Excerpt: Pine St.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

I did say previously that I was going to post an excerpt from my current draft to celebrate the halfway point, and here it is.

I grabbed a scene from early in the book that was relatively benign so far as spoilers go. It’s going to be several months at least before I’m done and the whole book is out, so feel free to read and by the time I release it you’ll have forgotten anything that could derail your enjoyment up to this point.

This is the first draft with no major edits so take it for what it is.

It was well into the beginning of twilight by the time Alan finished cleaning up his digital footprint in the office, then printing and reading the documents he’d been sent. He pulled his laptop bag closer to his body as he walked out into the downtown Orlando streets; slightly more protective than usual as it bulged with an unhealthy mass of paper, office toys, and other desktop detritus he’d gained through the years. The day was oppressively muggy, a late evening rain doing little to help relieve the heat of late summer. Alan stepped out from the protection of the building’s entryway onto the sidewalk, cursing his fogged glasses and the way the rain plastered the polo work shirt against his skin. The bar was less than two blocks away. That was two blocks with no suitable cover from the rain. Considering the events of the day there wasn’t much that would deter Alan from his destination at this point.

“You look like you could use some help?” a smoke roughened voice said cheerfully from his side, uncomfortably close. Alan jerked to the side and stepped back quickly, turning to face the sound. His eyes strained against his obscured glasses trying to see who had startled him. He took another step back and tilted his head, squinting to make out the figure from the side of his vision.

A small black woman stood where the voice had come from, a flimsy plastic poncho reflecting the nearby building and street lights. She appeared to be smiling, so far as Alan’s blurry vision could tell, but there was little else he could tell of her face. She was leaning a bit to the side on what appeared to be a cane. With no immediate threat present Alan took a couple seconds to reorient and attempt to resolve the issue with his glasses.

“Uh, I’m sorry,” Alan said, rubbing his already damp shirt against the lenses, “I didn’t catch that. You need some help?”

“I was saying you look like you could use some help.”

“Oh, no I’m fine.” Alan said, fixing his glasses back in place. With his relatively less distorted vision he could start to make sense of the world again. The woman was clearly homeless, and had been for some time. Her clothing was all the wrong size, in desperate need of washing, faded and sun damaged. She had at least one tooth missing in her smile and her age was hard to pin down: somewhere between a drug accelerated middle age or moderately well preserved mid-sixties.

The cane Alan had seen before turned out to be an umbrella, and she opened it to cover them both. It was a large golf umbrella that had seen better days yet managed to perform it’s primary function well enough so long as she reached her arm up high so it didn’t rest on his head.

“I don’t have any cash,” Alan said, starting to continue walking, “thanks though.”

“I’m flexible,” the woman said, keeping stride with him, “you got a smoke?”

With how frustrating the day had been, he imagined it would be just his luck that the weather-proofing on his bag would fail and soak the papers or electronics within. The prospect of having to locate a printer outside the office to re-print them all was shudder inducing. Having to replace the electronics was unthinkable. These worst case scenarios were outlandishly unlikely, but a cigarette was a small price to pay to get to the bar relatively dry.

He made sure he was fully under the umbrella before producing a lighter and a half-empty pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He fished out two cigarettes, handing one to the woman and lighting the other for himself. He took a long drag and slowly let the smoke out through his nostrils, savoring the flavor and enjoying the mild sting in his eyes from the smoke. He hadn’t taken a smoke break all afternoon. He could feel the little tight spots in his jaw and temples loosening.

“So are you rude to everyone, or just people who are helping you out?” the woman asked, holding her hand out in front of her. It took him a moment of dull staring before he realized she wanted to borrow his lighter. He went to hand it to her but she pulled away.

“Oh no,” She said. “You want to use a white lighter you can light it for me. You’re not gonna give me that evil, keep that on your own hands. That’s your bad luck, I’ve got enough of my own.”

“Strange,” he said, touching the flame to the cigarette, “hadn’t heard that one before. Why’s a white lighter bad luck?”

“Hell if I know! I just know that you stay away from them if you know what’s good for you. Where we headed anyway?”

“Pine Street bar,” Alan said, gesturing vaguely up the block, “it’s just up the street.”

“Yeah, I know the place.” She said. “Been here a while now. So what type of work do you do?”

Alan kicked himself mentally for agreeing to this umbrella arrangement. He was in no mood to engage in pointless smalltalk with some random homeless woman he’d never see again. He intently watched the traffic clogging up the narrow street and hoped his silence would get the point across that he wasn’t looking to chat.

