Exploring contemporary tensions between identity and nonconformity, connection and isolation, and performance and authenticity, this darkly funny excerpt is steeped, at once, in the realities of our world—virtual and concrete—and the protagonist Beth’s experience of consciousness. Beth is a character who is obedient to and at odds with the pressure to imitate and self-chronicle, and the novel’s third-person narration is enlivened by her talent for paradox, playfully gesturing toward the possibility of liberation from a culture of watchfulness, convention, and solipsism. I look forward to seeing where this witty and self-conscious protagonist lands! — Guest Judge Charmaine Craig
Beth knew she was getting dumped as soon as her phone lit up in her hand, because the first line of the incoming message was hey uhhhhh.
She swerved into the Caffè Nero at the top of Union Street, bought a smoothie, then sat alone in the corner with her phone face-up on the table in front of her, working up the nerve to open Twitter. She was already a little pissed off at the ostentatiously portentous opener—anything anyone said on the internet could be so thoroughly revised, verbal filler stripped away for the sake of optimum conversational efficiency, so why was Alice hesitating, couching her thoughts behind hey, uh, as if they were doing this in person?—but the annoyance was good, she thought. It meant she’d be less sad. So she was cultivating her vexation, she told herself, letting it ferment until it hit its natural zenith. Then she would read the fucking message.
She peered around the room. No one was paying attention to her except for the baby in a highchair two tables over, pinning her in its owlish, fascinated gaze. She smiled at it so it would know she wasn’t a cunt then looked back at her phone. It had gone dark again. Behind its implacable blankness she knew the message was still there, waiting for her attention. She sighed, clicked, then swiped, and it appeared in all its glory.
hey uhhhhh i know this is a bit out of the blue (sorry!) but i think we need to talk?
Beneath it, a scrolling ellipsis, indicating that she was still typing. Beth stared down at her smoothie as she waited for the next message, watching from the corner of her eye as Alice’s typing paused, then resumed. She felt very aware of the movements of the strangers around her, the way they congregated and broke apart again like globs of wax in a lava lamp. Their absorption in the mundane was so entire, so committed, that to Beth it seemed peculiarly false; as trapped as she was within her own interpersonal melodrama she still couldn’t help but feel out of place, like an actor onstage about to break character, glancing uneasily between all his fellow performers as if to say: We’re all just pretending, here, aren’t we? You can see the audience too, right?
Alice’s typing stopped, paused, started again. After another minute of this Beth took pity on her and replied oh? It worked; the reply came fast now that Alice knew she was watching.
yeah. i’m sorry, beth, i know i’ve been a little distant lately and everything, it’s just that i don’t think this is really working for me anymore, you know?
Beth had braced herself so effectively that for a moment the blow didn’t quite seem to land. Sucking her bottom lip into her mouth, she sat back in her chair, like: Huh. She felt that if Alice had dumped her in person then at least she could’ve justifiably made a scene about it, and maybe if she could have slid herself into a role she would have been able to feel the emotions ascribed to it, too. Behind the counter, the coffee machine provided a kind of mechanical white noise that felt like an appropriate accompaniment to the recalcitrant crawl of her thoughts.
Alice had been more distant than usual over the past month, Beth allowed, so perhaps this wasn’t quite as surprising as it might’ve been. Having it confirmed still sucked, though, and belatedly her distress made itself known—she felt her eyes prickle, her throat begin to close up. Not here, she thought, staving off the tears through sheer force of will. Crying alone in a coffee shop had a vaguely romantic aura of the kind aestheticized on dreary Tumblr blogs, but she knew from experience that she lacked the requisite waifish appeal to pull it off, neither skinny nor feminine enough to make the vibe work for her. She took another moment to steady herself and then wrote back, can i ask why, all lowercase and no punctuation, and felt suddenly grateful that this exchange wasn’t happening in person after all, her uninflected response not marred by the countless visual or tonal cues that might otherwise have given her away.
