When Shaun gets home, he opens a cold one—and one for his flatmate Connor if he feels generous—then checks his updates on Instagram and Twitter. At work he hides his phone in his backpack. Keep the good screen time for home. Well, that’s the plan. But since the start of the month he been checking the phone every half hour and when he’s not coding or reading work emails or at a meeting he’s hunched over his phone or thinking about tweets and posts. He even dreams Instagram dreams.
This evening he comes home, showers, and slumps onto a lounge chair, phone in hand. Here’s a photo of Chava, Auckland’s newly-elected youngest ever councillor, outside one of the flagship pharmacies piloting a safe drug zero-waste scheme, smiling as she holds a carton of almost expired paracetamol. Why let this drug go to waste because the companies made surplus drugs after the last pandemic wave? The new scheme will collect surplus drugs and donated food as part of the ongoing rebuild project.
Shaun and the pack are on to this SJW. Did you know that she was born in Tel Aviv? They troll her hair, her eyes, her plain white collar top and utility pants. They call her a vanilla poster girl for all the guilty middle-class pakehas who weathered the last economic collapse better than everyone else.
* * *
Erin follows Shaun’s online ridiculing from her home overlooking Aro Valley. Then she consults her own hand painted watercolor deck of divination cards — each card a scene from one of her many recurring dreams — and turns over the card she calls ‘last chance.’ A single hand rises from the ocean to grasp a black and red lifesaver. She places this card on the centre of the tablet on which she has been reading Shaun’s trashing of Chava’s early childhood in Tel Aviv. Shaun leads a pack of hostile posters in holding a seven-year old Chava accountable for every wrong committed by an Israeli government. Erin jumps into the storm and posts her warnings: Do you really know her? Think before you shame. He sneers a tweet back at her. Last chance.
Two days later Shaun’s dropped Chava to chase Merricat; a fusion low-fi singer-songwriter whose obtuse, introspective music is trending upwards on the wave of her new release Belong. Merricat’s grey baggy sailor pants with wide bell-bottoms and a yellow and black wasp banded top draw attention as do her mannered, disjointed poses and occasional rictus grimace. Shaun and his pack swarm to the attack. Ugly, dumb, moronic, horse-faced androgynous poser, Aspie retard puppet loser clown. Stupid, stupid girl.
And then he posts a digitally altered photo of Merricat from the cover of Belong. In rainbow striped overalls she squats, looking down at the camera, her face morphed into the face of a horse.
Last chance gone. Erin decides on capture.
* * *
It’s a crowded Friday afternoon at the electronics store. Shaun can hardly move in the aisles and it’s not even a Black Friday. He passes the new droids, the new wrist-worn viral detectors, the new VR contacts. He’s looking at the new infinity encryption drives when she asks for his help.
‘Can I ask you something? I’m looking for a good router that I can set up myself. Can you help me look?’
She looks vaguely familiar in her grey baggy sailor pants and dark blue top. Her olive complexion and raven hair shine with star quality. He feels his cheeks blush but also a certain pride as he leads her to the routers, answers her questions, and accepts her gratitude. She turns and fixes him with a stare that radiates such confidence he doubts she would have trouble building a server farm.
‘Be seeing you’ she says as she turns to the counter line.
Three days later he bumps into her in the vape shop. She comes and stands next to him as he buys his pods. He’s in his work clothes; black suit trousers, plain white shirt, leather shoes. Good, she can see that he has a job.
‘I want to thank you so much. I couldn’t have got my wifi up and going without you. I followed your instructions and got it running in no time. Let me buy you a coffee!’
Her irresistible smile lights the shop. He thinks of the bus ride home, scrolling through the feeds on his phone, then cracking open a beer with Connor over a simple dinner followed by YouTube clips.
‘Sure. Coffee would be great.’
They enterEnigma café. It’s bustling with students and there’s a small queue at the counter. As they wait in line she whips out her phone from a pant pocket and snaps him with gunslinger speed. He’s too stunned to speak. They take their drinks to a corner table, swap names. Erin tells him that the special fries she’s ordered are like nothing he’s ever tasted before and will change him forever.
