Element

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TWENTY-ONE

The Delta Air Lines 737 touched down at eight pm local time, the best that could be done on such short notice. Similarly, the price for the one-way ticket was much higher than a person would normally expect to pay. All the more reason why she had the outward gaze of an angel of death as she stepped out of the gate and scanned for a sign that would say where the bags came out. At eight fifty-five, her taxi was pulling into her parents’ driveway, the sky still a little light. Paying the driver, she got out and after waiting for the trunk to release, pulled out her heavy duffel bag and carried it awkwardly across the lawn.

She rang the doorbell more out of formality than necessity. She still had a key. But they would have probably had heart attacks if the front door had randomly opened. The inner door opened cautiously and then she was looking at her father, her mother in the background, asking who it was. Her voice made her tense. But she had anticipated that, and as her father made room for her to enter, she stepped inside.

The house was as she remembered it. Tall ceilings, taller than those of her apartment. Less cluttered spaces. Similar lighting scheme. They were obviously surprised to see her. They had been eating a late dinner. Her mother was wearing a t-shirt, her father a polo. Her father told her to set her bag down and she dropped it on the side of the hall, by the bathroom. It was nice to be home. As her parents stood there regarding her, she realized they had probably already developed some idea why she had come. They were both very smart people. And they saw patterns rapidly, which made the situation all that much more sad. The audacity of reality would surely knock them for a loop for some time. Jonathan had executed an intellectual end run around them.

She told them what she knew. Their reaction was… not good. As they processed the new information, their voices raised until even she was scared. She, like her brother, was outwardly reasonably confident. But even so, she found herself staying silent now. Soon they went upstairs to Jonathan’s room. Went to his desk, his dresser, opened his closet, checked under his bed. Her parents directed her to look at his ThinkPad and she lifted its screen and pressed the power button. Nothing happened for a while. It was slow. Crammed with God knew what. Finally, she came to a login screen. She tried several passwords, all the while knowing none of them would work. Her parents, meanwhile, were doing a fantastic job of messing up his room. She looked over her shoulder and winced.

They found a bottle of wine in the closet and freaked out, even though they knew he socially drank. It was just one more thing. One more thing that could’ve meant anything. That made them angry. She closed her eyes. All of a sudden, they were directing their raised voices at each other, for whatever reason, and she remembered. Rubbing her forehead, too experienced to shout at them to be quiet, she started to think. There were ways to get into computers. Override codes. She just needed to get one. Leaving the room, she went downstairs to the cabinet beneath one of the counters in the kitchen and found a yellow pages.

She got the number of a bunch of computer places and dialed them as the raised voices trickled downstairs. She had no luck with the first few tries and by the time she had reached Best Buy, in Manchester, her parents were in the other room. It was so hard to hear, she finally just shouted for them to shut up. Oddly enough, it worked. It wouldn’t again. She didn’t waste the opportunity. She made herself smile as someone picked up the phone. As Elle spoke, her parents looked on. She asked the young-sounding person on the other end if they could get into locked computers. He said they could.

She asked when their computer help section closed down. They said the store closed in fifty minutes. She hung up the phone after thanking him and walked quickly up the stairs, to the second floor, going back into John’s room.

It wasn’t a bad room, really. Aesthetics were a little derivative. But she saw bits and pieces of him in there too. She got his laptop, lowered its lid and carried it downstairs, yelling to her parents who were suddenly eerily silent in the kitchen or family room. Her father came down the hall. He said her mother was very upset and she explained where she was taking the laptop. She said she’d borrow his car if it was okay and knew where the key rack was. He nodded.

Getting off I-84 at exit sixty-two, she drove past a clusterfuck of fast food joints before spotting Best Buy off to the side, at the bottom of a hill. Turning off the road, she went down a slight incline, into a large parking lot that was mostly full and looked at the dash mounted clock. She needed to hurry.

Even nearing its closing time, the store was well filled with customers. Noting this, she looked at a row of wide TVs on which a preview for a Will Smith film was playing. Following the line of screens with her eyes, she spotted the computer area. So far so good. She walked over. All around her, laptop screens were tilted towards her. She needed one. She let her mind wander for a second and then got herself back on track, closing in on the service desk where a young woman was looking at her expectantly. The girl was wearing a gray polo. Behind her was a tall, well-shaven young man. The young woman had on a belt while the young man’s shirt was untucked. Elle thought the latter was unattractive and suddenly found herself dwelling on it.

Perhaps it was the flourescent light, which made everything seem somehow stark. Or maybe it was the background chatter. But she suddenly became aware of an intensification of a pain in her forehead she had first experienced at her parents’ house. She rubbed her brow but it didn’t go away. Ugh. She squinted and set the computer on the counter.