The wait was longer, this time, Alice’s ellipsis scrolling out into infinity. After a minute or two Beth’s silent vigil began to feel more than a little pathetic, so she exited out of the chat and looked at tweets instead. She scrolled past a meme, another meme, a news headline that would have been shockingly bleak if everyone wasn’t already used to everything being shit, then another, funnier meme. She retweeted the funny one and kept scrolling. Her attention was briefly held by the magnetic allure of drama on the periphery of her social group; some guy from a podcast she used to like had been exposed for sending women private messages asking for pictures of their feet. At least he was probably having a worse day than her, she thought, and then felt guilty for minimising the incident. One of the girls he’d messaged had been underage, and—mea culpa—Beth tried to force some outrage about it as if it might mitigate the fact of her own vapid self-absorption. She didn’t mean to be dismissive; honestly she thought it was a pretty grim state of affairs when men’s sexual entitlement extended even to the pinky toes of seventeen-year-old strangers, but it was hard to be surprised anymore, and the lack of surprise bred a type of weary, apathetic resignation.
if i’m being totally honest it’s this whole online thing, it just isn’t, like… fulfilling me, i guess? emotionally speaking, i mean – like don’t get me wrong i still love you and i want to stay friends (if you want that too?) but i’m just tired of having a romantic relationship that’s based mostly around liking each other’s tweets and sending each other cat pics, lol. it’s not your fault really i just feel like i spend so much of my time trying to figure out if you’re mad at me because you didn’t fave my selfie or whatever and that feels like… not healthy? or, you know, teenagery at the very least, and i’m 26, beth, i’m really sorry if any of this sounds shitty but it just doesn’t feel like an age-appropriate dynamic for me anymore :/
Beth read and reread the message until she realized she was deliberately parsing it for content to hone the edge of her annoyance. And in fairness, she thought, Alice had given her a lot of material to work with. Her tendency to put question marks at the end of things that weren’t questions, for a start, and then the bizarrely flippant ‘lol,’ a jarring concession to internet insincerity, not taking the edge off her words as much as infusing them with a throwaway callousness she probably hadn’t intended. The way she dissembled, too, her haphazard ellipses and asides carefully crafted to appear spontaneous, unedited; this made her seem awkward, which reduced the power differential intrinsic to a premeditated dumping, which in turn made her look like less of a dick for breaking up with Beth over Twitter direct message. Or at least Beth assumed that was the intent; in reality it felt like she’d been dumped by Porky Pig. She experienced a sudden strong desire to cut through Alice’s sterile politeness. She typed so you think i’m immature? and hit send, putting aside any notion of being the bigger person, electing instead to soothe her grief with the brief petty catharsis that came from doing something irritating on purpose.
what??? no, i didn’t say that
well you said our relationship is ‘teenagery’ so, by extension (and considering that we are in fact the same age) is that not you calling me immature? seems like a pretty logical extrapolation to me idk tho
sorry for not being ~age-appropriate~ i guess
Alice wrote back: beth, come on. Beth could sense her exasperation, tangible through the screen, but any victory she might have felt at penetrating Alice’s façade faded away quickly, leaving only a hollow kind of melancholy in its place. it’s cool, she sent, i get it, you’re fine, i’m just being a bitch, and then she closed the app. She opened her texts instead, fired one off to her best friend: hey so alice just dumped me lmao.
Her phone rang almost immediately, Silver’s contact picture filling the display. It was one Beth had taken of her at a concert a year or so before, gurning at the camera with her eyes crossed, displaying the kind of casual disregard for her appearance that seemed to come so easily to girls who’d always been naturally pretty. In photos, Beth knew that she was often hotter than Silver, but only because she wasn’t in real life; the prick of insecurity made her try harder when the camera was turned on her, always sharply aware of how best to twist the complicated science of angles and lighting to her favour.
“Hey,” she said, picking up and pushing her chair back in the same moment. “Hold on, I’m in Caffè Nero, just give me a sec.” Silver had timed her call well; Beth suddenly couldn’t stand to be inside, her calf muscles tight with the restless desire to move. She headed for the exit, giving a polite nod to the barista as she passed, then shouldered the glass door open and stepped out onto the damp street. The fresh air hit her like a baseball bat to the forehead. “Okay, you’re good.”
“She dumped you? Mate,” Silver said, commiserative.
“Yeah, and hi to you too,” Beth said, deflecting her sympathy, because being broken up with over Twitter at 2pm on a Wednesday was already bleak enough on its own and she didn’t want to complete the tableau by letting on that she actually felt some kind of way about it. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work right now?”
Silver sighed gustily into the receiver. “I am at work, but it’s cool. It’s like, whatever, literally. Aaron’s not even here, so.”
“Anyway, tell me what happened. I thought you guys were tight.”
“I mean, yeah. I thought so too.”
“Oh.” Pause. “Shit.”
