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Act III: DEAD
The air conditioner hummed in the bedroom window. Patrick stared up at the ceiling. In the kitchen, his parents traded hysterical whispers. What should we do? Who should we call? Anxiety washed through the house, its waves lapping up against the closed door at the top of the stairs.
Upon stumbling back home early that morning, Patrick had found his mother sitting listlessly in the kitchen. Her eyes were red and bleary and she was smoking a cigarette. His appearance wracked her body with loud sobs that could be heard through the house.
Mr. Lauer had been working in the backyard when he first heard his wife's outburst and came running. The past couple of weeks had been rough. By day, their house was a circus of strangers—constant questions from new detectives, press conferences with the local news encouraging the community to call in tips about their missing sons whereabouts and so on.
When night fell, they were left alone with the mounting dread of probability. Two weeks is a long time for someone to be missing, but it's an even longer time for someone missing to turn up alive. Hustling towards the sounds of Mrs. Lauer's distress, he had reason to expect the worst.
That Patrick was home, that was the good news. Great news. The Lauer family, whole again. The father clutched his son tightly for the first time in a decade. The mother wept happily. The son, instead of recoiling from these uncharacteristically genuine hysterics, stood listlessly at the center of them. @lauer_pauer, the prodigal son, was home. Physically, at least.
Eventually, once Mrs. Lauer had stopped crying and her husband had taken up the phone to give word that the search was over, she worked up the courage to ask Patrick, in the most conciliatory tones possible, if he was okay. Had he been kidnapped? Molested? Raped? The suspense swelled in the sunny kitchen and her mind raced in anticipation of the grim tale she was about to hear. But none came. Patrick said nothing.
She asked again, and then again, her voice gradually mounting until she was screaming at the teen. Are you OK?! ARE YOU OK?! The notes of panic pierced the air between them like firecrackers and fizzled as quickly. Mr. Lauer, watching from the other room, relayed the scene to the police on the line.
"This happens sometimes," ventured the detective uncertainly. He had the receiver of his desk phone pinned between his shoulder and his ear as he scrolled aimlessly through Instagram on his cellphone. "Shock does weird shit to kids." Ever since he started this case, he'd become hooked on the @lauer_pauer account and he went to it now. His thumb stopped its rhythmic flick at a picture of a pug dressed like a pirate with a caption that read "ARRRRRRR you fucking kidding me?" The detective grinned silently and double-tapped the screen. Whatever happened, he had to admit, the stuff the teen posted was funny. "Give him a little more time."
For now, the kid who talked to the Internet had fallen silent.
Getting a new phone was easy. He ordered it online, blankly accepting a shipping surcharge in exchange for overnight delivery. Mrs. Lauer watched, baffled, as Patrick padded mutely down the stairs to retrieve a package from the doorstep, then directly back up to his room. Another cigarette burned low between her fingers.
Upstairs, Patrick shut his bedroom door tightly, then opened the top drawer of his desk. The shattered screens jeered back at him, carving his reflection into shards. He placed his most recent device on top of the stack and closed the drawer without looking at the totem. BUSH DID 9/11, it laughed as the desk shut.
The new iPhone was light in his hand as he swiped through his photo folders. When he found what he was looking for, an untitled album nested several layers beneath the surface of his camera roll, his fingers lingered over it for a moment, unsure. Patrick grit his teeth and opened the folder, expecting...what? That Les had plundered his treasure trove of microcontent? That they had all turned to dust? That this whole thing, the Bitcoin, the celebrity, the meme life, was just a mirage that would go up in smoke now that the void had been touched?
But there they were. All the Meme-Whisperer's treasured JPEGs, exactly as he'd left them. Not a pixel out of place. Puppies acting like white girls, TFWs, struggles only '90s kids remember. Patrick scrolled faster, relief rising with each flick of his thumb. The folder was as bottomless as ever, a well of untold depths brimming with potential.
His solace was soaring, but brief. @lauer_pauer hadn't posted anything in weeks. He had to start talking to the Internet again, and fast.
