Online Dating

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It was my friend, Renard, who really got into it. The whole magic thing, I mean.

It was the summer between high school and college when I really noticed that we were going our separate ways. I was going into a four year to study computer science, and he was staying in our home town. Taking a gap year. That last summer before I left, I asked him where he was expecting to go from there, and he just sorta shrugged at me.

“Nowhere, yet,” he said.

He wasn’t really willing to elaborate, so I left it alone. Our communication was pretty sparse during my freshman year in college, but not nonexistent. It was the third trimester I was catching on that something might have been weird.

He’d asked that when I came back home for the summer, I’d hit him up and we’d hang out. Said he had some crazy shit to show me. So when I came back, I unpacked, had a nice dinner with my folks, and after one sleep and a groggy breakfast, my first activity was to head over to Renard’s house.

He lived pretty near the downtown of Paris, Maine. His family had a big house on Chipman street, right behind the McLaughlin Garden, though it was just he and his mom living there after his dad died and his siblings all moved out.

When I arrived, he looked… weird.

“Hey Orson, stoked to see you again,” he said as he pulled me into a hug.

“Yeah, been a while,” I replied.

“Seriously.” He broke the contact, and waved me in. “How have you been?”

“Oh, good. Stressed. Coursework has been killing me, slowly but surely.” I chuckled.

“Yeah,” he said back, stuffing his hands into his pockets.

“Other than that, not much,” I continued. “I’ve been too busy to make any meaningful connections, you know. Mostly just studying and then my part time job. Plus, nearly half the classes are online. Who knew that you could teach computer science so effectively through a computer?” I chuckled again, just to add to the non-humor of boring college life.

“Uh-huh,” he said, giving a shy smile.

I sat down at a stool by the kitchen counter. “So, how about you?”

He shrugged. “Uhh, same old, same old. Been kinda. Mooching off Mom for a while now. She’s got hella empty nest syndrome though so she’s really hesitant to complain about me hanging around.”

“Alright, sure, but like. What do you do? With all your time I mean?”

He shifted his weight and looked a ways off. I could hear birds twittering outside in the morning light, and it looked like he was listening to them too.

“Well,” he said, but he paused slightly before continuing. “Hey, why don’t you just come up to my room? I can show you what I’ve been up to, actually.”

I shrugged. “Sure! Show me how the boys’ room has evolved since I left.”

Ren chuckled. “It’s… yeah, it’s different.”

He led me upstairs, and we walked around the indoor balcony to the door to his room. When he opened the door, well… I wasn’t sure what I expected, but, you have to understand that for as long as I knew Ren, he wasn’t, like, religious or anything.

“Woah, you’ve been getting into metal?” I asked.

But he said: “Mmm, no, not… really.”

The room was covered head to toe in all this occult imagery that I’d never seen before. I just knew it was occult because it’s such an aesthetic in shows. Pentagrams, bird’s feet, but also a lot more computer parts than I’d seen before. It looked like he had the component parts of, like, five different computer towers strewn across his room. There was a whole stack of fans on his desk, topped with some twigs. He had what looks like a trellis that he’d weaved some herbs into.

It was so different from the pile of clothes, glow-in-the-dark stars, and boxy TV with a Gamecube hooked up that I remembered from only one year ago. Where the TV was, he’d built his own desktop, complete with the glowing keyboard, double monitors, and beefy headset.

“Hey,” I sauntered over to it, “I thought you were console for life.”

“Yeah, me too,” he said. His hands were still stuffed deep into the pockets of his sweatpants, and there was a hunch to his back I’d never seen before. It really looked like in the year I’d left him alone, he’d completely reverted into being a cavedweller. It was kind of funny, and I would have ribbed him for it if he didn’t look so nervous.

“So,” I filled the silence. “Was this the crazy thing you wanted to show me? The redesign?”

“Uhh, hah, not quite, umm,” he gracefully showed me that he was trying to get to a drawer in his desk I was blocking, so I moved out of the way. “So, I got a new pet,” he announced.

I raised my eyebrows a bit as he opened the drawer and it smelled… kinda like hay. Moreover, I heard oinks. No doubt about it. He turned around, and he was holding a little teacup pig.

“Wow!” I said, extending my hands to hold the fuzzy little thing. “This is… well it’s adorable. What’s its name?”

Ren shrugged. “Oinkers, I guess, haha.”

“You guess?”

He shrugged. He was making it a habit of shrugging.

