by Jason D'Aprile
YOUR MOTHER IS ASHAMED OF YOU
It was just there, waiting for him when he sat down at the computer for the morning. Or afternoon. Whatever time it was. He smirked at it. All caps with a generic egg as the user picture and the name just a meaningless string of ones and zeroes. It was nothing new. There was a slew of offensive messages waiting for him. He counted on it every day. Lived for it, really.
He’d give out more abuse than they could ever level on him. All those bitches who didn’t know their place. Fags who complained about how unfair the world was. It was all him. He made sure it was unfair, that every minute online was hell for them. In one of the three monitors at the disheveled desk, covered in food wrappers, papers, and used napkins, was his precious spreadsheet, keeping track of all his targets. Hard-earned personal information--real names, numbers, addresses, any lurid details worth tracking--were all there for him to peruse. He had a special directory for his photos--stolen moments those dumb bastards never wanted anyone else to see. He had them all.
Normally, last night’s Twitter account would have been closed down by morning. It was just habit to go through the tired process of creating a new, anonymous account at least once a day. It was just part of the process to keep people in line, to go after those that deserved his wrath. Cracking his knuckles, he scooted his chair to the keyboard and laughed, then began to type.
MY MOTHER IS DEAD ASSHOLE
A swig of some awful energy drink, another laugh, and he began to track down the overnight activities of the people he felt were threatening his previously safe world of fantasy. Women, gays, minorities, and especially those trans freaks. They all wanted to be accepted in a space where they didn’t belong--his space--and that was unacceptable. He’d reach out to his posse after a while, as they all rolled back online after a long night of multiplayer matches and smacking down those fakers.
Another beep. Another message. It was the egg again.
SHES STILL SO ASHAMED OF YOU
He snorted, taking another drink. Like this would hurt his feelings. What a poser. It was almost not worth the bother of replying, but he couldn’t not reply.
NOT AS ASHAMED AS YOUR MOM AFTER I CAME ON HER FACE LAST NIGHT
And… send. He wished he had an audience for times like this, when he was smacking down some pussy social justice warrior who thought they could come at him.
JOSEPH, the message box said. YOURE A BAD PERSON AND I AM ASHAMED OF YOU
A LESSON MUST BE TAUGHT
He stared at the message, unsure what to do. How did they know his name? What was going on?
WHO THE HELL ARE YOU? He typed.
YOU LET ME DIE JOSEPH
YOU SAT DOWN THERE HURTING PEOPLE AND PLAYING GAMES WHILE I SUFFERED AND DIED RIGHT ABOVE YOUR HEAD AND I AM ASHAMED BECAUSE I BROUGHT YOU INTO THE WORLD
Joseph let out an indecipherable cry and, as forcibly as he could muster, clicked the window shut. He closed the browser down, seething, and looked around in paranoia. His webcam wasn’t active, the light wasn’t blinking. His headset lay on the desk where he’d left it. Someone was fucking with him. Someone had tracked his name down. Someone who knew his mother was dead and…
No, he shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “That’s not true.”
Suddenly, the browser popped up again, a full feed of names he was intimately familiar with--the statuses and on-going short message conversations of the people he hated and spent his hours hunting scrolled up the screen. He saw his user information on the top of the screen and tried to slam the mouse down to close the window again.
It wasn’t his anonymous egg. It was his face, his full name, and a handle of “TROLL”. The mouse pointer moved on its own around the screen and nothing he did could make it stop. He watched in horror as his own status window opened and words started appearing.
MY NAME IS JOSEPH
I AM A TERRIBLE PERSON
I AM PATHETIC AND SELFISH
I ABUSE ALL OF YOU BECAUSE I AM JEALOUS
I LET MY MOTHER DIE BECAUSE I WAS TOO BUSY HURTING YOU AND PLAYING GAMES
Joseph started screaming at the screen. He thought about turning off the computer, turning everything off, but that would only mean he couldn’t watch. And he wanted to watch. He was almost hyperventilating with rage, but transfixed at the show.
I SET UP A CAMERA TO WATCH MY MOTHER WHILE I SAT DOWNSTAIRS PLAYING TROLL
THIS IS MY MOTHER
This time the message came with a video attached. It showed her, lying in that damn hospital bed, hooked up to the machine. She reached out with one hand and started to convulse violently. He leaned in, shaking his head, whispering “No” over and over.
THIS WAS ME
A new video appeared below the first one, showing him at his computer, clearly from his own webcam. He was laughing and typing, then lowered his hands below the desk, just out of sight of the camera and started jerking his arms, while watching a different monitor.
“NO!” he screamed. Responses were starting to pour in for the posts now. Most were along the lines of “WTF?”, calling him names, asking what the hell was wrong with him, and threats to ban him.
All the sudden, a slew of posts appeared under his name, each calling a specific user out with the message, “I SAID THIS TO YOU” and then screenshots of threats, insults, and unsavory things he’d said to them.
I DID ALL THIS
He was shaking with rage and fear now and stood up too quickly, almost falling. He grabbed at the webcam and pulled it from the top of the monitor angrily, the cable coming free from the PC under the desk, then threw it across the room. He ran upstairs, to his mother’s room. Staring at the camera, still hooked up there, he pulled it down from its mount and slammed it on the floor.
