There is a land that lies apart from us child, but a place we all too often dwell. It is a land of the infinite. A land possessed of an unimagined capacity for good. It is also a land of intolerable evil. This evil does not exist as one beast. They are many and they are hungry.
Among them dwells a creature not born of the gossamer of ones and zeros but of the flesh. A human creature. One whose avatar has devolved from the thinking, caring state we, the decent, occupy, to a base monstrosity of ignorance and arrogance, of malice and cowardice. This person has become the troll.
The troll chooses to live within the bounds of the infinite as a thorn. A thing that stabs and burns. A poison. Its list of victims is ever growing and their reactions are as unique as themselves. Some are like the oyster, the troll a mere grain of sand. It irritates, but the oyster can heal itself by smothering the painful stone within, suppressing the abuse. Some are like the skink. If wounded or cornered by the troll, they sacrifice their position like a tail to seek sanctuary. Still others are like the cricket trapped by the spider. Even a small sting causes their insides to liquefy and for some it can cost them their lives.
The most bizarre and pathetic aspect of the troll is that a reaction, though appreciated, is not necessary. Like cattle in spring when the grasses are plump and wet, it spews its filth at random on anything and everything nearby. Aiming at nothing and satisfied just to know that it has been done.
The troll is a monster. A vile creature and a villain. But we must always remember that the creature is one of us.
Our tale begins in the squalid bedroom of Charlie Fink. The bluish light of a computer monitor illuminates stale pizza festering in its forgotten box. It shines on the nest of clothes and blankets above what can only be assumed to be a bed. It glows from atop the filth covered desk of this analog lamb. This digital lion. Charlie exists in two worlds, two states, two forms. He is invisible in the world where real people with real eyes could see him. Insignificant and small, he affects no one but himself and the ones he loves. In cyberspace however, as <Sup3ri0r1>, he feels like a god.
This morning, like every morning, Charlie Fink wakes completely hungry, completely exhausted and completely human. At breakfast, Charlie the human makes small talk with his mother and afterward drives Tori, his teenage sister to school. Though his family has grown more distant with time, to them Charlie is still the son and brother who taught his sister ride a bike. Who helps his mother bring in the groceries with out fail. Who mows the lawn.
Charlie’s education consists of three morning classes at the local community college. He studies information technology but struggles because he is too shy to ask questions.
The lecture hall, filled with yellow light, pine veneer and the faint odor of sweat, is a squirming mass of disinterested, hung over, and overly eager students and in the middle sits Charlie.
“Are there any questions before we go?” asks the professor scanning the room for hands. Tomorrow’s test counts for 30% of your grade.”
Nothing rises but the bodies of the students as they flow away from their seats. The professor sighs with contempt for his wayward flock. The old man shoves books, papers, and notes into his brown leather bag but he is not quick enough. Charlie over several days, had built the courage to approach his teacher. To ask the questions for which he needed answers. Questions which would determine his academic fate that that semester. He opens his mouth and speaks.
“Um… for tomorrow’s test…”
“Yes, Mr. Fink”, says the professor. “I’m sorry but I’m in a hurry so you’ll have to ask quickly.”
“Yeah, uh, how many questions will there be?” asked Charlie. His face grows red as he realizes he had given up.
“Fifty. Now if that’s all…?”
“Yes, okay. Sorry to bother you.”
And with that the professor is gone and so are Charlie’s hopes of passing the class.
Charlie spends his next hour in solitary desperation working in the computer lab, trying to understand what he was supposed to have learned. Soon though, the itch grows. The needs build and he cannot help himself. Charlie makes his way home as the beast begins to take over.
This particular afternoon is spent working away at a video game. He is honing his skills. Not his skills at marksmanship or puzzle solving but instead his skills as the creature. For hours on end, no twelve year old’s mother was sacred nor their sexuality left unquestioned. Their pitiful young responses only fuel his hunger. With aching thumbs and full of satisfaction he leaves the arena sure of his mastery over these pre-teens. Now in the bluish light of his computer, he sets his sights on the comments section of a forum about cute cat pictures. No topic is safe. He can troll them all.
<CatmanRobin> Look everyone. I found this meme of a kitten catching a moth. What do you think?
His fingers fly in the dim glow. He can’t resist such easy targets.
The show begins. Insults are thrown around at will.
<Sup3ri0r1> Looks like all the spinststerz are out tonight. How long do u think it will take for your 90 catz 2 eat u when you die a virgin?
