This story appears in issue 4 of Medium Chill. Buy it here.
He sits in a darkened basement gazing into the glowing portal of his small notebook computer, his fingers arched over the keys in anticipation. The ritual of this is important. The darkness matters. His seated posture conveys meaning. It’s all been designed to achieve an effect. He begins typing. It’s not a message he’s given much thought to and certainly not the vilest sentiment he’s ever put out into the world, but he knows it will find its mark.
It’s not enough anymore to repeat the standard talking points on a divisive issue. It’s not even enough to amplify the cruelty of these stances. At this point, mainstream discourse itself has become so reprehensible that there’s no real sting left in paraphrasing what someone else has said on TV. Even direct insults are no longer provocative. Moron. Everyone’s a moron now. Or an Anythingtard. A Libtard. A Trumptard. It doesn’t mean anything. To really make it work, it’s important to hit where it most hurts. Identity, of course. Affiliation. That’s the easiest. Race. Sexual orientation. Gender expression. Sometimes religion. It depends on context. Just using a racial or homophobic slur, however, isn’t always effective. Better to make a broad, harmful generalization maligning a whole group as a source of crime or disease or moral degradation. That gets a reaction. That spreads and poisons.
He composes the words and clicks share. He unleashes a pestilence upon the world. Instantaneously, the sentiment appears on the refreshed scrolling public news feeds of social media users all over the planet. He braces for the blowback. He flushes in anticipation, his heart now beating rapidly and his breath quickening.
Visceral outrage is not the goal. Finger-wagging sanctimony is not the goal. Shame is the goal unto itself. Complete abasement. He needs to feel abased.
People have bizarre fetishes. Some people strangle themselves during masturbation or their partners during intercourse. Some people commit sexual acts with food or with household pets. Some dress up in plush animal costumes or rough reptilian scales and engage in sexualized play with one another. People view pornographic photos and videos starring amputees or people with horrible deformities. All manner of bodily fluids are introduced and employed in unsanitary ways. Otherwise reasonably well functioning adults pay sums of money to be abused and insulted by voluptuous leather-clad women.
His own inclinations aren’t so different actually, particularly from those of your garden variety submissive masochist. The desire is the same. But what a time to be alive, in which someone so inclined can be remotely assailed by thousands of complete strangers. In which people operate in a constant state of heightened sensitivity, vigilantly patrolling cyberspace to identify and punish the aberrant. When your only tool is offense, he thinks, everything begins to look offensive.
The responses now start to appear. At first, people just call him names or mock him inarticulately or tell him to fuck off, which isn’t all that satisfying. Some people copy and share his post with their own outraged metacommentary, and he begins to feel the first stirrings of arousal. Then it gets good. People begin to investigate his profile and share his previous posts and personal photos. They begin to speculate about his marital and employment status. They organize and suggest contacting his boss and family and making everyone aware of just what kind of monster he is. He remembers a time when these were still things that could be taken from him. He needs to hold on that time when there was still something at stake. This is exactly what he craves.
His computer buzzes and dings with indignant emails and private messages. The notes echo through the basement, an orchestra in a cavernous concert hall. His cell phone vibrates on the table beside him, phone calls to the real number listed in all his social media profiles. He imagines that this might be the time when someone knocks on his front door and, suspecting he’s hiding somewhere inside, storms in exact vengeance. He imagines a whole furious mob now tracking mud across his off-white carpet, upending the single wooden chair and small tray table that serve as his dining set, fanning out to explore the vacant ground floor bedrooms, and finally descending his basement stairs. They grab him then in this fantasy and drag him up the stairs, pants around his ankles, through the kitchen and living room, and out onto the street in front of his modest suburban bungalow in the crisp early springtime air. He can see their faces reddened and twisted with hate as they spit and curse him. He can almost feel their kicks and blows connecting as the crowd finally engulfs him, as they crush and grind him into a fine powder right there on the sidewalk in front of that house, a cool breeze finally blowing away what’s left of him like a pollen or a light dusting of overnight snow.
He slackens and exhales a long exhausted breath. On his screen, the frenzy continues unabated, compounding exponentially, he’s sure, but he has lost interest. He closes the computer’s lid and switches off his phone. He sits there in the dark basement alone in silence. What he feels now is not remorse but disgust, yet this feeling itself is an inevitable part of the ritual. Hasn’t this been part of the very sensation he sought, he wonders, the dull ache resulting from a painful pleasure?
He stands, hoists his khaki trousers, zips and buckles, and then walks up the stairs to his kitchen. Next, he opens the refrigerator and removes a glass bottle of water and a plastic container containing the chicken soup he cooked for dinner the previous night. He heats the leftover soup in its container in the microwave and pours the contents into a ceramic bowl, which he takes along with the bottle into the living room. There, he sits at his makeshift dining set and sips the steaming broth. Outside, he hears lives being lived.