A Virus


by Stephen Ornes

Five minutes before the show, Patrick shepherded his children into a small carpeted theater at the far end of the main hall in the downtown library. The show, "Now You See Me," was a loose adaptation of "The Emperor's New Clothes," with a purple dragon puppet named Snappy as the insatiable ruler. The conniving tailors were played by a mangy dog puppet called Hot Cha Roger and Nina Badina, a hyperactive lamb.

Alexis sat on Patrick's lap and Henry sat beside him. The lights went down and the dragon started dancing. Henry slipped away. Tucking Alexis under his arm like a football, Patrick chased Henry out the door. They returned a minute later. During the second song, called "More more more," Henry scrambled through the dimly lit room, snatching raisins and goldfish crackers from other children. Patrick crawled behind Henry, reaching for his ankle.

As Hot Cha Roger launched into the Goodbye Song, Henry clambered onto the stage, took a bow, and fell off on his head. The rest of his body followed, heels over head. The drop was six inches, not far enough to hurt the boy but far enough to invoke a collective gasp and a sudden, panicky surge from the audience. The puppets stopped singing. Patrick raced up, took the howling boy in his arms and left the room. They recovered in the library on child-sized couches and easy chairs.

"Time to go, Goose," Patrick said as he knelt by Henry. The boy rolled away and stood, preparing to run. Patrick held Henry's arm and pulled him closer.  "You can't do that, little friend," he said to Henry, bouncing Alexis on his knee. He could hear the edge in his own voice. "Time to go."

Henry squirmed and giggled; Alexis slapped him across the face. She giggled, Henry howled, and Patrick picked up both kids—one on each hip—and walked to the elevator. He couldn't carry Henry's books as well. He left the stack. Patrick wondered if this decision—to make a quick exit—was like thinking that if you run in the rain, you won't get so wet.

"No one even notices. It doesn't bother anyone as much as it bothers you." Patrick looked up to see a mom, patting the head of her son—her quiet, curious son.

Patrick nodded. He wanted out, out, out. The elevator was taking too long, so Patrick carried his kids down the wide staircase.

"Where are my books?" Henry asked as they descended.

Patrick ignored him as they approached the desk to get his damn parking ticket validated. Henry kept asking. The librarian stamped the parking ticket.

"Where are my books?"

Patrick set down Henry and let him walk. They approached the center of the marble foyer with black-and-white checkerboard tiles.

Halfway across, Henry stopped, stomped his foot, and boomed, "Where! Are! My! Books!"

Patrick squatted down, looked Henry in the eye and whispered, "They're up in the library, I couldn't carry everything. It's too late, Goose. We have to get home. We'll get books next time."

"I want my books," Henry said. He dropped to his knees. Like a three-and-three-quarters-year-old Jesus, Patrick thought, headed to the cross.

Patrick reached for the boy, who twisted his body around and howled with a shriek that echoed aggressively through the foyer. Patrick leaned forward. Henry spun further away and slipped. Alexis slipped from his arm and landed on her feet. She laughed, her laugh bouncing and rising, and ran toward the main door to the busy city street outside.

Patrick chased Alexis; Henry slouched to the ground. They returned; Henry lay on his back, kicking his legs, screaming. A small crowd gathered around them. Patrick looked up and saw senior citizens smirking or staring at him with suspicion; moms with their babies looking distraught; librarians who had stopped their own conversation and were regarding him as a curiosity. And then there was a thin man—maybe in his early twenties—with ragged hair, in baggy sweatpants and a hoodie pulled up over his head. The jacket was unzipped; he wore a filthy white t-shirt beneath. He filmed the episode with his cell phone.

Patrick tried to ignore them; he held Henry under the arms and picked him up, but the boy slid back to the floor and hit his head on the smooth marble. The crowd gasped and Henry howled. Meanwhile, Alexis tried to climb up on Patrick, but he held her away. She fell down and started to cry.

Patrick looked up. The man was still filming.

"Do you mind, jackass?" he said.

"Real nice in front of your kids," the man said with a nod.

Finally, Patrick wrestled both kids into his arms and walked quickly out of the library.

Both children slept soundly all afternoon. Patrick was glad it was over.

 

And it was over, for awhile. Then the video went viral. Three days after the library incident, someone called Patrick's wife, Lisa, who looked on the computer. The video had been cut and edited so that instead of saying "jackass" to the camera, Patrick yelled "jackass" at his son.

Someone save those kids! commented MommieLove75. I'll take them!

Then another version appeared, one that altered the sequence of events.. Some parts were sped up, others were slowed down, and other parts ran in reverse. That video (quickly christened AngryDad) showed a sad and screaming little boy who tried repeatedly to stand up—only to be shoved down by his father who said "jackass" with each shove.

"Jackass! Jackass!"

I think we all know who the jackass is here-but why isn't the government protecting our children? commented DizzyDi.

