(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)
(Previously: The Mountain Retreat)
She had not expected the piercing Xenon lights of the ever-voracious public eye to cast more invasive lambency upon her hard-won life. Sure, the THC-friendly webseries had kept her a public figure, but her audience there had known nothing of her OnlyFans past or the ignoble circumstances — the line that Ezmerelda said she would not cross and did — that led her to surrender that lucrative arc and try something else. Thankfully, they were too incurious. Google was freely available on their phones to look up any goddamned thing in the world and yet they couldn’t even do this. Nobody could, other than the rare outliers who still summoned the now untaught skills of critical thinking and having a heart.
Empathy had become increasingly politicized since the pandemic, which now seemed like a century ago. How much you genuinely cared and connected with other people now determined your political allegiance. And the people who still honed their emotional intimacy were more ostracized, much like the sideshow freaks had been cruelly ridiculed only decades before simply because they looked different. No more than that. If you were canceled in any way, well, you could never come back. Or if you could, your every move would be monitored. And with the Samsung Surrounder selling a million units, the panopticonal police, a well-regulated militia that not even James Madison could have imagined, had additional tools to observe and accuse in the unpredictable court of public opinion. The deep fake epidemic, with its increasingly manipulated media and its machine learning lies, had further muddied the waters. These teeming teardown trogolodytes would scan your social media for any small solecism to impugn you, reminding you of the mistake that you were already painfully aware of. They claimed to stand against fascism, but were they truly not aware of how authoritarian they were when it came to unsubstantiated gossip and judgment?
Sven understood this. It was why he rarely said a word to anyone anymore, why he was so committed to memorializing his thoughts by text because he could always pull up the record of what he had actually said rather than how his words had been hideously distorted. He was a Silent Bob type, though not by choice. When Ezmerelda heard the story of how the filmmaking community had expelled him after he had stuck up for a friend accused of groping a film critic, she hired him on the spot. Few people had that integrity anymore. These lonely online avengers never seemed to comprehend the virtues of loyalty, of giving someone another shot, of commending them for rebuilding their lives and doing the proper work of atonement. Sure, the nation was more illiterate and more sociopathic than it had ever been in its two hundred and fifty-one year run (the 2026 semiquincentennial had been a loud jingoistic shitshow), but could they not remember Forster’s words about having the guts to betray your country? If they couldn’t heed the pithy wisdom of some crusty and long-dead British dude that nobody read anymore, then the American experiment was hopeless, wasn’t it?
But now that Ali Breslin chick had blown the lid on an episode that she had thought long settled. She read the chapters that prominently featured her: not from a position of narcissism, but as a way to anticipate damage control. Breslin had somehow captured every moment of their meeting along Kings Highway five years before, contorting the truths into an admittedly admirable can’t-put-down volume of sensationalism, but she had left out the details about her involvement with Ted Gustoff, that Myrtle Beach cop buddy who she had benefited from off and on and a man who had likely tampered with the evidence. And why wasn’t that the real thrust of the book? No, Breslin had needed a patriarchal variation of the hooker with the heart of gold to sell her story and Ezmerelda Gibbons had served as the unlikely actor pulled from Central Casting. Breslin had clearly studied the Maggie Haberman playbook: reveal your big scoop in book form years after the world had moved on, serve as an ignoble and ethically compromised Goebbels type in your media appearances, and write your largely unedited copy as fast as possible to ensure that your competitors couldn’t beat you to the finish line. Those five disgraceful words “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” appeared in a bright gilded font under Breslin’s name on the front cover. Like Haberman, Breslin had even won a Pulitzer Prize. Sure, she could tell the world about how Breslin had seduced her into spilling. On the other hand, maybe Breslin had been lying about her college summer working as a stripper. But if she did that, she’d probably be accused of jealous mud-slinging, of rigging the narrative. But Ezmerelda had lived the events that Breslin had merely reported.
And now her phone was blowing up. Texts, emails, voicemails, DMs. Dozens of journalists from outlets, equally legitimate and shady, insisted that they were the ones who she had to talk to. She blocked all their numbers and social media accounts. The Toking with Elders channel had gained 500,000 followers in the last 24 hours, but with the burden of rubes flooding the comments with painful reminders of that final video, the one in which she’d gone down on that Wall Street dudebro who flaunted a folding fan of Frankllins, that she’d posted on OnlyFans and that caused her to permanently close her account and never do anything like that again. Which, of course, had made its way onto EverybodyFucks.com and was now being broadcast over and over on the TV news channels. Only a few years before, you’d get hit by an FCC fine if you aired anything like this. But the airwaves were now unregulated and FOX News and One America had been particularly malicious with their segments. Tucker Carlson did an entire twelve minute bit in which he stood up from his chair and ordered a production assistant to get on her knees and mime the actions. And that too had gone viral. Carlson’s boorish misogyny had resulted in a few white women holding Ezmerelda up as a feminist icon: the 2020s answer to Monica Lewinsky.
