tagNovels and NovellasThe Outsider Ch. 07

The Outsider Ch. 07


Chapter 7 - A day in Monterey

Mike woke up the next morning after the best night of sleep he had enjoyed for several months. He felt not just rested, but truly refreshed. He had gone to bed happy and woken up happy.

On top of his good mood, he slept well because for the first time all semester he had not had to put up with the muffled sounds of electronic warfare coming out of Todd's headphones. Todd had crawled on top of his bed and went to sleep in his street clothes shortly after Mike returned from the shower. He didn't even bother to take off his shoes. He slept curled up in a fetal position with his back to Mike. There was nothing normal about his behavior; it seemed that the life had gone out of him. Mike quietly turned off his roommate's computer. Todd did not react.

Mike had silently gloated as he watched his roommate's online life come to a bloody end, but in the morning, looking at the listless body on the bed in front of him, he started to feel somewhat guilty. He knew that Todd was a serious addict, addicted to gaming every bit as much as a gambler is addicted to slot machines or Poker. Like any other addict, he was experiencing withdrawal, in his case because he could no longer play his on-line game as the character he had been using for the past 18 months. Sure...he could start over with a new character, but there was no chance whatsoever he could attain the same ranking with a new character that he had with his old one. The quality of his gaming experience, no matter how much effort he put into building a new character, would never match what he had lost when his old character was killed.

Mike was convinced that what his roommate needed do was to forget about gaming altogether for the rest of the year and try to fix his grades. Probably there still was time for him to salvage the semester. The perceived commitments that he had with his battle partners disappeared when his character died. Besides...what did he owe them anyway? Wasn't it his battle partners who failed to protect Todd's character when he was injured, and just let him die? Maybe he should take that as a hint that he took his own commitment to the game, and specifically to his battle group, way too seriously.

Mike had wanted to say all that, but his roommate's curled back indicated that at least for the moment he would be unresponsive. Better let it wait and try to talk after he woke up. Still, Mike felt very uneasy. Todd was going through a serious psychological crisis and there was no guarantee whatsoever he would come out of it OK. Even if he did recover, probably it would take a couple of weeks and by then his window of opportunity to salvage his grades would have closed. Then he would have another crisis: failing the semester.


Todd's predicament made Mike even more grateful for his own life as he stepped out of his building into a cool overcast October morning. The weather forecast promised to become sunny later on, so he looked forward to a pleasant day. He would have breakfast with Ruthie and perhaps take her out of Davenport again. He wondered what would be better, taking her somewhere during the day, or asking her out that night. Finally he settled on suggesting they go out during the day, figuring that might be less intimidating for her.

Ruthie already had stepped outside, given that Shannon had woken up and turned on the TV to chase her out of the room. Mike noticed that she seemed relieved to see him, because she looked out of place sitting by herself on the grass outside her dorm building. She was dressed in her usual shorts and loose-fitting T-shirt. She wore nothing else apart from a pair of old athletic shoes. She looked like she had just gotten out of bed, because her hair was not combed.

Ruthie had expected to go to Watson Hall, but Mike offered to take her off-campus to Santa Cruz. Ruthie was elated at that idea. On the way in to town he gave her a summary of what was going on with Todd. Then he mentioned that there was a statue of a surfer that overlooked the main city beach area of Santa Cruz. Ruthie giggled:

"A statue of a surfer? Can we check it out? That I've gotta see."

Sure enough, Santa Cruz boasts a statue of a surfer, the city's monument to its best known recreational activity. The surfer stands in a boxer-style swimsuit, holding up an old-style surfing board from the 1960's. The statue was done in the same style as war memorial monuments typical of the US National Park Service. The detail that Ruthie found the most comical was the guy's noble expression; with his head turned into the air resolutely looking like he was about to go off to battle.

"This is just too funny. We've got to get a picture of it."

Mike took a photograph of Ruthie in front of the statue, and then asked a passer-by to take a shot of them together. It was the first picture documenting their relationship.

