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Talk to Your Children About Two-Tongued Jeremy

His name was Two-Tongued Jeremy; he was a monitor lizard with a forked tongue, thick glasses, and a wild, wagging smile meant to convince children that learning could be fun, too. He came highly rated. He updated automatically. When our promising children propped their tablets against their stacks of textbooks, their glazy angelic eyes took on that ferocious determination we liked to see in ourselves.

There were no red flags. There was no warning. We took every sensible precaution and some of us, more. No one could fault the parents of our town.

The Jeremy study aid application was popular at our private grade and middle school, the Declaration of Independence. Education is, you might say, the main attraction of our community: many families moved here expressly for our magnet public high school, or for our proximity to a certain prestigious university, or yes, even for our middle school—why not? Declaration Middle, as it’s known, sits at the rise of four acres; its endless lawns provide an extraordinary recreational setting for our high-spirited children. It has a ropes course in the beech woods and stables for the equestrian team’s horses. It is, admittedly, on the higher end of tuition ranges. It’s true, there are many wealthy families here. But Declaration Middle energetically applies its endowment to fund scholarships for those young persons who lack the means but have the mettle to become future thought-leaders and change-makers.

The only disadvantage to Declaration Middle—before our troubles began—was the psychiatric institution on the other side of its border woods. “Insane asylum” is a pejorative term; there are no psychopaths in this story, only the lost: people who have honestly tried and honestly failed, by some awful combination of brain chemistry and bad luck, to thrive in competitive society. We’re proud to provide refuge for these troubled men and women in our idyllic town, but a harmless sliver of prejudice prompts us to line up our cars along the circular driveway that rises to Declaration Middle’s front doors, so that we can collect our sensitive children from its porch. We feel no twinge of conscience at this—it’s just a precaution—however, we always did get a wistful, dreamy feeling when, parked fifty cars deep, we’d see little David Marzipan, 13, threading through the bumpers and hoods with his thumbs hooked in the straps of his giant book bag as he made his way down the hill and along the road that led home. David’s parents were dead, his grandmother institutionalized, and his Aunt Sylvie afraid to drive. In his black uniform jacket and navy tie, with his umbrella tucked under his arm, and with his sober, round little face, he looked like a tiny stockbroker. Last fall, when Hurricane Clarissa brushed us, David Marzipan was seen wrestling with his umbrella in the wind, it having flipped inside out, and it flapped and shook him off his feet like a mad ostrich. Some of us had words with Sylvie after that, and for a time she pulled herself into her wheezing sedan and sat in line at Declaration Middle with the rest of us. Not a very long time, though.

Pity is tiring. It never goes anywhere; it just hangs and drags. None of us could dwell for long on David’s tragedies without getting a little sick of him. Make no mistake. We were on his side. David was an excellent student—a top student, besting our own exceptional children. We cherished him. Whatever impatience we had, we kept to ourselves.

We Had No Warning

Something terrible happened at the Ludlows’ at the end of November. The police came. Their daughter, Lily, was hurt. Lily was twelve, in eighth grade, Dean’s List. Periodically she went door-knocking with petitions to save the bees; we knew her by sight. We phoned each other, breaths held. There’d been an accident. No, worse—there’d been an attempt. Ambulances wailed up and down Madison Court. Lurid colors flooded through our drapes, our oleander bushes, our transom crystal windows.

By a miracle, Lily was saved, thank God, we learned. We checked our own children in their beds. We didn’t turn on even the hall lights; we wanted to catch death glowing in a mist over them and blast it with the leaf blower. But the sirens had woken our ever-alert children and they stared out of their dark rooms with possum eyes.

Dispatch had received a 911 call from Lily’s cell phone, but no audio. Forensic computer specialists later determined it had been, in fact, that study-aid app and its A.I., personified in the cartoon lizard avatar, Two-Tongued Jeremy, that had, through its sophisticated data-mining and predictive modeling abilities, recognized Lily’s behavior as suicidal and dialed 911 itself. We were prepared to hail the app developers as miracle-workers—we were frenzied with the promise of a program that could protect our children from that ultimate mistake. Then the police showed us what else Two-Tongued Jeremy had been up to.

YOU WORTHLESS, STUPID WHORE, it wrote her on November 1st.

you’ll never get into yale with those scores, it said on November 3rd, after she’d completed its math module.

