by Sean Lewis
When I was thirteen, I got cyberbullied so bad that I went home and googled "how to hang yourself and make people feel guilty?" I went through a bunch of websites while my notifications kept firing off messages from boys and girls in my grade who thought I was such a loser I might as well die. It'd been like this for months. I had fooled around behind the school with a boy who was dating a popular girl in school. We just kissed. He went up my shirt.
It was nothing.
And then the messages started coming every day.
At least 6 people: 3 girls, 2 boys, and 1 non-binary had played me on Facebook (our real accounts, not the ones we shared with our parents), fellating various vegetables behind the school science labs. And we all know how it goes. I'd receive a message.
Rachel Halbstram, you've been tagged in a post.
And I'd look. And I'd look.
And. I'd. Look.
I had to hide my phone, so my mom wouldn't go through and see what people thought of me. I wouldn't make her ashamed. So, here I was. I mean, basically a normal kid. I didn't wear black or listen to my mom's Siouxsie and the Banshee records. I wasn't depressed like you see on tv shows. I had blonde hair and a nice smile. I was really obsessed with Robert Pattinson. I wore bright colors and got straight A's. My favorite band was the soundtrack to Hamilton.
And, still, I was in a closet. Rope from our garage door opener tied to my throat, hanging from the crossbar in my bedroom closet. Thinking, "they'll be sorry."
I blacked out.
And then the crossbar broke. It was March 13, 2016.
Four years later, and I'm still that girl. No one says anything about it to my face. At least, not unless they're really trying to hold something over me. And I've developed tactics. I'm really nice. Super cheery. You see old teen movies, and there's like a really peppy girl who just wants you to sign her yearbook, and she just smiles and waves, even when people are being, you know, cruel?
Which doesn't mean you forget. When you're the girl who did that, it's hard to make friends. Close friends, at least. At this count, I belong to over seventeen clubs and activities at school. I am deeply involved with each. I am even the president of three of them:
Odyssey of the Mind (basically, like science)
And Meditation Club (also a founder. My therapist in 8th grade thought it might help me not strangle myself again.)
I'd even started to flirt again. Demurely. And I set my sights far from the boys and groups that got me in such chaos at thirteen. Maria Palmer is the girl who had made my life hell in 8th grade. Marcus Grimes was her boyfriend then and now. The funny thing is, in some play, for them to keep their lives in a never-ending stasis, they're still a couple. He's Captain of the Football team. She is the fashionista of Summerville High.
I smile at them in the hall. But I focus more on Clayton Mires. Editor of the school newspaper and the yearbook. He wears glasses. He compliments my sweaters. I never wear anything revealing. I've worked too hard to erase the insults of four years ago.
And it's worked. For four years, each day has gotten a little bit better. I stay off harmful websites. I exercise. I throw myself into after-school activities. I distract myself AND meet new people. I show them who I am, that I'm not some sad girl. So, I was bold. I asked Clayton on a date. He said yes. I thought I could finally be me.
We went for milkshakes. We kissed in his car. He dropped me off. And the next morning, my phone blew up. "Do you want to comment?" Pictures of Clayton and Marcus together high fiving and videos from four years ago of people mocking me. And videos of me in Clayton's car. His hands-on me. Everyone assumed we fucked. That I blew him. No one asked me. They just took the videos as proof.
And then, there was a message from Maria.
I hadn't even realized the day on the calendar. March 13, 2020.
Four years to the day of when I strung a rope up in my closet. I was devastated. Suddenly, it felt like four years of trying to build myself up hadn't meant anything. My smile was gone. I couldn't imagine going to school. I couldn't think of facing this all again.
My life was over.
Or, so I thought.
"I want revenge," I said.
Tianyu was my best friend. Literally, she's the only person who follows me on Twitter. She had moved from China in ninth grade, so she didn't know about who I was years earlier. I got a clean slate with her. She found out later, obviously. But she didn't care. We were eating moon pies. It was Saturday.
"How many days were you in the fetal position eating ice cream?"
"Five. Literally, to the moment you came by."
"They're pieces of shit," Tianyu said, showing off the best parts of Western
Right then, I heard screaming from inside my house.
