I’m sure it turned a few heads when the stretch limo dropped me off in front of the Gonzalez house in the late evening. It had been nearly ten hours since Mr. Jenkins and Dr. Moorthy had first dropped into the data center that morning. I’d long ago called Rob to let him know I wouldn’t be riding home with him and had enjoyed a light supper with the men from Applazon.
I ended up pouring my heart out to them, and although I was sure I’d missed a few details, such as the fact that Missouri had taken a set of my fingerprints, I’d literally laid my soul bare. For their part, they’d been patient with me and had been quite effective in getting me to recall details of my travels that I might have otherwise forgotten. I came to learn I’d been naïve when it came to obtaining a new identity for myself. Identity theft was a federal offense and a felony. There was little they could do to protect me from the Feds if it came down to it, but at least the statute of limitations would expire on my real eighteenth birthday, in less than four years, and unless they attempted to try me as an adult for a crime I’d committed at the age of thirteen, the records would be sealed. They felt it best not to kick a potential hornet’s nest in doing anything now, but they’d stand behind me if it ever came to it.
My father’s death was another matter entirely. There was no statute of limitations, and Indiana had previously shown their willingness to try thirteen-year-old murderers as adults. If it ever came to it, Applazon would hire the best attorneys in America and fight tooth and nail to see to it that I was acquitted. In fact, Mr. Jenkins stepped out of our meeting a few times to consult with the Applazon attorneys on the issue. The upshot was that Mr. Jenkins didn’t want to bring any attention to it by making specific inquiries. However, his investigator could certainly find out if there’d been any news stories about the disappearance of a teenage genius or the mysterious discovery of a dead body in a remote shack in Southern Indiana. He raised a possibility that I’d never even considered, that the name I used growing up wasn’t even my own. If we’d fled creditors and applied for public assistance illegally under a fictitious address, it seemed more likely than not that my dad had used fake names as well. If that were the case, I might never discover the truth about my origins nor be able to retrieve my real birth certificate.
One thing that was unexpected was when Mr. Jenkins asked me if I still remembered the serial numbers and PINs of the Applazon gift cards that had been lost, and of course I still did. I never forgot anything like that. He assured me that my funds would be restored. It was a gesture of goodwill and I appreciated it, but those funds didn’t seem to amount to that much anymore. Starting tomorrow, I’d be earning double what I had been. Once I got my license, six months earlier than I’d expected – the Applazon attorneys advised no change in my “age” – I’d have enough to buy a car. Hell, I’d have enough to buy a house or a condo if I wanted, but that brought up another point: the need to have a family meeting with the Gonzalez’s. I’d be staying in Omaha at least until the new data center opened in early 2021.
By all intents, now that I made a decent salary that likely exceeded any of the adult Gonzalez salaries, I really should move out and get my own place. However, I was posing as a sixteen-year-old boy, but in truth was still only fourteen and four years away from actually being an adult. I loved living with the Gonzalez family and very much wanted that to continue, but it wasn’t fair to make Rob share a bedroom, and I should be contributing to the family’s finances. Absolutely, I should be paying room and board, but I was also thinking of making the gift of an addition to the house. There was plenty of room for a lower-level addition that would add two more bedrooms and a bathroom. Once Celia left for college in the fall, there’d then be enough bedrooms for everyone to have their own. Perhaps I’d discuss my thoughts with the family on Sunday after they got back from church.
Entering through the front door, the first thing I saw was Rob sitting alone at the great-room table. Looking to the right, both Gonzalez parents were watching something on the big-screen TV along with the two younger Gonzalez girls. Celia and Camilla, I surmised, must be out on dates, and of course, Sammy was with his girlfriend for a supervised sleepover, and Henry and Darren were out on their date together. Rob, as usual, was shirtless and barefoot, dressed only in shorts.
Not wishing to disturb the parents or the girls while they were in the midst of a TV program, I kicked off my sneakers and sauntered up to where Rob was sitting and using his laptop. “Hey,” I called out as I approached. Sitting down across from him, I added, “Thanks for bein’ understanding. I hope you found someone to give my sandwich to.”
Closing his laptop, he replied, “I ate both sandwiches —”
“You did not,” I interrupted. “The Sierra Turkey is big enough for two meals, let alone in combination with another sandwich.”
