Jordan tugged on the ends of her scarf, regretting her decision not to wear the hat. The wind hadn’t been this bad when she’d left. She ignored the vibrations of one more waiting message. At the corner that one screen door was flapping open, showing off the alcove with the door she wanted. Nothing shone or spoke to her – just the ordinary black of the address number. 27.
Past the flapping screen, the door was green. Jordan felt sorry again when she touched her naked hand to the frigid handle, but still she paused. There was nothing special about this moment; it wasn’t any different than the one before that, when she’d stepped off her bus, or the one yesterday when she’d resolved to come. It felt different, in a heavy, nauseous way, but that was in her mind. There was buzzing again – more messages. She silenced it, swallowed, and went in.
The door didn’t jangle or anything. It was a quiet shop, filled with rows of shelves of quiet boxes and the perfumy-candle smell of somebody’s terrible attempt at homey-ness. It wasn’t notably warm, but it wasn’t cold like outside. The air had a shiftless quality that seemed to seal the candle-smell against her skin.
“Can I help you?”
Behind the counter, there was a tall, stiff woman with her hair in a bun. She waited a second and when Jordan didn’t move she came around the counter herself, a plaster smile forcing salutation. “What is it you’re looking for, my dear?”
Jordan cleared her throat. It hadn’t occurred to her to want anything in particular.
“I’m sorry,” she blushed. “I don’t think…”
“You’re here for the first time, yes?”
“Then you must have something very special in mind. Something worth the trouble.”
“Is it a man?”
“I say, are you looking to impress a man? Hoping to forge a deeper connection with someone you adore? Or, are you expecting to win the trust of a business associate, perhaps, up the ante, bring more skin into your game? Or is this a matter of personal intrigue – do you wish to leave here today feeling wiser, more mature? Have you decided it’s time to put aside childish things and forge a story all your own among the world of true adults?”
“I…don’t know,” Jordan said, laughing abruptly. It was a real laugh, though, and not a bad feeling. “All of the above, I guess.”
The woman with the bun nodded once, then turned with an inviting motion of her arm. “If you’ll follow me this way, into our Juniors’ section…one of our startup kits here may be just the ticket. All of them are intensity-controlled and set to expire after thirty days. The good thing about the startups is, you can upgrade if you like after 36 hours.”
The boxes that they passed were plain cardboard, with little tickets full of numbers. The saleswoman turned to Jordan in the middle of an aisle with a brief, scrutinizing air. “Of course, surprise parties are a perennial favorite first package – always thrilling, long-remembered, and as we’ve just unloaded this season’s themes you’ll have more bang-for-your-buck today than you would for the next four months.”
Jordan shook her head slightly.
“No,” said the saleswoman to herself, and smiled again. “Perhaps,” she said, moving toward the end of the aisle, “a more interactive package would better suit your tastes. Have you any interest in crafting a unique piece of artwork – an independent story, or picture, perhaps?”
“No,” said Jordan. “I mean, I don’t see how I could, on my own.”
“Well, no one does, at first. But isn’t that the point – to try something new?”
Jordan shook her head quickly. “No. I don’t want something ordinary. I want something to show for myself – something, big.”
The saleswoman tilted her head to the side and started to lean toward the middle of the aisle again, and the surprise-party packages.
“What’s up there?” Jordan asked, pointing to the other end of the store where the highest shelves were set in the wall behind a rolling ladder. She started toward it without waiting for the saleswoman to explain.
“Those packages are intended for experienced users, only,” said the woman, becoming curt as she followed with long strides. The woman passed Jordan before she’d reached the shelves and turned around with her back to the ladder. “We cannot be liable for the sale of advance packages to beginners. We’re extremely sorry for any inconvenience.”
“These are real secrets,” said Jordan, rising onto her tiptoes when she couldn’t inch forward any further.
“We only sell real secrets!” The saleswoman snapped, arms folded. She breathed, remembering to smile. “It would be my pleasure to assist you with a selection more in line with your skill-level. You may have seen the surprise-party handled by others, but I think you’ll find the firsthand experience both a satisfying challenge and an exhilarating introduction. We have over thirty brand-new themes from which to choose, including everything from the romantic to the comical, from birthdays to holidays and everything in-between. There are themes for horse-lovers and skiers, dancers and pranksters. You can’t go wrong with a surprise-party package!”
