They are all anonymous. There’s the budding actress who takes the controls of the subway train for her first solo drive. Five years ago, after receiving her BFA in Theatre Studies, she never would have guessed she’d be dressing up in a transit uniform, or operating under a badge number, instead of preparing to play Celie Johnson in a musical revival of The Color Purple, or a female incarnation of “the Moor” in a gender-inverted adaptation of Othello, or, when she really caught her break, the irreverent lead in a sitcom that truly rewrites the formula and spurs spinoff after copy after homage after nudge-nudge-wink-wink reference in feature-length animated films pitched at parents and kids. She is meant to grace the ads on the sides of buses announcing the next prime-time hit, not operate the vehicles that spread the good word stop by stop by stop. She eases the train up to the subway platform for the first time, undershoots it by four feet. No one she can see through her window seems to notice.
When her father called to tell her she had gotten the job, he had acted like she just won a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars. He had promised her, speaking from thirty-plus years of public transit experience, that she was about to embark on a well-paying and rewarding journey. Maybe thirty-plus years down the road she will say the same thing to her own failed child, but it will not actually be her making this promise. It will be the woman who remains after this job rewrites her dreams and revises her desires, producing the ultimate nightmare role, the equivalent of a stand-in for an extra in a low-budget thriller that goes straight to DVD. Only an hour into this first solo shift, she can already feel she is being erased. The seat wears her. The accelerator grips her hand. The dead-man’s pedal coffins her shoe. The train is a costume commuters pull around themselves, and she is an invisible stitch, a piece the machine needs to gain speed but no more noticeable than the electronics that make the chime sound or the circuits that direct the electricity’s flow. The electronic bells pulse, the doors close. The train wills her to ease it out of the station.
The train surfaces, clattering out of the tunnel into the spring night. Metal fencing hems the tracks in. The backs of high-rises and then the valley’s trees hem in the fence. Five times a day during her in-class training, and twice as many times during her in-vehicle training, she was told cell phone use is strictly prohibited while operating a train. This repeated warning, however, is not enough. It’s a knowledge and a faith that circulates through her, a physiological consciousness of her destiny. She is meant to carry people, this she doesn’t doubt, but the true vehicle is her talent as a performer, the real destinations are mind-expanding intellectual depths, sublime emotional heights, and the simple, satisfying sense of being wholly entertained. There are three stops before the train hurls her back underground. Even though she knows it will end in a screaming match, she phones her mom to plead her case.
Her mom is also at work, her curt tone is a dead giveaway, but it is impossible to tell by the noise in the background whether she is at the call centre or the kitchen at the hotel. The curtains open on the argument the two of them have had again and again since the budding actress was a little girl. It’s her most regular gig, the most honest and gruelling. Her mom doesn’t see her talent. She doesn’t see what she is destined to be. She’s never believed in her.
Her mom says, on cue, “What makes you think you’re so goddamned special?”
As the next station nears, the screaming match begins.
The man who is about to jump to the tracks is anonymous, too. He clings in the dark to the side of the bridge, watching the train, at that distance quaint as a toy, pull to a stop in the station way down the line. He has no ID. He didn’t leave a note. It took industrial grade metal cutters to clip through the fence erected to save the bridge from its nickname, “Loner’s Leap,” which it owes to the forty-foot fall. He’d had to work quickly and discreetly, hoping the dark of the spring night and the speed of the vehicles would hide his intentions from the traffic passing on the bridge. He had let the first train to glide beneath him pass. It would have been too early. He checks his watch. The next one is it.
Back in the autumn, anonymity had not been a goal when he decided to end his life. He just hadn’t wanted to do it alone. He visited a suicide discussion forum he had been frequenting more and more, hoping to find a like-minded companion with whom he could take his life in the company of. That was when he stumbled upon a discussion thread titled: “Don’t you want your death to have meaning?” He joined the conversation. Later, he received a private message from the thread’s creator, asking if he’d like the join The Nameless.
He didn’t buy it, what the financial broker who founded The Nameless was selling. The broker had these highfalutin ways of putting it. Their deaths would have meaning through their total lack of meaning. If you want your suicide to make a difference, then anonymity is necessary. The idea was that if The Nameless took their lives at the same time, in an attention-grabbing fashion, and did so without signalling a name or cause or motivation or belief, then their deaths could signal every name and cause and motivation and belief. The duties inspired by their raw “No”—by the purity of their resistance—would arise from the eye of the beholder.
“We will be saviours,” the broker repeated, as did other members in moments of exhilaration, or sensing the doubt of the man who is about to jump to the tracks. “We will shock each individual who sees us into seeing things must change.”
What had kept the man committed to The Nameless was the bond he felt with the group’s first member, a former junior hockey star whose parents had kicked him out of the house and whose teammates had ridiculed him into quitting the sport he loved when it came out that he was gay. The man and the former junior hockey star hit it off right away, chatting for hours about NHL minutiae, possible afterlives, the significance of their approaching sacrifice. The kid saw their deaths as miniature suns falling without warning from the heavens, shinings around which to build new worlds. The man had been inspired by that description a thousand times more than any of the broker’s abstract ramblings about anonymity and salvation. Now and then he would hint at his apprehension about the broker, but the former junior hockey star never once bit. Instead, he spoke of the broker with total admiration.