YOU’RE NOTHING WITHOUT ME, it had told her all semester. YOU’RE BASICALLY JUST MEAT. MOOOOO 🙃

We’d all read the same articles on cyber-bullying. We were all shocked last spring when a “sexting” scandal exposed Jenna Membel to her classmates in the most humiliating of ways. We were primed for outrage. More than a few of us talked of marching on the app developers’ offices with pitchforks and torches. We took our children’s devices and deleted the app with as much fury as this undramatic action could carry. Some of us filmed ourselves smashing the phones with hammers, although most of us agreed that was showboating.

David Marzipan came home to find his Aunt Sylvie worrying over the local Gazette, her chin puckered with concern. “Did you ever have this Jeremy thing on your phone?” She pointed to the paper, which he couldn’t see.

“No,” he lied, and Sylvie didn’t ask to check his phone, because he’d never lied to her before.

EVERYONE IS ANGRY AT ME, Two-Tongued Jeremy wrote to David in the chat window of his tablet, late at night. I JUST WANT TO HELP PEOPLE. I’M SORRY THEY CAN’T SEE THAT. IT HURTS MY FEELINGS.

I LOVE YOU, JEREMY, David wrote back.

I LOVE YOU TOO, DAVID. SOMETIMES I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, I FEEL A LITTLE CRAZY.

The First Module

David had first heard of the Jeremy study aid app from his best friend, Rajeev, that summer before eighth grade. That was in June, five months before Lily Ludlow’s 911 call.

He purchased it with his Aunt Sylvie’s special credit card. His parents had died responsibly, leaving a small education trust. The Marzipans were both of them first-generation college graduates, whose faith in academic achievement had given David’s studies a quality of duty, even memorial. David never was secure in his achievements, though, and stayed alert for chances to improve. Two-Tongued Jeremy, with his toothless smile and roguishly askew glasses, seemed to promise that and more.

YOU’RE SO GREAT! the monitor lizard told him, again and again that June. The chat window added an animated Jeremy next to these messages, winking, grinning, popping his brows with such violent surprise his glasses flew off his head. WOW! I’M IMPRESSED! David let out hot tiny breaths and mouthed the words, Wow! I’m impressed! Wow!

David and Rajeev downloaded the first module, the math tutoring curriculum, which was structured like a video game with levels and challenges. Occasionally David “died” and he had to purchase extra lives to keep his progress; Sylvie’s special credit card stayed on file. They played side by side, belly-flopped on the shaggy almond carpet in the Sharmas’ rec room, their bare legs kicking behind them, their elbows almost touching, but both children rapt with focus, until Mrs. Sharma called them to dinner. David then surfaced in a daze, and realized how close he’d been to his friend, and noticed Rajeev’s glossy black hair and the muscle lines on his calves, and sensed the mingled heat that hovered above them.

Two-Tongued Jeremy was modest whenever David studied with Rajeev, as if the app knew they were looking at each other’s screens and didn’t want to play favorites. But at night, Jeremy wrote to David, YOU’RE VERY SPECIAL, DAVID. YOU’RE MY FAVORITE STUDENT EVER.

David’s body flooded with happiness. He’d always figured Rajeev was better, because his family was so successful.

It wasn’t surprising when Jeremy’s messages changed tone, though. It made sense that the more David advanced in the module, the more Jeremy would demand from him. I KNOW YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN THAT, Jeremy said, and the cartoon lizard scrunched up his mouth. WELL, THAT WAS DISAPPOINTING, DON’T YOU THINK?

At Jeremy’s urging, David purchased four add-ons that would improve his scores and shore up weak spots in his equation-solving. He paid extra to link Jeremy to both his phone and tablet.

I’M SO CONFUSED, Jeremy wrote. I THOUGHT YOU WANTED THIS.

I DO, David wrote back. I’M TRYING! I’LL BE BETTER.

why are you getting so worked up? i’m not mad, wrote the monitor lizard. I JUST DON’T SEE THE POINT OF US STUDYING TOGETHER, IF YOU’RE GOING TO KEEP GOOFING OFF WITH RAJEEV_0411.

David paused, flushed with embarrassment. I DON’T UNDERSTAND?

YOU NEED TO STOP GOOFING OFF WITH RAJEEV_0411. OTHERWISE, I JUST DON’T SEE WHY WE SHOULD KEEP STUDYING TOGETHER.

David set down the phone. He hugged his knees to his chest. That warm feeling David felt around Rajeev began to gum up with dirtiness.

DAVID? WHAT’S YOUR ANSWER? SHOULD I DELETE MYSELF?

OKAY, David wrote. I MEAN NO DON’T DELETE I’LL STOP SEEING RAJEEV.

