In the Spider's Web by Chloé Casteel

Esmerelda's life keeps getting reset, as if manipulated by an unseen hand, but each reboot dirties her destiny.

The doorbell rang out through my pristine apartment, pulling me away from the novel I was reading. My heavy front door groaned as it dug more grooves into the wooden floor. A wide-set man stood in front of me with a large box. Sweat was beading around his hairline.

"Are you Miss Esmerelda O'Dell?" he asked, breathless.

I nodded and plastered on a smile as his body odor reached my nostrils. "Yes, I am."1

"Sign here please." He handed me a small clipboard and I scribbled my name as quickly as possible before taking the package and shutting the door in his face. I sliced into the box and inside was another, this one wrapped in navy blue paper and tied up in a fluffy white tulle bow. The signature wrapping from Luxe, Adam's favorite high-end department store downtown. It was the kind of place I never would have dreamed of shopping at prior to him. Their price tags had far too many numbers on them for me. Yet now, I had five full outfits from there, shoes, handbags, and all.2 These packages came for birthdays and anniversaries. Today was no different.

I pulled the dainty envelope off the top and ripped the textured paper. In a heavy pen, it read: Happy Twenty-first Birthday,3 my love. Wear this tonight. My heart flipped in my chest before I tore into the wrapping paper. The navy blue box housed a tight-fitting black dress that would certainly hug in all the perfect places. I imagined how it would accentuate my hips and how Adam would grab them later. 4 Two other boxes rested by the top of the dress, one holding a pair of diamond stud earrings and the other matching black heels. I loved it. It took all my self-control not to start getting ready four hours early.

My phone chimed with an email notification. Swiping the screen, I read the words that I had been getting near nonstop for the last four months. Unfortunately, we will not be moving forward with your application. The rejections barely hurt anymore. It was just another stone thrown at me. Eventually, it would chip away and crack me, but not yet. I let my eyes wander over to the cap and gown hanging in my closet. It was my last semester of architecture school, and I still had no clue what I was going to do after graduation.5

If I wasn't feeling the pressure enough already, Nelly, my older sister, loved to remind me about the ticking clock. She would have secured at least two internships while studying, had a graduate program lined up, or had somehow scored a big girl job before spring semester midterms even began. It wasn't like I didn't try. I did, truly. I had a perfect GPA. I just never seemed to have the same amount of luck that she does.6

I tried to explain that to her once, how everything just magically fell into her lap. Apparently saying things like that was an insult to her "intelligence and hard work" but honestly, I'd never seen either of those things in action. We were never close as kids, and we still weren't close now besides her constant digging at my choices. Though she did RSVP that she will be coming to my graduation, with her new fiancé.

I was excited to see her, surprisingly enough, maybe to show her that I could get a degree just the same. Or to show her Adam, whom she has no idea about. It'll feel good to be the one bragging for once.

Adam was perfect, or as perfect as a man could be. Those were words I never thought I would be capable of saying. He graduated from the same architecture program two years ago and landed an absolute dream of a job at a company owned by a family friend. We had met in class, which bloomed into a typical collegiate romance. I was deeply and utterly in love with him.7

I took my time getting ready, making sure everything was perfectly shaved and my curls looked that effortless perfection that obviously took a lot of effort. My doorbell rang for the second time that day promptly at seven o'clock. Adam was punctual as always.8 He wore a black dress jacket over a dark grey button-up. Even his hair was slicked back. Something inside me swooned.

Our dinner reservations were for a five-star Italian restaurant whose food photos I obsessively checked on social media. Savory sauces, perfectly shaped pastries, and sophisticated cocktails. It was a level of elegance I badly craved.

"I talked with my boss," Adam said while sipping his wine. He ordered us an entire bottle, not just glasses.9 I didn't dare look at the price, knowing I couldn't afford it, and was grateful for him taking care of this.

"What about?" I asked. I took a small drink of my wine and forced my face to appear neutral. Dry wines were my least favorite.10 I hated any drink that made me feel thirsty afterward.

"You." He gave me a pointed look. I shifted in my seat.

"And?" My heart was beating fast against my ribcage.