“I was nineteen, hooked on painkillers, and this close to living in the streets when we met,” the former junior hockey star once typed, “now, for the first time in my life, I feel at peace, and I’m working with a wicked group of guys who are going to change the world.”
The train finally pulls out of the station and accelerates in his direction, and the man who is about to jump to the tracks thinks of the former junior hockey star, thinks how thankful he is for the last few weeks when The Nameless moved into a house together. He bends deeply at the knees, flexes his arms. He tries to get a sense of the push he’ll need to fall so that he doesn’t miss the tracks. The broker bought the house partly to ease the final stages of planning—scouting potential locations together, providing support in sticking to the rigorous cleansing regime, determining how best to do it without harming bystanders—and partly to leave another empty sign in the form of the house vacated of everything but the basics, no letters or possessions or clues.
Thinking of the former junior hockey star, the man who is about to jump to the tracks feels it again, high above the earth in the cool night air, the train looking less toylike as it nears. It’s the feeling he felt when he first met the kid in person, reached out to shake his hand only to have the grinning man-child yank him into that broad chest for a mighty hug. His friendly affection for his online intimate had grown into fatherly love during their virtual chats, and meeting in person this feeling was confirmed and amplified, and, he knew, reciprocated. When they did chores together, conversed for hours, or scouted locations, he understood that this was the son he should have had, and he was the father by whom the kid should have been raised. No matter what, he would have done right by him. He would have loved him, no matter what.
The train is close enough that he can hear it, faintly jangling like a spur. He can make out the form of the driver and he wonders if the driver sees him. Or is he just a shape to that shape, an empty garbage bag the wind has tangled in the high fence? He wonders who at the hopping commercial district’s intersection has spotted the former junior hockey star. Did a retired colonel recognize the bulge beneath the kid’s jacket as an explosive? Did the colonel suddenly reach out to stop him before the boy ascended the billboard and blew himself up? Who at the mall, the science center, the war monument, the house of God, is looking at one of The Nameless right now, right before they do it, with bomb or blade or gun or leap into empty air? Is a police officer at the baseball stadium eyeing the broker in the front row? Or maybe the catcher diving for a foul ball crashed into him, setting off his bomb too soon and killing innocent fans. That was the darkest day with the kid. A few of them drove out to the woods to test the extra explosives, to make sure the detonation wouldn’t be too big. He heard the blast, but he couldn’t watch. He just stared at the kid who should have been his son, the one he loved, unable to fathom this bright light being snuffed out in such a senseless, brutal way. This is what he sees as he lets go of the bridge, his eyes closed: that lovely, loving face.
The sixteen-year-old girl who runs the website on which the photo of the fallen man’s mangled body will appear is anonymous in the way centuries-old authors are anonymous—the poet who penned, “the outlanders pursue him as if he were game,” or the first monk to ask, “Who is it who drags your corpse around?” Her anonymous creation is the website, I-Chat, short for ignatius-chatter.com. The website is an imitation of her all-time favorite imageboard, 4chan. She has been around computers since she was a little girl and I-Chat, though her umpteenth website, is her most ambitious undertaking: an attempt to replicate on a local scale 4chan’s global revolution.
When the site was completed last year, she sent anonymous emails from her I-Chat account to an assortment of influential students at Ignatius High, inviting them to join. As word of the site spread, more of her classmates requested passwords by sending their student numbers to an email address provided on the homepage. Once signed on, her classmates could post in the various forums: /h/ for homework, /a/ for athletics, /p/ for parties, /r/ for rumors. Over the last six months, she has been accepting requests from students from schools all over the north end. The whole city, she is certain, will be next.
She doesn’t think of I-Chat as the voice she was missing at school. It’s more a net to catch the voices of her classmates, the whistle and the rink with which to direct their play. She decides which threads make the main page, which threads are deleted, which IP addresses receive the ban-hammer for crossing which line. The site became so popular so quickly that even the teachers who blocked it from school computers and promised it would be shut down soon knew to call it I-Chat. The obsession continues to spread through the genuine glee of the infected initiates. It is an easy sell. If you want to know who is scrapping after school, you check I. Hear a rumor about your boyfriend? Confirm it on I. You want to force the creep in Woods Class, the front-row know-it-all in English, your best-best friend 4eva!! to transfer schools? Post what you caught them doing on I. Everyone is watching and waiting to act on what was seen.
It is all anonymous. That is what sets it apart from the other social-networking groups, email accounts, and web forums her classmates community through. None of them know who started the site. None of them know who posts which text and which image. There are no avatars or nicknames. No accounts to personalize with “My Favorite ____” lists, or a digital doll to dress in purchasable digital wear. There are no barriers or distinctions: no classrooms or class, no gender or creed, no race or reputation. Anonymous reveals that Amber S. is sucking more than one dick. Anonymous shares the news that the party being held in the valley is being moved to the lake. Anonymous posts pics of Miss Hay’s panty line from French class. Anonymous is -_- , >:-) , and :-O. Anonymous demands, “Tits or GTFO!”
