by Robert Barlow
part 1 of 2
Ryan pounded his fist on the desk. His other hand clutched the mouse as he leaned forward and glowered at the monitor, furiously scanning the code line-by-line. “Damn it! What the hell’s wrong?”
The flicker of the screen and overhead fluorescent lights, the latter filling the office with a soft, constant hum, shimmered against his glasses and the sheen of his receding hairline. The cube walls and desk were clean and austere, devoid of personal effects. Behind him, a whiteboard contained a few scrawls outlining a blueprint for the program and in Ryan’s absence provided the only clue that anyone had ever occupied this space.
He clicked the mouse, and the compiler churned the written code into computer command, a status bar displaying the progress. The operation completed, and the program began to run. But before the user interface appeared, the speakers emitted a beep and the screen presented a message that simply stated, “Catastrophic Error.”
“Damn it!” Again he pounded his fist against the desktop. His stomach churned; he needed to use the bathroom, but he clenched himself shut and stared into the monitor.
“Hey, what’s going on?” a voice behind him asked.
The question was a mere whisper, but bounced along the fabricated walls and seemed to grow into a hiss that assaulted him from all sides.
He turned his chair to greet Kyle Yardley, who stood at the cube opening with arms folded across his scrawny chest, his single eyebrow twisted into a scowl.
Ryan took a deep breath. He had nearly three times Kyle’s eight years experience. Four years earlier, this kid had been just another developer; one of a few that Ryan had to clean up after. Now he was Ryan’s immediate supervisor.
“Nothing,” Ryan said, forcing as pleasant a tone as he could manage. “I’m having some trouble at startup, that’s all.”
“Well, you’d better figure it out,” Kyle said. “Soon. You’re running up against the deadline.”
Ryan gripped the arms of his chair. “I know. I’m sure I’ll have it working today.”
“Good. Then knock off the banging.” Kyle started to turn away, but stopped. “And watch your language. We have clients in the building.”
“Okay, sorry.” When sure his boss was safely out of sight, Ryan released the chair and flipped his derision. “Punk,” he muttered.
Then he saw them. From the corner of his eye, Ryan noticed a black spot the size of a housefly crawling over the bright face of his monitor. He spun around. It vanished. Nothing marred the screen but a few of the many thousands of lines of code that would not run. He shrugged (Dust that’s all just dust floating around on my eye, playing tricks, maybe stress, too much going on) and then straightened his collar and returned to work.
As he attempted to trace and verify the logic of the program’s startup operations, a small window appeared at the bottom corner of the screen to indicate the receipt of an email. From systems administration, the subject was “network installs and updates.” Ryan rolled his eyes, annoyed by the distraction, and clicked the alert window’s ‘delete’ button.
After a while, his stomach again began to growl and he popped up from his chair. As he left the cube, he stopped, head cocked to one side. A faint sound buzzed close beside him, barely audible over the churn of his computer, and grew louder. Two black spots squirmed along the whiteboard and danced over the designs on which he had worked so hard.
He whirled around. The sound died. The whiteboard contained only the content he had placed there. He narrowed his eyes and peered at the monitor, the cube walls, the desk. Nothing moved. Nothing made a sound beyond the whirring of the computer fan and spinning of its hard-drive. When his stomach again reminded him of its need, he scrambled away to the restroom.
Ryan bent over the sink and attacked his teeth methodically with the toothbrush. He spat, rinsed and stood in front of the mirror to inspect his white T-shirt and gray slacks for any stain or runoff. Both were fine, and for a moment he admired how nicely those slacks fit once again. He had packed on some extra pounds over the winter, enough for his doctor to issue some warnings about blood pressure and offer strong advice regarding his diet, all of which Ryan followed precisely.
In the mirror behind him, blurred at the edge of his vision, four black spots scurried along the wall. He squeezed his eyes shut, turned and reopened them. The spots were gone. A weak smile worked its way across his face, and he reached out a shaking hand to caress the sterile whiteness. He leaned and rested his forehead against the cool tile, losing himself in the soothing drone of the bathroom fan.
