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[Continuing yesterday’s response to a prompt from The Daily Post]

Driven by roughly equivalent amounts of curiosity and annoyance, Midge blocked out thirty minutes on her calendar for a mythical meeting, then found an unused conference room. Keeping the room lights turned off for a reason she couldn’t articulate, the recent college graduate used her phone at first to verify that one of her social media profiles now showed an interest in fishing (it did), and then to investigate how that profile had come to exhibit such an odd mutation.

The glow of her tiny screen illuminated her face as she found her answer in chat rooms and technical forums. The social media site provided an option to track the online history of their users (Midge checked her profile’s settings, and confirmed the option had been turned on for her). As she discovered just how thorough the site was tracking her history, Midge grew increasingly concerned — every article she had read, every purchase she had made, every blog entry she had posted, even every time she had clicked the Like button on updates her friends had made on social media sites — any online activity she had conducted since creating her account on this one social media (and choosing not to investigate the options available in her profile settings) had been collected into a sophisticated algorithm that produced a concise list of her interests, which was then made to other users of the site.

Midge didn’t need to search back through her recent online activity to determine why that algorithm detected an interest in fishing. Two friends of hers, a male from high school and a female from college, had recently gone on separate camping trips in Wisconsin. Both were avid fishers, and had posted several pictures of their bounties. Acting entirely out of fondness, Midge had liked their pictures and status updates.

The light in the conference room clicked on; Midge hadn’t heard JT from IT enter the room. She excused herself, hurried out of the room, satisfied not only that she had found the answer to her question, but also by having finally edited her profile settings to avoid any future accidental updates to her profile.

As she walked back to her desk, her phone vibrated. Without breaking her stride, she pulled her phone from her belt holster and glanced at the screen — Tosh had sent her a text.

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[Today’s topic from The Daily Post — online privacy. Suddenly inspired to start another short work of fiction.]

“I didn’t know you liked fishing.” Claudio retrieved his brown ceramic mug as the Keurig machine spat in completion. The sudden statement woke Midge from her somnambulant journey into the break room.

“Fishing?” An accusation as much as a question.

“Yeah, fishing.” The manager of The Jourdain Group’s audit department poured powdered creamer into his mug. “Read it last night, on your profile. Streams or lakes?”

Jourdain’s youngest software developer took only an instant to piece together the context of his question. “Neither. I’ve never gone fishing in my life!”

“Huh.” Claudio sipped from his mug. “Not according to your profile.” The large man then walked out of the break room, more amused than concerned with Midge’s confusion.

The Bucket

[It’s back to The Daily Post for inspiration — something about childhood one wishes would have been different. And for the first time in longer than I can remember, it’s also time to return to the characters of my novel.]

“I wish I’d listened better.” Annie snapped the buttons of her winter jacket over the closed zipper, the January winds cutting into her. “There were so many things people were trying to tell me — friends, my parents, teachers. I was pretty stubborn as a kid, thought I knew it all.” She sniffed loudly, smiled at Butch. “Guess you don’t think I’ve changed much.”

“Oh!” Butch stepped back reflexively, as if a bulb had suddenly flashed in his face. “No. Why would I think that?”

Annie smirked, the wool cap on her head wrinkling. “Your turn — anything you’d change.”

“Oh!” He stared back at her blankly. “About what?”

Months of similar conversations had trained Annie to control her facial reactions to these questions. “You asked me if there was anything about my childhood I’d wish were different. And I answered. So now, I’m asking you the same question.” Please don’t ask if there’s anything about MY childhood you wish were different.

“Oh!” Butch stared up at the late afternoon winter sky as if concerned something were about to fall upon him. “I guess — I wish I hadn’t lost that bucket.”

Annie blinked. “A bucket.”

“Yeah!” His face brightened. “My family, we had this bucket. It was red, not bright red like a tomato, but duller, looked a little brown actually.”

“Maroon?”

Butch shook his head. “No, it was a bucket. And my family, we used that bucket for all kinds of things, like washing my dad’s car, or mopping the floor, or filling the wading pool, or under a drip in the ceiling. Sometimes when one of us was sick, my mom would put a little water in the bottom, put it next to our bed in case we — ”

“Sounds like your family got a lot of use out of that bucket.”

