The Snowball Effect
Daniel L Link
You’ll know better than to trust them. When they approach you, a little voice in your head will whisper, “Why me?” and you’ll know there’s a catch. They’ll be so impressive, and you’ll want so much to be what they’re looking for. You’ll need to remember that. This way, you won’t be able to lie to yourself.
When it occurs to you how much you’ve screwed things up, you’ll be on a street in a sea of people, clutching a bloody dagger, your arms covered in blood to your elbows, and you won’t be able to do a thing to take it all back. The little, “Why me?” voice will be back with a vengeance, and only you will know the truth.
But that won’t be for a while. When it begins, not the true beginning but your beginning, it will be a sunny day, the kind that reminds you of summers when you were young. You’ll be outside your building huffing on an e-cig and reminiscing about the days when you could still smoke the real thing. They’ll find you there on the sidewalk trying to avoid dipping your new shoes in pigeon shit.
“Hello.” It will be a man in a gray suit—expensive, classy, but not too showy. “Can we talk a minute?”
The other half of we will be a woman with curly black hair and a face the color of turned cottage cheese. She’ll be wearing a suit, too, but hers looks like she slept in it. She’ll leave the speaking to the man in gray.
“Sure,” you’ll say.
“You work in there?” He’ll point to your building. “On lunch, am I right? I’ll make it quick. I represent IRL Worldwide. We’re interviewing for new participants.”
He won’t need to ask if you’ve heard of IRL. Their show, You—In Real Life, will have been the most-watched program on YouTube for six years by then. In real life and in your feed, the show that will launch Deanna Lamonica and Joe Bunn and Crazy Eddie Marinette. The ultimate reality stars, people who’ll become famous for being famous.
Gray Suit will see you’re star-struck. He’ll take advantage, throwing numbers at you faster than you can process. “Fifty a day for the first million hits, twenty-five for each additional million. The fewest hits anyone’s ever averaged in a year was seven million a day. That was Stacy Brainard, and I’m sure you remember what a drip she was. That’s seventy-five grand a year for being yourself.”
“Wow,” is all you’ll be able to think to say.
“You bet your ass wow. You start pulling Crazy Eddie numbers, we’re talking thirty-eight million a day average his last three months. That’s three-hundred grand in a year, not counting what he made in endorsements.” When you don’t respond, he’ll look to his backup. “What do you think, Suzie? I think this is the look we’re going for. Is this the look?”
“I think it’s the look,” Suzie will say in a nasal voice that makes you back away a step.
“You see? You’ve got the look. You’re young, attractive, single, and professional, but still you’ve got that edge about you. You could pull in some big numbers, believe me. Quit your job and move to the Hamptons numbers.”
“I don’t want to quit my job,” you’ll tell him.
“Perfect. You see, Suzie? What did I tell you?” He’ll smile and shake your hand, his hand locking onto yours like a steel trap. “You passed the test, kid. IRL isn’t about getting rich and floating off on a yacht. It’s about real people, in real life. That’s all we want. What do you say?”
He’ll be locked onto your hand, pumping away, and that little voice will be going off while you look at his eyes and perfect teeth and tell yourself he’s not to be trusted, but you’ll nod your head all the same.
Six months from that day you won’t even notice the drones following you, you’ll be able to ignore the shouts of the horde shuffling after you as you walk down the street, and you’ll never read the comments viewers leave on your feed. The only thing you won’t be able to ignore is the number of hits you get.
But that won’t be for a while. At first, you’ll spend too much time in the bathroom, because bathrooms are safe zones and the drones won’t be able to follow. It will cost you a dollar for anything over five minutes, but you won’t care. You’ll need the private time to think, time away from the whisper of their engines.
Gray Suit will warn you not to watch your own feed, but you’ll do it anyway. You’ll freak out when your numbers dip after the first week. You’ll wonder what you’re doing wrong.
“It’s always that way,” he’ll assure you, while you sit on the bathroom floor clutching your phone to your ear. “They’ll level out after the first couple weeks. Even Crazy Eddie had the second-week slump. Don’t worry, kid. You’re going to be great.”
Gray Suit will tell you to treat it like a game—the people, the drones—take them in stride. You’ll try, but the problem is there are no rules. It will take longer getting used to a game with no rules.
Your co-workers will stop talking to you. Gray Suit will have warned you about that, too.
“They’ll start talking to the drones. Nothing you can do. It’s human nature. When they know the world is watching, they won’t be able to help themselves. It doesn’t mean they’re not your friends.”
They won’t be your friends, but you never thought they were. Family will be a different matter. Your father will think you’ve made a terrible mistake, but your mother and sister will be thrilled. They’ll start dropping in unannounced, and they’ll be wearing fancy clothes, and they’ll bug the shit out of you, but there won’t be anything you can do because they’re family.
