I swear, I didn't mean for this to happen. It was just supposed to be a joke, just a funny gag to put on Facebook. It wasn't supposed to turn into all this. I can smell smoke outside, hear the smashing of windows and the chanting of rioters, feel warm blood soaking through my shirt and see the serial number on the gun pointed at my nose.
I didn't mean for this to happen.
It was just supposed to be a joke.
It was Eric's idea to make a video. Yeah, there was a bit of fight the power in there, but both of us knew it was just for shiggles. Load it to Youtube, get a few quick laughs, maybe even become a meme. One of us, up there with Grumpy Cat and Scumbag Steve: those Morons from the Midwest, Fighting The Man. We might even make some money out of it; I hear Overly Attached Girlfriend sells shirts.
I wasn't supposed to become The Face Of The Revolution.
Eric's original idea was simple: wrap a bandanna around my face and pretend to storm a government building. Then he'd release a basket of kittens and together we'd Take Back The Nation. Y'know, stupid shit. Reddit does so love its cats.
I protested a bit to start with - I was worried someone was gonna think I was a terrorist and try to shoot me. Eric laughed it off ("Hell, I think it's more likely they'll think I'm the terrorist. Look at you. You couldn't be whiter if you showered in bleach"), but I couldn't help the gnawing in my gut. I didn't want to charge a government building with a rag on my face. Even after Eric showed me the building. The municipal Department of Maintenance. So local I'd be surprised if their jurisdiction extended three blocks. But that didn't change the way I felt.
What did change it was Felicity and Freddi. Freddi had heard about our little plan from Eric, and she damn near kicked down my door to join. She was a genius with Photoshop - you should see what did with the Stevenson twins' prom photos, it was hilarious and disgusting. With her onboard, we could really make some magic.
But Felicity... I'd known Felicity my entire life. She'd never grown up into the mannequin-figures of the Stevenson twins, or managed to shed her baby fat like Freddi had (though maybe Freddi had gone too far; she barely had any pudge on her, particularly in the chest, if you catch my drift), but she'd always stayed plump, in a cherub-y sort of way. Round and cute, especially in the face and especially especially when she smiled, you couldn't help falling in love with her.
Or at least I couldn't.
Felicity thought it would be fun, and so I was hooked, all-in, line-and-sinker. If she was in, I was there. She could have suggested anything and I would have gone for it; make the video stop motion, cover it in Instagram filters, make it a porno. Make it a stop motion porno covered in Instagram filters, whatever.
And so the project slowly morphed. Felicity made a joke about making it a newscast and did this dynamite anchorwoman voice, then Freddi punched up some graphics and all of sudden it was a news program. Inside The Terrorist Cells Of America. Eric suggested we up the stakes, use the Mayor's office instead. I found some clothes and crafted A Look; grunge meets the Taliban, all dark punk clothes and balaclavas. The kittens were dropped, and the fight the power upgraded. None of us truly bought into it, or so I thought.
Felicity did my makeup when we filmed it. Dirtied me up a bit, toned down my white-boy harmlessness, give me a bit of edge. My skin shivered when she brushed it while applying some dark foundation around my eyes as "camo". You'd barely be able to see it with the balaclava, but it added a menacing look, like Christian Bale's Batman. I asked her if she was having fun. She looked me in eyes, smiled and said yes.
She held my hand when she was done, just for a second. It was the first time we'd ever really touched each other, on purpose, with feeling. Her voice was candy and honey melting over my ears. I had to will all my blood back up into my brain or I would have passed out.
The video was easy; a nighttime shot with an infrared lens. All gritty and shakycam, found-footage style, Blair Witch meets Iraq meets Wisconsin. It was, to be perfectly honest, pretty crap. Eric's no James Cameron. He's not even Michael Bay. I looked like a bad Slenderman video.