‘Let’s play a game’, she suggests. ‘You pick a stranger, give them a score out of ten, and describe them with a sentence starting with two adjectives and the word who, which you then finish.
He smiles blankly.
‘OK. Let me show you.’ She selects a slightly portly man with thinning hair looking at the cake stand. ‘Five. Boring, asthmatic, who watches too much porn.’
The porn quip strikes a nerve.
‘Now you. Go on!’ she insists.
He scans the café, lost for words. If he was only online, the words would come in a flash with a suck of his vape. He hesitates. Then his stare fixes on a young woman in her early 20s in a lurid green top, the middle parting of her dark hair a shock of dyed turquoise roots; black spike earrings, black leggings. ‘Eight. Art student, vegan who wants to be a musician.’
She stares at him as she leans back in her chair. ‘What’s interesting is that your description has a basis in observation, sure, but it’s mainly conjecture, speculation, bias. It’s not so much observation as projection.’
The café becomes silent—he can tell people are talking but he can only hear Erin. He feels oddly paralysed. He struggles against a clawing claustrophobia as if air is being sucked out of his lungs.
‘Look at her. Go on. You could describe her with any adjective or epithet you like. You could call her ‘stupid’, ‘autistic’, or, if she was famous—say an aspiring politician or a musician—you could call her a ‘poster girl for guilty middle-class whites’ or a ‘slaghole’ or ‘a horsefaced aspie retard.’
She pauses, sips her iced mint tea. ‘You could call her whatever you liked without any blow back. Right?’
He recognises all his words. He hears their venom, their bitterness. A terrible paralysis freezes his body. She leans towards him and the mint from her breath jolts him awake as her face morph into Chava’s warm smile.
‘Can you imagine who would say such things? Well, I guess you could.’
He tries to move, to call out, to catch the eye of someone who might help him. She places her black smartphone on the table. It’s surface is a dark pool beneath which rainbow coloured fish dart and swim.
The door to the café opens and the breeze from outside ripples the surface of the screen.
‘And it’s not just one is it? The bullying never stops at one. There’s always another woman for you to hound.’ Her face twists and molds into the strong aquiline jaw of Merricat.
‘Look at me. Is my face loser enough for you? Am I pretty enough? Would you like me to be taller?’ Her eyes drop to her chest. ‘Not big enough? You want them bigger? It’s for you to say and judge. Right?’
He is caught between panic and shame as he lowers his head.
‘Sometimes we force others to see what we see. We steal a face and swap it for say a face of a horse. And then we share that image and try to make in some way real. What do you think it would be like to have a horse’s face—or a pig’s?’
He gasps for air as he finds that he is able to speak. ‘I wouldn’t like that at all!’
A ripple passes across Merricat’s face as it returns to Erin’s features.
Erin smirks as she circles the phone with a forefinger and the waves still to an onyx black screen over which she recites ‘O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!’
He feels his face change. His lips stretch, his mouth feels cavernous, his nose is pulled like taffy as his eyes and ears recede.
She holds the phone to his face. The screen becomes a mirror. ‘This is how I see you so this is how you must be. Your logic, not mine.’
He sees tiny, beady eyes, an enormous mouth with rubber-band lips and a thin, beak-like nose. He tries to scream but she crosses two fingers and mutes him.
She stands and slings her black bag over her shoulder. ‘In ten minutes you’ll be able to speak. Go home. Think about what you call others online. Tomorrow, your face may be different. But that depends on you and how others see you.’
And then she’s gone.
The city is a blur as he rushes home. On the bus, he stares at people’s faces to gauge how he looks but when their gaze catches his he turns away, ashamed. At home he rushes to the bathroom mirror. His face is a beady-eyed mouse with a wide joker grin; he sees the shrunken head of a fourteen-year-old on the body of a guy in his mid-twenties. His hands shake as he goes online.
The photograph she took of him in the café is all over social media and is even his new profile picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; everything. Not one of his friends comments on his new appearance. It’s as if he had always appeared to them this way. There are even a couple of likes. These are the minority. Most comments are one word put-downs: ‘weird’, ‘strange’, ‘freak’, ‘ugly as’. What’s even odder is that he appears to have posted the image himself. There’s this weird disconnect: those who already know him see nothing different; only strangers see a grotesque appearance. He tries to post a tweet but he can’t. Nothing he posts appears online. A few comments turn hostile. There’s a flurry of new posters who recognise him from his attacks on Merricat and Chava and are quick to point out that he’s no looker. Yet nothing they post matches his unprovoked, unwarranted spite.
