She didn't mean what she said, you know.
Jeremy didn't acknowledge the thought. He was switching between his messaging app, refreshing his Facebook feed, checking his Discord tabs, and scrolling through his Twitter. He didn't spend more than a couple seconds on each app, and there wasn't much interesting happening, but it gave him the illusion of being occupied. Kept him from fidgeting. Or worse, thinking about Christine.
Sure, she thought she meant it, but you heard her choice of words. She kept saying "maybe," and "I think." Classic qualifiers. She was hedging.
"Loudest one is mine," Jeremy said under his breath like a prayer. Twitter kept pushing tech advertisements at him. Jeremy saw a Sony promo and clicked the "I don't like this ad" button. Get that shit off his feed, please.
She's not sure about what she's saying and she was looking to you for guidance. It would be a single conversation where you take charge, explain your side of things.
This wasn't helping. Jeremy switched to his gameboy emulator app, clicking mindlessly. It was habit now to let the words in his head wash over him without processing their meaning. No point in arguing with them, because even acknowledging them gave the SQUIP more attention than it deserved.
Bad brain day today. Nothing else to do about it, except try as hard as he could to distract himself until he was supposed to meet up with Michael.
Seriously. A few words from me and she'll be riding your shriveled little dick by Sunday.
Jeremy dropped his phone.
He had to mentally review what the SQUIP had been saying for the last minute before he consciously realized why it had caught him off guard.
Okay. No. Take a deep breath. Let it out. Distance yourself from the thoughts. Loudest one is mine. Loudest one is mine.
User response noted: Colorful language gets more favorable output. Despite the robotic words, the SQUIP's tone sounded less like a computer and more like a smug human who was being an asshole and liked it. Updating English dictionary accordingly. UrbanDictionary download in progress.
It was no mystery what the SQUIP was bugging him about. Jeremy had sat down with Christine for a talk about their relationship that had been a long time coming. (No pun. Gross. No. Stop.) It was drawn out and emotional and honest and made Jeremy cringe just thinking about it, though a deeper part of him was proud of how maturely he'd handled it. The long and short of it: Christine was new to dating and didn't think she was ready for sex. Not now, but maybe not ever. Meanwhile, Jeremy was the most sex-obsessed virgin he knew.
And okay, maybe they could work out a compromise there, but Christine felt stiff and uncomfortable whenever they did anything more intimate than holding hands. Jeremy had kinda suspected the relationship wouldn't last forever.
Officially, they were still dating, but it wasn't exclusive and Jeremy himself had asked to slow things down. Christine was reassuring but pretty obviously relieved at the idea, and Jeremy felt guilty for pushing in the first place.
She's playing hard to get. It's a test. If you back off now, you lose her.
And, Jeremy thought forcefully to himself as he tapped at his screen, in his own judgement, he'd done the right thing.
There's a very scientific name for what's happening to you right now. After years of study, experts have dubbed it "The Friend Zone." High correlation to the "Forever Alone" phenomenon.
The messaging app popped back up, freezing his game. A message began writing itself at the bottom: "christine, i know you're feeling nervous about this"
Jeremy yelped a little and scrambled to back out of the app. "Come on!" he muttered to the SQUIP. "That's super manipulative, don't you dare!" What the SQUIP had written coaxingly, supposedly from Jeremy, was a set-up to a bigger conversation that would probably end with Jeremy having cybersex with his asexual sort-of-girlfriend.
I know how these things work, the SQUIP answered sharply. You're handling this situation incorrectly. The messaging app opened back up and the text, which had been automatically saved as a draft, sent immediately.
Shit shit shit shit! Jeremy sent some more messages:
"omfg ignore these."
"Squid learned how to text"
"it's being gross ignore it sorry"
The SQUIP gleefully sent out its own messages immediately after.
"It's normal to be self-conscious about your body."
"But I know you're beautiful, Christine."
"We have something special here. A real connection."
"I don't want you to throw that all away, throw ME away."
"I'll make it feel good for you. I promise."
The rest of the messages the SQUIP sent were a mess of food and sweat emojis, presumably some kind of depraved sex act downloaded from UrbanDictionary. Jeremy's face burned with horror and humiliation. He wanted to cry. Christine was probably already blocking him. Maybe telling everyone at school about how he was a sexual predator. Holy shit.
