Donald Carreira Ching
Maybe I had known all along things might not work out how I wanted them to, but I was hungry, desperate. Things could be worse, of course. The orange tubes on my desk told me that they would be soon. Same with the letters from Fannie Mae. It’ll happen, I’m always reminded when I ask one of my regular editors about a permanent position. Just keep the people clicking, get those engagement numbers up. So, I gave them what they wanted. Election night, 500 words to stoke the divide. The editor loved it. Give me 500 more, he wrote back. Make it sing. I popped an anxiety pill and got to work, emailing it in before the drugs wore off and I started to question my efforts.
After that, I got in bed and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I kept watching my phone, waiting for the screen to flash to life. Nomophobia, I wrote an article on it once, the fear of being out of contact with a mobile device. It’s too new to diagnose. You won’t find it in the DSM. I picked up my phone and scrolled to the mail app, refreshing it until I saw what I had been waiting for—the article was live. I clicked the link, squinting my eyes to review the layout. It was a decent enough spread.
Then I made the mistake of checking the comments.
At that point, I already knew what to expect, but it always catches me off guard. Today, the top post reminds me why I usually resist clicking—a sexist who didn’t even bother to read past the headline. 257 likes. 20 replies. I scroll through the rest of the comments, pleased to see that the engagement level is fairly high. The sexist seems to be arguing with another guy, the poor dude nowhere near prepared for the assault of all caps and poor grammar being hurled his way. Already he’s giving up in the sexist’s wake, his comments disappearing with each refresh.
I left my phone on the pillow and hit the kitchen. I could feel the pills wearing off and I’d rather save them for another round of work tomorrow. Vodka instead, two shots back to back. I wait until my eyes stop watering and then down two more. By the time I get back to bed, I have to squint to read the screen. The sexist has taken over the thread, deterring anyone else from posting. Fuck, and on top of that the Times just posted an exclusive analysis of the election results, rife with spin on both sides.
Keep the people clicking. Get those engagement numbers up.
Back in high school, I used to catfish bullies and assholes like this for fun. Create fake accounts and get the info that I needed to hack their accounts. After that, I’d do what I saw fit, exposing whatever dirty secrets I could find via email or social media. But I had grown out of that. I was a professional now with professional concerns, bills, and priorities, which meant fun was a secondary matter. I signed out of my personal account and signed up for a new one, quickly piecing together an identity with a little help from Google image search. By the time I got back to the comments, the activity had died down to a few stray likes and shares. I hit reply and started typing. There was work to be done.
I woke up to my phone buzzing under my pillow—the editor from The Post. Two other sites were going to run my article. My head was buzzing. I thanked her and hung up. I wasn’t even sure if I had said goodbye. I was too excited by the news.
I put a pot of coffee on and ate a slice of dry toast while it brewed. I was anxious to check the article, but the call already confirmed what my actions had produced. Before I had passed out, there was a swarm of activity on the site. I had created five separate accounts and had gone down the list, debating with whomever was impulsive enough to respond. I was strategic with my replies, provoking either an inflammatory comeback from the commenter or an additional opinion from someone else, and when I didn’t get it from another user I would just use one of my other accounts to push the argument where I wanted it to go. Nothing was off limits. If their privacy settings didn’t keep me out, their personal life was on the table too.
I took my coffee to my desk and perused my timeline, happy to see that the two pick-ups were buzzing without any involvement from me. There was even a response piece on a conservative site. I opened another tab and logged-in to one of the accounts I had created. Jerry from West Virginia. Pro-guns, pro-life, but pro-Obama. At least, I was, I wrote in the comments. I finished Jerry’s rant then used another account to respond and link a few older articles that I had written. In-direct engagement. Then, I used another account to help provoke the back and forth.
