If You, Then Me by Yvonne Woon
What would you ask your future self? First question: What does it feel like to kiss someone?
Xia is stuck in a lonely, boring loop. Her only escapes are Wiser, an artificial intelligence app she designed to answer questions like her future self, and a mysterious online crush she knows only as ObjectPermanence.
And then one day Xia enrolls at the Foundry, an app incubator for tech prodigies in Silicon Valley.
Suddenly, anything is possible. Flirting with Mast, a classmate also working on AI, leads to a date. Speaking up generates a vindictive nemesis intent on publicly humiliating her. And running into Mitzy Erst, Foundry alumna and Xia’s idol, could give Xia all the answers.
And then Xia receives a shocking message from ObjectPermanence: He is at the Foundry, too. Xia is torn between Mast and ObjectPermanence—just as Mitzy pushes her towards a shiny new future. Xia doesn’t have to ask Wiser to know: The right choice could transform her into the future self of her dreams, but the wrong one could destroy her.
Maybe it’s easier if I introduce myself the way I best know how.
public static void main(String args)
Person xiaChan = new Person();
If you don’t understand, let me translate. My name is Xia Chan and I was sixteen years old when my story began. My life was boring and uneventful. Things happened to me and I responded: Snow fell and I shoveled it. Dishes got dirty and I cleaned them. Homework piled up and I did it. I’d always felt like I was meant to have a big life, but for reasons I couldn’t explain, I was stuck in a loop where nothing exciting ever happened.
My mother and I lived on the second floor of a triple-decker in Worcester, a gray and unremarkable city a little over an hour outside of Boston. She moved there from Taiwan when she was twenty-two, a fact that I still can’t fathom considering she could have moved anywhere else in the country and instead she picked a place where it snows for six months of the year and is known primarily for its proximity to other, more exciting cities.
I had one friend, Gina. Two if you counted ObjectPermanence, and three if you counted Wiser.
It had been four months, three days, and five hours since I clicked FINISH and sent my application, video, and transcripts to the Foundry. I hadn’t heard a word back since.
So when an unfamiliar number called me while I was shoveling the front steps, I stuck my shovel in the ice and scrambled to pick up.
My phone was an old hand-me-down from my mom, who liked to remind me that money didn’t grow on bushes, (though she was a professor who spoke perfect English, she still butchered her idioms, a quirk that never ceased to take the gravity out of her lectures) and that just because we lived in a consumer culture that normalized the disposability of products to maximize profits for a select few extremely wealthy individuals didn’t mean that I should assume she would buy me a new device every year. Back in her day, things were made to last. What’s wrong with this phone? It’s a good phone. It works just fine.
I tried to pick up but the screen wouldn’t unlock, which happened when it got too cold. I fumbled with it, growing frustrated.
Next door, the front screen slammed and Gina trudged outside dragging her shovel. “What?” she said.
“My phone is frozen again. Literally.”
“It’s protesting,” Gina said. “I don’t want to be out here either.” She spoke with a soft New England accent, the only one I’d heard that sounded sweet.
I tried to answer again. This time it worked.
“Hello,” a man said on the other end of the line. “I’m Tony from TireMax America, and I’m calling to tell you about our end-of-winter deals—”
My heart sank. “Not interested,” I mumbled, and shoved my phone into my pocket.
“No word from your start-up oven thing?” Gina asked.
She was talking about the Foundry. “Incubator,” I corrected. “Ovens cook things. Incubators warm things gently to foster life.”
“But no, no word yet.”
The Foundry. It called itself a school, but really it was where all the young tech prodigies got their start, the only one of its kind. Only twenty kids were accepted, all expenses paid for one year to live on campus in Silicon Valley and compete to be that year’s Founder. Whoever won got one million dollars in seed funding and, maybe even more importantly, the fame and respect that came with everyone knowing your name.
I’d wanted to go since I was ten and saw a newspaper article about Mitzy Erst, kid genius and Foundry alum who’d invented FindMe, the first facial recognition app that let you search your photos by word. She went on to found a bunch of photo editing start-ups, the most famous being Daggertype, which made new photos look like they were from the 1800s. Mitzy wasn’t a kid anymore, but I still had the clipping taped to the wall by my bed, along with a few old profiles and an interview where she talked about how anyone with a good idea could make it to California if they worked hard enough. Just apparently not me.
