by Evan Brown
She was the only girl born on January 16th, 1986 in Pennsylvania. A local celebrity by the time she was one hour old. Somewhere there is grainy footage from a local network affiliate of bemused newscasters rushing to cover the story first, their belly full of coffee to wake up at 5 because the only baby in the Keystone State decided to grace the world with her presence at 4:03 am.
She'd seen over the years many accounts of her birth on that day from various news sources. She even made the national news a few days later, albeit as a smaller closing ‘human interest' piece.
Her most favorite coverage was from a local TV station. She still had the footage on a VHS tape. Too warped to watch. Too fragile to transfer to DVD. Too much meaning to throw away. So old and grainy in fact, it was almost hopelessly destroyed by bad tracking and a voice that is so out of synch with the footage. It reminded her of delayed satellite feeds from war torn countries, where the journalist has to wait a few seconds for the question to arrive before speaking. But she liked it like that, though. Watched it so many times it had become as familiar to me as the triptych of baby pictures that hung on her parents' wall along the staircase.
It goes like this: a perky blond stands before the microphone, trying to conceal her perkiness in an era where women could finally make it in journalism doing hard news.
So she's making an effort to treat the story like the assassination of JFK when in fact it is a fluff piece about a baby. One can see her trying not to feel a biological tick of the clock as she soberly announces the news with just a hint of a smile that Holly Fig was the only girl born in Pennsylvania on January 16th 1986.
She tries, and fails. Because in that instant, at the 23 second mark, Holly Fig always sees the reporter's façade crumble. In that fleeting second she sees the woman's realization that she's made a decision that in effect will leave her with only a career to keep her warm at night. That look seems to crush her like the weight of an iron anvil. Over and over again. The warped feature of a woman desperate for something she does not have, will not have, because her marriage to her career was a shotgun wedding fueled by a desire to challenge society.
Once a year on her birthday, Holly would watch the tape. She knows every inch of it, every millisecond. The pancake makeup barely covering the bags under the reporter's eyes/ The way she awkwardly hops outside of the warm TV van that morning to the bitter icy cold outside St Regis' Woman's hospital, announcing with a stern reform school voice that the only baby in Pennsylvania was indeed born on the 16th of January at 4:03am.
Holly had no idea what happened to the reporter. She liked to imagine she went on to become a huge success. And then at the height of her success, threw up a giant middle finger at the hordes of male journalists who would pay her les and belittle her. And then finally quit and marry that guy she should have been with all along. And then have a couple of kids of her own. None with distinctive birth dates perhaps, but special nonetheless.
Not that Holly was against feminism at all. It's just she had a knack for knowing a true desire when she saw one, and her heart always ached for the people who don't get to live it. And when you can see a woman's ovaries twitching in a news report, it's a pretty clear sign.
Celebrity ebbed and flowed in cycles. At the start of her schooling it became and inevitability. Elementary school. High school. College. Writing class. Art class.The first day of a new job. The question followed her everywhere she went. And anytime the question “tell me something unique about yourself,” was asked, it was the first thing out of her mouth. She was forced to answer it.
Forced. Because the answer always opened a can of worms. More questions. What's it like? Do they still interview you? Has it happened sense?
I don't think about it. I stopped making news when I was three. I don't know.
As much as she cringed inside, Holly tried to be a good sport about it. Usually ended up saying a variation on the same thing.
“My name is Holly Fig. I was the only girl born in Pennsylvania on January.” She stopped saying the year.
Sometimes she'd fantasize about saying “I'm left-handed,” and leaving it at that. But somehow the original trivia automatically tumbled out of her mouth. Which then does two things. It derails the round robin talk that businesses and teachers always subject the world to, and it also makes the authority figure hate her for wanting to be, in their minds, “the center of attention.”
Far from it. Holly wanted nothing more than to be the opposite of the center of attention. What they all seem to forget is that she never chose to be born on that day in Pennsylvania. She didn't choose to be born at all. It's not like she ever went looking for the attention.
She remembered though, a brief time in high school when her birth meant nothing more than anyone else's. Then she was like every other kid. Birthdays and balloons, cupcakes and party hats. And nothing beyond this.
Now at twenty-five, Holly had spent a few decades trying to stay out of the limelight and being successful at it.
Holly studied. She rebelled, too, but not as badly as some kids. She tried out for theatre and found out she preferred stage and sound crew, because it was cooler to wear black and walk on the stage with the lights off, moving props here and there like a ghost that people could dimly see but not recognize. Holly loved it.
The leaves would turn vibrant colors in fall and she had yet to live anywhere that equaled Pittsburgh's autumn display. In November the rain would fall in heavy drops and her hands were always cold. Then it would snow. And turn into freezing cold.