Leaning against the bed, he tried to catch his breath, then decided he needed to get out of there.
20 minutes later, he was anxiously standing in line at that coffee place trying his best not to obsessively check his Twitter feed every three seconds. He was doing a piss poor job of it too.
An annoyed throat clearing lifted his gaze from the horrifying screen that just keep scrolling more misery into his life. The barista stared at him with a look of contention and boredom.
“What can I get you, sir,” the young man asked with his too perky blond hair and absurdly slim physique. His nametag said “Bill”. He didn’t look anything like a Bill though, and Joseph hated him for it.
“A Double Mocha Latte, Grande,” Joseph answered briskly. He handed Bill his credit card.
“Joseph,” Joseph answered. “Not Joe.”
“Ok, Joseph-Not Joe,” the guy said, handing him his card back.
Stepping aside to wait, Joseph’s eyes glued to his phone’s screen, watching himself still posting admissions of past sins to anyone who would listen. The responses were overwhelming, flooding the small screen, as his private chat was overflowing to burst. He didn’t bother looking at those.
“Joseph-Not Joe,” a voice called. Snapped out of his phone-induced trance, Joseph looked up to see the barista nod to his drink on the counter. Joseph grabbed it without a word and casually looked at the taped on receipt.
“TROLL,” it said. Not Joseph or Not Joe.
“What the fuck,” he said, stopping and turning to the barista. People in line and at the surrounding tables stopped too, turning their heads to watch. “Is this some kind of joke?”
The barista stared at him blankly for a moment, then said, “Is there something wrong with your order?”
“You know damn well. Are you doing this?” Joseph’s voice started to raise as he moved to the counter. “You know who’s doing this?” He was nearly yelling now and the barista shifted uncomfortably.
“Sir,” the barista said. “I’m going to have to ask you leave or we’ll get security here to make you.”
“Fuck you!” Joseph yelled. “I know what you’re doing! It won’t work. I’m better than all of you!”
Joseph pushed through the line and huffed out without looking back.
“Fuck them,” he whispered to himself on the sidewalk. “Fuck all of them.”
A message beep sounded and he looked down at his phone.
FEELING VIOLATED YET?
IM JUST GETTING STARTED
He stared at the message. It was a text message now, not ever Twitter. “How the hell,” he murmured. “No, someone is just fucking with me. No.”
Hurriedly, he typed a response.
ILL FIND YOU AND SKULL FUCK YOU TO DEATH BITCH.
He stood there, staring down at the phone, waiting. Suddenly, the screen blinked. The phone’s web browser opened, flickered, then a Redditt feed appeared called TROLL. It slowly began to scroll down. First, there were baby pictures, then toddler, then more pictures of a boy growing. Joseph began to recognize the images. They were all of him.
AND HE STARTED OUT SO WELL, it said underneath an image of him at ten hugging his mother with a big smile on his face. It was before she got sick.
Now, the scrolling covered blank space then a barrage of images of him in front of the computer, masturbating, undressing, eating like a slob, mooning the camera, flipping it off. Interspersed were statements he’d made in game chats, Twitter, Facebook… All of them awful, insulting someone, acting out. The pictures and comments just keep getting worse.
Eventually, it came back around to that goddamned video of his mother, convulsing and dying, side-by-side with the video of him downstairs, with identical timestamps.
Joseph screamed, there on the sidewalk, and threw the phone down onto the concrete. The cracking sound of the screen provided a brief, if pyrrhic victory. He noticed people were staring at him, taking pictures of him with their phones. They were poised and waiting for him to do more, do something, be crazy. He was nearly hyperventilating with rage. Sweat coated his forehead and shirt, as he stared at them. Then, he quickly bent over, grabbed his phone and stomped off.
After walking for a while, he looked down at the blinking, cracked screen in his sweating hand. The phone still worked, even with the cracks.
The message was clear, even through the cracks. He was tired now. Confused. “Why?” he said. “Why are you doing this to me?”
Joseph was starting to cry now, ignoring the people walking past him who were giving him a wide berth on the sidewalk. He kept repeating why, staring at the phone. The screen blinked again, and a full screen image of him from a different viewpoint, crying. It took him a second to realize it was a live feed. Panicked, he looked up and saw the security camera staring at him. Looking around, he saw TVs in display windows showing the feed, the electronic billboard high up on a nearby building, even the screens of passer-byers’ phones.
“Leave me alone!” he yelled, and started running.
Eventually, exhaustion forced him to stop. Days and nights in front of a screen hadn’t done his physical health any good and the mix of physical and emotional stress felt overwhelming. His legs and arms were shaking. He couldn’t catch his breath or even breathe through his nose. He wanted to crawl into a deep hole and cry and sleep. He wanted a safe place to lay down and not move. He couldn’t stop crying, but didn’t have the strength to make a sound or do anything other than let tears and sweat stream down his face.
His phone rang, startling him. He didn’t recognize the number, but clumsily slid his finger on the screen to answer it.
“Hello?” he asked, hesitantly.