“You’re quite the talker.” The woman continued, her smokers voice cracking with bright amusement. “I bet you’re one of those lawyers. All business with a stick so far up your ass you can’t help but be a dick. It’s all good, I get it.”
Alan sighed. “I work with computers.”

“That wasn’t so hard was it? Well, that was my second guess. I always wanted one of those computer jobs. Seems nice, sitting at a comfy desk chair in the AC, clicking away at the keyboard, just raking in the money. Me, I’m out here in the service industry, you see.”

She gestured at the umbrella with a flourish, raising her eyebrows at him.

“Yeah.” Alan wasn’t quite sure what she’d expected but got the distinct impression that one word wasn’t going to cut it. “Uh, service industry can be tough.”

With this she smiled. “You don’t even know the half of it. Why, just the other day I walked a guy halfway across the damn city only for him to stiff me on the tip. You believe that shit?”

Alan vocalized a vague sound of agreement, setting her off into a detailed rant about having to deal with the cruelty of drunk college kids. While that was a complaint he could get behind, he tuned her out anyway as soon as he was certain he didn’t really need to participate. They turned the corner and he could see the bar up ahead, the green awning intruding into the sidewalk to cover the heavy metal tables.

“Well, it’s been a pleasure.” The woman said, extending her hand. Alan reached out awkwardly to shake it but she frowned and turned her hand palm up to clarify her intent. He begrudgingly produced another cigarette from his pocket and handed it to her, masking his embarrassment with annoyance.

“If you ever need an escort through the rain, you can count on old Brenda to get you where you’re going nice and dry!” she called out as he walked away. He wasn’t quite sure how she expected him to find her or request these services in the future, but he wasn’t about to continue his interaction with the homeless woman any further.

He ducked out of the rain into the moderately busy bar, stopping a few steps inside to scan the tables for familiar faces. The wave of air conditioning made his wet clothing uncomfortably cold, causing an involuntary shudder. With a sigh he grabbed an empty bar stool, shook the beaded water off the outside of his bag, and began rummaging for his phone.

“Hey there, Alan.” A chipper voice said from the other end of the bar. “Your friends are outside sitting in the rain like idiots.”

“Ah, well, that makes sense because they are idiots.”

“Head on out, I’ll bring your drink in a minute. They’re taking their time changing this keg out.”

“Just my luck, thanks Claire.”

After finding his phone Alan shuffled the contents of his bag around until it could close again. The warm dampness in the air was less jarring than the air conditioned bar but still far from comfortable. At least his glasses hadn’t fogged up this time. He had no trouble picking out Jane from one of the handful of tables, sitting alone and leaning back against a metal support pole for the awning. He imagined the hind legs sliding out from under the precariously balanced chair and wondered if that would even remotely begin to affect her mood. He saw two beers on the table, a mostly full glass of something cloudy and a half empty bottle of a cheap macro-brew. He figured Gary must be in the bathroom or something.

He took an empty seat at the circular table, placing his bag under it by his feet, and slumped into the chair in silence. Jane was deeply engrossed in something flashy on an over-sized knockoff tablet pretending to be a smartphone. Alan took the time to unpack the day in his mind, playing the events back to get his bearings.

“You still all bent out of shape from getting some weird VR roleplay from the HR department?” Jane asked, her attention still focused on the device while the fingers of one hand flicked across the screen in rhythmic patterns.

“No, I’m bent out of shape because I got the position and have no clue what I’m supposed to do now.” Alan said, continuing quickly. “I start the new job tomorrow. Tomorrow! I’ll have you know this is your fault.”

The chair’s front legs slammed to the ground with a loud clang as Jane lurched forward, setting the device down roughly on the table and nearly knocking over her drink. She fixed her gaze on him with unsettling intensity and didn’t seem to blink for several seconds. The stare was making him uncomfortable but he was too tired to do anything about it and just looked back expressionless.

“Holy shit!” Jane said, a laugh bubbling up as she leaned back again, “I didn’t think it would happen. You are so fucked. This is great.”

Alan did not kick the chair out from underneath her. He did grab her beer, make direct eye contact, and drained the glass without pause. That slowed her giggling down a little, but not by much.

“Why’s Alan fucked?” asked a loud, rough voice. “What’d he do? I bet it’s all his fault.”

A wet mop of shaggy brown hair poked in between the two of them, the owner looking back and forth in quick succession. The effect was like a wet dog drying itself off and both Alan and Jane recoiled.

“Gary you piece of shit!” Alan said, standing up and knocking his chair back. Gary’s face unfolded a huge shit eating grin which he held open slightly longer than necessary as if he were expecting to be greeted with applause.