But then Freddi and Felicity worked their magic and the whole thing changed. Felicity's voice and Freddi's graphics and the whole thing was suddenly a CNN Special Report. The Shocking Truth about Terrorists in Our Own Backyard, Story at 11. But of one dork in guyliner and a black pullover standing in the dark.
I remember we laughed about it when we first watched it. We sat around in Freddi's basement, sharing some beer that Eric had managed to get a hold of with a fake ID. I sat next to Felicity as she giggled at the video, or maybe the beer. I think I got drunk that night, but whether it was the beer or just the sweet-apple smell of Felicity's hair, I don't know.
Freddi didn't laugh when we watched it. She just sat there, sipping her beer with a smile. I didn't think much of it. Freddi wasn't really a laugher.
That night Freddi put it online.
That was the last night of "normal".
The next day at school it was everywhere. Facebook and Twitter were blowing up. It was even on Instagram (for some reason; it's not like it was food). Ten likes, twenty retweets, fifty comments. My mom texted me a link to a news blog. Freddi's one-shot Twitter handle ( TheRealTruth) got mentioned by CNN.
Felicity and Eric and I met up after school and talked about it. It was everywhere! Front page of Reddit, top trending hashtag on Twitter. It had gone viral like Ebola on steroids.
When I got back home that night, I finally saw why. I loaded up the video to show my brother for a laugh. I didn't see a Special Report. I saw me, standing in the dark in front of the Mayor's office - a big, white-stone building that looks like it's a Disneyland version of The Capitol. At least that's how it looks in the day.
At night, through infrared and shakycam, something happened. The Disneyland-ness fell away and the building suddenly looked legit, like I was standing somewhere, well, important. But that wasn't the part that shocked me.
Freddi had changed the video. She'd dropped the Special Report stuff, gone all gonzo; real front-line stuff. Gritty, in-your-face. The whole video was different; it was real now, cold and dangerous. She'd edited the random crap I'd blurted off the top of my head. "Take back the nation" and "reclaim the homeland" and stuff like that. She'd added a voiceover - her voice dropped a couple octaves through AutoTune, so it sounded damn-near-exactly like me - and made it a speech, all fire and brimstone, mixing her words with mine. With my face covered you couldn't tell it wasn't me.
She was rallying. She was calling for change, for violence, for revolution.
And the Internet was listening.
The original video was still around; she dropped it at the same time, off another one-shot handle ( OfficalCNN), to make the fake one look legit. She'd changed the audio in that one too, infecting it with her new vision. Whatever I'd said in the real video was gone - all that was left was this hatred, this real anger falsely spewing from my real face.
I texted Freddi, tried to call her, emailed her. I DM'd her, IM'd her, FM'd her. She was full incommunicado. Or maybe she was just being swamped under all the 's and likes and +1's.
I remember calling Eric. He was somewhere loud and sounded drunk. I asked him about the video.
"I know! It's blowing up!"
"Have you actually watched the video? It's not the one we made!" I was yelling into the phone, but it was loud on Eric's end.
"Yeah, that's right, we made it! Hey!" He wasn't talking to me anymore, he was calling out to whoever he was with. "We made that video! Fight the power, man!"
There was a loud banging sound and Eric hung up. I wasn't sure what was going on. I called Felicity. When she picked up, I could hear she'd been crying.
"You watched the videos, didn't you?" I said.
"This isn't what I wanted, Peter. I didn't want all this hate, it was just supposed to be fun!"
"I know." I should have gone to her and hugged her, comforted her, told her it would all be alright, but I didn't go. I regret not going. "Maybe it'll all blow over by tomorrow, y'know? By the time we wake up tomorrow there'll be, like, another coloured dress or something that the internet won't shut up about and no one will be talking about these stupid videos."
There was silence on the other side of the line for a minute, then a long sniff.
"You think so?" Her voice was so soft and frail. My arms twitched involuntarily like they were going to wrap around her shoulders of their own accord.
"I bet you ten bucks," I said with false confidence.
She took the bet with a little bit more strength in her voice and we said goodnight.