For the first time in his life he feels like smashing his monitors. He yanks the power socket from the wall to kill the PC, flops on the bed to punch his pillow, then crawls under the duvet and curls up into a ball. He reels from the constant stream of comments on his new appearance. A thousand normal faces laugh at him from their screens. He is powerless to stop or to respond to their jeers. Then he sleeps.
When he wakes it is past noon. Bright afternoon sun fills his bedroom. He can’t believe that he slept so deeply. In the bathroom mirror he grins his own familiar grin at his old familiar face. He used to critique his sometimes oily complexion and puffy cheeks. Now he prods and strokes his face with delight. He laughs in relief that he is back to his own stupid self. He jumps online and whoops in delight that his profile picture has returned to what it was before he met Erin. All of last night’s posts and comments have vanished. His hands tremble as he types “Crazy shit happened last night. Don’t know if I’ve been dreaming or tripped out or what. But I’m going to take it easy!” He laughs that he regained control over his own accounts.
And he does take it easy. For a fortnight he stops trolling, content to just lurk, or like, or retweet. He stops stalking Chava and the rest; stops joining online lynch mobs. Except Merricat. He can’t get her out of his head. At work he wonders what she might be posting. She was the only one of those he trolled that he didn’t unfollow. He sees her at the Grammys in her black designer hazmat body stocking and sequinned face mask. He sees her everywhere she goes.
And then Merricat posts about body image. About how she cannot step outside her house without being stared at, judged, weighed, evaluated. ‘Your judgments are my lockdown.’ She speaks directly to her tormentors on how it feels to be judged by criteria she cannot set and to have her work considered almost an accessory to her appearance. She flips off all the pricks.
His fingers fly on his keyboard as all the old bile and vitriol swells up on him. So you don’t want people to look at you? Why pose for photos? Just wear a sack then! A rage directed at all the girls he could never talk to drips from his tweets. Done. Posted. Shit. He leans back.
A reply pops up. How would you like to be seen? Erin. He lifts his phone and switches the screen to mirror. He screams. His face is a blood red slobbering bulldog. Fat jowls sag by black downturned lips. He swings around on his chair to see Connor rush through the door.
‘What’s the matter man? Connor says.
‘My face! Shit, my face!’ Shaun leaps hysterically off his seat and covers his face.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ says Connor. ‘I can’t see anything wrong with your face. Well, no more than usual!’
Shaun jumps into his bed and covers his face. He cannot bear to think what Connor sees or what he might see if he saw his own face. The world shrinks to a duvet covered cave.
Two days later Shaun waits at the Medical Centre. He knows he’s lost it. His face appears differently to him than it appears to others. It shifts and changes now depending on what he says. Online he feels his head swell, his mouth stretch to a cavernous pit, his vision dim as his eyes shrink to dark beads and the red stumps of his ears look as if they have been cut-off with a switchblade. In deviceless times, his face looks more familiar to him in the mirror. Once, after he’d helped Connor’s sister’s move into a new flat, his skin shone and he almost looked pleasant. To Connor his appearance never changes. He is the same Shaun. Connor insisted that he see a doctor.
‘You’re freaking me out, man’ Connor said as he drove him to the clinic.
He touches his face as he waits. How might others see him now? Could he ever be sure that his face is not actually changing? He hopes that the doctor will be able to help him.
In a white lab coat, Erin enters the waiting room and calls his name. She smiles at him warmly in what he takes as recognition. He rises dumb from his seat and follows her to the consultation room. As she asks him what seems to be the problem he notices a photograph of what he assumes to be her daughters. On a powdered sand beach, arms wrapped around their shoulders, a teenage Merricat and Chava smile at the camera. He is ready to begin his treatment.
Harvey Molloy lives in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. He is the author of three books of poetry. His poetry and flash fiction has been published in anthologies including Best New Zealand Poems, Essential New Zealand Poems and Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand.