Every Monday morning Lucy Stein orders a bacon and cheese sandwich from the corner deli, and every Monday morning she tells herself that next week she'll start eating healthier, and exercising, and maybe get into fresh-pressed juices.
The sandwich caps off a morning routine that's been going strong since she left grad school two years ago: wake up at six; water the two live plants and inspect the struggling one; feed the cat who's been stepping on her face since five thirty; shower and apply makeup haphazardly while said cat observes suspiciously; water the struggling plant just in case; leave her studio apartment by seven; catch the el; scan her phone for headlines on her way downtown; grab breakfast; then settle into her desk at the far rear side of the Sunny Chicago newsroom before eight.
The internet—or as people call it here, social media—is outwardly trumpeted at this old-school daily but secretly viewed with skepticism, and Lucy isn't even technically a reporter but a coordinator. Her job is to share news stories on social platforms and listen to everyday people discuss them (ironically called “social listening,” despite it being the least social type of listening). The first person to ever hold her position, she sits glued in front of two large monitors in the corner, watching words trickle from the top of the screens on down until the rows are replaced by entirely new content. The masses never stop talking.
Sipping deli coffee, Lucy watches conversations about the important news stories of the day and Chicago at large. Most of the newsroom claims to not understand her job, but lately Lucy's been growing suspicious that their collective reverence (“Lucy, you always find the most perfect audience quotes.” “Lucy, tell me what parents are saying about back to school.”) has developed a condescending sheen, perhaps in an attempt to keep up her morale after two years as a coordinator.
“How do you drink that stuff? Doesn't it taste like sludge?”
Lucy warily acknowledges Frank because this is an office and she has no choice, but she tries to make her smile look as pained as possible. “You try maintaining a five dollar coffee habit on my salary.”
“You should go in there right now and ask for a raise to buy better coffee. Tell them Frank from production sent you.”
“I'm sure they'll be impressed.” Lucy turns back at her screen.
Her nemesis continues to hover, not saying anything but just shifting from foot to foot while sipping his single origin coffee, until he finally clears his throat. “Uh, you look busy.”
“Yeah, I've gotta send this report, sorry.” Report is a generous term. Lucy sends a carefully formatted email every hour with a list of noteworthy posts or general sentiment about a certain topic. She's been sending these since her intern days—not that she's complaining. If her fellow journalism school graduates are any indication, she's lucky to be employed at all. She types:
• Driver takes photo of multi car pile up on I-90.
• Top mayor's aid denies mistress allegations.
Normally Lucy pays little attention to the suburbs of Chicago. She does, however, follow the Chicago Police Department, and so includes a list of crime news in those hourly emails. Today, while scanning this column, she notices Taylor's plea.
The original post from the Pearville Police Department—Missing juvenile: w/f/16. Blond hair, hazel eyes. Last seen in Pearville wearing a white dress. Please contact the station with info.—would have languished undetected had it not been for a response full of all-important tags: her name is Mae! #crime #police #chicago plz watch the video, with a link to the infamous video, which Lucy has enough sense to watch on her phone and not on the giant monitors facing the rest of the newsroom. All is added to her first email. “And... send!” It's one minute past eight thirty.
Completing the first report of the morning usually warrants a few minutes of self-congratulatory internet surfing but Lucy walks it off instead, going to fill a bottle at the water cooler. The troubling clip appears authentic, though of course she knows there's always the possibility it's been staged or is even an art project. At twenty-seven, Lucy considers herself an adult and—like most adults—has convinced herself of an artificial boundary between the actions of adults and children. This video is, she's almost certain, the work of kids. After another meditative walk around the office, alternately telling herself that she may have stumbled upon something big and that it's probably nothing, she walks up enough courage to speak to someone in person.
With the exception of his penchant for slipping his alma mater into every conversation, Charles, the paper's managing editor, reminds Lucy of an old school plumber: protruding stomach, always in faded jeans and the same worn belt. Someone who assumes the worst, as he does now. “Ethically, it's sound. In fact, one of the staffers at Spec reported on a similar situation with a compromising photo of a professor.”
“Oh, I'm not advocating that we publish the video.”
“You're advocating that we report on it?”
“Basically. Pretty much. Yes.”
“Do you actually have the video in your possession?”
She knows he won't understand her answer. “The video's online. I ripped a hard copy just in case, though, so yes.”
“You ripped what?”
“I downloaded the video. It's public and it's also here.” She holds up a cat-shaped jump drive. This is painful.
“Is there a way to verify its authenticity?”
Lucy can likely track the creator through existing networks; once in college she found the author of an offensive op-ed on pseudonym alone without leaving her dorm, but something tells her this might be bigger. “I can go to Pearville and investigate its authenticity. I mean, if you think that's a good idea.”
“Do we have anyone to man the feeds?”