There was a distant percussive clack, and Beth pictured Silver leaning up against the counter, tapping the end of a pen against her teeth. The sound stopped abruptly and she said, “Okay, that’s gay as hell, no offense.”
“You’re literally such a homophobe.” A woman walking past gave Beth a disapproving look. She smiled blandly back.
“You know it.”
“You’ll get written up again if you’re not careful.”
“Nah. I told Aaron I’m eschewing civility as leftist praxis, so now I’m allowed.”
“You are absolutely not allowed,” Beth said flatly, marvelling at Silver’s capacity for bullshit. “You work in a boutique.”
“Well, okay, but he’s not gonna bring it up again, is he?”
Beth conceded her point. “Probably not if he can help it.”
“You know what Aaron’s like. Theory shits him up.” Silver mimicked the slightly panicked, very middle-class intonation of her well-meaning boss. “That’s great, Silver, yeah, but seeing as western civilization hasn’t quite collapsed yet do you think you might bring yourself to, uh, restock the greeting cards in the window display?” Beth laughed, appreciative of Silver mugging for her benefit, and Silver said, “You should see the way he looks at me when I do my Slavoj Žižek impression. Oh, I’ve got a customer, hold on.”
Beth listened idly to the sounds of rustling and muffled conversation as she walked down Corn Street, and then Silver’s voice was back in her ear, sounding harried.
“Listen, I get off in twenty minutes, do you want to meet on College Green? We can talk about the whole Alice thing properly, get some food or—wait, shit, Aaron’s here, I have to go. Text me, yeah?”
“All right,” she said, but Silver was gone already. Beth rolled her eyes indulgently and texted her: ok bigot i’ll meet you on college green if you promise not to hate crime me. Silver replied immediately with emojis—a purple heart, an arrow pointing to it, and then, in a second text, a caption: for your bravery.
She had another message from Alice, too. She opened it as she was about to cross the road so that she had an excuse not to look directly at it. She fantasised instead about getting hit by a bus as she stepped off the curb. It would be funny, she thought—not in an obvious way, perhaps, but it might evoke the kind of surrealist, morbid humour the internet favoured, her life the meandering setup for an absurd punchline, the meaty impact of vehicle and flesh abruptly squandering the coiled tension of two and a half decades of unrealized potential. She pictured the old ladies on the 24 looking up in unfocused bemusement at the jolt and the hydraulic hiss as the wheels bumped over her body, then glancing back down in a fluster to make sure their half-price oranges hadn’t fallen out of their folding shopping trolleys, weren’t bouncing down the bus’s grimy middle towards the driver in a cacophony of soft onomatopoeic thuds, rolling over the discarded copies of the Daily Mail that obstructed their path like little racist hurdles. And on the tarmac, Beth, just another bruised fruit, still clutching her phone in one obliterated hand as if to display her ex-girlfriend’s breakup texts for the whole world to see. Tragic.
i really am sorry, beth, the message read. And then, as though Beth had been politely rejected for a job after turning in a particularly uninspired application: i wish you all the best in the future.
Beth didn’t respond, because if she did she’d probably have said something like would you even care if I got run over by a bus and that would definitely lose her the breakup. She locked her phone before sliding it back into her pocket. A few feet to her left, a man playing Wonderwall on the bongos broke off to count the change in the bright yellow bucket at his side while a mother in Lucy & Yak dungarees smiled and kept a wary hand on her toddler’s shoulder. She craned her neck and could see in the middle distance beyond the drummer the empty plinth upon which Edward Colston had stood prior to his unceremonious submersion in the nearby harbour, now bearing a spray-painted slogan. POWER TO THE PEOPLE, it said, underlined twice in violent red. All caps, no punctuation, fewer than 280 characters. Near the Marriott the cement pavement gave way to cobbles and Beth paused for a second to catch her breath by the marble statue of Queen Victoria that stood guard outside. Heavy and imposing, she had yet to suffer the indignity of being ousted from her platform for crimes committed in life. There’s still time for you, Beth thought, standing up straight to meet her haughty, imperious gaze. If you weren’t so thicc you’d be in the harbour already. She took a picture of her, uploaded it to Instagram, filter: Nashville, caption: MILF?