The surfer statue put both Mike and Ruthie into much better moods. They were able to enjoy a laugh over something they both felt was silly. Ruthie mentioned the big artichoke statue at a restaurant near Salinas and Mike jokingly chided her:

"So you're laughing at a surfer, and you guys in Salinas have to look at a big artichoke?"

"It's not just an artichoke, Mike. It's the great artichoke...the artichoke that gives meaning to all life...or at least makes people look twice at that restaurant."

Mike smiled at Ruthie's sarcasm.


They had breakfast just south of downtown Santa Cruz. They talked about the university and exchanged information about classes and majors. Ruthie talked some more about her interest in evolution, which gave Mike an idea:

"Just thinking...since you're interested in stuff like that, would you want to go to Monterey and see the aquarium?"

"I'd love that!"

They drove south towards Salinas, and from there would head back towards the Pacific to see Monterey. The trip would take each of them past a sight full of unpleasant memories and thoughts: Watsonville for Mike and Salinas for Ruthie. Just after they passed Watsonville, the traffic slowed down. For several minutes Mike drove in a traffic jam full of cars from the Saturday shopping crowd. The view of the countryside was blocked by enormous billboards which took advantage of the captive audience. A lot of the billboards were for fast-food restaurants, but many others featured the infamous clown face and Mega-Mart's slogans:

Buy more stuff at Mega-Mart!

At Mega-Mart your money buys more stuff!

Mega-Mart -- The biggest!

Mega-Mart -- Bigger is always better!

Mega-Mart -- Be part of our future!

Mega-Mart -- We are the future!

Mega-Mart -- The future belongs to us!

...and their latest slogan: America and Mega-Mart -- partners in greatness!

That last slogan was taken from the most recent marketing campaign, which portrayed Mega-Mart's enemies as being enemies of the United States and "the American way of life". That list of enemies included of course, the Danubian government, but it also included groups such as the one to which Mike belonged at Davenport State University. Just recently Mega-Town Associates had successfully promoted a Federal law expanding the definition of "hate speech" to anti-corporate slogans. Among other things, if Mike were to set foot in a Mega-Mart wearing his t-shirt, he could be prosecuted under the new law, sentenced to six months in jail, and placed on a terrorist watch list.

Once they got close to the Mega-Mart exits, the traffic began to speed up again as the hoards of shoppers left the highway. There were three exits to the Watsonville Mega-Center, each four lanes wide; that fed into a parking lot that boasted space for 50,000 cars in the open area, plus several parking garages. Beyond that black desert of asphalt lay the Mega-Mart Mega-Center itself. It was a building the size of six football fields, which from a distance looked like an enormous gray and yellow box. Two of the ubiquitous clown's heads, each five stories high, framed a series of glass doors through which tens of thousands of shoppers passed every day, morning and night, without stop.

Ruthie commented that she wondered whether her mother and aunt were somewhere down in that huge parking lot, or perhaps in the store itself.

"They've been coming here every Saturday since this place opened."

"Them and the rest of the country."

For several more minutes they continued southward across open fields of vegetables. Ruthie commented:

"It's kinda funny that people think these vegetables are so healthy. If you knew all the shit they spray on top and what they put in the soil, and put in the plants themselves...you'd probably never eat anything green again."

"Except that meat's even worse."

"...and that's what I meant when I said they've got us beat. You can't eat meat and you can't eat vegetables without eating a bunch of chemicals."

As they passed through Salinas, Ruthie pointed out several landmarks, including her high school and the places where her mother, uncle, and one of her cousins worked. She pointed out the dilapidated shopping center that contained her mother's church and talked at length about her religious experiences growing up. They discussed religion, a topic of which Ruthie was extremely knowledgeable, in spite of her loathing towards anyone who was an actual believer.

"I 'spose I'd find it more interesting if I didn't have it pushed on me so hard by my mom. But for me it's personal. I can't read too much about it nowadays without getting pissed off."

"A question...was there ever a time when you did believe in God?"

