“Nothing that any of you do will ever make a difference.”
Monday evening, 24 August 2015
GM: “Nothing that any of you do will ever make a difference.”
Alice’s anthropology professor is a middle-aged Arabian man named Muhammed al-Aidan. He’s a very tall fellow, perhaps 6’5, with dusky skin, short black hair streaked through with gray, and wrinkles that tug at the corners of his brown eyes. He wears dark slacks, loafers, and a navy blue dress shirt.
Silence greets his declaration. The lecture hall is packed with students and nearly as many open laptops. Some faces look surprised, others offended, and more than a few are entirely indifferent as they screw around on their computers. Alice can see a number of Facemashs and Twitters open from her own seat.
Professor Al-Aidan shrugs and continues, “I am sorry if that does not fit with your sheltered preconceptions of how the world works, but affirming them is not my job, no matter what our culture today with its trigger warnings on books might tell you. No, I am a tenured professor. I have the most secure job in the world. I can say whatever I want.”
“Now, let us begin this first class with a brief overview of why our world is such a dismal, awful place.” Al-Aidan cites several examples. Global? We know we’re destroying our planet for future generations and we do it anyway. National? Our elected representatives serve the interests of the rich, not us. They barely even bother to hide it. Local? One word: Katrina. Personal? Statistics say that 20% of all women in this room have been raped. And that’s just the national average, sexual assault is even more prolific on college campuses. One girl actually gets up and leaves the classroom, but the professor doesn’t so much as glance at her as he finishes, “Show me anything that is good, and I will tell you how people have… what is a good aphorism? Screwed it up.”
Al-Aidan takes out his wallet and holds up a $100 bill. Benjamin Franklin’s papery-green face stares at the rows of silent youths.
“This belongs to the student who can prove me wrong by stumping me. I will even give you ten minutes to try as many times as you like.”
Alice: Alice sits near the front of the class, on the third row. She taps a pencil on her notebook, frowning. What a fucking depressing way to start a semester. She raises a hand, and asks for clarification on the challenge, “Do you mean something objectively good or just something a reasonable person would call ‘good’? It’s all pretty relative, isn’t it?” She is dressed casually, in t-shirt and shorts, her lucky cap lays on the desk in front of her, since some professors make an issue of students wearing them in class.
“Even if we can show you something you would consider ‘good’, if we are doing it for cash that sort of undermines the point. It’s like saying you give someone a movie ticket if they can show you true love, or absolute justice or something.” Alice muses to herself on the nature of higher concepts like this. I guess it’s a good excuse to think about this shit. She waits curiously to hear what the professor has to say.
GM: Professor Al-Aidan smiles. It isn’t quite mocking, but there is a sense of challenge and amusement behind it. “If that is the way you would prefer things, whatever your name is, I can give you nothing for answering me instead.”
He continues, “Because I am such a kindly professor, I will assume you are a reasonable person and that anything you cite as an example of goodness is, in fact, good. No, you have it quite easy. All you need to do is cite something that humankind hasn’t made a horrible mess of.”
Alice: Alice sits, contemplative for a minute or two. Her silence is not the silence of someone who has given up a problem, instead it looks as though she is giving serious thought to a weighty issue. Finally she sighs, frustrated, and gives an apologetic reply to Al-Aidan.
“Sorry, Professor. The only answers I can come up with are cheap ones, like writing the word ‘Good’ on a piece of paper. I guess it wouldn’t be the sort of thing stuffy bearded dudes spend their lives on mountains thinking about if one of us could come up with the answer in 10 minutes in a freshman anthropology class.”
Alice gives the professor an apologetic smile and shrugs. Cheap questions get cheap answers, I guess. Fuck, but I hate thinking about this sort of shit. Guess it wouldn’t be worth thinking about if it were easy.
GM: The professor shrugs back. “Apologize to yourself, not to me. I get paid whether you are intellectually lazy or not. It is, how does that expression go, ‘no skin off my back.’ Though it may well be percentile off your grade, depending on how much I think that laziness carries over to your coursework.”
