ExReal - Data Detective
Experimental web light novel from Jennifer Raye
Updated every Friday!

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“Thrift Plus?” I reply, quickly snapping out of a trance of driving around.

    “Yeah, over there.” Lia calmly states as she points out the car window. It’s a strip mall. Sandwiched between a shady payday loan place and a pawn shop. The sign is faded a fair amount, to the point the color of the logo almost matches the walls. I’m surprised it caught Lia’s attention. She must have bee very focused looking for places for us to visit.

    Oh, my name? It’s Cathy Eclipse. I am what you might call a data manipulator. Random number generators? A few fragile 1s and 0s? I can control those to an extent. It’s a power that’s difficult to show, but believe me it’s real. When I try telling people online I have these powers, I get accused of being some 12-year old chuunibyou, but I assure you I’m a well-adjusted 26 year old. I pay rent, I pay my bills mostly on time, I have a day job, I own a car (even if it’s fairly old), and if video rental stores still existed I would turn my tapes in on time. Or at least, I like to think that’s the case.

    Then there’s Lia Crystal, the one riding with me. We don’t live together but we spend a lot of time together. We dabbled in a romantic relationship once or twice, but it wasn’t really for us I think. I’d say that our relationship is more than just a friendship. Does she have powers to? Oh, how she does.

    Her powers are also related to data. Maybe that’s what brought us together. Her powers could be best described as “data psychometry”. She can sense the history of data, as well as sense any paranormal forces latching or passing over it. The more data is copied and transferred via things like the internet and physical media, those links become weaker and weaker, to a point Lia can no longer sense them. What kind of paranormal forces? I’m still a little unsure, since Lia can be a little vague with describing things. I have a lot of trust in her, however. After all, she was one of the first people to accept my powers as fact.

    I direct my 1990 Honda Civic hatchback to the parking lot of the thrift shop. There’s not a ton of other vehicles around. As we step out, I’m reminded of the brutal Texas heat. Come on, it’s October, can’t we get the nice fall/winter breeze already? Some clouds would be nice at a time like this. I’m regretting wearing leggings under my skirt.

    Lia gracefully approaches the building as I follow behind her. The both of us have a love of thrift-shopping. I really love finding old electronics in these places. Collecting things like old computers and video games have gotten a lot harder now because prices have shot up, especially with all the ridiculous artificial price-manipulation shenanigans going on right now with a handful of rich clowns, and even a few thrift stores have caught on and keep these things because glass cases with obscene markups, but there does remain a few places that will only ask a reasonable price for them.

    As we step inside, the first thing to hit me is the blissfully cold A/C. Think of the most nostalgic A/C smell, and that’s what it smelled like. It was very inviting, but still a little intimidating. How can such a feeling come from air conditioning? I’m probably reading a little too hard into it. The other thing I notice is how disorganized the place is. Er well, there IS some organization, but only loosely. One section has a bunch of wood statues, then weird collector plates, then toys, and silverware, then CDs, then DVDs… you get the idea.


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    “I’m getting a good feeling.” Lia says. That’s her usual phrase for when she senses something with data, so there must be some electronics buried somewhere and I’m just not seeing them yet.

    “Yeah this ceiling fan isn’t blue enough.” I hear deeper into the store. It’s a woman’s voice. I peek around one of the shelves and see an elderly lady.

    “Oh, goodness, I didn’t see you there. Can I help you?” she states sprightly. Her voice sounds almost older than her appearance, but she doesn’t lack energy.

    “Oh I’m good, thank you though.” I reply slightly awkwardly. I make my way further around the store. Some of the toys catch my attention. A lot of fast food kids meal toys. Some of them are from when around I got those regularly. I hold a plushie of a dog that I distinctly recall getting in a kids meal as a kid. The nose has a really pleasant texture to it. I squeeze it, and squeeze it some more. This is a nice a little stim toy. It lacks data, which clears my mind a little. I can be overwhelmed when surrounded by data sometimes. It’s actually why I wear this headset. It has two antenna sticking out from near my ears. It gets rid of some of the raw noise, and helps prevent me from accidentally manipulating data, or doing so when I’m having a panic attack. I had my friend Clive in Pennsylvania with a 3D printer make it for me. The goal was to maximize noise filtering but not look like some weird conspiracy nut’s getup. It does look a lot like something an anime character would wear still though, and it gets weird looks pretty often, but I try not to care too much. Clive put a lot of love into it as well, and I like to proudly show that hard work. I might have him attempt a more subtle one in the future though.