The next morning I owed her ten bucks.
I'm a heavy sleeper. Nothing less than the wrath of God can get me up some mornings. This morning I was woken not by my alarm or my mom pounding on the door, but by the smell of smoke. It filtered hazily into my brain and it took me a few seconds to work out what it was, but when I did I was up and at the window in a blink. The city centre was on fire, big orange flames leaping into the air on the horizon, staining the sky like it was dawn again.
But the sun was high in the sky and my phone buzzed with messages. My clocked blinked 12:00 stupidly at me; we must have lost power sometime in the night. It was later in the day than I would have expected. Mom and Dad work nights, they would have already been at work when all this went down. Oh God, I hope they are alright.
There was no cell signal on my phone, but Skype and Facebook and Twitter were still going strong though the wifi. Freddi and Eric and Felicity had all tried to contact me. They were all at Freddi's place. Freddi and Eric told me that I had to come over, but Felicity told me not to come. "Stay away," her message said. "Run. Get your family and run."
That worried me even more than the thought of Mom and Dad out there in whatever was going on. Felicity was telling me not to go to her. She could be in trouble.
It was her message that sealed our fate. I had to go to her.
I left my brother at home, told him not to go outside, locked the doors behind me. Outside was chaos and carnage. Cars overturned, houses on fire, powerlines down. Every now and then, when I could pick up an unsecured wifi signal, I checked the 'net. Twitter was incomprehensible; people were crying or trying to contact friends or angry at the government or worrying. My Facebook feed was covered in fundraisers and protests, both sides of whatever it was calling for all hands.
The news sites were trying to capture it all. It took me a bit, between the lack of signal and the hectic mess around me, but I finally got the whole story.
"Country in Chaos" said CNN.
"Rioters attack government buildings in thirty-eight states" reported FOX.
"Rise up, my brothers, rise up!" said a grainy film of a balaclava'd man on what had once been MSNBC's site; it had clearly been hacked.
Our video -no, Freddi's video - had gone Black Plague-level viral. It had set something off, stirred up some hair-trigger hornet's nest all across the country and now yahoos everywhere were trying to Take Back The Nation. With fire and guns and death.
My skin crawled and my blood ran like ice as I approached Freddi's house. People were dying everywhere and it was my fault. I should never have agreed to that stupid video. I tried not to cry when I thought about what might have happened to my parents as I reached the front step. I had to be strong. I had to get Felicity out of here. Then we'd find my parents and her parents and run – somewhere. We'd figure it out when the time came. Right now, I had to get her.
The front door was unlocked. I found them in the basement. Felicity's gorgeous dimpled cheeks were tearstained and her lovely green eyes were bloodshot. Eric stood in a corner, leaning against the walls like he wasn't sure he could stand on his own. He looked nauseous, but not hungover.
Freddi was the only one who looked calm. She was sitting in front of her computer and greeted me with slight grin. Felicity's eyes widened as she saw me and I saw her mouth "no" before Freddi spoke.
"Ah, the man of the hour. The Face of the Revolution."
"What the hell did you do, Freddi?" I demanded.
"I merely added the spark that lit the powderkeg," she said calmly.
"We have to stop this!" Felicity yelled. Her voice was rough and hoarse from crying. "Take the videos down!"
"You know that's not how the internet works. You can't stop it!" Freddi yelled back. Somewhere outside, a car crashed into something. A scream cut the air. Freddi didn't even flinch.
"Please, Freddi!" I yelled back. "This has gone insane! People are dying!"
Freddi smiled widely. Outside, the crashed car must have burst into flames, as a sudden wave of heat burst through the small open window in the top of one wall, accompanied by an orange glow that lit Freddi's thin face like she was a jack-o-lantern.
"And they should die! The revolution will climb their corpses to victory!"
Felicity broke at that point. Tears streamed quickly down her face.
"Peter! Let's get out of here! Let's just run!"
