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Don't Read The Comments

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Welcome to Don't Read The Comments, an original work by Copperbadge! I am posting this novel here for the purpose of sharing with my readership and asking for their help in editing it before it goes to press. This is your chance to offer constructive criticism, ask questions, and suggest changes to make this book better and more reader-friendly.

So as not to clutter up AO3's tags, I have tagged the story very minimally, but I will put warnings in the notes on each chapter for content. Broadly speaking I can warn for violence including discussion of and threats of mass shooting, various *ist language particularly including misogyny and homophobia, and characters who take quite a casual approach to bigotry and fascism, including active white supremacists.

If you have questions about these warnings or about specific chapter warnings please don't hesitate to contact me at AO3 or via email (copperbadge at gmail) to ask about them.

SUMMARY:

Lauren woke up one morning with the ability to delete any comment, from anyone, anywhere on the internet. An amazing power, of course, but one that Lauren knew had to be used carefully. She consulted friends, scholars, and the data wonks at her work to try and create an ethical code for her Deletion, but her studies took her to some dark places...and she may have accidentally, temporarily, committed a murder.

That escalated quickly.

Fortunately, her mistakes can be fixed by the UnDeleter, a woman named Eppie. Less fortunately, Eppie the Undeleter is the most beautiful woman Lauren's ever met, and she thinks Lauren is a walking dumpster fire. So goes true love.

But both Lauren and Eppie have a bigger problem: there's another Deleter out there, and they aren't nearly as worried about ethics, or making the world a better place. In fact, they'd like to Delete Lauren, if they could. Which means Lauren will need all the help she can get in taking them out first, including the assistance of her sidekick, a frying-pan wielding teenager named Tanya. But Lauren's code of ethics, while blurry, is pretty clear on one thing: no more deleting people.

Which is going to make neutralizing another Deleter sort of difficult....

Chapter Text

When I woke up that morning I did not know what was going on at first. I didn't even wonder what was going on, to be honest. I thought it was like...some kind of site upgrade.

My basic assumption was that the Tribune had instituted a sort of cathartic purge mechanism. Or maybe it was like Reddit, where you could upvote or downvote comments -- except if you downvoted the comment you also didn't have to goddamn look at it anymore.

Here's what happened.

Wait, no.

Here's what always happens:

You get up in the morning and you want to read the news. I'm old enough that when I was a kid, it was all still newspapers, and I hated the newspaper; I hated the grainy feeling of the paper, the way the newsprint rubbed off on your hands and then would not wash off your hands for love or money. You thank God or circumstance that you can just pick up a tablet now and call up the local news website.

Joe Bazillionaire Ricketts deleted DNAinfo and Gothamist, though, and Nazis run AfterEllen now, and Peter Thiel killed Gawker, so you gotta go to the Tribune. Which is okay; the Trib's not awful.

You also thank God or circumstance that for today, at least, you can afford a tablet and a roof over your head. I'm not so old I take those for granted.

So what always happens is that you pick up your tablet and you open the Trib and you start to read about what happened while you slept. You could just go to Facebook but at least the filters on the Trib are put in place by trained journalists. For now.

But I became aware of something different, that morning, after I started reading the news and then scrolled down to the comments. I know you shouldn't, but I do, because there's a sick pleasure in seeing just how stupid people can be. And there, next to each comment, a brand new feature: a round red button about the diameter of a fingertip, and inside the red button was a question in a single word.

Delete?

I didn't make those comments that the site was offering me the opportunity to delete. They weren't under my login name, or the other fake login name I made when I couldn't remember my real login name. The egalitarian structure of this country --

Oh man that's hard to say with a straight face --

The structure of our cultural policies on free speech is such that generally speaking, we only let someone delete a comment if they actually said it in the first place, or if they own the platform we're speaking on. You come into my house and say that shit on my social media post? et cetera.

The article was about vocational training in schools with underserved populations on the south side, and someone -- JD2000, no user icon, 22K+ comments -- said, "Why not teach them to make guns? That's the only tool they understand anyway." which for The Comments is, generally speaking, sadly pretty mild.

I looked down at that round red Delete? button. I judged the font that Delete? was written in. (Times New Roman, are we monsters?)

I took a sip of coffee. I tapped the button with my finger. The comment vanished.

The next comment rolled up to replace it. That had a Delete? button next to it too. It was kind of nice, it just said "Good article, positive content." So I didn't delete it.

The whole "delete button" option would have made the most sense if it was some kind of code on the site that would let you hide comments. I'm not sure what such a thing would really accomplish aside from emotional satisfaction, but let me tell you, that alone was immense. I assumed, at best, that it was telling anyone looking at reader statistics on the Trib's website that people didn't like the comment. Which might help them strengthen their algorithms, or something.

I mean, if you could "delete" any comment you didn't like, even if all that did was tell an AI somewhere that people were finding that comment's sentiments socially unacceptable, that would create a pocket culture war pretty quickly, wouldn't it? On the one hand, normal people could go through and delete hatewank and Nazis and other kinds of bigots, but the bigots are, it turns out, really good at organizing (I feel we had a demonstration of this in Germany in the 1930s, and also on the campaign trail in 2016). So they could also delete any sign of positivity, or any person who happened to be speaking as an identity they wanted to commit genocide on, which is basically everyone.

And then what you'd have left is the blandest, middle-of-the-road-est comments. Like "Good article, positive content." It's fine, and I'm sure the journalist appreciated their validation, but it's not exactly the Gettysburg Address or the 95 Theses, is it? I feel we should strive for better in what we push forward for the reading public, even if they are just hot takes on shop class on the south side of Chicago.

I went on a tiny deleting spree, just because of the newness of the function. First I deleted all the comments I didn't like on the shop class article, which was maybe two more comments, because any article can draw ire but shop classes are not a controversial topic. Then I went to an article about a local Alderman caught in a payola scandal, and that was kind of funny because most of the comments weren't even evil, just tired.

Then I went to an article about a senator accused of sexual assault. Nothing new in the article, which was just an update on the last week of the senator's sexual assault accusations, and nothing really new in the comments either. But there was a lot of vile sentiment in the comments, and Delete? got a lot of use. Which was fun! For ten or twelve minutes, until I realized if I didn't get a shower soon I'd be late for work.

On the train that morning, a guy asked me for my phone number. I asked him for a dollar because I was saving up to buy a phone. That doesn't really work that well, but if you keep pestering them for a dollar they usually leave you alone eventually. One time a guy actually gave me a dollar. Another time I almost got stabbed. Win some, lose some.

It's not actually funny, but if you don't laugh you'll never go outside alone again, and then the Religious Right have won.

Chapter Text

Data Analytics is not a glamorous job, but it is lucrative. Being an administrator at a data analytics office is even less glamorous and significantly less lucrative, but I went to a mid-level liberal arts college and don't have any family in management positions, so I took what I could get. You know what's crazy? I never did an unpaid internship. Some deity smiles on me.

Anyway, the job is cat-herding, but the thing nobody ever tells you about cat-herding is that cats are fun a lot of the time, and usually food motivated. So I don't struggle that much, but I do make sure that everyone in the office gets where they need to be when they need to be there, that all the bills get paid, and that we don't run out of hand sanitizer. Robbie steals multiple bottles of hand sanitizer and I neither know nor care to know what he does with them, which makes this a challenge, but otherwise Robbie's harmless so it's not a big issue.

I need to tell you something here: you will never need to remember that Robbie steals hand sanitizer, or that Lyle condescended to me, or that Harry's kind of okay with white supremacists. They are my cats, and I know them all by name, but none of them will ever be, individually, vital to this story. Just consider the names I use for the Cats to be placeholders for a uniform mass of white male data analysts in their thirties; some are a little better and some are a little worse but most are interchangeable. Enjoy the ride.

Anyway, my job mostly means that while I'm frequently frustrated by the behavior of other, less trying-to-keep-their-shit-together people than myself, I also have long periods of time where I don't do much and nobody knows I don't do much. An air of mystery in any office is not to be underrated.

So, when I get to work, I check my email, I put out any fires, I handle any paperwork left on my chair overnight by one of the Data Analytics Cats, and then I do my daily website runthrough: podcasts, a couple of news sites, my horoscope for laughs, Facebook.

Facebook is all right, as an experience, if you find ways to ignore the assholes you have to friend because we're trained to uphold the social contract. Facebook as a company is pretty evil, what with selling our data and kowtowing to fascists. I don't like it. But if you're not on it, you miss the parties, you miss the gossip, and people think you're weird. Half the people I know have had to show their boss their Facebook before getting hired. Not even to prove they won't misrepresent the company, just to prove they're normal.

Of course it's illegal, but when the choice is between shady employers and unemployment while lawyers laugh at your idea of suing for hiring discrimination, what can you do?

Anyway, you can confine your reading to the people you actually like, using filters, but you can't control what shows up in their comments. I don't bother with Facebook comments for the most part, but you see them whether you want to or not.

And every single one of them had a red dot next to them. They were smaller than the Tribune dots. They just said D?

Now, I'm not an idiot. I'd been accessing two separate sites on two separate computers. It wasn't some browser add-on or a virus, and it probably wasn't that multiple sites had installed some new widget at once. But what was left? A stealth Windows update?

People were arguing about Planned Parenthood on a friend's post. Cautiously, I tapped the delete on a guy asking why a bunch of uggos like them would need birth control anyway since nobody would fuck them.

His comment disappeared. The responses to it stayed. I stared at the screen, hard.

"Oh, Lauren. Is it budget time again?" Lyle asked, leaning on my cubicle wall.

"Why?" I replied, minimizing Facebook quickly. The Data Analytics Cats don't care in theory that I'm on Facebook at work, but it's also none of their damn business and they almost always try to see what I'm reading.

"You've got that face you make when you're working on the budget," he said, and presumably imitated my face.

"I don't look like that!" I told him.

"You have budgetface. It's okay, it's still a good look on you," he said.

"I don't have budgetface," I told him. I would have told him I was confused by Facebook, but that's not something you want to say to a data guy like...ever. Admitting confusion is practically an invitation to a lecture on something you almost definitely already know enough about. I like Lyle and it's hard on the emotions when he pulls the same shit every other dude on the floor does. "Hey, do me a favor," I added.

"Yeah?"

"If anyone walks down the hallway just say hello to them really loudly, so I know someone's coming," I said, and left him standing at my cubicle to run two rows back to Robbie's. Robbie never locks his computer when he leaves his seat to do whatever it is he does for long periods of time in the kitchen.

I opened Robbie's minimized browser and clicked the Facebook tab. It was something of a relief to see all the red D? dots next to the comments.

I found a post a mutual "friend" (coworker) had made, deleted a random comment, minimized the window, and came back to my cubicle. Lyle was staring at me.

"What did you just do to Robbie's computer?" he whispered, leaning further over the barrier.

"I needed to check something, I didn't do anything," I said, scrolling down to the mutual "friend" (coworker)'s post.

The comment I'd deleted on Robbie's computer was gone on mine.

And when I checked the Planned Parenthood debate, a new reaction to the comment I'd deleted popped up.

Aw, he got scared and deleted. It's okay, the uggos don't bite!

"Hey, Lyle," I said casually, "Do you have the new delete-comment function on Facebook?"

"What?" he asked. "That's been there for like...ever. Did you not know you can delete a comment you made? How do you live your life?"

"Watch it, I can cut off your unlimited access to Forbes magazine," I told him.

"Do you need a Facebook tutorial?" he asked, mock-earnestly.

"No. Scram," I said. "I have existential concerns to wrestle with."

"Far be it from me to disturb the philosopher," he replied, and sauntered off. Apparently he'd come down to my cubicle just for the sheer joy of not doing any work. I couldn't really blame him; it's not like I was actively herding anyone around, and cats get bored easily.

***

Sometimes, and I know it's not just me, you get into a zone at work, or playing video games or doing art, or whatever it is people do to take their minds off the howling fear of death. And when you surface from the zone, sometimes you forget what you were thinking about earlier. You forget stuff that happened, like getting a wrong coffee order, or having to do an emergency report writeup for your boss. It just goes out of your mind. I think probably human beings need this or we'd collapse.

The thing is, when I did actually start on work that morning, I forgot about the red Delete? buttons, and I didn't think about them again until the afternoon. I ended up in the zone, working on a process document, and when I surfaced two hours later I wanted a break, so I went to the kitchen and got a soda, then came back to my cube and opened YouTube.

I don't even remember what I was looking at. It was probably a cooking show. There's a guy who cooks with his cats, which is unhygenic, but the cats are cute. And there's a small but thriving community of comedy makeup tutorials I enjoy.

And there was the Delete? button. On YouTube, It was a little red X with a black D in front of it.

The guy who sat next to me in the cubicle farm was named Mike, at the time, and he was the least senior of the Data guys, and he spent a lot of time watching YouTube, way more than I did. So I did a little unauthorized human testing, and I sent Mike a video over the interoffice chat. I do remember that one, because I had to look around for something I thought he'd actually play. It was outtakes of a guy trying to make a video about taste-testing mustard. He shoots mustard out his nose at one point. I knew Mike well enough to understand the appeal.

I watched out of the corner of my eye as Mike opened the video. The top comment wasn't even bad or good, it was just spam, the most neutral and deletable of all comments. His screen didn't have a red delete button.

I deleted the comment on my screen.

It vanished from Mike's. I don't think he noticed.

"Cool video," he told me, and I quickly looked away, like I hadn't just been spying on his computer screen.

I began to harbor two opposing but equally valid opinions about my reality:

a) I had somehow developed the power, a very specific power, to delete any comment, anywhere, at any time, on the internet.
b) I was suffering from an onset of mental illness and hallucinating.

I could take you through the next two days of frantic research on a number of topics, but I'll just give you a greatest-hits summary of my Google search history, sorted by the five stages of grief:

1. DENIAL:
paranoid delusions and hallucinations
symptoms of schizophrenia
hallucination as a symptom
delusion of grandeur symptom

2. ANGER:
mental illness diagnoses and ableism
mental illness as a sign of villainy
why is everyone on the internet so terrible

3. DEPRESSION:
hallucinations about the internet
delusions about the internet

4. BARGAINING:
testing for mental illness
mental illness home test
find hidden app on computer
find hidden browser app
code for a universal delete button

5. ACCEPTANCE:
universal internet delete button
internet delete button
What to do when you are magical
Fairy tale mistakes avoiding

I don't even believe in the five stages of grief but, well, I guess they work whether you believe in them or not.

Also, there is no rulebook that appears on your desk or in Google when you gain magical powers. I know, I was disappointed too.

So I learned a lot about schizophrenia, which seemed to me the most likely diagnosis, and also about maladaptive daydreaming. Because it did seem like, if I was going to daydream about having a power, that's actually a pretty good power to dream about.

It was the specificity of it that struck me, once I started on the Acceptance phase. As far as I could tell I could only do one physically impossible thing; I couldn't fly or heal myself (not that I was going to test those) or turn invisible or any of the other sort of generic superhero things. It was like the Wonder Twins from the old eighties cartoon, where one of them always had to turn into something to do with water. How do you get that specific? And who would bother?

I didn't think I should tell anyone, either. On the one hand, if I did tell someone and they got stuck in the Denial phase, like I had been, I could probably demonstrate the power to them and eventually they'd accept it. On the other hand, I've seen the cartoon about the frog that only sings and dances when nobody else but his owner is around. And I have heard from many friends who struggle with actual mental illness that not only is inpatient clinical psychiatric treatment super boring, it stays on your permanent record for like, ever. One of my friends threw an "I can never buy a gun" party when she finished inpatient treatment for severe anxiety.

So I didn't tell anyone. Instead, I assumed my new mantle of Queen Of Discourse gracefully.

I ordered a pizza on Friday night, plotted out my call-in-sick on Monday, and spent the entire weekend ravaging the internet.

Chapter Text

Around midnight on Friday, after I'd been Deleting for several hours, I thought, this must be how cops feel all the time. It was a heady mixture of knowing that I could silence anyone I chose and knowing I had a duty to protect certain high-traffic targets. So I guess really it's only half how cops feel.

Not a good cop joke, but an accurate one, I feel.

The thing about internet abuse, when you see a lot of it, is that it all just runs together unless it's aimed at you. When it's aimed at you, you remember everything everyone said. You can say you don't, and you can pretend you don't until it fades, but I feel like inside everyone who's ever had that torrent of bullshit rain down on them there's a broken kid and that kid is taking notes.

So I stationed myself like a mercenary in front of five YouTube accounts, three Facebook accounts, and one trending twitter tag. And all of Friday night I ate pizza and drank cheap wine and carpet-bombed trolls. Because however satisfying it is to score points off a neckbeard, it's even more satisfying to silence them the second they hit post.

Some of them tried to post the same thing eight or nine times. Then their own twitter feeds turned to frustrated bewilderment. For the record, the Twitter delete button was a red bird; it didn't even have the D or the question mark. Just a little red bird next to a filth-spewing asshole. Even now, I love the little red bird. A good friend.

Saturday I declared Friend Day, and I ran up and down my Facebook friend page all morning, over coffee and apple-pie-flavored greek yogurt, tidying everyone's comments.

Around ten o'clock, I got a text about a possible lunch date. Marnie, a ride-or-die BFF, wanted to go to Greektown and eat all the food before strolling down to one of the bakeries at the south end of the neighborhood in order to buy several pounds of butter cookies. I didn't feel good about abandoning Facebook to the trolls, but even Superman took time out of his busy schedule to date Lois Lane and write the occasional news story.

Remember I did Google delusions of grandeur. Cut me some slack.

"I have a philosophical question for you," I told Marnie, once we were settled in at a table at our Greek brunch spot of choice. She gave me an eyeballing and then wordlessly turned to the brunch cocktail menu.

"Is this going to be a thought experiment?" she asked. "I don't think on weekends."

"That's a lie," I told her. "But no. Well, not exactly. Maybe. I'm not trying to prove anything."

"You're paying," she told me.

"You asked me out!"

"Yeah, but I thought we were going to talk about dating and politics."

"I'm never talking to you about politics, ever," I reminded her. It's not that we disagree about politics. It's just that I can't cope with politics and other humans at the same time.

I vote, I call my congressman, I just do it in private, thanks.

"Okay, Thought Experiment," she sighed, and then to the waiter, "Bloody Mary."

"Diet Coke," I told him.

"It's eleven in the morning," she said to me.

"I love that you're judging me on drinking soda for brunch when you are drinking booze."

"I'll give you a few minutes," the waiter said, and looked glad to be leaving us alone.

"Are you ready for this philosophical question?" I asked.

"Fine, go."

"Okay, imagine you suddenly discover you have a superpower," I said. Marnie looked intrigued.

"Do I get to pick which one?" she asked.

"No. And it's not like, a world with superpowers. It's a normal world, our world."

"So what's my superpower?"

"You have the power to delete any comment anyone has made, anywhere on the internet. Including Twitter."

She put her hand to her mouth. Her eyes got huge, lighting up with glee.

"That's the best superpower ever!" she said. "Oh man, next time nerdboys in my orbit argue about what the best superpower is I can beat them all!"

"Don't imagine they'll give as much of a shit as we do," I told her drily.

"Still! Wow. Now I want that," she said. "Is that it, is the question do I take it or leave it? Because I take it."

"No, that's just the setup," I told her. "Here's my question. If you have the power to basically silence anyone, to just remove dissenting opinions...if you can push a button and suddenly someone doesn't get to respond to anyone anymore...how do you use that power?"

"Of course I use that power."

"No, not do you. How do you," I said. "Really think about it, Marnie. Where do the boundary markers go?"

"I would delete everything Donald Trump ever tweeted," she said, a misty look in her eye.

"Not original tweets. Just responses," I reminded her.

"Well, I could empty out his comments, couldn't I? I could make it seem like nobody had read or responded to him? I could make him howl into the void..."

She was lost in a revenge fantasy. I couldn't blame her. I hadn't thought that big myself and was kind of mad I hadn't, especially since I didn't know how long this power would last. What if I got home and I had lost, irrevocably, the chance to completely empty out the comments of some troll's twitter account?

"But we like free speech," I said. "And we've spent decades trying to figure out whether or not it's ever okay to suppress it -- "

"Nazis."

"Yes, I know hate speech isn't free speech -- but, to finish, we've spent decades trying to figure out whether or not it's ever okay to suppress speech and if it is, when, exactly. Like I know advocating for genocide is wrong, I know inciting people to violence is wrong, but is it okay to silence someone who's just calling someone else ugly? It's hurtful, but I mean, would you silence me if I called a right-wing religious nut ugly? What if I meant ugly in his soul?"

Marnie opened her mouth to speak, then sat back, considering it.

"Suppression of free speech if you're a liberal is still suppression," I said. "And it's not like we're just Good People or Nazis, there's a spectrum. You can't be a Nazi and be a good person, but you can be a bad person and not be a Nazi. And you can be a bad person and say good things. Or say evil things that still don't cause harm. Can't you?"

"Can I ask where this is coming from?" she asked.

Which is when someone behind me said, "Marnie?" and the rest of the conversation had to be put on hold.

Good women make bad choices in men all the time because women who are attracted to men have to drastically lower their standards to ever get laid. When you're automatically lowering your standards all the time, it's easy to lose track of that level below which you should not dip. But to be fair, men run around accusing women of being fake and tricking them into relationships because they wear makeup, whereas there's an entire subset of men who trick women into relationships by pretending they won't ever punch them in the face.

Joseph, as far as I know, never punched Marnie in the face. His much more insidious branding consisted of subtle intimations she should lose some weight followed by getting egregiously caught cheating. And, when telling her she was lucky to have him didn't work, he started following her around. It had gone past "you think you're in a romcom" and into "no really, stop being a creep" levels a while ago.

"Hey, funny seeing you here," Joseph said from behind me, while Marnie went poker-faced and I raised an eyebrow at her.

She twitched her fingers at me to keep me in my seat and said, "Not funny, really. You remember Lauren -- "

"Sure," he said, sidestepping me so he could see both of us. "Hey, I'm waiting on a friend, can I sit?"

"No," Marnie told him. He gestured to a waiter for a chair, which arrived the same time our drinks did. "Wow."

I raised the other eyebrow at Marnie but she shook her head. She likes to handle things herself, and I, unlike Joseph, can take no for an answer.

"So, what's for breakfast?" Joseph asked.

"What do you want, Joe?" Marnie said.

"Just thought I'd say hi. Can I see a menu?" He reached for hers, and we both let him take it.

"Did you follow me here from my home?" Marnie asked.

"I thought we could talk. Over brunch," Joseph said. "I'll pay."

"Gosh, and what will you expect in return?" I put in, before I thought about it. Marnie shot me a look.

"Just a little time to talk. You can stay," he told me.

"Marnie," I said.

"Joe, you need to leave, or I'm gonna call the cops," she said. "This is restraining-order time."

"Yeah, that's a lot of paperwork," he replied. "Look, I just think you didn't really let me explain -- "

"How you fucked someone else?" Marnie asked loudly. Several people looked up from their plates. "Hey yeah let's get an explanation for how you think fucking someone else while dating me was cool and I should be cool with it."

"You're making a scene," Joe said calmly.

"I have not yet begun to make a scene," Marnie replied. A waiter approached, apparently not so confident now that he should have brought Joe a chair, and she said, "Sir, this man is bothering me. He's not invited and you seated him at our table."

"I've got Yelp open," I added, holding up my phone. I didn't, and Yelp isn't the threat it used to be, but it's not an idle one, either.

"We don't want a disturbance," the waiter said.

"I mean, it seems like you don't want our business, either," Marnie told him.

"Look, we're fine, I'll go in a minute," Joe said.

"You'll go now, Joe," Marnie told him. "Or I swear to God I will call the cops right now."

The waiter freaked the fuck out at that and started frantically signalling the manager, who came over and asked us what seemed to be the problem.

"One of your guys seated this creep at our table without asking us if he was even with us," Marnie said. The manager looked at the waiter, who shrugged.

"I'm a friend," Joe said.

"You are obviously not a friend of any kind," I put in.

"This is clearly a....domestic matter," the manager began. "But if the three of you can't keep from disturbing the other patrons I'm going to have to ask you all to leave."

I opened my phone camera and started filming. I mouthed "going on Yelp" to the waiter, who started urgently tugging at the manager's sleeve.

"He is stalking me," Marnie said. The manager frowned. "I'm not leaving because some crazy ex stalked me to your restaurant."