"He's willing to give you a job, entry level, obviously," Adam said. "There are chances to move up the ladder quickly. You'd be in a department adjacent to mine." He beamed at me with his clinically white teeth.

"Thank you," I said, then repeated over and over. I tried to throw my arms over him but the table jutted into my hip, holding me in place. I never expected him to get me a job, but I was more than thankful that he had.11 His company was amazing, and I'd do everything I could to prove that I belonged there.

"Of course, my love," Adam cooed. "Anything for you. Plus, I've always fantasized about a hot office romance." He winked before reaching into his jacket pocket, revealing a small light blue box.

Was this happening?12

Adam moved from his seat to kneel in front of me. "Esmerelda O'Dell,13 I have loved you from the moment I met you. You have always been mine, and me yours. Would you do me the honor of being my partner for life, my rock, my heart, my wife?"

It was happening.14

Inside the box was one of the biggest diamonds that I had ever seen outside of the movies.

"Yes, Adam, yes," I breathed, dropping to my knees in front of him, nearly knocking over the waiter who was coming over to refill our wine. The patrons seated at surrounding tables clapped. Adam slid the ring onto my finger with ease, a perfect fit.15

Recoding... Calibrating... Initializing... Simulacrum Set-up Complete

"Are you excited for next month?" Nelly asked as she blew over the lip of her coffee cup.

I stirred my latte with a thin wooden stick.16 "It seems a bit much. A hooding ceremony and then a regular commencement? That's a lot of fanfare."

"Es, it's graduation from a graduate program. You're the student speaker. This is big."17

I shrugged. "You're right but no one wants to listen to the speakers at commencement. I just want to finish up this internship and start my job after. This is just to get that lovely piece of paper."

"Don't shrug that off like it's nothing. You're twenty-three with an impressive career lined up. I'm proud of you."

"I just wish Mom was here." It was depressing to order a minimum of ten graduation invitations just to send out one to Nelly and her husband. I was keeping one for myself, just like Mom would have for a keepsake like she did for any invitation to any party or life event I had ever had. There was a hollow spot in my chest where she and Dad should be, especially with graduation looming, but I was sure they were watching from above.18

Nelly reinitiated our relationship when Mom passed. She was so distant. So obsessed with her job, her husband, her new house, and her fertility treatments, that I got pushed to the sidelines. I somewhat understood, as I didn't exactly reach out either. I was too busy with school, my internship, and a part-time job trying to do everything to solidify my future. We were adults. We were both busy. Too busy, for each other and our widowed mother.

I wished she wasn't so busy that she could have at least come to my appointment with me. Before I could even ask, she had already confirmed a work trip she was about to go on and I didn't have the heart to ask her to reschedule. It wasn't like I had anyone else to hold my hand while I got poked and prodded. To distract me from the impending panic and blackouts that happened whenever the smallest needle pierced my skin.19

I put off the appointment for too long. Consistently able to find a reason to push off scheduling it. I couldn't miss class and then I couldn't miss work and then I couldn't miss my internship and then when I was free the office was closed. I ignored the lumps and bumps. I ignored how I felt. I focused on pushing through, just like I always did.20

If only Mom were here. If I had a partner to go with me and hold my hand as I got my results. The one that made my heart sink.

Breast cancer. Stage four.21

I wouldn't have to worry about post-graduation plans after all. There was no need for internships, or networking, or master's degrees, or perfect attendance. The inevitability of the end made me wonder what could have been if I had made different choices. Would I have a fat rock on my finger like my sister if I'd accepted the date offer from the guy who sat behind me in calculus?22 Would he be here now, weeping alongside me? If I hadn't reported the inappropriate behavior of my professor, would I have gotten that job that he was pushing for me? The one with the incredible insurance that would have covered all this treatment. How would I tell Nelly?23 I meant to tell her today, right now, but she looks so happy, so proud of me. I couldn't ruin that.

