Autumn 1986

As it turned out, Nelda and Angel earned an A- on their two-page dialog, and the class had even clapped after they acted it out together instead of just reading it aloud as everyone else had done with their dialogues. After that class, a couple of other students—Danny and Shawna—met up with them, and that began the “PWW” (the Post-Workshop Workshop). They commandeered a table on the cafeteria’s west patio, which became two tables a week later after several more students from the class joined in. From then on, they met regularly to discuss the most recent class, bat around ideas for upcoming assignments, and gossip.

One morning, Nelda told them about the computer writing lab. Other than Angel, none of the other members of the PWW had heard about it: the lab was located in what had once been the old physics building, far from where humanities students tended to congregate. Also, the lab had been set up under an academic enrichment grant to serve first-year composition students, and even though Nelda had tested out of the first-year comp requirement, as the only first-year student in the group she had been mailed information about it in her orientation packet.

“Computers?” Shawna said with some distaste. “I can barely stand the hum of Dad’s electric typewriter! Quill and foolscap for me!” she proclaimed, waving her journal and several ballpoints.

“Oh, not for writing,” Nelda temporized. “It’s too loud in there to write anyway. But they’re great for typing stuff up that you’ve written, especially if you’re a bad typist.” She paused, noting the unconvinced looks of the other students. “Best of all, the lab doesn’t charge for printing!”

“But it’s that dot print! It looks so ugly,” moaned Diana, tucking her hands into the sleeves of her cardigan.

“I’m just saying that there’s free word processing and printing if you want it,” said Nelda.

“But computers,” said Danny doubtfully. “I don’t know computers.”

“They use this program made just for student writers. You can learn it in about an hour.”

“I already know how to use a pencil and a yellow pad,” Danny answered. “And I have a typewriter.”

Nelda gave up. “Whatever. Anyway, what about the assignment after the next?” She pointed at the syllabus in front of her and read, “‘Thanksgiving reunion. Skeletons and closets.’ That’s all it says.”

“We need to ask him what that means on Thursday, ” suggested Angel.

“‘Figure it out. Be creative!’” Shawna said in a surprisingly good imitation of Reingold’s voice. “That’s what he’ll say. That’s what he always says.” She made a supercilious expression, and proclaimed in faux-Reingoldian tones, “I will help you refine characters and dialogue and structure and I’ll even fix your bad grammar and spelling. But. I. Will. NOT! Be your muse! If you want a muse, burn some incense and sacrifice a goat!’”

“Who wants to ask him where to get a goat?” grinned Angel.

“Go to! Go to! Get thee to his office hours!” Shawna said.

“Speaking of which, I have to go to work,” said Danny. He pulled out a cafeteria apron from his knapsack and tied it on. “By the way, stay away from the chicken pot pie casserole today,” he said. “I saw Pablo making it last night and he didn’t look happy about it.” He headed into the cafeteria.

“How about the goat pot pie?” Nelda called after him.

“I hear it’s inspiring,” said Angel.

Nelda lay prone on her bed, pen in mouth, legs bent up, blue spiral notebook open, staring at a page across which two crossed-out lines wandered. She took her pen and scribbled a few more words, then crossed them out, too.

“Turkey carcass,” she muttered to herself. She clumsily drew a stick-figure skeleton with a turkey head and added a speech balloon that said, “When does the reunion start?” She giggled. “Well, Steve,” she said, addressing Reingold in her mind, “you said you wanted a skeleton at a reunion! Now how can I work a closet in?” She turned to a blank page and stared at that one for a time, tapping her teeth with the pen, and then groaned and sat up. She reached for the blue princess phone on her night-table and lifted the handset. Still no dial tone. She frowned as she set it back down. “Dammit!”

A knock at her door startled her. She leapt from the bed and took the two steps to the door, checked that the deadbolt and chain were secure and asked, with a small quaver in her voice, “Who is it?”

A gruff voice intoned: “I am the Key Master. Are you Nelda the Neldarian?”

“Ben!” she squealed and unlocked the door. A thin tallish man with slate colored eyes and dark hair that grazed his collar stood in the hallway. “Hi, Nellie! Can I come in?”

