Kate van der Borgh – Writer

Toxic

by | Jun 28, 2020 | Creative Writing, Play Area

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When I wrote this, I’d been thinking about public debate – how social media algorithms promote our most extreme views, how our response is often an equally extreme cancel culture, and how so much of what we really mean is found in the gaps between words. [25 minute read]

A sound tech squeezed into the meeting room balancing three takeaway coffees between his hands. A researcher was speaking, breathless.
‘He’s agreed to six twenty, before his lecture at city hall.’
‘Doesn’t give us much time,’ said the producer. Then, turning: ‘It’s got to be you.’
Amy nodded, delighted. A big fish. One she’d wanted to hook for a while.
‘I think we need to show,’ the producer continued, ‘he doesn’t always say what he means. He never says anything overtly bigoted. But, with all those carefully-curated statistics, he’s stirring up misogyny in young, impressionable men.’
Amy scribbled. ‘Didn’t he say something recently about the gender pay gap?’
‘That it doesn’t exist.’
‘Great. Slam dunk, surely?’
From the corner, the social media manager – a slight, twentysomething kid with lank hair – spoke in a small voice: ‘He said it exists, but not only because of gender.’
‘Didn’t he also say that eradicating it wasn’t necessarily a good thing?’ Amy asked.
‘Well,’ the kid murmured, ‘he said it depends whether you focus on equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes…’
‘Yeah,’ Amy groaned, smiling at the women around her, ‘because, boo hoo, one of those would guarantee more women doing high-powered jobs at Fortune 500 companies. Let me run through the brief. I just need to pin him down on a couple of these things.’
The producer nodded. ‘In a nice snippet that will work on social. Get him cornered, get him spooked, then show the world what he’s about. We want to make a bang, here.’
Amy winked at the social media kid, whose name she’d forgotten. He smiled back, blushing. ‘Don’t worry,’ she told him. ‘I’ll get you something good.’

October 2015
Amy: … and I told them that it wasn’t acceptable. That’s how I got my first reporting slot.
Chris: So, you’re one of those feisty career women who likes to bust a few balls in the workplace?
Amy: So, you’re one of those guys who hears what he wants to hear?
Chris: [Grinning] Well. Am I wrong?

Maybe things would have gone better if she hadn’t made the call beforehand. Even as the studio lights dimmed, Amy heard Chris’s voice echoing in her head: why do you always have to be so unequivocal, Amy? Would it hurt to meet me in the middle, just once?
Now she was off balance. And Peter Mraovitch, Professor of Psychology and Sociology at the University of Chicago, was making the most of it.
He’d deftly dealt with her line of questioning on equal pay, had derided Amy’s definition of identity politics as ‘incoherent’. This interview was turning into an advertisement for his views: that the real victims in this world are the average white guys getting bashed by the liberal left.
As the producer jabbered in her earpiece, Amy tried to get on comfortable ground.
‘You seem to be popular among ‘incels’,’ she said. ‘Involuntarily celibates. Frustrated young men, unable to find love and affection with the opposite sex, whose frustration often tips into misogyny.’
‘There’s no evidence, other than anecdotal, of that whatsoever,’ replied the professor. ‘Yes, both groups are frustrated. Incels by their celibacy, my followers by the state of society. Where’s the connection beyond that?’
Behind the professor’s head was Amy’s team, their eyes down. Their silence seemed heavier than usual. She realised her hands were shaking, like when she was a rookie.
‘Well,’ she replied, ‘people who challenge you, especially women, often find themselves on the receiving end of misogynistic trolling. Rebecca Ridgeway, who interviewed you last month, received death threats. Rape threats. Would you comment on that?’
Peter Mraovitch was maddeningly calm. ‘I didn’t see any threats.’
‘So you’re saying she made them up?’
As soon as the words left her mouth, she knew she’d been unreasonable.
‘I never said any such thing,’ the Professor said, slowly, as if speaking to someone hard of hearing. ‘Only that I never saw them, so I can’t comment.’
A smile, barely perceptible, touched the corner of his lips: you’ve got to be smarter than that. At the opposite side of the studio, Rylan the weather guy wore a strange expression. Was he laughing? Cringing?
The producer’s tone was brittle now: come on, we’re running out of time. As if Amy didn’t know that. She took a deep breath, took her last shot.
‘You often talk about men needing a mission,’ she said, ignoring the fracture in her voice. ‘Given that your supporters often talk about a War on Masculinity, do you think your militaristic language is inflammatory?’
‘For me,’ the Professor replied, ‘this is a spiritual mission.’
‘And if people hear something different? Something martial? Violent? As a person of influence, you don’t see that as a failure on your part?’
The Professor leaned forwards in his chair, his expression cold. ‘Here’s what I see. My views are challenging your unfocused, unscientific world view of tyrannical patriarchies and evil capitalism. But you don’t have any data to prove me wrong…’
‘Only because we’ve never had an alternative to a patriarchal capitalism to gather data from–’
‘…So now, you twist my words. Challenge me on things I haven’t even said yet. You, who ban speakers from universities, who force people to use certain pronouns by law… you think you’re the good guys. But you’re not. You’re the thought police.’
For the first time in a long time, Amy could think of nothing to say.
And so the professor continued, steely. ‘You bring me out here, supposedly to let me speak. But you’ve already decided who I am and what the answer is. And that – your lack of intellectual curiosity, and therefore your lack of integrity – is the real failure here.’

November 2015
Chris: So what do you call me, then?
Amy: I dunno. ‘The guy I’m seeing’. That bother you?
Chris: No. I just thought that a man who comes over at 11pm with prosecco and cookie dough might, you know, warrant a different term.
Amy: Maybe. But a ‘boyfriend’ would be ready to meet my mother.
Chris: Hmmm. In that case, I’m stuck somewhere in the in between.
Amy: [Laughing] Oh, there are no words. A guy like you simply can’t be defined.