“Is this Joe? Joe Kernsey?” a voice he didn’t recognize asked.
“I just wanted to let you know that we can see you and we hope you choke on a dick and die.”
There was dead air as the call disconnected. Joseph stood there, shaking, staring at the phone screen. A new prompt appeared.
“You have 23 new messages,” it said. The screen popped open to his voicemail app by itself and suddenly the first message began to play, then the next, all the way down the list. It was a blur of insults, threats, people laughing as they read out his full name, address, birthdate. People telling him the color of his front porch. People telling him how they were going to cut off his balls. All of them strangers, all of them seemed to know everything about him.
He tried to shut it off, to turn the volume down, but the phone didn’t respond to him. In the end, he just stood there as they played out.
“Joseph,” the 23rd message started. He gasped. This voice he knew. It sound firmer, stronger than the last time he’d heard it, but his mother’s voice was unmistakable. “I’m sorry it had to come to this. I really am. There was a time when I was so proud of you. When I believed you could move the world. When you were, truly, my son. I don’t know if it was something to do with your father, or us splitting up, or what, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. You made the choice to take whatever pain you had inside and use it against other people. You didn’t care. You were spiteful and awful. You weren’t my son anymore.”
There was a pause. He still just stood there, holding the phone up, unmoving. “Dying was a relief, because I thought it meant I would be rid of you. But I was wrong.”
Slowly, a look of pure shock on his face, he stared down at the phone. “You remember,” her voice went on. “That time we planted flowers together. How you liked the blue ones? You know, putting them on my grave was the only act of kindness or love you’ve shown me--shown anyone--in years. But then, you never came back.”
The message ended and the phone’s screen blinked off.
He didn’t remember walking there, but somehow, he’d ended up at the cemetery. His heart was still pounding, his breath unsteady, and his hands were shaking. It took longer than it should have to find the grave, but he did. Joseph stared down at the engraving, “Beloved Mother and Servant of God”.
It was a stupid thing to say about her. He’d been too selfish and distracted at the time to care and she’d already had the funeral plans long since put on paper, so he barely had to do more than be there. It should have said something more. Something about… He didn’t know. Patience, kindness, turmoil? He shook his head. It didn’t matter now.
There were fresh flowers there. He didn’t know why. Part of the arrangement, maybe. None of the blue ones. He wished he could remember what kind they were. It was a nagging detail he felt he should know, and so frustrating that he couldn’t remember even that. A sudden wave of dizziness overcame Joseph, causing him to stumble and shut his eyes for a second. Something caught his eye by the bouquet that he was sure wasn’t there a before. Something small, hard, red.
Slowly, he bent down and reached for it. It was the pocket knife he always carried. Absently, he reached into his jeans pocket where it should have been, but found it empty. That can’t be right, he thought. He always had his knife, since he was 12. It was the last thing his dad had given him while his parents were still married.
He wrapped his hands around the handle and a massive wave of nausea and disorientation overcame him. “Pain,” a voice hissed from below. “All you bring is pain. Pain and shame. We’re all ashamed of you. Ashamed you exist.”
Joseph yelled and fell backward, shaking hard.
He crawled forward and grabbed the knife quickly. He stared at it as he pulled the knife blade out from the handle. The phone was on the ground beside him, its screen blinking white. In a black window, a message appeared. He picked the phone up and looked at the screen.
His face pained, he let the phone fall to the ground again. Then, without hesitating again or even thinking, he slipped the knife blade over his wrist. He screamed out, terrified and alone, and fell onto his back. Quickly, without looking, he put the knife in the blood-covered hand and used it to slice the other writer. His breath was violent now and he could hear someone screaming in the distance before he passed out to the sound of his pounding heart.
It was six weeks before he was discharged from the hospital. He still had the stitches. Prescriptions had already been sent to the pharmacy, and he had a regular therapist he had to see every week for at least the next six months. It had been a confusing blur. The long hours in the emergency room, the police, the doctors and therapists…
He couldn’t say he felt better after all that. Maybe, he felt worse. They had shown him things. His phone had no evidence of all the messages he came in ranting about. There was no history on his Twitter feed or anywhere else. After that, they hadn’t let him online at all. No cell phones, tablets, or computers there. He read books, went to group therapy sessions, and slowly slipped into a quiet sort of calm. A feeling of resignation that he belonged there. When they looked over his history online--something the therapist insisted on doing with him there--they spent long hours going over his tweets, on those rampant attacks on total strangers, on his relationship with his mother, and his inability to accept her death.
It was all foreign to him, but he could still feel her there, watching in every camera, in every phone the orderlies carried around, on every TV screen. Worse, he could see and hear her final words of disappointment on the face of every woman he passed. So, he resigned to staying quiet, doing what they told him to, and just letting whatever happens happen.
They told him he was making progress, which is more than he could say about his life before.
Jason D'Aprile has been writing professionally for over 20 years, mostly in non-fiction. You can find his bylines appearing on such sites as Playboy, Paste Magazine, Motherboard, UploadVR, and others. Occasionally, he even lets bits of fiction escape out into the wild. Jason does not Tweet.