Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Red Light is Blinking

troll noun 1 the action of trolling. 2 the bait or line used in trolling. 3 informal an email or Internet posting designed to provoke a response.

 

1

ToadBoy200: Based on ur pitcher, u look lk a pedo.

Nukeboxxx: ud know. Bet u spent ur childhood getting fiddled by ur uncle.

ToadBoy200: least I got sum. Ur still a virgin

Nukeboxxx: your mother knows that isn’t true, douche.

Nukeboxxx sat back from the keyboard and ran his hands through his long sweaty hair. He was trembling from the caffeine and the familiar electric thrum that jolted his stomach every time his barbs elicited a response from another troll. And yes, he considered himself a troll. Keyboard warriors believed no more in solipsism than they did empathy. They couldn’t. For there to be any degree of satisfaction in this game, one depended on psychological reaction and the full awareness of the hurt his words were likely to cause, the emotional pain those words were intended to cause. That was the point.

Blindly, he reached to his right and yanked the lukewarm bottle of Mountain Dew from amid the clutter, took a long swig, belched, and returned his attention to the keyboard and the screen, where ToadBoy200 had just posted his response.

Toadboy200: Least my mother isn’t wormfood.

To an ordinary kid, that one might have stung, particularly as it was not just some randomly composed shot in the dark, but the truth. Nuke’s mother had passed away three years previously. But she had been a sociopathic drunk, and whenever Nuke thought of her, it was with the same bitterness in the pit of his stomach he got from too much caffeinated soda. And like the soda, it was easy enough to void. Thus, with the smallest of smiles, he began to type:

Nukeboxxx: Makes her a whole lot thinner than ur absolute whale of a mom. That bitch’ll feed every worm on the East coast when she finally pops her clogs.

Satisfied, he sat back, uncomfortably aware of how badly he stank. The sweat trickled coldly from his armpits down into the waistband of his pants. He hadn’t bathed in two weeks and the small room in which he engaged in this duel smelled like sour cream and stale farts, a consequence of his limited diet of soda and Doritos. Wiping the perspiration from his brow to keep it from leaking into his eyes and blinding him, he stared intently at the screen, his chest fluttering with anticipation. And when finally it came, he knew he had won.

Toadboy: Fuck u, fagget.

Nukeboxxx: Why? Do I remind you of your uncle?

Nuke breathed laughter. A more forceful exhortation of victory would only have hurt his throat and he was uncomfortable enough without needlessly adding to it. So instead he gave a small fist pump and turned his head to look at the two small LED buttons set into the small steel box on the wall to his right: one red, one green. He waited, heartbeat slowing, and counted to ten in his head.

The green light blinked to life, pulsed once, twice, and again, and went dark.

Somewhere in the distance, a klaxon sounded, long and low, only once before silence descended again.

Smiling and exhausted, he sank back in the chair and allowed himself a long, slow sigh of relief.

Before he knew he was going to, he sank into an uneasy sleep in which he imagined the fate that would have befallen him if that light had blazed red, as it had for Toadboy200, and woke up choking on a scream.

2

Skinnypuppee: They’re going to kill you, you know.

MandaPanda: They’ll kill you first. The skinny bitch blondes always go first because they’re dumb as shit.

Skinnypuppee: Why don’t you shut your dyke mouth, whore?

MandaPanda: Why don’t you bash your face in with your keyboard and kill yourself before they get to you?

Amanda propped her elbows up on the desk and covered her face with her hands. She hoped, to the cameras staring down upon her from all four corners of the room, it would look like she was merely exhausted — which of course she was. Sleep had never come easy to her, not without the chemical assistance of Lunesta, which of course they had taken from her. But there was another reason to hide her face, and that was so that whoever was watching on the other side of those cameras didn’t get to see her cry. Wasn’t it bad enough that they were probably watching her peeing? Fine, let them, the fucking perverts, but she wouldn’t let them see that she was crumbling. Crumbling so bad that she was reverting to the very thing she hated, the very thing that had led her into this trap in the first place. That was what had summoned the tears after six straight days (assuming they weren’t messing with the date on the computer’s toolbar) of steely composure, days characterized by sneers and middle fingers and epithets aimed at those damned cameras.

A sob wadded up in her throat. Her palms were moist with tears, and she was glad her mascara had worn off days ago thanks to the humidity in her cubicle. No, “cubicle” wasn’t the right word for it. That word evoked the image of an office environment with workstations separated from each other by partitions. But offices didn’t have metal walls, a heavy metal door with no visible hinges, a shitty bed nailed to the wall, and a toilet nailed to the floor. But jail cells did.