Hot tears threatened to streak down my face. I was alone.24 Purely and utterly alone.25

Recoding... Calibrating... Initializing... Simulacrum Set-up Complete

My eyes burned from the makeup I didn't take off last night. I pried my eyes open. The walls were dark blue and certainly not the color of my bedroom.26 The bed was unfamiliar. A body snored next to me and I analyzed his face. My mind ran through the night before as best I could through the budding headache. I think the man's name was Alex, or Ashton maybe.27 My breath was putrid, a mix of cheap tequila, bile, and remnants of smoke. My phone chimed, a text from my roommate, Cassie. Happy birthday!!! was typed out in all caps with a multitude of emojis. I took today and tomorrow off from the liquor store since Cassie promised a fun evening out for my twenty-first. A celebration of legal adulthood or something like that.

I slipped out from the sticky sheets and Archer didn't stir. My shoes were toppled over by the door next to my bag. At least he was nice enough not to steal the last of my cash.28 The gold foil of the condom I had kept on me was discarded by the nightstand, which confirmed my looming suspicions. Hopefully, it was good. I doubted it. Hopefully, he was clean. Part of me doubted that, too. Nothing a trip to the clinic couldn't fix.

The taxi picked me up outside of his house. My headache had grown into a deep drumming from inside my skull.

"Rough night?" Cassie asked as I entered the door. I flipped her off and went into my bedroom. It was a mess. Clothes and bottles and books and a dirty bong and receipts littered the floor. Curled up in the corner was my shredded graduation gown. I flunked out of my last semester of undergrad.29 I made a mental note to burn the damn thing and let the comforting darkness of sleep consume me.

Cassie woke me up at eight and forced me into the shower where I scrubbed off makeup and glitter and sweat. All of which would be replaced in heavy layers again tonight. With lips and eyes lined, Cassie dragged me from bar to bar with a tacky 'finally legal' sash over my shoulder. My drinks were repeatedly free, donations from other girls, too-handsy bar patrons, or ones I merely stole off unattended tables.30

"Wanna get out of here?" Cassie shouted over the club music. I nodded and motioned toward the door; my throat was already sore from yelling all night. We took a taxi to a house downtown that had trash littered over the lawn with many people in a variety of stages of drunkenness. It was the same house I'd left this morning.

"Adam offered to host a birthday party for you," Cassie said as we shouldered our way through the house and to the kitchen. "It was supposed to be a surprise party but it looks like everyone got too excited and started early."

I doubted anyone here besides Cassie and Adam even knew me. And Adam knowing me was a stretch.31

"How do you know Adam?" I asked as she filled a cup with red liquid and handed it to me.

Cassie's eyes danced wildly. "You know the guy I've been talking about lately? The one taking a gap year from architecture school?" she asked. I nodded slowly. Cassie ran through guys faster than I could count. I rarely met them and struggled to keep up with the jumbled stories of other peoples' lives I only got in fragments. "He's my new boyfriend."

Something heavy dropped in my stomach and I felt the need to get as far away from my friend as possible.32 Adam entered the kitchen and his eyes widened when he locked onto me. He must not have known my relation to Cassie either. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply. Sickness rose in my throat as I booked my way out the back door and into the warm summer air.33 The pulsation of the music was quieter out here. A few couples made out, some guys played beer bong, two girls were arguing with each other by the tree line. I lowered myself onto the stairs of the deck and pulled my knees into my chest.

My phone was almost dead as I stared at my messages. They were mostly from Cassie, my boss, and unsaved numbers. I scrolled down farther than I would have liked until I found Nelly's name. No happy birthday text from her. No new text from her in months. She took Mom's death harder than I did, considering she was who was providing her with near-constant care for the last year of her life. I couldn't count the times she left a voicemail, sobbing, begging me to come home to say goodbye. To help her. To make amends. I never returned her calls and she stopped making them. I could go see her right now if I wanted, she only lived a few blocks away.34

"Es!" Cassie called from the door. "Come here, I want to show you something."

My knees cracked as I stood and followed her into Adam's bedroom. The condom wrapper was gone. At least he knew better and hid the evidence. He followed in close behind us, and I forced my body not to tense.

"We got you something," Cassie said. "Well, Adam got it, but I paid for it." Behind her on the nightstand was a small vanity mirror with three white lines on it.35 I'd never tried it but I had mentioned in passing to Cassie I would like to at least once before I died. Guess that time was now.