“Yeah, we did.” His face dropped. “But then one day, I was using the bucket to play out in the field behind my house — Rune was with me that day — and I don’t know what happened, but I lost it. And my folks, they were some sore at me about that, don’t you know.”

“I see.” Annie knew the Goodman family’s heightened concern over household finances. “So, your family went without a bucket?”

“No suh!” Butch seemed startled that Annie would have considered this possibility. “My mom, she went out the next day, got us a new bucket. It was bigger, and green.”

Her patience was failing. “A bucket? Your family goes one day with a . . . bucket, and you’re telling me that’s the one thing about your childhood that you wished was different?”

“Oh!” Butch scratched his chin. “Well, my sister found the old bucket a few days later, but since my mom had already used the new bucket when she was digging out weeds, she couldn’t return it. So I made her go to the store and pay that money, for no reason. That’s why I regret it.”

Green Valley Lane 1K

It’s a ridiculous story, but there’s enough elements of truth (phone reception out here is pretty shitty) to make it believable. And even if the guy is lying, if he’s got some other motive he’s not admitting, it sounds like he’s abandoned it — me calling him out has spooked him. All he wants to do now is leave.

I’ll give him his wish. “Want to know what it’s like here?” Sweep my arms along the length of the lumpy, hole-riddled road beside us. “Road’s in pretty rough shape, isn’t it? That’s because they still have construction equipment coming up and down. Said they’ll put another layer on after they’ve built the last house on the street. Thing is, they haven’t even sold half the lots yet, and there’s other streets in Pleasant Hill where they were finished last summer, and those roads are just as bad as they are here.

“That’s what life’s like here. People don’t really come to Pleasant Hill, they leave from somewhere else — some people want to get away from living in the city, others don’t think they’re close enough. We’re all coming because this place seems to have something we don’t have. And we’re all so focused on finding what we’re looking for, we don’t ever think about what’s causing our neighbors to come out here.

“So we plunk down our money on a down payment, sign a contract that guarantees we’ll be in debt the rest of our lives — and this is what we get. Crappy roads because the builder doesn’t give a shit, empty sidewalks because nobody wants to talk to anybody.

“And we might wonder when we got out here if we’ve actually found what we were looking for. But after a while, we decide it doesn’t matter anymore. We’re here, and not going anywhere for a while.

I point to the shadowy figure in the car. “You want to know what it’s like here? It’s a lot like what you’ve been doing this evening — driving around without knowing where you’ll end up.” Fold my arms across my chest. “So, if that sounds appealing to you, I’m sure the sales office will be glad to speak to you tomorrow.”

An arm shoots out the open side of hte car, and quickly slams the door. The car backs away, then turns in a sharp U, headlights turning on as it pulls away. I then turn, and walk towards my quiet dark house on Green Valley Lane.

[End of “Green Valley Lane’]

Green Valley Lane 1J

Hello. The greeting from the open car door reaches me as a disembodied voice, the shadowy figure of the driver still in his car.

I have no patience for pleasantries, not after what this jerk’s done to me this evening. “Who are you?” A command as much as a question.

The shadowy figure in the car stiffens, and I see his hands raise with open palms to the level of his fedora. I’m — sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.

I point past the car’s rear passenger side, in the general direction of the county road, the city beyond that, the highway. “You’ve been following me, ever since I got off the highway. Don’t you lie to me! I took all these shortcuts, took a few wrong turns as well, just to confirm that I wasn’t imagining things. There’s no way you could have gone the exact same route as me, unless you were determined to stay on my tail.”

Now I point behind me, to my house. “Here’s where the journey ends. Here on Green Valley Lane, this is where I live. I’m home, and I don’t want to be bothered by you anymore. So tell me what it is you want, and be done with it!”

Hands still raised, the shadowy driver tells me his story, fedora bobbing up and down with his words. He lives in a small town about 20 minutes up the county road, he tells me. Says he saw me pulling out of subdivision the other day, said he liked my car, so much so that he recognized it on the highway that evening. Tells me he’d been thinking about buying a house in the subvisision, but didn’t trust what the salespeople were telling him. They gave him references, he says, but he didn’t trust them either, heard they got deals from the builders. Claims that when he saw me that evening, he came up with the idea of talking to me, getting an unsolicited opinion. But since he didn’t know exactly where I lived, the only way to find me was to follow.

