When Robert was small, it seemed like he didn’t quite see people. It wasn’t that he disliked people; it was just that he was more interested in igniting, with matches, small patches of grass soaked in gasoline. This wasn’t a problem until he escalated to more public arson and was caught holding a lighter to the loose papers sticking out the bottom of another boy’s locker, at which point he had to go into an office at his school and respond to syllogistic quizzing, after which a letter was sent to his parents that Robert saw contained the word “violence” and it was determined he should be educated in a small square windowless classroom at the end of the back hallway next to the rear entrance to the gymnasium with kids who smelled like the bathroom stall at the public library and kids whose parents left bruises on their fingers. These kids didn’t talk to him, and he didn’t talk to them, and on the whole, he thought little about them. These children seemed, to Robert, not quite real.
Very little seemed real to Robert, and his parents noticed. One day Robert’s father, who had read an article online, presented Robert with a book called Kinship With All Life, by J. Allen Boone. Kinship With All Life sparked an interest in Robert in animals. He wondered why the spiders in his home bit the insides of his elbows in his sleep. He wondered what instincts governed the rabbit that occasionally darted out from under the bottom branches of the cedar trees in his back yard and then, after holding for a moment their white nose in the air, sprinted back under the tree again. The animals he liked best, though, were the cows that lived in the field behind his house. They were large-faced and complex in a way that rewarded study. They were subtly social, and seemed to communicate, and to protect each other. When Robert walked up to the electric fence that contained them, a few, including a small young one, backed away, while one stared assertively and lowered their head at Robert until Robert backed away. One night, Robert dreamed that that cow burst through the electric fence and jumped through the large picture window in his family’s TV room and ran amok throughout the first floor of the house, rooting out his family members in turn and trapping them at the end of the hallway and bludgeoning them with its hooves. Robert woke up with his heart pounding and drenched in sweat, his pajamas clinging disgustingly to his back and stomach. In his bed in the dark, he felt terrified and guilty.
Throughout his childhood, Robert’s peers remained, to Robert, an undifferentiated mass. They invited each other to pool parties. They applied antiperspirant from aerosol cans in school bathrooms, and advocated for the antiperspirant brand their mothers had chosen for them. They took up photography, and abandoned photography. One day, however, Robert, in grade eleven, in between two shelves of library books, spoke to Therese. Therese said she’d never heard a human speak the way Robert spoke. She gave him a Popsicle stick on which she’d written, in blue ink, “got nobody on my side and surely that ain’t right.” Therese broke through Robert’s shell, and became real to him. One night they were laying in bed side by side, on their stomachs, watching an old episode of One Tree Hill, when Therese’s grandmother opened the door. They jumped apart, even though they hadn’t even been touching. Therese asked Robert if he wanted to walk her dog. They went out into the winding suburban street in the night. In the middle of the sidewalkless street, with fireflies popping off at knee height, holding her dog’s leash in one hand, Therese turned and kissed Robert. It was his first kiss and his last. For some reason—he was just curious! and he’d always wanted to do this!—he immediately reached down and touched her butt. It was squishier than he expected, and she immediately pulled away. She didn’t overtly act upset, but she said “Let’s go in,” and the next day blocked him on all social media.
Therese had her own reasons for so suddenly blocking Robert that were only obliquely related to Robert, but Robert didn’t know enough about life to even entertain that as a possibility. The period following was a nerve-wracking time for Robert. For a brief, too-intense period, every person around him seemed real. He could suddenly see that all the faces around him expressed thousands if not millions of different emotions, and were being updated in realtime. He suddenly felt naked, realizing people could see into him too, through his face. He hadn’t really known this. Communication seemed almost too easy, or automatic—alarmingly unconscious, almost nonconsensual. Robert panicked in this new miasma of emotional information.
But he was young, and adapted, and after a week, although his heart still ached for Therese, he found himself able to enter conversations with his peers for the first time without becoming overwhelmed or confused. Strangely, heartbreak seemed to be a sort of passkey—people loved to talk about it, to hear about it. Pain unites. For an exhilarating two months, Robert was a different person, who could relate to people. He said things about cultural products which to him were just the bare facts but were received as hilarious and insightful opinions. He stood in circles of people in black clothing who met under the big skeletal tree on the west side of the school yard at lunch and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes dipped in molasses-like hash oil. He got positive feedback online for posting a blurry photograph of a tree beside a highway. But one day, at Stefan’s house, Stefan thought something Robert said to Yulia had seemed flirtatious, and he had ‘ironically’ raised his fist right up to Robert’s nose, pressing on it until Robert’s nose flattened like a pig’s. Robert shut down. He walked back to the now-empty school yard, not knowing where else to go, and, under the skeleton tree, he realized something: he had always regarded himself as being, ultimately, aloof; as purposely keeping his distance from other people. This was not true, however, really. The simple truth was he had been excluded.
