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Middle Insomnia

“Only one of us should wear the mask.”

“But we printed up a mask for each of us!”

“I’ve decided that it’s more shocking if only one of us wears it.”

“I thought we wanted a whole army of Aidans running around being astonishing?”

“It wouldn’t be realistic.”

“She’s going to know it’s not real, you bimbo.”

“Also, I’ve decided it should be me who wears it. I’m short. I’m wide. I might as well be a troubled internet boy.”

“Fuck, when you say it like that it’s such a fucking turn on. Can’t believe I’m so horny for a teenage corpse. Come here, little chonk. Get in my rape van!”

“You really still want me to fuck you when I’ve got the mask on?”

“Jesus Christ, yes. Okay, fine. Hey everybody: Brooks is the only one who’s going to wear a mask, okay? Everybody else just hide or something. Be spooky scenery!”

She wakes up to her phone alarm with her heart pounding and her tongue swollen. A dream about bare-chested Putin—his wild, narrow eyes full of love—strangling an orphaned Ukrainian child to death in a room made of black glass to impress his bored teenage mistress. “Keith?” she mutters. But her ex-husband, the father of her sweet dead gay son, isn’t asleep next to her in the bed. He’s got a new wife and two new twin fertility drug infants. She’s really proud of him. He’s really taken control of his mental health.

Is there plenty of hot water in hell?

She turns off her alarm and shakes out three pills from the drawer. She cat-tongues them into her mouth like a maniac, licking her own palm. It’s time. It will happen tonight. Tonight, on the anniversary. And it will happen soon if it happens at all. She will finally be free. But should she keep sleeping to conserve her strength? She lays flat on her back, wide awake, waiting for the Vicodin to slacken the pressure in her sinus cavity that is twisting her face like a stripped screw. Even if she could fall back asleep at this point, it wouldn’t be pleasant or productive. Your body always matches your dreams to your physical state. If you’re screaming inside, you’ll have bloody and deranging visions. The best she can hope for these days is not to dream at all.

A few of the lawyers at the firm where she is currently unfired (and never sexually harassed) actually asked if she wanted company. She said she wanted to be alone to honor the memory of Aidan with her own ritual. She is excellent at wrapping her vajazzled insanity in the forbidding language of trauma recovery. She sighs loudly for no one but herself, pissed off at the cars outside that drive too fast (she knows there’s no god because there’s no religion that considers driving immoral) and equally pissed off at her neighbors across the street who are so fucking worried about nonexistent big city crime spilling into the suburbs that they’ve installed a cartoonishly-strong sodium-vapor prison light above their garage that shines right into her bedroom. She ought to put up reflective meth-lab tinfoil as revenge. Maybe she will commission ten cardboard cutouts of Dukes-of-Hazzard-era Jessica Simpson from some lunatic on Etsy and put a few in every street-facing window. Really get the neighborhood talking.

Fuck it. She swings her legs out of bed and rests her unpainted toes on the slats of the cold wooden floor. She stands up and the whole house creaks to contain her. She is alone here, haunting the moldering carcass of this staggered trilevel like a permanent bad smell. She clomps to the bathroom, not bothering to turn on the light. She squeezes out some piss and runs the tap over her hands, impatient when the water doesn’t get hot fast enough. She makes herself be okay with cold water that doesn’t quite wash away the soap. Does Keith instantly have hot water wherever he is? Does Aidan? Is there plenty of hot water in hell?

She gasps once as a single sob wracks her chest. She dries her sticky hands on the bathrobe that hangs on the hook above the door, picks up her phone from the nightstand, and clomps downstairs to the kitchen. She paces in the darkness. It’s too fucking quiet. She needs noise. She scans Spotify to see if there are any new podcasts in her feed. She likes the mean political ones about how much Trump sucks, but she also likes podcasts where two charmless acquaintances drone on about some stupid esoteric subject, performing thrilling obsessive dissection that mimics actual philosophical analysis but that doesn’t ever truly intersect with the real world. These shows are useless by preexisting agreement, as if the meaningless subjects that these two people have decided to tackle (car problems, The Bachelorette, Magic: The Gathering drafts, serial murder) are the only safe topics that won’t banjax this temporary podcast friendship. It feels like marriage.