When the picture of the man mangled on the tracks first appears on I-Chat, accompanied by the words, “YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE WHAT I FUCKING SAW TONIGHT,” the sixteen-year-old girl does not witness its arrival. She is on her way downstairs to attend an inter-high school superhero-themed costume party organized by the different videogame clubs. Sexy Pirate is usually her go-to costume, because it is always such a hit, but she is sick of having to reveal to the kids from other schools the secret to her authentic-looking wooden leg. Her “secret” is the truth: a boating accident when she was three. The blade of the motor smushed her leg to pieces and what didn’t sink to the weedy bottom of a man-made lake held a shape that could not be repaired. Tonight she goes with Sexy Superman: a cape and miniskirt she made from red duct tape, her prosthetic leg decorated with paint and tinfoil to simulate an attack by Brainiac, and a blue bustier complete with her take on the Superman logo stitched to the front, the traditional S replaced by the wheelchair-riding universal symbol of the handicapped.
“Shameful,” her mom gasps, instantly.
“You’re shameful for calling me shameful,” she counters. “You’re supposed to raise children, not constantly judge them.”
“If only I were so powerful,” her mom snaps. “You head right back upstairs and change, missy, or you are not leaving this house.”
Her mom’s strike spreads an electric shiver along the sixteen-year-old girl’s spine and arms, from her shoulders to the hands she clenches to shake it away, a rage-rich burn tightening in her heart and stomach as though the two rulers of her insides are doing battle or trying to fuse into a new, unsustainable organ. The sensation of hate gets so intense, as sensations always do in her—sensations of pleasure, of pain, of hope, of failure—that she will not be surprised if it turns her skin and bone and musculature translucent, disbanding all that is not a nerve in that burning, so that the sensation holds its form naked in the air, taking the shape of timbers leaned together at the top, penning in the early embers of the wildest fire.
“Fuck you,” she screams, and repeats it, like a chant, “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.”
She keeps the mantra going as she ascends the stairs, stumbles into her bedroom and slams the door, clamping the two locks shut tight.
She gathers herself on the floor. Her panting becomes deep breaths, and as she moves to her computer she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her red tape skirt conceals the border of plastic and skin where the mock-attacked prosthesis joins the curve of her upper-thigh. What her mom sees, she guesses, is a well-armed and fanatical sentinel who holds her real daughter captive. This is evident in how her mom scolds her even when they’re getting along. “Constructive coaching” is her mom’s phrase for it, speaking as though she were attempting to sneak a message past a severe warden to the prisoner closeted in the cell of a vault far, far, far underfoot. The sixteen-year-old girl believes this sometimes, that she is an inmate: to her mom, to her disability. She feels like her leg hasn’t been lost but pushed into her squat stature, and the extra girth with which it fills her stomach, breasts, cheeks, and thighs is a fettering cage that thwarts every effort of physically reaching out, calls off the search party of any gesture from the real world that might possibly, palming blindly, reach her. It’s why she built the site: to reach and to be reached.
Her mom knocks on her bedroom door with a peace offering.
“You can wear my bumble bee costume if you’d like.”
“I’m not going out.”
After a long silence, her mom asks, exasperated, “What are you trying to prove?”
“Everything, Mom, every fucking thing.”
“What the hell is going on? Are you some kind of Goth? Are you an Emo?”
“No, Mom. I’m something you’ll never be.”
The sixteen-year-old girl is loved, in such a way that she does not have to respond to her mom’s demand that she open this door right now. She has another home, another family, one that allows her to ignore her mom’s pounding, her silent departure down the hall. The girl settles into the chair in front of her computer. She logs onto I-Chat. She goes straight to /h/, for help.
“I’m so fucking sad, I-Chat,” she posts anonymously, “cheer me up.”
Anonymous replies, “I’m so sorry to hear that,” “Sending you positive vibes,” “What’s up?” Anonymous posts images of cats and kittens, a “bawww” comic to show solidarity, and a rainbow-backed marijuana plant to suggest one way out. Anonymous comes through, until it doesn’t. A picture of a decapitated head appears. It’s the work of a troll, or, as one Anon puts it, “Obvious troll is obvious.” The troll, or another troll, posts a picture of a decomposing obese woman, trying to inspire shock or rage or sadness, any manner of reaction. A troll posts a picture of what first looks like a pile of meat, but then becomes a body mangled on train tracks, the rear of a subway car visible in the background.
As with her site’s animus, 4chan, the most controversial forum is /b/, random. /b/ is where anything goes. It is dedicated to strangeness, absurdity, porn, hate, and, hardest for her to handle, gore: the Chinese criminal de-limbed a century ago flanked by the mob that got him, a mound of the holocaust’s victims, the bloated corpse of an OD’d comedian, a pair of self-terminated high-school shooters, and the androgynous body mangled on the tracks.
