The Future of Us
By refreshing their pages, they learn that making different decisions now will affect the outcome of their lives later. And as they grapple with the ups and downs of what their futures hold, they're forced to confront what they're doing right - and wrong - in the present.
In 1996 less than half of all American high school students had ever used the Internet. Facebook would not be invented until several years in the future. Emma & Josh are about to log on to their futures.
I can’t break up with Graham today, even though I told my friends I’d do it the next time I saw him. So instead, I’m hiding in my bedroom, setting up my new computer while he plays Ultimate Frisbee in the park across the street.
My dad shipped me the computer as yet another guilt gift. Last summer, before he and my stepmom moved from central Pennsylvania to Florida, he handed me the keys to his old Honda and then started his new life. They just had their first baby, so I got this desktop computer with Windows 95 and a color monitor.
I’m scrolling through various screensavers when someone rings the doorbell. I let my mom answer it because I still haven’t decided between a shifting brick wall maze and a web of plumber’s pipes. Hopefully it’s not Graham at the door.
“Emma!” my mom shouts. “Josh is here.”
Now that’s a surprise. Josh Templeton lives next door, and when we were little we constantly ran back and forth between our houses. We camped in our backyards, built forts, and on Saturday mornings he carried over his cereal bowl to watch cartoons on my couch. Even after we got to high school, we hung out all the time. But then, last November, everything changed. We still eat lunch with our small group of friends, but he hasn’t been in my house once in the past six months.
I select the brick wall screensaver and head downstairs. Josh is standing on the porch, tapping at the doorframe with the scuffed toe of his sneaker. He’s a grade behind me, which makes him a sophomore. He’s got the same floppy reddish-blond hair and shy smile as always, but he’s grown five inches this year.
I watch my mom’s car backing out of the driveway. She honks and waves before turning into the street.
“Your mom said you haven’t been out of your room all day,” Josh says.
“I’m setting up the computer,” I say, avoiding the whole Graham issue. “It’s pretty nice.”
“If your stepmom gets pregnant again,” he says, “you should talk your dad into buying you a cell phone.”
Before last November, Josh and I wouldn’t have been standing awkwardly in the doorway. My mom would’ve let him in, and he would’ve jogged straight up to my room.
“My mom wanted me to bring this over,” he says, holding up a CD-ROM. “America Online gives you a hundred free hours if you sign up. It came in the mail last week.”
Our friend Kellan recently got AOL. She squeals every time someone sends her an instant message. She’ll spend hours hunched over her keyboard typing out a conversation with someone who may not even go to Lake Forest High.
“Doesn’t your family want it?” I ask.
Josh shakes his head. “My parents don’t want to get the Internet. They say it’s a waste of time, and my mom thinks the chatrooms are full of perverts.”
I laugh. “So she wants me to have it?”
Josh shrugs. “I told your mom about it, and she said it’s okay for you to sign up as long as she and Martin can have email addresses, too.”
I still can’t hear Martin’s name without rolling my eyes. My mom married him last summer, saying this time she found true love. But she also said that about Erik, and he only lasted two years.
I take the CD-ROM from Josh, and he stuffs his hands in his back pockets.
“I heard it can take a while to download,” he says.
“Did my mom say how long she’d be gone?” I ask.
“Maybe now would be a good time to tie up the phone line.”
“She said she’s picking up Martin and they’re driving into Pittsburgh to look at sinks.”
I never bonded with my last stepdad, but at least Erik didn’t rip apart the house. Instead, he talked my mom into raising parakeets, so my junior high years were filled with chirping birds. Martin, however, convinced my mom to start a major renovation, filling the house with sawdust and paint fumes. They recently finished the kitchen and the carpets, and now they’re tackling the downstairs bathroom.
“If you want,” I say, mainly to fill the silence, “you can come over and try AOL sometime.”
Josh pushes his hair away from his eyes. “Tyson says it’s awesome. He says it’ll change your life.”
“Right, but he also thinks every episode of Friends is life-changing.”
Josh smiles and then turns to leave. His head barely clears the wind chimes that Martin hung from the front porch. I can’t believe Josh is nearly six-feet tall now. Sometimes, from a distance, I barely recognize him.
* * *
I slide in the CD-ROM and listen to it spin inside the computer. I click through the introductory screens and then hit Enter to begin the download. The blue status bar on the screen says the download is going to take ninety-seven minutes. I glance longingly out the window at the perfect May afternoon. After a blustery winter, followed by months of chilly spring rain, summer is finally arriving.
