Have you heard the one where I drive a convertible around the Pine Barrens, playing chicken with oncoming traffic, running the unsuspecting off the road?
I like that legend, but I’d never sit behind the wheel. I hitch quite a few rides, mumbling to the drivers from the passenger seat. Not in any physical form, mind you—more like a ping of nostalgia, or that urge to lurk on a vicious ex’s profile page too long.
I’ve just finished with a woman who is now spamming her family with pitches for an old alchemical product. The obsessive texting will cause her nieces and even one of her own children to block her, pushing her into more fervent belief. That’s my version of turning lead into gold.
Now I’m in the passenger seat aside Greg, as he drives a leased SUV past his old high school. This car has so many empty seats, and no one else buckled in. The sight of the sandstone building reminds him that no matter how large and heavy this vehicle is, inside it is empty. His gut burbles with shame, music to my ears.
Remember those idiots from these high school halls, Greg? Think about how EASY their lives are, how ATTRACTIVE they were born, how EFFORTLESSLY they landed the perfect mate. I won’t let him forget.
I am a very old legend from—don’t laugh—New Jersey. I’m told I was born in 1735. Ask around all you like; I have never killed anyone. My calling card is a trail of hoof marks on a snowy roof, just to remind you I was there.
My parents were heretics, I’ve heard it whispered, and I was the 13th child. They left me as a bundle, a sacrifice to the deep woods of West Jersey, to the sulfuric river, to the swamp. Modern folks explain that my parents had been ostracized thus unable to care for me. They thought they were doing the kindest thing. I was a casualty of a war waged through pamphlets, the orthodox William Penn versus the freethinkers who threatened him.
I learned my father printed the question: If every one of us has the same Inner Light, why do some of us get called “Leaders?” Following anyone but yourself is the heresy, he’d say.
The reply: Your wife gave birth to a Devil who now haunts the woods. Everything you say is damned.
Oh, right. That’s me.
Humans are so vulnerable in sleep. In his dreams, I bring Greg’s worst memories to the surface. Remember when you were laughed at for being weird? When you saw how fake the popular kids were, but everyone else fell for it? For days or weeks, I dredge up the muck.
He wallows in bed until he finally rolls over to grip his phone. Electricity was a delicious human development, and I love to make the lights flicker or cut out when I can. But I am most effective when I coax a certain post to into view, with just the right phrasing to lure in Greg after he slept so fitfully.
Faces and faces, he scrolls through what he both desires and loathes. Greg wasn’t always so raw, it’s just that the layoff from the restaurant has been hard. Suddenly all his friends are locked inside, protecting children, and/or elders from the current pandemic. Reminding him he is at home, alone, with his savings running out. What else is there to do but scroll, click, scroll?
Time to place a meme implying that his local public university will ban the study of the US Constitution—even for History majors. It’s a false report of course, but it makes Greg’s heart pound with anger.
Conspiracy theories are the net that collects the loners. Or when they come seeking you, the fly paper. Incendiary pamphlets are part of my legacy, after all.
I buy up ads that finance sites. From the spammy looking ones that don’t even try to sound plausible, to the ones that mimic news network logos and claim to have correspondents in the field.
I don’t draft content, I leave that the ‘Very Much Online’, like our Greg. I visit the roofs of these creators, camp out on their ledges, whisper seeds and phrases. If Greg looked up from his screen, he might see my shadow on the wall, though never my figure standing in front of the light. But he won’t glance up, he’s too enrapt. I’ll let him believe I am his own inspiration, his inner spirit quaking, and not something noxious from the salt marsh.
I drum up readership, too. You’ll sense me, when you feel the magnetic pull of an explosive banner caption to an ad on your local news site. Yes, you feel shame—you don’t read trash, you’re not a sucker—but also, a thrill. What if there’s a truth in this claim about the government poisoning our food supply and air to make us complacent? What if the cure to this modern plague is being hushed up by pharma companies? What if the pandemic has been a hoax all along?
Greg, I particularly disdain when you wear face coverings in public—it’s a reminder that your health and fate are interwoven, and an act of care for strangers. I have fanned lots of hatred of medical face masks this year. I light this match for Greg now.
Inspire him to fill his feeds with rants. Seek out people who disagree and bomb them with non sequiturs. Then become a paid subscriber to “news” services, and even write some copy himself. (Myself.)
“Do your own research” is my favorite contemporary snare. I whisper it now to Greg in the early morning light, as he falls deeper into YouTube quicksand. Keep burning through videos, Greg. They are ignited by your Inner Light. They don’t want you to see. I want you to see them, taste the fruit from the Knowledge tree. Come set the world ablaze.
Laura Eppinger (she/her) is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at the Rumpus, the Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor at Newfound Journal. Visit her here: https://lauraeppinger.blog/workspub/. She Tweets at @lola_epp