It seemed ironic that the one time Amy wanted to speed out of the car park – out of the country – was the one time her car wouldn’t start.
As the snow fell heavier, she slammed the hood and took her phone from her pocket. Christ, the notifications were really rolling in. The interview certainly was a success, for the professor. She wondered how many memes she’d already inspired, how many comments she’d received from the anonymous alt-right. Dumb bitch, kill yourself.
In the icy air, there was a polite cough. Of course. The final insult. Had she not been trying to avoid the Helpless Female look, she would have wept.
‘Car trouble?’ said Peter Mraovitch. Amy wasn’t sure whether he rubbed his hands with cold or glee.
‘Looks like.’
‘Might be a wait for the breakdown services. Are you in a rush?’
‘Actually, yes. I’m trying to get to the airport. Promised my son I’d be back for Christmas.’
‘Well, your team booked me a car and I’m heading that way. I’d be happy to give you a ride?’
She told him: yes, thank you. But what she really meant was: what choice do I have?

As the car pulled up to the frosty kerb, the driver lowered the window and peered out, his face obscured by a preposterous wrapping of scarves.
‘I thought it was just one passenger?’ he asked, his voice muffled.
‘It was,’ replied the professor. ‘But plans changed. We need to add a stop at the airport. If that’s a problem, I can call another car.’
The driver sighed and shook his head, thumbing at the back.
‘Sorry,’ Amy lied as they climbed in, holding up her phone. ‘I’ve got to make a call.’ The professor merely nodded and looked at his hands. He probably didn’t want to talk either. The car pulled away, the driver reassuringly heavy on the gas.
Amy was surprised when Chris actually picked up.
‘Chris, hi. Yeah, I’m just leaving the studio. Yes, I know that. I was planning to leave sooner, but I’ve had quite a – a long day…’
The car eased down the block, headlights slicing through the encroaching dark.
‘I promised him I’ll be there, and I’ll be there. Like I said, I’ll call you when I land. Okay–’
Even though Chris had already hung up, Amy said a faint ‘bye’ into the receiver, fooling nobody.
She should have just settled in for a chat with the professor. After all, there was nothing more he could do to her now, not now he’d eviscerated her on primetime television. She’d thought he’d be an easy catch – how hard could it be to spear a man whose popularity was powered by 8chan keyboard warriors? But she’d underestimated him. He was so careful, so measured. Only now did she realise: for most of the interview, they’d been circling around the things he didn’t say.
And now he was looking at her, smiling his inscrutable smile.
‘Family?’
‘Yeah.’ And then, because she might as well, ‘my son’s father.’
He nodded.
‘I know,’ she sighed. ‘You believe marriage is forever. So you’ll be glad to hear that, on paper, he’s still my husband.’
‘That’s your business, of course. I merely believe that when individuals seek freedom from traditional societal structures such as marriage – to achieve greater levels of self expression – they often find themselves trapped in other ways. Financially, maybe. Spiritually.’
‘I’m interested to know when a man like you has ever been trapped.’
They fell silent. Amy wondered if she’d finally scored a point.
But no, the professor was merely distracted, leaning forwards in his seat with a puzzled expression on his face. ‘Driver, I think we should have gone left at the lights.’
He was right, Amy realised. She sighed at the thought of more delays.
But the driver didn’t respond. He only turned into a side road, off the bustling main drag.
‘Hey,’ said Amy, louder. ‘Didn’t you hear him? We’re going the wrong way.’
But the car slipped down a darkening alleyway, past washed-up launderettes and grimy chicken shops. Amy and the professor looked at one another, dumbstruck.
And then – the slamming of brakes, the seatbelt pulling tight across her chest. The rear door, opening, a figure with a balaclava, blocking out the light.
A gun, pointing into the back.
‘Give me your phones,’ whispered the figure. ‘Now.’
Amy froze. Behind her, the professor whispered: ‘Oh Jesus.’
Moving slowly, Amy held out her mobile and the figure grabbed it. The professor fumbled in his pockets.
The figure twitched. ‘Come on!’
The professor threw his phone like it was a hot coal.
‘Now hold out your hands,’ the figure said, as quiet as before. ‘Do it.’
Amy did as he said, and watched helplessly as he bound her hands and the professor’s with a length of cabling. Once the job was done, the figure took his place in the front passenger seat. The car sped off, into a network of back streets where the night seemed even darker.
Her head rushing with adrenaline, Amy heard whispers:
‘What the fuck, man?’
‘The professor said she had to come. It was either that or leave him.’
‘This screws everything up.’
‘No it doesn’t.’
In the front, both Driver and Passenger fell silent. For a few moments, there was no sound but the whirr of the engine and the hiss of wheels against the damp road, until Peter Mraovitch whimpered:
‘What’s going on? Stop the car, please–’
‘Professor,’ the Driver said, a smile in his voice now. ‘Everything is alright. If you’ll let me explain–’
‘Please stop the car–’
‘Professor–’
‘Let us out!’ bellowed Peter Mraovitch, writhing, shouldering the door. ‘Please, let us out!’
The Passenger turned in his seat and raised his gun at Amy.
The professor froze, wide-eyed, and sunk back against the leather. It was the Driver who spoke.
‘I’m really sorry to do this to you, Professor. But we need to you stay calm. We don’t want to hurt you, far from it. I’ve got to say what an honour it is. Truly. I’m, I’m kind of speechless.’
Amy’s thoughts raced: what the hell?
‘We’ve watched all your videos,’ the Driver continued. ‘Honestly, every single one. More than once, obviously! Ha. And, your latest book? I read it in a single morning.’
The Passenger nodded.
‘For us,’ said the Driver, ‘you’re the best thing that’s happened in who knows how long. Nobody says it like you do. Nobody’s got the guts.’
‘Please,’ the professor moaned. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I know. But you will. Let me just say – you’re totally right, about everything. Now, thanks to you, we finally know what we’re supposed to do.’
The professor looked at the Driver as if he were speaking a foreign language.
‘Anyway, I won’t say too much yet. But we wanted you to see it for yourself, because all of this is down to you. We obviously weren’t expecting you to have company, but that’s alright, we’ll work around it.’
The Driver’s eyes flicked at Amy.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked. ‘Wanted him to see what?’
‘Perhaps, professor,’ the Driver said, ‘we should tell her to keep her bitch mouth shut.’
The professor looked at Amy, frantic, but said nothing.
‘In any case,’ continued the Driver, ‘it’s a surprise. But we’re standing up for ourselves. Like you said, right?’

