What surprised him most was how vividly he remembered it all the moment he stepped inside—the linoleum tiles, the blue lockers, the stained ceiling tiles, the tired yellow fluorescent bulbs. He had hated those bulbs. They made the hallways feel more claustrophobic than they already were. Add to that the teeming mass of brutish teens…. Even the change to white lights might have made high school less of a prison. A little less.
The hallways were empty now, the classroom doors shut. He was alone in the junior hall, alone with his memories.
He caught a whiff of BO and chalk and perfume and old books. He felt suddenly awkward, filled with regret, nostalgia, longing, shame…. He almost exited right then.
He could not sort out his emotions. Pain threaded the disparate feelings into a single ache, but he could not tell if it might not be good pain, pleasant pain. He had been such a raw, untested personality in those days. He had suffered more in the imaginings of an hour those four years than in a week of his present workaday world. Wasn’t that living, to dream and dare and die, even if only in his head?
“Ethan, is that you?”He looked up out of his thoughts and saw her, somehow unchanged from those days. So slender, with her long hair in a loose tail, the same jeans, the same checkered shirt. He had never seen her with a cowboy hat, but it had always seemed the natural progression. Half cowgirl, half…what? Shy, innocent, but not meek—assertive, but not controlling. Vibrant. That was it.
“What are you doing here?”
He almost answered truthfully, but that would destroy everything, destroy the moment. “I was just…skipping class.” He forced a smirk, joking as best he could.
She smiled knowingly, as if she knew his secret. She glanced over her shoulder. “I thought you would come. Do you know, there’s something I always wanted to say.” She blushed and left it unsaid.
“What? What is it?” A feeling of giddy dread washed over him.
“Never mind,” she said quickly, shaking her head. But she beamed.
“I always liked you, too,” Ethan blurted out. “I was too scared to say anything. Do you know how many times I planned what I would say to you, imagined how you would respond, physically caught up in the idea of you say…saying that you….?” He could not get the words out. She was glowing, positively glowing. “But I didn’t. I never told you. I let it pass me by. It was just a fancy, something I imagined, I was too scared to see what would happen if I actually lived it. I thought maybe I invented those hints I saw, that maybe I created a version of you in my head, like Pygmalion. Do you remember how we worked together on that English project? I suffered s—”
The colors faded from her face. She looked sick. The entire world turned gray, even the horrid yellow lights. She became motionless, like an image from a photograph.
Between Ethan and her appeared a message, written in bold letters:
THE DEMO VERSION OF VIRTUAL MEMORY HAS EXPIRED
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