Disaster has struck, dear readers. I am partly to blame; this is true, but the ordeals I have endured this past week are such as I would not wish upon my worst enemy. Things turned out all right in the end—I think—but it has taken me days to recover. After much beachside convalescence, I finally feel prepared to tell my tale—just in time for my next post, as it happens. This story is not for the faint of heart, readers: you have been warned. And so, lock your doors, turn on all the lights, and prepare yourselves for the terrors I am about to relate.
As you might remember, dear readers, last week I visited Prism Bay Literary Merchants, an elaborate and strangely-organized bookstore along the town’s main street, where I met a distractingly good-looking bookseller, purchased a tome of weird stories, was frowned at by a bookish young woman holed up inside on a beautiful sunny day and, most pertinent to today’s story, discovered what is possibly the only operating wifi network in all of Prism Bay. This week (well, technically last week—but anyway, after my most recent post), I returned with my laptop and a long “to do” list of things I hoped to accomplish online: research, shopping, but most of all, correspondence. The backlog of emails that can build up when you are without an Internet connection, readers, is hardly to be believed.
As it had been on my first visit, Prism Bay Literary Merchants was apparently empty when I arrived, bearing the contents of my mobile office (laptop, notebooks, and coffee). I had a quick look around before setting up—just in case there were, for example, any snarky children hidden nearby, who might be tempted to read over my shoulder as I worked—but it seemed I was alone for now. I arranged my materials on one of the desks in the little reading area, opened my laptop, and found the network labeled “PrismBayLiteraryMerchants” already waiting. That seemed a little odd, since I’d never signed onto it from my laptop, but I assumed this was a case of electronic products talking to one another, in the same way my phone and computer often shared contact info without bothering to consult me. I signed on with the password provided (“throomhbustah”), opened my email, and went to work. And that, readers, was when things began to go wrong—horribly, horribly wrong.
I began with some simple inbox sweeping. My spam filters catch a lot of the more egregious crud, the phishing schemes and untargeted mass-mailings and attachment-heavy messages from mysterious addresses in Eastern Europe; there is a whole other class of emails, however, that have some vague reason to land in my inbox but require no response from me: informational missives from organizations I’ve volunteered with, coupons from retailers I’ve visited, social media platforms making tenuous and rather pathetic bids for my attention. Deleting these emails allows me to feel like I am doing something productive without requiring too much actual thought. (Oh, someone I barely know just commented on something I don’t care about?! Thanks for the heads up! Into the trash with you!)
As I banished these sub-spam emails one after another, something strange began to happen. They started coming back. When I deleted a message from my college alumni organization advertising a cocktail hour I wouldn’t be able to attend, it reappeared at the top of my inbox, and when I clicked on it, preparing to hit “delete” once more, I noticed a line that hadn’t been there before, written just above the greeting in an unusual, reddish font. “you should go this sounds fun”, said the strange scrawl of text. I deleted the email again, and again it returned, this time with the added line, “i bet no one wanted you there anyway”.
I wondered if maybe the alumni office had somehow included a read-receipt without my knowledge, and now one of the interns was using it to mess with my head. Whatever—I still wasn’t going to the cocktail hour. But something similar happened on the next email, a clothing store where I’d once bought a few t-shirts advertising new summer fashions. This email, too, came back to life once deleted, along with a message reading, “you should get that green sweater it would look good on you”. Again, I re-deleted, and again, the email returned. This time, it said, “fine just go on wearing the same old crap see what i care”.
The right thing to do, readers, would have been to shut down my computer then and there. Part of me already knew something was very wrong, but I had big plans for this Internet session, and so I convinced myself I had simply encountered some new and very aggressive form of spam bot, one that re-sent deleted messages along with pre-written responses. Though annoying and alarming, such a development wouldn’t prevent me from accomplishing my next task: answering actually important emails.
Giving up on the Zen of inbox sweeping, I opened a letter from my editor about my latest draft. I’d read and downloaded this email on my last trip to Starbucks, and had already worked up a few ways of addressing the issues she’d raised, including one very nasty plot hole. But as I began typing my notes into the email (and don’t worry, readers: I’ll keep things spoiler-free), the situation began to get genuinely out of control. Since I was really just copying responses I’d already written, my eyes were mostly on my notebook, not the screen, so I didn’t see what was going on until I stopped to turn a page and looked up to discover several strings of words I had definitely not typed myself.