May 2017
Amy: It’s interesting, though. What is it, really, a marriage contract? It’s all the boring stuff about how to share finances and childcare.
Chris: You big romantic.
Amy: No, listen. The romance still exists. But it exists beyond the actual words on the page. All the stuff couples believe about love and companionship, most of it is unwritten, even unspoken. There’s no codifying that part, so everyone understands it in their own way.
Chris: Well. Do you want to do it or not?
Amy: Wait… What?
Chris: Are you waiting for me to get down on one knee?

They drove for thirty, maybe forty minutes, gradually moving from the shadowy back streets onto main roads that blinked, festive, with taillights. Neither she nor the professor spoke, only watched the mundane movement of the cars around them, the snowflakes dancing in the haloes of street lamps. Amy realised that, behind the blacked-out, bulletproof windows, they seemed like everyone else, sailing through the holiday traffic.
They took a long, straight road which, according to the signs, led to the coast. Gradually the traffic thinned, SUVs turning off toward their smart, suburban communities, toward the idle chatter of home. Eventually, theirs were the only tyres on the carpet of white being rolled out ahead of them.
After a while, they pulled off the road, tyres crunching on frosted gravel. Driver and Passenger both got out of the car and slammed the doors, then walked ten, twenty feet away. It appeared they were having some kind of conference. To Amy, there was something farcical about the way they stamped and bickered, their voices muffled through the glass. An image came to her head of Laurel and Hardy, wrangling over a ladder.
‘Any way you can get out of those ties, Peter?’ she asked.
‘No.’
‘Me either.’
The Driver was pointing at the Passenger, his finger jabbing the air.
‘Their voices,’ she said. ‘They seem young, don’t you think? Can you tell if the gun’s real?’
‘I don’t know. You think not?’
Amy shrugged, shivering. Who were these guys? Terrorists? Or stupid kids, whose plan was unravelling already?
Just then, in the distance – a spot on the road, growing larger.
‘See that?’ Amy said, straightening.
‘Yes. A motorcycle. My God, it looks like police.’
‘Move, quickly.’
‘I’m trying, I’m trying.’
Both of them wrestled and twisted, fingers searching in the dark for the door handles, praying that the Driver and Passenger would be distracted until it was too late. If they could just get out, send a signal for help… Please, don’t be locked, Amy begged, silently, scrabbling blindly.
But Peter’s door was coming open, and there he was, rolling into the middle of the snowy road, struggling onto his knees.
‘Stop!’ Peter called to the approaching shape. ‘Please stop, help us!’
From her position inside the car, Amy saw the shape on the bike coming closer, growing larger, becoming undoubtedly, joyously real–
Saw the policeman, thank god, slowing his bike, saw the confusion on his face as he observed the rumpled man kneeling in his path–
Saw his head explode in a cloud of red.
Peter froze, the pleas stopped in his still-open mouth. As the policeman crumpled to the ground and the echoes of the gunshot died away, the Driver remained completely still, finger on the trigger.
‘Well, that was stupid,’ he said. ‘Look what you made me do.’
With a whimper of frustration, the Passenger burst into action – ran to Peter, dragged him by the collar and pushed him roughly back in the car.
‘We need to move,’ he cried. ‘Now.’

As they screeched away, past the splayed man who lay beneath the fairytale snow like a prince bewitched, Amy realised with horror: these guys were not just all talk.

