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Note: this piece is a segment from the novel I am currently writing. It follows the piece I posted during Week [8] of this year's Idol competition. Just as a brief summary, the protagonist has shifted from the Earth we know to an alternate one, where different decisions were made and different outcomes were experienced. That world's version of the protagonist was married, had kids and is now divorced but mysteriously disappeared on the first day of spring while on the rim of the Grand Canyon. This is our first view of his former spouse.

---

Doctor Harriet Foster was extremely busy. Between her lectures and surgical work at the University of Tokyo, and her semi-regular appearances on “The Asako Ito Show” talking about health, nutrition and exercise, she was also, now and for the first time in her life, a full-time, single mom. Her three children were continually in her orbit, because of the circumstances. Of course, she had help, but she had come to detest leaving the kids with a caregiver that wasn’t related to the family (irrational as that was), and she wasn’t comfortable dealing with her parents more than absolutely necessary (practical as that was). That’s why she was doing a bit of work from home, monitoring her progeny while making some progress on a Commencement Address and writing notes on some research one of her surgical teams produced during the previous week.

One of the conveniences of Doug as her former partner was that his calendar was astoundingly flexible. Or, at least, because of the style of his work, frequently writing and usually in locations where all that he needed were semi-private conditions to accomplish his tasks, he tended to be even more willing to take on responsibility to mind the kids, as needed. So, when Harriet’s schedule got overbooked the way it was every spring, Doug had been right there to pick up the slack, or the children, despite the demands on his time.

Harriet was not nearly as comfortable breaking out of a routine. She thrived on the structure of standard practices and even when she was told she should get out of the office or take a break from the endless theory into practice elements of what she was pursuing, it was a struggle. In her head, she was as free to do anything and everything she chose; she just did not choose because that was not her choice.

That was part of the reason why Harriet and Doug were such a perfect match. She gave him a sense of order, while he provided her enough whimsy and frivolity to break her usual grind.

But the element that was taking up most of Harriet’s cerebral cortex was the stunning development that her whimsical and frivolously responsible ex inexplicably turned up about six weeks after he disappeared and in a location nearly 3000 kilometers from where he was last known to be. Her middle child and oldest daughter, Sakura, informed her that Daddy’s Assistant and she spoke about it and that Daddy’s Assistant confirmed this information. And there were a couple of photos posted publicly that were also printed to most of the global media outlets, but no interview by anyone, just yet. In fact, not one of the three kids had said a word to him yet. Harriet tried not to let this thought bother her, but it was a bothersome thought. Why would Doug delay in speaking to them, so long after their most recent contact? Was it just a case of him wanting to full fill his assistant first? Harriet blanched and shook her head even at the thought.

The other nagging question was a more concrete one: what was on Doug’s Device, Harriet continually asked herself in her mind. Was there something on there that would clear up any confusion about what occurred during that day on the ridge of the Grand Canyon? And what did Doug himself remember about that day? And what would he say about his memories?

When the news broke on that First of Spring day, and the world was informed that Doug had gone missing, or, originally, that his Device had sent out a Sep-Sig (the separation signal indicating that a person had traveled beyond the “close proximity radius” of their own Device) in a difficult to access area of the Canyon, Harriet had immediate concerns that someone would characterize her as somehow being involved with or responsible for the events that lead to Doug’s disappearance. But there was no reason for anyone to presume that Harriet would have or even could have been involved. Notably, she was on duty at the University at the time of Doug’s disappearance, which also meant she was a continent, and, with time zones, really a day away.

Missing Persons cases were usually solved in no time: track the location of the Device in question, typically taking less than fifteen minutes, then plug a Seek Program into the Device to connect it to the citizen to whom it belonged. The result, good or bad, was normally quicker than even a commute from Seoul to Shanghai, assuming it was done within the first seventy-two hours of the search. Even in the occasional case where the person actively intended to “Power Off,” the user typically confirmed that choice with a “Do Not Search” message on their abandoned Device to save resources and time of authorities who were tasked with seeking someone that did not want to be found.