This is a new one. The two transit suicides she’s seen before posted on I-Chat take the form of surveillance footage shot overseas by ceiling-mounted cameras: an old woman in China hurries onto the tracks as though late for an appointment with an impatient ancestor, and an Indian man emerges from beneath the platform and rolls in front the oncoming train, star-fishing on the rails before the unbreakable surf of steel takes him away. The preservation of the latest victim is different. Instead of footage, there are stills, taken up close, after the collision. The person who shot these was standing on the tracks. A few of the sincere anonymous I-Chatterers reply, “How awful,” “Keep the gore in /b/!” and “So tragic ☹ RIP.” These sparks of disgust and pain are then fed further by the trolls, who proceed to dump more gore and more versions of these cell phone images with words they’ve Photoshopped atop: “Why your train was late,” “Delicious steak!” and “Could I get a transfer?”
For the sixteen-year-old girl these word-brutalized images are like a ghoulish Spiderman web-slinging through the peaks of the skyscrapers of her memories, touching this one and then this one and then this one, their existential or structural or spiritual fellow-travellers: her memory of other www-framed and frozen bursts of gore, her memory of the Elm Street movie where Freddie fed the girl her own intestines, the tire-crushed head of a squirrel, the menstrual clumps her mom had forgotten to flush years and years ago, her memory of the plasticity of clouds, of porridge, traffic-sailed snow, the comic strip one I-Chatterer had posted in /a/, for art, about a seventeenth century Jesuit who fed the bodies of murdered Iroquois to the Iroquois he converted, making, as the priest cried out in the final frame, “the living holy with the body of a holy dead.” It had been called “The Host” or “The Bred.” She can’t remember, but she is sure the images of the person mangled on the tracks could pose for a panel.
She hits F5 to refresh the screen, and the newly accumulated responses from the I-Chatterers load in a flash. The trolls have added more gore. Normally, she loves her trolls, and is one of their leading members on other sites, but, as I-Chat’s webmaster, she has other responsibilities, order to uphold, and the transgression cannot stand, especially not with the night she’s had. She deletes the thread. It is the game of God and mouse that she and the trolls play. They always lose and learn. She keeps them contained to /b/. The ones who post shocking content where it does not belong—a picture of the tranny with the ten-inch dick getting a rim job, or the gif of Al Qaeda Super Mario bringing down the Twin Towers—soon learn who rules the rules. A twenty-four-hour ban usually does the trick.
What the sixteen-year-old girl doesn’t know, as she watches over I-Chat and deletes the thread, is that the hardcore troll is watching over her. The hardcore troll’s pursuit of the sixteen-year-old girl started a week ago. The sixteen-year-old girl had visited the /b/ forum on 4chan and posted a rallying cry, “/b/tards unite!” In her post she explained that her principal at Ignatius High was threatening to cancel the spring formal if she did not shut down her own 4chan-inspired site, I-Chat. She asked that /b/ start their defence of her work by hacking her principal’s email account and sending bestiality porn to everyone on his contact list. Once this had been accomplished, she would post instructions regarding the next phase. /b/ had replied, collectively, in the negative, though this “No” had taken many different forms: “/b/ is not your personal army,” “I’LL FUCK YOUR SPRING FORMAL IN THE ASS AT FULL FORCE,” “Tits or GTFO.” As the “No” had grown in duration and ferocity, the sixteen-year-old girl had lashed out, accusing those /b/tards of being fakes, phoneys, cowards, fuckers of mothers, shiteaters.
“One day, I’m going to make you regret this /b/,” she had written, “the day you failed your future queen.”
Raging at this nobody’s inflated sense of self-importance, the hardcore troll had rallied a group of similarly raging trolls. He had coordinated the prelude to their attack, delegating duties: the hacking of I-Chat, the search for server payments that could connect the owner to an address, the trawling of Facebook for a list of students from Ignatius High. There had been advances, cracking the I-Chat webmaster’s password without detection, and failures (coming up short on a positive ID), but before the mission could be accomplished the rage had faded for most and different thrills stole the hardcore troll’s charges. One troll abandoned the attack on I-Chat to help hack an epilepsy support forum and post seizure-inducing gifs on the home page. Another hijacked the Facebook account of a Pentecostal pastor and updated the pastor’s status: “Really got the feeling today that God is full of it.” The troll screencapped the replies and posted them for /b/’s enjoyment. Another troll edited a video for Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” from footage posted by Juba the Baghdad Sniper documenting the sudden, surprising deaths of all the American soldiers he cut down. He posted the piece on the Army Reserve website.
Why troll? Why the fuck troll? Who asks this? For their protection, we can’t say for sure. But the answers to this anonymously asked question are legion. It’s bodily. That’s one answer. They do it for the lulz. Schadenfreude on steroids is what these hackers on steroids are after. Lulz is the corruption of LOL, the “beyond the pleasure principle” of LOL: when LOL’s innocent and milquetoast and white Mickey Mouse gloves run through the internet hate machine to become the seething fur of the massive packs of rats that spread the bubonic plague.
