“Did you see her in the debates?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Maddy. “I made it into a drinking game. I drank every time she spoke.”
“She’s just so sexist,” said Kirby. “How can a woman be that sexist?”
“Hey,” she said. “We can do anything you can.”
We were in the Sic Bay. It was New York University’s unofficial student health center, which was preferable to the actual Student Health Center, because Kirby only charged for the weed.
Kirby was a grad student in the NYU School of Medical Technology. He was going to be a repairman for robot surgeons. “Until they learn how to repair themselves,” he always added.
He and Maddy lived in Rubin, a residence hall overcompensating with ivy so thick you could barely see the brick beneath its leaves. You could still smell it. Rubin was so infused with secondhand hops that, on a hot day, the bricks smelled more like loaves of bread. It was the cheapest housing on campus, because the antiquated structure couldn’t support central cooling. On a hot day, you were lucky if all you could smell was beer.
I lived in the Bobst Library and Computer Lab.
NYU had recently gotten caught up in a ponzi scheme. It was the Pyramide Inversée of the Madoff scandal, which no one liked to talk about, so of course, it history repeated itself. Tuition went up. So did housing. I lived en plein air for a while, but it was hard enough being homeless in New York City even before Central Parking paved over the green roof to make room for more cars.
When the Bobst Library closed in the small hours of the morning, I hid in the bathroom. The security guards never swept the stalls. They never policed their butts either, so there was always something to smoke while I waited.
I slept during the day, but it was a college library, so they were used to that. I woke up screaming, but they were used to that too.
“You should hire a bodyguard,” said Kirby. Even Maddy looked confused by the non-sequitur, and she got an A in Non-Sequiturs I.
“They don’t have that category on Craigslist,” she said.
“Not Craigslist.” He started pacing. “The dark web.”
After Campus Public Safety found out about the death threats, they did a few extra bike-bys of our building. Kirby said that was bullshit. Maddy said it was “about as useful as cupping a corpse.”
She explained the idiom, but that led to a whole new series of questions, including how long she had been Jewish, and what exactly went on when her people sat Shiva.
I raised my hand. “What’s the dark web?”
“The dark web refers to any website hosted on an anonymous network like Tor. It’s technically legal, in a read-the-fine-font sort of way, but the websites that exist on it are not. You can buy anything on the Silk Superhighway with enough digitally laundered currency. You remember that girl who sold her kidney to buy an iPhone? It’s always harvest season on the internet. People who view this item also viewed drugs, guns, and kiddie porn. You can even hire an assassin. The Unicoder will make it look like an accident for anyone who refers a friend. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he’s totally dark net famous.”
“No, Miriam,” said Maddy, without looking up from her phone. “We aren’t hiring The Unicoder. He only has two stars.”
I lowered my hand.
“I could be your bodyguard,” said Kirby. “For the right compensation.”
“Don’t be a pig,” I said.
“Would your parents pay for one?” asked Maddy.
“I doubt it.”
To be fair, of all the ways I could have disappointed my parents in college, I don’t think they had considered “starting a cult.”
The Gift started as a side hustle. Kirby designed it for me, and coded it in BASIC, despite my initial confusion and offense. He had three side hustles: App designer, Uber Driver, and sous chef, or as he put it: the real triple threat.
The Gift was an app combining witchcraft with psychology. The name was a reference to DEAR MAN GIVE, an acronym from the Dialectical Behavior Therapy module on Interpersonal Effectiveness: Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce, Mindful, Appear confident, Negotiate. Gentle, Interested, Validate, Easy manner.
After the Gift went viral, I had to Urban Dictionary my own slogan. Apparently “Dear man, give,” was a versatile expression that could contextually mean any of the following: Yes, no, maybe, and exclamation of victory, a greeting, an insult, or a request for sexual services.
I started full-fidelity Dialectical Behavior Therapy three weeks after my first panic attack. Three days into first module, my parents took me off their insurance. I didn’t qualify for the university’s health plan, because I was taking less than twenty-four credits per term.
Anyone could be a witch, but their persecution (and prosecution) had always been a feminist issue. Early witches were just women who said “no” to men.
The Salem Witch Trials were mostly the result of misogyny (and hallucinogens). Although only twenty people were executed in Salem, compared to the scores of thousands in France, Germany, and England (the Spanish Inquisition had insisted that ordinary standards of evidence be applied).
In 1967, the Yippies levitated the Pentagon. (Hallucinogens were probably involved on this occasion as well.) During the 70s, W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) and other feminist groups chanted slogans such as, “We are the daughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.” In 2017, a neo-W.I.T.C.H. group was formed for the Women’s March.
Historically speaking, the popularity of witchcraft tended to peak during periods of social unrest. The Cold War brought Wicca, Dianic Witchcraft, and cultural appropriation. The Orange Scare brought emoji spells, and more cultural appropriation. After they took our health insurance, it was only a matter of time.