Persons didn’t “Power Off” with any frequency. First, it meant not getting any funding/payment for any elements for the duration of the “Power Off.” Additionally, it also meant losing access to being able to pay for any goods or services or to be recognized to travel using the Bubble System, local transport, basically any vehicle that used something other than one’s own power, like a bicycle, roller skates or just running or walking. Basically, anyone who would “Power Off” was turning their back on the Twenty-First Century.

Doug’s disappearance was suggested as “potentially intentional” by a small group of opportunistic entertainment reporters when the story first broke, because there was an indication that Doug was involved in speaking to members of the Havasupai during his time there and someone who resembled him allegedly had been seen in that area, near the floor of the Grand Canyon. However, those reports were withdrawn when there was no substantiated proof that Doug intended to research any of the Native tribes in the area of the Canyon, all of whom were, in a similar way to their fellow natives on the Great Plains, the Amish in the East and the Primevals along the Gulf Coast, populations of Powered Off People: groups that collectively chose to live their lives in a “disconnected” manner. Anyone entering their lands were required to remove all elements of the current world, which is how the rumor about Doug’s possible research concept gained legs.

As this was an unsubstantiated report and was never verified, those specific entertainment companies paid a severe penalty for issuing unconfirmed info during their casts and had to state retractions as their headlines, always an embarrassment for any news gathering organization.

Meanwhile, Harriet had, quite simply, reached the point where she stopped thinking at all about Doug. Of course, when it was revealed that he had gone missing, Harriet kept a low profile, primarily because she was not a part of his current life. Everyone knew that their split was amicable and smooth, they both agreed to all of the terms the other wanted and their son and daughters, according to all accounts, seemed content being able to divide their time between the Western Hemisphere and the Far East.

But now, he’s back, from outer space.

Harriet didn’t want to wait. She wanted to know exactly what Doug knew, what his Device had to say, and anything Doug might share with anyone regarding the time just before he vanished. To that end, Harriet seriously considered meeting him, in person. Though this went against the mediated agreement of their divorce, this was an unusual circumstance, to say the least. So, the next question was how to do it?

The easiest solution would be to arrange a situation where she needed to hand off the kids to him, somehow. That, of course, was why that option was a complete impossibility. Provisions were very strict about that sort of action. ANY episode involving children as a method of communicating with former spouses was considered a felony offense, good for a minimum of ten and a half weeks of psychological “Grunt Work.”

The basics of Grunt Work meant that you would be removed from your employment for the period suggested by the mediator(s) of your case and would need to “work,” instead, on the concepts of what it means to attempt to manipulate others, including continual reminders that children were not meant to be used as a method of advantage (or, really, used in any way). The subject was placed in Immerse situations where they had to endure similar and continual situations involving a person or persons from their past that they did not want to engage, among a variety of treatments, trials and tests designed to help realign the concepts held and to get the subject back to being a healthy, functioning citizen.

What other ways of finding Doug could there be? Even knowing where Doug would be at any given moment would still set off “Prox Warns:” proximity warnings that would alert authorities and the two persons in question that they were “Geoxed” or “geographically crossed.” The exception would be if both parties had terminated their ban on each other, but that typically did not happen unless a mediator had stepped in to discuss the terms of what that meant and to make certain that both parties were doing this for an appropriate, healthy and mutually agreed reason. Also, it was a mediator that typically removed the blocks on the Devices, not the subjects themselves.

Third parties would need to be contacted. Obviously, Harriet could not go through Doug’s Assistant to reach him, any more than she could go through their children. So, she would need to contact one of Doug’s pals somehow, without arousing any suspicion. It made Harriet’s heart hurt to think of being deceptive in any way, all of a sudden, especially for something that most people would likely consider trivial. It really went against everything she knew and had learned, but more, against everything society expected. But, what were the options? She could directly request a meeting with Doug, but that would require an explanation of why, and how, with the divorce settlement, this was appropriate. Or she could just wait and watch like the rest of the world, for Doug and/or his Device to say who knows what?