‘If it will make you calm down, I’ll tell you the plan. Okay?’
In the rear view mirror, the Driver fixed his eyes on Peter.
‘Okay,’ Peter replied, quietly. The Driver sighed, like an exasperated parent.
‘You said it yourself,’ he explained. ‘The radical feminist agenda. It’s so, fucking, loud. And it’s drowning out reasonable conversation. Women want more power, whether they deserve it or not. They want to call all the shots. Right?’
Amy looked at Peter.
‘Well,’ Peter said, ‘I certainly don’t agree with the radical feminists…’
‘Right. They’re getting more and more demanding, they want the whole fucking world. But, now, nobody listens to guys like us.’
Gooseflesh rippled across Amy’s arms.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asked.
The Driver’s eyes flicked at her and then away, as if he couldn’t bear to look at her.
‘We’re going to make ourselves heard.’
‘How?’
‘With three twelve gauges, two Glock 19s, a Ruger SR9 and a hundred rounds of ammunition.’
The breath stuck in Amy’s throat. The impulse to scream was almost overwhelming.
Peter leaned forward, between the Driver and Passenger.
‘You want to carry out an act of vengeance?’ he asked. ‘On the people who have wronged men like you?’
‘Exactly!’ replied the Driver, delighted. ‘Vengeance. I knew you’d get it.’
‘I see. Where?’
‘There’s some dumb Christmas festival, near the coast. Market stalls, fairground rides. It’ll be full of giggling girls, getting drunk, walking around with guys who have done nothing exceptional except be born with handsome faces. All these females, even the fat ones and the ugly ones, fawning over the same handful of Chads.’
Amy’s head swam.
‘These females, they think they’re entitled to the best looking guys, the richest, all the big swinging dicks. You know how many years I spent, at school, watching these meatheads walking around with fucking cheerleaders on their arms? Know how many times I walked past a beautiful girl and she didn’t smile at me? Didn’t even look? Do you have any idea how that made me feel?’
The Driver stared down the long road ahead.
‘Attention, love, sex, it all comes to easy to them. they’ve done nothing to deserve the life they’ve been given. So we’re going to take it away.’
The professor shifted in his seat. ‘You want – to kill them?’
‘Of course.’
‘And you want me to see it?’
‘We want everyone to see it. That’s why he’s here,’ the Driver said, nodding at the Passenger. ‘He’s going to stream the whole thing, online. But we brought you here because–
He paused momentarily, unsure how to explain.
‘–because this is all for you. We were totally fucking lost. And then you came along. Your words – it was like the Bible, man, when God speaks and creation happens. You talked about how things were, and all of a sudden I could just see it, for real. Your words, they were the light at the end of the tunnel. We’d be nothing without you.’
Peter leaned against the window, saying nothing. Amy thought ruefully of her producer’s words: we want to make a bang, here.
‘So,’ the Driver continued. ‘What do you think?’
In the dark, the professor avoided Amy’s gaze.
‘I think,’ he said, his voice soft and level, ‘it’s an excellent idea.’

July 2018
Amy: I only said that there are a lot of parents out there who spend most of the week apart, especially when they both have careers. I didn’t say that’s definitely what we should do.

The darkness was thick, now. Only in the headlights could Amy see the snowflakes falling.
‘If it’s not too conceited a question,’ asked Peter Mraovitch, ‘may I ask how you came across my work?’
‘On a forum,’ the Driver replied, clicking on the fog lights. ‘I was never part of the popular crowd, always got labelled as the weird kid. I have no idea why.’
Amy thought she might have an idea.
‘I had no confidence, no focus,’ he went on. ‘No friends, no girlfriend, sitting at home on the fucking Xbox day and night. Then I spoke to people online. People who helped me see what was going wrong. They explained it: society has totally changed in terms of how men treat women. Like, everyone knows you can’t hit your wife. You can’t tell her what to wear. You’ve got to treat her like a lady. But at the same time, you can’t expect her to stay at home and look after the kids – oh, no, she wants to go to work. As well as being a lady, she wants to be a man.’
The Passenger nodded along, as if before a preacher.
‘The worst of it is, they control what we can and can’t say. So, if I use the word ‘slut’ or ‘bitch’, I’m not just a guy who’s joking, I’m not simply using the same words that everyone said growing up, the same words that women use all the time. No, I’m a monster. You know, if I breathed a word about the fact that I watch Peter Mraovitch’s videos, ninety-nine per cent of the students at my university would look at me like I just got my dick out in a lecture. I mean, you can’t have a fucking conversation anymore.’
‘This is the problem,’ replied Peter Mraovitch. ‘And the one who controls the language controls the culture.’
‘Exactly! It is deadly. I mean, literally. They’re making it so we can’t speak. And when we can’t speak, we’re not fucking living.’
‘It’s like the old communist regimes,’ said Peter Mraovitch. ‘A tragedy.’
For a while they drove, the men in silent accord.
‘So,’ the Driver asked, his voice quiet now beneath his layers of scarves. ‘You like our plan?’
‘Of course,’ replied the professor. ‘Surely that’s what you expected, knowing my work? Bringing me here?’
The Driver and Passenger exchanged a look. ‘I don’t know,’ the Driver said. ‘There’s a difference between saying something and having the balls to do it.’
‘Gentlemen,’ the professor laughed. ‘Surely you know, I’m not a man who says things I don’t mean?’
‘No, no,’ the Passenger interjected, ‘he didn’t mean… it’s just…’
‘Then why,’ said the Driver, ‘did you try and run?’
‘I didn’t know what this was about,’ said the professor. ‘I thought you were going to kill me.’
Amy stared at the professor. But he looked straight ahead.
‘Really, you should prove it to us,’ said the Driver. ‘That you’re with us.’
‘How?’
The car eased off the road and slowed to a stop. Pulling the gun from his pocket, the Driver got out of the car and walked around to the back, throwing open the door and dragging Amy from her seat. A shriek escaped her lips as she stumbled, her knees striking the ice-bleached grass. The Passenger, seemingly just as confused as her, pulled her to her feet, and held the ropes that bound her as the Driver helped the professor out of the car. In the silence, the four of them stood in a small circle, ghostly in the light that leaked from the headlights’ beam.
‘If you like our plan,’ said the Driver, ‘then you’ll be a part of it. And you’ll kill her, now, yourself.’
Amy gasped, tugged at her ties, but the Passenger held her tight.
‘Peter,’ she whispered. ‘Please.’
Letting go of the professor, the Driver ambled back to the car and opened the trunk. From it he took something long and heavy, something that glowed dully in the low light. A wrench.
The professor looked on, expressionless.
‘You’ll need to untie me first.’
‘Of course. Just don’t forget I have a gun.’
The Driver removed the ties from the professor’s wrists, dropped them onto the ground. Then he handed over the wrench. Amy saw the professor’s arm sink suddenly with the weight.
‘Show us that you’re on our side,’ the Driver said.
The professor passed the wrench from one hand to another. Then he stepped forward.
‘Alright,’ he said.
Amy cried out and struggled against the Passenger. Her knees felt as if they might give way.
A voice in her head said: think.
To her left, the long road ahead. To her right and behind, patchy woodland, so thickly shadowed that she couldn’t tell how deep it might go. If she kicked out at the Passenger, he might lose his grip on her – then, she’d have to head for the woods. Surely the professor wouldn’t chase her.
What would he do?
But then, he spoke:
‘Doing it here, though? That would be stupid.’
The Driver cocked his head. ‘Why’s that?’
‘Think strategically. What we have here is an asset, a valuable one. You could plough on with your plan, as if nothing has changed, or you could be smart. Adapt.’
Although their disguises hid their expressions, the Driver and Passenger glanced at one another.
‘She needs to be part of your final act. On film. Imagine it – the poster girl for the liberal left, in abject humiliation, in pain and fear. But to kill her here? That’s a waste. And in a war, you must waste no opportunities.’
Even in her terror, Amy saw that the Driver and the Passenger were hanging on every word.

