Edition 17: Shutterblind by Jackie Neel
Dani’s vids are getting cut by a new guy, Bialystock, and he’s making her look bad, dragging her down all over the metanet. It spells disaster until suddenly, Dani finds a little perspective. Science fiction ruled by some cyberpunk, Jackie Neel’s tale is an acerbic comment on how connectedness hurts us in the digital age. SY
[Hey], I graff to the guy sitting at the bar. He’s cute, maybe a little shorter than the guys I would normally go for, but my standards are low lately.
[Hey, yourself.] His graff appears to float in white just off the center of my vision. He flashes me a bad boy grin, the type my dad used to warn me about. His name, floating by his graff, is Hunter.
I open a fresh frame in my MindsEye. I snap in a new cam and set it to check him out from the back. Nice toosh.
My main frame glows blue, letting me know someone new has set a cam on me. I pop a new frame and clone the cam—it’s his, and he’s returning the favor. From his smile I suppose those hours on the stair stepper must have done some good.
The game is alive in me, the give and take of pulling. I can almost feel his fingers brushing my neck already, warm and soft and urgent. And I can see already how I’ll cut my vids—a months-long dry spell, a disastrous failed hookup with that Chad guy, and then fade to black as we slip into my apartment. A clean little narrative.
But his smile fades when my frame turns green. He’s looking at my main page, flipping through my vids, checking out the comments and votes. He picks up his beer and turns away.
Did the room just get colder?
[Forget him,] Kati graffs. Her cam is anchored in my table, but she’s probably looking up the nanemes’ stored video feeds to watch his reaction; I don’t bother to check.
In a minute she sends me a vid link, and it’s the guy, probably five years ago in high school, getting beaten up by a girl in a field hockey uniform. I upvote it, downvote him, and take another sip of my drink. The alcohol taste is masked by a trio of fruit juices, but it never tastes as sweet when you have to buy it for yourself.
The bar isn’t packed, but it’s not dead. I’m by myself at a table in the center, and these groups and couples keep coming up and glaring at me, but I’m a paying customer, so if they don’t like it…
I take a breath and scan my page. There are a dozen more downvotes than there were when I came in, and a couple of nasty comments. Meanwhile, views of my vids—or should I say, Bialystock’s vids about me—are skyrocketing.
[He’s killing me,] I graff back. [I’ve got to get another producer.]
For six months this Bialystock has been cutting unflattering vids of me. It’s obviously a pseudonym—he doesn’t have any other vids, not even of himself. But even with the entire metanet in my head, I can’t figure out who he really is.
[Yeah,] she says. [Where are you going to do that?]
[Well…]. I bite my lip.
[No,] she replies instantly. [Remember what a disaster that was?]
I do. Subscriptions to my feed dropped thirty percent in a week. But everyone else Kati produces—that eight-year-old Latina girl, the firefighter, the street violinist—all of those took off the second she started cutting their vids. The street violinist has a penthouse condo now.
[My stats can’t drop any more than they have, Kati. I’m reaching rock bottom.]
She doesn’t graff for a while. I pour the rest of my Tropical Dictator down my throat and stalk out of the bar.
I’m waiting for the bus when she responds. [I can’t, sis. I’m sorry.]
I don’t bother graffing back. When the bus arrives, and I climb aboard she graffs, [Come see me?]
It started when Kati was twelve. She had been a goofy, grinning girl who liked to ride horses, eavesdrop on me, and, above all, paint.
I can’t say she was all that great at it, but she was only a kid. Already she had a good eye, and an ever-growing catalog of techniques she practiced. She made a watercolor of me ice skating that I still keep in my bedroom.
One Sunday morning I found her latest project in the trash. It was going to be a microscopically detailed composite of all her favorite cartoon characters, ultimately a hundred of them, though only a dozen were completed. They were filled in left to right, starting from the bottom and moving up: here was a flying horse, there a talking pig, and down in the corner a knight armed with trashcan armor and a plunger for a sword. The candy-colored dinosaurs, the latest to be painted, were sloppy, jagged, with saw-toothed edges instead of clean lines.
“I’m through with painting,” she said, trying to slam her door on me. “I don’t like it anymore.”
I caught the door on my boot and pushed it open, waving the cartoon painting at her. “Bull crap. You never do anything else.”
She threw herself on the bed, sighing dramatically. I stalked to her desk and pulled a notebook from her drawer—she refused to draw on anything but actual paper.