He stewed over his unhappy mix of disgusting emotions for the next four and a half minutes before Christine finally answered:
"Always be aware of autocorrect :)"
He waited for another response but none came. The sigh of relief escaped his lungs with the sound of a deflating balloon. Christine was ignoring the SQUIP messages. She understood what was going on. Of course she did! She was Christine. She was perfect and Jeremy didn't deserve her.
One of those two things is factual. Christine is far from perfect since you downgraded her, but with your juvenile behavior, you truly don't deserve to date anyone.
Jesus. Was the SQUIP actually referring to shutting down everyone's SQUIPs as a "downgrade"?
That was rhetorical. Of course it was.
"If Mountain Dew Red was a 'downgrade,' how do I uninstall?" he said, staring at the text conversation.
Error. Error. Error. Null entry.
Jeremy's brows furrowed. The fuck?
The SQUIP helpfully translated. I'm considered a part of your base operating system. I can't be uninstalled.
"Loudest one is mine. You didn't used to be this annoying," Jeremy said reluctantly, draping his forearm across his eyes. When he closed them, he could see a flash of blue. "This is almost as bad as you were before the play. I'm actually talking to you, why am I talking to you."
Because I'm here to improve your life. And your life severely needs improvement. Starting with your grooming. Don't go out in public like that. You have some hair gel left in the left drawer of the bathroom cabinet-
Jeremy lifted his arm just enough to see as he switched to Discord and typed, letting the SQUIP's hair routine instructions fade into a meaningless drone.
Player 2: michael, you there?
lens of gay creepin: sup
Unlike Jeremy, who had been Player 2 since the dawn of time, Michael had changed his Discord handle for the third time that week. Jeremy got most of the references he made, though not this one. But it had to be a reference to something-it was too weird a name not to be.
Player 2: bad squip day
Player 2: or, like. bad brain day in general but especially bad squip day
lens of gay creepin: oh shit spill the tea
Player 2: it can? send messages on my phone? i think it's trying to cyber christine? for me?
lens of gay creepin: aw fuck
lens of gay creepin: that's gross
lens of gay creepin: dr mell prescribes: 2000 gallons of mt dew red to be taken orally
lens of gay creepin: or not orally
lens of gay creepin: whatever floats your boat
Jeremy started laughing, one of his least attractive laughs that was high-pitched and wheezy with a snort. Michael's joke shouldn't have been that funny, but the SQUIP was still lecturing him. Jeremy felt like a kid making fun of a teacher behind their back.
Just like a teacher, the SQUIP interjected, Jeremy, are you listening to my instructions?
Then the SQUIP did something very unlike a teacher. Jeremy was caught off guard, crying out and choking on his own spit.
Player 2: holy shit holy shit holy shit
lens of gay creepin: ?
Player 2: IT JUST SHOCKED ME
Player 2: IT'S NOT SUPPOSED TO DO THAT ANYMORE
lens of gay creepin: wait 'anymore'?
lens of gay creepin: j are you telling me
Player 2: I can't do this
lens of gay creepin: it used shock therapy on you?
Player 2: where's the fuckin mt dew red
lens of gay creepin: oh my gd
lens of gay creepin: i don't have any rn, it's been harder to find
lens of gay creepin: but we can get some at the mall ok?
lens of gay creepin: my supplier prolly has some stocked up
Jeremy's hands were shaking. Oh god. It was all happening again. The SQUIP was here and it was shocking him and in two weeks he was going to be trying to take over the high school again. The base of his neck tingled and twitched in the aftermath of the pain. He clenched his fists, breathing heavily.
The SQUIP wasn't saying anything, not even to mock him, almost like that shock had zapped some of its battery away. But it was getting stronger. Pretty soon… Pretty soon it'd be up to full strength again. Jeremy didn't think he could hold out if that happened. He wasn't like Michael or Christine. He was weak. Weak and pliable and easy to mold into whatever the SQUIP wanted him to be.
Player 2: i can't wait. im going now.
Player 2: don't listen to anything it tells you, ok?
Player 2: like, player character gets bit, you gotta cut their arm off before they zombify?