When he didn’t get a response, Gary appropriated Alan’s recently vacated his seat and began humming a resonant, raspy melody. Alan took a seat on the opposite end of the table, then reached under and grabbed his bag before Gary could start digging through it. Instead Gary retrieved a disposable baggie from his pocket containing a tiny glass pipe painted in the colors of a cigarette and some pitiful looking weed.

“Seriously though, what did you do? Erase your parking tickets?” Gary asked, packing the tiny pipe with a token glance around to see if anyone was watching, “Hack the pentagon? That’s something you computer people do right? Hack things?”

“No, shut up. It’s even better. Alan got promoted and is going to actually have to do his job for once! He’s sad he may lose the time he wastes on the clock fucking around on the internet.” Jane said, still very amused at the concept.

“Oh, that does sound terrible. This calls for a celebration!” Gary said taking a hit off his pipe. He gestured to Alan for the half empty beer bottle on the table, then reached for it himself when Alan crossed his arms and looked away. Gary took a mouthful, swallowed, then exhaled his smoke with a slight wheeze.

“Why do you do that?” Alan asked, shaking his head slowly, “It doesn’t make you look cool.”

“Nah man, it hides the smell.”

“No it doesn’t Gary,” Claire said, setting a glass down in front of Alan, “and I swear if you don’t stop smoking that fucking one hitter here I’m going to shatter it and shove it up your ass one shard at a time.”

“Oh, hey, didn’t see you there,” Gary coughed, “Yeah, that beer was really skunky. Can I get a replacement?”

Claire slapped Gary on the back of the head with a damp bar towel, glaring at him with menace that is normally presented by ill-tempered bouncers. Gary smiled weakly and shuffled the items back into his pockets without looking. The bartender parted with the universal hand signal for “I’m watching you” at which point Gary turned his attention back to the table.

“You know, I think I could probably get her number.” Gary stated, nodding to himself smugly.

“How? You gonna offer to let her make good on that threat?” Jane asked, raising her eyebrow and lowering her gaze. Gary shuddered dramatically.

“Whatever, let’s go back to whatever Alan fucked up. I liked that conversation more.”

Alan stared at his drink, watching the condensation form and drip down the side of the glass while the bubbles within rose in a steady stream to the top. His head was still spinning from the day, but it was starting to slow down. There was a weariness he couldn’t shake, but the tension was starting to ease. He drained half the glass in a slow but steady pace, and sighed deeply when he put the glass down.

A thought percolated into his head. He had been so caught up in the uncertainty and fear that he’d lose his free time that it didn’t occur to him he could apply the same level of effort in his new position once he got settled in. It would only be a couple months of work to get back to where he was, so far as in-office free time was concerned. With the extra added benefit that he’d have greater access to some internal resources he’d really wanted to work with. Not for work related tasks, but if the new location was anything like the last one there’d be no auditing worth its name. He may have enough extra power to spin up something interesting.

“You know what Gary?” he asked, looking back up from his beer, “I think you were right earlier.”

“See Jane, at least someone believes in me.”

“Oh, no, you have no chance at all with Claire.” Gary put on an expression of mock hurt but Alan continued, “A promotion is technically something to celebrate, so let’s celebrate.”

“This is a great idea.” Jane said, the words dripping with sarcasm. “Get trashed the day before you start a new job.”

“First day’s just paperwork anyways, and today was a shit show.” Alan replied, finishing his beer. “I can do paperwork with a hangover.”

“I’m not babysitting,” she said, busying herself with the tablet phone monstrosity, “but I’m more than happy to be along for the ride. Replace my drink from earlier and I won’t let Gary derail whatever crackpot pseudo-philosophy you start spouting about the future of AI when you get trashed.”

“You can’t promise that,” Gary said, pointing emphatically at Alan, “this motherfucker cursed me with knowledge.”

“Knowledge would be a curse for you. Are you referring to when you learned about the game?” Jane asked with a childish grin.

“What? No, I’m talking about that future robot lizard that’s gonna kill a copy of me if I don’t donate all my money to some internet asshole.”

“Roko’s Basilisk isn’t a literal basilisk.” Alan said, leaning back in his chair. “And don’t make it sound like some sort of unethical TV preacher. This shit is the future, we have a responsibility to make that future better.”

Raising his glass Gary toasted, “Fuck that! Here’s to a hungover future!” Which brought out a genuine laugh from everyone at the table. That also happened to be Alan’s last clear memory from the night.