Scoreboard

Jennifer remembered when the site was first discovered. No one knew who created it or how it worked. Several top agencies from countries around the world looked for those running the page, but nothing was ever discovered. The site continued as if on its own. No one could access the algorithm it ran or figure out how it gathered the data it used to make its judgments. Many claimed the data was freely available online, but that theory quickly vanished after infants were found on the site before their birth certificates were signed.

It was a ranking system. It had every iota of information about every single person on the planet. You could find your name with a quick search. If your name was Jimmy Smith, you could narrow it down by address, phone number, parents’ names, date of birth, education, job, age, or whatever you can think of. The site had every detail.

Jennifer had been fifteen years old when it consumed the world. It permeated every aspect of life. Social media lost its appeal rather quickly when people realized they could get any information they wanted from the site aptly called http://www.verity.com. The world changed within a few years to what it was now. Jennifer was young enough to adapt quickly to the change but old enough to remember what it was like before.

She was trying to remember what her parents were like before the change when her name was called.

“Jennifer?” an older voice repeated in the waiting room.

Jennifer rose and let the little old woman guide her back to a conference room where two men and a woman, all in suits, sat at a table typing into a tablet. They stopped talking when the old voice announced her.

“Welcome, have a seat,” the woman said. Jennifer promptly obeyed and sat quietly as they finished their notes from the previous interview. Then, without warning, the first question broke the silence.

“Why do you want to work for this company, Ms. Whitley?”

“I believe this company is a place where my talents can excel and mutual growth can be expected.” She’d rehearsed several hundred answers to the basic questions.

The three interviewers never looked up from their screens except for an occasional glance. These happened periodically and only when they were either asking a question or receiving her answer. They never stopped typing. She began to wonder if she was wasting her time, but she answered every question in turn. It wasn’t until the end when they asked the question that was expected but never easy to answer.

“What is your ranking, Jennifer?”

She checked her watch and quickly answered. “Three point five point eight three two eight.” She had the Verity app installed on her phone so it displayed on her smartwatch. Just above the time, her current rank was displayed. Right now she was ranked 3,504,896,328 out of 9,742,531,082. Ranks changed at any time. No one knew why. Even after decades of research there was no apparent reason as to why ranks changed. No one knew what they were being judged for or who was judging. They just knew their rank and desired to climb higher.

“Top 35%. Not bad.” The man in the middle shrugged. He hadn’t bothered to look at her but kept his eyes glued to his tablet as he continued to type.

“Thank you,” was all she could think to answer. She was used to a follow-up such as What have to you done recently to try to increase your rank? or When was the last time your rank fell more than one hundred levels? but just asking for her number was apparently their final question. She thought it strange since she was sure they had her number pulled up on the tablets in front of them.

“You will hear from us soon.”

Jennifer rose and thanked them for the opportunity. She kept an eye on her number as she left the building to see if it would drop. She felt the interview had not gone well and expected a drop in ranking to be proof that she wouldn’t get the job, but her number remained the same as she made her way through the city park toward her apartment.

“You know, it’s not good to be tied that thing twenty-four seven.”

The comment didn’t register until she had almost passed the one who said it. She paused and looked up to see an older man, maybe mid-sixties, sitting on a bench. He was looking at her over the rim of his glasses. He had lowered the book he was reading.

She smiled and slowly placed her phone in her purse. “Thanks for the reminder. It’s just…I just had an interview and was hoping to hear something.”

“How long ago was your interview?”

“About ten minutes ago.”

“You think it went poorly?” He placed a marker in his book and closed it.

“I don’t know. My ranking hasn’t changed.”

“Ah,” the old man smiled. “You think any changes will be the result of how the interview went. That’s a little superstitious don’t you think?”

“Is it?”

“Perhaps not. No one really knows how that thing works, which is why I gave up on it long ago. Expecting a job offer only ten minutes after an interview is a little much though.”

“Yeah,” she admitted, “You stopped looking at your rank?”

“You will never find happiness comparing yourself to others.”

Jennifer glanced at her watch. Not to look at the time, but to check her rank. It was more habit than intention and she caught herself realizing how much her number influenced her decisions and even her daily routines. The old man was smiling at her when she looked back up.