He rummaged through the folder for something to post, settling on a picture of Kevin McCallister's mom with a surfer Photoshopped into the curl of her hair as though it was a wave. Perfect. With some care, Patrick typed a caption. "Wavvvvvvvy, mon, wavvvvvvy." He paused, then tacked on a few wave emojis for good measure.
Mrs. McCallister got off to a strong start, clocking 11 likes in just a few seconds, and a hundred soon after that. Patrick, feeling each minute more like himself, set about examining his old phones. He turned one over in his hands, hunting for a sign of tampering, a clue, something. How had Les put cracks in the phones?
He fretted over it for another few minutes, then turned his attention back to Instagram. The orange notification bar at the bottom of the screen announced the performance of the photo and for the first time he could remember, Patrick wondered about how a post was doing. When the alert registered, he frowned. 5,000 comments, but only 100 likes? That never happened. He went back to Mrs. McCallister and scrolled down. His heart plunged.
PLAGIARIST, the commenters screamed in block caps. HACK! He gulped. You're a no-talent piece of shit. Way to rip off people who are actually funny, asshole. The farther down he scrolled, the more bitter the vitriol became. Fuck this account. Unfollowed!!! A commenter had doxxed him, posting his home address right there in public for anyone to see. Another posted a gun emoji, seemingly in response. SMDH ALREADY SEEN LIKE 10 TIMES!!!! LAME AF!!!
Unnerved, Patrick closed the app and put down his phone. His palms were sweating again. His followers never said stuff like that. They just tagged their friends and exclaimed how "us" or "same" a particular meme was. Anger in the realm was something new and unfamiliar for the King of Content.
"You should see what they're saying about you on Twitter."
Patrick turned around to find Les staring at him. The old man stood straight as a rod, eyes glittering. He wore a dark suit and a curt, thin-lipped smile. "Seems as though another account posted Mrs. McCallister a few months ago. Shame."
Les took a step towards Patrick. "I didn’t know that," the teen said quietly. "I just found it online, like always."
"We sent it to you, like always," Les corrected him gently. "But we sent it to someone else first.” Still staring, he gestured to Patrick's phone. The kid glanced at the screen, which was now full of frenzied headlines. "@LAUER_PAUER: CONTENT THIEF" screamed one. "The Meme-Whisperer Disgraced!" proclaimed another. A third invited readers to "Meet the worst person on the Internet" and ran alongside a split image of the McCallister meme and Patrick's face.
"I warned you that this would happen," said Les. "It would have been wiser to fade away. Less painful." He sighed. "The memes are ours, Patrick. You got the Internet hooked on them for us. Now it's time for to step aside. We have a new account that we're backing. New blood, younger audience. Take a look." Les gestured to Patrick's phone.
An Instagram feed had appeared on the screen. It looked like his, exactly like his, right down to the "business inquiries" email listed in the bio. "@toiletpizza: laugh so hard, you'll shit yourself," read the note next to it. Patrick grimaced. He'd never even heard of this account before and it already had 500 million followers.
"It's amazing, isn't it? They don't care that @toiletpizza didn't make the meme. They don't care that you wrote a caption, and he didn't. They don't care!" Les' voice practically bounded with delight. "They just want to consume it. More of it, always more, and every double tap without the toxic guilt of supporting the known thief @lauer_pauer."
"But everyone reposts stuff," Patrick protested. "He stole it from someone too!"
"But he reposted it first," Les shrugged. "We've been keeping our new investment well-stocked and out of trouble, for now. But let's talk about you. You have a choice. We still need memes and you know how to make them. We're willing to let you continue posting under two conditions." Patrick looked up tentatively. Les raised his hand to shoulder height, a single bony digit extended towards the ceiling.
"One: You have to make your own memes now. Create new ones, not just add captions. We need more grist for the mill."
Patrick stared guardedly, but said nothing. He allowed himself the slightest hope. That's not so bad. With an account of my size, I should probably be doing that anyway. Les raised another finger.
"Two: No more Instagram. You may post your content on Twitter, and Twitter only."