She knows how her boss must see her: as the dependable girl with her tedious screens, someone competent enough to send hourly email reports but not a rising star or even a proper journalist. She suggests Stan. Stan the intern knows how to read the social sites; he took over for her that time she had to go to the doctor in the middle of the day, remember? Stan will free Lucy to go to Pearville. Whether or not she finds anything interesting, she'll deliver an article this afternoon.
Charles glances at the clock. “Just a blog article is fine.” (Lucy doesn't tell him there is no difference between a blog article and a regular article.) “I'll call Karen.” Karen, who edits the website, doesn't understand why Charles calls her on her cell phone when she works ten feet from his office.
Once her plan is approved, Lucy is amazed by how quickly it falls into place. She slides behind the wheel of a company car. Introduced by a shared exit off Interstate 57, and preceded by abandoned strip malls and parking lots, at first Pearville looks exactly like the crumbling suburb she imagined from the desperate plea of #crime #police. The town's welcome sign greets her with two painted pears—defaced with thick strokes into breasts and an ass crack. “So that's the kind of place we're working with,” she says out loud.
Finally Main Street comes into focus. Colorful and well-preserved, a compact downtown is anchored by a sleepy train station. The police station and post office and library, in a tidy row of civility, occupy adjacent brick buildings at the corner of Main and Virden Streets. Lucy pulls into the parking lot of the police station but can only sit. An officer meanders outside to smoke. This is where the GPS led her. It speaks to her now, in its clipped robot voice. “You have reached your destination.”
“Yeah yeah I heard you.” Lucy punches in 317 Weed Street. “How about you take me there instead, can you do that, robot?”
“At Virden Street, make a right.”
Lucy rings a grimy doorbell. Wielding a glass of white wine, a squat woman in a sweatshirt cocks her ruddy, plump face at Lucy in confusion. “Yes?” Jasper's mother.
“Hi. Uh. My name's Lucy Stein.” She has no speech prepared. “I work for Sunny Chicago.” Extending an uneasily accepted hand: “I have a question and my question is, does Jasper O'Toole live here?”
“Is this about the missing girl?”
Lucy works to keep her voice steady. “I just want to ask you a few questions.”
“Well, to be honest, I'm a bit tipsy.”
“That's okay.” Ethical questions around gleaning information from drunk mothers were never discussed in journalism school. “Is it okay if I come in?”
“I told you, I'm tipsy.”
Inside, Lucy accepts a glass of white wine with ice and settles into a floral couch, an experience that distinctly feels like being swallowed by a bedspread. She's claustrophobic among lace and flowers. Peeking through the milieu are framed photos of two freckled boys in various life stages. “Is that Jasper?”
“Sure is,” says Janet. “Jasper and his younger brother. In case you're wondering about the age difference, Harry's a miracle child.” Harry's ten. Jasper's eighteen. Both boys play football and baseball and sometimes make the honor roll. They are at school and her husband is at work and Lucy's not to tell anybody that Janet is having wine with breakfast. “You got any more questions?”
Lucy waits until Janet mentions a visit from the police yesterday to broach the topic of the video, finishing with “What you're about to see is pretty concerning, but you should know that your son posted this on the internet.”
“Jasper posted it?”
Janet accepts the phone hesitantly.“Are you sure?”
“It was posted from his account. Unless someone else gained access to that, which is unlikely. Now, I need to ask you, do you recognize the kids in this video?”
Janet may be tipsy, but she's been to enough school functions to recognize everybody in the video (first and last names). She also confides something about Ethan being a bad influence, a judgement with which Lucy objectively agrees.
By the time Lucy circles back to the police station, it's half past ten. She sits across from Officer Salem, who insists she call him by the juvenile name of Office Mike, in his office. Scuffed walls feature motivational posters: climbing kittens and soaring landscapes extolling the virtues of living beyond your comfort zone. He seems confused by her presence. “You sure you work for Sunny Chicago? In Chicago? I usually speak with Daniel. Do you work for Daniel?”
“No, I'm in the digital department. Daniel's on the crime beat.”
“Right.” Mike looks her up and down. (She fears he sees a little girl in giant glasses. Perhaps she should strive to look more androgynous: cut her hair, stop wearing lipstick.) “So you write about the internet, right? We've got a modern office here. We understand the internet.”
From the next room, Jennifer struggles with the fax machine.
“I'm here to talk about the missing teen from your town.”
“I'll tell you the truth,” says Office Mike. “I think she's a runaway. Her friend's dad showed me that, uh, a certain tape. Not sure if you—”
“I've seen it.”
“So you know what I'm talking about. That's why I think she's run off.”
“And the boy who assaulted her?” Lucy asks. “He's been arrested or questioned or something?”
Lucy's article takes shape in her mind as the officer invents a creative way to circumvent this thorny issue. It's a phenomenal process to observe: the way most of his face contorts while his eyes remain fixed on her. “That depends on whether the victim chooses to press charges.”
“What if she's dead?” An honest question. “What happens then?”
Mike squirms. “That would certainly change things.”