Robert stopped showing up to the tree after that. A week later none of those people were saying hi to him in the halls. He got much worse after that, and so quickly it surprised him. After only a few days of total isolation, the loneliness was so severe it became physical. It was searing. It was almost funny how bad it hurt. He felt like his keen awareness of his feelings should allow him to control them, but this was not at all the case. His mouth would open involuntarily in class and he’d hear himself making little choking sounds, of which he would suddenly become aware, and his face would burn and he’d look down for the rest of the class, not daring to look around to see if anyone noticed. At home it was even worse. He gasped as he walked the halls of his own home like a fish in dry dirt. He slammed his body against the walls, and then he slammed, specifically, his forehead.
Then, late one night, in bed, in the glow of his screen, Robert found a forum. Other people who felt the way he did. The forum wasn’t even for anything weird—it was just where people talked about a game he played. But there was a thread where people opened up in a way Robert had never known. Stories of rejection. Of neglect. Disproportionate punishment. Outright abuse in many forms. And then salvation from the unlikeliest of sources. One extremely prolific poster who had a compelling, intuitive explanation of why all these boys were so sad. And how it could be fixed. How they could be fixed. How society itself could be fixed. There were certain laws of human nature that the workings of our modern world directly contravened, which led ineluctibly to no one getting what they wanted. The problem was structural, not personal. Biological imperatives could not simply be overturned based on the whims of fashion. There actually was an optimal way to organize society. And it could be achieved, if you were brave enough to live outside the insipid mass consciousness. Robert paid attention, and listened, and learned.
The first time Robert met with the men from online was at a little table near the front of a slightly squalid Starbucks. Robert was nervous and fixated on a bright red cardinal perched on a sun-faded Pepsi can out in the parking lot, who was looking in at them through the window. The one man could see Robert was uncomfortable and changed tacks, telling him about how he had come into the group, what he’d gone through. The other man did the same, and Robert felt more comfortable, and before long he felt more thoroughly seen than he ever had in his life. This must be what religious people think heaven is, thought Robert. Pure communication, pure exchange, the dissolution of individual ego into the absolute, empirical truth that there is no border between two beings in this universe.
Except it was so hard to remember that truth when in our daily lives there did appear to be so many borders between people. The clothes we donned, our skin, the very structure of our language, with its false distinctions between subject and object—we had created a stratum of existence in which we all agreed to live that was absolutely the falsest and most lonely-making level of reality imaginable.
Why did we do this to each other? To ourselves?
These men were right—it had to be undone. We had to start over.
For reasons that were of course understandable to Robert, the men from online couldn’t help, but if you are determined to procure an AR-15 lightweight semi-automatic assault rifle, it can be done. Just as an apparently intractable math problem can always be broken down into simpler component problems if, as Robert had learned in the bruised fingers classroom, you remain calm, closing the distance between an AR-15 and the pads of your palms is, unlike so many other things, an accomplishable task. You download some software and you can talk to anyone you need to talk to.
Once you have the machine, everything is easy. There are people everywhere who are too far gone into the world of appearances to ever come back to the truth, and must be brought together another way. Pain unites. In the moment of puncture a person will transcend their illusions. Happiness is not real, it is merely a chemically induced amnesia of a horror so intense one can not function while looking at its face.
And if you cannot look upon the face of horror, thought Robert, as, holding the AR-15 in one hand, he opened the door of the classroom, you will look upon mine.
And you know of course how the rest proceeds, and I will not detail it. My only concern is to tell you that between the point in time when Robert saw the hole at the end of the barrel of the officer’s weapon and the point in time when he fell into darkness, Robert’s mind performed a little trick. It pulled up a memory from the swamp of time Robert had previously, erroneously, categorized as pre-consciousness, i.e. everything pre-Therese.
Robert was at a back yard birthday party, under a large apple tree. Kids not from school but from the neighborhood. He was maybe five years old. The apples were ripe, over-ripe, some rotting on the ground, soft brown sweet-smelling wormholes disfiguring the taut red skins, bees crawling in and out of their holes. And then a hive of bees fell out of the tree. The bees were swarming everywhere. A little girl, Robert’s neighbor, saw Robert was scared, and led him past the bush that was always weirdly half-leafless, the one beside the gate in the fence. Robert looked down and saw the girl had something red in the hand of hers that wasn’t gripping his hand, and just as he felt one, two, three, four explosively loud bee stings on his chest, the little girl opened the gate in the fence, which Robert never in a million years would have thought to do, because it led into the neighbor’s yard, and you couldn’t just leave your own yard wherever you felt like it. Could you?
Yes, Robert, you could have left your yard. And you can.