It’s an interesting experiment, forcing myself to write a novel with LESS backstory than usual, but retain the integrity of my process. I’m never going to be a Pringles writer, who makes sure that when you open the can, you get the exact same potato chip every time. My chips are irregular, some are more burnt than others, but they’re not predictable.
I read my reviews on Amazon, every one of them. Some of them make me laugh, and go, “whatever.” But yes, I’m sick of the 2 and 3 star reviews that say BORING ALL FLASHBACK. Not because I’m personally butthurt by them, but because they hurt my sales. A lot.
I’ve learned a surprising thing about myself as I rise in popularity. And that’s that in some ways, I’m a competitive person. I never thought I would be; the world is so full of assholes who excuse their behavior by saying “I’m just very competitive,” that I’ve always equated the two. (Maybe I’m the asshole now.)
That competitiveness has grown as I’ve gotten close, ever so close, to being #1 across all the gayrom lists…but fallen just short, with “Faith.” I’m a commercial artist, and I want to win, dammit – I want Fornication Domination!
But. By the same token, I’m not going to write Pringles to get there. I’m not going to adhere to that tedious, tiresome formula where the two MCs meet hot on page 1 and spend 300 pages doing nothing but fighting their attraction, and the only backstory consists of the secrets that keep them apart, spilled out by clever writers as revelations under duress, and by crappy writers as clumpy exposition. (Page one, paragraph one: “Suki the sexy Homeland Security agent peered intently at her computer. She had fought her way to this position against all the men above her, and now she had something to prove.”)
For me, backstory is ESSENTIAL. Without it, your characters have no depth in the literal, 3D meaning. Instead, they’re 2D screens on which readers can project however much or little personality they want. Paper dollies. You know how I feel about paper dollies.
So the challenging challenge in “Lie” has been to create characters for whom I can take a slice of time in their personal development and focus on how that makes them who they are now. To write characters for whom NOT having massive childhood development scenes (practically my trademark), would not impair their three-dimensionality.
Well, here’s half the result – 10,000 words for Marc’s backstory. I’m going to limit Jesse’s to 10,000 as well, so that I hit around 40k at the very end of backstory and then there’s another (at least) 30-40k of “now” stuff.
I know a lot of people won’t read any of this, because they want to read the entire novel, in sequence, at once. But, for those of you who are interested in “how the sausage is made,” well, here you go!
If you don’t remember how Marc is now, what a good boss he is now, and how well he works with people, you might want to start here with the first excerpt from the draft. And then come back here for the *complete* story of how he got there 🙂
Marc looked up as Jason’s words penetrated his noise-cancelling headphones. He watched Jason’s lips move for a moment, his mind still half on the work he was doing. He took off the headphones and waited for Jason to repeat himself.
“Did you hear me?”
Marc just looked at him, and waved the headphones in the air. Was it not totally obvious that he hadn’t? Working in an “open plan” office, Marc wasn’t the only one with a pair of Bose cans clamped on his head.
“I asked you if you’d seen my addition to the source library. The one that calls up the list of in-app purchase options. I checked it in, it’s there, and you were notified.”
Marc thought about it. “Yeah.”
“Well, I noticed in today’s build that you didn’t use it.”
“It wasn’t very good.” Marc turned back to his computer, the color-coded text on the screen re-engaging his attention.
“I… You could have told me that, you know.”
“Why? You found out when the build was released. It was faster for me to write a new one than to walk you through what was wrong with yours.”
At that, Marc put the headphones back on. Jason probably stood there a moment more, but Marc didn’t know or care. It would take him a minute or more to get back into the state of “flow” he’d been in before the interruption, which royally pissed him off.
Fucking people, Marc thought to himself. Jason was a lazy programmer, as far as Marc was concerned. He’d instantly identified the majority of Jason’s “new” code as something he’d cadged from a well-known open source code library. Which was not only lazy, it was dangerous – any hacker could pick that shit apart at his leisure and identify the flaws, or even insert one. Then, when some idiot like Jason copy/pasted it into his program, well, hey, there was a free backdoor for some criminal.
Oh, but I’m supposed to be a team player and be all delicate about his “feelings,” Marc thought scornfully. If he was anyone else at Octohook Inc., he’d be called into the HR office for a lecture. But he wasn’t anyone else.
He was co-owner of the company with Walt, but even that might not have shielded him from some HR bullshit. What did shield him was the fact that he was the fucking star here. He didn’t have to walk on eggshells. Jason’s competence, and his feelings, were someone else’s problem. Walt, as CEO of Octohook, would make sure that any complaints from Jason never interfered with Marc’s work.
Writing great software code was effortless for Marc. It just…flowed out of his fingers, the rules and procedures and best practices as ingrained in him as perfect grammar and spelling are ingrained in a journalist. And the elegant solutions he came up with, the ones that nobody else could ever duplicate, were to code what a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist’s words were to prose.
He watched the rest of the programmers file out to a meeting, as he remained right where he was. Walt protected him from…all that. The petty humdrum day to day bullshit of corporate life, the meetings where everyone’s “input was valued.”
In other words, an endless circle jerk in which everyone made sure to say something, however useless. It was like college, or so he’d heard – he hadn’t bothered to go. In college, you had to “participate” in class to get full credit, so you had to ask a stupid pointless question that wasted everyone else’s time, just to make sure you got counted. And that, obviously, had poisoned their minds, because they were all still doing it now, raising their fucking hands to say nothing so that they still got counted.
Sometimes he wondered if all these people only worked here to impress the venture capitalists with how “big” the company was getting. It wasn’t like most of them were any use at all. Wendy, the security expert, she was okay. Not a total waste of organic matter anyway. And Trent, their design guy. He was inexperienced, but not hopeless. At least you only had to explain to him once what he’d done wrong, and he never did it again. And, Marc had to admit, some of his visual solutions were clever. But the rest of them? Dead weight.
Walt came through, on his way to run the meeting. Marc felt Walt’s big warm hand on his shoulder. He yanked off the headphones and turned to smile at him.