The young woman looked up from a receipt and set her pen down. “Hey, just one second.” Elle nodded. “Hey, could you take care of this?”

“Yeah sure.” The young man came forward.

“Can I help you?” Elle gestured to the computer.

“Hi, I was wondering if you could help me with something. This is my brother’s computer, and he’s on vacation. But the thing is, we don’t know where he is. So now we’re trying to break into this to see if he left any clues on it.” The young man looked uncertain as he stood above her. She looked at his name tag. Vincent.

“I uh… need to get my manager.”

Fifteen minutes later, she was sitting in the McDonald’s up the street, chewing on a Big Mac, watching as the wireless icon on the bottom of the screen went through its motions. She looked at the desktop. It was a picture of a surfer in a black wet suit, riding an amber wave. Behind him, a curl of white water arced over him. She had forgotten he was into surfing. Okay, what else was on the desktop? Firefox, AIM, Recycle Bin. She clicked the AIM icon and she saw a message saying that AIM was logging on. A buddy list appeared. It had been such a long time since she’d used it. It looked completely different now.

She scrolled down and took a look at the number of buddies. Three hundred and six. Ridiculous. She realized she had forgotten what most of the program’s functions were. She minimized it and went back to the desktop. Shortcut to Command and Conquer 3, Quicktime Player, AQTESOLV, iTunes. There were also a lot of MS Word files. But none of the names seemed pertinent. Music Links. ERTH 4710 final. Advanced Ig crap. And a folder: 4540. She clicked on a file in it. The computer chattered. PowerPoint launched and then a moment later, a slide appeared. Organic Geochemistry Lecture 1. She exhaled loudly and closed the window. Anything else? No. They were all school files. She went under the start menu and opened his documents, scrolling down three quarters of the way to the bottom. The file names were so goddamn arbitrary. So like him. She tried to think. Firefox. She loaded it.

She checked the favorites. Nothing. Nothing. Was it really possible? Had he really cleaned out his favorites list just in case someone got his computer, took it to Best Buy, and got a store manager to hack into it? Was he really that thorough? She let the thought ferment. Maybe. She went to the history bar. Nothing. She closed the window again.

She took another bite of her hamburger, just a moment before an AIM window appeared. The speakers were on apparently and a deafening chime filled the room around her. At the bottom of the screen, a one way conversation had just commenced.

Nordictrax: You’re really starting to piss me off.

She put down her hamburger and stared at the screen. Son of a bitch. She wiped her fingers.

AngryLabMonkey: Why is that?

Nordictrax: Oh fucking hell. First you have me mail postcards to your family. Then, every time I try to talk to you, you blow me off and log off. That’s messed up and it pisses me off.

AngryLabMonkey: When was that?

Nordictrax: Germany, a week ago.

Elle leaned away from the keyboard and pushed back into her chair. At the bottom of the window, the cursor flashed. She wiped her fingers off on her pants, involuntarily. Jesus bloody Christ. She focused on the keyboard.

AngryLabMonkey: I’m sorry man. You’re right. I shouldn’t have done that.

She thought about what else to say. Anything to keep him talking…

A pause.

Nordictrax: Who is this?

She hadn’t expected that. She felt her pulse in her chest.

AngryLabMonkey: John

Pause.

Nordictrax: No it’s not.

“Shit,” she said. The window was silent.

Nordictrax: Who is this?

AngryLabMonkey: This is Elle, John’s sister.

Extremely long pause.

Nordictrax has logged off. “SHIT!” she yelled. She attracted looks from the small kids at the booth twenty feet away and sank into her seat. She sat there for several minutes, hoping Nordictrax would log back on. By the time she finished the burger, she realized this strategy wasn’t promising. Okay… so she knew somebody’s screen name. She thought hard. She had been out of the cutting edge loop for a while now, having outgrown much interest in it.

But she did know people who were more savvy… Her friend Sebby, in Los Angeles, for instance, was a computer programmer. Hmm… Leaving the laptop where it was, she went to her phone and found his number. Pressing the send button, she put the handset to her ear and listened as it connected. In the background, a cash register beeped.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Sebby?”

“Yeah, who is this?”

“It’s Elle. From Northeastern.”

“Elle Marshall?”

“Yes.”

“Hey! How are you? It’s been a while.”

“I’m good. It’s good to hear your voice. I hate to just sort’ve get right to business, Seb, but I need your help. It’s really important. My brother’s on the loose somewhere in Europe and I’m trying to figure out where.”

“Is this some kind of joke? You lost your brother?”

“No. And yes, respectively.”

“Uh huh... What can I do?”

