This short story took 3rd place in the writer's "Our darkest Hours" competition
Your mission became clear the day you’d posted a dick pic on reddit.
That hadn’t been easy for you to do. That had taken some courage, even if the pic hadn’t shown your face. But the angle had been good, the lighting Oscar-worthy. Manscaping in full effect. It was a good photo. You hadn’t expected it to make the front page, this being the first time you’d ever r/gonewild and all, but you also hadn’t expected everybody to be so mean.
“And my parents wonder why I’m a lesbian,” said TheDirtyDank.
“This photo made me sadder than The Notebook,” said BoomSauce45.
“That baby has a really tiny dick,” said MorningWoodFromMaine.
431 comments by the time you’d removed the post. And not one of them nice. But the one that had hurt the most, that had come from TwinCitiesTart. From someone – if her username was honest – who lived in your own backyard. Little Ms. Minnesota Nice had posted a picture of her own: A big thumbs down.
It hadn’t been the cruelest. It certainly wasn’t the cleverest. But it had come from a neighbor. A girl who’d grown up with the Vikings on Sundays and Prince at every school dance. It could be someone you’d gone to school with. Someone you worked with. Someone you knew. And that had been the thing that did it. That comment had lit the fuse inside your head. The fuse. Not the switch. Not the straw breaking the back.
No, for you it’s a fuse and it’s fireworks.
It’s percussive black cats, screaming bottle rockets and dark, coiling snakes oozing across your grey matter. Taking over. That’s what it was with TwinCitiesTart. And the next time you could see clear you were online. Surfing past the family-friendly land of Google. Drilling down, down deep. Past the places search engines can index. Into the wasteland. The wilderness. Into the Dark Web. Finding all the right forums and chat rooms. Sending the private messages. Offering the bootleg soundboards of Springsteen and the out-of-print pornography for the .exe file that you just knew existed.
It was called “IP Hunter” and the guy who traded it to you called himself MajorGeek778. He was willing to give up anything for your compilation of 80’s commercials he hadn’t seen since he was a kid and things like credit card debt didn’t exist. He kept throwing around words like “next-gen” and “proprietary” and “CIA.” So you had a little coal of heat in your gut as you extracted the files. And it blossomed into flame as you opened the program. It was magnificent.
See, TwinCitiesTart wasn’t smarter than you. Not by a freaking long shot. A few clicks of the keyboard later and you were following her little pixelated breadcrumbs. Tracking her. Following her back to the place where she’d felt safe enough to reach out and hurt your feelings. Had you been a different breed you might have hacked your way into her life. Stolen her passwords and her credit rating and her financial security. But that wasn’t you. And that was where IP Hunter became of no further use. The digital address meant nothing without the physical one. And all your perfect little program could do was narrow down the neighborhood.
So you grit your teeth and looked at her picture again. At her gross fingers tucked into her judgmental fist. At her chubby, dirty thumb aimed at the floor. At the exacting polka dots covering her long, manicured nails. And then beyond that. Behind that. Out of focus, sure, but it was all still there. Every bit of info you needed. Hard to hide an espresso machine like that. And even though you couldn’t make out if they were bagels or donuts, baked goods in a glass case were all that you needed.
Suddenly your haystack had shrunk to a few stray strands. All you had to do then was brush them aside to get at your needler.
You weren’t a big coffee fan. But her coffee shop had those bottles of fresh-squeezed orange juice you liked so much. You sipped at one for hours, grinding the bits of pulp between your teeth. You were patient. Waiting was fine. It could be minutes or hours or days, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like you had anything else to do.
It turned out to be two days. A small price to pay for your moment. You’d known it was her before you’d even seen her. She had a voice like a cat swallowing a chainsaw. A laugh that could slit throats. Pair that with the telltale clicks of long nails on countertop and you’d known she was the one before you’d even looked up. But you did look up. And there she was. Her green smock over a white blouse just the slutty side of sheer. Giving you a hint of the blue lace beneath it. Just enough to make you look but not enough to let you see anything. Of course. And those perfect polka dots on those long nails. None of this surprised you. It was exactly what you’d expected from someone who’d done what she’d done.
You would make her regret it.
* * *
She was the first. And now that it’s over you’re back online and tracking down MajorGeek778, thanking him for his help. You’re vague about the details, but he’s smart and he knows what you used the program for without you having to get into the specifics. And he’s proud of you.
Because he is one of you. Because you are not special.
And that’s when it happens. That when he introduces you to SocialSpace.
Not the version that everyone knows; the latest and greatest social media tool designed to unite your digital profile with your real world self. No, he gives you the key to the backdoor. The site behind the site. Leads you past the firewalls and customized backgrounds and profile pics. Into the dark basement where the monsters flex their jaws and get to work. Out there you are one of 400 million users. Down here you are one of 55.
