More than anything else about those two months of captivity, Alexis remembered his hands on her shoulders. Of course, she also remembered the cement floor she slept on, the dirty water and rancid food they fed her, the worry that she wouldn't live through another day, the fear that she was helping to destroy the world. But those hands touching her without her consent--that would haunt her forever.
Her September kidnapping was like a movie stereotype: men in masks, black van, cloth soaked in chemicals forced over her mouth. Alexis woke alone in a ten-by-ten concrete block cell with just enough light to see how trapped she was.
The first day, they blindfolded her and walked her none-too-gently down a long corridor to a room dimly lit by half a dozen computer screens. The shoved her into a plastic folding chair and explained what was required: spread the propaganda so that the most vulnerable, malleable minds would find it, believe it, and think it was all their own idea. Control their choice with simple-minded lies to make one side seem good and the other evil. Make them think they were smarter, purer, more patriotic, more valuable than the others. Convince them that their chosen candidate hated those others in the same ways. Make them think they were saving their country. Force them to believe this was all their own free will, that it was all their own choice.
If she didn't do it, they'd kill her parents, obliviously retired just south of Orlando.
"Why me?" Alexis asked that first day.
"Remember when you interviewed for that social media marketing job?" they replied. Alexis did remember. It was last summer, one of a long series of fruitless interviews. She had just finished graduate school and was desperate for a job to start paying her massive student loans. Since then, she'd been doing poorly paid freelance web design, applying for every real job she could find, and working at Starbucks to pay the rent.
"We liked your work. Lots of potential," they said. "And we could tell you love your parents enough to want them to stay alive."
The nuts-and-bolts of the task were surprisingly easy. They had more computing power than she could imagine, so she was able to explore the social media cyberworld more fully than she had ever done before. Alexis could place the information in a few key spots and watch it grow like a living organism: pollinating, multiplying, hiving, thriving.
The key was discovering just the right mixture of hate and ignorance. She could find the hate easily enough. When people could hide behind an avatar, they didn't bother to control their hate. Even when their avatar had their own name and bad selfie photo, it didn't matter. Hate is difficult when people have actual human contact. But their phones, tablets, and laptops give them the distance they need to hate through megabytes and pixels.
Alexis thought ignorance would be a little harder to find than hate, but she discovered the pattern quickly. Thirty seconds on any of their Facebook walls or Twitter feeds made it obvious. Online hate was lazy, just like ignorance. Just as understanding and empathy took more effort than egotism and disgust, so too ignorance was far easier than discovery. Hate made them "like" propaganda. Ignorance made them "share" it without bothering to fact-check.
Alexis spent two months being shuffled from her cell to her workspace. Each day, she was given new messages to inject into the veins of social media. It didn't matter how ridiculous their propaganda became, the champions of hate and ignorance mainlined it like viral heroin and begged for more.
She could tell them that a life-long advocate for children, a loving grandmother, wanted to cut their unborn babies from their bellies and chop them to bits--and they believed it. She could tell them that a serial adulterer with no morals was the champion of Jesus--and they believed it. That a woman who worked her way up from a middle-class childhood was somehow "elitist." That a man who turned family fortune into multiple bankruptcies could save a nation's economy. After a while, the plan became obvious: ascribe his many shortcomings to her. The weakest-minded among them believed every word.
She thought her captors had gone too far when they told her to target the people who would normally support one particular candidate in the general election, even if that candidate happened to be their second choice within the party. They made Alexis concoct fantasies that this candidate had laughed about rape, robbed the poor and gave to the rich, wasn't a feminist, was a racist, had cheated to win the nomination. All obvious lies. Alexis was glad to see that most of this candidate's supporters did their research and debunked this garbage. But a surprising number of her primary opponent's followers believed and said she was just as bad as her opponent and planned to stay home or vote for people with no chance to win or write in the primary loser as a symbolic choice. Alexis knew that was another kind of ignorance that just helped the bad guys.
