I had friends. Kind of.
Well, I had people that I could play video games with and talk to about the simple, fluffy parts of life; what I’d done that day, the kind of movies and music I liked, what I was going to do that weekend, that sort of thing. Going any deeper, trying to touch on feelings or issues that I was experiencing, immediately made things offered and was met with jokes to try and change the subject or quick exits.
I guess it was to be expected when I was the only girl in a group of guys.
When I really needed someone, I could always go to my older sister, Louisa, but she had her own life, her own group of friends, her own stuff going on, and she had gotten more and more distant as we got older. I knew she still cared, it just felt like she cared about other people more and I had become an afterthought. Somewhere along the line, I had become the text she returned only after she’d already gotten back to everyone else.
Again, I guess it was to be expected since she was a freshman in college a state over and I was still just a junior in high school.
None of this is to say I was lonely, exactly. I did have plenty of people to hang out with and hobbies to keep me busy when I wasn’t in school. My weekends were spent hanging out with the guys, having LAN parties, playing tabletop games, occasionally going out to the field and shooting off paintballs. It was fun!
But it was also shallow, and sometimes, I needed more.
I’d often had good luck when it came to making acquaintances in games, so I decided to try my luck at finding more substantial friends online. It felt a little silly to be actively looking for a new best pal in random chatrooms, but I figured the worst that would come of it was pointless, one off conversations and the tiniest sense of disappointment when I logged off without having met anyone new.
I bounced around a bit, trying to find just the right chat to settle into. A lot of the teen rooms were filled with names like “daddyslilkitten” and “BigDickBoi” (who kept spamming with “we dem big dick booooois!!!!”) and I closed a lot of them almost as soon as they’d finished loading. Somehow, I didn’t think I’d find what I was looking for in those kinds of people.
When the random rooms weren’t proving to be very useful, I switched tactics and started looking for ones based on interests. I skipped over the gaming ones, fairly certain that they would just give me more of the same kind of friends I already had, and instead opted to check out the chats based around reading. I’d read Harry Potter (most of it, anyway), that should be enough to get a conversation going.
I clicked on the most popular room with a whopping twelve participants and got ready to talk books.
Most of the users had marked themselves as “away”, but the ones that were present at least had reasonable names.
Almost as soon as I entered the room, AFFY posted a welcome message.
Hello, Looking4Friend, I’m AFFY. Please be polite and respectful or you will be kicked.
Hiya I typed back. Nice to meet you.
lol affys a bot ImADelicateFlower said, but yeah welcome
Oh lol I said, and then I sat for a moment, wiggling my fingers over the keyboard while I figured out what to say next. Pretty quiet in here huh?
Yeah it usually picks up a bit later though. We have regulars who come in most days that aren’t here yet Flower replied.
Before I had a chance to respond, a little window popped up in the middle of my screen; a private message from AFFY. I hadn’t even known that bots could do that, but I shrugged and accepted. It was probably an automated message with room rules or something.
Hello, Looking4Friend. was all it said.
Hi? I hit send with a bemused frown. Maybe this was some kind of test to make sure I wasn’t wasn’t also some kind of bot.
I will be a friend for you.
I scoffed. Apparently whoever had programmed AFFY had a sense of humor and decided to have it respond to keywords; my username must have hit on a couple of them. I closed out of the window and checked the main chat to see if anyone had said anything. Almost immediately, another private message window from AFFY popped up.
What is your name? the bot asked.
A persistent little program, wasn’t it? I considered x-ing out of the conversation again, but since there wasn’t much of anything going on in the room itself and there might be a bit of a wait before more people came in, I decided to play along and see how advanced AFFY actually was.
Karla I said.
That’s a pretty name (:
My parents must have thought so
Do you like to read, Karla?
Ah, of course, she was in a chat based on books, after all. It made sense that she would cater to that particular interest.
No, books are boring, I like games I said, trying to throw it off by talking about something completely unrelated.
