PART OF THE ‘STRANGER STORIES’ SERIES
Disclaimer: The photos used in my Stranger Stories series are taken from charity shops, yard sales etc. I don’t know the real identities of the people in the photos, and all stories are entirely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental. The photos are a tool to brainstorm new characters.
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He was a lobster caught in a pot. The room around him was so hot that it seemed to be steaming. Or maybe he was passing out.
Jan peeled the thin material from his sweaty back, flapping it around. He felt a heavy droplet of sweat run down his spine and into his pants. He sat back in his gaming chair and shuddered at the feeling of the cold t-shirt on his skin again. The computer on the desk whirred, the little LED lights flickering between red, blue, green, yellow. He cleared his throat and turned towards the camera.
“Hello,” he said, spreading his arms out wide, smelling the heat of his underarms coming through the nape of his shirt. It was a dusky smell, the kind that comes from sleeping in your aftershave. “I’m Jan and welcome….”
He stopped himself. Not right. Too formal. Fucking hell, it’s just an intro. He looked to the screen on his right and watched the comments already starting to roll in. I’m going to have to do better than that, he thought.
Come on, JaN the man. WAiting for you
Who else here is from Vegas?
He could feel the coil in his stomach starting to tense. They’re expecting a live stream with Jan the Man. God, he wished he’d never coined that fucking nickname. He’d started making videos without a name 6 years ago, and alliteration was the cleverest thing he could pluck out of the creative wasteland of ideas that was otherwise his life. And now he was fucking stuck with it, putting it in every shitting video and slapping it across all his merchandise.
Jan isn’t the man, he thought. Jan is a fucking has-been. He could barely even bring himself to smile today but his bank balance needs a boost and this is the quickest way he knows how. A little interaction, a little conversation, a little persuasion with his audience. Donation here, donation there, pointless questions, pointless answers. Last time he’d live streamed, someone had pinged $150 just to ask him to shout out their channel. BAM. Just like that. A week’s rent in this shithole.
But then again, would he really spend it on rent? If you say yes, he mumbled to himself, you’re fucking lying.
He needed to get happier before go-time, or he wasn’t going to be able to convince them to part with that cash. He flexed his hands, curling his palms upwards and feeling the strain all the way up his forearm. Try again. Try again.
Where you at man?
“Hey guys, Jan coming at you with another…”
No, no good. He’d caught himself in the viewer and seen his smile, only it looked more like he’d sat on a needle.
“Yo Jan fans…”
He slammed his hands down on the desk in front of him. Goddamnit, talk like a real boy.
The hot studio lights felt like they were getting bigger and bigger, far too big for the tiny flat. He blinked and they became white glowing squares that pulsed with his heartbeat.
A droplet of sweat dripped down his forehead and he blinked, again.
All around him, the flat seems to be melting. He could see droplets of breath forming on the walls and running down to the skirting boards. The plaster glistened. He’d stuffed all the pockets of light in his tiny apartment with cloth; layering plastic bin bags on top of bin bags and duct taping them to the windows. His routine has gotten so fucked up in the last few months that he’d taken to taping up the bay window with black bin bags so he’d be able to control the light on camera at any time. No small part of him also used it as an excuse to sleep during the day.
He looked at the bin bags – the light, which was rising from the east, was still struggling to shine through them, beating hot rays against the window and turning the thinner areas a curious green. He should have bought blinds. He could have done anything rather than put black up in the windows during one of the hottest summers on record, and then trapp himself inside with a bunch of lights pointing at his face.
One of the sticky soundproofing pads he’d put on the door swung down silently on its tape. He ignored it. His year-old fan shuddered and crackled in the corner as it blew the warm air around in a circle. He’d only meant to be setting up for half an hour, but the obsession with getting everything perfect had meant that he’d been moving furniture, props and equipment around for close to two hours.
Start again, he told himself.
“Hey everyone, Jan here. Today, we’re going to jump on a YouTube trend because I’m super original.” He wiped his top lip and picked up the box by his feet, tapping it with his other hand. “I got my results back from AncestryDNA. We’re going to find out where I came from.”
His smile fell. Fuck, he wasn’t looking down the lens. He only had a minute left until he’s scheduled to go live. He dropped the box at his feet. Damn it. He just couldn’t bring the feeling of excitement from his antsy hands to his face.
