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Bob Hyman

Joe had never seen rain this heavy before. He gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands as he peered out through the slapping wipers. Someone had told him once about these monsoon downpours in the desert but he thought they were just kidding. Now he knew better. How dry and dusty it had been back in Albuquerque. "They could sure use this water back there," he thought to himself.

He had spent the entire day in that picturesque New Mexico town, hitting every conceivable business that might be in need of a data processing expert - he must have dropped off at least thirty resumes. No one was hiring now; no one even seemed interested. He wondered what had caused the 'dot com' bubble to burst anyway. "It can't be this way everywhere," he figured.

"Somebody has got to be hiring ... somewhere." All he had to do was find that one place that needed him.

Driving on in the darkness, he knew he should call Lisa tonight. "Might as well wait until after nine, when the 'anytime' minutes are available," he reasoned. "No sense in paying prime time rates on the cell phone, especially with money being as tight as it is." He glanced at the glowing digits on the dashboard. It was only eight-thirty. He figured she would be putting the kids to bed about now anyway.

He thought about checking the interstate map on the empty seat beside him, but quickly realized the driving conditions demanded his full attention. Pulling up a mental image of the map in his head, he calculated, "Let's see ... it's another hour west to Flagstaff, then only a couple of hours south to Phoenix." He could easily be there by midnight. That is, if this incessant rain would let up! Surely he would be able to find work in Phoenix tomorrow.

If anything, the weather seemed to be getting worse. Wind gusts kept jerking the car sideways. With all the water on the road he could feel the tires slipping on the pavement underneath. "Stay focused," he warned himself, "pay attention to what you are doing!" He knew he was getting tired ... tired of the job searching ... tired of hearing all the negative responses. It was more than just being physically worn out; five days on the road had taken a heavy toll on his body and his spirit. He was mentally exhausted from constant interviews and being continually on-edge. He hated the seemingly endless string of cold calls on less than receptive potential employers. He knew he was just tired of trying.

"Got to keep a positive attitude," he told himself. He knew that employers looked for that in prospective employees. He thought of Lisa and of the kids, Sean and Allison. That was enough to put a smile on anyone's face. But then he thought about the bicycle that Sean wanted for his birthday. And of the orthodontist's warning that Allison shouldn't wait much longer for the braces. He thought about the tune-up that Lisa's minivan needed, and about the car insurance premium due next month. He thought about the new tires he kept putting off, about the mortgage, and about the many other things that seemed to be piling up all around him.

The headlights in the rearview mirror nearly blinded him before the monstrous semi flew past. Dirty spray from the tires drenched his vehicle completely as if a giant wave had swallowed him. The wipers were useless against the onslaught. He could only hope that nothing was in front of him. He felt the vibrations from the speed bumps along the edge of the lane and knew he was veering onto the shoulder. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the truck moved out far enough ahead so that he could once again make out the road. "That was close," he thought to himself, as his trembling hands gripped the wheel even tighter. Up ahead, he saw the exit sign. "Gas ... food ... lodging," it read. He slowed and put on the turn signal.

He figured a hot cup of coffee from the truck stop café would calm his nerves. That, and a trip to the rest room to splash cold water on his face would help him stay awake. As he approached the stop sign at the top of the exit ramp, he saw the sign for the Starlight Motel. "Executive suites at trucker's prices," the sign read. "Free HBO with Internet access in every room."

"How funny," he thought to himself. "Even out here in the middle of nowhere they have Internet access." He rationalized to himself that maybe it would make sense to stop here for the night. At least by morning the rain should be gone. Besides, it would give him a chance to look over some of the potential job sites in Phoenix on the web before he went to bed. He mentally determined which, if any, of his several credit cards had not yet reached its maximum limit as he pulled up to the motel entrance.

The room was about what he expected for the price. About halfway between a Motel Six and a Best Western in accommodations, it had obviously been decorated in that same excruciating nondescript style. At least the room was clean and the bed was tolerable. He had expressly requested a non-smoking room but the drapes smelled of stale cigarettes. He switched on the under-window air conditioning unit to remove the musty odor.

Plugging his laptop computer into the Ethernet data port at the desk, he hit the power-on switch and went to the bathroom while it went through the boot-up sequence. By the time he reappeared, the welcome screen was there to greet him. "Nice gateway router or data server they must have here," he thought to himself. Most hotels only provided rudimentary dial-up service for business travelers; it was unusual to find one that offered a true high-speed broadband local area network.

He stared at the screen for a moment and wondered if was even worthwhile to keep trying. Taking a deep breath, he shrugged his shoulders and flexed his fingers before hitting the magic keys. He started searching for an easy way into one of his favorite Internet services. One of the advantages to being a techno-geek type of guy was that you never had to pay for an Internet Service Provider. Every service had some type of "back-door" maintenance log-on account that the technicians used for system administration and trouble-shooting. He had cracked just about all of them. He managed to log into AOL on his second attempt. "They sure don't know how to make up secure passwords," he thought to himself. "Boy could I show those guys a thing or two about network security!"

First he checked the weather forecast for the Phoenix area and was relieved to note that the rain would be gone before morning. Next, he logged into his home e-mail account to see if there were any replies to the numerous electronic resumes he had sent out to the various job search sites. There were several; most were just the automated "Thank you for your inquiry" type of form letter responses. A few even had the dreaded "We are not hiring at the present time but will keep your resume on file" added as a courtesy at the bottom. Not what he had hoped to see, but then not at all unexpected.