    I look for Lia, and see her entranced in a single object. That might be the thing that drew her. I prance over to her, nearly tripping on a pile of books on the floor.

    “What’s up, find anything good?” I ask her as I look at what she’s holding. It’s a disc. A CD-R specifically, with handwritten green sharpie on it. It just says “Files Backup for OS Reinstall” in slightly messy handwriting. “Must be some spicy data, huh?”

    “I’m having a little trouble with getting a good reading on it, so it’s probably only loosely connected to the sources.” Lia states. I know, she’s a little hard to understand, yeah? But whatever, no matter how cryptic she can be, everything turns out to be interesting in the end. She has good taste in data.

    “I’m guessing that’s a 100% buy for you?”

    “Yeah, easily.”

    We make our way around the store to see if anything else grabs our attention, but honestly not much else, let alone any interesting data. A few analog audio mediums do interest us. Our powers only work on digital data, so anything analog really doesn’t reach us much, so we like to imagine this is how data feels to those who don’t have these powers. And before you ask, any paranormal powers associated with them won’t show if they’re converted to digital. I do know an analog psychometry girl in Scotland on Twitter. Would be fun to hang out with her someday.

    After we exhaust all of the fun things to see, we make our way to the counter, where the lady meets us. She seemingly is the old one running the store today. Seems a little lonely, but must be quite peaceful.

    “That’ll be $2.” she says as she taps away at an old looking register. Lia fishes out two dollar bills from her purse and hands them over whilst she doesn’t take an eye off the disc. This data might be more intriguing to her than she lets on. She can be pretty reserved about how she’s feeling at times, but her body language can be quite revealing. God she’s cute.

    “Don’t forget the ceiling fans on the way home.” the lady states as if she’s bestowing some ancient wisdom.

    “Most certainly!” Lia happily replies to the lady. I can’t tell if she’s humoring her or is on the same wavelength as the lady.

    “Yeah, definitely!” I also reply, trying desperately to fit in. I suppose it makes as much sense to us as us buying a random used CD-R makes to her. Maybe SHE’S the one humoring us.

    The drive is fairly uneventful, but a pleasant one nonetheless, just heading to Lia’s house. If you were really paying attention, you probably caught on that my car is fairly old. Not a lot of data to mess around with. There’s like, a digital clock and that’s about it. I could maybe change the time on the display if I really, REALLY tried.

    “Two friends…” Lia mumbles to herself, but just loud enough to wear I can hear her even over the highway road noise. “… the woods…………………… lake…………………”

    “What was that?” I ask.

    “This disc is a little stronger on reality xenon telecraft abstractions than I previously thought.” she states as if any normal human being could understand her. Hell, I’m not normal and I can barely parse it. I tried having Lia explain a lot of her technobabble several times when we were just getting to know each other but I failed to wrap my head around it every time. I think it’s akin to teaching a rabbit advanced trigonometry.

    Ah, home at last. It doesn’t take long for me to set my things down, plop on Lia’s bed, and crank the fan on. Lia doesn’t waste any time getting the disc put into her computer. Ah, Lia’s computer. She has quite the setup. She managed to cram a modern motherboard and everything into a 90s beige box PC. She even managed to wire up the turbo button to do, something? I’m not entirely sure. In fact…

    “Hey Lia, what did you wire the Turbo button to again?”

    “Right now I have it mapped to launch my music player.”