Alice: What a dick!
GM: A few students snicker at the open disparagement. Some regard it with semi-awkward silence. The professor turns away from Alice to flash the hundred-dollar bill again, prompting a number of students to venture answers of their own. Al-Aidan shoots each one down. The love of parents for their children? He cites horrific cases of child abuse, and besides, all life wants to perpetuate its DNA. Allied intervention in World War II? He cites the bombing of Dresden, war rapes committed during the occupation of Japan, and other Allied atrocities. The sun? He cites cases of fraud committed with solar panels.
Eventually, the ten minutes run out, and al-Aidan folds the dollar bill back in his wallet. “Do not think of yourselves as failures so much as unexceptional. I have yet to hand this bill to any student. I have had it in my wallet since before many of you were born.”
Alice: Alice feels her blood boiling at the arrogance of her professor at his closing statements. She resolves to email him a list of potential examples of ‘good’ every day. Even if it never amounts to anything, giving up feels much worse than fighting a losing war against his aged cynicism. She muses to herself,
Hope isn’t a thing of numbers or logic, dude. It isn’t measured in money either. If you think you can buy the answer to that question, you are a fucking idiot.
GM: Alice might just be imaging it, but she could swear that smile of his looks that much smugger in response to her body’s increasing internal temperature.
At length, he states, “As I have said, none of you are capable of making a lasting difference in the world, and I am going to spend all semester explaining why you can’t. Some of you are likely wondering, ‘why bother’? What point is there in protesting against wars, voting for the lesser evil in elections, donating money to good causes?”
He shrugs again. “I will tell you my answer to that question on the last day of the semester. If you can figure it out before then, I will give you a 4.0. You can stop showing up for class. You have learned everything I have to teach and I won’t waste any more of your time.”
He shrugs. Again. “Only several students have taken me up on that offer. Most give me an essay. I will do one thing with those essays.” He picks up a piece of paper and drops it in a recycling bin. “Unread,” he states for emphasis.
A few students snicker.
“Show me how you have lived it, in such a way that involves at least one other person who I can talk to. If you are not living it, you do not really know it.”
The professor walks over to his desk. “More likely you will keep attending daily classes, get a passing grade if you do the work, and maybe by next semester you will remember 1% of what my TA and I had to teach.” He starts fiddling on his laptop. “That is all for today. Class dismissed.”
Alice: Alice scoops up her backback and puts on her cap. She quickly glances at her smartphone’s built-in calendar and wonders, All right, what’s next? as she figures out where she is supposed to be going now. She hopes she doesn’t have any more professors as bleak as this one, or it will be a very long semester.
GM: 8 PM, her calendar tells her. Class is over for today. It’s an odd Monday schedule, class from 7-8 with the rest of her day wide open.
As Alice exits Dinwiddie Hall, the anthropology building, it’s already quite dark out. Skeletal tree branches stretch over the lamps like grasping hands eager to extinguish the bright orbs.
Alice: Alice hefts her bag, the reassuring weight of her art supplies and other bric-a-brac comforting her against the night. Even in a t-shirt and shorts, the air is warm and humid enough for her to feel comfortable. I didn’t think it would be so fucking dark, when class let out. Okay, mental checklist. Picked up local newspapers? Check. City Tourism Board’s ‘Atlas of the Big Easy’ map? Check. Guess I’ll see if any of my friends are free to walk me home.
She navigates out of her Calendar app, and switches her phone out of airplane mode. No phones in class my ass! It’s like, 2015. Briefly, she checks her messages, then navigates to the Companion App, and sends a request to her friends explaining that she just got out of class, and is about to walk home.
GM: Her phone buzzes after a second with a text from Maria. Sure A. U get out of class rly late!
Tulane’s campus remains fairly active even this late at night. Many of the faces Alice passes by are older than in her other classes, being either parents, working professionals, or both. Her choice of dress proves practical. Even after sundown, the temperature has yet to dip below 70. The Big Easy’s humidity, too, remains no less muggy than ever.
