Jones is wearing the same hoodie from earlier this morning, now covered in dust and dirt and a bit torn. She looks just as passionate and intense as before, but the bags under her eyes are a lot more noticeable than before.
She doesn’t directly respond and says, “I only hacked your sister because I couldn’t find anything on you. I was going to kill you but I couldn’t find an account for you on Netnect. Not on Jelly, or Bird-Up, or even LinkedIn. The way you manipulated my mother, invaded my house, it was deplorable. But you’re like some sort of online ghost.”
“Yeah, people tell me that all the time.” Calling me a “ghost” is an interesting way to put it though. It’s a bit more apt than she realizes.
“I don’t even know how you manage that.”
“I don’t exactly have easy internet access these days anyway.” I point to the shattered computer over at the side of the room.
“And your girlfriend? She’s a good choice. I didn’t find a single incriminating thing about her. That’s rare.”
“We’re not… she’s not my girlfriend.” I can feel my face turning red as I speak. “She’s not my type. I don’t even have a type.”
“I should kill you where you stand for the way you assaulted me earlier today, but you know what? I’m going to be easy. I’m giving up. Stop chasing me, stop trying to save me, and I’ll leave you be. That’s the truce.”
Tough words for someone who is about to ruin my sister’s career and broke into my own apartment.
“But if you want me to leave you alone, then why are you here?”
She hesitates to answer, stammering out a non-response. I look at her, this teenage girl dressed in a tattered hoodie, her green eyes looking at me in a peculiar way, one I can’t really describe. Is it… desperation?
There’s a city-wide manhunt going around for Jones Burrow. Her family has fled, and I stole the only thing of value she has. Desperation may be an understatement the more I think about it. “You know what…” I take her diary, “The List” as it’s labelled, out of her backpack and present it to her. “Have it back.”
“I don’t need it anymore,” she says.
“You’re giving up?”
“No, I made a new one.”
This… this is not the time for a comedic back-and-forth!
“Everyone in the world wants you to stop,” I tell her. Except for maybe her own mother, but she doesn’t need to know I talked to her family yet again; I’d end up with my head on a pike. “What’s driving you to this point? Why are you here?”
“It’s not justice. I’ve looked at your notebook. You’re doing it all for petty revenge because everyone you target is someone that made you mad. Why are you really here?”
“I… There’s no place left to go, and your apartment looked like the only place Epstein’s men wouldn’t find me.”
“I just came back from Epstein’s office,” I say.
“You what? Why the hell would you do that?”
“Uh, he summoned me, told me a story about building a tower or something, and then told me to stop you to save the city.”
Jones blinks several times.
“He didn’t try to kill you?”
“No, but he told me he made bad investment deals with Dreamtech or something and it was the biggest mistake of his career. Is that.. a lie?”
“No, it’s not quite a lie,” she says. “But if he actually regrets it, then why is he still working with them?”
“You don’t know anything, do you?”
Was Epstein really lying out of his ass that entire time? That speech about having failed the city were just to convince me to keep looking for Jones? Dammit. He really is a politician. “I know enough to say I don’t like any of the circumstances involved and would very much like for it all to settle down.”
Jones grunts. “I’m not sure you do.”
“Well then, are you going to explain yourself?”
“The plot behind Dreamtech and Epstein? Because I–”
“No, I mean EVERYTHING. I want to know why all of this started. What ‘The List’ is all about. How it led to you standing in my bedroom and punching me in the stomach.”
“So you want me to tell you everything.”
“If you want me to stop chasing you, you’re going to have to help me figure out why I would ever want to do that,” I tell her. “I want to understand you, Jones.”
“I’m a woman on a mission.”
“Yeah, that sounds cool on a bubblegum wrapper but it tells me nothing. Keep trying.”
Jones starts to fumble around with her words. “I… Well, I don’t really have an origin story or anything. I never really thought about it.”
“You never considered the possibility you’d be caught and have to explain yourself to the police?”
“To be honest, I thought I’d have killed myself before I got this far.”
“Don’t– don’t do that.”
“Don’t worry, I never could have gone through with it. I never had the guts.”
That isn’t a very reassuring statement.
“Well, now that you’re here, you’ve got the time. Figure out how to tell me about yourself.”
Jones stands there for a good minute. Her eyes well up with tears, but the fire in her eyes refuses to let her cry.
“It’s not easy to think of anything, but I can say that I have never changed, not in my life. Ever since I was little, I observed the people around me. The two-faced liars, the behind-your-back gossipers, the schemers and the plotters. What I always thought as a child was that humanity was divided into two groups, the true and the false, and that every person in the world was born into one of these. You either worked for good and did the right thing, or you were evil and irredeemable.
