Cortical grapeshot explodes along Jonas’ mind’s horizon. Another day. Another insipid day. Inner ear ringing, muscle-wrenching tension in neck. Kids taking jabs so acutely aware they might as well be in the timbre of self-monologue. Something about the Internet’s ubiquitous access thrust kids’ intellectual progress into hyperdrive while stunting their emotional growth, making the latter a consciously neglected Sunday car. The most recent passive-aggressive jab—“Why don’t you ever get lunch with the other teachers? Do they not invite you, Mr. J.?”—is currently worming its way into his mood, promising rotten, dead-on-the-vine fruit to be bore later.

Jonas’s students call him Mr. J. The “j” in his name is actually pronounced with a “y” sound and is quite possibly a remnant of his German chemist grandfather rat-lining it to South America after the fall of the Reich. Not worth owning that blood anyway. Jonas’s students are also unbearable. Generation Z’s proclivity for “hypebeast” culture—wannabe livestreamers donning Supreme gear and vying for virality—makes them especially good at getting under his skin. His skin a tawdry varnish, a smiling agreeable and personable façade he has to reapply day after day, its resilience waning.

It is growing increasingly difficult to do Alesia-esque battle on both sides of his teaching persona. Waging defensive wars on the external—playing nice and pretending to be happy—while insurgent Gallic bands inside the city walls light fires, destroy rations, decrease morale. He imagines his own proteins, the things controlling his brain chemistry, spiraling out of control. Somehow, an outside force has its invisible hypoderm past his defenses, injecting viral code, resulting in cascading prions: Mad Cow Jonas. It is less an open assault than a process of erosion, or accretion, or osmosis. Whatever the fuck it is, Jonas can hardly maintain the outward-facing façade of a few millimeter-thick passable normal person. There is no solace in the 21st century’s harried onslaught of micro-traumas, proxy stimuli promising new neuroses by the day. He lectures kids watching cuckoldry porn and beheadings surreptitiously in their pockets. One eye on Jonas to ward off detention and one eye on the un-infinite I-portal. The kids’ habits don’t necessarily get to Jonas; he realizes he would be the same way in their godawful Yeezies. The last frontier for his parents was space. For students, it is the approaching-zero asymptote that is the Internet: a mimetic exploration of the mind as ugly and masturbatory as it is stimulating.

“Yeah.” That’s what Jonas says to himself as he tightens his tie in preparation for another morning. “Masturbatory.” He pulls the knot taut, unzips his khakis, and jerks for release. Inchoate generations squirt into the toilet bowl as Jonas sighs the sigh of broken spirits. He exits the teacher’s bathroom as homeroom bell rings. He strides front/center, “You know the rules. Phones OFF. If I hear or see it, it is mine.” “If I so much as get a whiff of the candied, burnt plastic horror that is this week’s new Juul pod, I’m confiscating your phone chargers. All of them, even the backup.”

Teacher mode on, Jonas has no problem separating himself from his herd. Even the ones who behave shockingly like adults at times, they still seem like they were born on a different planet. Then again, that’s how he feels about his coworkers, too. Different species. The kids he understands a little better. They had no control over the overstimulating, corporate-saturated world they were brought up in. But the adults, they consciously choose to play by the rules. They check their credit scores, get their cars detailed, they talk in cycles of platitudes Jonas can track on a calendar, each exchanged phrase denoting what day of the week or time in the season it is: “Happy Friday!” (an easy one), or “Another day, another dollar!” (usually payday), or “Wish we could work outside.” (spring/summer), and his favorite exchange, “How about that game last night?” (usually Monday, Tuesday, or Friday if it is football season).