She puts on a dating podcast and sits on the downstairs couch until her orbital sockets throb and her eyelids fill with stinging sand. How does she feel? She feels great—truly! It’s so important never to trust your feelings. She’s halfway up the stairs when her phone rings in her hand, and she almost drops it because she’s so excited, fumbling it from hand to hand as if her own brain has popped out of her skull. She was so sure it wouldn’t happen this time—so sure that the cowards wouldn’t show up when she needed them the most. There have definitely been anniversaries where nobody has called. There have even been whole months when no one from the internet has even bothered them at all. But of course the pandemic started everything back up again in full force. All those kids with nothing else to do but dumpster dive for old memes. And then of course the fucking invasion . . .

Trembling, she looks at her phone. “UNKNOWN NUMBER.” She hits “end” without answering and grips her phone hard, as if trying to crush the dual-ion ceramic shield into flesh-rending fragments that will make bloody shreds out of her tiny fist. If the Eternal Aidan Fan Club really wants to terrorize her, they’ll call back and keep calling back. The only thing she can’t handle tonight is more silence and more waiting. She has to draw them in closer if she wants real revenge. But maybe it was just some cold-calling legal recruiter trying to figure out how much portable business she has? In theory, something might even have happened to Keith. It’s the anniversary of Aidan’s suicide for him too. What if the internet chased his new wife and science babies off the freeway and killed them in a car crash like Neilia and Naomi Biden or like that sweet plain regional-news-anchor-idiot Princess Diana?

She ruminates on the counterbored four-inch Magnum revolver in her bedside drawer. She contemplates the mallet that she can barely lift but that fits perfectly in the trunk of her Corolla if she angles it correctly. She retrieves the revolver from the drawer and rests it on her other thigh. She feels safe. She feels ready.

The phone rings again. She snaps it to her ear, her blood pressure soaring like a loitering spring-loaded Switchblade missile. “Keith? Hello? Are you okay?” It’s not Keith. It’s a bunch of children laughing at her. She closes her eyes, squeezing out tears of relief. At the clarity. At the real war finally coming to her doorstep—the same war stretching from Ukraine to Florida. “Hello, Mom,” says the voice on the other end of the phone. “Miss me?”

It’s Aidan’s actual voice, digitally reconstructed from all the recordings of the prank calls that the Eternal Aidan Fan Club made when he was still alive. She listens to the laughter on the other end of the line as the lubdub of her grief-fat heart pounds in her still-throbbing forehead.

“Mom? Are you there? It’s me. I’m so scared! You have to help me!”

“Whoever you are, you’re a really bad fucking person,” she says. “I swear I’m going to make you permanently stop doing this tonight. Permanently, do you understand me?”

“It’s me, mom! I just want someone to listen to me and take me seriously. Do you think I should kill myself, mom? Do you think that would be funny?”

There’s more laughter on the other end of the line—laughter and someone making squelching masturbation noises.

“I hope you shitheads don’t even know what you’re doing,” she says. “Are you in India or something and just reading from a script? If you still have any conscience left, you’ll hang up right now and call your own mother and ask her for forgiveness.”

“Mom, don’t you even recognize your own son’s voice?”

“I’m hanging up now,” she says. “Good night, shitheads.”

She turns her phone off. She wants to call Keith. But she’s not allowed to call Keith. That’s how restraining orders work. She knows that Keith understands about the fire. She knows he understands it was an accident. She was the one who called 911! She’d just been trying to get her own package that had been forwarded to his new address, even though it had been addressed and mailed to her. That wasn’t her fault. And so now she didn’t even smoke anymore. She’d quit altogether.

She pushes her cuticles back nervously, waiting in tense silence for what she knows will happen next. Right at the stroke of midnight, somebody finally rings her doorbell. She scrambles down the stairs as fast as she can, the Magnum in one hand and her phone in the other. Oh yes. It’s all going to be just like last year, which is exactly what she has been hoping will happen. This is the new escalation. But without Keith around to absorb the shock and to keep her from going all the way numb, she isn’t going to hide or cry or take too many pills. She looks out the window and sees someone in an Aidan mask waving to her from the foot of the porch. She isn’t even shocked by this new fucked-up mixed-media détournement. She’s seen worse. By the time she gets the door open, the person in the mask is gone. Fucking chickenshits. But they should run away. They should be afraid of her.