I didn’t care so much about the money, or even winning, though of course both would be nice. What I really wanted was to finally be around people who understood me—people who wouldn’t see me as an eccentric basement-dweller who only knew how to talk to computers, who would look at Wiser and see her potential, and mine.
I surveyed the snow in front of me, feeling miserable. “Who decided this was a habitable environment for humans?” I asked. “Select, click, and delete. Why hasn’t anyone invented that yet for real life?”
“It’s on you, I guess,” Gina said with a smirk. “Though I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Your driveway is four feet shorter than mine.”
Gina was the youngest of four and spent most of her time trying to talk over her brothers, which taught her how to be loud. She was the polar opposite of me—short where I was tall, round where I was bony, charming where I was awkward. She loved winter even though she complained about it all the time, and spent her evenings fantasizing about having her own room while I sat alone in my empty apartment, wishing it were full. She was hopeless with technology and preferred sports, both watching and playing. We’d lived next door to each other since we were kids.
“This is the only time of year that I’m glad I don’t live in a big house,” I said. “Can you imagine shoveling one of those long winding driveways?”
“If you lived in a house that big, you’d probably have enough money to pay someone to do it for you,” Gina pointed out.
“If I had that much money, I’d move somewhere with no snow.”
Gina closed her eyes. “Mmm. Florida.”
“California,” I fantasized. “Palm trees.”
“Blue water,” Gina said. “White sand so hot you can’t even take your sandals off.”
The thought of burning feet interrupted my fantasy. “Cold sodas and tan lines.”
Gina frowned. “Bad tan lines. And sunburns.”
Sunburns also didn’t sound so good. “Getting sand in your soda.”
“Getting sand in your bathing suit.”
“Seagulls stealing your food,” I said.
“Seaweed tickling your feet while you’re swimming.”
I shivered. “Stepping on sharp rocks.”
“Jellyfish masquerading as plastic bags,” Gina said.
“Stepping on a jellyfish,” I said, wincing.
“Having to pee on yourself after stepping on a jellyfish.”
“Going swimming after peeing on yourself after stepping on a jellyfish only to see a dark shadow under the water,” I said.
“Dying young in a tragic shark attack after peeing on yourself after stepping on a jellyfish.”
A plow drove by, pressing snow from the road into our driveways.
“I guess it’s not so bad here,” I said.
“I guess not.”
We’d both picked up our shovels when my phone rang again. Another unfamiliar number. It was probably another telemarketer, but I tried to pick up anyway. This time my screen was so cold that it wouldn’t unlock.
“I’d better go inside,” I said and ran upstairs.
My mother and I lived in a small apartment, practical and tidy except for the kitchen table, which doubled as my mother’s desk and was stacked with papers. She was an adjunct professor in political science at four different colleges, so when she wasn’t driving from campus to campus trying to get to class on time, she was grading papers, planning lessons, and complaining about the traffic or how education in this country was a scam that defrauded students of their money and dangled the possibility of tenure in front of teachers to trick them into overextending themselves for years, no, decades, so that universities could fatten their endowments.
I put my phone on top of the refrigerator where it was warm, then set a pot of water to boil for instant ramen. While it was heating, I unplugged the microwave from the wall and carried it to the table, where I unscrewed the case and resumed work on the wiring. I’d hooked up a tiny, single board computer to the back and was trying to figure out how to wire it into the microwave so that I could load it with cook times from the internet and make the whole thing voice activated. Though so far, I’d only accidentally melted a Tupperware before successfully making it play a Gregorian hymn while the food heated, making it feel like my frozen pizza bagel was a precious ancient relic, imbued with god-like powers and emitting fractured, hazy light as it spun on its glass plate. It was a work in progress.