They’ll hint around about money but nobody will ask for a loan straight out, not with the drones hovering. After your cousin Janeen catches you in a bathroom and hits you up for a couple hundred because her loser ex, Larry, can’t make child support, you won’t allow yourself to be trapped in a safe zone with any of them.
When the hits level off, you’ll be drawing eight million a day on average. The extra couple hundred a day will be nice, but you’ll start thinking of ways to pump your numbers. Gray Suit’s advice: start dating.
“What could it hurt? Guaranteed upswing as soon as you start seeing someone. Might even jump up higher than your week one numbers. New love plays well with all demographics.”
“This is my life we’re talking about,” you’ll say, but you’ll start to doubt yourself.
Your first couple of dates will be boring—an insurance agent you meet at a sushi bar and a personal trainer from your gym. They’ll both claim to have a great time and swear to feeling some deep emotional connection with you, but you’ll catch them peeking at the drones. It isn’t until you meet Jordan that you’ll feel like you’re making progress.
Jordan will be tall and lean and everything you’re looking for. The perfect combination of smart and funny, not to mention photogenic as they come. Your first date will be perfect too, fun and easy and charged with nervous tension. When you kiss, Jordan will mime blinders, hands on both sides of your heads between you so all you see is each other. You’ll kiss and neither of you will peek at the drones. You’ll go home and forget to check how many hits your feed got.
Two weeks after meeting Jordan, you’ll be certain you’ve found your soulmate. So will the rest of the world. You’ll have thirteen million people a day telling you they hear wedding bells. They’ll love Jordan almost as much as you do.
“This is great,” Gray Suit will tell you. “That kid’s good, almost as good as you. That thing with the blinders, the fans are eating that up. You might be able to drag this out another couple of months before the numbers start to drop again.”
“What’s that?” you’ll say. “I thought this is what everyone wanted.”
“It’s great for now, but these things can only go on so long before people start wanting more. That’s the way it works. You need to always add on to what you’ve done to gain momentum. It’s called the snowball effect.”
“What more can I give them?” you’ll ask, but you won’t want to know the answer.
It will look like he was wrong at first. The numbers will continue to climb, but when you get engaged they’ll spike, then plateau, then drop like a stone. You’ll pretend it doesn’t matter, but when they hit six million you’ll be devastated.
They’ll only come back after you’ve left Jordan. You’ll have your best two weeks while the two of you fight in your apartment every night, the walls closing in on you as your life plays out live for thirty-six million, a new record for a Wednesday.
“This is because of them,” Jordan will scream and point at the drones for the first time. “Isn’t it?”
You’ll open your mouth to answer, but you don’t have one.
After Jordan, you won’t date for love. You’ll date for ratings. You’ll start being less picky about your partners, bringing home different lovers three, four nights a week. Sure, your mother and father will be watching, but you’re averaging nineteen.
Everyone will start being nicer to you at work after the breakup. Gray Suit will have predicted it. “People are always on your side when the chips are down. Now that you’re playing the field, they’ll love you even more. They can look down on you and still treat you like they’re your friends—best of both worlds, really.”
For a few weeks, life will be full of new friends and first dates. You’ll think of Jordan, but when you hit forty-two million it gets easier.
You’ll become obsessed with the numbers, studying Crazy Eddie back-feeds in the bathroom, hoping for inspiration. You’ll start drinking. People are always more interesting when they’re drinking. Soon, you’ll be spending your nights out gambling or street racing or wrestling in oil, and you’ll start to fall asleep at work.
“No one will be able to do anything about it, kid,” Gray Suit will tell you. “With the whole world watching, they won’t have the stones to fire you.”
This time he’s got to be wrong, you’ll think, especially after tumbling from a cab in front of the office, still drunk from an all-night party and wearing the clothes from the day before. Your feed will be playing on the jumbo monitor in the lobby. You’ll be a mess, but they won’t say anything, just turn off the screen and tell you to have a nice day. You won’t have a nice day.
The parties will get old, the wrestling, the risk-taking. People will display limitless potential for boredom. It will wear on you, too, but when the numbers plateau again you’ll become desperate for a way to break fifty million.
“How can I step it up any higher?” you’ll ask, and as always, Gray Suit will have an answer.
This would be a good point to remind you that he’ll never lie to you, never twist your arm. Everything that will happen, you’ll make it happen. That won’t help you, but it’s important, you realize, when the time comes.
“You’re a sensation, kid,” he’ll say. “You’ve got the whole world watching. You’ve got a thousand people waiting outside your apartment building every morning for a look at you.”
“So?” you’ll ask.
“So, use that. The reason they watch, the reason they follow you is that they want to feel like they’re a part of something. Give them what they want. What do you say?”