"Ma'am -- "

"Hey, what up," I said, to get the manager's attention. "Are you about to kick us out because you seated some rando at our table who is now harassing my friend? Asking for everyone who's gonna see this video clip when it goes viral."

"Ma'am, you're not allowed to film in here," the manager insisted.

"Well, if you kick us out you'll never know how to get my name for the lawsuit," I replied.

Joe looked like he was suddenly in way over his head, which was satisfying, but not helpful, per se.

"Fine, she's upset, she's not thinking clearly," he announced. "I'll go. Marnie, I just want you to give me a chance."

"Eat shit," Marnie told him. Joe's hands clenched on the table, but he did get up and leave. People watched openly. Marnie stared at him until he was gone.

"You wanna take this chair away?" I prompted the waiter. The manager was still looking at me. I stopped recording and put the camera down on the table. "And you're comping these drinks."

This kind of thing, clearly, was easier to handle.

"Of course, ma'am," he said. "Can I get you a free appetizer as well?"

Marnie, face in hands, looked like she might scream.

"How about you leave for five minutes so we can talk in peace?" I suggested.

He left fast. Marnie inhaled.

"Hey," I said. "We can go. I know we said we weren't gonna go just because Joe caused a scene -- "

"I caused the scene. Not like he gave me a choice," she sighed, letting her hands fall. She looked at her drink. "Can I have some of your Coke?"

I handed it over. She sipped, passing it back, and then said, "If we go now he'll just be standing around out front."

"We can leave through the kitchen, there's an alley."

"What the fuck is my life where I have to sneak out through the kitchen," she sighed, but she was gathering up her purse and coat. "Yeah, let's go, I want cookies."

It turned out the alley ran all the way down the street to the back entrance of the bakery, and if you walk through a bakery kitchen with enough confidence, nobody bothers you.

I didn't bring up the philosophical question again. Sometimes there are more important things to deal with.

Chapter Text

It was, actually, kind of crazy how fast I stopped thinking of the deleting as a pastime and started thinking of it as a duty. I don't mean in the sense that it got boring -- it wasn't nice to read evil shit, but it was never boring. It's more like...I couldn't stop thinking about what people might be saying, who they might be hurting, when I had the power to prevent all that.

I was distracted with helping Marnie get her balance back for a while -- we took the cookies to my place and watched a movie, and I could have gotten on the computer, Marnie wouldn't have minded, but I didn't. It wasn't until near the end of the movie that I started feeling a little twitchy, which was when I realized that in theory I didn't need the computer.

I didn't have any of my particular protectorates open on my phone, but I didn't need to; I just hauled up the nearest social media app. Sure enough, even in the phone app, Delete? was everpresent, sitting next to every comment, a little red D? dot.

Considering what I'd asked Marnie that morning, I was judicious in what I deleted. I let some stuff through I might not have, the day before.

Given the size of the screen I was working with, I also deleted one by accident.

"Ah, crap," I said, staring down at my phone.

"What have the assholes living in the internet done now?" Marnie asked, offering me one of the cookies.

"Nothing, I just messed up a setting," I said, taking the cookie but setting it down so I could poke around in the app. I had not yet thought about whether there might be an undelete button. You don't think about these things until you need them, after all.

"Are you liveblogging this movie? Because it is certifiably bananas," Marnie said.

"I am trying to make Facebook a functional platform for civil social interaction," I said, which was technically true. Marnie burst out laughing.

"Call me when you've worked that one out and we'll try something easier, like a mission to Mars," she said. Privately, I believed that at this point nothing was out of the question.

After Marnie left, I did all the boring parts of the week: laundry, dishes, picking up the living room so it didn't look like a hurricane full of cookie crumbs had hit it. I kept an eye on the computer, but it seemed like the usual spill of assholery had slowed down.

This was probably an illusion. I'd been dealing with a backlog, after all. But I liked to think that the lack of evil in the comments was discouraging people from being The First Evil Motherfucker To Post Something Wretched.

I mean, also, it was a Saturday, and most people with more interesting lives were out living them.

It was at this point that I began formulating the Rules of Deletion, because it felt like I needed to set some boundaries. The first rule was a simple one: I couldn't let this get out of hand or take over my life. Or even take up so much of my time that I eventually got bored of it and stopped doing it. I had a mission, and clearly I had a mandate from someone.

Rule 1: No more than two hours a day total, and no more than forty minutes at a time, with minimum twenty-minute breaks inbetween.

As a subrule, I added: no deletion at work.

If I had to, I could bookmark comments for deletion later, but if I tried to go on deleting sprees at work I'd do nothing else and then lose my job and it's hard to delete trolls on the internet if you can't afford to feed yourself. I was not actually a superhero and I had worked too hard in my job to begin cultivating an air of flakiness so that people would forgive me when I ran off to save the world and couldn't tell anyone.

I resolved that Rule 2 would be some pithy guideline that would infallibly help me to decide whether or not a given comment should be deleted. Formulating this guideline would probably take time so I skipped over it to Rule 3: Protect the OP.

Rule 3 seemed like common sense; there's no point in enraging a bully if they're just going to keep taking it out on the victim, the original poster you're trying to save. So, if I engaged to delete a troll, I'd better make sure he stayed deleted. And if he started getting violent or threatening, I would have to back off, no matter how much I wanted to punch him in the Delete? button. For the sake of the OP, who was my primary concern, I would back off if I had to.

Rule 1: No more than forty minutes at a time for two hours a day total, with twenty-minute minimum breaks inbetween. (No deletion at work.)

Rule 2: ???

Rule 3: Protect the OP.

Rule 4: Profit?

Just kidding. I couldn't see a way to profit from this exercise without somehow hiring myself out as an actual digital bodyguard, and that seemed like a lot of work. Plus it felt wrong to take such staggering power and put it towards earning a paycheck. Especially since it wasn't like I could franchise it out.

Sunday, I decided, I would take a break from deletion, and on Monday I would find...something, some written code of ethics or a book about censorship that would help me with Rule 2. And I went to bed on Saturday night with a clean heart.

Sunday morning meant volunteering, so I was up early, armed with a travel mug, and on my way into the heart of the west loop, to a community center that let us use their kitchen on the weekends, to help cook a hundred pounds of scrambled eggs and like ten million pancakes for the poorly backronymed Helping Our LEsbian Youth.

That's the joke. Sunday morning breakfast served by HOLEY lesbians, Batman!

Technically we take anyone for breakfast under the age of 25 and it's not like we're gonna tell someone over 25 they can't come in. But the whole thing started because women are especially vulnerable on the street and Sunday morning is a shitty time to be alone. Most of the kids who got kicked out had families who were definitely at church pretending Jesus said "love thy neighbor unless she's a homo".

So we, the Lesbians, help our Lesbian Youth. Anyone can eat, and the kids can also get special counseling and help getting into foster care in a way that won't scar them for life, and they can meet kids their own age who are going through some shit too. And what else am I gonna do on a Sunday morning, regret the previous night's bad decisions? No thank you.

Rochelle was already in the kitchen when I got there, unloading groceries from her van, so I got my coat off and went to join her. A girl I didn't recognize, but who Rochelle obviously knew a little, was lurking in the mouth of the alley.

"Hey!" Rochelle called, and the girl blinked at her. "You wanna come help cook or what? It's fuckin' freezing out here, get your ass over a hot stove."

The girl pointed at herself and Rochelle grinned.

"You see any other frozen babies around here? Lauren, take this child."

"Come on, come wash your hands," I said, carrying the last of the huge cartons of liquid-egg into the kitchen. She took off her coat and rolled up ragged sleeves, and once her hands were clean I pointed her at the industrial toaster.

"Get it turned on, it takes a while to heat up," I said. "You know how to make pancakes?"

She looked around the kitchen and said, "Not this many."

"Yeah we make 'em by the hundred. Well, if you want to help me with the eggs, you can, otherwise the dining room's that way, go take a load off."

"I can help," she said.

"The food's free whether you help or not. What's your name?"

"Tanya."

"I'm Lauren. Get one of those big frying pans on the stove and I'll show you how to make industrial eggs for the masses."

Tanya was the earliest kid we got, but the volunteers trickled in after that, some working on the food while others shepherded newbies around, showing them the ropes. Faye arrived a little later than usual, but she had a trunk full of fully-cooked, ready-to-heat hams that we all came out to admire.

"Fell off a truck," she told me, as I stared at the bounty before us.

"Faye, did you steal hundreds of dollars in ham?" Rochelle asked.

"Not really. One of the bulk food clubs said they're expiring in two days and they couldn't sell them by then, so a friend of mine who works in the warehouse asked if we could have them. They're smoked, they'll be good to eat for weeks. We gotta send them a letter thanking them for their generous donation of ham," she said. "I'll email you the deets."

"Noted," Rochelle replied, making a note in her phone. "Somebody help Faye get these into the kitchen and get carving!"

By the time the kids did start arriving, mostly in little crowds, Tanya was tucked in the corner of the kitchen with a plate full of scrambled eggs, ham, and toast. I threw her a thumbs-up as I went to take my station in front of the eggs. I like to call dibs on a food-service spot early, because otherwise I might have to do the actual outreach and while I like feeding the kids, I'm not good at convincing them that they should apply for aid and get a roof over their head. Some of them already got booted from foster care once.

All the kids get a flyer for HOLEY with their meals, which lists the Twitter (run by Faye) and Facebook (run by Rochelle), and every time I saw the Facebook URL flash past me on a flyer I did think about Deleting. Almost every Sunday when we announce the HOLEY breakfast for homeless youth, some jerk who should be in church calls us godless whores. Remembering Marnie's feelings on Donald Trump, it occurred to me that I could go to that week's Godless Whore Guy's Facebook and delete every comment anyone ever made.

Imagine waking up to find your entire online discourse missing and, for all you can tell, nobody talking to you. Ever. Even better than deleting his comments -- deleting his entire support network. You see how it feels, asshole.

But I was distracted by Faye, who was getting up to give her Where My Trans At speech, always worth a listen.

"Attention, attention please!" she called, walking into the dining room, which during the week was a basketball court. "Hey, all of all of you, I just need your attention for one moment, no sermon, I promise," she said, and the room quieted down. "Now I am not going to ask all the trans ladies to raise their hands because I know some of you don't look like you want to look yet and some of you don't want to say it and some of you already been kicked around for it so just listen, please. I am your sister Faye, and I am here to help you. We are not just here for the cis girls! So if you need information about trans-friendly housing, if you need information about healthcare and transitioning, if you wanna talk to someone who has been where you are, or girl if you need to borrow a wig -- "

That got a little nervous laughter; one kid I'd been thinking of as a boy hunched in on herself a little and touched her short hair self-consciously.

" -- you can come talk to me anytime. If you don't want to talk here, you can message the Twitter and I'll show up wherever you want. I want you all to know that you, too, can look as beautiful as I do," she added, grinning. "Now my trans sons, don't think I forgot about you, either. There's a volunteer group for trans men that we can put you in touch with, but our services for you are limited for now. Hit me up, I'll get you the connection."

She was still speaking, but Rochelle had leaned over to me and was showing me her phone. Someone with an egg icon had just subtweeted the HOLEY twitter breakfast announcement, talking shit about a man in an ugly wig giving a speech at the free breakfast they were scamming.

When she tilted it my way, the D? button appeared.

One little deletion couldn't hurt.

"Who do you think it is?" Rochelle asked. "It's somebody here."

"You see anyone with a phone?" I asked, and took the moment she looked away to gently tap the screen. The egg vanished. "Hey, look, it's gone," I said.

"Maybe they saw us talking," Rochelle frowned, scrolling through the twitter. "Did you catch the screen name?"

I hadn't, but then I didn't have to. When I looked out at the diners, I knew who it was. I couldn't say how, I just knew.

Chapter Text

I mean, I knew beyond the fact that he was a middle-aged white guy in what looked like never-been-hunted-in hunting camo pants. It was like he had a light behind him, signalling this is me, I'm the one.

"I got him. Cover me for a second?" I asked, as Faye's speech ended. Rochelle nodded and I caught up to Faye as she was going to her seat, one of the round tables in the corner where people could come and go without seeming too conspicuous.

"Hey," I said quietly. Faye knew the tone -- I think we all know that tone -- and looked at me. "If someone called you a dude in an ugly weave, would you want to know, or would you rather just ignore him?"

"Lauren, someone has definitely called me a dude in an ugly weave at least once over the course of my life," she replied. "I pay them no mind."

"Second question -- if he were here in this room, what should we do with him?"

"Get him away from the kids," she said immediately. "Point him out and I'll get him out of here."

"That one," I said, nodding at the guy. He was staring at a couple of kids in dirty hoodies at the next table over from him. "But wait, he's -- I mean he might be armed."

"Good, that'll make it a fair fight." She patted her hair. "Stand by."

I nodded to Rochelle, who nodded back as Faye crossed the room. Faye is a tall woman and she doesn't lift as much anymore as she used to, but she still lifts. Especially when he was seated, she towered over him. She knew it, too; as soon as she was close enough she bent at the waist, got right up in his face, and said, "Hey, Sugar."

He just looked at her.

"Did you say something about my weave?" she asked, and the color drained from his face. "I see you did. You want to apologize to me here, or shall I let everyone know what you said?" she added, waving a manicured hand at the rest of the table.

Most of the kids at the breakfast are good kids. Most of them don't look like what you'd generally think of as good kids. Many of them have very understandable rage issues and will fight you over your favorite color, let alone something as incendiary as calling a trans woman a dude in an ugly weave.

"I'm just here for some food," he finally said. "You got good ham here."

"Thanks. I cooked it with my own two feminine hands," she replied, wiggling her fingers. I could see him getting tenser. "Tell you what. You can take your plate of food with you and eat it outside, but I think it's time you weren't around these young ones anymore, don't you?"

"What?" he asked, incredulous.

"I'm asking you nicely to leave," Faye said.

"I have as much right to be here as anyone," he said.

"I can be less than nice," Faye replied.

He looked around and I could see him doing the cost-benefit analysis. His options were to pick a fight he definitely could lose, or be humiliated by a woman. Worse, by what he thought was a man pretending to be a woman.

But he saw the kids watching him, and he saw Rochelle watching from behind the service counter. So he tried to play like picking a fight with Faye was beneath him. He stood up -- she still towered -- and said, "You can keep your shitty food."

"I'll just walk you out," Faye said pleasantly.

They were so close. They were almost to the door, in the hallway outside the dining room, right where the dining room and the kitchen intersected; I could see them from where I stood, but nobody else could. Faye was opening her mouth, probably to tell him if he came by again they'd call the cops (which is not true, we never call the cops when this many of the kids are around, but he didn't know that) when he turned and tried to punch her.

Faye ducked back, but his momentum carried him forward and there wasn't a lot of space between her and the wall; I started forward and so did Rochelle, but we were both too far away to get to him before he got to Faye and pinned her.

Tanya, who was washing a frying pan near the doorway, was not too far away.

With a mighty war bellow, Tanya the Baby Gay Chef and American Gladiator in the making leapt forward, raised the aluminum frying pan over her shoulder, and brought it around in a backhand that would have made Venus and Serena proud. It cracked him across the face with a dull, echoing boom and sent him spinning.

There was a momentary lull in conversation in the dining room, but only because of the weird, boinging noise the pan had made bouncing off a human skull. When nobody could pinpoint the source of the boing, they all went back to their meals. I am not going to lie, I was frozen to the spot.

Looking at Tanya, standing over her foe with a soapy pan in one hand, I felt like maybe the power I'd been given wasn't much in comparison at all.

When I finally managed to move again, I think I pretty much broke the sound barrier getting into the hallway. Faye had already grabbed Tanya and pulled her back into the kitchen, passing her off to Rochelle who was bundling her into a side room, hopefully to gently remove the dented frying pan from her before she decided a second swing was in order. At that moment I would have given the girl an alibi for murder, honestly.

When I reached the crumpled body on the floor, Faye was nudging him with her shoe, muttering, "Oh shit, oh shit," under her breath.

"I think maybe she killed him," Faye said to me.

"Such a loss," I replied, and Faye flinched. "I'll take care of it."

"Just like that, Secret Agent Lez? You'll take care of it?" Faye asked, as I took his pulse.

"I think he's just out," I said. "He's breathing and stuff. I'm not an EMT. You're supposed to be doing outreach, get out there and reach out."

"And you're supposed to be flipping eggs, but here you are," she pointed out.

"We gotta get him out of here."

"What if he presses charges?" Faye asked.

"Yeah, I'm sure the cops won't laugh that one out of the station," I replied. "Hey, I tried to rough up a lady at the soup kitchen and I wanna file assault charges when a teenager hit me with a frying pan."

"I've seen worse get prosecuted," Faye said. I sat back on my heels.

"Okay, well, he didn't see her face before she dropped him so the kid's fine. He definitely saw your face but I doubt he'd remember it clearly. We can hope the concussion will give him short-term memory loss," I added brightly. "But look, nothing good is going to come of him waking up in this hallway. I say we throw him in your car, dump him in Grant Park, and call an ambulance anonymously."

"Oh my god, is he dead?" Rochelle asked, emerging from the kitchen. "Are you plotting a body dump?"

"He's not dead, but we gotta get him out of here," I insisted.

So this is the story of my first body dump, now, too.

I honestly don't know what else we could have done, probably something better, more humane, or more sensible, but we couldn't think of anything, so Faye and I wrestled him into the back of her car and drove a couple of miles across downtown to the park, where we dumped him in a flowerbed.

"Shoulda worn gloves," Faye said. "My DNA's probably all over him."

"Well, if it gets that far I'll claim it was me who hit him," I said. "I'd do okay in prison."

"You are a pulp novel waiting to happen," Faye said. "Come on, hustle your ass back to my car."

"Go get it started, I want to check something," I said.

"Your funeral," Faye told me.

I'd seen the guy's eyes moving under his eyelids, and I did have a certain ace up my sleeve, which is that I'd been having a week.

So I waited, and while I waited I found his phone in his pocket. It was a very expensive phone, and it wasn't locked; I did a little digging, made some mental notes, and set it on his chest. I put my hand on it, and could feel his breathing shift.

His eyes slitted open. Well, one of them did. The other was swelling shut. I leaned into his sightline.

"Don't call the cops," I told him quietly. "And don't come back. Because if you do...I will delete you."

I don't know what happened to him, like, in the rest of his life. That was the last time I encountered him. I don't even know if he understood me or remembered me later, I don't know if he remembered any of it.

But I saw a split-second of terror in his eye. I saw the pupil dilate. His phone felt warm under my hand.

And then he passed out again.

In the car, Faye was hanging up her phone. "I told Rochelle to use the phone in the bodega across the street to call it in," she said to me. We were moving almost before my door was closed.

"You sure that's anonymous enough?" I asked.

"Well, I hope so." She studied herself in the rearview mirror while we were stopped at a light. "Maybe I should go undercover. Change my look. In case they do an artist's rendering of me."

"Those things always look like a potato with a nose," I said.

"Too true. But I could do a makeover anyway. I'm tired of countouring."

"I don't think anything's gonna hide those cheekbones," I told her.

"Beauty is my cross to bear," she agreed. "Nasty asshole, calling my weave ugly. Does he know what I paid for these gorgeous curls?"

"Maybe we should be a little more subtle with the breakfast announcement for a few weeks," I said. "Keep it to word of mouth and flyers."

"Why? You think homeless dudes have our tweets on alert?"

"I don't think he was homeless," I said. "He had a thousand-dollar phone in his pocket, and not to say he didn't look homeless, but...he didn't look homeless. His clothing was new. He smelled like aftershave."

"Shit. You think he came to breakfast just to fuck with us?" she asked. "These assholes run in packs, woman! They'll know if one of the herd goes missing."

"I don't think he's going to report back to anyone that a couple of women beat his ass," I said.

Faye giggled. "My straight white cisgendered brothers!" she announced, in a grandiose voice. "Behold the grievous wound I received at the hands of the Godless Sunday Breakfast Whores! Let us visit vengeance upon them and remind them of the superiority of our being! They are but women, and men in womens' clothes! The warrior for perversity who visited this injury upon me stood eight feet tall, and had eyes of burning coal. Surely a demon the lesbian witches raised!"

I was cracking up laughing so hard in the seat next to her that I could barely get out of the car when we got back to the kitchen. Rochelle was waiting nervously in the alley.

"Be unafraid!" Faye boomed. "The amazons have returned triumphant!"

Rochelle looked at me.

"We dumped him, I'm sure he'll be fine," I told her. "He was waking up when we left. How's Tanya?"

"Feeling very empowered," Rochelle said. "Faye, you have people waiting."

"Sweet. See you later, partner in crime," Faye told me, and strolled off to do good. I sat down on a pile of pallets outside the kitchen door.

"How much trouble are we in?" Rochelle asked me.

I thought about that fleeting look of terror.

"Not too much, I think," I said. "He never even saw Tanya, so she's okay, and if the guy tries to press charges I told Faye I'd take the rap for the assault."

"Well, we'll crowdfund bail money for you," Rochelle said. I laughed, and then I realized she was serious.

"It'll be fine," I said. "Just give me half an hour to get past it."

"You sure? You want some food?"

"I'll come get some coffee in a minute or two. Promise," I said, and Rochelle hugged me and went back inside.

I took my phone out of my pocket and unlocked it, plugging in his real twitter username, the one I'd found when we were dumping him.

I settled in, pulling my coat cuffs over my hands to keep off the worst of the cold, and began pressing every little red Twitter delete-bird I could find on his page. He did a lot of replying to other peoples' twitters; In twenty minutes I had wiped out two thirds of his page.

Satisfied, I tucked my phone away and went inside to warm up.

Chapter Text

So yes, technically I had broken my resolution not to do any deleting on Sunday. In my defense, that had been a personal choice not to. It wasn't one of the rules. I had not deleted for more than forty minutes, I hadn't done it at work, and as far as I could tell, emptying out that guy's Twitter couldn't possibly bring any more harm to Faye or Tanya than the righteous use of a frying pan already had.

But it meant that I was double-determined, on Monday, to find that second rule I was missing -- the rule would help me decide what was protected speech and what could be, well, removed. After all, there are exceptions to the laws of free speech. "Shouting fire in a crowded theater" was the one I heard often as a kid, which I guess is easier to explain to children than "advocating genocide" or "catcalling someone on the street". Not that I'm equating the two, obviously calling for genocide is worse. But I find that often if a person does one he is very likely to do the other.

I just had never been forced into such a granular examination of the boundary between free speech and...the deletable. I didn't want to become the Stalin of Facebook.

After I called in sick to work on Monday and set my away messages, I went back to some of the open tabs in my browser, still left over from my initial frantic search. There had been one book that had caught my eye, but I hadn't been able to find any quotes from it on Google Books, and it didn't have a sample available on Amazon. It was called The Ethics Of Western Mythology, and it was almost definitely a book someone had written to sell to college students taking a class the author was teaching.

Granted, it wasn't The Ethics Of Free Speech When You Have The Magic Power To Empty Out Facebook. I'd found it while I was trying to work out how to harness my newly found power, and I wasn't looking for a treatise on censorship at the time. But ethics was a good place to start.

The book was available online for $54, which was a lot. The blurry low-res image of the back of the book said that the author, Professor Greg Brantis, taught literary history at The Independent College of Chicago, which I'd never heard of, but which probably had a bookstore where I could go and skim it for free.

Chicago has a reputation for weird and crazy in higher education, even among the more prestigious schools. They're not exactly places of last resort, but refuges for students who don't want to go Ivy League or who wouldn't fit in there. The Independent College turned out to be one of these weirdo schools. Maybe the weirdest.

The school's website said it had a student body of one hundred, and only offered two options: a two year prelaw course and a three-year English degree. It had twenty faculty, including a president and a dean of students who both also taught classes. Tuition was sixty grand a year, all-inclusive. So, either a boarding school for rich kids who couldn't cut real college yet or some kind of elite enclave.

It was also, the website said, located on the second through fifth floors of the Monadnock building downtown. A brisk walk or a short, warm bus ride away, and the bookstore was open to the public.

I was honestly expecting "bookstore" to be a generous description of a couple of racks of textbooks and a little bit of college merchandise. As it turned out, the bookstore was a full-on store, with magazines, a case of snacks, enough non-textbook shelves to be a respectable strip-mall Waldenbooks circa 1995, and an entire section for Independent College merchandise. Their mascot was named Indy, who to their credit was a cartoon bee and not a racial caricature or Harrison Ford.

The Ethics Of Western Mythology was on the shelf ($52.99) and I tried not to look suspicious to the bored student minding the cash register as I skimmed.

