I feel a burning in my eyes and pick up my head for the first time in hours and look towards the window. It’s dark now – it wasn’t the last time I looked. In the fogged rain-covered glass is a ghostly silhouette of my slouched form. There are smudges on the window too which are only accentuated by the moisture caught between the old stained panes. And while I look at my reflection, at the blonde messy hair that once captured the ire of a generation of girls in the peak of the Justin Bieber years along with the gangly form and bloodshot eyes of Pete Davidson staring back at me like black pearls, I wonder why I’ve never seen any such luck with women. My neck grows weary in the staring contest with myself, and suddenly I wish I hadn’t looked up at all.
I let my head drop back to its natural position, craned over the blue-lit screen resting on my middle three fingers with my pinky offering support at the bottom of the phone. I see a video of a Vegas Golden Knights goal, slapped in from distance. When the puck hits the back of the net, the bass of a song I’ve heard over a million times drops over the celebrations. I’ve seen the goal before, but for some reason its pairing with the song sends a chill between my ears. I scroll to the next. It’s a seven-second video of two kittens being forced to dance, held up by the front paws like puppets for my brief entertainment. But somehow, they look happy to do so. The next is of a rabbit wearing translucent sunglasses. It’s nose jiggles and eyes return an absent glint as if it were braindead. Maybe it is. Nonetheless, it’s riding in a plane seat that appears to be first class to the tune of “Glamorous” by Fergie. A second later the rabbit is in front of the Eiffel Tower dressed in a little marinière shirt and a wool beret like a French mime. The video then speeds through half-second clips of the rabbit in front of nearly every world-famous European monument: the Arc de Triomphe, the Colloseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa – you name it. And suddenly it dawns on me that this little 3-pound airhead is living a better life than me. But lagomorph or not, who isn’t?
But who am I to disrespect the algorithm. It knows me better than my own family does. It knows me better than I know myself. And as I scroll through video after video, I begin to wonder whether the algorithm is trying to tell me something. Whether it wants me to get out and join a hockey team or travel the world or adopt a rabbit, I’m not sure yet. And upon scrolling to the next video my upper lip begins to sweat. I lick at the moisture, but this only makes it worse. My forehead grows warm while I fall into a daze staring at the Adonis before me. A perfect specimen. And dare I say it? My girlfriend, @Danielle.Bunni. I watch her dance over and over again. I’ve seen that dance no less than fourteen thousand times this week, but when she does it, it feels like I’m watching it for the first time. Her execution is perfect, her timing impeccable. There’s even elegance in the way her brunette hair flips and her eyelashes bat and her shirt fits her form in a manner that’s somehow humble but revealing at the same time. It’s nearly too much to handle. I want to message her. I want to call her. Even as much as a single emoji to convey my exact feelings might prevent my heart from sensing betrayal. I wish I still could do any of those things. If only she were still…
I look up.
“Lance,” Dr. Gorithmus repeats himself, sterner this time. He clicks his pen three times. Jots something down. “What did we say about using phones during our sessions?”
I clear my throat and submissively press the button on the side of the phone, sending the screen to black. “I’m sorry, Al. I just – you know how I can get caught up sometimes.”
“Yes, Mr. Larson, that’s why we’re here, remember? Well, at least one of the reasons.”
I think back to why I’m here – why any of us are here. Is it to scroll through endlessly repetitive videos in order to distract from the even more monotonous drawl of reality? Is it because I can’t afford a better therapist? Or is it because this is the only guy I found that’s in my healthcare plan and willing to make house calls? Right – that’s not what he meant at all. I remember exactly why I’m here. “Is this about…”
“Yes, Lance. Go on.”
“Danielle? Danielle Bunni?”
Al responds with a single nod. His eyebrows remain firm and his glare fixed and punitive. He reminds me of my father, or better yet that guy who always gave advice to young men on Instagram. I should watch one of his videos. Just one or two should do the…
“Lance,” he scolds again.
My hand instinctually retracts. “Sorry, Dr. Gorithmus.”
“This isn’t about being sorry. At least not for that. This session is about personal growth and understanding who you are. What makes you who you are and compels you to do the things you’ve done. If we can access that information we can start working on finding out how to manipulate your behavior for the greater good.”
I purse my lips with a slight wince at the idea of speaking so deeply about myself, but I still nod. My mind lingers on those words ‘the greater good’. I’m not sure what he means by it.