It was immoral and unethical. I knew that. Complete troll bait and self-promotion? Sure. It was also the kind of rubbish that people read and bickered about, shared and commented on, the ignorant and intelligent alike. Of course, the most important thing was that it worked. A few hours later, I got an email from another editor. There was a resurgence of interest in one of my articles, you interested in giving it another spin?
Of course, I wrote back, checking to make sure I was logged in to the right email address first.
Over the next several weeks, the trolling became routine for me, part of the job. I had at least ten email accounts with every major email provider, each connected with a unique social media account. In the beginning, I kept track of each character in separate entries in Notes, and added bits of history and background to their profiles to make them unique, imaging that Lawrence Fisher from South Carolina worked at a craft brewery, and that Allie from Yonkers actually lived in Jersey City but was born in New York. At times, it was difficult to keep track of who was who, but most of the time it didn’t matter. Usernames and passwords were saved and selected at random. Between my phone, my computer, and my iPad, I could rotate through several accounts at once, keeping the engagement numbers up and the conversation going in real time.
It was a high of sorts, a constant buzz of play and action. The minutes passed without me counting them, hours went by without a sense of worry, days were spent without feeling wasted, and most importantly my articles got picked up every week. I ate and drank and wrote and shared and posted and replied and commented, and when I woke up, I did it all again, body shaking, fingers tingling, my eyes always in and out of focus. The only thing on my mind was how far I could take this. How far could this go?
I can’t tell you when I got the first message, but I do know that I had just gotten off another phone call with the editor from The Other Lens. It was the second one that week. She was asking me if I would be interested in a regular column. Regular pay. Regular deadlines. The monotony of a routine sounded comforting. She was interested in reading more of my ideas, more of my commentary. People were interested in what I had to say. She let me know that I would have to come down to the office for a formal interview and to sign some forms. After that, I would need to check in once a week, but I could still do most of my work from home. She gave me my first assignment and told me to have it to her before my appointment with HR on Friday. I told her that I wouldn’t let her down.
As soon as I got off the phone, I went to my computer to get started. Facebook was open on my desktop, the friend icon lit up. I recognized the sender, Lana Lehmann. She was a member of the Reich-wing youth, fresh out of college, obsessed with hate speech and the freedom to spread it. I had dealt with her on several occasions, but knew better than engage with anyone across posts, especially with such a persistent troll. Unfortunately, she popped up so often that she was difficult to avoid. Whoever was paying her, they were getting their money’s worth.
Normally, I would have just ignored her rants and let her bump up the numbers, but I was frankly sick of her and her Westboro converts, and decided to hash it out with them over a piece on equal rights. I used several of my fake accounts to take cheap shots at her, probing her about the homophobia in her response, provoking her by asking her about her son, what she would say if he came out and how fucked up he was probably going to end up. For once, her responses were staggered. She would reply and then edit and then reply again, until finally her comments stopped and then started to disappear altogether. I should have left it at that, but she had made the mistake of not securing her account, so I decided to carry the conversation over to her own posts, stopping once her mother posted a reply.
But that was days ago.
I know who really you are, Alan, she wrote in the text box along with a link to another site. The first image I saw was a screenshot of the comments section from our online spat, my other user names in clear view. I scrolled down and found others, everything from that day and more. Links to my other articles, other profiles, almost all of my activity accounted for. I closed the tab and searched for her account, surprised at what I found next.
She had stripped her own profile and created a new one. There were no longer any pictures of her with her son or with her friends, no shots of her family, but there were several I recognized: the park near my building, a falafel stand that I sometimes ate at, a close up with my family on graduation day. Images that she had pulled from my personal account. In her ‘About Me’ section, her date of birth had been changed to match my own. As had her hometown, now Forest Grove. Her current city, New York, was the same as mine but I was sure that hadn’t changed.
And then I noticed something else. A status update from the day before—Feeling dangerous, she wrote, typical and nondescript. The shit that just screams out for someone to ask, ‘what are you up to?’ And as excepted someone did, but it wasn’t a stranger—Alex from Jersey City, one of my other accounts. One like. No reply.
