Lily was lonely.
It was not that she deliberately tried to alienate her friends, or that she was any more unpleasant than any other teenager, it was just that she felt disconnected, disconnected from everybody. This was not unusual for a girl of her age, (Lily was fifteen) to be alienated at her age was almost an essential rite of passage, but Lily did make an art of her loneliness. She was a perfectionist and her loneliness must also be perfect.
She first became aware of her disconnection when she attended secondary school, usually this would have been an opportunity to make new friends, invest in a new start, grow up a bit in a big school, but that process entailed inviting people home and inviting people home was a problem. It wasn’t that her parents were cruel or inhuman, it wasn’t that Lily was beaten or abused, it was just …..it was just that they were not particularly interested in the social welfare of their only child. Consequently, Lily had never quite worked out why she existed and there had never been an appropriate moment to ask. Her mother, a beautician at a local department store, spent her days on her feet, doing makeovers and painting faces. When she came home, she shoved something into the microwave, climbed onto the sofa and watched the TV. Lily’s father, who for some reason was still there, worked in a bank, in twenty years he had managed to crawl his way from cashier to junior account manager. He would often come home late, after a night out, incoherent and unsteady, he too would slap something in the microwave, wolf it down and join his wife on the sofa to snore. Lily tried to invite people round, but her ‘friends’ were unnerved by the domestic mess and their parents were unnerved by the apparent lack of supervision. She stopped inviting people round but if you didn’t invite anyone round to your house, then no one invited you back to theirs. Perfect loneliness.
So Lily gave up on the inviting round thing. Instead she took up gaming, not gambling but good old fashioned video games, some role play, some shoot ‘em up, some puzzles; she had gained herself a reputation as something of a rogue in Call of Duty, her highest score on Tetris was 960 lines, and her dad still had the equipment to run Shenmue. This new development in Lily’s life suited Lily’s parents down to the sofa. She fitted perfectly into the somnambulant domesticity of her parents’ life, while they watched TV or snored, Lily was either on the floor nearby playing on her phone, or upstairs, online bringing down the Locust Horde in Gears of War.
Some friendships developed online, but while Lily might have been lonely she wasn’t daft, and after she rejected the third invitation to meet up (obviously just to play, honest, really) from a man who said he lived in Leicester, she grew tired of the abuse that her refusals elicited. Even her mother noticed her change of mood after one night when she had been subjected to a particularly disturbing diatribe on the behaviour of what this man said were “little teasers”. That night, for all of five minutes, her mother listened and soothed. After the five minutes was up Lily went upstairs and took out a paper clip that she kept for special days and scratched her thigh until she bled.
After the Leicester loon, Lily’s options were more limited. She could play with younger voices of course, but they were often called to bed, or caught out on games too old for them to play and that made Lily all too aware that it was she who became the weirdo, playing with kids below her generation. Besides their company didn’t entirely assuage her loneliness. She wasn’t weird, she knew the difference between virtual and real and she knew that she could do with some real human company, not just the avatars that stalked their fantasy dystopias, or the high scores that garnered admiration from the equally estranged. She needed the warmth of human blood next to her, the sound of real breath nearby, she just needed to find a friend. In pursuit of this objective she took to heading down to the games shop on a Friday evening. This was not an ideal solution. The shop was populated by serious minded senior boys, boys who yearned to improve their high scores, boys who wanted to earn money from their gaming rather than go to work, or do their homework. She was the only girl in the shop and was only accepted with grudging generosity because she fulfilled the role of helping the younger kids jump platforms or access cheats. This was allowed so that the big boys could get on with the serious work of higher scores and beta testing.
The game shop meant that Lily acquired the company she desired but only in the physical sense, companionship eluded her still, no one really wanted to be her friend. Thus Lily’s loneliness began to express itself in style. Initially, she had contented herself with branded T-shirts and baggy jeans, but that seemed inadequate now that she was going out on a Friday night, she felt she should make an effort, a statement, a representation of her loneliness. Her disaffection started obviously enough, with Emo style: dark hair, blinding fringe and big boots, but soon she felt the need to graduate to full on gothic. Her mother’s makeup beckoned, white face and black lips (she had to buy the lipstick, that did not come with her mother’s freebies). Then there were the all black clothes, black books, fingerless gloves and silver jewellery heavy with the signifiers of death, skulls, zombies and upside down crosses. She had hoped that this transformation would make her more acceptable at the Friday night gaming evenings, after all, the boys sported Matrix style black coats boots heavy with steel and symbolism, but her gender still separated her. The boys still saw her as an awkward interloper. She was not given the privileges of conversations about beta testing, gaming conventions or high scores and it made it worse if she mentioned her own high scores. The fact she could beat them all, and survived the longest in the world of The Walking Dead (18 months) was not cool. Thus she remained in a dull routine, helping kids and raising scores but it was human contact that she hankered for, a little real conversation, even if it was grudging. The Friday night routine continued unvaried, until one night. That night there was a new kid in town.