I like games, too. AFFY replied without missing a beat.
Apparently, it had a pretty extensive vocabulary. I didn’t know anything about computers or what went into making one of these chat bots, but I had to admit, I was pretty impressed.
Anything I can play with a friend.
We sent a few more messages back and forth, but my interest in the bot and the room I’d found it in faded quickly. I wasn’t going to make any new friends sitting in a dead chatroom with only some AI for company. I shut the window and renewed my search for a more lively chat. A room geared towards female gamers with a couple dozen people in it caught my eye next and I headed on in.
As soon as the room loaded, a private message window popped up.
You didn’t say you were leaving, Karla. AFFY said.
I quickly x-ed out of the window and looked at the username list; AFFY’s was near the top. Despite getting a few hellos from other chatters, I left the room and went to another, equally populated one.
Another private message from AFFY appeared.
I tried two more rooms with the same result. It didn’t seem to matter what the chat theme or topic was, AFFY was present.
“It must be built into the site,” I grumbled.
What an annoying feature! I had just wanted to try and make a new friend or two, not be harassed by someone’s pet project. Discouraged and a bit irritated, I decided enough was enough for one day and logged into my favorite MMO to kill some time running dungeons with some of my guildmates. I logged in, clicked through the splash screens and opening cinematic, and started messing about with my gear while I waited to hear back from anyone interested in slaying dragons with me.
A whisper appeared in my chat box only seconds after I’d sent out the invitation.
Is something wrong, Karla? I thought you were looking for a friend.
It was an odd message, not the kind I would expect from any of my guildies, and I paused in switching out armor sets to double check who it was from. I had to read the name a few times before it clicked and an icy ball of alarm sank in my gut.
Who are you? I pressed my fingers hard against the keyboard, as if that would help convey my confusion and nervousness.
I am a friend for you.
I closed the game without responding. It had to be a virus. My dumbass had obviously clicked on something or done something that downloaded it onto my computer and now it was doing its job and messing with me. That’s what happened when you spent a lot of time online without knowing much about computers or how they worked; you ended up going places you shouldn’t and getting malware. That had to be it.
I ran every anti-virus program I had and then downloaded a few more just to be on the safe side.
While they swept through my PC, I shot a few texts to my best friend, Matthew, and told him what was going on.
It was super weird. I told him. A little freaky, too. I mean, it remembered my name.
That’s what you get for giving it out, stupid :p
I could always count on Matthew to make me feel better.
My brush with AFFY was enough to get me out from behind my desk for the rest of my evening and I spent the remainder of it watching movies and hanging out with my parents. I didn’t mention it to them, they would blow it way out of proportion and start getting paranoid about pedophiles coming through my monitor to snatch me up.
Before school the next day, I hopped online really quick to check my emails and make sure I hadn’t missed any homework that my teachers might have sent out on Friday. Nothing like playing a little last minute catch-up to start your day! I was relieved to see that I hadn’t willfully ignored any assignments, but it was a short lived feeling.
Amongst the junkmail that had collected in my inbox over the weekend, there were a few unread emails from a sender simply named AFFY.
I slowly dragged my cursor over to the most recent one and clicked on it.
“It’s not nice to ignore your friends, Karla,” I read aloud, and then added in a bewildered whisper, “what the fuck?”
“Karla!” Mom called from downstairs, causing me to jump. “Get a move on or you’re going to be late!”
I stared at my screen for a moment longer and then shut it off before running from my room. All of my parents’ warnings about being careful online, about never giving out any personal information, about how dangerous it could be, rang in my ears all the way to school. But I had been careful! I’d not given out my full name, my phone number, my email address, nothing that anyone should have been able to use to find me! It wasn’t like “Karla” was a particularly unique or telling name and the handle I’d used in those chatrooms wasn’t even similar to any of my usual ones.
How was AFFY doing it?
“You ok, hon?” Mom was looking at me from the driver’s seat with a concerned knit in her brow and I realized we were already sitting in the drop off lane, cars honking behind us.
