Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

The Glottal Stop

Dating cis was rough, no doubt. For any woman, but especially for Beatriz Almonte, a living meme who had several years ago made a mistake and gained the attention of a secret bulletin board full of trolls for whom harassing her was a vocation not dissimilar from the priesthood. She had no more free background checks left on Spinstr, but was bored and horny enough to do without just this once and press *sm00ch* on some guy’s face. Another mistake.

Jerome seemed fine—in shape, no beard, there was a photo of him at an anti-war demo on his Slambook, no sign of a frogface or crusader sword emojis on Mirmir, and no videogame talk on any of his social media. Jerome’s hashtags were all in order. Beatriz agreed to meet for a late lunch eaten al fresco so she could get away with wearing sunglasses, in public but at a corner table so that she’d have a legal expectation of privacy under California Penal Code § 632, and in a neighborhood in the city adjacent to her own. She hired a neighbor to drive her to the Korean tapas place so as to keep from exposing her address or route to the Travyl ride-share system. And she came otherwise prepared, with everything from condoms to weapons.

The first few minutes went well, though Jerome was two inches shorter than advertised. Beatriz had to admit that she was fifteen pounds heavier than advertised, but she wore make-up, even tricky eyeliner wing tips, for him. Her necklace, with the particular charm, that was for herself. Sneakers instead of nicer shoes too. If he balked at the makeup, he was a troll. If he took it as too strong a signal for sexual availability, he was a pickup artist in training. But he passed that test, with a silent appreciative smile. Pleasantries, a semi-clever remark about the menu, kindness toward the waitress. Then came the water, the drinks, the appetizers.

The second hand of the clock tied to a rhetorical bomb clicked over. Jerome said, “So, do you really not eat ‘white food’? Because your rice is white, isn’t it?” She noticed that his smartphone was on the table, screen down.

Beatriz’s mistake: she had called Taco Bell “white food” on what was supposed to be a fun little attempt at virality. She suggested that only basement-dwelling nerds would consider Taco Bell “going out for Mexican,” and if a taco from there cost the same amount as a candy bar, what kind of ingredients could possibly be in it? Wet dog food, she’d guessed on Twitter. Beatriz was castigated as a snob and an illegal immigrant, an uptight rich bitch and a greedy whore, and of course, she was also the Real Racist. Once targeted, her entire social media profile was combed over for various other crimes—drunken selfies, a bad breakup that was surely her fault, having a father from the Dominican Republic and a maternal grandmother who was Chinese, a job she quit by simply not showing up anymore in tenth grade. (“How many fish starved to death because you decided you were too good for PetVille, Queen Bea? You’re fucking next.”) That she got a mere BA in Chemistry and not a BS—”You can fuck your way to a BA” was the common Internet wisdom. One time she held a fund-raiser on Slambook for Planned Parenthood and collected forty dollars. Baby-Killer Beatriz needed to be murdered, but only after being raped by the dogs she had so callously failed.

That was three years ago. Now, across the table from her, Jerome’s smile was a familiar one. The fishhook grin. “I’m kidding,” he said. “I’m joking.” They were always joking. “I just did a search on you, you know. Didn’t you investigate me? I even gave you my last name. Want to see my I.D.?”

“This is not going to be a productive date, Jerome,” said Beatriz. It wasn’t quite time to grab her purse and go, though. Was he going to video her ass when she got up, were there others nearby, or was he really just making the worst joke imaginable.

“Did I make your pussy dry, Bea? Being a straight man who thinks he has a sense of humor and all?” he asked. A reference to another ancient tweet she had once made.

Now it was time to go. “It was never wet for you.” A debate would be no more productive than the date, but the response shut Jerome up for a second and gave Beatriz a chance to glance around.