Alice: She quickly replies with a text of her own, Right? I’m glad to be out. The prof. is a srs Asshole. And thanks, M! I didn’t realize how dark it would be when it let out :(
She makes her way to the bike-rack where she left her old, well-used bicycle. I really gotta get a new set of wheels. She unlocks it from the rack, and tightens her courier’s bag.
GM: U check out ratemyprof? Tells u what theyre gonna be like. After a moment, another text pings. Sry, wont text when ur bikin!
Alice: With a parting text, lol, I really should have! Its okay though, he may be an asshole, but I think he is really smart too. About to start, thanks again for riding with me! she starts her ride home.
GM: Old Elizabethan and Greek-revival style buildings, interspersed by reddened, leaf-dropping trees and indistinct students, whiz by Alice’s field of vision. Riverbend is generally one of the safer parts of New Orleans, but night brings out monster of more than one variety. Students wandering dark streets by themselves make tempting targets, especially after they’ve been to some of the local bars that aren’t supposed to serve under-21s.
The night looms dark and long enough that the Blackwater mercenaries (“security contractors”) remain vigilant outside Audubon Place, the exclusive gated community home to the university’s president. Leashed attack dogs growl as the young student bicycles past.
Alice: Alice takes in the beautiful architecture, and muses at just how much trouble she could get in for leaving some of her ‘Art’ on some of the walls. She casually flips the bird to the dogs with one hand, as she pedals past, but her heart isn’t really in it.
Yeah, yeah, I hear you. Whoever the fuck lives there must be a serious security freak. I can almost imagine those things getting loose and mauling somebody.
Her face falls a bit, as she is suddenly reminded of another dog, she vaguely remembers being trained to protect its owners. Fuck. Why did I have to think about her…
She rides on.
GM: Who lives in Audubon is impossible to tell past the high concrete walls, road blocks, and iron gate by the toll booth. Whether such cloistered souls feel secure is equally impossible to say. The baying snarls of German shepherds and cold glares from the masked, black-garbed mercenaries follow in Alice’s wake.
Alice cycles past fortress-like blocks of cloistered apartments, their own security measures less expensive than Audubon Place’s, but their residents’ desire to keep out the rest of the world no less strong. Her own apartment building sits just by Mid-City; still close enough to Tulane to count as part of Carrollton, but sufficiently distant for the property values to fall within a more affordable range. Perhaps too affordable.
Alice: Slowing to a stop by the building’s bike rack, Alice hops off and quickly secures her ride for the night. She checks the companion app, tapping the ’I’m okay!’ button that popped up because she stopped moving. Adjusting her cap, she makes her way upstairs toward her apartment on the 4th floor.
I can’t complain about the rent, and I have a pretty decent view, but would it kill them to put in an elevator or something?
GM: The Briarwood Apartments are just within a starving, aid-reliant student’s means at $600 a month, but one gets what one pays for, and oftentimes a good deal less. Paint might not be peeling from the building’s sagging exterior, but it could use a fresh coat. The windows aren’t broken, but they’re smudged with dirt and odd orange specks, and spiderweb-like cracks are snaking through at least several. Gang tags and graffiti are absent from walls, but Alice earlier observed the word “Help” ignominiously scrawled onto a shingle by the building’s back door. Three months after she’s signed her lease, the anonymous plea remains unanswered.
Alice: Alice has puzzled over that for a few weeks. Being unable to answer the written plea bothers her more than she cares to admit.
GM: The aged, carpeted stairs creak and groan under Alice’s shoes. At this hour of night, late enough for people to be home from work but still too early for the real crazies to come out, Alice’s neighbors have withdrawn into their own private worlds. Indistinct voices and droning TV sets sound from behind thin walls, along with the stench of cigarette smoke that open windows do little to contain. The lease said there was a “no smoking” policy.
They don’t talk to each other much.