College Green itself belonged to the stoners and hipsters that seemed to make up the majority of the city’s young adult population. Visually, it made a solid stab at magnificence, sandwiched as it was between the Cathedral and City Hall, but really it was too close to Bristol Uni and the bustling nightlife of Park Street for the verisimilitude of the impression to hold up under scrutiny. Skateboarders had laid claim to one edge, filling the space with the sound and smell of dreadlocked white boys, and on the Green itself Beth noted signs of disruption as she approached, muddy grooves in the grass and trampled-up flower beds marking the site of a recent protest. It was currently quiet, most people having ventured indoors against the likelihood of more rain in the afternoon. Beth stood still in the middle and breathed in the mingled scents of weed and damp soil.
Silver worked in a kitschy boutique near the base of Park Street’s unforgivingly steep incline, selling overpriced pens and keyrings of the Suspension Bridge to tourists, so it was only a minute before Beth caught sight of her stepping over the low wall that abutted the Green and cutting sideways across the grass. She started walking towards her, raising her hand in a little wave, and Silver whooped back a greeting, oblivious to the heads that turned in her direction.
“Hey!” Silver said, dropping her satchel to the ground and holding her hands out expectantly. “Hug or no hug?”
“Hug,” Beth replied, and Silver wrapped her in her arms, rocking her gently from side to side as they stood in place. Beth closed her eyes, savouring the touch and the warmth of another human being, then pulled away before Silver did. “Okay, okay, I’m good. Thanks.”
“So, like, where are we at?” Silver asked, unfolding herself onto the damp grass and wrapping her fingers around Beth’s wrist to tug her down too. “Do we hate her now? Should I unfollow her on Twitter?”
“Mm. No.” Beth arranged her legs beneath her and then shrugged one shoulder loosely, practiced at affecting nonchalance. “She said she wants to stay friends, so.”
“Do you want that, though?” Silver’s gaze was assessing, sharp even behind the fringe of blonde hair that fell in front of her right eye. Her hair was cut in the style timelessly popular with white millennial queers, the one Beth thought made women look sexy and men look like Macklemore: buzzed on the sides and longer on top. It looked good on her.
Beth shrugged again and said nothing.
Silver frowned. “Okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t seem that upset.”
“Do you want me to be?”
“Of course not. Just, you know. You guys were together for a while.”
Beth sighed. “It’s not that I’m not upset,” she said, twisting the string of her hoodie around her fingers until they began to turn purple. “I suppose it doesn’t quite feel real.”
“It was pretty sudden,” Silver said. “Maybe it’ll take a while to sink in.”
“It’s just that I don’t know if she was ever that real to me in the first place. You know?”
“Hmm.” Silver tilted her head to one side and regarded Beth curiously from beneath quirked brows. “Because you were long-distance?”
“Kind of. Not just that.”
“I mean, it’s like—” Beth hesitated. She pressed her index finger into the soft ground, feeling the earth give way beneath her insistence, and then turned the digit around to examine the smear of dark soil staining it from tip to knuckle. “When we got together… I’ve had all these shitty relationships with men, and I guess I was just sick of it. But with Alice—it was like, we were into the same things, we were always so nice to each other, it was the epitome of what I imagined that kind of queer online relationship to be. I got really into the—” She broke off momentarily, frowning at the grass as she searched for the right word, “— the aesthetic of it, I guess, the fact that everything between us was always so anodyne. Safe. I could go on Tumblr and see some, fucking, lesbian cottagecore moodboard or whatever, and I could send it to her like, hey, this is us! And I liked that there wasn’t really any individuality to it. The language had already been created for us, we didn’t need to put in any of the work. It was just… it was comforting, I don’t know. It felt good.” In the pause that followed her thoughts meandered and then alighted on the word “wife,” a word that, online, had largely transcended its real-world meaning. That girl is Wife City to me; Borat voice, my wife. The proliferation of the wife guy and his epithet spouse: elf wife, curvy wife, fajita wife. Beth wondered if this was all part of the same trend, stripping women of their individuality and their personhood, othering via memeification. She pulled out her phone, sent a tweet: wifeless, press f to pay respects, accompanied by a picture of a crying woman wiping her tears with a live hamster. It was ironic when she did it, which made it okay.
“Right,” Silver said after a long moment of silence. “But—you get how that probably isn’t totally healthy, right?”
“Yeah, Dr. Phil, obviously.”
“Like…” Silver trailed off again as if she didn’t want to risk upsetting her. Beth raised her eyebrows in response, like: What? “I don’t know,” she said eventually. “You know I think you Tumblr gays are fucking exhausting anyway. Just the goddamn worst.”