There were others. The guys didn’t even try to hide. It wasn’t a matter of bad hats and worse beards, but the staring and sniggering from the other seats and on the corner of the block, the open-mouthed peering into their phones, phones aimed at Beatriz. Whoever got footage of her crying, or upset, or shouting, won. It was a clear escalation—stills of her car in her mother’s driveway, of their own reflections in the wire mesh glass of the entrance door to her apartment building were no longer enough. They needed her breaking down, in public, daring to go out and dress up a bit. Cockhungry slut TRIGGERED on first and last date the SpinVid would be titled, she knew it.

The waitress caught a glimpse of Beatriz’s expression through the great glass windows that separated the al fresco seating from the restaurant proper, and sneered. Beatriz was on her own.

“Clutching your pearls?” Jerome asked. He snatched up his phone and aimed it at her. She wasn’t.

Beatriz popped open the fake pearl, wiped the mineral oil from the swiftly oxidizing clump of sodium it contained, and flicked the metal with her thumb into Jerome’s water glass. It took a second. She threw herself backward, out of her chair and over the low fence behind her, the force of the explosion sailing over her head. Amidst the shrieking and smoke, she ran, sweater in one garbage can, overshirt in another, onto a bus headed in a random direction, the fare paid in cash. From her phone though, there was no escape. She let it buzz with notifications till dark, when the bus had completed its circuit of the city in which she lived, and her battery ran down. Emergency cash in her sneakers got her a cab ride home.

Assault with a deadly weapon. Attempted murder. Attempted murder in the first degree. Capital murder, except that Jerome was unharmed, save his eyebrows. The first three SpinVid videos of men clumsily shaving their eyebrows in idiot solidarity had already racked up six-figure views.

Why did she do it? Three long years had taught Beatriz that as far as society was concerned, she was outlaw. In the medieval sense—beyond the protection of the law. Men were allowed to crack her passwords and drain her bank accounts, stick her face on the lone female body in gang bang porn, find the care home in which her grandmother lived and leave messages for her with the front desk about “the cunt of your cunt of your cunt,” and the police could only shrug. There we no rules, it turned out. Plenty of force and authority, though, for women like her. Chemicals reacted explosively in the real world, and it was Beatriz who had made a point of bringing sodium to her date in the first place. Had Jerome not accepted a glass of still water, she would have subtly nudged her own glass toward him during the date’s opening patter.

Now the police would surely be coming for her. For a moment, Beatriz felt sweet relief. No cell phones in prison. Most women were imprisoned, thanks to having made the fatal error of cooperating with men, so she’d be safe. She wouldn’t miss men either, and she spoke passable Spanish. Maybe there would be some trans women there she could get close to. Already she was casting herself in a television show. By the time she got out of “the joint”—she was thinking in TV clichés from her own childhood now!—all the social media platforms would be obsolete and abandoned, a graveyard of controversies as accessible as floppy disks.

But her jade succulents, her African violets, her tradescantia. Beatriz’s apartment was full of life, of plant-scented air. An Edenic bubble. No list of instructions she could write would be specific yet flexible enough to keep the plants alive while she was away, even if she could trust her sister not to trash them all. But her job at the Verizon store, which wasn’t so bad. Her boss was a former college wrestler, and marched one of her stalkers out onto the sidewalk and slammed him so hard, the kid’s coccyx disintegrated. Nobody arrested him—not the stalker, not her boss. Men can do what they want. But those bullet-rain days when she couldn’t walk down the street with her phone in her hand, Beatriz actually felt free. She loved the seasons: chill and flurries on dark afternoons, endless summer twilights, red carpets of leaves. She cried.

The police were coming. There were no sirens in the air, no red and white lights flooding the streets beyond her drawn blinds, but the police were coming. Anyone Beatriz could reach out to would be on the other end of a string stretched taut between an infinite number of tin soup cans. She didn’t have a lawyer, nor really any idea how to contact one who specialized in criminal or Internet law. She’d always depended on search engines and the hive mind of her social media reach. Men were waiting for her to call for help, to even send an e-mail. They’d found her despite her precautions; she had to assume that everything she might do or even look for could appear on the front page of the New York Times the next morning. It would certainly be her, on the news aggregators, face twisted and eyes wild, with cops, male cops, twisting her arms behind her back.