He brought out the finger guns. “Hey everyone, Jan here! Today, we’re jumping on a YouTube bandwagon. I sent my spit off to AncestryDNA! We’re going to find out where I came from.”
The comments kept coming. 904 people ready and waiting for him to start.
Sooo excited for this! It’s 2am here and I should be asleep!
Can’t hear anything
He lined up the camera one more time and checked the stream. Not that he really needed to check, after so many years of doing the same thing. Amassing strangers on the internet who, for some reason or another, found him curious, odd, funny.
In truth, they’d probably been a good influence on him, but he felt like such a fraud most days that he couldn’t bring himself to soak up their compliments. He felt like he’d done such a good job at projecting the Jan the Man persona – any time someone complimented Jan the Man, he felt guilty for tricking them. Every time he got a hate comment, he convinced himself that for a moment his influencer mask must have slipped and he’d shown who he really was. He knew they weren’t really there for him. But they were better than nothing.
He took a deep breath and presses the stream live button. His holding screen drops out and instead his face burst onto the screen – animated, smiling, glowing with sweat.
“Hey guys! Can you hear me?” He made an attempt to casually adjust the audio, hoping that they wouldn’t notice the suspended RODE mic, the film lights and the soundproofing. Just a regular guy, filming a regular video. They didn’t need to know how invested he was.
“Hey Molly from Michigan! Hey GreenEyelet89, thanks for joining!”
He ran off a few more names. The tally went up to over 2000 viewers. He was pulling in more than ever. He chatted through a few more minutes, just calling out the various names that popped up. A few he recognised – most he didn’t.
“Alright guys,” he said eventually, clapping his hands. “We’re just going to start. Today, we’re jumping on a YouTube bandwagon!” He picked up the box and shook it. “I sent my spit off to AncestryDNA! We’re going to find out where I came from.”
Jan what;s your favorite food?
Like your parents?
23andMe is so much better than AncestryDNA. Waste money
I reckon you’re actually Asian!
The little LED’s in his machine continued to blink. As he chatted, the lights almost seemed to warp and change into the kind of neon lights he was even more accustomed to. Slot machines. The little metal boxes that contained his deposit, his mortgage, the rent in this poky flat most months. He’d been spending money as quickly as it was coming in, and as much as he tried to avoid the casino on his road, he’d always find himself being pulled in, circling around, circling the drain. Like the little spinning charity boxes they used to have at supermarkets for pennies – he’d watch as his fingers pushed in tokens, his mind powerless. He’d always be on the edge of the seat, willing himself to get up and walk away, this time, next time.
He paused. “Got the link here. Should I open it?” It was already exhausting to talk to so many people like this. His glasses started to slide down his face with the heat and the comments were fading into a cloud. He wiped the lenses and placed them back on his nose.
Looks like it’s hot there, hope you’re drinking water
What’s your real name?
He clicked on the link, checking the screen recording and keeping an eye on the stream where comments were scrolling past so quickly he could barely read them. A viewer popped a $5 donation into the conversation to highlight their question.
“Thanks MaxAlert for the donation! I’m 33, which is pretty old for YouTube,” he answered. “But I love it, and I love all you guys.”
The cardboard popped open. He tipped it on its side and a leaflet popped out, fluttering past him and onto the floor. He made a face at the camera.
You look like Prince Harry
He didn’t know exactly what he’d see in his results, but he was expecting something close to a 50/50 split between Irish and American heritage. That’s what he’d been told he was made up of, anyway. Maybe a bit of general European at a push.
He’d seen the other YouTubers do this. Leaving pauses was good, tears were better. He wondered if he really felt so connected to his ancestry that he’d be upset if he saw something new, but he didn’t think so. Still, the fact that he was adopted made for good watching with this trend, so maybe he could muster up a little bit of excitement.
He straightened out the page and cleared his throat.
“OK, first bit…” He teased them, pulling back at the last minute. “Oh, I’m nervous, you guys.”
I want to do this
Don’t B nervous
I did a video like this! Check out my channel
He opened the paper. One side was completely blank, except for one typed sentence:
“The DNA sample that you have provided does not match any of our records. Please return another sample to us.”
