Read an Excerpt
May 7, 2060
My mom gave me an old leather-bound journal for my seventeenth
birthday. At first the blank pages surprised me, as if the story inside
was lost or had slipped out. She explained sometimes the story is
supposed to be missing because it’s still waiting to be written. Leave
it to my mom to give me something from the past to use in the
They don’t make paper books anymore—it’s illegal to chop down
real trees. They still grow in some parts of the world, but I’ve never
seen one. Most cities have switched to synthetic trees, and people
prefer them to the living ones. Synthetic trees come shipped to your
house in any size you want, so you don’t have to wait fifteen years for
them to grow. Now you shop online and choose your desired size and
height, and in days you have a full-grown tree in your yard, cemented
into the ground and supported with steel beams anchored
into the base. Instant. Simple. No fuss.
Synthetic trees never die. They don’t wither in the fall. You don’t
have a mess of leaves and needles to sweep up. They’re fireproof. They
don’t cause allergies. And they’re always perfectly green (constantlygreen
.com has the best synthetic tree selection, according to my mom). The
leaves can fade a little from the sun, but you just spray-paint them
green again. During Halloween, people spray-paint the leaves on
their trees yellow, orange, and red. It’s the colors leaves used to turn
before they fell to the ground. My mom said she can remember seeing
the fall colors when she was young. She said it was the most beautiful
time of the year. It’s hard to imagine anything becoming beautiful
as it dies. Then again, it’s hard to imagine much that Mom
insists used to “be.”
When trees were dying offin fires and overharvested, books were
the first to go. These days books are downloaded digitally and you
can order any book you want to be uploaded into your Bookbag in
seconds, which I convert onto my Zipfeed. It reads the words out
loud to me on my computer. Simple. Convenient. I know how to
read, of course. We learn it in Digital School 2. I still read my chat
messages on my phone. But it was proven that audio learning is a
faster way to retain information, according to some Ph.D. researchers
who studied rats in a cage. By observing rats they figured out the
best way for humans to learn. Some politician thought this theory
sounded glamorous, so they changed a law that changed the world.
That’s why I listen to almost all of my books.
I didn’t escape the chore of using my eyes to read. Mom still
enforces it. She saved all her old novels and stores them in these
wooden cabinets with glass doors called bookshelves. Every year she
hands down a few of her favorites to me. I have a collection slowly
building in my bedroom. I have to admit, I like the look of them. I
also like to escape inside their world, tucked behind their colorful
spines. It forces me to fully invest my mind into what I’m doing, not
just my ears or my eyes. I think barricading them behind glass is a
little obsessive, but Mom says the paper in books will yellow if they’re
exposed to air. Just like the leaves on the trees that couldn’t survive in
this world. Hey, if you can’t acclimate, you disintegrate. I learned
that in Digital School 3.
So, you can imagine my surprise when my mom gave me a blank
book. I rarely see a book with print in it, and now a blank one—what
a waste. No wonder we killed all the trees. And I’m supposed to
write in this thing. Longhand. It’s this form of writing using ink on
paper. It’s so slow! It makes me laugh watching people do it in old
movies. It hasn’t been used in twenty years. We learn it in school, but
it’s simulated on our flipscreens. Only specialty online stores sell ink
pens, but leave it to my mom to invest in this historic item. “Madeline,”
she told me, “it’s good for you to write down your thoughts.
It’s therapeutic because it forces you to slow down and think about
I feel guilty writing on this paper, staining something with words
when maybe it’s their emptiness, the fact that they’re unscathed, that’s
more interesting than anything I have to say. My life is far from
remarkable. Sadly, it’s the other extreme. It is predictable. Controlled.
Mandated. Paved out for me in a trail I’m forced to follow.
Why should I take the time to write down my thoughts when no
one else can even read them? I’m used to millions of people having
access to everything about me. I’m used to a fountain of feedback
and comments trailing every entry I type, every thought I expose.
That makes me feel justified. It shows that people genuinely care
about me. It reminds me that I’m real and I exist. Why try to hide it
all in a book? Besides, there are no secrets. Sooner or later, the truth
always leaks out. That’s one thing I’ve learned in this life.
I pulled a sweatshirt over my head, and just as I opened my bedroom
door, I was distracted by a red light flashing on my computer.