The Gift went from seventeen downloads to seventy thousand overnight, and the hits just kept coming. Per day, I averaged fifteen autograph requests, thirty kiss requests, half a dead animal, and two marriage proposals. My death threat count had dropped to five. They were very flattering death threats too. Most of them only wanted to kill me so they could absorb my power.
I had everything I’d ever wanted, except for sleep.
“How did you do it?” Kirby asked.
I blew a smoke ring. “It must have been the deal I made on Craigslist. This guy had a listing under Mobile App Promotion, but he insisted we meet at the corner of 5th and Couch, at night. Instead of payment, all he wanted was a picture of me. What was his name? Ugh, I’m so bad with names, and he had so many.”
“That was one of them.”
Maddy blew a smoke dragon. “Your strategy seems to be working, Miriam.”
“Strategy?” I repeated.
“Your strategy.” She spoke louder, as if I was deaf or Siri. “Taking a break from social media.”
“Oh, that strategy.”
“The internet is calling it your vow of silence. You’re maintaining the air of mystery around the Gift. It helps that the only thing you ever post on Twitter are pictures of cats. Of course that won’t work forever. You may have to hire a ghostposter. Try to get the one who works for the Kardashians. I think they just won a Pulitzer.”
“I have a question,” said Kirby.
“Just one?” I asked.
“Is this all psychological, or do you actually believe in magic?”
I shrugged. “You can’t believe in nothing.”
Maddy snapped her fingers. “Enigmatic. Good. I don’t think you’ll need a ghostposter.”
“Of course I can,” said Kirby. “It’s called atheism.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, you can’t believe in nothing. There’s no such thing as nothing. Even in a vacuum, there are particles and antiparticles and they are inherently unstable, which is probably what caused the Big Bang, but we don’t know. We don’t know what happened before the Planck epoch. We don’t know why there’s no such thing as nothing. We don’t know why we exist, but we do, and we’re complex enough to question the nature of that existence. That implies inherent meaning. We may not know the meaning of life, but we can’t deny it. We are not an accident.”
Maddy snorted. “Speak for yourself.”
I ate dinner by the campfire light. I had started the fire all by myself. For kindling, I burned dry branches. For tinder, I burned dry leaves. And my hair, but that was an accident.
Dinner was a life hack for campfire-grilled cheese sandwiches. I didn’t understand why they were called life hacks when they were supposed to be easy. Hacking was harder than it looked. There were only two windows, one progress bar, and no time limit. And the progress bar turned out to be Kirby’s music.
Although to be fair, I almost started a forest fire.
I stayed in the Catskills until the new president took office. Then I turned around and drove west. I didn’t even stop to eat. Drive-thrus seemed safer. Of course, Taco Bell backfired since I had to stop three times after that.
I drove until we ran into water or Border Patrol. Then, like a Roomba, I did an about-face and drove in the opposite direction. Along the way, there were rest stops, supply runs, and open road. The white noise of the electric van’s fake engine. The white noise of the news.
It started small. In Texas, a woman was refused service at Starbucks because she had a pentacle on her shirt. It was Captain America’s shield.
Her case didn’t even make it to the Supremes, but it was a benchmark. Witches had separate bathrooms and water bottle filling stations. They even had their own schools, which were not as nice as Harry Potter led them to expect.
Maddy led the protests, so she was the first arrest.
The president repurposed several government facilities to serve as correctional camps. They were supposed to “provide a remedial setting for aggressive therapies,” and that was the PR version. The camps used aversion therapy, administering drugs that made people sick and then showing them tarot cards. The suicide rate was off the roof.
The Kardashians’ Pulitzer-winning ghostposter got herself sent to the camps on purpose. She managed to release some footage before “committing suicide.”
I wanted to help, but it was hard to get a Twitter account verified when you were a fugitive from justice.
I patted myself down before leaving the van. Wallet, phone, keys, knife, knife, knife, knife, knife. Drive-thrus seemed safer, but sometimes you just had to enjoy the supersized things in life.
Another old man was taking the ball pit too literally. The children were crying into their french fries— as if the sodium content wasn’t high enough already.
No one noticed when the Unicoder drew his gun. It was an antique revolver. A financial statement piece. Point and click.
No wonder he only had two stars.
“I’m going to sue McDonald’s,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be the first,” said the Unicoder.
I drew my athame. The ceremonial blade was traditional in design, double-sided and black-handled.
“You really think you’re going to do any damage with that little pigsticker?”
“Let’s find out, pig.”
He ruined the moment by laughing.
“Hey, I have a question.”
“Just one?” he asked.
“Why do you do it?”
He shrugged. “It’s a side hustle.”
“I meant Uber.”
“Oh.” The Unicoder blinked. “Easy to make it look like an accident. A lot of people refer friends. More than you might think…. Miriam?”
I had that feeling— when you knew there was something that you were supposed to be doing, but you couldn’t remember what. In this case it was breathing.
I was having a panic attack.
Lucy Mihajlich lives in Portland, Oregon. Her first book, Interface, was chosen for the Multnomah County Library Writers Project, where it appeared on the list for Best of the Library Writer’s Project 2017.