She hugged him, pressing her cheek against his black t-shirt. “Sure you can…if you can fit.” She pulled away and gestured around the small room. Aside from the bed and night-table, the room’s furnishings consisted of a small desk with a wooden chair, another small table, lacking a chair, that was positioned by the window, and a small closet at the foot of the bed. A battered white hotplate sat on the table by the window. A closed door on the side of the room opposite the bed led into the tiny bathroom.

He cast his gaze around the confined space. “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, but this place would give me terminal claustrophobia!” he said with a sad smile. “Was this the best that Mom could do for you? You’d have more room in the dorms!” He walked in and pulled out the chair, sat, and crossed his legs at the ankles.

Nelda poked her head out into the hallway, glanced in each direction, and then closed the door, locking it. “But then how could her minions keep their bloodshot eyes on me?” she asked. She climbed back on the bed, closed her spiral notebook, tossed it and her pen into the bag that sat on the pillow at head of the bed, and sat cross-legged, looking at her brother. “When did you get back into town? How long are you staying? What have you been doing? You look thinner.”

“Yesterday. Till the end of the month. Wearing a coat and tie and flying all over the country. I can’t imagine why, with all the hotel food I’ve been eating,” he said, ticking off answers on his fingers. “It’s good to see you, Nellie! How do you like college so far?”

She looked thoughtful. “I think I like it. But there’s a lot of work and it’s a little scary. The classes are hard, everyone seems so much older than me, and I never know how to talk to anyone without putting my big feet in my mouth.” Then she grinned widely. “But it beats the heck out of Marlborough! Speaking of which, you smell like cigarettes. Are you smoking again?”

Ben hung his head in shame. “Yes. Not much else to do when your flight is delayed and you have to hang out in airport bars. Except drink.” He smiled sardonically, “And you know how I hate to drink.”

“You poor baby.” She shook her head in mock sympathy. “But, seriously, you aren’t drinking, too?” She looked worried.

“No, ma’am. I’m the one at the end of the bar smoking Camels and sipping Perrier. From a martini glass, so I don’t look like a jerk.” He shook his upper body like a dog trying to get dry. “Brr. Is it always this cold in here?”

Nelda fingered the thick sweatshirt she was wearing. “It’s the air-conditioning. They crank it up way too high. I’d open the window, but it doesn’t open. Can I get you a blanket?”

“Don’t bother. I’m here to take you out to dinner. I would have called but you don’t seem to have a phone.” He looked at her night-table. “Well, I thought you didn’t have a phone.”

“Oh, I have a phone. But the phone company hasn’t been able to find me a number yet, and I’ll be damned if I have to route all my calls through the office switchboard! The minions aren’t going to listen in to all my calls!”

“I don’t think they’d do that,” Ben said.

“Don’t be too sure. You know that Mom really wants me to live at home for at least another year, and since she couldn’t talk me into that, well…” Her voice trailed off. She smiled wryly at her brother. “You ever heard of a panopticon?”

“Nellie, you forget: I lived with her for years and years myself.” He shrugged. “Honestly, she doesn’t have the time to be as vigilant about you as you seem to think she is.”

“You’d think. She’s like an all-seeing eye. Wreathed in flame!” she protested.

“She’s a mom.”

“Same thing.”

Ben laughed. “Okay, kid, get your shoes on and let’s see if there’s anywhere around here where we can get some food.”

“Are you kidding?” Nelda said, getting up and then reaching under her bed and pulling out her shoes. “We’re right next to school. There’s nothing but places to get food around here. We got Mexican, pizza, pasta, hamburgers, Middle-Eastern, Indian, vegetarian, Thai, sushi, and donuts!”

“What do you feel like?” Ben asked, standing up as Nelda finished putting on her shoes and unlocking the door.

“Donuts and coffee!” she laughed. “But I’ll settle for a burger and fries.”

“I think I can afford that,” Ben said as she locked the door behind them and headed off to the elevator.

“Good, because I spent my dinner money on books today.”

“Oh, Nellie!”

“Oh, Ben!” She hugged him with one arm as the elevator door opened.

