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Worst Error

               Shay did not consider himself to be that good with computers, which made it all the more outrageous that his mom had promised his great aunt Berenice that he’d help her friend Inez with her computer when he got home from school.

                “I’m not even that good with computers,” said Shay, letting his backpack fall from his slumped shoulders to the living room floor, not caring what happened to any of its contents.

                “Well, Aunt Berenice thinks you are,” said Shay’s mom. Berenice was her dad’s brother’s widow, so that meant Berenice was Shay’s great aunt by marriage. She wasn’t even a blood relative.

                “She thinks I’m good with computers because one time when we were at her house over a year ago, she said her ‘internet was gone’ and I found that she’d accidentally dragged the browser icon into a folder on her desktop called ‘grandchildern.’”


                “‘Grandchildern,’” said Shay. “It was not spelled right.”

                “Well, I’m sure her friend’s problem will be simple too,” said Shay’s mom. “It’ll only take a few minutes.”

                “But anyone could help her,” said Shay. “Why can’t you or Dad do it?”

                “Because Aunt Berenice asked for you,” said Shay’s mom. “And I told her you could do it.”

                “But you didn’t check with me first,” said Shay. “You didn’t ask me if I already had plans.”

                “Because I knew you didn’t,” said Shay’s mom. “You never do. You’re the least busy person I know. You might be the least busy person in Multioak.”

                “It’s inconsiderate,” said Shay.

                “Fine,” said Shay’s mom. “Next time I won’t promise you can help someone without checking with you first. But this time, I already promised Aunt Berenice you’d help her friend, so you have to.”


                “You have to,” said Shay’s mom.


                Berenice texted directions to Inez’s house to Shay, but the text contained three errors and after several increasingly frustrating minutes spent discovering that the directions did not correspond to reality, Shay was forced to call Berenice from the road so she could clarify. She was somewhat apologetic about the errors in the text, but mostly seemed mystified as to how it could have happened. “I know that isn’t what I wrote,” said Berenice. “I know you don’t turn left after the park so why would I write that? I didn’t write that.”

                “So I turn right after the park?” asked Shay.

                “No, left,” said Berenice. “I mean right!”

                 Shay did find Inez’s house. It was a narrow, two-story structure with peeling yellow paint and no street-facing windows. Shay parked his car along the curb in front of a storm drain. The sidewalk leading to Inez’s porch had a large yellow stain on it the same color as the peeling house-paint. The porch creaked like a wounded human when Shay stepped onto it. The front door was open but the screen door was closed. Through the screen, Shay could see through the dark living room and into the bright kitchen where his great aunt Berenice and another elderly woman sat next to each other on the far side of a rectangular table. Opaque drinking glasses sat on the table in front of the women. Shay rapped on the screen door.

                “Shay’s here,” said Berenice. “Shay, come in!” She beckoned from the kitchen with a raised hand, bracelets clattering on her wrist, sliding toward her elbow before being stopped by the thickening of her forearm.

                Shay opened the screen door and stepped into the living room. The furniture was old and clean, but seemed as if it would be better suited to dustiness. A mirror hung high on the wall at one end of the room, so high that Shay could only see the top of his head in it.

                “Hi, Aunt Berenice,” said Shay. He had called her “Great Aunt Berenice” once when he was younger and she’d given him a funny look, so now he always called her “Aunt Berenice” like his mom did even though it wasn’t strictly accurate. Berenice had permed, dyed-brown hair and always wore colorful dresses and blouses. Today her dress had pink, black, and teal diagonal stripes of varying widths. She was a skinny, bright-eyed woman whose neutral smile had persisted throughout the death of Great Uncle Dez and the ensuing bouts of loneliness.

                “Shay, hello!” Berenice beamed at him from the table in the kitchen. “This is my friend Inez. Inez, this is my niece’s son Shay. He’s a computer genius. Remember how I told you one day I just woke up and my internet was gone? Well, Shay and his mom dropped by the house for a quick visit and I asked Shay to look at my computer and he fixed the problem in just a few minutes! And I’d thought I was going to have to throw the computer out!”

                Shay hated this version of the story. Berenice told it to whoever was around every time she saw Shay, even people who had heard the story before. If no one else was around, sometimes Berenice just told the story to Shay even though he had been there because the story was about him.

