Written: November 22nd, 2007, 7:43 (UTC) By: omer
Note: this post is part of an ongoing novel. You should probably start at the beginning here.
The novel continues here.
The two friends took a bus into the heart of Albuquerque and from there walked to Double Rainbow. Tom was grinning for about three quarters of the bus ride, and kept wondering aloud if Toff would expect them to arrive, whether they would find another clue upon arriving, whether it was possible that he had misunderstood the riddle, and so forth. He only stopped talking, and stopped grinning, when he saw that Orr was not responding. Orr, for his part, discovered the negative effect that two days of self-reflection can have on one's ability to socialize. Every time a response to one of Tom's casual blathering arrived in Orr's head, it would be sentenced to death by an unyielding jury, claiming first that the response did not well-represent that Orr had decided to change, and then that the response was too obviously a product of Orr's change and would set Tom's curiosity upon him, an event of which, for all of his internal claims of readiness, he was still quite frightened. So, not a single word escaped Orr's lips for the entire conversation, and eventually Tom discovered that his musings were unechoed by his friend and fell to silence.
By the time that the two had reached their destination and discovered Toff, waiting anxiously on a bench at the entrance, it had been a quarter of an hour since either had spoken, and the silence had weighed on both of their spirits. So, the first words from Toff on seeing them were, "You didn't have to come, you know!"
Dinner consisted of three sandwiches, shared between the friends on an erratic rotation. After a few minutes of brooding silence, Toff coaxed Tom out of his shell, and the two discussed the details of the riddle and even of the SAT. Toff beamed when Tom claimed that the riddle had taken him "ages" to solve, and blushed when Tom said that he thought it had been quite the clever riddle. Orr continued in his melancholy, and though he at first wanted to join into the conversation, this desire soon melted into a combination of unconscious jealousy and conscious refusal of this cliche flirtatious lifestyle that distracted one from the intellectual pursuits that would benefit humankind.
This, his internal voice moaned, is not for me.
So, he sat, eying his other two friends, trying not to seem antagonizing, but failing entirely. For their part, after Toff attempted unsuccessfully to converse with Orr ("What did you think of the riddle, Orr?" "It was okay." And later: "I'm sure you and Orr rocked the SAT. You guys had the Guide memorized!" "I guess." After that, Toff abandoned the attempt.), they ignored him entirely, and neither of the two even looked at him for the majority of the meal.
When the meal finally drew to a close, after Toff had scrounged some crumpled bills out of her small, brown, plastic-jewel-seamed purse with a patch of a dragon on one side and one advertising Dungeon on the other, Tom and Orr stood up, but Toff continued scrounging in her purse, not looking up at either Tom or Orr. They waited and, for the first time in an hour, made eye contact. Tom smiled briefly and made his eyes gigantic. Then he turned back to Toff. She was wrestling with a wad of paper, folded thoroughly but still barely fitting into the purse. Orr looked away from the other two and around the cafe. The lighting was insufficient for this hour of night, and two of the employees were having a fight in the kitchen, thinking that nobody could see them, or not caring. The only students who had come here were couples wanting to find some quick food before other plans, both trying to eat as quickly as they could without offending the other person. Two college-aged men sat in the corner, people watching, and holding hands under the table. When their eyes fell on Orr, looking at them, their hands parted briefly, but after a second, drifted back together.
Toff had won her battle with the purse and was standing, grinning, and holding out two packets of paper, one to Orr and one to Tom. Both were folded and crumpled and did not hold much chance of being legible.
Tom grinned and said, "Another riddle already?"
Toff's smile faltered briefly, but soon resumed.
She said, "I'm afraid not. Not yet. It's better, though."
Tom began his own wrestling job to uncrumple the page without tearing it, and Orr, glancing at him, decided that he should be doing the same, and did.
As the pages gave way, though, Toff burst out with the secret she had been concealing. She said, "They're guides! Some kids who got into Columbia figured out what they had in common and posted them online. Some stuff is obvious, like high grades, but there's advice on writing essays too. See, this way..." She took a deep breath and looked at Orr and Tom for a second each, a coy smile on her lips, "We'll all get in and get to stay together."
Tom laughed and grabbed Toff into a hug. Orr couldn't help smiling too, and though a large part of him could think of nothing better than escaping from his friends to start afresh, another part forced its way briefly into his consciousness, claiming that nothing would ever be as important in his life than friendships like these, before he could stuff it down and suitably ignore it once more.
Tom's and Orr's relationship for the next few months was tenuous. They laughed and spent time together after school, but Orr spent his weekends tinkering with his childhood tools, and when they bored him, he started exploring his parents' tools and would spend weekends doing household repairs with his father. Orr applied to four schools: St. Tymia, Colorado College, UNM, and Columbia. He applied to the last, though he had little intention of going, in order to satisfy Toff and Tom, and because he had resolved to leave all decision-making for after the application period.