The chirp of his Timex drifted in from the bedroom and interrupted his reverie. Cursing himself (running late again not again Kyle is going to have a fit), he gave the wall a final glance, switched off the light and fan, and lumbered to the bedroom to throw on his shirt and tie.
“We’ve got to have your stuff working now, Ryan.”
Kyle Yardley sat across the conference table, his hand waving a project timeline, copies of which he had passed around the table. One section stood out plainly, highlighted yellow.
“Everyone else is finished, or nearly finished. We seem to be waiting on you.”
Ryan glanced around the table and straightened his glasses. All heads turned toward him, eyes drilling into him from every direction.
“I’m pretty much done,” Ryan said. “But I’ve been having these issues at startup that I can’t catch.”
“Like what?” Kyle sat straight in his chair and crossed his arms. The other programmers at the table leaned forward, young faces lit up, prepared to bury him under a slew of solutions and fresh perspectives.
Ryan wished he could slide out of his chair and disappear beneath the table. “That’s the problem. I don’t know. The crashes happen before the debugger can attach to the process. All I get are these useless messages from the system, like ‘Catastrophic Failure’ and ‘Unknown Error.’”
“Well, the client needs this yesterday, so figure it out.”
Kyle waited only a moment. “If nobody else has anything, let’s get back to work,” he said, and then stood and left the room.
The table cleared and Ryan trudged back to his cube. As he entered, his shoulders drooped and he groaned. The computer monitor glared a bright shade of blue, and off-white words scrawled across the screen informed him that the system had experienced a failure and had dumped all memory.
He sat down and buried his face in his hands. Then he powered off his workstation, and rebooted, offering up a silent prayer to the patron saint of microprocessors.
Ryan skulked up the three flights of stairs and down the hall to his apartment door. Chewing on his lower lip, he stood there and examined the knob as though afraid it might sprout teeth and attempt to bite him. His tie hung from one weakly closed fist, his keys from the other. That morning he had seen eight of them crawling over his bedroom wall, just after he awoke. They had buzzed at him. Taunted him.
And then they vanished.
He remained there for a while, scolding himself (should go inside, neighbors will think i’m crazy standing in the hallway, some lunatic standing here staring at a door just a door, nothing to be gawking at like this) when he heard the neighbor’s door begin to open. The silent debate ended and Ryan, wanting to avoid an encounter with Mrs. Langley more than anything just now, slipped quickly inside.
A visit to the optometrist earlier that day found nothing wrong with his eyes, other than the same nearsightedness he had developed sometime in his mid-thirties. Ryan pressed her, quizzed her, informed her that he was seeing spots, but she was at a loss, no help whatsoever. The receptionist still took his money with a smile, however, on his way out.
After dinner, Ryan brushed his teeth at the kitchen sink, complaining bitterly to himself that it contradicted his every instinct to use the kitchen in that way. But with each complaint he cast a glance back toward the hallway, then reluctantly continued brushing.
The following morning he forced himself into his bathroom, and again the black spots, sixteen of them he thought, wriggled behind him in the mirror. When they again disappeared, he sighed, set the toothbrush down on the rim of the sink and turned to the wall. He pressed his face close enough to feel the cold tile against the tip of his nose and inspected for cracks or small holes, anything the spots could possibly squeeze through.
The tile was perfect, the grout solid and unbroken.
For the first time in more than eight months, Ryan called in sick to work, telling Kyle he thought he had caught the stomach bug that was going around. Ryan gave his best impression of a sick man, complete with gravelly voice and the occasional cough, and his supervisor apparently accepted the excuse. Kyle still pressured him to attempt a few hours of work from home; the program had to ship, rain or shine, in sickness or in health. Setting the phone receiver on the counter, Ryan sat on the toilet seat, a can of Raid clutched in his hands. He stared at the wall and waited.
Eventually he began to nod off, head slowly sinking then snapping back as he forced himself awake. He placed the spray can on the counter by the handset, ran some cold water and splashed his face.
