I walk up to the cashier robot at the Soup’n ‘n Green’n and place down a couple dollar coins. “Give me the chef’s special,” I say.
“Error,” the robot responds. “‘Chef’s special’ is not a valid menu item. Please select from the menu.”
“I’ll have the caesar salad…”
“One caesar salad, coming right up,” it says with a burst of mechanical joy in its movements.
Even confusing robots doesn’t do it for me anymore… What is this world coming to?
Once the caesar salad is ready, I take the compostable bowl from the cashier and turn back to the rest of the food court. It’s packed today, being a Saturday and all, and I just hope I can find a table somewhere.
It isn’t too hard when it’s just one person. See, I’m looking on the brighter side of things.
It’s not all so bad, sitting alone in a food court while everyone around you laughs about life stories and chats about the latest gossip. It gives you a lot of time to think about things, which is exactly what I need to do to relax.
I’m great at relaxing. I’m Morgan Harding, the notorious slacker who never wants to accomplish anything except when dragged out of bed by some heinous villain or screaming damsel. They say I have the world record for the most loose socks per square inch of an apartment. They say I won a staring contest against a statue out of boredom. They say I ended up coming out as nonbinary out of sheer apathy for being male or female (this is a little offensive but hey, that’s what they say).
All of this is to say that I am Morgan Harding. Relaxing is just what I do.
Which is why I happened to bring this along with me…
What’s this strange gray boxy thing, you ask? Well, after rummaging around my apartment for hours, it turns out I really do have a radio. And one that’s a nice memento, to boot.
Readers, meet my old walkman!
Yeah, yeah, I know, you’re too in awe of this amazing piece of early 2000s technology. It has a tape player, FM radio, AND AM radio. This device here saw more use out of it than any electronic I’ve ever owned, even my Super Nintendo.
In fact, just as I suspected, there’s a tape still in here, with white plastic and a sharpie written over the back reading “Danny’s Mix :).”
Really brings me back to those years where the most important thing in my life was hanging out with my friends and procrastinating on homework and plotting my grandiose future plans. No smartass sentient robots, no broken hearts, no Ascendants…
And so in memory of such a past, I’m going to use this walkman for what it was made for: Listening to the radio and tracking the Dial-Up Demon himself.
It’ll be the first day I hear him directly since the other day when Mr. Larkins showed him to me. The news keeps up with his happenings and the cult following he is growing (as well as all the banks and stores he’s robbing), but the full experience doesn’t come from second-hand reports. I need to do a deep dive.
So here we go.
“—Live right here from sunny Atlanta, Georgia! Stay hot, demon casters!” The raspy voice of the Dial-Up Demon himself is just finishing up one of his signature intros. I tuned in at just the right time. “Aight, this set’s dedicated to y’all lunchtime listeners trying to get a good bite in before you get back to making that dough. These songs are all about one thing: Money! Lunch is a break from making it, and so let’s keep you thinking about all that work you’re missing. Greed is good, and green is great. Here we go!”
The first song is an energetic polka tune by Al Yankovic that flows nicely, but doesn’t really capture my interest. What I care about is the demon himself, not the songs he’s choosing. I’m sure he’s throwing some taunting hints my way through the song titles or lyrics or whatever, but I’m not interested enough to find them.
All I’m interested in is… Who the hell is this guy?
For the rest of my lunch break I nibble at my caesar salad while listening to the Dial-Up Demon gloat about brainwashing the masses with the power of the internet. I come no closer to finding out who exactly this man is. But I’m more intrigued by the second.
“Harding! Get in here!” Mr. Larkins shouts from inside his office. I get up from the front desk and walk in there. He’s calling me in here more often these days. I’m getting annoyed by it more often these days, too.
It’s like he’s grooming me or something, treating me like his honorable protege in finance and business deals. He genuinely believes I see a career in Atlanta Cares, and at this point I’d be risking my job to inform him otherwise.
So with great reluctance, I enter and close the door behind me.
Larkins sits up and straightens his posture. “Harding, I got some good news for you.”
“I’m getting a raise?”
“You’re coming with me on a business meeting tomorrow,” he says, completely unfazed by my brazen remark. “We’re going down to Georgia State University for a big secret talk. You’re gonna see firsthand what it means to be a bigshot in the banking world.”
This sounds awful. “What is it we’re going to be doing here?” I ask.
“You’re not going to be doing anything, yourself,” he says. “You’re too much of a small fry. You’ll just be shadowing me and maybe looking out for anything suspicious, like if the other guy’s trying to scam me or something.”
“Why would I know about that…”
“Listen, I know how much this means to you, so don’t worry about pay. I’ll pay you for coming even if it doesn’t qualify as work. That sound good?”
That wasn’t what I was concerned about… But I shrug. “Yeah, sure, whatever,” I say. “Not like I’m doing anything better.”
“Great,” he says. “I’ll meet you first thing tomorrow morning.”
I turn and start to make a break for the door when he stops me with the least-gruff voice I’ve ever heard on the man—”Harding. You okay?”
I look back at him. He’s standing up now, approaching almost like he’s going to come put a hand on my shoulder. Please, no.
“If you ever need to talk, I’m here,” he says. “I have a daughter, so I know all about that teenage angst stuff.”
I’m 22. And not angsting.
“Uh, no sir, I’m okay, but thanks.”
“I know it’s probably just that Kairi girl dumping you or whatever, but if it’s ever something serious, just let me know.”
I leave Mr. Larkins’s office as fast as I can.
Why does everyone keep acting like I’m some poor animal to pity? Why does everyone keep asking me if I’m okay? I’m completely fine.
…And Karina didn’t dump me because we aren’t together. So… bam, take that, boss. Can’t get dumped if you’re still single. I’m way cooler than he ever imagined.
But, I guess, from the way I collapse back into my chair at the front desk, it might give off the impression that I’m feeling a little blue. That’s okay. Looks can be deceiving.