He offered her a seat with an open palm. “Give yourself a break from the numbers. If only for a few minutes.”

She hesitated but accepted and sat down next to him. She glanced at her watch again but quickly covered it with her other hand.

“So you never look at your number?”

“Never,” he said.

“How? Aren’t you the least bit curious?”

“The curiosity fades the longer you go without. The numbers don’t really matter because they don’t do anything productive. They just allow everyone to believe themselves better or inferior than others. We all formed our own opinions about that before that website came along. The numbers just made it seem like there is validity to our place in the world. We don’t have to make our own judgments anymore. They are made for us and we can just accept our place. A little sad, don’t you think?”

“What’s your name?”

He looked at her over the rim of his glasses again. “So you can look up my number?” He took off his glasses and set them down with his book. She smiled ruefully.

“Tell you what. I’ll give you my name if you promise not to tell me what my number is.”

“Deal.”

“…and you have to go twenty minutes without looking at any screens. You’ll sit here and have a conversation with me.”

“Deal,” she said, amused.

“My name is David Wilburrough. Age sixty-four. I think I’m still the only Wilburrough this old,” he chuckled.

She pulled out her phone, popped open the app, and quickly found one sixty-four-year-old David Willburrough. His rank was 533,267. She stared at him wide-eyed. The phone remained in her hand.

“No,” he caught her before she could say anything. “A promise is a promise. Now put that away and tell me about your interview.”

She put her phone away and, to keep her word, put her smartwatch in her purse as well. “You aren’t the least bit curious?”

He smiled. “If I gave into any curiosity now, I’d be caught back up in the game in no time. I’m fine how I am. Now, about that interview.”

“They didn’t seem much interested to be honest.”

“No one seems interested in anything when their eyes are glued to the screens in front of them.”

“How’d you know they were using tablets?”

“I didn’t. I just assumed. It seems everyone uses them nowadays. If I were you, I’d just wait for the decision to be made before torturing yourself with the possibilities of what they think. You can’t read minds, and worry won’t change a thing.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Usually is. I find reading helps.” He lifted the book as he said it. “Helps keep your mind away from the worry without adding to it. Do you read?”

She had to seriously think about the last time she read a book. “I used to,” she finally answered.

“Never too late to pick it back up.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“You can begin with this.” He offered her his book.

“I couldn’t.”

“You can. I’ve read it several times already, and I have another copy at home. It’s one of my favorites. Take it. You might find something useful in it.”

She reluctantly took the well-worn book and offered her thanks.

“I know it’s only been about ten minutes, but I actually need to be on my way. My granddaughter’s birthday party is this afternoon and I can’t be late. How about you start that book to keep yourself from checking your phone for the rest of your promised time?”

She smiled. “A promise is a promise. It was nice meeting you Michael.”

“The pleasure was mine…um…” he smiled in a poor attempt to hide his embarrassment.

“Jennifer,” she offered, “Jennifer Whitley.”

He nodded to her and tried again. “It was a pleasure to meet you Ms. Whitley. Enjoy the book.” With those words he scampered off.

“Have fun at the birthday party,” she called after him.

She was alone again and had to resist from checking her phone. She opened the book and flipped through the pages until she found Chapter 1.

She read for a long time before she was interrupted by a ringing from her purse. She pulled her phone out to see it was her sister calling. Jennifer assumed she would ask about the interview and didn’t want to talk about it just yet, so she silenced the ringer and returned to the book. She found couldn’t focus on the pages anymore and quickly gave up. She put the book in her purse.

She checked her phone again. Her own number hadn’t changed, but she was more curious about the rank of sixty-four-year-old Michael Willburrough. She quickly found him again and noticed his rank had shot up by over two thousand. She wanted to go find him and tell him the good news. Then she remembered he didn’t know his rank and didn’t want to. He would never know that he was in the top one-thousandth percent in the entire world. She was sad for him but also inspired. He lived his life exactly as he wanted to. He probably never believed himself to be better than anyone. Perhaps that was what made him better than everyone.

Jennifer rose from the park bench and started her walk back to her apartment. She called her sister on the way to fill her in on the interview. She never checked her watch as she spoke with her sister. She didn’t check her rank after she got home and made dinner or even afterwards when she started reading instead of watching TV. All the while, her rank slowly increased as time ticked by.

