CONFESSIONS IN FLEECE
“So,” Whitney said, looking around at the whole blanket-fort situation as they got back down the road.
Apparently, there had been a bunch of small fleece blankets in the vehicle’s little storage closet. Whitney hadn’t even known they were there, but Kei had found them and taped blankets so that the two neighboring seats in Adam’s row were encased in a little blanket hut.
No one on the bus could see inside the blanket fort, which was great for privacy. But then Kei had also hung a blanket hung between the two neighboring seats so that she and Adam sat in spaces about as wide as their shoulders with a panel of navy blue fleece between them.
No lies, it was weird and Whitney felt a little trapped. But she didn’t want to throw in the towel right out of the gate without hearing how Adam was doing with his private window seat.
“Is this working for you?” she asked, trying not to focus on the fabric rippling around her. “I mean, this whole talking-like-we’re-in-DMs-without-seeing-each-other thing. Like, is it helpful for you to sit like this?”
“Funnily enough, I think it is,” Adam replied, sounding calmer than she felt. “I must thank Kei later.”
Whitney wanted to see Adam’s face when they spoke. It would help her get a better sense of what he was feeling … and if he was lying.
Whitney was the first to confess that she may or may not have some A+ trust issues when it came to believing a guy’s voice when you couldn’t see his face. And she had her reasons for that. But she was willing to admit that Adam might be an exception to the proverbial rule.
Adam was different.
On his YouTube channel, he seemed shy and academic. In DMs, he’d always seemed so smooth and ever-ready with a quick comeback to anything she said that Whitney had always assumed Adam was pretending to be camera shy as part of his online persona.
But, nope. The dude was shy.
Like, cripplingly shy.
He genuinely seemed like he wanted to be invisible to literally everyone. At every gas station they’d been at, Adam had actively fled whenever someone took notice of him and seemed to stick to people’s blind spots as if it physically hurt him to be seen.
Whitney knew that feeling. It super-sucked. And if these hanging blankets made that feeling go away for Adam, then she’d roll with it.
But she needed to hear Adam say as much out loud.
“But, like, why?” she pressed, watching the navy fleece sway as they hit an uneven spot in the road.
“Why would I thank Kei?” Adam asked. “Well—“
“No,” Whitney said over him. “Why do you like sitting like this better than talking face-to-face?”
“Oh. Well…” He paused.
She waited. Then she waited some more.
“I don’t know how to say this any other way, so I’ll say it frankly,” Adam finally managed. “You are quite beautiful, Whitney. And, sometimes, when I look at you, I don’t hear very well and miss what you are saying. It’s quite odd and I can’t say I’ve experienced it before. It’s like I look at you and sound just kind of goes into a bubble … which sounds stupid, now that I’m saying it out loud. My point is that not looking at you does help. For now. But I promise I’ll adjust quickly and be better by the time we reach Z Labyrinth. I also want to acknowledge that I do understand that it’s rude not to look at people when you speak to them. I promise to do better in the future. But for now, yes, not seeing you and imagining that I am typing what I say as we speak is helpful for me.”
Okay, so that was a yes on the curtains, but she had no idea how to respond to anything else he’d said.
Did Adam seriously not hear himself when he spoke? Sound disappeared into a freaking bubble when he looked at her?
Was he serious? How was she supposed to stay mad at him when he talked like that?
“That said,” Adam continued, pulling her from the argument she was having with him in her head. “I want to start off apologizing for believing that you were a deep fake account—“
“Right. About that,” Whitney said, quickly jumping to her first talking point. “Explain why in the world you talked to me for two years if you thought I was fake.”
“Because I was told you were among the best programs out there,” he said, as if that made sense. “And it is my practice to learn from the best, especially when their tactics work on me. Which yours did. I found myself susceptible to the irrationality of your allure each time we messaged. I just never understood what your goal was in engaging with me. That part still confuses me, actually.”
Whitney fought the urge to groan. “I told you why I was talking to you. I like you.”
“Which is what a catfish would say,” Adam countered, as if he hadn’t just heard how she said it to him through the blanket.
Adam was seriously so daft; it was kind of amazing.
