Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

The Plagiarist: Chapter One

The familiar glow-in-the-dark sticker held Adam’s attention. He lost himself in it—it was some kind of radioactive bee lighting on a flower, a thirsty tongue hanging out of a goofy smile. The sticker clung to the frame of his beat-up computer screen, keeping peace with a half dozen others that he’d nervously picked away to varying degrees. Adam was prone to gnawing at them idly with his fingernails, punishing them for being distracting. They weren’t his; they came with the monitor, used. His eyes fell reluctantly from the bee. The only thing on his screen was a chat window, impatiently blinking with its most recent message:

 lonelyTraveler1: you still there?

Of course he was. He forgot the bee, saved it for another day. His fingers fell back to the keyboard. They sat there, unsure of how to respond. Thoughts whirled. He read the previous question, the second one up, the one he had become distracted from for whoever knows how long. He read it over and over. Where the fuck had that come from? he thought. He decided to skip the question and respond to the more recent one, the one he knew the answer to:

 Griffey575: Yeah. Sorry about that. Doing too much at once.
 lonelyTraveler1: got a screen full of flirting ladies over there, do you?

Adam glanced over the sad and empty expanse of his desktop and let out a pathetic chuckle. Twenty four inches wide and over half that tall of nothingness. His entire social life, real romantic life, was contained in one small chat window that took up a lonely fraction of the abyss. Drowning it out were cycling background images of places he’d never see, lives he’d never live. Not actual ones, anyway.

 Griffey575: I wish.

He deleted that before sending it.

 Griffey575: Work stuff.

He wondered if lies counted as such if they and the truth were equally boring.

 lonelyTraveler1: what kinda stuff? for a class you’re teaching? or are you writing something?

Lies spawn lies. Lies upon lies. Adam’s fingers, normally a blur over the keyboard, remained frozen. He hadn’t written anything new in weeks. His online friend — girlfriend? — Amanda was forever bugging him for more of his work. She was his anti-muse. He couldn’t think when being told to.

 lonelyTraveler1: and you still haven’t answered my question…

Which one? Adam thought.

 Griffey575: Which one?

He hit enter before he could regret asking. He knew which question. He didn’t want to know, but he did. His stomach lurched with the audaciousness of her suggestion. But then, what did that say about other relationships he’d had? Or the other one he was presently in? Which was sicker? Which was less real? And who would be the victim? Who would he be betraying, anyway?

 lonelyTraveler1: don’t you think it’s time we meet up?
 Griffey575: In person?
 lonelyTraveler1: how else?

Adam lost himself in the blinking cursor where he was expected to respond. The glowing bee radiated stored sunlight in his peripheral. In the utter darkness around him, he sensed the piles of clutter that every day waited patiently for him to come home. He kept the lights off so he couldn’t see them. Only the bee betrayed his neglect with its steady glow.

 Griffey575: This way seems nice.

After the barest of pauses, he added:

 Griffey575: :)

It wasn’t sarcasm. It wasn’t real humor. It was an apology, or maybe something to soften the blow. He knew he’d screwed up as soon as he sent the reply. Amanda’s silence confirmed it. An icon came up to let him know she was typing something. It disappeared for a moment, reappeared, then disappeared again. What he loved most about the simple chat interface was being able to conceal one’s thoughts, but much could be discerned from what few clues there were.

 Griffey575: I think I’m just not ready.
 lonelyTraveler1: I’m gonna find out you’re married, aren’t I?

Adam wished he could laugh at the idea. Such lies weren’t in him, of course. Neither was such a life.

 Griffey575: I’m not married.

He considered copying that to his clipboard to save from having to type it over and over in the future.

 lonelyTraveler1:  but there’s someone else.
 Griffey575: There’s no person else.

As an English professor, he hated the construction of the sentence. It tickled the same portion of his educated psyche that flinched every time Amanda ignored her shift key. But she was better than most he’d ever chatted with online. And the awkward sentence kept his response, strictly speaking, from being an outright lie.

 lonelyTraveler1:  I won’t push you. but think about it. or at least write me something. I feel like we’re living in 2 separate worlds lately.

Adam laughed nervously. His fingers left the keyboard and moved to rub his sore temples. For a brief moment, just an insane instant, he considered telling Amanda the truth. He pictured typing all the craziness of his life out in one uninterrupted, suicidal, message. He imagined her sitting there, staring at the icon that let her know he was typing for hours and hours while he crafted some biopic admission…

He deleted the thought.

 Griffey575: I do have a piece I haven’t shared.

His mind was suddenly in a spilling mood; it would find release in some cryptic truth. There were haikus he kept to himself, works he’d never written down nor uttered aloud. They kept him company in his head, swirling beneath the layered façades. The impulse to let one out was great. He figured he could trade it for the impossible thing she was asking. Maybe he could delay the inevitable.

 lonelyTraveler1:  oh. PLEASE!!
 Griffey575: Just one, then I really need to get some sleep. I have an early class.
 lonelyTraveler1:  is this a new one? when did you write it?

When did he write it? He couldn’t exactly remember. All his life, he’d wanted to be a writer, but was too good at reading and did too much of it. He had too many of Shakespeare’s sonnets memorized. Too much Blake and Shelly. All that good stuff was crammed up in his brainstem; it pooled up in his pons; it dripped down his spine and was a part of his very fiber. Trying to sneak a sham of his own past such a gang of real McCoys? Forget it. This was Adam’s failing: he knew the good stuff. It was his failing and it was his great gift. Maybe that’s why nothing could sneak out his brain but little haikus, unassuming and little heard. They were like neutrinos streaming from the dense center of a star, streaking across the cosmos invisible and unknowable.

 Griffey575: About a year ago I think.

He hit enter, let the words come to him from memory.

 Griffey575: Here it goes; then I need to get away from this screen:
 Moments spill through hands
idling away at nothing
To puddle in years

Adam logged off.

The chat window remained open, leaving the history of another uncomfortable conversation to scroll through and regret. He read the poem. He realized, that at that very moment, Amanda was reading it as well. They were both seeing it for the first time. It was as if some part of him had been excised. Released. Set free and exposed.

He wondered how much of him she would see in the poem. Could it be read in any way other than the obvious? Full of regrets? A loser continuing to lose? Not for the first time, he tried to imagine what Amanda looked like. Not that it mattered, but the human brain seemed to need to know. Eyes met when voices crossed. It was natural. Above the psychedelic bee, he gave the webcam affixed to the monitor’s frame a nervous glance. It wasn’t plugged in; never had been. Came with the monitor. Still, it felt like people could see him sometimes, see the real him stripped of his avatars.

He closed the chat window and turned off his computer, rubbed his eyes. It was so late it was early. And Amanda had been right, even if she’d only meant it as a figure of speech: they were spending too much time on different planets. Adam felt the haiku captured that all too well. So much simplicity and truth in seventeen syllables. And now it was out in the world and no longer rattling around in his brain. He laughed to himself, scratched the beard sneaking out of his skin, then saw the hour and realized he had the time for neither a nap nor shower. Not if he was going to see her before the labs were overrun.