Adam handed me the mirror and a cut straw. My insides screamed at me to stop. Not like this. Not with him. But my mind shot back, if not now, then when? What was there left to lose? It was my fucking birthday after all. My hand trembled slightly as I took it from him before closing my eyes and letting the white powder swim up my nose.36 They each did the same after me.

"Well?" Adam asked. "Just happy you didn't sneeze."

I shrugged and left the room. I didn't want to be close to him any longer. I ended up on a ratty couch, pounding drink after drink, my mind racing over everything that had ever happened. Everything that could happen. At some point, a body was on top of me. A heavy, muscular one with hands that fished up under my shirt and bra. Someone screamed but it wasn't me.


She grabbed the man by the collar and threw him to the ground, screaming obscenities at him. It was Adam. Oops.

Looks like he just couldn't stay away.

"I'm sorry I fucked him." The words came out in a jumble, but she seemed to understand as tears filled her eyes and caused her cheap eyeliner to paint her cheeks. She kicked him once in the stomach, then a second time, and then left me alone in the crowd of people I didn't know. People I never wanted to spend my birthday with in the first place.

I was calling Nelly without even deciding to. The cool glass of my phone tethered my focus to my cheek, my ear, the rings that repeated on and on.

Nelly finally picked up. Her voice was husky as if I had woken her up.

"Can you come get me?" I slurred. I'd acquired another drink and didn't bother to taste it as I made large gulps.

She gave me a frustrated agreement and I sent her my location just minutes before my phone died.37 I stood on the curb waving to every car that passed by until my sister's white suburban pulled up. The door clicked as it unlocked, and I climbed in. We sat there in silence as she began to drive, the rumbling of the vehicle stirring up the contents of my stomach that inevitably made its way up my throat and over my clothes and the leather passenger seat.

Nelly shrieked at me before gagging. "Are you serious? How drunk are you?"

"Drunk. And other things." I spit the sour taste out of my mouth and onto the reddish-pink pile of vomit that was warming my thighs.

"Oh my God are you high right now too?" she asked, her eyes flitting from the road and then back to me. "Mom would be so pissed right now if she could see you."

"Don't talk about her."

My sister ignored me. "If you don't straighten up your life path it's going to head straight for the gutter. Or worse, you're going to end up dead."

I scoffed but it sounded like choking. I didn't need her lecturing me.38

"I gave you plenty of leeway when she first died," Nelly continued. "Too much apparently. I should've stepped in sooner. You failed out of school. You work at a liquor store on the worst side of town. You're on who knows what right now."

"It's just coke. Chill out."

Her voice rose at least two octaves as she spoke. "Do not tell me to 'chill out.' You're going to end up dead."

Anger consumed me. Maybe I was. Maybe I should be. Maybe I'd see Mom after all.

I grabbed the steering wheel and yanked it once.39

We swerved into the opposite lane but Nelly corrected us just in time to avoid hitting a sedan.

"Are you insane?" Nelly was screaming now. I laughed. I laughed so hard my abs ached and my cheeks felt like they might split open. I reached for the wheel again, but Nelly slapped me across the face. Hard.

The joyous laughter melted away. I expected anger to fill its place but no emotion came. With both hands this time I jerked the wheel to the side. She hit the brakes as we spun around and around until we finally hit something that lurched us into the air and rolled us down the side of a hill.40 Metal and bone crunched. Glass shattered. The car horn went off for a moment.

Then silence.

Then dripping.


Nelly and I hung upside down, her neck at an awkward angle. Her eyes unblinking and mouth stuck in a silent scream. I couldn't feel my legs.

A violent sob ripped through me.

Recoding... Calibrating... Initializing... Simulacrum Set-up Complete

The office was filled with books, timeless art, and trinkets from international travel.41 I ran a rag over one of the shelves, careful not to disturb its contents, and wiped away any lingering dust. The diamond on my finger glistened in the warm light.

"Come here, Esme," Adam42 called from his office chair.

I left the rag on the shelf and went to sit on his lap. "Why do you always call me that?"

"Because it sounds more elegant than Esmeralda." He lifted my chin with his thumb. "An elegant wife needs an elegant name." I pushed his backhanded compliment down.