"WHAT?! ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!” Patrick's hope immediately turned to horror. "No one's on Twitter. I don't even have any followers there. This is a death sentence!"
Les shrugged again. "Someone has to make the memes, Patrick. You've enjoyed the throne, now it's your turn in the trenches. We can't have you cluttering the Instagram lane for our other interests."
"NO! THIS IS BULLSHIT! I WON'T DO IT!"
"@lauer_pauer is over on Instagram, Patrick," Les said. His voice was hard again, his eyes flashing. "This is not up for negotiation. Post to the account if you want, but the backlash will only get worse. Do you want more people doxxing you, showing up to your house, terrorizing your family? Trolls are a lot scarier when they're knocking at your door." The threat hung heavy in the air for a moment before Les dismissed it with an affable flick of his wrist.
"If you churn out memes for us on Twitter, everything will be fine. You can do it with your @lauer_pauer handle if you'd like. And if the content is really good, we may even give you a credit. You and you alone have the chance to keep your brand alive. Ignore it…" he pursed his lips as though lost in thought, then locked eyes with Patrick, "And you'll disappear completely."
Les buttoned his suit and fixed his tie. "Either way, this is the last time we will speak," he said. "What you do from here is up to you. As we upheld our bargain with you, we will protect @toiletpizza now. Join us and your personal brand can live on in a different form. Defy us and we'll fucking destroy you."
He walked across the room towards Patrick, who was now standing in a daze. As the old man approached, he shrunk back in fear, but Les passed by the boy and approached the desk. He opened the drawer full of phones and turned back around.
"Goodbye, Patrick." With that, the grey-haired man gently peeled the totem off the wood panel. BUSH DID 9/11 sneered at the cool teen. Les produced a strip of wax paper from inside his jacket and stuck the red sticker to it. Then, grinning wickedly, he tucked it into his breast pocket like a handkerchief and promptly disappeared forever.
Patrick came out swinging. In the days that followed, he never left his room, posting a dizzying stream of fire memes in an attempt to win his audience back. He wrote captions and tagged other accounts. He started giving credit whenever he could track down the almost impossible to locate genesis of a particular meme. It didn't matter. Nothing worked.
His account hemorrhaged its influence with each passing day. The followers left @lauer_pauer in two ways: angrily, with a deliberate "fuck you" left in the comments or aimlessly, stumbling away as though from a bar at last call when the lights have come up and the after-party beckons. The empire, once a vast, constantly-updated hydra of macros and screencaps that damn blotted out the sun, tumbled into a state of disrepair. With no one to lead it, his army of a billion followers wandered into the ether.
He even tried to make a go of it on Twitter with the hope that he could rebuild there. The timeline was a fickle beast with its own rules, ones Patrick never quite got the hang of. He was always behind on the news or missing a piece of the joke. When he did nail a meme, it got a few dozen retweets before it was plucked from his feed and parroted by a million accounts across social media. Of course, like clockwork, the meme would eventually turn up on @toiletpizza, where it would be celebrated as another piece of origin-less comedic genius. It was a hollow feeling.
Patrick Lauer had charted the Internet’s heavens for the last time and he knew it. On a cloudy morning in the early fall, wracked with disgrace and bruised by vicious abuse, the Internet's once great meme lord deleted all of his accounts. No one missed them. No one even noticed.
He started speaking again, at first to his parents, who nearly collapsed with relief at the sound of his first words, then to a few of his classmates, then to people on the street. He started to develop relationships and social skills. Mr. Lauer stopped telling people Patrick was "on the spectrum," watching with disbelief and no small amount of pride as his son's behavior crept ever closer to that of a "normal" teenager.
On his way out of the local bank, where he'd astonished the teller with a duffel bag full of cash recently converted from bitcoin for deposit, a newspaper vending machine caught his eye. Through its plexiglass window, the front page of the paper screamed its headline: "MEET @TOILETPIZZA, THE WUNDERKIND OF CONTENT!"
Patrick stared at it sadly for a moment and was about to carry on when a flash of red caught his eye. He stepped closer to the machine. There, on its side, as though it had been there forever, was a sticker.