"Yeah...I did...I guess up until I was 16. Before that I was always on all these guilt trips when I was like 14-15 or so. I was real scared of being watched all the time, and I kinda resented it. I was thinking... 'God, you're always watching me, so how come you don't come down here and help me out every so often?' I'd pray for stuff, but I never got one single thing I wanted. Not one single fucking thing. And it wasn't as though I was praying for money or anything like that, 'cause I knew that we were supposed to be poor and God was OK with that and that to want money was sinful...but I'd pray for stuff like having friends in Salinas or hearing from my friends in Nebraska, or maybe hearing from my dad, or being a bit happier. I never got any of those things, so in the end...I just prayed that God could change my attitude towards my own life, to have Satan leave me alone and be content with what God gave me. I didn't even get that. So I finally gave up on praying 'cause it wasn't doing me any good."

"...and you were...about 16 or so when that happened?"

"Yeah...towards the end of my sophomore year...Anyhow, at that time I was reading a bunch of stuff about ancient Rome and Egypt, I was kinda escaping into that time...there was this one Roman queen called Livia Drusilla who poisoned a whole bunch of people she didn't like and I envied her and wished I could do the same thing around my school...anyhow, I started reading about the early Christian church and how it got started. And that's when I realized there was a whole bunch of really interesting stuff written about the Bible that had nothing to do with the 'how to be a better Christian' bullshit you see in the bookstores. So I started reading about all that. My mom thought it was great that I was so interested in the Bible all of a sudden, but what she didn't realize was that I was reading real history and academic stuff, not 'how to be a better Christian'. I kept at it for a year and even did a couple of term papers for my world history class in high school."

As Mike turned onto the road to Monterey, Ruthie stopped:

"Am I boring you with all this?"

"No, not at all. It's interesting."

"OK...if you're good with it...I'll go on. Anyhow, I started arguing with my Bible-study leader and I loved to embarrass her, 'cause I actually knew a lot more about the Bible than she did. Whenever she got a fact wrong I'd correct her and I could talk about ancient Hebrew and Greek society, which she didn't know a thing about. Finally one day after we were done and everyone had left, she told me that she wanted to talk to me. She told me: 'you know what? You may know what's written in the Bible, but for you it's not the Living Word; to you it's dead. You're so arrogant that you don't understand what the Living Word is. You have raised yourself up with your sinful conceit, you don't know humility before the Lord, and you don't have Jesus in your heart. I don't know what's inside your heart, but I can tell you it isn't Jesus.' The only reason I didn't say anything was because I didn't want it getting back to my mom, but she was right, and I was glad about it. I didn't have Jesus in my heart. I knew that I was free from Jesus."

They sat quietly for a few minutes as they passed the hilly countryside that separated Salinas from Monterey. The memory of that encounter came back to her in detail, the reproaching expression of a young woman who was only a couple of years older than she was...full of the 'authority of God' in her own mind. Ruthie continued speaking on the topic she was most passionate about:

"At that moment I felt that my mind completely broke free, because I realized that my Bible-study leader had no right to bitch at me. I knew more facts about the Bible than anyone else in my church, and at that moment I realized that the Holy Book could not have possibly been written by God. I knew from my own reading that the Bible was assembled piecemeal from old scripts that had been re-written over and over and selected from thousands of potential variations, by men who were worried about themselves and their own agendas at a particular time in history. Those bastards were hateful, ignorant, misogynistic people who had nothing but their own interests in mind. That's the foundation for the Judeo-Christian religion. That's the origin of the Bible, the real origin. God had nothing to do with it. God couldn't have written the Bible because God doesn't exist. That's what I realized that night, talking to that ignoramus."

Mike noticed that Ruthie's face was tensed up and her hands were shaking slightly.

"After I went home that night, I thought about something. It wasn't just Jesus. I didn't believe in God anymore, but I didn't know that much about the alternative, science. I didn't know shit about evolution, because I was too busy reading up on ancient history and biblical studies. So I knew I needed to fix that. I'd make sure those fuckers in the church couldn't ever touch my mind again. I'd fix it so that I'd win every argument I ever got into. So I read up on evolution...the origins of the earth, dinosaurs, paleontology, genetics, carbon dating, plate tectonics, the Big Bang...I read about it all. The astronomy part gave me some headaches because I'm not good with math and some of the theory based on those big equations confuses me. But I figured that I could at least understand what they were talking about, even if I didn't get all the details."