Alice: Alice stops in front of the door to her apartment. It stands out from its dull, gray neighbors, and appears to be vibrantly painted with a scene of pastoral fall. The building’s manager had been pissed when he first saw it. He was mollified somewhat, when shown that it was just a home-made door cover. Alice taps at her phone, closing the companion app with a parting message for Maria, Made it home, thanks M! You’re the best :D Then opens the colorful door and heads inside. The inside of Alice’s apartment is small, and furnished in a modern style with the best IKEA can offer, on a college kid’s budget.
GM: YW A anytime! Alice’s phone buzzes back.
Alice: Dropping her keys in the bowl, Alice wanders through her living room/kitchen/dining room and into her bedroom. She puts her bag on the bed and tosses her phone, wallet, keys, and cap on her desk, before collapsing in a heap on her bed.
Right. First, a shower, then I’ll set stuff up. Fuck, I’m starving. Okay, new plan. Food, shower, cloak and dagger shit, then bed.
With a groan, she rises, and set about her various household tasks.
Monday evening, 24 August 2015
Alice: After a brief but bountiful foraging session in the fridge, Score! Leftover pizza!, a brief shower, and one change into duck-themed pajamas later Alice is ready to get down to business.
First she spreads the city map out on the wall, pinning up the corners with thumbtacks. Next, the takes her haul of newspapers, collected from all the local providers, and spreads their pages out on the floor. Red pen in hand, she sits, cross-legged and begins pouring over them. She starts with the headlines, mentally noting any that catch her attention, and marking them with a red star for later. Even the comics get a brief examination. Once that is done, she begins reading the articles in earnest, circling anything that strikes her as significant, and writing notes on her laptop. When she is able, she marks locations on the map, a red thumbtack for vampiric activity, blue for ghosts, purple for potential magical happening, and green for anything that does not fall into one of the above.
GM: The clock on Alice’s phone ticks by, and the shadows outside grow long and deep. The ones veiling her knowledge of Riverbend’s own shadowy happenings, however, slowly peel back.
Josephine Louise House is a girls’ dorm room at Tulane, originally built in 1887. Josephine Louise Newcomb, distraught by the death of her young daughter Harriet Sophie, from diphtheria in 1870, memorialized the girl by donating more than $100,000 to Tulane University for the founding of an all-women’s college.
The history of the Josephine Louise dormitory contains many oddities, but perhaps most interesting is the third floor’s function as a quarantine for the Spanish Influenza outbreak that swept the Uptown campus in the early 1900s. Susan Tucker, Tulane University’s curator of books and records, denies that she has heard the ghost stories of the school’s oldest resident hall, but acknowledges the deaths that took place there during the Influenza epidemic in 1918.
“One or two female students died from the Spanish Influenza during the outbreak,” Tucker said. “The deaths occurred in the fall when the girls would have just moved here.”
Alice: Alice underlines the names of the people and places mentioned by the story, and jots quick notes in a word processor program on her laptop.
GM: Alice has already seen Audubon Place with her own eyes (or at least its walls) and knows the gated community is the residence of Tulane University’s president. What is news to Alice is that he lives in a mansion donated to the university by Samuel Zemurray. Zemurray was widely known as “Sam the Banana Man” for being the founder of United Fruit, a banana company that now exists under the name Chiquita.
Chiquita is most infamous for its role in the United States 1954 overthrow of Guatemala’s democratically elected government, but it has been (and still remains) involved in a number of other unsavory incidents, from the 1928 “Banana massacre” that saw as many as 2,000 Colombian workers killed for striking, to its present-day funding of right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups that butcher peasants, unionists, indigenous people, human rights workers, teachers, and left-wing political activists.
Zemurray himself reigned over his banana-built empire from 1899 to 1961 before dying peacefully in the mansion now inhabited by Tulane University’s presidents. Whether the Banana Man’s spirit lingers on, Alice cannot say. But it is all-too easy to imagine other wrathful shades arising from his company’s actions. Numerous Latin American immigrants (mostly Hondurans) have also settled in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, some of whom could well have been personally affected by Chiquita’s activities.
