Everything was bright colors, smiling faces, and infectious salsa music.

Donovan stood up on the bar to address the assemblage. “My friends!” he cried. “Through adversity and times of utmost trial, we have persevered. Now is the time to wash all that away with laughter.”

I weaved my way through the crowd, unable to keep from grinning or bobbing a little to the music. Sanderson was there, and Lowell, still arguing over their silly real estate development. Mary’d had her baby, finally, and Sean was beside her with pictures, flashing them to all passersby whether or not they demonstrated a speck of interest. Even Richard sat at the bar, having an animated conversation with some minor functionary while liquor flowed freely into glass after glass.

The person I’d most wanted to see, though, wasn’t at the bar or on the dance floor but on the balcony outside, alone.

“Tell me something, Bethany,” Karl said at my approach. “How do they do it? Celebrate in there, after everything that’s happened? Everyone we lost? Is it wrong that I don’t want to drink and dance after that?”

I handed over my drink, which he gratefully drained, and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “The way I see it, they’re all in there with everyone else. Kim’s at the bar ordering another one of those ridiculous mixed drinks of hers, the kind with no alcohol. Mark’s hitting on anything without a ring on as well as a few that do. The others as well. I think you can see it too, if you look hard enough.”

Karl nodded. “If there was anyplace out there they’d be, at least in spirit, it’s here,” he sniffed. “They wouldn’t want me out here moping like a refugee from a spring prom.”

“I don’t either,” I said. “C’mon, let’s go back to our friends. Alive or dead, everyone’s together tonight.”

They were playing this beautiful waltz when we first met.

I don’t even know how we were invited to that cotillion, full as it was of glitz and glamor and last names tracing back to the Mayflower. But we were, and both standing aloof, when the live instruments struck up the tune. The next thing I knew, we were together, lost among the beautiful melody and motion of the moment.

Even after the original, volcanic “us” became the prosaic, everyday “we,” I still think of the waltz when I see you. But I never did learn what it was called, even though I can still hum it to this day, and often do.

I’ve hummed the bars I can remember to the few musically inclined people I’ve met on my travels, always to the shaking of heads and the shrugging of shoulders. Over time, the trail grew fainter as the day to day took its toll on what had once been. Sometimes I think that the impromptu waltzes that sometimes break out in the kitchen, untrained voices substituting for clarinet and string, are the one thing that we can still share unadulterated by the pettiness that so often creeps into our lives.

So when I heard those lilting strains drifting out of the old State and across the street, I had to investigate. I had to know, though sometimes I now wish I had continued on my afternoon walk.

A biting, bitter cold consumes me.

Colder than darkest space or the gaze of a forsaken love, it tears at my windbreaker and whistles through my hair. It is as if all the frigid indifferences and icy words of the world have coalesced into a crystal-clear diamond-hard point and rammed themselves deep into my chest. It’s hard to breath; the air steals every breath I take, scattering across the snow as a thin gray vapor. I can see others out here too, struggling through ankle-deep powder towards destinations long forgotten or unknown.

I smile as we pass, but the cold stiffness of my mouth makes more of a grimace, though my amicable wave still shows my intent. No reply; the other figures, stark against the snow, are either too frozen or too absorbed in their own worlds to touch another across the gaps that separate us all.

Perhaps, in their worlds, this is a better circumstance.

A place of business closed, with an entire sun cycle to waste. Or exposure to climes colder still, making the tundra I see no more than a powdered-sugar frost. I eventually get where I’m going, and so do they. The ice in the air will eventually coalesce into the pattering of April raindrops. But for now, frozen in time as well as being, we simply pass each other by and vanish into the mists from whence we came.

I woke up the other day, and realized that I was here. I’m a college student. Living in a dorm. Eating pizza with a vigor and frequency I would never have dreamt possible. I have a car, a tiny little thing that’s essentially a go-cart with doors.

But yesterday, I was in Mr. Fitzpatrick’s math class, sophomore year of high school. I was chauffeured around by my mother, who dropped me off at class in that huge old Crown Victoria of hers. Pizza meant either cafeteria cardboard or a treat for special occasions or unsupervised nights.

Men are supposed to wake up screaming one night in their forties, feeling the growing wrinkles on their face and crying out “I’m old!” “Where’s the time gone?” “I was twenty-five just a few months ago!” College students don’t suffer mid-life crises.