    Yeah, that. She also has a love of old technology like me, but I suppose the nature of our interests vary slightly. I remember when she bought that beige box from the internet. Shipping must not have been cheap, but I guess it really connected with her and the price of the machine before shipping was reasonable. When she got it, the previous owners (who I believe weren’t the ones who sold it) didn’t wipe their hard drive at all. It had a lot of sensitive information on it. Stuff like tax info, the old owner’s address, emails… Lia just soaked all that up. Lia has a habit of kind of disregarding one’s digital privacy. I remember her looking up this person a lot. She of course never got anywhere close to what would be considered stalking, but I did find it just a little odd. I don’t think she meant any harm by it. Actually no, I’m sure she didn’t. Growing up with a special power seemingly no one else has will kind of warp your worldviews around whatever the power revolves around. Don’t get me started on video poker and gambling…

    I roll over and see Lia already hard at work trying to access the disc. I hear the whirr of the disc drive and……………. More whirring………………. Even more whirring…………….

   

    ………. whirr…….

   

    ……………………… whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr..…………….

   

    And then, the disc drive slows down. No luck, it seems. The disc WAS just sitting loosely in the store, not even in a jewel case or anything, so I’m sure the scratch damage is pretty extensive.

    “Hmmm….” I mumble a little.

    “I can try some toothpaste on it, see if that works.” Lia says.

    “Yeah good idea!” Ok but seriously how does toothpaste manage to make discs read better? I remember reading this trick in a magazine as a kid and being blown away when it worked on my scratched-up PS1 discs that had trouble loading. A true, earnest lifehack.

    Lia walks into the bathroom connected to her room and turns the water on. Whilst she works on that, I’m distracted by her cat, Eve, who walks into the room and jumps up to the bed.


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    Good kitty, good kitty cat. Meow meow. Sweet baby. I give her some headscritches and she starts purring. Aaaaaa good cat. I give her some little forehead kisses and lay next to her giving her more pets. Meow meow meow.

    “Yeeeeooouuwwwwch!” I hear from Lia in the other room, quickly snapping me out and also startling Eve.

    “Oh goodness, are you ok?” I ask.

    “Yeah, I’m ok, just……. Owww…” she responds, muffled by the walls. She walks in soon after with a clean disc and a bandaid on her finger.

    “Gosh, what happened?” I ask.

    “I’m not sure, I was wiping the toothpaste off when suddenly my finger got caught by what felt like a broken disc shard… for a second I thought I had broken the disc and cut myself on it, but… huh…” Lia said with an uncharacteristic confusion in her tone of voice.

    “Hmmm, weird.” I tried to think of possibly explanations, but not being in the room kind of made it difficult to come up with much.

    “Alright, let’s try this disc again.”

    Lia walks back to her computer, opens the disc tray, and slides the disc in for a second time. Let’s see now… whirrrr…….. whirrrrrr…… whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…………… before long a window pops up on her desktop (which I should also mention is highly customized to look like Windows 98). Looks like it worked this time!

    “Alright, sweet, let’s see what we got!” I exclaim. Already we can see several folders. Music, videos, games, pictures, documents… It’s obvious from this and the title on the disc that this was someone’s backup before reinstalling windows; anything important to the person making this disc would have been thrown on here. Another folder, simply labeled “school”, makes it clear this was a student’s computer.

    “Oooo, check out games!” I point out excitedly. Lia soon double-clicks and… oh this is a treasure trove. Several visual novels, a couple of RPG Maker games, a few things I don’t recognize… ah man I think we hit a jackpot with this disc.

    “I wonder if we’ll see any lost media on here, this is super exiting!” I mention.

    “I doubt it, but you never know hehe” Lia responds realistically. Our eyes soon fall on the pictures folder. Not a whole lot, but we do find a “Scanned Documents” folder that reveals several pieces of scanned pencil drawings. Clearly some amateur anime art from someone just beginning to learn, but it holds a sense of earnestness. They’re very warm drawings, blooming with life. Some of the drawings are fanart of characters I recognize, but some clearly seem original.