Then it dawned on me. “You keep it in a drawer?

“Yeah, so, there’s more to it than that, uh,” he grabbed Oinkers out of my hand, but I resisted slightly. I wasn’t so sure if I trusted him with the little thing.

“This is, like, a big change,” I prodded. “Occult stuff, those computer bits, and a pet? Like, I mean I don’t wanna sound upset at change happening in your life, but I’m genuinely confused. What’s going on?”

“Uhh, okay, well, I’m gonna show you something, and you have to promise me not to freak out, especially ‘cause…” He shifted his weight again, leaning heavily on his left foot and avoiding eye contact. “Mom is downstairs, and I don’t want her to freak out or anything, ‘kay?”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Okay, but like, are you gonna explain this stuff afterwards?”

“It is an explanation, but, like, it’s more like a demonstration. Just watch, okay?”

He put the pig on the floor, and it started trotting about aimlessly, just sniffing at things. Ren made his way over to one of the messes of wires and plugs and parts, and dug through. He eventually found a little harddrive — a solid state drive, I think — and placed it in front of Oinkers. The pig started sniffing at it, but turned and trotted away.

“No,” Ren said, picking the thing up with one hand and turning it around so it was faced with the drive again. It started sniffing, and after it looked up at him with some confusion, he just pushed the drive towards it.

I cracked a smile. “What, are you trying to feed it code?”

Ren let out a strained chuckle. “Um, sort of?”

Before I could respond, he said: “Th-there it goes.”

It was a bit disorienting at first. No, that’s not it. It was very disorienting at first. But Oinkers was snorting really loudly — louder than I expected a pig of its size to be able to snort, and as funny as that sounds it was like, right in my ears, that was how loud it was. Then, the pig started to, like… glow. I know it sounds crazy but I swear I saw it, it just started snorting and glowing pink. It sounds funny when I say it but it wasn’t. It was like, I had to shield my eyes from it, and when the glow was gone, and I felt like I had regained my senses I put down my arm and I didn’t see a pig anywhere. I guess it was because I was so dizzy that I didn’t immediately notice that the harddrive had, well this sounds crazy but it had little legs, I swear!

It had little legs, and on the front of it was like, this snout, right? It looked like it was just part of the device, like the harddrive was the same but it had a snout, not just a pig snout but like a harddrive snout, the same color of the, the metal and the, everything about it just made sense in a way that I can’t define or describe and just thinking about it now nearly makes me want to vomit.

I know it sounds silly but that’s how it feels when utter nonsense happens right before your eyes.

So my first instinct was to shout: “What the fuck dude!?”

“Shhh!” He tried to silence me immediately, making head motions to the floor to remind me of his mom’s presence.

“What the fuck,” I said in a more hushed tone of voice.

“I know, I know,” he said, trying to calm me down, “it’s just, if I said it did that you wouldn’t have believed me, would you?”

My eyes couldn’t stop staring at the thing on the floor, walking around and snorting every once in a while. It was like a big hairy spider that you can’t allow out of your sight in case it’s disappeared when you look back, able to appear from under any paper, out from any crevice. It was hard to keep up a conversation with Renard when I was so distracted by the intruder to my reality.

“I guess I wouldn’t have,” I conceded.

“Well, th-there, yeah. That’s what I’m talking about.”

“So, the…” I waved a hand in the direction of all the stuff on the walls. “It’s all… magic stuff?”

“That’s sort of the idea, yeah. Can I show you one more thing? It’s less crazy, I swear.”

I looked at him and tried to silently communicate that less crazy was a really very low bar. He didn’t seem to notice.

He picked up the… I guess it was Oinkers. He picked it up and I was able to see that its tail — or, its cord — was all curled up, and then he uh, he plugged it in, the USB end I mean, he plugged it into his computer tower. The thing just sort of scampered on the floor, but I guess it wasn’t strong enough to pull free of the connection, so it just ran in place sometimes, and otherwise stood still and snorted.
He booted up his PC and waved me over. I was still trying to keep a healthy distance between myself and Oinkers, but he really insisted. I decided to stand to the side of Ren that kept him between me and the pig. Harddrive. Oinkers.

I noticed that he was running Windows Vista Home Premium, which was at least some point of familiarity. It looked like despite all the parts he’d accumulated, he’d made a computer with an outdated OS. That was so typically Renard that it almost lifted some weight off of my heart… as long as I didn’t look at the thing on the floor.