As the final days arrived, they thought their objective would fall just out of reach, so they devised a back-up plan. They wheeled a new computer into her workspace and showed her what it could do. Alexis had no idea at first how they had hacked those states' vote-counting software, but then she saw the remnants of Cyrillic in the code. The Russians, of course.
As the results came in on election day, they had Alexis stand by at that new computer. She knew how to do it. She could pull just a few random votes from each precinct in a few key states to swing the Electoral College. This would be even easier than her previous two months of work. Voters were unpredictable. Votes were just numbers on a screen. She didn't have to search for hate and ignorance--just manipulate numbers.
She was prepared to do as asked, no matter how much she hated herself. One of the last places she programmed the potential switch was the county in Florida where her parents lived. Alexis had to keep them alive.
As midnight approached, a cadre of security officers entered her workspace. They're going to kill me when I'm finished, she thought. Her parents would live, but, she knew, she wouldn't. They couldn't let her leave with this knowledge.
But then Alexis saw him enter. He was bigger than he looked on television. Not bigger, exactly. Fatter. Older, too, and rumpled. His wealth and power could hide his weakness from the television camera, but not from human eyes up close. A security guard stepped between her and the candidate, telling her to keep her eyes on the computer screen. She did as told, but she could feel his looming presence coming close behind her.
"This the one?" he asked. Someone in the background murmured a syllable of affirmation. He loomed over her. She could smell something artificial, some combination of human and manufactured scents that didn't mix well.
That's when he put his hands on her shoulders. It was an act of intimacy that he felt entitled to, something he thought was his to take without even thinking. Alexis imagined biting one of those under-sized hands if he reached any farther down her body. She could imagine the pink flesh tearing, hear the bones crunching. They could kill her on the spot, but she'd die with the taste of evil blood in her mouth.
"Are we ready to make the switch?" he said. "I want to see what I paid for with my own eyes."
Then half a dozen people entered the room abruptly. Alexis could hear them whispering frantically for a few seconds. Then there was silence.
"What?" the candidate asked.
A gruff voice behind Alexis responded, "We won't need it, sir."
"You're shitting me," the candidate replied.
"No, sir," the voice continued. "It looks like we're going to squeak by in Florida and Pennsylvania. Maybe even Michigan, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. It's better than we could have imagined in the Electoral College." He hesitated. "There's a glitch, though."
"Tell me," the man ordered.
"We're going to lose the popular vote by millions. We don't have enough hacks in place to realistically overcome the west coast vote without getting caught."
"Fuck it," the man said. "We'll just blame the illegals."
The room fell silent. Alexis could hear the big man shuffling his feet and feel his thumbs pressing deeper into her flesh through her thin t-shirt.
"So," the candidate said, "let me get this straight. All that bullshit we had her dump out there to these hillbillies and Jesus freaks actually worked? Those fucking morons actually believed that shit?"
"Yes, sir. It looks like Plan-A exceeded our expectations. We don't need to switch any votes. They did this to themselves."
Alexis felt him squeeze her shoulders. Then he removed his hands and started clapping, awkwardly at first, solitary claps that sounded as empty as his soul. Gradually, the other people in the room joined in. It wasn't a celebratory ovation, but something that seemed faked for his approval.
Then Alexis heard a sound she had never heard before. It was a sound that she once searched for in the countless hours of video accumulated on the internet. They had ordered her to humanize the candidate, but video evidence of him doing this most human of human activities didn't exist.
He laughed from deep in his big belly all the way to the top of his clownish hair. He laughed for at least half a minute until he gasped for breath, clutching a chair to keep his balance. Then he said, "I knew there were a lot of idiots out there. That's why I tried this. But, holy shit, I had no idea there were that many idiots in this dumbass country! Those stupid fuckers did this to themselves!"
Someone said they had to go, so the candidate moved toward the door. Before he left, Alexis heard him say, "Let her go. She won't talk. And if she does, those morons won't believe her anyway."
John Sheirer lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 26 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). He writes a monthly column on current events for his hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and his books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. Find him at JohnSheirer.com.