    “Samantha put a lot of effort into these, she was very proud of her work. She scanned these with an Epson scanner in her parents’ kitchen.” Lia states. Samantha? I guess Lia must have picked up on the artist’s name. Seems this was a teenager’s disc. I’m quickly reminded of the weeb girls I knew in middle school. All of this evokes their vibes so much. It’s very, nostalgic.

    Lia mouses over to the videos folder on her own. Perhaps what grabbed her attention is in here. There’s a video titled “ScienceProject5thPeriod” (shouldn’t that have been in the school folder?) as well as several videos formatted “VID_[NUMBER].mov”, clearly indicating they were transferred from a digital camera or even a proper video camera.

    “Oh huh, what are the timestamps on these?” I ask.

    “Most of these are from 2007-2008. The newest is 2009.” Lia responds without even looking at the files. Those years check out with everything else on here so far.

    Lia opens the first video. It’s clearly a family Christmas morning. There’s gift wrap on the floor and a family talking.

    “How is the cake?”

    “It’s wonderful.”

    “Mom, can you help me with this one step?”

    “Let’s start cleaning up now.”

    Then it ends. Based on context clues, this camera was a Christmas gift. The video quality is decent for the era, but nothing to indicate this being a very expensive camera. Already I feel very invested in this family’s information. This tiny little snapshot from over 15 years ago. It’s almost… invasive. Surely this family didn’t intend on two strangers finding this moment in time?

    “Interesting.” Lia says quietly. I’m sure she’s picking up on way more than me. She goes over to the next video.

    We’re now in what looks like light woods area, next to a lake. There’s some trash strewn across the ground, things like styrofoam cups and chip bags.


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    “Hey Savannah, look what I found!” a girl’s voice calls out. The camera then points to what looks like a teenage girl, dressed very casually and wearing a backpack. The girl looks at the person holding the camera.

    “What is it?”

    “Look, a beer bottle!” The person holding the camera then holds up a broken glass bottle up, makes fake drinking motions, and makes exaggerated glug glug drinking noises.

    “Hahaha you goofball!” the other person responds and giggles a little, “only you would find trash interesting.”

    “It’s cause I AM trash!” the cameraperson shouts fairly loudly, causing the audio to peak a little.

    “Andrea, don’t scream so loud, you’ll get us in trouble~~~” the other person says jokingly.

    “BALLS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” the cameraperson shouts even louder, creating heavy distortion in the audio. I can’t help but chuckle at the immaturity a little. It reminds me of The Penis Game. Do any of you remember this shit? It’s a dumb game for dumb teenagers. You take turns saying the word penis out in public, each time you have to say it a little louder, eventually screaming it from the top of your lungs. I confess I played it a few times. Don’t follow my example. Cringe shit. Size 200 clown shoe material.

    Oh and yeah, the video stops after that.

    “Hey, you remember the Penis game?”

    “I wish I didn’t.” Lia responds instantaneously. Ah, all this is bringing back good memories. I wonder what gems we’ll see in the next one? My paranoia about being invasive has kind of subsided. Lia clicks on the next video and… whirr………. whirrr……………. Whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr……………… whirrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…………..

    The folder window suddenly closes. Yep, the disc is still fairly worn out.

    “Hrmmm.” Lia groans. Doesn’t seem like she found what she was looking for yet.


    Wednesday, November 14th, 2007, 4:45PM


    “Damn, where the heckie is Part 3?” Samantha says. We’re trying to watch Episode 8 of this super awesome and scary anime called End of the Candle. The YouTube uploads are taken down fairly often, which is mega bullshit. How the heck are we supposed to watch this it? I’m just a 10th grader, I can’t afford those expensive DVDs, let alone even find a store in our tiny-ass town that carries them. My parents won’t let me buy anything off the internet for god knows why, so we’re stuck just digging around online for them. I wish it would air on TV but alas.

    “How about searching for it on another site?” I ask.

    “Yeah, and get nine-quadrillion viruses, make my computer asplode, sure Andrea.” she sarcastically responds. She has a tongue as sharp as mine.

    “Well how else are we gonna watch it? I wanna finish the episodeeeeeee~~~”

    “I could wait on my allowance.”