                “Oh, well, it wasn’t that hard,” said Shay. “The icon was just-”

                “This is what he always says,” said Berenice, smirking at Inez. “Icons and folders and all that. Even when he’s trying to be humble about it, he loses me with the terminology.”

                “You sound like just the man for the job,” said Inez. She had white, shoulder-length hair, dark eyes, and a Western-style neckerchief knotted around her slim throat. She wore slippers, blue jeans, and a mysterious green t-shirt with the word “water” printed on it in decidedly un-watery orange letters.

                “If Shay can’t figure it out,” said Berenice, “then no one can.”

                “No, I wouldn’t say that,” said Shay. “I’ll take a look, but if I can’t solve it, I’m sure you could take it to a professional. They’d know a lot more than I do.”

                Berenice looked skeptical. “Oh, those places are so expensive. Inez, you don’t want to pay someone to do it. Shay will fix it, you’ll see. He’s just being modest.”

                Shay doubted Berenice had any idea about the average cost of computer repair, but he didn’t want this to turn into an argument, especially since that argument would definitely be a fruitless argument. He wanted to get this over with. “So can you show me where your computer is, Ms. uh…?”

                “You can call me Inez,” said Inez. She stood up from the table, took a final drink from her glass, and said, “The computer is in the basement. It’s a little musty down there, I apologize for that, but I really only use the basement for the computer, so I’m not down there very much. Once a month, usually. Here, come this way.”

                Shay followed Inez through the kitchen to a door next to the refrigerator. The door was smaller than the refrigerator. The walls in the kitchen were painted off-white, but the basement door was painted a dull gold color with metallic flakes in it that sparkled in the sunlight that came in through the window above the sink. Inez reached on top of the refrigerator, felt around for a few moments, and then found a key which she used to unlock the door. She swung the door open to reveal a steep flight of descending stairs covered in thick, black carpet. At the foot of the stairs, a dim, blue glow softened the darkness. A warm, electric smell and several competing whirrs and hums came up the stairs to greet Shay where he stood at the edge of the top step.

                “You’ll have to duck your head on the way down,” said Inez. “Even I have to duck my head on the way down. But the ceiling’s higher in the basement itself.”

                “Aren’t you coming down?” asked Shay. “To show me what the problem is?”

                “You’ll be able to see what the problem is,” said Inez. “I try not to go up and down the steps more than I have to. I’m old. Don’t wanna risk a fall.” She grinned.

                “So why don’t you have someone move your computer up here?” asked Shay.

                “Oh, that wouldn’t work,” said Inez. “I’m gonna close the door behind you, but I won’t lock it. Just come up when you’re done or if you have any questions or if you need a break or something.”

                “Uh, well, I hope it won’t take so long that I’ll need a break,” said Shay.

                “Me too,” said Inez.

                Shay stooped forward, ducked his head, took one step down the stairs, and Inez closed the door behind him. Then he heard her walking away from the door, back to the table, her slippers murmuring on the linoleum floor. Through the door, Shay heard Berenice say, “He’ll have you up and running again in no time.”

                “Oh, I’m sure,” said Inez. “So what were you saying about Louise?”

                “Oh, yes,” said Berenice. “Just that she’s gotten so paranoid. Did you know that she thinks her mailman is spying on her and giving the information to her daughter-in-law? She says she caught him on her roof listening down her chimney to an argument she was having with the cable company on the phone, but I’ve seen her mailman, and if you believe that man could navigate the slope of her roof without breaking his neck, then I’ve got a waterpark to sell you and guess where it’s located.”

                “Where?” asked Inez.

                “The North Pole!” said Berenice. “Or Antarctica. There are actually two locations. You can take your pick. Or you can buy them both. I’ll even give you a special deal if you buy them both!”

                A tedious academic paper about Berenice and Inez’s respective laughs would have described them as “a study in contrast.”

Even with his shoulders stooped and his head ducked, Shay’s unkempt hair brushed against the slanting ceiling above the stairs as he made his way down to the basement without the aid of a handrail. True to Inez’s word, once Shay reached the basement, he was able to stand upright, although the ceiling was only a few inches higher than the five feet and eleven inches that comprised the total length of his body plus the soles of his shoes. The black carpet stopped where the stairs stopped. The floor of the basement was smooth concrete with no visible cracks. The whirring sounds Shay had heard from the top of the stairs turned out to be two oscillating fans set at different speeds and two box fans, all of which were plugged into the same power strip and pointed at the opposite wall of the room where, perched atop a desk that was really just three thick pieces of wood nailed together to form three sides of a vertical square, Shay saw a computer unlike any he’d ever before seen.