March 2019
Chris: So you wait two years to tell me – you’re never going to agree to move back to Boston?
Amy: When did I ever say we’d definitely go back to Boston?

Although she couldn’t see it, Amy felt as if they were near the sea.
Since they’d returned to the car, the Driver and Passenger had chattered about how exactly to fit Amy into their plans. Whether to kill her first or last. To do it with the gun or the wrench. Pressed against the side of the car, as far from the professor as possible, Amy thought of Chris. Right now, he was probably staring at his phone, cursing Amy for not calling. Maybe he was telling their son how it was hardly a surprise that Amy was putting work first again. Christ, she would give anything just to talk.
She let the tears slip down her cheeks. Which is why, at first, she didn’t realise what the professor was saying.
‘I merely question whether this is the optimal strategy.’
The Driver glanced in the mirror. ‘Why’s that?’
‘Well,’ shrugged the professor. ‘You saw what happened to the others, soldiers like you. They became heroes in our own communities. But in the mainstream, where we need to make an impact, they were mocked, misunderstood. Perceived as mentally ill.’
‘Yeah,’ said the Driver, a note of irritation in his voice, ‘because they didn’t go far enough. Six, seven people dead? Ten? That’s hardly a ‘statement’. It’s amateurish. What we’re going to do? People won’t have any choice but to listen.’
‘But perhaps,’ said the professor, ‘the problem is with the killing itself. Think about the science. At the first sign of death, people’s primal reflexes kick in. They stop thinking rationally. They might listen to you, but they won’t hear anything of value.’
The Driver shifted in his seat.
‘So, what are you saying? That we shouldn’t do it?’
‘I’m just saying. There are other ways.’
The Driver fell silent. A minute, passed. More.
Then, Amy realised the car was accelerating.
‘You know one thing I can’t fucking stand?’ the Driver finally spat. ‘People who are all mouth. People who say they’re part of the debate when to them it’s all just a game, all fucking academic.’
The car roared as it gathered speed. Road signs flashed past, smudges on the skyline. Amy turned to the professor, her eyes bright in the darkness. He looked back, a sheen of sweat on his forehead.
‘See,’ the Driver continued, ‘they’re happy to stand on stages and go on the TV and sell books and make a shit ton of money. But as soon as the time comes to actually do something–’
‘Don’t misunderstand me,’ cried the professor.
‘I’m not misunderstanding. You want us to stop.’
‘That’s not what I said–’
‘It’s what you mean.’
The car seared through the night.
Just then, Amy realised that the professor’s hands were still unbound. That was it, she realised. She caught the professor’s eye, made a strange gesture with her own hands.
He looked, understood. Nodded.
She mouthed a silent countdown: three, two…
And then she threw herself forward, hooking her bound hands over the Passenger’s head, leaning back and pinning him to his seat. As the Passenger thrashed and scraped at Amy’s hands, the professor reached forward around the Driver’s seat, his fingers pulling at the shadowy face.
Shouts filled the car as it arced madly back and forth across the road.
‘I can’t hold him!’ she cried. ‘Grab the gun!’
The Driver bellowed as Peter clawed at his body, hands grasping, searching. Tyres wailed. The air smelled hot, acrid.
And then they were off the road, shuddering over rocky ground. The beam of the headlights lashed across the landscape, spotlighting a fence, a gate–
–a tree directly in front of them.
Amy cried out as she was thrown against the seat. She felt her teeth crashing into her lip, tasted blood in her mouth. Something cracked her head, set her skull ringing like a tuning fork. Her body, out of her control now, felt slack as the Passenger tugged at her arms, still linked like a necklace around his throat. Her vision darkened, stretched.
And then somehow she was out of the car, on the ground, staring up at the sky. Beside her was the professor, his face pressed into the grass, the Driver’s foot on his back.
‘You son of a bitch,’ spat the Driver as he bound the professor’s hands again, this time behind his back. ‘You fucking fake. The first person we execute tonight? It’s going to be you.’
Behind the Driver was the Passenger, panting, pacing, his balaclava torn.
Amy rolled unsteadily onto her knees and looked at him. Even in the gloom, the confusion, she recognised the face. And this time, she remembered his name too.
‘Joe?’
As the face looked down at her – the face she’d seen at the news briefing only hours ago, the face belonging to the young social media manager who’d so gently corrected her – she thought the eyes shimmered with tears. Joe twisted the balaclava, trying to cover himself, a movement that was shy, almost girlish.
‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ she said, quietly.
He put both hands on his head, paced in a tight circle. Finally, he wailed:
‘You weren’t supposed to be here, Amy. It was meant to be just him.’
She hung her head. It made sense. ‘You knew we’d managed to get Peter on the show,’ she offered.
‘Right.’
‘So you could tell your guy when and where to pick him up. He was just ready, waiting for the call.’
It was as if he needed to confess. ‘I knew we’d get the professor sometime when he was in town. I knew the festival was on at the same time. We just had to wait.’
A horrible realisation landed on her like a flurry of snow. ‘Were you going to stream this on our social media?’
Joe nodded without meeting her eye. Jesus. Amy imagined it – the social media feeds of her own news channel, hijacked, broadcasting bloodshed live to families across the country.