As the second semester began, Orr's projects with his father began to grow more complex. One weekend, the two purchased a soldering kit, a small chip, a display, many wires, and an internal clock, and built a working, though extremely fragile clock. For the next two weeks, they worked on a radio, and the month after that on a four-bit full-adder, a circuit that can add binary numbers of up to four digits. As Orr worked on these projects, Tom tried out for Arthur's play and received the small part of Cinderella's Prince's steward, but found that he still had to attend just about every rehearsal, along with Arthur and Kelly (who played Cinderella). Arthur set up meetings and rehearsals unabatingly throughout the semester so this his racy interpretation of the play would not appear to be hacked together and thus, hopefully, not offend the administration too much (which, in the end, it did and was canceled after the first dress rehearsal). So, Orr and Toff were often left alone after school. At first, they would play games together, like checkers and chess, but eventually Orr suggested that they move to playing online games, and eventually that they could play different games from each other, and finally, one day, he said that he had to go home early, and from then on, he went straight home after school.
Before his acceptance letters arrived, Orr had made his decisions. He would choose St. Tymia or Colorado College above either of the others, in order to escape the world that had entrapped him, and if neither school accepted him, he would go to UNM. Columbia, he decided, was a school for the likes of Tom, for intelligent people willing to be swallowed by the monster of society and lead normal, albeit intellectual, lives.
Unfortunately, for reasons that only a truly bureaucratic brain can understand, Columbia turned out to be the only school that sent Orr an acceptance letter.
Chapter IV: First Impressions
The day in early February that Orr received his acceptance letter from Columbia, Tom called him at home, for the first time in 2002.
Orr's father knocked on his door to tell him that Tom had called, so Orr was prepared for the first question to follow, and he had anticipated the rest as well, though he had not found satisfactory answers to them yet.
Orr said, "Hi, Tom!"
Tom said, "Hey, Orr! Long time, huh?"
Orr said, "Yeah."
Tom said, "So, get any interesting mail today?"
Orr said, "I did, in fact. I suppose you did as well."
Tom said, "Yeah, and Toff too."
Orr said, "Great. Congratulations. Anyone else?"
Tom said, "A few days after the deadline, Kelly told me that she'd 'forgotten' to apply. And Arthur was only planning on applying to UNM, so he hasn't heard back yet... And, that about covers it."
Orr said, "Yeah."
For a moment, neither spoke, and Orr contemplated saying that he had to go.
But, before he could, Tom said, "Listen... Orr..." But, he was silent again for another moment. "Listen... Are you okay? I mean, are we okay?"
Orr had rehearsed several answers to this question. He gave the one closest to the truth, and yet vague enough to stifle any further conversation.
He said, "Yeah, no. I mean, I'm just going through something right now."
Tom said, "Yeah, I guess we figured. If you want any help going through it... you know all of your friends are dying for the opportunity."
Orr said, "Sure, yeah. Thanks." His desire to get off the phone was growing exponentially.
But, Tom persisted. Even his tone refused to waver. He said, "Seriously, Orr. We miss hanging out with you, and it's totally okay if you want to figure this out on your own, but just know that your friends are missing you."
Orr said, "Yeah, I miss you guys too." This was only partly true, but Orr's egress reflex had overwhelmed any faculty of judgment he had.
Tom said, "Good."
There was a silent moment, and Orr pounced on it. He said, "Listen, Tom, I gotta get working on homework."
Tom sighed and said, "Yeah, me too... Bye, Orr."
Orr said "Bye."
He was still eating lunch with the other four, but more and more he found himself getting into conversations with people he hardly new, engrossing conversations about the classes they were taking, the classes he was taking, and how deeply they enjoyed or despised those classes, conversations that lasted easily until the end of lunch, when everyone had to depart. The other four friends often played Erf or P&H, and always dealt Orr in, whether he requested it or not, and then skipped him whenever he wasn't paying attention, which was almost always the case. And, when the game was over, they would grab his untouched pile, mix it into the deck, and deal him a fresh hand.
Otherwise, he had stopped seeing them entirely.
Whenever he wasn't with his father, building, he was watching television, or reading online. He soon found Slashdot and became enamored of the often sarcastic, often inane, but usually counter-culture, always impassioned tones of the commenters. He started an account and was soon spouting in the same heated tones opinions he had only acquired from reading comments the week before. These sorts of comments and commenters, the disenchanted Slashdotters from yore had already been saying for years in exactly the same polemic tone as the fledglings, were the downfall of Slashdot and had ruined a once great ivory tower of nerddom.
This was the state of Orr's life throughout the spring of 2002 and into the summer, when he a job as a discovered a job as a systems administrator for a tiny company (consisting of just two other people) looking to keep their costs down by hiring high school students. The company was centered around a speaker, who would travel across the country, attempting to convince other, larger companies, that he knew how to maximize their employees' utilities and happiness, but the only advice Orr ever heard him give was to hire high school students because they worked for less money but knew more about computers than their elders. Orr hated it, and spent any time that he did not have to fix the three office computers and two office printers (which broke several times a day), dreaming of the day he would leave.
That day came in early August, to give Orr enough time to pack and ship various boxes of his belongings to New York (which turned out to be one box, filled with various journals, some books, and as many tools as his father was willing to have taken, that took Orr an afternoon to pack). And, not long afterwards (fifteen dames to be precise), Orr boarded a plane himself, a duffel bag filled with clothing stowed above him, and a new laptop, purchased half by his parents as a graduation present, and half by his earnings from the summer, sitting in front of him.
In the back of the plane, though he never noticed them, and wouldn't learn about their presence for several months, Tom and Toff sat nervously, trying to play cards whenever the plane wasn't too bumpy.