I was running late, but the glow of the light caught my
attention and held me in place like a net. I programmed my screen
to flash different colors depending on who was calling. I knew red
could only mean one person. I sat down and tapped the light with
my finger and a single white sentence dissolved on the screen.
Are you going to be there tonight?
I read Justin’s question and bit my lips together. My mind told
me to say no. That answer would please my father. He trained me
to squeeze my thoughts through a filter so my decisions came out
acceptable and obedient. But lately it was making me feel weak,
like my mind wasn’t reallymine
anymore, just a program to manipulate.
That’s why this time, I was tempted to say yes.
I met Justin two months ago on TutorPage—it’s
a live chatroom
for students to get help on homework assignments. We were both
stuck on writing a thesis sentence for our literary analysis paper, a
requirement in Digital School 4. Since the tutor was being swarmed
with questions and Justin and I had the same problem, we figured
it out together. I remember him writing the oddest comment that
day. He wrote, “Two brains are better than one.” It was strange
because you can go through all of DS-4 without even looking at
another person, let alone working with someone. One of the perks
to a digital life is it forces you to be independent.
Justin and I coordinated to study two days a week together and
then he started sending me invites to face-to-face tutor sessions
held in downtown Corvallis. When he assured me the groups were
small, but could be helpful, I still dreaded the idea of meeting him
in public. I’m used to the security of living behind my online profiles
and the clip art advertisements I create to define me. I can be
whoever I want to be in that world. I can be funny, deep, pensive,
eccentric. I can be the best version of myself. Better yet, an exaggeration
of the best version of myself. I can make all the right decisions.
I can delete my flaws by pressing a button.
In the real world anything can happen. It’s like stepping onto
an icy surface—you have to adjust your footing or you’ll slip and
fall. Your movements become rigid and unsure because behind all
the fancy gadgets and all that digital armor, you realize you’re
just flesh and bones.
I stared back at the screen where his words floated patiently
and a strange feeling, like a shot of adrenaline, pushed through
my blood. I knew I had to meet him tonight. Intuition works
closely alongside fate, like they’re business partners working together
to alter the course of your life.
I spoke my answer out loud and my voice was automatically
converted into a digital message.
I decided maybe was the best response, just in case I lost my
nerve. I hit send and a second later he responded.
Life is too short to say maybe.
I narrowed my eyes at the screen. Why was he pushing this? Why
couldn’t he let me be noncommittal and leave me alone about it?
Why are you going out of your way to meet me? I asked.
Why are you going out of your way to avoid it?
I’ve been grounded for a while. I hesitated before I hit send. I’d
never opened up to Justin about my personal life. We always kept
our relationship safe—bobbing just on the surface.
A while? As in a few weeks? he asked.
I laughed, but it came out sounding flat and humorless. Try
two and a half years, I thought. I decided he didn’t need to know
this detail. It’s easy to delete the truth when you live behind your
own permanent censor.
Something like that, I said.
What did you do?
I have a rebellious streak.
That’s a little vague, he said.
I frowned at the screen. I’m not going to dish out my life story to
an online stranger.
Then I think it’s about time we meet, he said.
I bit my nails when this sentence appeared. I focused on the
words. They sounded so simple. But just when I believed something
was simple, there was always more lurking underneath.
I’ll be there, I said, and hit send before I could change my mind.
I hopped out of the chair, grabbed my soccer cleats, and ran
downstairs to the kitchen. Dad glanced at me from the table where
he was reading the news on our wall screen. My mom sat next to
him, reading a magazine—she insists on having the hard copy,
printed on plastic paper. She’s the only person I know who complains
that computer screens hurt her eyes.
Dad examined the shoes I was holding with disapproval.
“I thought your season was over,” he said.
I felt my hands tighten around the shoes and I kept my eyes
focused steadily on his. We had the same large, penetrating eyes,
the color of swirling gray clouds with flecks of green floating
near the pupils. When my dad was angry, his eyes turned as
dark as storm clouds just before they erupt into a downpour.
He could use his eyes to intimidate, to persuade, or to demand
respect. I hadn’t mastered those traits; my eyes only seemed to give
“The league goes year-round,” Mom pointed out to him.
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Did we talk about you playing soccer year-round, Maddie? I
thought you were just playing fall and winter leagues.”
I kept my eyes locked on his. He tried too often to make me
duck under his discipline. Baley, our chocolate Lab, wagged her
tail next to me and I bent down to scratch her ears.
“The spring league just started,” I said. “It’s only once a week.
