John gone, p.4
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       John Gone, p.4
 

           Michael Kayatta

  Chapter 4

  John turned east next to the park and rounded into The Napoli, the large, mazelike apartment complex where he hoped to find his estranged friend. Inside and past the fence, the grounds were beautiful, if not somewhat tacky. Everything within The Napoli’s property had been painted, sculpted, and decorated in the styling of renaissance-era Italy. Small fountains adorned the courtyards between the blocks, featuring naked dice-white men and women balancing leaky satyrs, grapes, and pots. The attention to detail was encompassing, but nothing on the planet could make John forget that he was living in Florida on Longboard Key.

  John circled the buildings of the complex on his scooter and desperately tried to remember which belonged to Ronika. It was a difficult task; all of the buildings looked the same, but John was convinced that if he just kept looking, something would jog his memory.

  Soon the persistence paid off. As he passed the front of Block D, he caught sight of an armless cherub statue planted in the ground. It was the apartment association’s feeble attempt at creating the classical version of a lawn gnome. He remembered it from his sole previous trip to The Napoli, when his mother had tumbled carelessly over it, tearing a small hole across the knee of her jeans. John smiled at the memory.

  First floor, 3-D, he suddenly remembered. 3-D! Of course! I should have remembered that.

  Knowing what to search for, John found Ronika’s apartment easily. Hers was the only unit in the long concrete corridor of doors that had a welcome mat. It was the same one he remembered from his previous visit, and still looked just as clean and new as it had back then.

  Not many people coming over, I guess, John thought. Or Ronika herself isn’t coming and going often. Probably both, knowing her.

  John read its message, written starkly in black Helvetica: There’s No Place Like 127.0.0.1. The joke made him laugh, and briefly, only briefly, he forgot the grim circumstances that had brought him there. He closed his eyes and knocked.

  Within seconds, the apartment door flew open, revealing Ronika standing wide-eyed in an A-shirt and pajama pants. The girl’s body was almost inhumanly slender, leaning effortlessly flush against the right side of the doorframe. As her body curled around its border, John remembered how strangely captivating he’d thought her movements had been during his first visit. Even in open spaces, she’d always seemed to move and flow like an ermine slipping deftly through a twisting maze or flexing through the slightest crack beneath a doorway.

  The girl’s hair was October-pumpkin-orange, unique in its constancy, not changing even slightly in tone or hue between strands. Its front was styled into rounded bangs cut carefully in varying lengths to circle her pale face. The back lifted slightly before draping down long and straight beneath her shoulders.

  Separating the two sections was a headband--at least, John thought it was a headband--that supported two orange, fuzzy fox ears with white tips on either side of her head. With her thick, similarly colored hair covering up her human ears, the fox ears seemed an almost natural addition to her face. The ears were simply a part of her, and she was infrequently seen without them.

  Ronika slunk her way toward John’s body until their faces were separated by an inch. She held her right hand out flat and rested it on his head. From there, she tilted it dramatically upward and brought it to the top of her own. She smiled widely.

  She’d always been a few inches taller than John--even without the added height of her headband--and she liked to remind him of it whenever possible. John had always considered her height to be a temporary advantage, one he blamed solely on their small difference in age. He hoped that someday she would finally stop growing so he could catch up.

  “John,” she said.

  “You recognized me,” he replied, backing away to widen the awkwardly small distance between them.

  “What time is it?” she asked casually.

  John looked at his watch. The sight of it gave him a stomachache. “4:15 A.M,” he said.

  “Almost bedtime.”

  John’s expression was pained. “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t be,” she answered smoothly. “You can take the couch.” She turned and moved back into her apartment with John following nervously.

  The apartment was clean, but cluttered with carefully organized collectibles, action figures, stuffed animals, comic books, and novels. John looked over Ronika’s left shoulder and noted a medieval battle-axe hanging on the wall next to what could only be described as a pedestal holding some sort of science-fiction space-marine helmet on top of it.

  “Where’s your mom?” she asked.

  “Oh,” John began, unsure if this was the best part of the story with which to begin.

  Ronika turned back toward him and smiled. Whenever she smiled, she tilted her head to the right. This was a habit, as she had explained to John years before, which stemmed from the colon-and-open-parentheses smiley face she so often typed online.

  “I’m just kidding,” she said. “I figured she wouldn’t be here, it being four in the morning and all. I was just giving you a hard time. It’s nice to see you in person, though. For, like, the first time in six years or something.”

  “Ronika,” John said, “please let me explain what I’m doing here so late.”