“Actually, there’s a new girl in the data center —”
“Sharice,” I responded. “There aren’t many women data-center techs out there. And if you’re interested in her, don’t ever let her hear you calling her a girl. She works twice as hard as any of the men, except for me.”
“Except for you. Yeah, right!” Rob countered.
“I’m serious,” I replied. “Just ask Clarence. Anyway, you and Sharice?”
“I ate lunch with her,” Rob related. “She liked the Sierra Turkey, and she did eat the whole thing. I think she must have the metabolism of a teenage boy, as skinny as she is.”
“That’s ’cause she’s trans,” I replied. Rob’s jaw dropped open.
“No way she’s trans,” Rob countered. “I don’t believe it.”
“Actually, if she is, I wouldn’t know it,” I admitted, causing Rob to throw a paperclip at me.
“She’s pretty well stacked,” he continued. “She sure doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind.”
Laughing, I replied, “I’ve heard the secret to having a good marriage is to let the wife have her way. Well, for male/female marriage anyway. I’ve also heard that the best marriages succeed because the wife allows the husband to think he’s the boss as she runs the show behind the scenes. No doubt, if you go out with that woman, she’s gonna choose the restaurant. She’s gonna pick the movie. If you’re lucky, she might allow you to choose the gas station where you fill up your car.”
“I think I’d have to agree with you, J.J.,” Rob answered. “We’ll find out in any case. We have a date tomorrow night.”
“Way to go, Rob!” I exclaimed as we bumped fists. Rob had had a girlfriend when I first moved in, but they broke up shortly after that, so it was nice to see him getting back to dating.
“What was the deal spending all day with the suits?” Rob asked.
“By the way, I’m not interrupting anything important you were doing, am I?” I asked, recalling he was on his laptop when I got home.
“Nah, just some class homework I’d rather put off anyway,” he answered. “So, the suits?”
“They were the vice-president and the director of engineering for ACR,” I said, “and get this, we met up with Tim Cooper for lunch!”
“The Tim Cooper?” Rob asked.
Grinning, I replied, “The one and only.”
“Are you shitting me? That’s huge,” Rob responded. “What the fuck were they doing in Omaha, much less meeting with you?”
“Actually, they came to Omaha specifically to meet with me,” I replied.
“No way the suits would schlep all the way to Omaha to see a sixteen-year-old boy,” Rob countered.
Laughing, I replied, “That’s pretty much exactly what I told them, but the vice-president replied that he didn’t think a boy from Indiana would even know a word like ‘schlep’. I replied that we just got the Yiddish upgrade to the English language last year, along with rock ‘n roll, the horseless carriage and Target.”
Laughing, Rob responded, “That’s pretty funny.”
“He called me on it, though,” I added, “reminding me that Mellencamp was from Indiana. Actually, Mellencamp grew up in the next town over from mine. It was where we used to go to shop.”
“Mellencamp?” Rob asked.
Rolling my eyes, I explained, “You know, 80s rocker who wrote songs about social consciousness. Made grainy music videos that are still being studied by film students today. Helped organize Farm Aid to support struggling family farms. Political activist who opposed the Iraq War. Ring a bell?”
“Not at all,” Rob replied.
“When you have a chance, check out YouTube for the music video of Mellencamp’s Rain on the Scarecrow,” I suggested. “It’s a classic that any Midwesterner should appreciate.”
Rather than checking it out later, he opened his laptop and found the video right then and there. After watching it through, he said, “He’s really good!”
“Toldja,” I replied.
“You still haven’t told me why they schlepped out to Omaha just to meet you,” Rob reminded me.
“You may have noticed I don’t like to leave things well enough alone —”
Rob interrupted, “That, my man, is an understatement.”
Laughing, I continued, “Several weeks ago, while I was learning how to service the servers in the data center, I wondered why the process wasn’t automated. I mean, the whole process for sorting, packaging and shipping stuff at the Delivery Station is automated, so why not the servers?”
“Maybe it has something to do with volume,” Rob suggested. “We process and deliver thousands of packages a day. You must change, what, maybe two or three servers at most in a day?”
“Actually, when we reach full capacity, we’ll average over eighteen servers each day,” I went on, “and typically we spend more than an hour on each one. That’s a lot of techs to support the operation, and with a nation-wide shortage of data-center technicians, that could prevent our running at full capacity. So, I had some ideas —”
“That could be dangerous,” Rob interrupted me again.
