by Cass Francis
Wide-Open Spaces, Huge Enough to Not Know
@anonyfuss was plagued by the thought that we all might be living in God’s worst reviewed creation, the one most hastily pieced together, a failed experiment left abandoned. The thought kept him up at night. Today it was really distracting him at work—he had once been the top bot creator, able to come up with details & quirks that made his fake social media profiles, used when customers paid for followers, come alive, undetectable to a platform’s security. He had been up for promotions. Up for raises. Up for the corner office. But today his muscles ached from the anxiety, his head ached from the sleep deprivation. He was stuck in his cubicle, earbuds in, listening to electronic swing & staring at a brand new profile he was supposed to fill out but instead thinking about God. @anonyfuss had always considered himself a good guy—not perfect but certainly all-American, God-fearing. But lately, today especially, he’d been thinking about how you just don’t know. Everything seemed too random & disconnected & fake to have holy logic behind it.
After all, @anonyfuss’s job was creating fake follower profiles for influential people who wanted more influence, popular people who wanted more popularity, rich people who wanted to get richer. He knew a thing or two about being fake.
It wasn’t evil, in @anonyfuss’s opinion. He didn’t feel passionately wronged by it. It all just didn’t mean anything.
He was forced to have an online presence for work, for research purposes, but before he’d gotten this job he’d been a hipster—though he wouldn’t have admitted it back then—& had stayed away from the internet in general, thinking it a corrupting force. It was all gossip, narcissism, hashtag overuse. He had wanted no part of it, though he’d of course had an email address & a few social media accounts just to keep up with friends & what was going on in the world, mainly wanting to know when people he knew of died.
But then there was this girl.
This girl who had, like Helen launching a thousand ships, led to @anonyfuss signing on multiple times per day, desperate not to miss a single post from her.
He had come across her on Twitter by accident. Somebody had tagged her, & on a whim @anonyfuss had tapped on her name. @Esther2pt0. Her profile was classy, elegant. No stupid puns, no goofy bio, no tacky Snapchat filters on her pic or some random animal pic in a misguided attempt to be ironic. Only her face, unadorned & simple & beautiful. Shimmering brown hair & eyes green with gray flecks, filled with joy. Her profile pic seemed to stare straight into his soul.
It reminded him that he had a soul.
She didn’t need a little blue checkmark beside her name to be special. But since discovering her existence & by default rediscovering his own, he had seen this awful fakeness that he hadn’t before thought much about. The whole world, God’s supposed creation, was tarnished in @anonyfuss’s mind because of this beauty he had found but couldn’t reach.
He wanted to move to Riley, Texas.
Texas, he pictured, was a place less tarnished by the internet—all those wide-open spaces, no place to plug in chargers. It meant new beginnings but also had a certain nostalgia. It was the Wild West. Manliness & the frontier & freedom. It was the perfect place for @anonyfuss, the lapsed hipster paid to create fake followers.
After all, nobody’s heroes had ever been pale, scrawny, spineless guys from Teasong, Massachusetts—people’s heroes had always been cowboys. & cowboys were from Texas.
Riley, Texas also happened to be the location on @Esther2pt0’s Twitter profile.
Still in his cubicle at work, he typed the town into Google Maps. He found pics of it on Google Images. It was medium-sized as far as population went, but it liked to bill itself as small, like everybody knew everybody & where any disturbing behavior from a neighbor was euphemized as “personal problems” & where the whole town shut down for parades every homecoming, Christmas, & Fourth of July. He looked at pics of the red sandstone, gothic-style courthouse, complete with gargoyle eagles & rippling Texas flags. Looking at pics of the historic downtown—most of the buildings built around the time of the Civil War—@anonyfuss could picture John Wayne walking out the front doors, & he could almost hear the twangy music that went along with old-time gunfights.
& yes, there were wide-open spaces. Plains that stretched for miles until the horizon dipped away into the sky & distance beyond, gray sunbaked highways cutting between pastures of actual, real-life spindly-fingered cotton, ditches with sprawling Johnson grass—@anonyfuss Googled whether Johnson grass was named after Lyndon. Everything that was American seemed to originate there. It felt like a place huge enough for God to have created. All those miles. The rusty barbwire & ramshackle barns & various majestic horses. @anonyfuss imagined himself more manly, more American, more real just looking up pics of this place.
