And your eyes become corridors
Where I wander with a candle
Calling out to you.
– Something For Kate, “You Only Hide”
“I guess I started smoking because I wanted a habit,” her breasts say—braless, perky, and perfect underneath a skin-tight bodysuit. I know I’m being crude and objectifying, we girls ought to show more respect each other and all that… But honestly? The boy she’s talking to isn’t looking at her face.
“I mean, you know, it was, like, something to do,” she adds.
I hate girls like her. But I hate myself even more for being a tiny bit jealous… And I really hate not knowing what exactly I’m jealous of. Her popularity? Please. I’ve never wanted to be popular. Her looks? I’m pretty decent looking. I mean, I know I’m not hot—but I’m not fugly, either —and that somewhere-in-the-middle-place has always worked for me. I think.
Through the haze of her smoke—she’s not even inhaling properly—I see she’s talking to Hal Haven. Of course she is. Girls like her always hone in on the most desirable boy in the room, and Hal is that boy in this room: the notorious party-boy son of the famous Doctors Alec and Lianna Haven, heir to the throne of Haven Corporation, and… I must admit… he’s cute.
Braless is doing a pretty good job of hiding it, but I can tell that she’s extremely pleased with herself for capturing Hal’s attention, which is noticeably rapt. It’s disgusting, since everyone here knows Hal’s mother is dying in a hospital bed—and yet here he is, partying and engrossed in a conversation with a pair of breasts. The thought of Hal inheriting HavenCorp and controlling GAIT is as scary as Braless’s insights into the habit-forming aspects of smoking.
Hal is shameless and his mother deserves better. She was one of my idols growing up. There are three things worth knowing about me upfront—I am a coder, a fangirl, a gamer. Dr. Lianna Haven was the ultimate girl who codes, she had fans, and she wrote some of the best virtual worldgames in history. Sure, after teaming up with her neuroscientist husband her focus shifted to more lofty goals—they created GAIT together, after all—but she never gave up on the power of worldgames or stopped working on them. She was brilliant and bad-ass. I never had the chance to meet her, but I literally cried when I heard about the accident and the coma. But they say that her brilliant, inspiring brain is still working inside that coma—so I can’t help but wonder what she would think if she knew what her son was doing right now.
In case I sound like a judgmental bitch, let me say that I’ve earned the right to pass judgment on Hal. Because I’ve been there. When my own dad was dying, I spent—
Suddenly Hal looks up from Braless, though the haze of her smoke, and I see his eyes for the first time. And I’m momentarily disarmed to discover that they are… sad. They seem filled with a deep-rooted… loneliness.
And I’m the only one at this party that can see it.
Our eyes lock, for just a single moment. Without meaning to, I hold his gaze, that sadness—as if I could somehow capture it, take it away from him, make it my own, and then make it go away… And in this singularity, I feel both in control and yet totally lost. I know that doesn’t make sense, but… I’m certainly not at this party anymore. For a second, I wonder if I accidentally pressed my GAB and entered the Grid—but of course I know better; I’m not in the Grid. It’s a strange, emotionally surprising, totally confusing feeling.
And then—the moment’s gone. Abruptly. As quickly as it arrived.
Did I dream it?
Now Hal’s eyes look like they belong to a confident bullshitter, one who’s used to getting what he wants through charm or money. That’s more like it. Those eyes wander over to take in the rest of his posse, as if needing to know they are still there—his hangers on, hovering at the edge of a perimeter of cigarette smoke, shooting looks his way every so often, hoping for a chance to interrupt and assert whatever definition of friendship they have established with him. But once again, he only has eyes for Braless. I can’t help but wonder if what I just saw and felt was a trick of my mind.
Or maybe it was the alcohol.
Alcohol. Is that what I’m doing here? I don’t even like to drink.
Cari, of course, is thrilled that we got into this party. I hate to point out that we’re not at a club, we’re at some senior’s house whose parents are in the Hamptons for the weekend, and the doorman didn’t exactly scan for 21. Getting in wasn’t a sign of social arrival… All we really needed was the address and the apartment number. And if there’s anything I’m good at, it’s information mining. I didn’t even need to go into the Grid for this one. Still, I admire Cari’s ability to be happy under the most absurd circumstances, and I’m not going to kill her buzz.
But I ask myself again—what am I doing here?
“You’re partying, Asha!” Cari says, as if reading my mind and answering my question.
Cari’s my best friend, and sometimes it’s as if she basically can read my mind. I can have a bad day, and see her at the end of it, and not say anything, and she’ll just know—she might even know why—and she’ll even know how to cheer me up. She’s that kind for best friend. The kind you don’t appreciate as much as you should, because life without them would be pretty unbearable, and life with them is pretty fun, at least most of the time.
