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?"
"My wife is dead."
The Internet put a hand to his ear. "Come again?"
"My wife is dead."
"Yes, you prick. Don't you know everything?"
Something spread across his face. I wouldn't call it pity, but something a step short of contempt. It reminded me of the look Rowsdower gave me just before I was released from the interrogation.
"She's not dead, Gladstone."
"She's dead. I haven't seen her for two years."
"Would you like to?"
He held out his right hand and flipped through pics on his palm like the screen of a smart phone. There were photos of Romaya I'd never seen. I dropped my flask, holding onto the window rail for support.
"See? Check out her Flikr account. Here she is last year at her mom's in San Diego. Here she is in January. Ooh, here she is two months ago. Muir woods. See how happy?"
"No! I don't believe you. You're some, some sort of ... Internet ..."
"Seriously, Gladstone, wasn't 'Internet messiah,' retarded enough? Are you really going there?"
I slid to the floor and the Internet squatted beside me. "Do you realize what's happening now? Can we stop this game?"
"No Gladstone, she left you. Do you remember?"
"No. You ran off and got lost in the World Wide Web, and she left you. You're an Internet junkie. If I could, I'd show you the track marks, but it doesn't work like that. It's cost you everything. Your wife, your job, real friends."
"I'm not listening to you."
"Look at me!"
He grabbed my jaw with one hand and held the display of his other in front of my face. "Here is the email from your psychiatrist to your employer. Look! It's from two years ago. Do you see? Depressive. Delusional. Defense mechanism. You've been on psychiatric disability ever since Romaya left you. Just you, some Scotch and the Internet alone in your apartment for two years. Even your groceries were ordered online. It's no good, Gladstone."
I pulled my face from his grip.
"You're not the Internet messiah, whatever the fuck that is. You're not even a functioning man. Just a sad shut-in who lost his shit completely when I went away. You've forgotten how to live in the real world. How to be with people."
"No. I'm friends with Tobey. I even have ..."
"Where are Tobey and Oz now? Wake up."
"Yeah, Tobey's real. I've read his blog. And your sporadic semi-literate IMs to each other the last few years, but he never came to New York. Trust me, two months ago there was barely enough in that bank account for the porn he was downloading let alone airfare. Do I need to keep going?"
"Oz," I mumbled.
"Oz?! Don't you know who she is? Don't you recognize her as one of the random webcam girls you jerked off to after Romaya left?"
"Real? I bet you can't even remember what she looks like. Those tats that come and go. Changing hair colors. Lengths. Tell me, can you even see her and Romaya as two different things now?"
If I used all my strength to hold the shifting pieces of my jigsaw memory together and force them -- not to connect like a puzzle -- but at least face right side up, I could tell the chain-smoking Central Park Aussie was nothing like the long-haired natural beauty on that raft. And neither of them were mine.
"You created them to keep you company. So you didn't have to face being alone and offline. Sorry to be a dick, but fuck, you just wouldn't stop. Now if you'd leave me alone, I'll keep my mouth shut about, y'know, reality."
He turned his back and went off to find a quiet place to ponder the ocean.
I remembered waking that morning to find her crying. She had made it all the way to the door before letting herself feel the things that would have stopped her. The hall closet was open. That's what set her off. My old thrift store sports jacket was hanging there as it had been for years even though I wore it incessantly when we were dating. Its inside pocket was also home to the flask I never used that she got me for our first anniversary. Towards the end, I had refused to talk to her. To acknowledge any problem or my ability to set anything right. But in that moment, with her so close to gone and so obviously in pain, I wanted to believe being what she needed was as easy as putting on that jacket. It wasn't. And I didn't try. Because it was my jacket, and I refused to wear it as a disguise. I offered to help with the bags. And then she was gone.
I don't know how long I sat there, but I reached a place where time was measured only in regrets, and by my count, I'd lived long enough. Long enough to find a home and lose it. To have opened doors shut and opportunities pull away like a receding tide. And without the buzz and clicks of the Internet I could stare directly at all I didn't have without distraction. Survey the emptiness of what I'd earned in dark computer-lit rooms oozing forth worthless comments on websites. Watching videos unworthy of silver screens. Reading words too transient to be set in paper. Typing to people too insignificant to hold all through the night on a one person mattress.
I climbed atop the ledge where the Internet sat before and looked out the window. The waves were dark and dense and beautiful, and I wished there were a way to jump from that crown into their embrace, but I knew I'd fall hard to the cement, leaving little more than a stain beneath Liberty's feet. I poked my head through the opening in her crown and looked down as far as I could before my rising stomach made me slip back inside. I reached inside my coat pocket for some Scotch to lubricate the last cowardly act of my life.
For the first time in this Apocalypse I wasn't greeted by my flask. I'd dropped it after seeing those pictures of Romaya, and now it was five feet away, drained of its Scotch. But my pocket wasn't empty. Folded neatly into fours, was a piece of stationary I had not seen in many years. I opened it carefully, knowing what it was. Knowing it was mine, but also knowing I wasn't supposed to have it. It was a love letter I'd written to Romaya in '99. It was the love letter. The one that made her mine.
That's what we did then. We wrote important things down on nice paper. Not because we couldn't say these things in person. But because there was a feeling that some things should just be expressed in a way that you could hold onto. And if you really exposed yourself on a page and gave that to someone you loved, it was worth more than merely spoken words. Unlike texts and emails which are somehow worth not even that. Here in my hand was tangible proof that I saw the soft girl inside the hard woman. That I loved her completely and could not see a life without her in it.
I realized that Romaya had slipped this letter into my coat the day she left. And for a moment, it hurt to feel my love returned. But at least she gave me something. Something beautiful and real. Something I had created and something the Internet knew nothing about.
I jumped down from the window looking for the Internet.
"Where are you?" I screamed, chasing him in circles around the crown. I could see a glimpse of coat, a partial shoe, but no matter how fast I ran, I couldn't catch him. Finally, I stopped by Romaya's empty flask. I put it in my pocket and spoke loud enough for him to hear no matter where he was.
"You don't know me. How dare you presume to know me. Are you really so arrogant to believe you can sum up a man by his online presence? I have memories and feelings that have never seen the glow of a computer screen. Ideas that have never set foot online."
I then proceeded to read him my letter to Romaya from start to finish, before returning it to my pocket, and heading for the stairs.
Just as I reached the door, the Internet peeked his head out from behind an iron support beam.
"That's great, Gladstone, but, y'know, I'm still not going back to work."
I laughed. "Not for nothing, but I don't give a fuck what you do," I said. "I'm going to California. I have a letter to deliver."
The Notes from the Internet Apocalypse series is over, but you can keep up with Internet Apocalypse news on Facebook as Gladstone revises and expands it into a full length novel. Also, follow Gladstone on Twitter. And then there's his site and fan page.
Learn more about the Wed in The Evolution of the Troll: From Internet Tough Guy to 'Meh'. And get more from Gladstone in Was 'Arrested Development' A Remake of a 70s Sitcom?.