"NO NO NO." It was my mom.
I rushed in, thinking she was in danger-
"MOM, ARE YOU OKAY?"
She was still in her bathrobe, sitting at the computer bank she had set up for her freelance work. She had a few different screens open. YOUTUBE. Twitter. Facebook. CNN.
"Huh," she asked.
"I heard you shouting 'NO?'"
"Oh, I'm just doom scrolling. Fucking politicians." She hadn't even glanced at me.
She kept scrolling down, "doom, doom, doom…"
I went back outside.
"This is a bad life I'm living," I said.
Tianyu punched me in the shoulder.
"Don't kill yourself yet. You just need some excitement."
Tianyu is a bad influence. Which sometimes I need. When you feel powerless, it's sometimes helpful to have a friend who just ignores power altogether. It's almost like moving from a totalitarian state caused her to see all rules as moronic.
"There's an old woman down the street from me," she says. "Everyone says she
was a witch when she was younger-"
"Like a Salem witch?" I asked.
"More like a naked in the woods, healing stones hippie witch."
"Yeah, she never leaves her house, and she just falls asleep in the front room. My
brother did yard work for her. He's scared to go up there and ask for it. So, I said
I would. Want to come along?"
"Why won't he just go?"
"He's scared of her. Come on. It'll be an adventure."
I definitely didn't want to think about my life right now. So. I said okay.
Tianyu took me to Little Bohemia. It's a small enclave. It was a writer's retreat, then burned down, and then it became a place transients would sleep in for a day or two when they passed through our town.
The old house the woman lives in is actually kind of nice. Painted white and well taken care of. Crystals are hanging out front. In some ways, the dark forest surrounding it makes the house creepier, like something you know doesn't belong. I edged up the dirt road with Tianyu.
"What do you think is going to happen?" Tianyu asked. "You think when you
graduate and go to college, people are going to care about any of this?"
"I just don't think these people are ever going to stop bothering me. It's like
they're addicted to hurting me. I mean, they what, decided I was looking too
happy after four years?"
"Nah," Tianyu said. "Maria's best friend has a crush on Clayton. I bet they heard
you asked him out and then decided to do this bullshit."
"How do you know that?"
"Lindy sits in front of me in Lab. She's like a twelve-year-old. Her notebook
literally says I love Clayton."
"I guess," I responded unsurely and a bit melodramatic.
Tianyu got impatient when I was like this. She said it was my 'spiral.' Her mom was a psychologist, so she had all these terms when one of us was acting insane.
"You're a straight-A student, right?"
"You're in 17 after-school activities."
I nodded. "President of three."
"Everyone, we go to school with is an unevolved ape, correct?"
"A fair percentage,” I said. “Yeah. I know at least four guys with back hair."
"See. You are an evolved woman. You've faced the dark side and thrived! Your
future is great! Actually, you know what, come on."
She grabbed my hand and led me across the street. No knocking. Tianyu just walks right in. Shouting-
We made it through the draped beads at the front door into a darkened room, with just blacklight greeting us. It was cool and felt kind of dangerous. And then a voice said-
"A pair of girls loose. Oh, let the world be warned."
Miss Caine, indeed.
"You believe in talismans?"
She stands above us, laying out tarot cards.
For a nice house, there are weird things in Miss Caine's dining room. White tablecloths but on the wall: are animal heads, horns. It's a strange juxtaposition.
"What's that?" I ask. I'd never heard the word.
"Talismans. Objects of great import. Good and evil. Justice. Most of all.
"I think the only object I believe in is my phone," I say.
"We actually just came here to pick up the money you owe my brother," Tianyu
"No. Girls in packs are looking for adventure."
She flipped a card in front of me.
"10 OF SWORDS: a situation has reached its limits. You've reached rock bottom.
It's time you become a phoenix. Burn the past to ashes."
Tianyu snorted. Caine looked at her and flipped Tianyu's card.
"5 OF CUPS: this is a painful card, without a doubt. Someone must be left behind.
You see their flaws."
Tianyu was having none of it-
"Look, I don't do the mystical shit. You owe 35 bucks."