Spring 2042

“Yeah, that looks like an old PC-DOS disk,” said Ryan Cove, taking a quick glance at the first picture that Herbert showed him. “But looks can be deceiving,” he continued, leaning back in his chair. He brushed a few crumbs from the front of his sweater. “Could be CP/M. Could be Apple DOS for that matter. Could be something else, too. Hell, it could be unformatted. Can you lay your hands on it? Can’t really tell much of anything from a picture.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Herbert thought. He closed the picture. “I might be able to, but it’s part of a curated collection, and I’d have to get permission. What would you have to do to find out what it is?”

Cove looked up, studied the acoustic ceiling tiles. “First thing is to take a real close look at the disk itself. Is the magnetic coating still intact on the disk or is it flaking off? Is the disk material still floppy or is it brittle? So, a little while under an ordinary microscope for starters.

“Then, if it seems in good physical shape, we could try putting it in some of the machines down in the Scullery and see if any of them can read it.” The “Scullery” was the Superannuated Computing Laboratory, a closed lab that Herbert had never been allowed inside. It was on the building’s second floor, and its door, which Herbert had seen the outside of, bore all sorts of warning signs on it, most of them certainly bogus: he was sure (almost) that there wasn’t any ionizing radiation or bio-hazardous material behind the door, though he did think it at least possible that there might be unshielded ultra-violet lasers there.

Cove paused. “Even if it is in good shape physically, though, the data on it might not be. That thing must be at least forty years old, and probably older: double-density floppies were making like a dot on the horizon by the beginning of the century. So its magnetism might have started to get fuzzy and fade, and in that case all you’d probably end up getting would be a read error. Even if you did find the right machine to play it on, you wouldn’t know.”

“What if it wasn’t in good shape physically, or if it was starting to get fuzzy? What then?”

“Then more invasive measures would need to be taken. Bring out the big guns. Cut the disk out of its housing, do a complete surface imaging with a very high-power microscope and run a magnetic particle imaging scan, build a virtual replica of everything we can detect, and then spend a few days modeling reconstructions and see if we can find matching patterns in our database.”

Herbert looked disconsolate. “Sounds like that would destroy the disk itself.”

“Oh, yes. You can only do that kind of examination once in most cases. If you want to preserve the media and its housing, I suppose you might be able to, but it would take a lot longer to do the scans and still might damage the thing. It’s usually not worth the trouble. Anyway, almost certain there’d be some damage, no matter what you did if you had to go that road.” Cove looked vaguely delighted at the thought.

“I see,” Herbert said. “Thanks.” He got up.

“The label, though. That might tell you something. It says ‘Papers Disk,’ and it’s printed, not handwritten.” Herbert sat back down. “Usually disks from that period with apps on them say something like ‘Program’ on their labels—in fact, you usually see the name of a company and a logo on those along with the name of the app. Data disks usually just have handwritten labels, if they have any labels at all. Most people never even labelled their disks.” Cove smiled sardonically. “People are idiots. ‘Papers Disk,’ though—that’s unusual.” He scratched the inside of his upper thigh thoughtfully.

Herbert pulled his book out again and brought up the picture of the receipt. “What about this?”

“She’s kinda cute,” Cove said. “Your girlfriend?” He leered.

Herbert flushed, realizing that Sheila’s face was half-visible in the image. “Just a friend. She’s one of the curators in Special Collections.”

“Yes, I know. I saw her there once.” He stretched his arms over his head, yawning, revealing small moth-bitten holes in the underarms of his sweater. “Seemed nice enough.” 

Herbert felt relieved: perhaps Cove didn’t realize that it was Sheila’s report that’d led to his current Special Collections ban.

“Then she ratted me out,” he said.


“I don’t mind. Much. It means I get to sit back and order you to do all my digging and fetching.” His expression grew waspish. “You’re a good little dogsbody most of the time. When you aren’t skiving off work like yesterday.”

Busted. Herbert refused to blink. “I meant the receipt. Have you ever seen anything similar to it? Or heard of a ‘WPWP Lab’?”

“Can’t say that I have. You’ll have to dig that up on your own.”

“Okay, thanks,” Herbert said, getting up again.

