Gaff's Boojie Box

Just like every morning, Susan awoke to the pale purple light of the sun streaming through her window. Just like every morning, she had a breakfast of eggs, sausage, and coffee.

As she ate the sausage, she remembered how difficult it had been to recreate the exact taste of the meat from her memories of childhood. It had taken several months and at least eight thousand tries, but had certainly been worthwhile.

When she was done eating, she took a shower and brushed her teeth. Then, just like every morning, she put on her jacket and headed outside. As she stepped out onto the street, the same chill she always felt passed by her. She never minded. The brisk weather was one of the things that she enjoyed about Pollensbee. Susan allowed herself a moment to admire her masterwork in its entirety. Sixty thousand people, living, breathing, and having free will, or something close enough. Eight thousand miles of wiring throughout every building and lampost, along every street. One million, six hundred thousand gallons of water, not a drop wasted.

Buildings, streets, electricity grids. Social customs, lives. All crafted to her perfect specifications.

The moment passed, and it was off to work for Susan. Swell as Pollensbee was, no city could run itself.

The first order of the day practically ran into Susan. During the night, a gust of wind had torn torn a branch off one of the elm trees that lined the street outside of Jane Lattimer's house. She sighed. Nights were always tricky. Even the best systems had some openings for entropy when she wasn't there to monitor and correcting their workings. And even she needed to sleep like a normal human.

Lesser minds might have considered it to be a non-issue, but Susan could see the larger picture. The branch might become a symbol of chaos and mismanagement, causing discomfort to the good people of Pollensbee. Far better to fix it at its source than allow worry and disorientation to fester. She closed her eyes and imagined the branch as it should have been. Providing a place for one of the six hundred thirteen grackles that resided in Pollensbee to make a roost. Giving shade to a child. That sort of thing.

And that was that. When she opened her eyes, the branch was a part of the tree again. It had never fallen. Susan continued along her way.

Over the course of the day, Susan made six-hundred forty-four alterations, slightly above average. Most were minor, at least to the untrained eye. But Susan recognized the importance of every single one.

The Richardson family was the last change that she made. She frowned as she came to the ranch-style house. From inside, she could feel the resentment of Lisa towards her mother-in-law. Something to do with a broken plate.

Susan sighed. The Richardsons were a particularly difficult family; this was her third time this month righting wrongs inside the household. Despite the precision of the system that Susan had developed, ensuring the maximum happiness and utility for each family, the Richardsons were always fighting about something or other. Susan had once attempted to explain the dynamics of Pollensbee to them, about why they really had nothing to fight about. She had been met with blank stares.

Unlike the Wisneskis, the Richardsons were too central to the community to simply be removed. Eric Richardson was a board member at the public library, and his social interactions were central to at four distinct networks of citizens, encompassing a total seventy-eight individuals. Lisa's work at the car lot was invaluable for thirty-nine functions as well. And the children, Emily and Jane, were crucial components of the social hierarchy at the Pollensbee High School. Susan could no more wish them away than she could the wiring for the street lights. Better to fix it and move on.

Susan closed her eyes, and imagined the Richardsons as a loving family once again. When she opened them, she no longer felt the hostility radiating from the house. She smiled and moved on. After a shower and a hot meal, imagined to exact specifications, she went to sleep.

The next day, Susan followed the exact same routine. Same breakfast, same breeze. As she went to work, she frowned.

Same broken branch. Broken in the same way. It only took a moment for her to set it right, but it disturbed her all the same. She considered taking some protective action, maybe removing the tree altogether, but decided against it. The tree was involved in countless, minute interactions throughout the day, all calculated to maximize overall happiness. She imagined the branch fixed and moved on.

As she went around righting the wrongs of Pollensbee, Susan began to feel a fuzzy fatigue settle on the edges of her vision. Something about that branch.

She hadn't felt tired since she first began her work with Pollensbee. When she had first moved to the city thirty years ago, "basket case" would have been a charitable assessment. Domestic strife, crime, drugs, disorder. She could sense all of it. It would have been simple enough, maybe even better, to wipe the city away altogether, like she had done with New Lebanon and Fulton. But she relished the challenge of correcting the wayward city. And, she had to admit, walking down the tree-lined path between Maple and Dunn, that the place held a certain charm for her, even in the days when the city seemed to wheeze.

