Digital Footprint

Zeke Jarvis

Zeke Jarvis (he/him/his) is a Professor of English at Eureka College. His work has appeared in Bat City Review, Bitter Oleander, and Moon City Review, among other places. His books include So Anyway…, In A Family Way, Antisocial Norms, and The Three of Them.

I can’t say for sure who the first victim was, but the first I was aware of was Ms. Brown. We had been Facebook friends, though we weren’t really close. We’d like each other’s posts, but I can’t tell you the last comment that I might have made on one of hers. Mainly, it was a kind of curiosity about what she was like outside of school, years after I’d graduated.

I was waiting in line somewhere and scrolling when I saw that she was tagged in a post by Mr. Walker, my high school principal. The post said that it was with great sadness that Mr. Walker had to announce that Ms. Brown had been found dead, stab wounds covering various parts of her body. I remember being sad but also a little confused about why Mr. Walker was the one posting it. It didn’t seem like they had been all that close when I was in high school though I supposed that I didn’t know a whole lot about their lives that way or the other. I didn’t like Mr. Walker all that much, so I didn’t reply or react.

Imagine my surprise when, later that day, Ms. Brown posted an inspirational quote. At first, I assumed that someone close to her had taken over the account and had wanted to cheer up people who were hearing about her brutal death. But then people responded to her, and she responded back to them, and the replies sounded like Ms. Brown. I looked up Mr. Walker’s profile because I was going to tell him that I didn’t think his joke was funny at all. When I looked him up, not only did I no longer see the post about Ms. Brown, but I also found an announcement that Mr. Walker had died nearly a year ago, and that this was now a legacy account. There was something about celebrating his life rather than dwelling on the circumstances of his death, but nothing all that concrete. I looked at the profile pic, and it looked a little off. I couldn’t exactly explain how, but his face seemed unreal. I decided that I must have just not remembered how Mr. Walker looked and went back to scrolling.

I thought for sure that I’d gone crazy, wondering why I thought that I’d seen that post in the first place. I thought about sending Ms. Brown a message; not telling her about the post, but just seeing how she was. I decided that it would be weird, so I just let it go. Fast forward a few more days, and I start seeing posts from people I went to high school with, talking about how awful it was that Ms. Brown had been murdered. When I looked at the news from my hometown, I found that she’d been killed exactly how Mr. Walker’s account had described. I thought about reaching out to the police, but what could I say? I didn’t take a screenshot of the post or anything (I didn’t think that I’d had to), and I felt like if I did come forward, the police would likely start looking at me.

I donated a little money to her memorial fund, and I tried to mostly forget about it though I did check the news for updates. Police had no real leads; there was no physical evidence. They didn’t even have a murder weapon, and nobody had been seen coming into or leaving her place. There was a lot of rumor and speculation (I come from a small town, and a murder like that is very big news), but nobody could come up with anything concrete.

A few months later, I saw a second post from Mr. Walker. This time it was a decent (but not star) football player. He hadn’t lived in our hometown for over a decade from what I could tell. This time, Mr. Walker’s profile claimed that the kid had died in a car accident. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t send him a message saying “a Facebook ghost is going to kill you,” but I didn’t want to just let it hang, either.

I sent the kid (though he was an adult like me by now) a quick message: “Don’t know why, but you popped into my head the other day. How are things with you?” I looked at his profile pic. His eyes were wrong. I’m not sure what the opposite of sparkling is, but that’s what his eyes were doing. They were like two black holes that you couldn’t quite focus on but that you could feel the light getting sucked into.

The kid didn’t answer my message. I didn’t really blame him; it must have seemed weird that he was getting a message from some random dude from high school. Or maybe he never even checked his messages. I knew people who went months without checking their messages. Either way, it wasn’t long before I saw that he had crashed into a tree. Officials suspected drunk driving. That was possible, but it was too big of a coincidence for me. I had no clue why a Facebook ghost would want to fuck with me. I’d never been on Mr. Walker’s radar as far as I could tell. I checked his profile again. This time, his picture was a cluster of houseflies that looked vaguely like a face. I closed my browser and rubbed my eyes. It had to be a hallucination.

That night, I went into a couple of Facebook groups from my hometown, seeing if there was any chatter that suggested anyone else was seeing this. There was some weird shit, for sure (an argument about whether this one bar had been on Elm Street or Pine Street), but nothing that made me think that anyone else saw Mr. Walker’s ghost posts. Though maybe, like me, they didn’t want to put themselves out there. I didn’t want to spend too much time searching, either, in case someone eventually came looking through my history.

Four more months went by, and I started to feel like maybe things were okay. But then Ms. Brown tagged Mr. Walker in a post that said that this old hall monitor, Mr. Edwards, had died in a hunting accident. This time I took a screenshot. I tried looking up Mr. Edwards, too, seeing if I could try to give him some kind of hint or suggestion. But I found that this time, it wasn’t a warning, the death had already happened. Police treated it as an accident like with the football player, but that couldn’t be true.

I logged out of Facebook and stayed off for weeks. Every now and then, I looked at the screenshot, wondering if I should delete it or who I could possibly reach out to. I decided to look into Mr. Walker. Maybe there was something in his death that would tell me what to expect. What I found at first was that he had died alone in his apartment of natural causes. I thought about how to find out what the actual story was, but again, it was hard to reach out to anyone without leaving tracks. Would I call a coroner or something?