She realized she had only referred to the room in which she was incarcerated now as a cubicle because her own at the account control department of USA Bank had felt like a jail cell. So much so that in her last few months there, she had spent less time tracking customer spending patterns and more time surreptitiously logging onto YouTube to take her aggression out on the people who left comments on the most innocuous of videos. Like the video of a kitten meowing out an approximation of the theme song from Frozen. Beneath it, a metric ton of commenters gushed their appreciation and adoration, to which Amanda, incensed by their simple-minded joy in the face of her own ever-worsening frustration, added: “Make all cats into hats, and kittens into mittens. And someone should make coats from all you pussies too.” Less than twenty seconds later, she had successfully managed to turn the saccharine sweet comment wall into a seething parade of rage. And it fascinated her how quickly all those mild-mannered housewives and grandmothers became foul-mouthed harridans based solely on her one concise contribution. How easy it was to bring clouds to their sunny day, just like her boss and her boyfriend and her supposed best friend did to her all the goddamn time by never making her feel as if she was enough.

Slowly she raised her face, dragging the heels of her palms over her cheeks and eyes to dry the tears, and looked at the screen.

Skinnypuppee: Sure, she likes to eat. But I hear you tried to eat your best friend’s pussy once and she ended up throwing you out. Things haven’t been the same since then, have they? And then your boyfriend cheats on you? How bad a date do you have to be to end up unappealing to both genders?

Bitch. Teeth clenched, Amanda scooted her chair back, ignoring the awful screech the chair legs made against the concrete floor, and ripped open her desk drawer. Inside was the manual she had found there the first morning she had awoken into captivity. It contained the screen names of everyone she had spoken to, or would likely speak to, while she was imprisoned here. On the contents page, she located Skinnypuppee, and flipped through the manual until she found the right page.

“Let’s see who you are, skank,” she muttered under her breath. She had already reviewed the girl’s page as soon as the girl contacted her via the IM window (“Hey, you fat slut”), but she felt in light of her anger now, she needed to mine the girl’s information for something juicy, something that would aid her in executing the coup de grace. Something —

to keep the light from going red.

 — to keep her in the game.

At the top of the page was a bad photocopy of the girl’s college I.D. (she was attending UCLA) and driver’s license. Her real name had been obscured from both with black marker. Beneath the picture were her address, age, and physical statistics. Next, a series of text blocks which gave brief rundowns of her relationships with family, friends, and lovers (past and present), highlighting, of course, the negative, the troll’s stock-in-trade. And finally, medical history, psychological profile, and criminal record. There was no page with Amanda’s information, but she had no doubt it was in everyone else’s manual.

Pushing away the questions that seemed to hammer relentlessly at her skull (who’s doing this to me, and why?) in favor of her immediate survival, she quickly scanned the information. If she took too long, the clock on her computer’s toolbar would flicker and become a ten second countdown. She had not yet seen what happened when that clock reached zero and had no plans to.

At last she found the beautiful nugget of info she was looking for, slammed the book closed, and with an inaudible whisper of “suck on it” to the tormentors watching from the corners, she began to type.

3

The_Final_Solution: Hey, look man, I don’t know who you a

Pimplaya4Real: Shut da fuck up, dawg.

The_Final_Solution: re, but you need to tell someone that there’s been a mistake. I didn’t do anything wrong. Can you tell me what’s g

Pimplaya4Real: Yo, read da book, fool.

The_Final_Solution: oing on here? What book?

Pimplaya4Real: Dumb shit. In da desk.

The_Final_Solution: I found it. What is all this?

Pimplaya4Real: You racist ass bout to fine out lolol.

The red light flashed.

4

Gareth flinched at the sound of the klaxon and instinctively looked at the light panel on the wall to his right. He knew what it meant. Everyone did. That it happened at least three or four times a day didn’t make one immune to its implications. Someone had gotten a red light, which meant that someone would not be heard from again. What happened to them once that red light flared was anyone’s guess. Gareth certainly had no idea.

Nor did he have any intention of sticking around to find out.

Which was a fine and noble resolution until it came time to answer the obvious question: How, exactly, do you intend to be elsewhere? Thus far, the only conceivable method of egress he could determine was the simplest one: the door. The rest of the cell seemed pretty impenetrable, and the door was hardly any better. It did, however, have a small rectangular hatch at about head height, through which food was delivered while he slept (or lately, pretended to). It wasn’t very big — about the size of a shoebox — but if he timed it properly, perhaps he could make a grab for the hands of his jailor and force him or her to let him out. He could use the small metal handle on his side to slam the hatch shut on his captor’s hand. It would take impeccable luck and even better timing, but Gareth had accomplished better results from worse odds more than once before. He was a survivor.