    “Yeah, but we were gonna use that on hair-dye.”

    “True true… hmmm… but are you sure your parents will let you dye your hair anyways?”

    “Well, I wanna at least have it dyed long enough for some pics on MySpace, if they get mad at me I’ll just wash it out.”

    “Seems like a waste, though.”

    “But those pictures will last forever!”

   “I suppose you’re right, hehe…”

    Samantha’s parents are still at work, and so are mine. Samantha’s house is super close to mine, so I frequently hang out here until my Mom stops by to pick me up. I should also say we take the bus home from school together, but we don’t have any classes together unfortunately. In fact, we only met just recently at the library. She was reading a Zero Xenon manga… volume 2 I think? I thought I was the only person in school who liked anime and manga, let alone another girl. I poked her about it, started talking, and we’ve been hanging out a ton since.

    Samantha mouses around on YouTube, and finds a video titled “end of the Candle Episode 8 part 3 -reupload-” and immediately clicks it.

    “Ah here we go!” Samantha signs with relief. The video loads and… shit, it’s another fake upload. All it does is point to a link on another site, and contains log in info to access the video on the site.

    “God damn it.” I groan.

    “Hmm, I suppose I can give this site a try.” Samantha resigns.

    “You got anti-virus, yeah?”

    “Yeah.” Samantha says as she points to the McAfee icon on her computer. She then follows the link in the YouTube description. I munch on a room temperature pizza roll from a paper plate whilst the page loads. Tons of ads soon fill her computer screen.

    “Play now, my lord!”

    “Shoot the clown to win a FREE iPod!”

    “My wife is mad I discovered this game!”

    “38 virus threats detected on your computer! Install our toolbar to clean your system now!”

    “Free emojis! Over 1000+!”

    The site has a logo of some anime girl with HUGE honkers. Some serious badonkadonks. Big ol’ titties.

    “Um, are you sure this is worth it?” I question.

    “It’s either this or no hair dye for you.” Samantha says.

    “True, true…” Samantha goes back to the video and types in the information.

    Username: coolsweetandcatchy

    Password: bertha98

    The site takes forever to load each time a new page loads.

    “Damn, is this server on the other side of the planet or something? I’m gonna grab an orange soda if it’s gonna take this long.” I say.

    “Oh, can you grab me one too?”

    “Yeh.” I quietly respond as I make my way out of the room into the kitchen. I grab two cold orange sodas out of a 12 pack box in the fridge. As I close the door, I see some of the things posted on it. A few magnets, including one from a casino in Vegas, and a summer camp one. A family photo of Samantha, her parents, and her older brother. Her older brother doesn’t live with them anymore, but I did get a chance to see him briefly once. Very typical family. I know Samantha’s dad can be a bit of a jerk though. He spends a lot of time working on this old car of his. Some 1963 Buick blah blah blah. Some baby boomer nonsense. I couldn’t care less about a hunk of metal like that. Samantha’s dad keeps a fairly tight leash on her sometimes, which really sucks. I’m not super sure what normal parents are supposed to be like, but I have a feeling it’s not supposed to be that.

    Ah, I kind of zoned out there. I make my way back to Samantha’s room. As soon as I do… Samantha is standing up, right at her door, staring right at me with a… smile.

    “Oh uh, hi?” I barely let out of my mouth.

    “……… soda?” She responds with an uncomfortably long delay.

    “Yeah here you go-”

    “Feed me.”

    “I, excuse me?”

    “Give me sips.”

    “Oh, um…. S-sure!” I nervously open the can of soda, and hold up to her mouth. As I do, she tilts her head back, allowing me to tilt the can to fill her mouth. She gulps, gulps, and gulps, soon nudging her head back to to signal that she’s done.

    “Aaaaaahhhh! Thanks I needed that!” Samantha says with relief, as if nothing weird had just happened, “I got the episode up by the way, let’s start watching it!”

    “Ah, cool cool.” I respond. Seriously, what was up with that…


    Present Time

   

   “This is definitely an issue with my disc drive.” Lia states confidently.