“Come a little closer though,” she whispers.

“She’s really all alone now. Can you believe that asshole just left her?”

“It’s pretty sad, honestly. Don’t we have his new number, though? We should call him. Get the family back together. Hold on, let me look him up.”

“I would love to have a giant house like this all to myself. I would love to have an entire room with a pool table. I would love to have fiber optic trees everywhere throwing classic beach-colored neon lights into clean shadows.”

“Do you think this will ever stop being funny, fellow shitheads?”

“Brooks, this will never stop being funny. This is the only thing that is automatically and permanently funny.”

“Why doesn’t she just leave? She could easily just change her name and move away.”

“She gets off on it. Next time you call, you should have phone sex with her.”

“That’s a far worse crime, my friend. That moves you from harassment to assault.”

“It’s only a crime if she doesn’t want it, shithead.”

Aidan thought he could handle them alone. He was stubborn like her. Tough like her. But he was also just a gormless, stupid child. If he’d only told her about the extent of what was happening, she would’ve been able to protect him. She would’ve done something about the calls, the emails, the memes. She would’ve made it all stop.

She creeps slowly to the window again and looks outside through the gap in the Venetian blinds. She sees five of them out there standing in the shadows, unmoving, all lined up with their arms outstretched like a boy band about to start dancing. The one in the Aidan mask is in the middle. Her phone rings again.

“I can see you out there, shitheads,” she says.

“Julie? Hello?”

“Keith? Oh my god, are you okay?”

“I’m fine . . . you aren’t supposed to call me. You aren’t supposed to even have this number. It doesn’t matter. Not that you give a shit, but I won’t tell the judge. What do you need, Julie? This is hard for me too. But calling me is extremely bad. For both of us.”

“I didn’t call you,” she says. “It’s the Fan Club. They’ve got us on a fucking conference call.”

“Mooooom, don’t you recognize me?” says the digitally reconstructed Aidan-voice. None of the members of the Fan Club that she can see through the blinds are using their phones, so there must be others hiding somewhere else. “You’re so fucking sexy, Mom. Dad loves hearing your bitchy voice so much. He’s hard as a thumbtack right now, right Dad? Moooooom, I want to shove my whole head up your vag, just like the old days. Remember when I used to do somersaults in your teenage cooter, back when I was just a baby blastula? And then I popped out and ruined you like the fat fist of some nasty old lesbo? Mom, remember how I wore out your puss like the neck of an old sweater? Remember me all bloody and screaming, fresh as a hot donut right out of your steaming snatch? Dad, are you still there? Dad, you can jack off if you want while I play inside Mom’s pussy! I love looking at your little dick, Dad. I’m so gay for little dick.”

“They can do his voice now,” she says to Keith. “Some kind of computer thing.”

“I’m hanging up now, Julie. You should hang up too. I’m going to call the police for you because I know you won’t do it for yourself. But you can’t call me again. I hate this restraining order or whatever, but you made it have to be this way. You know that.”

“I didn’t fucking—” “Why don’t you come outside, Mom? I’ve got a surprise for you. I’m all grown up now. Why don’t you come outside and see how big I am? Much bigger than Dad, definitely. Much bigger than his poky little carpet nail.”

“Come a little closer, shitheads, and see what happens,” she says calmly into the phone. She opens the front door and shows them the pistol. They look at each other and then scatter. “Please don’t shoot me, Mom! Please don’t shoot me! If you shoot me, then I’ll be dead forever!”

There’s more laughter. She hears Keith hang up. She hangs up too.

“Okay, he’s probably telling the truth about calling the cops. We have to assume that’s happening right now and so now it is time to bail. Plus it looks like she has a real gun. Wow! She’s really come a long way!”

“What crime have we even done, shitheads? Is this even fucking America anymore, shitheads?”