While tinkering, I glanced at the stack of my mother’s papers. They were notes she’d written to her students. I knew I shouldn’t read them, but I couldn’t help it. It was an unhealthy pastime of mine, peering into her alternate life. This is a fascinating new take on a well-trodden historical moment, one note read. I’m particularly drawn to your analysis of the role of women in student uprisings. Could you expand on the economic pressures that catalyzed their involvement in the movement? Though I’d read her notes to her students before, they always bothered me. She never spoke that way to me. She expressed love by staying up late to iron my clothes. The boldest compliment she’d ever given me was that she knew I could do better. I could count on one hand the number of times she’d hugged me. I couldn’t imagine her being fascinated by any of my ideas or telling me that she was particularly drawn to a thought I had, and yet I couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew it would upset me.
My phone chirped on. I brought it to the table.
“Wiser, why don’t I have any interesting ideas?”
My own voice spoke back from the phone, only it sounded older—deeper and a little raspy, with a better vocabulary and a little more confidence—the way I might sound in twenty years. I had designed it that way. “You have plenty of interesting ideas,” Wiser said. “Me, for example.”
“Other than you.”
Wiser paused while she scanned my data, looking for an answer. She was on in the background of my phone all the time, listening, gathering information. All I had to do was say her name and she would wake and respond. When I was finished, I’d say, “Thanks, Wiser,” and she’d go back to sleep.
“You once wrote a program that predicted which streets were going to have more potholes based on the volume of traffic, the size and grade of the street, and the median income of the neighborhood.”
I hated that program. I’d made it to help my mom after we’d gotten another flat and I’d had to sit on the side of the road again and listen to her stress about how she was going to find the time to get the car fixed without missing class.
“Yeah, but it didn’t work. All it did was get us lost.”
“But it was an interesting idea. The problem was that it was impossible to take into account the quality of the asphalt.”
“Yeah, I remember,” I muttered.
Wiser went quiet. Though her silence was just a natural pause in her response-based programming, it still sounded like she was upset, and I immediately felt bad for dismissing her. “Sorry.”
Through the ceiling, I could hear the footsteps of the family that lived above us. There were four of them, always tumbling on the floor, arguing with each other, slamming doors, shrieking and laughing while their dog barked.
I watched the snow fall outside the window. My mother wouldn’t be home for another three hours. Our apartment was quiet, empty.
“Wiser, will I always be alone?”
“Everyone’s alone,” Wiser said.
“That doesn’t make me feel better.”
“My purpose isn’t to make you feel better,” Wiser said. “It’s to give you advice that your future self might say by scanning your data and using an algorithm to predict the best outcomes.”
I groaned. “I know, I know.”
“Though I suppose the end goal is for you to make better decisions, and therefore feel better, so maybe that is my purpose—”
The phone rang, interrupting her. It was the same number that had called before. I picked up.
“Hi, I’m calling for X—Xia Chan,” a man’s voice said.
He had a plastic voice, the kind you only hear on TV. He was probably a marketer trying to sell me something. Plus, he didn’t know how to pronounce my name.
“She’s not here,” I said. “And anyway, she’s a minor and doesn’t have a credit card. Please remove her number from this list.” I was about to hang up when he interjected.
“Wait, don’t hang up.”
“Is this her mother?”
I narrowed my eyes. “Yes,” I said slowly. “Who’s this?”
“My name is Lars. I’m calling to congratulate her.”
“Congratulate her for what?”
“I run an institute called the Foundry. It’s an incubator program for gifted teenagers. A few months ago, your daughter sent me a video of a project she’s been working on called Wiser. I’m sure you know all about it.”
My heart began to race. His name was Lars. I knew this voice.
“You’re Lars Lang. You founded Canyou Games.” I realized I was giving myself away and paused to compose myself. “My daughter loves you. I mean, she admires you. Your work. She loves your work.”
He laughed. “Well, I love her work. Which is actually why I’m calling. If I leave my phone number, could you have her call me back?”
“I’d be happy to take a message,” I said quickly.
“If you don’t mind, I’d really like to tell her myself.”
“Really, a message is just fine. She won’t be back until late, and she’d be upset with me if I tell her you called but don’t tell her why.”
