by Howard Smead

"Some are tempted to think of life in cyberspace as insignificant, 
as escape or meaningless diversion." 
— Sherry Turkle

Everything that happens in society happens on the 
      Internet too.” 
— Phil Agre


Late one afternoon in early spring two visitors stood atop a gray limestone tower gazing across the sloped shoulders of South Mountain in Western Maryland. "This is the original Washington's Monument," the man was telling the young boy at his side. "It was built in a single day right here on the crest of the mountain way back in 1827." 
     “One day,” the boy said, trying out the bold idea. 
     Tousling the boy's hair, the man checked the stretch of Appalachian Trail running through the trees below to make sure they were still alone. Satisfied the unstaffed park was indeed empty, he grabbed the boy under the arms and hoisted him onto the ledge of the 100-foot monument. "Don't worry, I have your belt." 
     The boy was wary at first. Once on the ledge, he steadied himself and marveled at the broad valley before him. 
     "It fell apart over the years but some boys not so much older than yourself who worked for an organization called the CCC re-built it during the Great Depression. They submitted to proper adult counseling." 
     The boy looked down at the rockslide scattered like marbles at the base of the monument. He thought: I wouldn't mind building things like this. No adults, just a bunch of us guys. 
     "Call me Daddy-Whit now, like I said." 
     "Can we go exploring down there?” 
     “Say it.” 
     “There's lots of neat places to check out. Maybe there's even a cave under the rocks?" 
     The man didn’t acknowledge the question. 
     “Let me give you a lesson from life. During the French and Indian War, a British general named Edward Braddock passed this way with an army of British regulars and colonials, and eight Indian guides to fight the French and Iroquois. He ended up getting himself and hundreds of his men killed. You know why?” 
     The boy leaned forward and dropped a dab of spit down toward the rocks. He was sick of Daddy-Whit’s lessons. 
     “Because he refused to heed the advice of his aide-de-camp George Washington. That’s what happens when you don’t listen to those who know more than you.” 
     The boy spotted some Canadian Geese winging by overhead. They were so close he could practically reach out and grab them. Their shadows cast hexes on the hillside. 
     Flapping his arms, he imagined soaring away with them. He closed his eyes and flew out over the valley. “I’m flying,” he cried. 
     “Why won’t you do me this one favor?” Daddy-Whit said. “What’s my name?” 
     Feeling weightless, the boy stretched his arms so wide his fingers tingled. “Fly away.” It echoed across the valley. 
     “I’ll teach you to fly away, you little shit.” 
     The boy looked back. The sunlight glinted off Daddy Whit’s bald head. His face was edgy with shadow. “Daddy-Whit,” the boy said to him. He tried to make it sound normal, like he called him that all the time. But it sounded more like a taunt. The boy broke into laughter. 
     So did Daddy-Whit. “Time to go exploring,” he said. “Come on down now before you fall.” 
     “Exploring! For real?” 
     “Of course, for real.” 
     Moments later, descending the dark stone steps through the monument’s dank interior, Daddy-Whit started whistling a sprightly version of Jimmy Crack Corn. The tune snaked between his teeth in a hiss, rising and falling with each breath. He was already thinking of Black City.


This is Black City 
a PKill Mud

You are standing on the corner of 9th and E streets. The buildings around you are of Indian red brick alternating with concrete and Florida glass. Dim yellow light glowers behind pulled shades. A few windows hold air conditioners. The ground floor architecture is art deco. The shops are small and varied. The hum of their neon signs is the only sound competing with the gritty tap of your shoes on the sidewalk as you enter the city alone and unprotected.

The streets are empty except for blowing newspaper. No people are in sight. Several blocks away a bottle smashes and someone shouts in fear ...

No guests. 
No help files. 
No safe rooms. 
6 ticks to logout. (You can run, you can hide, but you can't quit.) 
You are on your own. 
You have been warned.