It was clear she needed to find a person who was a good friend to Doug, who was both discreet and who would be willing and able to find a place to host this brief, makeshift reunion, prior to any media contact. It also needed to happen within the next thirty-six hours, because the news cycles wouldn’t wait much longer before some official statement was made, and even a preliminary statement from Doug, if it wasn’t phrased just right, could create an uncomfortable or even an unpleasant circumstance. Harriet felt compelled to reach Doug before that happened.

Yes, this was going to be nerve racking. But she needed to know the story before the rest of the world learned it. It was time to start reaching out to any friendly contacts she knew, and quickly.

As Harriet began to consider who she might contact, she realized something important. She only had one chance to contact one person. This was not something that could be floated as some sort of “trial and error” experiment. If she started contacting people and they were not receptive to what she wanted to do, it could prove to be even worse than whatever Doug or his Device might state. After all, no other person would be required to remain silent about this circumstance, and they might feel it was in the best interest of everyone involved to explain what they knew about Harriet’s actions, especially if they felt it could prove harmful to her children, or, more personally, if they might be implicated in some sort of deception between two people or the public at large. So, she had to get it right the first time.

Harriet started to feel somewhat antsy, a feeling she hadn’t felt since taking her MCATs over a decade ago. There was a sense of pressure, for certain. The idea behind all of this was to avoid anything that could be embarrassing, but this could exponentially multiply any embarrassment if it went badly and could result in some additional challenges for both her family and her.

The person she had to contact needed to be a good friend of Doug, Harriet reminded herself. That much was established. Probably someone who knew Doug for a long time. But this person also needed to be friendly with her. Maybe it was someone who attended their wedding? That would be most likely. The person she was looking for probably needed a sense of humor, in case they took offense at the concept of the meeting. It would be good to be able to simply laugh it off as a non-request, if whomever this person was balked at the notion.

It might also help if the person, somehow, got some benefit from remaining quiet or from arranging the meeting. But what sort of “benefit” would be available? This seemed absolutely impossible.

Just then, Sakura knocked and poked her head into her mom’s office.

“I know you said not to disturb you, but you have a phone call.”

“Who is it?” Harriet asked.

“The Wayne Brady Talk Show,” Sakura said, turning and closing the door behind her.

Great, Harriet thought. The media are already starting to ask about reaction to Doug’s sudden reappearance, or so she assumed. Some intern for the show probably wants an amusing quote, soundbite or reaction from her. Best to get this over as quickly as possible. She stood up and walked to her desk and grabbed the phone.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Harriet? Is that you?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, great. This is Wayne Brady.”

“Wayne? Oh! My daughter told me it was your show on the line for me. I assumed it was going to be some production assistant.”

“Let me come right to the point. And I’m not really certain how to do this without turning this into some sort of issue, so I’m going to state this and hope that you are willing to use some discretion.”

“Well, now you’re scaring me,” Harriet said, sitting down in her desk chair.

“I know you’ve heard that your ex-husband has turned up. I mean the whole world has heard it, by now.”

“Yes.”

“Well, Harriet, I don’t know how to say this, and I don’t want you to hold me responsible for creating a situation that might cause any problem…”

“Please, Wayne. Whatever you need to say, just say it.”

“Doug got in touch with me, and he wants to speak with you.”

Harriet fell silent for a moment.

“Hello? Harriet?”

“I’m here.”

“Okay. Here’s the thing. Doug agreed to make his first public appearance to discuss his experiences on my show. But, to my surprise, he wanted to have you on hand to talk to him before his appearance.”

Harriet’s heart was in her throat. Though she definitely wanted to talk to Doug, the fact that Doug wanted to talk with her meant something potentially different. But what?

“Did he indicate why he wanted me there?”

“He said he just had some things to say to you,” Wayne said.

“What sorts of things?” Harriet asked.

“Things that are clearly ‘off the record,’” Wayne responded. “Look, I feel like I’m the third wheel in this situation and I don’t want any problems for anyone. My question is, do you want to talk with him, yes or no.”