“But you’re going to leave. Don’t leave. Ash, why are you leaving?”
“I just gotta go.”
“One more drink?”
“Cari. What is that going to do?”
This is a funny thing that only Cari really knows about me. It might be that I have a super high tolerance or something, but it’s like I can never get drunk. I guess I don’t drink that much, so maybe I’ve never totally tested my limits, but I’ve certainly drank enough at other parties to where I should be lit, and I’m always sober as cross-country runner on meet day. Maybe that’s my secret superpower. I’m Sober Girl!
And let me tell you—especially at parties like this—it’s a shit superpower.
“I’ll roll with you. No big.” She offers, kindly.
“No, Cari—don’t. Please. Stay.”
Cari looks amazing. She’s wearing a tiny little skirt, but still barely showing off her legs because she’s also got on these insanely high boots that only she could pull off as funky-hot rather than porn-star-slutty. In fact, our boots are weirdly symbolic of the differences between Cari and me. I’m rocking worn-out cherry-red combat boots that I’ve had for years, and that I adore. They don’t exactly scream “come hither,” though I like to think that they scream something… Meanwhile, just like her boots, Cari actually is funky-hot. Like my boots, I am tomboy lame. But I am confident and bold! I keep telling myself. Confident and bold. And utterly unnoticeable.
Guys notice Cari. She could easily run with the other girls who guys always notice. But she chooses to run with me, and sometimes I’m not sure why. Why isn’t she running away from me? I know that sounds terribly self-hating, but I sometimes think that I’ve held Cari back over the years, that we’d never be friends today if we weren’t friends in first grade… and maybe she’d have been better off for it.
“Ash. You’re being an idiot.”
You see? It’s like she really can read my mind. Best friends.
“You should stay.”
I suspect she’s on the prowl, and there’s no need for Sober Girl to take her down. I will happily retreat to my Fortress of Solitude, and spend the last couple hours of the evening in the Grid, in SlipStream. So I lean forward and place a small, friendly kiss on Cari’s forehead before whispering, “Go make some stories to tell me in the morning.” She shakes her head and sighs, as if I am hopeless.
Maybe I am. This isn’t the first party I’ve left early.
“Go!” I say, with a little more conviction. She kisses me back, and disappears down a corridor into the living room. Or maybe it’s the den. Or the family room. Or the game room. There are a lot of rooms in this apartment. Swank.
I reach behind my neck, brush my hair away, and let my fingers trail over to the center of the Grid Access Button that’s surgically implanted there. To be honest, I still like patching into the Grid with wearable tech—glasses with OHMD remind me of being a kid, and I’m a nostalgic gal. But like most girls I know—the ones who can afford it, anyway—I had the neurotech implant surgery when I turned 13, without even really thinking about it. It was just another one of those things you do when you reach a certain age, like getting your ears pierced.
Without hesitation, I press the GAB, close my eyes, and let HavenCorp’s Grid Access Implant Technology do its thing.
I’m supposed to be hit by a small rush of euphoria—not unlike a whip-it—as my brain patches directly into the Grid. My whole body is supposed to go weak for a moment as I surrender to this feeling. Some people supposedly grow sort-of addicted to implant access. Supposedly, there’s a whole movement among adults protesting that “kids like us” ought to spend less time in the Grid, not least in part because we’re using access like a drug. But guess what? No rush of euphoria for me. Ever. I’ve never felt anything other than a small tingle when pressing that button.
Sober Girl strikes again!
Whatever. I don’t patch in for some fake drug rush. When I’m in the Grid, I can actually see and feel data as it flows, and that’s a real rush. To me at least. That, and the ability to quickly call for an xport cab that’ll pick me up the second I walk out of this party.
I press the GAB again, open my eyes and return to “reality”—such as it is. I see a group of looped sophomores apparently trying to offer beer to a goldfish by pouring a tiny stream into the fishtank (“Dude! He’s drinking!”). In the kitchen, by the beer, I see Cari talking to some cute guy I don’t recognize. I’m happy for her.
As I walk out the front door, I glimpse back over at Hal Haven, and I see he has moved his hand to the small of Braless’s back.
The scene is playing out exactly as it should.
You’ve been reading CHAPTER 1 from the new young adult illustrated novel ASHA ASCENDING, written by Vivek J. Tiwary with art by Sara Richard. Please FOLLOW this blog to read the next and future chapters, serialized here for free.
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