Miss Caine smiled.
"Here," she slid a wallet to Tianyu. "Take it out yourself."
And then she focused on me-
"Your hand," she said.
I looked at Tianyu, who was clearly taking more than 35 dollars and nodded at me to keep the distraction going.
"Sure," I said, giving her my wrist.
"You have dark spirits around you. You need to stand up for yourself. Make them
yours," Miss Caine said.
Right then, my phone went off. Another notification. This one had my head photoshopped onto the head of a porn star mid-sex-act. And they wonder why a third of girls on the internet have mental health issues. Miss Caine looked at the phone and said-
"That's your talisman?"
It hit me what she was saying like she was seeing what was going on.
"You need so much more. You want to change things even if you can't control
"Yes," I said.
She smiled. Tianyu was done. She threw the wallet down and started to drag me out-
"We gotta go-" she said as I lagged behind.
"Mm hm," Miss Caine murmured.
We went outside. My notifications were going off. It was a fake account. A number of them. All harassing me.
"She is so creepy," Tianyu said. "But I did grab a 50."
"She was right, though."
I dropped my phone on the ground and stomped on it. Broke the screen. Trashed it until it was unfixable.
"I need to stand up for myself."
"What are you doing?"
"Breaking my talisman," I said.
The next morning, I felt good when I woke up. Usually, I look at my phone immediately. I reached for it.
I went downstairs and saw my mom at the computer screens. Just scrolling like she does.
"Get any sleep?" I asked.
"That's when they get you," she said, sipping tea.
I took a shower. Got dressed. Sang a song to myself while I got cereal. Threw on my shoes and headed outside to go to school. And there is a box on my Welcome Mat-
In a box. Brand new. A shiny jet black. No markings or labels on it. Just a bow. And a note.
I looked around. We live off the road. It's hard to just drop something off and take off, whether by foot or in a car—still… no sign of anyone.
"Probably Tianyu," I thought. And dialed.
"Did you send me a phone?"
"Like as a present?"
"No. Why you want a phone? I mean, you broke yours last night. Was that you
asking for a phone 'cause it's totally weird. There's no way I would have known
I looked at the phone in my hand. It was strange. It had all the apps I used. My phone numbers. It was like someone did a direct transfer from the iPhone. I broke the night before.
"Okay, weirdo. See you later?"
"Yeah. I guess call me at-"
I looked at the account information. It was the same phone number I'd always had.
"My old number."
"Okay. I will do that. And I'll do it from my 'old' number, too." Tianyu laughed.
That day I had an assignment due at school. In Mr. Larson's Social Studies class, I was presenting a project on social media. A subject close to my heart lately.
"Really, we're being controlled by these outside forces. Like dark interlopers who
come into our lives and dictate who we are and how the world sees us. People
feel these forces and make their lives look better than they are. Others search for
the most horrible things on a moment-to-moment basis to make their lives feel
After class, I saw Clayton. He grabbed me.
"Hey, can I talk to you?" He asked.
'No.' I thought. 'You're an evil douche. You should not have a mouth.'
"I wanted to say sorry."
I won't lie. I was surprised.
"I know I was an asshole. I've felt guilty. And I didn't want to do it. When Marcus
talked to me about it-"
"Why did you?" I was so surprised I asked that. I almost felt like the voice came
from somewhere else. I never would stand up for myself this way before.
"I don't know. When Marcus first mentioned it, he said it would be funny. And I
Over his shoulder, I saw Maria, Marcus and their friends watching us. They were pointing and laughing. Maria seemed to be focusing on my new phone.
"Just," Clayton continued, "when you weren't here for a few days, I got worried."
"I wouldn't kill myself over you, moron. You edit the yearbook. No one wants to
go to the afterlife with that on their resume."
Damn, that felt good. What was coming over me? I walked away. Looking at my phone. It was a crazy thought in my head, but what if-
"Wait," Tianyu said as we met up in the girls' bathroom. "You think Maria gave
you a spy phone?"
