Thursday 26 December 2019

Second Place in 2019 Buzz Words Short Story Prize

‘Sticks and Stones’ written and illustrated by Rebecca Timmis

Please, Dad? It’s only ninety-nine cents.”
Dad sighed. “What’s it called again?”
“Pseudo. Seriously. That’s not even a whole dollar.”
“Who names these apps …” Dad complained. “I dunno, Tash. Do you really need another reason to be glued to your phone?”
“Most of my class already has it. I’ll be the only one without it.”
Dad rolled his eyes. “Can’t you just talk to your friends at school?”
“Like in the olden days? Come on, Dad, it’s 2050! Besides, I know you texted all your friends when you were my age.”
            “Oh, all right. What do I do?”
            “You have to approve the purchase with your fingerprint.” I pulled back the hair from my neck and turned. Dad’s warm finger pressed down just behind my ear, onto my communications implant. He and every other dinosaur his age still called them phones, but we called them comms. Apps, calls, messaging, video – it was all accessed via your comms implant. I slipped my viewer – a thin, flexible screen linked to the comms – from my pocket to complete the install.
            “Another messaging app is it?” inquired Dad.
            “Sort of. You join communities and post stuff.”
            “Ah. Like Facebook?”
            “Ugh, no, Dad. Facebook is from the Stone Age. Pseudo is way better.”
As Dad left, I settled down onto the couch. In minutes I’d created an account and ticked all the T’s and C’s garbage (seriously, sixty years since the invention of the internet and still nobody reads those things!).
Next was the good stuff – searching for communities to join. Pseudo used your comms meta-data to restrict you to relevant groups, so you could only join communities you had a legit reason to join: my options were the grade sixers of Hollydale State School, my soccer team, and some family groups.
I only cared about one group: the grade sixers.
“Yes! I’m in.”
The app prompted me for a username. I chewed my lip. It had to be something good – something obscure. That was the point, right? I typed in ‘guess who?’ The next available username was ‘guess_who_42’. I tapped ACCEPT.
Pseudo wasn’t like other social media. No profile image. No real names. Your identity was one hundred percent private.
Once in, I started scrolling.
It was even better than I expected.
Secrets spilled, gossip shared, crushes announced. I even had two admirers!
woah_there_cowboy: Natasha Sweeney is srsly cute.
soccer_fiend: Tash Sweeney is 10/10. She’s sooooooo nice!
I wondered who woah_there_cowboy and soccer_fiend were: maybe it was Olivia or Sienna messing with me. But then, maybe it wasn’t. That was the point of Pseudo – no one knew who you were, so you could be totally honest. No bullying. No judgement.
It was so cool.
Until it wasn’t.

My usual group and I were hanging out under the senior playground. Pseudo had been live for a few weeks.
“Who do you think straight_shooter is?” Olivia wondered aloud.
“Isn’t the point not to know?” I asked.
Olivia rolled her eyes. “Yeah, obviously. But still. I like him. He tells it like it is.”
“How do you know it’s a him?” I challenged.
Olivia’s eyes narrowed. “Is it you?”
“Ha! No way. Only old people troll.”
“straight_shooter doesn’t troll.”
“He is kind of mean,” said Sienna. I gave her a quick thank-you look. Olivia could be so full-on sometimes.
“He’s not mean, he’s honest,” said Olivia. “Like that stuff he posted about Alice Myer’s teeth. They are disgusting. She should get braces.”
“Maybe,” I conceded. “I’m sure she already knows that, though. Maybe her parents can’t afford it.”
            Olivia ignored me, scrolling through her viewer. “Oh, he’s posted again. ‘Jack Hendley, please get some zit cream. You look like a measles victim.’ L-O-L much? He’s so funny!”
            “Trolling is not funny,” I argued.
            “Calm down, Tash. It’s not trolling if it’s true. I think he’s being helpful. If there was something wrong with you, wouldn’t you want to know?”
            I let it drop. Sometimes Olivia was just impossible.