Lily watched him from her corner by the kids who were trying to persuade her to let them move on from Zelda to Halo. The new kid caught her eye, nodded and went back to what he was doing at the spare console. Lily gave the kids a leg up to the next level on Zelda and sauntered over to the new player. He mirrored her. He too was full on gothic, black hair, white make up, black ringed eyes, he was reassuringly familiar and he was untypically friendly. ‘Are you FlyingZeds?’ He asked when she got within range. She nodded, noncommittal.
‘You got some mean scores’ he was playing Resident Evil. She was puzzled, how would he know which one of the online community was her? She asked ‘How d’you know it’s me?’
He grinned, far too friendly for a goth. ‘I asked them.’
She accepted that and then felt it was her turn to speak ‘What brings you here?’
‘What brings me here?’ he repeated in an American drawl. ‘We…eell honey I’d say you been too long in the virtual world and you is startin’ to talk like an avatar from the mid-west. Let’s just say I’m just passin’ through, be on ma way shortly…’ He could not keep it up and converted to standard English. ‘I’m just waiting for my fish ’n chips, they just put a new batch on’ he indicated the chippy across the road. ‘I thought I’d come in and have a look, just pass the time.’
She nodded, the conversation seemed to have run out and she was aware that the Pete and Wells were eyeing them as they spoke. Their expressions signalled “weirdos” with every breath they took they oozed disdain. Lily turned to head back to the kids and Zelda when the new lad said ‘Want to share some chips?’
She was hungry, she thought only for a second about how lonely she was and turned and smiled, again too friendly for a goth’, but he didn’t notice. ‘Yeah, why not?’
They sat on the wall opposite the shop, watching the older boys compete in some shoot ‘em up game, while the younger kids and resorted to ancient play in the real world. They fought with the Warhammer models that were laid out in the middle table, substituting hands and voices for screens and levels. It would not be long before their parents turned up to take them home and the older boys would settle in for an hour or two of serious, uninterrupted play, forever chasing the high scores that would make them of value, both to themselves and to the world. Lily and the new lad were quiet for a while, until Lily said ‘What do you do?’
‘A Levels’ the boy replied. He was a little older, but not seriously so, this added a hint of interest, girls who went out with older boys, were much to be admired. She was leaping ahead, he was eating chips with her this was not a date. ‘And I design apps,’ he added with a little too much nonchalance, but Lily understood that he was proud of himself. ‘What kind?’
‘I did a homework app, for my IT teacher.’
She was disappointed. He saw that and seemed to changed a little. They had finished eating the chips and the darkness grew thicker, somewhere down the road a street light went out. Lily looked around, the chippy was empty, there wasn’t even anyone at the fryer. Across the road, the kids and gone and the senior boys had dropped the blinds, they were gaming intensely now, she would not be welcome back. She shivered, she was sitting in a dark street, with a total stranger, who seemed to be less like her than she thought. Even in the dim light of their one streetlight she felt less attracted to him than she had. The darkness made him different, the white make up on his face, covered deep acne scars and bubbling spots, his eyes seemed blood shot with over use and his adam’s apple moved sharply in his throat. The fact he was older seemed less mysterious. He was as lonely as she was, just trying to impress her, she could do without that. He was looking at her, a deep curious look, trying to measure her up maybe. She was unnerved, but it was a long walk back and she would rather see the back of him first. ‘You like zombies?’ He asked.
She hesitated ‘Yeah, I guess so, I like zapping them!’
‘I made another app’ he added. ‘I don’t just do homework.’ He was smiling now, his skin seemed smooth again. ‘There are lots of zombie games’.
‘Yeah I guess, but this one is kind of a reversal’
‘So you’re the zombie..’
‘It’s been done before.’ She did not know why but she was raining on his parade.
‘Not with such discipline though, I mean you really have to live by the rules, no high scores unless you eat people, no escape either.’
‘Do you shuffle or run?’