<Sup3ri0r1>Shut up geezer. Wut u mad? All I said was that u probably can’t wash the smell of cat piss off any more.
<Sup3ri0r1>WTF? Like I’m supposed to take orders from some sad, lonely losers. IMHO you all need to get some pillow cases and free up your lives a bit.
The abuse is rapid fire. These victims had only wanted to laugh at the large, white block letter quote that was so predictably superimposed over the darling photo in peace. The troll could not allow this. Someone must suffer.
At first they fought back. Lashing out with awkward attempts to employ reason. The troll is the antithesis. He transforms reason into emotion. <FancyFurrFace>, who began her retort with calls for tolerance for the opinions and likes of others, ended with name calling and threats to have <Sup3ri0r1> banned from the forum.
<FancyFurrFace> I know one of the moderators for this site. I could have you kicked off for good.
<Sup3ri0r1> 4 gud? 4 real? Well run to momma then if you can’t B a grownup on the interwebs
<FancyFurrFace> A grown-up? Look at you. You can’t even type.
<Sup3ri0r1> I typ gud. Wut are you sayin?
To the troll, such threats are like throwing treats to a hungry dog for a job well done.
The group tries to ignore Charlie. They dare to carry on with their discussion in spite of him. Of course this cannot stand so he picks a new, weak seeming target. The poor man is laid low for the mere suggestion that the cat in the picture may be a maine coon. The troll taunts his audience by stating that it is clearly a tabby and that the man is clearly an idiot and that his mistake is proof he is mentally challenged.
Seconds after he submitted that last comment, a response to his abuse leaps onto his screen. A new player in the game has emerged and <EdUc8r26> has chosen the side of the victims.
<EdUc8r26> What right have you to judge the life of another?
Charlie scoffs at this knight in shining armor, here to protect those in distress. This type was easy to handle. Simply target them and belittle them. At worst, they’d leave him alone. At best, they’d cower before him. His fingers fall to the keys, issuing a typical response.
<Sup3ri0r1> What do you care? He doesn’t need you to protect him. Watch out everyone. The nanny is back to spank us and tell us we’ve been bad.
He watches the small gray keyboard icon as it flashes to indicate that his opponent is typing. The game is on.
<EdUc8r26> Why do you torment the innocent?Why do you feed on their suffering?
Charlie can’t believe it. “Who says this kind of stuff anyway?”
<Sup3ri0r1> Umm, I can do what I want. What do you care?
<EdUc8r26> I care not for you. You are an insect but even an insect can damage. They can be deadly. When they pose a threat then there must be consequences. There will be consequences.
That response had not been anticipated. Charlie the troll turns defensive. He knows his rights in the land of the infinite.
<Sup3ri0r1> I can say what I want. The Internet is the wild west and it ain’t always kittens and rainbows. Quit being such a noob and get used to it.
The gray icon again indicates that his opponent is typing. This game is new. There is no fear, rage or irritation in the words of his opponent. Some emotion was always there. With out it, there was no reason to attack him. The troll cannot feed on a calm opponent. He likes his prey to squirm. He makes them squirm.
He had not experienced this before. The troll salivates at the challenge of breaking such an opponent but Charlie feels a tingle of unease begin to spread. This doesn’t feel right.
<EdUc8r26> I have been watching you Charlie. I know your words. I know your sins.
“This isn’t supposed to happen. It’s not possible”, says Charlie out loud to no one in the dark of his bedroom. He had been so careful. How had he been identified? His two identities had been linked by someone he did not know. The human creature is scared. He is losing control of the situation. How could this person know who he was? Emotions swell inside. Fear fills Charlie but it is anger that envelopes the beast. It is time for a new strategy. Denial.
<Sup3ri0r1> LOL Nice try. My name’s not Charlie. I don’t know who you think you are but throwing around common names hoping one will stick is a stupid move.
<Sup3ri0r1> What? Do you think this scares me? Oh no the boogey man. Help! LOL.
<Sup3ri0r1>What do you want?
This time it is Charlie writing, not the troll. Charlie needs to know. The troll inside would never let him back down or simply log out. The troll is always hungry. Charlie the lamb just wants to feel safe again.
The gray icon again flashes and the human creature stares into the bluish light of the screen, waiting.
<EdUc8r26> Your lesson begins now Mr. Fink.
Charlie the troll wakes in a room so black it is as if nothing exists. He can hear no sounds, save for the familiar hum of a computer. There are no smells save for the ozone smell of electricity flowing through that computer. There is no light until the blueish glow of a computer screen flashes to life. To Charlie Fink, his entire world is absent. To the troll known as <Sup3ri0r1>, the computer is the only home he’d known and it is a comfort.