Any of his co-workers who’d seen that smile would have had a heart attack. They probably didn’t think it was possible for Marc to make his face do that. But Walt, Walt could do that to him every time.
“Hey buddy,” Walt said in that intimate whisper that made Marc’s insides turn upside down. “You making progress?”
Walt was so handsome, in that “straight frat boy” way that made Marc weak. He was tall, and built, with Paul Newman-blue eyes, and the smile particular to a class of young men who’ve grown up entitled to everything. He had teeth as white as his eyes were blue, and healthy clear skin that was tan in February from wild weekends in Mexico.
The only thing that was out of place in the “frat boy” department were the full sleeve tattoos he sported. But then, he worked in high tech, where that sort of “edgy” thing was an expected part of one’s look. As expected as a ridiculously expensive haircut (and tattoo-free skin) would be in the banking and finance sectors, where his less clever frat brothers had ended up, working for mere salaries and bonuses instead of the potential billions that Walt was aiming for.
“Yeah,” Marc said, turning to the screen. “I’ve got an algo that will alert users when their friends unlock achievements.” He was working on an iPhone game that had already tested off the charts in terms of its addictive potential. Of course, Walt was careful never to use the word “addiction.” The preferred term in Silicon Valley for games and apps that sucked you into the phone was their “high level of user engagement.” More bullshit, of course.
“Great, great. But you know, we gotta be careful there. Remember the science. What makes a great trigger?”
“It stimulates an action, it motivates the user to do something to get their reward.”
“Right. So we’re looking to make people feel what?”
“Good. To feel good. To keep playing, to buy weapons and tools in the game.”
“And how do we feel when our friends do better than we do? If they’re beating our pants off in the game?”
“Yep. We want to ration out those notifications. We want to make sure we’re keeping the user feeling competitive, not beaten. So you gotta make sure they’re also getting notifications about people who are sucking more than they are.”
Marc laughed. “Okay. Like, newbies or something?”
“Or something,” Walt winked. “Now you’re talking.”
Marc was so thrilled to please Walt. To see him wink, to feel his approval. And to hope for…something more.
Walt could read it on his face, he knew, because there was something on Walt’s in return that should have made Marc sad, or upset, he supposed. It was a recognition, a smirk of acknowledgement, a bit contemptuous. He knew what Marc wanted, what his hoped-for reward would be.
Walt looked around, saw the coast was clear, and leaned in towards Marc. “I tell you what. You make me something that tests off the charts in next week’s UX run, you can blow me.”
Marc nodded weakly. It was more than he could have hoped for. All this time, he’d had to do crazy things, insanely hard things, just to get Walt to let him sit on the floor in Walt’s bedroom, watching him jerk off to straight porn. It was that important, then, the whole “achievement sharing” piece of the game.
Walt laughed. “Okay, huh? That it, just okay?”
“N…no! No, that’s great. Thank you.”
Walt walked away. “Don’t thank me yet. Get back to work.”
Marc could feel his erection pressing against his shorts. Walt was so hot, and there was something so exciting in being…treated like shit. Like a piece of meat, just a ridiculous queer who would do anything to suck a straight man’s cock. Why? Why did it turn him on so to be treated that way by Walt?
They should be equals, right? He and Walt had founded the company on the basis of their synergy – Marc the genius programmer and Walt the genius marketer. And no doubt they were equal on the company’s founding documents…but not in this world, the physical world. Walt was master there, Marc his willing subordinate.
There was no time to think about that, he decided. He got up just long enough to pee, and make a giant cocktail in his 24 ounce cup from the free beverages in the kitchen – two parts Red Bull, one part Monster, with a shot of 5 Hour Energy.
Then it was back to the screen, back under his headphones and into the trippy techno music, no distracting vocals allowed. Marc thought about people, how stupid they were, what sheep they were.
He’d been told by employees whose feelings he’d injured that he must have Asperger’s, but he didn’t believe it. A lot of people in tech pretended to have Asperger’s Syndrome, to justify their real disease, Assholer’s Syndrome. Marc didn’t think you needed either diagnosis to feel disdain for idiots.
Idiots like the ones he and Walt and the rest of Octohook were planning on sucking into their little 3.5 inch screens, sucking in all their time, and all their money, too, buying stupid add-ons to make them “more powerful” in the game.
These were the morons who practically squealed with delight when the Weather Channel app told them they’d “unlocked an achievement” just by checking the fucking weather. If you were that stupid and had money to burn? Well, you had it coming. Marc pretty much felt the same way about that as he did about money in politics. All that money buys are commercials, airtime, and production values, and If you voted based on what you see in a TV commercial, you’re an idiot and you get what you deserve.
Marc smiled as his excitement and the energy drinks peaked in his mind, and ideas began to cascade, almost faster than he could track them, the code coming faster than he could type it. He could feel it, his spine tingling, the music soaring, himself soaring, above it all, a state of divine grace.
Sometimes he got lost in the ecstasy, and a fantastic new idea would strike him out of the blue and he would chase it down the rabbit hole, diverting from his original plan, impulsively buying a $200 textbook on AI that he’d never get to, or a $2,000 gaming PC that he’d never have the patience to set up with all his preferred software.
But not today. Walt knew him, knew his ways, his tendency to get diverted, to get bored and go off task. Walt knew how to handle him. Marc laughed out loud, not caring if anyone heard him or not. His achievement was waiting for him in Walt’s pants, waiting to be unlocked. And like the idiots who played the games he created, his focus became complete, his motivation unwavering. Nothing could distract him now.
Marc wouldn’t be diagnosed as bipolar for some time to come. But sometimes, when he looked back with open eyes at this period, in the days just before “The Fall,” he would feel a twinge of regret. Regret that he’d left behind the divine madness of these manic surges, the way his condition would transform him into something beyond anything ordinary human beings were capable of. He thought about the “Dune” novels, with their “mentats,” human supercomputers who’d taken the place of the intelligent machines that had proved so dangerous.