‘Joe,’ she said, softly. ‘You don’t really want to kill me, do you?’
The Driver stepped forward. ‘Don’t listen to her. She’s a female. She’s fake, she’s acting. All women are like that.’
‘Fuck, man,’ said Joe, ‘she’s a woman I know.’
‘Joe please,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to do this. It won’t solve anything.’
‘Who wants to solve anything?’ the Driver spat. ‘Nothing will change. Our lives are shit, and they aren’t going to get any better. Females – it’s in their fucking genes to reject us. We’ll be incels til we die. Right, Joe?’
Joe covered his face with his hands. ‘Fuck, man.’
In two strides, the Driver was gripping Joe’s collar, shaking him.
‘Right, Joe?’
‘Right, right.’
The Driver pushed Joe, so hard he almost fell. Peter Mraovitch rolled onto his back, groaning.
‘Joe,’ Amy whispered, ‘if you’d just listen…’
The Driver stepped forward, towered over her.
‘You know what, you spend your whole life talking, expecting everyone else to listen. You don’t know how it feels to be ignored. It’s our time to speak, now.’
‘I listen,’ Amy cried. ‘I had Peter on my show, didn’t I?’
‘Only because you thought you could make him look like a dick. You didn’t want to hear what he had to say, you just wanted to shout him down.’
‘Well, what about the women who tell you ‘no’? What about the women tonight who’ll beg for their lives? Will you listen to them?’
The Driver laughed. ‘Maybe I’m sick of hearing ‘no’. In our society, criminals and addicts are rehabilitated. Immigrants get all this fucking sympathy, we’ve got to pander to the minorities. And yet, men like us – men who are just unremarkable, men who don’t build muscle, who can’t play football, men whose fucking jaws aren’t the right shape – we get nothing.’ He kicked at the grass. ‘Bitches like you go on about male privilege. You think I have more privilege than you? Someone who gets their hair blown dry each morning by someone on the minimum wage?’
Joe was stooping now, his hands over his head as if he were trying to block out the Driver’s voice.
‘You don’t get it,’ the voice continued. ‘I’ve been forced to do this. By a world that has shunned me, over and over. You know why you hate me so much? Because you know I’m right. You can see that all I wanted was love, and you can see that you and your society didn’t give it to me.’
Amongst her fear, Amy felt fury.
‘It always ends this way,’ she said, mocking. ‘Guys like you, talking about how you’re the victim. These girls hurt your feelings. And yet who’s the one driving around with three handguns and a hundred rounds of ammunition? Okay, maybe some girls ignored you. But maybe they ignored lots of people. And maybe lots of people ignored them. Why are you so fucking entitled to love when you clearly don’t know how to show it?’
‘Fuck you.’
‘Your problem is,’ she continued, ‘you think you’re extraordinary. You think you’re the only one who’s ever felt rejected or shamed. You have to build some story around it, post rationalise how these little humiliations have led you here. But that doesn’t change the fact – redpill, incel, men’s rights activist. Call yourself what you want, you’re only as small and selfish and lonely as everybody else. Only, somehow, you think you above all others deserve better.’
For a moment, the Driver said nothing. Then he turned to Joe.
‘Finish this bitch.’
Joe looked up, his eyes huge and wet.
‘Joe,’ Amy said, pleading now. ‘I didn’t know you were having a hard time, and I’m sorry. But you see what he’s doing? He’s using you. He’s – he’s put us in our boxes, pitting us against one another…’
The Driver’s face was twisted in the dark. ‘Shut the fuck up–’
‘But even those words, right now, they don’t mean anything. Some beautiful women really are stuck up bitches, and some are just as lonely and unhappy as you are. Some incels are like him – bitter and violent – and others are like you. They don’t truly want to hurt anyone, they’re just lost. I know you’re not like him, Joe.’
‘I said, shut the fuck up!’
‘And you know what?’ said Amy, louder now. ‘The irony is, you’ve got more in common with me than him. He’s got power, tyrannical power. He’s using it to control me. And he’s doing exactly the same to you. Come on, Joe. Does he sound like a victim?’
The Driver swung the gun at Amy. The impact was like a firework going off in her jaw, sent her sprawling onto the ground. But as she looked up, she saw Joe grabbing at the Driver’s arm – and then they were wrestling, their silhouettes shifting and merging in the dim light. The Driver had been surprised, and was soon on his knees, both he and Joe swinging on the gun like dogs fighting over a bone. As they grappled, the barrel swung wildly, and Amy and the professor cowered on the freezing ground.
But Joe – thinner, more uncoordinated – soon lost his advantage. And it was him, spread on the floor, whimpers forced from his body as the Driver kicked him again, and again, and again. In the night, leached of colour, Amy saw darkness spreading thickly out of Joe’s nose and mouth, across his pale cheeks.
When Joe no longer made any sounds, the Driver stopped kicking. Then he scrambled over to where Peter lay and bound the professor’s hands again, tighter this time, the cable cutting hard into the bony wrists. Then he stood.
The only sound in the clearing was the sound of the Driver, panting, as he stared at the car, its hood wrapping the tree in a desperate embrace. He made his way to the trunk and retrieved a rucksack that jangled with things that sounded hard, cruel. Shrugging the bag onto his shoulder, he pointed his gun at Amy.
‘We’re close enough. Start walking.’
She struggled to her feet, followed closely by Peter, leaving Joe silent on the floor.
Thankfully, the Driver didn’t look too closely at Amy’s bindings which, in her struggle with Joe, had come loose.

