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Introducing: ANON - Anna McCarthy


Original art by Dita Stuchlíková

USERNAME: ANONYMOUS

This is a thread about dogs

>be me

>14 y/o live in cohousing

>one day cosibs go to Thorn Great Adventures

> getting over mono so I stay behind, self isolate

>sit on bunk alone in room

>write sad greentext in head

>dog walks in

>wtf dog you never come in here

>dog butts head against my leg

>rub her fur, scratch her ears

>dog licks me like she’s saying “it’s ok Anon”

>*snuffling noises*

>dog and me are buddeez

>happy now

>thanks dog

#

Evening summer clouds hang motionless overhead, and Exene is thinking about bees. It looks as if the clover they sowed in February wasn’t enough. Will there ever be bees at Thorndon Lofts? Probably not, but you have to do something. You can’t give up.

She is on the perimeter path, heading for work duty at the Data Center. Turning the corner by the greenhouse, she stops. She stares. A trio of yurts has taken over the abandoned gas station next door. Their white canvas sides deflect the heat from the weedy paving, creating optical distortions in the air. Up ahead, and closer to the dividing wall, she sees a recreational vehicle with a large satellite dish on top. An orange electricity cable reaches over the wall, plugging into an outlet on the Thorndon Lofts side.

Surely this is not allowed. Exene hurries towards the Data Center, a low brick structure on the path ahead. It stands apart from the rest of Thorndon Lofts because, long ago, it served as a bunker for storing highly combustible substances. Back then a munitions factory occupied this complex. Now, the building’s reinforced frame and fireproof cladding secure the servers on which the peace-loving community of Thorndon Lofts runs its network.

Exene is still trying to understand how things work here, and the yurts have put her in a position of uncertainty. Should she alert the mods, tell them that a nomadic people appears to have settled next door? Or is it better to assume they’re already aware? She doesn’t want to appear foolish. What if the yurts went up yesterday, her day off? But then her internal voice says, Remember the carrots.

Exene’s first work assignment, thinning carrots in the greenhouse, had seemed ideal. The opportunity to use her hands, to do something tangibly useful--this was why she’d pursued the cohousing option in the first place. She spent her first week on all fours listening to a year’s worth of Thorn sciencecasts. It hardly felt like work at all. But on her day off, the permaculture team had emailed with the unwelcome news that Exene was overthinning, putting the community’s carrot yield at risk.

Why didn’t you say something, Exene replied, with a smiley face indicating We’re All Nice Thorny People Here. She snapped a pencil in annoyance when she read the formal reply: It has been difficult to find a convenient and timely way to give you feedback about this problem because you wear the Don’t Talk to Me flag in your hat so frequently.

But aren’t we allowed to wear it as often as we want? Some people have it on at every meal, says Exene, in the reply she doesn’t send.

At the work reassignment meeting, Exene had tried to convey the lack of clarity in the Thorn onboarding process. For example the proper usage of Don’t Talk to Me flags. There are unspoken expectations, she said, telling of the dirty looks that assail her when she exercises her right to take an extra towel at the sauna, when she reaches for a new teabag instead of reusing one from breakfast. Of course, Thorn Communities cater to a very particular type--the slogan, after all, is Easy Living for Difficult People--but are residents then required, willy nilly, to put up with other people’s shit?

To Exene’s dismay, the mods had listened to her with expressions that said, We have heard this before. When the session ended they told her she would learn her new work assignment within a week. Jane, the archivist, suggested that she go back and study The Five Golden Thorns, a text Exene has always found baffling and glib. Still, to be a good sport, she locates a Squidward edition and posts it in her bathroom. There aren’t too many options for high-functioning misanthropes, she says to herself whenever she sees it.

Unhappy with the idea of performing janitorial duties, Exene at first resists reassignment to the Data Center. But it turns out to be the perfect job for an overzealous carrot thinner: intricate work, using cunning tools. On training day, Exene stands on the operations floor and insufflates its complex smell, watching intently as the mod named Darwin uses a tiny snake-necked vacuum to clean the seams on the server racks. He's short, she thinks, but he's attractive. A compact man, with a full head of hair and a voice rich with Portuguese vowels.

Pretend you’re a forensic archaeologist, Darwin says. She watches him use a soft brush to tickle the mobile control panel and feels, for the first time, that she belongs to a collective. Her small labors in the Data Center now seem anything but modest. The digital, mental, emotional infrastructure of an entire community relies upon her tending.

#

USERNAME: ANONYMOUS

This thread is about sounds

>be me

>14 y/o cohousing kid

>working on projects

>school

>videos

>therapy

>shorty cosibs destroy white noise maker

>home is too quiet now

>cantgetthingsdone.exe

>fml

>mom: “anon, I am friends with the mods. I will see if you can work in the data center its >loud there.”

>me: kay right

>last night went to data center with lapbook

>mod: “hi anon you can do homework here ok?”

>sit in hallway of operations floor

>write greentexts

>do homework

>online chat with buddeez

>lifeissweet.jpg

#

Standing in the Data Center’s entry box Exene raises her face to the camera and decides that, to be safe, she will report the yurts to Darwin. She intends to email him immediately, but a second surprise intervenes. When she gets to the operations floor she sees, and is displeased to see, the teenager from the family that lives across the hall from her. An oddball, tongue-tied kid. She’s seen him with his dog. And now he is sitting on the meditation stool outside the server room, a lapbook perched on his knees. She has never seen him here, although his body language says he belongs.

Oh! This is a surprise. It’s Frith, right?

Hi, he says, doing the complicated, double palm-flashing wave the Thorn kids all do. His hair hangs lank on the shoulders of his Dreamworks character T-shirt. For some reason, a pair of pink-framed reading glasses hangs on a chain around his neck.

Are you supposed to be here?

Yeah, my Mom fixed it for me.

Are you doing your homework?

When he looks at her without saying anything, the familiar uncertainty returns and she wants to ask why. Why is that a weird question to ask? What am I doing wrong? It’s not the kid’s fault, she reminds herself. It's just his way.

Okey dokes Frith, she says, walking over to the terminal in the wall. I’m heading into the server room. I just have to email Darwin.

#

USERNAME: ANONYMOUS

This thread is about naybors. I'll start.

>be me

>14 y/o live in cohousing

>borrow co-moms reading glasses

>borrow biggy cosibs retina screen

>go to my special place (data center ops floor)

>load Spiderman in Middle Earth Content Universe

>headphones on

>sounds low, jack it up

>still low wtf?

>hear someone shouting my name, look up

>naybor lady standing over me

>mfw: forgot she was here

> naybor lady makes headphones sign, face all mad

>take them off

>soundtrack booms out of lapbook speakers

>”wtf anon! Don’t you headphone?”

>oops, plug phones in. No sound. Look at plug, see exposed wire.

>Brain says, “sorry anon those phones are toast.”

>”Shit, brain, wtf do I do?”

>Brain says, "ask naybor lady can you borrow spare headphones from office."

>me: ^ ^ ^

>naybor lady sighs. “Okay, Anon.”

>Get headphones. Play content. Soundtrack 10/10.

>feels real, man

>thanks naybor lady

>thanks brain

#

An hour later, Darwin announces his presence at the Data Center with a text: here. Exene, surrounded by the whir of the machines, detects the buzz in her pocket, puts down the antistatic spray, descends the aluminum ladder. Frith is still in the hallway, headphones on, typing something in a green font. He does not look up.

She finds Darwin changing the sticky mat at the entrance to the Data Center’s long, narrow office. He looks up and smiles, which awakens in her a small flutter of interest. She cannot recall seeing him smile before. In fact, she has always assumed that his humorlessness is what makes him difficult. His large, well-wrought face is always slightly downcast.

I am so glad you emailed, he says. I had no idea they were out there. They must have just arrived.

His eyes are bright; the yurts have excited him.

Well I’m glad I did the right thing, says Exene (and thinks: finally.) Have you seen them before?

Oh yes, says Darwin. These ones call themselves Scythians. They’ll be here any minute, now I’ve cut the perimeter power. They usually send a child.

Exene opens her mouth, but before she can ask any more questions Darwin says he must file a report. Not wanting to disturb him, she switches on the electric kettle and drifts over to the real time screen that fills one wall. Its writhing, marching display is a mega-feed, all the digital doings of every Thorndon Lofts resident flowing past, a river of words and images. Words, images and Thornmoji. Endless numbers, Thorncoin symbols, dollar signs. Exene perceives the screen's heat. Her teabag--a fresh one--steeps.

The doorbell rings. Darwin is at a terminal, talking to someone from Thorn Asset Management, so Exene goes to the entry box. The doorbell screen shows a girl, maybe fifteen, standing outside. As Exene watches, the girl twirls her hair and looks down at her feet, shuffling them as if practicing steps for some obscure folk dance.

Can I help you, Exene says into the microphone.

The girl looks up. She has thin brows and a pointed face, high cheekbones, startled blue eyes.

I’ve a note here to give you, she says.

Well put it in the tray, says Exene, pressing a button beside the door. She sees the girl step back as the hatch on the outside opens. After a moment, the girl reaches forward to put something in the opening. Her blue gaze returns to the camera. On the high definition screen her orange-tan skin seems to glow.

Exene raises the interior hatch and pulls out a folded sheet of paper, saying thank you into the mic. The girl remains where she is. For several seconds Exene watches her. The girl doesn’t move. Anything else? Exene asks.

I’m to wait for a reply, the girl says, looking away.

There’s a girl outside who wants a reply, Exene says to Darwin, placing the note next to his keyboard. He looks over and nods, says he’ll deal with it.

I’ll confess I took a look at it, she says, unable to prevent herself from disturbing Darwin’s work. And I don’t understand. Are they really a church? And what’s the Scythian Rite? Some kind of Eastern orthodoxy?

Nah, says Darwin, swinging his office chair around to face her. It’s just a tax dodge. They’re itinerants. Thieves.

They seem legit, Exene says, reaching for the note, reading aloud: We are a touring band of content creators, authorized under Municipal Law Seven to occupy abandoned petrochemical infrastructures for a period of up to five days.

It says we’re supposed to honor all reasonable--

It’s a scam, says Darwin. To get us to sign a contract.

For what?

A reality show. They go around to different communities offering to make a web series about them.

Oh, says Exene. I’ve seen that kind of thing. She recalls staged arguments, infidelity accusations, unexpected children’s dance performances. Dodgy stuff.

It’s what you don’t see, says Darwin. Identity theft and pilfering behind the scenes.

What about their electricity request?

Let them ask the nursing home.

Does Darwin really expect Exene to tell the girl that? Go and steal from the old people up the street? As she hesitates, a voice says hey. They both look over.

Hi Frith, Darwin says.

The neighbor kid, in his Princess Poppy T-shirt, gives the double-palm wave and signals to Exene that he is hanging the headphones on their peg. Darwin swivels to face him.

How’s it working out up there?

Frith gives a thumbs up as he heads to the doorway.

You’ll be back tomorrow night?

The kid nods, hair hanging, before slipping out. Exene looks at Darwin.

She’s waiting, she says. The Scythian girl.

Darwin promises he’ll answer her. But security comes first, he adds, nodding at the screen.

Exene drifts over to the entry box to check on the girl, hears voices coming through the door screen. Frith is on the doorstep, he is talking to the girl, both of them squinting in the last shafts of light. The girl holds a phone in her hand.

It’s my mum’s birthday, she’s saying, and Frith, blushing, obligingly steps into the slant of sun, puts his lapbook on the ground, takes the phone from her hand. Following the girl’s instructions, he shoots a video from below, moving from right to left as she talks lovingly to the camera in an unrecognizable language. He hands back the device, then watches her watching the video. And Exene, watching him watch the girl watch, watching how happily he responds to her attention, wonders what exactly is going on with this kid. He seems so terminally shy. Is he happy in the crowded doublewide loft across the hall from her? They’re surprisingly quiet for a family their size. The only noise is on Friday night, during the weekly karaoke party to which they unfailingly invite Exene. She should make an effort to go. They’re neighbors after all.

#

USERNAME: ANONYMOUS

Another thread about naybors

>be me

>14 y/o live in cohousing

>meet 10/10 scythian girl from camp next door

>wait for snub

>hey she goes can you be a buddee and shoot a quick video for my mum?

>well I go um

>I’ll give you a load of GIFs stuff like this

>shows me her phone

> black and white loop: hippy girl dancing naked.

>hairyarmpits.gif

>ok deal

>fiddle with phone, make video, girl says happy birthday in weird Scythian talk

>ok she goes now give me ur lapbook

>mfw she gets out USB-C and hooks up a drive

>brain: hey, remember Data_Privacy_and__Mobile_Users.pdf?

>girl gives lapbook back

>bye anon

>bye girl.

>Opened lapbook just now

>tapped on GIFs folder thinking hairy hippy girls

>tapped on file

>broken icon

>tapped on next file same thing

>only one file works

>two seconds of guy in socks turning away while jacking off

>slackbuttcheeks.gif

>fml

#

At the end of the evening, Exene returns to the office and finds Darwin on the phone. In his hand is the Scythian girl’s note. His tone is banefully polite as he explains that Thorndon Lofts has supplied power four out of the last five times itinerants have camped next door. Yes he’s aware of Municipal Bill Seven. But there are other properties adjacent to the vacant lot, for instance the nursing home. These other properties should be doing their share. Yes, he’ll email the nursing home director and let them know the Scythians will be calling. Thanks, goodbye.

Wait--

Exene is about to ask Darwin to consider the elderly people, to imagine them, frail yet still game, obediently lining up to audition for a phoney reality show. But he has ripped the note into pieces already, and his expression says: I’m done.

So instead she asks about Frith. What does he do on that lapbook? Sometimes it looks like social media, green writing on a pale red background. No, Darwin explains. Greentexts are therapy, an online teen initiative. True peer counseling, by anons for anons. No judgments. Say what you need to say.

Exene, confused, asks: what’s an anon?

Now Darwin seems puzzled. Apparently, this is another of those things she’s just supposed to know. He explains a little about greentexts, about anons and karens and matts, about frens, buddeez, and QT3.14s.

Are greentexts a Thorn thing, she wants to know.

No, he says, there are countless platforms. There are Asian greentexts, Afro-Caribbean greentexts, Russian greentexts. Gay greentexts. Senior greentexts. There’s even talk of starting a Thorn Group greentext server, run out of a Thorn community in the Netherlands. Jane and Vanessa announced it at the last meeting.

When Exene says this is the first she’s heard of such a thing, Darwin laughs and says, there’s a lot to be learned from going to meetings.

Exene is surprised at how much she is enjoying this small sample of companionship. Darwin, she thinks, is not difficult at all. Perhaps that’s why he’s a Mod, his difficulties are minor enough that they don’t interfere with his capacity to manage. What is his living situation, she wonders as she savors the sweet words of small talk. I love working in the Data Center, she tells him. I can’t even tell you. It’s soothing, the sound of the servers.

I can imagine, says Darwin.

And it’s so satisfying, Exene says, wanting to continue talking, wanting to share her thoughts on microfibers and deionizing solution. But Darwin, looking over at the screen, holds up his hand. Exene stops talking. He wheels around and starts typing.

Someone’s opened up an SSL. I just want to see--ah ok.

He looks concerned, but not that concerned. He types rapidly.

I’m ramping up authentications, he says. It’ll boot them off. When he’s finished he pushes back his chair, wondering aloud how they got in so quickly.

Who?

He says it could be anyone, but given the timing, he thinks it likely the trespassers are the Scythians. He gets out his phone to report the breach. Exene goes over to the real time screen and squints, scrolling up slowly through condensed text and squished up images. She doesn’t know what she’s looking for--anything, really, a new routing pattern, an unexpected keyword, an encrypted image. Minutes later, the phrase “hot Scythian girl” catches her attention. She hits pause and reads more closely. So this is what a greentext is, she thinks. This is what it means to be an anon. She recalls the eager smile on Frith’s face as he looked at the girl. His face when--

Darwin has come up behind and is reading over her shoulder. I’ll have a talk with him, is all he says.

#

Am I arriving early on purpose, Exene wonders, entering the Data Center the next evening. Should I be listening, she asks herself as she hovers beside the doorbell screen, hearing Darwin accost Frith at the door.

Look Frith, he says. Someone accessed the network without authorization yesterday. It was probably the Scythians.

Exene leans closer to the screen, but can’t make out Frith’s mumbling reply.

And you trusted her, says Darwin.

Frith, head down, appears wordless and distressed.

These so-called nomads, Darwin says, in a don't quote me tone. This bullshit guild of content creators. Some say they’re all right as individuals. Especially the ones that mix with the settled population. But I have to say, I’ve had a lot of interactions with Scythians over the years, and not one has been positive. It’s always a scam. They don’t care what we think of them. You’ll see. They’ll leave a mountain of trash behind when they go. I’m sorry, but they’re slime.

Exene listens, her eyes open wide. How is the kid responding to this venomous speech? She wishes she could see his face, but he keeps it turned away.

One: keep your devices close, says Darwin to Frith, counting off the lesson with his fingers. Two: keep your counsel. And three: never give a Scythian the benefit of the doubt.

Exene could stay to hear the rest of the conversation, but it's too painful, too exposing; all she can hear are the ugly bagpipes of Darwin’s hate, all she can feel is the alien surface of his shriveled, unattachable soul. She heads upstairs to the server room, to the uncomplicated feeling of cleaning a twist of cable with a cotton bud, dislodging every speck of dust from every crevice.

#

USERNAME: ANONYMOUS FIRST TIMER! THORNER!

this thread is about my naybor kid

>be me

>52 y/o introvert cisfemme

>partnerfree.png

>"did I choose cohousing or did cohousing choose me?"

>shrug.exe

>my Thorn job: cleaning data center

>Do something right one day, get praise from mod

<mod is a qt3.14 Brazilian gent

>me: crushing a bit

> one day naybor kid "F" is hanging out at data center

>Scythians arrive next door, send girl to ask for power

> "F" sees girl

>heart eyes dot gif

>gives girl his lapbook

>holy shit data breach follows.

>Next day qt3.14 mod talks to kid

>says hateful stuff about nomads

>go to bed thinking do I report him? Even if he’s a mod?

>indecisive duck meme

>wake up next am, naybors crying in hallway

>he is gone, co-moms say, F is gone and so is the dog

>go look out the window, see Scythians gone too

<now I know. I should have reported that mod.

>cry cry cry

>fml anons! Fuck. My. Life.

>> Hi anon!!!!!!

>> Welcome new anon!

>> Hugs.exe to you anon!

>>All buddeez here!

###

Anna McCarthy is Professor of Cinema Studies at NYU and online editor for the journal Social Text. This story is one of a series set in a slightly parallel present; another appears in The London Reader's Summer 2020 issue,"Our Time in Quarantine." These are the author's first ever published short stories.