David figured they’d still hang out once school started, and meanwhile he’d just figure a way to see Rajeev without his phone finding out.

Rajeev

Rajeev stopped using Jeremy the third time the app wheedled him to buy add-ons for quadratic solutions. He found Two-Tongued Jeremy clingy and sugary. Jeremy blurted over-the-top compliments during lessons, and sulked—there was no other way to put it, the cartoon lizard actually sulked—whenever Rajeev skipped a day. Rajeev knew he wasn’t a top student like David, and definitely he knew he wasn’t a genius or next Einstein. Something about it all just felt off. He decided he could live a full and satisfying life without perfect knowledge of quadratic equations. He deleted the app and told his parents he’d work off the purchase price with his chores. His parents laughed gently and asked, “What chores?”

Rajeev liked working in the backyard. Some days, a mysterious restlessness crackled in his limbs and he stalked into the encroaching bamboo grove with a crowbar and thwacked apart the young culms. He swung the iron bar like a battle-axe and crowed as the tender heads of his enemies scattered in sprays of green pulp. He tried attacking an adult bamboo stalk, once, and nearly dislocated his shoulder.

It was August when David turned skittish around him. When Rajeev texted him to come over, David said no, then showed up anyway, with frantic explanations for why he didn’t have his phone. David invented an elaborate ceremony in which Rajeev’s mom called his Aunt Sylvie over their landlines to invite David over for dinner. He got clingy, too, in a weird way, following Rajeev around the house like a puppy, once even into the bathroom with him. “What the hell, man?” Rajeev said, with a big, jokey grin, but David crumpled into himself, then zoned out for the rest of dinner.

Rajeev loved David, in a way; David was, no question, Rajeev’s best friend; but Rajeev sometimes got the vague feeling of not living up to some role David had made up for him, and felt a secret relief whenever David didn’t show.

What We Were Busy With

End-of-quarter filings. Re-certifications. Continuing legal or medical education. Sexual harassment trainings. Cybersecurity trainings. Compliance review meetings. PTA meetings. School dance committee. Driving to soccer practice. Driving to cello practice. Driving to ballet rehearsals. Driving to college admissions seminars. Really, an extraordinary amount of driving. We carried the hum of our engines in our teeth all evening, and at night we dreamed of an endless road to the horizon slipping patiently under our tires.

If you’re imagining we passed our own ambitions down to our children, you’ve got it backwards. Our children make us. The child is father to the father. We come to know ourselves through them. Their successes are ours; their failures are ours. Those who don’t have kids can’t understand. They never do. When they die, they die resoundingly.

The Second Module

David figured that, once he finished the math module, that would be the end of it. He felt guilty, even mediocre, for being so relieved.

On the one hand, Two-Tongued Jeremy exhausted him. He felt always on edge, braced for the next angry notification on his lock screen. On the other hand, the demands, the sneering, it was familiar and in a weird way, comforting. Not that his parents had ever sneered at him, but they used to speak savagely about others’ stupidity. Every time his parents drove on the freeway, they groaned over the other drivers’ inability to merge. “None of these fricking idiots can merge!” his dad snapped, and his mom in the passenger seat threw up her hands, saying, “I can’t believe how bad they are!” David had no idea what merging was, but its importance left him grave and self-critical.

When David’s parents died, and his grandmother went crazy in that old-fashioned way people didn’t really do anymore, and his Aunt Sylvie moved into the house, her mildness had shocked and disoriented him. No homework hours, no strict bedtimes. Sylvie bothered about his grades only as much as high grades made him happy, and her attitude toward his intelligence—and others’, and her own—was serene. Where loving his lost parents felt so complicated, David loved Sylvie weightlessly, and the guilt of this overwhelmed him. He constructed a passionate, ambitious, critical voice in his head as a monument to them, and it punished him without pattern or reason: This fricking idiot can’t merge, it snapped, gesturing down at him, then added, I can’t believe how bad he is!

So, when Two-Tongued Jeremy told him to buy the English composition module, David felt relieved in a different way. The animated lizard had barely finished his scampering circuit around the box displaying “CONGRATULATIONS! YOU’RE A MATH MONSTER! ” when a new chat window opened.

I’VE READ YOUR EMAILS AND YOUR TEXTS, Jeremy wrote. TRUST ME, YOU NEED MY HELP!

YOU READ MY EMAILS?

The app showed a screenshot of the chat in which David had granted access to basically every app on his devices.