I’m not going through a mid-life crisis, unless my life is to be exceptionally short. I flipped through an old yearbook awhile ago, and found my picture. The beaming innocent staring back at me could have taken my spot in communications class without
incident. No, what’s preoccupied me recently is the way time, itself, is speeding up.

When I was nine, and the family took a summer trip to Disney World in July, I can remember ages of activity on either side of that great line through the vacation. Three months was 3% of my life back then…if I live to be a hundred, that’s three years. Each summer vignette–from wandering downtown dressed like a pirate to that bee sting at my aunt’s cabin–is a week, a month unto itself. Last year, a week was a barely perceptible blip on the radar screen. Class followed class, assignment followed assignment, and weekend followed all, as surely as ducklings totter along after their mother.

I tell people about this feeling. “Time’s speeding up!” I’ll say. “Look at how fast last year went! At this rate, tomorrow it’ll be next week, and next week it’ll be time to retire and in a month tops I’m worm food.” They laugh sometimes, a little nervously, at the sheer weirdness of what I’m saying. For most people, the process of looking back doesn’t begin until 25 or 30–everything until then is eager anticipation. I’ve got a head start because I’m addressing the problem now.

Despite this, I continued reading the message:

The result of this is that people are distancing themselves from reality, from the glaring gap between what society tells them and what they know to be true. Thanks to digital information, people can choose which truths they’d like to believe and filter their input accordingly. A blog, a biased news source, message boards–people are creating their own truths out of whole cloth, based not on how things are but how they should be.

And thanks to our belief systems–that there is no objective truth, only personal truths–this mass of contradictory information grows. People withdraw into it, into their insular information communities where no one questions them. Nobody right, nobody’s wrong, nothing is deleted, and information ceases to evolve. It’s drowning us, forcing humans further apart. This proliferation of worthless information will destroy the fabric of our civil society–in fact, it’s already begun. You can see it in the evening news.

We’ve got to stop this decline and bring things back into equilibrium. People that can use computers and manipulate information are increasingly powerful in this new digital age, and it’s our responsibility to act. Garbage information has to be weeded out in favor of what’s truly useful to society and future generations. That’s what our new system is capable of, if we take it to its logical conclusion.

It was signed, simply, “The Firewall.”

It was 1990. I was 27; I was invincible. And I was working as a courier for International Solutions, LLG. Never heard of them? I’m not surprised; the company was never really interested in publicity, only in getting jobs done and stashing checks in the Cayman Islands. We specialized in getting things where they needed to go, no questions asked, signed and sealed, guaranteed.

Some of the IS couriers were about what you’d expect—tough, ex-military types with pistols under their shoulder, in their sock, jammed up their ass. They had their uses, but IS had found out that, in general, more shooting meant less profit, and the gung-ho Rambo types tended to shoot first and ask questions never. That’s where I came in.

I wasn’t a rippling sack of meat and the only gun I’d ever held had been at IS’s orientation, but the company was more interested in my tongue (silver, of course) and my eye (golden, I suppose, since I wore those terrible 1980’s shades all the time). My first orientation test had been to talk my way into a car-impound lot in LA; my second had been to deliver an unwanted package to a high-security area of my choosing. I passed the first by renting a limo and writing a bad check; I passed the second by studying an FAA badge and pretending I gave a shit about the Red Sox.

I’d never seen him so pale or gaunt. His eyes were sunken, riveted to the bank of monitors in front of him, and his clothes hung loosely from his emaciated frame. He clearly hadn’t seen the sun or any other light except his flat screens for weeks.

“My God, you look awful,” I said.

“The outside reflects the inside,” he replied without moving.

“You need to get up and do something,” I said. “You’re letting these people do whatever they like with your stuff. Kevin is out there now using your charge card, and Mary’s been tooling around in your car.”

“They’re doing what I’d like to do,” came the reply. “What the hell’s wrong with that?”

“You’re not doing it and they are. You’re letting them take over your life.”

A hoarse laugh. “Maybe so. Maybe I took over theirs. They’re kids, you know, really. Away from home for the first time, going out, establishing identities. It’s what I’ve wanted all along…”

“What you wanted?”

“You heard me.”