Interacting with your entourage won’t come easy. They’ll shy away from you at first. When you pull a young nerdy type from the crowd and plant a full kiss on her lips and the two of you rush back to your apartment, people will look on, horrified. No one will have done that before, not even Crazy Eddie. You will create a new kind of reality, one in which they might not only flash across your feed, but maybe take part in it as well.
People won’t honk at you or yell your name as much. It will still happen, but more often, they’ll look at you with reverence or be incapable of making eye contact. Some will be wearing t-shirts with your face on them. Others will be carrying signs. Pick Me Please, We Love You, and the like. One will catch your eye—Anarchy In Real Life.
“Is that what this is?” you’ll ask, but no one will answer.
Your fans will prove useful. When you walk out of your apartment, a hundred people will try handing you a coffee, or food, or something stranger. One will give you a handful of hair. You’ll get marriage proposals and gifts and money. And drugs. Lots of drugs.
Your people will love you, but others will say you’re corrupting society. A lady will step from the crowd and throw a bag of blood on you, tell you it’s the world’s blood and it’s on your hands. That won’t bother you. You’ll tell her the world put you where you are, so how can that be your fault? She’ll be carried from the crowd and beaten by a mob of your followers while others rush to provide you with new clothes.
“You’re doing fantastic, kid.” Gray Suit will tell you afterward. “You’ve topped forty-eight million every day this month. That’s unprecedented.”
Why? Because you’ll take your morning shower in the fountain in the plaza? Because you’ll snort some coke off the counter at the police station? Whatever the reason, it will work, and you’ll become a phenomenon.
Things will get out of control. The game with no rules will become a life with no rules. You’ll learn to enjoy the unpredictability of it all, tell yourself as long as no one’s getting hurt it’s still a game—entertainment, nothing more.
The old favorites will start new feeds, capitalizing on your popularity. Gray Suit will warn you that you could suffer a slight dip, but this time he’ll be wrong. Your numbers will climb as the world tunes in to see you and Joe Bunn and Mad Maxine Preston try to one-up each other. It won’t worry you until Crazy Eddie joins the Anarchy circuit. That’s when things will get, well, crazy.
You’ll be ten months in by then, as desensitized to the attention as you’ll ever be. You won’t even recognize yourself at this point. You’ll walk by a mirror and have to check your feed to be sure it’s really you you’re seeing. Still, a tiny shadow of that, “Why me?” voice will be crying to be heard, one warning you that there’s no way to keep escalating without something going wrong.
When Eddie hurls a Molotov cocktail into a moving van and smashes an eight-foot store window with a bowling ball, you’ll wonder why he’s not arrested. He’ll have an entourage, too. They’ll shield him from the police, a force of thousands—the perfect bodyguard. That will give you ideas.
You’ll kill animals. You’ll eat your own shit. You’ll chop off the tip of your pinkie finger. That will hurt like a motherfucker. It will keep you ahead of Eddie in the numbers, too, but only until he paints half of his body with kerosene and lights himself on fire. That will make him a legend.
You’ll find yourself wishing you’d thought of that. You won’t mean it, not really. No one wants to be burned. But Crazy Eddie will do it, and he’ll have pink bubble gum scars over half his face and scalp. It will make for a trendy haircut that all the teenage boys will be sporting by the end of the week.
The day he burns himself, Eddie will have one hundred and eighteen million hits, and you’ll be right behind at one-fourteen. Everyone will want to see your response, but you won’t have one. You’ll be in your apartment, an army of followers outside watching your feed as you replay Eddie’s thirty-seven times, unable to believe your eyes.
You’ll take a day to gather yourself. No rush, since Eddie will be out of it awhile. It won’t hurt his ratings, surprisingly. He’ll never get less than eighty million while he’s on the mend.
Gray Suit will call and talk numbers, but you’ll hardly hear him. You’ll know the numbers better than he does, but you only care about the hits, not the financials—you’ll have so much money you won’t know what to do with it.
You’ll have used your people for everything—slept with them, done drugs with them, had them erect a statue in your honor. They will even tear apart and torch your office building for you. When you come up with the idea, you’ll neglect to tell them to let your former co-workers out first, but they’ll be watching your feed so most of them will make it out unharmed. It will be nearing the end of your year, and you’ll need to think of something spectacular. There will only be one thing left to do.
Over a hundred and fifty million will watch the announcement. Your people will bring a PA system and a podium, and when you start talking they’ll go so silent you’ll hear the whirring of the drones.
“My last day,” you’ll tell them, “I will choose one of you to give the ultimate sacrifice, live, and in real life.”