After six years of intimate study - of census records, of building plans, of hand-drawn maps written in symbols only she could decipher - Susan was ready. Taking a deep breath while sitting at her dining room table, she pictured the city as it should be. And, with that, it was. Gone was the dirty Pollensbee with its filthy streets and furtive drug deals. The water pipes leaching toxic chemicals into the taps of every sink in the city vanished. The surly meter maids became, in an instant, morphed into gregarious public servants.

And that had been that. Pollensbee had run smoothly ever since that day. Well, more or less - no system, no matter how intricate, could run perpetually. But with an occasional nip and tuck, the city stayed effectively the same as it once had been.

That night, Susan returned to her sparse apartment. Just to be sure, she reached out to Pollensbee with her mind, feeling the contours and searching for possible breaks. Finding none, she went to sleep.

The next day, Susan skipped breakfast, skipped correcting the air pressures to allow for the breeze to brush past her as she exited the apartment. Instead, she rose from her bed and got dressed before simply deciding that she was in front of the broken tree.

The branch was there, lying on the sidewalk as it had been before. Mocking her. And everything she tried to do for this town. All her plans. She had to fight the acid rising in her throat. The last time she had let her frustration get the better of her, she reminded herself, New Lebanon had happened. Or, more precisely, hadn't.

Every problem had an optimal solution, she remembered. The world, at least the visible world, was a place of inherent order. All she had to do was find the solution and the order would be restored. But as she devised a solution, she would have to put together a stopgap. With a thought, the tree and the branch vanished.

As she moved to leave, Susan thought that she noticed hairline fractures she had never seen before, spidering across the brick of the Lattimer house. She shook her head and assured herself that it was just the stress.

That day, there were eight hundred thirty-seven mistakes to correct. A thirty six-percent increase from normal amounts. Albert Nitti had even sworn, on the street no less. A brief moment had fixed his attitude, but Susan felt shaken nonetheless.

She had to be vigilant; any mistake, any broken system, could fester and eventually bring down the whole thing. She realized that now. To shut her eyes was to give the enemy, who- or whatever it was, time to regroup.

Susan did not sleep that night. Instead, she studied maps and figures. Grids of Pollensbee as it had been, census figures of Pollensbee as it was and would forever be. Logically, there was no reason why these acts of defiance should exist, let alone multiply. The system was perfect, without room for error.

Without any room for error, she thought, the only possible source was from outside. An infection. She had removed Pollensbee from the world to prevent just such an outcome. But it had spread anyway.

The sun rose to Susan hunched over reams of paper. Around the edges of the room, the sheets were organized into color-coded stacks, each on a particular issue. As the paper drew nearer, it became increasingly disorganized, laying in heaps or balanced in teetering stacks. Around Susan's seat, the information began to spill off the page itself, figures and graphs dancing in the air around her. She would keep Pollensbee the same.

The sun rose and set. It was the first day that Pollensbee had been without Susan's corrections. There were no overt changes in behavior. A sideways glance here. A muttered curse there. But the people could feel something different. Something new and uncertain.

The sun rose again. The space around Susan had shredded. The information move freely, removed even from its representation in numbers and graphs. She had been updating the reality of Pollensbee to incorporate its existing caffeine into her bloodstream.

Every problem branched into another problem, which branched into a previously solved problem, which affected the outcome of some previously unforeseen issue. There was an order to it all, and she would find it. So far fractals and complex sets had failed utterly to offer a single, unified explanation for the phenomenon. But she would find it. She would.

It was on the third day that the caffeine finally gave out.

There was Pollensbee, laid bare before her in white paper and black ink. There was the outside, decaying whenever she glanced towards it.

Then, there was an infinite, roaring blackness, and nothing else.

Susan awoke to a loud honking. She started and saw a blue car, horn raging, charging its way through her window. Almost without thinking, she imagined a set of steel bars in front of the glass. The car tried to brake, but it had built up too much speed.