I moved to her and put my arm around her. Any other day, any other time, this would have been the happiest moment of my life. But in this moment it was all I could do not to shake with fear and anger. My arms strained to stay still around her.
I looked up at Eric pleadingly, willing him to come with us, to leave Freddi and her insanity behind. He looked from me to Freddi and back for a couple of seconds, then heaved himself off the wall. He stumbled a bit toward me and I felt a smile twitch at the corner of my mouth. Then he stepped past me to the stairs, dashed up them, and shut the door.
"I'm sorry, Peter," he said as the lock clicked. "I didn't want this, but it's happening and we can't stop it now. I saw what happened last night while I was out. When this is all over, I'm going be on the side that lives."
My smile vanished, and hatred exploded out of my mouth before I could stop it.
"You bastard! This is all your fault! This was your idea!"
He tromped heavily back down the stairs and collapsed into a chair beside Freddi.
"We can't do anything about it now," he said softly. "It's out there. You can't kill an idea."
"No, you can't," Freddi said, grinning widely. She stood up and I felt Felicity tense in my arms. I glanced down and froze as I saw the gun in Freddi's hands. She lifted it and pointed it directly at my face. "But you can kill a man."
"No!" Felicity screamed. She struggled in my arms but I held her tight. "We'll leave, Freddi! We'll never say anything! Just let us go!"
"Ah, but I still need him," Freddi replied. "We need to finish the job. One more video, one last speech. The original face, rallying the populous for one last charge."
"I won't do it!" I roared at her. "My face was covered anyway! Why do you need me?"
"Consistency," she replied simply. "Any random could throw together another video. But people will listen to the original, the one that started it all. Your body, my words and we'll rally entire nation!"
The sound of heavy footsteps and yelling drifted through the window. Something was happening on the street. Rioters? Police? Looters?
"Your adoring public awaits, Peter," Freddi said. She tossed the balaclava I'd worn in the video to me. I caught it on reflex.
"Don't do it, Peter!" Felicity yelled.
"I won't," I said, looking Freddi straight in the eye.
I was looking past the gun when it went off. The flash was blinding, the noise was worse, the sudden weight in my arms was sickening. Warmth spread over my shirt and I staggered as Felicity collapsed into me, limp and unmoving. We hit the cold concrete floor together, her half-atop me. She slumped sideways and rolled to the floor with a heavy, wet thud.
She wasn't breathing. I know I was screaming but I all I could hear was the ringing in my ears. My shirt was slick with blood. I felt angry, devastated, helpless, hollow. That last hug had only been the second time we'd ever really touched each other, on purpose, with feeling. And I'd felt her die in my arms.
Freddi was above me all of a sudden, pointing the gun at my face.
I can smell smoke outside, hear the smashing of windows and the chanting of rioters, feel warm blood soaking through my shirt and see the serial number on the gun pointed at my nose.
I didn't mean for this to happen.
It was just supposed to be a joke.
Slowly, I stand up and put the balaclava on. It's wet with Felicity's blood.
There's nothing I can do. There's no stopping this now. My only hope is to go along. Maybe I'll live through this if I go along. With Felicity's body slowly oozing blood onto the floor at my feet, there's no reason not to.
I'm part of this now.
You can't kill an idea.
But you can kill a woman.
Author's Note: This is an entry for the Labyrinth Forum Writing Contest for April. The prompt was to write a story inspired by one of three famous. I chose "You can imprison a man, but not an idea. You can exile a man, but not an idea. You can kill a man, but not an idea." This was the most present story I've ever written. I don't tend to write in the now; I prefer a few minutes ago or a few minutes hence, so trying to capture the Zeitgeist and shove it into a box Ghostbusters-style was an interesting challenge.
By the way, if you're looking for some interesting stories, you should head on over to the Labyrinth Forum and check out the other entries for this month's contest. Vote for your favourite! It doesn't have to be me. I'm just happy if more people vote. :)