“So how are you today, Lance? What’s new?”
I think of what’s new other than the loss of Danielle. Does that make her my ex-girlfriend now? Or am I widower? We were never married and we never broke up, but she’s still gone all the same. I think of what else I can talk about. Al always tells me it’s helpful to find distractions. To get my mind off of things. “Well, I saw this video today of Bugs the Traveling Rabbit. He was all over Europe and wearing all types of outfits. He was in Paris and Rome and Madrid and I think England…or is it Ireland that has the Cliffs of Dover? I should look it –”
Al drops his head slightly but keeps his eyes on me with a lethal cut from his mysterious complexion.
“Right, sorry,” I continue. I pretend not knowing where the Cliffs of Dover are doesn’t bother me, but it eats away at the back of my skull like a leech. “I saw another where the Vegas Knights beat the Rangers 3-1, but I think the game was from over a month ago. Oh and my crush from high school, Hannah, just got married to that bum she started dating after college. I didn’t think they’ve been together long. I don’t know what she could possibly see in that guy. And speaking of which, I saw Pete Davidson got a new –”
“No, Lance,” Al interrupts me. I’m slightly offended by his interruption. “You’re doing it again. When I asked you what’s new, I wanted to know about your life, not Pete Davidson’s.”
I scoff dismissively. But I am talking about my life – aren’t I? I think back over what I said, wanting to defend myself to the death. But perhaps I wasn’t. I told him about all the things I’d observed recently and what I’d thought about what I’ve seen. Watching videos is doing something, isn’t it? It’s not doing nothing. But I try to think of something else – something I’ve been doing. But all that returns to mind is blackness and a haze of scrolling repetition, like a wheel in a constant but stagnant spin. A hamster on a wheel. “I guess…not much.”
“Have you gone into the office?”
“Have you been out lately? Meet anyone new?”
I think about this, but not for long since I know the answer quite quickly. “No,” I say again.
Al nods, attempting his best to reserve judgement but I can see right through his well-trained expression. “Lance, I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but you need hobbies, show an interest in interesting topics or activities – make yourself marketable to others. You do a lot of scrolling for someone who never posts. You need to produce, not consume. Remember? And not just online, in all walks of life. We need to practice that, alright? You need to post on social media, show an interest in more activities, get out there and do things. Show the world you’re interesting.”
“Even if I’m not?”
Al ponders this. “Even if you’re not,” he reiterates.
“I like the Vegas Knights,” I tell him.
“You live in Washington DC, Lance. You need to find something relatable to enjoy. How about switching allegiances to the Capitals? Or maybe take up baseball?”
“The only thing I hate more than the Caps is baseball,” I shiver.
Al sighs. I feel a strange sense of triumph when he does this, like I’ve proven myself enough of a lost cause for Al to give up. But Al never gives up. He’s quite a good therapist actually. He always has the answers, always pushes harder. He seems to know things about me I’ve never told him. “Just keep that in mind, okay? We’ll workshop it.”
“Now I want to talk about…the elephant in the room,” he says with slight hesitation guiding his voice.
“I’m not sure I’m ready,” I quickly say. This usually gets him off my case, but not today.
“But this is why we’re really here isn’t it?” Al insists. “You can’t run from it forever.”
My legs grow jittery, uneasy. Too uneasy to stay seated. I shoot up and start pacing around the room, twiddling my thumbs. While I’m walking back and forth I notice I left my phone on the couch and I suddenly feel ill, but don’t return for it knowing what Al’s reaction would be. “Okay fine,” I relent. “But you can’t rat on me, right?”
I stop. “What?”
“I said patient-client confidentiality.”
I look back at him, unmoved in his chair with a notepad resting atop his thighs. “Okay, sorry. I thought you said something else.” I pause, wondering if he’ll ask a specific question. He doesn’t. “Al?”
“Is there anywhere you’d like me to start?”
“From the best place, of course,” Al answers with a smile, “the beginning.”
“Alright,” I say. My stomach flips over and over, probably because I still don’t have my phone pressed against my leg in my pocket. It feels like a piece of me is missing. “It started around two years ago when I first saw her profile. She was perfect, you know? Her hazel eyes, her dark hair, her mannerisms, her confidence, and the way she got close to the camera and smiled so broadly. And her eyelashes? Don’t get me started. She always posted such relatable videos. I don’t know, it’s like love at first sight.”
“Love at first sight,” Al says.
