Every morning Ellen checked the thin black laptop she kept under her side of the bed. Michael had stopped asking her about it, and she had stopped assuring him that she would explain it all to him some day. She only ever used a single program, an open source email client which utilized OpenPGP to securely communicate with others that she had shared her public key with. The email address itself was a string of 25 random characters, as were the addresses of all the other people who had her public key. You would not have thought that Ellen would be the kind of woman to have such a setup from the looks of her; a pudgy middle-aged mom living with her family in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. In truth, it had been set up for her, by one of the few dozen people—128 at last count—that would potentially communicate with her through this channel.
He spent the whole day after his performance in his basement, working on his latest project. It was a cabinet, and a fairly simple one. He had been struggling with it for nearly a year, and he thought the end was in sight. So despite having been out with his fellow performers well after midnight, he had woken himself up at six that morning, and worked nearly continuously until around ten that night.
He screwed on the last door, closed it, and stepped back to appraise his work. In the bright lights he had set up in his work station the reality was obvious. He still couldn’t saw in a straight line to save his life, and he was miserable at reproducing the same thing more than once. The cabinet, if it could even be called that, was a mess of deformed wood and asymmetry. There were big gaps that the doors simply did not cover even when completely closed.
He was the most highly acclaimed concert pianist in the country, and probably the world. His performances always sold out at whatever venue he played; the top recording studios always sought him out when they were producing some new recording of a classical piece. He made a very good living.
But he did not think of himself as a pianist. He thought of himself as a carpenter; carpentry was the only thing he had ever really loved, ever really wanted to do.
And so regardless of how he was perceived in the world outside of his basement, he would always think of himself as a failure.
“Have you heard the one about the ghost that haunts people’s connections?” Max asked her from the screen. Alexis chewed her lip and gave him a skeptical look.
“Are you trying to spook me right at the start of the only two months I’m going to be in this place by myself?” she demanded. His boyish grin was all the answer she needed.
“Now what kind of husband would I be to do such a thing?” he replied, feigning innocence. He smiled at her, waiting. After a few moments, she rolled her eyes and sighed.
“OK Max, tell me the one about the ghost in the connections,” she relented.
Her mother was talking to her, but Serena was not listening. She stared out of the window, her eyes far away from all of them. The intensity of what had occurred, and the powerful relief and concern she had felt when it was all over had slowly faded away. In their place was an emptiness, a dull sense that something was missing.
They had returned to the Saunders’ home in Sarah’s car. Mrs. Saunders had been riding shotgun, and the poor woman kept glancing back at her son, as though he might vanish if she were to take her eyes off of him. It was understandable given what they had been through, but to Sarah it seemed entirely unnecessary. Mark’s presence was, if anything, abnormally imposing. Even though she had dutifully kept her eyes on the road as she drove, and even though he hadn’t said a word, she could feel that he was there.