I have a track meet tomorrow, but I haven’t been running in three days. I know it’s stupid to worry about bumping into Graham. Wagner Park is huge. It stretches along the edge of downtown all the way to the newer subdivision of homes. Graham could be playing Frisbee anywhere. But if he sees me, he’ll hitch his arm around my shoulder and steer me somewhere to make out. At prom last weekend, he was all over me. I even missed doing the Macarena with Kellan and Ruby and my other friends.
I consider interrupting the download to call Graham’s house and see if he’s home yet. If he answers, I’ll hang up. Then again, Kellan told me about a new service where some phones display the number that’s calling. No, I’ll be a grown-up about it. I can’t hide in my room forever. If I spot Graham in the park I’ll just wave and shout that I have to keep running.
I change into shorts and a jog bra, and twist my curly hair into a scrunchie. I strap my Discman around my arm with Velcro and walk out to my front lawn, where I stop to stretch. Josh’s garage door opens. A moment later, he rolls out on his skateboard.
When he sees me, he stops on his driveway. “Did you start the download?”
“Yeah, but it’s taking forever. Where are you headed?”
“SkateRats,” he says. “I need new wheels.”
“Have fun,” I say as he pushes toward the street. There was a time when Josh and I would have talked longer, but that’s been a while. I jog over to the sidewalk and take a left. When I get to the end of my block, I cut across and meet the paved trail leading into the park. I push Play on the Discman. Kellan made this running mix for me, starting with Alanis Morissette, then Pearl Jam, and finally Dave Matthews.
I run the three-mile loop hard and fast, relieved not to see any Frisbee games. As I’m nearing my street again, the opening guitar of “Crash into Me” comes on.
Lost for you, I mouth the words. I’m so lost for you. The lyrics always make me think of Cody Grainger. He’s on the track team with me. He’s a senior and an incredible sprinter, ranked in the top twenty in the state. Last spring, on the ride home from a meet, he sat next to me and told me all about the college scouts who’ve been calling him. Later, when I couldn’t hold back a yawn, he let me rest against his shoulder. I closed my eyes and pretended to fall asleep, but I kept thinking, Even though I don’t believe in true love, I could reconsider that for Cody.
Kellan says I’m delusional about him, but she’s one to talk. When she got together with Tyson last summer, you’d think the girl invented love. She’s got a genius IQ and writes intense editorials for the school paper, but all she could talk about was Tyson this and Tyson that. When he broke up with her after winter break, she crashed so hard she missed two weeks of school.
While I may pine for Cody, I still have to live my life. For the past two months I’ve been going out with Graham Wilde. We’re in band together. He plays drums and I play saxophone. He’s sexy, with shoulder-length blond hair, but his clinginess at prom was annoying. I’ll definitely end it with him soon. Or maybe I’ll just let things dissolve over the summer.
* * *
The status bar is still chugging along.
I take a shower and then settle into my papasan chair to read over my notes for the biology final. I’ve been getting A’s in biology this year, definitely my strongest subject. Kellan has been trying to convince me to sign up with her for a biology course at the college next fall, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I want a low-key senior year.
When the download is complete, I close my textbook and then restart the computer. As I dial in to AOL, the modem crackles and beeps. Once I’m on, I check to see if EmmaNelson@aol.com is available, but that email address is already taken. So is EmmaMarieNelson. Finally I settle on EmmaNelson4Ever. For my password, I consider a few options before typing “Millicent.” Last summer, when Kellan and Tyson were all over each other, Josh and I made fun of them by pretending we were a lovesick middle-aged couple named Millicent and Clarence who devoured Hamburger Helper and drove around town in a beat-up ice-cream truck. Kellan and Tyson never thought it was funny, but it sent Josh and me into hysterics.
I click Enter and the same AOL screen I’ve seen on Kellan’s computer now appears on mine.
“Welcome!” chimes an electronic voice.
I’m about to write my first email to Kellan when a bright light flashes across the screen. A small white box with a blue border pops up, asking me to re-enter my email and password.
“EmmaNelson4Ever@aol.com,” I type. “Millicent.”
For about twenty seconds, my monitor freezes. Then the white box snaps into a tiny blue dot and a new webpage fades in. It has a blue banner running across the top that says “Facebook.” A column down the center of the screen is labeled “News Feed” and under that are tiny photos of people I don’t recognize. Each photo is followed by a brief statement.
Loving NYC. I’ve already eaten two Magnolia cupcakes!!
3 hours ago • Like • Comment
And you didn’t share one with me? I want chocolate frosting and sprinkles.
2 hours ago • Like
I just walked into a spiderweb and didn’t freak out. Woo to the hoo!