April 2019
Amy: I think we’re a great team. I think we’re doing an amazing job of raising our son. What’s wrong? What did I say?
Chris: It’s not what you said, Amy, it’s what you didn’t say.
Amy: I told you, we’re fine.
Chris: [Sighing] Being fine isn’t the same as being in love.

It wasn’t long before they saw it in the distance. First, just a glow on the horizon, as if the sun had become lost and decided to return the way it had come. Then, closer, loops of red and green and silver and gold, stretching along the coast – fairy lights, connecting the temporary bars and shops that swarmed with people, running up and down the central grotto and the little carousel. And behind everything, the dark rush of the ocean. As they stepped out of the car, they heard jingling bells on the salt breeze.
Keeping the gun levelled on Amy and Peter, the Driver called: 
‘Move.’
There was no path as such to the festival – only a long expanse of grassy dunes before the beach, now dusted with white like a carelessly decorated Christmas cake. And so they shuffled, feet unsure on the undulating ground, stumbling as the sand occasionally shifted beneath them. The Driver followed a few steps behind, his breathing fast and loud. Amy could practically feel the barrel trained on her back.
‘What are we going to do?’ whispered Peter.
Amy took a deep breath, feeling as if she were in a dream, and moved her hands slightly so that Peter could see the loosened ropes. ‘I’m going to grab him,’ she murmured. ‘Do whatever you can. Run at him, kick him, I don’t know. I’ll get the gun, then we’ll be okay.’
‘He’ll kill us.’
‘He’ll kill us if we do nothing.’
‘Maybe I can talk to him–’
‘Peter–’
The Driver stepped closer, grabbed Amy by the shoulder. ‘You got something to say?’
‘No,’ Amy said, ‘I, I just… I told Peter I was sorry. For everything.’
‘You fucking should be. None of us would be here if it wasn’t for sluts like you shooting your mouths off.’
They continued, the land shadowed and uncertain beneath them. Amy gave Peter a look. In the darkness, she thought he shook his head.
But she tripped herself and fell to her knees with a cry. There, hunched, she eased her hands away from each other, feeling the ropes give no resistance.
The Driver ran to her, pulled at her elbow–
–But, as she rose, she twisted and swung at him, grabbing the wrist that held the gun, throwing her weight into his body and sending him wheeling backwards–
And then they were on the ground, Amy struggling to keep the Driver down.
‘Peter,’ she cried, ‘help me!’
The professor stood, his face a picture of fear and confusion.
‘Peter! Quick, please!’ Amy cried, the Driver struggling beneath her.
But the professor only looked wildly from side to side, his mouth opening and closing in silent apology. Then he lumbered away, bowed and unbalanced by his bound hands, a strange creature disappearing into the dark.
In the brawl, the Driver had dropped the gun. Now he grabbed at Amy’s neck.
She felt her windpipe closing, saw the stars dancing at the edge of her vision. As she scrabbled for the Driver’s face, his hair, her hands found snow and earth. A rock, the size of an egg.
She lifted it and brought it down with all the strength she could muster. The sound it made as it struck the eye socket was dull and wet.
And then she was wheezing, coughing, bitter air rushing into her lungs, while the Driver rolled and moaned on the floor.
‘You… fucking bitch…’
But, the gun – she couldn’t see it. And there was no time to search.
She ran.
As she crashed towards the beach, feeling the sand becoming softer, dodging in and out of the grassy dunes that rose in the dark, she heard the Driver’s calls – rising and falling in volume as he turned from side to side, scouring the colourless landscape for her. It seemed her head start was already over.

She headed for a part of the dunes where the grass whispered, long and dense. There, she crouched out of sight within the tall blades, moving slowly so as not to give herself away. Instinctively she reached for her phone, then felt a kind of fury as she realised it was still in Joe’s pocket.
Somewhere to her left, somewhere that felt far too close, the Driver was shouting about what he was going to do to her when he found her. She tried not to listen.
From her position in the dunes, she could also see the festival entrance. The length of a football field away, maybe a little more. Two security guards at each side. If she could run to them, they could alert the police – perhaps even intercept the Driver with weapons of their own. But that meant breaking cover, a chance for the Driver to fire at her. What with all the noise, the voices and the fireworks, the guards probably wouldn’t even notice.
But if she didn’t make a run for it, the Driver would reach his target.
A spotlight, thrown from a fairground ride, washed over Amy and made its way across the dunes.
There was a moment, while she cowered in the dark, that she thought once more of Chris, wished desperately for one more call. What would she say to him, now? What words could possibly be capable of expressing how sorry she was, for everything?
How much Amy had – how much she still – loved him?
In her fear, her mind babbled with odd thoughts. She thought how, as a journalist, words had been her tools, her power. Changing one or two words could change a whole picture: the president confirmed he had never met the man. The president denied ever meeting the man.
But sometimes, words – and the gaps between them – left so much room for interpretation, so much work for the listener to do. So much potential for misunderstanding. Throughout her relationship with Chris, how many times had she chosen hazy, indefinite words, to mirror her hazy indefinite thoughts? How many times did she use a particular set of words, knowing deep down that what she actually meant would require a different, more difficult set of words altogether? Now that her thoughts were so much clearer, she wondered whether her words to Chris would be too.
The thoughts circled through her head like the golden horses of the distant carousel:
She thought of the professor highlighting particular data points, his students drawing their own, often varied, conclusions…
…she thought of the posts her channel had propelled into viral fame, fragments of interviews taken completely out of context…
…she thought of the posts that said women are sluts, written by men who meant: I’m lonely…
…she thought of the posts that said women deserve to die, written by men who meant: women deserve to die…
Even if she could say it now – I love you, Chris, let’s try again – how would she know that he truly understood? Could she ever properly explain to him what was in her heart? Maybe this was the work of a relationship: two people, constantly trying to find the midpoint between them, battling the near-impossibility of expressing perfectly what is in their own heads…
Just then, Amy heard it: a shift in the air, an absence.
There was no sound from the Driver.
Trembling, she parted the grass in front of her, scoured the landscape.
There he was, striding towards the festival, reaching into the rucksack. He’d given up on her. He was preparing for the final act.
She didn’t worry about finding the right words this time. She simply stood and ran, arms waving above her head, careering down the dunes onto the hard flatness of the beach and towards the glittering scene, screaming at the security guards that there was a shooter. The Driver, maybe a hundred yards away, stopped and turned to face her. Lifted the gun.
But it was enough. She saw the security guards springing into action, closing the barriers that led into the festival site, reaching for their own weapons.
She was so close to them – so close that she could see the horror dawning on their square-jawed faces – when the bullet knocked her from her path and into the air, stopping her words altogether.

