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“I think so,” Kiki said. “But you should know—you were the forest ranger!”

Delaney cackled idiotically and thought she’d choke. She tried to breathe.

“Almost forgot,” Kiki said, seeming alarmed. “Can you download something? I’m sending you an update for your phone.”

Delaney found the update and downloaded it. “Got it.”

“You’ve been using TruVoice, I take it?”

“Always,” Delaney said.

TruVoice had governed much of online communication since Delaney had been in high school. It started simply as a ­filter. A person would type or dictate a text, and TruVoice would scan the message for any of the Os—offensive, off-putting, outrageous, off-color, off-base, out-of-date. O-language would be excised or substituted, and the message would be sent in a manner fit for posterity. Sound like yourself, TruVoice promised, and the vast majority of its users, some 2 billion-plus in 130 languages, saw it as a godsend.

“The update just builds on that,” Kiki said, “but for verbal communication. Obviously we can’t change your words in real time, but now TruVoice analyzes what you say, gives you a summary of your word usage at the end of each day, and shows you where you can improve.”

“Wonderful!” Delaney said.

“It really is wonderful,” Kiki said. “I’ve learned so much about my own communication. I have a son. He’s 5. He’s at the school here. Did I already tell you that?”

Delaney had the feeling she was talking to someone on speed or cocaine. Was it really water in that burgundy backpack? She’d rarely seen this kind of mania.

“And research says kids need to hear a hundred thousand words by the time they’re 3. Something like that. So TruVoice helps me with the overall number and also word variation. I’m still at 65 percent in terms of variation and difficulty—I’m a verbal dummy, it turns out—but now I know what I need to work on.”

“Wonderful!” Delaney said again, louder than before.

“See, they’ll note that repetition at the end of the day,” Kiki said. “You won’t get penalized or anything. It’s just to help us do better.”

Delaney almost said Wonderful again, just for her own amusement. Instead she said, “Of course.”

“And it’s almost eliminated my cursing,” Kiki said, “which used to be a problem. Same with focus and length. I had a tendency to ramble, and TruVoice identifies off-track …” Kiki stopped. “What’s the word? This is so funny.”

“Verbiage? Meandering? Blather?” Delaney suggested.

“Yes, thanks,” Kiki said. “It helps me get to the point. Early on, my directness scores were in the 40s, but now they’re high 50s.”

“Kudos,” Delaney said.

“Excuse me?” Kiki said.

“Oh. I just said kudos.”

Kiki tapped her screen. “Ah. Kudos. Like ‘congratulations.’ Got it. That’s a Level-3 word, too. I’ll get extra points for that one. Kudos. Kudos. Take a look.”

Kiki showed her phone to Delaney. A man passed between them, wearing what seemed to be the outfit of an Olympic swimmer, his phallus pointing from his crotch to his left knee.

“Sorry!” Kiki said, and tapped her screen. “See, here’s my word total for the day so far: 3,691. That’s not counting every contraction and conjunction, of course. On the second line, you can see it’s broken down by level. Today I’ve spoken 2,928 Level-1 words, 678 Level-2, 67 Level-3, and nine Level-4 words. Which isn’t great, in terms of Level-4. But, that’s the basic self-­improvement part of the app. I can build on that. Growth mindset, right?”

“That’s my motto,” Delaney said.

“Good motto!” Kiki said. “Kudos!”

They shared a laugh. Delaney felt sick. She liked Kiki, felt for Kiki, wanted to save Kiki, and she was lying to Kiki. How long could she lie to this guileless, frenzied face? She pitied her own soul. Out of the corner of her eye, Delaney saw a pair of men in slalom ski outfits, decorated with faux-flames, having a conversation while squatting.



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