“All my childhood I tried to be true, not just to myself but to anyone around me. When someone spoke to me, I regarded it only if I believed what they said was with good intentions. I worked hard, I prayed every night, I exercised, and I always told the truth.
“I learned later that this was all useless, because the truth is there are no redeemable humans. We’re all evil on the inside; some of us just hide it better than others.”
“Like Courtney Trudeau?”
“Exactly like… her.” Jones hesitates for just one moment, as if she didn’t expect me to know who Courtney is, as if she’s realized how far-reaching her hacking attacks have been. She shakes it off and regains her composure. “Her entire life that girl was hidden behind a mask of deceit. And when it mattered most, she cared for nothing but her own desires.”
“And unlike Courtney, you don’t hide it at all?” I ask.
“Precisely. Why try so hard to pretend to be friendly and kind when in reality I hate the guts of most everyone around me? That’s why I didn’t make any friends in high school. I didn’t feel the need to even try.”
It sounds more like nobody else wanted to try.
“I’ve always paid close attention to the people who interact with my family. They’re the most important thing in my life, my parents and Kylia. Seeing their happiness through to the ends of their lives is the only thing that matters to me at this point.”
“Because you feel like you can’t feel any happiness in your own life?”
“No. Shut up, I’m talking.”
I need to take better care not to interrupt people’s monologuing.
“Any time someone has wronged my family, I have put it in that notebook you have with you, ‘The List’. I’m sure you’ve read through it. I’m sure you saw your sister’s entry. I don’t take kindly to people entering my family’s lives with duplicitous intentions, and if circumstances were different I’d be coming after you with the full force of my being. But in this case I think you’re on my side.
“I made ‘The List’ for revenge. I wanted to hurt those who had hurt my family, or hurt myself. At first I didn’t know how I would do it, or when, so I compiled the entries for future reference. Eventually, though, I started to notice patterns. The way people around me, in Cobb County or Atlanta or all of Georgia, wronged each other every day. How powerful people who hurt us, like Kendrick Deal, existed in all facets of society.
“I did some digging. On the internet, in person, in the news.
“And that’s how my quest started. My grades were slipping in my final year of high school but I spent almost every weeknight on the internet, looking for webs to untangle and insects to crawl out as I did. I spent more time of my life hacking than I did sleeping. But it worked, didn’t it?”
“I’m not sure I call everything going on right now a rousing success,” I tell her.
“Even if I don’t survive the rest of this, I feel like I accomplished something. Atlanta is on fire right now because of me. Pigs like Martin Quartermaster and Tim DuPont are hated. Corrupt companies like Blyth and Dreamtech are suffering. Mayor Epstein is about to resign so that he isn’t removed in a recall election. Whatever happens, it’s better than letting all of the scum build up on the surface, right?
“I see myself like a dishwasher, cleaning up plates and washing them out so they can be used again. A dirty plate is like Atlanta when it’s being run by incompetence and malice; we’ve been stuck in the nineties for all this time, and how is that helping any of us? It’s not. I have to help us start anew.”
I’d say she’s delusional, but this is exactly the kind of stuff R8PR has been warning me about in all his cryptic speeches. Atlanta has been mired in stagnation for so long that everyone has forgotten what it’s like to make progress or move on with life. What’s going to happen next is going to be sudden, and it’s going to be big.
And Jones may be the root of all of it.
“I have to tell the truth though… I regret it. I regret it all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Being the Social Media Killer. Forsaking my high school life in favor of connecting the dots nobody else will, and ruining my life by getting involved in all of this. I’m so stupid. I hate myself so much.”
“Wow, I… Really?”
“Yes. You know what it was that made me realize it? What you told me on that rooftop. You had saved me from attempting a very stupid, impossible jump and I was going through my mind at all the ways I could eviscerate you when you told me, ‘And in the end… I want to get you to stop getting yourself hurt.’ That’s what you said. Up until then I hadn’t actually considered the possibility that I was in real danger. I thought if I did the right thing, that was all that mattered. But actually… I’m just an idiot.”
“Is my family safe?” The tears in her eyes well up even more and she’s on the verge of actually crying. “Did I get them in trouble?”
“They’re in protective custody,” I say. I add, “They’re going to be safe, I promise.” I know I can’t promise that, but it doesn’t matter.
“It’s too late for me, but… as long as they’re fine… it’s all okay…” Finally, the levees break and Jones breaks down sobbing. She kneels, her feet flat on the ground as she holds her knees and cries into them.
“It’s not too late for you, Jones. I… well, I have a friend who can help you out with whatever you need.”
“No, you don’t understand,” she says through her sobs. “It’s too late. I… already did it.”
“And, uh, what is that?”
She looks up and makes eye contact with me with her reddened eyes. “I may have gone too far in a few places,” she says. “I broke into Dreamtech headquarters. I found out the truth behind everything.”