“You often said you liked me,” he continued. “But were always really coy when it came to details of actual qualities you liked. So I just assumed it was just a standard line in your punish-reward algorithm.”
“Oh, sorry. I meant the algorithm you would have been running if you were an AI.”
Okay, Whitney wasn’t quite sure what he was saying there, but it sounded like an insult she needed to back away from if this conversation was to proceed.
So she did -- taking a deep breath as she tried to find a way to talk to him like she did when they typed.
If they were DMing right then, Whitney would probably tell him she felt super trapped and panicky because she was surrounded by fleece curtains out in the actual middle of the desert. Or maybe she'd tell him she finally understood what Catholics felt when they went into a confession booth.
Or maybe she knew what a priest felt like in a confession booth now. Because, while Whitney was definitely in a dark, trapped space with poor air circulation, she wasn’t the one confessing. Adam was.
That made Whitney the priest hearing Adam’s confession. And it was the priest’s job to listen to everything before declaring the penance needed to make things right again.
And she could totally do that.
“Try closing your eyes,” Adam said gently from the other side of the blanket.
Whitney froze, wondering if she’d missed something. “What?”
“Try closing your eyes,” he repeated. “You seem tense, and I’m certain being surrounded by panels of unanchored fabric doesn’t help with that. Try closing your eyes, and let’s just talk like we’re DMing.”
“Okay,” Whitney replied, settling into her seat and letting her eyelids drift closed. For a moment, everything felt worse.
Then it didn’t.
“The thing I’ve always liked about talking to you,” Adam said in the darkness, “is how easy it is to tell you absolutely anything at all. That’s what kept me coming back, even when I thought you were an algorithm trying to exploit me—“
“So, you mean, like, this morning?” Whitney interrupted. She couldn’t help it. She’d make a terrible priest. “Like, four hours ago? Back when you still thought I was a Russian bot?”
“Yes,” he confessed. “As recently as this morning, I believed that a catfish bot on the internet was beating me at a game I hadn’t figured out yet. And I believed that bot was you.”
Whitney hated that she totally believed him, but still had to give him some push back on principle. “And it never occurred to you that I was a real person?”
“Not after that training I went to, no,” he said as she felt him shrug through the blankets. “And I think I forgot your face because of all the ways they showed me you could look if you were Photoshopped differently. Obese ... gaunt ... old ... Kardashian ... smoker ... non-smoker. They even showed me what you would look like if you were a man and what your kids might look like if you had babies with Nicholas Cage.”
“Ew!” Whitney balked as her eyes flew open to see the navy blankets surrounding her again.
Adam was right: keeping her eyes shut was better. So she shut them again.
“I know,” Adam replied. “I’ve been thinking the same thing most of the morning. Because, if you’re real, that--
“I am real!” she said over him before his thoughts trailed off. He did that sometimes and she wasn’t ready for tangents. Whitney wanted real-deal answers first.
“Right. Let me rephrase,” Adam said. “The fact that you are real means the presenter used the images of an authentic, non-consenting minor as the face of a successful deep fake fraud in a public demonstration. That’s quite a big deal. And I just can’t imagine why an esteemed professional would do that.”
No one is that innocent, was all Whitney could think.
But then she could also hear the utter bafflement in Adam’s tone as he spoke. He was genuinely having trouble wrapping his head around the idea that someone in a position of authority might present false information to him. On purpose.
Could it be that there was exactly one teenager on the planet who was actually innocent enough to believe that people with credentials were always telling the truth?
It was kind of an endearing level of innocence, in its own way. But it was also an innocence that needed to die. So, while Whitney kind of felt bad for being the one to pop his bubble, she also accepted that everyone had to grow up sometime.
Today was Adam's day, which was why she stayed as silent as a priest as Adam did his best to explain his view on things.
“Not only that,” he continued, sounding like he might be getting a bit upset. “Why go so far as to Photoshop your face all those different ways? It must have taken hours because each of the mockups were well-edited and memorable. Even as we sit here now, I can recall how you might look as a 40 year-old smoker better than how you looked yesterday. It’s like the pictures from that presentation somehow became my default mental images of you, and that seems wrong to me. How is that possible?”