When he looked up into the mirror, he was shocked (no wonder he bought the sick excuse, bet i really do sound sick, i look like hell, worse than hell) by the image staring back at him. Red streaks shot through his eyes, the surrounding face dark and swollen. He had not shaven since the previous morning, and as he noticed the gray sprinkled through the once black stubble, they appeared again, at the extreme periphery of his vision. In a vain attempt to count them, he remained absolutely still, but they were a blurred mass and moved too fast. He refused to look directly at them; he knew if he did, they would simply vanish. It did not matter, however; an enumeration was not needed. He knew their number: thirty-two.
Slowly he reached for the towel hanging beside the sink and grabbed the Raid. In one swift motion, Ryan whirled around, popped the cap off the can and pressed the spray nozzle, his other hand covering his face with the towel. He stood there, frozen in that stance, eyes closed, barely breathing, until the spray sputtered and finally stopped, the canister emptied. Then he lifted his finger from the nozzle, uncovered his face and opened his eyes.
The spots were gone, vanished. The room filled with a dizzying smell. The wall seemed to ooze the toxin, which dripped down the tile to form puddles on the floor. Ryan dropped the empty canister, stood there a moment shaking his head at the mess he had created, and then went to the kitchen to enlist the help of Mr. Clean.
Notebook computer open and humming warmly against the tops of his thighs, Ryan sat on the sofa in his living room, checked and rechecked the lines of code spread across the screen. A half-finished microwavable dinner — not the doctor’s orders, but he did not have time for a proper meal — lay on the coffee table next to the lead crystal vase that remained perpetually empty.
He finished his fixes and, filled with a vague apprehension, licked his lips as he prepared to compile and run the program. The compiler began its work, the familiar progress bar displaying the operation’s status, and assembled the binary files for execution. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then a message window announced an “Unexpected Event,” offering only one option for the user to indicate acknowledgement: “OK.”
Ryan gawked at the message, a sick heat rising from his stomach and filling his throat. Taking a deep breath, holding it, he placed the laptop on the sofa, stood and released the air from his lungs with a scream. He snatched the vase from the table and flung it across the room. For a moment, Ryan’s heart nearly stopped as the projectile careened toward the plasma TV, passed just above it and shattered against the wall, splinters of glass sparkling and showering down around the entertainment center and floor.
He stood frozen in place, staring at the spot the vase had struck, his temples pounding.
A knock at the door.
He did not answer at first, but when the knock was repeated he crossed the room and, leaving the chain in place, cracked open the door.
“Hello, Ryan.” The elderly woman on the other side wore a flowery housecoat, which she held tightly around her, and a shy smile.
“Hello, Mrs. Langley.”
She leaned forward toward the door, almost on tiptoe, and peered through the slim opening. “I thought I heard a crash and I wanted to see if you were all right.”
“I’m fine,” Ryan said, pushing closer to the door (for crying out loud i live in a city, jeffrey dahmer can go unnoticed for months years, i move next door to this woman) to block her view. “I just dropped some dishes and they broke, that’s all.”
“But it was an awful lot of noise,” she said. “Loud noises startle me, you know. Being alone in the city since Henry passed on.” She pursed her lip, arms crossing her chest to embrace her. She looked up at him, the smile returning to her face. “I noticed your car didn’t leave the parking lot today. I thought maybe you were sick. Do you need anything?”
He knew she just wanted into his apartment to snoop around. When he first moved into the building, Ryan had befriended her. She told him of her husband’s death, asked for a few favors, help moving around and clearing out some of her husband’s larger, heavier items. Soon after, word spread around the building about how odd she thought it, a man his age still a bachelor, all by himself, living alone.
“No, I’m feeling much better this evening, Mrs. Langley. Thank you, though. I appreciate the offer.”
She nodded and turned away. Ryan closed the door, leaned back against it, removed his glasses and pressed his eyes hard with the heels of his palms.
Copyright © 2006 by Robert Barlow