The revelations he had, the breakthroughs he made in those days, would transform the industry. He knew it with absolute certainty. He could see the new future unfolding, the way he would be remembered as a pioneer, a legend. That was the other side of the “dark gift,” the way it drew him away from the present, the task at hand, and into a certain future, as if by imagining it the way he wanted it, that future had no choice but to be the future he commanded. He would win accolades, he would be on the cover of magazines, he would be interviewed on 60 Minutes. It was all so inevitable, so obvious.
The damn thing was, he was probably right. Eventually, he would have been recognized for what he’d done. In a decade or two. But magazines and news outlets now, simply didn’t, couldn’t understand the magnitude of what he was doing. In his code, he was performing the intuitive leaps that a brilliant mathematician would make when creating a new theorem.
It would make him famous among those who had “eyes to see,” but thinking that he would be famous in popular media, just for creating insanely clever code? Software types got famous in mainstream media for only one reason – they made a billion dollars. Thinking that he would reach that level of fame just for his technical accomplishment, that was the mania talking, the “delusion of affect” that brooked no obstacles.
But there was one grail that wasn’t beyond his reach. Walt. Walt whom he’d desired since he’d met him, Walt who had seduced him with the promise of…well, riches, sure, but also the promise of his body, his beauty, his masculine power.
All Marc had to do now was revolutionize the software industry, and he could finally suck Walt’s dick.
The UX was tested with fake data. The players were given the scores of other players in the room, but also that of bigger “winners” and worse “losers” who were the product of the software’s imagination. The amount of time for which the players were being compensated came to an end. They were notified that they were done, that they were free to go. They didn’t go, for hours, until they were forced to leave. The game was that addictive…oops, “engaging.”
Walt looked at Marc. Marc looked at Walt. Waited.
Walt winked. Marc smiled. He’d done it. Finally he’d get what he wanted…
The scene started the way it always did. Walt was on his bed, in an old t-shirt and his y-front briefs. The lights were out, the only illumination coming from the TV. Marc hated the sound of straight porn, the women squeaking and squealing as they got fucked. And yet, somehow the hated sound was what made it all hotter…the fact that the sounds made Walt so visibly hard.
From his spot in the corner of the room, on his knees, forbidden from touching himself, he watched Walt start to massage his crotch, his eyes fully in “male gaze” mode, raptly fixed on the screen. Marc had been here before, knew what always came next.
Walt arched his hips and yanked his underwear down, working his legs and feet to kick them off. He reached for the lube by the side of the bed, and squeezed it on his long fat erection. As he stroked it, ever so slowly, it glistened in the light from the TV. This was new…this slow, self-teasing pace.
Not self-teasing, Marc realized. Walt was teasing him. Marc wanted to bolt towards the bed, to jump on and engulf Walt’s dick in his mouth. No. It wasn’t time, it wasn’t allowed…it was so awful to have to wait, it was painful, exquisitely painful…
Walt didn’t look at him. But after a few minutes, minutes that felt to Marc like aeons, Walt raised his left hand, his free hand, and made the smallest gesture, a flick of his fingers in a “get over here” signal.
Marc got up and Walt finally spoke. “No. Get back on your knees and fucking crawl over here.”
Marc could feel his hardon aching as he crawled on all fours towards Walt. He reached the edge of the bed, Walt’s golden legs and iron cock so close, so close…
Walt didn’t look at him. Made him wait. Marc couldn’t help it. Finally a half-sigh, half-whimper came out of him.
“Please, sir. Please let me suck it.”
He could see Walt’s eye dilate. His eyes still on the screen, he spread his legs. It was Marc’s command. He crawled to the bottom of the bed, then up onto it, Walt above him like a statue of a god in a temple. He reached for the object of his desire.
Walt slapped his hand away, hard. “No. Don’t fucking touch me. Use your mouth.”
Marc put his face against Walt’s crotch, his soft shaved balls, his thick hot shaft. Walt’s hand didn’t stop stroking, his knuckles grazing Marc’s face as Marc serviced Walt’s balls, the base of his shaft, taking the little knocks from Walt’s hand again and again.
Finally Walt angled his dick down, towards Marc’s mouth. He engulfed it greedily, hating the thick slimy taste of lube, loving it. Walt let go of his dick and put his hands on Marc’s head. His big arms, his strong body, began fucking Marc’s face, his hips thrusting and his hands holding Marc in place.
Marc choked as Walt thrust hard, not giving Marc the opportunity to stretch out, to prepare to take the monster inside him. A terrible thrust and Walt was down Marc’s throat, embedded to the root. Marc flinched and his teeth grazed the base of Walt’s cock.
Walt threw him off and slapped him, hard, finally looking him in the eye. “No fucking teeth! I’ll fucking hit you again if you bite me.”
It was worth it, worth the sting, the threat, to finally have Walt see him, look him in the eyes.
“Yes, sir, sorry sir.”
“Lick my balls,” Walt commanded, starting to jack himself off again, his eyes back on the screen, his hand pistoning fast now, hitting Marc on the chin, the nose, the forehead with his strokes. Marc loved it, extending his tongue as far as he could, using it to stroke Walt’s balls. He sucked them in to his mouth, one, then the other, then both.
He could feel it, the imminent orgasm, in the tension of Walt’s thighs, his hips, his balls. He broke away from his ministrations, looked at Walt’s face, his mouth as wide open as he could make it, the invitation clear: Use me like a rag, dump your cum in my mouth.
Finally Walt responded to him, looking at him in amazement, his eyes narrowing. The thought of Marc willingly taking his load, every drop of it, licking him clean…. Then his eyes closed and he pointed his dick at Marc’s mouth and…
BAM the first shot of cum struck the roof of Marc’s mouth, dripped onto his tongue. “Fuck, fuck!” Walt groaned, his load starting to fly everywhere, onto Marc’s face, in to his hair. Marc put his lips over the head, getting hit in the face again and again by Walt’s furious strokes, but it was worth it, to make sure not a drop was wasted. Walt’s seed, the Elixir of Life, the Fountain of Youth…Marc knew there was nothing as magically rejuvenating as the seminal discharge of a strapping young man.