I watched him navigate the file explorer to get to, uh, the files on the harddrive. The files in Oinkers. I watched him open it up, and I heard the pig start to snort a little more when he opened the files, which made me have some strange thoughts about what exactly accessing code inside a living being must feel like.

But as I shook that train of thought out of my head like the files coming out of Oinkers, Ren patted me with the back of his hand, trying to get me to come back to reality.

“Look, this is uh, this is the stuff I need help with,” he pointed to the files.

“Sorry, help?” I responded.

“Yeah uh, so see, I don’t wanna…” He trailed off. “I don’t want to be disrespectful or anything but your reaction should be, like, reason enough, like you can see where I’m coming from — but I don’t want people to know about this. You’re, uh, I’m letting you in on it because you’re a computer science major and I don’t know what I’m doing.”

I don’t know what you’re doing,” I reminded him.

He turned around in his seat, and looked at the ground.

“Right,” he said.

There was a pause where the only noises were a whirring computer fan and the oinks of Oinkers.

Renard sighed. “Um, so Oinkers here is uh, he’s like, he’s supposed to help me ascend or something.”

I raised my eyebrows at him. “This is not less crazy, which is what you promised me.”

“No, come on,” he sounded flustered. “Just. Listen, for a second. Look.

There’s this guy. Uh, Felix. We met while you were still around, y’know, uh, senior year of high school. I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing with my life. Well, I still don’t know what I’m going to be doing with my life. But I wasn’t having, like, any luck with uh… meeting people, here in Paris, you know. It’s a pretty small town and so like I know the dating pool and there just aren’t a lot of guys I’m really on the lookout for, know what I mean? So uh, Senior year I started looking at online options, and I guess I never told you because I was embarrassed.

But I found a site that really looked like it was my thing, you know like, it was catered towards my interests. Old tech and old games and just stuff that was really up my alley. I got into the community and I uh, I guess I stumbled across something.”

I cut in: “What do you mean something?

“Well, I mean that I found… that it wasn’t just old tech, it was like.”

He paused. I decided to take my guess at it.

“Magic tech?”

“I think they call it transcendent tech,” he supplied. “I started talking to Felix and I found out pretty quick that, um, Felix isn’t real. No, sorry I don’t mean it like that, I mean, Felix isn’t… tangible.”

I didn’t know what I was hearing.

“You mean, like,” I thought for a second, “he’s… a computer?”

“More like he’s not here, and computers are an information medium he can communicate through. And um,” Ren pointed to Oinkers. “This is what he sent me. So that we can be together. You know, for real.”

“For real,” I repeated.

He nodded.

“What does ‘for real’ mean?”

He paused, and then: “D-do I have to go into details?”

I was confused for a moment, and then it clicked. “Oh, right, oh God sorry, no. Like, that makes sense, and everything.”

He nodded.

“And… you need my help because…?”

“I can’t figure out these files. I mean I know what to do once these files… run. But I can’t get them to run. I figured you might know something.”

The file extensions were dot oinc. I’d never seen them before, but… “So… what do you want me to do?”

He unplugged Oinkers, picked it up, and presented it to me, at which I took a startled step backwards. I had nearly been able to forget that it existed.

“Take her home,” he said. “Fiddle with it. And if you can get the files to run, bring her back to me. That’s all.”

“Are you serious!?” I asked.

He nodded energetically. “Dead serious,” he said. “It would mean the world to me, Orson.”

So, that’s uh, that catches us up to the present, more or less. I did what he asked, really. I snuck Oinkers home, and I plugged him into my computer. I guess there was a kind of shock to it all that let me forget about the insanity. Or maybe, I haven’t given up on the idea that Oinkers was doing something to my head. Because I definitely wasn’t thinking clearly. It took me about a week, but I cracked open the files, got them to run on my computer. I sent it back to him.

I swear to you, that’s all I did.

I guess when he asked me if he needed to go into details, I should have said yes. I don’t know what I was expecting. I just… you know, it dawned on me, right? That it was all my fault. That I literally handed Oinkers back to him, when I could have not. I could have gotten rid of the thing. Sure, Ren would have hated me, but…

I wouldn’t have had to watch his Mom cry, or… walk upstairs and… find… him.

I know it sounds crazy but, um, he still… He still texts me sometimes. I haven’t responded yet.

I don’t think I will, either. I don’t think I will.

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