“As if you’re not on Tumblr?”
“Yes, but I’m normal,” she said, and reached out to poke Beth in the side. Beth squirmed away from her and she added, “Whereas we both know you’re gonna go home and listen to a tragic Spotify playlist called something like ultimate wlw yearning that probably has ‘I Bet On Losing Dogs’ in its first, mmm, five songs?” She didn’t bother to unfold the acronym, saying it wuh-luh-wuh instead of “women loving women.”
“Fuck off,” Beth replied, slightly pained. “I like Mitski.”
“She’s fine, that’s not the point.”
“What is, then?”
“Come on—you acting like being a dyke has to be this big monolithic thing. It’s a little reductive, don’t you think?”
Beth snorted an unflattering laugh. “All hail the lesbian monolith.”
Silver ignored her. “You know what I mean. It’s the whole gays cuff their jeans and don’t have their driving license and can’t sit properly in chairs thing.” She leaned back on her haunches, looking about as far removed from cottagecore as it was possible for a person to be. “I don’t get why we’re all suddenly so obsessed with finding these points of connection that don’t mean anything. Like it’s not enough to just be queer if we don’t also have the right vibes to go along with it, as dictated by some objectively incredibly shitty social media websites.”
“Isn’t that just how subcultures work, though?” Beth said, caught between defensiveness and playing devil’s advocate just for the sake of it. “Superficial points of connection, I mean. Mannerisms, language. Fashion.”
“Yeah, but theoretically it’s about solidarity, right? It’s political. Like how the whole idea of camp was never just a superficial thing, it was about disrupting the dominant culture, taking a stand against these bourgeois notions of good taste—” Beth smiled despite herself. She liked when Silver got like this, peppering her sentences with words like hegemonic, zeitgeist, paradigm. Silver didn’t notice, too caught up in her own flow. “…But now you go online and it’s like a real-time tutorial for how to parcel yourself off into all of these stupid little boxes. Like you can turn your entire life into a TikTok aesthetic if you can only curate yourself enough, develop the same tastes and interests as everyone else, snip away all the parts that don’t mesh.”
“That can still be broadly nonconformist, though, can’t it? If the point is just— not being heteronormative.”
“Beth, I will give you literally all the money in my wallet right now if you can tell me how sitting backwards in a chair is a meaningful act of queer transgression.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.” Beth shook her head, brushing off Silver’s scorn. “I don’t know. I don’t think I have a point, actually.”
“Seriously, though. Do you not think all of this might have been part of Alice’s problem? This whole lesbian Stepford Wife U-Haul fantasy of yours—you’re not the fucking Borg Queen, the people you date shouldn’t actually be interchangeable.”
“Okay, chill out, I get it,” Beth said, embarrassment making her mulish. And she did get it, she thought, despite the way Silver was looking at her, her eyes shining with doubt and concern. What Beth didn’t bother telling her was that if she didn’t quite see Alice as a full person it was because she saw herself as even less of one, but she felt that there was a limit to what one could say less than fifteen minutes into a conversation and not sound completely insane. She glanced up at the sky and said, instead, “I’m not sure I should be dating women, actually. So maybe it doesn’t even matter.”
“You break up with Alice and now you’re straight? That’s a bit cliché, don’t you think?”
“No, dickhead. I’m not having a crisis. It’s just—I dunno. I felt like I was objectifying her the whole time. It was weird.”
Silver made a face. “What, because you thought she was hot?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know, it’s just…” Beth hated not having a firmer grasp on which of her feelings actually originated from inside her and not from society at large; she wanted to know herself, to follow the strands of her desires all the way down to the root. Her problem was that her sense of self was mutable, immensely vulnerable to the influence of outside forces, and she wished very much that it wasn’t. “Maybe I just think women are hot because men do and they’ve inflicted that on us via, you know, everything. The commodification of women’s bodies. Whatever.”
Silver laughed. “Objectify, commodify, misogyny.” She pronounced misogyny to rhyme with the others. “Live laugh love for the socially conscious.”
“That’s really helpful,” Beth said, sardonic. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, but you’re overthinking. Not everything has to be so ideological.”