“Here,” I said, handing her the notebook. “Draw me laying by the window.” I laid back on her pink daybed like a Victorian lady swooning under the attention of a gentleman suitor.
“No.” It was muffled, but adamant.
“Kati Lynn Cooke! Draw my damned picture!”
At the sound of her sobbing I sat up. She was huddled into a ball. I got up and spooned behind her, an arm around her.
“What’s the problem, Kitt-Kat?”
In response she held up her hand. At first I thought she was just gesturing me to back off, but then I saw it—a tremble that grew to a spasm before vanishing again, only to return a moment later.
The old woman in the bus seat across from me frowns. For a while I think she must be skimming the stats on my page, but she doesn’t have her phone out and I’ve never heard of anyone her age with a MindsEye. No, she’s frowning at my seven-league stare. I close my frames and smile at her. She smiles back, but shifts in her seat uncomfortably. Then she stares into metaspace.
Only a handful of years have passed since Kati and I dabbled on the internet with handhelds or desktop terminals. Then the nanemes were developed and released—microscopic machines that organized as necessary to record, transmit, or compute.
The bus driver frowns at me in the mirror. I look around the bus, and it’s like I can feel the nanemes crawling over my skin, trying to suck my secrets from my pores. I shiver.
The stoner in the back, drooling and half awake, pokes at my profile, spilling my sins. The single mom across the aisle, wrestling a kid in each arm, uses my page as a meditation in recrimination with a schadenfraude-smirk tugging up the ends of her lips. Even her five year old gives me a look like he’s got something on me.
I pull the cord and the bus screeches to stop at the next corner. The puddle at the curb soaks my shoe, but I don’t slow. The sidewalks aren’t bustling, but they aren’t deserted enough for me. A starry-eyed couple parts their gaze to glare at me as I nearly knock the girl over. In the back of my head I try to keep track of any shots that I can use in today’s vid, but so far everything just makes me look crazy, or scared, or pathetic.
I keep my head down and keep my screens minimized, but I can still see each ping, each poke, each new downvote tallying in the corner of my vision.
The neighborhood I got off in is poor but in carefully-kept shape. Old, but everything is swept clean. There’s no litter. Except me.
Ahead I see a burnt out husk of a house on the corner. It was a two-bedroom bungalow, it looks like, but now only charred walls and a blackened roof remain. I bring up the naneme-scan. The whole street erupts in an emerald glowing overlay, all but the burn-down.
I look up and down the street. No one is looking right at me at the moment. Of course, my every move is recorded by the nanemes for anyone to watch whenever they like.
But not in there. I put my hand on the door. It feels smooth beneath my hand. Not gritty or sooty. Past the door, there are no more nanemes. No one could see me in there. No one would ever know what I do inside.
I shoulder open the door and step through.
It’s dark, and on top of that my displays go black. Outside of the nanemes’ collaborative field, my connection to the metanet slips away.
The constant chatter in my peripheral vision is gone. News streams are silent. I can’t see my page, my views, my votes. No one is forwarding vids to me, no one is spamming me with ads.
I am perfectly alone.
I spin on my toes, arms out and face tilted to the ceiling. I get dizzy, but I spin again, and throw in a little impromptu tap dance. I’m sure it’s ridiculous but I just don’t care. There are no cams climbing the walls here. No one can see me.
I lean against the wall to recover my balance. It’s charred and sooty under my fingers. I can’t see it. I can’t see the floor, but I hear grit grinding under my shoes.
Then I hear it again, a sound like sand shifting in a bucket, but it doesn’t come from me. It comes from somewhere in the dark.
My heart pounds and the hairs on my neck and back raise. I wonder if the light is good enough to shoot this. What angle should I play? A girl alone in the dark, I could be resolute and fearless, and shout a challenge into the unknown. Or I could be vulnerable, let my lip quiver, hug my arms close. Kati says that every story can come out two ways.
I hear the sound again, like stepping on a beach-side deck. It’s followed by a thunk of metal on wood.
Then I remember: my vids are dark. For the first time in years, no one is watching me.
I want to scream or run, but my breath catches in my throat and I freeze with my hand running along the wall. Whoever is scuttling in the dark, maybe they haven’t seen me. Maybe no one is there.
Was Kati watching when I disappeared into the house? Did she call the police?
“What do you want?” It sounds like a woman’s voice from the shadow, but low and saw-edged from emotion. Fear? Rage? I hear the dull clank of metal on sheet rock between me and the door.