  “It’s not late,” she answered. She scratched the back of her head as she stretched her torso, putting her spine at an almost ninety-degree angle backward. “For me, this is like ten o’clock in normal-person time.”

  “Okay, but I need to--”

  “Give me a second, Popielarski; let me tell my clan that I’m off for the night.” She turned away from him and moved back toward the large desk in the corner of her living room. After dropping lazily into the blue, fluffy recliner at its front, she slipped on a headset.

  She craned her neck toward the left monitor of her dual-screen setup to read something too small for John to see.

  “Just a second,” she mumbled. She started talking quietly to someone else through the microphone in her headset.

  John walked slowly around her apartment while she finished, checking out the assorted treasures stashed around her living room. Some he recognized from different animé series, others from video games.

  Soon, he brought his attention to a worktable in the far corner of the room. Its surface was littered with wires, clamps, bits of plastic, screws, tools, a microscope, solder, solar cells, and numerous half-built devices, the practical purposes of which were difficult to guess. It was the sort of table one usually saw in the lab of a mad scientist on television, even without the bubbling beakers and Bunsen burners.

  John knew that Ronika had been offered an unsolicited scholarship to M.I.T. last year, and again this year, but had never really understood why until seeing the intricacies of the gadgets she’d presumably been working on in her spare time. He had no idea what good combining a blender with vacuum cleaner would do, but thought it was darned impressive all the same. Ronika had told John during one of their many online chats that she’d declined the scholarships, and decided against going to college at all, M.I.T. or otherwise. She’d said it was because of “people.” Ronika was convinced that she’d never learned how to interact with them properly and the thought of being isolated with a large group of them terrified her.

  John heard a ticking noise that drew his eyes upward to a clock hanging on the wall above the table. It was large and analog, but without numerals circling its face. An assortment of math problems was printed in their stead. 630 divided by 126 for the 5 and -8=2-X for the 10.

  “Weird clock, right?” Ronika asked from behind him.

  “I’ve seen weirder,” John answered.

  The next day John woke from a dream involving a zombie apocalypse, his mother doing laundry, and a secret steering wheel deep within the Earth that let him pilot the planet out from the solar system. He sat straight up, still wrapped in the feathery pink blanket Ronika had thrown at him, and wondered if the dream had any arcane wisdom to o
ffer his current situation. He drew a blank.

  John flicked at a piece of hardened sleep in his left eye and reacclimated to the wakened world. It was strange waking up somewhere other than his short, blue house on the shore. This was the first time he’d ever done it. He and his mother had never gone on vacation, and during the age when sleepovers are common, he hadn’t any friends other than Ronika, whom, at the time, he’d known only as a screen name online.

  The night before, John had told Ronika everything. He’d told her about the glare on the beach, the embarrassing job at America Offline, and about how Virgil had died in front of him on an office floor. He told her about his experience in Tallahassee, the bus that was supposed to take him back home, and the thirteen deaths for which he felt responsible. He even told her about the note he’d scribbled to his mother on a tissue in eyeliner pencil.

  To his great surprise, Ronika hadn’t second-guessed any part of it. She hadn’t said he was crazy and she hadn’t complained about, or even approached, his unexplained absence from her life for the past six months. She hadn’t asked if he was “sure he was remembering everything correctly,” or worse, if he’d been “abusing any substances.” She simply believed him, or at the very least seemed to, without reservation.

  Ronika had just sat there for the remainder of their time awake last night, letting him speak, listening to the facts and his feeling about the facts, while holding his arm and gazing into the humming wires of the watch stuck to his wrist. They hadn’t gotten to sleep until the sun was first starting to shine through the vertical venetian blinds adorning her living room window.

  John considered just how late they’d stayed awake the night before and quickly covered the face of his watch from view. He closed his eyes. Please, let it be later than 3:14, he thought. If it’s later than 3:14 and I’m still here ...

  He removed his hand from over his wrist and looked at the time. It read 2:55 P.M. John paled. His mind swam, fast muddling with thoughts of appearing back in Tallahassee with Adam. He also imagined himself in the warehouse again, being found by the police or the old, snooping women who’d betray him to them.

  John ran in a flustered panic across the room to the back hallway of Ronika’s apartment. There were two doors at its end. John banged on the one to his right with his fists and did the same to the one on his left.

  “Ronika,” he spoke loudly, “we don’t have a lot of time!” He turned back to the right door to bang on it again just as Ronika opened the left. She stood there in front of him, rolled into a large white comforter and wearing her fox ears. John whirled around to face her.

