I made a noise somewhere between a groan and a sigh as Nicki Minaj began blasting in my ears. I slammed my fingers onto the keyboard, shutting off the offensive noise, and then picked up the phone to check who was calling me at 3:30 A.M. It hadn’t even been an hour since I had finally fallen asleep, and I wanted nothing more than to ignore the call and go back to sleep. Caution got the better of me though and I pressed the “accept call” button, keeping my eyes tightly closed against the phone’s backlight. Before I answered the phone, the last thought that ran through my head was of murdering the person on the other line if this was a call from California by a friend who’d forgotten the time zone difference again.
“Hello?” I grumbled to myself about how unfair life was and tried to stay awake for long enough to hear a response.
“Is this Pry-ank-kaw?”The woman sounded unsure of herself. I braved the light and opened my eyes to squint at the phone number on the display. +14084785248. I had no idea who she was. I was getting angrier now as the thought that this could be an outsourced telemarketing call came to me.
“Yeah, this is Pryanka,” I said as I corrected her pronunciation. “It’s past 3 in the morning, what is this about?”
A pause. Then, “Do you know Paul?” Just like that, no introduction, no apology. I racked my brain, trying to think of why this woman would call me about Paul. Did I even know a Paul? I started with my circle of immediate college friends. No Paul. I expanded outward to acquaintances and classmates. Still no Paul. I thought back all the way to high school as well, just to be safe, but couldn’t remember a fucking Paul. There was definitely no man by the name of Paul in my life, especially not one worth waking up this early in the morning for.
“No. Good night.” I responded abruptly and then hung up, closing my eyes and relishing the dark as my hand slid my phone under my pillow to muffle the sound. It sounded as though I had heard what sounded like a strangled sob on the other line right as I hung up. I began to doubt my decision in groggily regarding it as a prank call – what would cause her to cry? I was positive that she had cried, not laughed. So if it wasn’t a prank and she wasn’t laughing, I couldn’t fal back asleep without knowing why she had called me. My eyes were closed, but sleep eluded me as I tried to figure out why she had been so distressed and, more importantly, why she had assumed that I knew this Paul character. I snuggled into my bed and curled up to block the cold, but even the added warmth didn’t help my drowsiness come back. I had an 8 A.M. class the following day, and my frustration grew more and more with every passing second that I was not asleep.
My mind was drifting back to the land of dreams. Thoughts strung loosely together, beads of faint, old snapshots. I drifted happily between the flashes of faces, events, and places until suddenly, my body rushed headfirst into a solid wall of concrete memory. Realization dawned and I knew just who Paul was. Paul was on my forum! My breath caught upon the revelation and I fully awoke once more, this time to a nagging question.
Paul was a boy who once frequented my forum. Neofreaks.org, a forum dedicated to gaming. Primarily based on Neopets, the virtual pet site, Neofreaks also had sections for general chat, programming, graphic design, and debate. Somewhere along the years however, it had devolved into a site for nerdy high school and college students looking for homework help. We posted funny college stories and laughed at one another’s PUI’s – posting under intoxications. There was a core group of about 50 of us users who frequented the forum daily. I considered these fifty to be close friends of mine, people who I had essentially grown up with. These were the people who knew about my frustrations, my first kiss, my weird dreams, my adventures, my drama. But if you wanted to know where Paul fit into this equation, you would not find him in the group I called my friends. Paul, he’d become a troll.
Now those of you familiar, even in the slightest, with forums, may have smiled – or even laughed – there. A forum troll can be the best and worst kind of entertainment. Members love egging on a troll, administrators do not. I was a moderator on this forum, and a troll, however humorous, was extremely irritating. If you compare the troll to a slug, then you will understand the persistence with which a troll likes to leave its mark. Paul jumped from one thread to another, insulting and harassing members on every single one. The posts being reported were overflowing, and the disgruntled moderating team was getting exasperated. After claiming that the forum owner, a 20 year old junior studying at Oxford University, was actually a narcissistic bastard, he created another thread to prove, at length, how one of the moderators had an uncanny resemblance to Eeyore. He even went into the trouble of finding her Facebook account and providing detailed picture-by-picture comparisons between the two. I had developed some serious hatred toward Paul as he continued to break all of our rules. If we banned his account, he came back with a new one. If we banned his IP Address, he came back under a new proxy like the persistent cow that he was. I was amused and horrified by how thoroughly immersed he was in the art of trolldom. He had done his research.
