Chapter 2: Hacked
“How was school?” Bruce asked, as I walked through the apartment door and kicked off my salt-stained boots. He was parked in his usual spot on the couch, wearing a grey T-shirt and black sweats, playing GTA V on his Xbox. A cacophony of sirens blared from the surround-sound speakers.
“Same crap, different day,” I said, omitting the bit about skipping most of my classes and spending the better part of the afternoon people-watching while sipping hot chocolate in Starbucks. I could’ve asked Jenny or Anna to throw me a lifeline, and they likely would’ve, but since I’d already more or less withdrawn from our friendship before I'd returned to school, they’d managed to dodge the whole ostracization bullet and it just didn’t seem fair to paint them with a bull’s eye now. In fact, I was genuinely happy I hadn’t screwed up their lives as badly as most of those I encountered. I considered it a small victory.
“Wanna take it out on the mats?” Bruce asked, pausing the game to turn and look at me. He and my father insisted that I practised combat training four nights a week. Hand-to-hand and with weapons, absolutely no magic allowed. When we’d first started, I’d loathed it, but after many months of haplessly tripping over my own feet, I’d begun to improve. I was never going to be as deadly as Bruce, and I doubted I had any real chance against another supe, but it really was cathartic – once I allowed it to be.
I smiled, refusing to give Bruce even so much as a hint of how grim my day had actually been. “Give me a half-hour,” I said, looking forward to imagining Alan and Christian’s faces on the receiving end of my sword. “There’s something I need to do first.”
“Sure. Come and get me when you’re ready,” Bruce said, and turned his attention back to his game.
I ditched my bag and coat in a sloppy heap by my bedroom door, then bee-lined for my computer. I flipped open the lid of my laptop and impatiently tapped my fingers on my desk while I waited for it to boot up. The stupid thing wasn’t even as fast as the computer that had had the sorcery texts on it. Not only had Ephraim confiscated that, I now also had to suffer the indignity of a downgrade. I frowned and slouched off my hoodie, draping it over the back of my chair.
A few moments later I was finally staring at my desktop. The rolling fields awash in summer sunshine always reminded me of coming to in the van after Keel and I had escaped from the Nosferatu compound, Keel’s arm draped protectively over my shoulder. I was both over him and not over him. It was difficult thing to neatly square away in my brain. I doubted I’d ever be fully over pre-transition Keel; Nosferatu Keel was a completely different matter. But I didn’t want to think about him now. That wasn’t why I’d rushed to my laptop. I clicked the browser icon and loaded up my social network profile. I didn’t think Lucia was lying but I braced myself for the barrage of hate nonetheless.
Sure enough, it wasn’t immediately clear what she had been talking about. My profile looked just as soiled and vandalized as it had for months now. A wasteland of wanton cruelty and teenage malevolence: the worst of humanity presented in one soul-searing news scroll. The bumps and bashes in the halls didn’t sting half as much as this stuff, written on the walls of the Internet for the whole world to see and chime in on.
“I heard Mildred was snorting coke in the girls’ room during third period,” claimed the most recent post. Hilarious, since I’d already been blocks away from the school by that point. I squinted at the dude in the user pic, who I recognized as a senior, though I don’t remember ever meeting him or exchanging words. He certainly didn’t know me well enough to speculate what I might have been up to in the bathroom.
“Coke? Had to be crack,” someone replied, “her broke white-trash ass couldn’t afford the good shit.”
Beneath that, someone else had typed, “Bath salts. Hahahahaahahaaaaa.”
I was positive neither of those last two commentators even went to my school.
I ignored the thirty-two other comments in that thread and scrolled down. Someone had reposted a link to one of the more accusatory news stories that had been published after my disappearance. What people were saying beneath that was equally repellent. It was a full-fledged troll pile-on.
Even further down, someone had Photoshopped my head onto some grainy Bigfoot footage and titled it “Skunk Ape.” I couldn’t even find the energy to get angry about that one, it was just too stupid.
But below that, it all stopped, just like Lucia had said. In fact, the next entry was dated over a year earlier and had been made by me, just two days before my adoptive parents, Estella and Fredrick, had flown me halfway across the country and driven me out into the Nevada desert, where my life had been thrown off course forever. I’d been fretting about my upcoming math exam. A math exam I never did retake. That post felt like it was written by someone else entirely.
I skimmed back up and read all of the comments I’d passed over the first time. There was nothing on my main page anywhere that gave any indication of who was whitewashing my life. Weird.
I clicked into my private messages. Like my main profile, the folder contained the abuse from that day and nothing else. I skimmed the headings, but didn’t open any of them. Each seemed more vulgar than the last. I wondered if my mysterious little helper was simply deleting or if he or she was flagging each and every one of them as “abuse.” The idea of the latter made me smile. And because it did, I reported all fifteen messages in my inbox. Take that, asshats, I thought.
That’s when I noticed a (1) beside “Drafts.” I was sure it hadn’t been created by me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d messaged anyone, let alone been interrupted mid-post. I slid my mouse cursor over the folder icon. It revealed a single unsent message titled “Mills.”
My gut lurched uncomfortably, as if I’d eaten too much junk food. I definitely would not have written a message with my own name as the subject line. Whatever this thing in my Drafts folder was, it was clearly intended for me.
I shoved my chair back and stood up, still staring at my name. Just click it, I told myself. You came looking for answers, so go and get ‘em. But it wasn’t that easy. I’d gone looking for answers repeatedly since discovering that I was a sorcerer, and I’d learned that they didn’t always turn out to be the ones I wanted.
I left the page open on my computer while I ran and grabbed a cold can of Coke from the kitchen. Could I live without clicking that message, knowing that it was there waiting for me? By the time I was back at my desk, I knew the answer to that question: No. I’d never be able to leave well enough alone. It would be an itch that remained until I scratched it or its author deleted it, in which case I’d probably spent weeks speculating about what it had contained. I could see it being something I would use to drive myself crazy.
I opened the message. It contained a single sentence, typed in all caps: WHAT YOU ARE DOING IS FUTILE.
I stared at those six words until their letters swam around the screen like alphabet soup. I had no idea what they meant. They could refer to anything: going back to high school, not deleting this account in its entirety, or any number of other things, from the mundane to the supernatural. Hell, there were days when it felt like everything I did was futile. Usually I chalked it up to being a side effect of having a pre-ordained destiny; how important could school possibly be when everyone in the know believed that I’d either help save the world or be a catalyst for its destruction? Regardless of what that sentence pertained to, it certainly didn’t come remotely close to being an explanation for what this mysterious person was doing and why.
How so? I typed back in the same message and saved it. I sat there and stared at my response for a few minutes more, as if I expected another line to suddenly appear beneath mine. It didn’t.
I briefly considered backspacing over my reply. Did I really want to converse with this person? Did I really dare open that door, not knowing what lay behind it? A moment later, I closed my laptop lid resolutely. Lucia was right, if this went anywhere uncomfortable I could just unplug again or wipe the account entirely. I wasn’t exactly bursting with BFFs these days, and an additional ally or two, even a mysterious, cryptic one, might be useful.
After rooting around in my dresser for some clean workout gear, I wandered out to the living room to tell Bruce I was ready to spar. By the time we wrapped up an hour later, I was exhausted, drenched in sweat and had temporarily forgotten all about my new online friend. Little did I know, that was the last time I would ever describe them as such.