Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Chapter Four: The Computer

Danny sat staring at the blank computer screen for a few minutes. Jeff had done a great job fixing up the Judge's computer. He had even invested in a flat screen monitor with a little webcam mounted at the top. And he didn't skimp on the software either. It was loaded with the latest multi-media applications, had a great soundcard and could play and edit videos.

Jeff and his ethical hacker friends had even contributed copies of their favorite computer games to this computer restoration. Jeff swore they were legal copies, but Danny didn't press too hard on the subject. She knew how Jeff, a librarian, felt about piracy and copyright, but wasn't as sure about his friends.

At first, when Jeff announced the formation of his little hackers group, Danny had been worried. She had her own ideas about what hackers did and what kind of people the were. But Jeff had patiently explained that until recently "hacker" was a badge of honor.

The network technology gurus who had designed and maintained the Internet itself coined the name "hackers." It stood for network technology experts, not cybercriminals. Even Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, described himself as a "hacker" with pride. Only later, when the media began looking for names to describe those who used their skills to destroy and damage the Internet, websites and online services was the title converted from standing for network security and design to online vandalism and cybercrime.

Jeff had started using the term "ethical hackers" to try and set his group apart from the groups who used their skills to destroy instead of protect the Internet. Jeff had called the others "script kiddies" and "crackers." He had little patience with them and actually worked to counter their destruction.

Robby could never get enough of Jeff and his "ethical" hacker friends. They were talented Internet gamers and could design code to accomplish or fix anything online. Interestingly enough, Jeff had only met a few of his group face to face. Most he knew only virtually. But these virtual friends were are respected and close to Jeff as his real life friends.

Danny suspected that Jeff was grooming Robby to be the youngest member of his ethical hacking group too. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. But, as long as Jeff promised they would never break the law and were only testing their coding skills, Danny didn't really object.

In order to make sure that Robby wasn't tempted to "take" what wasn't his online or misuse his newfound "hacking" skills, Danny insisted that Jeff and his cyberbuddies teach Robby about responsible surfing. She even drew the line on his downloading music online. Danny insisted that Robby buy his music the old-fashioned way -- from Target.

And Jeff had kept his promise. Whenever they were over Jeff's apartment Robby was careful and always asked either Danny or Jeff before he tried something new. He had been taught not to share personal information with strangers online and had even joined online safe surfing club. Robby took safe and responsible surfing very seriously. He even lectured Danny about safe surfing and the importance of anti-virus programs and firewalls (whatever they were). Danny's eyes had glazed over when Jeff and Danny started talking about Internet security. But they didn't seem to mind, or even notice. Once they started taking "geek" talk, they forgot everyone and everything else.

Danny knew how important having a computer in their new home was to Robby. Initially he had pleaded for his own computer and Internet access at the cottage. He had asked Robert Jr. if he could use one of his computers at the Colony house. But Robert Jr. had refused, explaining that the computers were leased and couldn't be kept anywhere outside of his house. Robby had taken this well. But his disappointment was apparent wheneve anyone mentioned computer games or the Internet.

He was such a good kid. He was never spoiled by all that he had and seemed to understand how many adjustments had to be made since the separation. It had been hard for everyone. But Danny worried that Robby was impacted the most. He had given up many of the things he had been raised with, and forced ot leave many other things behind, like his X-Box, television, bicycle, his dog Lissy and his trusted friend, Ethel, and even his easy access to his neighborhood friends.

And money was very tight too. Instead of fancy dinners, they now had Kraft Macaroni and Cheese twice a week, and homemade pizza another night. Actually, Robby thought their menu had changed for the better, but Danny knew how far she had to stretch each dollar now that they were on their own. Especially since she was a full-time law student, part-time law clerk and mother of a ten year old. She worried about money alot.

Some of her friends were shocked when Danny had refused to take money from Robert Jr. initially. She had tried to help them understand that financial help would end up being a noose around her neck. Robert Jr.'s parents would try and control her by controlling the pursestrings. So she refused money out of principle. She took only her basic possessions and left behind er expensive cars, jewelry and designer clothes. She and Robby had two suitcases and nothing else when they left their old house for their new life. Danny hadn't even taken a tube of toothpaste from Robert Jr.

In some ways she regretted her initial decision. Not the decision to leave, but the decision to leave everything behind. On the urging of her friends and the Judge, she had called Roberty Jr. and asked to be able to come by and pick up a few more things. He had told her he was with a patient and would call her back. But he never did. His nurses would take her phone messages and sounded sympathetic. But he never returned her calls. He left a voicemail teling her to send any requests ot him via e-mail. He knew full well she had no home computer and wouldn't use the Judge's office computers on personal matters.

She knew that Robert Jr. was just following orders. His parents' orders. His mother's favorite phrase was "I told you so!" and this gave her lots of opportunities to repeat it to her son, over and over again.

Even though they never liked her, they still wanted her to end this "silly spat" as his mother put it and come back home. They thought they could starve her out if Robert Jr. withheld money and possessions from her. If they waited long enough, they plotted, she would come home and start again. Then they would have real control over her and force her to live the pretend life they had always wanted their son to live.