As if in mockery of his plans, the by-now-familiar electronic sound of a door opening came to him from his computer, indicating that another vapid exchange was about to begin, one in which, for now, he had no choice but to participate. But rather than dread them, Gareth had begun to look forward to them. Through these interchanges, he had managed to ascertain clues about his situation, the questions always cleverly hidden within foulmouthed insults (“You writing to me from your crackhouse in Santa Monica with one finger in your snatch, or your mother’s?”) Thus far, he had gleaned the following:

a. The people with whom he conversed were all prisoners here too.

b. They had all engaged in some form of trollish behavior online in the time leading up to their imprisonment, and this was undoubtedly some form of penance/punishment for that behavior. Perhaps some kind of social experiment?

c. The prisoners could only communicate with one another. Internet access was limited to local terminals, so whomever these people were, they knew what they were doing. There was no way to send messages to the outside world to request help.

d. The klaxons sounded every time a red light went off, but no one here had ever heard any voices raised in protest or panic. No one had ever heard a voice here, period, which suggested some distance between the cells. Therefore, wherever here was, it was big, and that only bolstered the notion of a government or scientific operation behind the curtain.

e. These motherfuckers were serious. Prolonged imprisonment in prison cells, no showers, food limited to Doritos and Mountain Dew (which Gareth took as some kind of humorous jab toward what was generally considered to be the stereotypical troll’s diet), and forced contests in which the winner earned further imprisonment and the loser earned . . . what?

This remained the most maddening question of all. Best case scenario, the loser was released from his/her cell and inducted into some kind of rehabilitation program or anger management or some such nonsense in an attempt to cure them of their keyboard warrior impulses. But if that were true, where was the incentive to win? Being forced to endure further imprisonment in this godawful stinking place was no reason to want to keep beating your opponent. No, the likely scenario was that something much more insidious awaited those who refused to play ball, those not quick enough or smart enough to outwit the person on the other end of their connection.

But why, and even more importantly, who were they?

He resisted looking at the cameras for the millionth time and made his way to the computer. He could do this. He could figure it out. He’d been in worse scrapes, hadn’t he? Sure, and he’d always come out fine at the other end. He bit his lower lip as his fingers danced over the keys:

Grayghost2001: Sup, you ugly skank?

Yeah. Sure he could.

5

Chelsea Kaye sat in the corner of her cell on a padding of empty Dorito bags. She had never liked chips, had never even liked the smell, and now she stank as if she had rolled in them. She was filthy thanks to the inhumanity of her captors. What kind of animals refused to let their prisoner bathe? It was unacceptable. But she’d endure it, for now, only because she had no other choice. She crossed her arms over her knees and lowered her face to hide her smile from the Peeping Toms. Yes, she’d endure it for now, if only to make the resulting news coverage all that more sensational later. Right now, she could almost feel the rumble of the earth as her father tore it asunder in his search for her. She imagined the FBI crawling all over her house in the Hollywood Hills, the police canvassing the area where she was last seen (Demi Lovato’s crib, thank you ever so much), the media frenzy as news of the disappearance of former Nickelodeon child star Chelsea Kaye dominated the airwaves, the resulting interviews and book and film deals . . .

It was exactly what she needed to boost her career. And to have it be such a unique situation! Any fool could kidnap someone and rape and torture them. But to imprison them with a computer while forcing them to troll someone else? Social relevance, anyone? It’d be box office gold. Maybe David Fincher could direct. Seemed like the kind of story that would be right up his alley. She would, of course, insist on playing herself.

Her smile faded a notch.

All of this was assuming she had been abducted for ransom, but the whole troll-versus-troll thing they had going on here didn’t quite gel with that, did it?

She swallowed.

No, it didn’t really gel at all. In fact, if she thought too long about it, it seemed more like a kind of Saw deal, and she sure as shit didn’t want to be part of anything like that.

Cool it, sister, she told herself, and remembered that no matter what was going on behind the scenes here, her captors couldn’t hope to outsmart her father, or match his resourcefulness. Any moment now, she’d hear chaos out there, the heavy boots of the SWAT team unable to drown out the sound of her father roaring her name. Then the door would come down, blown off its hinges by the police and he’d be there when the smoke cleared to scoop her up into his arms.

And then she’d be reborn, like he’d always said she would.

Like she had always promised him she would.

Her smile fell from her face as if slapped.