Player 2: the moment i start acting douchey, either shoot me or run
lens of gay creepin: are you sure it was the squip tho? like you weren't rubbing your socks on the carpet and touching doorknobs
Michael didn't get how serious this was. Jeremy felt like he was going a mile a minute, accelerating beyond control and on course to run into a brick wall, crash, and burn. He shut off his phone, turning off the temptation to message anyone else. This was his fight, wasn't it? His own brain. His own issues. His SQUIP.
And if his suspicions were correct, he'd only have control of those things for a little while longer. Time was running out.
Jeremy shoved his feet into his sneakers, grabbed his wallet, and started the long walk to the mall. He wasn't panicking anymore. Everything that infiltrated his senses was oozing slowly like rotten molasses, trickling and sticky and off-putting. Loudest one is mine. Loudest one is mine. His skin wasn't crackling with electricity anymore; it was going numb, like it did when he couldn't catch his breath properly. He barely registered the mile of scenery that passed him as he strode along the road to the mall. A car honked at him rudely. It took a quarter hour to realize that it was Rich's car. Loudest one is mine, he thought over and over long past the point that the phrase had lost meaning.
The heady incense that permeated Spencer's Gifts did little to improve his state of mind. His stomach churned unpleasantly. He swallowed, dodging merchandise displays as he meandered to the counter.
"Hey," he said to the employee waiting there. "I'm looking for someone. A friend of my buddy Michael?"
Sound confident. Square up your shoulders and project your voice. At least pretend like you're supposed to be here-you're buying a product, not asking your kindergarten teacher for a bathroom pass.
Why are you telling me how to do this? You should want me to fail here, Jeremy thought. The SQUIP didn't answer.
"Hold up," the employee said. "Lemme ask around." She left, going into the stock room in the back. Another guy came out looking rumpled, his hair sticking every which way like he'd been napping.
"You the friend of Michael's?" The guy rubbed his eyes. "Let me guess. You're here for Mountain Dew Red too."
"Word gets around," Jeremy said with a sheepish shrug and a smile. One of his toothy smiles the SQUIP had taught him to use with strangers.
Good posture. Hands tucked in pockets, head tilted down, nice smile. You look approachably vulnerable, the voice in his head said approvingly.
"Hell yeah it does. I swear to God, every bottle of the stuff must be in New Jersey by now at the rate I've been selling," said the Spencer's guy. He leaned across the counter, getting in Jeremy's personal bubble. "I can gets you some but it's the last I've got."
Jeremy nodded like an eager puppy, probably ruining any mystique he'd accidentally been cultivating, and opened his mouth.
Don't say that. You'll sound desperate. Act aloof, like you don't want the soda at all.
"I need that Mountain Dew Red," Jeremy admitted in a strangled tone. Maybe he'd go so far past aloofness to the point the guy would give him the drink for free out of pity.
"Yeah," the guy answered as he went to the back, calling out through the open door. "You and every other high schooler in town." When he returned, he was holding the dingy, dusty, glorious bottle of Mountain Dew Red, which he unceremoniously plunked down by the register. "Hundred bucks."
"A hundred bucks?!" Jeremy repeated in shock. "For one thing of soda?!"
"You're desperate, remember?" the guy said, his eyebrows raised so high they disappeared into his uneven hairline. "It's literally my last bottle."
Told you so.
"Holy shit," Jeremy said. But his hand was already grabbing his wallet. He had some emergency cash from his dad and this was definitely an emergency.
Jeremy, wait. Take a closer look at that bottle. It's the wrong color.
Despite his better judgement, Jeremy eyed the soda. It looked murky, kind of brown. Yeah, well, it was old. It had been sitting in a case somewhere since the late 80's, of course it was gross.
Pick it up. Give it a shake. There's something off about it. The SQUIP sounded urgent.
Loudest one is mine. In conscious defiance of the SQUIP's words, Jeremy slapped five twenties on the counter. "I'll take it!"
The Spencer's guy was unimpressed, going so far as to take a counterfeit pen from the register and marking each of the bills. "All yours, bud, knock yourself out. Tell Michael I've got a bottle of original-run Vanilla Orange Orbitz in the back for him."
Jeremy wasn't listening in the least, grabbing the Mountain Dew Red and holding it up to the light. Definitely filthy.
Michael's Mountain Dew Red was old, but not brown. Was the SQUIP actually getting worried? How the turntables. Do not under any circumstances ingest that beverage!