Walt twitched, groaned, pounded out the last drops, let go of his dick. Marc engulfed Walt’s sagging cock, sucking every drop of cum and lube off it, intent on leaving it so clean that Walt wouldn’t even need to wipe off.
“Oh shit…” Walt groaned, in the half ecstasy, half agony a man feels when he’s had his orgasm and his cock is still being touched. Marc knew it well enough, and knew there was only so much Walt could stand. His expert tongue circled down and around, till it reached the base, his job done, Walt as clean as a whistle.
Marc leaned back, wiped his mouth, found the missing spatters on his face and used his fingers to wipe them up, then licked them clean.
Walt shoved him off by getting up, his leg pushing Marc out of the way. “Get out,” he said, getting up and padding into the bathroom.
Marc lay there for a moment, reveling in what he’d done. At last, at last, he’d drank from his grail. But only for a moment. Walt had commanded him to leave, so that was what he must do. He knew he had to be gone before Walt was done pissing.
That was easy enough – Marc hadn’t even undressed, hadn’t even taken off his shoes. He stood up and snuck one last glance at Walt, such a dude in his t-shirt and nothing else, standing spread-legged in front of the toilet, taking a leak.
A sudden sick wave of desire overtook him. Next time, he thought. Next time it’ll be me down there… I’ll be your toilet…
He let himself out quietly. When he’d shut Walt’s door behind him, he leaned against it, eyes closed, a smile on his face, the taste of Walt’s cum salty and slick on his tongue, the clean sperm of a healthy athlete. It had all been worth it – every crazy sleepless night, writing and writing, more and more code, burning his manic candle at both ends and in the middle too.
He knew that Walt was like the software industry itself – you were only as good as your last accomplishment. He had to sleep, had to rest, a wave of fatigue finally overtaking him. But then he’d have to get up again, go back to work, make the great breakthrough that would bring him back here once more…
The next day, Marc went to work on the “next new thing” that he needed to create to impress Walt. He’d never felt as good as he did this morning – it wasn’t just the exuberance of a manic high, it was a special kind of exhilaration…a sense that he’d been freed of something. A sense of satisfaction, of acknowledgement that who he’d been last night, worshipping Walt, was who he was. He couldn’t describe it any more accurately than that, but he knew that he’d turned a key in a lock, he’d discovered that what he’d always thought he’d wanted, was exactly what he did want: to abase himself before a man, to service him, with no thought of reciprocation or gratitude or affection.
He didn’t even mind the interruption to his furious burst of concentration, because it was Trent, who wouldn’t bother him unless it was important.
“Marc, have you heard from Walt?”
“Uh, no. Maybe he’s running late.”
“It’s noon,” Trent said. “He had two meetings scheduled this morning. He’s not answering his cell,” Trent added, saving Marc the trouble of asking the obvious question.
Marc had lost track of time, he’d been so involved in his work. “Let me try his other cell.” He pulled out his phone and dialed Walt’s private number.
BEE BOO BOOOO the phone screeched, the harsh tones used to punish you for calling a number that was out of service.
Marc and Trent’s eyes met. “That’s strange,” Marc said. His bipolar intuition might have been jumping the gun, but the three facts together, the blown off meetings, the unanswered business cell, and the disconnected personal line, made alarms ring in his head.
He got up and headed for Accounting. Sheila was startled to see him, since he’d never made an appearance in her office before, despite being the company’s co-owner.
“Can you check the bank accounts, please. I need to know the current balance on the operating account.”
“Sure.” Her fingers raced over the keys as Marc looked out through her window at the small groups forming around the office, groups that coalesced as people tried to find out what everyone else knew that they didn’t.
“That’s strange,” she said, and he knew. He just knew.
“It’s empty,” he said.
She looked up at him. “I’m sure it’s a bank error.”
“I’m sure it’s not,” he said. He walked out, too many things rattling around his brain. Shock, of course, but worse than that…pain. Hurt. Betrayal.
When he came out, they all turned to him, thirty people with fear in their faces. It was funny, but he’d never seen most of them, not really. Well, he’d seen them physically, but that was it. They were just cogs, people that Walt handled, people who were to Marc only useful or useless when he saw their work.
He wasn’t good at this stuff, the people stuff. He didn’t know what to say other than the raw truth. “Walt’s disappeared, and the bank account is empty. Looks like he took a powder with all the money that the venture capitalists just invested in the firm.”
There were gasps, and even startled cries. “What about our paychecks?” someone said.
“What about our health insurance?”
“What about our…”
Marc held up a hand. “Wait, wait. I’ll make…”
He stopped. He was going to promise to make payroll out of his own pocket, before he remembered that his own pockets held only his ownership percentage in the company. His apartment? A corporate apartment. His car? Leased by the company. And if Walt had drained the company coffers, the company was worth shit. Less than shit.
They were looking at him, fearful, expectant. “I…” he choked off. It hit him then, the punch in the feels, the knowledge that Walt had done this to him. His partner, his ally, his…whatever else they may have been in time.
Walt had let Marc blow him last night because he knew it was goodbye. At least he gave me that, he thought crazily.
Wendy put a hand on his arm. “Marc, I’m so sorry. We know that…” She blushed, looked away.
Marc looked around. His eyes widened. They all knew. They all knew about me and Walt. Or at least knew what he wanted from Walt.
He flushed with shame. This was all his fault. He’d trusted Walt not because he was trustworthy, but because he’d been infatuated with him. Because he’d seen what he wanted to see, refused to see what he didn’t want to see. It all came to him now, the way his former partner had cut corners in the business, but never on his expense account. The way Marc had smiled indulgently in Walt’s “American Psycho” themed parties, never thinking that Walt really was the psycho, the Wolf of Wall Street.
“Okay,” he said, getting hold of himself. “We are still here. We have a product. I need…” I need your help, he thought. He needed other people to do this. This was the first time in his life he’d ever had to say that.