“Is this a good time?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Okay, I got into his computer and got an instant message from someone who seems to know where he is, but when I started talking to him, he figured out I wasn’t John and logged off. So I don’t know who he is.”

“Do you have the screen name still?”

“Yeah.”

“Have you tried Facebook?”

“…No.”

“Gimme a sec... Okay, what’s the name?”

“Nordictrax.” She spelled it out.

“O…kay. Scott Boles. Fairfield University. Just graduated.”

“Does it show his address?”

“Not yet. Gimme like fifteen minutes. Could I call you back at this number?”

“Yeah. What’re you going to do?”

“Hunt around on the Internet.”

“Okay.”

He hung up. Seventeen minutes later, he called back. “Twenty-three Spruce Lane, Glastonbury, Connecticut. Would you like his home telephone number?”

“Yes.” He gave it to her. When he finished, she repeated it and the address to him and then smiled. She suspected he heard the elation in her voice.

“Thanks, Sebby.”

“Yeah, no prob. Tell me, have you tried leaving a message for your brother on Facebook?

“He doesn’t have an account.”

“No kidding.”

“Nope.”

“Huh, okay. So any idea why he’s running around in Europe?”

“No. He’s supposed to be doing an internship out west.”

“Wow… Insane. …How’re your parents taking it?”

“They’re freaking out.”

“That sounds about right. So what, did his story not jive or something?”

“Well you know what it is? He didn’t call home. My parents kept asking him for a telephone number to be reached at. So that’s what raised our suspicions.”

“Huh. That’s ballsy.”

“It’s something.”

“I hear ya. Well, tell you what, El, I have to get back to work but I’ll be home in like an hour if you wanna call me then. We can talk more. I have some ideas but I need some time to follow up on them.”

“Thanks, man. It’s great to talk to you again.”

He laughed. “You too.”

“Okay, I’m gonna go and bang on this kid’s door.”

He laughed again. “Okay, good luck.”

“Thanks. Bye”

“Bye, El.” She hung up. Returned to the room she was in. The teenagers behind the counter were sweeping. She looked down at her tray where there were a few more fries. Her phone rang. Sighing, she looked down at its screen and swore. It was her parents. She picked up.

“Hey, what’s going on?” She didn’t want to tell them. She really didn’t.

“I got into his computer and I have a lead.”

“What kind of lead?”

“Somebody contacted me through John’s instant messenger. He thought I was him.”

“Well, who is he? Does he know where John is?”

“His name is Scott Boles. I’m about to find out.” There was an unexpected silence.

“The British kid?”

“Uh, I dunno. He went to Fairfield.”

“That’s the guy.”

“You know him?”

“Yeah, we know him.”

“Okay, well, I’m about to go to his house.”

“You’re just gonna drop in unannounced?”

“Yeah. Who knows, maybe the surprise will rattle him.”

“...Okay, let us know if you find out anything. When do you think you’ll be back?”

“I don’t know. I’m not even there yet.”

“Where are you?”

“Manchester.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah, so I’m gonna go before it gets much later.”

“Okay, keep us appraised.”

“I will. Bye.” She hung up before there was enough time for an afterthought. GOD.

Pulling in front of the Boles residence, the first thing she noticed was that a Japanese maple blocked a clear view of it from the street. It made her more anxious. Through the branches, a pair of lights shined, casting weird shapes on the car windows. Concentrating so as to lower her heart rate, she looked at the speedometer and tachometer gauges, glowing red in the dark cabin of the car. Looking at the house again, she steeled herself and turned her wrist, switching the car off. She opened her door and set a foot on the curb, pulling herself out by the frame and shutting the door behind her. Okay, motherfucker. She marched up to the front steps and stepped up beneath two ornate lamps, pressing the doorbell. Through the door, she heard two tones.

“Who’s that?” The accent was British.

“I don’t know…” A pair of footsteps came barreling down the steps. A shadow appeared on the curtained area on one side of the door. The door opened cautiously. A middle aged man looked out at her through the screen door, pleasantly, if a bit warily.

“Hi, can I help you?”

“Hi, could I speak to Scott please?” As she said this, she heard something creak at the top of the stairs.

“Scott, it’s for you.” Someone came down the stairs, their footsteps lighter than the father’s. When the father stepped aside, she saw a young man, approximately John’s age, looking up at her.

“Scott, I presume?”

His voice seemed to catch in his throat. “Ye…yes…”

“I’m John Marshall’s sister, Elle. I was wondering if we could talk?”

He clearly dreaded the idea. “Let her in,” his father said. He clearly dreaded that idea too. But he did, unlocking the screen door and pushing it out gingerly. She entered into a dining room.

She got right to the point. “Do you know where my brother is?”

“Is he in trouble?” She wanted to say he would be when he got back but caught that impulse.