"Maybe? It came out of nowhere with all my info. And Clayton was apologizing to
me. It's strange-"
"Maybe he's just not full douche. Maybe he's like quarter douche. Or two-thirds. I
mean, I don't even know gay guys who aren't at least partially douche. Maybe his
decency meter went up."
"I can't believe your parents moved you from China for a better life, and this is
the stuff you picked up."
"In China, I could only call men hubby. Or sir. This is better. Trust me. Besides,
what do you think Maria is gonna do with a phone?"
Maybe I was paranoid.
"I thought maybe they could be tracking me. Following me. What if the camera
on the phone was on all the time like they constantly warn people about on cable
"You gotta stop watching stuff with your mom."
There was something about fear that I understood. My mom was always looking through bad news because I think it made her feel prepared, AND it made her feel safe, weirdly. Her life wasn't destroyed by legislation or a tsunami or killer honey bees, YET. So, she still could keep herself safe. She had a chance. She could survive.
I went to study hall.
Mr. Mitchell was asleep. AND… Rodney Holcomb was trying to get my attention and flirt with me in overtly sexual ways. I had a moment during this where I felt like maybe it'd be better to be dead, but you know fuck that. Mom and Tianyu are right. Some people have it worse than me.
I went through my phone and started scrolling.
And then I saw that the bridge that connected our town to Northport had collapsed. This is the way most kids in our schools' parents would commute. I looked around. No one was freaking out. I mean, this would be the type of thing that they'd make a loudspeaker announcement about.
I texted Tianyu.
"Is your mom okay?"
"What are you talking about," she wrote back.
"The Northport Bridge collapsed." I wrote.
The bell rang, and we all flooded into the hall. I was searching to no avail. Everyone was so calm. I texted my mom about it.
I got to Tianyu's locker. She was on the phone. It looked like she had been crying.
She looked at me- heartbroken. I went up to her-
"I'm so sorry, is everything okay? Who are you talking to?"
And smack. Her hand crashed across my head, bells off on my head and sending me to my ass. Everyone split around us.
"Lovers quarrel," someone shouted. Tianyu stood over me-
"Why would you do that? Make me think my mom was hurt??? After the type of
friend, I've been to you? I JUST TALKED TO HER BECAUSE YOU SCARED THE SHIT
OUT OF ME. FUCK YOU."
She stormed off. My mom texted back as I sat there dazed.
"Bridge is fine. That thing is never going anywhere. You okay?"
‘Bridge is fine.’ I went to class and hoped that Tianyu would speak to me. Maybe this was the prank Maria planned to play on me.
Good one, Maria. Good one.
The next day the Northport Bridge collapsed during the morning commute.
35 people died.
Tianyu stops me outside the building.
"What the fuck is going on?"
"I don't know," I say
"You knew this would happen, though?" She asks.
"My phone did," I said.
I was surprised she wasn't still mad.
"My mom took the long way to work today," she says. "She was freaked out when
I told her what you'd texted me yesterday."
Not everyone was as lucky.
You could hear a sobbing and a guttural sound down the hall. Clayton's mom worked at the First Bank on Elm and North Street right past the bridge. According to people there, the bridge collapsed underneath her car before anyone else.
"Mom," he cried. "Mom!"
There were a few people who had seen Tianyu and me the previous day. They knew what we had fought about and what my phone had said.
Suddenly, it felt like everyone was talking about me in whispers.
Between homeroom and lunch, Maria wrote "WITCH" on my locker.
In the hall, people were making a wide breath from me.
I was a Pariah again.
It was too much.
I went home. What the fuck was going on? Had I done this bad thing? I didn't want anyone hurt. I tried to text Clayton, he told me to FUCK OFF AND NEVER WRITE AGAIN WITCH.
I opened my phone again. And scrolled, like my mom, the next room over. What horrible thing had happened? I needed something worse than my own life. Something to make me feel better. And then I saw that the mall the next town over had an active shooter.
I followed the threads. People were posting the video. There were definitely people killed. 22 they were reporting. I went into my mom's room and asked-
"Did you see what's happening at the Valley Mall? Oh my God."
Mom started to bounce around to different channels on her computer. She even had a link to google view some stores from across the street. She searched and searched and-
No shooting. I even searched twitter on her computer. Same thing, no report. What the fuck?