Which was honestly a little rich, Beth thought, coming from her. Silver was a natural blonde; when they’d first met, her hair had been long and curly and beautiful, rippling halfway down her back. She’d shaved her head around the same time she’d stopped shaving everything else, which is also when she’d started calling herself a dyke rather than a homoromantic pansexual. She said she refused to participate in the tyranny of beauty; Beth, for her part, thought that stance was considerably easier to take when your smooth-skinned size 8 body and perfectly symmetrical features effectively guaranteed that people would want to fuck you either way. It was a mean thought, and she felt guilty for having it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t also true. “The personal is political, though,” she said, electing to vaguely quote feminist theory instead of articulating any of this out loud.
“Oh, whatever, Beth.” Silver frowned at her. “Listen, can I give you some advice?”
Beth figured she could afford to be a little magnanimous. “Sure.”
“Okay. Log off.”
They squabbled over it for a little longer until Beth begged off, eager to go home and wallow.
“All right,” Silver said. She got up and brushed the dirt off her backside with the tips of her thin fingers. “Go let the soft animal of your body love what it loves or whatever.”
“The soft animal of my body needs to be put down.”
They hugged again, and then headed off in different directions. Beth checked her phone as she walked away. Her tweet had three likes; her friends Finn and Rochelle, and a mutual she only recognised by their display name (gatekeeping castiel’s butthole, they/them). She had a direct message, too, and she hesitated before clicking the tab just in case it was Alice. It was only Rochelle, though, and her stomach untwisted. She tapped to open it.
You and alice broke up????? Shit B, i’m sorry
Beth felt briefly surprised by her friend’s ability to perceive any meaning in her ironic tweet until another worse possibility occurred to her and she flicked back to her timeline. She was planning on typing Alice’s handle into the search bar at the top of her screen, but she didn’t even have to; there she was, on Beth’s feed, three tweets down. hey, just letting everyone know beth and i aren’t together anymore. no drama, still friends, but i’d appreciate not being tagged with her in tweets for a while until i’ve processed everything <3
Despite everything, Beth was a little taken aback. A little offended, too. Alice had singlehandedly orchestrated the breakup herself, what the fuck did she have to process that was so rough she couldn’t even bear for the two of them to be mentioned in the same tweet? Beth stabbed the heart beneath the tweet with the tip of her finger, watching as it passive-aggressively turned red, then immediately worried that she was violating a boundary by liking the tweet in which Alice had asked not to be forced into interactions with her. She tapped the heart again, unliking it, and now she felt embarrassed because Alice would have seen the notification either way; unliking made it seem like Beth must’ve only liked it in the first place by accident, which made her look pathetic. What was worse, she wondered—crossing a minor boundary, or giving her ex-girlfriend the impression that she’d been secretly pining over her Twitter profile? Her social circle online would argue the former, robotic ethical objectivity conceding no ground to emotional messiness, but Beth’s dignity had already been fatally compromised by the breakup, so—she liked the tweet again, decisively, and now she was definitely the asshole. Whatever. If Alice called her on it she’d blame it on being a Gemini.
On the heels of that thought came another, more disquieting one: Should she be anticipating a callout post? The foot guy from earlier in the day surfaced in her memory. She didn’t think she’d done anything to warrant one, but it wasn’t really up to her, was it? She thought back over her relationship with Alice, re-examining every interaction she could remember, on the lookout for anything that could be used against her, or, conversely, Alice, in case she’d been emotionally abusive or something and Beth had failed to notice at the time. Did everyone have these thoughts, she wondered next, or was her fear of being exposed proof that she was a bad person, that she must have done something awful in order to justify the worry? On some level she was aware that she tended to put herself in the shoes of the wrongdoer rather than the victim whenever she saw an online callout, less out of empathy than a tugging curiosity as to how it felt to be ostracized, what it was like to become a social pariah in the time it took for an iPhone Notes screenshot to gain traction. Limning the curiosity was a distinct dread that one day she’d find out.
Exhausted by the intricate interpersonal politics of online relationships, Beth closed Twitter and locked her phone again. She could hear Silver’s voice in her ear, telling her to log off, louder and more insistent than she’d been in real life. Maybe she’d had a point.
* * *
Beth walked home along the riverside. She suspected her mother would have left for work already, but she called out for her anyway as she came through the door, just in case, although the small stack of mail on the welcome mat was confirmation enough of her absence. She kicked her shoes off in the hall and carried on through the house in her socks, leaving the mail where it was. There was a note for her waiting on the kitchen table, and she picked it up and read it as she went into her bedroom.
