As the monotonous chaos of the pandemic drones on, a new kind of Internet Service Provider offers you a deal that’s too good to be true.
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You twirl the wand on your blinds.
It’s dark outside, but you don’t remember it getting dark. Overcast blots out the stars and turns the moon into a smiling crescent ghost. No matter how you twist the wand you’re facing those same ancient power lines - buzzing in the breeze, hanging off into the nowhere at the edge of your window.
Nothing changes. Nothing ever changes.
Only tonight, something is different.
You see a willowy man crawling up the wooden utility pole. His belt is full of grips and clamps, but they all hang motionless, not clattering at all, as he hauls himself to the top of the pole.
He hangs there on the crossbar with all the grace of Jesus on the cross. He clamps himself to one of the corded steel catenaries.
He strokes the power lines like a lover. He presses his ear to them, and his slender fingers start tapping to a silent beat. He drifts from cable to cable, his fingers slowing down and speeding up as he does.
You’re staring now, you realize. The lights are on and you’re glued to the window like a creep. For all you know, this is a perfectly ordinary public servant, doing a perfectly ordinary job.
You grab the wand, telling yourself that you’re just about to shut the blinds.
He gets to the last cable and his face lights up. He grabs a clamp from his belt. It’s coated in something reflective, almost glowing. He cinches it to the cable with a twang.
Suddenly, his head jerks up, and he looks straight at you. His eyes are gleaming like a cats’, and they look past your eyes, making you feel seen and vulnerable.
You snap the blinds shut. The wand is slick with sweat, and your thumping heart can’t tell if you’re embarrassed or scared.
You feel the lineman’s eyes through the blinds, watching you. You stand there, stuck in psychic tar, wondering if the feeling is real or not.
It’s getting late, and you wander to the bathroom in a daze., unable to reach a conclusion.
You shit, and shower, and brush your teeth, in that order.
You try to sleep.
Your mind drifts, but there’s nothing in this apartment to distract your lonely mind.
You think about work and Netflix and takeout, but the lineman’s piercing white eyes bob up like corks in the surf of your memory
You sink into that in-between state where you’re tossing and turning, suspended inches away sleep, but still trapped in the fantasies playing out on your eyelids.
You see a party. All your friends are there, all smiling and naked and laughing.
One by one, they come to sink hooks into your flesh and wrap you in a curl of razor-sharp fishing line.
You watch from above, like the body isn’t even yours.
They pull the lines tight, cut crisscrosses into your skin. Your blood spurts out in pulses, and your friends moan as they rub it into their skin, jostling against each other, pulling the fishing lines tighter and tighter.
You can’t move. You feel the lines cut down to your bones. Two friends kiss with mouthfuls of blood that spill over their chest. They smile at you with crimson teeth.
Then everybody tugs, and you slice into ribbons, spraying out in a confetti of viscera. Your friends bathe in your chunked up guts, and your mind's eye floats away until they are nothing but gyrating scarlet skin.
Your alarm clock blares.
It feels like you haven’t slept. If not for the time on the clock, and the foggy memories of carnage, you’d swear you only just put your head down.
It’s still overcast. Day feels the same as night, only with the smiling moon replaced by a gray skid mark of a sun.
Today is a weekend, which means you’ve now got to figure out what to do with your time.
You get dressed and brush your teeth in a haze. Then, because you’re too tired to do anything, you end up back in front of your computer.
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Then, an oasis in the desert. A lone note of intrigue yodeling in a din of irrelevance.
Gigabit fiber internet in your zip code! Starting at $5 per month!
You rub your eyes, still not quite trusting your senses in the leftover fog of sleep.
It doesn’t go away, but it’s a scam, surely. Nobody could ever offer internet that good for that cheap.
You think about the lineman from last night. Does internet come on power lines? You think about that crucifix of a utility pole, wonder what the clamp is, and slowly recognize just how little you know about power lines and internet.
You stand in front of the blinds, still snapped shut from last night. You grab the wand, and your heart pounds. He can’t possibly still be there…
You twirl the blinds open.
And there he is.
Perched like an owl, staring you directly in the eyes.
Your heart seizes, and your throat clenches. Your forearm is like stone, and even your thoughts stop. You lose all sense of time. His shining eyes - brighter than the noonday sun - shatter your already tenuous grasp of the moment.
Your eyes are linked like chains.
A harsh static takes over your thoughts.
Slowly, mechanically, you creak the blinds closed. The static gets louder. You can still see him between the gaps in the slats. Staring.
You sit back down at the blue-white glow of your computer screen. You put in an old pair of earbuds and turn on a high-tempo’d bubblegum pop song. The kind that has a cutesy teenage girl making coy allusions to social injustice.
Your mouse moves the ad. You click through to a sleek, modern website.
Try Our New Influencer Package!
The logo is a pair of curved cables, mirrors so they look like an eye. There’s a lightning bolt joining them like the vertical slit of a cat’s pupil. You don’t recognize it, but it looks clean and professional. Some new startup, no doubt.
Ultimate Convenience! Take control of your data.
You hear a buzzing bit of fry in your earbuds and feel a scratching in your ear. They’re old so it’s not surprising, but it reminds you that it’s time to buy some new ones.
The deal looks pretty simple, really. You trade your shitty data for amazing internet. You figure that your privacy is already shot to hell. Might as well get paid for it.