At one point, my editor had recommended removing a certain romantic subplot, and I had to admit she was right: upon rereading, the whole thing felt a bit contrived and didn’t add much to the overall story. I’d written as much in my reply; now, on the next line, I saw the words, “no they deserve to be together how dare you stand in the way of true love”. Elsewhere in her comments, my editor had made a very good argument for taking out a new character I’d included the latest draft; again, this was the right move, and I’d answered, “Yes, we can cut her”. In response, the reddish words proclaimed, “why would you cut someone for no reason she did nothing to you”.
That, readers, was when I understood I had done something truly dangerous and dumb. I had signed onto a strange wireless network—password protected, yes, but with who knew what level of security beyond that? And now my computer had been infected with some malicious software, possibly allowing unknown parties free reign over the entire system. Hackers—Russian, maybe, or North Korean. Because this was no mere bot: someone was responding to the specific content of my email, and not even an email I’d sent, meaning they could potentially see what was on my screen right now. Probably they’d logged my keystrokes, and now had my email password. They might already be reading my new draft.
I closed my email and began saving and shutting down my other programs, but I was fooling myself, readers. It was too late for damage control. My web browser had only just quit when a new window appeared, and in it, the words, “we need to talk mr black you will find i can be very reasonable”.
I froze. Crap; they knew my name. Of course, I told myself—they’d been in my email. Slowly, carefully, I typed back, “Who is this?”
“that is not important mr black”, said the reddish text. “only my demands matter and your willingness to meet them”
That’s it, then: a ransom. I’d heard about this sort of thing. Whoever was in there, they possibly had access to everything on my computer, and could, if they chose, post it for the entire Internet to see. I couldn’t think of anything terribly incriminating hidden away in the depths of my hard drive, but still. Then there was the possibility this person would just erase the whole kit and caboodle. Since I’d arrived in Prism Bay, I’d been backing up my work once a week at most. I thought back to my last Starbucks visit—had I run a backup then? I couldn’t remember. Lost work could be replaced—I could rewrite my last few chapters if necessary—but it would definitely be worth something to save the time and aggravation. “What do you want?” I typed.
“first we must discuss your plans to cut that poor girl this cannot be allowed”
I was a bit nonplussed, readers. Here I had been envisioning financial ruin and the wide dissemination of drunken college photos, and the intruder wanted to discuss the revisions to my latest draft. “Well,” I wrote, “I get where you’re coming from, I do. I like her, too, but she’s sort of superfluous. She doesn’t really fit in anywhere.”
“that is no reason to cut her”
“Actually, that’s a very good reason,” I wrote, feeling more in my element, now that were discussing story craft. “If you’re not relevant, you get cut. That’s just how it works.”
“you heartless monster you must be stopped”
I knew this sort of thing happened in the realms of pop culture fandom, readers: enthusiasts developing proprietary feelings for a given character or story or world, and becoming enraged over changes to their beloved fiction. I’d heard of similar revolts over developments in the Star Wars universe, for example, or in the lives of Marvel superheroes. To be honest, I was a little flattered—I didn’t know I had any fans rabid enough to hack into my computer and hold me hostage over a plot point. The odd thing was, that character I’d been planning to cut wasn’t even inmy first book, so how did this hacker know about her? Was I dealing with some kind of speed-reader, who’d gone through my entire draft in the time it took me to write half an email?
“Look,” I wrote, “I’m really grateful for your interest in my work, but I have a responsibility to all my readers, not just you. Sometimes doing the right thing is hard, and you have to cut someone you like. Haven’t you ever heard the old advice, ‘kill your darlings’?”
“what an evil motto watch vile fiend as i strike you down”
And with that, readers, my screen went blank.