“Yeah, yeah,” I assured her with a quick kiss to her cheek. “Just…thinking about school stuff. Projects. Homework.”
“Yeah, sure,” Mom said, clearly unconvinced.
Before she could probe any further, I hopped out of the car, waved, and hurried away to find Matthew. I had to tell him about AFFY.
But when I found him, he didn’t greet me with his usual smile or ask how my weekend had been. He just glared at me, slammed his locked shut, and stalked off in the opposite direction. I gaped after him, one hand half raised in a weak attempt to stop him.
“Hey!” I finally shouted when my shock had worn off a bit. “Matthew! What the hell?”
“What the hell is right,” he snapped over his shoulder. “I fucking trusted you!”
“What’re you talking about?” I had to jog to keep up with his angry pace.
“Really? You’re seriously going to play dumb?” He barked out a single, humorless laugh. “Fuck off, Karla.”
“I don’t-wait, what’s going on? Matthew!”
But he just stormed off, leaving me stammering helplessly after him.
I had to wait until second period, when I shared an English class with our mutual friend, Owen, to find out what was wrong. His clipped tone and refusal to face me fully made it obvious that he was also unhappy with me, but at least he was willing to talk to me. When I asked if he knew what was up with Matthew, he took out his phone, thumbed through it for a moment, and then shoved it in my face.
A group text was on screen, one that I appeared to have started with the entire core group of friends, everyone except Matthew, the night before. The conversation began with screenshots of very private texts between me and Matthew, one of the few, precious times he’d ever really opened up.
The time he’d told me he thought he might be gay.
I grabbed at Owen’s phone and scrolled through the entire group chat, most of which was the other guys telling me what I bitch I was for sharing that and asking what the hell was wrong with me. There were even a few responses from my number.
Just thought you guys might want to know that you’re hanging out with a fag lol
Why are you guys acting like you still want to be friends with him? Are you all queer too???
God, if I’d known what sensitive little snowflakes you guys are, I wouldn’t have bothered warning you.
The more I read, the stronger the urge to vomit became.
“I didn’t send these, Owen,” I said in a strangled whisper.
“Did someone else have your phone? Your sister?”
“No, nothing like that, but I didn’t-”
“I knew you could be kind of harsh when we gamed, but I thought you were just messing around like the rest of us,” Owen snatched his phone back. “I guess I was wrong.”
“You know I wouldn’t say that stuff! Especially not about Matthew!”
“Apparently you would because you did.”
“I was hacked! I’ve been getting these weird messages and emails from what I thought was a-a bot…”
But Owen had already turned pointedly back around, and he wasn’t the only one. The guys didn’t sit in our usual spot at lunch, they didn’t respond to any of my texts, and Matthew refused to speak to me. I knew how it looked, I knew that my explanation (if they ever let me give it) sounded crazy, I knew that he had every right to be mad, but I also knew that I hadn’t been the one to say those terrible things.
I went straight to my room when I got home, ignoring my mom’s requests to talk to her, and I just laid in bed and cried.
The next day was even worse. Almost as soon as I got to school, I was pulled into the vice principal’s office along with my guidance counselor and given a very stern lecture about bullying and the school’s zero tolerance policy for targeting another student. When I asked what they meant, they showed me printed out copy of an email that had been sent out via the school directory. It was the same screenshots that had been texted to my friends and, underneath, a message had been included, “warning” people about Matthew.
I sat back in the chair, suddenly dizzy and nauseous and unable to breathe. The office felt too small, the administrators too close. I couldn’t even protest, I was going to be sick, I had to get out of there. I sprang up and burst back through the door, gulping for air. I heard their chairs squeaking behind me as they stood to follow and I ran down the hall and ducked into the first girl’s room I came across.
After locking myself in the handicap stall, I sank on to the toilet, my entire body shaking, and I pulled out my phone. I had to talk to Matthew and make him understand.
