The Power of Why by Raven Corinn Carluk

The Power of Why by Raven Corinn Carluk

Meredith knelt by AJ with her case of vodka, noticeably close like she wanted to talk. He continued restocking, waiting for her to speak.

She didn’t take long. “What were you saying about that new phone?”

AJ had worked at the liquor store for months, but he was sometimes still surprised by the woman’s perceptive abilities. When he and Jesse had talked about the phone coming out next week, she’d been ringing someone up at the counter, half-way across the store. She really shouldn’t have heard them, but clearly she had.

And clearly she’d taken an interest in him. Always asking little questions, always offering support when things got rough, always noticing when the others got under his skin. Always treating him as an individual and not part of some hive mind because of his skin color.

“Only that it’s going to cost like six hundred bucks for the basic one, after a new contract and everything.”

Meredith made a disgusted sound, pausing in her restocking. “Seriously? For a phone? Does it make dinner every night or something?”

“No, but it has a lot of cool features.” He finished with his box and went for another.

She finished hers and joined him. “That’s like a month’s worth of groceries for you, if you eat really well. Shit, I feed my whole family on only a little more than that for the month.”

AJ frowned, pausing. “I hadn’t thought about it like that…”

Meredith smirked, giving that knowing grin that reminded him she was fifteen years his elder. “I know.” She took the box from him and moved down the aisle with it. “So why do you want one?”

“Well, it’s the new Samsung phone,” he answered, taking a new case. Restock days were busy, but the talking helped distract from the non-stop monotonous work.

“Okay, and…?”

“And what?”

Meredith speared him with a glance, left brow cocked at a sharp angle. “’Because it’s new’ can’t be your only reason for wanting to spend a month’s worth of food on one. What does it do that your current phone doesn’t do?”

AJ frowned as he stared at a shelf, her question worming through his subconscious. He couldn’t quite put into words what he was feeling. He couldn’t even form the thoughts consciously, didn’t know exactly what was happening, but he did know there was something powerful in her logic.

“Well, it has wireless charging, and a 3D selfie camera, and it can control any smart tv…” He trailed off, feeling her suppressed humor. “What?” he asked sharply.

“Just…” Meredith laughed. “Everything. Do you take a lot of selfies? What’s wrong with a charger cord? Why should you use your phone to control your tv?”

Her flurry of questions caused him to frown and take a step back. “If you don’t like something, you don’t have to yuck all over my yum.”

Meredith’s smile dropped as she turned to face him directly. “Yucking on yum implies I’m doing it spitefully, that I have no reason behind my questions. It implies that I want you to hate something just because I hate it.

“What I’m trying to do is understand why you like it. Maybe if I can see it from your point of view, I can come to like the phone too. All I’m asking is why. Why do you like something that costs $600 and isn’t an awesome upgrade over what you already have?”

AJ met her steady gaze, appreciating her straightforward manner. She’d never been anything but herself with him, had never insulted him behind his back. This wasn’t some elaborate ruse to mock him or prove he was beneath her.

“I want…” He paused, tongue thick in his mouth, unable to break free of her intense eyes. Meredith waited, unblinkingly, honestly wanting his answer.

Why did he want the phone? He wasn’t some trendsetter making money from a hundred thousand online followers. He didn’t have frivolous amounts of money. He didn’t use his phone for much more than reading while riding the bus, and it was only a year old.

AJ couldn’t answer her. He couldn’t answer himself. “Why…” he whispered, brain spinning with incoherent thoughts.

Meredith laid a hand on his shoulder, stepping closer. “Follow that thread. Keep going.” Her voice was low, pitched just for the pair of them, and her gaze was intense. Expectant.

A shiver ran up his very core and a fine sweat broke out along his spine. AJ swallowed hard, that single word running rampant through his skull. Why.

Why should he spend so much money on a phone? Why should he care what the local sports team did? Why should he drink the name brand cognac? Why should he play dumb and hide his intelligence? Why should he feel like a victim just because he was young and black?

AJ’s knees threatened to buckle and Meredith clasped his face, eyes boring into his head. “You’re doing it. Finish it. You were never fully conditioned, and you know it. Come on.” Her encouraging tone filled his senses, offering him a lifeline.

With each lap inside his thoughts, the word grew louder. Why? WHY? WHY! All consuming, burning, leaving room for nothing else.

Something snapped inside, ripping up his spine with fury and fire, opening places in his soul he’d never realized were closed. He’d never even known they were there until they blazed to life with a celestial scream. AJ became lost in the overwhelming sensations.

Meredith kept hold of his face, her eyes the only stability in the maelstrom of epiphany. “Breathe, AJ. You’re okay. Welcome to freedom.”

Her voice carried authority, resonated with calm, and he latched onto her presence. She was an anchor, a steady foundation, a beacon of stability in a sea of chaos.

AJ let her voice soothe him, let it carry him back to sanity. He breathed in when she did, exhaled with a shuddering sigh. Time meant nothing, but it wasn’t long before he was in control again. Worn out and run ragged, but no longer tossed about on waves of madness.

Meredith grinned, nodding as she released him. “How are you feeling?”

AJ stared around with wide eyes. Colors were sharper, sounds much clearer, smells more layered. “I feel…remarkable. What was that?” He knew, from deep within his soul, that everything he saw and felt was real, that there was no trickery, no hallucination. The world really was this beautiful and rich.

“You’re on the first steps of your awakening, no longer a slave to the archons.” Meredith chuckled when he frowned in confusion. “Maybe it would help if I said, ‘You’ve broken free of the Matrix’?”

AJ’s brows lifted as he leaned closer to Meredith, curiosity flooding in behind the euphoria. “The Matrix is real?” What other great wonders and truths had he been missing out on?

Meredith grinned broadly, clapping him on the shoulder. “You have so much to learn.”

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