Lars paused. “Okay. You can tell her that I loved Wiser and think it has incredible promise. I’ve never seen an application like it before and would love to hear more about what direction she wants to take it in. If she’s still interested, we hope she’ll come out to California and be a part of our upcoming class of young founders.”
I felt light-headed, the way I imagined one felt after drinking champagne. Was it possible that the grainy video I’d made on Gina’s phone had actually been watched by a person, approved of, sent to another person and another person and so on until it made it to Lars Lang? And that he loved it and thought it had promise? And wanted to me to come to California?
“So she’s accepted?” I asked.
I spun around, looking for someone to tell, but the apartment was empty.
“She-ah,” I said.
“That’s how you pronounce her name.”
“Ah, okay. My mistake. When she calls me, I’ll go over all of the details. I’m also happy to put you in touch with our mentors, so you get a better sense of what the program is like and what your daughter will be doing next year if she accepts.”
“She accepts,” I said quickly, then cleared my throat in an attempt to sound older. “I mean, I’m sure she will accept. But yes, I’ll have her call you.”
“Great,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
I took down his number before hanging up. My hand trembled as I stared at my phone. Had it really happened? I felt electrified with happiness. Without thinking, I ran outside to tell Gina, but by then it had grown dark, and Gina’s driveway was empty. She must have gone in to eat dinner with her family. The only person outside was our landlady, who was salting the side steps.
She looked up at me, bewildered. “Where’s your coat? It’s freezing.”
“I’m going to California!” I said, because I had to tell someone.
“You still need to wear a coat.”
I grinned at her. It was still snowing, and big, thick flakes collected on my sleeves. The driveway where I’d shoveled was already dusted in white, but I didn’t care. I had promise. I was going to California.
The landlady was right, though. It was freezing. I hurried back inside.
“Wiser,” I said to my phone. “I did it. I was accepted to the Foundry.”
“I know,” she said. “Congratulations.”
I waited for her to say more, but that was it. I made a mental note to improve her congratulatory tone.
“What should I do to celebrate?”
“Have a party,” she said.
“Really? That’s your advice?”
“Yes. What’s wrong with it?”
I rolled my eyes. It would take me too long to explain to her why I couldn’t plan and throw a party for myself that evening, so instead I said, “Not possible.”
“Go out to dinner.”
“I can’t drive.”
I really had to work on some of these stock responses. “I’m not a child.”
“Get a manicure.”
“I thought you were supposed to know me.”
“Make a cake.”
“You know that mom doesn’t keep baking supplies around.”
It gave me an idea, though. I scrounged through the cabinets until I found a pouch of instant cocoa and bag of old marshmallows. I was born in the winter, and every year on my birthday my mother would make us two mugs of hot chocolate and we’d sit together on the couch and watch movies. It was one of the few nights she took off from grading papers and spent the whole evening with me. I made myself a mug and went to my bedroom.
It was a simple room: a few magazine and newspaper cutouts of Mitzy Erst taped over my bed and my huge computer whirring beneath my desk. I’d built it myself with parts I’d found online, including the ugly brown tower case which I’d spray painted silver to make it look new.
I kept the lights off and pulled down the shades, revealing posters of palm trees that I’d taped to their insides. I woke my desktop and set it to California mode. The screen warmed, emitting a hazy, buttery light into the room.
“Wiser, play ocean sounds,” I said, and sank into the tangled comforter on my bed. “Tell me about California.”
I sat on my bed, sipping my chocolate and listening to Wiser describe the crisp blue of the Pacific Ocean and the rocky cliffs lined with Cypress trees, the orange sunsets and the mornings rising out of the fog. It wasn’t a huge celebration, but it was mine.
Our intrepid heroine
is shy, freckled, feline, with a penchant for wearing robes late into the afternoon.
She grew up in Worcester, MA, in an old stone colonial flanked by woods, where she spent a lot of time wandering around outside, thinking up stories to keep herself occupied.
She’s written four books for young adults, five if you count the one she wrote in comic sans in fifth grade.
She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University, which she mostly uses to concoct plots. She thinks of her best ideas in February, and loves winter, dim sum, and romantic comedies.
She lives in Atlanta, GA, with one husband, two children and two cats.