Quixote enters Black City. 
Down 9th street the shadows move and someone appears. It is a man. He raises a hand in greeting, waves. He lowers his hand, freezes for a moment, arms suspended at his sides. Then he begins to walk toward Quixote. He draws near. 
The man says, "Hello, Quixote. My name is Sedar." 
Quixote says, “Don’t shoot, Sedar. Mr. Arbogast is expecting me.” 
Sedar bows. 
Quixote walks down 9th Street. 
Quixote enters !Finger.

Present are: 
Mr. Arbogast 

Quixote says,  “Hello, Nicki.” 
Nickcharles says, “Evening , sir. What can I get you?” 
Quixote says, “Where’s Mr. Arbogast?” 
Mr. Arbogast comes out of the back room. Mr. Arbogast smiles at Quixote. 
Quixote sits beside Mr. Arbogast at the bar. 
Quixote says, “I need a favor.” 
Mr. Arbogast, “And what would that be?” 
Quixote says, “My ward has met with an unfortunate accident.” 
Mr. Arbogast shakes his head in amazement. 
Quixote says, “Can you help me?” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “Of course I can help you. The question is will I help you?” 
Quixote says, “Will you help me?” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “Am I going to read about this in the newspaper?” 
Quixote says, “That’s my problem.” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “Ah, but I don’t intend to let your problems become mine.” 
Quixote says, “Will you do business with me?”

Cybercat enters Black City.

Nickcharles whispers to Mr. Arbogast, “Boss, Cybercat, just showed up. He’s on his way here.” 
Mr. Arbogast whispers, “Is he armed?” 
Nickcharles whispers, “To the teeth.” 
Mr. Arbogast whispers, “He would be.” 
Mr. Arbogast says to Quixote, “You’re in luck my hot-tempered friend, “Some one is on his way here right now. Go into the back room and watch through the curtain. If you like this kid’s spunk, I can probably have you a GIF in a few days.” 
Quixote says, “Why can’t I sit here?” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “That’s not how I do business. Go there or leave Black City forever.” 
Quixote goes into the back room.

Cybercat enters !Finger.

Present are: 
Mr. Arbogast

Cybercat pulls his Bullpup Combat Shotgun. 
Mr. Arbogast says, “Cybercat rules.” 
Cybercat says, “Except here.” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “You killed off everybody we put in your way.” 
Cybercat says, “gg.” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “I’m sure it was.” 
Cybercat says, “Maybe I should kill you, too.” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “Maybe you should.” 
Cybercat shoots Mr. Arbogast. 
Mr. Arbogast laughs. 
Cybercat shoots Mr. Arbogast in the head. 
Mr. Arbogast laughs again. 
Cybercat says, “How come you can’t die?” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “I own Black City.” 
Cybercat says, “You’re the man.” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “That I am.” 
Cybercat says, “Do you own Zed, too?” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “In a manner of speaking.” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “How’d you’d like to come work for me?” 
Cybercat says,  “Doin’ what?” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “I need a right hand man.” 
Cybercat says, “What about Sedar?” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “Sedar’s a bot. You interested?” 
Cybercat says, “I might be.” 
Mr. Arbogast says, “I’ll need to know how to get in touch with you in real life.”