“I need the people who are running the teams to report to me on progress. Wendy, you’re my point person. You’re VP of Operations now, congratulations.” He saw that Sheila had come out of her office, too. “Sheila, I need an inventory. What do we own and what do we owe. And who owes us anything. Probably nobody, right?”
She nodded, confirming Marc’s fears. A startup was a one way street when it came to money.
“Okay. You’re VP of finance now. I need you to figure out how we can get the investors to give us some time.”
He could see them relaxing, as something shifted in him, in the room, in the company. He was startled, to hear himself taking command, making decisions. But that was one of the gifts that being bipolar had given him – the ability to turn on a dime, to seize the moment, to unhesitatingly accept that everything was suddenly different and had to be handled in a whole new way.
The idea of making people VPs of a sinking company had come to him as he thought of the movie “Kingdom of Heaven,” when Orlando Bloom knights every fighting man within the walls of a besieged Jerusalem. There was a huge vacancy where Walt had stood, where he had managed everything.
He could see it was the right decision, these promotions, the recognition of the most competent among them. Under any other circumstances, he thought, I probably wouldn’t have done that.
His judgment wasn’t that great, after all, was it? He’d extended full faith and credit to Walt…and look how well that had turned out.
But there was no time, no other option. He knew jack shit about accounting, or about project management. Someone else would have to be in charge of it.
He would have to learn, he decided. Learn everything about how the business worked, so that he could see for himself who was good at their jobs and who wasn’t. So that he didn’t have to trust his flawed instincts. So that he could be sure next time.
He only hoped that quick action would be enough to hold back the savage hordes who would soon be banging at the gates.
In the days that followed, he learned just how Walt had “managed everything.” His former partner had been the kind of boss Marc had sworn he’d never work for. The kind who’d make rounds at 4:55 pm to see who was still at their desks, “workin’ hard.” Who would run reports on Internet usage and call people on the carpet for spending too much time on social media…even the ones whose parts of the project were in an idle phase, or who were compiling code or waiting for tests to run, and had nothing else to do but surf the Net.
He discovered that Walt didn’t understand a tenth of what the programmers did. That he ruled through fear and intimidation, that he gauged people’s productivity by seeing who was “really puttin’ in the hours.” As if those who had to stay till seven, eight, nine o’clock were inherently more productive than the crafty clever programmer who did twice their work in half the time. He resolved to change the culture, to make sure that people would be rewarded for labor, not time.
He’d moved into Walt’s office, after throwing all his memorabilia into the trash – photos of Walt with sports stars, politicians, big wheels in Silicon Valley.
With the door shut and only Wendy and Sheila in the room with him, he could speak freely. “No wonder there are so many people I thought were dead weight. Anyone worth their salt left, didn’t they? Because of Walt and his shitty management style.”
“Yes,” Wendy said, not mincing words.
Marc set himself to make a study of business the way he’d once studied computing. He learned about accounting methods, self-funded insurance plans, payroll, benefits, everything. It was probably “too late,” of course, to save this company. But he did everything he could to understand how a company was run – the right ways and the wrong ways. When the end came, at least he could tell himself that he didn’t just…lay down and take it. That he’d learned something.
The venture capitalists blamed him, as co-owner, for “letting” Walt get away with their millions. They would quietly shut down the company, and at least Marc would not be sued or pursued financially – it was in their best interests that such an embarrassing failure go away quietly.
Later that morning, it wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be to deliver the news. He could see it in all their faces, the knowledge of what had happened. He was only here to confirm it.
“I’m sorry,” he said, surprising himself by meaning it. “I’m sorry I let this happen. I’m sorry I trusted him.”
There wasn’t an angry face in the group, which shocked him. Nobody hated him, but then, he hated himself more than thirty other people together ever could.
He was alone in the office when the movers came. They waited politely for him to leave, before sweeping in to repossess every Aeron chair, every big monitor, and everything else right down to the staplers. The rest of the employees had already left with their boxes full of personal belongings. He’d encouraged them to take as many office supplies as they wanted.
“Free staplers are not exactly the best severance package, I know,” he said, and was surprised when they laughed.
Yeah, he’d learned a lot in the last month. Not that it would probably be any use to him ever again, he thought bitterly. Now he’d have to go get a job, like everyone else here who’d lost theirs – a job where he’d have to sit in a cubicle, “puttin’ in the hours,” going to meetings, making sure never to offend anyone anywhere ever by speaking the truth… He didn’t know if he could face that, being a cog in a machine, a nobody, obedient and compliant. It was funny, really – that was everything he longed for in the bedroom, and yet, outside the bedroom, it was like an intellectual death sentence.
He didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to face that future. He wanted to go down with the ship. But that wasn’t how it worked. The ship didn’t go down. The ship got beached and disassembled, broken down and carted away as scrap.
His manic energy had taken him here, to the end. And now that there was nothing left to do, the emotional crash came. He’d been running on fumes since Walt’s disappearance.
There was only one place go to now. Home.
They tried. They really tried. His mom and dad and even his brother Andy did what they could. But it wasn’t something that could be talked away, this feeling. All these feelings. There’s a particular skill that clinically depressed people have in spades – the ability to push yourself down, down, down the spiral slide, further and faster than gravity alone would take you. Every thought was a solid confirmation of how bad you were, how bad life was, how hopeless, useless, ridiculous it was to even try.
Hadrian Julian was a professor of Roman history – no doubt why he’d named his children after two other “good emperors,” Marcus Aurelius and Antoninus Pius. (Andy, who refused to answer to his full name, always said he planned to legally change his name as soon as he could, but he was 19 now and hadn’t done it yet.)
Each night, Hadrian would visit Marc in the bed he rarely left. His old bedroom had been converted into a guest room. He’d taken the relics of his teenage years with him when he’d left, the science fiction movie posters and USS Enterprise models. They’d all been in the corporate apartment he’d lost with the collapse of Octohook, and now they sat in boxes stacked in his parents’ garage. The room was cold, bare, appropriately hospital-like.