Instead, I called my parents, mainly just to hear their voices. My dad answered the phone, and we talked a little bit about fishing and the Packers’ chances for the coming season. It was only a few minutes before he handed me off to my mom. She talked a bit more about the town. After a few more minutes, she said, “You sound sad.”

“Homesick, maybe,” I said.

“You’re always welcome to come back, Honey.”

I’m not sure why that caught me off guard, but it did. Maybe part of my brain had figured out that I wanted to see my hometown again, see if I could get a feel for the ghost, and that part of my brain told my conscious mind to call my parents. And so I decided to head home. I was in the airport, waiting for my plane (delayed half an hour), when temptation got the better of me and I went back on Facebook. The very first post was from Mr. Walker with a bunch of replies. The strange thing was that it didn’t seem to talk about a death. Mr. Walker’s post was “The kids may go on their way, but they never stop being a Wildcat.” The replies varied from “so true” to “go wildcats!” to “we’re with you Mr. W!”. And they were from tons of profiles, many of them were people I’d never heard of. Some of their pictures were yellowed, with old-timey clothes. One was nothing but maggots, moving. Another was a pile of rotting meat. I logged out again.

The whole plane ride home, I expected to die. A plane crash, a hijacking, anything would have made total sense to me. But I made it to Chicago, through O’Hare, and to my hometown without dying. My parents were both there, waiting for me. We hugged, I took a leak at the airport, and we drove home. Mom had made a roast which was delicious. As we ate, I asked, “Has anything weird been going on in town?”

My mom frowned. “Weird how?”

“I don’t know, like, weird chatter around town. Like about Ms. Brown, for instance.”

My mom looked down, and my dad looked up. Eventually, he said, “They keep saying they can’t say anything. At first, we thought that it was because they were closing in on someone and didn’t want to tip their hand, but, by now, we figure that they just really don’t know anything.”

I shook my head. “That’s awful.”

“It is awful,” my mom said. She went on a short monologue about everything Ms. Brown did for the community. I knew a lot of it, but there were a few new pieces of information. I didn’t know that she’d volunteered at the animal shelter after she had retired. Ms. Brown had never posted about it. I nodded and ate. I wondered if someone’s death was being posted to Facebook as I ate.

After dinner, I helped with dishes, thanked my parents for everything, and headed to bed. Before I went to sleep, I did log on. Instead of a specific death announcement, there was an image of several dead bodies, totally unrecognizable. One was a pile of dismembered limbs. Another was a badly charred person. Another was a body whose head was beneath the wheel of a car. Each one had gotten a heart reaction from Mr. Walker and comments from other people. I shivered, closed my browser and turned off my phone. I stared at the ceiling for a while before I was able to drift off to sleep. When I did fall, I had dreams that I couldn’t remember but that I knew were awful. When I woke up, I went downstairs, rubbing my eyes.

My mom and dad were talking quietly. When they noticed me, my mom came to me and hugged me. She was crying. My dad told me that an apartment building in town had caught fire. Dozens of people had burned alive. I hugged her back.

We had a quick breakfast and then picked up some supplies to drop off with the few survivors. When we got home, my mom took a nap, and my dad and I went for a walk. He asked me, “Why did you ask about weird stuff? About whether weird things were going on or not?”

I thought about it for a second. “There’s been some weird stuff on social media. It’s kind of hard to explain because it’s not threats that I can report or anything, but I don’t know. It just makes me wonder if there’s some common root to all the awful stuff that’s been happening.”

“But you don’t know anything.”

I sighed. “Dad, the longer I live, the more I know that I don’t know a single thing.”

My dad patted me on the shoulder, then he side-hugged me. When we got back to our house, I asked to lay down for a little while. I went back on Facebook and scrolled for a little bit. It took me a while, but eventually, I saw that my whole family was doomed. There was a series of posts celebrating my parents and me. There wasn’t a specific announcement about how we’d die, but I couldn’t see us not dying after the kind words.

I got up and went down to the kitchen. My dad was watching sports clips on the iPad. I wanted to tell him that he should do something great with the last moments of his life. But he was happy watching sports, and I couldn’t explain to him that he should be a saint before he was murdered in some untold way. “Dad,” I said.

“Yeah,” he looked at me.

“I love you and Mom.”

He smiled but kind of shook his head. “We love you too. Always.” I looked at him, and, over his shoulder, I saw out the window. There was something tall and moving. Its skin was an amalgam of scales, worm skin, exposed flesh and exoskeleton. Every place I looked, it was something terrible but different. I tried to smile for my dad, then I turned away.

I headed to the living room. My mom was reading. She looked up and smiled at me. It was a simple gesture, but I really did appreciate the sign of connection. I went to her and hugged her. I held her for a long time. When I let her go, I was ready for the end. I knew that it would happen, and I was actually at peace with it.

There was some scratching from outside. “Do you hear that?” my mom asked.

“Hear what?” I asked, hoping to stave off the horror as much as I could until all that was left of us was pictures of corpses and the intangible comments of people we hadn’t actually seen in forever.