I logged out and into Alex’s account, relived when I saw the timeline with the same updates I had made. Maybe it was someone else and I hadn’t noticed. I searched Lana’s name and found the post, traced the reply back. It was an Alex from Jersey City, but it was just a copy of my other account. Another layer that Lana had used to try to get to me, to solidify her threat, but it really didn’t matter much. At the worst, my behavior was unethical, some bullshit that I could easily deny. I didn’t even bother to give her the satisfaction of a response.
But still… I thought, spooked by the shadows cast by my own anxiety. Even if it wasn’t that big a deal, I was about to get a new job and it was best to start fresh, a blank slate. The worst thing I needed was some muppet playing with my prospects. One by one, I went through my list of accounts and emails, deactivating each one. When I was sure that I had killed off every profile, I made myself a glass of water and put Lana out of my mind. I didn’t have time for nonsense. I had an interview to prepare for and an article to write. Shit to get done.
That night, I thought I would have had trouble sleeping, but it was the exact opposite. For once in a long time, I felt like things were moving in the right direction, and so sleep came easy. No night terrors, no restless leg. When I woke up, I felt relaxed, refreshed, ready for the days ahead. I was in such a good mood that I decided to put off finishing my assignment until later. A friend from college had emailed me wanting to do lunch at this pizza place that we used to eat at when I first moved to the city. Normally I would have brushed him off, but he had seen my name pop up on his feed the other day and thought it pertinent that we celebrate my success in the most mundane way possible. Truthfully, I was just looking forward to the luxury of a greasy meal.
I left early and took my time getting there, but when I did I found that the place was closed. A note from the owner was posted to the glass. I took a step back and checked the sign again, then I looked around, recognizing the two launderettes side by side and the book store with the Cheshire cat painted on its window. Guess he must have made a mistake. Even I hadn’t bothered to check if the place was still open. I found his number and dialed.
“Hey Mike, I just got here and you wouldn’t believe it,” I said, looking up and down the street for any sign of him.
“Alan?” he paused. “From Oregon State? Shit, how are you?”
Confused, I wanted to tell him. “You emailed me this morning about meeting up at Fat’s.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“You said you wanted to talk about my article, to do lunch.”
He laughed like I was joking. “I’m at work right now, but if you want to meet me in an hour—.”
“No,” I interrupted, pulling up his email. “You said 11 AM,” insisting.
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Alan, but like I said—.”
“You emailed me at five this morning,” I checked the timestamp again then read off his email address. “I can forward it to you if you want.”
“That’s not mine,” he told me.
“The only email I use now is my work email and the one I had before I moved.”
“I thought you changed it,” I barely got out. My eyes were on the people on the street, the cars that passed. Mike was still talking, but I wasn’t listening anymore. I was trying to recall Lana’s profile before she had changed it, the streets in her pictures, the locations that she had tagged. “I got to go,” I said, but he had already hung up. I started pacing, my mind going through the possible scenarios, how she could have gotten into my address book and combed through my emails. Maybe she had attached a Trojan to the link that she had sent me, knowing that I would have opened it without thinking twice. Or perhaps she had gotten my contact details and just attached it in an email. I remembered responding to someone about setting up a deposit, an intern or a secretary. Shit, I ran across the street to the corner store and found an ATM in the back. I held my breath and waited until it printed my balance, letting it out when I saw the amount.
“Fucking bullshit,” I muttered to myself when I got back out onto the street. I focused on my breathing again, doing my best to clear my head and calm myself. I was overthinking it. If anything, she probably just found Mike in my friend’s list, searched through his pictures until she saw one of us together. “Fucking bitch,” I slammed my fist against a metal newsstand, thankful for the surge of pain.
And then I heard it—the click of an iPhone camera, the too-loud sound of a shutter, a snicker from just around the corner. When I looked up, she was gone. I followed, recognizing her blonde bob.