To the authorities, for whom there is never a single fresh thing blooming under the sun, trolls are old news. According to the cops and the twenty-four-hour news feed, trolls do it because this is what delinquents do in the twenty-first century. Another authority, the professor, will stand at the podium in a sparsely attended session at the Art in the Internet Age conference, delivering a paper titled, “‘The World Would Be a Better Place without You’: 4chan and the Transformation of the Satirical Mode,” in which he will show that what these trolls do is simply satire. This is what happens to satire when beings are so integrated into so many social symbols and global networks and interconnecting technologies. Satirists used to caricature a face by distorting its features in ink on paper. Today the self is thoroughly fused with these manipulatable bits, sites, and codes; and the troll is a caricaturist whose distortions destroy the very life assimilated into these social media profiles, digital images, voicemail accounts, and credit card accounts, and so on, ad infinitum.
The movie producer and screenwriter, looking to make the next big thing, quarrel over the historical significance of the troll. They agree on the figure central to every truly great film, whether The Godfather or Modern Times, or even the mildly okay, like Natural Born Killers: the mad, lone wolf who breaks free from the perfect, rigid system. That is the key. Part hero, part demon, this guy goes rogue and harvests whatever he needs to survive. But who, in the movie they want to make, is this lone wolf? For the producers, there’s no question: it’s the trolls. Yet no matter what piece of evidence he presents, the screenwriter refuses to stray from his belief that the trolls are holdovers from a quainter, human-centered age. For the screenwriter, if their movie is to be true to their times, then it has to be the story of the system itself breaking free from us. The Luddite terrorist cell, which has successfully maimed four North American scientists with letter bombs, would, if privy to this conversation, agree with the screenwriter. The trolls are a sign, a symbolic goop that foretells the grey goop to which reality will be reduced after the nanotech Armageddon.
“But aren’t trolls just parasites festering around the asshole of the internet?” protests the armchair expert, sick of all the random talk, but who quickly grows meek when he sees us look in his direction. “I mean,” he continues, stammering, “isn’t this just basic goddamned, um, science, er, um, I mean, physiology. Everything needs an asshole, right? Because everything makes shit. People. Industries. Political parties. Birds. The internet.”
“And he means s-h-i-t shit, the foulest fucking bowl-staining deuce that’s ever been laid,” adds one of the many sources who wish to remain anonymous. “These trolls’ll make a laugh-riot running meme of a pedo who got caught raping little boys in Cambodia or some such whatchamafuck, calling him ‘Swirlface’ because all the bozo did to hide his identity in the pictures he made public was to digitally swirl his face (and all Interpol (interloll, amirite?) had to do to nab him was unswirl his swirled face).” “That’s nothing, trolls’ll pretend to be a thirteen-year-old girl to trick a pedo into sending them pictures of his dick, to wax poetical about all the naughty things he wants to do to the (imaginary) girl’s naughty nubile bits, and then they’ll post his cock and rotten longings for all to find glee in seeing.” “That’s nothing, they’ll hack a (real) thirteen-year-old girl’s email account and threaten to share all the shit she’s been talking about her friends unless she shows them her tits live via webcam.” “That’s nothing, they’ll get the email addresses of children on elementary school websites with weak privacy settings, and write long emails to the ‘lovely, scrumptious orifices’ of these kids.” “That’s nothing, they’ll . . .” “That’s nothing, trolls . . .” “That’s nothing . . .” “That’s nothing . . .” “That’s nothing . . .”
For the hardcore troll, it’s all nothing. Though when he first visited /b/, it had something to do with something, something about the progeny of suburbia, of privilege, needing to be tourists of the truth of their times, to undertake a quest to contact what was real at the edge, the cultural pollution that never contaminated the mainstream: the women burned alive as witches in an east African village, the Muslim girl who loved the wrong man swarmed by a crowd that only dispersed when a cinderblock split open that love-filled skull, the episode of “The Great White Racist” where he tricked illegal Mexican workers into getting deported, the Black Supremacist who demanded to a roomful of applause that all white men be castrated and all white women raped, the huffed-out teens on an East Coast reserve, the eight-year-old Russian who overdosed on heroin right before the lens his young friends fixed on him, looking him right in the eyes that focused, then drifted, then focused, then drifted, then finally let go.
When the hardcore troll was a boy, his mom had read him a story about God putting burrs in the guts of babies curled inside their mommies’ stomachs. It happened to all children before they were born. That burr remained still and unfelt, the story went, until you did something wrong or witnessed something unjust. It was then that its presence was felt. It pricked you. The clips and images the hardcore troll sought were the ones that put the burr to work: the scatological feast of “Two Girls One Cup,” “One Guy One Cup” with its flow of blood after the crack of the glass breaking inside the man’s anal cavity, “Two Guys One Hammer” with the Russian boys on the killing spree they documented blow by blow. He wanted them to grind round his burr’s points, to kill its touch in the face of the total lack of good, the relentless catalogue of crap that confirmed again and again the inevitable absence of anything miraculous or just.