“Stop interrupting!” I implored my brother by choice. “I had some ideas and Applazon has a sophisticated suite of CAD-CAM software online. The acronym stands for computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacture. So, I came up with a new server and rack design with a new cooling system that should virtually maintain itself while at the same time running on 75% less electricity. I sent the designs up the corporate chain and miraculously, they ended up getting to the right people.”
“So, they put you in charge of designing the new data center, right,” Rob quipped. Little did he know.
“Actually, yeah,” I replied. “This is gonna be one of the largest data centers in the world, and it’ll be the first site for an entirely new server architecture based on my designs. We’re already leasing some space in an undisclosed warehouse nearby. I’ll have a dedicated team of engineers and technicians working for me. They’ll build the prototypes in Cupertino and ship them out to us when they’re ready. We’ll test them and troubleshoot problems and tweak the design as needed. I’ll also be responsible for redesigning all the software. I’ve already started doing that.”
“So, I’m supposed to believe they’re gonna put a sixteen-year-old boy in charge of a team of professionals who’ll obey your every command?” Rob asked with an amused look on his face.
“I don’t expect them to obey me,” I replied. “I expect them to challenge me. I need them to make me think and vice versa. We won’t be our best if anyone is afraid to speak out. It’s the opposite of the way they do it in Japan. Don’t get me wrong; a lot of good stuff comes out of Japan, but by and large, consensus breeds mediocrity. I won’t settle for less than exceptional.”
“Sounds like the speech you should give when your team gets together,” Rob suggested. “You just hafta get them past the notion that that their boss is a sixteen-year-old teenager.”
“That pretty much sums it up,” I agreed, “although referring to me as sixteen years old and as a teenager is kinda redundant, don’tcha think?” Rob responded with a middle-finger salute.
“Knowing Applazon, you might be in charge, but you won’t be the boss,” Rob countered. “They’re management style is team-oriented, so they’ll probably have a hardware team, a software team, a this team and a that team, each with its own project director. There’ll be a project manager who’s in charge of everything, and then there’ll be you. They’ll probably call you the chief design engineer or some shit like that and put you in the enviable position of being nominally in charge of all the groups, but the project director will be the one with all the power.
“That’s ridiculous,” I replied. “They’d never set it up like that.”
“Trust me, bro, that’s just what they’ll do. You’ll see,” Rob responded.
“By the way, where are the lovebirds?” I asked.
“I dropped them off at Culver’s,” Rob replied, “and then they were gonna go see the new Avengers: Endgame movie at the Marcus Twin Creek Cinema. They’re supposed to call me when the movie gets out.”
“Culver’s?” I asked.
“It’s a burger joint. It’s a chain,” Rob explained. “The burgers aren’t half bad – solidly better than Bugger King and Crap-Donald’s. The one in Bellevue’s popular ’cause it’s right next to Bellevue’s only multi-screen theater. It’s a nice theater, though, with wide aisles and oversized, comfy seats, some with swing-up armrests that let couples cuddle. They even take orders for food and bring it to your seat.”
“Sounds like a nice place to take a date,” I replied. “Now I just need to find a boyfriend.”
“Maybe you’ll find someone on your team at work,” Rob suggested.
“That would be a major conflict of interest,” I replied. “It could be seen as sexual harassment. I’d be their boss.”
“Where else are you gonna meet someone?” Rob asked. “At your age, it’s not like you can pick someone up at a gay bar or a dance club.”
“Tell me about it,” I replied.
“If I were you, I’d keep an open mind about dating someone at work,” Rob added. “Bosses have been having affairs with their secretaries since the beginning of time, you know.”
“Yes, and that’s why we have the ‘#MeToo’ movement today,” I said. “I could be fired for even the appearance of using my position to curry sexual favors. I have a good thing going with Applazon, thanks to you getting me a job there. They’ll pay me while I go to school and let me get my Ph.D. Not even a boyfriend’s worth taking a chance on losing that.”
“Famous last words, my friend,” Rob countered, but then his phone chimed, preventing me from responding. They musta sent a text ’cause Rob looked up from his phone and said, “Gotta go pick up the lovebirds.”
“May I come with?” I asked. It’d be a good chance to check the theater out, maybe for future dates.
“Be my guest,” Rob responded.