Lemniscate

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

The old woman before him nodded.

“Place your hand here,” he continued. She followed his order and placed her hand on the smooth tablet he held before her. Then he ushered her to the door behind him. The door closed with a thud that echoed through the great room. It was all white. Even the lone table and two chairs. There were no windows or lights. The whiteness of the walls, floor, and ceiling seemed to reflect each other in a way that illuminated every inch of every surface. No shadows existed anywhere.

He sat down to find another dossier had replaced the last. He rested the tablet on the table then picked up the file and flicked through its contents reviewing the information inside. The information that would allow him to pass judgement on his next guest.

When he was satisfied he had seen enough to make an accurate decision, he dropped the dossier onto the table and rose. The human named Francis Nguyen arrived through the door in front of him. A hint of confusion was visible on the small man’s face as he strode across the large room. Each footfall echoed within the chamber and Remiel made an adjustment that softened the noise. Then, as he approached Mr. Nguyen, he reduced his own size to be identical to his guests by shrinking a few inches and thinning himself.

“Mr. Nguyen,” Remiel greeted his guest and showed him to the lone table. Mr. Nguyen bowed graciously before taking his seat. Remiel took his own seat before formally beginning the conversation. Mr. Nguyen had been composed so far, which was an excellent sign.

“Do you know where you are Francis?”

“I do,” Mr. Nguyen said, briefly taking in more of the modest room. “It is good to see you again, Mr. Remiel, though I do not seem to recall the last or first time we met.”

Remiel smiled. “That is to be expected. I am familiar because we have met on multiple occasions.” Remiel himself did not know this until a moment ago when he reviewed the dossier and regained his memories of the previous Francis Nguyen, who had been called Lindsay Williamson. She had been eighty-two years old, whereas Francis was thirty-eight.

“Can you remind me why I am here?” Mr. Nguyen asked.

“Your time has ended, for now, in the land of the living.”

“Ah, I see, and I am here for my final judgement.”

“Not yet, Mr. Nguyen. You have lived just over two hundred years across five lives. You have a few more to experience before the final judgement is given.”

“I will go back then?”

“Not as you are currently.”

Mr. Nguyen’s eyes narrowed and he turned his head ever so slightly.

“What do you remember of your previous lives?” Remiel asked.

“Nothing.”

“That is because you cannot take your memories with you. You must start again. A clean slate. No prior experiences and under new circumstances. You have done this several times already. Only when you have lived your three hundred and thirty-three years will you be ready to receive your final judgment.”

Mr. Nguyen nodded. “Yes, I’m beginning to remember, but please forgive me. Why so many years?”

“One life is too short to accurately pass judgement on a soul. Multiple lives are required to collect the necessary information to make a proper assessment.”

“Then I have no choice but to accept?”

“There is always a choice.” Remiel picked up the tablet and rose from his chair. Mr. Nguyen stood as well. They walked a few paces before Remiel turned to face Mr. Nguyen and present the tablet.

“When you place your hand on this, it will absorb all of your memories. Then you will pass through the door behind me to begin your next life. The choice you have in this moment is where you will be born and how long your life will last. You cannot choose who your parents will be or how you will be born or any aspect of how your life beyond where it will begin and how long you will live. You will have no control over how your life will end and no memory of the length you had chosen. You will be born into the world you just left. Nothing will have changed. You currently have 129 years to live before we meet for the last time. Knowing this, make your choice.”

Then, as if from a particle of dust in the spotless room, a miniature earth grew into existence above the tablet until its surface could be seen in detail. Mr. Nguyen examined the moon slowly circling the planet and was tempted to pluck it out of orbit and look at it closer, but he quickly returned his gaze to the world before him. He remembered everything he could about what the world was like. After a few moments he made his decision. Niue. A small island in the Pacific Ocean. He loved the water and hoped to have a simple, yet enjoyable life there.

“Seventy-two years.”

“Are you sure?” Remiel asked.

Mr. Nguyen nodded.

“Place your hand here,” Remiel continued.

Mr. Nguyen followed the instructions and placed his hand on the tablet. Every memory withing him transferred to the tablet. As did Remiel’s memories, through his own hand placed on the underside of the tablet, until both of their collective memories had been extracted.

