USB -Short Story -Rated PG

By Dear Hubby


So here I am in a hotel on the other side of Canada from home. It’s evening and I’m plugging away on a story about a Canadian veteran living on the street, and a message pops up on the screen – the flash drive can’t be found. I look down at the side of the loaner laptop and yes, the flash drive’s a bit loose. I push it back in. When I look back up, Word has frozen up. Waiting five minutes doesn’t change anything. Sighing, I reboot the computer.

When it’s back up again, I open up a folder to access the flash drive. My story isn’t there, and it was the only place I’d saved it. Since I’ve rebooted the stupid machine, it also appears that I’ve lost whatever might’ve been in the temporary folder.

Now I’m irritated. It took me weeks to figure out how to start that story, and now it’s gone. In its place, the flash drive now boasts a number of file with gibberish names, ranging from a .REK file supposedly created in 2002 to an .HRX file supposedly created in 2074. Yes, 2074.

Naturally, I try to delete them. I can’t. The computer claims they aren’t there. I suppose it has a point – Windows says the gibberish files total about 2.5 gigabytes, and the flash drive they’re supposedly on is only 2.0 gigs.

Okay, so what’s a .REK file? I go into Wikipedia and look for an article on file extensions. There’s a list in alphabetical order and…it doesn’t list .REK. Nor does it list .HRX as an extension. Well, whatever. So back to Windows Explorer to see about deleting them again (you know that bit about the defintion of madness? I’m mad). I shift the view to “Details”, and I note that []<.VMV, a file supposedly created on November 15, 2008, has a Windows Media Player icon. I double-click it.

Media Player opens up and starts chugging. Great, the computer’s going to freeze up again. I go off to get a glass of water. When I come back, though, the file’s playing. Looks like a shuttle launch – dark blue sky with seven pinpricks of light leading a billowing white contrail. I kinda like space stuff, went to a shuttle launch a few years back, so I stop the video and start it from the beginning.

Okay, so it’s not a shuttle launch, because shuttles aren’t triangular with stubby wings and two rudders, sitting on a small platform in a desert. Eight seconds into the video, smoke erupts from the bottom and the cone pushes off the ground. Up it goes, and after about sixty seconds, it’s at that point I first saw it at. The video ends at 1:21 with it just visible as a fuzzy light spot. Must be an FX thing, then, a movie trailer of some kind. It’s kind of cool. Some of you guys would probably like it, but I can’t upload, copy, or otherwise do anything with the file.

I don’t know why it’s on my flash drive, though. Maybe I’d better run the security software.

While Norton is having a look inside the laptop’s guts, I right-click on one of the six new JPEGs with gibberish for a title. Windows says it was created in April 2005. When the window pops up, I click on Preview. It opens up to a picture of me and an older couple. I don’t recognize them. Or the shirt I’m wearing, or the wall behind us. Okey-dokey. Next picture.

Next file is from the same date. It’s me again, in front of the same wall, with the same older woman but a younger woman in place of the older man. The older woman is in the centre and we younger folk are leaning in toward her and smiling. I don’t know who the young woman is, either.

I close it, right-click on the third JPEG from that little series, and hit preview. The picture opens up to reveal a picture of me and my family against the same wall. I freeze, staring, then sit back in my chair. It’s a lovely photo: me, my brother, my mother, and my father smiling at the camera. Thing is…Dad died in the early nineties. But that’s definitely me as of the mid-2000s. Mom and my brother both look a little different, but not unrecognizably so.

What the fuck is Dad doing in that photo? He looks to be about the right age as if he were about seventy. Is this a Photoshop? How can that be? What the fuck?

I go back into Windows and open up the fourth JPEG, which is dated to last weekend. It’s me standing in front of a building, perhaps a hotel. Second photo is me, my Uncle Rick and an unfamiliar older woman. Third photo is just the two of them. They’re holding hands and smooshed together with their heads pressed together side by side. You’d think they were married but Uncle Rick is gay.

I’m getting agitated now.

I open up that video again and just look at the opening frame of the spaceship. I think I’ve seen this thing before. Back to Wikipedia, where I search for “Space Plane” and click the first link that comes up. I scroll down past sketches and models from the 1940s through to the space shuttle and find what’s in the video: A Lockheed-Martin VentureStar single-stage to orbit spacecraft. Come to think of it, that could be a Lockheed-Martin insignia on the rounded side of the hull.

According to Wikipedia, though, VentureStar didn’t get built and was cancelled in 2001 because they couldn’t make the high-tech fuel tanks work.

Maybe I’m just tired, or spend too much time on that Alternate History website, but I’m starting to think that my flash-drive didn’t get a virus or damaged. I think it – or maybe just part of it – got swapped out with a near-duplicate from another reality, in a moment where I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t notice anything.

In that other reality, my father was still alive in 2005, my uncle was straight and married, the VentureStar flew, and I might be married to somebody other than my Tara. In that other reality, alternate-me might now be looking at those family photos we took yesterday and feeling much the same as I am right now. If that other me has gotten into Alternate History too, maybe he’s even reached the same conclusion as I have.

Or, worse…I’ve swapped into that alternate history and entered a new life without realizing it.

Panicked, I lunge for the phone and dial my home number. Home is three timezones away, so it’s well after midnight there. Will I get an answer? From who?

“Hello?”, a groggy voice responds. Tara. Thank God. Thank God.

“Sorry, Babe – just calling to say I love you. Didn’t mean to wake you up”, I say gently.

“Okay. Night”, she says dozily, and hangs up. She probably won’t even remember the conversation in the morning.

Well…that’s that. I can’t open up the files dated 2042 and 2074 at all, so I don’t know what that’s about. I’m feeling cranky, and confused. I sure as hell don’t feel like re-starting that story, and I’m starting to get a little tired, to be honest. Probably best to shut down for the night and come back to this tomorrow when I’m fresh.

I shut down Windows Explorer. I close Word. I close Windows Media Player. The last program open is the preview of the photo with my father in it. I stare at it again, lamenting that I can’t copy or re-save the file.

Then I remember that there is something I can do: hold down the Function key and press the Print Screen key. Hold my breath as I open up Paint and hit Control-V…and the screenshot – Dad, family, and all – appears in Paint. I save it in My Documents as WTF.JPG. Then I save it on C: as Family.JPG. Then I open up Yahoo, log in, and email the pictures separately to my work e-mail.

Then I take a deep breath and shut the computer down. Tomorrow, I might not find that photo when I turn the computer back on…but maybe I will. If I do, a lost story will be a small price to have paid for it.


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