Pulling on my sneakers, I headed out the front door with Rob and headed for his car. I rode shotgun. It only took us fifteen minutes to get to the theater. We pulled up in front, but Henry and Darren were nowhere in sight. We waited a good ten minutes with no sign of the boys, and I began to get concerned. It was obvious that Rob was, too. When a police car pulled up right in front of us, its lights flashing, and a couple of officers got out and went inside, my level of concern increased by an order of magnitude.
“Stay with the car,” Rob said as he opened his door. “I’ll be right back.”
He wasn’t right back. I waited five minutes before my level of panic got the better of me. It wasn’t like they were gonna tow our car away with a police car right in front of us. I got out of the car and went inside. At first, I didn’t see them, but then I heard the squawk of a police radio, and I saw them off in a corner. Henry was lying down on a bench seat, and Darren was hovering over him. As I got closer, I saw that Henry had a bag of ice over his left eye. There were two police officers, one of whom was talking to Rob and the other was talking to a kid I didn’t know. The kid appeared to be around fifteen or sixteen. Did Henry get into a fight?
As I approached, I could see that Darren had been crying. When he spotted me, he rushed me and put his arms around me and buried his head in my shirt, crying even more. I encircled him with my arms and hugged him back and asked, “What happened?”
“We went to see Endgame,” Darren told me through his tears. “Henry and me, we cuddled up together in the show, but we didn’t even make out or anything. We actually watched the movie and shared a huge bucket of popcorn. It was awesome. When we got out of the show, I guess we were holdin’ hands. Some kids grabbed us from behind and called us faggots, and one of them punched me in the stomach and another punched Henry, right in the eye. They were getting ready to hit us again when some other kids chased them away.”
“Damn, I thought things were better than that now,” I responded as I rubbed Darren’s back. He was almost the same as my real age, but he was almost a foot shorter and looked way younger. It was funny, but I always thought of myself as a late bloomer. The reality was that I was only slightly behind my peers but was trying to pass myself off as someone two years older. It was only because of my height that I got away with it.
“Like it or not, this is Omaha,” one of the police officers, a woman, related as she approached us with Rob. “The city proper is fairly liberal and accepting, but Bellevue is like a separate town, a military town, and we’re in the midst of farm country. This isn’t New York. You can’t go walkin’ down the street holdin’ hands around here.”
“Don’t I know it?” I related. “I grew up in Southern Indiana. If anything, that’s even worse.”
“Yeah, your father kicked you out for bein’ gay,” Darren said. I’d forgotten that I’d told him that.
“Is my car still parked in the fire zone out front?” Rob asked.
“Yeah, sorry,” I replied. “I know you wanted me to stay with it, but when you didn’t come back —”
Throwing me the car keys, Rob asked. “Do you think you could move it for me?” Shit, I’d never driven a car in my life. Could I drive it without hitting something or hitting a person? Rob was still tied up with the police, so I responded, “Sure.” I did have a learner’s permit, after all.
Heading back outside, I dropped myself into the driver’s seat and closed the door, placing the keys in the ignition. Buckling myself in, I noticed that I couldn’t see anything in the rear-view mirrors, and my knees bumped into the steering wheel when I attempted to put my foot on the brake. Reaching down in front of the seat, I fumbled around until I felt a metal bar that went all the way across. I lifted up on it and all of a sudden, the seat shot backwards with me in it. Okay, now I was too far back to comfortably reach the pedals, so I pulled the bar back up while I simultaneously pulled myself forward, along with the seat. I felt a brief sense of triumph when I could reach the pedals without being cramped. However, now I had to stretch my arms out to reach the steering wheel. I’d never seen Rob adjust it, but I figured there had to be a way to adjust the position. I noticed a lever on the underside of the steering column, so I flipped it and the wheel promptly landed on my knees. Ouch! It wasn’t difficult to reposition it, though, although I did have to do so again when I discovered the speedometer was blocked from view.
The inside rear-view mirror just needed to be moved until I could see through the back window, but I had a hell of a time figuring out how to adjust the outside rear-view mirrors until I noticed a four-way joypad on the dash with a switch in the middle labeled ‘L’ and ‘R’. It turned out my guess was right. With the switch to the left, I could adjust the left mirror and with it to the right, the right mirror. I was ready! Except, how do you start a car? I’d seen Rob do it enough times but never really paid attention. When I turned the key, everything lit up on the dashboard, but nothing happened. I tried turning the key further but still, nothing happened. Did I need to step on the gas? Did I need to step on the brake? The car was in ‘P’ for Park, so I figured it was safe, but I was missing something. Stepping on the gas didn’t help, so I tried stepping on the brake, and then the car started right up.