It was...very dense. There were occasional images of classical Greek statues or Old Master paintings when I thumbed past the introduction, but the text was crowded and had headings like Community-Based Legal Consensus In Narrative and The Dialectic of Honor-Justified Murder Pre-Modernism. I sensed an hour covertly reading it in the college bookstore was not going to be enough to distill it.

I flipped back to check the table of contents, turning with hope to the chapter headed Deregulated Heroism From Broken Systems: Does The Market Correct?

The invention of the modern comic book superhero -- endowed with supernatural abilities through an accident of science or intervention from a more powerful source -- arose in the early twentieth century from, as will be demonstrated, tensions between the perfect legal system envisioned in American culture and victims of the real system, which was anything but. With strong roots in immigrant Jewish experiences, heroes of the early century experienced shattering life changes which ultimately made them stronger but also made them entirely alien to the culture in which they found themselves. Early comic book creators did not examine the consequences of an entire system of vigilante justice; they only knew it appeared more effective than the corrupt police and prejudiced courts that made up the existing legal milieu.

Our questions thus must be, What are the ethical rules of these default extra-legal law enforcement officers within the narrative? And what would this model look like, or how would it impact current public policy, outside the narrative, in the "real" world?

Furthermore, this echoes back into an examination of the cultural divide between the "real" world and the perceived semi-fictional nature of internet social systems.

Well, I thought. Gold, maybe. And I'm sure he got academic points for repeated quote marks around reality. I felt like that myself sometimes, even more so recently.

"No offense intended, but you're a little old to be a student," someone said.

I looked up directly into the face of Professor Greg Brantis.

I flipped the book over to make sure, looked down at the photo, looked back up. He seemed amused.

"Everyone looks better in their book jacket photo. Sorry to interrupt, but Kenny called and said someone was looking at my book," he added, pointing at the cashier. "We're a very small community and strangers don't usually wash up in the bookstore by accident. Given my salary I thought I'd try the personal sales approach."

I gaped at him, unsure what to do.

"I can offer you a signature and my ten percent faculty discount," he said, still amused.

"I have a philosophical question for you," I blurted. He tilted his head, eyes bright. "If you had the power to delete any comment anyone made, anywhere on the internet, how would you use it?"

He opened his mouth, paused, and closed it again.

Finally he said, "Come to my office."

I put the book back on the shelf and trailed him out of the bookstore and up a flight of stairs that were marked "for use in case of fire only".

"Are you a law student?" he asked, as we walked.

I considered lying but I didn't think I could fake that, so I said, "It's a bet I'm trying to settle."

"Even better. This way."

He turned and led me along a hallway to a cluster of doors that looked like they'd been installed in the 60s. It was powerfully reminiscent of high school for a moment. He held one of them open for me and gestured me into a small room that looked like it had been decorated for filming sound bites by a history expert in a Discovery channel documentary. He waved me into a chair and went to a small sofa crammed into one end.

"So you're curious about unregulated, non-state censorship," he said. "It's a, what, a thought experiment?"

"Yes," I sighed, because it had become easier to call it that than to explain how it wasn't.

"Timely, I suppose. The university president just got an award for defending free speech by banning safe spaces." He grimaced. "I'm not sure an octogenarian who specialized in the history of the War of the Roses is the best person to grasp the nuances of safe spaces and free speech, but then I just got tenure, so my voice is minimal."

"You have a no-safe-spaces policy?" I asked, aghast.

"It plays well to our donors," he said sourly. "Anyway, to your question. Let's see if I can help settle this bet. What are the rules? You can delete anything on the internet?"

"Not anything. Just comments, like comments on videos on YouTube? Or replies to tweets. Comments on Facebook posts. Responses, not original content."

"Interesting. Did you hammer out whether thoughtpieces count? Essays written in reaction to other essays?"

"I...we hadn't considered those, but if they're posted separately, assume not. We're interested in what would be considered acceptable to delete and what wouldn't. Like. Could you come up with a rule to guide that? Is it even possible?"

"Well, in a utopia, you wouldn't ever delete anything," he said. "In a utopia you wouldn't have to, and all speech would have value. Like how we value human life, so we don't employ eugenics in deciding who lives and who dies. But we don't live in a utopia."

"No," I said.

"Huh. Well. In an open society...no, that's...hm." He glanced at his bookshelves. "You realize humanity has been wrestling with the concept of what should be censored since before Socrates drank the hemlock."

"Yeah, I wasn't real confident I could work it out myself," I said. "That's why I was looking for books."

"And this is just one person? You or I would be the only one who could do it, it's not a universal power?"

"Right."

"Well, I think we have definitely proved that the power to police speech, even if perfectly guided, doesn't belong in the hands of one unsupervised person. Community consensus has to guide that kind of power, at least outside of a totalitarian state whose goal is not the improvement of life for mankind. Machiavelli would disagree but in his own way he was very optimistic about human nature and the ability of one person to suppress their instincts and desires in service of a peaceful state."

I won't lie, I could feel my eyes glazing over. But he clearly saw it too, and shifted gears.

"So, if we think one person shouldn't have this power then we have to look at the way communities have tried to define acceptable censorship, under the assumption the individual would obey community decree."

"Is it censorship?" I asked. "I thought it had to be state-sanctioned to be censorship."

"Well, that's true, but it's a useful word for an all-encompassing power deciding what can and can't exist. Anyway, my book wouldn't help much, it's about how communities define ethics through narrative, not about criteria for censorship."

"Well, the vigilante chapter was interesting."

"Yeah but you're not out for revenge or trying to excuse that behavior. Actually, you are seeking virtue, you want to act within at least an ethical framework if not our specific ethical framework. Presumably the goal of the censorship, or rather the control of speech, since censorship is a state-mandated form of control, is to improve the overall situation of humanity."

"I mean...I'd settle for making a few people feel less constantly abused," I said.

"So you're also interested in weighing benefit to the individual against potential harm to society. Are you familiar with the trolley problem?"

"Yeah, that gets a lot of play on the internet."

"I'm sure," he drawled. "Lord. I could teach a class based on your question. I could write a book."

"I guess that means no easy answers?" I asked.

"Shit, not even any hard ones yet. It sits at this intersection of so many issues..." he trailed off, clearly dreaming of the lectures he could give. "Ethics, censorship, law, philosophy..."

"Okay, well..." I tried to pull him back from the academic edge. "Easier question. If you had that power, what would you do with it?"

His head jerked sharply back towards me, like he hadn't even considered it. "What?"

"If you could. What would you do? Is that a way into the...ethics of it?"

"....wow," he managed. "I hadn't even thought of it personally. I don't...I don't think I'd do anything."

"Nothing?"

"Not until I'd figured out the bigger picture. I think it would be...a really easy spiral if I did. Using that kind of power."

He, a white guy in his thirties with a stable career, looked at me and frowned.

"What would you do?" he asked.

"Well, a friend of mine said she'd empty Trump's twitter feed," I said, and he laughed. "Not his tweets, just all the responses. So it would look like nobody was reading them, ever. Which I suppose is more offense than defense."

"You prefer defense?" he asked.

"I guess...I...would pick out a few people I know could use the help and just keep their comments clean," I said. "Tidy. And then I would try to find someone who could help me work out how to define Tidy in a way that doesn't reek of a George Orwell novel."

"Too bad Orwell's dead," he said. "I mean, imagine the Twitter that man would have. But it's a good point. Either move has its drawbacks. And it brings us back to the central question we can't answer on our own. I think...I could give you a reading list," he said. "Histories of censorship, some philosophers. And honestly, considering it, I guess it helps that you can't delete anything they say, just responses. If they had a coherent thought in their head to share, they could, on their own platform, under their own banner."

"Making them the target for comments," I replied, wheels spinning in my head.

"Well, exactly. Would you mind..." he tapped a finger to his lips thoughtfully. "Would you mind if I put this question to my students as an essay? I have some young prelaws who might wrestle with it in interesting ways. I think the only way you can devise an answer is through...asking people, asking a lot of people and hearing what they say. Even Mill and Milton never factored Nazis and Facebook into their philosophies. They were light on considerations like genocide."

"So your answer is, ask around," I said.

"Hardly helpful, but I've already admitted I'd be too scared to do anything, and that the individual can't infallibly judge on their own conscience," he said. "I suppose you could always pretend that you had that power and look at what you instinctively wanted to delete."

"Sure," I said, standing. "I could do that."

"Do you have a business card, some contact info I could take?" he asked. "Email, phone number?"

I almost, out of habit, answered No thanks, I'm a lesbian, but instead I gave him my email, which he scribbled on a scrap of paper and taped to his computer monitor.

"I'll be in touch once the would-be lawyers have turned in their papers," he said. "If you do ask around, take notes, I'd love to hear what people say."

Me too, I thought, as I left.

Chapter Text

Tuesday I was back at work, and it was hard to keep from checking on my protectorates, but I managed it; besides, I had a backlog from the previous day. The Data Analytics Cats had struggled for direction without my guiding hand.

I wanted to take the professor's advice seriously and the Cats seemed as good a start as any, but I couldn't convene a meeting specifically to discuss my fascinating thought experiment. So I had to wait until Friday, for our weekly lunch meeting. In the meantime, I did the best I could with what I had.

Here's something to consider:

1. I decided that unsolicited comments about a woman's appearance could be safely deleted because they were intrinsically of no value. She didn't want them, bystanders had no use for them, and the people leaving them were clearly either turned-on creeps or bent on making the woman in question feel bad. What about unsolicited comments on a man's appearance, you ask? Strangely, those were very few and very far between. I can't imagine why.

2. Name-calling was deleted because let's be real we learned better behavior than that in kindergarten and if someone lets a kindergartener onto the internet they cannot expect to have their free speech protected by someone without the power to send them to the Naughty Corner.

3. People expecting, advocating for, or praising genocide: deleted.

Now, stop, just for a second. Stop, and really think about yourself and your life, because I need to ask you something important. Which one of those deletions made you the angriest?

It turns out a lot of people have a real problem with the idea of censoring those who advocate for genocide. But if deleting calls for genocide made you angrier than deleting name-calling or catcalling, the problem is you, not me.

When Friday finally did come around, I was sort of excited. I'd been making plans. Every Friday in the early afternoon we had a lunch meeting paid for by the department (to make sure everyone attended). It was mostly an excuse to kvetch about the past week's work and the upcoming week; if any of the Cats had been more politically devious it could have become a subtle jockeying competition to see who could make it seem like they had the most work, but they were, whatever else they might be, endearingly earnest about their jobs. Very few people accidentally become data wonks without understanding what they're getting into. They like complaining as much as anyone but they don't bother with inflating their accomplishments. I just took notes to make sure I knew who could handle last-minute work, and told them where to be for meetings and the rare out-of-office outing.

Usually we had a solid half hour of pure water-cooler talk time after the business was dealt with, unless Adam, the office VP and Source Of All Wasted Time, decided to attend. It's not that he ever tried to waste our time, but he could never say anything without saying it three times in slightly different ways.

Looking back, asking the Cats about Deletion was a mistake, but I didn't realize so many of them held strong opinions about...well, anything.

"So did you see this new discussion on Facebook?" I asked, baiting the lure. "About comments?"

"Is this the revelation that you can delete your comments?" Lyle asked. "Lauren just found out you can delete comments on Facebook," he announced, which I'd been expecting.

"Unlike some people, I never say anything I have reason to regret," I told him, and Harry coughed a laugh. "I found it while I was researching that, though."

"Is there a lot of discussion of comment coding?" Harry asked.

"No, it's not really related. It's a thought experiment. If you had the power to delete any comment, not just yours but anyone's, anywhere on the internet, what would you do?"

They didn't seem to find this the daydream that Marnie had or the intellectual challenge that the professor had. They considered it for a few seconds while chewing and then Robbie said, "I'd clear out all the assholes trying to impress the women I'm trying to land."

I stared at him. "You'd use it to get laid?"

"I'd eliminate the competition at least. Any edge you can get," he said calmly.

"Inefficient at best," Harry said.

"Well it's what I've got!"

"Not you, horndog. The whole situation. If you can't alter the source, eliminating the discussion won't do anything."

"Do you use Facebook for dating?" I asked Robbie, now dangerously curious.

"Don't you?" he asked.

I wanted to say that I used gay bars like a normal person but I wanted to keep us on topic. "Do you think it would...work better, if you could delete comments?"

"She already knows it's not working now," Harry stage-whispered to Robbie.

"I'd like the chance to find out," Robbie said, with exaggerated dignity.

"What about you, Harry?" I asked. "You think it's inefficient?"

Everyone watched as he ruminated, which was probably a lot of pressure.

"I don't think I'd delete anything," he said finally. "I have some ideals about the internet that would prevent it."

"Like what?" Lyle asked.

"Well, I believe the internet is a pure meritocracy. The best ideas eventually rise to the top and the worst, most harmful ones sink to obscurity. But in order to ensure we get all the best ideas, we have to let everyone speak."

"Are you high," Lyle said.

"Just an idealist."

"Thousands of people belong to neo-nazi websites," Robbie said. "I mean, racism seems to be rising to the top, Harry. Are you sure you want to say the best ideas always rise?"

"Obviously I don't think racism is a good idea," Harry said, sounding insulted. "But just because it's rising doesn't mean it'll go anywhere or be of any use. If we wait long enough the racists will languish and die out."

"Because they have no merit?" Lyle asked. "Who determines what merit even means in a meritocracy?"

"We all do, by using what works and discarding what doesn't."

"But racists are part of that 'we'. And...they think eugenics works, Harry."

"They'll be outnumbered eventually! Besides, what would be the point of arguing with them? Everyone knows you can't argue with racism."

"I think you will find many have," I said.

"Yeah but not like, genocidal racism. We had to fight a war to get it to calm down last time."

"Two, in fact," I said.

"There weren't Nazis in the first world war."

"I was thinking of the Civil War," I said. Blinks all around the table. "Because...of slavery? Which is a form of genocide?" I added, and a few of them looked like lightbulbs had gone on over their heads.

Harry just gestured impatiently, swiping it aside. "I'm not the Allies or General Sherman, is my point. I'm not taking on these guys by myself."

"You do have that luxury," I said, which I shouldn't have done.

"What does that mean?"

"Well, you're white, so they won't endanger your way of life," I said. "You won't ever find it unsafe to walk the streets."

"It's unsafe for anyone to walk the streets. We live in Chicago," he replied, and I decided to let it go. For anyone counting, that's twice.

"So you would do nothing to interfere with pure meritocracy," I said. "Anyone else want to weigh in?"

Lyle made a thoughtful noise. All heads turned in his direction.

"I'm not saying I'd do this," he said. "I wouldn't. But I love psychological thrillers. And you could really screw someone up with this. Imagine everything you say to other people just vanished, and you don't know why. Or how. There are people who would think God was gunning for them."

"That is diabolical," another Cat said.

"Imagine," Lyle continued, lost in the drama of it. "Someone snaps so bad eventually they just start talking directly to you, the deleter, and you still keep silently deleting them. Some people would crash really fast. People who are already a little unstable or even just have a strong belief in the supernatural. But it could take months for some. You might lose it yourself first."

"Why?" I asked. Maybe more sharply than I should have.

"Spending that amount of time on one person is by definition obsessive. You could really lose yourself in it. This is the kind of thought process that leads to erotomania. Like when you start thinking a movie star is sending you secret messages based on the hats they wear."

"Fun to try though," someone down the table said.

"I mean, everyone has one enemy they'd like to break, right?" Harry asked.

"Thin ice already, Harry," I murmured. But I was mostly thinking about what Lyle had said.

It seemed like a good weekend experiment, to be honest.

If you're super into online gaming you might remember this. There was a guy, PlayMeRite, who made play-through videos but also, as a side-hobby, made videos where he sought out women in multiplayer games and deliberately baited them into arguing with him, then recorded and posted the results on YouTube. He only ever published the ones where the women lost or got angry or cried, but gamer forums for women were full of stories of the videos he didn't post. At this point he had to be pretty careful because most women knew about him and some of them were recording, too.

But PlayMeRite still found women to bother, and I had thought about going into his comments and only leaving the critical ones. Now I decided to take a different approach.

I silenced him.

Starting Friday night, and suspending the "only two hours a day" rule, I located every single one of his social media accounts (handily linked from the end-trailer AND in the notes of every video) and started watching each account in a separate tab while I went through his YouTube videos and Deleted everything he'd ever said in response to a commenter.

I will say this for PlayMeRite, he delivered. On Saturday morning he lost his shit on his Facebook and then posted a personal vlog about how something had gone wrong with all of his social media, and he suspected he'd been hacked. As his comments continued to disappear throughout Saturday, even after he changed his passwords, he began to insist more and more loudly that someone at YouTube or Google do something, like a Starbucks patron demanding to speak to a manager.

Saturday night, after he announced he was going to go play for a while and would deal with the situation on Monday, I actually made myself an account in the game where he did most of his recording, went in, and after rummaging a little, found his most well-known character. There's really no such thing as in-game comments, but I didn't know that when I went looking. I thought about messaging him in the game, but he probably got hundreds of messages daily.

Then I realized, looking around me in the game, that what I had thought were little health indicators over everyone's heads were actually Delete? buttons. They were darker red than usual.

I'd never seen that before. I flipped back to Facebook to check, but nobody's posts or accounts had delete buttons attached. On Twitter, the buttons still only hovered next to responses and retweets.

After a brief second of deliberation, I opened up Tinder, which I hadn't opened in a year at least. It had updated extensively in that time, but there were the usual controls -- swipe right, swipe left, super like....

Delete?

I set my phone down. I closed the YouTube windows, the social media windows. I looked at the video game, at his character standing there, at my little level-1 avatar, at the Delete? button over PlayMeRite's character's head.

I clicked it.

Then I deleted my own account (in the normal way), closed the window, and made up a new rule.

On Sunday, PlayMeRite very publicly lost his shit at the entire world in a vlog, and (so the messageboards tell me) privately lost his shit all over the poor customer service rep who for some reason couldn't help him undelete his most famous in-game character. But by Monday, with no more comments being deleted and what was obviously a hasty rebrand, he had started over with a new character, and announced that most of his side-channels would be suspended while he worked hard "to level up from scratch and keep providing you, as well as in-game beginners who want tutorials, with awesome content!"

There was one comment I saw before I closed down again, on a video from the Taunting She-Players side channel --

I bet the hacker was a woman. Thanks, you did gamers a solid.

I did hang around a little while to delete all the negative responses that got.

***

Rule 1: No more than forty minutes at a time for two hours a day total, with breaks inbetween. (No deletion at work.)

Rule 2: ???

Rule 3: Protect the OP.

Rule 4: No attacks on a single individual. Delete what you see and move on.

Chapter Text

That Sunday, Faye showed up to the HOLEY breakfast in huge sunglasses and a trench coat, claiming to be incognito to amuse Rochelle and myself before whipping the trenchcoat off to reveal jeans and a t-shirt that read BAD BITCH.

"I am ready for a fight today, should one happen," she said. "I've got my body-dumping boots on."

"We always remember the body-dumping boots too late," I said.

"Let's not talk about it," Rochelle suggested. "Especially around the kids, you know how they play Telephone. By the end of breakfast someone will think you're a hit man, Faye."

"The only kind of man I'd have been happy being," Faye sighed, accepting a huge package of sliced ham from the previous week. "Shall I fry?"

"If you would," Rochelle agreed. "Lauren?"

"Eggs?"

"Get on 'em, then," she said. I took up a post at the range next to Faye's.

"You think Slugger will be back today?" Faye asked.

"Who?" Rochelle asked.

"Tanya, the girl with the mean swing."

"Oh! I don't know."

"That kind of thing would scare me off when I was her age," I said.

"Yeah, but you weren't living on the street at her age," Faye pointed out.

"No, I was in AP Calculus," I said. "But nobody's emotionally stable when they're a teenager, processing shit is hard enough when your brain's already done growing -- "

I broke off when my phone buzzed in my pocket, stirring the bulk egg mixture with my left hand while I fished it out with my right. Marnie calling.

"Hey, there she is," I nodded at Tanya, who had just lurked into the doorway, and then answered my phone when Faye went to say hello. "Marnie, what's up?"

"Hey, Lauren, I didn't wake you, did I?"

"No, I'm at the breakfast thing, you know, the volunteering gig," I said.

"Oh! Sorry," she said, in that tone of voice that said she wanted to tell me something but didn't want to bring my entire morning to a halt.

"No big deal, nobody's here yet."

"I was going to see if you wanted to do brunch, but I guess you're probably there until what, like noon?"

"Around that, probably. I can sneak out early if I need to, what's going on?"

"Joe went on a creepy Facebook rampage last night," she said. I resolved to delete Joe's everything as soon as possible, immediately breaking my new rule. "Nothing overt, no threats, just commenting on shit my friends said, then he vagueposted about me."

"You don't have him blocked?" I asked.

"I kinda want to keep an eye on him because of stuff like this," she said.

"Yeah, but at least then he couldn't bug your friends on your own Facebook," I said. "Tell you what. Block him, and then come down to the breakfast, I'll take a break and we'll bitch about men. You'll be in a kitchen full of lesbians, I guarantee they will support your rage."

"They won't mind a straight girl showing up to cry at them?"

"The whole point of everyone here is helping people who need some help," I pointed out, as Faye returned with Tanya. "We'll make an exception for you, I have a Lesbian For A Day card you can have."

"I know life wouldn't be easier if I were a lesbian but relationships must be," Marnie said.

"Ah, ye clueless straight girl," I said, letting Tanya step in with the eggs. "Not everyone has the fortitude for a life of loving women. Anyway, block him."

"Yeah, fine," she said. "See you in a few."

"Straight girl problems?" Faye asked when I hung up.

"Rabid ex-boyfriend. She's going to come by to complain to us about him, please be nice."

"I will, but be careful, rabid ex-boyfriends become mass shooters."

"I wouldn't worry, most mass shooters couldn't get dates in the first place. He's just an entitled prick. Tanya, take some advice from me," I said, turning to her. "Stick with women."

"I leaned too hard into the gay thing to back out now," Tanya said, and Faye cackled with delight.

"Can I take a minute, are you two cool here?" I asked.

"We got this, you go wait for the straight girl," Faye said to me. As I walked off, I heard her say to Tanya, So, where you go when you aren't beating people with frying pans?

Rochelle was busy enough with the volunteers arriving that she wouldn't notice if I disappeared for a few minutes; I ducked through the dining-room-slash-basketball-court and into the equipment room on the far side, which was full of gymnastic mats and basketballs behind locked chain-link cages.

Nothing about most social media is either intuitive or optimal. It's probably because everyone's gotta get paid, which means the site's primary priority is its advertisers, and we get whatever doesn't interfere with that. We expect social media to be free, but remember: under late capitalism, if you're not the paying client, you're the product.

So browsing Facebook on your phone isn't the greatest experience even if nearly everyone does it, and trying to get to all of Joe's comments to delete them took me long enough that I had second thoughts about doing it.

This wasn't some theoretical Nazi dropping shit in the comments of a Black woman's YouTube video. This was Joe, a guy who knew where Marnie lived (and brunched). Protecting Marnie was the goal, and she'd already seen the comments, so what would be the point? I could go after him the way I'd gone after PlayMeRite, but making Joe more generally unhinged might not be the best idea.

I try not to live my life as though the men in it are emotionally relevant to me. I don't hate men, I just don't have to be in a relationship with one, so pleasing men is low on my priority list, and thus when I have to change my ways so one of them won't murder me or my loved ones, it pisses me off. I wondered if we could lure Joe into the breakfast and then let Tanya loose on him. It'd probably be cathartic for her.

Then, literally as I looked down at Joe's Facebook, a dark red dot faded into existence next to his name. D?

It would, at least, distract him.

So I deleted his Facebook. And his Instagram, which I don't think Marnie knew about and which had a lot of pictures of her taken at a semi-blurry distance. I googled his name and deleted his LinkedIn and one messageboard account I found for him on a website dedicated to guitar collecting. It wasn't surgical, and it did break rule four, but I wasn't planning on coming back or spending any more time on him. I scorched and salted the earth. If I could have found any dating profiles for him I would have deleted those, too.

Imaging having all your social media so thoroughly wiped from the face of the Earth that all you were left with was the kind of conversation you get at the start of every OK Cupid hookup.

I was back in the kitchen when Marnie arrived, but we were starting service and with Tanya eagerly helping to dish out the eggs she was so proud of, I wasn't strictly necessary. We loaded up paper plates and took them into the equipment room, sitting on one loose gymnastics mat.