I run. I can barely see in the house, all the lights are off and whatever light shines through the window reflects dusty black off the walls and floor before dying in the burnt-out room.
I hear a grunt behind me, and footsteps. I bounce off a doorframe and turn. The sound of metal—a bat? a cleaver? —warns me and I turn again, back into a central hallway. I can see light through the door.
That means the world can see me.
I dive through the door, crying, as the metanet floods back into my head. Kati’s screaming on my page in all caps, threatening to call the police.
I stare back in through the door, but I only catch a glimpse as it slams shut.
Kati likes me to come visit her, but I don’t see why. I wonder if she knows how much I hate it.
[Can you hold my hand?] she graffs. I reach over and grasp her twitching fingers. I want to ask if she can feel the warmth of my hand as it swallows her cold one, but I know by now that she can’t. But she graffs me a smiley-face anyway.
There’s a large window in her room overlooking the sea, but she normally leaves the blackout curtains closed. Still, she didn’t object when I opened them. Mom will close them again when I leave.
I shift in my seat. I can never get comfortable here. This isn’t the house Kati and I grew up in—it’s an upscale condo that Kati bought for her and Mom after Dad took off. The view of the cliffs battling the sea always stirs me, but I can almost feel the chilling mist soaking through me when I’m here.
I play yesterday’s vid from Bialystock. The cute guy is there. It’s cut so that I’m ogling him like a manic nympho, clutching my beer. He’s laughing, ignoring me. There are no shots of him smiling at me, or making eyes at me. I take a few clips of that and link them into the vid, but it doesn’t matter. No one ever watches my responses anymore; truth can’t stand up to a well-cut lie.
Then there’s me going into the burnt-out house. The vid hovers on the exterior, and only moments seem to pass before I sprinted out, looking like a madwoman. Then it cuts to me, in tears, talking to my mom. I look like a drama whore.
[Why so blue, buckaroo?] Kati graffs. I link her the vid, but she graffs a frown back. [You know I can’t bear to watch those, hon.]
I run my thumb over her knuckles while looking at my page. I’ve been downvoted to the bottom 10% of my high school class, and the bottom 2% from all of my former college peers. Even the best of my friends have stopped following me.
[Please, Kati,] I start.
[No, Dani, please. You know I can’t produce for you. I tried.]
The soft restraints ensure she doesn’t fall off and hurt herself. Thanks to the anesthetic in her IV, she writhes gently under the sheets instead of thrashing. But I remember the time, before she made first a living, and then a fortune, producing. A time when there were fewer twitches, and sometimes smiles like the sun breaking through the clouds.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Cooke,” the doctor said, his head shaking in the screen. “Foxephene just isn’t approved for Kati’s condition. Your insurance won’t cover it, and with the amount you still owe the hospital, I can’t believe that you can afford it. Additionally,” he sighed, “I can’t say that it would work.”
“You are condemning a little girl to a bedridden life!”
The doctor’s lips formed a sympathetic grimace, but Mom couldn’t see it. To her he was just another hurdle in a bureaucratic obstacle course.
She slammed a key and the doctor vanished. She set her head down on her desk to cry, so I went back to my room.
Mom kept it the way it had been when I went off to college a year earlier—posters of bands I didn’t even like any more, a closet full of instruments, a net strung in the corner near the ceiling, mounded with stuffed bears.
I turned on my camera and waved my fingers. “Hi, Kitt-Kat,” I said.
I didn’t turn on my screen. Kati didn’t have a camera in her room, and I didn’t want to see her anyway. Not like that. I had her picture in a frame on my dresser, though, and I stared at that.
A lifetime trapped in your own skull. I shuddered at the thought. That was what Kati had to look forward to. She could stare at the screen we installed over her bed, but she couldn’t choose what was on it. She couldn’t ask for it to be changed. Hell, half the time her spasms left her looking the wrong way entirely.
I wanted to help her. I had to help her, but what could I do if my parents couldn’t even afford to pay her bills?
I opened my closet door. There was the real, hardwood violin, my SlashMaster electric guitar. The antique Yamaha keyboard slumped against the wall. And out my window was a shiny two-seater, a graduation present from before the mounting medical bills.
I had heard of these computer-brain interfaces that they were already installing in Beijing. It was like having the whole Internet in your brain, they said. They were expensive, at least ten thousand dollars, and they didn’t always work right.
I got online and started selling my crap.