He imagined texting his friends, his parents, “I’m moving to Texas.”
Putting a sign, handwritten, on his apartment door—“Gone to Texas.”
Walking into work & announcing to the rows of cubicles—“Y’all can go to hell, I’m going to Texas.”
But it felt wrong to think about. Yeah, those wide-open spaces would be free, but they’d also be lonely, with no distractions to keep his mind occupied & away from the fact that he was a fake & a liar & a creep & a coward. A creep, daydreaming about @Ester2pt0, a woman he didn’t even know, Googling the place where she lived & planning on moving there. & a coward—after all, he could so, so easily DM her, introduce himself & make the whole thing less weird. @anonyfuss couldn’t bring himself to do it. He stared at the pics of Riley & he stared at the empty profile he was supposed to be filling out until the pixels of the computer screen started to melt together in his vision, & he blinked & rubbed his eyes.
It was lonely & hard out in the country. That’s why those cowboys were always yodeling love songs to their horses—the loneliness had driven them batshit. @anonyfuss was barely getting by as it was. He didn’t want to go batshit.
As if his brain had a comment section, he thought about what people would say about him going to Riley. His dad commented that he couldn’t even change a tire—how long was he going to last on his own, hundreds of miles away? @anonyfuss’s mom commented, “Wouldn’t that be a lot of work?”—passive-aggressively implying that he wasn’t cut out for it.
He himself recalled his tender skin—easily sunburned—& how once a girl had asked him to kill a spider & when he’d seen it he’d squealed so much some pee came out, & how because of his asthma he was basically allergic to the outdoors.
“Don’t they shoot Yankees down there?” some old lady—@anonyfuss thought it might have been one of his own profile creations—commented, he imagined.
“You haven’t fired a gun,” said someone else.
“You have never even owned a pocketknife.”
All that wide-open space, though. @anonyfuss couldn’t stop fantasizing about it.
Later, at night, @anonyfuss sleepless in bed, the wide-open spaces & judgmental comments led him into thinking about God again, & thinking about God led him into thinking about her—@Esther2pt0.
They weren’t creepy thoughts, just sort of vague musings. Who was she really, outside of @anonyfuss’s mind or her Twitter profile? He knew better than anyone that social media profiles were dens of deception, basically socially-acceptable ways to walk around in disguise. He certainly wasn’t witty & entertaining in real life the way he was online. In real life he was petrified. He’d never been the guy at the heart parties, making everybody laugh with great stories or spot-on impressions. He’d always been the dweeb on the outskirts, nervously shoving nachos into his mouth, who got so startled if someone talked to him that he spilled chips & cheese dip all over the carpet. So who was @Esther2pt0 beyond the beautiful pic, the bio of a Taylor Swift lyric, the retweets of indie music songs & craft projects, & the location—Riley, Texas?
Did her hair get all frizzy when it was humid? Did bags appear under her eyes after a long day? Did she have some birthmark she hated? Did she ever feel lonely & lost & like an unanswered prayer, like God had forgotten about her?
Did she ever feel strangely unreal, fake, like she was not good enough for this world?
Maybe she got sunburnt easily. Maybe she had asthma. Maybe she was shy.
Maybe she dreamed of Teasong, Massachusetts the way @anonyfuss dreamed of Riley. After all, she had followed him back.
At work, @anonyfuss would set up the profiles he created into their own communities, liking & retweeting & commenting on each other’s stuff, a whole fake society that gossiped about politics & movie stars & supported each other as if they actually saw each other in real life. He did this because the more real the profiles behaved, the harder for the platform’s security to block them for being fake. Sometimes in order to better program how the profiles should act, he would imagine them outside of cyberspace. He would imagine them taking their kids to soccer practice or going to work or going out on dates at crappy restaurants they had gotten skewed reviews for. His mind was trained to think of the context around the profile. Now he couldn’t help but do this with @Esther2pt0, with his own “@anonyfuss.” He couldn’t help but picture it—the story of them. Them in Riley, Texas. Them running into each other in a Walmart or some gas station or the local library or some overcrowded coffee shop. “Howdy,” she’d say, being Texan. “Hi,” he’d squeak, being petrified.