Then, finally, there is the Ursuline Academy. Founded in 1727, the Academy is the oldest Catholic school in the United States, as well as the oldest school for girls. It is still run by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and under the trusteeship of the Ursuline Sisters of the New Orleans Community, a group of nuns. Though the Ursuline Covenant in the French Quarter is more famous, the Ursuline Academy is nearly as old and is heavily linked to its sister institution.
Indeed, a number of the historic casket girls (originally known as fille à la cassette, or girls with cassettes) and their children were among its first students. The aforementioned women brought from France to serve as wives for Louisiana colonists, and named for the small chests, known as casquettes, in which they carried their clothes. They were conspicuous by reason of their virtue, for women were normally supplied to colonists by raking the streets of Paris for prostitutes and undesirables. The casquette girls, however, were recruited from church charitable institutions, usually orphanages and convents, and practically guaranteed to be virgins.
Though it later became a matter of pride in Louisiana to show descent from them, more sinister rumors claim the casket girls were literal casket-bearers and transported vampires from Paris to the New World. More mundane stories claim that a number of sex scandals and suicides have taken place at the school. Nevertheless, it remains well-reputed among New Orleans’ social elite, and the Malveaux family have sent all of their daughters there. Alice even recalls her friend Maria mentioning she is an alamnus of the Ursulines.
Alice: Alice compiles what information she can. Three potential tracts for her to take. More investigation is going to be necessary. Taking her laptop to her desk, she prepares to do some digging online.
GM: The influenza pandemic of 1918—1919, Alice learns, killed more people than WWI, racking up a death toll somewhere between 20 and 40 million. Known as “Spanish Flu” or “La Grippe,” it has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history, with more people dying of influenza in a single year than in four years of the Black Death from 1347 to 1351. New Orleans itself had over four thousand reported cases.
It’s ironic. The city thought it was finally over yellow fever, long the city’s most dreaded disease, with the advent of modern sanitation and drainage systems in the early 1900s. Then influenza came along. Disease, it seems, always reappears in some new form.
Alice digs up the names of several female Tulane students who died of the epidemic, including Ira Hooper, Rose Abbott, Grace Nelson, and Luella Joyce. No doubt there are many more names, but “female Tulane Spanish influenza victims” is an obscure topic to qeeqle.
Her laptop’s clock reads 10 PM. It’s just so easy to spend time on Facemash, reading webcomics, and general fooling around…
Alice: Alice sighs, thinking of her insane class schedule tomorrow. Turning to the grinning plush cat sitting on her desk, she says, “A little more won’t hurt right? For real this time! I’m gonna focus my ass off!”
The cat has only a sly, knowing grin by way of reply.
“Don’t look at me like that! I fucking mean it!” Realizing she is berating a stuffed animal, Alice turns back to the glow of her laptop, and dives once more into the wide, vast internet in search of information.
An hour later, she realizes she has done nothing but watch MeVideos. She could almost swear the cat’s grin had grown wider. “Fuck off.” With that, she powers down her laptop, sets her phone in its stereo charger, and retreats under the covers.
GM: Tulane victims of the Spanish influenza epidemic proves a frustratingly obscure subject to qeeqle. It’s so easy for Alice to take just one little break, to tab over to a news page to read a breaking story, to check out her friends’ latest Facemash posts. And, of course, the MeVids. There’s this hilarious one where—and then it’s an hour later, and the cat’s grin remains firmly in place. Alice chooses the responsible option of finally going to bed. As she moves to click the ‘shut down’ icon, the laptop’s built-in webcam blinks white as it snaps her picture.
She didn’t choose to take one.
Alice: Alice frowns, and flicks off the laptops wireless feature. Fuck, did I pick up some sort of virus? She tries to power off the machine.
GM: The computer powers down without incident.
Who take that picture is anyone’s guess.
Or where it went.