They’d been having an okay time. Well, sorta okay. Hanging out with his sister wasn’t the coolest thing he could think of. Not as much fun as wasting people in Black City. “Look, there’s that funny-looking guy again,” Michael said as he handed Lindsay an ice cream cone. “That’s the third time I’ve seen him.” 
     “It doesn’t matter, Michael. It’s eight o’clock. We have to go home now.” 
     "You've got ice cream on your nose, sloppy." He wiped the ice cream away and handed her a fresh napkin. “Chrissie won’t care if we’re a few minutes late.” He sneaked a glance over his shoulder. The boy was still watching. Their eyes met. The boy veered off and headed outside. “She’s too strict anyhow.” 
     “She is not, Michael. She worries about us. Besides, we’re late.” 
     Once they were on the sidewalk outside the mall, he pointed to the display window three stores down. “At least let's check out the pet store. I bet they have Dalmatians. Come on, I’ll say it’s my fault. We’re not that late.” 
     “You can if you want to. I’m leaving.” 
     “Give you a dollar.” 
     “It’s Chrissie’s money.” 
     “Go ahead then. I’ll catch up … and watch out for cars.” 
     Michael headed down to the pet store. Sure enough, the window was full of helpless little spotted puppies, all fawn-eyed and squiggly. "Hey, Lindsay, lookie here." 
     She didn't answer, and when he turned to look he didn’t see her. He moved to the curb, straining for a glimpse of her crossing the parking lot. Arriving cars blocked his line of sight. Rising to his tiptoes, he scanned the lot, no Lindsay. All he'd wanted was a quick detour to look in one window. 
     He jumped onto a bench. "Lindsay, come look at the Dalmatians.” 
     Just then a mini van pulled out of a parking space halfway across the lot. There she was, her mouth still smeared with ice cream. She'd gotten far in those few moments and she was walking with that boy who’d followed them in the mall. Creepy looking, too. Blond hair straight up at his forehead, short and mashed down every place else. He was dressed in camou — a miniature soldier, sleeveless, with pouch pockets low on his thighs and ragged-out Nike high tops. The dark circles under his eyes reminded Michael of a raccoon. Except this raccoon had dead eyes. 
     Michael ran over to them. 
     “Hi,” the boy said. He came up to Michael's ear, had pale, dirty-looking skin. Probably came from further down University Boulevard towards the college, near where all the Hispanics and immigrants lived. 
     “Hi,” Michael said back. Stuffing her used napkins into his pocket, he took his sister's hand and began walking away. 
     "Excuse me," the boy said. "Could I talk to you for a second?" He moved in front of them. "My name is Ed." He held out his hand. It was small and the fingernails were bitten down. "What's your name?" 
     Michael didn’t say anything. 
     “He’s Michael. I’m Lindsay,” his sister piped up. 
     He nudged her to be quiet. Now he was the one who wanted to get going. There was something about this guy he didn’t like. 
     “You live around here, right?” 
     “So?” Michael put his hand on Lindsay’s shoulder and guided her away. 
     "Wait! We're lost. Can you help us?" 
     "Are you with your parents?" 
     As if on cue, a big blue Pontiac pulled up. Michael glanced inside at the floor shift and tach on the column. It reminded him of a picture he had of his mother sitting in a car back before he was born. 
     The driver smiled at him. He was heavyset, in khaki-colored work clothes and Orioles sunglasses. 
     "This is Michael," Ed said to the driver, adding with uncertainty, "His sister’s with him … I told him we were lost and asked for directions." 
     He looked at the man, who thought for a moment before motioning with his head. Ed opened the door and jumped in. "Come on." He slid over to make room for them. “Show us the way.” 
     Lindsay got in. 
     "Hey." Michael grabbed for her. As he reached out, the driver took off his sunglasses and said, "We're really lost, son. We need directions to get home." 
     He seemed genuine. 
     Lindsay was already in the car beside Ed. "Come on, Michael, get in," Ed said. Reluctantly, Michael sat in sidesaddle. "I think we'd better walk over to our house." Chrissie was going to kill him. She was always warning him about this sort of stuff. 
     The car started moving. Michael tried to jump out. The car stopped. "If you're worried, son, go ahead and walk and we'll follow you. We sure don't want to get you in dutch with your folks." 
     "It's not our folks, " Lindsay said. "It's Chrissie. She's our sister." 
     "We surely don't want to make your sister angry. Do we, Ed?" 
     "Nope." There was something grim about Ed’s voice. He crawled over the seat into the back, making room for Michael beside his sister. 
     “Will your sister give us directions?” the man asked. 
     "All right." Michael swung his legs around and closed the door. "Go up to the Midvale Road exit and turn left on University." 
     The car moved up to the intersection. 
     "When the light changes go left and then right on that street up there — Valley View Avenue. That's our street. We live three blocks down." 
     They followed the line of cars through the light and went left on University. The man peered over the steering wheel as though searching for the street through a dense fog. 
     "That's it right there," Michael cried. "Turn here." 
     The car crept past Valley View. 
     "Hey, you were supposed to turn there." 
     "I'm sorry, I didn't see it in time. Can we take the next one instead?" 
     "You can go right and come back up almost to our house. It's simple." 
     As he spoke, he felt Ed's hand reach past his shoulder and place something over his face. He couldn't tell — an old T-shirt, a dust rag maybe. It had something wet on it that smelled like the Varsol stuff Chrissie used to clean with. Its swirly fingers grasped his temples, pushed straight up his nose. He brought his hand up to knock it away. Lindsay was talking to him. Her voice was far away and sad. Another set of hands came up around him — dark unfriendly hands. The hands of night he always feared might snake out from beneath his bed. Now they had him in their clutches.


