In the clear water of a grimy sink, Echo watched her blood flow and fluctuate in red rorschach-like plumes. She was holding her hand under the faucet, lightly touching a trickle of water on its edge, slanting it towards a bloody X-Acto below the bathroom mirror.
Her phone vibrated, a text box flashing in her periphery.
Is everything ok?
Echo felt as if she were looking at an unknown person, whose invisible inner landscape could only, through enough social averaging and speculation, be guessed at or approximated. Her body revealed no clear emotional content, just a vague rippling of decayed and decomposing sensations.
Gradually, her attention wandered to a beat-up copy of "Human Anatomy for the Artist" that stood in a plastic rack next to her makeup and she recollected the twelve-hour "study-a-thons" of a friend in med school who'd graduated magna cum laude. Echo thought about the word "cum" and how she had spent, according to her often incorrect memory, almost all of her late adolescence Googling variations of "lesbian," "big tits" and "big boobs" and placing multiple windows—like a taboo collage—on her computer screen, then studying the pornography, downloading and dragging it into various folders and subfolders, categories and sub-categories, until she got tired and fell asleep.
Echo pressed her index finger to the Facebook icon on her phone and opened a chat with her recent ex, Morgan, who was still typing.
I understand you and I
know how difficult that
must be. Echo, I know you
understand me. The reality
is that several days of
silence is a loud, clear,
legible boundary that reads
like this: I will never rekindle
relationship that you are
longing for. I didn’t stop
talking to you to punish or
manipulate you. I stopped
talking to you because our
relationship had so
depleted my health that I
could no longer minimize/
ignore the fact that you
were exploiting, re-
traumatizing and, in a word,
abusing me. I stopped
talking to you because I
knew I needed to heal the
parts of me that still
wanted to love and be
loved by people like you. I
truly understand you and I
empathize with you. I
intend to forgive you in my
own time, on my own
terms, in my own way. All of
this is my. sacred. space.
This is my happiness, my
healing and my peace. Not
yours. Not yours to earn,
encroach upon or
otherwise take. Let go.
In an ambiguous amount of time—somewhere between two and twenty minutes—Echo left the bathroom and waded through a small sea of polyethylene-plastic food containers to the center of her shabby apartment. The room was lit a ghostly blue by her computer monitor, which stood atop a wooden, ergonomic desk that, besides an adjustable computer chair and a small, sheetless futon on the floor, was the only piece of furniture in the room.
Echo had, for the last year or two—she couldn't remember—isolated herself in this bare, off-white space, and was slow to adjust to the subtle smell of mold and the near-constant lack of edible content. Preferring to communicate in short snippets of text, she would pay her geriatric landlady at twilight, tiptoeing to the rusty mailbox by the front door of the house, in which she would leave an envelope of seven-hundred and twenty-five dollars, cash. Her remaining fifty dollars, if she made no frivolous online purchases, would go towards ramen, oatmeal and organic herbal tea.
Echo sat at her high-backed computer chair with one leg up, lower-body tilted asymmetrically, and right-clicked her transparent mouse. The browser came up. She clicked a bookmark-tab and waves of anxiety swelled as she scrolled downwards.
Does anyone have the nudes of Echo? She tweeted about how they were leaked on here. Thanks
Just post them Morgan, learn to share
can't believe that fat ugly Morgan dyke gets to fuck her
There were no new posts, and her composure settled into a subtle ebb and flow. Among the clutter on her desk, Echo spotted a popsicle stick on which was written, in a koan-like fashion: "mouse do not be timid." Echo meditated on this non sequitur as if it contained meaning that related secretly and directly to her, before putting the wooden stick in her mouth and chewing on it, somewhat easing her hunger. She cycled through her Facebook-chats from the previous day, and, making sure to avoid marking Morgan’s recent words as "seen," clicked on a notification-marked exchange with her closest friend, Ellie.
it is 2:32 am
my sleep is completely
fucked and backwards
i can feel my brain
rotting away from being
on two hours of sleep
i can feel it just slowly
im eating a donut
did u read that article?
he's kinda arguing that the
point of evolution, like the
bio evolution that created
an intelligent species (us)
and the tech evolution that
is to create "social brains"
and to weave them into a
giant, loosely organized
planetary brain like an
electronic web. kinda like
how the point of the
maturation of an organism
is to create an adult
i like how he says that
if someone was observing
the emergence of the
internet from outerspace,
they'd prob see us as
neurons in a giant
i like that.
like our goal here is to
literally become All One.