Readers, I do not know if anything like this has ever happened to you. I hope it has not. But if it has, you will understand the shock and horror I felt as my desktop vanished in a flash, as silence replaced the whirring of cooling fans, as the light receded from my screen, leaving only my own astonished reflection staring back at me through the glossy black of my monitor. I hit the power button; nothing happened. I depressed various combinations of keys, hoping to initiate a hardware reset, but no hardware reset was initiated. Panic rising, I attempted some percussive maintenance, shaking my laptop as if to send the intruder rattling out onto the floor. I shouted, “Get ahold of yourself, computer!” But my efforts were in vain, readers: not a blip, not a beep, not a boop emerged from within the metal frame.
I promised you terrors, readers, and here they are: my laptop had gone insensible, and all attempts to revive it had failed. I needed professional help, stat—ideally an Apple Store, but barring that (as I do not think Apple Stores are common in northern Maine), any computer maintenance outfit. My first action, though, was to get out of Prism Bay Literary Merchants and away from the infected network. That done, I tried the laptop’s power button again, but to no avail. I thought about returning to the Hemlocks, to ask Mrs. Sylvester where the nearest computer technician could be found, until I remembered I had a friend close by who might be able to point me in the right direction.
Since my first visit to Amy’s All-Hours Confectionary Kitchen some weeks back, I have become a Sunday regular and frequent lunchtime customer. I’d entered full computer panic during the post-post-lunch, pre-teatime lull, and when I rushed through the bakery’s door, wild-eyed and waving my laptop, Amy was enjoying a coffee behind the counter. She listened sympathetically to my woes, but could not direct me to Prism Bay’s foremost computer maintenance facility, as I requested, because no such place existed. “There’s one sort of general repair shop a little way inland,” she said. “I don’t know if they do computers, but they’re supposed to be able to fix anything. Could be worth a try.”
It did sound worth a try. Surely someone with a reputation for being able to fix anything would have seen a computer or two in their day. I was further encouraged by the place’s name, “Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium”. Amy wrote down directions to the shop on a napkin, which she presented to me along with a donut, refusing all payment because, and I quote, “There’s no charge for sympathy donuts”. (“Sympathy”, incidentally, was the donut’s purpose, not its flavor. The flavor was chocolate.) Amy is a true friend, readers.
I arrived at Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium roughly fifteen minutes later, sweating from a warm and sunny day I was far too agitated to enjoy. If Earl’s choice to include the word “entropy” in the name of his business had left me hopeful of his potential computer expertise, the overall state of his emporium did not. It looked like a junkyard, readers, albeit one full of artfully restored and cool-looking stuff—at least, from what was visible of it. Most of the place was surrounded by a high wooden fence, but I could see all manner of crap poking up over the top: old carnival rides, and gigantic novelty roadside attractions (livid green tyrannosaurus Rex, enormous kewpie doll, off-brand King Kong gorilla, gaping Jaws-sized shark), some oddly-configured construction equipment, and what was very possibly a full locomotive engine.
Out front was a small red building, bearing a billboard that declared this to be Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium. A line of vintage cars, like the ones I remembered from the Prism Bay Beach Club, told me Earl likely did a brisk trade maintaining the town’s fleet of classics. I stowed my bike and made my way gingerly inside, very aware that the ground might be strewn with sharp, rusty objects that would make short work of my flip-flops. At the door, I was greeted by a room that seemed filled with just about everything to which the word “machine” might be attached: sewing machines, washing machines, vending machines, slot machines. There were bicycles, unicycles, motorcycles, monocycles. All manner of audio and visual equipment, too—phonographs, gramophones, televisions, kinetoscopes—so long as it was made before 1960, apparently. I did spot one actual computer, though—an Apple, in fact. It was an Apple II, circa 1980.
The whole place had a weird vitality to it, the kind of rhythmic motion you might expect in a room full of cuckoo clocks. Earl, I supposed, was Prism Bay’s version of a nineteenth-century gentleman scientist—maybe even its Victor Frankenstein. On another day, it would have been an awesome discovery, but today I had more pressing concerns, and creepy coolness was not going to revive my computer. Where I would find the help I needed was still unclear: I was by myself in the midst of this clutter—unless, of course, you counted the array of animatronic robots, seemingly salvaged from every amusement park ever built, their wide, white eyes staring at me from various points around the room.