Not until the moment Gail slipped in the front door carrying a six-pack, did Christine realize how starved she was for a visit from anyone who didn't specialize in shouted commentary over the backs of cereal boxes. No one over thirteen had been in the house since Gail came to Lindsay’s birthday party. And here it was May already. 
     Gail gave her shy smile and pushed her granny glasses up. 
     They hugged. "I missed you," Christine said. "Feels like it's been forever.” 
     “Where are Michael and Lindsay?" 
     "I let them go to the mall." 
     "Alone? Oooh, lightening up in your old age." 
     "Well, Michael promised to stay with Lindsay. I couldn't really say no." 
      Christine put on a Midnight Oil CD for old time’s sake and they sat down at the kitchen table, where she’d put out tortilla chips and salsa in her mother’s serving bowls. “It's about time I lighten up on them little. Ever since Mom died, I’ve been scared to let them out of my sight.” She took a drink of beer, looked at the bottle. “God, I can’t remember the last time I had a beer. All I buy is milk, Pepsi and orange juice. I'll be feeling it after one.” Christine and Gail were born within a few days of each other. They’d been friends since elementary school. “So, how do you like your new job?” 
     “The hours are long, but retail isn’t so bad. You should come over now that I’m settled in.” 
     “I keep meaning to. But I’m so tired when I get home from work and feed these two, all I feel like doing is vegging out in front of the TV." 
     “All the more reason why we should do something special for our birthday. After all, we're going to be twenty-five.” 
      “I can't believe we're that old already.” 
     “My sister’s letting us use her condo in Ocean City as a birthday present,” Gail said slyly. “You, me, and Michael and Lindsay.” 
     “You’re kidding.” 
     “She said she'd even baby-sit Michael and Lindsay if we wanted to go alone. She'd probably even stay over here, too. I think she'd do anything to get away from her husband. You should let her. You need a break.” 
     It would be nice, Christine thought. The past four years haven't left much time for fun. But … “No, they’d love it. It wouldn't be fair not to take them." 
     “I told my sister you’d probably feel too guilty to leave them for a whole weekend.” 
     Christine hopped up merrily and pulled two more beers from the refrigerator. “They’ll be so excited they’ll be freaking out all over the place. Come on, let's drink too much." 
      And they did. The salsa disappeared. They ordered a  pizza and it was ten of eight before Christine realized that cloying sense of guilt she'd been pushing away had nothing to do with maybe going to the ocean without Michael and Lindsay. She checked her watch. It was past time for them to be home. Jumping to her feet, she called upstairs, hoping they'd somehow slipped in and gone upstairs for some strange reason. 
     When they didn't answer, she hurried up the steps. 
     She opened the window in Michael's bedroom and leaned out. Although the clear spring evening was showing hints of night, plenty of light remained for her to see that they weren't playing down at the end of the street. 
     Gail joined her in the bedroom and its disarray of clothes, school books, and things she always thought of as boy's stuff: filthy sneakers, sweat socks, comics, bubble gum, and balls of all varieties. Boys were always throwing things. At some point Michael had tossed his sweatshirt over his computer. He probably thought it looked cool and left it there on display. "I'll bet they're on their way home now," she offered. 
     "They were supposed to be back no later than quarter of eight." 
     "It's only a little before eight. Maybe they're still there?" 
     "They shouldn't be walking the streets at this hour. It's almost dark." 
     "They'll call. Come on, Chrissie, let's go finish our beer." 
     They returned to the kitchen. The pizza box lay open and empty. "I forgot to save them a slice.” Christine scolded herself. Sitting down at the table, she took an emphatic swig of beer. “No.” She put down the bottle and picked up her keys. “This is wrong. They shouldn't be out at this hour. I'm gonna go look for them.” 