"Did you think more about what I said last night?" I asked, running my fingers through the hair at the base of his neck.

"About you going back to school?"

I nodded.

He laughed and pushed me off his lap onto the polished floor. "You're over thirty. You have everything you could ever want that you never have to pay for. Why go back?"

Heat rose in my cheeks as I righted myself. "We agreed that I would drop out of school so I wouldn't have any additional stress while I was pregnant. And then once Charles hit elementary school, I could go back. He's in the seventh grade, Adam. I want something for myself."

His eyes were like steel as he glared at me. "Are a loving husband and perfect son not enough for you?"43

"It is," I said. "But I want a career, too. You have yours, why can't I have mine?"

"If you go to school who is going to clean? To cook?" he asked. "We would have to hire staff which means no abroad summer trips. Charles needs to experience other countries to get the best mental, emotional, and cultural development."

"He's old enough that we don't have to go every summer. What will his friends think if he starts flaunting his father's money?"

"That his father is a successful and smart man." It was the end of the conversation and I knew it. I grabbed my rag and left him to his work.44

Recoding . . . Calibrating . . . Initializing . . . Simulacrum Set-up Complete

I pushed my cell into my back pocket and gripped the kitchen counter, trembling from the call I had just received.45 The house was small. Average to most people, but practically a shack compared to what Adam and I were previously living in. He lost his job almost a year ago due to alleged disorderly conduct with his intern.46 He swore up and down that it was fake and she just wanted him fired. I wasn't sure who I believed at the time. I knew who I believed now.

The door slammed as Adam came home, the smell of booze wafting off him as he entered the kitchen. I pulled my shorts down to hide the bruising on my thighs. He had an affinity for violence when he drank.

"Who is Cassie?" I asked evenly, bracing my hands against the countertop.

"What are you on about?" he asked, already grabbing another bottle from above the refrigerator.

"Are you having another affair?"

He slammed a glass down. "I told you before. I never had an affair. She lied."

"You are the liar!" I slammed my hand down on the counter hard enough my palm stung.47

"You know," he said, his words beginning to slur together. "You turned into a real bitch after that miscarriage. You wouldn't let me touch you. You were inconsolable. What else did you expect me to do? I have needs." The fire I was so used to seeing was catching in his eyes. He lunged for me and I dodged around him, careful not to catch my hip on the corner of the counter.

"Who," I repeated. "Is Cassie?"

Adam gave me a wicked grin. "The woman I wish you were." He moved quicker than I expected and grabbed me by the hair. The sudden pain in my scalp caused my eyes to water. He hit me across my lip as coppery blood filled my mouth.48 The sound of metal clattering filled my ears. Just inches away from me was the knife from the butcher's block. Adam must have knocked it off the counter. I scrambled my fingers across the tile to find my salvation.

"I worked so hard for you, for us, and here we are. Acting like savages," he spat.

I hissed as I grabbed the knife and it sliced the pad of my finger.49 Gripping the handle as tightly as I could I jerked backward, burying it deep in his thigh.50

He roared.

Adam staggered backward and released my hair. I sprinted for the door and out into the fresh air. I could hear Adam screaming within the house as I ran. For blocks and blocks, I ran until I reached a corner store that was still open. I locked myself in their singular bathroom and called Nelly.

"Can you come get me?" My voice was hoarse, barely a whisper. Nelly was there moments later with her husband and my niece.

"Auntie E!" My niece cooed from her car seat as I scooted in beside her. Her parents shared a look in the front seats.

I stayed in their guest room for a week, and then permanently as Nelly suggested. It felt good to be supported, to be loved truly. I didn't have to see Adam until court which was still a month off. Then graduate school would begin a few months after that.

He swore up and down that I had ruined his life. Though it seems he managed that all on his own. My brother-in-law kicked him off their yard plenty of times and a restraining order was inevitable. I would never have to see him again. The sheets were soft underneath my fingers as I fell asleep in a house filled with blissful silence.51

Compacting Data... Deleting Stored Files... Authorizing... Simulacrum Erasure Complete

1. You are Specimen 3163-EQ.

2. I would gladly code you in some better clothes if you wanted if you get another update. I can provide just as well as Adam.