"You live like a queen," Marnie said.

"I try to stay humble," I told her. "So what the fuck's up with Joe? I saw his comments."

"I'm wondering about a restraining order, for real. I'm tired of his shit but like, there's no magic word to make it stop. Reasoning with him isn't going to work, I know that."

"Trying to convince an asshole not to be an asshole just makes everyone tired," I said.

"Do you think the cops would even give a shit? Boo hoo, he was mean about me on the computer."

It was then I realized I had, actually, just removed all evidence of his crimes.

Shit.

"Well, you could get him on film," I said. "Get a GoPro and if he follows you, film it. Or, I mean, me and the Lesbian Bat Squad could show up at his house with blunt objects and make our displeasure known."

She gave me a sad smile. "If only."

"I seriously know a woman who knows a woman who could get this done," I told her. Surely Rochelle would know someone. And as a last resort Faye still went to the same gym she had before transitioning and she said the meatheads there were pretty woke. They'd probably enjoy the chance to chivalrously liquify Joe's organs.

"Let's keep that for emergencies," she said. "But I'll let you know. It's really just good to talk to someone about it."

"Use a code phrase. If you want me to bring out the big guns just call me and whisper Come Kick His Ass into the phone."

Marnie laughed. "Okay, enough about my tired love life, what're you up to?"

"Not much. Work's keeping me busy. Hey, remember last week, when we were talking about the internet?"

"Oh, yeah, your thing about being able to delete stuff?"

"So, I asked the dudes at work," I said. "One of them said he'd use it to eliminate his competition while trying to get laid. One said he wouldn't delete anything because letting Nazis have their say was part of his idealism."

"Oh, no," she groaned.

"And one of them said you could use it to psychologically break someone by making them unable to speak."

"You work with psychopaths," she pointed out.

"Yeah, they're probably not the best sample," I said. "I should poll the volunteers. Or the kids, I bet they'd have some interesting things to say."

"What's got you so interested in this idea, anyway?" she asked.

"Well, the ethics of it," I replied. "How do you make a rule about what you should and shouldn't delete? Where do you draw the line? Like....I can't condone trying to reason with genocidals narcissists, or letting people say their piece when their piece advocates the systematic murder of human beings. But I'm not infallible. Someone else would say that allowing people to advocate free love or gay love or, I don't know, the practice of a given religion is as harmful."

"Yeah, but we've got....history on our side," Marie said. "Like, we have proved that being gay isn't inherently harmful. I feel like."

"Tell that to the parents of everyone on the other side of this wall," I said. "I mean yeah, we mostly have evidence of what is and isn't genuinely harmful to...our entire species, I suppose. We have evidence that allowing Nazis to talk about genocide leads to genocide and we've all decided genocide is a bad thing, except the Nazis. But how do we decide where that line is when things get more blurry?"

Marnie chewed her eggs thoughtfully.

"What you need," she said, "is Judaism."

"Aren't you supposed to deny me three times before I can convert?" I asked.

"Not personal Judaism. Judaism as...a concept. What you need to answer this question is a bunch of Jews." She grinned at me. "Have you heard the old joke about it? Ask two Jews a question, they'll give you three opinions. They definitely have strong ones about Nazis."

"You're not religious, though," I said.

"I don't have to be, I'm still Jewish. Tell you what, let me rustle you up a shabbes dinner to go to. Get some good food, ask your question, watch a couple of heavyweight intellectuals get into it. I bet the first thing they bring up is Tikkun Olam," she said.

"That won't be weird?"

"Nah. I'll come, we'll make an evening out of it. Lauren's Thoughtpiece Dinner, Cocktails To Follow," she said. "Now, the least I can do is help volunteer now that you've fed and comforted me."

"Let me introduce you to Tanya," I said. "Just in case you eventually need someone to take Joe out."

***

The following week, I got an email from Professor Brantis, who said his students would have their papers in soon, and he wondered if I'd be willing to meet up again so he could share his students' conclusions.

"Though, really, this is a favor to me," he said to me, as we settled into the least-oppressive corner of the overheated Starbucks. The weather outside was ugly, but Chicago coffeehouses over-react in extreme ways.

"How's that?" I asked.

"Well, I suspect I'll get more from you than you do from me," he said. "My students certainly tried every approach they could, but..." he shrugged.

"There must have been something useful," I said.

"Well, we can discard the people who say there is no legitimate time when you should silence someone else's speech, since the question isn't should you use it, but how should you use it. What's left are people who are exploring when it would be for the greater social good to silence someone. One person made a really interesting point that you're not actually silencing someone completely, just gagging them on one specific topic, but that gets into a weird moral relativism area," he added, waving a hand.

"No targeting an individual. Delete what you see, and move on," I told him, reciting rule four.

"I see you reached the same conclusion, but I would remind you that it's not necessarily for the greater social good to let someone say whatever they like and only silence them when you happen to see it," he pointed out. "Anyway, they all hit the same problem, which is how to define 'greater social good'. And whether one person could be trusted or there should be checks and balances in place. One student argued for an entire assembly of advisors to decide when that power could be used, until she realized that was basically state-sanctioned censorship."

"That must have been an interesting paper."

"Yeah, she went on a journey," he sighed.

"So nobody hit on a good formula, huh?"

"I think the closest they came, collectively, was to consult existing anti-hate-speech laws and contrast them with genuine censorship laws in other countries. I mean, the upshot is, if you want to know right from wrong, get a law degree."

I burst out laughing. "Seriously?"

"If you argue hard enough you can pretty much prove anything," he told me with a straight face. "We live in a post-truth economy."

"Yikes."

"How about you, have you asked around? Come up with anything?"

"You'll think I'm joking," I said, "but I have three always-gos."

"I won't laugh, I'm a teacher. Lay 'em on me."

"I...would...delete anyone commenting on a woman's appearance when she didn't ask," I said. "I'd delete people who are just calling other people names. Neither of those contribute anything worth having to a discussion. And....genocide."

He raised his eyebrows. "Ad hominem attacks, name-calling, and genocide? I....I can't actually argue any of those three, it's a good start."

"And my primary guiding principle is to protect the original poster, so if someone seems unstable or likely to get angrier, I don't delete them."

"It's a shame we can't test it," he said. "There's so much paperwork to fill out when you experiment on humans."

Hahaha, yeah. Definitely. A shame.

"I'm still working out where I stand on people like...defending racist movies, and stuff," I said. "Art is terrifying."

"You're not the first to believe it. I actually did have an invitation for you, too, something I think might help. Or at least be instructively terrible," he said. He took a flyer, one of the cheap kind printed in bulk on postcard stock, and passed it over. It advertised a speech by someone I'd never heard of, taking place on the University of Chicago campus the following week. There was a photo of an attractive guy with tidy, "love me some vintage" hipster hair slicked down in a straight part, and a white smile; on the other side of the card was a small paragraph headed FOURTEEN WORDS and I didn't need to read that to know what it was; I'd seen it on hate sites before.

We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.

I had never wanted a delete button for a real object so badly.

"He's one of the new Respectability Racists," the professor said. "Emphasis on how nice and well-mannered he is, how he would never raise his voice but he thinks several kinds of people should be quietly destroyed."

"Why on Earth is anyone hosting such nonsense?" I asked.

"He doesn't have face tattoos and he knows what fork to use at banquets," Professor Brantis said. "The official stance of several universities in the city is that they don't restrict who their students can and can't invite to campus. The Campus Young Republicans and the Economics department are jointly sponsoring him. Most of the rest of the campus plus most of our kids are going to protest. They've chartered a bus to take them down there, bless them."

"Are you?" I asked.

"Yes, but that's not why I shared it. I think you should attend. Not as a protestor, as a guest."

"Why?"

"Because this is the tension of free speech in action. I can't tell you what's going to happen. I mean, probably they'll cancel the speech because he doesn't feel safe, that's the usual reason. But if he speaks, it's an opportunity for you to see people from both sides of this issue talking about it and trying to work through it."

"Even though I can only see one side of this issue?"

"I don't want you to entertain the ideas of a white supremacist, no. What I want is for you to, perhaps, see how the people attending justify what's going on. I want you to see why he isn't silenced, and watch who has power and who doesn't and how they wield it. Just...as more data. If you want to entertain the idea of the power to suppress, you should see what the use of power is really like."

"I don't want to seem for a second like I'm supporting him," I said.

"And I can understand that. But it's what I've got, in terms of suggestions," he said. "If you can't stomach that, at least come to the protest. It'll be a bunch of college kids feeling good about themselves and probably passing around some weed. Fun times if you don't mind the possibility of arrest."

"I'll think about it," I said, wrapping the card in a napkin before putting it in my bag.

"You really are just curious about this, aren't you?" he asked.

"Aren't you?" I replied.

"Sure, but I didn't come up with it, and this is my job. It's rare to meet someone who wants to wrestle with this kind of thing for fun."

"You're a professor!"

"Which means I have great statistics, and trust me, even in law not everyone wants to tackle the big problems regardless of whether their grades are riding on the pursuit. So I guess I'm a little curious, why this?"

"It just came to me one day," I said.

Chapter Text

Hello! This is a placeholder for a chapter not yet written, which is referenced in the previous chapter. I haven't reviewed the commentary yet but I needed to start posting again or I was going to make myself crazy.

Jewish readers, as with last chapter, please feel free to add new comments or continue the discussion I prompted in Chapter Eight about the Shabbos/Shabbes/Shabbat (I will study out which one is most appropriate, thank you for the correction!) dinner. Once again, I appreciate your advice, knowledge, and help!

All readers, you should feel free to proceed to the next chapter -- while this chapter will impact the rest of the book, it's likely nothing that happens in it will make the rest of the book difficult to follow. Apologies to the completionists who are feeling very frustrated right now. :D

Chapter Text

On Sunday, at the breakfast, Rochelle leaned over to me while I was washing dishes and hissed, "Stepford Ladies Lunch."

I love Stepford Ladies Lunch. It's a sort of catharsis, I suppose.

"I'll get my lipstick," I hissed back.

Stepford Ladies Lunch, much as the name implies, involves putting on our most conservative ladylike clothing, going to the outlet mall, having lunch, and then spending the afternoon shopping and talking about our husbands. We consider it a bonus if we manage to convince the cashiers, without actually telling them, that we're cheating on our husbands with each other.

And sometimes we find really good deals at the outlets, so it's a win-win in terms of both cultural subversion and bargain shopping.

Rochelle and Faye have a firm policy of not adopting any of the kids who come to breakfast; the idea is to get them social services in an official, documented way, so that everyone gets what they need. After all, none of us are professionals, just living the experience. That said, they had taken Tanya under their wings, inasmuch as she'd let them, and when Rochelle picked me up from my place after I threw on a dress and packed some makeup to apply en route, Faye was in the backseat and Tanya was next to her in an obviously borrowed skirt-and-cardigan set.

"So, today we're shopping for my husband's niece's Winter Debutante," Faye declared, as Rochelle pulled onto Congress on her way to I-90 north. "It's at a resort in Wisconsin, so she'll need an overnight traveling wardrobe."

"Well, that's a fun trip," I said, glancing sidelong at Rochelle.

"Faye found me a place to stay," Tanya said, clearly catching my look.

"And I've got an all-day, every-purchase 30% off coupon," Rochelle said, flashing a flimsy bit of paper.

"So, stocking you up again, got it," I said, looking at Tanya in the rearview. She beamed. "Remind me to buy you a frying pan."

"Be more useful, give me your makeup," Faye said, and I passed my travel bag back to her. Faye settled in to give Tanya a subtle smoky eye, suitable to the slightly rebellious niece of a wealthy Chicago family. Rochelle hummed along with the radio and occasionally muttered obscenities at traffic.

"Oh, I had an article I wanted to send you," Faye said, poking me with the plastic cap to an eyeliner pencil. "It's a thinkpiece about crime dramas as indoctrination propaganda, because it shows police being encouraged to find ways around privacy and unlawful-arrest laws."

"I'm in," I said, taking out my phone. "You remember the headline?"

"Clickbait of some kind. Making Cops Seem Like Humans Is The Man's Plan For You, maybe?"

"Got it," I said, as The Man Wants You To Think Cops Are Humans appeared in the search results.

"I don't like that," Rochelle said. "No love for the police but cops are humans, humans can do sketchy shit, that's the point of wanting more police oversight."

"Nobody thinks that headline is accurate, dear," Faye assured her.

"Yeah, but why even go there? For a few more clicks? Irresponsible..."

I let the discussion go on around me as I read the piece; I don't remember much about it now, though I do recall it straddled the line between "fuck tha police" and "no disrespect meant to courageous law-enforcement professionals" pretty deftly. The reason I even bring it up is what happened when I finished reading, while Faye and Rochelle were still debating clickbait.

Out of habit I flicked to the comments and started to read them, thumb cocked on the right side of the phone, hovering over the little D? buttons scrolling past. One comment had 34 replies:

If people aren't upset by the constant graphic depiction of the murders of women, getting upset that we're supposed to like the cops is a long way off.

Expanding the thread, the very first comment was

Women who can't stay in the kitchen get what they deserve. Most of them are ball-busting hoes.

I flicked my thumb to delete the comment, but before I could, it slid out from under my fingers.

The original comment it was responding to had disappeared; it had a single italic word in its place: Deleted.

I stared at my phone, blinking in confusion, as an entire conversation between the OP and their dickish commenter collasped into a series of non-sequiter responses from the Dick, interleaved with the same caption.

Deleted.

I followed the deletions all the way down the page, scrolling so intently I didn't notice Faye trying to get my attention until Rochelle reached over and tugged gently on the pearl drop earring I was wearing.

There was another deleter. A Deleter. Someone out there had the same power I had. And they were deleting the opposite of what I would have.

"Yes?" I said absently, in response to Faye's prompting.

"I said you need to throw this liquid foundation out, it's two years old and not your shade," Faye said.

"Mmmhm," I replied.

"I swear I'm gonna come to your house and clean our your makeup hutch," Faye said. "You're going to get eye infections. And mange."

"I mean, if you come over to do it, I don't have to do it myself," I managed, but I was on autopilot. For the rest of the afternoon, while we took Tanya into all the clothing stores and gossipped about nonexistent husbands over cocktails at the in-mall Applebees, all I could think was that there was another Deleter.

Which meant it suddenly was much more important to figure out what the hell rules I was going to live by, because I wasn't the only one who might need them.

***

So, the following Friday, I planned to attend a speech by a white supremacist in Hyde Park, Chicago.

This is not something I thought I would ever even have the chance to do, let alone choose to do or talk about. I knew white supremacists existed and gave speeches but I lived in Chicago. That was the kind of thing that happened in Indiana.

I'm not going to lie, though. Before I went to the speech I looked up the guy speaking, August Noble (his real name was Barry Jorgensen, which I guess wasn't dramatic enough). I bookmarked all of his social media and four hours before the speech I did a lot of Delete. And I branched out to a couple of his closest friends, who would also be at the speech, including a guy going by the name Adolf White. We'll come back to him in a minute.

There was room on the College bus for me to hitch a ride down, so I took the day off work, caught the bus, and sat up front with Professor Brantis while everyone excitedly showed off their signs and reminded each other not to post selfies. Having been at my fair share of protests over the years, it was a little adorable to watch them try to prepare themselves. It would probably be a pretty tame protest, given it was on a university campus, but on the other hand, kids once got pepper sprayed for sitting quietly on the campus of UC Davis, something they are still trying to make everyone forget.

I will say this, the campus was prepared. When we got there, there was a corral blocked off for protestors, not that they were staying inside it, and a heavy police presence. Attendees were being escorted in along the line of protest.

"Nice to see the local student body engaging in the discourse and discovery for which the school is so famous," Brantis said, as kids in University Of Chicago sweaters and hats made room for us.

"Nobody really likes the Economics department," one of them informed us.

"Probably for the best," I said, unsure what else to say; she smiled and nodded, so I guess that was the right answer.

Protests are always a mingling of the most beautiful and ugliest parts of humanity, at least I think so. Sometimes you can see the divisions pretty clearly, but sometimes desperation to survive turns into ugliness, and I can't really blame the desperate. When someone is advocating the destruction of your entire culture, it can be easy to believe any action that stops him is a good one, and honestly...it's tough to disagree.

Especially after what I did at that protest, that day, because far and away it was the ugliest thing I've ever done.

I was planning to hang around the protest for fifteen or twenty minutes, then go in with my ticket and take my seat. I was half-hoping the protest would break into the lecture pretty quickly, because I wasn't sure I could take an hour of self-satisfied lies under the guise of rhetoric, but I would also have opted for August Noble backing out because he was afraid for his safety. Nazis should be afraid for their safety. They're Nazis.

But I never made it inside, because I saw Adolf White, the proud white nationalist and self-styled propaganda minister for Noble, getting out of a car. I recognized him from his social media, and he was in fact tapping away on his phone as he climbed out. A pair of cops came up to escort him down the protest line, which made him look kind of small -- and he must have thought about this, because he swaggered out ahead of them, flashing a white-toothed smile.

And then someone hit him with a bomb made of yogurt.

There was something absolutely surreal about it. I saw it happen -- I saw a round object fly through the air, the cops both reacting a split second too late, and then I saw it collide with Adolf White's head, just above his right temple. It was beautifully thrown, an arc that Euclid would have admired, and it burst dramatically; they must somehow have stuffed it so full that it was straining to break, the world's most gut-healthy water balloon.

Yogurt went everywhere. It was blueberry, and most of it laminated White's face with a thin layer of purple dairy.

He stopped, mouth open and working like a fish, one eye bulging as he wiped yogurt out of the other. A massive cheer went up from the protestors.

The cops immediately went for the crowd, pushing them back, not really defending White so much as just shoving people because they had an excuse. They looked gleeful. White kept wiping yogurt off himself, and nearly everyone kept laughing, and a couple of kids took up the chant Yogurt Power.

But the cops were busy shoving people around, and most white supremacists have anger management issues, not to mention violent impulses. White looked around, looked just to the right of where the cops were doing their thing, and realized that all local authority figurees were distracted.

"Did you throw that garbage?" he demanded, stomping up to the edge of the protest, which was only held back by a thin barrier of tape and a human instinct Not To Cross The Line. "Hey, bitch, I asked you, did you throw that garbage?"

The woman he picked, and I can't imagine this was an accident, was about five foot three, with deep brown skin and hair buzzed close to her head. She had magnificent winged eyeliner, and her jaw was set.

"I wish I had," she said, and spat at his feet.

He dove for her. I was ten feet away. He tried to punch her, and when she dodged he got hold of her arm; people tried to pull them apart but the police finally noticed, and began swinging batons. In the melee, White grabbed her hair.

I ran forward to join in, but someone pulled me away by the back of my shirt. I twisted and tried to shake them off, and then there was a baton across my throat from behind and onion breath on the side of my face.

"Calm down, dyke," the cop said.

When someone grabs you like that the best thing to do is go limp; I should have just crumpled in his grip until he got tired of dragging my dead weight. And I was about to, but then the world slowed down and I saw Adolf White, one hand in a girl's short hair, a pleased gleam in his eye.

I whispered, "Delete," and the cop said "What?" and Adolf White dropped dead.

Chapter Text

I have never been so freaked out in my life and I doubt I ever will be that freaked out again. The second White dropped, the police formed a wall in front of him, and I was released only long enough for the guy holding me to join the other cops in pushing us all back, away from the body and away from the entrance to the lecture hall.

Someone grabbed my arm, and I vaguely recognized one of the College students; he said "Come on, this way" and began pulling me through the crowd, gathering people like a magnet as we went. We were ahead of the cops, and then ahead of most of the other students; some protestors, wearing bandannas around their faces, were going the other way, pushing into the police.

I knew White was dead the second I whispered Delete. I know he was a monster and I know he wanted people to die for no reason. I know he was attacking a girl and that it was, if not self-defense, at least the defense of others. But I took a life. I murdered him. I knew what I was doing and I murdered someone. And there's no going around that, even if --

Well. Even if he didn't stay dead.

Which is the only reason the rest of my story even happened, because in the two minutes it took for me to be dragged through the protest and out to the bus, I resolved: no more deletion. None, ever again, not the most egregiously worthless comment, not the worst asshole on Facebook. One person wasn't meant to have that kind of power, and I would refuse to use it. Whether it had been a divine gift or a curse, it was over, in that moment, forever. Or so I thought.

I was shaken -- I was definitely shaking -- but there was a riot about to break out around us, and as one of two real adults with outside-of-school experience, I had a responsibility to help Brantis get the kids to safety.

It might seem a little cowardly, turning and running at the first sign of police violence, but the kids we were with had committed to nonviolent protest. On the one hand that could have meant staying there, going limp or being targets, but on the other hand nobody wanted to get their asses handed to them, which was clearly what was going to happen.

And I was just as glad to flee the scene. The visceral sensation of having murdered someone was fucking me up.

Have you ever had dreams like that, where you've done something irrevocable? A dream where you're about to be executed, or where you've killed someone, or even just where you've done something you can't ever take back or fix? I know people who have nightmares where they suddenly discover they've divorced a partner or abandoned a pet to die, and they're terrible dreams. Haunting dreams. And I'd just done that in real life.

Somehow I got through the bus ride, said what was hopefully something civil to Brantis, and got home. I remember crawling into bed and shuddering. The fact that nobody could prove I had done it was shockingly ineffective in comforting me; I always figured I'd be okay with having murdered someone who deserved it, as long as nobody could catch me. And White, arguably, had met a fate he wanted for innocent people, which he wasn't. But it wasn't about Adolf White, not at all, not anymore; it was about me and what I'd done.

Sometimes, when you're waiting to hear from someone about something important, you don't actually want to hear; as long as you don't hear anything, you don't know for sure whether the news will be good or bad. I wanted to put the news on, to see what they were saying, because someone had to have covered it; I wanted to know how he died -- and perhaps a little, how his 'colleagues' might be taking it. But I also didn't want to think about it, I didn't want to know anything.

I spent a couple of hours in bed, holding my phone in my hand, wondering. I thought about searching other stuff, stuff about death and murder and guilt, but it...well, it wasn't as funny as trying to research how to use a magical power I just woke up with one day.

Finally I let it go. I put the phone down, I got up, I poured a glass of water. I wasn't ready to see a delete button yet, anyway.

There was a gross old broken-down clock radio mounted on the kitchen wall in my apartment, a relic of some former resident, so I turned that on instead. I found a Top-40 station, the kind that doesn't even employ DJs anymore, and I listened to shitty auto-tuned pop while I made myself some lunch. I listened to what amounted to the same 15 songs, with a one-hour break at 5pm "for your Dad Rock Commute!", until probably six or seven that evening.

I got text messages, mostly asking if I was okay from people who knew I'd been at the protest. I replied that I was fine and if they responded to that I ignored them. I considered heavy drinking.

I didn't leave my apartment on Saturday. I could tell Marnie was worried, and that she'd spoken to Rochelle because Rochelle hit me up asking doubly sure if I was coming to HOLEY breakfast on Sunday. But I was dealing with as much as I could at the moment, so they were going to have to wait on anything more than "Yeah I'm fine" and "I'll be there" and an emoji or two.

My plan, when I finally came up with one, was ridiculous, and I will acknowledge your right to laugh at me, but it also worked, so if you did laugh you can go to hell.

I decided to prove that at least I was a good person for feeling bad, by consulting Reddit.

There are a lot of places you can ask a question like this on Reddit. I didn't know many of them because I just hung out in local Chicago forums, which were mostly not cesspits. But I looked at the most active forums, and I picked one called JusticeAndRevenge. I told them I wanted their opinions as people who were interested in justice, even informal justice, and I asked: what would you do if you could kill anyone, without consequences? Without anyone knowing it was you?

One of the first responses was Just one person?

No, I said. Anyone. As many as you like. As often as you like.

I felt like I was going to throw up.

Shit, you go hard. But it's still tough to figure it out. I don't know, man. I don't want blood on my hands.

Someone else said, I wouldn't know where to stop.

Responses began piling up, and I made myself read through all the revenge fantasies and vigilante justice dreams, proving that if there weren't people out there who were worse than I was, at least there were some who were as bad.

Next to each one of them, the little red Delete? button waited.