I didn’t think it was a big deal.”
“It’s a little expensive,” he said.
I tried not to roll my eyes since I knew my dad made more
money than ten families would know what to do with, being the
director of Digital School, Inc. The curriculum, medium, and
content of what I learned—and where and when I learned it—was
overseen and instituted by the signature of my father’s hand.
It was also his power and connections that got me in trouble two
and a half years ago and created the constant rift of distrust in our
relationship. Half of the time he didn’t seem like a father to me,
more like security enforcement.
“She’s seventeen, Kevin,” Mom said. “Didn’t we agree to let
her socialize more often?” I stared between them and tightened
my lips. I hated it when they talked about me like I wasn’t standing
in the same room, like I’m a piece of clay they have to mold in
order to hold a shape.
“I guess you’re right,” he finally agreed.
I nodded once and thanked him. I raced out the front door and
ran down the sidewalk to try and catch the train. The air was warm
and the sun was finally making its spring entrance, after a long
winter of hibernation. Rays of light peered through the branches
above me and painted a splattering of bright and dull colors on the
turf grass below. The tower of green leaves crinkled in the breeze as
I passed. I met the train just as it pulled to a stop on Hamersley
Street. I jumped on and scanned my fingerprint against a tiny
screen as the doors beeped shut behind me.
Erin sat by the window in the back of the compartment. She
was watching something on her phone and nodding her head to
the music floating out of the speakers.
“Hey,” I said, and plopped down in the seat next to her. I took
my phone out of my pocket to check a message.
“You almost missed the train,” she said without looking up.
“That’s not like you.”
I was distracted by a digital advertisement playing on a screen
inside the compartment. A middle-aged man dressed in khaki
shorts and a white T-shirt promised me I could transform my entire
lawn into a colorful flower garden in five easy steps. I watched
him roll out a thick carpeting of plastic grass speckled with fake
flowers and staple it into the ground.
“Why were you late?” Erin asked.
“My dad wanted to have a little chat,” I said.
She smirked and pressed a few buttons on her keypad.
I tapped my foot restlessly against the rubber floor mat. “Oh,
he just needs reassurance he’s in complete control of every facet of
Erin creased her eyebrows and continued to type. “He doesn’t
trust you to play soccer?” she asked.
I shrugged. “It’s unsupervised, it’s liberating,” I reminded her.
“He hates that.”
When the train slowed to our stop, we jumped offand crossed
the sidewalk to the turf soccer fields. I heard whistling in the distance
and Erin and I looked up to see a small school of black birds
soaring overhead. Their small inky bodies formed a moving arrow
in the sky, like a kite with no strings attached to reel it back down
to the ground. Seeing birds in the city was rare, since all the trees
and gardens were synthetic, but once in a while they passed through
and I always took it as a sign that something exceptional was about
I looked down at the dark outline of a bird tattooed on the
inside of my wrist, where the skin is delicate and the veins are
thick. I ran my finger along its outstretched wings and smiled.
Every time I looked at my tattoo I was reminded of the person I
wanted to be. Someone that’s free to move. Someone that’s too
spirited to be caged in.
Erin and I sat down on the grass to stretch. We were the only
two players that showed up early for practice every week.
“So, are you meeting Justin tonight?” she asked me with a grin.
I frowned to show her, for the tenth time, it was not a date.
“It’s just a study group,” I reminded her.
Her phone beeped and she started typing a message. “Do you
know what he looks like?”
I shook my head and told her we both used face-free chatting.
I never revealed my real picture online. Now that I thought about
it, most of my contacts (or friends as some people refer to them)
didn’t even know what I looked like. They saw cartoons, photographs,
and clip art images that illustrated the idea of me.
“We never get personal,” I told her. “I don’t know anything
about him except he has trouble writing thesis statements and conclusion
paragraphs. He doesn’t even know my real name,” I added
with a grin.
Erin set her phone down and met my eyes for the first time
today. “You created a fake profile for a tutor site? Why bother?”
I shrugged and stretched my legs. “I want privacy,” I told her.
“My dad’s practically a celebrity, but I don’t want people to assume
just because I’m his daughter I agree with everything he’s
doing. Besides, I never expected to meet Justin in person. I figured
we’d study for a few classes and be done.”
She shook her head with amusement. “Does he even know
you’re a girl?” she asked.
I couldn’t help but smile. “I guess we’ll find out.”