The hardcore troll takes over I-Chat while the sixteen-year-old girl is in the tub. The sixteen-year-old girl’s prosthesis is submerged in the water when, unbeknownst to her, the hardcore troll’s email arrives in her inbox. The black and silver ink gives up its solidity as a hand-rendered super villain attack and turns the tepid water a faint, staining purple. The water drains and she remains in the tub while the shower washes the remaining suds and color away. The subject line of the hardcore troll’s email reads: “To the One of the Cancers That Is Killing the Web.” The email address he sends the message from is: email@example.com.
The body of the email is composed of a lone blue link.
“Click me,” it insists.
When the sixteen-year-old girl finally reads it, she obliges.
The new window opens up I-Chat.
The screen fills with her contact information and her smiling face.
The hardcore troll’s assault constricts her, makes her limbs and thoughts and emotions and hope feel heavy with the chains of being seen, at being a piece of news that spreads. Her attacker hasn’t simply stolen I-Chat. He has directed it against her, as he wrote in his email, “@ full fucking force.” The I-Chatterers she nurtured attack swiftly. Her cell phone chimes without ceasing. The landline does the same thing. Her mom pounds on the door, demanding to know why the phone is ringing off the hook with prank calls about something called a “lollercaust.” I-Chat fills with new, original content: the sixteen-year-old girl’s class photo, complete with yellow cartoon stars shopped over her eyes and the words “Future Plans: Internet Superstar,” her face shopped onto the head of the Virgin Mary, her face warped into the shape of something straight out of hell, a motivational poster that reads, “The Internet / It’s Serious Business,” an image of her without her prosthesis, leaning against a locker and holding up a sign that reads, “How does I find leg?”
It makes her feel like the criminals she learned about in tenth grade history. A whole bunch of centuries-ago people were punished with the wax figure of a skeleton. They were sentenced to stare at it, probably chained, enclosed in a room. They had to watch it watch them, or watch it look past them into itself in them, its fellow skeleton trapped in skin. Her history teacher had shown a painting in one of his PowerPoint lectures. Those eyeless eyes asking, “How much longer before you can come out and decay?” She doesn’t remember which crimes her teacher had said earned that punishment. What has she done wrong? It is the same punishment, forced to scroll down I-Chat’s ever-stretching thread, sentenced to stare, F5 refreshing the page, unveiling the new material.
This is all there is to do, F5, F5, F5, F5, F5, charging through that haunted virtual castle, each click spurring a new terror, the monsters all made of her by the monsters at the controls of the computers she cannot see. All those who had been attacked by others on I-Chat, all who had done the attacking and were ready to repent, even all those who had simply lurked, spying, never typing a word, go at her online—her face, feelings, body, history, and reputation. She sees herself as the princess in an untold fairy tale, trapped in a cell whose walls are made of the most horrible distorting mirrors. Someone posts a picture in which her prosthesis has been replaced by the body mangled on the tracks, and the “me, me, me” she reels in alone is broken by her arrangement with this thing, this former person. This is one of her people. No, it’s the other way around. She is one of its people, its subjects. She serves this king. Who was it before it became so regal? How did it know this was the way to ascend a throne? If what this thing once was could see itself now, would it go back in time and do otherwise? Would it, like her, wish only to hit F5, F5, F5?
The sixteen-year-old girl’s questions about the body mangled on the tracks will, in different ways, be asked by others, along with many, many more questions. Most of them will be answered, making public what the man mangled on the tracks had hoped would remain unknown, his former name and former address, his employment history, recreational memberships, and not-quite-completed certificates. An ex-girlfriend will tell reporters how his criminal record was bullshit because the guy he had been convicted of crippling had raped her. The only relative to say more than “no comment” (a nephew from out west) will describe the man as a “one step forward, two steps back kind of guy.”
What would remain anonymous forever, though, was what the man on the tracks considered his final act. Not his death. Dropping forty feet from the bridge had been the final ripple of a stone cast years ago. His final act had happened the night before, at the house where The Nameless had spent their final days. He had gone to the basement to see the former junior hockey star, only to find the workroom empty. He had seen the two explosive belts sitting on the bench, ready to go, the kid’s distinguished with his old number, seventy-seven, markered onto the canvas. After calling the kid’s name once more, and receiving no reply, the man had sabotaged the trigger, so that, rightfully, while the rest of them died—the guy fell to the tracks, the broker sprinted across the baseball field and blew himself up, and others slit throats and wrists, broke a cranium open with a triggered shell—the former junior hockey star would survive, would stand above that thriving city, shocked himself as he had intended to shock others, with no idea who had saved him, this act of love to remain forever unknown.
But this is not how shock tends to work, the way the man mangled on the tracks had imagined it in the basement. In his fantasy, he’d gotten the intensity right, how suddenly the kid would be hit with the realization that his explosives had been sabotaged. What the man had failed to imagine was how destructive this revelation would be. He didn’t see the vast trail of ruins that would pile up behind the kid or the yawning void that would open up in place of the days ahead. He didn’t see that the jolts keep coming, like waves, capsizing you every time you right the dinghy.
Just look at the budding actress, hours earlier, when the accident happened.