Echo tried her best to acknowledge everything Ellie had written ten hours earlier then wrote:
Blood made its way down her legs and stained the carpet below. A few seconds passed and her message was seen.
i'm plubcking all the hair
on mky legs and drnkgng
howd you get neetbux
withoit being fkrcws into
i dont understand what
the last part of that means
are u asking how
i have ssi?
hows you not get put intp
like spexial housOnf
ill ttylhold on sorry
are you ok
im drubj,nk.iltalk youulatrr
Echo closed her eyes and watched the screen's imprint lost and wandering through her nerve endings. Ellie was no longer "Active Now."
Echo refreshed Facebook and 4chan in a circular loop while lightly stroking pins of hair on her left leg. A memory emerged of her birthday, when Morgan visited. They ate organic strawberries and salads on a moss green blanket, reading dramatically aloud from Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince.” Their legs touched and Morgan called her a cactus. She hated it.
Echo's phone vibrated and she opened an SMS chat with her mother.
Good morning ☀️
How did you sleep?
Is everything OK?
A shy knock rapped on her door. Her awareness suddenly shifted to a lower resolution, appearing blurry and obscured, as if the internet of her brain had trouble connecting, causing her senses to momentarily and annoyingly shift to 240p. She heard more—this time, blurred—knocking.
Echo weaved a little—then fainted, collapsing to the floor.
Mouse was sitting near a dry-erase whiteboard on which was written—in nearly illegible green marker—"Yesterday's history, tomorrow's a mystery, and today is a gift," with a triangular-rayed, cartoon sun next to it that was well-drawn, in contrast. Mouse fixated on the board, wishing he could erase the "quote of the week" (to which he had automatically attached the words "cheesy" and "bullshit") but keep the sun, whose grinning aspect seemed perfectly contented and Buddha-like. The eleven adults in the cramped art therapy session sat at cheap, plastic desks, on which were sheets of A4 computer paper and assorted on-and-off-brand crayons, markers and colored pencils. "Clair de Lune" was playing through a portable music player that had a section of blue painter's tape on it, keeping the cassette held in. Mouse remembered he'd been talking and realized he was now extending a particularly long pause in conversation. He continued:
'I used command prompt for all kinds of shit, but mostly for changing my IP address to log into yeeked accounts.'
'So, like, what does 'yeek' mean?'
'It's like—' started Mouse, curiously sniffing at a scented marker he was using to fill in a printed mandala, at the center of which was a large "Om" symbol.
'—hacking someone, but it's not like hacking someone, it's like... stalking someone. Picking apart their life through their internet footprints. Finding out enough minutiae about them to answer the recovery questions on their emails, which is usually easy shit like "what is the name of your favorite pet?" That's what "yeek" means. Kind of.'
Mouse studied his own voice, and noted it had already sharpened, sped up and lowered in pitch, as it tended to do in group, around others whose motives remained invisible to him. He vaguely wondered how he must look to them, if their perceptions matched his mental model of himself, or the masculine self he was trying to project. Deciding that it probably-to-almost-definitely didn't, he gave up thinking and looked attentively at Jaiu who had been silent for the last five-to-ten seconds, half-listening to the plaintive, colorful harmonies of "Clair de Lune."
'Well—so yeeking people is like, creeping on them and backdooring their email?' Jaiu asked.
'Well, no, 'cuz it's also yeeking if you guess their password or like bruteforce their password using a program, uh, also, sometimes emails expire and if you re-sign-up their email you can get into other accounts by sending like... password reset requests to it? That's also yeeking. That's how I yeeked this school shooter,' Mouse laughed nervously, 'his name was Jeff Weise.'
'Word?' Jaiu asked.
'Yeah, like, no shit. His password was 'rose,' which—through Google searching—I found out was the name of his crush in high-school. I actually got into his LiveJournal and found out... I found out he had an accomplice that was never tried, for some reason. His hotmail got locked like three hours after I signed it up. Like I think the FBI was watching it. Either that, or it was haunted,' Mouse said.
A formless memory floated on the threshold of Mouse's awareness. He winced, anticipating—as was usual with his memories—something distressing, but it faded to a featureless state.
'Do you know what a botnet is?' Jaiu asked.
'Uh, sort of. Is it, like, a bunch of computers connected together that you can like, dee-dos things with?'
'Yeah,' Jaiu said.