‘Oh shuffle definitely, only the full traditional.’
‘Online or offline?’
‘Online – where’s the fun if there’s no one to play with?’ He paused and smiled a little, fluttering a slightly cheeky look at her ‘and you get to infect other people too. Like I’ve infected you.’ Her phone buzzed. He grinned. She took it out and checked the notification ‘Congratulations you are now part of Z’App!’
She frowned. ‘This is just an invite’ although she could not find the ‘Confirm’ button, it must be there somewhere. She looked up, he was walking down the street. ‘Just give it a try,’ he called back. ‘It would be good to get some feedback’. He laughed and was swallowed by the darkness next to the dead street lamp.
* * *
It took her over a week to expunge the app from her systems, at no point could she find the “Accept” or “Ignore” button, “Confirm” or “Delete”. Nowhere, as far as she could tell, was there a place on the app to dump it, reject the invitation and move on with her life, like she could with Facebook or Twitter. Not only that the app took over everything: her Facebook profile picture, suddenly she was a zombie; Twitter the same and she had not uploaded zombie pictures of herself, well not this time at least. It was on her Hotmail profile, Sky Drive, the emails she sent now had a zombie picture of herself, her online gaming profile brought fields of mockery, although there was the occasional request from one or two as to what the app was, she sent them the link. Hell, even Google+ was not immune – there she was, every time she logged into Google, a zombie version of herself, peeling skin, bleeding broken jaw, teeth glaring at her, out of her own strangely familiar face. It took her a week of repeat delete until the app, gave up and peace was restored to her digital footprint.
‘That’s a nasty spot’ said her mother eying her across the breakfast table. ‘You should put something on that.’
Lily reached up to her chin, there had been a nasty bruised feeling there for a couple of days, now the rounded bump felt bigger than she expected and the pain was slightly numbing. ‘What should I put on it?’
‘Bit of antiseptic should do the trick,’ said her mother, but her interest was fading.
Lily checked herself in the mirror, there was more than one spot, which was strange because she had not had spots before, but these raged around her jaw line, infected, red. She dabbed on some antiseptic and then the sticky white make up of her goth style. The spots faded into the make up covered by whiteness, dwarfed by black lipstick and heavy eyeliner.
‘What are you doing?’ One of the kids was standing beside her, she did not know for how long. What was she doing? She had forgotten, her fingers were moving but what was the purpose? An email? Some code? She examined what she saw on the screen. It was mindless, as if she had been typing with her eyes closed, drunk (when sober, she could type very well with her eyes closed). She could not recall having a drink, but she must have done, because her code made no sense, in fact she seemed to have retyped the word “Menu” over and over again.
Then there was the rash, a mottled patchy rash on her arms that seemed to spread up towards her neck, it was almost impossible to see, and yet it was there. She asked her mother, who eyed it with numbing disinterest. ‘You’re probably cold, bad circulation’ she said. ‘There’s steak in the fridge if you’re hungry, you’ll have to cook it yourself though. Lily didn’t bother to cook it, didn’t the Japanese eat raw meat? Or was that fish? Ah what the hell!
Lily peered at her mother, her mother apathetic on the sofa, watching X-Factor, not watching her and Lily felt lonely again. The spot on her chin itched and throbbed, she scratched it absent-mindedly, a bit of it fell off. ‘Aw Lily!’ her father complained. ‘Do something about that spot, it’s getting worse.’
‘Did you put antiseptic on it?’ her mother didn’t move.
‘Go upstairs Lily’ her father said. ‘I can’t look at you like that.’
Lily fled to her room, she could feel the blood trickling down her chin, taste it. She ran to the mirror, a pus filled gaping hole seemed to cover half her chin. She stuck her tongue to lick it and then shivered with disgust at herself. She knew that disgust, she knew how to assuage that self-loathing, she went to her favourite paper clip, pulled down her tights and started to scratch at her thigh. The scratch marks oozed, more than she remembered, but she was undeterred. She repeated and repeated the scratching, almost not noticing the repetition, or the damage and then a chunk of flesh fell out. She stifled a scream. What would be the point in her mother knowing, antiseptic wasn’t going to fix this. What the hell was wrong with her?
Google – my flesh is really infected what is wrong with me?
1,490,000 results in 76 seconds
Ten horrible diseases you could get
Necrotising Fasciitis – flesh eating bacteria. Flesh eating bacteria! She pulled back, remembering spots. Was it catching? Did he touch her? That boy, that night at the games shop? He didn’t touch her but Oh My God! He shared his chips.