So you clack in your credit card info, click past the terms and conditions, and hit the glowing, green ‘Accept’ button.
Your music warbles into a sizzling death.
A red warning message flashes on the screen. ‘You may experience service outages for the next several hours.’ Which… makes sense, right? If you just signed up for new internet then someone’s going to have to set something up, surely.
You look at your closed blinds. You can’t see through the slats from where you’re sitting. You can’t tell if the lineman is still there, staring.
You grab the wand.
Your heart thumps hot, quivering blood.
You lick your lips.
Your hand clenches like a vice.
You drop the wand.
There’s no benefit to knowing if he’s there. No when you really think about it.
You turn back to the screen, and the red banner flashes hypnotically.
You didn’t sleep well last night, and you won’t have internet for hours. Your body craves rest.
You stand up and go to take your earbuds out of your ears, but the right one gets stuck. You pull again and there’s a scraping sound deep in your ear. It comes loose, but you still feel something there, a long tendril, like steel wool coiling deep, deep into your skull.
You reach up and feel a corded copper wire running from the old earbuds. You tug again and it feels like sandpaper on your brain. There’s scratching, deep in your ears like the loudest static you’ve ever heard. You slip into numbness as you pull the wire from your head inch by excruciating inch.
It pops out with a thick plug of earwax and clotted blood. It smells like parmesan cheese.
You retch a mouthful of bile into the trashcan by your desk.
You wobble in your seat, panting for long moments. Then you toss the chthonic headphones into the trashcan and head to the bathroom in a fugue of exhaustion.
You shit. You shower. You sleep.
You see someone, standing six feet forward on an infinite, featureless plane. They turn, and you’re confronted with your own face, purple and twisted up with anger that’s raw and ugly. Angrier than you’ve ever been.
They lunge at you, snarling and clawing and biting. You’re desperately pushing, kicking, running to get away.
You trip back and they’re on top of you, and they’re scratching jagged red lines onto your chest that burn like hate. The same lines scour themselves onto their chest, and it makes that bestial wrath roar and pound fists down at your head.
The first fist catches you on the right cheek and you’re both dazed. The second one hooks at you from the left and you taste the copper tang of blood. The third one hits you square in the nose and their blood starts raining down on your face.
And then you fight back.
You stab your hands up at their bloody, swollen face. The punches keep hitting your arms, but the pain is nothing compared to your rage. You claw at their face until you feel nails digging into your own cheek.
Then you shove your thumb into their eye, and you feel that horrible pressure, and that fulminating pop, and that flaccid, gooey cornea, all from the inside and out.
And then teeth clench through the flesh on the inside of your wrist, and vermillion curtains spurt through the air.
The two of you roll and fight and tear each other and yourselves to shreds. As the last drops of life drain out of you, you break into a grin, because you know that bastard is coming down with you.
You wake up, and that eternal overcast is black now, but your mind is still stuck in a gray, muddy rut. Before you know it, you’re back in front of the computer.
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The internet is fast. The pages snappy, almost like they’re loading before you click on them. You sit back, transfixed by the glow of your screen, clicking and scrolling for eons - shielded from time by that unchanging black curtain of night outside your window.
It’s important to be informed, to pay attention to the world around you. Even if it’s just a loud painful mess of static, it’s something worth understanding. Something that we’ve got to bathe in, no matter how unproductive it might feel.
Or so you tell yourself.
One hand is glued to your mouse, the other to your keyboard. You’re not hungry. Even though you haven’t eaten anything all day, the very notion of eating food makes you nauseous.
You think of the lineman, posted up on that utility pole like the Son of God.
You wonder if he’s still there, still watching. You wonder if you have the courage to open the blinds.
You go to move your hand to the wand, but you can’t.
Your hand is stuck to the mouse, and the mouse is stuck to your desk.
You yank your hand up in a panic, and hear a squelching rip.
You feel tearing all around your palm. Blood spills onto your desk, and your mouse hangs, dangling from a hundred scraggly copper braids.
You want to scream. More than anything you want to scream, but your voice is gone. A weak groan snakes out of your lips. Your mind is burning in anxious, electric fire while your body sits in the doughy stasis of a dream.
And you try to stand up, try to smash yourself into those closed blinds, try to shout ‘I exist, and I need help’. It’s too late though - you feel that same tugging, that same copper wire, running all through your back and thighs and arms.
You fight and you struggle and you push, but every bit of progress is agony. Every snapped bit of copper wire shoots like shrapnel through your veins and tears away chunks of skin.
And then the lineman’s face crackles up on your screen. His face churning in the pixels of a lo-fi connection until it transforms into your face.
“Don’t fight it,” he whispers without moving his lips, and the words stand abrupt against the raging static of pain filling your mind. “This is your salvation. The numbness that you asked for.”
And then your mind starts to quiet, and you stop fighting to stand.
“You’ll never get hungry, or sad, or sick. We’ll take care of your rent, and your job, and your family. You’ll finally have enough time to watch everything you want to, and you can post all you like.”
And then the static is barely a murmur. The copper wires stab up through your fingers, scratching against the underside of your nails. They spread out like metal roots, and your nails slowly peel away.
Your body is wracked in pain. His tendrils pierce and fill you with sharp copper.
You don’t fight it.
You know the lineman is right. This is the only way out. Numbness is salvation. Anything else is too painful.
And with a warm shiver, it’s done.
Now all that’s left is…