Jordan looked at the saleswoman’s smile. “No,” said Jordan. “No party. Give me the artistic thing. I’ll draw a story.”
“Ok, then.” The saleswoman almost sounded relieved. “Follow me this way…”
* * *
A short time later, Jordan sat behind the purple fitting-room’s curtain and peeled off the seal on a cardboard box. Inside, the plastic film emblazoned with a thick, dark bar code sat waiting for her to feed through the machine in the wall. On the other side of the curtain, the saleswoman’s fingers could be heard squeaking faintly against a glass screen.
“So this is a real secret, then?” Jordan asked.
“As real as real can be, my dear!” The saleswoman chirped. “Your file will begin uploading shortly. Do you have any further questions in the meantime?”
“Yeah…How does this work, exactly?” Jordan queried, nervous again. There were lights in her mind, informing her the upload had begun. “I mean, obviously everyone who follows me knows I’m here. How do I keep from sharing what I’m working on?”
“Your secret will remain at the highest privacy setting until it expires at the end of the month. The file uses a unique algorithm that tags recurrent imagery, syntax, and word clusters while the program is in use. These go into a cache for your review before transfer to the intersystem. You can keep your entire cache off-feed if you so choose.”
“So, no sharing.”
“Not if you don’t wish it, no. Even if you share a cached item with a follower, the item remains tagged secret and within the power of your follower to upload to the feed or remain a shared secret between the two of you. At any point in the life of your secret, of course, you may choose to permanently delete any cached items you wish.”
“Wow,” said Jordan.
“You see?” The saleswoman laughed. “You’re exhilarated already!”
“I am,” said Jordan. “But also…I mean, if no one can follow my secret…well, what will happen if things get out of hand?” She felt silly saying the words out loud, but she had to ask. It’d be stupid not to.
The saleswoman gave a satisfied chuckle. “This is why we only offer programs with intensity-control to first-timers. Should you experience intense negative emotion at any point – intense being considered decibel 4 or higher – your secret automatically expires.”
“What happens when it expires?”
“Simply that everything in your secret cache will automatically upload itself to feed. You can purchase an upgrade 36 hours from now, if you wish, and extend your package up to seven months.”
A ringing in her mind informed her the upload was complete. Ignoring the sixty other messages she’d received over the past day-and-a-half, she took a breath, and opened her secret. A brilliant blank wall loomed up in her imagination, ready and waiting to hold her lone ideas.
“Are you having trouble opening your file?”
“No,” Jordan breathed, then didn’t say any more. There were pictures shooting onto her blank canvas – things she’d seen on the street on the way here, things her friends had seen in skyscraper buildings and leafy yards. She kept scrolling to a clean white space, trying to remember words she hadn’t heard her friends say lately. 30 days to try and make something no one had ever seen before. Elephant, she thought. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard about elephants. Toilet paper. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“You are set and ready to go, my dear, whenever you’re ready.”
“Give me a second,” said Jordan. She was excited, and maybe too excited at that. If her face stuck in the saleswoman’s mind her friends would get even more curious than they already were.
“Oh, I know,” said the woman. “That’s what the curtain’s for. You’re not the first to buy a secret, and you won’t be the last.”
Jordan opened the curtain, slowly, and smiled.
“Well, look at you,” said the saleswoman, meeting her smile on a different level than before. “All grown up, with your very own secret. You won’t look the same to anyone, now.”
“That’s what I was hoping,” said Jordan.
She unsilenced her feed as she stepped through the door, and a few hundred pokes went through her head. She was almost as excited as cold, and she saw through her followers’ eyes that the bus was four minutes and thirteen seconds away and that the only place with hats and mittens was two minutes down the street. She stuck her hands in her pockets anyway, listening to the burble of her friends’ complaints and congratulations. A sidebar in her mind popped up suddenly – the secret cache she’d learned about, showing phrases and pictures kept off-feed. “I have a secret” sat right at the top, with a repeat count of 23. It was working. By the time the bus was there, her followers had all stopped talking about secrets and started screaming at the driver to crank the dang heat up, with the usual number of inarticulate kitten pictures thrown in.