At night, Hadrian would just sit with Marc, and read a book. Marc was nearly always curled up under the covers in the fetal position, his brilliant mind stilled by the weight of absence, the lack of whatever divine fire he’d always had, until now. He rarely responded to questions, and only his mother Julia’s stern commands about drinking more water or finishing his soup could rouse him to any action at all.
When he thought of anything outside his bed, he always picked the thirty people who were now unemployed because of him. Or he thought of his parents, who now had to take care of him like an invalid, who were financially responsible for him again. Or he thought of his brother, so young and carefree, his laughter echoing down the hall and through Marc’s door.
Marc didn’t acknowledge his father’s presence, but he knew he was there, and on some level it helped stop him from pushing himself further down the slide. Hadrian was smart enough not to say stupid things like “there, there, it’ll be all right.” Hadrian never asked Marc how he was feeling, or told him to straighten up and snap out of it. He was…just there. Maybe that was the best therapy of all. Marc would go to sleep at night to the sound of his father turning the pages of his book.
After two weeks of this, when it became clear to Julia that it was a “clinical depression” and not a “situational depression” that would go away on its own, they got him up and took him to a psychiatrist.
He took his new antidepressants as he took his soup, blindly, a matter of habit. His father changed the evening routine, and began to read the works of ancient historians aloud to him, just as he’d done when Marc was a kid. Marc couldn’t imagine that any other child had “The Twelve Caesars,” with its orgies and killing sprees and poisonings, as a bedtime story.
Hadrian read to him from the work of Stoic philosophers, exhortations about even-mindedness in the face of tragedy, and the need to avoid extremes of emotion.
One night, two weeks after he started the meds, his father read to him the words of his namesake, Marcus Aurelius.
“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…”
Finally, the black shroud he’d been wrapped in loosened, a crack of light appearing through its seams.
“Fucking Walt,” he said, with a smile. “Marcus Aurelius didn’t get angry with men like that, but then, he never met Walt.”
His father smiled, the relief on his face palpable. “I’ll grant you that. I think Walt might have ruffled his Stoicism a bit, yeah.”
They laughed. That night, Marc had his first good sleep in a long time.
He got to the point where he’d get up and out of bed every day. He shaved, ate at the table with the family, engaged in innocuous conversations. He couldn’t go back to coding again, not yet. That reminded him too much of what he’d lost, all the fantastic work he’d done just to please Walt…all the dull shitwork he’d have to do in some shit job soon enough.
His parents were at work all day, and Andy was a college student who technically still lived at home but was rarely seen there, other than on laundry days. So Marc had the house to himself.
He started watching the financial news networks. The regular news channels were a waste of time. Allegedly serious news outlets padded their content with user tweets. (“420ForEver says, ‘this is bogus!’ Thanks for tweeting, 420!”) Or they had a split screen with two talking heads, one of whom was some anti-science, anti-gay, anti-women moron whose insane rantings got airtime in the name of “balance.” And of course there was that channel, the far right wing’s “Ministry of Propaganda.”
Financial networks had a lot of bullshit too, of course, people talking stocks up and down in their own self-interest. But numbers didn’t lie, and he soon found himself getting up from the TV to go to his laptop and look up historical financials on the company being discussed. Then he realized he should just keep his laptop with him on the couch. Then he needed to spread out, to run two monitors and the TV, so he turned the spare bedroom into his office.
He was a sponge for information. His learning style had always been disorderly, disorganized, at least to the outside. He’d never learned a programming language by starting on page one of an O’Reilly book. And forget about watching some brain-numbing video that never moved fast enough – they were all designed for people whose minds worked at the pace of an ox. Instead, he’d race ahead “half-cocked,” looking up what he needed to start coding something, and when he hit a roadblock, or fucked it up, then he’d go to the reference manual and learn what he needed.
After about two months of this, he had a plan ready. At dinner one night, he said to his parents, “So, I’d like to make a little investment in the market. I think I see some opportunities and I’d like to borrow some money from you.”
His parents looked at each other. “Well, honey,” his mother said, “you know we don’t have a lot.” They were both academics, so Marc knew it was true.
“I know. I just need a couple thousand to get started.”
“What exactly are you planning on doing with it, and why?” his father asked pointedly.
Marc was ready. He launched into his analysis of opportunities in the tech industry. It was 2011, and American Forgetfulness had already left behind the 2008 collapse and was working hard on a new bubble. Technology companies were racing to go public, their Initial Public Offerings of stock going through the roof on opening day.
“And it’s all a pyramid scheme,” Marc concluded. “The big investors cash out as soon as they can, and then the stock will dive. It’s a ‘pop and flop’ scenario. So my plan is to short some of these big offerings, cash in when the honeymoon ends and reality sets in.”
“I don’t know…” his mom said, always the worrier. She was the one who ran the finances, allowing her husband to keep his head in the ancient past. “I don’t like risk. But…we can go in for five thousand. And if you lose it, well, I’ll consider it a medical cost. Part of your rehabilitation and therapy.”
They all laughed at that, which felt good. It felt like…old times. Good times. Marc felt good! He knew he was right about this, and he could feel the generator coming online again, the sparks flying…at long last, he felt like himself again.
Wendy and Trent called him on occasion. At first, he’d let the calls go to voice mail, unreturned. But once the pills started working, he started answering the phone.
He surprised himself by actually being interested in the fate of Octohook’s employees…his employees, instead of just feeling guilty about what had happened in the past. The economy was turning, and most of them were landing new jobs, albeit jobs that paid less than the old one. He mentioned his plan to Wendy one night.
“The parental units put in a few grand, but I need more than that to really make this work. I could really turn a profit if I could go bigger on this. You don’t happen to have any savings you want to chuck in, I suppose,” he said with a smile.
“Yeah, I do,” she answered immediately. “Put me in for ten grand.”
Marc hesitated. “But…you’re not working yet. Don’t you need to live on that?”
“I have enough to live on. Alice can support me for a while. Marc, I know you. I know how smart you are. If you’re sure, I’m sure.”
He’d never cried when he was depressed. He’d been too flat, too crushed for that. But he could feel the tears welling up now. People trusted him. Believed in him. No matter that he’d trusted the wrong person, believed in the wrong person, and taken them all down with him last time.