Alice: Alice sits, fuming for a moment. Shit. Some sicko has my photo now? Argh! I thought this anti-virus was supposed to be good! It isn’t like I was looking at fucking porn or anything! Damnit, who the fuck put viruses on historical data websites? Or… wait, I guess Penny did send me that one link… fuck!
Having internally vented, and calmed herself down, she tries to follow the virus recovery instructions her nerdy friend Trevor taught her.
Okay so, I power it up, in safe mode, and run the BugByter program from my desktop… uh, let’s see if I can do that.
GM: Safe mode powers on in a stark contrast of black backgrounds and white font. The beige desktop screen is bare of its usual cluttered icons and colorful wallpaper. BugByter starts up and begins running its diagnostic scan. A number of red flags pop up, though whether from Penny’s link or Alice’s own browsing and downloading history, she cannot say.
Alice: Alice writes down the names of the flagged files, and makes a note to ask Trevor about them later. The damage has largely been done, but she would still like to know what he has to say about them.
Hopefully he won’t fuck with me about these. ‘Oh, hur hur, Alice! looking at scantily clad ladies online? Shame shame!’ Grumbling, she queues her laptop to remove all of the flagged files, then leaves it running in safe mode. Looks like it will take a while, guess I’ll leave it overnight.
Yawning, she crawls into bed, and tries to go to sleep.
Tuesday night, 25 August 2015, AM
GM: Sleep comes fitfully and uneasily. Alice dreams that she is her namesake, wearing that iconic blue dress and white apron-thingy (what’s it called? A pinafore?) as she chases after the White Rabbit. When she falls down the rabbit hole, however, it isn’t dark at all, but lit up by the flash-flash of clicking cameras. She can see hands holding them, but not any faces.
Alice: Alice feels her face growing hot at the flash-flashing of the cameras. “Fuck off! Can’t you see I am trying to find that fucking rabbit? You shits are being rude!” She tries to push her way past the cameras, flipping them off or smacking them to the ground as she goes.
GM: Alice’s swatting sends a number of cameras tumbling from surprised hands, but just as many continue snap-snap-snapping. Several endless moments of free-falling later, it isn’t the ground that rises up to meet her feet, but a stuffed Ceshire Cat’s grinning maw. “You’ve been very bad,” it pronounces, opening wide. Alice feels hot breath against her ankles just as her eyes snap open.
Alice: With a small yelp, Alice startles into consciousness. Her eyes take in her surroundings, as her sleep-addled mind readjusts to the logic of the waking world. “Shit.” It isn’t as if this sort of thing is new. Ever since seeing the Thing shred a woman into a fine red mist, she has occasionally had messed up nightmares. But ever since she starting working with magic, it’s felt like they come more often. Worse, she remembers them, with frightening detail.
Feeling too keyed up to go immediately back to bed, she shuffles over to her desk and checks on her laptop, sparing a moment to eye the grinning cat plushie, to see whether the virus has been successfully removed.
GM: The antivirus confirms the infected files were deleted. To her laywoman’s computer knowledge, the system appears fine and healthy. Trevor could offer a more expert opinion… as well as relentless teasing for looking at porn of naked ladies. (“Hur hur!”)
Alice: Cool, looks like it is gone. Probably… fuck, I’m paranoid. Still, I don’t want any more photos of me ending up who knows where. I’ll ask Trevor for his opinion when I see him in class.
She nods and powers down the machine. Feeling a little freaked out by her dream, she tries to calm down by getting a glass of milk, and checking around to make sure nothing weird has happened in her apartment while she slept.
Doors locked? Windows still closed? Good. Okay, back to bed. It was just a dream… nothing to freak out about.
GM: The IKEA furniture still looks purchased on a college kid’s budget, and the property manager still hasn’t gotten around to fixing that dead bulb in her kitchen, but Alice can observe nothing out of place in her apartment.
Alice: She finishes her glass of milk, rinses it and leaves it in the sink for later, and retreats to her bed and hopefully, pleasant dreams.