Three years ago in an industrial South Korean city reminiscent of Detroit, an 18-year-old girl dug gloved hands into a deep box of soft plastic nubs from China.
She secretly resented her coworkers, who were always trying to lose five pounds by eating less sodium, because it meant she had to eat her kimchi ramen for lunch in secret, which she had just done. Under florescent lights, the girl chose an on/off button at random, screwed it into the skeleton of a mobile phone, and sent it down an assembly line. When Mae presses that button, she is not sure what she'll find.
She waits in the classic phone pose: hunched over in bed, propped against a mountain of pillows. The screen glows to life and assaults her senses with seven days worth of notifications. Most messages are from people she knows, which all receive the same response:
The ones from mysterious numbers are more aggressive:
[ ] Leave Ethan alone. – Delete.
[ ] faker – Delete.
[ ] Slut. – Delete.
[ ] attention whore – Delete.
Her heart races with each confirmation. The ability to erase offenses is a superpower up there with invisibility. In her absence, Mae's accounts have taken on lives of their own. So many new followers. So many new comments. Most brief. A few ramblers. Mae reads them all. She scrolls below a tutorial about turning a bra strap into a headband.
For those who say Mae Brady is a victim, I present exhibit A, which proves she has no issue showing private undergarments on the internet. Since showing a bra and appearing without clothes are two ends of the same exhibitionist spectrum, and as evidenced by the sheer number of videos she has posted, Mae Brady is addicted to attention and we can infer that she engineered both viral videos for attention.
(She's not able to delete that one.)
[ ] This girl's experience is proof of the rape culture allowed to propagate in our high schools.
[ ] the most trashy story to come out of illinois in a while
[ ] This is faked, right?
[ ] These kids, for goodness sake. Where are their parents?
[ ] not sure why anyone would want to have sex w/ her, she's way too skinny
Midnight strikes, then one a.m. Hours pass. Opinions seep through her corneas and roll around in her mind like snowballs in a minefield—picking up meaning and random twigs of insecurity until an explosion throws Mae against her pillows in despair.
[ ] This is what happens when America falls into Godlessness. Repent!
[ ] That football player should be castrated. I offer my services.
[ ] Allow me to introduce myself. I work for Wrigley Psychotherapy, a top therapy outfit in...
[ ] simple ho nothing mo
[ ] Sad story. My cousin makes up to $500 an hour working from home! Learn how.
[ ] We've heard from everybody but the victim in this case. Who is Mae Brady, really? Let her speak.
The strangers, Mae realizes, are commenting on someone who no longer exists. Her physical self in sky blue pajamas shares as much in common with the eyeliner expert as the unconscious girl slumped over the edge of a swimming pool. Her entire life, from birth to today, has been documented, tagged and discussed. But that life is over.
She begins with baby photos posted by Courtney: cheerful Mae held on a picnic blanket; crawling on a dirty kitchen floor; swinging on a porch next to beer cans and hot dogs; crying at a chain restaurant under red lights; pulling herself upright with a card table leg; smiling a purple Kool-Aid grin into the camera; blowing out five fat candles on a supermarket cake; backpack on and ready for pre-school. She untags herself from them all.
The process of self-deletion grows easier around age ten or so, which is when she began posting to her own accounts. Prepubescent sexy pose in Mickey Mouse ears. Delete. Eating ice cream with a group of fifth graders in Missouri, arms draped around each other. Delete. Opening Christmas presents in the house on High Street. Delete. Blowing a kiss from her front stoop. Delete. Smiling in Shelby's car, Taylor photobombing from the backseat. Delete. Mae posing between Shelby and Taylor at the lunch table. Delete, Delete, Delete.
A dim light peeks through Mae's window. She angles her axe toward videos, mostly recorded of Mae by Mae. Flipping long blonde hair. Delete. Winking into the camera. Delete. Holding up a tube of liquid eyeliner before smearing it onto one eyelid. Delete. Shelby and Mae singing along to the radio in the yellow convertible. Delete. She erases it all. All that's left is news, none of it created by her, from the incident. As though she never existed before that moment. She stretches in bed, toe bones connected to thigh bones connected to knee bones, a live organism behind the conjecture and rumors and selfies.
The sunrise has become aggressive, rays tossed onto every surface, light forcing itself into her eyes. Mae pulls her comforter over her face and it is here, beneath a familiar floral print, where Mae discovers the recording. It reveals itself via a polite notification more subtle than the rest: Would you like to edit your recent recording?
How odd. She couldn't have recorded anything with a confiscated phone, unless unintentionally just now, which seems unlikely. She taps to delete, then, just in case, decides to press play. Are you sure it's this door? Courtney is muffled but audible. Angela's voice rings out much more clearly. Did you have trouble finding the house? A sound like grating sandpaper. Oh no, no trouble at all.
Mae throws the blanket off. She sits up straight, bathed in sunlight, phone held high in disbelief. It can't be true, it's too good to be true.. My name is Wilson...It's a pleasure...Shall we begin? She squints into the phone, follows along with her finger. The Harringtons are technically able to sue you for defamation, purrs a smooth male voice. Mae's jaw drops lower. Sun rushes in. She is ablaze, no longer tired, leaping out of bed now. What do you say? Shall we put all this behind us, forget any of it ever happened? It's true. It's all here. Save.