First, there is the shock of what she sees. Then, there is the shock of the floor of the cab against her body when the train brakes. The victim preserved perfectly in her memory of that fall comes right at her again and again, and seeing that fall repeat in her mind she flinches on the floor she has fallen to. When she calls in the Code 000, there is the shock of the dispatcher saying there will be a major delay in assistance due to a pair of earlier transit crises and word that emergency services of all stripes are being called to violent scenes across the city. There is the shock of the commuters’ response, many of whom continue to complain about the inconvenience the budding actress has caused them, even after she explains that she has hit someone. There is the shock of the commuters shouting, “There’s somebody back there,” there with the body—and when she runs through the evacuated train and jumps to the tracks in the rear, there is the shock of what she sees: a lithe teen leaning over the remains, his arm pointed at the tracks like a painter measuring the proportions of his subject with his thumb. The budding actress shouts, and then comes the shock of the reply. It isn’t a voice that answers.
It is a single flash of light. The sound of a cell phone camera, its distinctive snap.
The shooter takes off. She pursues him down the tracks, over the fence, through the brush of the park to the backyard where she loses him. She keeps up her pursuit, though, running with the idea that running will put her back on his trail. There is the shock of what she saw, only a glance as she passed, but it remains clear in her mind. Where the teen had stood with his cell phone there had been no human left at all. Only colors, dulled in the faint light cast from the rear of the train, but still colors she had never considered belonging to a body. It was the outcome of unsociable skins forced to mingle. All the outsides and insides swirled into pulp. She stops running, braces herself against a lamppost, and vomits. The body as vomit. She has made someone’s body into vomit. She gets sick again.
The budding actress starts back in what she guesses is the direction of her train, though she doesn’t know for sure. Why would the teen take that picture? What becomes of dead bodies in real life is not material for entertainment. How could he not know that? The poor people the union forced them to look at in the work safety slideshow would never make the cut, no matter how much a guy bragged he could stomach “horror.” Horror had nothing to do with it. Once a driver backed the wrong bus out of the garage, dragging the mechanic who tinkered with the underbelly of the thing with him. The torso of the corpse was sort of leaned back like a jovial drunk who didn’t need another whiskey. The top of the head stretched back from the lower jaw. The dead they make in movies have got this peace and proportion about them that would never allow them to let fly that kind of last laugh.
A CityTV news van whizzes past. By the time she thinks to wave it down, the van is gone. She wonders what will happen when the news van comes for her story. What will the millions out there in TV-land think of her? Should she practice or wing it? Will she distinguish herself as a life with beliefs and talents capable of extracting themselves from the headline, “Train Driver Kills Man,” or the headline “Train Driver Witnesses Desecration. Fails to Apprehend Culprit”?
“Is this really how it starts?” she mutters to herself. “Is this how it begins?”
For now, though, she is safe. The news vans are not coming for her tonight. In fact, she will not be interviewed for another two days. It’s the sheer, sudden volume of the suicides that first fills the Twitter-verse and website headlines and regular-scheduled-program-interrupting newsbreaks. Then the suicides are overtaken by word that, despite earlier reports, one of the suicide victims has survived, though he remains in critical condition. The police refuse to confirm anything, but a number of people who watch the suicide attempt online identify the man as a former junior hockey star, and, to support their conviction, they provide links in the comment section to various hockey-related websites. In the footage of his death, the kid sprints across the baseball diamond beside another man, and some of the commenters argue that the kid is pursuing the man, trying to stop him from setting off the explosive that kills the man and critically injures the kid. The witnesses interviewed after the game, however, set the record straight. The man with the bomb and the former junior hockey star had been sitting together in the front row, holding hands or embracing through the first seven innings. There had been a long kiss, too, right before they took off together.
What do you think the other anons think of this—the thus far unnamed, and yet the most advanced and experienced and expert of them all? What do the “old” think, the “aged,” as some say, or, in the words of others, “all those decrepit fucks”? What do they make of the news of the suicides?
Here they are, eleven of the millions, arranged around a forty-inch flat screen in the Entertainment Room of St. Anthony House. The news of the rash of suicides, potentially a cult-initiated incident, interrupts an episode of a police procedural about a drug-addicted officer. The urgent notes of the newsbreak’s theme demand the unwavering attention of anyone within sensual range. But these, remember, are the members of a century-long generation that, in the history of every beast and being, has seen more change, for better and for worse, more promise, failed and realized, than any generation before, so much so that if creatures were catalogued by the characteristics and qualities of their time, then their generation would be distinguished as a species that is at once new, rare, and nearly extinct. So don’t blame them for not being shocked by what the anchorman describes as the shocking tragedy of these suicides, or for not feeling the longing the anchorman attributes to his audience, the need to receive more details as they emerge.
Not every one of these anonymous is “old.” There’s the former carpenter-by-day-musician-by-night, who, by the age of forty-four, had guzzled alcohol to such excess that he could no longer make new memories. He looks up at the television screen and blurts, “I worked with that guy,” even though he never did. The next morning, as he does every morning, the former carpenter will rise for a condo job that was completed over a decade ago, and when he plays his next weekly gig at St. Anthony’s, the nurses, as they always do, will tell him which song to play next so he doesn’t sing, again and again, the song that is best for opening. There is also the thirtysomething whose eyes loll, wet and blank, in the television screen’s direction. A few years back, she drank battery acid, destroying her insides, damaging her brain, and banishing her to a monosyllabic, semi-vegetative state—though her ex-husband acts otherwise, sharing the day-to-day minutiae when he visits her with the boys.