After some searching, I discovered a front desk with an attached call bell, the ringing of which summoned the store’s eponymous Earl. He was an unassuming fellow, of relaxed and unhurried demeanor—just the sort of attitude that will drive you crazy if, for example, you are frantic over the state of a misbehaving computer. At first, he stared at my laptop like it was the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, not even opening it, just considering the shiny exterior and embossed Apple logo. Eventually, he lifted the cover, but didn’t touch the keys, or plug the laptop in, or really do anything except gaze into the darkened screen for a few seconds, then lower the top again and declare he couldn’t help me.
“You didn’t even try to turn it on,” I said, flabbergasted.
“You told me it wouldn’t turn on,” he replied, quite sensibly.
“Well, yeah,” I said, “but I’m no expert.”
Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium shook his head. “Sorry, kid,” he said—rather gruffly, I thought. “You bring me something that’s broken, I’ll fix it, but that there isn’t broken.”
“It’s certainly acting broken,” I protested.
“Could be acting broken, but it isn’t,” Earl replied with a chuckle. “What you got there is a malicious entity. A little gremlin in your machine, I’d guess.”
“A gremlin?” I asked in blank astonishment. “You’re saying I have a computer… gremlin?” I knew the term, readers—probably you have heard it as well. Also known as a computer elf or a computer gnome, a computer gremlin is a fanciful way of anthropomorphizing computer problems that have no obvious explanation. The only way to banish a computer gremlin is to find the actual problem and fix it. Gremlin spray, for example, would be ineffective.
“I’d say it’s a djinni, if you want to get specific,” said Earl.
“Right, OK,” I said, willing myself to remain calm. “Is there anyone in town who’d know how to deal with that sort of thing?”
“No one’s going to touch it, kid,” Earl said with another laugh. “Won’t want it coming after them. No, thing like that, you either got to make friends with it or give it what it wants.”
Readers, I was trying to be polite, but it was becoming more and more obvious that Earl was, as they say in the British Isles, taking the piss. This did not seem like a very gracious thing to do; the instrument of my livelihood was in jeopardy, and here was Earl, having a grand old time messing with the out-of-towner. “Listen,” I said, “my entire lifeis in this thing. I just need to find someone who specializes in this sort of problem—or not even specializes. They just have to know something. Please.”
But Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium was not swayed by my sincerity. If anything, it made him angry. “Maybe it’s your life, kid,” he said, a new edge in his voice, “but this here is my business, and I don’t need you wrecking it on me. Something needs fixing, come back and see me, but I’d like you to get that thing out of here, if you please.”
I suppose, in retrospect, that it wasn’t too outlandish a precaution. If we’d succeeded in booting up my laptop, any malware lurking in its systems might have spread through Earl’s local network, if he had one. I didn’t find out if he did, because Earl continued to glare at me with increasing ire until I was out the door, gremlin-or-djinni-infested computer beneath my arm.
By the time I left Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium, my panic and despair had been largely replaced by anger—a good thing, I thought, because anger is an active emotion, one that will drive a person to seek solutions. Unfortunately, the only solutions I could imagine involved vandalizing Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium. I’d seen an old punch-card computer by the door, and considered walking back in and dumping a program or two onto the floor. See how Earl liked that for a computer gremlin. I did nothing of the sort, however, and my virtue—or, anyway, non-despicableness—was rewarded. As I was retrieving my bike, I heard someone call out, “Hey! Hey you!”
A young woman had appeared at the entrance to Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium—not the bookish young woman from Prism Bay Literary Merchants, though I did feel like I knew this one from somewhere, too. She looked sullen, angry, and mildly embarrassed, which I seem to recall being the primary emotions of teenagerhood. “Yes?” I said, assuming the “hey you” referred to me, since there was no one else around. “Can I help you?”
“Your computer,” she said, with a glance toward the metal rectangle I’d been preparing to return to its bag. “What happened to it?”