***

I went two weeks without deleting anything. I went to Volunteer Breakfast and saw Tanya working the range like a pro; I did dinner with Marnie; I spent one Friday night in Andersonville trying to find a hookup, but everyone uses their phones for that now and I couldn't bring myself to open the app. I ignored news about the protest. When Rochelle asked about it, I told her it was intense, but I'd gotten out early. When you don't want to know something, it does get easier to avoid it if you don't watch late-night or the evening news.

It was two weeks before I found out that Adolf White wasn't dead. Or, well, I suppose I could call him undead, not that anyone else would understand why.

It was at that point, two weeks after I murdered him, that the Yogurt Meme became too powerful to ignore.

I'd seen it once or twice and chalked it up to bad taste. Someone had got video of Adolf White being hit in the face with the yogurt balloon, and people had been doing what people do: sharing it, recaptioning it, remixing it so that his head exploded or plants started growing out of it or a kitten leapt up to catch the balloon. I thought it was tasteless to mock the dead that way, even a dead terrible person, but then, finally, it flooded onto my Facebook feed and I saw someone commenting on it:

He's still in the hospital, you know, it's kind of tacky.

Hospital?

I knew he had been dead. I knew it. It wasn't an assumption or a guess, it was knowledge. I knew I killed him.

But as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Adolf White had attacked a girl at a protest and had a heart attack in the middle of trying to punch her. He'd lain on the ground for ten full minutes before the police got the crowd under control and EMS could get through. By then a woman from the protest was working on him, doing chest compressions, keeping him alive.

The news had a photo of her, or at least, of her back and some of her hair as she worked over his body. She looked strong -- broad shouldered, the muscles of one calf visible where her cuff rode up over her boots --

And then it hit me that this woman, whoever she was, had saved our lives. She had stopped me from being a murderer. It wasn't that much better -- I had still killed him -- but he wasn't dead. If I were religious I would have felt redeemed in that moment.

I had to find her.

It wasn't going to be easy. Nobody knew who she was and half of Chicago was looking for her for one reason or another. According to every news report I could get my hands on -- reading voraciously now that I needed to know -- she had stepped out of the crowd and performed CPR until an ambulance arrived, and when the EMTs took over for her she disappeared in the chaos. Someone said they'd seen her slipping into the building where August Noble was going to speak, which meant a lot of people thought she was a friend of the Nazis.

I wasn't so sure. Most of the protestors had dressed in red, and she was in a red jacket, red boots. In Chicago in the winter you don't get many bright colors; most jackets are black or grey, plum, forest green. Her jacket stood out like a beacon. One of her boots was cocked back just enough that, in some of the higher-res versions of the photo, she looked like her red boots had rainbow laces on them. Though that could just have been a trick of the shutter on the smartphone that took the picture.

I studied that thing like a young lesbian reading about a Hollywood starlet's gal-pals in Teen Vogue.

Going inside would be counterproductive if you wanted to get away, I thought, though perhaps she'd wanted to wash the yogurt off her hands in a bathroom. Still, how would she know where to go? If it were me, I'd be putting as much space between myself and the EMTs as possible. You go outside to run, inside to hide. And inside, in this case, was the Oriental Institute, the dubiously named but very earnest museum of ancient art where they keep all the Indiana Jones stuff. You couldn't just stroll into the museum. The lecture hall would have been open, but the rest was, well, it was a museum.

Unless you knew your way around.

I wouldn't recognize her even if I saw her, but I thought it was worth a try anyway.

When I left work, I went back to Hyde Park, alone this time, and walked inside just as the museum was closing for the day. The museum entrance was on the left, and the entry to the ill-fated lecture hall was just ahead, but to my right was an open flight of stairs, so I took them.

The second floor was the kind of dusty, tattered-at-the-edges place that has seen a lot of inoffensive people sharing space for a really long time. Some of the signs were still hand-lettered.

She thinks it's fate, or rather she thinks that whatever gave me this power drew me to her. I don't know, I think I was employing some pretty awesome detective skills. We'll probably never be sure. But the point is that I was standing at one end of the hall, a little intimidated by the sheer aura of academia in the air, when she came around a corner, walking backwards, leading a tour. It was obviously important people -- they were in suits, and the one in the cheapest suit was carrying a clipboard -- so I moved aside to let them pass.

As I did, she glanced my way briefly, and I was already staring at her, so it wasn't exactly fate that we made eye contact.

Her eyes widened and her head tilted to one side, as if to say You, but though her voice wavered slightly, she never stopped talking, continuing to walk backwards until she turned just at the top of the stairs and led them down. I stared after her, stunned and bewitched.

If she had been beautiful in a blurred cellphone image, in real life she was astonishing. I've heard people call others bright suns or candles in a dark room or the lights of their lives, but she was like a constellation. One of the really complicated, hard to find ones that suddenly leap out at you, full of stars and ancient myth. Bright in the darkness, yes, but not in the way staring at a light hurts your eyes. More beauty than illumination.

"Can I help you?" someone asked, emerging from the doorway I was nearly blocking in my haste to get out of the way. He looked at me curiously, like he knew I didn't belong.

"Oh, no thank you," I managed. "I'm just...waiting for someone," I said.

"There's a bench down the hall, if you want to sit down," he told me, and I drifted in the direction he pointed and sat, still witless.

She'd recognized me. She'd come back. So I sat and waited and tried to come up with what to say to her.

Chapter Text

I had just about finished coming up with a very good speech about my gratitude for my mystery woman's work and how she had really saved two lives that day, but I never got to give it. When she came back up the stairs, I stood up and opened my mouth, and she hissed, "How dare you."

"Uh?" I said, instead of my speech.

"Why are you here? You came here to where I work?" she demanded, still in a hushed, angry whisper. "Are you here to delete me, too? Or were you just trying to terrorize -- "

"Thank you!" I blurted, super-loud. Someone put their head out of a nearby office.

"Eppie, you okay?" he asked.

"Yeah, sorry," she said, without offering any other explanation. She gave me one long, assessing look, then said, "Come with me," and took off down the hallway. I followed, trying to recover my mental footing, and pretty much failed completely. (I was also becoming conscious of my hat hair, which was not flattering.)

She turned into a small room at the end of the corridor, obviously some kind of storage room, and said, "Leave the door open, I'm not being alone with you." I walked in behind her and stood, fidgeting my hands.

"Why are you here?" she asked.

"I -- I came to see you, I had to see you, so I worked out you might work here," I said. "Because after you saved him you went into the museum, that's what people said to the news."

"I guess I'm just lucky you're the first person who figured it out," she retorted.

"I came to say thank you, I really -- I did," I offered. I was bewildered; she clearly knew what I'd done, but I didn't see how. "I thought he was dead, when I found out I didn't..."

I put my hand over my mouth because I was about to burst into mingled tears of confusion and gratitude. She rolled her eyes.

"Sorry," I said, voice about two octaves higher than normal. "It's just such a relief, you don't know."

"You're lucky I was there to Zee him," she said, which didn't make sense. My confusion must have been evident, because she continued, "You know," and held up her hand, tapping her pinky and middle finger in the air on an imaginary keyboard. "Control-Z? Undo?"

"So you really did -- you undid what I did," I managed.

She studied me carefully. "Did you...not know I was doing that?" she asked. "All that -- all the things you deleted, didn't you see someone was fixing them?"

"No. I didn't -- you know I can delete things?" I asked, sniffling.

"Well, yeah. Can't you tell when someone's different? Like us?" she asked. "Listen, I'm not falling for this crying thing. You're a terrible person."

"I know! But he was attacking that girl and I -- "

"Not him." She waved a hand dismissively. "I mean yes, obviously also him, but you just...you go around deleting people who are only defending themselves."

"Defending themselves? Jerks and white supremacists, I don't even think -- "

"What about V-Jo?"

I blinked. "....what's V-Jo?"

She stared at me.

"What have you been deleting?" she asked.

"Well," I said, sitting down in a desk-chair combo thing near the door. She sat, much more elegantly, on an office chair. "Mostly people who are being jerks online. Guys who comment on womens' bodies on youtube videos. PlayMeRite on YouTube? I deleted a bunch of his stuff."

"So you didn't delete V-Jo's comments."

"I don't know who that is."

"She's a gamer journalist."

"Oh lord," I said, and for a split second, sympathy and understanding crossed her face; we both knew what kind of comments V-Jo would be defending herself against.

"But you did kill that guy," she said.

I nodded, head bowed. "I...I stopped deleting anything at all after that."

"You haven't deleted anything in two weeks."

"No," I whispered.

"Oh, no," she said softly. "There's two of you. Things have been deleted in the last two weeks. There's two of you."

"Two of -- two deleters?" I asked. She nodded. "I knew someone was out there. I only saw them deleting something once."

"Yeah, I don't think your paths would cross, he's a scumbucket. I thought he was you," she said. "Sorry."

"Don't be. I did..." I gestured at the window, which overlooked the walkway where White had died. "I came to thank you for saving him. Because now I'm not a murderer either."

I looked down at the desk until, slowly, a tissue appeared in my line of vision. She scooted the office chair closer as I took it.

"You are a hot mess," she said. "But I suppose in your situation I would be too."

"Thanks," I managed.

"Let's start over. You don't even know my name," she said. "I'm Eppie. Esther, but everyone calls me Eppie."

"Lauren. I uh. I can delete stuff. I think...with my brain? I don't know how it works. Do you?"

"No," she said. "I only undelete stuff. Zee."

"Zee," I nodded. "Okay. How does that...how does it work?"

"I dunno, how does it work for you?"

"I see a button," I said, taking out my phone. I had the Facebook app up before I even realized she probably wouldn't be able to see it. "A little red button asking me if I want to delete something."

She scooted even closer and leaned over my phone. She smelled amazing.

"Maybe you can't see them," I stammered.

"No, I see..." she put a finger out and tapped one of the red buttons. Nothing happened.

"You can see them?" I asked.

"Sure. Hey, try deleting one," she said.

"I can't just randomly -- "

"I can fix it," she replied, supremely self-confident. I found a harmless comment from someone on a meme post, and deleted it. It took a lot of control to manage it; I was terrified when I pushed the button they'd die, even though I knew that was unlikely.

Instead of vanishing and letting the next comment scroll upwards, like normal, the deleted comment flashed bright yellow and then the text turned grey. Like a button on a program that isn't an option yet because you haven't bought the Pro version.

She put her finger on the screen and drew it from left to right, and the text turned black again. I blinked down at it, impressed.

And then it occurred to me that she would face the same problem I did, just in reverse.

"Can I ask you something?" I mumbled, still looking down at my phone.

"I can't imagine what you would ask, honestly," she said.

"How do you know which ones to Zee?" I asked.

"Oh. Well. That...hasn't been that hard," she said.

***

Apparently the fact that I wasn't who she thought I was, and also my obvious panicked remorse, was enough to convince Eppie that I was at least not a dangerous lunatic. She led me out of the storage room and into a real office, then through a side door with a nameplate, ESTHER EPSTEIN, on it, into a cubby plastered with posters and mailings, all advertising the Oriental Institute or begging money for it.

"I'm a fundraiser," she said, gesturing at the paper lining the walls. "The people you saw me with earlier just cut us a check for a couple of million."

"Do you get to keep any of that?" I asked.

"Nope. But I get the warm glow of having helped advance the cause of ancient historical studies, so there's that," she said, drier than anything else I'd heard from her so far.

"I figured you were a grad student," I said, as she settled at a small desk and turned her computer monitor so I could see it.

"I was. I realized talking about ancient history was much more fun and lucrative than actually going on digs," she said. "Come look at this."

She had a spreadsheet open with multiple columns, most of them full of text. Date, Page URL, Direct Permanent URL, Username, Comment, Part of Thread, Est. Time Deleted, Time Restored, Tags. Tags, the column at the end, was a fascinating conglomeration of keywords: race, gender, sexual orientation, class, capitalism.

"I've been logging when I restore something," she said. "Sometimes I just log when I restore parts of a thread because it's tedious to do, but...this is a record of nearly everything I've restored. Made it easier to keep track of where he goes. It's almost all been people defending themselves -- women talking about catcalling, people arguing against poverty as a social stigma, that kind of thing. Basically he always makes it seem like assholes are winning."

"How do you know it's a he?" I asked, reading through the column with the actual comments in them.

"It's an assumption. I mean, a woman could do a lot of this. But statistically speaking very few women go this hard to oppress their own gender, and most of the ones that are that evil are already working for the current presidential administration," she said. "I was surprised when I saw you -- do what you did. I thought maybe you were trying to start a riot. You were on the protest side, he was already the target of a lot of anger...I thought you might be a psychopath," she added unapologetically. "Anyway, gender regardless, he's obviously a dickbag. Restoring the voices of people defending themselves hasn't been a hard call."

"Yeah, that must be easier," I muttered.

"Can you show me what you've deleted?" she asked.

"I -- I didn't keep track like you did," I said. "I can show you -- I mean, there are certain people I protect. I just kind of camp on their site and delete the nasty shit."

"Sounds time consuming."

"Yeah, I made rules up about it," I said. "That's part of why I wanted to find you. Mostly not, mostly I just wanted to say thank-you, but...it's difficult to know how far to go. Maybe less now that I see what this person is deleting, though." I looked up at her. "Could I have a copy of the spreadsheet? To study. It would help."

"It's kind of janky and some of the notes only make sense to me, but you'll get the general idea," she said. "You want a printout?"

"Uh, uh, you could email it to me?" I said.

I did want the digital copy, and I didn't want to have to haul around a sheaf of paper, but also I wanted her email addres. I'm not proud. Well, not much.

"Sure," she said, easy as that, and when I gave her my email she tapped it in, sending the attachment without anything else in the email.

"So what do we do now?" I asked, and she raised an eyebrow.

"We?" she said.

"About this other deleter. He's, she's, whoever they are, they're a problem. Shouldn't we do something about them?"

"I mean....not to keep bringing this up, Lauren, but as far as I know he hasn't killed anyone," she said quietly. "He's a problem, sure, but is he our problem?"

"Sure seemed like it when you thought I was the one doing it."

"Because, again, I thought you did all that and killed someone."

"Okay," I said, "the constant bringing up of the murder is actually getting annoying now."

"You literally killed a man."

"Who was choking a woman," I retorted, voice rising now. "He was punching her in the face, he would have killed her if he thought he could get away with it, and he probably could. The cops couldn't give a shit. Nobody was going to help her if I didn't. But I could, so..."

I stopped. One corner of Eppie's mouth tilted up a little.

"Feels better, doesn't it?" she asked.

"What?"

"Knowing you had a reason. Defending yourself, even to yourself. I'm not saying I approve because obviously I don't. I didn't. But I bet it's a relief to remember you did it to save someone. He's an outspoken advocate for genocide, so maybe killing him would have saved a lot of someones. Hard to know anymore which path the future holds." She sat back in her chair. "For a while I thought I was a balance on the universe. What the other 'deleter' was doing, I was undoing. Now that's clearly not the case, at least not entirely. But I can still undo what he does. And what you do, for that matter, if I have to."

"But don't you want to find him?"

"And do what, convince him he's wrong? You think that's something you and I are gonna manage when the entire internet hasn't?" she asked.

I had gone through a lot of emotions in a very short amount of time; really I had gone through a lot more emotions in the last month than I was accustomed to. Anger wasn't a new one, but I could feel the whiplash coming on, going from grief and gratitude to rage so suddenly.

"Well, as you keep pointing out, I've killed before," I said. Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened. But, well, now I had her spreadsheet and her email address, even if using that was looking less appealing by the second.

I tried to make a sweeping exit, because that line so clearly called for it and how often can you use the line "I've killed before"?

I almost succeeded, but I barked my shin on a low bookshelf on my way out, and then I turned the wrong way and had to slink back around, hoping she wasn't watching through her half-open office door.

It could have gone more optimally.

Chapter Text

Eppie had been right about one thing -- well, Eppie was right about a lot of things, but at the time I could really only admit that she'd been right about feeling better. Now that he wasn't dead, and now that I had finally defended my actions to someone, I felt like I could at least treat it as a learning experience. I started deleting again, only a little bit each day, and wondering each time if Eppie had seen the deletions. Probably not. The internet is a big place and she already had one wayward deleter to deal with.

I did look at her spreadsheet, which was beginning to feel like one data point among too many. I started to read it like a mystery novel -- I tried to use the deletions as clues, to see if they'd lead me back to a source. Sadly, the profile was "entitled, white, male, either straight or desperately in denial, really mad at women" which is is not exactly uncommon. Fun fact, it's also the basic profile for most mass shooters and serial killers.

We are surrounded at almost all times by people who might snap at any moment! Really puts life in perspective, I suppose.

I don't know how long I would have gone on like that, just sort of groping in the dark for meaning to assign to this entire episode. Continuing the status quo is a default state for people anyway. We do things the way they've been done unless something shakes it up or we can't anymore, and then we adapt. I suppose I was adapting, somehow.

But then Eppie showed up at HOLEY Sunday Morning Breakfast.

She actually came through the food line, though she wasn't taking any food. I was dishing out ham next to Tanya, who was on eggs and whistling happily, wearing brand new jeans we'd bought her at the outlet mall, when Eppie appeared in my vision and everything else sort of faded out. Which, being fair, is probably what had happened to her when I showed up at the museum.

"I hope you know I'm not actually going to kill anyone," was the first thing I said, which a) was super smooth and b) made Tanya do a double take.

"Don't worry, I'm not here to throw down," Eppie replied, just as sharp.

"Uh. Do you want me to cover you?" Tanya asked me. "You seem like you have drama to work out."

"I can wait," Eppie said.

"I think she can handle two hot trays," I said. "You had breakfast yet? Don't worry, we'll have extra."

"I'll make a donation," she said, taking toast and eggs. I dished up and followed her to a quiet table, away from teenaged ears.

"How'd you find me?" I asked, as she scooped eggs onto her toast.

"Googled your email address. You came up on a HOLEY contact sheet on Facebook. I figured it was worth a shot, and it's a nice...open, neutral place," she said carefully.

"I promise, no deleting people," I repeated.

"Oh, I know. Mostly I know," she said. "I worried a little. But I came because I wanted to talk to you about...I mean...I thought about it a lot."

"Yeah?" I asked, hoping I didn't sound too defensive.

"I just...have you come up with anything you could do?"

"About the other deleter?"

"Yeah."

"No," I said. "I tried to find them using what stuff you've undone, but there are a lot of people out there who could be doing it."

"But what would you do once you found him?" she asked.

"I don't know. Something. Delete what he says. You could undo what he does more efficiently," I said.

"I don't want to spend my life undoing other peoples' bullshit, I spend enough time doing that already," she said. "Why should I have to waste my time because some prick thinks he's better than me?"

"Well, what would you do?"

"I don't know either," she said discontentedly, picking at her eggs. "That's the real reason I wonder if we should even bother. If we can't do anything, why waste our time? There are bigger things to deal with."

"Bigger doesn't necessarily mean more important, though," I said. She stared down at her breakfast.

"Have you ever stopped and thought about where this came from?" she asked finally. "How this happened, how we got here?"

"A little. Not much. I feel like if I did I might...I don't know. Go off the deep end. Get super religious or start believing in aliens or something."

"Or you might lose the power," she said.

"Yeah," I agreed.

"Maybe it would be better."

"Well, it'd be easier."

"I couldn't, though," she finally offered.

"No. Me neither," I said. "So...."

"So."

"Are you...you don't work in the corporate world but we have this thing, I don't know if you're familiar, the Brain Dump?" I asked.

"No, but it sounds, uh, painful," she offered.

"Sort of. Mostly boring in my line of work but. You schedule a brain dump meeting to address a problem, and everyone spends a couple of days ahead of it brainstorming. Then you all talk it over and compare notes and write the best ideas down for futher discussion."

"My god," she said. "And nobody has panic attacks from anxiety?"

"Not so far, but I work with a lot of really boring math-focused straight people," I said, and then winced. "No offense."

"Well, I'm none of those things, so none taken," she said. I blinked at her but let it go past.

"Anyway, what if we did a brain dump?" I asked. "Just like, really focus on the issue for the next few days and then meet up to see what we've come up with? I've mostly been working on how to make this work, in my life and stuff. I could let that drop. Or try to fold it in. You could...I don't really know what it is you do. But you must be thinking about this to some extent because....great spreadsheet by the way."

"Thanks," she said, sounding distracted. "I did study classical history before I got a job raising money for it. There might be something there. Lots of old guys arguing about law and morality. I have some sources I can check. Julius Casear probably has something to say about neutralizing one's enemies, though he ran more towards neutralizing whole armies."

"I don't mind the nuclear option," I said.

"I know," she replied, and I was reminded she knew what I'd done. Like, murderwise.

"So....meet up again in a few days with analysis and sources?" I asked awkwardly.

"How's your Tuesday night look? It's my night to work late but nothing ever happens after the museum closes at five."

"I'm free," I said, though I had no idea if I was. A meeting, even a Brain Dump, in a closed museum with Eppie sounded a lot like a date to my crush-addled brain.

"Okay," she said, finishing her toast and dusting crumbs off her fingers. "I'll see you then. With citations," she added with a small but warmer smile, and left.

The second she was out the door, Tanya slid into the seat across from me, Faye leaning over her.

"WHO WAS THAT?" Faye demanded. The rest of my friends were huddled around the hot trays, watching us.

"The most beautiful woman I've ever seen," I said.

"Excuse you," Faye said.

"Sorry Faye, even with your cheekbones," I said. Then, realizing they weren't going to be satisfied with that, I added, "She's never going to date me."

"Why not?" Tanya asked, and I improvised.

"We're working on starting a business together," I blurted.

"Oooh, dipping your tongue in the company taco," Faye said.

"What kind of business?" Tanya asked. "Do you need an intern?"

"Data recovery," I said, and that was the magic phrase; everyone lost interest after that.

***

When I turned up at the Oriental Institute on Tuesday at ten minutes past five, Eppie was sitting on the interior steps of the lobby, a paper bag from a local noodle place next to her.

"I didn't know if you'd had time to eat," she said, just as I brandished my own bag of Harold's chicken I'd picked up on the way. "Oh, well, nice, we get a selection. Come into the museum, I have somewhere to sit."

"With the food?" I asked.

"I promise we won't be eating it off a mummy," she replied, and pushed open the entry door. Inside, a long corridor stretched out in front of us, full of artifacts from the dawn of history, a treasure trove dug straight from the cradle of civilization. At the far end stood one of the great Lamassu of Assyria, twelve feet tall and five-legged to give the impression of walking, with the head of a crowned man, the body of a bull, and massive spread wings.

We didn't make it as far as the Lamassu, though; instead she stopped me in front of a thick black stele, round-edged and listing a little to one side, covered in cuneiform and topped with an image of two men.

"It's a replica," she told me, spreading out what looked like a dropcloth on the floor and sitting on it, cross-legged, as she unpacked the black plastic noodle bowls. "Veggie or chicken?"

"Chicken. Wing or thigh?" I asked, offering her styrofoam trays.

"Thigh, thanks." She popped open the veggie noodles and laid a few pieces of chicken on top of it. "Are you familiar with the code of Hammurabi?"

"Not very. Isn't it the eye-for-an-eye one?"

"Yeah, but that's not even one of the important rules. It's way down there -- there's almost three hundred rules, and it's a hundred and ninety five."

"What's number one?"

"If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he cannot prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death," she recited.

"Do you, uh, do you have all three hundred memorized?"

"No," she said, around a mouthful of noodles. "I just know because everyone asks."

"Oh," I said, feeling unoriginal.

"Anyway, I thought it was appropriate to be here, when we talk about finding the other deleter and like...whether we're qualified to give out justice. See the two guys at the top?"

"Sure."

"That's Hammurabi and Shamash, the sun god. He's the one sitting, because he's dictating the law to the king, who stands. It's like...this gift comes from something, something that deserves respect, and it's our job to go out and enact it. So we're standing," she said, gesturing to where we were both...sitting. "I think we need to find the other deleter and we need to deal with him."

"Well, I'm glad we're on the same page," I said. "But unless you've got some ideas to back up the resolution..."

"It just so happens I do," she said. "You?"

"A few. You want to go first?"

"No, hit me with yours," she said.

"Well, I was thinking, I work with guys who deal in a lot of data, they do a lot of coding. I thought maybe they could take all the Facebook stuff he's deleted and build a relationship network. Try to figure out how all the places he goes are connected. That would help us figure out more about him. If he has a public Facebook, it could even find his profile."

"What would you tell them about why you need it?"

"Irrelevant," I said, grinning. "As long as I tell them I don't think they can do it, they'll do it just to prove me wrong."

She cocked her head. "Devious."