Was he expecting Whitney to have an answer? Because she totally didn’t. And she didn’t speak science or anything either, so she didn’t know how to sound smart when she answered him.
So she did the only thing she knew how to do well and stuck to the bald, unsexy truth.
“The guy lied,” she said flatly. “I don’t care what letters he had after his name or what circles he is highly regarded in. He's a sicko and he lied. And Bella seems to think that your parents might have something to do with that, so I’m going to assume she’s right and leave it at that until I hear something better.”
“A safe course of action. Bella is very astute,” Adam agreed.
Something about the praise in his tone and the way he said Bella’s name had Whitney’s hackles raising. “Yeah, what’s the deal with you and Bella anyway? You seem pretty cozy.”
“Do we?” he asked. “I haven’t seen her since I was six. But I’m glad she is here and hope she and Chad finally kiss.”
Whitney’s eyes flew open with excitement. “Oh, my gosh, you see it, too?”
“Of course. Do you follow them on social media?”
“No,” Whitney said, hating that she was out of the loop. “Are they obvious on-camera as they are in-person?”
“They’re worse,” he replied, dropping his voice like he knew he was gossiping and wasn't mad about it. “It’s why Chad ever went viral in the first place. He was posting a trick, like he does every day, but none of his friends are around to film him. So he asks Bella to hold the camera and she agrees. Then Chad goes live, walks his viewers through the trick and hands the camera off to Bella to film it. And the look on Bella’s face for the split second it captured her taking the phone from him took Chad from 347 followers to over 30,000 overnight. He went from maybe a dozen comments from mutuals grading him in the comments to thousands of comments begging for another cameo of his camera girl. And he’s been growing ever since.”
“Oh. Wow.” It was all Whitney could think to say. Chad and Bella definitely had a history, and it wasn’t simple.
“A lot of their shared fans are team #Chella,” he continued. “But there are about 60 diehard shippers who make gifs of Chad and Bella’s videos. You should look them up when you get your phone back. It’s like watching a highlight reel of abandoned kisses.”
Okay, she definitely had to look them up when she got home. For the moment, however, she was going to go for the awkwardest segue ever because there was something she needed to confess to Adam regarding where her own expectations had been when she signed up for this trip.
“Speaking of kissing,” she said, studying her hands for a moment before closing her eyes again to block out anything that might distract her from finding the right words. “I have to admit that I wondered if you might kiss me when you saw me—I mean, back when I imagined you would recognize me because I thought you knew I was a real person and that you’d been flirting with me this whole time.”
“I’m so sorry about that,” he said, honest regret in his tone. “Although, I’m sure you guessed by now that I wouldn’t have kissed you, even if I had recognized you.”
Ouch. Wow. He kind of just went for the jugular, didn’t he?
“Why not?” she managed through the catch in her throat.
“Well … I have never kissed anyone before, for starters. Which means I have no skill. And I wouldn’t want that to be the first thing you knew about me, in person. I’d save that until we were alone. Like now.”
“Never?” she asked a little too loudly. “Like … ever? Like, elementary school and everything?”
“Never,” he confirmed. “It’s just never come up before and, I must confess, the idea of kissing you makes me quite nervous. Even now. I don’t like being inexperienced at things with people I would like to impress.”
Holy cow. There was seriously so much to unpack with Adam, it was unreal.
Did he live in an actual ivory tower, or something? She’d have to ask Bella because Adam was a good-looking guy. Even if he was shy, he should still have girls coming at him all the time.
How was it possible that he’d never kissed anyone?
It didn’t make sense. Very little about Adam did.
“On my side, I’m curious how you got here,” he said, interrupting her thoughts. “You must have pulled some serious strings to get yourself on this trip.”
“I did,” Whitney confessed, even though she wasn’t done talking about him yet. “Although, now that I’m here I feel like I understand less about the trip than when I started and am still confused about what’s so great about this place we’re going to.”
“It's just a great place to prove a theory,” Adam replied. “One we’ve kind of talked about before in DMs.”
“We talked about a lot of things in DMs,” she reminded him.
“True. But remember that time I brought up my singularity theory?”
Oh, yay! She actually knew what he was talking about.
“The theory you have that we are all the singularity and the internet is just waiting to absorb us all back into the motherboard?”