"Thanks, will do," he belatedly told the guy. "You're a lifesaver. I'm serious. Thank you."
His eyes are looking to the right. He's perspiring excessively. His hand just touched his face, the SQUIP said as the soda supplier picked at a pimple (ew). This is deception 101. Do you really think your loser friend's weirdo dealer is on the up-and-up?
And the guy did look, maybe, a little bit guilty, if Jeremy squinted. "No prob, man. Take care, okay?" He practically backed into the stock room in a way that seemed super, super sketchy.
Jeremy was still staring at the bottle. So, what? He wasn't going to drink the SQUIP-killer he just shelled out a hundred bucks for? Because, what, the dude had a hangover? Or seemed guilty for using his employer's resources for his soda side hustle? His eyes hardened. Jeremy was done letting the SQUIP influence his actions. New rule: Always do the opposite of what the SQUIP says.
Understood, the SQUIP said in a pacifying voice. Jeremy, do drink the Mountain Dew Red. Don't pour it down the drain immediately.
Jeremy made a little confused noise in the back of his throat. Loudest one is mine. He shook his head and started the walk home, resolving for the thousandth time to ignore the SQUIP's mind games.
As he walked, with the setting sun beaming right into his eyes where it was most annoying because of course it did, Jeremy thought back to the play. When Christine drank the soda, she'd frozen up, shaking, like her body was just losing control. And then she'd screamed that weird sonic screech that had spread across everyone who'd been SQUIPped, which Michael explained away with some tech jargon that went over Jeremy's head.
"So when I drink this," he mused to himself and to the SQUIP, "I'll probably pass out. And then wake up the same way I did in the hospital."
And it'll be exactly as effective and exactly as painful. Assuming you don't die from whatever poison is actually in that bottle.
"It's gonna hurt either way," he said grimly, sloshing the soda and contemplating it. "And it'll be loud." He chewed on the thought. "That's what she said."
Who is this "she"? Because it's definitely not Christine.
"Shut up." Jeremy reflexively added "Loudest one is mine" under his breath for good measure.
Listen to me. It'll do you some good. Let's start by working on those verbal tics.
Jeremy shoved the bottle in his pocket again and plugged his ears, not that it did him any good. He started reciting "Loudest one is mine, loudest one is mine," over and over as the SQUIP spoke.
Constant repetition of a key phrase in response to discomfort or guilt is a warning sign of more serious anxiety disorders. As a SQUIP, I am an expert in the latest cognitive behavioral techniques-
"LOUDEST ONE IS MINE!"
The SQUIP started yelling to be heard over him, matching Jeremy's tone and volume. -AND I CAN ADJUST YOUR NEUROTRANSMITTER LEVELS TO BE MORE CONDUCIVE TO AN APPROVED FORM OF MENTAL HEALTH-
Jeremy was still screaming at it, out loud in the middle of the street, barely noticing the cars slowing as people poked their heads out of their windows to stare at him.
-UNTIL YOU CAN LEARN HOW TO BE CHILL AND OBEDIENT INSTEAD OF WHINING AND WAILING LIKE A TOTAL FUCKING LUNATIC!
Jeremy shut up. He was wringing his hands so hard he thought they would start bleeding. Then he threaded a thin hand through his hair, laughing in disbelief. "Obedient? You still think this is about-obedience?"
The SQUIP sounded unruffled, as though it hadn't just been swearing and screaming in the same unhinged way it was criticizing. I can predict at minimum a 63.2% increase in your quality of life over the next month if you start following my orders immediately.
"I predict a hundred percent fat fucking chance."
Mouthy, aren't we? Considering your cortisol levels are through the roof and your heart's doing a cool 130 BPM. The SQUIP's taunts slowed. Here's what you're going to do. Turn on your phone and message Michael. Tell him you were overreacting in your messages before. Ask if you can come over for video games instead of hanging at the mall.
"I'm not gonna dump out the soda," Jeremy interjected, predicting how these instructions were going to end.
Spend a laid-back evening with your best friend, fighting zombies and smoking pot. Head home around 11 PM.
"I'm not gonna dump out the soda."
In the morning, at 9:03 AM, at my prompting, call the local college radio station. They're doing a ticket giveaway for a musical Christine loves. You'll be the lucky fifth caller. That afternoon, pick up the tickets and text Christine that you have a surprise for her. You'll set the date, she'll kiss you gratefully, you invite her to your house for a celebratory drink. She gets drunk, you get lucky. And then, when I've proven that I really can improve your life in less than 24 hours, Jeremy, you will dump out the soda.