The gear-shift lever was in between the front seats, and it was in Park. I figured ‘R’ meant reverse, and I certainly needed to back up since a police car was right in front. Hitting a police car wouldn’t have been good. I found that again I couldn’t shift the lever until I pressed down on the brake, but then I could feel the car straining, but it didn’t move at all. The backup camera was on, and I could see what was behind me in the display on the dash, but the car remained fixed in place. I tried applying some gas, but the car only jerked back an inch or two and then stopped. I noticed a red light on the dash was still lit, and it read ‘Brake’. Then I remembered the parking-brake lever, right next to the gear shift. I quickly realized I needed to push the button in front to release it, but just as I was about to do so, someone walked right behind the car. I could’ve easily run her over. Obviously, I needed to put my foot on the brake before releasing the parking brake.
First making sure that no one was anywhere near the car, I released the parking brake and then slowly let my foot off the brake. The car started to move backwards but was going faster and faster. I quickly slammed my foot back down on the brake, bringing the car to a screeching halt. Okay, the brake pedal was a lot more sensitive than I’d expected. I probably should assume the same would be true of the gas. Turning the steering wheel all the way to the left, I put my foot on the brake and put the car in ‘D’ for drive, then very slowly took my foot off the brake. The car started to move forward at a crawl, but I decided that there was no need to go any faster, so I let my foot hover over the brake. However, I was headed right for a line of parked cars, and so again, I slammed on the brake, bringing the car to an embarrassing, screeching halt.
Turning the steering wheel, I slowly let my foot off the brake again and actually managed to avoid the cars and surprisingly kept the car moving straight down the row between cars. I drove out a way, to where there weren’t any cars on one side, and turned the wheels, slamming on the brakes before hitting a berm that was directly ahead of me. Clearly the car was at an angle, taking up maybe two or three parking spaces. I put the car back in reverse and backed up nearly all the way to the next row of cars, until the collision avoidance warning sounded, and then I cautiously moved forward again, turning the wheels until the car seemed to be parallel to the other cars nearby. I put the car back in park, turned off the ignition and got out. I was a foot over the line into the space right next to me. I could live with that, but I was still about four feet from the berm and the back of the car was sticking out into the roadway. Reluctantly, I got back into the car and pulled forward what I hoped would be enough. I’d left two feet in front of the car, but it was no longer sticking out in back and that would do.
I locked the car and started to head back into the theater when I was met by Rob, Henry and Darren coming the other way. Henry still was holding the bag of ice to his left eye. “That was pretty pathetic, J.J.,” Rob announced as he approached. “I’ve known twelve-year-olds who could drive better than that.”
“How could twelve-year-old kids drive a car?” I asked.
“Farm kids can get a farm-husbandry permit to drive farm equipment when they’re thirteen, but that’s so they can drive farm equipment on public roads,” Rob explained. “By then, most farm kids have already been driving farm equipment on their family farms ever since they could reach the pedals. However, even fourteen-year-olds can get a school permit to drive to and from school if there’s no other way to get there.”
“Actually, I did know that,” I responded. “I read it on the DMV website when I looked up the requirements to get a provisional license for myself. So, it was that bad?”
“Let’s put it this way,” Rob said as he put his arm around my shoulders, “the only positive thing was that you didn’t hit another car or a person.”
“How much of it did you see?” I asked.
“Everything after you dropped the steering wheel on your knees,” Rob replied.
“Fuck me,” I said as I rested my head in my hands.
Rob continued, “Listen, my parents started teaching me the basics when I was fourteen, so I figured you had some experience too. Our street’s a dead end, so it’s easy to practice with the guidance of an adult. At least you have a learner’s permit. I’m too young to serve as your ‘adult in the car’, but starting tomorrow, we’re gonna start practicing your skills, anyway. You don’t want to look like a total klutz in Drivers Ed, do you?”
“That’s only three weeks away,” I pointed out.
“Which is why we need to start practicing,” Rob responded.
“Um, guys, could we maybe get my boyfriend home so he can lie back down?” Darren asked.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.