There was a heavy crunching sound, followed by the long mewling of a dying car horn. She looked and saw the blue hood of the vehicle had been torn in several places. There was no sign of a driver. Still half-asleep, she thought she could see the twisted metal of the car's hood begin to bend and twist, pushing its way through the bars.

She looked around for her notes, her energy redoubled. This madness was just more example of what happened when she let down her guard, even for a moment. This pandemonium would not stand - a car, ramming a house! Really!

The notes had been everywhere, all around the room, when she had fallen asleep. Now, there was not a single sheet of paper anywhere. She searched, then tore, through the room, seeking the papers with the real Pollensbee. Nothing. No notes, no anything. It was then that she noticed the muddy prints leading to the kitchen.

The door swung open, shards of glass and ceramic swaying slightly in the strong breeze. Susan felt a pit in her stomach. The car was one thing. This was far, far worse somehow. In a moment, the kitchen was restored, everything whole and in its place. It didn't make her feel better.

Susan concentrated, and imagined herself in the town square. She had to get those notes, to make everything right. The park was clean and the grass swayed in the cool breeze. Children played around her. Couples walked hand in hand. She opened her eyes. She was still in her kitchen. The pit in her stomach grew. Never before had she been unable to imagine herself somewhere in Pollensbee.

She tried recalling the grocery store, with its exact piles of produce. Nothing. The malt shop. The library. She stood where she was. For the first time since she found her power, since before Pollensbee or New Lebanon or any of the other failures, Susan walked, not because she wanted to, but because she had to.

As she walked down the streets of Pollensbee, the sheer density of mistakes closed in on Susan. Lamp posts were toppled, spouting clouds of curtain fabric from their stalks. Fingers emerged from walls, swaying upwards and downwards, as if in a breeze. Men and women with faces twisting and melting in endless loops.

Susan tried to right the problems as they emerged. Lamp back. Branches righted. Benches corrected. But this was nothing but treating symptoms. Whatever disease it was that afflicted Pollensbee, it wasn't some mere glitch. It had to be something much deeper, something at its very core.

After a few more blocks, she came onto a whorl of ants, covering every surface of what used to be the Stop-N-Save. Their fat, red bodies rippled in the breeze, causing the entire scene shimmer slightly. At the very edge of her hearing, Susan could hear their ten trillion little legs scraping in unison. Mocking her.

A moment of concentration, then the entire block was gone. Susan didn't even realize it at first. It was there, then space folded in on itself instantly, leaving only the park and the library directly next to one another.

She started. There had once been pollution and disease and disgusting corruption of everything that was important in this spot. But now, there was purity. Or at least a lack of rot. Looking around, she saw disorder, directly defying her will. She saw New Lebanon and Fulton and the dozens of other towns that had simply refused to be happy. That would rather be destroyed than submit to a plan.

She gave Pollensbee its wish. Swathes of the city simply weren't. Abominations were replaced by emptiness. Mr. Richards with the nine chattering mouths was gone. The fire hydrant growing fractally into the sky vanished.

The city seemed to recognize what was happening, shrinking away as she approached. It made no difference. Even the parts of the town that had not fallen to corruption were purged. They held the seeds of disorder. Years of work, thousands of hours, all gone in an instant. The gibbering screams of the city didn't even register with her. Already, she was planning her new city. Somewhere that would not fall. A place that would accept her perfection.

It took hours, but finally, she was down to the last block. All around her was emptiness where Pollensbee had once stood.

The branch sat on the sidewalk, twisted and dead. The source of all this disorder, all this chaos, it hadn't changed in the slightest. Just like the broken tile in New Lebanon, or the dead grass in Fulton.

Susan stood there, facing the hateful thing, the only aspect of Pollensbee that remained. Then, the branch was gone. But the feeling, the small itch at the back of her mind, was still there.

It was then that she realized. The constant of chaos hadn't been a branch or a patch of grass or whatever. It had been her. From her childhood until now, the world had never been as it should have been. Her calculations hadn't been wrong. She had been.

There was only one thing to be done, then. She concentrated on herself. Then, just like that, she was gone.

In the place where Pollensbee and its god once stood, there was nothing, pure and orderly and still.

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