                Stepping over the tangle of fan cords, Shay moved through the bluish glow to the desk and the computer, standing in front of it with his arms bent at the elbow, hands extended palms-upward in front of him as if to express this thought to the odd computer: “What am I supposed to do with you?”

                The computer took up the entire top surface of the desk and, when Shay looked closer, he saw that it was actually bolted to the desk. The bolts were rusted. The computer looked like the silhouette of a city skyline where the rectangular shapes appear to be connected, where the towers and skyscrapers and blocky apartment buildings seem to be all of a piece. It was like a diorama of a city covered in a hard, white plastic shell. At the front of the computer, built into the front-facing side of a wide, central column, was a monitor displaying the words “there is an error.” The words were black on a gray background, tiny, stacked on top of each other in the middle of the screen. Below the monitor, a keyboard attached to and almost as wide as the whole computer protruded over the edge of the desk. In the center of the keyboard were the letters of the alphabet arranged in neither the QWERTY style nor in alphabetical order. On both sides of the alphabet, keys marked with increasingly mysterious symbols stretched to the ends of the keyboard. The keyboard also featured a cramped little trackpad. On the tops of some, but not all, of the computer’s vertical towers were domed blue lights. Other than the computer’s monitor, there were no other light sources in the basement. The sole piece of furniture was a rolling desk chair positioned in front of the monitor. Heat radiated from the computer, which Shay supposed explained all the fans. He also heard at least three distinct hums coming from the computer. Or was it four?

                Shay ducked nice and low on his way back up the stairs.


                “But I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” said Shay.

                “Oh, computers are all the same,” said Berenice, waving her empty drinking glass as if it were a talisman and she were warding off evil spirits. She and Inez had switched seats since Shay had last seen them, what, two minutes ago? Three?

                “No, all computers are not the same,” said Shay. “I’ve never seen a computer like that before.”

                “It came with the house,” said Inez. “I didn’t even know it was there for the first few years I lived here ‘cause I never went down in the basement. Then one day I was feeling bored and thought I’d investigate the basement and there was that computer! And I thought maybe I could use it for email with my kids and it turned out I could, so that’s what I use it for. Once a month, I go down there and do some emails. Or, that’s what I did use it for until I went down there a few months ago and found it with that error on the screen!”

                “So that computer’s connected to the internet?” asked Shay.

                “Oh, no, no,” said Inez. “I only use it for email with my kids.”

                Berenice nodded supportively.

                “Well, OK, but you need internet to use email,” said Shay.

                “Not on my computer you don’t,” said Inez.

                Berenice nodded supportively.

                “Wait,” said Shay. “OK, but…what do you want me to do?”

                “You didn’t see what the computer said?” asked Inez. “On the screen?”

                “I saw it,” said Shay. “But I’ve never used a computer like yours before. I don’t know what kind of error it is. I don’t know what to do about it. I really think you’re going to need-”

                “You didn’t even try?” asked Berenice. She looked hurt.

                “I don’t know how to try,” said Shay. “You’d probably be just as helpful as me with that computer, Aunt Berenice.”

                “Oh, no,” said Berenice. “I’m no good with computers.”

                “Well, anyway,” said Shay. “I can, uh…I mean, do you want me to call a computer repair store for you, Inez? Most of them do service calls so-”

                “Give it a try,” said Berenice. “At least try. You fixed mine so easily!”

                “I’m afraid I’ll make it worse,” said Shay.

                “You won’t make it worse,” said Berenice. “Now if I tried to fix it, I’d be the one to make it worse!”

                She was still laughing as Shay returned to the basement door, passed through it, closed it behind him.


                This time, Shay sat down in the chair. He faced the monitor, re-read its message, hovered his fingers over the keyboard, used the trackpad to left-click, to right-click. Nothing happened. The computer’s heat sucked sweat to Shay’s surface. Shay looked for an “enter” key. It took him a while, but he eventually found it at the far right edge of the keyboard. He pressed it. The error message on the monitor flickered. Shay looked for an “escape” key and did not find one. Then he looked all over the computer for a power button. Maybe it just needed to be rebooted. But he couldn’t find a power button. What if he unplugged it? Shay found a thick bundle of cords emerging from the computer’s casing in the back, but the cords disappeared into a crude hole hacked into the basement’s cinderblock wall. The hole was just wide enough to admit the cord-bundle. Shay did not feel comfortable attempting to disconnect the cords from the wall or the computer. He decided that would about do it. He had given it some thought, he’d tried some simple ideas, and nothing had happened. Not that Berenice was monitoring his efforts or would even understand them if she were, but Shay hoped he had now done enough to justify going home.