“Let’s just go get some food. My friends, this was absolutely glorious. We have officially celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the death of our favorite internet hero. We’ve definitely done our duty for mother Russia, and so now it is time to celebrate ourselves.”

“You couldn’t even point to Russia on a map, dingus.”

“It’s the big one.”

It is one of the oldest memes from the full broadband era. Concerned professors have written papers. It’s been chronicled in alarmist articles on websites and featured in sinister cello-scored documentaries about the horrors of online fame. It started with a simple photo of her son Aidan at a WWE event looking hungrily at a giant wrestler’s bicep, as if he wanted to chow down on the contractile proteins straining the wrestler’s flexed anterior humerus into a taut megalith. Aidan loved professional wrestling for reasons that she didn’t quite understand even when he explained them to her. He knew it was fake, but he rejoiced in the ironic campiness, in the pageantry, in the petty dramas between the hyperbolic Punchinellos. Also, even if Aidan himself wasn’t quite ready to admit this to his own mother, she knew that he liked looking at dudes with big muscles. The picture said it all: Aidan liked men. So what? So did she.

There was no note. He didn’t need a note. So many people had written notes for him already.

How the picture ended up on 4chan was more forensically complicated. The investigator they hired later was sure that Aidan had uploaded it himself. But why would he do such a thing? She couldn’t comprehend that part of the story. The gay part of him was much easier to understand than the part that craved humiliation. In any case, the picture quickly escaped and became a goof that millions of people enjoyed. Aidan was on the heavy side and there was just something about the ravenous light in his eyes that people found hilarious. The easy joke was that Aidan was hiding his obvious homosexuality and that pro-wrestling was the only respectable upper-lower-class outlet for his sordid obsessions. The truth was that she and Keith were fine with his uncomplicated yearnings. Maybe—like good little helicopter liberals—they were actually too open and insistent about sexual tolerance, driving Aidan into spaces that were safer for ritually psychotic teenagers. But the photo resonated for reasons that had nothing to do with the specific texture of their family dynamic: on 4chan, the narrative was that Aidan was going to fuck The Undertaker or die trying. People on Twitter posted HONGRY FOR MUSSELS on the picture and shared it so much that they turned Aidan into an unlikely pride icon.

At first, she was ecstatic that people were calling the house to speak with him at all. He had friends? The kids who called were certainly all respectful to her. In fact, they were damn near reverential. Aidan talked to them for hours in the evenings, overwhelmed by all the sudden mad attention. But it got around that if you called this kid, he would answer. He would talk to you no matter who you were. And somehow, his accessibility and generosity made things turn darker. He wasn’t supposed to be well-adjusted and likable—he was supposed to be a mascot for unfuckable dorks everywhere. The instant that 4chan made him famous, the trolls there started to bitterly resent his mainstream celebrity. They whimsically vowed to get revenge for the phenomenon that they themselves had created. The game stopped being PROTECT THIS KID and instead became LET’S SEE IF WE CAN GET THIS SAD KID TO KILL HIMSELF FOR LULZ.

Overnight, Aidan turned into a reverse celebrity, hunted by fanatics but without any of the money or privilege that a real celebrity might leverage into protection. And now the abuse wasn’t just coming from kids anymore. Adults from all over the world were now curious about sustaining the panopticon around Aidan that made it seem like he had no choice but to take his own life. It became a creative science experiment, a new internet game for expats in refractory periods during their illegal sex tourism. Aidan had no natural defenses against these wriggling social pinworms: the internet was already the place where he went to escape from the real world, the place where he used to feel somewhat safe and tolerated.

Despite these new torments, deep down, she was certain that it was the well-meaning pro-wrestlers who finally tipped him over the edge. The WWE decided to rally to his defense, using Aidan as a way to stand up against the hip new phenomenon of cyberbullying. They taped videos of themselves saying what a cool little bro he was. They invited him to Wrestlemanias and to Monday Night RAW cage matches. She knew that this pity from his heroes was truly humiliating to him. The pity made him think that his condition was permanent, that there was something inherently wrong with him that required extreme levels of support to keep him going. The wrestlers made it political, ensuring that one half of the country would therefore win some kind of psychic war if Aidan were ever to actually die.