& their eyes would twinkle into one another’s soul.
It would be love at first sight instead of love at first like.
Or there’d be no love at all. Just a shrug or an “excuse me,” & they’d drift apart. But at least—thought @anonyfuss as he rolled over in bed, staring at the wall, one leg sticking out from under the comforter & his head resting on his arm, tears smeared faintly enough to just be sweat across his cheek—at least for a brief moment it would have been something. Something that actually happened.
If they were his profiles, @anonyfuss would have already arranged a miraculous meeting.
That was why he wondered about God. If this world was His, He should have arranged a miracle already. @Esther2pt0 should have relatives in Teasong & have to visit. Or @anonyfuss should have some work-related reason to go to Riley. The universe should have arranged itself. It should have parted like the Red Sea, made itself open to at least the possibility of love instead of taunting @anonyfuss & maybe even @Esther2pt0—he wondered, he hoped—with all that distance, all that impenetrable wide-open space.
By the time he drifted off to sleep, @anonyfuss had already decided he would call in sick from work tomorrow. He would buy a plane ticket. He would go to Riley, Texas and see it for himself, if only to rid himself of the fantasy.
The bus smelled like dust and spoiled milk. @anonyfuss had butterflies in his stomach, gazing out the smudged window at the pastures rolling by—he was excited & scared too. He was out here in this unfamiliar landscape, & he could breathe, but every breath tasted like dust & spoiled milk, & the bus rattled as if at any moment it could burst into flames, & there were these families sitting somberly behind him, staring ahead as if they’d just come from a warzone. The kids weren’t squealing or kicking the back of seats or running Hot Wheels across the walls, the way kids were supposed to do. Everything was strangely silent. @anonyfuss was trying to resist the urge to get on his phone, so although he had his earbuds in to deter anyone from speaking to him, no music was playing. He hadn’t even taken any selfies or pics of the landscape. Didn’t even tweet about how crappy the trip through the airport was.
He just stared out the window & ahead in silence, like the stone-faced families behind him.
He took his earbuds out. A little girl was sitting in a seat across the aisle, a row back from @anonyfuss. She was swinging her feet a little & tracing the lines in her palms. She saw him looking and he instantly felt awkward & stupid & creepy, but he managed to wave & smile. She waved & smiled, albeit suspiciously, back. “Don’t you want to know something?” asked @anonyfuss. His voice was loud in the silence, despite the rattling of the bus, but the adult members of the families just sort of inspected him with bored expressions, detected no immediate threat, & went back to whatever it was they were thinking or trying not to think about. The little girl looked at @anonyfuss like he was crazy. She was probably right.
“Don’t you want to ask me what I’m thinking, or what I’m doing, or where I’m going, or why the bus smells like spoiled milk or why the sky’s blue?” he asked her. “All little kids I’ve been around, they’ve asked me all kinds of stuff. You can’t get them to shut up.”
“Pablo spilled milk on his shirt & now he smells even worse than normal,” said the girl, & a little boy sitting behind her kicked the back of her seat & she giggled. One of the adults scolded them in Spanish.
“It’s been a long trip,” said @anonyfuss, nodding at the girl & the angry-looking boy & the weary adults. One of them wore a necklace with a cross on it, resting flat against her stretched out-of-shape blouse. “Are you going home?” he said. He didn’t know why he was talking—maybe because he knew this bus would stop in Riley & he’d get off & never see these people again. Maybe he didn’t want to think about anything much right now, but wouldn’t let himself get on his phone to distract himself.
“We’re going to my grandparents’ house,” said the girl.
“That’s exciting,” said @anonyfuss. He tried to sound friendly—he wanted to be friendly, encourage the girl into speaking more. But although she seemed more comfortable with him now, the suspiciousness faded, she wouldn’t say anything else without his prompting.
He couldn’t believe he was bothering some random kid. He didn’t say anything else to her, instead looking back out the smudged window & disappearing again into his thoughts. He felt as he rode through these miles from the airport & the city & to Riley, he was riding further & further away from existence.