The fact that she was referring to my laptop as a “computer”, instead of “that thing” or “what you got there”, was the most encouraging thing that had happened since I arrived at Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium. “I logged onto a wifi network in town,” I said. “It must have had some pretty lax security, because I ended up with a bit of nasty malware, and now it won’t turn on.”
“You found wifi in town?” she asked, openly amazed.
More encouraging still. “At the bookstore—Prism Bay Literary Merchants.”
“Oh, that place.” She sounded disappointed, but didn’t explain further. “Look,” she said, “can I give you some advice? Forget trying to get that fixed in town. You’ll save yourself a lot of weirdness and aggravation if you just go to a normal computer place, or an electronics store—anything, but not here.” She thought about it, and added, “There’s a Best Buy in Augusta. Try there. I guarantee they’ll be able to fix it.”
She seemed pretty confident, readers—confident enough that I thought she deserved to be taken seriously. “OK, thanks,” I said. “Much appreciated. So are you Earl’s technology specialist, then?”
“I’m his niece,” she said, sighing in a way that indicated a good amount of backstory. “Just here for the summer. You too, right?”
And that, readers, was when I remembered her. She wasn’t asking whether I was also Earl’s niece, of course, but whether I was here for the summer—and I realized we had more than that outsider status in common. We had, very possibly, arrived on the same night. Here, readers, was the young woman in the explicit t-shirt I’d overheard arguing with her mother as I debated giving up my search for Prism Bay. The explicit t-shirt was nowhere in evidence, and there was not as much black-and-white makeup, but it was her. “Right,” I said.
“Thought so,” she said. “Sucks, doesn’t it?”
“It’s been an adjustment,” I admitted. “Lovely views, though.”
“There’s no cell reception for miles,” she countered. “I can’t even find out what my friends are doing back home. You ever try sending a text through a rotary phone?”
“I haven’t, no. But there must be a few things to do. I’ve met some nice people since I got here.”
The young woman formerly of the explicit t-shirt answered this with a derisive snort. “That’s what Earl says, too. Except everyone here is insane. You know what he told me the other day?” she asked, smirking now. “He said, ‘Your mom tells me you’re a little Goth, Mimi. Well we’ve got Goths here, too, you know. We’ve got Visigoths and Ostrogoths, and also Huns and Vandals. Maybe you want to hang out with some of them.’”
It was a spot-on impression of Earl, and also a fine example of the sort of thing you hear a lot around Prism Bay. I laughed, and thanked Mimi, formerly of the explicit t-shit, then rode back to the Hemlocks for my car. From there, it was off to Augusta, where the promised Best Buy awaited.
Well, readers, I bet you can guess what happened next. When, after many hours of anxiety and driving, I presented my laptop to Hernán, licensed Geek of the Best Buy Geek Squad, it started right up. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience: some piece of technology pushes you to your wits’ end, and when you finally find professional help, it works perfectly on the first try, making you look like a complete idiot. That is what happed there at the Augusta Best Buy, readers. Hernán was very understanding—he even scanned my hard drive for malicious software (there was none, readers). It seemed Earl of Earl’s Entropy-Erasure Emporium had been right, in his way: my computer had suffered one of those inexplicable glitches sometimes called computer gremlins, and now that glitch had resolved itself just as inexplicably.
I know there was something else going on too, of course. Strange reddish words do not just appear on their own—at least, not with angry commentary about the latest draft of your novel. Someone was in my computer, readers. Perhaps this person wasn’t able to do any damage, but I wasn’t interested in taking chances. I purchased a full suite of antivirus software, and made sure it was updated and ready to go before I left Augusta for Prism Bay. In the days since, I’ve waited for the intruder to contact me again—maybe to demand further story alterations on the threat of releasing old photos from my past life, photos in which I can clearly be seen wearing cargo shorts (ugh)—but so far, I have been spared.
Whatever the reason, Mimi, formerly of the explicit t-shirt, had known going to Augusta would be my salvation. Maybe she could just tell I was frazzled and needed a long drive to cool off. She was wrong about one thing, though: the people of Prism Bay are, in a sense, just like everyone else. If you give them a chance, they really can be very nice. More on that next time, readers. Until then, may your days be sunny, your donuts doughy, and your laptops gremlin-free!