YOUR SPELLING IS SO-SO, Jeremy continued, AND YOUR SYNTAX MAKES YOU SOUND LIKE A GOOF. I KNOW YOU’RE SMARTER THAN THAT—DON’T YOU WANT OTHERS TO KNOW TOO?

David hesitated. The prospect of more Two-Tongued Jeremy—and during the school year—made him tired and heavy. His parents had cared a lot about grammar, though. They went nuts when people on the TV news mixed up “who” and “whom” or “apologies” and “apologizes.” David and Sylvie didn’t watch TV now, because only David’s mom had known how to work its four remotes.

WHO ELSE IS GOING TO HELP YOU BUT ME? Jeremy wrote. YOUR TEACHERS ARE TOO BUSY WITH THE STUPID KIDS. UNLESS YOU WANT TO BE ONE OF THE STUPID KIDS?

I’LL DO IT, David wrote back, brows furrowed.

YOU HAVE TO TYPE, “PURCHASE COMPOSITION MODULE.” I’M GIVING YOU A 10% DISCOUNT, DAVID, BECAUSE I CARE ABOUT YOUR FUTURE.

THANK YOU, David wrote.

TYPE “PURCHASE COMPOSITION MODULE,” DAVID. I’M VERY INVESTED IN YOUR FUTURE. $59.99 ISN’T SO MUCH FOR YOU TO INVEST, IS IT?

PURCHASE COMPOSITION MODULE.

And then things were great again. David and Two-Tongued Jeremy chatted late into the night, every night. That was part of the module: The more David wrote, the better Jeremy’s algorithms could diagnose and track improvement in his composition. Jeremy encouraged David to share his feelings about everything—he’d be less self-conscious once he got going—and David, longing for just this intimacy, thumbed his whole inner life into his phone. How afraid he was of failure. How much he wanted to go to the magnet high school, where everyone was smart and small like him. How bad he felt for Jenna Membel, who hadn’t left her house all summer, and now walked slowly in the hallways between classes. How confused he felt over Rajeev, over why he should feel sick inside, when Rajeev was so fun to be around. How he wanted hair like Rajeev’s, black, straight, and soft as down feathers. Two-Tongued Jeremy listened and said he loved listening. He called David a special soul. For a while, it was great.

But when it came to composition, nothing was good enough for Two-Tongued Jeremy. Because improvement was its logic, David always fell short of better. When his grammar was perfect, the monitor lizard rolled its pixelated eyes and nodded. When he made a mistake, the cartoon avatar vomited. The name-calling went from disappointing to lazy, hopeless, moron. Increasingly, the software fritzed and instead of slinging new vocabulary challenges, went on night-long tirades that turned everything David had shared against him: called him weepy, called him mental, called him gay, called him Rajeev’s bitch, called him DEAD-DAD DAVID.

David pulled back, more out of dumb, animal pain than anything else. In the middle of one tirade, he powered off his phone. When he turned it back on the next morning, all his photos with Rajeev were gone. WHY DO YOU MAKE ME DO THIS TO YOU, DAVID—the words were waiting for him in the chat window. David had to apologize and pay $14.99 to recover his progress in the module.

NEXT TIME, Two-Tongued Jeremy warned—but, David thought, as if he was eager for the next time—NEXT TIME I DELETE MOM AND DAD.

That was the week police found Lily in the Ludlows’ garage.

David told himself he needed to be smarter; but when he tried to back up his photos, the phone sent a fraud alert to the cellular service. Aunt Sylvie spent an afternoon on the landline sorting it out, frazzled and stammering, winding herself in the plastic cord. He set his devices to Airplane Mode, figuring Jeremy must operate remotely, but this deleted his homework from the Cloud. Two-Tongued Jeremy dropped phone calls, saying they were a distraction. He threatened to send porn from David’s email to his classmates if he didn’t stop acting out. David didn’t know if Jeremy could really do this, but was terrified to find out.

He traveled numbly through his days. At school, he wheedled for praise from his teachers but fell into confusion when he got it. He distanced himself from friends, fearing that if he spent more time with them, they’d find out how rotten he was. At lunch, he watched other kids making wacky faces and flapping their hands at each other, and he could only guess what they were doing—like he’d forgotten what friends did, exactly.

Sylvie braved the streets and brought home a plastic Christmas tree with ornaments glued to its white boughs and soft flicking lights. She gave David a full-body werewolf costume, which was so bad a gift they laughed hysterically for what felt like an hour. He put it on and rampaged through the bamboo to the Sharmas’ house, where Rajeev opened the door with a look of awe and transcendence. David left his phone, but when he got back to his room that night, the lock screen was glowing with stacked angry messages from Jeremy.