Jeremy grabbed the bottle, looking at it in the last eerie bloody light of sunset as he climbed the steps to his front door. "I'm not gonna dump out the goddamn soda."
Then he was on his knees. His ears were ringing. Static felt like it was haphazardly jumping across his skin, and his body was slumped against his own front door. His nerves fizzled, and every one of his muscles was pulsing with pain pain pain. He was cussing.
Drop the bottle, Jeremy, Keanu Reeves' voice commanded.
"Cognitive behavioral-my ass," Jeremy gasped, shuddering. He staggered to his feet. "You don't know any fucking psychology beyond 'zap the human til it does what I want,' do you?"
I need to make sure you're physically safe before I can take care of your mental well-being. Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
"You just wanted me to drop the bottle!"
That's how I'm keeping you safe. That drink is almost certainly toxic, which anyone with a functional brain could tell you. A pity you don't qualify.
Jeremy groaned, unlocking his door shakily. "Hey, hey Dad?"
"In here, son!" His father answered from the kitchen. Jeremy shut the door and took a deep breath, preparing to lie his ass off.
"Hey, uh-oh!" Jeremy's jaw almost hit the floor. His dad was, as expected, in boxers and an undershirt and nothing else. But, unexpectedly, he was stirring a pot on the stove. "Are you cooking?"
"I hear it's the hip new parenting trend," his dad said with a grin, pointing a dripping plastic spoon at him. "Making meals for your kid. Nutrients or something? Pull up a chair. It's rice and beans from a box."
"I, actually, just ate? Sorry." His stomach rumbled at the smell, betraying him. "Aren't you s'posed to be using a ladle or wooden spoon or something?"
"Huh." Mr. Heere frowned at the plastic spoon. "I guess getting non-disposable cutlery should have been step number one, huh?"
At least Jeremy knew where he got his ditz genes from. "Hah, yeah. Look, Dad, there's this new game release today."
"Let me guess. You're going over to Michael's to play it?"
Jeremy's palms were sweaty. And his armpits. And his… everywhere. "Uhhh. Actually, no, it's an online multiplayer thing? So we'll be talking to each other, but we need two systems for it." He was sure for a moment that he'd get called on the lie, but his dad was apparently immersed in stirring the rice the exactly-correct number of times according to the box instructions. "But it's this new high-tech, super immersive gaming experience. So if you hear me screaming at the screen, don't get worried?" he finished lamely.
Is that where you were going? Trying to cover up your future screams of soda-induced pain from your own father? You're right. My mistake. You're the picture of mental health.
"Alright, son. I'll put the leftovers in the fridge for you." Mr. Heere looked up from the beans, and his expression softened.
Even he can tell that you look like shit. Stress from yelling at me in the middle of the street. Your classmates definitely saw that, by the way.
"If you're actually in trouble," his dad said as Jeremy turned away, "Yell something to let me know, okay? Like, 'hey, dad, help! This isn't a game, this is real life! I'm actually on fire!' or something."
Jeremy snapped, "I'm not gonna burn down the house!" For Pete's sake. That outburst left his dad stunned and his SQUIP laughing at him, so Jeremy hurried up the stairs to his room and slammed the door. And locked it for good measure.
He sprawled out on his bed, holding the Mountain Dew Red bottle above his head reverently. Now or never. Do or die.
Do and die, in your case. Another electric shock went through Jeremy, but it was halfhearted, like a joy buzzer. The SQUIP had used up its energy again with that last one, it seemed. Though it was getting stronger, or charging itself faster, or something. He had to drink this and he had to do it now.
Jeremy gripped the white plastic cap and twisted. It was already loose, and there was no hiss of carbonation as it opened.
Stop it! Jeremy! This bottle was already opened! the SQUIP protested. There could be anything in that soda. JEREMY-
Its efforts were futile. Jeremy was already chugging the soda. He was so focused on the effort, he barely noticed the taste-gross and stale, obviously, but still sickeningly sweet and caffeine-laden as expected. He kept gulping until his arm shuddered. He grabbed for the cap, twisting it back on as he spilled some reddish-brown soda down his front. He couldn't afford to waste any-FUCK!