For most of the residents, the sudden shift from the TV show to the news is a fleeting distraction. The childless octogenarian who had dedicated much of her life to being the best aunt she could looks down from the screen and takes up her never-ending game of solitaire with cards no one else can see, her hand carefully dusting across nothing to turn nothing over, to lift nothing in front of her face for careful consideration, to place nothing atop an ordered pile that is not there. The long-retired rancher who has not had a visitor in years toes away from the Entertainment Room in his wheelchair and creeps through the halls of the home, as he is apt to do, pulling weakly at his seatbelt and demanding to know who trapped him in this goddamned machine. How the hell do you get out of this thing? Why the hell won’t they let him go?
Only the seventy-seven-year-old who refuses to wear anything other than her blue nightie seems disturbed by the intrusion of the news. She suddenly shoots out of her recliner for the third time that night and dashes to the television to change the channel. She needs to watch The Andy Griffith Show, and it is almost finished, she just knows it. A warm-voiced man who might be her Uncle Bill promises to do what he can and helps her back to her chair. He gives her a pill that silences that urging part of her, that part that says go watch Andy Griffith, stilling, too, her tapping foot, her shaking fingers, as she watches with the few who remain awake the face of the young man who, according to the anchor, is the lone survivor of what looks to be a mass suicide, though the young man remains in critical condition.
The face of the lone survivor passes into the pattern of a wide receiver’s route, passes into the pattern of a vehicle, all-purpose and massive, tearing through the mucky and daunting terrain of a morning forest. A dissipating guitar riff gives way to a voiced opinion on the current state of affairs, which gives way to an argument over a crime scene’s contents, which gives way to the special report of an entertainment news magazine. The host stands on a brightly lit and geometrically attuned set; a wall-sized screen behind her displays the face of two young black men, twins, beneath the words, “The Quest.”
“Welcome back,” she says, flashing a welcoming smile at a new camera angle, “Now, as promised, I want to give you exclusive details about the next major Reality TV event: The Quest.”
The stars of the show are eighteen-year-old twins, she explains, who were taken from their native Rwanda as babies and brought to live in the USA. They have grown up learning nothing about their culture and knowing nothing about their biological parents. To undo that injustice, the twins are being sent with a group of twenty-four paired contestants from all walks of life. While learning with the boys about their Tutsi heritage, the contestants will compete in elimination challenges that will lead the winning team to finding the twins’ long-lost parents.
“Though the network has not released any official figures,” the host exclaims, “industry insiders have speculated that the twins, their family, and the winning contestants of The Quest will split more than five million dollars in cash and prizes.”
Turning again to the original camera angle, the host speaks in a hushed tone about the next exclusive insider look: the world premiere of The Quest’s promotional footage. More footage will appear on upcoming episodes. She offers in awe the info that this footage is not rehearsed and is not the work of a trained network crew. Exampling a segment that will appear in every episode of The Quest, “Real Rwanda,” the ensuing footage was captured with one hundred percent authenticity by local Rwandans, free to see as they pleased, with cameras the network generously provided.
The footage begins with a dirt street lined with single-story shanties, the sun beyond setting, feet walking bare through the dirt. A group of men soiled with work address the camera with serious and sincere stares. Next there is a different dirt street with a group of children further down. One points at the camera, turns to his friends laughing, and then turns back to the camera, his mouth smiling as wide as a world cracked in two. In different scenes there are others who do not notice the camera and keep at what they keep at: herding chickens through a rusted wire fence, sitting on a stool and tossing stones at something beyond the range of the lens. A woman in close-up, surrounded by lightly clothed and excited bodies, braces a baby gasping from between the legs of another woman. A man jumps from high foliage, past a waterfall and into the river pooling up brown below. When he jumps, all there is for a moment is sky.
As the seventy-seven-year-old in the blue nightie is nudged awake, and asked if she needs help finding her room, the former junior hockey star enters his third hour of surgery. The fluids and people and monitors and tools are so dedicated to saving his life that they become one unnameable being, and he is so open to their efforts that he, too, is one with what they’ve become. Think of the first time wood was driven into earth to make shelter. It’s that kind of fantastical union. What happens as he dies? Imagine a television watching only its own static flow. Imagine a camera looking in upon and filming the blank infinity of its famous stare. That is what happens. With all that pain and sensation taken away by the anesthetic, he hears no hearing, and sees no seeing, and he senses nothing of how it feels to be something that senses and feels. In that moment’s finality, in its ridiculousness, in that instant which, from the perspective of the particulars of everything he had been and believed could not help but emerge as impossible, there is no thought, no content or consequence, only the most anonymous form of life as life’s last anonymous form, one breath away from disappearing for good.