This next installment is truly exciting. Chris confronts Mark in the parking lot again. But, the conclusion of their fisticuffs might not be what you expected. Or perhaps it is. What will Chris do with this new information? You will have to wait…but not long.
Twenty-five minutes behind the wheel, not really watching where it was going, I pondered all the things I was preparing to do to Mark when we met in the parking lot. None of it was legal. All of it involved throwing punches or random objects at arm’s length. In my mind, I yelled at him over and over that he ruined my life. Loud enough colleagues and passers-by could gawk and know what they were gawking at so they could provide better stories at dinner. It always started with my hollering at Mark, his confused if not petrified look of fear, followed by a fist to his jaw. Never threw a punch before this week. Don’t remember that one. Just sure it happened. As sure as I was that Mark was filling my wife behind my back. I imagined each punch feeling better than the last. For me of course. The opposite feeling for him.
Never before had I fought anyone. Even growing up in school I let bullies pound on me. Well, ‘let’ seems misleading. I never reciprocated their blows. I couldn’t. Each time I froze like a fawn on a highway, headlights growing in the decreasing distance. Always the same outcome. Me bloodied up, they walked away proud. Friends always laughed. Not all my friends. Mark never laughed. That’s probably why we were so close. A few weeks after we first met, he stood between me and my attacker, said something, received a shot to the face, then returned it back to the fat bastard. Since then, I’ve been the ideas, he’s been the action. I create. He makes it happen. Yesterday he created this elaborate plan to toy with me. Probably never thought I’d actually stand up to my aggressor. History suggested he was right. But today I was finally going to stand up for what I believed. We were not children any more. I was not a child any more. The protected was about to free himself from his own handcrafted chains and experience true freedom for the first time. It felt good.
My car pulled up a few rows down from where Mark usually parks his. Element of surprise is crucial. My legs argued with my getting out of the car. Apparently adrenaline only gets you so far. The rest must come from somewhere I’m hardly capable of accessing. I managed to access just enough.
I caught Mark mid-stride between the company’s back door and his car.
“Hey, Chris,” he said, sounding so concerned it would have stopped me in my tracks if the adrenaline wasn’t pumping full tilt. “What’re you doing here at the office? Day’s over, man.”
I said nothing. Kept marching at him. This was it.
“Chris, what they hell is…”
His sentence was punctuated with my fist. It felt better than I thought it would. Again, for me of course. I reached back for another dose, but Mark grabbed me in some hold like I was back in grade school. I couldn’t move though I tried to wriggle free. This was not how this was suppose to end up. I was the victim. I should have won this.
“Chris. Chris,” he said sternly but calmly, “I’m going to let you go. They we’re going to talk.”
“You’re fucking my wife,” I spat, literally, drooling on the pavement, “No talking.”
Mark picked me up, still in the grade school hold, dragged me to what I later found out was the backside of his car, mostly out of sight behind a few tall bushes. He tossed me to the ground. Instinctively, I curled up in a ball screaming into my elbows.
“I’m not going to hit you, jackass.” I heard him spit but none of it hit me. “Strike me like that again and I might reconsider it though.”
Ten minutes passed. Snot-dripping pouting at the pavement I hugged, I couldn’t control myself. When the convulsive sobs slowed enough to sit up, I did.
Mark was sitting beside me still nursing his bloody nose. No pity stewed within me. Instead, humiliation bubbled up. Humiliation that the man sitting to my left flagrantly abused our friendship, rubbed this knowledge in my face in some crazy story of computers coming to life enslaving the world one person at a time. Humiliation that I couldn’t defend the honor of that humiliation, perhaps wipe away part of that humiliation because I’m too weak physically and socially. I was a failure as a husband, a loser as a friend, and a humiliated human being.
Mark started, “I don’t know how to convince you that none of this is me.”
By now I was too tired to argue. Instead my mind wondered through forests of possibility as to what was going on here. The obvious answer was Mark was playing a stunt on me to maintain his innocence in my presence. The less obvious answer was that my psyche finally collapsed under work pressures and social insecurities creating this strange delusion of conversations with video equivalents of myself all the while blaming my best friend and wife for infidelities that were no more than figments of that cracked space between reality and, well, not. Even less obvious, stretching into the absurd was Mark was telling the truth and humans were being enslaved one by one to do computational bidding. I chalked up my willingness to even consider such frivolities to exhaustion.
Then I wondered: how could I prove without a shadow of a doubt that Mark and my wife were having an affair and that software had not advanced to Artificial Intelligence and power hunger reserved only for humans. Confronting Mark with no evidence was clearly riddled with holes. He just denied it. Pulling the truth like a tooth without Novocaine was out of question since I bloodied his nose twice and was disabled in a sleeper hold with the same outcome. Accusations required hard evidence. Evidence that disappeared moments after it appeared. Then it hit me.
“Give me your cell.”
“What?” Assuming he heard and understood me but was confused by what I said or that I spoke at all, I extended my hand without another word. He handed his cell to me with more force than I expected.
Being the ideas man of the two of us, it seemed illogical, nearly implausible Mark could devise such an elaborate plan without me. Further, as elaborate as his story was, his confusion over the request and my basic understanding of computers and software, it was unlikely he could hide any appropriate software or apps from prying eyes on his own cell phone. Looking back, I can find no excuse for not trying this before this moment.
First, I went through his desktop interface. I was familiar with all visible apps. Then I went through his cell’s list of apps. Still nothing. I went through his messages, video calls, texts. All were clear of anything that corroborated my understanding of my current situation. More confused than before, if that were possible, acid filled my esophagus.
“Dude,” he begged, “What the hell are you doing?”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I had to wrap my head around this new information. This left only two options: This was all in my head or computers really were taking over the human race, one person at a time. Neither reality sounded good. I meandered through random apps and conversations on Mark’s cell. Partly in hopes of finding something to discredit both of these realities, and partly because I had nothing else to do beside vomit. Having run out of text conversations to scan through, only vomiting was left. So I did.
Wiping away fragments of lunch, about to hand Mark back his cell, a notification came across the screen. I tapped the Read button. It was a text. On Mark’s cell. To Mark. From Mark.