“We don’t know. We haven’t heard from him in almost a week. He told our parents he was in Arizona, doing an SCA internship.”

“I don’t want to get him in trouble.”

She sighed. “He’s already in trouble. Our parents are freaking OUT. And from our conversation, I’m guessing he’s in… Germany… apparently?” Scott didn’t reply.

“Okay. I’ll take your lack of a response as a confirmation. …Do you know if he’s still there?”

“…No.”

“Are you just telling me that so I’ll leave?”

“No.”

“Okay… Do… you know why he went to Europe?” He looked thoughtful now.

“I have no idea,” he finally said.

“He just thought what the hell, why not go to Europe? Blow off his parents? Give them both heart attacks? Worry his entire family?”

He got a defensive expression. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe he was trying to get away?”

“What?” He didn’t reply. “Get away from what? Grad school? Work?”

“Everything. I dunno,” he said. “I dunno. I dunno I dunno I dunno. Maybe his life.”

“What’s wrong with his life? Did something happen?” He was hesitating. “What aspect of his life? Is he disappointed with not getting into the NOAA Corps?”

“That’s probably a big part of it. But it’s other stuff too.”

“Like what?” He was holding back. “Like what? Did something happen at school?”

He finally blurted out, “Plus, your parents don’t help.”

“Okay. What’s wrong with our parents?”

“I don’t know. They seem to stress him out a lot. Make him feel restrained. Don’t appreciate what he’s capable of. …And they seem to make him feel guilty a lot.”

“How do they make him feel guilty?”

“I shouldn’t even be telling you this.”

“Just tell me.”

“They just… I don’t know. They make him feel guilty.”

“For what?”

“EVERYTHING!” Pause. “So I think he felt overwhelmed by a lot of other stuff, and he knew that was just waiting there for him when he got back, for an indeterminate amount of time, and he just woke up one day and said fuck it. You know what. Fuck it.” He looked thoughtful again. “…He’s getting older. He knows that. He knows that the best years of his life are over. And he hasn’t done anything with them. Not really. Not in a meaningful way. He’s really smart. He followed this plan that was supposed to bring him happiness. And yet… he still has no outlets for his gifts or his personality. And so I think he just woke up one day and said fuck it. I might get caught, I might get away with it. But it’ll be a meaningful experience.” It seemed to be becoming clearer to him.

Elle didn’t know what to say. She could tell he regretted what he’d told her. She wondered why he felt so threatened by her. She exhaled audibly.

“Look…” she said. “I know what it feels like to get older. Because… I did it. It’s part of life. Whether you like it or not.” It was her turn to look thoughtful. “And you know what? It’s really not that bad. It’s really not. I know people say don’t trust anyone over thirty but you know what? When you’re thirty, you still have parties. You still drink beer on the weekends. And you know what else? You have more money so you can actually move out of your parents’ house. Most people… most people don’t get great jobs right out of college. That is life. That is real life. They pull up their pants one leg at a time and go to work. I mean heck, I went to frigging medical school for God’s sake. Do you think that was easy? I endured and I paid my dues. And I lived at home. And it sucked. And I got no respect. That’s not my idea of fun. But then one day, it paid off. And now I have a respectable job and I get to have fun.” She paused. “Trust me, growing up is underrated.”

When she finished, the look he gave her made her stop breathing and left her dumbfounded. It was… a look of pity. And suddenly she realized he was about to say something else he was going to regret.

“I think it’s crazy too,” he said to her surprise. “I’ll be very honest. I even told him I thought it was crazy. And he is impulsive… But you know what? He’s living the dream.

Elle rubbed her jaw. “Okay, suppose, for the sake of argument, you’re right. Suppose my brother really is a lot smarter than a lot of people. Suppose he is cut out for greater things and yet was never given the chance. Suppose his life has been unfair in that respect. Okay. Why… Why doesn’t he channel that in a more orthodox way? Why does he have to do everything his way? Why does he have to reinvent the wheel?”

“Only Hitler could have lost World War Two. But only Hitler could have almost won it.”

She shook her head. “That’s a horrifying analogy. And I’m sorry, I don’t see the connection.”

He got that sympathetic look again. “Well… maybe one day you will. The point is, I envy your brother. And I respect him. And I respect his insane decision to go to Europe. And I wish I’d had the courage to go with him.” The look he got was one of genuine remorse. “And I’ll have to live with that.”

Head down, Elle’s eyes hovered on her shoelaces for a long time. Finally she looked into his eyes. “Ever read Into the Wild?”

His eyes locked on hers. “Yes.”

“Do you think it was worth it for him?” He looked down at the floor. But his eyes were soon up again.

“I’m afraid I can’t speak to that point,” he said.

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