Somewhere in the black void, beyond the dim light of the screen, a voice speaks to him. It is neither loud nor quiet. Happy nor angry. Male nor female. It is a voice and it is terrifying.
“Mr. Fink”, it says. “The acts you have committed against the innocent, the decent, within the realm of information have been watched and you have been judged.”
Charlie tries to turn toward the voice but finds that his legs, chest and neck are bound to the chair where he awoke. Trolls are also human creatures and so feel human feelings. Charlie feels fear.
His heart swells and shrinks in his chest at a dangerous speed. Chilled sweat runs down his forehead as he pulls and strains against his bonds. The tight leather strap that holds his chest makes breathing a short and desperate affair. He is not in control here. He is not on top. He is at the mercy of another. The bluish light of the computer burns into is open eyes. It is the only thing in this world beside himself, the chair and the voice. It is the only thing that feels real. In the expanse of black, it is everything.
The chair in which he is secured moves forward toward the lone table holding the computer. A single point of pressure pushes the chair but there is no pressing of a hand against the chair’s fabric or the heat of skin or the smell of breath. Charlie feels as if his heart is about to explode. He tries to see who was pushing him. Someone has to be there. They have to.
When his body reaches the point where his fingers can manipulate the keyboard the chair stops. The human creature sits breathless. The salt sting of sweat is now clouding his vision, withering any hopes of seeing his captor. He tries everything he can think of to escape. Everything but his voice. In desperation, he speaks.
“Who are you? What are you? Why am I here?”, he asks. The questions rushing out of him.
“We are Educators. You have been deemed a threat. Your threat level, though minimal to the realm, is not insignificant to its inhabitants. Atonement must be made for the damage you have caused. Your world will need to be effected. Charles Fink, troll creature, your lesson shall commence.”
Charlie the troll did nothing. He did not nod or speak. He could only stare ahead at the screen as if compelled to do so. The voice is now speaking from inside his mind. The straps on this arms release and slam against the side of the chair. The Educator instructs him to place his hands on the home row. It instructs him to log in to the computer. It then proceeds with the first steps of his lesson.
He is made to open the browser and create an account at a website for people who are fans of Dark March, a video game that is often the subject of ridicule. Next he is told to locate the thread devoted to the hero of the game. Finally, he is to find the most recent post made by <Tdogg99>. The person behind this username was a fourteen year old who worships the game and its hero, Sergeant Thunder. Charlie Fink, the troll is instructed to tear this person apart.
Charlie knows Dead March. He hates this game. He could not understand how anyone could like this game. His arrogance flares. Is this a joke? This is my lesson? He wonders, This is too easy.
“Your lesson has begun. Do as you are told,” says the voice in his head.
He feels his confidence surge and the troll inside comes clawing to the surface. He begins his work.
The first volley involves pretending to be a “noob” to the world of Dark March and Sergeant Thunder by asking simple, repetitive questions and feigning confusion over the answers. This tactic, used to enrage the victim, succeeds. Just as he knew it would. The teen signs out and Charlie the Troll is given his next instructions.
The human creature is next forced to create an account for the game Dark March and to seek out <Tdogg99>. He joins a team game with his quarry and kills his avatar over and over. He kills his teammates and loses battles for his team, all to build rage and frustration.
Charlie feels like he is being split in two. While interacting with <Tdogg99>, he is the troll and he feels good. He feels alive. During the search to track his target across the net, while he follows his captor’s instructions, Charlie is the one in charge. It is Charlie who feels the straps digging into his flesh and the bluish light burning his eyes. It is Charlie who entertains notions of being killed by the Educator. Notions of torture and agony and death. The troll feels only hunger. He is a digital spectre. The Educator cannot harm him. Besides, the troll is confident he can beat the Educator’s game.
There is no safe haven from the troll. The monster stalks Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and always finds his prey. Dark whispers within his head help him navigate the sea of information and no matter how remote the island, the troll always knows where to find <Tdogg99>. The poor child has been taken from annoyance to rage to hatred for <Sup3ri0r1> just as the beast wants. Anger and hatred make people want to fight and the human creature could win any war of words.
The trolling continues for hours. The first phase of his plan was complete. Next came intimidation. He threatens to find the child and attack the poor soul in real life. The creature promises to make it slow and painful. He promises that the child would be alone with no help in sight. His threats then steer toward family. <Tdogg99> tries to fight back. The troll is told that there is an older brother who will stand up to him. This meager attempt at defense only fuels Charlie’s lust. He had never before been in control of a victim so completely.