Beatriz froze, seeing herself through a glass darkly. She couldn’t bring herself to wake up her desktop. The police were coming. She tossed her phone over her shoulder, not caring about what it broke when it skittered across her kitchen island and brought something with it to the floor. Beatriz was in the big desktop screen, like she lived online. Once upon a time, the Internet was an escape from the too-small apartment in the dicey part of town in which she lived with her noisy family. Beatriz could be a superhero, a sex doll, an expert on everything from telenovelas to Presidential politics, a helpful friend with a few extra bucks, a basket case eager to suck up the unconditional good wishes only strangers from afar could offer.

There would be people on her side. “That Bea, she’s a real firecracker.” A few guys might even hesitate next time they preyed upon a woman for the lulz. The police were coming. She could upload some basic information about where to procure sodium metal, but that would make trouble for her notional lawyer, and for any future parole hearing. Conspiracy. Feminazi terror squads. M-13 and Antifa working together to #killallmen. The police were coming. She wished she had a police scanner app on her phone, but she didn’t dare use her phone.

There wasn’t going to be any online access in prison—she didn’t think so, anyway. The police were coming. There was probably one desktop in a heavily guarded library, and it was a privilege easily rescinded. To her Internet friends who didn’t know her true name, it would be as though she had died. Beatriz’s e-mails would pile up unread. (Well, that happened often already . . .) Finally, she could sit before a sleeping computer no more. In the bathroom, to wash her face. The police were coming. At least she could look presentable for the next round of humiliating memes. one sjw down at the top of the news photo of the police dragging her away, thirty million to go under it.

Her makeup was running. Those wings were a pain in the ass to do. She’d tried three times, blinking away tears and cursing in two languages, before getting it right. Now they were ruined too. She reached for the empty soap dish where she usually kept her phone when in the bathroom, but of course it wasn’t there. A selfie to be sent out just as the fateful knock sounded at the door.

There was something about the black tears streaking her cheeks that said it all, and Beatriz wanted to capture it. That’s how it always seems to end for women—men made you cry, and ruined even the things you did for them.

A smudge of black eyeliner welled up under her eye. It looked like a lot of things.

A bit like a tear, of course.

But upside down. An anti-tear.

But upside down. A tear sneaking back into the duct. No more crying, not ever.

Like a tattoo of the same—what so many people come out of prison, or that life, with. Someone dead. Someone raped. Someone killed by one’s own hand.

It was other things too, that mark on Beatriz’s cheek. An upturned fist.

The black yin fish of the taijitu, that dynamic grand ultimate her grandmother drew for her once, but never fully explained. The feminine side, without the white dot of the masculine yang to stain it. “I don’t understand,” young Beatriz had said, “why are girls black and boys white?” Her grandmother had no answer; she only said, “Maybe you’ll understand one day.”

No white, no men. Sounded good to Beatriz.

Today was the day she did understand.

And it looked almost like an apostrophe. An elision, a symbol of absence. The police were coming. She was going to be absent soon enough—her chairs unfilled, her clothes hanging limp and unworn for years. Fill-in-the-blank.

glottal stop image

But also a symbol of possession. She hadn’t seen the mark when looking at her reflection in the sleeping monitor of her desktop, but now she saw it clearly, for the first time.

Beatriz owned herself. She owned her face.

She owned her story. She owned her life.

She owned her mind. She owned her soul.

It was also something else; not quite a question mark, but some kind of mark; she didn’t remember what.

Now the siren-sound reached her ears. Now the red and white lights spilled in through the blinds as she walked through her dim living room. The police were coming. It was hard to think. She wouldn’t have much time, but she didn’t need hardly any time at all to take one last selfie.