He did it with secobarbital and a plastic bag. There were kits you could buy from Costa Rica with a VPN. He took the whole packet as suggested and then put the plastic bag around his head and cinched it tight with the pleather belt from Dillard’s she bought on the same day she bought him his very first suit. He didn’t make any noise. It got to be about 2 p.m. one Sunday, and they banged on his door and then they forced it open and then there he was curled up by the side of the bed, recumbent in the contents of his evacuated bowels.

There was no note. He didn’t need a note. So many people had written notes for him already.

The media left them alone, mainly. There were a few articles in the national press and then there was a little ceremony at the junior high school. Politicians pitched them on something called Aidan’s Law. They never talked about having another kid. They went to support groups and tacked up poems by Mary Oliver on the fridge. Time passed. Enough time, probably. And then Russia invaded Crimea and the photo of Aidan became a weaponized meme about how Western weakness was fueled by gender-confused decadence. The phone calls started up again; on 4chan, the meme had always come with attached instructions for bothering Aidan at home. These new instructions were passed on without history or context on Telegram and Discord. The joke became nothing but an unkillable piece of permanent political process art. It was radiation from a weapon now meant to kill people an ocean away. The trolls still did it for LULZ, but now they convinced themselves they were hurting Aidan’s family to help end a war that NATO had started.

“You know you’re just helping vampire oligarchs with this shit, right?” she asked the first ones who called, incredulous at their gall but not yet so hungry for revenge that she lay awake all night thinking about murder. “You know he killed himself a long time ago?” Some of them didn’t know. Some of them were just beat-matching the algorithmic propaganda, executing zombie instructions to create a deviancy amplification spiral on the undead internet to help a failed, broke-ass ethnostate state ensorcell the dumbest people in the west: college kids with boutique extreme politics. Most of the trolls called specifically to tell her that she was the reason Aidan killed himself. That American moms like her who hated men deserved to die instead of their incel sons who they had ruined with too much fake freedom and too much fake love. They told her that shitty American moms turned their sons gay with woke propaganda and feminine comforts. They told her that she should be next. They told her that that they would keep calling until she rallied to Russia’s side, until she joined her son in hell.

To Keith’s horror, she couldn’t stop listening to them tell her that that they would keep calling until she rallied to Russia’s side, until she joined her son in hell. If she got names, she would call their parents. She would dox them on social media. It was a joy to fight them, but it was also an addiction. She joined a private Telegram channel for the mothers of soldiers killed in Ukraine. She never commented or spoke up in the chat, but she finally felt less alone with her grief. Reading the accounts there from the Ukrainian moms, she realized that Aidan’s death could finally mean something if she had the will to see his pure struggle all the way through to the end. He had been fighting all along for something real and the fight wasn’t over yet. Maybe it had barely gotten started.

She is expecting a chase, but instead she can fucking see them, lounging like overheated savannah cats at the end of the street, smoking cigarettes, gathered around their parked cars. She calls the cops herself to reverse Keith’s panicked caterwauling and tells them not to bother coming. Everything is fine.

She puts on her sneakers and double knots them. She opens her garage door by hand, flitting in and out to make sure the shitheads are still out there as she completes every task on her mental checklist. She puts her car in gear and then silently rolls out of her garage with the lights off. She’s ready to enlist, just like George Orwell fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She’s got actual values, not like these pussy U.S. soldiers who only strap on their boots when it’s time to fight unarmed brown people in collapsing countries without militaries.

She fills her purse with paracord. Eventually the Fan Club gets back in their sedans. She tracks them as they drive away, waiting until the last possible moment to follow them. Don’t they realize that the town slopes upward from her neighborhood? They don’t make it very far.

“Wendy’s,” she mutters. “Makes total sense.”