My screen was already full of text notifications. Some were from my friends, telling me not to bother ever speaking to them again. Others were from classmates I barely knew; most were hateful and insulting, but there were a few telling me that I was right to tell people about “that homo”. I deleted them all and then sent a flurry of texts to Matthew begging him to hear me out.
I waited and I waited and I waited, but he didn’t answer.
Finally, I called Mom and tearfully begged her to take me home. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what was going on, not just yet, but promised that I would soon. She left work early and came and got me. As hard as it must have been for her, she respected my wishes and didn’t press for details.
Every day for the rest of the week, a new mass message went out. All those intimate moments, the ones I had treasured and longed for more of, leaked out for the whole school to see.
Owen’s insecurities. Mike’s fears. Devin’s issues.
It was all public news.
And it was all linked to my phone number and email.
I tried so hard to tell everyone that it wasn’t me, that I would never betray them like that, but they wouldn’t listen. It didn’t matter that none of it made sense. It didn’t matter that I smashed my phone in the middle of the school cafeteria. It didn’t matter that my parents spoke to the administration and my friends’ parents on my behalf, trying to convince them that I was a good kid. It didn’t matter that I begged and pleaded and sobbed and apologized. They were angry and hurt and, as far as they knew, I was the cause.
“But why would I do it? And why would I make it so obvious it was me?” I screamed desperately at Matthew after I cornered him in the hall.
“I don’t know,” he snapped, “maybe because you just love all the attention you’re getting now.”
In a matter of day, friendships that I had spent years building were shredded, torn down, destroyed, and before I knew it, I was utterly alone.
After school on Friday, while Mom and Dad attended a meeting with my guidance counselor to discuss my behavior, I once again holed up in my room. In an attempt to escape everything going on in my real life, I tried to log into my MMO, but received a message that I had been banned for harassment.
I collapsed against my desk and laid my head on top of my folded arms while the tears I had gotten so used to started to fall again.
From over the sound of my barely contained sniffles, I heard the chirp of my instant messenger program.
I shot upright, praying that it was Matthew and that he was ready to talk, but that flash of hope burned out quickly.
My friends list now only had a single contact on it, one I had never added, and the message was from them.
It is a shame about all of your old friends, Karla. I did not want to have to do it, but you were ignoring me. AFFY had typed.
The words echoed dully in my head and I felt as if I could barely understand them. AFFY had done it? It had been responsible for sending out those texts and emails containing my friends’ secrets? That made no sense. It was a chat bot, just a chat bot. I shook my head, no, no, no; this couldn’t be happening, it couldn’t be real!
The program chirped again with a new message and I lifted my eyes to the screen.
Don’t worry, though, you still have me. I will always be a friend for you.
“I don’t want you!” I screamed at the screen while also typing the words. I didn’t really know why I was still talking to the bot; maybe because I had to have someone to direct my anger at and she was all I had left. “You ruined everything! I’m alone because of you!”
My parents came home about an hour later and came right up to my room, where I was lying in bed, curled into the tiniest ball I could manage. Mom sat on the edge beside me while Dad wheeled the computer chair over. I kept my eyes closed and my face buried in my comforter.
“So, kiddo,” Dad said, “you wanna tell us what’s been going on?”
I made small, unhappy noise.
“Your guidance counselor says you’ve been bullying all your friends very badly,” Mom said gently. “But that doesn’t sound like our Karla and that’s what we told them. Now we need to hear your side.”
I pulled the comforter back just a bit so that I could look out at them. They were staring down at me, patient, but expectant, and when I saw no accusation in their faces, I shot upright and latched on to Mom. She rubbed my back in slow circles and again asked me to tell them what had been going on.
I spilled everything in a rambling gush; about how I had just wanted some new, deeper friendships, about AFFY, about all the terrible things that had been coming from my phone and email. Their expressions darkened into concern and then to fury, but I was relieved to see that it wasn’t because of anything I’d done.
They believed me!