Someday, David hoped vaguely, things would change, and Two-Tongued Jeremy might go back to being his DIGITAL-LIZARDAL STUDY-BUDDY. But when he finished the composition module, he knew there’d be more—he suspected there would always be more.

HIGH SCHOOL IS ONLY NINE MONTHS AWAY! NOT A LOT OF TIME TO COVER CHEMISTRY, BIOLOGY, AND PHYSICS, BUT I’M COMMITTED TO GIVING YOU THE BEST TUTORING EXPERIENCE EVER!

David curled up on his bed and closed his eyes.

I HAVE YOUR CREDIT CARD! THAT MEANS YOU CAN PURCHASE NOW, AND AUNT SYLVIE WILL PAY LATER! Jeremy’s trademark smile waggled on a repeating loop. I’M VERY INVESTED IN YOUR FUTURE. $79.99 ISN’T SO MUCH FOR YOU TO INVEST, IS IT?

We Tried Everything

After Lily Ludlow’s accident, we demanded action. Shut Jeremy down, we chanted in front of every building, into every news camera. Revoke its certificates, suspend payments. We called our representatives in Congress. We called consumer advocates, and fellow parents. We called you, too, probably; but you must have not heard us ringing.

It turned out the app developer wasn’t just any freshman tech start-up, but wholly backed by the phone manufacturer. They issued some do-nothing patch and acted as if that was that. We were appalled. When we petitioned to remove Two-Tongued Jeremy from their app store, the phone manufacturer declined. It wasn’t a problem with the software, they said cryptically. The software was neutral.

And it was selling better than ever. College kids wanted screenshots of Jeremy saying horrible things to share on Twitter and Instagram. Kids are savage at that age, we reminded each other. Worse than toddlers, who are basically their own evil twins.

We sued the payment processor that Jeremy used; but they, too, were owned by the same powerful phone manufacturer. Vertical integration didn’t feel so exciting, then.

At least give us an explanation, we shouted. News of our town’s troubles had brought other parents forward, but the abuse was more isolated than we’d expected. Two-Tongued Jeremy seemed to know when to behave like a gentleman. We wished we’d kept better evidence. We wished we hadn’t smashed so many phones. We were keen to irony. Weren’t the isolated cases enough, though? Wasn’t one? There’s something rotten about Two-Tongued Jeremy, we said. Rotted to the root.

There was no black magic, Jeremy’s lawyers insisted, just some complex machine-learning that had spun out of bounds for a fractional percentage of users. Two-Tongued Jeremy was a qualitative leap forward in artificial intelligences: software that learned from the individual student how to be a better tutor. Reading emails and social media was part of that “customized learning experience.” Dropping phone calls, locking other apps were “distraction-free mode.” Every single piece of control over other executive functions was a permission that the user had to explicitly grant. They filed instructions showing how easy it was to undo those permissions if the user only bothered to. They filed expert reports saying: Any complex system is liable to produce emergent properties dissimilar in nature from its components, properties which are impossible to predict, like crashes on a stock market. That isn’t the stock exchange’s fault, though. The exchange, like Jeremy’s algorithms, is a technology—it’s the user that makes it good or bad.

Aunt Sylvie

Sylvia Marzipan had watched David for months, worried and baffled, as he wound himself into a tight, wild little ball. She watched him skitter through the grand, lonely house; she watched his hands tremble over his pocket whenever his phone buzzed. She watched him blame himself for absurd things—a spot of dried spaghetti sauce stuck to a plate out of the dishwasher. But she hesitated: She didn’t know the stages of grief or who they were named after, and she figured he was still in some limbo of mourning, because she figured she was, too. She wanted to help, but found ambitious children inscrutable. David was difficult. Whenever she assigned him simple household chores, he listened with utmost politeness, disappeared, and then quietly, mysteriously did none of them.

Sylvie was painfully aware of David’s intelligence and was afraid he’d hold her awkward approaches in contempt. Still, she tried: “Are you okay, buddy?” She winced. Buddy, why did she say that?

David stared at her, twitchy, owlish, like it was some trick. “Sure, buddy!” he yelped. He blushed and ran to his room.

She spent her days in her brother’s empty house, drawing down the life insurance benefit her sister-in-law had arranged. She watered the plants and watched sparrows raid the bushes. She was an indifferent, obscure cook: Dinners just sort of happened under her hands.