Mouse made an expressionless "mm" sound in response. His marker had the words "spring flowers" printed on its side. Giving it another sniff, he decided it smelled entirely, but not quite, unlike spring flowers.
'But how do you get on a botnet?' Mouse asked.
'Well, let's say I send someone like, a jpeg or a rar file and I bind a virus to it. The second they open that file up, they're on my botnet.'
'But what does that mean though? Like what can you do with them? Besides dee-dos, I mean.'
'I could watch whatever they're doing, basically, and control their computer, like—this one time this guy was watching porn and I opened up his CD drive and he was—through his cam, I could see him, like,' Jaiu quickly jolted his upper body backward in imitation, 'jump back and start pacing around his computer like "is there is a demon in there?" Like, "is my computer fucking haunted?"'
'Fucking rip, man,' said Mouse ironically. They both laughed.
The memory arose again, its configuration fluid-like and fluctuating rapidly. Inside it, Mouse could see, very briefly, the vacant gaze of his father. He anxiously pulled knots out of the blond hair near the back of his scalp, focusing meditatively on its texture and the slight pressure of it being pulled.
'Well, why didn't—why didn't they just reboot their computers?' asked an older voice at the back of the class.
'Woods, rebooting a computer doesn't auto-magically get rid of viruses,' Jaiu said.
'Oh. Then what does it do?' Mr. Woods asked.
'Uh, I don't know. Just starts it again, I guess. I don't know.' Jaiu said.
'Uh, yeah,' said Mouse, 'rebooting is just shutting the—shutting off the power of a computer, then restarting it, yeah.'
In an instant, the memory congealed. Mouse saw himself talking with his father's ex-girlfriend. She was a "crackhead," which, at the time—having no data points for anything drug-related—made Mouse wonder if there was a fracture hidden beneath her hair. Mouse asked what happened to her fingernails and she told him she ripped them out with a knife, because she had bitten most of them down to stumps, and didn't like the way the stumps looked. She worked for the World Wildlife Foundation. Mouse felt "fucked." He noticed he was coloring outside the lines of the mandala on his paper.
'Man, sometimes I would sit on those computers for years,' Jaiu continued, 'like I was in this sort of pseudo-intimate, one-way relationship with them. I could watch, and like see their lives unfolding through the context of their browser history and, like, what they typed but they had no awareness of me at all. I guess that goes to show how lonely I was back then. Like, I feel like a creep about all this now 'cause, obviously, it's creepy but—back then, I was just really lonely, I guess. Like really lonely,' said Jaiu.
'You were just a troll,' Mouse said, 'I trolled people when I was younger, too. It's not a big deal.'
Next to them was a dark-haired, frail man of about thirty. He had a Vonnegut "asshole" tattoo between his index finger and thumb and nervously massaged it with the fingers of his opposite hand.
'The FBI came to my house one time and took my computer away,' he said in a broad southern drawl. His voice was smokey and very deep.
'What the fuck, Alex. Why?' Jaiu asked.
'They visited me thinking I was some kind of "co-conspirator." 'cause, like, this Norwegian guy I was talking to at the time—Anyway, we were trying to get this shock site called "moid.org" shut down, it was kind of like goatse—I know, sorry—But like, he was spamming it with this image. Jeez, now I don't even wanna tell y'all what it was,' Alex said.
'Why not, man? You brought it up,' Mouse said.
'If it was—If it shut down a shock site, it must be pretty fucking horrible,' Jaiu said.
'Look, guys, can we just change the subject?' Alex asked, wobbling both of his legs underneath his desk.
'No, man. Come on, now. You can't just say that and then not tell us,' Mouse said.
'Facts,' Jaiu said.
'It was a picture of a guy...' Alex started. He reflected dimly on what he was about to say.
'It was a dude shitting on a baby.'
A hush fell over the room. Someone laughed.
'What the fuck?' asked a quiet voice a few desks over.
'That's fucked!' Mouse said.
'Just fucked?' Jaiu asked.
'Is that, like, sexual?'
'Somebody, somewhere has that fetish.'
'Can we just—talk about something else?' Alex asked.
Through a kaleidoscope of fragmented senses, Echo heard a low, melodious voice address her. She reflexively began box-breathing—four seconds in, four seconds hold, four seconds out, four seconds hold—and remembered the day after her online therapist had introduced her to breathing techniques, she'd mentioned—in a surprisingly accusatory tone—the term "hikikomori," explaining the Japanese word meant something like "pulling inward," "being confined," or "acute social withdrawal." Echo looked it up on Wikipedia after they talked and felt a vague kinship.