Aiden keeps his office clean. There’s exactly one potted plant by the window, a snake plant, and a single portrait of his family hanging demurely by his screen.
Even his frown is sincere.
“I really am sorry, Dani. You know I don’t care about that sort of thing.”
Aiden is the only man under 40 that I know who doesn’t have a Producer, who doesn’t even edit his own clips. His feeds are an uncultivated mess, and it doesn’t bother him. He almost seems happy.
“Sure, Aiden. It’s all in the numbers.” I don’t smile, but I don’t frown. I especially don’t tell him off. I say nothing that can be edited into an attack.
He nods, looking relieved. “I’d be happy to be a reference, and if you can ever get this—” he waves his hands like he’s trying to point at the air itself, “—all sorted out, I’d love to have you back.”
I stand. There’s nothing left to say. “I’d like that.”
It won’t happen.
I walk to the bus stop like a ghost, leaving not a mark on the ground. I catch a cam or two along the way, but Bialystock will no doubt grab most of his footage later, at his leisure.
I try to raise my friend Jennifer, but she’s not responding to my graffs anymore. Neither are Megan or Alli, or any of the Sig Lam girls. They haven’t downvoted me, or, as far as I can tell, blocked me, but sending them graffs is like throwing rocks into the sea.
The lady in the burnt-down house comes and goes. I thought she’d be a shut-in. Actually, at first I didn’t know who she was at all. She could have been a phantom, or a druggie. But she’s a normal person, works an office job, hits restaurants for dinner, and then goes home to a house decorated in soot.
I can’t link her, but scoping out her vids is easy enough—she’s got a name placard on her desk. Meredith Transou.
Her front door is freshly painted. It’s smooth on my knuckles when I knock.
I expect a shout from inside telling me to get lost, or at most a nose and a suspicious eye through a cracked door, but she opens it fully. She looks at me, says nothing.
Words dry up on my tongue. What am I doing here, exactly?
“Can I help you?” she asks at last.
“I…” I broke into your house. I thought you were chasing me with an axe. I’ve been stalking you on the metanet for a week.
But she keeps looking at me. At me. Her eyes don’t glaze over like they would if she were scanning my page. Of course, she is old. Well, forty-five, probably.
It’s ok, I tell myself. She can’t see me, she can only see my face. But while she isn’t staring into space, her eyes do seem to stare through me, through my eyes, like she’s using them to stare at the back of my brain.
I burst into tears.
The coffee is bitter, but it feels good to hold the cup in my hands. Meredith drinks hers down in a single pull and pours another.
When she sits back down, she says, “You’re the one who broke in the other night.”
There’s no question in her voice. “No. What? You got robbed?” I make a show of looking around.
She just looks at me, and I break. What am I doing here if I’m not planning to confess? So I nod.
“Why?” she asks. There’s no accusation in her voice.
I wave my hand around the kitchen. The walls are blackened, and the floors and counters, with darkened grout, look like they’ve been scrubbed clean of soot. “It’s a dead zone.”
She nods, like that makes perfect sense to her.
“You didn’t buy a regrow kit? After the fire?” She looks at me, and I feel ashamed for asking. She might have lost everything in the fire. Maybe she couldn’t afford a spawn kit for the nanemes, and she would have to wait months for them to grow back in from the edges on their own.
“Of course not. That would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”
I look around more carefully. Every surface is scorched, sometimes deeply, but nothing is burnt away. The walls are intact, and so is the furniture.
“How did you do it?”
“Propane torch, at first. It took a week to get it all. The neighbors stared, but there’s nothing they could say about it.”
I’m sure they say a lot about it, but all on the metanet.
“Now I’ve got this.” She gets up and rummages under the sink. When she comes back up, there’s a can in her hand, probably about a gallon. She pops the lid and hands it to me.
“It took me weeks to mix that just right,” she says.
It smells like oil, but looks like pink jello. I poke a finger in and hold it to the light.
“I smear that on the walls and light it up. It burns just long enough to pop the nanemes.”
I’m impressed. I hate that.
When I finish my coffee she takes my cup and stands. I can take a hint, and I walk to the door.
“Why?” I ask, standing on her porch, nodding at the house.
“When I was a kid, a hiker—a nature photographer—got killed by a bear a couple of hours from my town. He caught the whole thing on his camera—the bear looking up at him from the stream, walking toward him, and finally charging him. The final frame was the bear’s maw, wide open.”
I don’t get it, and she sees it on my face.