The video made it to television. Fox News showed it repeatedly, each time asking experts to weigh in. Patrick became a national villain. The video had been precision-tuned to depict abuse. Both Fox News and National Public Radio asked Patrick for interviews; he told them both to get the original footage, so they could see what really happened, and then he would talk. On television, Patrick saw a commentator—identified as the pioneer of "video therapy for children"—say that the video had clearly been tampered with, and wouldn't it be interesting to see the original? Then he backpedaled.

"But that's really an academic interest. With that kind of raw material, it's hard to imagine that the video is too far from the truth," the man said, patrician and authoritative, opening his hands and tilting his head slightly. "It's just so sad."

 

Patrick heard an NPR interview with the cinematographer, then regarded as something of a video vigilante, the leader of a new movement who admitted with a laugh that yes, he had profited from the video. Something to the tune of $40,000 in ad revenue from the original, he said, plus talks with media companies to start a blog, write a book and sell the rights for an AngryDad video game.

"Isn't that something," said the reporter.

"But seriously," said the hero, taking a deep breath. He had a little lisp. "Maybe we should be looking out for each other. And more importantly, for our children."

       

Someone spray-painted JACKASSSS across the windshield of Patrick's car., Lisa's friends called at first to offer condolences, then to offer her safe haven, then to ask how she could let this happen. One day, in a shimmering blue shirt and a black skirt, she put the kids in the car and drove to her mother's. Later on the phone, she told Patrick that she wouldn't come back.

"But you know it's not real," Patrick said. "You know the truth."

"I know," she said. "I have to look out for the kids. They're suffering, Pat. There's too much turbulence."

"I'm drowning here," he told her.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"It was a puppet show."

"I know," she said. "I love you, Pat."

"I'll fix it," he said. "Stay. Come back."

She hung up.

 

The video mutated and evolved. Other people added sound, deleted scenes, added clips from other movies. In one version, inspired both by the Exorcist and the vampire craze, Patrick tried to beat the devil out of his son. In another, Patrick was a customer at a fast food restaurant who was beating up an employee—Henry—for not giving him a straw. Patrick told himself to avoid the craze; after all, he knew it would die out on its own eventually. But it didn't. The virus grew, and amateur videographers one-upped each other with new versions: Hamlet AngryDad, Muppets AngryDad, AngryDad the Kindergarten Teacher, AngryDad the Alien, AngryDad the mobster.

He couldn't look away—he knew the disaster was happening to him, but the Internet provided a front-row seat to his own undoing. He watched his own ruination from inside and out simultaneously, and he could sense momentum building and the inertia of millions of invisible people crushing him quietly, anonymously, with misspelled missives and messages in caps.

His boss suggested he take some time off. People at the office were uncomfortable with Patrick being around. Maybe he could work from home? He stopped showering, gave up getting dressed. The house started to carry a putrid odor.

Patrick adopted the handle AngryDad and began visiting chat rooms, suggesting that someone somewhere find the original footage and see what "that guy" was talking about—you know, the guy in the video who keeps saying the footage has been edited. But his comments gave no rise to a thread, much less a discussion or action. The only response he ever received was from someone who accused him of being "lame and derivative."

Following a link from a blog post, Patrick saw, much to his horror, that he had become the poster Dad for a group called Back to Basix, which advocated for spanking and encouraged parents to use physical means to subdue their children. Patrick had never  struck his children, but there was a picture of him, blurry and angry, on the Back to Basix web site; underneath, in italics, a message read:

Let's stand up for the Dad who was brave enough to do what this politically correct society says he shouldn't—raise his children to be obedient and respectful!

Below that, a "Donate now" button flashed. Patrick fired off an angry email. A representative responded that they didn't believe he was the real, original AngryDad because, they said, the real AngryDad had already blown off his own head with a shotgun.

 

Back to Basix wasn't the only group to usurp his image. Patrick found himself featured by ParentAbuse, a group who demanded government legislation to protect parents who felt harassed, by anyone. Patrick learned that these parents didn't want to be judged or become second-class citizens for their choices. He couldn't find any specific grievances. What choices? he wondered—but they were clearly mad. ParentAbuse claimed that Patrick had acted out of frustration, had been devalued in society for parenting in public. Underneath a blurry picture of Henry, crying, was a message in italics:

If we don't protect the parents, who will protect our children?

 

Patrick fired off another angry email. The response, again, told him that he couldn't be the real AngryDad because the real AngryDad had moved to Mexico, fed up with the government and restrictions and judgment and whatnot.

 

Patrick hired a lawyer, chased the pictures. He couldn't keep up. Over and over, still frames from the movie popped up in advertisements and on television. His lawyer's fees accumulated; he dropped the lawyer.

     

Patrick chased the videographer. He found his name and phone number easily enough on the Internet. On a Monday morning, he drove to the house. A For Sale sign had fallen down in the yard. He stood on the porch and rang the bell. It smelled like cat piss.