Or something like that.
He chuckled. “I like how you say it. And it’s not something I really believe, it’s more a hypothesis I’m interested in disproving for the simple fact that I’d like the universe to be more interesting than that. But to disprove it, I must assimilate. And to do that, I must find the personal labels my generation can see, accept as real, and understand.”
“Oh, my gosh. You make everything sound like homework,” she said as her brain abandoned any attempt to understand what he’d just said.
“Sorry, I’ll work on that,” he said, his voice sounding a little lost. “It’s just growing more and more apparent to me that our generation was largely raised by screens, apps, and cell phones, and that I was not. I was raised on educational media and have never had a cell phone. And I believe this drastically impacts my ability to communicate with people my own age.”
Whoa, wait. He’d never had a cell phone. Like, ever?
How was that possible?
“The rigor of my childhood has obviously resulted in great benefits for me academically,” Adam continued. “I have a bright future ahead of me if I capitalize on the advantages I have been raised with. But I am also aware that—even though talking to you is easy, for some reason—most people my age don’t know how to relate to me. And I have trouble relating to them. And when I do an analysis on the core miscommunications between me and other people our age, it often seems that things might be different if I just knew my social labels and was able to communicate them through media references. If I did that, then maybe society would know what to do with me. So that’s what this trip is about. Z Labyrinth is the perfect place to go when you want to see the part you play in the world and who you are in a collective big picture. And I would like that.”
Okay, that was seriously the saddest reason for a vacation ever, and Whitney kind of wanted to give Adam a hug.
In the years they’d DMed, she had often wondered if Adam was lonely. He seemed available all time and never spoke of dating anyone. At the time, she’d thought he was playing hard to get.
Now she knew better.
“People often label me as autistic, but I don’t think I fit the profile,” he added. “It’s the label most associated with me, yet it makes me uncomfortable—not because I’m afraid to be autistic. Because I think calling me autistic creates a false impression of the label. I know I’m definitely atypical, but I’d like to find the right label for it so I can meet other people like me.”
“You mean other geniuses?” Whitney suggested.
“Well, I do meet that criteria,” he sighed. “But geniuses don’t make for the best social group and I already think too much. More and more lately, I find I like being around people who see the world more simply.”
And mystery solved: that’s why he liked talking to her.
He didn’t say it out loud, but he might as well have: Adam liked Whitney because she was dumb.
Coming on this trip was turning out to be all sorts of good for her self-esteem. And, even knowing that the next question out of her mouth was bound to be stupid by Adam’s standards, she asked it anyway.
“But, like, why drive four days to some desert lab facility? Why not just vacation to Disneyland, or something?”
There was a loaded pause before he replied, “I needed to go somewhere my parents couldn’t and wouldn’t accompany me. It was ultimately Dr. Gia who presented them with this elegant solution. All I had to do was consent to give it a try. And I did.”
His tone brought to mind Bella’s accusation about his parents and it was then Whitney realized that Adam probably did live in an ivory tower.
Like, for real.
This trip was him escaping his tower like Rapunzel and venturing out to find out how he fit in the real world.
And, bless his heart, he needed help.
“Question,” she said, still processing everything even as her mind went to the next complaint on her checklist: how he’d just walked away the night before when they’d been talking outside. Whitney still couldn’t get over how he'd left without hesitation the moment Gia had told him what time it was.
It still bothered her and she needed to understand.
“Yes?” he prompted.
“Your strict schedule…” she said, hands starting to fidget. “Is that your parents’ thing, or your thing? I mean, do you freak out when things go off schedule?”
A long pause answered her, then, “Is it weird that I don’t know the answer to that? Because, truth be told, I do panic when things go off schedule, but only when I know my parents will notice.”
“Why do you panic if you think they’ll notice?”
“Because my parents respond to unpredictability with greater restrictions,” he replied, sounding tired. “Always. They are very into safety and predictable outcomes. This means anytime an outcome looks unpredictable, they tend to introduce restrictions until things look predictable again. And those restrictions almost always involve removing me from the situation. So I am very careful to avoid surprising them to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of shutting things down. Because they’ll never not be glad when they shut things down for safety reasons. They’re both introverts, so they always have a long list of reasons for why it’s time to go home for the night.”