“And I can think of a few other old Octohook folks who would go in on that, too. Hold on, let me get some phone numbers for you.”
He looked at Jason’s number for a long time, wondering if he was crazy to call someone he’d derided to his face for his incompetence, and ask him for money. But what the hell, he thought, life is risk, and he dialed the number.
Jason listened to him patiently, right up through the point where Marc told him that the profits would be a 60/40 split, Marc taking the lesser share, but still an enormous commission.
“So let me ask you a question,” Jason said.
“Would you hire me as a programmer again?”
Marc got ready to scratch Jason’s name off the list. “Honestly? No.”
“Because I’m not good enough?”
“That’s right. You’re…”
Marc could feel the change in himself then. He hadn’t been…humbled wasn’t the word. That word was too religious, too self-abasing. Chastened? Nah. Wised up, he thought. He’d been wised up. It was possible to be honest without being mean.
“You’re okay. You would do fine somewhere where you worked on accounting packages or payroll apps or something…predictable. No intuitive leaps required, not a lot of imagination. You could do workmanlike product, to serve an ordinary need. No offense,” he added, knowing it was.
“None taken. Thank you for being honest. I know that, Marc. I know I’m not brilliant. But I’m not stupid. I’ve done some investing on my own, and done okay. And I think you might be on to something.”
Jason paused. “If you’d lied to me and said, ‘oh you’re a great coder, Jason, super duper,’ I would have known you were shitting me about this investment. But now I know you’re on the level. You’re an asshole, Marc, but you’re also a genius.”
Marc laughed. “True, and true.”
“Put me down for fifty thousand. Make me rich, Marc.”
Between all the former employees of Octohook, their spouses and significant others, and a few of their friends, Marc soon had nearly a million dollars to work with.
It was ironic. He’d put so much time into Octohook’s cell phone games, making them ever more addict…er, sticky…oh fuck it, addictive. And now here he was, playing the ultimate online game, the king of all slot machines, the stock market.
For an ordinary person, it would have been information overload, with CNBC on TV, one PC monitor running news feeds, and another littered with charts and graphs. But for Marc, it was like surfing – he rode the wave of information like a pro.
His strategy was ruthlessly simple – cash in on the ignorant greed of investors who wanted “in” in a tech stock, any tech stock, at any price. His first bet was on LinkedIn, whose shares reached $93 on its first day on the market in May, 2011.
Marc took a short position when LinkedIn was at $93 on its opening day, for 10,000 shares. This meant that he “borrowed” the stock from a brokerage that had bought it, and then Marc sold it the same day. He now had $930,000, in the abstract…but he would have to buy his own shares of the stock at some point to return the borrowed shares. If the price rose to $100, he’d have to buy the borrowed shares with his investor’s $1,00,000, and return them to the brokerage, thus losing $70,000. That was why the brokerage would lend him the shares – they believed the price would go up.
It was a high wire act, far more dangerous than just buying and selling shares. But sure enough, from May to June, LinkedIn’s stock tumbled to $65 a share. Marc executed the short, buying the 10,000 shares he’d borrowed for $650,000 and returning them to the brokerage. The brokerage was down $270,000 on the stock, for now – LinkedIn would rebound to stratospheric heights, but that was no concern of Marc’s. He’d made over a quarter of a million dollars on the transaction.
He went even bigger on Pandora, which fell from its opening day high of $20 to $11 two months later. Zillow, the online real estate application, was his biggest bet of all…and when it collapsed from $60 to $23, Marc was starting to look at some very serious profits. Groupon, diving from $31 to $16, was another money doubler.
His mind raced, faster and faster, and he dug deeper and deeper into his research. He didn’t sleep, and he had to be forced to stop and eat. He lost ten pounds in five weeks, which he could ill afford to lose. He could have moved into his own place, he could afford it now. But there was no time for that – packing, moving, setting up his computers and getting his cable hooked up? Why, he could lose days and days!
He started to babble at the dinner table, when his parents could get him there. “There are so many patterns,” he enthused, not touching his food. “All you have to do is look and see them, there’s so much money to be made.”
His parents looked at each other. “Don’t forget you have your regular appointment tomorrow with Dr. Phillips. Don’t worry,” his mother said hastily, “we booked it for after the markets close.”
“Okay, fine, I’ve got my phone, I can still track the Asian markets…”
His parents had lied to him. There had been no appointment with a psychiatrist to “forget” about, until they’d made it the previous day. The antidepressants were clearly having unexpected effects.
Dr. Phillips listened to Marc go on and on, nearly delirious with plans for world conquest. “I think we need to discuss a new diagnosis,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“The antidepressants alone are not working for you. You’re in a state of mania, do you know what that is?”
“No. I’m happy, I’m productive, I’m making money, what do you mean they’re not working?”
“Looking back at your chart, I can see that you were misdiagnosed at first. You’re bipolar, do you know what that means?”
“You’re saying I’m crazy?”
“I’m saying you have mood swings, biochemical changes in your brain that are far more extreme than other people’s. I want to put you on a mood stabilizer.”
“Oh no. No way. I’ve heard about that. People on zombie pills. Fuck, no.”
“Those are the old school drugs, like Lithium. I’m recommending Lamictal for you. It’ll shave off the sharp highs and lows but it won’t make you a zombie. I know you need to be high-functioning, so I wouldn’t put you on anything that would leave you unable to do that. We can start you at a low dose and see how much you really need. And we need to step down your antidepressant dosage to wean you off of that.”
“But…I need this energy. So what if I’m crazy? What’s wrong with that?”
“You’ve lost ten pounds. You’re getting what we call ‘delusions of affect.’ Your confidence could turn into overconfidence very soon, Marc, and all the money you’ve made, on the good investments you’ve made, could be lost. Right now, you’re feeling certainties about the market that are based on evidence, but soon, you’ll have certainties based on nothing but a feeling of invincibility. Are you rabbit-holing yet?”