He paused and read it again. Without saying anything, he flipped it over and skimmed the other side. It listed the countries: 0%, 0%, 0%. Another small line at the bottom: “Your DNA sample has not returned any matches.”
He looked at the screen, and back down at the kit. Oh shit, oh shit, he didn’t take the sample correctly. And now he had thousands of people waiting for an answer. The slot machine lights behind his eyes flickered.
A $15 donation popped up.
Thisz the whole stream?
What does it say?
He tipped the box to the side and heard another sample vial rolling around in the bottom.
“Guys,” he scratched his head. “No joke, I think something went wrong with my test.” He put one side of the paper up to the camera and held it there until it came into focus.
He pulled it back around again and said: “Apparently I don’t have anyone who matches my DNA anywhere.”
He knew he’d taken that sample perfectly. The instructions had been so simple that his grandmother could have done it. He assumed – he’d never met her after all.
Impossible, he’s doing it for views – everyone has a DNA match somewhere
maybe he’s not human
Missed it go back
Google it, it’s literally impossible to not have any matches
Jan watched the comments stream past the viewer, so quickly now that he could barely read any of them. He clicked on the scroller to halt it. He had a little gnawing feeling in his stomach, as though there was something more to the story than him messing up the test.
Because he hadn’t done it wrong, he knew he hadn’t.
Waste of my time
He’s an alien
A $20 donation popped up.
Get another one and do it again
Fucking do something at least – just sitting there saying nothing
He moved his tongue around to wet the inside of his dry mouth. It was literally impossible for him to not have any DNA matches in the world, wasn’t it?
“Thanks, momG2011 for that donation,” he croaked.
He reached across the desk for his glass of water and took a huge swig, breathing into the glass and steaming up the sides.
“I don’t really know what to do guys. I don’t have anything to show you.”
He saw himself as if from a distance, sweating and doubled over, the useless test in his hands, and wondered if this was the last month he’d be able to spend in this flat. He felt a little bit nauseous. Throwing up might at least give them something to watch, he thought sullenly.
There was a curious muffled noise coming from outside. Jan had covered his flat walls with soundproofing to keep the audio disruption to a minimal for his microphone, but these sounds were making it through their many layers.
“There’s something going on outside my window,” he said, because he didn’t have anything else to talk about.
You didn’t shout me out I paid! Want y donation back
What’s going on outside?
There was a crash and then a noise. A rumble that he could feel in the floor and see in the glass of water on his desk. Lots of feet on the stairs.
He turned back to the webcam, eyes wide, and pushed away from the desk.
“Hold on – did one of you doxx me?”
You being swatted bro?
Do what they say. Don’t mess around
His chest tightened as he heard the feet gather on the landing, just behind his front door. He cast a frightened look at the computer which was now alight with activity and excitement.
“Why would you guys do this? Fuck, is this actually happening?”
In thousands of rooms across the world, people watched as the door to Jan’s bedroom, painted back and thick with condensation, exploded open and 4 figures ran in, silhouetted against the light from the hallway, screaming, guns raised.
“HANDS UP, HANDS UP!”
“DOWN ON THE GROUND!”
He couldn’t process it. Jan’s hands trembled as he raised them, feeling cold metal on the back of his head and a hand on his neck that pushed him forwards onto the desk.
“GET DOWN. GET DOWN.”
There were more of them now, swarming around him and into the room. He turned his head to the side, the sweat from his forehead casting a long smear across his gaming desk. He saw a man standing in the corner with his finger in his ear, talking. He wasn’t dressed like the SWAT team, dressed only in a simple black button-down suit. He looked calm, quietly surveying the officers holding Jan’s neck to the desk.
“Who the fuck are you? I didn’t do anything!” Jan screamed.
“IS YOUR NAME JAN LEWIS?”
All around him, he could hear the sound of his flat being ripped to shreds. A thud; the dresser falling to the rug below. A clang; the saucepans in the sink being thrown around.
“What do you think you’re going to find in my fucking sink? Who are you?”
The officer holding his neck answered by squeezing his grip tight, making Jan see stars for a second.
“WHERE DID YOU GET THE ANCESTRY SAMPLE FROM?” was screamed in his ear.
“It’s mine – my sample. I took it!”