When Mr. Nguyen removed his hand. Remiel looked up at him and smiled. Then he guided his guest to the door behind him and ushered him through. The door closed and Remiel returned to the table and placed the tablet on its surface. All memories of his previous guest were gone. A new dossier was sitting on the table. He sat down and flicked through the pages absorbing the memories of his next guest. Remembering each time they met and the lives this one had lived. Once he felt prepared, he placed the information back on table and rose to greet his new visitor as she walked through the door.

The Worth of One Life

She tightened the restraints and checked them three times. The man struggled futilely as she stood and looked at him, bound to the straight-back wooden chair. A wad of cloth muffled any words he attempted to shout at her. Haley once thought she was incapable of murder, of snuffing out the life of any creature, but she found it grew easier with each sacrifice.

She pulled the wad of cloth from the man’s mouth and began unraveling it.

“Let me go you stupid bitch,” he screamed. The building was empty. She made sure of that so no one would hear him scream. She chuckled at him.

“Why would I do that?” she asked. “You can’t say you don’t deserve this.” She took the length of cloth and wrapped it from his chin to the top of his head. She dug a wooden cylinder out of her bag. It was intricately carved. A knob carved with the likeness of a face protruded half-way down the cylinder. She placed the knob in the man’s mouth to once again stifle his words, then she tightened the cloth until he could no longer move his jaw.

“I would say I’m sorry about this,” she said, “but to be honest, I’m not. The world is better off without trash like you.” She pulled out a knife and shoved it into the man’s chest. She stared into his eyes as he glared at her first with hatred, then pain, then fear. Blood dripped to the floor, but she continued to stare until the light faded from his eyes. The cylinder rattled as he died.

She wiped the blood from her blade, cut the cloth, and withdrew the soul-catcher from the man’s mouth. Counting tonight, it had rattled 98 times. One more and I can finally bring him back, she thought.

She grabbed the canister of gasoline and doused the body then sprinkled the room. She pulled out her lighter, lit a cigarette, and inhaled deeply. Danny was the reason she quit, and she promised to quit again when she had him back, but she could not fight the overwhelming need to have one after each of her kills. They were all terrible people. That was the only way she could convince herself to even do it. She would only collect the souls of those who shouldn’t have to wait to go to hell.

Haley looked at the body in front of him. She’d already forgotten his name. She found him through the sex offender registry. He had received a light sentence for a heinous act, and she took it upon herself to remedy that fact because it would serve her purpose and relieve the world of a terrible person. Before her crusade, she would have simply been saddened and sick upon hearing what he had done. Now she had strength.

She took one more draw and exhaled. A flick of her finger sent the glow of the cigarette tumbling through the air. The room ignited upon its landing and Haley watched from the doorway as the flames engulfed the room. Then she left for home. The knife and soul-catcher safely secure in her coat pockets.

The next day she perused the local paper for news of any recent crimes. She was really looking for suspected persons she could use as her last sacrifice. She was so near the end she felt impatient, but knew she had to be careful. Her exploits were not going unnoticed.

One article mentioned her nightly activities as a cleansing fire across the city. She smiled at the phrase, but could not shrug the fear that her victims have been tied together. The police were surely investigating the killings. They could potentially have leads. She hadn’t seen anything, but they may purposely be keeping the search quiet. She had to be careful. It would all be worthless if she were incarcerated before she could finish. It would be almost be worse if she were caught after she succeeded.

She scanned the paper until she found a lead. A man had been accused of several hate crimes over the course of the last few years, but he had never served second for the damage or fear he caused his neighbors. He even fired gunshots at their house. They moved after he was released a third time without any consequence. He would be her last sacrifice. Her impatience won out. After tonight, she would set this all behind her and live the life she was meant to have.


The soul-catcher rattled. Before she could remove it from the dead man’s mouth, the spirit within it emerged. A darkness hovered behind the body. The spirit’s form was darker than the shadow cast in the moonlight. Green flames emerged as eyes set into a pale-white skull.

“You are but one of few to have accomplished this task,” it spoke. The raspy voice echoes around the room as if it did not belong to the form in front of her.

“Give him to me,” she said.

“Ah, but you have not yet finished what you have started,” the voice circled her.

“What do you mean?”

“What is the worth of one soul?”