Paul hadn’t always been this way. Upon joining the forum, he had become an active member. He had over 500 helpful posts and had begun to develop the reputation of a regular. We were getting to know him. There’s a truth here that I’ve been avoiding – I had really liked Paul. He was two years younger than me, but that didn’t stop me from adding him on AIM and talking to him nearly every day. It was mostly talk about Neopets, but there were times we would veer off and debate politics. Other times, we would get into discussions about a really good song we’d heard, a new book we had read, or even a new movie we’d watched. He was a genuine friend in my eyes. I added him on Facebook, we even Skyped a few times. Meeting these people over the internet took the edge off a lot of new relationships. I was able to talk to these “online friends” about things that I would not necessarily drag my “real life” friends into, and it helped that no matter what else was different, we all shared a general gaming interest. But as time went on, my friendship with these people had strengthened immensely, and the categorization of people into either of the two branches of friendship, real and online, became exceedingly difficult.
For example, after having known Steve, the forum owner, for the previous four years, I considered him a friend. I’d been around when he was still High School. We had encouraged him when he was stressed over his college interviews, and we had congratulated him when he posted the Oxford Interview questions. Two years younger than he, I had stared dreamily into my screen as he spoke of creating algorithms on the spot for the Interviewing professor. He was my inspiration. Still is. Steve was a friend in every sense of the word – because he couldn’t physically hug me, he offered his support through other means. He was our academic guru.
I had the same problem many of my forum friends had when it came to distinguishing between our real life and our online friends. Bearing in mind that I had spoken to many of these people, texted some frequently, and even met a few for lunch once or twice, I walked a treacherously thin line. Paul was no exception. Over the course of several months, Paul was beginning to cross that invisible line if I didn’t keep a strict handle on our conversations. Nothing would have escalated into the drama that it did if he hadn’t began to like me though. I couldn’t see myself dating somebody younger than I was, and Paul was still just a boy to me. He lived in California, I was getting tired of staying awake until 4 A.M. to talk to him, and I wanted to stop things before they progressed any further. Rejection was only half of the reason he turned bad though.
For the other half, I give credit to Kai. She singlehandedly turned a boy obsessed with me into a forum troll that hated my existence. Where Paul had been a normal member upon joining Neofreaks, Kai was a nuisance from the start. Not a week after she had joined, she had latched onto Paul as her new target. She made it obvious that she was interested in him, flirting heavily with him on every single thread they posted on. She turned his comments into sexual innuendos, and lost no opportunity in flaunting herself. The Post Your Picture Thread we had running in General Chat was soon overrun by various pictures of her, many in the unflattering MySpace and mirror picture poses that were, and still are, unfathomably popular. I was disgusted by her behavior, but I was even more disgusted by how eagerly Paul responded to her. I still don’t know how, but she convinced him that he loved her. The two trolled every now and then, but it would be a harmless jeer at some deserving newbie, so the moderators didn’t pay it much attention. The trolling became more obvious as they became more and more infatuated with each other though. After two months of getting on everybody’s nerves, she confessed that she loved him. Of course, Kai had to sensationalize everything she did, and the day after the two had become an official couple, her forum signature flaunted four lines of “PAUL I LOVE YOU,” each line increasing in size and obnoxiousness of color.
I was tempted to ask Steve to ban neon signatures and edit the forum rules, but he refused to do so. I was annoyed and told myself that I should keep out of the mess and lay low. Every time I acted and tried to right what Kai and Paul did on a thread, they would sabotage three others. The spite was purposely directed upon me. I remember breaking down in tears talking to a friend, an online friend of course, about the whole situation. It was one big and terrific mess that I had no idea how to escape.