'Are you awake?' asked a nurse by her bed.
Echo tried to nod.
'You really are lucky, y'know? You could have really hurt yourself. You nearly nicked an artery.'
All at once, Echo's history amorphously floated to the surface of her consciousness, where the nurse's voice seemed muffled and far away. Echo asked her to repeat herself three times (which she did, patiently) until Echo's ears adjusted and she could hear, with greater clarity, the ward around her, the indiscernible chatter of patients and doctors.
'We can't keep you here. Your mom arranged for you to be transferred to Mercy Fitz. I want to ask for your permission to voluntarily admit you—else we'll have to T.D.O. you.'
Echo cleared her throat before speaking, it had been so long since she'd spoken. She wondered if a larynx could atrophy from under-use.
'Tee-Dee-Oh?' she asked.
'"Temporary detention order." It's usually not pretty. You'll be ushered by a cop with hand-cuffs,' the nurse said.
Echo watched an ambivalence arise in her.
'I'll go,' Echo murmured.
'You agree? You'll have to sign this paper, if you're up for it. You can just put a line or a squiggle, it doesn't matter so much. Oh! that's really good! are you an artist?' asked the nurse.
'I used to be,' Echo said, flatly.
'Well you should keep it up,' the nurse said.
Echo heard the default marimba ring-tone of an iPhone.
'Shit, I have to go. It was nice meeting you,' the nurse said.
The nurse left.
Soon, Echo wandered with bandaged arms into nondescript rooms, signing forms. A man escorted her. He said he was an "emergency medical technician."
'You're about the age of my oldest, then. Nineteen or twenty?'
'What do you eat?'
'What's your diet like?'
'It's, um, I just eat whatever's around, basically.'
'And what's around?'
'I dunno. Ramen, rice and stuff—'
Echo pinched her right index finger between the thumb and forefinger of her other hand.
'"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Do you know that one?'
'Hippocrates. But that quote is, like, disputed,' Echo said.
'How'd you know?'
'Uh, the internet. I guess.'
'They say he believed that all disease begins in the gut, which is obviously, like "all diseases" is really wrong, but there's still something to that. The microbiome of the gut is a real miracle, and the less you know about it, the less you'll ever feel "OK" and I want you to remember that.'
Echo made an emotionless "mm," sound in response. She looked down at the EMT's feet, on which were comfortable-looking black Crocs. The EMT continued talking about nutrition, which he said, more than once, was "edifying." Echo tried to simulate respectful attention, hiding thoughts of boredom, and repeated small phrases of what he said—with a lilting, question-like intonation—intermittently nodding as if she understood.
'...well, our body breaks down the casein into casomorphins and the gluten into exorphins. they're opioids, which is why the Standard American Diet—I call it the sad diet, 'cause it's just that—is so addictive, it's all milk and bread. And that's where a lot of the chronic inflammation comes from, and with chronic inflammation the damage is done slowly and insidiously. It's difficult to even recognize until enough harm is done for it to become clinically significant. it's like the human-body equivalent of corrosion, or termite damage...'
Echo thought about Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
'...I've been doing it for about three years now, and my whole life has changed. I was a completely different person before I started.'
Echo cleared her throat again and the EMT stopped talking. In the distance, her mother walked into a small waiting room with orange, cushioned seats.
Echo's cheeks burned. Her mother went in for a hug but Echo shunned it, aware she was sending a subtle emotional jab to her mother, who rarely, if ever, hugged anyone, and when doing so would always hug limply, craning her upper body uncomfortably forward. They stood a while, looking at each other's feet until—quite suddenly—her mother's throat closed up and the fluorescence of the ward swam in her eyes. She put her arms around Echo and began to quietly sob, holding back her sniffling intakes of breath, embarrassed someone might hear. Echo felt ashamed and didn't know how to react, so she grinned, then consciously twisted her face into something more solemn, aware she may send the wrong message.
'We're leaving now.'
As she followed her mother, Echo reflexively patted her body for her phone and found it in her right pants pocket. She clicked it awake and four zeroes brought her fingertips beneath its lock screen to the chat with Ellie.
cho are you ok?
ur brother called
im so worried
why didnt you say
i hope youre ok
i love you, cho-cho
cho!!! are you ok?
where are you
in the car with mom.
i’m fine. they stapled
oh my god. are you
sure youre ok?
i dont know what to
i love you too