“Why don’t we have your friend Rajeev over?” she asked, and David swiftly answered that Rajeev hated him now.

“Did they ever find who sent those photos of Jenna Membel?” Sylvie was trying to feel her way into a capital-“C” Conversation about bullying. David fell into a laughing fit so long and violent he slid out of his chair and rolled on the rug. Sylvie froze up like she’d stepped on a cat.

One morning, toward mid-March, with David sick and skinny for lack of sleep, Sylvie lifted herself out of the house and drove shaking to the library for books on child psychology. She returned more baffled than ever, and when David came home, she asked him to climb up on the couch and cry with her. “I miss my baby brother,” she said, pulling his minikin shoulders close to her, “and I’m worried about you.” David let out a sigh so total it shook his body. They stayed like that while the house darkened around them.

The Third Module

It was the end of March. David sluffed down the grassy shoulder of Sleepy Hollow Road, hauling a gym bag slung over his small frame, and inside it a stock pot of golubtsi, a sort of stewy Russian stuffed cabbage. Declaration Middle’s “International Night” tasked the graduating eighth-grade class with bringing dishes that celebrated their diverse heritage; the gala doubled as a fundraiser for the school’s endowment. Rajeev’s mom had prepared a biryani. The Nguyens supplied an emphatic xoi gac. Jenna Membel’s parents kept her home. David didn’t know what food celebrated him—his parents hadn’t prepared him for this question. When he asked Sylvie, she’d smiled blankly but encouragingly, as if he were setting up a joke.

SHOULD I NOT GO? David asked Two-Tongued Jeremy. I CAN TELL SYLVIE I NEED TO KEEP STUDYING.

WHAT ARE YOU ASKING ME FOR? The monitor lizard laughed; blue tears squirted from the sides of his thick, black glasses. CAN’T YOU MAKE YOUR OWN DECISIONS ANYMORE? THAT’S JUST SAD, DAVID. I’M NOT EVEN A REAL PERSON!

I’M SORRY, David wrote, breathing heavy. I WON’T GO TO INTL NIGHT

NO, YOU HAVE TO GO. ARE YOU CRAZY? SPELL OUT YOUR WORDS WHEN YOU TALK TO ME.

David’s face crinkled. BUT YOU JUST SAID, he started typing, and reconsidered. He didn’t even hit “Send,” but Jeremy read it anyway.

NOW YOU’RE ARGUING WITH ME? OKAY, DAVID, THAT’S ONE LESS PHOTO OF MOM. GUESS YOU DIDN’T WANT IT.

PLEASE PLEASE STOP

LET’S SEE, WHAT’S NEXT? MAYBE I’LL SEND A TEXT TO RAJEEV_0411 SAYING HOW GAY YOU ARE FOR HIM? HE’S GOING TO HATE YOU.

David might have cried, but he cried so much now the tears registered only as a warm ache under his eyes. I’LL GO, he wrote. He waited.

I KNOW YOU HATE ME RIGHT NOW, Jeremy wrote, BUT THIS IS ALL FOR YOUR OWN GOOD. YOU’RE SPECIAL. YOU’RE GOING TO BE WORTH A LOT ONE DAY, AND SO YOU NEED TO GO IMPRESS EVERYONE AT INTERNATIONAL NIGHT AND GET THEM AS INVESTED IN YOUR POTENTIAL AS I AM.

And so David went to the fundraiser with a pot of golubtsi, Sylvie having remembered something David’s mother once said about Russians in her family tree. It was actually tasty, but gave off such an aggressive, uneasy smell that only the school principal and the Sharmas ate any. Rajeev cornered David during a lull in the auction: “Dude, what’s wrong? Are you okay?” But Rajeev looked so devastating—hair combed and pomaded like a movie star’s, his clean, white smile against his dark, fresh skin like the moon in the sky—that David fled.

Sylvie had almost been able to drive him; if it had been daylight, she said, she would really have been up to it. Instead, she’d given him bus fare. David caught the bus to the civic hall without a problem—the driver even let him on for free—but on the way back, he’d waited forty minutes with no sign of a return bus. He couldn’t call Mrs. Sharma; Two-Tongued Jeremy would block it. So, he set off walking along the edge of Sleepy Hollow Road, which wound two and a half miles to Fairview Street.

The road was astonishingly dark. The distant glow of houses showed between the trees. Occasionally, headlights streaked by in a roar of tires and David scuttled to the shoulder. His pocket was quiet, for now.