"Are you sure you feel all right, honey?" She asked.
"No. I don't," I said.
I went to my room and reread it. All the information, everything the person did. I had a blueprint of all the action.
I wanted to try something. I went to the shooting thread and wrote-
"I can't believe I lived through that."
It started getting likes. Maybe I'm losing my mind. But I had to find out.
I signed off and went to sleep.
The next day was Saturday. My mom let me borrow the car, and I was heading to the Valley Mall. Tianyu was calling me. I piped her through the car.
"Where are you going?" She asked.
"The mall. "
She was quiet. She wanted to talk about something.
"Just… I was talking to my mom about your phone and the stuff… you know, the
stuff I guess you knew."
I was checking the time. The messages about the shooting started exploding on my phone at 1:15 pm yesterday. It was 12:30.
"I just… wanted to say thanks."
"Sure," I said and hopped out of the car heading into the mall.
"Oh, and your post last night?" She asked.
"Yeah," I responded.
"What did you live through?"
It was 1pm. I knew from the videos that everything should happen in 15 minutes on the upper level. But it looked mundane. I took an escalator up and started to move past an American Eagle when boom-
I felt my legs go out from underneath me, and a liquid pour on my head.
"Following us, Witch?"
It was Maria. She'd kicked my feet out from underneath me. Her strawberry protein shake now in my hair.
"What do you want, Witch?" She asked again.
Three other girls were with her. Courtney, Alice, and Michelle.
"Go on, tell me the future."
It was 1:14.
"You should leave," I said.
Right then, gunfire went off. A man in tactical armor was coming toward us from the Zales Jewelers. I was scared. It was all too real, but I knew where he'd go-
"Go downstairs," I said-
But Maria grabbed me and pushed me hard in the shooter's direction. His gun pointed at me. I braced to get shot.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
I looked down and nothing. I wasn't shot. I was point-blank, and I was nothing. He walked right past me without ever stopping his blitzkrieg. People were screaming.
Running. But he walked on. My post last night-
"I can't believe I lived through that."
Was I invulnerable? I wondered, what if I could manipulate it too? If my post from last night stopped this man from shooting me, maybe another post could make him do more. I could see Maria, who tried to sacrifice me, running on.
I opened my phone and posted-
"Can't believe my classmate Maria was the first one killed."
And right then Maria got shot in the head.
"And right then he left. Who knows why?"
And like what I wrote was manifest, the shooter ran out of the building as cop cars approached.
It was 1:20pm. I was covered in pink milkshake and blood. I'd saved 22 people.
And it only cost me 1 monster.
The next day at school, I was a celebrity.
Video from inside the stores showed me step in front of Maria like I was sacrificing myself. Local News thought I was brave, and like teenagers always do when someone comes close to death, I got anointed as special.
Marcus came up to me and apologized. Cried on my shoulder about Maria. Clayton approached me and nodded respectfully.
This, I won't lie, is the life I always wanted. To be seen, not as a pariah but as important. I bounded to class. And then Tianyu stopped me.
Her arm was against a locker, blocking me from class.
"You did this, didn't you?"
"No. This started at Miss Caine’s. You knew about the bridge. You just decided to
go to the mall… “
She started to walk away from me.
"I know," she repeated.
We were at odds now, and I had done something I could not come back from. Or maybe-
My phone let me know a new video message had been delivered. An unknown caller. It was the image of a bird on fire. With a small line of text-
"It's time you become a phoenix. Burn the past to ashes."
It was from my reading. Miss Caine. She knew about vengeance. Me and Tianyu would both go back to that house. And more people will die. And I’ll be at the center of it all.
So, don't stand in my way Tianyu. I've earned this.
And nothing in the future is going to stop me.
SEAN LEWIS is an actor, writer and director born and raised in NY. He is the co-creator and writer of the comic books SAINTS, THE FEW, COYOTES and THUMBS published by Image Comics. He can be heard as a commentator on NPR’S THIS AMERICAN LIFE and most recently he directed the television series ADULT ED., which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival and currently streams on Fearless.