Finally, armed with her phone and laptop, Lucy hunkers down in the only coffee shop downtown—a pedestrian place trying a bit too hard to seem sophisticated—to draft the article. It's a few minutes after noon. The words don't come easily, as she hasn't written a proper piece since grad school; scanning the opinions of strangers doesn't quite compare. She types with the furiousness of a young test taker. After fifteen minutes of caffeine-fueled determination, Lucy takes off her glasses and rubs her nose, and is struck by a sense of being watched. Glasses back on. Dark eyes flit about the cafe. It seems absurd, but Lucy swears a kid at the bar keeps staring at her, the one in a short skirt with artificially straightened hair. Yes, the girl is definitely staring: looking away, and then back up, as if trying to catch Lucy's eye across a crowded room. The kid looks to be in high school. Such an odd town. Lucy turns back to her work.
With a brusque tap of her index finger, Lucy presses send. She exhales a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. Her phone hums lightly on the table.
“Karen.” From across the cafe, the redheaded girl looks even more intrigued.
“This article you just sent me, it just needs a few edits and then I'm publishing. I just need to confirm that you can prove all these facts.”
“Yep. I recorded everything on my phone.”
“Excellent.” The web editor mumbles something. “Sorry 'bout that. And the video itself?”
“The video's still online, last time I checked. Also, on my office computer.”
The girl at the bar slides off her stool, either preparing to leave or gathering the courage to come over. Lucy hopes for the former.
“It should be up in twenty. I have a good feeling about this.” Pause. “Are you on your way back? Charles keeps hovering over Stan, trying to get him to explain how social media works.”
“I am.” Lucy's insides prickle. An article she wrote is going to be published. Lucy sees her future unfold before her, and for the first time it doesn't include hourly reports. “Shortly.”
Still floating on her first career high, Lucy greets Taylor with a tight smile and, to Lucy's horror, the younger girl comes over and takes a seat.
“I just want to tell you that I love your hair,” Taylor begins. “And I don't even like curly hair. I spend an hour every morning straightening mine. It's a three-step process.”
“You came over to talk about hair?”
“Sorry. No.” Taylor's eyes rest on Lucy's computer. “I mean, you're a reporter, right? Are you a reporter?”
“I'm a journalist, yes.” As of five minutes ago, astonishingly, this is the truth—not just something she tells guys at bars to seem more interesting. For the first time in her life, Lucy doesn't feel like a fraud calling herself what she has always wanted to be. “And I have to get back to the office soon, so...”
Peering into the coffee shop from the street, an outsider might mistake the two young women for old friends or even sisters, but Taylor has a clear agenda. In a rush, she explains that she's worried about her missing friend, is relieved to hear that attention is being paid to her plight, and also that Taylor is skipping school not because she's a poor student but because the thought of going to class makes her physically ill, so if Lucy can maybe not tell anybody, that would be great. Not to mention that Taylor has no idea who to talk to about all this, as the police have already stopped by and grilled both her and her confused parents, after which nothing happened. And, lastly, she wants to add that she loves Lucy's glasses, hair and dress.
“Do lots of people wear their hair curly in Chicago?”
Lucy knows the effort this girl must put into her appearance. She recognizes telltale curls at the roots. “People wear their hair all sorts of ways. How old are you, fifteen, sixteen?” She checks her phone. Almost one. She needs to get back. “I actually used to straighten my hair at your age, too, before I realized I was only doing it because everybody else was doing it, and in the end, who gives a fuck?”
“God, you're so right.” Taylor's eyes expand, as if to soak up even more advice. (Maybe Lucy should volunteer for one of those mentoring programs. So much source material.) “You're so wise.”
“You're too kind.”
“Can I be completely honest?” Taylor leans forward and lowers her voice. “I think there might be something... wrong with this town. Like, pretty much everybody at school was at that party, you know? And nobody did anything. They just took pics and videos with their phones. And yeah, everybody's talking about it or whatever, but it's like they're obsessing over it because it's something to obsess over, and not because anybody actually cares.”
“What about Mae's parents?” Lucy surreptitiously clasps one hand around her phone and presses record. “Where are they?”
“She lives with her mom, but she's not there most of the time.”
“Yes, on the shittiest street. Like, she's really poor but you can't tell anybody that either.”
“Which street is that?”
“High Street. Maybe because everybody is high all the time there.”
Lucy's phone buzzes. “Sorry, it's my editor.” Taylor looks appropriately impressed.
Karen's text, predictably, contains perfect grammar: Are you looking at these numbers? Also, I heard Channel 6 is sending a truck to Pearville now. Lucy refreshes Sunny Chicago, and there is her article—shorter, with a different headline, opening, and structure—but her article nevertheless. A few hundred people have recommended it. Refresh. Recommendations rise. The back of Lucy's head tingles. Refresh.
“Do you have to go?” Taylor asks.
“Soon.” In order to sound mature and reassuring, Lucy spontaneously drops her voice a few octaves, a vocal technique she will continue to perfect throughout her career. “Do you know what 'viral' means?”
Taylor rolls her eyes. “Bitch, please.”