The door opened, and a cloud of cigarette smoke escaped, tinged with an even stronger smell of ammonia. A short, thin woman in a white tank top with short black hair squinted at Patrick.

"I'm looking for Ricky," he said.

"Uh huh," she said. "You look familiar."

"AngryDad."

She smiled, wickedly. "Oh yeah! No wonder you look familiar. Man, it's like you live here. You've been on every monitor on our house. Ricky's at work."

Patrick put his hand on his forehead and looked around.

"I'll wait," he said.

"No…" she said.

 "He ruined my life," Patrick said calmly. "I've got nothing else to do. I'll wait"

The woman nodded. "Hold on," she said. She closed the door.

A minute later, the door opened, and Patrick looked in the man's bloodshot eyes.. He grinned and held out his hand. Patrick didn't shake hands, but he did start to quiver.

"Well," Ricky said. He was missing his two front teeth, and a few in the back. He was not well.

"I'm broke," Patrick said quietly. "I'm totally broke. I got laid off. My family left me. The damn video. I want two things from you, and if I don't get them I will fucking burn down your house and everyone in it. And then I will fucking kill you again."

"I knew it," the woman laughed from behind Ricky. "The camera doesn't lie. You are a bastard."

Patrick said, "I will gouge out your eyes, film the whole thing and put it on You-Fucking-Tube. I am not fucking around. I hate you. I want you to know that someone in this world hates you more than you would believe is possible. I may never see my children again. I hope that at some point you feel like shit."

Ricky's smile faded.

"I want five hundred dollars, and I want the original footage."

Ricky held up both his hands. "The money's gone, dude."

"Now," Patrick said. "I'm going to sit here until it happens. You have taken everything from me. You have profited from me. I have nothing. I'll be here."

 

It took a few hours, but Patrick left with five hundred dollars and a flash drive containing the original footage. He drove to a computer store and bought an expensive movie-editing software package. He was going to make it right, run the film in reverse. Lisa would return with Henry and Alexis, and they would move, and restart the machine of their lives, even change their names if they needed to.

He stayed up for three days learning how to navigate the difficult software. He became proficient at loading video, fixing it up. Adding sound. He posted a video on YouTube, but it was removed due to alleged copyright infringement.

He left messages with producers at Fox News and NPR. He was ready to talk, ready to give interviews. AngryDad would break his silence. AngryDad was not angry anymore, was not dead, not in Mexico. No one called back.

No bother, he thought. He watched the footage on the flash drive and sobbed at the small snippets of video of his children in the library.

Patrick was relieved to see that the pivotal scene wasn't damning. He had been worried and nearly convinced by the web sites, the chatter, the incessant noise, that he was abusive, and that when he did finally view the original scene he would see what everyone else thought they saw: A monster. But it looked like any tantrum, any child.

It was exceptional in one important way: Patrick In-The-Video still had everything. He was being run ragged by those children, but he had those children. He had a wife, a job. Patrick-watching-the-video had become a tainted shell moving through the great throbbing body of the world without any identity but his one ruined, public one. Patrick-watching-the-video cried until he couldn't anymore.  All those electrons had come in, hollowed him out, and his insides poured out.

He finally talked to a producer at NPR by telephone. Patrick explained his situation, said he had the original footage ready to release and was willing to talk. The producer paused and told him quietly that they weren't interested in the story. People had moved on, forgotten about AngryDad. They didn't want to interview him, but the producer invited Patrick to submit an editorial. The Fox News producer was less courteous: "No way," he said. "Nobody remembers. Give us something new. AngryDad returns with a vengeance! AngryDad burns down a house, or AngryDad beats the shit out of someone else – a stranger! Now that's new. AngryDad wants to tell you you're wrong? No thanks."         

Patrick realized the virus had invaded, replicated, annihilated, and left. He hung up the phone. A few minutes later, his computer froze. A shot of Henry and Alexis, laughing, stuck on the screen. A blip, repeated quickly and infinitely, sounded from the speakers. It was a thin audio slice taken from the laughter of two children, removed from context, looped endlessly. Patrick moved the mouse but the cursor didn't budge. Those blurry faces wouldn't go away; the noisy blip became a perforated drone.

Patrick hit some keys. He clicked this and tapped that, then tapped harder, then banged his fists on the keyboard. He cried out, banged the keyboard, and shook the monitor. He restarted the computer, but the noise returned and the screen remained dark except for a blinking cursor in the top left corner.

"Reboot, dammit, reboot," he cried. There was nothing to do but pull the plug. Close everything. Lose his unsaved work.




BIO: Stephen Ornes lives in Nashville, Tennessee where he writes from a backyard shed. His articles about science and scientists have appeared in national and international publications, including DiscoverNew Scientist and Science News for Kids. His fiction has appeared in Arcadia, Vestal Review and One Story, and his non-science nonfiction has been published in the New Haven Review. He is at work on a novel. Visit him online at stephenornes.com .