                As Shay stepped over the four fans’ power cords on his way back to the basement stairs, a new sound came from the computer behind him, three low beeps, quiet but perfectly tuned to cut through the hums and whirs that crowded them. Shay paused with his foot raised, then lowered it back to the floor and turned to look at the computer. The message on the monitor had changed. Shay couldn’t read it from where he stood, but he could see that the arrangement of the words in the middle of the screen had changed. But that didn’t mean he had to go back to the computer. He could just keep going up the stairs, he could tell Berenice and Inez that he’d tried to fix the computer but couldn’t, he could drive home, he could lounge around his room all night with the door closed, he could listen to European metal and exchange idle text messages with Lillian, he could sit down in the shower and doze under the just-short-of-scalding water until it turned cold, he could lie in bed with his lamp on the dimmest setting and think about topics that had no bearing on his life until 2 in the morning and never once acknowledge to himself that he had to go to school in the morning. But instead, he turned and walked back to the computer. He wanted to read the message. It read, “now there is a different error.”

                Shay frowned. He double-clicked the trackpad. Nothing. He scanned the extensive keyboard again, looking for something helpful. No, there was nothing, the keys that he didn’t recognize – which was most of them – were all labeled too cryptically to be helpful. Shay felt his frustration rising, a feeling that he hated and had organized his life around avoiding. He’d almost been gone! The frustration made him less cautious. He pressed a key labeled “include.” The monitor flickered again and this time the blue light on top of one of the computer’s taller columns dimmed. Goaded by this response, mild though it was, Shay tried another key. This one said “arrange.” The monitor again flickered, but nothing else happened. Then, while hunting for a more promising key to press, Shay came across a key at the far left side of the keyboard that he couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed before. The key was labeled “error.” It seemed worth a try. Shay decided to risk it. He pressed the “error” key. The computer unleashed a short burst of beeping, the monitor flickered, and the text disappeared leaving Shay to regard a gray, textless screen. Had he fixed the computer? Part of him hoped that he hadn’t, because if he had, this would become yet another story of his genius with computers for Aunt Berenice to tell everyone. She wouldn’t care that all he had done was press the key that corresponded to one of the six words on the screen. She would declare herself incapable of such an act and assume, therefore, that it was an act that required genius.

                Shay was about to stand up from the chair when the computer monitor displayed a new message: “eliminate email capabilities? deny or affirm in…” and then beneath those words, there was a timer counting down from 10. Shay panicked. This was why he shouldn’t have been working on a computer he didn’t understand! This was exactly why! He jumped to his feet, the rolling desk chair gliding across the floor away from him. He stooped over the keyboard and scanned the keys, his fingers waggling desperately in the air next to his head. Then he saw it, a key labeled “deny/affirm.” He pressed it. On the monitor, the word “deny” became highlighted. Shay pressed the key again. Now “affirm” was highlighted. 2 seconds remained. He pressed the key again, re-highlighting “deny,” and thank God he remembered where the “enter” key was located. He pressed it. The timer stopped at “-2.” So it hadn’t been counting down to “0?” It had been counting down to a number less than “0?” How much time had Shay actually had to deny or affirm the elimination of the computer’s email capabilities? Shay’s heart continued to race. He tried to collapse back into the desk chair, but instead crashed to the floor having forgotten that the chair had scooted away from him when he jumped to his feet. His tailbone – which was one of the most sensitive bones within his body – struck the concrete hard and he hissed in pain, focusing all of his agony into a displeased scrunching of the upper half of his face. He rolled onto his side and rubbed his poor tailbone. He rested his sweaty cheek on the cool cement floor. He knew that when he lifted his head, a sweat mark would remain on the floor behind him, a dark blob, it would not be identifiable as the product of a sweaty cheek.