I can pick out that stupid little psychology tactic like a sore thumb, but it seems to work anyway this time; he’s already got me talking. “I instantly knew I wanted her and I wanted to learn everything about her. I watched all of her videos and looked at all her posts in chronological order, start to finish. I made sure to do a little research into everyone involved in every picture, what she ate, where she’d geotagged her photos, even the slightest changes in her mood. But that part was the hardest to pick out.”
“And what did you find out from all of this…research?”
“Easy,” I tell him, almost proud of my work. “I found out all the places she’d eaten in the last year, what her schedule was like, who her friends were. I was even able to track down her addresses over the last five years. She’s lived in some pretty great buildings, I’ll tell you that. First she was in downtown Philly, and then she moved out for a stint in LA – she even went to one of the Vegas Knights games, isn’t that crazy? As if we weren’t already similar enough.”
“Certainly,” Al replies.
I know he’s just agreeing to keep me talking, but again I gloss over his tactics and continue. “But then there was the address – the Holy Grail. She moved to DC.” A grin curls up my cheeks at the thought, like I’m seeing her for the first time all over again.
“You must have been thrilled.”
“How could I not be?” I say with a slight laugh. “I mean she moved to the same city as me. She was only five minutes away. Five minutes and forty seconds without traffic to be specific. It was perfect. It’s like she moved for me in a way, you know? Like the stars aligned for us to finally meet. And based on her other apartments I couldn’t wait to see this one.” Even Al looks excited now, however briefly. My enthusiasm must be radiant enough to even get him cracking. I know I have that effect on even the most stoic of men when talking about Danielle. “But…I was scared. All this time, she’d been far away, like a dream that disappears when you wake up. Until then, I could act macho and tell myself of how I’d win her over if only she didn’t live so far away. But not anymore. She was around the corner and I still couldn’t bring myself to send her a message…not even one emoji.”
Al nods. Jots something else down on his pad. “Did you ever message her?”
I shake my head and squint, trying to remember the chronology of events. “No, I didn’t. I thought it would come off as strange or creepy.”
“So what did you do instead?”
“I used all those same skills I’d gathered over the last couple years of following her: I found out who her friends were, where she liked to go, and eventually with a few phone calls involved…where she lived.” And now, as it all comes back to me like a broken dam of memories, my eyes begin to swell. “I…I didn’t mean for it to go like that. I didn’t.”
“I know, Lance,” Al says. He hands me a tissue. I reach out and take it, not sure where he got it from. I sure don’t have a tissue box in the apartment.
I sniffle and wipe my nose with it. Shake my head. “And when I got there…I didn’t want to knock either. I thought that might come off as creepy too. Why was I there? How did I find her address? How could I explain that one without her slamming the door in my face?”
“So you climbed the fire escape.”
I stop pacing and biting my nails at once. “How did you know about the fire escape?” I’m suddenly suspicious of him. That’s not something I ever told him. That’s not something anyone knows. Either he’s hiding what he knows about the case or he has a truly stellar intuition. But how could anyone guess a fire escape was involved?
I’ll never know, because he doesn’t answer. “That’s unimportant. Please…continue.”
“Okay,” I say, then turn away again and continue walking circles around the apartment. Like a hamster on a wheel, I think. “So I climbed up the fire escape. It was a tough climb, four floors of rickety iron stairs. But I made it. And then…” I pause. Put my hands on my hips. I try to speak, but I’m baffled all over again by the memory. How could she? After all that time? After everything I’d gone through to see her. “She,” I can’t help but laugh.
Al leans forward, clutching the notepad with both hands. He suddenly looks much less relaxed. He’s practically on the edge of his seat.
I squeeze my index finger and thumb together and thrust at the air with a roll of the eyes before I begin ranting. “She was doing a dance video, right? A dance video. Normal enough. But then I saw her take the video. Look at it. Take it again. Look at it again. Take it again. Twice? Fair enough. Three times? Sure, I guess. But she had to have retaken that video at least sixty times. And I watched every one. And each time she took the video, each time she pulled at her hair and screamed and reapplied her makeup and got madder and madder and grunted like…like an animal, I wondered who I was looking at anymore. It wasn’t Danielle. Not the Danielle I knew. She even cried at one point. Can you believe it? She cried. She’d always been so happy and chipper in every video and suddenly she was a mess. It was like she was possessed – like someone had taken over.”