The Educator is still with Charlie. It still provides him with the exact Internet location of <Tdogg99> and it still holds him captive. Charlie however, now barely feels its presence. The troll has all but taken over and Charlie is but a vessel. The creature is making the plan. He is deciding how he will crush the child. It feels amazing. The pain and desperation is impossible to hide as Charlie reads each weak response. The anguish and desire for it all to just end is like ambrosia for this digital demigod and the troll wants more.
The final stage of this plan for total conquest centers on self doubt and it is being waged back on the Dark March forum. This time in a private chat. He would make his quarry question themselves. He would make this name on his screen question everything about their life. Charlie begins by yet again questioning <Tdogg99>’s abilities as a gamer. Next comes intelligence. The questions become deeper and darker as each reply email smells more and more of sadness and fear. Status with friends, prowess with the opposite sex, and accusations of depravity explode onto the screen. Each of these squalls are weathered but the teen is fading. The troll tastes victory. He hungers for it.
The troll drags <Tdogg99> down even further. His new target is the child’s place within the family. The troll hammers on ideas of being unwanted and unloved. It suggests that the only reason this young person is not on the street is because there is no legal way for the family to rid themselves of their burden. <Tdogg99> again tries to describe the love within the family. That the brother always says they were best friends. The troll insists that the teen was an idiot for believing those lies. That his victim must be mentally deficient for even thinking it was true.
At this point the troll, Charlie Fink, knows he has almost won. There is one final pillar to collapse. It is a place where Charlie Fink had never dared to go in the past but a place the troll now trudged with confidence. This human creature, staring at the final devastated shreds of his victim, convinces <Tdogg99> that their life is worthless, and that the child should probably just end it all.
The troll sits in his chair. He tingles at the thought of how bad his opponent must be feeling. At the pain and torture he has caused. He was above them and he had proved it. No response from <Tdogg99> is received.
The Educator instructs Charles Fink to search online for <Tdogg99>. To check every site where they had interacted. His victim is no where to be seen. He has won. He has beaten <Tdogg99>, the Educator, everyone. The troll’s satisfaction is absolute.
The voice of the Educator speaks again but is no longer in Charlie’s head. It has moved behind him at what seems like an impossible distance. Faintly, at the limits of his hearing, the troll is asked these questions.
“Human creature”, the voice says, “who is responsible for what has just taken place?”
Charlie barely waits for the voice to silence. He replies, “I am.”
“Who has done this damage to another?”
With satisfaction Charlie says, “I have.”
“Do you take full responsibility for your actions?”
This question causes a moment of pause for Charlie but not our troll. He knows that this is his greatest achievement. This is his masterpiece. He nods in agreement and after a deep satisfied breath says, “ Yes.” With pride he says, “This was all me.”
“Then the lesson comes to an end.”
The world around Charlie begins to gradually lighten. The bluish glow from the computer now shines against walls covered in familiar posters. It shines on the pizza box and the bed and it shines on Charlie Fink. The leather straps are gone. He is in his own room. Has he been there the whole time? He can’t say. Both hands come to his face and as he rubs, he tries to make sense of his experience.
There is a land that lies apart from us, child. We walk its paths and eat its fruit and drink in the splendor, the freedom, and the power. Though it is separate, this land is but a wave or wire away and what we do within the infinite often can have consequences that escape its bounds.
Charlie sits in silence, bathed in the bluish light of his computer, thinking about what an incredible job he has done. He thinks of his victory. He thinks of his skill. He thinks of himself. He basks in the total destruction he had wrought. Then the silence and the afterglow is pierced by screaming. A voice yelling, “Tori! Jesus why?, Tori!”
The human creature rushes from his room to find his step-father crumpled in a doorway down the narrow hall. Charlie is frantic. He pushes past the horrified man to find his little sister, his best friend, lying on the floor, cut, bloody, gone.
Charlie Fink, the troll, the human creature holds his sister and wails. His eyes search the room for any reason this could have happened. He can’t understand why his sister would do this to herself. She was a good kid. She was the best kid.
Finally the troll’s eyes catch the bluish glow of a laptop screen. He presses his sister, Tori, close to his chest as his eyes focus on the open Internet tab. Even though his vision is blurred by tears, Charlie Fink can read the name next to the blinking cursor on his sister’s unfinished chat post. <Tdogg99>.
Copyright J.Rushing April2017