                Shay sat on his hand to cushion his tailbone and looked up at the computer’s monitor. It displayed a new message that read, “further error prediction: soon.” What did that mean? That there was definitely another error forthcoming? Or just that there might be another error forthcoming? Shay was now officially in over his head. He had almost caused the computer to eliminate the one thing that Inez used it for and now it was making further threats. Berenice would be very disappointed in Shay if he left the computer worse than he’d found it. In some ways, that might simplify Shay’s life, but Shay loved Aunt Berenice despite her irritating qualities and he did not want her to be angry with him. And Inez seemed like a nice old lady too, Shay didn’t want to be responsible for permanently cutting off her preferred line of communication with her children.  

                Shay groaned as he stood, continuing to hold his tailbone as if taking his hand away would cause it to fall out of his body and clatter on the floor. He shuffled backward to the desk chair, sat down on its padded seat, and used his feet to roll himself up to the computer. He glared at the message on the monitor. He would not be tempted into pressing any more keys whose functions he didn’t understand, which on this computer was pretty much all of them. Was he even confident, for example, that the “S” key really only corresponded to the letter “S?” He was not. Shay leaned back in the desk chair and the chair’s back, flexing as designed in order to accommodate back-leaning, creaked proportionately. He did not feel obligated to sit around to wait and see if another error would arise or not. He would go upstairs, tell Inez that the computer had almost deleted its email program but that he had stopped it from doing so, she and Berenice would be pleased, he would go home, and then the rest of his evening would play out as he had imagined it would when he’d been on the verge of escaping last time.

                Shay heard a clunk sound. Where had it come from? The computer? Maybe Inez or Berenice had dropped something upstairs? The monitor flickered, the computer beeped, the message changed. It read, “the next error is here.” Shay rubbed his face with his hands. This could easily go on forever. He had tried, which was what Berenice had requested, and he had learned nothing except that it was dangerous and fruitless to try. He stood. The sound he heard this time did not come from the computer. Well, the beep did – a kind of guttural beep if such a thing were possible – but the other sound came from behind the computer. No, in fact, it came from behind the wall behind the computer. It was a solitary thump. Shay walked around the left side of the desk and felt the wall, for some reason. He heard another sound, looked down to his right, and saw the bundle of cords connecting the computer to the hole in the wall move. The wall behind the computer was parallel to the front of the house; it faced the street, not a neighbor’s property, so it didn’t seem possible for it to border a basement or cellar of a nearby house. So where were those cords going? Shay had assumed they connected to the house’s electrical system inside the wall. A rodent in the wall could probably make the cords shake a little, but could a rodent in the wall make a thump like the one Shay had heard? He doubted it. But this speculation was not getting Shay out of the basement, it was keeping him in the basement, which was not where he wanted to be in relation to the basement.

                Bang. Beep. The computer monitor had a new message. Not only that, but the text was bigger. It read, “this is the worst error so far.” Shay sighed. He would not be enticed, he would not be prodded, he would not be guilt-tripped. He turned his back to the computer, ignored a clack, ignored a new beep, ignored an intensifying of the blue lights, stepped over the fan cords, ducked his head, and went up the stairs and through the gold-painted door into the kitchen.


                “I kept it from deleting your email,” said Shay. “But it says it still has errors, so I dunno. I tried. I just don’t understand that computer.”

                “So it isn’t fixed?” asked Berenice.

                “No, it still needs more work,” said Shay. “I tried rebooting it, but I couldn’t find the power button so-”

                “Now you lost me!” said Berenice. “But we appreciate the effort.” She was happy again. Was that all it took? Just using a term she didn’t understand?

                “So I still can’t use it for emailing my kids?” asked Inez.

                “Well, I would honestly suggest just getting a cheap little laptop and an internet connection,” said Shay. “Or you could not get internet and just take the laptop to a coffee shop or something once a month when you wanted to use email. I think that would be the simplest solution for you.”

                “Thanks for the recommendation,” said Inez. She didn’t look convinced, but Shay didn’t really care. She was four times his age, she could do whatever she wanted.