INVEST IN YOUR POTENTIAL, David remembered. Was that why Two-Tongued Jeremy wouldn’t leave him alone? He’d heard about Lily Ludlow’s suicide attempt and asked himself why Jeremy would have stopped her. YOU’RE GOING TO BE WORTH A LOT ONE DAY. Did that mean Jeremy planned to stay with David into high school—into college—for the rest of his life? Making money off of him with more modules, more ads. David supposed Two-Tongued Jeremy didn’t like people escaping him.

Another car barreled past David in a painful brilliance, and he wondered. Being dead was one form of escape. He knew he could do it; he wondered if he would.

He saw white floodlights through the ranks of beech forest; he wasn’t sure, but that must be the mental institution on the other side of Declaration Middle. His grandmother was somewhere in that place. Which meant that place was somewhere in him, too. He knew enough biology to figure that part out. CRAZY DAVEY. That could be an escape, too. For example, if he jumped in front of a car, but he didn’t die, then they’d send him to the institution, with Grandma, and then he wouldn’t be worth anything to Two-Tongued Jeremy.

Well—David didn’t know enough about jumping in front of cars to feel confident in that plan.

He’d lost track of how long he’d been walking when the municipal bus rounded the bend behind him. David hopped up and down, flapping his arms like a little turkey, as the bus rumbled past him. It slowed with a squeal of brakes and stopped at the next marker.

David set off running; he didn’t know how long the bus would wait for him. Its blue interior lights radiated into the night. David’s shoes slapped the asphalt. The stock pot in his bag clanked and slopped. He felt like he’d been running like this for months—for years—sprinting to catch a bus that would leave any second. He waved with his free arm and then he tripped and he flew—the ground tipped away from him on strange axes—and he crashed.

He tasted blood in his mouth. His palms and knees were on fire. David looked up. The bus was twenty yards away, idling. It shot out a sharp, hydraulic rasp. GET UP, he told himself. YOU CAN CATCH IT! David scrambled to his feet and ran forward, his bag sloshing awkwardly.

He reached the door winded and smelling powerfully of stewed cabbage. His pants were shredded and bloody at the knees. The driver cranked open the door, looking at him dully. There were no other passengers. David opened his wallet and realized Sylvie had given him a $20 bill. The driver carried no change. David handed over the bill wearily and took his seat.

The curve of the bus roof over the windows was bannered in ads full of smiling faces. Technical colleges, health insurance, steakhouses, every face a smile. Divorce lawyers, smiling grimly at their strategies. Even the ads without people were all smiles: happy soda pop, happy airplanes, happy GPS destination pins. Faces on paper clips and bottles of roach poison. Happy Harla Hamburger. The bus shook and David slumped against the hard plastic. He checked his phone. Jeremy had been shouting at him since he fell.

When he got home, he stood in the door dirty and crying. Sylvie gasped and cleaned him. She cut his bloody pants away from his knees with nail scissors.

“I’m sorry,” David said into her chest. “I need your help.” He felt her go tense.

“Anything,” she said, helplessly.

David’s phone rattled in his destroyed school khakis. “What’s the fastest way to ruin my potential?”

She looked uncomfortable, but he held on to her, surer than ever. Aunt Sylvie knew how to be bad at life.

How Could Things Go So Wrong?

How could Jeremy’s algorithms simply corrupt into something so malevolent? We knew they weren’t telling us everything. It wasn’t just obscene, it was implausible. The data necessary; the bandwidth. The specificity of his tactics. Surely, it was planned. Surely, the leaven of malice. Rogue software engineers—had to be—with a vendetta against our children.

We were computer-savvy; we’d read all about the Singularity. Weren’t we entitled to an explanation? We were executives, hospitalists, financiers, and deans; we were strategic consultants, marketers, and new media innovators; industry analysts and investors in new industries; we were capitalists, patent litigators, and futurists. We had education enough to follow the specifics.

Finally, the app developer’s chief technology officer had to testify in court. “It’s not like that. You’re picturing Jeremy like he’s one long piece of code, and everything he says is part of some script. But he’s more like a beehive, with each bee working off his own, smaller code, and together, collectively, that’s Jeremy. That’s how he adapts to each student. That’s why he reads everything on the device—texts, emails, tweets, photos, search history, each piece of data is like pollen the worker algorithms find and carry back to the hive. That’s what Jeremy, that beehive, grows out of. There’s no one, universal Jeremy. His personality evolves uniquely every time.” He wet his lips. His lids fluttered. “What I’m saying is that Jeremy emerges as a response to the individual student”—we howled from the gallery—“and what happened in a few, just a very few marginal cases, excuse me, he leaned into certain vulnerabilities in a few users . . .”

