Neil balanced his laptop on the arm of the sofa and stretched, his foot knocking a half-empty bag of potato chips onto the floor in the process. It was the middle of the afternoon, but he still wore the ratty gym shorts and faded concert T-shirt he’d slept in the night before. The TV blared. Some trashy daytime talk show host was reading out the results of a paternity test amidst raucous jeers from the studio audience. A pyramid of soda cans balanced precariously on the windowsill, and a trio of empty takeout containers sat on the coffee table. 

One of the dozen browser tabs Neil had open chirped with a notification. He turned the TV down and sidled back to his laptop, quickly clicking through his social media profiles. 

Your post, “I sold my first company when I was 24. What’s your excuse?” has received 127 likes. 

BusinessBoss65 and six others have shared your post, “Don’t play hard if you’re not willing to work hard.” 

User CSuiteBound29 has added you to their list “Corporate Inspiration.” 

Nothing Neil posted on his profiles was true. He was 30, underemployed, and serially unmotivated. After graduating from college in the middle of a recession and trying for years to parlay his entry-level jobs into something more, Neil finally gave up. Eventually, he settled into a steady but go-nowhere position, where the expectations were almost as low as the pay. His professional frustrations and disappointments played out online, where he cultivated the persona of a hot-shot, successful businessman. @NeilExec was everything Neil wanted to be but wasn’t. 

The newest notification was a direct message sent to his LinkedUp profile: 

Dear Neil, 

Thank you for being a LinkedUp user. As the #1 social media network for working professionals, we take the proper use of our platform seriously. We want you to know that we have partnered with Truth Analytics, Inc., to help us crack down on spammers, bots, and fake profiles on LinkedUp. We hope this new partnership will bring you an even more authentic experience. Happy networking! 

“Good,” Neil said out loud. “About time they get rid of all the bullshit that gets posted on here.” 

Neil navigated back to his profile and noticed a question mark icon next to each post. When he hovered his mouse over it, a popup appeared. Does this post contain accurate information? Click to verify. 

Neil reviewed the posts, clicking to verify each of them in turn: 

Your out-of-office auto-reply might say you’re on vacation, but it’s telling me that you don’t want to be promoted.” 

“Someday, when I write the check for my kid’s college tuition, he’ll understand why Daddy worked so much when he was little.” 

“Work isn’t everything, but wanting to work is.” 

Once verified, a checkmark replaced each question mark. While working his way down the profile, Neil delighted in his alter ego. @NeilExec was the big-shot Vice President of Global Sales. The Venn diagram of his career and his identity was a perfect circle. Even so, he couldn’t help chuckling at how extreme some of his posts were. 

“Man, I kinda sound like a dick,” he mused as he verified a blog post about all the wasted productivity between Christmas and New Year’s. The further he went back on his timeline, the more his posts sounded like a caricature of a business executive, and the drowsier he began to feel. 

3:45 a.m. 

Neil woke up. Instantly. He’d evolved beyond the need for an alarm years ago—so in tune he was with his circadian rhythm—but he still set one for four o’clock every morning. Weekdays, weekends, holidays, it didn’t matter. Time was money, and no one ever built a successful company by sleeping eight hours. He loved waking up before his alarm. He loved how he was instantly ready to tackle the day, from the pleasantness of sleep to the zeal of wakefulness in zero seconds. 

Every day was like this. Or was it? As Neil gently kissed his sleeping wife’s forehead, he felt momentarily confused. Disjointed memories and erratic mental images filled his mind. He saw himself lying on a sofa in the middle of the day, watching bad television and eating junk food. Neil didn’t typically remember his dreams, but these images felt unsettlingly vivid. At the same time, his current reality felt nebulous and ill defined. He knew the woman sharing his bed was his wife, but he couldn’t recall her face or any memories of their life together. 

As he proceeded to his morning routine, Neil couldn’t shake the feeling that things were out of place. After his shower, he looked at himself in the mirror for several minutes, examining his face and body in the bright bathroom lights. His bald pate and salt-and-pepper stubble were both familiar and foreign. He looked younger than 49, but even that number struck him as wrong. Going through his routine calmed him, and he felt reassured when he knew precisely which drawers to open to find his toothbrush and razor. Thick cologne dulled his senses and quieted his mind just long enough to tear himself away from the bathroom mirror and dress. 

Glancing into his children’s rooms, Neil felt somewhat envious of their carefree youth. His memory continued to play tricks on him, but even in his foggy reality, he knew little of the people they were growing up to be. There were so many hockey games, piano recitals, spelling bees, and birthdays he’d missed. “Sorry, I have to work late” might as well have been painted on a sign in their living room instead of “Live, laugh, love.” 

He straightened his necktie and proceeded downstairs to the kitchen. The smell of freshly brewed coffee filled his senses. The tidy suburban McMansion he lived in was at odds with what Neil remembered as home. Images of a studio apartment, a pull-out sofa, and takeout containers everywhere clashed with his memories of buying this six-bedroom, five-bathroom beige and gray palace with media room and in-ground pool. 

He peered out the window, and the calming darkness eased his rising anxiety. Intermediate havens of light shone as beacons from the dozen backyard lights. With coffee in hand, Neil went downstairs to his home office. Twenty-four screens erupted to life as he entered. The glow startled him, but his surprise vanished as his memories continued to jostle about in his mind. 

“Hey, SmartHome,” he said. His voice sounded deeper and more commanding than he remembered. “Unroll my day.” 

Neil’s packed schedule of meetings, calls, and projects populated the center screen. He immediately noticed a block from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. entitled “Family time (Feel free to schedule over).” 

He sat down in his office chair and opened a web browser. One of the preset tabs was his LinkedUp profile. Confused realization hit him like a freight train. 

“Fuck,” he said as two lifetimes’ worth of memories battled each other. He pinched the bridge of his nose and massaged the pain away. Finally, after a long moment, Neil reopened his eyes. A tag accompanied all the checkmarks on his timeline: Truth Analytics, Inc., has verified the authenticity of this post. 

He felt the energy, the excitement, the passion. It was barely four o’clock in the morning, but the workday was already half over in EMEA. It was time to get cracking. 

A new day had begun. 

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