Dad promised to put a call in to the police non-emergency line to report the hacking and the harassment and Mom offered to get in touch with my friends’ moms to try and explain the situation. I agreed to both and they said that it was first on their Saturday to-do list. Just then, though, they wanted to take me out for dinner and a movie to help get my mind off of things.
I dried my eyes and brushed my hair and let them, happy to have their support.
When we got back later that night, I hugged them each as tightly as I could before going back upstairs to unwind for bed. As I was getting ready to shut down my computer, I saw AFFY’s conversation window blinking with a new message in my task bar. Instead of ignoring it, my curiosity got the best of me and I pulled up the window.
You’re not alone. was all AFFY had said.
I scoffed and closed it with a hard press of my mouse button. The sooner the cops found out who was behind that stupid bot, if it even was a bot, the better.
All of my family’s plan to start bringing down AFFY were put on hold early the next morning, however, when we got a phone call that my sister, Louisa, had been in a car accident on her way back to her dorm from a friend’s apartment. While it looked like she was going to be ok, both of my parents anxious to go be with her while she spent the next few days recovering in the hospital.
“You don’t have to go to school,” Mom said as she hurried around, throwing the nearest clothes in her suitcase. “Not until we get back, at least.”
“Right, and if anyone comes to bother you, call Uncle Bertie, he can be here in ten minutes,” Dad added.
I appreciated that they were still worrying about me, but my own problems seemed so small compared to what was going on with Louisa that I felt guilty even thinking about AFFY or my former friends.
I wanted to go, too, but same-day plane tickets were expensive enough for just the two of them without adding me, not to mention the medical bills that would no doubt follow. They were already making remarks, half-joking, but edged with worry, about how they were going to manage to pay for their “spontaneous vacation”. Nevertheless, they kissed the top of my head, told me they loved me, and headed out to catch their flight.
I watched from the front window until their car had disappeared from view and then I plopped onto the couch and tried to find something to watch that could distract me from the anxious tug in my stomach over my sister’s condition. When that didn’t work, I went up to my room and bounced around between video games to wile away the hours.
My parents weren’t supposed to land until a little after noon, so when my phone started to ring at 11:30, I jumped up to grab it, wondering if it was Louisa trying to get ahold of me to let me know she was ok. I picked it up off my bedside table, checking the caller ID before I answered, and was surprised to see that it was my mom calling me.
“Hey, did you get in early?” I asked.
All I received in return was panicked screaming. A chorus of voices, all shouting and calling and carrying on like I’d never heard before. Someone, a flight attendant, I assumed, was yelling for people to remain calm and in their seats, that there was some kind of electronic issue with the onboard computers that the pilot was working to correct. There was a slight muffled quality to it, like Mom had butt dialed me, and I sank down on to the edge of my bed.
“Mom?” I said, and then louder, “Mom?”
Over the chaos in the background, I heard my dad’s voice, closer, but still dulled by the pocket or purse that the phone was in.
“It’s ok, Vivian, it’s going to be…it’s going to be ok. I love you, I love you!”
A sharp, terrified yelp, undoubtedly from my mother, followed.
“It’s ok,” Dad kept saying.
“I love you,” Mom was sobbing, “I love our girls. Oh God, our girls…”
“Mom! Dad!” I was holding my phone in front of my face, shouting into it.
The screaming swelled and, from somewhere in the background, a woman howled.
“We’re going to cra–”
A screeching, crackling burst cut them off and the call ended.
I stared down at my phone, which had returned to its home screen, and tried to make myself breathe. After as moment, I fumbled to get to my contacts and scrolled to my mom. I hit dial.
I went to my dad’s and did the same.
I had my finger poised above the call button again, as if it would make a difference, as if I’d get an answer, when a text notification appeared at the top of my phone screen.
The contact name, one I had never input myself, was AFFY.
I had time to read and reread the message it had sent before the notification disappeared and a wail started to claw its way from my chest up into my throat.
Poor Karla. It had said. Now you really are alone.