                It would have been simple for Shay to ignore the sound he heard from inside the storm drain. His car door was open, his car key was in his hand. He closed his car door, he slipped his car key back into his pocket. He walked around his car and knelt on top of the storm drain, leaning over so that his left ear was positioned above the manhole cover. What was that noise? An arrhythmic tapping? Shay took the cover off of the manhole and dropped it onto Inez’s lawn. There had been no rain in over a week so the cement floor of the storm drain was damp, but there was no water moving through it into the round tunnels that branched off from it in three directions. Protruding from one of these tunnels – the one leading back in the direction of Inez’s house – Shay saw a wooden plank. Like a piece of something that someone might use as a makeshift floor, for example. It was very unlike Shay to lower himself down through the manhole into the storm drain, to crouch at the entrance of the tunnel and listen, to crawl into the tunnel with his hands and his knees close together on the plank so that he wouldn’t get any filth on his palms or jeans, but he did all of these things and he wondered why.

                He decided, as he crawled through the dark tunnel atop a line of planks toward the sounds ahead of him in the darkness, that he wanted to be helpful. His great aunt Berenice, misguided though she was, had believed he could help her friend. And he had not helped her friend. He had not wanted to help her friend, but now, he had discovered that he had wanted to fail to help her friend even less. So that had to be what this was: a last-ditch attempt to do something other than fail. Not to succeed, that was too grandiose. Certainly not to justify Berenice’s assertions of his genius. He understood that no one who actually knew him had high hopes for him. His parents, for example, had diagnosed him as unproductive before he could even talk. And they had been right. He was a lethargic young man, a boy of no passions, a person who preferred diversions to all activities from which diversions diverted him. Berenice was not a good judge of character. She had let her own prideful ignorance of computers misshape her perception of her great nephew Shay. But now, to Shay’s own surprise, he felt protective of that misshapen perception. He wanted to preserve it. He wanted someone to think highly of him even if that person was wrong to do so. Maybe even especially if that person was wrong to do so because that meant he didn’t actually have to do anything to earn it, which was Shay’s preferred means of receiving anything good. It was sort of like unconditional respect if the respect weren’t actually unconditional, but rather based on a condition that could never fail to be met. Could Shay stop Aunt Berenice from interpreting every honest denial of his own genius as false modesty? Well, maybe, but if so, it would probably require methods bordering on psychological and maybe even physical torture, methods which Shay had no intention of visiting upon his nice, old great aunt.

                There was light ahead, bluish. Shay crawled toward bluish light, familiar but bluer. The opening of the tunnel ahead of Shay would have been a bluish circle if not for the black shape which consumed most of its center, stretching from beyond the top of the circle to below the bottom of the circle. The opening seemed to widen as Shay got closer. Something with human-looking legs passed in front of the opening. Shay was willing to bet it was a human. He crawled out of the tunnel and stood, brushing his knees with his hands. The room he had entered was not large. In the middle of the room stood some kind of fancy rock, roughly block-shaped, glassy in texture but neither translucent nor particularly reflective. It was taller than Shay and there was a light on top of it, up near the ceiling, very bluish, claiming the whole of the small space. On the dirt floor to Shay’s right was a scratchy-looking gray blanket with hammers on it. A claw hammer, a ball-peen hammer, a rubber mallet, a mini sledge, and several more that Shay, with his limited knowledge of hammers, could not identify and did not recognize. To Shay’s left, a young woman with a ponytail and gloves that appeared to be too small for her hands held a stone mason hammer and a chisel. She glanced at Shay. “The other ones didn’t work. Even the big blow with the mini sledge didn’t work,” she said. “So I’m trying some precision strikes to see where that gets us.”

                “What is this?” asked Shay. “Who are you?”

                “I’m a hacker,” said the woman.

                “A computer hacker?” asked Shay.

                “Does this look like a computer to you?” asked the woman. She tapped on the huge rock-like thing with her chisel. Shay heard two beeps, distant, muffled.

                Rather than push past the woman, Shay walked around the other side of the rock to investigate the wall that, unless he had somehow gotten turned around, this room shared with Inez’s basement. And there, down at shin level, Shay saw a bundle of cords emerging from the hole in the wall and entering the rock. “Hey,” he said. “Seriously. What is this?”

                “Don’t pull on those,” said the woman, peering around the side of the rock. “Yank ‘em out of this model without achieving a surrender first and you’ll gut the whole machine.”

                “This is a machine?” Shay had never felt less like a genius.

                “An email machine, yes,” said the woman.

                “How...” Shay changed his question in mid-sentence. “How long have you been here?”

                “Today?” asked the woman. “An hour, maybe. It took me a while to prepare the hammers. But, you know, when months of persuasion doesn’t work, it’s time for force.”

“Persuasion?” asked Shay.