    “Are you sure?” I ask.

    “I mean, smell for yourself.” As she opens the disc drive back open, a strong burning smell comes from it, like burning rubber.

    “Christ that’s strong.” I impulsively groan.

    “Yep.” Lia begins to pull out various things from her closet, quickly filling the room with boxes. She soon opens up a box with a new-old stock beige disc drive, probably from the early 2000s, maybe even late 90s. Would that even be compatible with her newer computer? Lia unplugs her computer and starts disassembling it. Various computer components are neatly set to the side. Whilst Lia calmly installs the new disc drive, a thought enters my mind...

    Just how did this disc end up at a thrift store? Let’s think about this for a moment. Imagine being younger, presumably a teenager based on what we see here. You make a CD to backup some files you don’t want to lose when you do a fresh install of Windows, or transferring files to a new PC. What happens to the disc after that single use case is completed. Do you hold on to the disc for a long time? I could imagine a few scenarios. Most likely, to me, if not being just thrown in the trash, instead kept around in someone’s belongings. Definitely the latter since we obviously didn’t dig this up from the trash. What I’m trying to get at is, this disc had to have ended up at that thrift store for a reason. Unless it was donated in just a box of items that wasn’t sorted at all, it had to have deliberately been chosen to be given, but that doesn’t make any sense. The original creator of the disc, surely, when going through old items to decide whether to keep or donate or chuck in the trash, the disc would have elicited some nostalgic memories, maybe even be popped into a computer many years later to see those files one more time before being thrown away, perhaps backed up once more. But… if it wasn’t held on to as a memento, or thrown in the trash… it wouldn’t make sense to just donate a disc of personal belongings. That leaves just one more likely options: the creator of the disc almost certainly did not give away this disc. But why? I can assume that maybe a family member, perhaps a parent, was giving away these items? Maybe they just wanted to clear their kid’s items out of the house that their kid didn’t take with them when moving out? Either that or…

   

    … Maybe the creator of the disc isn’t alive anymore…

   

    … no no, that conclusion is based on way too many assumptions…

   

    Before I know it, Lia already has the new disc drive plugged in and reboots her computer. A few parts are still scattered loose on the ground. I quickly contemplate telling Lia what’s on my mind, and then…

    “Hey Lia?”

    “Yeh what’s up?”

    “How do you think the disc ended up at the thrift store anyways?”

    “I have a few theories based on what I can sense, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions yet.”

    “That makes sense.”

    Lia logs in and pops the disc into the drive again. Let’s see now… whirr…….. whirr……… whir whir whir… click click click…. whirrr… vvvvrrrmmmmmmm… a folder pops up on Lia’s desktop. It looks, different than before. Only three files are in it:

    refresh.jpg

    no_215.mp4

    knock.mp3

    If I had my headset off earlier I could compare the data map from the first time and now, but I didn’t. I go to take off my headset when suddenly-

    “Don’t take off your headset. I think this might be malicious data, but I’m not 100% sure.” Lia firmly states. Fuck. Lia better be careful opening those files. She goes to click the first file, refresh.jpg, and I hold my breath. A few seconds later and… it looks like the icon for an old web browser? Like Netscape Navigator maybe? Nothing of note. Lia then clicks the next file, no_215.mp4. Whirrrr whir whir…. After what feels like an eternity, the video loads up.

    We’re in a school cafeteria. A group of friends are sitting together at a table, talking about different things. They seem high school aged. I spot Samantha among the group. It’s hard to tell what anyone is talking about with the poor microphone, several lines of conversation, and heavy reverb of what must be a fairly large cafeteria. After about 20 seconds, the video ends. Phew. That only leaves the last file, knock.mp3. Lia’s face grows more stern. She hesitantly clicks the file and… whirr…… clickclickclickclick… the computer fans speed up, making louder noises than normal. Suddenly the monitor goes black. The computer fan slows down… the disc drive slows down… the A/C suddenly shuts off… it becomes very quiet very quickly… and then… and then…

   

... and then...