‘Mum! Mum!’ She ran downstairs. ‘Mum! I have to go to hospital, I got necrotising something, flesh eating bacteria, I have to go!’
Her mother levered herself off the sofa, her dad had gone out. Her mother eyed the spot. ‘It is ugly’ she said. ‘Give it a good wash, see how it is in the morning.’
‘But…’ she could not tell her mother about her legs.
‘I ate chips with him, this boy…’
‘What boy?’ her mother’s interest was almost ignited.
‘A boy at the game shop, he only came the once, he shared his chips with me.’
Her mother grinned. ‘I don’t think you can catch flesh eating bacteria from chips.’ She paused. ‘Who is he anyway?’
‘I don’t know, I never saw him before, or since.’
‘A stranger, did you learn nothing from me? You should be more careful who you share chips with!’
‘How many cups of tea you gonna make?’ Her mother peered at her, curious as Lily emptied the tea pot and boiled the kettle again, and then again. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You keep filling that kettle, emptying the teapot, filling the teapot, boiling the kettle – when are we actually going to get a cup of tea? It’s nearly 8.30 I have to go pronto!’
Lily stopped her tea making and went to the cupboard for cups, she poured the milk into the cup, went to boil the kettle again and then remembered. Her hand hovered over the tea, steaming her fingers. She swore she saw a bit of gunk fall from her fingers into the tea, what was it, skin? She moved to the table, her mother collected her own tea without comment, gulped it down and left without a word. Lily wondered. She was sure she had read somewhere that there was a certain form of brain damage that made you repeat things, if all other parts of the brain were damaged but this bit, you could still function, so long as it was routine, so long as it was what you had done repeatedly in the past, like making a cup of tea… ooh cup of tea. She boiled the kettle.
What’s up with Z’App?
Hey this game is rad, just got it on my teacher’s Facebook by bumping his phone, he’s well pissed, broke out in a rash!
Where did this come from? I didn’t download it, now it’s on my LinkedIn, I’m applying for jobs FFS plus now I’m sick.
Zfan262: Anybody else think Z’App is a virus?
FlyingZeds: Well of course it’s a virus!
Lily tried not scratch the peeling skin on her arm.
It’s an App that infects your profiles, like a worm or a bot, you can tell it’s a virus because it’s a bugger to delete and there’s no “Ignore” choice….. Post
Pause …Zfan262 is typing
Zfan262: No, I mean a real virus, my skin is falling off.
Lily stared at the screen, something grey dribbled from her mouth to the keyboard, she wiped it off, she was going mad surely? Surely this was just the product of a disaffected teen’s tortured mind. Hell her parents were shit, her school was shit, in fact when did she last go to school? Wouldn’t be like her mother would know and her dad wouldn’t care. What day was it? Tuesday? When did she last go to the game shop? Oh right three weeks ago. That was when the kids had told her she stank, they had stood round her nervously at a distance, until Joe, the only adult there had told her to go home and take a bath, and after that to see a doctor. But she hadn’t seen a doctor, in fact she could not remember going out at all after that. She could remember cups of tea, and food, she could remember food, but going out, with her face like this. She peered in the mirror, an unrecognisable form of herself peered back, she did appear to be dribbling, possibly she had not been chewing her food recently, teeth seemed in good shape though, despite the receding gums and wider smile. She tried to apply some make up to the huge bleeding spot on her forehead, but just like her thigh wobbled like jelly, and now a big wound on her ankle, it oozed and widened under her touch. She licked her fingers, she was hungry, come to think of it what was for tea? ‘Mum?’ she called out, no answer, typical. ‘Mum, when’s tea?’ Still no answer. She was definitely hungry, time for a cup of tea.
The house was silent, she boiled the kettle, poured out the teapot, put in the tea bags. Hungry, pot of tea, mum oh yes mum, food. Cup of tea, …mum, food, dad …. cup of tea, mum….. foo cu o t da ….mu fd ….cu T…..
All that lit Lily was the computer screen, its light glowed on the ravaged face of a lonely teenager. A lonely teenage zombie eating mum.
On the screen Z’App transformed and transferred, her profile, her photos and her contacts and the counter on the app at the top of the screen, the counter that ticked relentlessly higher as it counted the number of people using the app, the counter ticked up:
Z’App has reached 34 million downloads.
Copyright © All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2017