Kai lived in London, Paul in California. That didn’t stop the two of them from believing they were soul mates though. Maybe they were. At first, I was glad that Paul was no longer talking to me every day. I thought I had finally rid myself of his obsession, but Kai wasn’t going to make it so easy for me. When I slept, London trash talked on every single active thread on the forum. When I was awake, threads were plagued by California trash.
I was livid. I couldn’t believe I had been friends with Paul.
Kai’s personality was deathly and charismatic. Once she had selected her prey, he had no chance of escape. I saw close friends of mine fall into her evil ways in front of my very eyes. Jacob, whom I had affectionately called Kubby and taught Photoshop years ago, now complained behind my back how he thought I was arrogant. Wizard, Andrew, Dru, whatever you want to call him – he had fallen in my eyes too. These were friends and members who had adored and respected me. Now, they purposely wreaked havoc on the forum, trolling as much as they could without letting themselves be banned. It’s a time on the forums we still talk about. The moderators had never been busier – we spent all of our free time for several weeks doing nothing but deleting threads and issuing warnings, infractions, and even temporary bans to the offending users.
And then, three weeks later, they all stopped just as abruptly as they had started.
It was a relief, but it was strange. At this point, we were so used to seeing everybody’s rude replies to one another that the relative peace felt hollow and unreal. I found myself thinking wistfully of the time when I actually had threads to delete and users to ban. I don’t know what caused the change of heart but I was so hurt by his actions and disloyalty that I wanted nothing to do with him anymore. He stopped bothering us, and slowly, Kai and Paul slipped away from my concerns.
Let’s bring the narrative back into the present. I was in bed, wide awake, reminiscing over Paul, Kai, and their cronies. I’d been on this forum since 2006. I remember having my forum friends help me pick out the perfect Sweet 16 dress. I remember being proud of how true and steadfast these same friends had proven. My forum generation was, for the most part, in College now. If I recalled correctly, Paul and Kai would be in their senior year of high school. I don’t know why Paul had decided to come back into my life – I hadn’t properly spoken to him in over a year – but here I was, staring at a phone number with a Silicon Valley area code. I wasn’t dreaming. I fumbled for the phone I had shoved under my pillow several minutes ago and called her back. Call it curiosity or concern, I wanted to know what was going on.
She picked up. Before she could say anything, I told her quickly, “I know Paul.”
I heard several ragged breaths. She didn’t speak, so I continued. “Who are you?”
I lay there rigidly and silently, waiting for her response. Began counting in my head and got to five before I heard a hoarse voice. “I’m his mother.”
I scoffed and nearly laughed. “Kai, if this is some idea of a sick prank, I’m really not in the mood. Don’t call again.”
“Excuse me,” she said, her voice a little firmer this time, “I’m Paul’s mother.”
I waited for Kai to switch back to her real voice and tell me that this was all a prank and I was being charged international rates for ever second I wasted listening to her breathe. The words I heard next were not those I was prepared for.
“Paul’s in a coma. He..he,” she paused as if to compose herself and continued, “he tried to kill himself.”
I blinked, let out a gasp, blinked again. The world did not change. Of course I wasn’t fond of Paul. Of course I hated Kai. That didn’t prevent the news from shocking me all the same – this was somebody who I knew. This was somebody whose voice I’d fallen asleep to once or twice. This is somebody who once considered me his friend. This was the same Paul who had blown kisses to me on Skype. The same boy who had told me how much he really wanted to meet me. The same boy who’d had such conflicting feelings for me before. And he was in a coma?
How could that be possible. Bad things only happened to people I didn’t know. Occasionally, a friend of a friend of a friend would get into a not-so-bad car accident, but an attempted suicide? A coma? My Paul in a coma?
I couldn’t say anything to her. I didn’t know what words I could possibly fashion into a coherent sentence, didn’t know what sentence could ease the pain of a woman who had just confessed to a stranger that her son was on the precipice of death. The air was too heavy, I was suffocating. The weight of her words now tangible, crowding around me and stifling my breath as I tried to figure out what to say next. I couldn’t help but feel the waves of guilt that came rushing upon me. Maybe if I hadn’t rejected him, he would never have discarded my friendship. Maybe I would know why he was so upset, maybe I would be able to change things.