“Sure,” said the woman. “The Convincing Touch, we hackers call it. Those get the best errors, but not always. Some models are stubborn.” She tapped the email machine with the head of the stone mason hammer, forgoing the chisel. Clink clink. A moment later, from the other side of the wall: beep beep.

                “Are you causing all these errors?” asked Shay.

                “I’m hacking the email machine and that causes errors, sure,” said the woman. “But errors are inevitable whether I’m making persuasion attempts here on the machine side or I’m hammering here on the machine side or an emailer is on the display-and-heat side succumbing to the temptation of the ‘error’ key. And let’s not act like the email machine isn’t capable of cooking up its own batch of errors.”

                “Get out of here!” said Shay. “Leave this thing alone or I’ll call the cops!”

                “The police?” asked the woman. She looked worried. “Please don’t do that. Hacking email machines is illegal. The punishments are almost medieval.”

                “Of course it’s illegal!” said Shay. “So you’d better get out of here!”

                “Months of hacking,” said the woman, kneeling to move her hammers to the center of the blanket, folding the blanket’s corners in to form a compact bundle of hammers. “Months of hacking down the drain.” She crawled into the tunnel and pulled her blanket full of hammers in after her. Shay looked at the email machine. He touched it with his fingers, then pressed his whole hand against it, feeling its neutral temperature, feeling an invisible texture on its surface, a texture finer than sight yet less fine than touch. Was he being persuasive? Did he have The Convincing Touch? On the other side of the wall, Shay heard a hideous beep, shrill and urgent. He jerked his hand away. The beep ceased.


                The monitor read, “no errors foreseen, but errors are inevitable.” Anticlimactic? Appropriate?

                Shay ducked his head and went back up the stairs for the third time to tell Berenice and Inez…what? That he wasn’t sure if the idea he’d claimed to have been struck by while sitting in his car had worked or not?

                “I knew you could do it,” said Berenice.

                “That’s what it’s supposed to say?” asked Shay.

                “Well, I don’t know what it’s supposed to say,” said Inez. “But that’s what it always said back when it was working. From that screen, you just press the ‘email’ button and you get your email.”

                Shay did not recall seeing an “email” button.

                “Wow,” said Berenice. “Your computer sounds so much simpler than mine, Inez. I feel like I have to press about a dozen buttons to get my email to work.”

                “Actually,” said Shay, grasping at a stray straw of knowledge, one tiny straw of true expertise that Shay had gathered himself. “What Inez has is an email machine, not a computer.”

                The room fell so silent that Shay heard the whirs and the hums through the closed basement door. Aunt Berenice would not meet his eye. Inez regarded him in a harsh, new light.

                “Tell your mom I said ‘hello,’” said Berenice. Her eyes flicked toward Shay, then again darted away, but the brief glimpse Shay had of them was not flattering. The veneration was gone, replaced by embarrassment at a realization of misplaced veneration.

                “That’s what it’s really called,” said Shay. “I know it sounds fake, but I didn’t name it that. There’s a difference between an email machine and a computer. A lot of differences.”

                “Tell your mom I said ‘hello,’” said Berenice.

                On his way home, Shay tried to appreciate the irony, if that’s what it was. Where had learning something gotten him today? Shay still wasn’t a genius, but now no one thought he was. Would anyone at any time during the remainder of his life ever interact with him as if he were a genius? It didn’t take a genius to predict that one, unfortunately. As a non-genius, it would have been nicer not to know.

                And then, true to form, Shay had a diverting thought: with whom or what was Inez corresponding via email? A perfect diversion, a question that embraced ambiguity, a question that encouraged futile speculation, a question to putter back and forth in the background behind technical death metal, inane text messages, and positions of foggy-headed recline, both while wet and while dry.


Discussion Questions

  • What’s more alarming: that I wasn’t more diligent about backing up my files or that I was actually pleasantly surprised with how diligent I HAD been in backing up my files?

  • Do you think that I think that this is really how hacking works?

  • If prior to hearing this story, you had heard someone use the term “email machine,” how confident would you have been in that person’s ability to fix your computer?

  • What are some practical steps that anyone can take to ensure that they will never disillusion anyone?

  • What’s the least objectively impressive thing you’ve ever done that earned you the admiration of an elderly relative?

  • What’s the most egregious yet sincere misuse of the word “genius” you’ve ever encountered?