“Really.” I scan my memory for any evidence that doesn’t fit this remarkable yet mundane story. Point back beyond the car. “When I went the wrong way, off the county road. There was a time I pulled over, and you went past me. Why’d you do that?”

The shadowy figure clears its throat. I didn’t know what you were doing. Where you were going — it didn’t make no sense. So I said screw it, and that’s when I drove past you. But then, I realized I didn’t know where I was. I was lost.

“GPS?” I feel like a ham actor playing a prosecuting attorney.

No signal.

Green Valley Lane 1I

Any lingering doubt I’ve had is gone now. This guy’s definitely following me, has been since I got off the highway. There’s only one way to end this nonsense, and that’s to no longer lead. Go home, park in the driveway (garage won’t be finished until March — Sheila found that funny as well), get out of my car and face whatever’s going to happen.

Guy wants to rob me? Take my fucking wallet, with its two twenties and a handful of cards I’ll cancel fifteen minutes after you’re gone. Sheila’s already got everything I had of value. That was the deal, she got the money, I got the house we’d bought on Green Valley Lane (which I’m now turning into, a left off Spicebush). She stays in the city, I move out to the ‘burbs, hit the reset button on my career, my life. Sorry bud, robbing me’s a waste of time at this point, all I got is a bunch of debt.

No activity on Green Valley Lane, per usual. Or maybe the guy wants to get rought with me, perhaps he is seeing Sheila now, getting her side of the story. Believes her story about abuse. I told my lawyer, challenged him to find any mark on her body, and he gave me some garbage about how she was claiming I was emotionally abusive. How do you prove that, I asked him, and then he shows me her affidavit, and I point out there’s no evidence, but he says I’d be taking a risk if I didn’t settle, challenged her in court. Path of least resistance. Write a check, and move one. But not this guy apparently, he wants to settle a score in a game he joined in the middle. You want a fight, buddy, I’ll give you one, work off some of this angry energy.

Pull up to my house. Don’t even bother to park in the driveway, it’s just dirt and gravel, can’t pour the pavement until spring. Check the rearview, boxy import pulls up to the lot right behind. It’s time. Shut off the engine, check the rearview again. The box’s lights go out.

Inhale, exhale. Let’s go. Open the car door, step onto the curb. Hear the box’s door open.

Green Valley Lane 1H

My foot reflexively punches the accelerator, tires squealing as the car charges onto Pleasant Hill Drive, my mind searching frantically through its memory of the subdivision map. If I charge past the left on Maplewood, take the second left — I can’t even remember what gawdawful pastoral name they gave it, Birch something or other — yes it runs to the right, not the left like Maplewood, eventually this will connect again to Pleasant Hill Drive, which forms like this giant circle around the subdivision. Spicebush, that’s it, Spicebush runs off the drive, I can get to Green Valley Lane from Spicebush. If I have to drive all around this damn subdivision to either lose this guy behind me, or prove beyond any doubt that he has indeed been following me ever since I got off the highway, then that’s what I’m gonna do.

Turn right, then a left. Check the rearview — boxy import’s still there. Nobody’s on the streets, most of the houses are dark, it’s like there’s no life anywhere around. Walked around one weekend after I bought the house, maybe saw three people that day. Sheila had warned me.

A cul-de-sac, one of many I saw on my walk. Six houses in an arc, smaller than mine and most of the others in the subdivision. Pull in slowly, right tires hugging the curb. Boxy import slows at the entrance, then drives past. Not falling for it this time. Exit the cul-de-sac, keep straight, toward the drive. Turn left, check the rearview — yup, there he is again.

Green Valley Lane 1G

Car I cut off (a Toyota, looks like a Camry, I’m somehow able to see that its light green) is now on my tail, trying to keep up with me, probably pissed at me for what I did back there. I see the boxy import’s headlights behind the Camry, and as we continue along the county road those lights grow smaller and smaller. I’m fifteen to twenty over, Camry’s keeping up to prove some kind of point, but the boxy car that’s been following me ever since I got off the highway — don’t even see his headlights anymore. Must have surrendered.