Like that cunt Angelina Davis had always said she wouldn’t.

The creaking door sound summoned her up off the crackling mattress to her computer like Pavlov’s dog. She obeyed, because for now she had to. But once this was all over, she wouldn’t need to obey anyone anymore. Nobody except Daddy. Because she would be in control of her career again. There’d be no more need to send Angelina — that big titted, swollen-lipped, blew-her-way-to-the-top bitch — anonymous hate messages ever again. She’d be able to do it to her face.

She looked at the username on the computer screen.

Celeb_h8r.

And smiled.

Until then she’d continue to hone her hate.

And enjoy every minute of it.

6

Six days later, Nukeboxxx (real name Kenny Maguire) woke up from a nightmare that wouldn’t leave him. He became convinced that all the Christians he had mocked and bullied on their dedicated forums under his Internet pseudonym were behind his persecution and were ultimately planning to torture and crucify him. Rather than wait to suffer such a fate, he smashed his computer screen with his keyboard and made two vertical slashes in each wrist. Nobody came to save him, and he died seventy minutes later, his eyes fixed on the camera in the corner nearest the door as if he’d seen the face of God judging him in his final moments.

God hadn’t been watching, but the people who were judged him all the same.

• • • •

Amanda Collard lasted another two weeks before exhaustion claimed her.

After passing out mid-exchange with another captive, she sustained a concussion. It wasn’t until her countdown ran out and the red light began to pulse that she was removed from her cell.

She expired not long afterward.

• • • •

Gareth (Grayghost2001) Foster lasted the longest.

Despite a reputation as something of a ladies man in bars along the Sunset Strip, Gareth suffered from an inexplicable need to abuse, stalk, and torment his conquests via fake profiles on social media. In most cases, this led to women seeking police intervention and/or counseling. In the worst case, the woman, a twenty-three year old cashier from Michigan who met Gareth on the week she visited her sister in Hollywood, hanged herself in her closet with her father’s black and white striped tie, which he’d always made a point of stashing into her luggage for good luck. On her body she had pinned a note which read simply: “I’m so sorry, Mom and Dad and Stacey. I love you all, and didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but I can’t bear to think that what she told me was true, and I’m tired of feeling like a worthless nobody.” Only Gareth knew who that she was and what he’d told her, in his guise as professional talent scout Amy Winthorp, and he promptly forgot in favor of another victim.

He was reminded of it a month after his incarceration when he awoke to find a black and white striped tie on the floor of his cell. And while he railed as long as he could against the obvious wishes of his captors, he suffered a subsequent breakdown in which the long-repressed guilt finally managed to creep through, and three days later, hanged himself from the handle of the very hatch through which the tie had been delivered and he’d hoped to facilitate his escape.

The last thing he recalled before the lights went out was the message he’d sent as Amy Winthorp to Sally Tanner in response to her wish to become a model.

“If I looked even half as ugly as you, I’d kill myself immediately. You want to become someone, suicide is what will get you known in this town. Otherwise, you’ll never be anything but fat, feral-looking, and forgettable. Sorry babe, and welcome to Hollywood.”

The petechial hemorrhaging turned the tears in Gareth’s eyes red, the tie strangling the apology in his throat.

7

By the second week, Chelsea knew her father wasn’t coming. Nobody was. There would be no stomping of boots or crashing of battering rams against steel doors, no familiar voices echoing around the halls, no eleventh-hour movie-like rescue. And no fortuitous career revival, although she was sure her tragic story would get some play in the media for a good while yet, and maybe even a movie of the week. Probably some watered-down Lifetime thing, but beggars can’t be choosers, as Angelina was so fond of reminding her whenever they met.

Now that a certain grim resignation to her situation had settled in her bones, she found herself questioning just why it was that Angelina Davis felt such enmity toward her. In her darkest moments, she’d even considered the possibility that Angelina had somehow orchestrated Chelsea’s imprisonment. But again, why? Angelina was the toast of Tinseltown right now. She’d been the lead in her own sitcom long enough to get it syndicated; she’d released an album that had performed respectably by any standards, had six Kids’ Choice Awards under her belt, and was rumored to be in talks to star in the next Transformers movie. She was raven-haired and gorgeous, a constant media darling, and had money to burn. Just what the fuck did she have to be jealous about, when Chelsea’s star had been extinguished shortly after Molly & May was canceled midway through the third season? There were no awards on Chelsea’s shelf, no albums in the works, no exciting prospects in her future, only a sad, lonely death in a metal cell. Angelina might one day win an Oscar and forever be remembered as one of Hollywood’s success stories. Chelsea was going to die with pieces of fucking Dorito chips stuck between her green teeth, and be remembered as a once-moderately successful child star that had lived the high life as long as she could afford it, only to pay the ultimate price.

