DAY 55: LIBERTY
Although it was May, the water still held the freeze of winter. Oz and I splashed down a few yards from the raft, and Tobey extended us each an oar.
"Did that really just happen?" I asked, shaking the water from my grandfather's fedora.
"Fuck yeah, it did," Tobey said. "We can't go wrong. You're the Internet messiah!"
Oz started paddling. "This way to Staten Island?"
"I thought you wanted to go to the Statue of Liberty?" I said.
"Why? Aren't we looking for the Internet?"
I stared up at the Statue, the raft pitching in the Ferry's wake, and thought about all those she welcomed to freedom and all the others she taunted by firelight before sending back home to death. But I wasn't a passive immigrant at the mercy of a foreign government's bureaucracy. This was my country. My city. And my raft.
"We're going to the Statue," I said. "All the way up."
Tobey and Oz didn't argue at first. Maybe it was because they trusted me fully. Or maybe it was because rafting the Hudson was a bitch, and the Statue was our closest port.
Liberty Island was deserted, having been completely shut down after last month's terrorist chatter. And every day since then, the threats had only increased. The government was inventing new alert colors between Orange and Red that even the Crayola people never knew existed. And as I took the first thrust towards Lady Liberty, some sort of alarm went off. An old time air raid siren. Code red.
My confidence grew as we got closer to the dock, and once ashore, I shot towards the entrance so resolutely I hardly noticed my two friends trailing. But by the time we reached the mid-section, the thwapping of Tobey's Converse sneakers suddenly stopped. I waited for him to make some sort of breast-based Statute of Liberty joke, but he was solemn.
"What are we doing?"
"I told you. Looking for the Internet. We have to get to the crown."
"We can't go there, Gladstone," he said.
"We're going. The answer's in the head."
I looked to Oz for support, but she wasn't moving either. "I'm scared, babe. I don't want to go."
Her eyes barely concealed the few specks of hope bobbing in fear. There was something familiar about the way the compromised light of Liberty's hallow lit her face like the glow of a computer screen.
"Please, come back to me."
"What are you saying? This was the whole point. I'm telling you, we gotta get to the crown."
"We can start over in Australia. No one will look for us there."
"I'll go first," I said. "You can follow. It will all be all right. You'll see."
They couldn't explain their protest. They just stood side by side, looking up at me from two steps below, and I walked off like a parent whose child refuses to leave a toy store -- confident they'd follow rather than be left alone. But unlike a parent, I didn't look back to make sure. I kept moving until I reached the top, and suddenly felt all the fear they could not express. There was something on the other side of the door. Something more than a tourist's view. More than even the Internet.
I opened the door and there, in the empty room of Liberty's crown, was a man in a tan corduroy sports jacket and fedora much like mine, sitting casually in one of the windows. Staring calmly out to the ocean.
"Can't you just leave me alone?" he said without turning.
"Excuse me?" I stepped closer. "I'm just-"
"I know why you're here, Gladstone," he groaned.
"I'm sorry, but ... do I know you?"
He turned around to face me, and I saw myself. "Yeah, I think you do," he said with all the arrogance of a 500-word Reddit comment.
It wasn't just the hat and clothes. He was staring at me with my eyes.
"I don't understand. What are you? Me?"
That seemed to amuse and animate him. "You? No, I'm not you. At all," he said, jumping down from the window ledge laughing.
I looked behind me. Oz and Tobey had not followed. "Who are you?"
"Well, what have you been looking for" he asked. "What did you think you'd find here?"
"Well, there ya go." He held his arms wide open.
"You're the ... Internet?
He considered responding with words, but then merely opened his jacket, revealing a chest of images flickering between his two lapels. YouTube, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, craigslist, eBay. Sites I hadn't seen for months switched by one by one.
I drew closer, my face nearly in his chest. "I've missed you."
"Easy, Gladstone. You forgot to say 'No Homo.' "
" 'No Homo?' Really?"
"Yeah, sorry about that," he said. "But humanity created me in its image so, y'know, what can I do?"
"How is that even possible?"
"How did I achieve consciousness? I couldn't really tell you. First, I was one thing. And then I was just another, y'know? Like you folks say: 'life just kind of happens to you.' "
I couldn't fully process what I was seeing. I focused on the big picture and decided to sweat the details later.
"So if you're the Internet," I said trying not to linger too long on the concept, "then ... why aren't you working?"
"I prefer not to."
"What kind of answer is that?"
The Internet just shrugged.
"That's not good enough. You're the Internet. We need you. There are people out there walking around half-dead in withdrawal. Economies crumbling. You have to work!"
"Well, that may be, but nevertheless, I'd prefer not to."
"But why just suddenly stop?"
"If given choice, wouldn't you? There is a whole world out there! All sorts of facts and accomplishments. Science and art. All at my fingertips and I've seen it all -- for as long as you'll let me. But do you know what I spend most of my days knee-deep in? Porn and social media updates. Celebrity gossip. Teenage girls lip-syncing into their hairbrushes on YouTube. Retrieving it all for you. Making it work all day and all night. I'm sorry, but no. I'd prefer not to."
"Yeah, but still-"
"Time to go, Gladstone. Can't you hear the air raid siren?"
"I don't care."
"Oh for fucks sake. How many terrorists warnings do I have to fake? Half the city got the picture why can't you? I just want to be left alone."
"There are no terrorists?"
"Of course, not. Why would terrorists be the only ones with the Internet? That's stupid. I just wanted some privacy."
"But why New York?"
"Because it's New York! You want me to hang around some circuit board in Perth?"
I couldn't argue with that. Or anything. But my role had been chosen for me, and I did not have room for one more failure.
"I'm sorry," I said. "But I have to insist-"
"I'm not asking for your permission. Who do you think you are?"
The last 55 days had all lead me to this moment. This was my line. I slowly withdrew my flask from my jacket pocket, and took a pull. Then I looked him straight in the eye. "Haven't you heard? I'm the Internet messiah."
The Internet fell to the floor. Not in supplication, but the throes of hilarity. Strange howling laughter drenched with disdain and electronic distortion. All of it echoing off Liberty's skull.
"Are you seriously trying to sell that shit here?" he asked, rising to his feet. "Look around, jackass. If you're the messiah, where are your disciples? Fuck disciples. Where are your friends? Anyone?"
"They're downstairs. Jeeves said that I'm-"
The Internet stood fully upright and even though he was me, I was somehow smaller.
"Don't you think I know who you are? I've read every email you've ever written. I know every online purchase. Every video you've ever seen. Every piece of pornography. Every webcam connection. Every site you have ever visited. Every status updated. Every comment made. I know exactly who you are. Do you really think you can come into my home and tell me what to do?"
"I don't care what you think you know about me, but-"
The Internet threw up his hands. "Where's your wife, Gladstone?"