Snow days sometimes. More often than not they'd shut the school because of the temperature. On those days, Holly would stare out the window. And she'd get depressed because she knew the barren skies would be there until late April. It's hard not to be depressed in a city that is grey 300 days out of the year.
But there was always a respite. On early June days during her junior year in high school, she'd walk home from school with her boyfriend, and they'd stop to pick Mulberries and munch them on the way back to his house, their fingers and mouths stained purple with their sometimes sweet, sometimes tart, mostly non-committal juices which was another way to describe her relationship with her boyfriend.
They were together for a year, if you could call it that. His father who died of prostate cancer, loved her dearly. Telling her once he hoped they'd get married and take care of his record collection and two Yorkshire terriers that mock humped their way around the house despite being spayed and neutered.
But of course it didn't happen. She was seventeen. And there were sets to build and plays and dance recitals to put on, and a city to move out of some day, and cancer was much farther than she'd ever been before and she didn't want to visit there anyway. The grey skies of Pittsburgh were enough of a burden.
It's not as if Holly ever felt suicidal. She was down enough most days to have been considered a candidate for therapy or medication. But it seemed to gradually get better as the years went along and high school became college and college gave way to a few years of trying to find her way as a writer.
Pittsburgh was a nice charcoal shelter, and life was safe and she got to know the city, and explored the arteries and back streets and flowed like the three rivers until she dried up inside because there was nothing left to see and she couldn't bare to live in it any more.
So a few years after college, she scraped together the money she'd been putting away since her senior year of high school, and she got out.
Leaving at twenty-three was as easy as not returning at twenty-four. But the problem was even all these years later Holly still didn't know who she was, except the only girl born on a specific day in 1986. An only child to end all only children. She also didn't know where she belonged. And drifted from Raleigh to Savannah to Chicago.
When she'd return home for the odd visit, Steel City enveloped her like a friend who smothers and belches too much and still makes vaguely racist jokes but will do anything for you because you're from there even if you haven't lived there in years.
Pittsburgh constantly reminded Holly she was from Pittsburgh. The inclined skyline a permanent scene in the back of her mind. It was there all right, and mostly fine and never harmful and didn't do any people any harm. But if she'd wanted that, or saw any value in it, she wouldn't have left.
After Raleigh, and Savannah, and Chicago, she moved to the other side of the country. She had no feeling one way or another about L.A. except that it was big and most of the people lived up to their stupid reputation, although perhaps its was really too early to say that.
Before California, when she'd meet guys, who seemed to have an interest, but would then give the old “I have a girlfriend” rug pull. It got annoying. And she thought she might have better luck connecting with someone on the other side of the country.
Holly had long since been relegated to the friendship pile by most guys. Not because she wasn't pretty. But because she was smart and didn't hide it. Which meant she was a threat. She saw through most people so fast, men especially, it was if they weren't there. And most men don't like to be ignored.
Still, with all her moving around it hadn't mattered much. Even if she did meet the odd guy (and they usually were odd) who seemed to like her, and wasn't offended by her intelligence, it was invariably the week before she'd made up her mind to move to a different city. Timing is everything, she'd say on nights she couldn't sleep.
Holly was approaching her thirties they way you'd walk past a stray dog, if you had no interest in dog. She'd been alive long enough now that finally no one cared about her stupid birth story. As a topic of conversation, it wasn't something people wanted to hear any more. She was at the age where people would say: “I'm at that age.” And that suited Holly fine.
She moved to Los Angeles not because she loved it there or wanted to become an actress but because she spent her entire life in Pittsburgh where she never felt at home, and all the other cities in the intervening years felt like stones on a footpath. She moved to L.A. because she wanted to step on another stone. And this was as likely as any to lead her somewhere.
Holly saved up enough to float her for a few months. She had hoped to find something sooner rather than later, though. It might not be so easy when the economy had bottomed out so far it had nowhere else to go. Not even up. Holly hoped to find something soon so she wouldn't have to go back to waitressing again.
Holly was completely over working in a restaurant and working small jobs. She had a big brain. If she couldn't use it completely, she wanted to be paid more than nothing per hour.
She wanted a decent job. With benefits. And a salary above subsistence level.
While waiting for her baggage in LAX, Holly made small talk with a man who had been on the same flight. The conversation meandered from the ills of plane travel, to the recent unexplained rise of flight attendants freaking out on the job. T
“Do you have a place to stay,” he asked. And then quickly “That's not a pick-up line, by the way. “
“I do,” she said. And when it looked as if that answer wouldn't suffice: “I'm staying with a friend of a friend. In Venice.”
“Okay good,” he said, sounding relieved. “That's my bag.”
She noticed his bag belching through the conveyor's opening, hers just behind it. The man's bag was fancy, and leather and probably cost a lot of money. Holly's frumpy green duffel bag was free. Her mom gave it to her.
“Where you from?”