     No use arguing with her. Christine could be hard-headed when it came to Michael and Lindsay. Gail stuffed the pizza box and the empties into the trash bag and put it on the back porch. 
     Christine wrote a note, just in case. "YOU'RE LATE." Softening the next line: "Went to look for you at the mall. It's eight. Be back soon. Door is open. STAY HERE. Luv u, Chrissie." 
     She taped the note to the front door low enough for Lindsay to see if she came home alone. The two women got into Christine's car and pulled out of the driveway. 
     The parking lot at Wheaton Plaza Mall was so packed she had difficulty finding a place to park. "Michael usually goes down to the food court to play the video games. You wait here. I'm sure they're down there, and I'm just being silly ..." She didn't finish. They'd probably lost track of the time. If they weren't eating, she'd find them wandering the stores. She hurried across the parking lot and into the mall. 
     A few boys about Michael's age and a couple of fat, pimply older guys were fondling the colorful game boxes at Software, Etc. Michael wasn't among them. 
     They weren't at the French Fry Palace or Pizza Hut in the food court either. She didn't recognize any of the kids. It was pushing eight thirty. All their friends would be home by now. 
     Feeling panic for the first time, she scrambled up the escalator and made for the exit. Outside she checked the pet shop, getting ready to close. She returned to her Sentra where Gail was waiting. "No luck, huh?” 
     "I'm going to try back home. Would you mind walking through the mall? I already checked the food court." 
     "Maybe they're at my store." 
     Christine took off for home, running the light at University and Midvale. It was definitely getting dark. 
     The note was still on the door and their little house looked bleak and empty. She'd forgotten to leave any lights on. She turned on every light on the first floor and ran down to the dead end through the patch of woods to the athletic field of Albert Einstein Senior High. "Michael," she called. "Lindsay!" 
     Her voice echoed across the playing field, across the red composite track and onto the football field and bleachers. She called again. Turning around she stumbled into a boy who had come up behind her.     "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't see you." Christine bent down to see who it was. "Have you seen Michael and Lindsay Bailey? You do live around here, don't you?” 
     "Yes, ma'am. Up on Hillside. I’ve seen you before. You’re their sister.” 
     "Have you seen them?" 
     "I saw Michael on the way home from school today. I didn't talk to him. He's older than me. We don't play together." 
     "You shouldn't be out this late," Christine said over her shoulder as she hurried away. She drove back to the mall and found Gail waiting on the sidewalk. Gail shrugged. Maybe Christine had been right to worry. 
     "Let's ride over to Circuit City. Maybe they're watching television and lost track of time.” Momentarily made hopeful by the thought of her siblings standing wide-eyed before a TV screen as big as they were, she drove to the annex buildings, one of which resembled a large red electric plug, Circuit City. Hollywooding the stop sign by Woodward & Lothrop, she pulled up at the entrance and ran inside, leaving her door hanging open. 
     They weren't there. Frightened now, Christine decided to drive once around the outside of mall. Maybe they'd gotten lost somehow. Cutting through the parking garage, she sped around the back past the dumpsters and loading docks and maintenance crew closing up for the night. The men looked mystified when she asked them about Michael and Lindsay. Why would two kids want to come back here? 
     Around past the department store anchoring the far end of the mall, up toward Giant Supermarket without sign of them. She left the parking lot, careering through the side streets until she'd completed the neighborhood loop. She turned back into the mall when flashing lights brought her to a squealing stop.     © Howard Smead 2020