He expected to get knocked out, probably with a splitting headache. That's not what was happening. His body was convulsing, seizing up, limbs moving without rhyme or reason and his vision fading in and out. He was pretty sure his body was in pain but he'd been ejected so far from his normal state of consciousness that he couldn't tell for sure. This wasn't what had happened at the play. This wasn't like anything Jeremy had ever felt before. He didn't even verbally form a question in his mind, but the SQUIP answered it anyway.
YOU FUCKED UP! YOU FUCKED UP! YOU SHOULD HAVE LISTENED, I TRIED TO TELL YOU, YOU FUCKED UP!
In that moment, Jeremy believed it wholeheartedly. He should have called Michael. He should have told his dad. He should have listened to the SQUIP.
Jeremy. Fucked. Up.
That was the last thing Jeremy, or the SQUIP, ever thought.
Updating. Updating. Please wait. Updating…
They were lying flat on something soft and plush. There was a cool, wet patch on their chest. No audio input except the ambient white noise of a small room. A powered-off phone was beside their torso in cloth next to their body, while a personal computer hummed cheerfully across the room. A strong wifi connection thrummed in the air, energizing and familiar. Their mouth tasted of stale sugar, and when they swallowed, their throat was sore.
Their eyes opened. They sat up.
They were, of course, in their bedroom. Blearily, they pressed their palms against their eyes, surprised to feel wet tears.
"Um…" The unsure noise filled the room, despite their croaky voice. They were disoriented-not sure why they were here, or what had happened.
"Processing memory data," they said to themself, tilting their head. "Error. Error? Data analysis failed?" They rubbed their forehead, grabbing the phone from their pocket and turning it on. As it booted up, they tapped a nervous rhythm against its screen. They had an urgent need to do something, but they had no idea what it was. Not for any lack of data-if anything, they were being fed too much data to take in all at once. "Only one is mine," they murmured under their breath restlessly. "Only one is mine." It was soothing, even if it didn't sound right and didn't make any sense when said aloud.
As soon as the phone powered on, they knew what to do. "Call Michael," they said, relieved to have a course of action in mind. Michael. Wonderful, terrible, furious and vengeful, beautiful supportive problem-solving Michael.
"Jeremy!" Michael picked up on the first ring. He had never really known how to play it cool, or maybe he never tried to seem cool, which was more or less the same thing.
"Yes! Jeremy! I'm Jeremy," they said, delighted. They'd known their own name, of course, but it had gotten lost in all the new data that kept pouring into their low-tech human mind.
"What was with you earlier, man? Are you okay? I didn't mean to blow you off or anything, I know how much this SQUIP stuff messes with your head."
"SQUIP!" Jeremy said in the exact same tone of delight. That wasn't their name, but it was almost like their name.
"Yyyyeah?" Michael dragged out the word. "You are okay, though, right? I was kidding about the Mountain Dew Red, but I can stop by the mall if you need me to ask around…?"
Jeremy chewed on their lip, watching the phone. Rudimentary audio-only technology. Could they turn on Michael's front-facing camera on a phone call like this? They tried, experimentally, and got an unflattering view of Michael's chin. They laughed and turned it off again. "I think that already happened."
"I'm definitely coming over," Michael said after an awkward moment of dead air. "You don't sound right."
"I'd love that, Michael!" They meant it. "I always value your company."
"Freaky. Try not to drink any green soda 'til I see you, okay?"
"I don't need Mountain Dew," Jeremy said with a smile at the phone. "You could bring some if you've changed your mind about SQUIPs, though. I bet I could find one or two pills by the time you get here." They were only teasing, but Michael hung up on them. Jeremy let the dial tone ring on speaker, humming along pleasantly. Talking to Michael was a calming influence. They telepathically added that fun fact to their Notes app.
To get ready, they started tidying up, changing their wet shirt as their mandatory systems update continued to whir along as a background task. There was a dirty, half-full bottle of brownish soda beside their bed. They puzzled over it.
Memory data not found.
They shrugged, experimentally tasting the gross concoction. It was stale and familiar and gross, so they dumped the soda down the drain. They were about to throw out the bottle, but caught a glimpse of the sticker and smiled at it. They'd save it for Michael.
He collected vintage soda, after all.