If they had asked her, she would’ve recommended the Texas Roadhouse up the freeway. Wendy’s is right across the street from a Bojangles that has already closed down for the night. The biggest store nearby is a Michaels that she’s never actually been inside. She parks and retrieves both her pistol and the mallet from the trunk, checking the drum on the Magnum and then hefting the iron hammer over her shoulder. She can see them through the giant Wendy’s windows. The Eternal Aidan Fan Club is receiving their trays of food from the sick-looking cashier. They take their seats, excited about their Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburgers, their Ghost Pepper Fries, their Taco Salads, their Junior Chocolate Frosties. There are six of them, which accounts for the hidden stranger on the phone. As soon as she opens the door and steps inside, they all freeze, some of them with food halfway to their beard-covered maws. They’re thunderstruck. Petrified. Unsure of whether to run or to fight. In the end, they will beg.

Most of the trolls called to tell her that she was the reason Aidan killed himself. That American moms like her who hated men deserved to die instead of their incel sons who they had ruined with too much fake freedom. They told her that she should be next.

“Where’s your cute little mask?” she asks, setting the mallet down and lifting her weapon. Nobody answers her. Instead they start screaming at her not to shoot, to be cool, to be calm, to be reasonable, holy shit!

“Jesus Christ, we’re leaving, we swear! We’re just gonna go, okay?”

She cocks the hammer on the Magnum all the way back using both hands. She raises the Magnum again, her arm trembling. “I said put your cute little mask back on,” she says. “I want to see one of you wearing that mask you made of my dead son.”

The furthest one away from her is the only one who does what she says, pulling the Aidan mask out of the pocket of her cargo shorts. She is waifish—slender with bad skin. She shoves the mask down over her head. Only now does Julie bother to look in her eyes. The rest of the Fan Club remain formless and chinless—just pale bearded blobs to her.

The mask is a crude reproduction of Aidan’s face, but it is realistic enough to make Julie briefly lower the pistol. As soon as she does this, the six Fan Club members rush forward. She raises the Magnum again and improves her grip, freezing them in place once again. The cashier yells from the back where he’s hiding.

“Ma’m, just so you know, I’ve called the cops and they’re on the way.”

“Good,” she says. “Thank you. I have some criminals here for them to arrest. You should get out of here, okay, sir? All the rest of you though: get your asses into the women’s bathroom. Go! Divide up into the stalls like they are jail cells while we wait for the police.”

She marches them into the women’s bathroom, holding the gun on them the whole time. She sends the post that is already drafted on her phone to the message board in Kyiv. No backing out now.

“All of you sit your asses down. Not you though, Aidan.”

The others divide up between the three stalls. Two and two and then one of them is alone.

“My name isn’t Aidan,” moans the girl in the mask. “Please, I don’t want to go to jail.”

There’s a yellow mop bucket in the corner. The mop is still sticking out of it, leaning against the wall.

“Take the mop out of the bucket,” she says to the girl. “Turn the bucket over and pick up the mallet.”

The girl doesn’t move.

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes,” she says. “You’ve got a gun. I don’t want to die. Honestly, Brooks is the only one who—”

“Relax, I’m never going to shoot you, Aidan. Turn over the bucket and pick up the mallet. It’s too heavy for me. Can’t you tell I’m crazy? You should just do what I say.”

The girl complies without a fight, turning over the bucket and spilling the mop out of it. She does this so quickly and cravenly that she nearly slips on the slick bathroom floor. Julie gives her the mallet. She takes it and then cowers in the corner.

“My name isn’t Aidan,” she says again. “My name is—”

Julie knocks hard on the stall with only one person in it, shutting the hysterical woman up.

“You can come out,” she says to the man inside. The one in this stall is a tall skinny dude with colorful anime sleeve tattoos.

“You’re going to be my camera man,” she says. “Take out your phone. I want you to record everything.”

She looks at the feet under the stalls trying to make a decision. In the end, she selects at random. She opens one of the doors. Two scared, pudgy young men with short hair and haunted eyes cower beside the toilet. She points to one of them.

“Go stand over by Aidan,” she says. “I recognize you. You were the one wearing the mask before. In my yard. Ringing my buzzer.”

“His name is Brooks,” blurts out the girl in the Aidan mask.

“What are you going to do to me?” the man whimpers from the floor beside the toilet.

“Go stand over by the bucket,” she tells him. She knocks on the last door with two people left in it. She makes one of them go sit in the empty stall so there is only one person per stall now. No possibility for collusion against her. She holds the gun on the camera man.