Even here, even in this, you are not special. But it’s as close as you’ve felt in a long time.
Which is why you pour everything into it. Why you spend hours perfecting your profile out there. The one for the 400 million. And it is perfect. The sort of insecure, shy and desperate guy the Internet was made to destroy. As you fill up your profile the algorithm is hard at work, suggesting the users that remind it of you. Your ‘friends.’ Your followers. Your herd. Those who like what you like, think how you think. At no time is your individuality so easily revealed to be uniformity then when you’re online. You are not a you. You are a they. Your “I” is plural.
You are no snowflake.
After the mask is complete, you pull up the file MajorGeek778 sends you through an untraceable IP and read the instructions. You crack your knuckles and roll your head in slow circles like a prizefighter on his way to the ring. You grab another Diet Coke.
You download the software and piggyback onto servers. You re-route your IP until it vanishes – just one thread in the spiderworldwideweb. You wipe and trash and boot from safe mode till your fingertips ache. It is a lot of work, but the instructions are perfect. As is your execution. And suddenly you are behind the curtain, watching wide-eyed as SocialSpace melts away. Revealing your new favorite bookmark. Your homepage away from home.
Hacks to access webcams. Passwords. Phone numbers. Addresses. SocialSpace is the mask. StalkSpace is the grinning skull beneath and behind. StalkSpace is the database, culling from the trough, the pen full of 400 million-and-counting little piggies. Sharing and poking and teasing and taunting with abandon, never seeing the monster gnashing its teeth behind the scenes.
Your Millennial brothers and sisters hide behind anonymity – trolling message boards and lobbing fireballs with abandon – while at the same time posting a billion baby pictures, checking-in at restaurants and mapping their runs. Open books all, laboring under the delusion that an IP address is a burka. But it isn’t.
* * *
She hadn’t seen it coming, TwinCitiesTart. Even though you’d been her last customer. She’d closed the coffee shop that night. You’d watched her from the shadows just outside the doorway halogens as she snuck an unsold pastry into her purse for the ride home. As she grabbed her bag and snuffed the lights.
She hadn’t felt your eyes on the back of her head. Maybe she didn’t have that thing, that instinct that told you to put the keys through your fingers as you headed for the parking lot. That told you not to take that shortcut through the alley.
That told you to run.
She hadn’t noticed you until you were already grabbing her, spinning her around to face you. Her wide, terrified eyes gulping you in.
Oh, she’d seen you now.
“Are you TwinCitiesTart?” you asked.
“Wh … what?” she stammered, already backing away.
“That was really mean, what you did to me,” you continued. “Really, really mean. I know I’m no Matthew Perry but I don’t think I deserved that.”
“What are you talking about?” she said, her hands darting into her purse.
“You gave me a thumbs-down. And you don’t even know me. And I thought, maybe if you knew me, maybe if you saw me – the rest of me. Maybe if you met me, maybe you’d realize you were being mean. And then maybe you’d stop.”
You registered her hand yanking free from her purse, but you still had more to say.
“I’m a nice person. And I bet you are, too. And I just thought that if you could meet me face-to-face, maybe you’d take it back. Maybe you’d even say you were sorry. Because we aren’t supposed to be that mean to each other. I don’t just exist online. I’m a real person. And you hurt my feelings.”
There. You’d said everything you’d wanted to say.
So the pepper spray was probably unnecessary. It’s not like you were a serial killer.
* * *
TwinCitiesTart hasn’t posted on reddit in a week now. And you’ve seen some pretty ugly dicks posted since then. Plus your eyes are much better now, thanks. So, you know what? This one goes in the win column. One bully has learned her lesson.
But one win isn’t the war. Your mission remains. You log on and move past the 400 million. Join the 55. Dig into the rude comments. Make your list. Find the next one. And the one after that. StalkSpace will give you everything you’ll need. Hell, the herd should feel lucky you are only using it for this. You could do a lot more with this information. You could …
You make a mental note to reexamine the motivations of your little club of 55. Maybe the fact that MajorGeek778’s user pic is Hannibal Lecter deserves a second thought.
As for your ‘friends?’ The users who mock your posts and pics? They will get what they deserve. No longer will people be able to hide behind their avatars saying the things they’d never say to someone’s face. You will bring your face to them. And they will have to deal with that. No matter how much pepper spray they send your way.
Maybe you’ll buy some goggles. Or aviator shades.
You crack open another Diet Coke. You are getting good at this. The hunt. You’ll follow their breadcrumb trails, too. You’ll track them down. You’ll find them in the place where they can’t hide anymore. And that’s when you’ll attack.
That’s when you’ll demand an apology.
Andy Bennett is a writer from Duluth, Minnesota. He’s the recipient of an ARAC/McKnight Artist Fellowship Grant, a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant and was a member of the Loft Literary Mentorship Series in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He’s currently earning his MFA in Creative Writing from NYU