In the distance, sirens.
Police? How?
Amy felt the sand rough against her cheek. And the wind, so bitterly cold. As she opened her eyelids – unbearably heavy – she saw dunes looming, sideways now, before a starless, black sky.
And there, the Driver, pointing the gun. But not at her.
At Joe.
Even as the pain pulsed through her outstretched body, her mind slotted the pieces together. Joe must have called 911 after their frightened little group left him on the ground. Then he’d made his way here. And now he stood with his own gun, facing the Driver as if facing a mirror, two small figures in a senseless stand off, sad beyond description.
Joe. She had to help him.
As she pushed herself up, her left side seemed to blaze with fire. Something warm snaked down her back. Those sirens – only moments away now. But, Amy thought hazily, even that might not be fast enough for Joe.
On her feet, she felt lighter, more insubstantial. Her vision faded in and out, like an old TV with bad reception. She couldn’t hear the words floating between Joe and the Driver, not above the fairground chaos, not as moved slowly, agonisingly towards them. Even as she moved, she didn’t know what she was supposed to do…
But there, on the ground: the rucksack, its vicious contents spilling onto the sand.
And amongst them, the wrench.
In the end, Joe didn’t give anything away – only closed his eyes as Amy inched closer, as she lifted the wrench with both hands, as she swung with the very last of her strength.
The Driver slumped to the ground, finally silent. Amy dropped to her knees, let the wrench fall from her hands. Joe, his eyes open now, seemed frozen in the icy wind.
She wanted to tell him that it was going to be OK. But then she couldn’t make herself heard, not over the blades that sliced at the air above them, not over the electric voice that buzzed from the megaphone.
Put the gun down, Joe, she said. But maybe the words only sounded in her head.
There were two more shots. And then Joe, the last of them, was on the ground too.

The New York Times, 30 August 2019
Amy Newhart is yet to comment.

Amy only saw the Driver’s face later, when a weary detective visited the hospital. He sat on the bed and dropped a photograph onto her tray table, beside the dishes of microwaved cauliflower cheese and collapsing jello, and announced the name: Alexander Miller, Alex to his few online friends. A blonde teenager, sitting shyly in the midst of a family barbeque, wearing a White Sox shirt and a lopsided but genuine smile.
‘Jesus,’ said Amy. ‘He’s so young.’
‘Old enough to plan and almost carry out a massacre,’ the detective replied, draining the last of his vending machine coffee. ‘His parents – good, hard working Americans – had no idea. Mind you, all the neighbours are coming out now, saying they always thought he was kind of odd. Creepy with girls, you know.’
Amy looked again at the photograph. A boy. Or a monster. Or both.
‘Is Professor Mraovitch okay?’
‘Just shocked and a bit scratched up. He’s trying to stay out of this whole circus – shut down his social media accounts. Probably for the best to stay out of that cess pit anyway. A load of those incel nutjobs are already praising the shooters.’
Amy wondered again that the words we use are so inadequate. The word incel: to some, it meant misogynist. To others it meant loner. Even, inexplicably, hero. And the name Alexander Miller? Baseball fan. Weirdo. Fortnite obsessive. Shooter. Son.
This was no defence of his actions. Just the reality.
‘The other one. Joe,’ said the detective. ‘Do you know him well?’
Amy thought of him at his desk, in the furthest corner of the office, littered with Reese’s wrappers and Sprite cans. Thought of him in their briefings, tapping at his battered laptop.
‘I guess not,’ she said.
What she didn’t say to the detective, not then, was how that morning she’d made her slow, sore way down three hospital corridors to the room where Joe was convalescing. How she’d placed a bag of sweets on his bedside table, how they’d compared notes on their bruises and scars. How she’d told Joe: I’m glad you came to see. That he was wrong. How he’d replied, sadly: who says I thought he was wrong?
Just then the door flew open. Chris’s face was a waxen white, his eyes shining with fear and relief.
‘My God, Amy,’ he cried. ‘I got on the first plane I could. Are you okay?’
Amy. What had that word meant to Chris? Lover. Joker. Rock. Wife.
Workaholic.
Ex.
‘I’m okay,’ Amy replied, smiling, reaching out. Their fingers met in the space between them.
There was a moment of silence, sweet and full. Then Amy took a deep breath and said:
‘Can we talk?

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