’ve done. In fact, I did that to a date when I was your age. He was spitting blood the rest of the night.”

   Kincaid chuckled. “Cool.”

On Sunday they took a long walk to the beach and Pier, and ate at a diner on Seacoast Drive, and talked more about the new computer, Lana, and her poetry.

   “No more weirdness, then?” Mom asked after swallowing a forkful of lasagna.

   “I even tried writing a few new ones with wishes in them,” said Kincaid, shaking her head. “But that weird message—‘M.R.’—never came back. Nothing happened to them.”

   She didn’t want to talk about it anymore, so said, “I really like that last bookmark you made—the one with turquoise accents. It’s really pretty.”

   “I was actually thinking of giving it to you. Kind of a ‘glad your new lunky desktop Marillon doesn’t suck.’ ”

   Kincaid laughed. “Really? Thank you!”

   They finished their meals, paid, and began the walk home.

   “Can I ask you something?” said Kincaid, watching Mom as she gazed out over the Estuary, which glowed a hazy orange as the sun set.

   “Sure, honey. Anything.”

   “Don’t you ever get lonely ... I mean ... for a boyfriend?”

   Mom gazed at her from the corner of her eye. “Are you asking because you are?”

   Kincaid shrugged. “Sometimes it gets to me. Not often, though. I just ... I can’t seem to find anyone all that attractive. I mean ... there’s one boy, but that’s it.”

   “Oh?” said Mom, surprised. “You haven’t told me. What’s his name?”

   “Bryan. He’s in my English class.”


   Kincaid sighed heavily. “Very.”

   “You’re upset that he’s cute?”

   “I’m upset because he’s cute, yeah. He’s cute—really cute—and so all the Barbies are after him.”

   “Just because the ‘Barbies’ are after him doesn’t mean one of them’ll snag him.”

   Kincaid snorted.

   “Yeah, okay,” said Mom. “The odds are good he’ll prove himself just as brainless as pretty much every other guy out there and he’ll hook up with one of them. Sure. But we both have to admit that good guys do exist—right?”

   “Like winning lottery tickets, sure.”

   Mom laughed. “Listen to us—all cynical and judgy-judge!”

   “Are we?” countered Kincaid. “I’m not so sure.” She went silent for a time. “Do you think Lana has a boyfriend?”

   “Don’t know. Maybe she’s an individual who prefers someone of the same sex.”

   “You think she’s a lesbian?”

   Mom shrugged. “Don’t know. It isn’t important. She’s a strong, beautiful woman. Beautiful doesn’t trouble men nearly as much as strong does. Do you think this Bryan in your English class likes strong women?”

   Kincaid blinked. “You think I’m strong?”

   Mom put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her in. “Of course I do.”

It was pure torture waking up half an hour early. But it wasn’t really half an hour; it was actually forty-five minutes, because she didn’t trust herself to get out of bed quickly enough to truly make it half an hour. She lumbered sightlessly into the shower, ate a bowl of cut cantaloupe Mom prepared last night, downed a glass of milk, and grabbed her backpack. Mom had joined her for breakfast, and watched her carefully.

   “Oh, my sweet child, this is going to be real torture for you,” she said as Kincaid yawned—again.

   They piled into the car and got to the school four minutes ahead of schedule.

   “I’ll be okay,” Kincaid muttered, noting her look of concerned skepticism. “New habits and all that.”

   She opened the door. “Love you. Have a good day.”

   “You too, honey. Catch the bus coming home?”


   “See you tonight.”

   Kincaid closed the door and hurried to the library. Mrs. Kunze was behind the counter signing out computers. The line was eight deep.

   There were large boxes stacked floor to ceiling all along the far wall, all with large print cautioning anyone handling them. When Kincaid got to the front and checked out a laptop, which Mrs. Kunze handed to her, she pointed and asked.

   Mrs. Kunze smiled like she’d won the lottery. “You won’t believe it, but the school got an anonymous donation this weekend of a thousand brand new laptops. Can you believe it?”