“Ah a Pittsburgh girl! I'm from Pittsburgh, too. Well, from Cranberry Township.”
I am not a Pittsburgh girl, she thought. “I'm from Bethel Park.”
“Nice.” The man hefted his bag, placed it on the ground and popped the handle open in one swift move, as if he'd done it a thousand times before, and no doubt had.
And then as if he'd made up his mind already, “If you need a job, we're hiring.”
“And what do we do?”
The man smiled. “It's kind of had to describe, but basically we're a kind of a digital company. We maintain websites but there are other things we do, too.
“So you're all things to all people.”
“Something like that, yes. Except porn. We don't do that. Ever. Our stuff is more high-brow.”
Holly felt the weight of her bag and wished she had a suitcase with wheels like the one the man had. “And where do you see this person fitting in?” she asked, and nodded to herself.
He laughed. “That depends on you. Tell you what—why don't you stop by on Monday. We're in Venice, so you could bike or even walk there.” He gave her his card.
“We're called Metal Sparrow.”
“Monday it is,” she said.
Holly waited for the man to leave first, and then waited a few minutes more. Technically she wasn't staying with a friend, but was subletting for a year from a friend of a friend of a friend who was studying in Germany. The Metal Sparrow man didn't need to know that. He didn't need to know anything.
The apartment was rent controlled, and the friend of a friend of a friend was nice enough to say she could stay there for 800 dollars, just one hundred above its current price. Normally, she was assured, full rate would be somewhere around 1800. The place was nice, just off Venice Blvd, and a fifteen second walk to the beach. She'd have to start looking for another place after a year, which would be enough time to find someone suitable.
Holly didn't care about the beach. That's where people went on vacation, and stoners went and surfers who might also be stoners, and homeless people who could be a combination of all the above. These were not people she wanted to know. Then again, most people fell into the category of People Holly Didn't Want To Know.
The taxi drove down Lincoln Blvd past Marina del Rey and straight to Venice. The driver seemed to know everything but the actual street itself. ‘We find it,' he said, in a thick unidentifiable accent that all taxi drivers have.
They found it. Holly paid the man and waited until he left, before going up the stairs and lifting the box planter to find the key sitting safe in a Ziploc bag. She opened the door and went inside.
The apartment was small but cute. The kitchen cramped and old fashioned, but the oven was gas, not electric. The living room was oddly shaped but cozy. A giant flat screen was mounted on the wall. And next to it, a fireplace she suspected did not do much beyond proving ambiance.
The stone chimney was cool to the touch and the room felt damp and chilly. Holly was glad she didn't take some last minute advice from some of the customers she used to serve. “You won't need sweaters or anything, it's always sunny and warm there.”
Holly went into the bedroom. It consisted of a bed and a desk. She dropped her bags and went back to the kitchen, opening cupboards to see what was available in the way of spices and utensils. Holly loved to cook. It was her creative outlet, and an economical way to indulge.
Just as she thought. A bachelor pad. Salt, pepper and seasoning salt made up the total seasonings in the house. The cups and dishes were mismatched but thankfully clean. There was a spaghetti pot, a roasting pan and three frying pans, so all was not lost.
On the kitchen counter she found a helpful welcome note pointing out how to lock the door, how to work the remote, and where the nearest bars and taco stands where and what the password to the internet was. She noted the password, and then crumpled the note and threw it away.
After ten minutes online she found the nearest grocery store and drugstore and headed back out. It was Friday. She'd treat herself to lunch, and then hit the stores and buy in enough supplies for the weekend.
Before she powered down, Holly had a look at Metal Sparrow's website. It was minimally designed, and tasteful. The About Us suggestion gave a vague notion of what they did. Internet security, I.P monitoring, website design. They'd been a company for six years, and mentioned who the owners were, a long with photos of employees. One of them was the man Holly had met in the airport. He was the CEO. But there was no name to go with his face.
She looked up Metal Sparrow's address and found it just off Abbot-Kinney. It was a doable walk. She took down the address, sketched a small map she wouldn't need, and then put it away. She had two days to do whatever she wanted. And Holly wanted to cook.
The man looked at Holly and said “Metal Sparrow. The first word because we're got a strong iron-clad focus. Sparrow represents the beautiful reasons why we do what we do.”
“I still don't understand what you do exactly,” Holly said. She'd been in the neatly designed offices for thirty minutes now. She had gotten a complete tour, from the large patio and zen garden complete with koi pond outside, to the open aired rooms that weren't offices but sort of were because no matter how hard interior design tries, if you are working, then it is work and it becomes an office.
The man continued. “There are archetypes of people on the internet. At least five. Soon to be four, though. Come this way.”
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this is an excerpt from a novel i'm currently in the editing phase of. it's speculative fiction but also not. this is the introduction to one of the main characters in the novel: Holly Fig.