“But, given a choice, you would rather stay at the party and not leave early?” Whitney asked.
He shrugged on the other side of the blanket. “If I had a choice? Yes. I love drifting around at parties. No one is the same and everyone is in the middle of a different story. I could stay at a party all night just listening to people talk about their lives, I think.”
“So you like actual people.”
“I think so.”
“Yet ... you’ve never met a girl at a party and snuck off, or anything?”
Whitney literally felt him go deer-in-headlights next to her as he processed the question.
“No,” he finally said. “That would be very bad for the girl. My parents would not be happy.”
“Wow. They sound…” Whitney couldn’t find the word to finish her thought.
“Yeah, I know,” Adam replied, as if she had.
Then they were silent. And the silence felt good.
It was weird. But cool.
But also totally messed up and complicated.
But simple, too … and more than a little sad, but not in a way that helped to dwell on. Especially if Adam had arranged for this whole trip specifically to escape his parents for two weeks to find out who he was without their supervision.
That was seriously so nuts to Whitney. She had no idea how to imagine that level of oversight and management in her life, nor did she want to.
But she did know how to have fun. And Adam was in desperate need of that in his life.
“Question,” Whitney said to the blanket hanging between them.
“Yeah?” he replied, and she could tell he'd turned to look at the blanket, too.
She hesitated. “Do you want me here? On the trip, I mean?”
He didn’t answer right away and her stomach sunk.
“I didn’t imagine you here,” he finally said. “In all projections of how this trip played out, you were never present -- not once, in all my iterations. And I must admit that I felt overwhelmed with panic when I realized who you were and that you were here. I nearly canceled the trip myself at the gas station just now so I could confront my parents and demand an explanation. But then I saw Chad and Bella circling in and decided to wait until the end of the day to make any final decisions. Then Kei Built this for us and here we are.”
“And you haven’t answered my question,” Whitney pointed out.
“Ah, true,” he said. “I just wanted to give you a full answer so you know that I mean it when I say I can no longer imagine the trip without you and would love it if you would stay. You might know me better than anyone on the planet and I would love to have a friend on this trip. Please, stay.”
“Oh,” Whitney said, feeling a heat rise to her cheeks. The guy could go from hot to cold and back again like a whiplash that left a goofy smile on her face. “Okay.”
“So … will you?” he asked.
“Stay?” she clarified.
“Happy to,” Whitney replied. “I’ve got one rule, though.”
“Okay,” he replied, sounding hesitant.
“No more talking about parents,” she said, fiddling with a ring on her finger. “The more I hear about yours, the more they scare me. And the more they scare me, the more I remember that my parents basically worship your parents and my anxiety starts buzzing like a hive of bees. So I say let’s leave all talk of parents behind until we get home, and we just pretend they don’t exist while we do this whole lab-in-the-desert thing you’re so excited about.”
“I like that rule,” Adam said, and she could hear the smile in his voice. And hearing his smile made her smile.
Man … over the years, Whitney imagined Adam’s personality all sorts of ways, but she’d never once imagined him as being this alone, or that having fun and being himself were two things he hadn’t learned how to do yet.
The good news was that Whitney was really good at both those things, and she was definitely down to go on an adventure with Adam.
So she reached her hand under the blanket separating them and offered it to him. “Okay, it’s a deal.”
When his hand found hers, he didn’t shake it with his right hand. He held it with his left. Gently. “It’s a deal.”
Heat flooded Whitney’s face as she blushed her response to the fact they were holding hands. The simple gesture had her so silly-happy that she literally couldn’t remember a time she’d been mad at him. She was sure she would remember it all later but, for the moment, nothing but smiles and daydreams.
It felt good. And the moment Whitney admitted that, she knew she had it bad, even as she made a point not to say anything.
The next two weeks were all about fun. Heavy talks could wait until after.
In the meantime, they could just keep things simple and hold hands until Adam felt ready to remove the curtain between them and look her in the eye again.
Because, honestly, even if Adam wasn’t anything like she expected, holding his hand still felt right.
And, for the moment, that was all that mattered.