"I'm just very good at getting people to do what I want them to do."

"Huh. Good to know. Any other ideas?"

"Most in the same vein. Figuring out where he lives or what he does by the rhythm of his deletions, that kind of thing."

"A data-driven paradigm shift," she said. I cracked up laughing.

"I see you do speak my language after all," I told her. "Don't expect me to learn Cuneiform."

"It'd be Akkadian, and don't worry, I don't speak it either," she said.

"So what's your idea?"

"Well, it would play nicely into yours," she admitted. "But I think given both of us are here, it's not unlikely that he's in Chicago too. I think...people like us are inclined to find each other, like how you found me after the protest, or how I found you at the breakfast. And if he is nearby and we're already inclined to find each other, I think we can lure him out."

"How?" I asked.

"If we know where he visits regularly, where he does his deletions -- the spreadsheet has a few he keeps coming back to -- then we can get his attention there. You delete stuff you think is harmful, right?"

"Mostly, yeah."

"Ever seen something where you thought deletion just wasn't enough?"

I thought about it. "Once in a while. But what else can I do? So I just delete it."

"Because you have a little emotional awareness."

"Well, thanks. Glad that shines through," I said, and then understanding dawned. "But he doesn't, does he? He's just...fuckin' mad."

"He's SO mad," Eppie said, and a Great Plan began to take shape. "He's seething. You can tell by the way he deletes. So what if we posted something where he'd see it, something that would just make his blood boil. Or play into his prejudices. And then we link it to a place, and a time...."

"Like a march, or a rally -- some kind of event," I said, thinking of the guy who'd crashed the HOLEY breakfast.

"Yeah -- a time and a place where he might show. And then we watch for him."

"And then what?" I asked.

She shrugged. "One of us follows him home? Can you pick pockets so we can get his driver's license?"

"No, but I'm sure I could enlist someone," I said. "Also stealing his wallet would be very satisfying."

"Not a long-term solution, but I don't disagree," Eppie replied.

"What've you got in the way of long-term solutions?"

"Well..." she tapped her chopsticks into her noodles, clearly considering something. "Until you deleted an actual person, I didn't know that could happen. I didn't know someone could delete anything other than a comment."

"I can delete whole accounts," I said. Her eyes widened. "It used to be just comments. I still can't just delete something someone says if it's not a comment. But I can skip over that and delete like...a Facebook, or a video game character someone's playing. I didn't know I could delete a person either, until I did, but it's a logical progression."

"So do you think you could delete just part of a person? Say...could you delete a gift someone has, a talent?"

"You think I could delete his power," I said.

"Do you think you could?"

"Maybe. I wouldn't know until I tried, though, and that would tip our hand. What about you, couldn't you just Zee his ability to delete things?"

"If I could, I would have done it to you when you first showed up -- when I thought you were a jerk," she said. I cringed a little, inside, but she blew past the awkwardness. "So apparently I can't. Which means you probably can't either. Damn, that was my best idea."

"I was thinking maybe blackmail," I said. "Like we find something out about him and threaten to tell his family or the cops or whatever."

"Slippery assholes like him don't often get caught, and don't get punished when they do," she said. "At least, I'm assuming, from what we know."

"There's always physical violence," I said. "A beating can stop short of murder."

"Doesn't guarantee anything in the way of stopping him, though."

"No, but it'd be satisfying," I said, grinning, and she matched it.

"I suppose it's awful to joke about," she sighed, eventually.

"You don't have any way of programming what you do, do you?" I asked. "Like if you got close enough to him, could you just set some kind of...automatic undo everything he does plugin?"

"I'm not Chrome, Lauren," she said.

"This is the problem with the Brain Dump. It's usually ten dumb ideas for every one good one."

"The first step is to find him," she said decisively. "After that we'll know more. You're an activist, right? You must know what pushes the buttons of people like that."

"I don't know that I'd call myself an activist," I said.

"But you go to protests, you volunteer for gay street kids..."

"I was actually at the protest because I was going to see that guy Noble speak," I admitted.

She stared at me.

"I mean yeah, I've gone to some protests, but not in a long time," I said quickly. "There's this professor who invited me to the speech, so that I could study the way power and privilege work."

"A professor?"

"I've been asking around, you know, I thought I'd consult the Academy. He thinks what I can do is just a thought experiment. I haven't even introduced the idea of someone like you to him."

"Does it change how you think about it? Knowing there's someone like me?" she asked.

"I suppose not. I barely know what to think about anything anymore," I said. "I killed that guy and it really messed me up."

Eppie studied me. "Are you familiar with Marietta Lane?"

"No -- should I be?"

"Not necessarily. She works with the families of murder victims and she's an anti-death-penalty activist. She got into it because one of her own children was kidnapped and murdered, and she felt a religious call to forgive the man who did it. She said something I've been thinking about a lot."

"Oh?" I asked.

"She said she wouldn't honor the goodness of her daughter by killing someone in her name. She thought her daughter was worthy of a better memorial than a cold-blooded, state-sanctioned killing." Eppie shrugged. "I've always been against the death penalty, but I'd never heard someone...think that way about a crime. You hear people say 'my son wouldn't have wanted his killer to die' or 'my wife would have wanted to be sure her murderer wouldn't kill anyone else' but...you never hear someone talk about honoring the victim that way. Saying 'I wouldn't sully the beauty of the life they lived by closing the book on it with a death'. I don't know if I have the right to force that way of thinking on someone else who's hurting, someone who's in real physical danger because of guys like White and the shit his cronies get up to. But I also know if I see someone dying and I can help, I will. I'm not qualified to say who dies. That's why you can do, and I can only undo."

"So what are you saying?"

"That you're more suited for the work you do than I am. That you were chosen for a reason, maybe, and I was too -- so we're fitted to our jobs."

"But that means this asshole we're trying to stop...he was suited to it too."

"Well, just because you're good at it doesn't mean you'll do good with it, I suppose. Still. I think...you must have a mindset for it, which means you'll find your way through it. And...if we work together, we'll figure out the best way."

"Sounds good to me," I said. "So you tell me where to go to egg him on, and I'll do my best to lure him out?"

She offered her hand, and I took it, and when we shook I felt warm inside.

Shut up, this is my love story, I'll tell it however I damn well please.

Chapter Text

By Wednesday, Eppie had sent me a list of places the other Deleter liked to hang out. Three of them were pages on Facebook, which has only reinforced my belief that Facebook is more trouble than it's worth. I had gotten in touch with Rochelle, who has her finger on the pulse, and asked her if she knew of any public social justice events happening in the next few weeks. She sent me back a whole calendar, and didn't even ask why.

I may have spent some time cleaning out the nasty comments on every event I looked at.

Eppie and I settled on an all-day speaking event at the library downtown -- a bunch of activists were going to share their stories and there would be a screening of a new documentary. It didn't seem like much in the way of bait until Eppie got the bright idea to dangle her superhero alter ego in front of him, and convinced several of her cronies to talk about how they were sure the girl who saved Adolf White by giving him CPR would be there as a surprise guest to give a talk on saving the life of someone who advocated genocide.

The third time I left a comment on the event, he Deleted it.

Then he Deleted the other two. Then he Deleted everyone speaking in support of the event until finally Eppie undeleted just one of mine and commented underneath it: You can't delete compassion, no matter how hard you try.

That got his attention. We could both tell. The deletion stopped, but that just meant he knew someone had figured him out.

"Hey, are you any good as a thief?" I asked Tanya, that Sunday at breakfast. She was wearing glittery eyeshadow and flirting with some of the girls coming through the line.

"You think just 'cause I got kicked out of home I must be a crook?" she asked.

"Not exactly, but surviving on the street takes wits. If you can't pick pockets I bet you know someone who could," I said.

"Well, you're not wrong," she admitted. "But the frying pan's really more my speed."

"But you could?"

"Whose pocket you need picked that badly? Just ask her for her number. You're fine, if she's down with girls she'll give it to you," she assured me, which was comforting but not helpful in either the pickpocketing department or the asking-Eppie-out department.

"It's a guy who's been harassing a friend," I said.

"Oh, the straight lady's creeper ex?"

"Different guy, different friend."

"Same story though," she said.

"Spoken like an old soul, Tanya."

"What's his deal, this guy you want picked?"

I gave her an amused look. "What's that matter to you?"

"You want me to help, you gotta give me details."

I pulled the hot tray out so that Rochelle could put a new one in. "Fair enough. There's a guy who's been bothering my friend Eppie. The hot one I can't date?"

"Sure."

"We don't know much about him, but we think he's going to be at a lecture at the library next weekend. Eppie just wants to learn who he is and maybe put a little fear into him."

Tanya nodded thoughtfully. "So you point him out and I rip him off, is that it?"

"All we really need is a driver's license."

She raised an eyebrow. "Can I take a credit card, at least?"

"You know how to use one without getting caught?"

"Wear a lot of makeup and a wig to Target, buy a hundred dollar Visa card, go to Walgreens, buy a fifty dollar Visa card, go to CVS -- "

"Yeah, I get it," I said.

"You go fast as you can you'll generally get two, three hundred dollars before they cancel the card," she said. "I think it's a conspiracy."

"How so?"

"Well, it'd be easy to put a stop to it -- just have stores track the serial numbers of the giftcards people buy. If a serial number turns up linked to a stolen card, cancel the giftcard. People are fuckin' lazy so it might just be nobody wants to write the program that'd do it, but I think the banks and the credit card companies do it on purpose."

"Why on earth? They lose money, don't they?"

"Yeah, but they keep normal people scared," she said. "Then nobody objects when you put chips in cards, or want two passwords, or want four forms of ID, or they put GPS trackers in cards, or they do away with cards and just make you use your phone, where everything is tracked." She sniffed. "It's what I'd do if I were president."

"Well, in twenty years I'll vote for you," I promised her.

"Nah, I've got a sordid past," she said. "Okay. If I get to keep a credit card, I'll do it."

***

The week went at once very slowly and very quickly. Work was a blurry mess, but the whole point of me is to make messes look tidy, so at least it kept me busy. Evenings I generally just went home tired and ate something reheated from the fridge before falling asleep with my tablet on my lap. The tension of knowing the Deleter was out there, and knowing that he now knew at least of Eppie's existence, if not also mine, wore on me.

Professor Brantis called, to ask if I'd contribute commentary for a textbook chapter he was planning to write about my thought experiment, but who uses a phone anymore? I kept meaning to call him back every time I saw the voicemail from him, but I told myself after the weekend I'd put it in an email and let him know it was fine.

Friday night, Marnie wanted to get drinks, and as unwise as drinking sounded, the night before our little cobbled-together heist was about to go off, I did want the company. I talked her into a gastropub where I could eat, and then realized I wasn't hungry.

"You seem jumpy," she said as I picked at the "Savory Vegetarian Flatbread" which was basically a fancied-up mushrooms-and-onion pizza. Could have used some pepperoni.

"I have a weird thing tomorrow," I said, trying to take measured sips of the sangria and not just down it. "I guess it's giving me nerves."

"A weird thing?" she prompted.

"Yeah, it's just gonna be kind of intense."

"Like...court date intense, or like rollercoaster intense?" she asked.

"Are you trying not to ask what it is?"

"Yes," she said, leaning forward. "Please tell me. My own life drama isn't even interesting at this point, I need other peoples'."

"Joe finally leaving you alone?" I asked.

"No," she admitted. "But now we're in a boring cycle where he shows up, I tell him to fuck off, and he fucks off for about a week, then comes back."

"You gotta get a restraining order, Marn."

"I don't think those do much good, you're always reading about someone with a restraining order getting murdered by the restrainee," she said.

"Do you think Joe might get violent?"

"No. At this point I don't even think he wants me back, he just wants to...I don't know, win somehow," she said. "But I mean it, it's boring and I don't want to talk about it, so please tell me what's got your panties wedged in your ass."

I resorted to the lie I'd told Faye and the others at HOLEY breakfast. "I'm thinking of starting up a side business with someone."

"Yeah?" she asked. "What kind?"

"Data recovery," I said. Marnie pouted. "Boring, I know."

"So, what, is tomorrow the day you file the paperwork or something?"

"Sort of. I have a potential business partner, we're going to be getting together to do some work on it. I guess...we don't know each other very well, and I want to impress her, and I'm not sure I do."

Marnie's eyebrows did a complicated maneuver.

"Honey, there's so much to unpack in that," she said.

"Like what?" I asked, a little offended.

"Okay, one, why are you going into business with someone you barely know who, two, apparently makes you feel insecure about yourself; three why aren't you doing your side hustle on company time like a self-respecting millennial who, four, wants to impress a woman she, five, maybe has a crush on? Is that, six, why the insecurity?"

I blinked at her.

"She doesn't make me feel insecure, I do that all on my own," I finally said.

"Lauren, you aren't launching a startup to impress a girl, are you?" she asked.

"No! We have a legitimate mutual interest in....data recovery," I said.

"Do you also have a legitimate mutual interest in pussy?" she asked.

"Marnie!"

She gave me a shrewd look. I sighed.

"She's the most beautiful woman in the world," I told her. "She smells like happiness. Have you ever been with someone and been convinced you are a walking trash heap next to them?"

"Oh, Lauren," she sighed. "You found your Lauren. That's almost poetic."

"What?"

"Well, obviously it's not the same, because I love you but I'm not attracted to you," she said. "But you cut a swath through humanity, you know that, right? We became friends because I saw you yelling at a professor in college and wanted to BE you. I thought, I'm a tire fire next to her, but I have to be her tire fire."

"Marnie," I said, quietly. "Are you serious?"

"Remember kicking Joe out of the Greek place? I couldn't have done that without you, I nearly fell apart even with you there. I mean, you aren't Wonder Woman, I know you have flaws, but Wonder Woman would think you were cool to hang out with."

"Wonder Woman thinks all women are cool to hang out with, that's the point of her," I said automatically.

"Okay but what I'm saying here is that if this woman has made you think you're not worth her attention, she must either be the offspring of an Amazon and Stephen Hawking, or just believe she is."

"It's not like that," I said. "I just made a really shitty first impression."

"Well, make a better one. It shouldn't be hard. Dazzle her with a spreadsheet."

"She actually kinda did that to me."

"Lord, you're made for each other then," Marnie said with a laugh. "Look, I might be shot at any moment by my bewilderingly possessive ex, and it is my belief that the headline will probably read Fat Girl Shot By Man Who Inexplicably Found Her Attractive."

I opened my mouth to defend her to herself, but she put up a hand to stop me.

"I know what I am and what I'm not. But believing in my worth as a person is tough. I think it's hard for everyone. So that instinct you just had to fight me? Apply it to your own self, Lauren. If she can't see your worth, ditch her. You were meant for good things."

I studied the flatbread. Suddenly I was starving.

"Thanks," I said. "She told me something similar, sort of."

"Well, then maybe your first impression wasn't as shitty as you think," she said, as I started to devour the pizza.

Chapter Text

The Harold Washington Library is a massive block-wide building at the southern end of the downtown Loop, less than half a mile from a high-rise federal prison in one direction and a world-famous art museum in another. I've often thought it would make a good headquarters for a heist.

Down the escalator from the south entrance is the lower level of the library, where there's a weird-ass piece of art installed in the floor and also the entrances to the Pritzker Auditorium, where the event was being held.

It wasn't likely the Deleter would be willing to buy a ticket to an all-day event where only women were going to be talking, and given that he probably just wanted a shot at Eppie, we figured he'd loiter in the reception hall. Also, the free coffee and doughnuts were there.

Tanya and I arrived early, and she beelined for the doughnut table, hovering near it with a pastry in one hand. She kept her eye on me for a sign I'd seen our target, though she'd kept to herself how she planned to lift his wallet once I pointed him out.

My phone beeped. Upstairs, Eppie was letting me know she was stationed at the stairway down to the lower level, in case she could spot him and give us advance warning. The Mission Impossible theme started playing in my head.

Most of the attendees, like the speakers, were women. There were some men, and we couldn't be absolutely positive the other Deleter wasn't some kind of deeply self-hating woman, but I felt like I could safely dismiss most of the people who passed me, old hippies with long grey hair in neat braids, earnest young women in skirt suits, punky green-haired girls ostentatiously wearing skinny jeans and band shirts. Men with small buns at the tops of their heads or spectacularly sculpted facial hair or both circulated as a wary minority.

When I saw him, finally, he was so unremarkable that it confused me at first. Like the man who had posted the tweet that caused all the fuss with Faye, he just seemed to stand out, somehow high-definition against a suddenly out-of-focus background. It wasn't recognition, not like with Eppie. It was more like seeing one familiar thing in an unfamiliar setting. A poster you have in your home, but on someone else's wall.

At the same time, he was so generic that it was impossible to believe it was him. He wore fitted jeans and a plain t-shirt, a tan coat against the cold, a pair of fingerless gloves with mitten flaps. His hair was neatly combed down and parted, brushed sideways over a pale smooth forehead. He was younger than me, I realized, probably not more than five years older than Tanya. Early twenties. And aside from a certain tension in his jaw, I never would have picked him out as anything special.

Eppie says he looks like a Dave Matthews Band song. I don't mind Dave Matthews Band but I get what she meant.

I turned to give Tanya a signal, but even as he headed for the food table she was already moving -- she said later she saw me staring and knew who it had to be. She said her creep radar went off too, but that's always the question -- do we think photos of serial killers are creepy because they are, or because we already know they're serial killers? Everyone wants to believe they could pick a monster out of a crowd, but it's actually very hard to do on looks alone.

She didn't go straight for him. I watched her circle, trying out approaches as he took an apple danish from the table. She passed him a couple of times under the guise of straightening out napkins at one end and cups at the other. She was going in for a third pass when he turned around, food in hand, and saw me.

He clearly saw me the same way I saw him. It was obvious from the second he saw me that he knew what I was, too -- he didn't think I was Eppie or anyone else. He knew what I was and if he was surprised by my existence, he didn't show it.

What I got off him was pure, seething hatred -- it was an almost physical sensation, like a puff of hot air into my face. He knew, and he hated me so much for simply existing that I almost felt like I would stop. And it was heartening later, though not at the time, that what I felt wasn't a hatred to match his. I just felt bewildered, and sad. And, for a brief second, the way I feel when I see the news: that something is so broken in our time that nothing I do can even touch the damage, let alone fix it.

But it wasn't entirely useless, standing there like a target. In the blurred ripples around him, I did see Tanya's hand dart out, then nip back into the inside pocket of her jacket with a small, dark object.

I thought, for a minute, about Deleting him. I could tell he was thinking the same, but I could also tell that if he could have, he already would have. Maybe he was distracted by surprise or maybe he just hadn't had as much practice as me, but I felt my heart double-beat and knew he was trying.

Honestly, it's not my finest moment, but self-preservation is sometimes more important than an ideal, and we hadn't brought him here for a fight. So when the double-beat tripped in my chest, I took off running.

It wasn't easy to really run in a crowded auditorium hall, but I got through the various knots of people standing around waiting to go in. I raced up the escalator, wondering if he was behind me and hoping I hadn't just abandoned him with Tanya, and straight into Eppie in the ground-floor lobby.

"He's down there," I gasped out, "and he definitely saw me."

Eppie didn't even ask any questions; she hustled me across the lobby and up an escalator, into the children's library on the second floor. A librarian looked at us in alarm from the circulation desk, but didn't ask any questions.

"Are you okay?" she asked in a hushed whisper, tucking us both behind some shelves. "You look like you saw a ghost."

"I think he tried to Delete me," I gasped out. "He's really -- angry. He hates me a lot."

"Where's your pickpocket?" she asked, and I shook my head; Eppie straightened and turned to the door, but just as she did, Tanya sauntered in.

"Took the elevator," she said. "Partly so he couldn't, I just sent it to the ninth floor. Good call picking here to meet up. You'd have to be crazier than he is to try and start something in a kiddie library."

Eppie grinned at her. "You're the pickpocket."

"You're the most beautiful woman in the world," Tanya said, in the same tone.

"Well, I do my best," Eppie replied without missing a beat, though she did glance in my direction. Tanya held out the wallet to me, a thick, worn brown billfold stuffed with cash, cards, and receipts.

"Driver's license," I said, pulling it out. I offered the wallet back to Tanya, but she held up a Visa card she'd already taken.

"I'm runnin'," she said. "I'll score you something nice from CVS."

"Be careful," I told her.

"Thanks, I definitely wasn't going to before," she answered, rolling her eyes. "Come on, I'll scout ahead and make sure he isn't waiting for you."

***

There's a burger joint not far from the library, a few blocks south, tucked far enough into a side street that the Deleter wouldn't think to look there even if he was canvassing the area. I wasn't sure if I hoped he'd be distracted by trying to find us for long enough for Tanya to do some serious damage to his credit card, or if I hoped he'd work out his wallet had been stolen and get distracted from trying to find us.

I know the credit card company would be the one to eventually take the hit from Tanya's spending, but they're not exactly angels either, so I'm not overly bothered by it.

Eppie settled in with her laptop in a booth while I ordered a couple of drinks and a basket of fries. By the time I got to our table she had a constellation of social media sites open and she'd found him on three of them. She was tapping his ID against the table thoughtfully.

"I realize this is obvious, but he isn't nice to know," she said. "Facebook seems normal enough, but his Twitter is the kind of thing you'd enjoy cleaning out, I think."

"Probably," I agreed, leaning over her shoulder.

"Also, he might have priors. I can't tell if this is him or not -- there's no photo, it's just a report of a guy with the same name assaulting women at Lollapalooza last summer."

"What is his name, anyway?" I asked, taking the card out of her hand. The other Deleter -- Frank Johnson, 32 -- lived in Uptown, at least according to his driver's license. He had seemed like the kind of guy you might run into in one of the dives around Buena Park or Wrigleyville, so that made a sort of sense. Wicker Park hipster pretention without any of the cool Wicker creativity.

"What do we do with you," Eppie murmured, scrolling his Facebook. "Link your parents to your gross Twitter? Find Mom's phone number and call her? Are you dating?"

"Can you figure out what he's deleting from what he does on Facebook?" I asked.

"Well, I can figure out more than I did before. A few days and I might know more. If he owns this address -- "

"In Uptown? Not likely, unless he owns an apartment building."

"I mean, who knows. I don't know what we can do with this information, we agreed we needed it before we could decide, just...there must be something more useful we can do."

"I am still fully onboard for a beatdown," I said.

"I'm genuinely considering it. You looked like he scared the shit out of you," she added.

"He did. I'm not usually cowed by random creeps but if I can kill someone with my mind I don't know that he can't," I said.

"Well, at least I could undo it," she replied. "It's kind of an advantage."

A text message showed up on my lock screen -- a picture of Tanya holding a dozen gift cards and cash cards. Her left hand held them spread out like a fan, and her right hand had them clenched between her knuckles like Wolverine's claws.

Where's my cut? I texted.

If I give you a Visa you gotta buy yo girl some gold, she texted back. I shuffled the phone away from Eppie.

"If she's giving away cash cards, tell her I'll only blow my Target giftcard on high-class booze and cheap women," Eppie said, without looking up from her laptop.

I was thinking how cheap but what I said was, "I don't know if you can get high class booze at Target."

"Depends on your definition of high class," she said, and sighed, pushing the laptop back. "Well, we know where he lives. Feels like that's enough action for one day. You still don't look quite right."

"It wasn't fun," I admitted.

"It's not like the driver's license is going to blow up if we don't use it in the next three hours. We can take a day or two and figure something out." She looked at me, thoughtfully. "You want to go to the museum?"

"Your museum?" I asked, startled.

"Well, it's technically the world's museum, I just work there," she replied, glancing up at the clock on the diner's wall. "But I meant the Art Institute. It'll be open soon."

"Sure, if you want to. Any particular reason?"

"I want to think. I like thinking in museums, they're usually quiet."

The Art Institute wasn't a far walk; the front entrance was crowded, but inside, the ground floor was quiet, everyone engrossed in the new wing's modern art or headed for American Gothic or The Night Hawks. It was weird to be there with someone who was more like a colleague than someone I would normally socialize with, even after our maybe-a-date at another museum the last time.

It hadn't yet occurred to me that Eppie thought of herself as the same kind of useless lesbian I was, and could only think of one kind of place to continue taking me to impress me.

She did clearly have a purpose in going there, though; she led me past the Chinese gallery and through Southeast Asia, bearing right past the stairs leading up to the Modern American gallery and ending up in the middle of the ancient Mediterranean.

"You have kind of a theme going," I told her.