The whisper that starts in the crowd will make you wonder if you’ve gone too far, if you’ve miscalculated. The pitch will rise and the whisper will become excited chirping. Then a chant will start up in a two-on, two-off pattern that reminds you of high school basketball games, rippling through the throng and gaining in intensity. PICK ME, PICK ME, PICK ME.
They’ll have wild eyes and red faces and they’ll be dripping sweat, and you’ll realize you own them, every one of them.
“That was great, kid.” Gray Suit will be full of ideas. “Maybe we can do a lottery, make this thing a big production. And maybe instead of one, maybe we should have a few. What do you say?”
“Killing one person isn’t enough?” you’ll ask.
“How do you plan on doing it? Throat slash might be nice, except a razor might not show up too well on camera. Maybe something bigger.”
You’ll picture yourself laying waste to ten at a time, cutting swaths through your fans with great sweeping arcs of a broadsword. You’ll get a chuckle out of that, but you’re not a broadsword kind of person.
The morning of day three sixty-five will be sunny and bright, and you’ll rise to find a hundred thousand people in the street—that’s what the newsfeeds are guessing. It will be more people than you’ve ever seen. You won’t go outside, won’t walk among them. Not yet.
Crazy Eddie will be calling you small-time, saying when he’s better he’ll kill ten, twenty people, he’ll break a bear loose from the zoo and fight it. He’ll say that, but you’ll know he’s nervous. He’ll see you’ve got over two hundred million watching.
You’ll wait until nightfall to go out, and when you do, the crowd will be in a frenzy. The thunderous cheer will start when you step forward, dressed in white. They’ll scream themselves hoarse and you won’t be able to silence them.
PICK ME, PICK ME.
When they stop, you’ll feel an odd calm, and you’ll pull a knife from your pocket—a long, gleaming dagger you hold up so the drones can get a good look. Tapping the knife against your thigh, you’ll walk toward the waiting horde, and they’ll part for you. You’ll scan the faces, the people who used to be husbands and students and mothers and aunts, but who’ve become a collective mind gone insane.
You’ll hear sirens, but they’ll be too far away to concern you. There will be no way to get to you through the mass of people. Two helicopters will circle overhead.
A face in the crowd will draw your attention, a teenager with the Crazy Eddie haircut and a T-shirt with your face. You’ll think you’ve found your sacrifice, and you’ll go to him. But as you get there, someone will cry out from behind, and you’ll know the voice.
“Don’t do this.” Jordan will look like hell, gaunt, with dark eye circles and greasy hair. “This isn’t you. Everything else that’s happened, you can come back from, but this…”
You will have been thinking the same thing, but you won’t admit that. “Go away.”
“No. You’re better than this. This is crazy. You’ve got to see that.”
Either Jordan will step forward or the mob will fade back, until there’s only the two of you, with a hundred thousand amorphous faces behind you, watching on, cow-eyed.
“You’re almost free,” Jordan will say. “Just a few more minutes and you’ll have your life back.”
The “Why me?” voice will return, a tiny whisper, but insistent. Something in your face must give it away, because Jordan will rush forward and grab you by the shoulders.
“Remember this?” The sign for blinders, hands up, giving you tunnel vision and blocking out the rest of the world. “It can be like this again.”
Your little pocket of calm will be broken when someone steps from the crowd and hits Jordan in the back of the head. Jordan will stumble forward, falling onto you, onto your knife. The blade will go in easy, too easy. Warm blood will pour over your hands, and a smell like ozone will fill your nostrils.
Jordan’s shocked expression will startle you; the roiling feeling in your belly and the sickly smell of all that blood will turn the voice from a whisper to a throbbing roar. When Jordan goes down on one knee, you will as well, placing a hand over the wound and saying, “Stay with me. You’ll be okay.”
You’ll call out for a doctor, but none will step forward. You’ll scream, “Please help,” but no one will. You’ll hold Jordan and wail, the drones circling, coming in close, close enough to see your crazed reflection in the eye of the camera’s lens. Then a little alarm will ring, coming first from the drones, then from a hundred thousand tiny screens—day three hundred sixty-five will be over.
Only when Jordan has gone limp in your arms will a man step from the crowd and tap you on the shoulder. It will be Gray Suit.
“Fucking phenomenal, kid. I can’t believe it. You just broke half a billion.”
Jordan will still be warm and you’ll still be sticky with blood when Gray Suit says this. All the one hundred thousand gathered around you will be staring at your feed on their screens to check the numbers. They’ll all hear when he says IRL Worldwide wants to sign you for another year.
A chant will start among the crowd. “ONE MORE YEAR. ONE MORE YEAR.”
You’ll look down at Jordan, at the blood covering your white shirt and pants, the dagger by your feet.
“Just name your price, kid,” Gray Suit will tell you. “What do you say?”