“Are you recording yet?” she asks the camera man. “Show me.”

The camera man shows her that his phone is indeed taking video. He’s shaking. She must look really deranged if they are all so afraid of her so quickly, even before she has even done anything to them. “Tie him up, Aidan,” she says, handing the girl the paracord from her purse. “Tie his hands together and then tie his feet together. And then tie his hands to his feet. Just use double knots like you’re tying your shoes. Don’t worry about slack or circulation.”

She points the gun at the cameraman’s head and looks at the phone over his shoulder. “Zoom in close on how she does it,” she tells the cameraman. “We’ll watch to make sure she does a good job.”

The girl in the Aidan mask starts sobbing but she does what she is told, getting on her knees and cinching up Brooks’s hands first and then his feet. He doesn’t struggle. He just lays on his back like a toad and lets her work. When she’s done, Julie walks over and tests the knots to make sure they are square and tight. The girl has done good work: Brooks has been fully immobilized.

“I want his head on that mop bucket,” she tells the girl in the Aidan mask. “I want it teed up like a golf ball. His chin should be up above the rest of him. I want his torso hard against the floor like an old basset hound.”

Brooks looks at her to see if she is serious. She gestures with the gun. The girl in the Aidan mask flops Brooks over onto his stomach and then shoves the bucket under his chin. With the way he is tied, he can’t move his head from the mop bucket. It rests under his lower jaw, closing his mouth so he can’t scream or talk. He can’t get enough torque to wriggle away, either. If he stays like this for too long, his arms and legs will lose circulation, but she knows this won’t matter for very much longer.

“Pick up the mallet, Aidan,” she tells the girl in the mask.

“Please,” she says. “We just want to go. Won’t you just let us go? We’re all so sorry for what we have done to you.”

“Shut up,” Julie says. “I want everyone to be as quiet as Brooks here. I need to think.” She points at the mallet in the girl’s hands. “Hold it up high,” Julie tells the girl in the Aidan mask. “And don’t you dare stop recording,” she tells the cameraman. The girl picks up the mallet, lifting it to her shoulder. Julie pushes the camera man’s temple with the Magnum, steering him far enough away so that they are out of range even if the girl realizes that she could use the mallet as a weapon. The girl seems too dazed to think strategically, but it is better to be safe.

“What’s going on out there?” yells one of the other ones from the stalls.

“Quiet,” she says. “Do you know what I did after Aidan died? Do you know what I got obsessed about after you killed my son?”

Nobody says anything. “I wanted to see the worst things,” she says. “I developed a hobby for witnessing the most extreme and brutal violence that the internet has to offer. I’ve seen narcos killing informants with full-on chainsaws in the deep freezers of shanty-town border restaurants. I’ve seen ISIS terrorists beheading journalists, all of them wearing washed-out desert khaki. I watched a torrent of “1 Lunatic 1 Icepick” that somebody recorded secondhand on a camera phone. Do you know that one? They tried to scrub it from the internet completely, but I found it on some Belarusian data haven. I’ve watched angel of death nurses do lethal injections on old people, on young people, on babies, on the mentally ill. That sort of footage becomes police evidence, but it all finds its way to the internet, just like this footage will. It all calms me down. It all makes me happy. Maybe I’m just fucked up like that. Maybe you wouldn’t understand. Not everyone does.”

“Please . . .”

“My husband didn’t understand,” she says. “He didn’t get it. Maybe he never understood anything about how I really work. Maybe he’ll never understand what it means to actually fight for what you believe in. Just like you.”

“Please, the cops are on their way . . .”

“The door is locked and I have hostages,” she says. “They know me already. They know I’m crazy so they won’t be saving you anytime soon.”

“Please, lady . . .”

“I’ve seen more internet than you,” she said. “Pick up the hammer, Aidan. And then I want you to hit your friend here in the head with it as hard as you can or I am going to shoot all the rest of you, and then I’m going to kill myself. But I promise you, if you just take one swing at your friend here and crack open his skull, I’ll let you all leave.”