Still, I will never forgive myself for my next words. “It’s not my fault.”
I may as well have slapped her, that’s how heartless I felt after saying that. What right did I have to justify my own guilt to this woman? Fears that my parents had fiercely alluded to came back. “Don’t spend so much time chatting with these people online, beta. They are not good for you,” my mom would say to me all the time. My father wasn’t as kind. “Beta, you need to get good marks in school Stop this nonsense.” All of their warnings and premonitions rushed now to taunt me. I gulped, tried to figure out what to say next. “I mean that I…I haven’t spoken to him in over a year.”
“I know.” A sigh of relief. I don’t know whether it was from her side of the phone or mine. I was still trying to breathe normally again.
“But why’d he do this? Why did you call me? How did you get my number?” I had to restrain myself from asking her too many questions at once. I had a thousand more fluttering uneasily in my stomach. She stated simply, “Kai. You know her.”
It was a statement, not a question. She left no room for me to hide. “I do, but what does she have to do with this?”
“She caused it. He fell in love with her. And she broke his heart.” I said nothing, so she continued. “I went through Paul’s Facebook and saw that he messaged you and apologized. I got your phone number that way too. I just need to know if you knew anything about this.”
“I didn’t know anything. He did apologize but that’s a long story. I can’t forgive him for turning into what Kai wanted him to become.”
She began sobbing again. I couldn’t bring myself to hang up the phone. So I sat up in bed, kept the phone pressed to my ear, and waited for her to explain herself. The story she told me was so outrageous that I had trouble believing her. I needed to know Paul’s side of this story though, so I stayed on the phone and listened and breathed when I remembered to.
She spun Paul’s tale for me, starting from his first meeting with Kai. I don’t know how she had pieced this together, I don’t know how who she found the information from, but she knew it and she proceeded to tell me. Paul and Kai, 16 and 15 years old at the time, had fallen “in love” with one another. He had traveled to London, on the pretext of college visits a year later, and instead spent nearly a week with Kai. I listened, amazed.
“She got pregnant. She f-king wants money from him,” she told me, trying to censor her anger even in her extremely agitated state. “He’s only 17.”
She continued to repeat herself. I pieced together the jumbled fragments of her story, murmuring it to myself as if repetition would make it any less incredulous. Paul met Kai, Kai got pregnant, she’s harassing him for abortion money, and Paul’s so stressed that he tried to kill himself to escape the entire drama.
They were far too young to have gotten themselves into this position, but that’s not something I could tell his distraught mother. I couldn’t very well tell her that it was his fault like I wanted to. I couldn’t exclaim that her son had become an arrogant troll who flirted with the first new girl who caught his attention. I wanted to console her but at the same time, my brain told me that it wanted nothing to do with the situation. I didn’t want to interfere. I knew the extent of Kai’s online vengeance, and I shuddered to see even a fraction of translate into real life.
I sat there on the phone with her, this unknown woman, for the next two hours. Sleep had long since abandoned me. She cried her heart out and my own mind was traumatized after hearing how badly Paul had messed up his life. He dropped out of school, almost became a father. He chased after Kai, still nothing more than a pesky bitch in my eyes, and then ran back to California at the first sign of trouble. Well, that was just stupid. I listened and tried my best to keep my opinion silent.
“I’m really sorry. Thank you for listening to-“
“It’s okay, it’s not a problem. I don’t really know what to say I hope he recovers soon and gets better and…and.” I was at a loss. I tried again. “He’ll get better,” I finished lamely.
“It’s okay honey. He’ll fight through this. I’m sorry for waking you up.”
She hung up the phone and I collapsed back into bed. I pulled the covers up around me but couldn’t stop my body from shaking. I don’t know what I was afraid of more – Paul’s immediate situation or Kai’s eminent revenge.
I got up and decided to take a shower. I tried to wash away her pain and my own fears. I tried to forget, and she never called back.