17 hours ago • Like • Comment
I circle the mouse around the screen, confused by the jumble of pictures and words. I have no idea what any of this means, “Status” and “Friend Request” and “Poke.”
Then, just under the blue banner, something makes me shiver. Next to a small picture of a woman sitting on a beach, it says “Emma Nelson Jones.” The woman is in her thirties with curly brown hair and brown eyes. My stomach tingles because this woman looks familiar.
When I move the mouse over her name, the white arrow turns into a hand. I click and another page slowly loads. This time, her picture is larger and there’s so much information I don’t know where to begin reading. In the center column, next to a smaller version of the same picture, I see:
Emma Nelson Jones
4 hours ago • Like • Comment
It says Emma Nelson Jones went to Lake Forest High School. She’s married to someone named Jordan Jones Jr. and was born on July 24. She doesn’t list the year, but July 24 is my birthday.
I sink my forehead into my hands and attempt to take a deep breath. Through my open window, I hear Josh skating toward his house, his wheels bumping over the lines in the sidewalk. I run down the stairs and burst out the front door, squinting my eyes in the bright sun.
“Josh?” I call out.
He rides up his driveway and kicks the skateboard into his hand.
I clutch the railing on my front porch to steady myself. “Something happened after I downloaded AOL.”
Josh stares at me, the wind chimes ringing through the silence.
“Can you come upstairs for a second?” I ask.
He looks down at the grass, but doesn’t say a word.
“Please,” I say.
With his skateboard in his hand, Josh follows me into the house.
I follow Emma up her stairs and count on my fingers from November to May. It’s been six months since I’ve been in her house. Before that, this was like my second home. But after we all went to the opening night of Toy Story, I misread things and thought she wanted to be more than friends.
When we get to her room, Emma waves a hand at the computer. “Here it is.”
The monitor plays a screensaver that makes it look like you’re moving through a maze of brick walls.
“It’s nice,” I say, leaning my skateboard against her dresser. “You can barely hear it run.”
Her room looks the same as before, other than a vase of wilting white roses on her dresser. Several red paper lanterns dangle from the ceiling. Two corkboards near her bed are packed with photos and ticket stubs from movies and school dances.
Emma shakes her head. “I’m sorry,” she says, laughing to herself. “This is stupid.”
“What’s stupid?” I push my sweaty hair out of my eyes. After picking up my new wheels, I met Tyson in the First Baptist parking lot to skate. Between the morning and evening services, the lot is empty, and they have some killer banks in the asphalt.
Emma stands beside her desk chair and turns it toward me. “Okay, I need you to humor me for a second.”
I sit down and Emma swivels me back around until I’m facing the monitor.
“Jiggle the mouse,” she says, “and tell me what you see.”
I’m not sure if it’s being back in her room or the strange way she’s acting, but this whole situation is making me uncomfortable.
“Please,” she says, and then she walks to her window.
I give her mouse a shake. The brick wall freezes and then disappears. A website appears with words and tiny pictures thrown everywhere, like a kaleidoscope. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be looking at.
“This woman looks like you,” I say. “That’s cool!” I glance over at Emma but she’s staring outside. Her window faces the front lawn, as well as my upstairs bathroom window. “She doesn’t look exactly like you. But if you were older she would.”
“What else do you see?” Emma asks.
“She has your name, just with Jones at the end.”
The website says “Facebook” at the top. It’s disorganized, with graphics and writing all over the place.
“You didn’t make this, did you?” I ask. I’m taking Word Processing i this year, which is all about creating, altering, and saving files on the computer. Emma’s a year ahead, in Word Processing
She turns toward me, her eyebrows raised.
“Not that you couldn’t do it,” I say.
It looks like Emma made this website as a class assignment, creating a fantasy future for herself. She says that Emma Nelson Jones went to our high school, now lives in Florida, and married a guy named Jordan Jones Jr. Her husband’s name sounds fake, but at least she didn’t call herself Emma Nelson Grainger, after that track guy. Or Emma Nelson Wilde after her current boy toy. Speaking of Graham, didn’t she say she was going to break up with him by now?
Emma sits on the edge of her bed, her hands pressed between her thighs. “What do you think?”
“I’m not entirely sure what you were going for,” I say.
“What are you talking about?”
“When’s it due?” I ask.
“When’s what due?”
Emma walks up beside me and stares at the screen, tapping two fingers against her lips. With her hair dripping onto her shirt, tiny rainbow-colored stars on her bra begin to appear. I try not to look.
“Josh, be honest,” she says. “How did you do this?”“Me?”
“You’re the one who told me to download that CD-ROM,” Emma says. She reaches down and presses Eject on the computer’s disc drive. “You said it was from AOL.”