“Hey,” I shouted. She picked up her pace, not even bothering to acknowledge me.
I followed, keeping my distance, waiting for her to let her guard down. She was quick and knew the area better, but I had spent enough time there to know my way around. I ducked down a side street and came out just as she passed. “You think you’re fucking funny, huh?” She pulled out her phone. I grabbed it out of her hand and pulled her around to face me. “Think you can just—”
I let her go, realizing my mistake. I mumbled something I don’t remember, searching her face.
“Fuck you,” she pushed back and then bolted across the street, over to where a couple had stopped. I started to walk backwards.
“Where d’you think you’re going,” I heard one of them yell.
I realized the phone was in my hand. I dropped it and ran, sure that they were right behind me.
By the time I got back to my apartment, I was exhausted. I had gone sixteen blocks on foot, avoiding the bus and the subway. I poured myself a glass of water and grabbed the bottle of pills off my desk, but it was empty. I grabbed another one and then threw it at the wall. I checked my bedside table, certain that I had taken two the night before. “It’s fine,” I said out loud. “It’s fine,” I repeated like a mantra. “Everything will be alright.”
I took a moment to compose myself and dialed the pharmacy, “Yeah, I need a refill on my prescription.” I gave her my details and waited, and it was then that I realized that my computer wasn’t off. It was sleeping. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
“Our records show that your insurance has expired, sir.”
“You know what, I got to call you back,” I told her cautiously approaching my desk.
I hit the power key. Just as I thought, the display sprang to life. My email was open on the screen, a slew of new messages in my inbox: several from editors, one from The Other Lens. Fuck, my article. There were complaints in the subject lines, requests to respond immediately, reports of harassment. “It’s fine,” I smiled. “It’s okay.”
I had read about remote access malware that provided backdoors into computer systems, making everything accessible. I closed my email and ran a virus scan, pacing until I saw the results. When it came back with nothing but the usual cookies, I updated the software and ran it again. I downloaded another application and ran that too, waiting for any hint of an intruder. The findings were the same each time: zero percent. It had to be a mistake.
I backed away and looked around the room. I pulled the sheets off of the mattress. Checked under the bed. There was no one in the closest or in the kitchen. I started to search the shelves and spaces, looking for any inconsistencies, any changes, anything that could have been taken or been planted. I checked the fire escape, the locks on the windows, and then the locks on the doors. I pulled my keys out, making sure that both the main and the spare were accounted for.
“It’s. Fine,” I told myself again, banging out the words against the wall. “It’s. Fine. It’s. Fine. It’s. Fine.”
I dumped my water in the kitchen sink and poured myself a shot instead. I knocked it back and stood at the counter, steadying myself on the edge. “What the fuck is going on?” I whispered, pouring myself another shot.
I opened my eyes to a pool of saliva and the linoleum floor. I stumbled to my feet. Someone was knocking, no, pounding on the door. I wasn’t sure what time it was. The whole apartment was dark. I tripped over a chair, kicked a plastic cup. The place had been trashed.
“Open up, sir, it’s the police.”
I remembered the girl from earlier and the couple, had they really been able to keep up? Maybe she remembered me from the corner store. Maybe they had tracked me from the ATM or they had picked up the receipt. “I’m coming,” I replied, back in the present. I undid the chain and then the lock, but just before I opened the door, I noticed a flicker—a single green light above my computer screen, right beside the camera. I was frozen, staring into the electric dot. How long had it been on?
How had I not noticed it before?
I looked back and it was gone.
Donald Carreira Ching (he/him/his) was born and raised in Kahaluʻu, on the island of Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi. His poetry and fiction have appeared in publications such as Rio Grande Review, NonBinary Review, and Every Day Fiction. In 2015, his debut novel, Between Sky and Sea: a Family’s Struggle, was published by Bamboo Ridge Press. In 2018, he received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Emerging Writer.