Chapter 5. What does it all mean?

Cathryn flicked on the kitchen light. She set her purse on one counter. An open bag of corn chips was mostly sticking out the top of it. In her left hand was a brown bag with a fifteen-dollar screwcap bottle of red wine in it; she set that down next to the purse. She walked up to the cupboard that held the glasses. Open… ah, whew, still there. She opened one of the food cabinet doors.

Still not there.

She closed the cabinet. She said, out loud to the empty apartment, “Our food and beverage supplies are literally decimated.” She opened the cabinet again, hoping to see 90% of it there.

I guess you could say she did: 90% of nothing is also nothing. And there was nothing in the food cupboard.

She grabbed a wine glass, set it on the counter, and pulled the wine bottle out of its bag. She gripped and twisted and was rewarded with the usual crackling rip of a fresh screwcap. She tilted it to pour and stopped. Held it straight up in front of her. It appeared to be about 10% less full than it should be.

She very nearly hiss-grunted “I’m losing my mind” but stopped herself. The fact that she had already thought it and yet could still find her mind gave her some assurance. She half-filled the glass, drank it down directly, half-filled it again, grabbed the corn chips (10% lighter!), and walked over to her computer, flicking on the room light in passing.

The apartment felt empty. It still had the comforting smells of home, but the walls grew shadows like creeping ivy, every speck of dust on the floor echoed, and the tree outside the window waved to be let in. She set down her wine and chips, hit the spacebar to wake up her computer, and went around flipping on lights, looking as she went to make sure nothing else had changed.

This would be where she would normally sing or talk to herself, but now to speak was a sin. She was in The Quiet Place, but the predator that stalked her was… invisible? Undefined?

Or too precisely defined.

She sat down in her swivel desk chair and picked up the paper on the desk that had the dictionary license key on it. “Welcome to the world of Worcester,” it read. “Go to worcesteruniversal.com, click on ACTIVATE, and enter this key to start your subscription. Click on APP for details on downloading and activating the mobile app.” She thought maybe she wouldn’t just now. At the bottom, in smaller print, below the 37-digit license key, it said “By activating this license you agree to be subject to the updated terms and conditions of the online Worcester Universal Dictionary. Non-transferable. One license per household.”

She set the paper aside, paused, pursed her lips momentarily, then drank some wine. Her browser was still on the Worcester site. She typed “terrific” in the search field.

The word and its definitions appeared on the screen. She glared at them under pinched eyebrows. Reached for the largest and newest book on her shelf. Hefted it, opened it, flip flip flap flup flop flip fllep, terrific.

She looked up at the screen. Back at the book. Screen. Book. Screen.

The last definition in the print edition was missing from the web edition. Nothing on her screen said “wonderful” or “magnificent” as the book did. Just “extraordinary” and “provoking terror” and more explanation and quotations.

She almost uttered a vulgar imprecation under her breath. Caught herself and looked around by reflex.

She typed in “nauseous.” The website served up one definition: “provoking nausea” (plus citations et cetera). She cocked her head and squinted. Flipped to the definition in the book, flob flep flup flit flit.

There it was: two definitions. The first, older sense was the same as on the website. The second sense was the sense that everyone except for prickly unpleasant people uses: “experiencing nausea.”

She would have slammed the book shut, but it was a real Saint Bernard of paper. She heaved it shut and urfed it back onto the shelf.

She looked at the screen again. It showed the update date for the definition in the lower right corner of the entry. Five days ago.

Who was doing this and why? And why was it making a difference? Or was it, even, actually?

Her eyes cast over to the shelf again and hooked a volume more human-sized than person-sized: What Does It All Mean? by Karly Presser, famous lexicographer (these truly are the days of miracle and wonder, that there could be such a thing). She slid it off and looked at it. The dust cover photo presented an almost angelic face with an incipient smirk and a nimbus of purple hair. “Karly Presser is a lexicographer for Worcester Dictionaries,” the bio started.

Cathryn turned back to her computer and opened Twitter. Searched “karly presser”—oh, she was already following her, of course. But Karly was not following Kathryn, of course. So she tweeted at her:

@KarlyPresser I was just wondering something about differences between the online and print editions of the Worcester Universal. Can I DM you?

She sipped her wine, grabbed a handful of chips, and started reading the litany of sorrows, absurdities, and floofy animals that is the quotidian traffic of Twitter. Within a minute or two, Twitter let her know that she had a new follower and a new direct message. She clicked on her messages and there was one from Karly, purple hair, angelic smirk, and all.

Hi. Differences? What kind of differences?

Karly typed back:

Some words have more definitions in the book than online. I’ve checked decimate, terrific, and nauseous, and the online version only has the older stickler senses.

What the f— You’re sure? They’re not below the fold or something?

Assuming the updated date is the bottom of the page, they’re not. Also they’re recently updated. In the past week or so.

FFS I step out the door and they burn the place down! Sorry, I recently left Worcester to spend more time writing books and doing podcasts and as a luxury benefit I occasionally see my husband and kids.

So you didn’t know about this?

Hell no

Who’s in charge of updating the web version?

Sorry, IDK. Wish I did so I could smite them. I’m going to have to go look at that website. I wonder if they’ll give me a license for free.

You don’t have it?

Not the latest, no. DON’T TELL ANYONE! Too busy. I poured years of my life into that book and I’m done staring at it for now. If for some reason I need to look something up I just use the free app DON’T TELL ANYONE

Who can I ask about it?

Ask Pierre von Falk. He’s still with them and he ought to know. He’s on Twitter.

Thanks!

Cathryn wondered whether she should mention the weird things that had been happening. Maybe that wasn’t the best idea for some random person to do. She reached for the keyboard, hesitated, then typed one more message:

For your sanity, maybe don’t bother looking at the updated web version.

After a moment, Karly replied:

You’re right. SEP. But I might give Pierre the third degree next time I see him. Thanks for the heads-up.

Cathryn searched Pierre von Falk on Twitter and found him easily. His Twitter avatar was a saxophone-shaped bookcase. For some reason she wasn’t following him already. She clicked Follow and then tweeted at him:

@PierrevonFalk Hi, I was wondering if you could tell me some things about the differences between the print and online editions of the new Worcester Universal. DM me?

She reached for her wine and had a response from him before she set the glass back down.

Hi. Are you a journalist?

No, sorry. I just got the new edition and have been using the web version and have noticed something odd.

She waited for a response. After half a minute, she started to worry that she had blown it.

This is going to sound really weird, but

She couldn’t think of what to type next. Almost by reflex she hit the Send button and sat trying to think of what to say in the next balloon. He replied right away.

I think I may know the kind of problem you may be having. No need to say

Then, after another ten seconds or so.

If you’re where your Twitter bio says you are, I’m actually in town for the next few days talking to some international diplomats about their lexicographic needs. Can you meet with me for coffee? Are you near downtown? Can you catch up with me at Skullbox Espresso around 11:15 by any chance?

Cathryn thought for a moment. That would give her time to go visit Henry first thing.

Sure, thanks.

Then, after another moment’s thought,

How will I recognize you?

Immediately he replied:

I’ll wear a bow tie. And a blue blazer.

She typed back,

I’ll see you there. Thanks.

Then she put her computer to sleep, refilled her glass, and carried it and the chips over to the little side table next to her reading chair. She went back and picked up Karly Presser’s book. As good a time as any to start reading it. She dumped herself into the chair and started chapter 1: “Words have a magic to them, both sacred and wicked. There’s a reason that gospel and magic spell both have a spell in them (spelled two ways)…”

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