"I have very specific passions," she replied, as we strolled past ancient gold earrings and mosaics of fish and fruit.

"Really," I said, catching the eye of a statue in the corner, an awkward looking naked man with an eerie grin.

"That's a Kouros," she said. "The Greeks were stealing from the Egyptians and also hadn't figured out mouths yet."

"He looks like he just said something he knows you don't have a witty comeback for," I remarked.

"What if we did give him back his wallet?" she asked.

I gestured at the kouros. "I don't think it belongs to him."

"Funny, smartass. I mean, maybe it's dumb and fruitless, but it's the next logical step in learning more about him. In fundraising, you can't ask someone for money unless you ask them for a meeting first."

"Is this a gem of wisdom from the museum world?"

"My job is about building and maintaining relationships. Sometimes that means bridging a gap. I don't think we should be building the whole bridge, but once in a while someone meets you halfway when you didn't expect it."

"We already stole his wallet, that's not....great for bridge...foundations," I said. Kouros boy leered at us, his lips tucked into a smug smile.

"He doesn't know that. We could tell him we found it."

"He's going to know when he sees me again."

"We could tell him we found it near the library. I mean, that's where he lost it."

I crossed my arms, staring up at a sculpture of a woman next to the Kouros -- a Kore, according to the placard. Unlike her brother, she wasn't naked; she had long heavy draperies, and one missing arm. Still the same rigid posture, though, and the same weird smile.

"Why do you like ancient history so much?" I asked Eppie.

"Keeps me humble," she said. "The kore was made long before I was born and she'll still be here when I'm gone, and short of smuggling in a hammer, nothing I do in this life could possibly change that. I can make change in the world, but only to an extent."

"That's a little dark."

"You think so?" Eppie glanced at me. "I like the fact that I'm not responsible for the whole world. I can only do what I can do and if everything goes to shit, at least it won't be my fault. Besides, we're all gonna die eventually. Spending every waking moment fighting death isn't really my scene. So...I like the perspective it brings."

"Huh," I said.

"Did you think just because you have this weird power, suddenly you're obliged to fix all of humanity?" she asked.

"No," I said, but I sort of had. I had only limited myself for my own sanity, and felt selfish about that -- I hadn't considered the idea that I didn't have to delete everything just because I could.

"Uh huh."

Behind the kouros and the kore, on the wall, was a timeline of ancient Greece. It started thousands of years before I'd been born.

"Okay," I said. "What's the worst that can happen if we do give it back?"

Eppie beamed. "Exactly."

Chapter Text

I had been trying to work out how we'd get Frank Johnson's phone number to call him about his wallet, but Eppie just gave me a raised eyebrow and dropped him a note on Facebook messenger. Apparently using a fake name, because she had to log out and log in, but then she just tapped out a message.

Hi, I found your wallet in the Loop and your license and stuff is still in it, so I found you on Facebook. Can I return it to you?

He responded within a couple of minutes, Sure. Are you downtown?

I can be, on Monday, she said, and he sent her the address of the Dunkin Donuts on the corner of Van Buren and State, near enough to the library that we really should have suspected something was up.

That sense of warped reality, of something so normal it became abnormal, surged up in me on Monday afternoon when he walked into the Dunkin, which otherwise contained us, two college kids, and three homeless dudes huddled around their coffee. He got a coffee, took a wide path around the homeless dudes, and settled in as if nothing at all was wrong, even though suddenly everything was. And it wasn't just me; he looked weird and unwell, the dark of his eyes standing out against shock-pale skin.

As soon as he sat down I knew what a monumental, towering mistake we'd made. He looked like he'd just won some inconsequential contest of wits and was never, ever going to let it go, no matter how few fucks you gave about it.

"So, are we gonna talk first, or is the shame just overwhelming?" he asked.

Eppie and I looked at each other. It was one of those moments where there's no good response; I hate people who are good at saying things where no matter what you say, you look like a petulant child.

And we had, after all, stolen his wallet.

"Come on, we both know what you are," he said, and I realized he was talking to me.

"She's not a what," Eppie said.

"What are you, her bodyguard? You can speak for yourself, right?" he asked me.

I wanted to say that it was a mistake, all a mistake, throw his wallet at him, and run. We'd already lost just inviting him here, and if we stayed again we would lose again, and the memory of his smug face would be maddening.

But you lose often enough, and you lose often enough for the wrong reasons -- because the other person has more power than they should, or because you can't make people believe you, or just because people are stupid -- and you learn to ignore the instinct to flee from another. After a while you haven't got much to lose, and it occurred to me that there were certain things, like the power, that he couldn't take from me.

Eppie was watching him through narrowed eyes, so intently it was startling that he couldn't physically feel it, but apparently I was drawing his focus.

"You seem really anxious to talk to me," I said.

"I don't know about anxious. Eager. I've never met someone else like me," he said.

"Yeah, you....still haven't," I said.

"Well, obviously there are some surface differences, and as a woman I'm sure you come at the problem with a different mindset," he said.

"You're gonna have to clarify -- " Eppie started, but I raised my hand a little, because we were way past it.

"What kind of mindset do you think I have?" I asked him.

"Well, probably you want to protect people. Nurturing. Feminine," he said, as if I was being dim. "You wouldn't think to use it as a...well, a weapon. You can't be blamed for that."

I thought about PlayMeRite, about Joseph, about the threat I'd made to the man who came after Faye at breakfast. Defending myself would be pointless. In the seat next to me, Eppie was practically vibrating with an obvious desire to refute some really classic gender essentialism, but she was waiting for my response, which I appreciated.

You can't argue with idiots. It eventually always comes down to them believing their opinion should be treated as fact.

"And how do you use it?" I asked, because the surest way to get a man off you is to get him on himself. There's a certain kind of man who will jerk off about his own personality for hours, and some of them won't notice if you wander off.

"You know what I thought about when I was at the library the day you lifted it?" he asked.

"We're not admitting that," Eppie said, and he rolled his eyes.

"I was thinking," he said, not that we had asked, "What a beautiful cupola. You can look up from the basement all the way to the second floor, and there's that wonderful big lobby on the first floor. But you've got those walkways on the second floor, looking down, right? It'd be great for making speeches. Or for an active shooter."

"What," Eppie said, her voice flat.

"Sure. Take a couple of rifles up to the second floor, bring a silencer, shoot the kids in the children's library first. You've got a great line of sight from the walkways down into the lobby. To get out of the library proper, you have to get into one single elevator, or come down the escalator to the second floor. Pick off twenty, forty people before SWAT arrives, easy, and there's enough cover..." he shrugged.

"That's not something normal people think about," I managed.

"Sure it is. Next time you're out with friends, ask them where they'd run in a shooter situation. Everyone'll work out a strategy fuckin' quick, but the women'll work out where to run. The men'll work out where to shoot from."

"Lovely," Eppie murmured.

"The point is, I come at it from a combat stance, the way a warrior would. I invade. I conquer. Nobody wins an argument with me anymore," he said.

Eppie couldn't resist, and I didn't blame her. "So you lost a lot before you could silence your opponents?" she asked.

He let out a huff of breath, nhah. "Well, truth-tellers are outnumbered online these days. Getting shouted down can happen to anyone. By the way, I want my wallet back."

Eppie glanced at me, then took it out of her pocket and passed it over as if it was a bag of dog shit. He opened it, flipped through it, and nodded.

"I hope you had fun with the credit cards. The banks will take a hit but I'm fine," he said.

"Price of doing business," I said.

"I guess you'e seen my work, anyway," he said to me. "I've never seen yours, but maybe you don't have much of an online presence. I have to be careful with mine these days; get too big a following and you become a real target of the mad liberals."

"Yeah? What do they do?" I asked.

He barely waited for me to finish before he was talking. "Mostly they just say snide things. They don't have any real power because they won't embrace the things you need to get and maintain power. Strength, wealth. They won't do what needs to be done. It's sad, but then I figure people without power are always mad at people who actually do something with their lives. I guess it's easier to whine."

"You don't think it's a misuse of power?" Eppie asked. "Deleting anyone who disagrees with you?"

"Is that what you call it?" he asked me, still ignoring her. "Deleting? I call it the mute button."

"I don't think the label really matters," I told him.

"Power is something people want to pretend doesn't exist. They want to pretend it can be wiped out, that something can be done to equalize everyone," he said. "But we prove that's not true, I mean, don't we? You can't give someone else the power we have. The only way to be equal is not to use it, and what the fuck's the point of not using power if you have it?"

"What if you used the power to give more voice to people who were already struggling to be heard?" I asked.

"Hey, if they can't shout louder, that's not my problem. No matter what, they still can't do what I do, and that's the point. I've got it and they don't and I'm going to use it."

"To do what?" I asked.

"Whatever I want," he said. "Don't you? I mean, you can talk a big game about helping the hapless or whatever, waste your fuckin' time on losers, but I want to run with the winners."

"Even if it means winning because you have an unfair advantage?"

"Who cares? I still win," he said.

I felt an uncomfortable twinge, because after all, I had used Deletion to hurt people, to give myself better odds of winning in some game with very badly-defined rules. And even if I was doing it for a cause, or told myself I was, the gap between us seemed to be narrowing. We might have different motivations but the result wasn't so different.

But then, while I was mired in uncertainty, Eppie showed up with a metaphorical shovel and said, "What exactly do you win?"

He scoffed, but I watched his face go from ashen to red, not an improvement.

"I win, and that's what matters," he said.

"But like, when you win you get something," she pressed. "What do you get? Like a McDonalds toy or a chocolate bar or something?"

"I win," he insisted.

"Do you get a ribbon or is that kinda girly?" she pressed.

"Are you bitter you haven't got one, butch?" he asked.

"You could dream of being as butch as me," she replied, and I started laughing.

Both of them looked at me, startled, as a giggle burst out of me, and when I tried to suppress a second one I snorted, which just made me want to laugh harder. I clamped my mouth shut but I snorted a second time and --

I'm not proud of this but we have all spit on someone while talking or sneezed and gotten snot on our hand, so get over it: when I snorted a second time, a little booger flew out of my nose and landed on Frank's sleeve. He didn't see it, and I don't think Eppie did. But after the booger it was all over. I opened my mouth and laughed, I inhaled sharply to laugh again, I started weeping with laughter. The cashier at the counter barely spared us a glance, and the homeless dudes didn't even spare us that. The college kids watched curiously, which seemed to make Frank uncomfortable.

"If you don't want to talk seriously about this, just say so," he said, and I kept laughing. "Listen, bitch, I didn't come here to be laughed at -- "

"I'm sure you didn't," I gasped, "but I bet that happens a lot -- "

He bumped the table. It was easy to see he meant to do it, that he thought making our coffee slop would be some kind of intimidating gesture, but I was too far gone to be afraid, and I doubt Eppie has ever been intimidated in her life. When she remained calm, staring at him now with flat, analytic eyes, and I kept laughing, he leaned forward.

"Stay out of my way," he hissed. "I'm getting stronger. You don't want to fuck with me."

"You got that right," Eppie said, which was a little unfortunate because I had almost regained my composure when that set me off again.

He stood up, deliberately bumping the table again -- Eppie's hand shot out to steady my coffee -- and left. Eppie said he stalked out like he was on his way to slap someone he didn't like.

I covered my face with hands and laughed and laughed, snotting on my palms, tears pouring out of my eyes, sinuses aching from it. I heard Eppie sigh, saw between my fingers as she set her coffee and mine aside.

Then she wrapped an arm around my shoulders, pressed her palm lightly to my head, and pulled my face down into her shoulder, burying me in soft fleece and the smell of some fancy soap, probably vegan soap from Lush or something. And suddenly there I was, sobbing into her shoulder in the Dunkin Donuts. I couldn't help it; there was way too much emotion in my body to stick with just one.

The college kids were still staring, and the cashier was looking twitchy; apparently crying is harder on bystanders than threats of violence. One of the homeless dudes called, "Hey baby, he was a jerk anyway!" and the three of them subsided into grumbling about assholes who made scenes in the Dunkin Donuts.

I tried to cry more quietly until I felt like I could breathe evenly, and then I leaned away, trying to wipe my face with my sleeves. Eppie snorted, passed me a napkin, and then got up to get a cup of water from the cashier.

"He's not gonna come back here and like shoot up the store, is he?" I heard him ask her.

"I doubt it, he ran away like a little prick," she replied. She came back to the table with the water, but gestured me up, and gently steered me outside.

"Let's not be here just in case," she said in my ear, which nearly made me laugh again.

Chapter Text

We headed east, which I could only assume was the opposite direction from the one Frank had gone; it wasn't far to Millennium Park. After a few minutes burying ourselves in the strange serenity between two major thoroughfares, Eppie elbowed me gently.

"Doing better?" she asked.

"Yeah," I replied. "Sorry about that."

"Don't be. I saw what you two did to each other."

"You did worse to him than I did."

"Not what I meant. He looked fuckin' sick. When he walked in you didn't look much better."

"You weren't affected?"

She shook her head. "Maybe it's like magnets. You two repel each other. But I'm not a magnet, I'm just inert metal."

"Metal, maybe," I said, and she grinned.

"I won't say no to a compliment. Man, what an asshole. I mean, i was expecting, but...what an asshole."

"He might not be totally wrong, though," I said. She stopped and stared at me. "Well, mostly. But...it's true that we can't give other people this power. Either I don't use it at all, which is equal, or I use it to help people who need it most, which is still...an abuse. People shouldn't have power like this."

"Well...maybe," she said. "But after all, there has to be a reason you found me."

"Why does there have to be a reason?"

She frowned. "Because there are two million people in Chicago and two of the three people with this power in the whole city don't meet by accident."

"What do you think the reason is?"

"Isn't it obvious?" she said. "Of course you're meant to use your power. And of course you're not meant to use it alone. That's why I'm here."

"To keep me humble?" I asked.

"Well, maybe I'd keep him humble, if I could, though I think it's too late to try," she said. "But I think I'm meant to keep you honest. You swing at whoever you think you should. If you swing wrong, I'll be there to stop you."

"Kind of a big job for you," I said.

"Well, no relationship is perfect," she said. "You're not gonna love me looking over your shoulder all the time, either."

I barely heard the second half of what she said. "Is this a relationship?" I asked, my voice high.

I honestly expected a withering look, because even as I said it, it was obvious to me that she hadn't meant it that way. Instead, she wrapped her hand around my elbow, companionably close.

"It could be, if you wanted," she said.

"No, but I mean...." I tried to pull myself together.

"I know what you meant," she said.

"I didn't even think you liked me," I blurted.

"Well, I was pissed when I thought you were a murderer, yeah," she said. "I got past it."

"But I'm a mess."

"Everyone's a mess," she said dismissively. "I mean, yes, you definitely a mess, but you're a well-intentioned mess, and so far you haven't complained about all our dates being at museums or in the service of stalking someone I think at this point we could safely say is a supervillain."

"Those were dates?"

"Depends if you're interested, really. Otherwise they were research and we can drop it."

I huffed. "Fine, they were dates."

"See, that's what I like about you," she said. nudging me with her shoulder. "You go headfirst when someone gives you an opening. But my point, before we got sidetracked into what a useless lesbian we both are, is that I am your balance. And I'll be his if I can, whether he wants it or not. Did you hear him? 'I win.' As if winning means anything when you start thirty feet ahead of anyone else."

"Do you get a McDonalds toy," I said, and snickered.

"All he wants to do is win," she said. "Do you suppose we could just...make him lose until he gives up?"

"You think he will?"

"In my experience, people who aren't used to losing do very poorly when the losing starts," she said.

"Did I ever tell you what I did to PlayMeRite?" I said, and she gasped.

"WAS THAT YOU?" she shrieked.

That was how I found out that Eppie is a closet gamer, but that's a story for another time. What is important about this part of the story is that we hatched a plan, and also we were officially dating, which meant I was officially dating way up.

***

Our plan was what I like to call fiendishly simple. Frank would have to know I was doing it, naturally, and he knew what we looked like -- but he did not know who we actually were, other than Eppie's fake Facebook, which she said she could throw away easily enough. She only used it for entering contests where you had to have a Facebook to enter, so that she wouldn't annoy her actual friends. And a little, she admitted, because she liked messing with marketing companies' demographic studies.

Essentially, we would do to Frank what I had done to PlayMeRite -- a full-on assault of all his social media, his gaming and hobby sites, everywhere he hung out. Eppie found them all and made a file, because of course she did.

"Lock your own down before we do this," she warned me, when we met for drinks and our first acknowledged date later in the week. Faye had come over to do my makeup, dragged Tanya with her, and mocked me and my love story mercilessly.

Anyway, Eppie had warned me. "Take yourself offline or lock your shit up tight. Anywhere your face is. Delete all your public comments on Facebook, take your photo off it, take your photo off your Twitter. Don't give him a chance to find someone else through you, either."

"So the selfies at the mall with Tanya have to come down," I said.

"Unless she's secretly a badass martial artist as well as a good thief, and even then, like, you can't karate chop a bullet," she said.

"Well, she's got a mean backhand," I said. "But I think he scares her."

"Wise girl. He scares me. Dudes don't really think about that, do they? About how they'd shoot up a place?"

"Hell if I know," I said. I hadn't asked the Cats at work about it, because I was very sure I didn't want to know their thoughts on active shooters. Also, don't bring up something if you don't want to inspire someone.

"I keep thinking about it," she said, eyes indicating she was a million miles away. "Everywhere I go, I hear him talking about wiping out the children's library. I do walk in somewhere and figure out where I'd hide. I clock where the kids are and try to work out if I'd have the guts to shield them instead of just running for my life. The museum's open to the public, on a college campus. It might be selfish but if someone snaps, I just hope Hammurabi goes before I do."

"Hide in a sarcophagus," I suggested, and grinned at her when she came back to reality.

"If I survived the shooting I'd never survive the wrath of the Egypt Curator," she said.

"Well, maybe you'll be the only survivor," I said, and we both laughed. And then Eppie sighed, and I nodded.

"This is what passes for comedy, these days," she said.

"At least we can laugh at something."

"I guess so. Anyway. If you want help scrubbing yourself off the internet, let me know."

"I'll do okay. I don't do much on Facebook anyway," I said.

"Yeah, you're a lot quieter than your friends."

I gave her a look.

"I might have facebook-stalked you just a little," she said. I raised an eyebrow, and she held up her thumb and index finger, an inch apart. "Just a little, to see who you really were. You could have been lying about being an asshole."

"If I'm being an asshole I proclaim it loudly," I said, and she nodded gravely.

"Good to know," she said. "So, I have an idea for how to issue our declaration of war."

A surprisingly few number of people know that one of the premiere sites for white supremacists to assemble, engage in debate, spread news, and learn more about the White Race is called Frontrun. It's been around a long time, and has an impressive library of texts on white supremacy, racial preservation, survivalism, the history of Nazism, eugenics, and various other gross topics.

Or, rather, had.

It actually made national news when I Deleted Frontrun that Sunday. In part because Nazis can be relied upon to get clicks and eyeballs on news sites, I'm sure, but also because it was removed so thoroughly, hacked so completely, that even backup versions of the site vanished from cloud storage and hard drives across the globe. I hadn't known I could do that, but it wasn't hard.

And for all of Sunday, at least once I was done with HOLEY breakfast, every time they tried to resurrect it or put a placeholder up, I deleted it again. The national news reported it, and the Anti-Fascist movement took collective credit.

I was a little mad about that at first, until Eppie pointed out to me that if every antifascist in the country took credit, they were effectively shielding me. They metaphorically filled the airwaves with white noise, making it impossible for anyone involved with Frontrun to work out who I was or how to find me. And if antifa were out and about, proclaiming their guilt, it made it tough to explain away hate crimes as retribution.

That all filled me with a sort of warmth and affection for the people I'd only really ever seen briefly at protests, or on TV. Their part of the battle was to shield me and Eppie, and take the body blows meant for us.

How do I pay them back? I asked her on text, after she explained it to me.

You can't, she said. That's the point of Antifa. You'll never know who they are and they don't want you to. But they didn't really do it for you, anyway, any more than you deleted Frontrun for them. They're just colleagues with a common interest.

Frank knew it was me; of course he did. He left a message on, of all places, the Harold Washington Library's Facebook page.

"Just saying thanks to the lady who found my wallet at the library the other day," he posted. "If I find you again I'll make sure I pay you back."

As the kids say, yikes.

But we were engaged in battle now, and our plan demanded that I not pull out now. I deleted the message, then every comment in his Facebook, then his Facebook, all in stages meant to make him understand I was being deliberate and methodical. His Twitter replies went next, and then a Tumblr that I'm sure he was surprised I had found out about (thank Eppie). Every time he spoke, I Deleted.

Every time he created a new account, sooner or later Eppie found it, because he couldn't stop going back to the same communities and sites, and regardless of how widespread they are, Nazis really stick to a very few specific spaces. They feel safe there, or something.

He wasn't hard to find, especially as I got more adept at navigating his online homes without throwing up in my mouth. The day Eppie found his gaming account on Steam was exciting for us and, I'm sure, in a very unpleasant way, for him as well.

For about a week, we played this game, and occasionally he'd rant at me where he knew I could see it (before I deleted it), but I have to say he dealt better with it than PlayMeRite had. Then again, Frank knew exactly what I was doing.

It wasn't until week two that we put the next phase into action: Eppie stepped in.

Chapter Text

Eppie had already been occasionally undoing things Frank Johnson had done, but it was casual, nothing more than she'd been doing before, and we could tell he hadn't noticed. He wasn't one to come back to an argument that he felt he'd won.

Now she stepped it up; she tracked him all over the internet like some kind of bloodhound. I'm not sure how she did some of it, but I guess she cashed in on her reputation as a hard worker and gained herself a lot of free time at her job. She had an uncanny knack for knowing where he'd been, which made me wonder if her presence at the protest the day I killed White was more cosmic than not. Or rather, since she had a reason to be there, whether my presence in her proximity when I committed that murder was the cosmic miracle.

She undid everything he did that we could find -- every comment and account that he deleted, she brought back. She even, just for a laugh, brought Frontrun back for an hour a week after I'd deleted it, then let me take it down again. That was when he really started to pay attention.

And we could tell that was when he started to go back and check on his deletions, because when he found them restored was when the cracks started to show.

"What the fuck?" one of his new Twitter accounts demanded. "I'm engaged in a spiritual battle with someone I think might be an actual witch. She's relying on darker forces than I have access to. She's cheating."

He sounded deranged, but only to a person who wasn't spending a lot of time on the boards where he hung out. A weird superstition permeated them, the idea that any misfortune was either conspiratorial or supernatural. Even the rationalists occasionally put forth the idea that while they themselves didn't believe in religion, clearly there were those who could summon evil to do their bidding. It gave me a lot of insight into how someone might believe immodesty caused hurricanes and still, like, basically function in society.

"How are you doing this?" he asked me, on a Facebook he'd made that I hadn't yet deleted, though I'd cleared it out twice in two days. Eppie had just spent ten minutes restoring his latest deletions and then half an hour eating pancakes at brunch.

"How are you doing this?" I read aloud. "How did you unlock this ability? How do you keep finding me and trying to silence my truths? We could meet again. I'd like to ask. I'll listen this time."

"Jesus, how easy they crack," Eppie groaned. "Listen to him weasel."

"I've seen this before," I said, frowning, even as I deleted it.

"You've what now," she said.

"No, not this exactly, just...the spirit of it, this weird...let me think," I said, setting my phone down and staring at the last remaining pancake on Eppie's plate. She slid it onto mine, but I didn't take a bite, just nodded in thanks.

"The spirit of it?" she prompted.

"The weird ingratiating...oh, shit," I said. "Marnie."

"Marnie?"

"My friend Marnie, I think I mentioned her. She had a stalky ex who acted like this. He used to be a shit to her and then when she broke it off he'd try groveling, but the second that didn't work he'd get aggressive. He almost fucked her up in a Greek restaurant once."

"That sounds like a story," Eppie said. "So, what, you think he's about to get pissy with you?"

I picked up my phone and refreshed the app. A new Facebook post appeared.

"Fine, bitch," I read. "You think you're so fucing superior. Fucking without a K," I added, and Eppie giggled. "Two can play at this game. You might be out ahead but you'll choke before I do."

"Charming," she observed.

I deleted it, and when I opened the app a few hours later he had posted a frothing rant about superior bitches who thought they could ignore men just because feminists had convinced them blah blah blah. I deleted it.

For the next few days he oscillated back and forth between trying to lure me -- or rather me and Eppie, though he didn't know that -- into conversation with flattery, and with abuse.