After dinner that night I lazed on the couch, scrolling through Pseudo. I thought about switching off for the night and watching TV with Dad, but it was like my finger was on auto-pilot. I just kept scrolling.
            pepper_steak_yum: Cats have the best noses. When I die I’m coming back as a cat. Or a nose.
            definitely_not_james: OMG can my parents please stop posting pics of me on Facebook already. I would actually like a girlfriend one day. One look at my retro Scooby Doo PJ’s and everyone’s gonna RUN.
            I gave that one a thumbs up. definitely_not_james made a good point.
            straight_shooter: @ Alan Yorker. Dude, you have some serious BO issues. Please get some deodorant before we all die! Under-armageddon is coming. Protect your noses! #under-armaggedon
            I sighed. Not this trolling rubbish again. I got to the bottom of the feed and refreshed.
            Several new posts appeared, all with the ‘under-Armageddon’ hashtag.
            mad_game_skillz: @ Alan Yorker. Big W have a sale on Rexona. Please think of the children. #under-armaggedon
            eye_of_the_tiger: Jump off a bridge, Alan, and take some soap with you. #under-armaggedon
            They kept coming. Some people called out the trolls, but a lot didn’t. #under-Armageddon was just too catchy.
            Poor Alan. He was nice. I don’t think I ever noticed if he smelled bad.
I switched off my comms and went to bed.

We were under the playground again. Olivia had her viewer out, watching a music video.
Everything was fine until Alan Yorker walked past on his way to the oval, a soccer ball wedged under his arm.
“Hey, Yorker!” Olivia suddenly bellowed from behind me. “YOU REEK! Under-Armageddon is coming!”
            Alan turned and looked at us – at me.
His ears turned pink. Then his cheeks, his forehead, till everything above his shirt was bright red. Hanging his head he ambled off towards the oval.
            I rounded on Olivia. “Why did you do that? It was so mean!”
            “He’s gross,” Olivia shrugged. “Someone had to say something.” She went back to her music video. I looked around the group. No one seemed to want to jump in, so I dropped it.
            For now.

That afternoon I practiced left footers for hours. The soccer ball pounded against the back fence again and again.
            Why was Olivia so awful? It’s not like she was perfect.
            Maybe it was time someone gave her a taste of her own medicine.
            I went inside and picked up my viewer. Never post angry, Dad always said. Well, too bad. Olivia had crossed a line.
            Then I put my comms on silent and watched TV with Dad.

I woke up the next morning to Mum standing over me, screaming.
            “What’s wrong?” I cried.
            “Nate, Nate! It’s happened to Tash!” She gaped at me, tears welling in her eyes. “Oh, Tash, what did you do?”
            I got out of bed and stumbled to the mirror.
            “What the …”
            It looked like someone had scribbled all over my face with a blue pen. I looked closer. Not scribbles … words.
            On my forehead: NASTY.
            On my right cheek: SHALLOW.
            On my left cheek: CRUEL.
            I scrubbed at my face with my palms, but the words were under my skin, like veins. A thin blue line connected the three words, trailing behind my ear to my comms implant.
            “It’s all over the news,” Mum wailed. “It’s affected millions of people all over the world. Everyone who’s been using that app – what’s it called – Pseudo.”
            “I can’t go to school like this,” I croaked.
            “Too bad,” said Dad. I hadn’t even noticed him standing in the doorway. “If what they’re saying on TV is true, you’re only imprinted with words you actually said.”
            My hands shook as I picked up my viewer and scrolled through Pseudo, searching for my post about Olivia. NASTY. SHALLOW. CRUEL.
            I stared at the mirror; the same words thrown back at me in reverse.
            “But … that’s not fair.” I started to cry. “I was sticking up for someone!” I quickly told them about Alan Yorker and #under-Armageddon.
            “Throwing more mud doesn’t clean the pigsty, Tash,” said Dad softly.

They really did make me go to school. I stepped onto the street, pulling my hoodie down as low as I could.
            I wasn’t alone.
            Kids, teenagers, adults – people hurried to work, to school. Heads down, eyes averted. But you could still see the words.
            NASTY, SHALLOW, CRUEL.
            When I got to school, half the class was away. Only one student in our class was unmarked, sitting by himself up the back.
            Alan Yorker.
            I went and stood beside him. He looked up, his eyes skimming over my face. Then he gave me a small smile.
            I sat next to him. He smelled like Rexona.

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