  “Why are you banging on my spare bedroom’s door? No one’s in there,” she said though a yawn.

  John turned back to the other door and opened it. There was a mostly empty room behind it, save a large, queen-sized bed and a small television set on a barstool.

  “If you had another bedroom, why did you make me sleep on the couch?” he asked. The question had no anger in it, just confusion.

  “Sometimes I switch beds in the middle of the night,” she answered casually. “Or the morning.” She took him by the shoulders and gave him a light shove back to the living room.

  “I have to get dressed,” she informed him. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

  “I know we don’t have a lot of time,” John grumbled.

  “And no more shouting or banging, jeez,” she called out to him before closing her door.

  John walked back into the living room and paced. He looked at the watch. Three o’clock. He checked the clock on Ronika’s wall to make sure. 198 divided by 66 o’clock. He was running out of time.

  Ronika reappeared a moment later and leapt onto the couch in the living room. She grabbed the pink blanket John had used the night before and curled up into a ball. “So now what happens is you disappear, and if things go like they did on the bus, I pass out, or something. Right? I’m getting comfy.”

  “This is serious,” John answered back, still walking back and forth across the room.

  “I know that,” she said defensively. “Would you prefer I’m holding a knife or something when I go unconscious?”

  “What? No. Sorry,” he said quickly. “I’m nervous.”

  “I know,” Ronika said warmly. “But, hey! I just had an idea. Hold on.” She slid out from under the blanket and bounced to her feet. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this last night.”

  She ran to her desk and leaned behind it to the back of her monstrous computer tower. Her head reappeared a few seconds later with an enormous grin slapped across the front of it.

  “Check this out,” she said smugly. In her hand she held a small, boxy, humanoid machine. It was a robot.

  “Mouse,” Ronika said.

  “What?”

  “This is Mouse. M-O-U-S-E. Multi-Option Universal Service Entity. I built him ... sort of,” she explained, handing it to John. “The casing, bipedal function, and so forth were already there when I bought the little guy. But I’ve made some significant modifications.” She tilted her head and smiled.

  “Are you going to try and use it to remove the watch from my arm?” John asked excitedly.

  “No!” Ronika reeled, shocked at the question. She took Mouse from John’s hands and held it defensively against her chest. “Not after what you told me happened to the last dude who tried it. Are you crazy?”

  “No?” John replied, more a question than an answer.

  Ronika reservedly handed him back the robot.

  “Okay, check it.” Ronika bounced back to her desk and pulled out a pair of seemingly ordinary arm-length gloves that had been deliberately hand-marked in a rainbow of colors. She slid them over her hands and sat in front of a large, modified webcam sitting between her twin monitors. After a few clicks of her computer’s mouse, she held the gloves up to the camera. As she moved her arms to the left, John was surprised to find Mouse’s arms mimic the action precisely. Ronika grabbed the headset from next to her on the desk and put it over her head. She unhooked it from her computer and plugged it into the front of her webcam. Mouse continued to replicate her movements.

  “Nice to meet you. I’m Mouse,” Ronika said into the headset’s microphone. Her voice played simultaneously out of a tiny speaker in the robot. She extended her hand toward the camera, as if to shake its hand. Mouse extended his pincher-style hand to John in tandem. John took it gingerly between his left pointer-finger and thumb. He shook it in introduction.

  “This is amazing,” John said.

  Ronika beamed at the comment. “You really think so?” she asked.

  “I really do,” John answered. “But, Ronika, how is this going to help?”

  “Well, I can talk to you and stuff. Maybe help? Plus, I can see what Mouse sees, too. Look.”

  John looked toward her monitor and saw himself from the robot’s perspective. He looked into the metal visor where Mouse’s eyes would be if it were human. He waved his hands in front of it and watched the live video of him doing so on Ronika’s monitor.

  “This is great,” John began, losing volume as he spoke. A weakness was washing over him. It was almost time. He backed up and sat on the couch before his condition forced it.

  “John!” Ronika yelled. “Is this it? Is it happening?”

  “Put Mouse in my messenger bag so I don’t drop it. Get in your feathery blanket thing,” he said as calmly as possible, quickly losing the strength of his voice.

  Ronika quickly followed his instructions. After securing Mouse, she curled tightly into her ball of fluff on the couch and watched in wonder at John’s arm as it began to spasm wildly.

  “Amazing,” she whispered.

  John groaned and tried to steady his arm.

  “John,” Ronika said quietly, leaning into him, “would you be angry if I told you I was excited?”

  John disappeared.

 
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