“Yes.” Harriet murmured.

“And are you available tomorrow at five pm Pacific?”

“I will make myself available.”

“I will send a CBS Bubble to pick you up, and an escort will bring you to the production area of the studio.”

Harriet paused. “What about the potential alarm for a Geox?”

“He told me he does not have a Device, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“But his assistant does, and her alarm would also go off.”

“I have a contingent. There’s a dampening field we can activate to prevent that. I mean, we can simulate your device as being outside of the containment area. For the purposes of telecasts, that always has to be available.” Wayne advised. “If you can, we can bring you over at four, set you up in an active studio, set up the dampening field and bring Doug in, separate from his assistant.”

“Okay,” Harriet said.

“Great. I’ll see you tomorrow, a little after four!”

“Thanks.”

Harriet hung up. Then, she exhaled.

//
This excerpt from “Proxy, North Carolina” was especially selected to be presented for LJ Idol.

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
bewize
Jun. 5th, 2017 09:27 pm (UTC)
"But now, he’s back, from outer space."

LOL. I went here:

And so you're back
From outer space
I just walked in to find you here
With that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
I should have made you leave your key
If I've have known for just one second
You'd be back to bother me

And now that song is in my head and I suspect lots and lots of trouble for Harriet.
penpusher
Jun. 5th, 2017 11:04 pm (UTC)
Your Disco Street Cred is at 100! And Harriet does seem to be heading for some turbulent times in the near future... Thanks for reading and for A Gloria(ous) comment!
beeker121
Jun. 9th, 2017 09:10 pm (UTC)
Me too! Thought it reads well with that musical accompaniment running underneath it.
ryl
Jun. 6th, 2017 12:35 pm (UTC)
These Devices seem like a really annoying necessity (much like smartphones, which I'm still resisting). On the one hand they're useful for navigating the technology, but on the other everyone knows where you are. Although the Prox Warn app would be great for restraining orders.
penpusher
Jun. 6th, 2017 03:17 pm (UTC)
There are definitely some parallels with Devices and Smartphones only people are not obsessed with them; they're a practical element, not a "throw your life away" time waster. But really the attitudes that people have adopted are the real difference here, and that's based on the general atmosphere of understanding what is important and why we do what we do.

Thanks for reading and commenting, I really appreciate it!
i_17bingo
Jun. 6th, 2017 12:43 pm (UTC)
First off, I wasn't expecting Wayne Brady to get involved. That blew my mind a little.

Secondly, I enjoy the character of Harriet, who's got a bit of a Vulcan demeanor about her, but has that edge which suggests deeper, probably not understood emotional depth.

Very fascinating overall.
penpusher
Jun. 6th, 2017 04:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for your thoughts here, it means a lot to me! It's good to get a little feedback as I go, just to get a sense that the story is engaging and that things are making sense.

There definitely are some people you might know making appearances throughout the novel, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dick Cavett and Joan Baez did in the earlier excerpt. And yes, Harriet is pretty serious and has some complicated issues in her life, as many overachievers do. She does have a little hope though, if only because the kids force her to be a bit less structured. But also, whenever Harriet gets around people who are fun, she can be too, like Japanese comedienne, Asako Ito, where they act as foils for each other.

Thanks again for giving this a look.
eternal_ot
Jun. 8th, 2017 12:38 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed this world and it did make me curious about what is to happen next. I loved the concept of Grunt work :D. Good luck with the novel, it will sure be an interesting read.
penpusher
Jun. 8th, 2017 05:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for looking and for your comments! The allegories I want to explore about the world and society are the elements I think will propel the story along. The first half is in setting everything up, so it's a bit slower but I tried to make it both logical and interesting/entertaining. But the second half should be like a fireworks display, so it'll only get more fun and become an even faster read as it progresses!
bleodswean
Jun. 8th, 2017 04:53 pm (UTC)
You have a strength for telling story through active dialogue! Your characters do come through in your deft handling of their words.