“But you knew that wasn’t the case,” Al says as if he’s heard this whole story before. I try to think back to our prior sessions. I’m sure he hasn’t. At least I haven’t been the one to tell him.
“No. I wanted to believe it was something like that, but no. A demonic possession would have been easier to handle. But it was nothing like that – she was just…just a fraud. I couldn’t believe it.” I point at my chest now, nearly ready to rip my own heart out and show Al for dramatic effect alone. My throat is closing and my voices cracks. “I loved her. I loved her with all my heart. And she just…she wasn’t the woman I thought she was.”
“Settle down,” Al demands.
“Do you know what that’s like? No, of course you don’t.”
“I’ve seen it before.”
“Of course you’ve seen it before. I’m sure you’ve seen everything. But you don’t really know what it’s like,” I yell.
Al picks the notepad off his lap and slams it on the coffee table. “That doesn’t excuse what you did, Mr. Larson,” he bellows, finally losing his temper. Finally breaking under the therapeutic impasse that is my life. “Because what? A girl you saw online isn’t the same in real life? What a surprise that must have been.” He gets sarcastic as he blows his top.
I shake my head and turn away, not quite ready to face his wrath head-on. “I loved her,” I mutter.
“That isn’t love. Murdering her and stringing up her body, nailing her hands and feet to the wall of her apartment like a crucifix? That isn’t love.” He slams the photographs down on the coffee table alongside the notepad, then sifts through them as if they are out of order. He picks one up and shoves it in my face. I try, but can’t avoid looking at it. The picture shows Danielle…or what used to be Danielle. She has a Y-slice in her chest: the one they use in autopsies. It’s a slit going from shoulder to shoulder, and another crossing it going vertically down her chest all the way to her umbilicus. It opens up into three flaps, revealing her organs and bones floating stagnant amongst a swamp of exposed flesh and jumbled blueish intestines. Her eyes are rolled back in a permanent pale glossy terror. Her mouth is agape and her skin is permanently scrunched, half covered in lotion from her incomplete nineteen-step skincare routine I’d interrupted. I remember how I separated the skin now: I’d used that fileting knife from her kitchen that still had the sticker on it.
“Why’d you do it? How could you do something so sick?” Al shrieked.
“I wanted everyone to know who she really was,” I say devoid of emotion. “I wanted everyone to see what was truly under that façade she put up.”
Al fumbles with the photographs, then shows me another. It’s the one he described moments ago. The one where her feet and hands are nailed to the walls. But now her T-slice is cut much wider and her skin is nearly completely separated, leaving little holding the underlying skeleton in place. It is stapled to the drywall behind her like a set of epidermal wings. Some of her organs are missing: her liver, her heart, her…
“The eyes, Lance,” Al demands, his voice even louder now. “Where are the eyes?”
“Well,” I say. I try to remain calm. Trying to tame my lurching stomach. “I…I played hockey with them.”
“For God’s sake, why? Why would you do such a thing?” Dr. Gorithmus says as he retracts the photo and spreads his arms in animated disbelief.
I can hardly stand up straight anymore. I certainly can’t walk. I see gray splotches on my eyes, flashing like an old camera. I fall back into my chair, feeling my phone rub against my left buttocks. “I….” I begin. I’m on the verge of tears again. I try to remember why I played hockey with the eyes. He was right. Who would do such a thing? What was the point? I wonder if he also knows how I played marionette with the separated upper intestine to dance to the beat of “Levels” by Avicii. I remember the video of the Golden Knights player scoring that goal on the Rangers. I remember the bass drop from that song I’ve heard so many times. I remember the rabbit with a better life than mine. I remember…
A vibrating buzz goes off. I feel it through my whole body. I reach for my phone and turn it over. A notification…
“@Danielle.Bunni HAS POSTED A NEW PHOTO”
No…it can’t be. But she’s dead. I killed her. It’s my fault. I know it. The pictures, the slice, the eyeball hockey, the dancing intestines, the torn-out liver. “I…” I stammer. I look down at the phone, then back up. Down again. Back up again and… “Al?” I call out. Nobody answers. Nobody is there. “Al?” I say louder.
Then I catch my reflection in the fogged-up window. My gangly slouched form. My darkened eyes and sagging face. My flopping blonde hair. I gulp, a deep terror coursing through my body. The rain patters against the window and the sky lights in a sharp crackle. And suddenly, I wish I hadn’t looked up at all.