How little they understood her. They had never understood her. She was always a problem they had to address. They wanted a little compliant WASP, raised in the right country club and willing to play along. They were never happy with the Italian-American "river rat" her son had brought home and announced he would marry. They had cut off all communications and money to him after that announcement, and if Danny hadn't quit school and gone to work to support them both, Robert Jr. would ever have been able to finish medical school.

It was years before they spoke to Robert Jr. or Danny again. And then it was only when they had called to announce Danny's pregnancy. Even the cold-hearted Spencers responded to the promise, and later reality, of a wonderful grandson.

Danny always regretted not living up to the Spencer's expectations. She had tried. But she had always fallen short. Finally, understanding that she couldn't change who she was, where she grew up or her genetics, she had stopped trying and caring. Now, if she could only stop caring about their son, her life would be perfect. She still missed him. Her heart would skip a beat when she saw him while dropping Robby off. But his cheating and lying had left her devastated. How can you balance the two? How can she turn off the loving part when it only brought hurt. Sometimes she felt like a country-western song. The woman done wrong. It's not how she had ever seen herself. It was not how she wanted to see herslef.

But she had no idea how to change things. And she to face this largely alone. Her parents were now both gone, and Jeff, as much as he tried to, couldn't understand her sense of loss and failure. He understood the grieving over the lost relationship. But he never fully appreciated her sense of failure. She had vowed years ago that she would never get divorced and that her marriage would be a tribute to her parents' own happy union. Now she had let them down too.

Maybe she shouldn't have walked out. Other couples had survived infidelity. They had gone on with their lives as though nothing was broken, as though nothing was wrong.

But Danny had already been trying to live a lie. Adding betrayal to the mix made it too hard to pull off. She had tried to be a perfect little wife of a perfect surgeon with a perfect little family. She was never perfect, far from it. And as much as she idolized Robert Jr., he was never perfect either. The only perfect part of their family was Robby. He was the bes thing she had even done, and she would die before hurting him in any way.

Had Danny's leaving Robert Jr., the big luxurious house and all that went along with it hurt him? She hoped not. But it had certainly changed their lives radically. Now all Danny owned in the world was this little house her parents had left her, her Volkswagen Beetle and what remained of her parent's hard-earned savings. And the Volkswagen was already old when her mother received it as a high school graduation gift in 1966.

Actually this was more than she had ever expected. When her father died last year, she had expected that he would give her the house. But she had been shocked to learn about the $30,000 certificate of deposit that he and her mother had put in her name before her mother died of cancer twelve years ago when Danny had just turned 22.

Apparently her parents had both scrimped and saved to put this aside for her law school education. When Danny had decided to go to work, instead of going on to law school they had both been very disappointed. But they understood her commitment to Robert Jr. and had respected her decision to go to work to keep him in medical school. At the time no one knew her mother had only a few months to live. Danny had known from the time she could talk that she was always supposed to be a lawyer and follow in the footsteps of her mother's lifelong friend, Judge Lanell Sauer. But Danny never knew that this money was put aside for her if she ever changed her mind. When she told Danny about it after her father's death, the Judge had called it her parents' "my daughter will sue you" fund.

It turned out to be a lifesaver. It was an enormous amount of money to Danny now and to her parents when they pulled it together little by little. It had taken them years. And Danny couldn't even imagine what they had given up to give her this opportunity.

If anyone wanted to see just how much her life had changed in the ten months since she had left, they had only to look at this $30,000. While she was still with Robert Jr. they would spend $30,000 a month on their creditcards. Now that same amount would have to get her through 2-3/4 more years of law school and meet most of her and Robby's needs.

She could only work 30 hours a week for the Judge. While she paid Danny more than any other law clerk or intern, it barely covered their utilities and food. It was certainly not enough for a new computer for Robby, even for his birthday.

Danny was heartbroken about not being able to give Robby his one birthday wish. Then Jeff had come up with the idea of rigging up one of the Judge's older machines for Robby. The rest just fell into place.

While Danny was surveying her life, the coffee had gotten cold and the lights in the apartment houses across the river were being swtiched off room by room. It was late. But she still couldn't sleep. She stood up and stretched, and went to reheat the coffee. While she waited, she glanced back at the computer.

Heck, it couldn't hurt to take it out for a test run, could it?

Danny sat the coffee cup carefully next to the keyboard and flipped the "on" button. As the machine hummed to life, Danny felt revived. It was past midnight on a Friday night, her best friend in the world had just left, she was still a bit drunk and all alone. She could find some people to talk with online and something to stimulate her mind. Since she could never sleep without Robby in the house, Danny always sought ways to help her fill the many sleepless hours she would have to face before morning.

Luckily, Jeff had signed them up with a three-month trial offer with AOL as an extra birthday surprise. Robby was a big fan of Kids Only and it was so easy to use. Danny was happy since she used to visit their theater chatrooms years before. It was fun, it was easy, it was company.

She typed in her password and, ever hopeful, began her search for a perfect chatroom. As she sipped her coffee, she scanned the search results.

to be continued...