The man on the ground starts to moan, but he can’t make any noise other than a shrill shriek. He tries to buck free, arching his back to lift his head from the bucket, but the way he’s tied keeps him from being able to do anything but whistle like a tea-kettle. Julie is worried that he will freak out too much and snap his own spine before she can coerce this girl to murder him as an American offering to all the Gold Star Ukrainian moms.

The woman in the Aidan mask grips the mallet, weeping now. “Please, I can’t.”

“Think of it like opening a piñata. The goodies inside are your own miserable lives. Don’t you want to save your other friends? And didn’t you say this was all Brooks’s idea?”

The man wiggles his fingers and fishtails his feet. It’s all he can do.

“Shut the fuck up,” says Julie, stuffing earplugs from her pockets into her ears. “You picked a side. You decided to become traitors to your country, spending all your time working to end democracy for another government. And so now you are going to die like a Russian traitor as an example to all the others out there who think you are cool beans. I know what you people like to watch. Do you think I’m just fucking around here, shitheads?”

“I wanted to see the worst things.”

She pulls the trigger and evaporates the camera man’s head. The noise is deafening. The kick makes her palms go numb and she nearly drops the gun. When the muzzle flash clears, she fishes her phone out of the warm soup that was the man’s face. It’s still recording, thank god. Even despite the protection from the earplugs, she can’t hear anything at all.

“Do it,” Julie shouts over the roaring blood in her ears. “Smash his head in or I’ll kill you all one by one.”

“What?” shouts the woman in the Aidan mask. “What did you just say?”

“Do it!” shout the men in the stalls. “Hurry!”

Julie points the gun at her. The girl in the Aidan mask shakes her head, crying, holding the mallet in two limp hands. Julie steps closer, putting the gun as close to the woman’s head as she can without getting in range of the mallet. She doesn’t want to miss with any of the bullets she has left and risk having to reload.

The man on the floor screams and bucks and writhes and shakes. “Shut up!” yells the woman in the mask. “I can’t think! Shut up shut up shut up!” The woman in the Aidan mask lifts the mallet over her head. She brings it down on the man’s skull, screaming. She connects but slips at the last minute, hitting him right behind his ear, snapping his neck on the bucket and knocking him onto the floor. He shakes on the floor, eel-flopping back and forth. He is able to scream now. His blood pools on the floor, joining the gore from the camera man. The other three members of the fan club cower in their bathroom stalls, afraid to come out at all.

With the gun pointed at Aidan, Julie pokes Brooks with the toe of her tennis shoe. He screams, his eyes full of blood. She takes video with the phone. “You missed,” Julie yells. “He’s suffering, can’t you see? Hit him again. Keep hitting him until he is dead.”

“Please, I can’t see! I can’t see in this mask!”

“The first time you hit him out of fear for your own life. But the second time you need to hit him for love! If you love him, kill him quickly or he will be in permanent pain.”

“He’s still alive. We can call an ambulance or something. You don’t have to do this. Please! I can’t see!”

“Nobody can help us. We’re on the internet now.”

The girl reaches up to peel her mask off.

“Don’t you fucking dare take off that mask,” seethes Julie. “Hit him again. End his suffering, Aidan. You made me this way. How crazy do you think you’d be if you were me?”

The man on the floor tries to reach out for their legs with his roped hands. His eyes search the area in front of him, but Julie can tell that he is blind now. His screams dilate and warble, stretching out in pitch and intensity. The woman in the Aidan mask screams louder than the man screaming on the floor. She picks up the mallet again and brings it down once more on the man’s face, caving it in this time. She hits him squarely in the cheek, sending a strip of teeth clattering onto the bathroom tile. She keeps smashing, her stringy arms covered in bone and blood, the mask slipping down further on her face with every collision of iron into brain. Eventually, she swings too wildly and smashes one of the glass mirrors above her, burying the mallet in the wall. It wrenches free of her hands and the girl falls to her knees beneath the mess of shards. Julie records everything for the internet.

Julie walks over to the girl. Julie is also covered in spattered human components. She feels calm, finally. She feels free. She puts her arm around Aidan and puts the gun in his hands and smiles at him, adjusting his mask and staring into his scared, tear-filled eyes.

“It’s going to be okay, my beautiful boy. It’s all going to be okay.”