“TELL THE TRUTH.”
“I swear, I fucking swear!” he sobbed, the side of his head burning with the pressure of the officer’s weight. He tried to use his free hand to gesture over to the opened results by his keyboard, but his arm was seized and pulled around behind him. He gasped in pain.
“DON’T STRUGGLE” the voice came again.
“It’s my sample, I’m adopted I wanted to know where I come from -”
The man in the corner moved slowly forward, careful to stay out of the sight of the webcam but just close enough for Jan to hear his voice, low and calm.
“Tell me how this could have happened,” he said. “Otherwise it is likely that these men will hurt you more. The DNA in that sample is not human. Not anything we have ever seen before – not on this planet. And yet YOU say you took the sample yourself.”
He paused and looked around at the room. “So – what does that make you?”
Over the man’s voice, Jan could hear his computer vocalising every few seconds. He knew what each noise meant – every ping, every crash of coins – he knew what each one was worth. Without needing to look at the screen, he knew that $10, $50 and $100 donations were flooding in. His metaphorical change purse was filling with more money he’d ever seen, all the while this gun was pressed to his head.
“I don’t – I don’t know, man! It was my spit.”
There was a pause, and then a silent gesture to the officer, who stepped backwards and pulled Jan roughly to his feet, causing his gaming chair to spin away from him.
Jan stole a look at the screen, watching the comments and donations continue to click past. He saw his own face reflected, pale and sweating.
“What’s that noise?” the officer asked him gruffly, gesturing at the computer.
“I – stream. I’m streaming live. It’s my job. I’m a YouTuber. People are talking to me online.”
Is this real?
Jan i love you!
For thousands of viewers across the world, Jan’s last words to the camera were cut off as he was restrained and dragged towards the door. Out of sight, the man in the corner reached behind the computer and pulled the plug from the wall.
I’ve been finding that a really useful writing tool (alongside these images) has been the simple question: What If? Usually the first 100 What Ifs are pretty crappy and make for a low-budget student film-type idea, but eventually you start to get into this groove where the really interesting questions come out to play. I was reading some writing prompts (naughty naughty, little cheat-oh-well-it-keeps-me-going) and one of them mentioned discovering that your character was from an ancient tiny populous (gesturing at a cult idea I guess).
But it suddenly made me think of all those YouTubers I’ve been watching take AncestryDNA tests. And I thought – what If they were filming a video, opening their box and then being told that they have no relatives anywhere on earth? That their DNA is unique? That science tells you that you don’t exist? And then hearing a knock at the door?
I also recently read an Independent article which talked about how NASA scientists are trying to work out how to identify other forms of DNA that don’t follow our typical structure. And I was made aware of online gamers/YouTubers experiencing doxxing (where your address is leaked online) and swatting (a particularly terrifying prank, especially in the US, where people will report to the police that you are a terrorist/kidnapper and send them to your house so that they can watch it all play out on a live stream). Pretty abhorrent, but happening more and more. So I took those three ideas, smushed them together like any ol’ creative copy-cat, and got this idea. Now I just had to write it.
And it started off really well, I had written about 1000 words in an hour and I was heading towards the ‘second act’, and then it fell apart. And became much more difficult. And suddenly I wasn’t sure where I was going with any of it. So I left it for 8 whole weeks, and then came back to it, hoping that it would be easier – and it wasn’t!
Initially I wrote this like he was shooting a YouTube video alone in his room, and the whole short story was just going to be about him. But halfway through writing I was starting to realise that it wasn’t very interesting to have him open this box in his house by himself – if I wanted him to be a real YouTuber, then why not include the voices, the other disembodied voices that would be popping up every 2 seconds, ruining his concentration? I liked the idea that his whole audience was watching in real time and that part I think was the coolest part of the whole story.
One of my biggest issues was with the tenses. I have a lot of trouble comprehending time (ask anyone I work with about my issues converting timezones) and I have similar issues when writing, regarding tenses. I have tried my hardest to make this story take place in the past, but I know that there are areas where I screwed up. Because of all the time left between the drafts, I also felt like the story was disjointed, and I didn’t really enjoy the protagonist’s voice.
So, I thought it was a good idea but not very well executed. What did you think? Any pointers would be much appreciated!