Slow down as the Pinecrest subdivision comes up on the left. Get down to limit, then Camry passes me. Think I see the driver flip me off as he speeds ahead. You got a point buddy, I acted like an asshole back there. Don’t know why that guy following bothered me so much, come to think of it I’m not really sure he was following me. Typically you don’t want to let the person you’re following know what you’re up to, but this guy couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d had a flashing sign on his hood, with backwards letters like on an ambulance so you could see it in your rearview. TAKE IT EASY UP THERE I’M TRYING TO KEEP UP. No way he could’ve been following me, actions didn’t make any sense, but threatening? Guy was harmless.

Pleasant Hill subdivision coming up on the left. Turn in, two rights and a left, then I’m on back Green Valley Lane. Entry road has a new sign on the right, PHASE 2 NOW OPEN! Pull up to the stop sign, flick my turn signal up. They’re extending Butternut for Phase 2, construction will tear up the street but at least they’ll stay off Green Valley —

Slam on the brakes. In the rearview, catch the twin lights of the boxy import, pulling into the Pleasant Hill subdivision behind me.

Green Valley Lane 1F

Don’t try to wave him forward, or wave a polite response. Step on the accelerator like I’m squishing one of the damn spiders I keep seeing in my new house on Green Valley Lane, blow past the intersection, can feel the car’s tires digging into the packed snow and spitting behind me as I charge toward the county road.

Why the HELL this guy keeps following me, I don’t care anymore. Just want to put as much distance between him and me as I can. Either he’s some kind of lunatic or there’s some grudge he holds against me. County road finally in sight. Have I pissed off anyone who owns a boxy import lately? I piss off a lot of people, it’s how I role. But not enough to have someone hunt me down like this. Where’s the cops when I need them? Don’t even know where the police station is. One of those details I didn’t think about when I moved out here. There were a lot of things I didn’t think about because all I cared about was getting away from —

Sheila? No, I’d recognize the shape of her head. Said she wasn’t seeing anyone, she probably would’ve told me if she was, get that dig in, only thing she’d lie about was the length of his penis. Headlights catch the red of the stop sign. Why the hell would she send someone after me, she’s selfish but not stupid, wouldn’t want to lose what’s coming to her.

Glance at the rearview — yup, he’s right behind me. Look ahead, see headlights coming up the county road off the left. Finally, some traffic. Witnesses. I’ll get to the stop sign first, really should let him go first but not now.

Barely slow for the stop sign, cut just in front of the car that’s coming, has to slam on its brakes and the horn starts blaring, its like I can hear the driver cursing in my head. But a glance at the rearview shows the job’s been done — the creep who’s following me pulls behind the car I just cut off.

Green Valley Lane 1E

Jesus, what do I need to do to LOSE this guy? He’s been on my tail since I got off the highway, waited for me when I stopped at that convenience store, stayed with me through a shortcut and a roundabout route. Can’t be anything else, don’t know what his game is but this guy, he’s definitely following me.

Time to stop this nonsense. Pull the car over to side, it’s just dirt but it’s frozen. You want me buddy, here I am. And I can see him slowing behind me, steering over like me — and then he accelarates past, follows a bend in the road to the left, red tailights disappearing into the black.

Oh, so you figured out that I was on to you? Didn’t have the nerve to stop and show yourself? You like to mess with people, but can’t stand being called out.

Wait for the minute counter on my dashboard clock to increase by two. Little shit must be gone now, gotten back on the county road. No traffic in either direction since I’ve stopped, and it’s far too dark and cold to wait any longer. Punch the turn signal down (like anyone’s around to see), pull back onto the road. Notice for the first time how deep the tire tracks are in the snow, looks like they didn’t even bother to plow after we got those two inches the other day. Maybe they never plow, rely on tractors and farm equipment to clear it with their big tires. They’ve been doing a good job keeping Green Valley Lane clear so far, even though mine’s the only house built on the street. You hear that, farm boys? That’s progress.

Intersection. Four-way stop. Tires slip a little as I brake, better let up. Ease up to the stop.

And there’s the boxy import again, waiting at the stop on the left. I see the shadowy figure of the faceless man in the fedora, behind the wheel. Waving me to go forward.