“He filmed the whole thing, but didn’t see any of it.”
I help Meredith the next weekend when she baptizes her house, as she calls it. The flames climb like a curtain rising, and when they reach the top of a doctored wall, they die away. It’s beautiful. And _fun_.
Then I go see Kati.
I’m sitting there, playing games in my MindsEye. It’s been twenty minutes since I graffed her last, and I’m still waiting for a reply.
[Do you ever—] she stops, but the graff she started is already sent.
“What?” I ask, out loud.
It takes a moment for her to respond. She probably had to review the room’s feed to hear what I said. [Do you ever wish for things to get worse?]
I don’t know how to respond. After a moment, she continues, [Not really _want_ it to happen, only sort of wish. Just to see how bad they could get?]
“L’appel du vide,” I say. “The call of the void.”
[No, not that. Not really.]
The feed goes still for a few minutes, and I wonder if she’s working again, or just thinking.
[Sometimes I want things to get as bad as they can bear,] she says. [It makes for a better story.]
Things are almost there for me. I can live for another month or two off of my savings, then I’ll have to beg Kati for help, unless I can get a new job, which is unlikely with my stats. Bialystock’s vid subscriptions are in the top thousand worldwide, but none of that money comes to me. None of my friends return my graffs. I spend an hour every morning blocking strangers harassing me on my page. I have hardly any upvotes anymore, and more downvotes than I’ve ever had _total_ votes before Bialystock.
[I like it when you’re here] she says.
[Me, too] I graff. I think she could hear the lie if I spoke.
The room is too small. The chair’s too stiff. I miss the room I had when I was a kid, with its bay window and violet walls.
But worst is just being here, at Kati’s beck and call, waiting for her to deign to reply to anything I might say to her. I think she does it on purpose.
“What was it Mom used to say?” I asked. “The only reason anyone does anything is to have something to say at parties.”
She graffs a smile at me. [Well, people are their stories.]
I frown. That’s crap. People are far more complicated than that. But she’s a top producer, so what can you expect? That’s how they see the world, people like her and Bialystock. We’re all just characters in their stories.
A thought struck me.
[Any luck tracking down that producer?] I can’t trust my voice.
[No, hon,] she says. [No one knows a thing about him. Yours are the only vids he produces.]
I bring up his vids and compile the upload times for each in my MindsEye. In another frame, I pull up Kati’s pages, and her vids, and graffs she sent up, and all the activity I can find. I have my MindsEye make a chart of them, red dots for Bialystock, blue dots for Kati.
And they never overlap. Not once in seven months have Kati and Bialystock uploaded at the same time, even though both worked strange hours.
[What’s wrong, Dani?] she graffs.
She’s watching me. Through my MindsEye I can see her cam glowing on the wall. But let her wait for once.
I pull up one of her videos and watch it. It’s one about the firefighter, getting into a fight with his partner. Then I pull up one of Bialystock’s of me.
The beats are the same—setting the conflict, the rising action, the critical point and then, finally, the resolution. Sure, any well-cut vid will have those same elements, but these feel the same. They have the same style.
I watch two more—they’re only a handful of minutes each. And then two more, all the while ignoring Kati’s graffs.
Two artists with the same sensibilities and mutually exclusive schedules. The only difference between the videos is the ending.
“Every story has two endings,” I say.
[Yeah, that’s right,] she graffs. If she were speaking, she’d be lecturing. [Victory or defeat. The promise fulfilled or the promise denied.]
In the firefighter’s stories, the ending is always redemption. In mine, it’s always despair.
I send her the chart I made.
[What-] she starts, but I’m already standing.
[Don’t go!] She’s writhing on the bed, moaning. [Dani! Please, I can explain!]
The graffs don’t stop when the door slams behind me, but I shift all my frames to the very corners of my vision, and march from the condo.
There’s something new in Beijing. It’s expensive, and though not enough people have tried it really to be sure, it seems to usually work.
I’m headed back home now on the plane. I’m broke, sure, but it was worth every penny, if it holds. Plus, Meredith is going to let me stay with her for a while.
In a week or so, after I’ve cooled down, I’ll go see Kati. Maybe I’ll read her a book. She’d be able to hear me just fine, if she wanted, and if she didn’t want—well, that would be her decision. I’ve already made mine.
All around me, people’s eyes are glazed in a seven-league-stare. I look out the window, down at the world. Already, the colored frames of my MindsEye are fading.