“You said yourself ninety-nine souls could be traded to bring one back from the dead.”

“I did, but collecting ninety-nine souls was merely the beginning. The final requirement now falls before you. The worth of one soul is not quantifiable by numbers. A sacrifice is required by those who would reverse death.”

“What are you saying?” Haley could feel tears welling in her eyes. All of that work. All of those people. The things she had done. She could not believe it was all for nothing.

“One more soul is required to bring your son back. The soul that has tied his to this world. Yours.” The black shroud moved and lifted the soul-catcher from the dead man’s mouth. The knife floated from the man’s chest. Both items were brought before her. A green flame swallowed both items. The blood from the blade evaporated within the flame.

“Do what must be done,” the voice echoed.

Haley grabbed the soul-catcher. The green flames died away at her touch. She slowly inserted the knob of the cylinder into her mouth. She gripped the handle of the blade and held it above her chest. Tears danced across her cheeks.

The soul-catcher bounced against the concrete floor. The blade soon followed. Haley fell to her knees. “How can I be certain you can bring him back,” she called.

A laugh grew louder around the room. “What do you think I have been doing while you toiled away in this…..mortal plane?” The shadow beneath the skull pulled back to reveal an incorporeal image of her son.

“Danny,” she yelled.

“He does not have the ability to hear you in this form. Complete the task and he will take your place in this world.”

The blade and soul-catcher once again were encased in green flame. She picked them up and readied herself. The image of her son gave her the resolve to finish what she had started.

A rattle sounded in the room followed by hollow laughter on the wind. Outside, the cries of a child filled the air.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

I was certain it was a dream. Everything was blocky, monochromatic, and nothing seemed in focus. I entered a cave to find carefully stacked pixels forming the vague image of an old man. He gifted me a sword and offered no instruction, but I knew what I had to do. I scoured the world, defeated monsters, and eventually achieved my fate. She was safe, which meant I could rest.

I believed I would wake to familiar surroundings, but I was wrong. Instead I woke to a woman’s voice calling for help. My body was slightly recognizable, the landscapes more defined, but again I was tasked with a heavy burden. Weeks passed without rest until I completed my task. I had saved a kingdom, and my reward was another nightmare.

My eyes opened to the insistent nagging of a fairy who had found her way into my home. She bid me to follow her where I learned once again I was fated to save a world in danger. Something in me wanted to forego this responsibility, but my nature prevailed.

My travels revealed my fate to be the eternal struggle between three forces. The evil strength of a monster, the wisdom of a goddess, and myself. Each part woven together into the fabric of destiny. My eyes opened time and time again to complete a task that tested the limits of my strength. I would never know peace.

Through each resurrection I realized I was not alone. She was always with me. The goddess who took up arms beside me to battle the demon. I do not know how many lives I have lived, nor which memories are real, but knowing I will always find her when I wake up is enough. For her, I will never stop fighting.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

OceanThis week’s book recommendation is The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This is another short one at 178 pages. It was first published in 2013 and is a reflection of childhood. A man revisits his childhood town for a funeral and finds he is drawn to the pond at the end of the road that a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, once claimed was an ocean.

Most of the book recounts certain events of his childhood and his interactions with Lettie, the youngest of her family that is still able to see the world as it is. Something ordinary humans no longer see. Our main character gets pulled into this ancient world while trying to stay within his own. It all starts when he sees the aftermath of a man’s suicide which seems to spark a series of fantastical events that are frightening, mystifying, and uniquely magical.

I would not consider this a children’s book. I’d say it’s more for those who have grown up and forgotten the elusive magic of childhood. The good and bad. The frightening imagination. The wonder. The exploratory drive to know more about the world. This book is a look through that lens. It is also a reminder that the lens fogs over with our day-to-day adult responsibilities, and we need to clean it every so often so as not to forget what it means to be alive.

If you have not read Neil Gaiman, this is a good book to start with. If you have read Neil’s work, then you probably plan to read this book. He is great at what he does, which is make you believe the magic he spins within each sentence. I’ve recommended his books before and I will probably continue to recommend them as I read them. This book, however, is one that I think can be returned to, and each re-read will seem like reading it for the first time. The words won’t change, but our lens will, as it does with each passing year.

Happy Reading.