In real life, he thought, there aren’t any people who you know you won’t see again. They’re always out there, all these eyes following you, all these minds of strangers thinking about you, knowing you from a distance, commenting on your words & ideas & images. But that isn’t real life, he argued with himself. That’s fake life. Online life. Life swallowed up by the internet & social media & the digital world & spit back up as something half of what it used to be—something hollow. It was a world without God. A world made by man in which we escaped God but still weren’t satisfied. & now we roam around looking for realness as if we were real in the first place, as if any of this was real & not just a world created to be. To just be. @anonyfuss wanted it to mean something. He hated his own vagueness & fakeness but he wanted it to mean something.
He guessed he wanted it to be a love story.
He wanted it to mean love was still possible & had always been possible.
“Stupid. Sappy,” said the comments in his head. The bus continued to Riley—@anonyfuss started seeing the name on street signs. Twenty miles & then seventeen & then ten. He had heard once that the miles were always to the post office, not the city limit line, & he started to muse about that but was interrupted.
“Why are you so sad?” said the girl.
@anonyfuss was startled. If he’d been eating nachos he would have spilled the chips & cheese dip all over the floor. “What?”
“Why are you so sad?”
“I’m not sad. I’m… pensive. It means I’m thinking.”
“Well you should stop thinking then, if it makes you sad.”
One of the adults said something to the girl in Spanish that @anonyfuss couldn’t follow but assumed was to the effect of, “Stop bothering that strange man.”
For awhile they were silent. Then the girl whispered. “Are you going home?”
“No,” said @anonyfuss, whispering too even though the adults were watching, too weary to really care. “I’m visiting a friend. In Riley. Have you ever been there?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
She didn’t know, she said, & was telling the truth. @anonyfuss was a little in awe of that—a little jealous too. How could she not know? After all, @anonyfuss had spent the better part of three months since first seeing @Esther2pt0’s profile dreaming of this place, of Riley, Texas, looking up pictures of it & semi-seriously planning moving there. He had gotten the call yesterday morning before work that his best friend from college had been decapitated in a car accident under the overpass off I-45, & all @anonyfuss had been able to think about was Riley, Texas & @Esther2pt0 & God. He had barely thought about his friend. His friend’s sister had called & @anonyfuss had become so lost in thought that he had even forgotten to ask when the funeral would be. It was incredible—that this girl didn’t even think about it, that she might have been in this place he had built up in his mind & she didn’t even know.
It was okay for her, @anonyfuss realized, to not know.
Still, if this were the right kind of world, if it worked the way it had worked years ago & in movies, he would come to this realization & in a grand gesture of passion for his life & universe he’d throw his phone out the bus window, into the tawny, beer-yellow grass of the ditch & pasture outside. He’d then, being human, being real, regret it. He’d beg the bus driver to pull over, to stop, to let him out, & once he stumbled off the narrow steps of the bus he’d go running back along the crumbling faded gray asphalt. He’d spend hours, searing through the sprawling grass, the dust of the field & the muck in a thin line in the ditch, for his phone. & meanwhile, as he searched, head down and mind buried in his task—so focused on getting his phone back he saw nothing of the real world—the real world would intrude. A rusty old pickup truck would pull over. A woman would step out. Not @Esther2pt0—he wasn’t that much of a romantic, & besides, he felt like a creep now for even knowing her name, which would make any meeting between them unbearably awkward. & this real woman with the pickup truck would go over to him searching. She would watch him pulling back grass with her hands on her hips & a smile on her face. Then she’d say something. “Howdy,” maybe, thought @anonyfuss.
Or, better yet, it wouldn’t be a hometown woman at all. Maybe it’d be a woman who had decided on a whim to go to the middle of nowhere like him. Maybe even a guy—just someone as lost as @anonyfuss. & they could go have a beer, & he could tell his ridiculous story about this digital courting of @Esther2pt0, & then he could just go back home, changed.
The bus rattled onward. The street sign said four miles to Riley.
Cass Francis is a pen-name, and he is from Waxahachie, Texas but currently lives in Lubbock, and believes he has always been a West Texan at heart. He attends Texas Tech University, pursuing a PhD in Media and Communication. He holds an MFA from the University of Central Arkansas. His poetry and fiction appear in several literary journals, such as WORK, EcoTheo Review, and elsewhere. He can be found on Twitter @WriterCFrancis.