Hi darling – I’m working a double today so I won’t be home till late, there’s food in the fridge so make yourself dinner. Probably won’t see you until tomorrow but there’s something I want to talk to you about when I get the chance, don’t let me forget! xxx
Beth folded the note and dropped it onto her dresser, tiredly wishing that people would just cut to the chase instead of telling her they wanted to talk. But her mother had the tact and sensitivity required of someone who dealt with laboring women for a living, and the chances were good that if she wanted to talk to Beth about anything serious she’d have warned her ahead of time. Beth told herself this and waited for the anxiety bubbling in the pit of her stomach to subside.
She collapsed down onto her bed, curling into a ball on top of the duvet. She didn’t mean to fall asleep but her mental exhaustion from the day’s events had morphed into a bone-deep physical weariness, and when she opened her eyes again the sky outside her window was a mournful navy blue, the house silent around her in the way houses only ever were when they were empty. There was something about that particular stillness, that particular darkness, that unnerved her; she was accustomed to perpetual light and noise, the vivid brightness of a screen and apps in twinkling jewel tones, Snapchat and Spotify and YouTube like yellow-green-red bell peppers dangling ripe from the vine, tweets appearing on her timeline in real-time, her phone buzzing with news updates and notifications. Constant information pouring into her brain like light streaming through a window, making her feel transparent, as if beyond the glass there existed a wider consciousness that she was wilfully plugging herself into, the boundaries of her personhood bleeding outwards until she was wholly absorbed into a sprawling mind that shouldn’t have felt like a singular entity, composed as it was of millions of people worldwide, but somehow did anyway. An opinion would be tweeted, become collective, become her own, with all the ease of a file being transferred from the Cloud to a hard drive or a virus invading cells. We should defund the police, she’d say to Silver, after police in Illinois murdered another unarmed black boy, and Silver would sigh and say, well, sure, ACAB, but actually in this country we have defunded them, along with all other public services, that’s what austerity was all about, and now our police force is under-trained and resentful and we’re still forced to rely on them in situations where other organizations might actually be more helpful and appropriate only those organizations don’t even exist anymore because of ten years of Tory government, and really, Beth, you shouldn’t go around parroting slogans that are presently valuable in America but not especially relevant here.
Beth got up from her bed and turned on the lights, then checked the time on her phone: 7:36pm. She needed to be online and working by 9. Her duvet was rumpled where she’d been lying on it, and she smoothed it out before reaching under her bed for her laptop, fumbling sightlessly with her other hand until she located her webcam. She dropped both the laptop and the webcam onto her bed, ready for use, then wandered into the kitchen in search of food. She could make something, but she felt a little too tragic still to put in the effort and there was leftover lasagna in the fridge, so she microwaved that instead and ate it at the kitchen table. While she ate she carefully perused Alice’s BoJack Horseman livetweet thread. She was looking for coded messages to indicate that Alice might still be thinking about her, but she didn’t find anything except a screenshot of that quote everyone liked, the one about red flags and rose-tinted glasses, and that was vague enough that it mightn’t be about her at all; maybe Alice was just basic. It didn’t take much scrolling before she was back at the tweet Alice had made about the breakup. Two likes, eighteen replies, and Beth knew it was because people found it callous to like a tweet announcing bad news but still couldn’t stop a part of her brain from taking a perverse kind of pleasure at the ratio. L + ratio + you’re a dick, Alice. Beth clicked away from Alice’s profile with a mingled sense of disappointment and relief. It was a little depressing to be sitting alone in her kitchen eating microwaved lasagna and reading her ex-girlfriend’s tweets while the room darkened around her, but she was masochistically enjoying the pathos, so she pulled up Spotify, typed in ‘wlw yearning’ and scrolled until she found the song she was looking for. She finished her dinner with the phone resting on the table beside her plate, baleful vocals drifting up from the speaker: My baby, my baby, you’re my baby, say it to me…
Robyn Jefferson is a short story writer and aspiring novelist from the south-west of England. She has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing, from which she graduated in 2020 with a distinction. Her short stories have been published in several literary journals online: “The Danger Is Still Present In Your Time” in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, “Afterparty” in The Phare (shortlisted for the WriteWords 2022 competition), “The Gift” in Makarelle, and “Rosa’s” in the Fiery Scribe Review. In 2022 her short story “In Language Strange” was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Magazine Creative Writing Award and published in their print anthology. Calling Out is her debut novel. She can be found on Twitter at @apocryphai and on Instagram at @opinionhaver69.