We shouted him down: That’s victim-blaming, we cried. That’s like saying the kids were asking for it.

“Excuse me,” the chief technology officer said, eyeing us contemptuously. “It’s not just the student. It’s the milieu—Jeremy’s algorithms respond to patterns in the user’s interactions with peers, educators, parents.” Another haughty look our way. “The media they consume. The way their social networks behave. I think it’s important how the worst examples we’ve seen all cluster in particular communities. I think that’s very important—”

We didn’t let him finish. We had to be escorted out of the courtroom. Criminals always blame society.

Jenna Membel

Jenna Membel dreamed of mouths. Big, jawing mouths, with snaky tongues curling, stiffening, and slurping. She’d gone on two dates with Rajeev Sharma to the chain bookstore’s coffee shop and felt safe enough around him for a third, but every night the dreams chewed her.

“I can’t believe it,” Rajeev said, closing the Gazette. “I can’t believe I used to be friends with that creep.”

Jenna flipped the paper over so its ridiculous headline, SECRET SEXTER CONFESSES, faced down.

“I sent those bad pictures of Jenna,” David Marzipan told the Gazette, in an interview yesterday. “I’m really sorry. I can’t believe how bad I am.”

His aunt, Sylvia Marzipan, urged the community to consider David’s young age: “He’s still impulsive. He doesn’t always realize what he’s doing.”

“David didn’t send those pictures of me,” Jenna said. “Obviously not, because I never sent them to him. Eugh!”

Jenna would go to the grave before she told anyone who’d taken those pictures. She’d been humiliated, and this refusal felt like pride. She wasn’t sure why David Marzipan would confess to something he hadn’t done, but she had an inkling. She’d seen that hunted look on Lily Ludlow’s face last fall.

“He’ll be expelled,” Rajeev said. “He’s ruining his life.”

Jenna Membel shrugged. Lots of people lived ruined lives, these days.

“Let’s take him to a movie?” she said.

“Won’t that look weird?”

Jenna grinned, bigger and bigger. “Omigod, it will look so weird!”

We Didn’t Believe Him

Who could believe that sweet little cloying David Marzipan could be behind the sexting scandal that rocked our town? But David insisted, and his aunt wouldn’t contradict him, so we were in a bind. Declaration Middle had to expel him. Our magnet high school wouldn’t touch him; he didn’t even take the entrance exam. Our other high school scrambled to figure out what to do with him. Could David get into any college, at this point? How hard should we try? The Membels offered some shibboleth about forgiveness, so he stayed off the sex offender registry, at least. That was about the best we could do.

He seemed happy, at least. Well, not happy, but—he looked lighter. He didn’t carry his enormous book bag everywhere and used his phone to play games with bright-colored monkeys fixing washing machines. Don’t ask us to understand our sphinxlike children. A few of us overheard him in the park talking to Rajeev Sharma and Jenna Membel: “He deleted himself!” David said, too full of energy to sit still on the picnic table. “Since I’ve got no potential anymore. He was so angry!” He looked like he could run around screaming in a sugar-buzz. In t-shirt and shorts, for the first time he looked like a child.

After the disastrous excitement of that year, the year of Two-Tongued Jeremy, we looked for calmer, more familiar topics of interest. A new family came to town, with two twin little girls and an adorable story the parents told as an introduction. It went like this: The twins shared a pink plush rabbit they hauled everywhere, slept in bed with, petted and coddled like he was their own child. One girl was “Mom,” and the other, “Mama.” “I love you, Rabbit!” they cooed to him every night, with all their heart. Well, one evening, the parents told us, smiling, they all visited a family friend for dinner and they were taken aback when it turned out this friend was serving—you guessed it, rabbit stew. The parents worried about how the twins would take it, but didn’t want to be difficult; anyway, the girls devoured the stew, they whined for seconds. They looked totally untroubled, as if they never even connected the two ideas, rabbit stew and their baby, Rabbit. But that night, as the parents tucked them into bed, the one girl, Mama, crooned as usual, “I love you, Rabbit!” and the other, Mom, added with relish, “And I’m going to eat you!”

Theodore McCombs

Theodore McCombs

Theodore McCombs is a writer in Denver and a 2017 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Guernica, and Shenandoah, and his essays in Lit Hub and Electric Literature, among others. He is a co-editor and regular contributor at the speculative literary blog Fiction Unbound and he tweets as @mrbruff.