It was unfair, Chelsea decided, and if nothing else, it justified her harassment of her rival (though she realized “rival” suggested they were on a balanced scale, which of course wasn’t the case at all.) If even one of her insults had hit home and caused that smug, self-important bitch some hurt, then she could die, if not happy, then content that some modicum of justice had been served. Maybe Angelina would be famous, but she might also carry within her some knot of insecurity that her detractors had not been entirely wrong. And maybe over time that knot would grow bigger as lukewarm reviews and broken relationships and the gossip and scandal that inevitably accompanied success added weight to it. And that would be a good thing.

The digital door creaked on Chelsea’s computer. She ignored it. Heard the blip as an instant message from some other poor doomed schmuck came through, and ignored that too. Instead she rose from the soiled sagging mattress, walked toward the metal door and turned her dirty face up to the camera in the corner.

“I quit,” she said through the matted tangle of her hair, and felt a surge of liberation rush through her chest.

Hollywood might never know the true story of what happened to her, would probably get all the details wrong, on purpose, but she needed to know the truth. All of it.

If this was to be her final role, she wanted to see it through to the end.

Behind her, the countdown began.

Ten seconds later, they came for her.

8

“TROLL KILLERS” CLAIM FOURTEENTH VICTIM
July 17, 2015 |
by Mark Burton

The body of Zach Winston, the twenty-seven-year-old tech support analyst who was reported missing almost a month ago, was found this morning by commuters on the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Like the other victims of the self-proclaimed “Troll Killers,” Mr. Winston had been hanged from the bridge by his neck with a length of braided copper wiring, a death that results in almost complete beheading of the victim. The gruesome discovery marks the fourteenth victim in what police are describing as a “ruthless campaign of terror” by the as-yet-unidentified assailants, who appear to be targeting online bullies — “trolls” — or “keyboard warriors,” to employ the term used multiple times in the notes found stapled to the clothing of their victims.

The first victim was nineteen-year-old Bobby Dorchester, who was found hanged from the Henry Ford Bridge. The note pinned to his chest read simply: “Under bridges is where trolls belong, and where you’re apt to find them from now on.”

Commissioner Robert Wayland, who has come under fire from the media and the parents of the victims for what has been deemed his incompetent and ineffective handling of the investigation since the disappearances and subsequent murders began, said today that he intends to double the manpower to the task force assigned to the case and set up round-the-clock surveillance on the Thomas Vincent Bridge and other bridges where the previous victims were found.

“Right now we are doing everything we can to try to identify the persons responsible for these heinous crimes,” he told reporters during today’s press conference at City Hall. “We ask for your patience and assistance in apprehending these vicious killers.”

When asked about the content of the most recent note, Wayland, looking harried, allowed only that it was “more of the same,” and promised further details would be made available as soon as the note had been properly processed. However, within an hour of the conference, a scanned copy of the note was anonymously uploaded to The Smoking Gun.

Contrary to Wayland’s claim, the content is hardly “more of the same.” Previous communications tended toward brevity. This latest note, however, does not. Rather it seems to further illuminate the motive behind the killings, while displaying an absolute lack of remorse on the part of those responsible. Of greater concern, however, is the implication that the killers do not intend to stop anytime soon.

(Full text available at The Smoking Gun at this time of writing):

Doesn’t he look so peaceful now that his voice has been taken away, now that he has been stripped of his torment and the ability to force it upon others?

The world needs to change, and change requires sacrifice. Your sons and daughters are not victims, but keys in the instrument that will force you to listen, for once, and at last.

We, as people, are not okay. We have been, and continue to sleep, and in that oblivion, monsters are allowed to come take our children away. You have allowed the monsters to invade our dreams.

Now it’s time to put those monsters back where they belong.

Step away from your screens and take a look out the window. That’s where you’ll find us waiting.

Your Servants,

TTK

 

—For the victims and the parents.

Kealan Patrick Burke

Kealan Patrick BurkeBorn and raised in Ireland, Kealan Patrick Burke is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of six novels, over a hundred short stories, and editor of several acclaimed anthologies. When not writing, Kealan designs book covers through his company Elderlemon Design (www.elderlemondesign.com).

A feature film based on his short story “Peekers” is currently in development at Lionsgate Entertainment.

You can find him on the web at www.kealanpatrickburke.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kealan.burke, and on Twitter: @kealanburke