"What did your mom have to say about that?"

"She never knew. I hid the library books under my bed, the ones that talked about evolution and the history of the earth. I didn't worry about the Biblical history books because I could always tell her I wanted to understand the Bible better, which was true, but just not the way she thought. I did real well in my science classes at school, but she never put two-and-two together to figure out that I had gotten into all that because I no longer bought the line of crap they were giving us at the church. So I'd go and listen to that moron preacher scream and yell, put in my time...deal with my mom speaking in tongues...by the way, have you ever heard a person speaking in tongues?"

"Not up close. I've just seen it on TV. They don't do stuff like that at my parents' church."

"It's not a pretty sight. It's scary the first time you see it. I remember when I was 12, and got dragged to that church the first time...how scary it was...you know 'cause I'd never seen anything like that and here my mom was, on her knees babbling a bunch of crazy crap. I can tell you it scared the shit out of me when I saw her doing it the first time."

Their conversation was interrupted as they came within sight of the aquarium in Monterey. Ruthie had visited the aquarium only once in her life during a high school trip, so she was happy to have a chance to see it again. Mike had seen it more often. She was taken aback by how much it cost to get in, but her classmate brushed off her concern and bought two entrances. The presence of all that sea-life, along with being in the presence of a companion who was willing to listen to her, gave Ruthie even more confidence. She talked about everything in the tanks, about the evolution of fish and other sea creatures, and how some groups of invertebrates had gone unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.

"The fossil record seems to show that there is a big difference in the way vertebrates and invertebrates evolve. Vertebrates, especially if they are more advanced, whether it's mammals or dinosaurs, are constantly changing. It seems that invertebrates don't do that. They hit a certain point in their evolution, and they just stay there. An example is cockroaches, but an even better one is silverfish. Silverfish are one of the first insects there was; they're older than just about anything else that ever came up on land, and they're still around. You hold one of those in your hand, and it's like you're doing some time travel."

Mike marveled at the outward transformation of his classmate as she talked about a topic that interested her. She was as knowledgeable as any of the paid guides would have been and was able to hold his interest. It was unfortunate that the side of her that he was seeing was not the one people in Davenport were accustomed to. Her normal behavior made her appear either socially inept or mentally disturbed, and yet here she was, confidently talking about the marvels of the natural world and the science that set out to describe it.

When they left the aquarium, Mike knew a lot more about ocean life than he had known going in. He had received a crash-course in marine biology from a classmate who was a year younger than he was. He realized that Ruthie easily was as intelligent as he was, probably even more so.


When they left the aquarium they decided to drive around the Monterey Peninsula before going back to Davenport. They passed the famous golf courses, looked out over the ocean, and saw some sea otters in the water. Ruthie quickly launched into a lecture about the history of sea otters and how they had been hunted close to extinction. When they saw sea lions she commented about their evolution and compared it with the evolution of whales.

As much as Mike was curious to hear what she was talking about, he could see how Ruthie's continuous reciting of information could get on the nerves of a person who was not as interested. He considered himself an intellectually curious person, so it did not bother him to be with a companion who chatted incessantly about things that she was familiar with. However, a more typical college student would not have had much patience to spend an entire day getting impromptu lectures about biology and evolution. Thus he could see how her personality could grate on the majority of the people with whom she came in contact. Her brain was full of facts and information, but unfortunately that information was a hindrance for her having a normal life, because she was unable to talk about the shallower topics that interested most of her classmates.

As the day wore on, Mike realized something important about his relationship with Ruthie. The more he let her talk, the closer she felt to him. He had given her something very simple, but at the same time something very important, the chance to express herself without being cut-off. She became much less nervous and quit fidgeting when she was alone with him. Eye contact still was a source of discomfort, because she tended to look down or off to the side if they were face-to-face. When they were talking in the car or walking side by side and they both faced forward, she could talk with ease and confidence.

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