PART I - The Loneliest Number

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Jerry took a long drag on the cigarette, letting his mind wander in search of random, creative connections.

White wisps leaked from the corner of his lips as he held the inhalation in his mouth.

He tapped a finger thoughtfully on his writing desk—an antique hunk of solid wood that weighed just shy of a metric ton and featured a roll-up cover. Jerry had rescued the desk from the community dumpster a day before it would have been carted off to a landfill. Now, it sat as the sole piece of furniture (barring the chair he was sitting on, of course) in the second room of his small apartment.

The antique desk with the roll-up cover was the perfect complement to the massive typewriter sitting front and center.

This was Jerry's writing room. Minimal, distraction-free, the perfect aesthetic to cultivate the most creative of writing.

Except ...

The massive typewriter had more in common with the cigarette pinched between Jerry's fingers than it did the antique desk. Upon closer examination, the typewriter was a modern-day gadget—sleek plastic, rounded keycaps, re-appropriated carriage returns, retro detailing arranged as a shrine to an uninspired, flat e-ink display.

As for the cigarette, it was electronic. The smoke was vapor and the flavor was Pineapple Twist, hold the nicotine.

Jerry released the cloud of vapor from his mouth. He had tried once to inhale properly, but didn't see the point—the e-cig helped him think and it paired nicely with the tumbler of straight rum (albeit coconut-flavored) that sat next to the e-ink typewriter.

He hunched forward to re-read the last line of text he had written but was immediately distracted by the ping of a notification on his phone. His eyes darted to the final ironic contradiction in his distraction-free writing room.

Dopamine flooded Jerry's brain.

Twitter was lighting up.

E-cig dangling between his lips, Jerry scooped up his phone and leaned back in the chair, diving into his Twitter notifications.

The dopamine high evaporated as quickly as it had arrived.

He had shared his latest short story almost an hour ago. It was a pandemic-inspired, ten-thousand-word tome about zombies at Disney World (it's a small world, after all, when the Pirates of the Caribbean try to eat you and you're sniping at the undead from the top of Cinderella Castle, splattering brains and gore into a not-so-hidden Mickey for the least-magical Disney selfie in the history of ever) and Jerry had every expectation that it would set the internet on fire.

At very least, he mused, he'd piss off the Disney freaks. Drama, in lieu of accolades, would have been just as satisfying.

Instead, the notifications were from a follow-train someone had tagged him in. He scrolled the notifications, hoping that there was something—anything!—about his story, but new notifications kept popping up as people continued liking, retweeting, and tagging more people in the follow-train.

Jerry cursed and stabbed at his phone until the offending tweet was muted. He tossed the device back on the desk where it clattered loudly and he fumed, teeth grinding. To say he was quick to anger would have been an understatement—a simmering rage was one of the single through-lines in Jerry's life. It kept him from maintaining a relationship with his parents (never mind their unreasonable demand for rent, they couldn't even be bothered to read Jerry's fiction); it cut his higher education short (why sit in an infuriating class about statistics when he could spend that same time writing?); it nearly got him fired from his last job as an assistant manager at a self-storage facility ("Look, the economy isn't great, so let's just call it a layoff."); and not so long ago, when he was particularly enraged with how the entire world seemed to be stacked against him, it almost cost him his life.

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