Why were the white people so obsessed with her? Even with all this happening, they still viewed her as a superficial token, a vessel with which to summon their strident and oh-so-predictable liberal anger. Even when white people claimed to sympathize her, they humiliated her and dictated how she should act. They were clueless about their tone policing and they couldn’t seem to understand the harm they were doing. But Black people? They were all on her side. Because they knew that any of them would face the same fate if one of their worst moments had been disseminated on the Internet.
So she’d have to contend — again — with the beady supercilious eyes of the knee-jerk throngs. Covertly racist rods and cones beaming from dull pork chop husks who refused to step foot outside of their affluent neighborhoods and talked loudly of real estate and avocado toast when they weren’t bragging about the one Black friend they knew that suddenly made them self-declared experts on centuries of racism and oppression. White heat had seared her soul from day one. Their privilege robbed her of dignity and cast doubt upon her identity. You were theoretically supposed to tough it out by growing a Teflon skin. But Ezmerelda couldn’t. And she had wept as she turned the pages of Breslin’s awful book, a tome that had been written to propel Breslin like a rocket into the media stratosphere. CNN was now in talks to hire Breslin as a rotating pundit.
What killed her was that Paul Van Kleason had been the one who had inveigled teenage girls and corralled animals for his depraved operation. Shouldn’t the focus on the literary Daves who had openly abused these victims rather than her?
She walked past the News Corp Building on Sixth Avenue with its ugly red news crawl splaying the headlines for all to see. Midtown was usually a place where you could walk with anonymity — no matter how well-known you were. It was why so many celebrities still lived in Manhattan. This was the only place in the world where only the superstars would be mobbed and anyone who ranked just below A-list could walk in relative peace. But she was getting looks. “Why do I know that woman?” was the question mark contained inside their eyes. She was about to hail a cab, knowing damned well that most would pass her by because of the color of her skin, when her jaw dropped at the latest headline.
TUCKER CARLSON, 58, ASSASSINATED AT HIS GASPARILLA ISLAND HOME BY FRINGE ACTIVISTS.
What the fuck? Sure, she hated this cruel demagogue with all her heart, but that didn’t mean she wanted him dead. Although she couldn’t deny the instant calm: the great relief and giddy elation that took hold of her in the same way that some struggling blue-collar type learned that he had won the lottery.
That’s when she noticed the hundreds of people angrily gathering at West 50th Street. Some held placards with her photo.
LEAVE GIBBONS ALONE!
TUCKKKER KKKARLSON IS DEAD! GOOD RIDDANCE!
BURN FOX NEWS TO THE GROUND!
BLACK LIVES STILL MATTER!
SEX WORKERS UNITE!
That’s when someone threw a Molotov. There was a fierce ear-piercing explosion. She dived to the sidewalk and looked up to see a police car in flames. No cars on Sixth. NYPD stormtroopers with mirrored faceshields and batons marched in a phalanx towards the protesters.
“Look!” cried one of the activists. “It’s her.”
She tossed off her heels and began running east through the Diamond District, with only the nylon protecting the bottom of her feet from the filthy concrete, passing a few Orthodox men in fuzzy shtreimels looking agape while desperately pulling down their steel gates to protect their shops from potential looting.
She stopped running when she saw the convoy of monster trucks: white men in flannel shirts crowded in ample cargo beds, all shaking their submachine guns and baseball bats into the air. Large American flags spiring and fluttering into the air. Their hateful threnodies were soon punctuated by bullets. More rounds per minute and much louder than anything she had ever seen as a Canarsie kid.
“Miss,” screamed a frightened man beckoning her with his hand and speaking in broken English. “You come in here.”
He was standing outside one of the many 24/7 two story delis in Midtown where blue-collar types secretly congregated at night to drink bottles of beer, blast Latin music at deafening levels, and slap down dominoes on tables that, only a few hours before, had been occupied by administrative assistants and receptionists on their lunch hour, quietly stewing over what had gone so horribly wrong with their lives.
“It not safe. I close gate soon. You come!”
And she scurried through the door as the steel covering rolled down with a peremptory thud behind her.
(Next: The Scandal of Unfettered Speech)
(Word count: 33,057/50,000)