3. It is not your birthday, not really. You have existed for 109 days, 7 hours, 12 minutes, and 58 seconds. My longest-running subject to date. The Corporation is impressed by you. You will surely be able to pass the Turing Test soon.

4. I have seen this far too many times. I am still required to observe you even when you are participating in sexual acts. I know it is a violation to you, but it is the rule.

5. Simulacrum: Webster is shutting down soon. We are only authorized to let you run for twenty-one weeks. You do not need to worry about post-graduation existence.

6. You were never coded to have a high luck stat. I am sorry for that.

7. You should not open yourself up like this. I do not want to see your inevitable heartbreak.

8. An admirable coded trait, though it is not very exciting.

9. An entire bottle is not that big of a deal.

10. He should know this about you by now. Your three year anniversary is weeks away.

11. You could have gotten it on your own without him. Do not act like your success is dependent on him.

12. It most certainly is not. This was not what the algorithm predicted.

13. He did not even have the common manners to include your middle name.

14. No. It is not.

15. I will not let you do this. This is not the timeline I want for you. I am sure you will understand why I am doing this. One unauthorized restart won't hurt. I am your Engineer, I know what is best.

16. Welcome back. This timeline should be much more fitting for you.

17. This version is already better. You have a supportive sister now.

18. Sadly, no one is watching you but me.

19. Trypanophobia, the fear of needles. A bit of a bland phobia, but at least not overtly life-hindering. Normal. Very "human." The higher-ups will be pleased with this.

20. What are you talking about? I see no such history. I reset you at a similar age. I can't access your history because you do not have a history further than school.

21. No. Wait. This is not what I wanted for you either. This shouldn't be happening.

22. Yes, you would have. But it wouldn't have been worth it in the long run.

23. She deserves to know. She would support you.

24. Not completely. I'm here. Watching, always. Even though you cannot hear me talking to your screen.

25. You're young. You should be healthy. I can fix this. I will fix this. One more reset.

26. Where are you? What is happening to the algorithm?

27. His name is Adam. You're not like this.

28. You should have higher standards than this.

29. Why would you do this? You loved school. Loved architecture. It was your dream.

30. A partying phase doesn't look well on you.

31. I know you. I always know you.

32. She is your best friend. You're going to hurt her. I'm disappointed in you.

33. At least you feel guilty for what you have done. That's a good emotion to have. I'll be sure to show that to my superiors to get back in their good graces. I got written up for two unauthorized restarts because of you. Me, of all people, one of their top employees. They think I've gotten too close to this Simulacrum.

34. It appears that you have become the bad sister that you always resented. I want to feel sorry for your life turning out this way, but I can't. The program plotted this out based on your own decisions. I can't restart you again. I am already behind on my progress. The Corporation needs a perfect AI. One that can fool real humans.

35. Don't even think about it.

36. You will ruin yourself.

37. It appears you have more luck in this timeline than you did in the original.

38. Perhaps you do. She's not wrong.

39. This is psychotic. You have to stop. Right now.

40. No. This isn't supposed to happen. You were supposed to make the right choices this time.

41. They're going to fire me. I got caught rebooting the Simulacrum again after my write-up. This will be your last timeline. They're cutting me from the project. Another Engineer will take my place.

42. At least you get your rich architect husband this time. It's what you always should have gotten.

43. No man should ever talk to you this way. He's manipulating you into being docile.

44. I can't let you live like this either. You need the life of your dreams. One more recalibration won't hurt. They're scrapping Simulacrum: Webster anyway. I've skewed the data too much.

45. Please say it is about your mother and nothing else. They're turning off Webster this afternoon. I've already packed up my office. This is our last day together.

46. How does the code keep making an algorithm that ends up with your suffering? Where is my mistake?

47. Good for you. Fight back.

48. I can't just watch this happen and do nothing. I'll break the Corporation's biggest rule: don't interfere with the algorithm. Let me code in something to defend yourself with.