He stared at the message list for a while. "Who am I trying to fool, anyway?" he questioned. "No one is ever going to answer." He felt himself falling even deeper into the despair that seemed to be getting progressively worse with each rejection. Even Lisa had questioned why he wanted to go on this trip. He had told her that he needed to go look for work in person, that it would improve his chances. He knew better. What he really wanted was to get away from that feeling of inadequacy he had at home. He hated the fact that they were falling further and further behind, eating up their meager savings and cutting corners to the point that even little Sean and Allison sensed something was dreadfully wrong.

He was starting to think that maybe stopping here for the night was a mistake. "Maybe I should have kept on going," he thought. "Maybe I shouldn't have spent the money!" He imagined driving on through the rain-filled night; of the blinding headlights and torrential rain; of the slippery roads and hazardous conditions. "Maybe that's the way it was supposed to happen," he wondered.

He could imagine the highway patrolman going through his wallet and hear the call to Lisa in the middle of the night. He could feel her pain as she heard the news. He thought of how difficult it would be on her and the kids. But then again he reasoned, "The pain would only be temporary. The life insurance is paid up through the end of the quarter and there is a double indemnity clause for accidents. They would be fine for a few years anyway. And she would be quite a catch for some lucky guy." He didn't really want to think about that part of it - of Lisa meeting someone else, that is - but he knew the kids would need a father.

He started to write an e-mail telling her how much he loved all of them before he got back on the road. He knew he had to be careful and not say anything that would indicate that the accident was planned. He was stumped momentarily after he got past "Dear Lisa" and stared at the screen, trying to think of how to say the words he needed to say. He noticed the chat room icon was blinking continuously in the corner of the screen. He tried to ignore it, but he couldn't get it out of his mind. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, he right-clicked on the icon to disable it. Instead, the chat room window opened anyway at the bottom of the screen.

"Is anybody out there?" it asked.

He cleared the window and tried to get back to his e-mail, infuriated that someone had infringed into his personal workspace.

The window popped-up again. "Is anybody there ... anyone at all?

Agitated almost to the point of losing control, Joe typed furiously to the intruder, "Who the hell is this ... and what do you want?"

"This is Angie. I just want to talk to someone," came the reply.

"Sorry Angie, I'm not in a chatting mood tonight," he answered back.

"Is that you, Joe?" she asked.

He was dumbfounded. How could someone figure out who he was? He had logged-on with an anonymous maintenance account. He figured a hacker must have gotten through his software firewall and into his e-mail account.

He tried clearing out the stored pages cache, disabling the interface port, and even logging out. Nothing seemed to work. Finally he hit CTRL-ALT-DEL, the ultimate escape of last resort. He watched the machine shut down and go through the restart process.

He logged-on again, this time using an old Microsoft Network maintenance account. But before he could even start his e-mail editor, the chat room window opened again.

"Joe, I really need to talk to someone ... please stay online" she pleaded.

He couldn't believe that this was happening to him. "Okay," he thought, "I'll play along." He figured it must be some type of trick - maybe someone down at the front desk playing with the mail server.

"All right, Angie - or whoever you are - I'm here," he entered.

"My real name is Angela, but everyone just calls me Angie," she replied. "Thanks for not going away this time."

"What do you want?" he asked. "Where are you at?"

"I just want to talk to someone. I'm far away, but closer than you think," she added.

"Sounds like you just want to play games," he snapped back. "I'm really not in the mood for games tonight."

"No, I don't like games either," she responded. "My whole life has been a game. I'm tired of playing games. I don't want to play anymore."

"I don't follow," Joe typed. "Then why are you here?"

"Did you ever just think maybe it just wasn't worth it?" she asked, ignoring his question.

"Of course," he answered. "Everybody feels that way once in a while."

"Well, tonight I'm going to quit playing for good. I just wanted you to know before I left," she said.

"Do you mean what I think you mean?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered, "I just want to go to sleep." Joe tried to fathom what she was trying to say - to go to sleep, to just go to sleep. How simple ... how eloquent ... to sleep, just to sleep.

He looked up with a start. The screen was blank. He hit a key to disable the screen saver. The laptop came back to life but only displayed his initial power-on welcome screen. He had a terrible kink in his neck and realized he had dozed off sitting at the keyboard. Glancing over at the window, he could tell it was almost daylight. He tried to log back onto the web to see if Angie was still there.

Nothing seemed to work this time. Not AOL, not MSN ... nothing. Frantically, he tried both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator; neither would go through. The local diagnostics confirmed everything was fine on his laptop. He was able to ping the server - the connection was good. He grabbed the phone from the nightstand and called the front desk.

"Good morning sir. How may I help you?" came the reply.

"Your gateway router is down!" Joe exclaimed. "I can't get out to the Internet."

"We apologize for the inconvenience, sir," the desk clerk answered. "Our outside data connections have been down for the past week. We're waiting for the manufacturer to send us a replacement interface board for our computer system."

Joe dropped the phone and looked over at the welcome screen on his laptop. He could still hear the clerk droning on and on about how he should have been told at check-in and how they would deduct ten dollars from his bill. He picked the phone back up and managed to mumble a quick "Thank you" before he hung up.

He turned off the computer and walked over to the window. Opening the drapes, he looked out at the glorious sunrise. It was going to be a beautiful day. He peered up into the clear blue skies above and knew that somewhere up there Angie was looking down at him smiling.

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