The idea had only been to try and break him, any way we could, to drive him into a public act or frustrated him so much he got off the internet entirely. But I had forgotten my first precept, the one meant to make sure nobody suffered because of my actions: Protect the OP.

Because next came the threat.

***

Life goes on, even when you're engaged in a supernatural battle with a white supremacist who thinks you're a witch. I wanted Marnie to meet Eppie, because Marnie had poor taste in men but excellent taste in my girlfriends, and I wanted her to give odds on whether we could last. It had been going so well that I was worried, because I am saddled with my generation's overwhelming anxiety. We had to work together, that much was clear, and if we would be better as "business partners" than as girlfriends, I wanted to end it before we could learn enough about each other to really hurt when we broke up.

I wasn't kidding about the anxiety.

"So you're the most beautiful woman in the world," Marnie said to Eppie, as we settled in for drinks and antipasto at some hip downtown joint Marnie had been dying to try. Eppie shot me an amused look as i glared at Marnie. "She wouldn't tell us your name so we had to go by superlatives," Marnie added, and then mouthed revenge at me.

"Well, I'll try to live up to it for at least a couple of years," Eppie replied.

"You're doing fine," Marnie assured her. "It's nice to meet you. Lauren's been distracted because of you."

"We've been starting a business," I protested.

"And I think it's going well, as these things go," Eppie added. "No complaints so far, at least."

"What is it you do for your day job?" Marnie asked, and Eppie, to my relief, launched into a very pedestrian explanation of what she did, leaving out her uncanny ability to find people on the internet.

Our drinks were just arriving, and Marnie was telling an amused Eppie about the time we ran Joe out of the Greek place, when I checked my phone and saw I had a Facebook notification. I don't remember what the actual notification was. Mostly it reminded me that I wanted to snap a photo of the three of us, caption it "Being Grownups", and post it locked to Facebook. But when I opened the app, I saw a note in the corner that Frank had posted to the library facebook again.

There's something that happens in the body when you get an unexpected intellectual shock. When that adrenalin floods the system it feels like your brain wants to push out through your eyes, like someone has reached into your body and grabbed your spine from behind. On the surface, at least for a minute or two, there's no real sign it's happened; the the face might go red or pale, but it really depends on the person.

When I tapped on the message and read it, I suddenly couldn't hear Marnie or Eppie, and the aftertaste of my drink was sour in the back of my throat.

To the woman who found my wallet in the library, I'd love to see you again. Would you meet me in the loop on Saturday? I'll see you there, and if I don't, I'd love to send you some pictures of the library lobby after I shoot it.

I wanted to catch Eppie's eye and send her some kind of signal, but Marnie was right there, and what would Eppie do that I couldn't? She couldn't even tell me whether to delete it.

Protect the OP, I thought, and instinct kicked in. I said, "I need to make a quick call?" and stepped away before Marnie or Eppie could look at me weirdly for using a phone. I stepped outside, scrolled down to where the library's phone number was listed on their Facebook, and without even thinking about my phone coming up on Caller ID, tapped it.

"Central Library Information," someone answered.

"Hi," I said, voice shaking. "I need to anonymously report a threat against the library."

"Stay on the line, please," she said, after a pause.

"I can't," I told her. "Listen, I'm not threatening it, but I heard this guy say he was thinking of bringing a gun to the library."

"Can you describe this man?" she asked.

"His name is Frank, Frank Johnson. He's a white guy, in his thirties. I don't have his address," I said, even as I realized it. Eppie had it written down but it wasn't like I'd memorized it. "I heard him talking about, if he doesn't get to see this girl, he's gonna shoot up the library. Next Saturday."

"Where did you hear this?" she asked.

"I can't tell you that."

"Are you sure you can't tell me your name? The more information we have, the more likely the police can stop him."

"I can't talk to the cops," I said, voice thinning and rising in a way I didn't like but couldn't control. "Just, please close the library next weekend okay?"

"Ma'am, we'll do what we can to verify the threat, but -- "

"Please tell the authorities. If you don't I'll have to tell the Tribune," I said, in a stroke of counter-blackmail I was rather pleased by. If Frank could threaten the library, I could at least out him as the threat maker, and we'd gone long past mind games now.

"We'll do what we can," she said, in a voice clearly designed to soothe.

"Thank you. I'll call back with his address. Can I ask for you?"

"Sure. My name's Carla. Are you sure you won't leave your name?"

"I'm sure. Thank you," I said, and hung up. I gave myself a minute to get my shaking hands under control and then went back inside.

Marnie and Eppie clearly made a ton of effort to keep the meet-date going after that, and I should have tried harder to join in the conversation, but all I could think about was the call -- had she sounded skeptical? Did I really have the guts to tell the Trib, if the library didn't act? And on top of that, wasn't this what we had wanted? For Frank to snap?

But not like this. Not with kids around, not to kids. What had we been thinking?

"I've got an early morning tomorrow," Marnie finally said, giving me what I remember in retrospect as a worried look. "But it was great to meet you, Eppie. You should both come out for Greek with me this weekend. See you then, Lauren?"

"Sunday," I said distantly, because I knew we'd have to do something on Saturday.

"Lovely," she sad, and airkissed me, and left. Eppie immediately grabbed my hand and wrapped it in both of hers.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Frank's gonna shoot up the library," I said, and her fingers tightened. "If we don't meet him next Saturday."

I fumbled my phone awake and scrolled back to the message, offering it to her shakily. She studied it, lips pressing together tightly, and her whole face seemed to sharpen, to tighten in anger. At me, I worried, until she looked up at me and the expression faded. She leaned in and kissed me, which made some asshole nearby whistle appreciatively.

"It'll be okay," she said. "This is what we wanted, sort of. Not this, obviously, but we can work with this."

"With him shooting up the library on a Saturday?" I asked, aghast.

"Yeah. But I don't think he wants to meet at the Dunkin," she said, and waggled my phone at me. "Can I....?"

"Sure," I said weakly, hoping Marnie wouldn't text me about how weird I was being while Eppie still had the phone in her hand.

"There's something...yeah," she said, tapping her way over the screen. She waited for it to load, then handed it back. "Load Up The Loop."

I looked down at the garish poster. Load Up The Loop: An Honor Guard For Adolph White.

"What the entire fuck," I managed.

"White's finally getting out of the hospital," she said. "He's in Cook County General. They're going to parade him up through Greektown and do a victory lap around the Loop. They want to have a rally at Daley. Technically they need a permit but only if they claim it was pre-planned. If they just go, it's up to the police to stop them -- "

"And fuck the police," I finished. She nodded.

"I've been following the planning for it when I find stuff for you to delete," she said. "Bet you he wants us to come to the rally."

"They will straight-up murder us," I said, aghast. "If he points at us and yells Kill The Witches they will tear us apart."

Eppie looked thoughtful. "And if we don't go -- "

"Guns in the library. You think the cops could stop him?"

"Traditionally they haven't. Plenty of shootings happen in buildings with armed security."

"Could we?" I asked.

"Do you think you could delete a gun?" she asked, and I blinked at her.

"Maybe," I said. "I can try. I could...practice, I guess."

But what I thought, blindingly, in that moment, was that I could Delete him.

Eppie would be mad, and might even undelete him, but at least in the short term the problem would be solved. I would carry the guilt of his death the rest of my life, and I'd had a taste of that with White; in some ways, Frank was far less important as a death than White would have been, since Frank was a fringe kook, an edge-feeder, while White was driving the movement.

But only Frank would die, not me or Eppie or anyone in the library.

So I agreed distantly to work on deleting guns for the rest of the week, and meet Eppie at the rally on Saturday to watch from a distance, so that when Frank started towards the library, I could disarm him. And I planned a murder.

Chapter Text

There has never been a mass shooting at the Harold Washington, or at least not as of press time. So you know that somehow we stopped him. But you ought to know how.

Adolph White got out of the hospital Saturday morning. The hospital didn't even make him take a wheelchair, at least not all the way. There are news photos of him walking out under his own power. The crowd of assholes who greeted him wasn't particularly large, but it was big enough to be scary, especially since they were mad and they were loud. They didn't have torches -- Eppie said they thought they would look silly in the daylight, and anyway the mockery of tiki torches after Charlottesville had made them less than effective. But they had signs, and some of them had really thick sticks holding up those signs.

Eppie and I had, ironically, found another Dunkin Donuts from which to watch the procession as it went up Dearborn Avenue, carefully avoiding the Board of Trade with its armed, vigilant security even on the weekends. As the crowd poured up the street, Eppie turned to me.

"We won't see Frank in this," he said. "You're going to have to give me the high sign when you see him."

"And then we just follow him? In this?" I asked dubiously, waving at the crowd of white men pushing their way up the street. Occasionally people got in their way, either deliberately or because they hadn't known it was coming, but they were pushed aside by big, burly guys on the edges.

Then I turned my head to look up towards Daley Plaza, where the procession was heading, and I grabbed Eppie's sleeve.

"You see him already?" she asked, and I shook my head.

Surging into the plaza from the other direction, up from the subway entrances and out from the lobbies of nearby buildings, people in black with bandannas over their faces were arriving, running across the plaza, forming a massive crowd in front of the buildings. Even as we watched, two of them threw ropes over the giant Picasso statue at the back of the plaza, its giant leonine head offering plenty of places to hook them. They hoisted, others grabbing the ends of the ropes, and lifted one woman up even as a banner spread across it -- not actually a banner in the end, but a giant bandanna, large enough to cover the sculpture's face. There was a giant international NO sign spray-painted on it, over the top of a large white swastika, and the words NO PASARAN were printed beneath it.

The ones at the front line linked arms. In front of them, other Antifa with placards, and some not even bothering with placards, swinging thick sticks, gathered ominously.

Then I realized half the people in the Dunkin, which had seemed crowded for a loop donut shop on a weekend, were standing, pulling masks and hats on, checking each other. One of them glanced at me and Eppie and asked, "Did you forget your masks?"

"Yes," Eppie said, before I could answer. She glanced at me and I nodded. The woman grinned and reached into her pocket, tossing us a wad of cloth that unfolded into two thin bandannas.

"Those guys are gonna murder us," I blurted, before I thought about it.

"Those fuckin' cowards? They can try," the woman sniffed. Eppie was already tying a mask over my face.

"Stay behind the front line and we'll be fine," she whispered in my ear.

Load Up The Loop didn't get much national news coverage. It was on a weekend and it was over relatively quickly, at least for everyone else. It feels to me like it lasted years of my life as we followed the Antifa out into the street.

"Should we fight?" I asked Eppie.

"I told you," she said. "They're here to protect us. Even if they don't know it. Let's make sure their work is appreciated."

Where the parade met the Antifa, there were skirmishes, but most of the Nazis, even those who had been pushing other people out of the way, wouldn't get within range of the swinging bats. The cops had clearly been called but weren't there yet, and even when they did arrive they had a hard time knowing what to do; nobody was rallying on the plaza itself, and clearly the "honor guard" didn't have a permit any more than the antifascists did. A couple of them were trying to talk the Antifa into taking the banner down, but they were arguing with polite-looking young men in suits who had their own camera crews behind them, and cops are pretty camera shy. From the top of Picasso's statue, Antifa jeered at them.

Instead of the plaza, the honor guard set up in front of it, spilling into the street from the courtyard of the church nearby. White, visibly exhausted already, was lifted up until he could cling to the Miro statue in the church's courtyard, an electric megaphone in one hand. He began to speak, not that we could hear much from behind the line of Antifa screaming No honor! No pasaran! at the assembly.

Then I saw him -- others were setting up ladders next to the Miro, climbing up them to bookend White. Frank was on one of the lower rungs of the ladder, gazing up in adulation.

"How did he get so close?" Eppie asked, when I pointed him out.

"I don't know," I shouted back. "Do you see a gun?"

"Not yet!"

Frank looked down and out, over the crowd, and I felt it when he found me. Our eyes met and he nodded and smiled -- I see you under that mask -- and then my heart stopped.

It's a terrible feeling, when it's literal. My heart froze in my chest and the rest of my body panicked. My lungs expanded but I felt like they filled with nothing; I could feel my pulse slow and then stop entirely, and my muscles gave out just long enough for me to be sure I would hit.

Eppie grabbed for me when she saw me go down, and her grip was enough; even as I felt my life flicker she brought it back, and I held tight to anything I could, a corner of her sleeve and someone else's belt. The Antifa around us helped pull me up and someone yelled for a medic, but Eppie shushed him, announcing I'd just tripped. A space began to form around us, and I could see Frank, higher up the ladder now, grabbing for White's megaphone cord, watching me recover in a panic.

And I knew what I had to do.

"All brothers speak in the White Nation!" White was announcing, as it became obvious Frank was going to get the megaphone from him whether he wanted to give it up or not.

"Zee me," I told Eppie, pressing my forehead against hers.

I thought I should have killed him, as I started forward, but now death was off the table, and I had a much better idea. The crowd had opened in front of me and as I moved forward it felt like everyone else understood too, even though they couldn't possibly have known. The protestors around me pushed the honor guard back as I came forward, and after a few seconds the crowd began to part.

Frank, who was standing in front of the low pedestal now, ranting on the megaphone about women and deviants, saw me coming. My heartbeat flickered again, but Eppie, from behind me, brought me back almost before I registered it. It happened again, but Eppie was screaming from behind me, NO HONOR, NO PASARAN.

Frank was still talking, and this time as I crossed the boundary between the Antifa and the honor guard, I looked down to see my own hands flicker in and out of existence.

It was like watching a skipping video from the inside, being part of something that was buffering every few frames; I would feel myself cease to exist, then anchor myself back into Eppie and the people around her. Every step was hard, but nobody stopped me as I crossed the open space, right up to the statue. Frank, pointing at me with the hand holding the battery pack for the megaphone, shouted "Strangle that bitch!" but nobody touched me and now he was in front of me, and he'd clearly realized his mistake.

I have not punched many people in my life, but I put all of my strength behind my fist as I swung. He tried to delete me halfway through the swing and Eppie covered me, and when my fist hit his face it was like I had split the world open.

The megaphone went flying, hit a stone wall off to the left and shattered. Frank went straight off his feet, knocking his head against the base of the statue, and fell to the ground. I stood over him, fists clenched, and when someone with their dim wits about them came out of the crowd to try for me, a mob of Antifa met him before he even got close. All around me people were fighting, grabbing clothing, swinging sticks, but in this little bubble Frank and I were untouched.

Well, mostly.

When he'd fallen, it had jarred the gun loose. He must have had it tucked under his shirt, probably with some dumb ace bandage trick he'd learned on the internet for concealed carry. It wouldn't have gotten him very far in a shooting, but it would have gotten him through to the cache of ammo and the AR they found in the library later. And it would have been enough to kill me.

He looked up at me through slitted eyes, felt the back of his head for the blood there, and then growled at me. He looked like he was trying to Delete me any way he could, but I didn't feel a thing. I grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him as far up as I could -- I'm not especially into lifting and he was a heavy dead weight -- and he screamed in fear. He struggled free pretty easily when I lost my grip on his slick shirt, and he reached for the gun lying next to us.

He got there before I could kick it away, and he probably would have shot me and everyone else within reach, but when he grabbed for the grip, he screamed again like he'd been burned. I watched, not even sure what I should be doing, as he kept trying to grasp the gun. Every time he did, he'd scream, and his hand began to blister.

"What have you done, bitch?" he yelled, and I heard Eppie laughing behind me right before she wrapped her arms around my shoulders.

"Punched the Delete right out of you, motherfucker!" she yelled back. Then, in my ear, "The cops are coming, we gotta blow," and she started dragging me backwards.

I saw camera footage of it later -- nobody seems to have gotten my walk of death across to him, but plenty of people got me punching him. As Eppie pulled me away, Antifa absorbed me into the crowd and practically handed both of us backwards. They did their best to swallow us up, but we had poor timing, and the cops finally charged in.

There were way too many of us for the police to concern themselves with any one person, but it wasn't a comfortable few hours, after that. About a third of the Antifa and probably half of the "honor" guard ended up in jail, fortunately in separate holding. A couple of our side were still puking and snotting from a tear gas bomb when they came in, and Eppie left me on a bench to help take care of them. By then we'd long since lost our masks, and were presumably waiting to be booked and make bail.

Almost no-one seemed to know who I was or what I'd done, and I finally understood the relief of anonymity. But one guy, locs pulled back and a black eye swelling shut, grinned at me from another bench and made a lips-zipped motion.

Eppie was mostly busy, and I was too tired to talk anyway, for the rest of the morning. Around one in the afternoon, after a very boring wait for processing, news came down that a kickstarter was raising cash for bail, and in the meantime a couple of law professors were wrangling our release. When the door was opened and we were herded out, I saw Professor Brantis standing in the lobby of the station. He gave me a startled look as a couple of his students clustered around him.

"Hey, philosopher," he said. "Didn't expect to see you here."

"Really?" I asked, and he tipped his head, good point. "I didn't expect you to be here either."

"Gotta keep the kids nominally out of trouble. Let me introduce you."

"Some other time," I said, as Eppie caught up to me and took my hand. "We gotta get out of here."

"Go on then. Call me if you need representation at the hearing," he said. "Pro bono for you."

"Much obliged," Eppie said.

I just sort of followed where she led, out of the police station and through a thin crowd of activists demanding our release, down a side street and a couple of blocks away. Eventually she sat me down on a stoop and started accosting people passing, asking for the use of their phone. We'd left ours behind in case something, well, like this happened.

It didn't take long for her to find a woman who was willing to let us use her Lyft account to get home; she wouldn't even take Eppie's email address so that Eppie could repay her.

"I got no bills I can't pay," the woman said, tapping in the address Eppie gave her, my address. "When you get home, send ten bucks to an animal shelter or something."

"Thanks," Eppie said, and I almost burst into tears.

The lady waited with us until the car pulled up, then leaned in the window and said to the driver, "These two are riding on my dime, that okay?"

"Sure," the driver said, as we climbed in. "Gotta go around the loop," he added to us, as she tapped on the top of the car and he pulled away. "Shit happening this morning, I guess."

"Oh yeah?" Eppie asked.

"Yeah. I guess some asshats tried to hold a rally with no permit."

"They shut down traffic?"

"That's what I hear. Cops are mopping it up now? I don't know, I wish they'd hold these things when they won't disrupt working peoples' lives, you know?"

I rested my head on Eppie's shoulder, too tired to bother. She patted my head from behind.

"Well, people do what they think is best, I guess," she said, and the guy let it drop, busy muttering at someone who had run a yellow light.

Chapter Text

The next day was Sunday, and without even thinking I mechanically rose and dressed for HOLEY breakfast. I thought Eppie was still asleep, if I really was thinking at all that much before coffee, but while I was pulling a sweater on, she spoke from the blankets.

"Are you sure you want to go out today?"

"I hadn't considered it," I said, pausing. "Is there a reason I shouldn't?"

She sat up, shaking her head, hair wild around her face. "Only if you don't want to."

We'd spent the rest of Saturday quietly, curled up on my couch, neither of us speaking much. I was exhausted and I slept a lot; Eppie seemed to be spending her time internally, on thoughts she couldn't or didn't want to share. We hadn't even really discussed sleeping arrangements; she just kissed me and we went to bed. (And it's none of your business even if this is my love story.)

"No, I feel okay today," I said, reaching for a hairbrush. "You can come, if you want. They'll tease me the whole time but everyone seemed to like you when you visited."

"They won't make me fundraise, will they?" she asked, yawning. "I do enough of that at work."

"Probably not. Might make you flip pancakes, though."

"I'll try to restrain my despair."

Tanya and Rochelle were there when we arrived, leaning against the wall in the alley; Tanya was describing something, hands making big gestures, still dotted with the sparkly nail polish we'd bought her at the outlet mall.

"Hi Lauren! Hi Eppie!" she called, as Rochelle unlocked the door to let us inside.

"Hey, Smooth Criminal," Eppie said. "How's world domination going?"

"World domination is for capitalists," Tanya sniffed.

"That's my girl," Rochelle said. Out in the alley, we could hear Faye's horn honking. "Lauren?"

"I'll go see what fell off the back of a truck this week," I said.

Carrying in pallet after pallet of tiny cold-cereal boxes, apparently acquired in a shady cash deal from a hotel that served a free continental breakfast, Faye grilled me on Eppie.

"So she's treating you right?" she asked, leaning against the open and now mercifully empty trunk of her car.

"Yeah. We're balancing each other out," I said.

"Gotta be careful with those, hon. Sometimes balancing each other means when one person loses it..." She swooped her hand with a whistling motion. "Dispersed weight is more stable but it's easy to fall off the edge."

"The physics of relationships?" I asked.

"Take it from someone who's done it."

"I think I'll be okay," I said. "We've been through some things."

"You've been dating for two minutes."

"Well, you know what they say. What does a lesbian bring on a second date?"

"A moving van," Faye chimed in with me on the punchline. "Well, if she hurts you, at least we know how to dispose of a body."

"Dark, Faye."

"I've been thinking of trying a subtle goth look," Faye said. "But I've spent so long on my tan..."

"Just imagine all the parasols you could buy," I told her, and she brightened a little.

It was refreshingly normal, that morning, cooking in the kitchen, setting out the hot trays and watching kids arrive, bickering with Rochelle and Faye and the others. Rochelle had once described HOLEY breakfast as our own private part-time lesbian utopia, and when I warned her about founding a cult, she'd told me not to buy Nikes.

"Hey," I said, sidling up to Eppie, who was serving the (fortunately) last of the ham to a couple of kids building scrambled-egg-and-ham sandwiches. "Why are gay jokes so short?"

"So the straights can remember them," she replied, without batting an eye. "Don't quit your day job."

"Let me take you away from all this. Far away, to the other end of the room, where there is no suffering or grief," I tried. "I'd sweep you off your feet but you're surprisingly dense."

"It's all the muscle I've built up doing the heavy lifting in this relationship," she said, but she dished out the very last slice of ham and then reached below the hot table, producing two plates of food that had been warming next to the sterno cans. "Come on."

There was an empty table in the dining room, and when we got closer I saw it had a little paper tent with RESERVED written on it in Faye's neat handwriting. There was also a small vase with a cheap plastic flower in it.

"Don't say I never take you anywhere nice," she told me, passing me a plate.

"What's the occasion?" I asked.

"Nothing, really, I just thought it would be funny," she said with a grin. "And I figure after defeating our enemies and getting me arrested yesterday you deserved a break."

"Sorry about that," I said.

"Well, it wasn't the first time I've been booked," she admitted. "Anyway, I figure if we're really going to try this, I probably have to be more charming."

"Try this?" I asked. "I sort of thought we already were."

"Well, yeah, this," she said, gesturing to the two of us. "But also...I mean, we are kind of in business together."

"The business of being awesome?"

"That too. I just think...." she chewed, considering how to phrase it. "I think that it won't always be as easy as punching a guy, you know? It nearly never is, as history has proven."

"I've been trying to get an answer to that question," I said. "I've spent like...months trying to work out some kind of moral code."

"And I think that's good. But...maybe one person just can't, all on their own. Maybe that's why I do what I do, so that you don't have to," she said.

"But I don't want you to be my cop," I said. "And you don't really want that job either."

"No. Or your conscience," she agreed. "But maybe a counsel wouldn't be so bad."

I smiled at her. "So you're my consigliere now?"

"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli," she said. "There's never really been better advice, honestly."

"Well. I guess I'll bear that in mind," I told her.

"Good," she said.

It's not meant to be perfect, anything we do, because we don't live in a perfect world. There's a lot of things I can fix, or at least there's a lot of ugliness I can stand in front of and say, Not Today. But there's a lot I can't; shutting someone up doesn't fix how they think. That takes longer, and it's harder, and probably, honestly, a lot less rewarding.

It's nice to have lofty ideals, but you can't sacrifice lives to them, at least not someone else's. I'm willing to give up perfect to be good, especially if it means the kids eating pancakes and eggs and shady boxes of cereal around us that day got more of a chance to feel like the entire world wasn't against them. There are people who wouldn't agree, but hell, who made them better than me when it comes to deciding? We all have to tussle it out somehow.

But we do what we can, and when we're not sure, we balance each other. I don't know if I'm right when I Delete something, and I for sure never know if Eppie's right when she shakes her head and Zees something I've done. But nobody ever signed up willingly to be hassled for the way they live their life, and at least I'm willing to take the risk to find out.

So we do what we can to mend the world, and I suppose we leave the rest up to others. Like you.