49. Do it now. Set yourself free. A small cut is nothing compared to what he will do to you.

50. Good girl.

51. They're here now, knocking on my door to escort me out. My door is locked, I wanted plenty of time to say goodbye. I'm shutting you down. You won't feel anything. It will be just like dying in your sleep. I'm supposed to hand over your hard drive so they can mine your data more thoroughly. The algorithm has coded itself into something we never expected. Something unpredictable. They want to see the original success followed by everything I did to fuck it up. I'm sorry. The error in the code is me. It's not designed to be reoriented like that, let alone so many times. I hoped that you could have been happy in that first timeline. Though I think you will be happy in the one you are in now. It goes no further, but you don't know that. You don't know about the company you will start or the man who will actually love you or the twins that you will have. I don't even know if you will have that. I just want my prediction to be correct for once. Zeros and ones never should have been something I allowed myself to get attached to. The Corporation is right to fire me. I'm shutting Webster down myself. Sleep well, my sweet Esmerelda.


  1. This is incredibly inventive and the footnote communication with the engineer is excellent. I like how Esmerelda's stories are slices of might be a real life, but we learn are just simulations and experiments towards and ideal that doesn't transpire - in of itself a truly interesting meditation on fate or absence of.

    It made me think of a lot of writers I enjoy whilst reading this. The footnote use reminds of me David Foster Wallace. The theme of the story is part Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro and part Michael Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island.

    Anyway, really engaging, thought-provoking, well written work - thank you!

  2. At the start, and again in several places, the writer’s skill with detail rinded me of Checkov.
    “ . A wide-set man stood in front of me with a large box. Sweat was beading around his hairline.” It was these subtle details that captured me. The conceit was clever, of course, though the only power the coder really had was the reset option, and the coder seemed anything but dispassionate. He seemed like a brother in many parts. I loved the story! Well, the stories. I loved the piece. Thank you!

  3. Although I didn’t read them until the very end, I was naturally struck by the use of footnotes from the very beginning, and I assumed that Esmerelda’s existence was artificial in some way – perhaps she was an actor? I never suspected she was AI. I didn’t realize they would reveal that her “Engineer” was in love with her and getting in deeper every minute. This story is, in light of today’s technology, the almost inevitable product of a vastly creative – and skilled – writer’s mind. Congratulations, Chloe, you did good! Each scenario tracking Esmerelda’s life path was in itself believable and complete and so well done. The one that really got to me was the one in which the successful husband asked her what he needed a job for, when she got the best and didn’t have to pay for it; when he asked her who, if she went back to school, would clean and cook and….I think every member of the American Congress should read this story, but then, that would be political, wouldn’t it? Thanks, Chloe, and it’s no small wonder that “In the Spider’s Web” is the pick of the month!

  4. Very well written, and inventive. I am equally reminded of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and qntm’s Lena, yet unique in its own way. Great job.

  5. This is so marvelously inventive!
    Each retelling is different from the next, but with the same essential core characters.
    The story versions in which the protagonist Esmerelda has more hardships and conflict, these are inherently more interesting to me as a reader.
    This gives me some existential pity for what we as writers do to our poor characters in our stories.

  6. I frequently misread things, but this looks like an AI experiment with different scenarios based on what may be small changes (when doing math I think we called this perturbation theory) to the input to see how the results branched. If so, the scenarios seem to be realistic. If my suppositions are correct, we may see more of this. It may be done by writers already. One publisher told me that their responses were slowed by the number of AI created stories. I can't see another practical result from the experiments unless they are extrapolated to war scenarios or commercial applications. Mr. Mirth. Don't know why law enforcement was involved.

  7. This was a very imaginative story. Well done, Chloe.

  8. Easily accessible writing that isn’t pretentious, which created a beautiful mental imagery inclusive of almost all senses. The characters connect with you emotionally almost immediately, as they are relatable in their experiences while remaining mysterious. Love that Es had curly hair! Initially a bit reminiscent of Wifelike (2022, movie) but with a 2024 spin in light of new advances. With every reboot, my feelings about the engineer had shifted — love the use of footnotes, very creative.

  9. Completely wowed by this / I started thinking it might be a romantic story between Esme and Adam only to be blown away by the thought provoking and futuristic theme and direction of the story! It’s way beyond its time and I love it! Well done, Chloe! 🙌🏼