“What’s that? Doesn’t sound like a medical term to me.”
She smiled. “No, it’s not. But I like it. It’s sort of like ADD, where you find yourself losing focus on one thing, because something distracts you and then something distracts you from that.”
He opened his mouth to say something, and closed it. Just the other day, looking at the price of gold, he’d seen a review of a book on the history of currency, and then he’d downloaded the book, and got twenty pages into it, when a fascinating bit on money in the ancient world sent him to Wikipedia to learn more about Roman coinage… Down and around and away he went, and almost missed his chance to execute one of his shorts at the lowest price.
“How much have you made already?”
“I don’t know. I run reports for my investors, but I…”
“Can you look on your phone and find out?”
“Yeah.” Marc looked at his brokerage accounts, his bank account, and his eyes widened. “Holy shit. I’m a millionaire.”
“Well, now that you’re financially secure, maybe it’s time to slow down and enjoy some of that money.” She wrote a prescription and handed it to him.
He took it hesitantly. “So this won’t make me dumb, you promise?”
“I promise. We’ll take it slow. If you start feeling dumb, we’ll top out at a certain level, or try another medication. You won’t be having as many intellectual rocket launches as yor are now. But rockets require a lot of energy to launch. And when the energy is used up, that hard and that fast….”
Marc nodded. “It crashes.” He was still in shock from the knowledge that he was rich, that he’d gotten rich without even realizing it.
And it was true. He suddenly felt it, all at once, the exhaustion from sleeplessness, the hunger from skipping too many meals, the overwhelming desire to do the one thing he hadn’t been able to do – turn away from his screens and do something, anything else.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll try it.”
He cashed out of everything, paid everyone off, and wound down the whole enterprise. Maybe that was just as dramatic and impulsive a decision as staying in and doubling down would be, but at least it was the only real “can’t lose” decision.
He could see he was at twice the risk right now – the mania could have goaded him into a bad decision, but the mood stabilizers, despite Dr. Phillips’ promise, might make him slow, dumb him down, even cause him to miss some key piece of data that could cost him, and his investors, a fortune.
And best of all, when he pushed the last button on the last transaction, was the realization, the enormous gasping relief, of knowing that he wouldn’t have to be a cog in someone else’s machine ever again, no drudge job in some cubicle somewhere, sucking the life out of him. That was behind him forever now.
“Thank you, Marc,” Jason said when Marc called him to let him know his $50k was now $500k. “You came through for us all.”
“Not everyone,” Marc blurted. “Only the ones who had money to invest. The others…”
“You can’t fix everything for everyone, Marc,” Jason said gently.
But I can, Marc thought. And he knew it wasn’t a delusion of grandeur. He would make it right. The money he’d made would be seed money for something new, something bigger and better. And when it succeeded, as he knew it would, he would go back and fix it for all of them, all those who had lost everything because of him. Who’d lost it all because he had trusted Walt.
The Lamictal started to work, after a period of adjustment. It took a while for his body to stop waking him up at the crack of dawn every morning, in time to read up on the day’s news and prepare for the “opening bell.”
He discovered that he actually felt better, albeit in a different way than he’d felt in his mania. He slept seven hours a night now and woke up refreshed, he ate food and enjoyed it, he started working out with a trainer, and started putting on muscle. His nutrition and exercise regimen took up part of the slack his restless mind felt without the constant data stream that playing the markets had given him.
At least my mind is still capable of being restless, he thought. I’m not dumb yet.
One day he was in the living room, forcing himself to slow down, to read a book for pleasure, to listen to music instead of the voices of financial experts. Okay, admittedly, the Steve Jobs biography was research, too, in its own way, for the business he’d start, when he figured out what that business would be.
Andy was home, doing laundry, his textbooks splayed across the dining room table. He heaved an enormous sign and dramatically banged his head on the table.
“Why did I ever take this class!”
“What class?” Marc said, looking up from his book.
“This military history class. It’s got all these battles and I’m supposed to understand how they happened. I mean, look at this.”
Marc got up and looked at one of the map pages in Andy’s textbook. There were dotted lines and solid lines, meant according to the legend to show the battle front at any given time. There were big sweeping arrows in different shades of black, white and gray, with dots and dates scattered along them, running forward, then backward, to reflect advance and retreat. Little flags indicated generals or battle groups.
“It’s like everything is happening at once, and I’m supposed to decode it from…this. And I just can’t get my head around the text, either, it talks about someone sweeping in down in a pincer movement through a hedgerow or something, and it just… I can’t see it. It’s like trying to see a statue in 3D from a single 2D photo. Marc, are you okay?”
Marc watched himself thinking. This was different. Strange but familiar. It was a cascade of new ideas, but more like…more like the flow of water through a dam than an uncontrollable waterfall. Like a power that could be harnessed, channeled, sent where he wanted it to go. This is how non-crazy people get inspired, he thought.
“What if you could see it?” Marc sat down next to his brother and began to sketch. He drew a computer window, with a slider bar at the bottom, like the YouTube bars you’d use to move forward or backward in a video. “It would be like a Flash video, like a video game, that holds every detail about the battle – the terrain, the troop movements, synced up chronologically, with little fact bubbles you can bring up. You can zoom in or out of parts of the battle, overhead or ground level view, over space or over time, just see one part of the action or the big picture. You can go back and forth from the viewpoint of one side or the other. You can move the whole battle back and forth with this slider here. It would be like being there. You wouldn’t have to imagine the movement, the progress, you could see it.”
“Holy shit, that’s brilliant. Can you do that?”
Marc nodded, thinking about the limits of Flash, how it would be much better as an app for a tablet, like the iPad. Yeah, definitely an iPad app, where you could pinch and zoom and twist…
He started thinking of he would recruit the people this project would require. “Yeah. I can do it. Would you buy it?”
“Who wouldn’t! Hell, you could probably sell it to schools, to the Army…the possibilities are endless.”
No, Marc thought with unaccustomed sobriety. Not limitless, not endless… But vast. Definitely vast.
He smiled. “Looks like I’m back in business.”