“Though the name is interesting,” said Cove, stroking his goatee.

Herbert sat back down one more time. “Oh?”

“I mean, the ‘Lab’ part is what’s interesting; I haven’t a clue what ‘WPWP’ is. But it might suggest that it was some organization on campus back then. You could start by searching the student paper morgue, see if it was mentioned somewhere. Say from 1980 to about 2005. That seems the most likely period. And any faculty newsletters in the archives. Also alumni newsletter mailings, if you can find any: lots of labs weren’t ‘labs’ in the research sense but instructional ones, and some of them were paid for with donor dollars from rich alumni so they could feel good about themselves and see their names prominently featured in the next mailing.” He snorted. “That shouldn’t take too long to research.” He fixed Herbert with a hostile gaze. “Just don’t do it on my time.”

Herbert stood up again. “Thanks.”

“Where are you going? I have a few things for you to do today along with the things you didn’t get to yesterday. Sit down.” Herbert sat.

He didn’t make it to campus at all that day, and the next day was Saturday, which he spent, instead of biking down the beach path and back, working on assignments for his classes that he’d put off for far too long.

He thought about asking Sheila if she wanted to have brunch with him on Sunday, then thought better of it, then thought better about thinking better of it, then got cold feet again.

His feet didn’t get warmer until late Saturday afternoon, and, while he thought it was probably too late to try, he sent Sheila an invitation anyway, suggesting a deli a mile or two from campus. He was surprised when she responded just a few minutes later with an acceptance, asking him if it was all right if they met at the deli. It was.

The deli was noisy and starting to get crowded, and Herbert stood outside the door nervously, watching more people enter than leave. There wasn’t a line of people waiting for tables yet, but it was only a matter of time. A car pulled up and Sheila got out, waved it away, and then turned and saw Herbert. She smiled, and Herbert felt very relieved, though when she came up he wasn’t quite sure of the protocol.

She was: she gave him a quick hug and a peck on the cheek. “Hi,” she said brightly.

“Hungry?” he asked, opening the door for her.

“Mostly thirsty. I would kill for some black, black hot, hot tea. But hungry too, so something with potatoes.” She laughed. “I’ll even eat an egg or two!”

“Eggs they have,” said Herbert. There was only one table left, in a space left by two catty-corner booths, and it was just big enough for two people to sit closely together.

He spent a minute or two staring at the menu without reading it, feeling at a loss for words.

“Oh, potato pancakes!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, they’re really good! I’ve had ’em.” He focused again on the menu and then just decided to go what he usually had: a Belgian waffle, with eggs and bacon. It took a waiter a few minutes to come by and take their order once they put their menus down. “So,” Herbert said after a few moments. “I’ve been looking into that disk we found the other evening.”

“Oh? Is that why…?” she said.

“Oh, no, no, no. I’d have breakfast with you any time!” he said, flustered.

“Any time?” She grinned.

“Well preferably in the morning,” he stumbled.

“Really.” Her grin grew wider and more teasing.

“Though I can eat breakfast at any time of day,” he went on, turning crimson.

“It is one of my favorite meals, too,” she answered. He could see that small laugh of hers plotting another escape, and was grateful to turn his attention to the waiter who finally had appeared.

They placed their orders and sat in silence for another few moments.

“You were saying something about the disk,” Sheila prompted.

“Oh, yes, right.” He told her about his conversation with Cove and what he had learned. When he got to the part about the invasive examination, she looked worried.

“I don’t know about that,” she said.

“Don’t worry, it’s moot anyway. I mean, I don’t have access to the equipment in the first place, and even if I did I don’t know how to run it. It’s for funded research projects, and I’m not research staff, just an intern.” He told her then about the disk label and what Cove thought it might signify, and the research tips he’d tossed off.

“Hmmm. Yes, that is interesting. Auntie Nell was a student in the late ’80s, so that’s probably the best place to start looking.”

“You don’t mind if I poke around, then.”

“Not at all! Just let me know whatever you find out.”

He smiled happily. “That’s all part of my cunning plan.”

Her laugh burst free.


Copyright © 2016 Michael E. Cohen—All Rights Reserved