The men were lurking. She’d been marked by them, turned into a living meme. Now a meme lived on her. She didn’t bother with filters or hashtags, but went to her desktop, woke it up, pulled the tape from her webcam lens, and snapped a picture. She had a program that would upload the picture simultaneously to every still-extant platform on which she ever had a presence—from Palz.com through Diaryville and all the way up to S* and poor abandoned Y’ello?

Beatriz’s hands were on the keyboard, ready to write a brief message to go along with the image. The police were coming. Something that would sear the image into the minds of millions. She wouldn’t have time to articulate the polysemy, and that would ruin the image anyway. Listing meanings meant defining limits. Something for women, for people like herself, the abused and oppressed, to wave around as obnoxiously as any meme. But she also couldn’t just depend on an appeal to her friends and allies to spread the meme without some collective understanding of what it could mean. In a flash, I regret nothing! entered her head. Not her head, no. Wrong, just the muscles in her fingers. I regret nothing! was already a joke, and a reference to itself. Someone else’s imagination had been encoded in Beatriz’s nervous system. The anti-tear needed its own meaning, one that would decolonize minds, a rallying cry and a warning to others. She wanted men to see it and feel their throats tighten, their hearts twitch, the way they made her feel two dozen times a day. The mark would never ever be for them, and always ever against them.

And besides, Beatriz did have regrets. Why did she even decide to date cis again? That was another idea that belonged to someone else, to practically everyone else. She could have just stayed home, or let her mother set her up with some guy from the old country who was twice her age. What she didn’t regret, though, was that little sodium metal bomb. She’d been wanting to do something like that since high school, when her chem teacher dropped a bit of sodium in a beaker full of water to wake the class up. Beatriz stayed woke.

The police were here. There was a first knock on the door, one harsh enough to make it clear that it would be the only knock. Beatriz adjusted her monitor so that the front door to her small apartment was visible in the background, then typed something, and then gripped her mouse, ready to record. The police were here. There was another knock, but it was made by no man’s fist. The door shuddered in its frame.

Beatriz did have another sodium pearl, and a water can for her plants by the entrance. If her aim were true, she could toss it over her shoulder, gain a measure of immortality after it blew up in a cop’s face. But then the Internet would miss the mark on her cheek.

The police were here. Time slowed down. Beatriz leaned in close, clicked record. Her face filled the screen, obscuring the ruckus behind her. The police were all men, of course. Of course, but perhaps that gave Beatriz an extra few seconds. The video stream was attracting an audience—she recognized the handles of some of her perennial abusers, but they were being swamped out by the names of allies, of strangers. She was going viral. Beatriz had only a moment to say something as catchy as Time’s Up!, as exciting as Just Do It!, as stirring as You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chains!, or even as inexplicable as Who Is John Galt?—something that would lend voice to the gleaming black anti-tear on her cheek, and all that it meant to her. Commenters were talking about it, asking what it meant. She needed to explain, to make the meme explode, like 2Na+2H2O→2NaOH+H2.

The police were on her. They pushed her face against her monitor as they bent her arms back, which only helped with her close-up. What could she say? This could happen to you! True, but nobody would believe it. They pulled her off her chair. She was pleased that her remnant eyeliner had smudged the small lens built into her monitor—the black swirl was huge now, filling half the screen. You’re next! Maybe, but too much like an empty threat.

Right before she hit the carpet, tits and chin first.

Finally.

“I.

“Am.

“—!” A sound like no sound.

The webcam cut out as she fell off the screen. The police officer pinning her spine to the ground with his knee gasped, and only for a moment eased his grip.

Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and Sabbath. His short fiction has appeared on Tor.comWeird TalesBest American Mystery Stories, and many other venues—much of it was recently collected in The People’s Republic of Everything. Nick is also an anthologist; his titles include the Bram Stoker Award winner Haunted Legends (with Ellen Datlow) and the hybrid flash fiction/cocktail recipe book Mixed Up (with Molly Tanzer).