“It was!” I point at the screen. “You think I know how to do this?”
“You have plenty of pictures of me. Maybe you scanned one at school and—”
“And changed it to make you look older? How could I do that?”
My hands start sweating. If Emma didn’t do this, then . . .
I rub my palms across my knees. One side of my brain whispers that this could be a website from the future. The other side of my brain screams at the first side for being an idiot.
On the screen, Emma Nelson Jones, with slight creases at the corners of her eyes, is smiling.
Emma flicks her hand at the monitor. “Do you think this is a virus?”“Or a joke,” I say. I take the CD-ROM out of her computer and study it. Maybe someone at school knew Emma was getting a new computer, so they created this realistic looking disc and . . . put it in my mailbox?
On the screen, there is a series of short sentences running down the center of the page. They’re written by Emma Nelson Jones, with other people responding.
Emma Nelson Jones
4 hours ago • Like • Comment
Don’t change anything, E!
57 minutes ago • Like
Let’s do it together!! :)
43 minutes ago • Like
“If it’s a joke, I don’t get it,” Emma says. “What’s it supposed to mean?”“Obviously it’s supposed to be from the future.” I laugh. “Maybe this webpage means you’re famous.”
Emma cracks up. “Right. How would I become famous? The saxophone? Track? Or do you think I’m a world famous rollerblader?”
I play along. “Maybe rollerblading is an Olympic sport in the future.”
Emma squeals and claps her hands together. “Maybe Cody qualifies in track and we’ll go to the Olympics together!”
I hate the way she can bring Cody Grainger into any conversation.
She points toward something at the bottom of the page. “What’s that?”
Emma Nelson Jones
Anyone want to guess where my hubby was all last weekend?
20 hours ago • Like • Comment
Below that text, mostly hidden by the bottom of the screen, there’s a photo. The top of the picture looks like ocean water. I roll the mouse over it.
“Should I click to see if—?”
“No!” Emma says. “What if this is a virus and the more we open, the worse it gets? I don’t want to screw up my new computer.”
She grabs the CD-ROM from me and drops it in her top desk drawer.
I turn in the chair to look directly at her. “Come on, even if it’s a prank, don’t you want to see who they say you end up marrying?”
Emma thinks about it for a second. “Fine,” she says.
I click on the photo and a new screen appears. We watch the large square in the center slowly fill from top to bottom. First, choppy ocean waves. Then a man’s face. He’s wearing black sunglasses. Then his fingers, gripped around the sword-like nose of a fish. When the picture has fully loaded, we see that the man is standing at the bow of a fishing boat.
“That fish is huge!” I say. “I wonder where he is? I guess it’s supposed to be Florida.”
“He’s hot!” Emma says. “For an older guy. I wonder where they got this picture.”
We’re startled by a rapid knock on Emma’s door, followed by her mom entering the room.
“Do you like your new computer?” she asks. “Are you two surfing the World Wide Web with all those free hours?”
Emma moves slightly in front of the monitor. “We’re researching swordfish.”
“And future husbands,” I say, which gets the back of my arm a sharp pinch.
“Can you work on it later?” her mom asks. “Marty has to call a client before dinner and he can’t do it while you’re on that Internet.”
“But I’m not done,” Emma says. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to get back to this website again.”
She’s right. What if we can’t get back here? Even if it is a joke, there’s so much more to check out. Emma needs to say something convincing to keep us online.
“There’s one phone line,” her mom says. “Write down the website name on a piece of paper and go back to it later. If this Internet thing is going to be a problem—”
“It won’t,” Emma says. She grabs the mouse, exhales slowly, and signs out of AOL.
The electronic voice offers a cheery, “Goodbye!”
“Thank you,” Emma’s mom says. Then she tilts her head at me. “It’s nice to have you over again, Josh. Would you like to stay for dinner?”
I stand up and grab my skateboard, avoiding Emma’s eyes. “I can’t. I’ve got too much homework, and my parents . . .” As I trail off, I feel my cheeks flushing.
The three of us walk downstairs. Emma’s mom joins Martin in the bathroom where he’s arranging plastic bags from Home Depot. Emma opens the front door for me and leans in close.
“I’ll try to get back online later,” she whispers.
“Okay,” I say, my eyes shifting down to my skateboard.
“Call me if you need anything.”
"A clever, timely story that will attract any teen with a Facebook account." - Booklist, Starred Review
"Without question a page-turner." - Kirkus Reviews
"Highly engaging.a tremendously likable, soul-searching romantic comedy and a subtle reminder to occasionally unplug and live in the moment." School and Library Journal