You say this is from a novel-in-progress....are you going to explode the exposition here at the beginning to be more action/dialogue oriented?
penpusher
Jun. 8th, 2017 05:54 pm (UTC)
You have a strength for telling story through active dialogue! Your characters do come through in your deft handling of their words.

Coming from you, that's very high praise, so thanks a lot!

You say this is from a novel-in-progress....are you going to explode the exposition here at the beginning to be more action/dialogue oriented?

That's a good question. To give you perspective of where in the story this is happening, this excerpt is actually the opening of Chapter Four (of Nine). I gave the brief synopsis just for the sake of providing a bit of context for what the segment I presented here was about. It's all laid out in the actual text of the novel though! Thanks again for reading and for a thoughtful response.
tonithegreat
Jun. 8th, 2017 09:57 pm (UTC)
Wow! What an interesting world! I'm sucked in. I want to know where this is going!
penpusher
Jun. 9th, 2017 02:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks very much! Still the first draft, but it's great getting some early feedback!
rayaso
Jun. 9th, 2017 02:34 pm (UTC)
Very well done, especially for a first draft. You have created a detailed, fascinating world. I love the idea of "Grunt Work."
penpusher
Jun. 9th, 2017 06:23 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for reading. Part of my issue with some science fiction (though I don't quite consider this novel as part of that genre), or any sort of "futuristic" or alternate reality stories is that you don't get a sense about why things became what they were, and the logical progression of events that brought us collectively to that circumstance. There's a lot of details like "Grunt Work" to help clarify the process of how that world is different from this one.

And thanks for a really great compliment!
marlawentmad
Jun. 9th, 2017 06:05 pm (UTC)

An interesting peek into this world!

penpusher
Jun. 9th, 2017 06:25 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading and for commenting!
beeker121
Jun. 9th, 2017 09:12 pm (UTC)
I like this world - the devices and the way folks are 'encouraged' to behave properly have me intrigued. And getting Gloria stuck in my head is never a bad thing.
penpusher
Jun. 9th, 2017 10:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading and your comments!

There are some surprising similarities and some striking differences between these two worlds, that will provide a lot of the interest in the story! But Gloria Gaynor is assured in both!
favoritebean
Jun. 10th, 2017 03:13 am (UTC)
I admit that I cracked a smile when the phone call came in from Wayne Brady.

As an aside, I wish we had those devices in today's society. I reckon people would behave better. On the other hand, I could see where it might pose potential for a police state.

I look forward to reading the full story. Great work!
penpusher
Jun. 10th, 2017 10:29 am (UTC)
Without giving too much away, you're onto something with the Devices... certainly you have a "THIS world" view of them! But of course the circumstances are a little bit different, there!

Thanks very much for reading, and for a terrific compliment!
lordrexfear
Jun. 10th, 2017 04:26 am (UTC)
I feel very happy that you feel proud of this work enough to start sharing what is definitely your real strong first of many opuses.
penpusher
Jun. 10th, 2017 10:34 am (UTC)
I'm more than halfway through the first draft at this point, so I decided to take a chance and put out this excerpt rather than take my last bye. Right now, this is the most important thing to me, so I wanted to get a sense of what people thought, knowing it could get me voted out of Idol. But really, if it did, that would be very useful information!

Thanks very much for reading and for your response. I really appreciate it.
xlovebecomesher
Jun. 10th, 2017 07:37 pm (UTC)
I really like this look into this world and the appearing of Wayne Brady :)
penpusher
Jun. 10th, 2017 08:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks a lot for reading along! Mr. Brady does make a couple of cameo appearances along the way, so if you're a fan, there might be more treats waiting!
flipflop_diva
Jun. 11th, 2017 12:30 am (UTC)
This was fun! I like the idea of the Devices, even if I wouldn't want to live in a world with them :) And I like Harriet. I want to know what Doug wants to talk to her about!
penpusher
Jun. 11th, 2017 12:58 am (UTC)
Thanks a lot for reading, and glad you found it entertaining. I'd share more, but I don't want to create any spoilers!
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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