Jonas isn’t obliviously cynical. He knows the purpose of these bromides is that they are more gestures than exploratory phrases, signals of macro-connected nervous systems, word games. Still, would it kill anyone to ask “how are you doing?” without the immediate eye-averting glance that solidifies the phrases as a rhetorical greeting? He gets it. He just doesn’t like getting it. Jonas has recently found himself overusing the word just, especially in conversations with his on again/off again ex-girlfriend. He’s been finding himself scrolling back in sentences and erasing phrases like “I just wanted you to know…” or “I was just wondering…” It is something about the word’s immediacy, softening of a request, or its appeal to authenticity; whatever it is, he has begun overanalyzing it and acknowledging it as a marker of his current state. Current state: helter-skelter; emotional, intellectual, everything disordered.

Class goes by without a hitch. Everyday intrusive thoughts aside, Jonas doesn’t think he necessarily has unhealthy thinking habits. Everyone has urges to shove a pen in their eye or expose themselves to minors, right? Maybe not. But a long time ago, he decided he was not his brain, and that rumination on alien images/urges brought on by the very fact that he should not be having them is not his fault. As long as he processes his emotions and finds ways to cope, he feels all right. Just as Jonas is finishing grading the last of the day’s tests, a senior, Mary Linden, walks into his classroom.

“Whatsup Mar?”

“My dad won’t accept a C on my last paper, so he’s making me ask you for extra credit or a redo.”

“Did you tell him that you handed in three pages of a five page assignment and clearly didn’t proofread?”

“Yeah Mr. J., I understand, I had to try or he’d cut off my phone bill and car insurance. I get it if you can’t do anything to help.”

“Give me those missing two pages, edited, and I’ll bump your grade up to a B only because you were honest, so good job. Also, please tell your dad not to email me about this; I will not reply nor grab a drink with him.”

These exchanges were fairly quotidian. Jonas could almost see the phantom of Mary’s father leering from behind her, pulling the strings and forcing her actions by negotiating bogus deals over shit like phones, laptops, and cars. Boomers seemed to apply their vampiric art-of-the-deal mentality too literally to parenting. He rarely met a 16-year-old who respected their parents. Two concrete facts Jonas picked up in his past five years teaching: 1. Kids and their parents seemed to all be suffering from dissociative disorders. 2. The gaps in Boomers vs. Millennials vs. Generation Z parent/child relationships were immeasurably large. It appeared that Boomers, having two feet out of the Internet’s advent; Millennials having one foot in and one foot out; and Gen Z having two feet in, all attributed massively to to how they maintained interpersonal/familial relationships: it is hard for Jonas to accept that many of them are currently living in the same households.

Each generation has its telltale flaws and blind spots. Jonas can easily acknowledge his own; as he walks out of class towards his leased Honda, he thinks on the venial sin he shares intimately with the kids he teaches. He is stereotypically addicted to gaming. Addicted, at least from an outsider’s perspective, because he copes with life’s stresses via virtual catharsis. Jonas musters the morale of his farcical troops everyday by taking out his aggression on precisely programmed 0’s and 1’s. Holy code rendered in the highest quality from on high by the saint known as Open Source. He consistently logs hours on a shooting simulator that prides itself on realism. Real world events, weight burden, gun mechanics, damage, motions, the whole nine.

Jonas arrives home, reheats meal-prepped food, and slides into a chair he has logged countless hours on. A chair which, if upholstery could absorb emotion then reflect that emotion by reconfiguring its atoms into a resonant entity with shifted sound, color, shape, etc., would be a warped, twisted, and contorted ball of gnarled roots displaying undulating chromatophores like a threatened cuttlefish and also emitting an ultrasonic pitch that, if exposed to it for long enough, would drive any organic cell to apoptosis. The chair has seen the worst of Jonas, all his panicked frustrations taken out in violent and vulgar outbursts, powerful and desperate in the way a baby’s babbling is: a preternatural utterance of all possible human phonemes without biological restriction.

The game Jonas plays is a modded version of the original. If his administrators found out he plays it, he’d be fired. Fired on the spot. Fired on the spot and publically stockaded. His life, as he knows it, would be over. And yet, he plays the game. Its name is Mass Shooter Simulator+. The “+” signifies additional maps, scenarios, and variants built into the original version. These variants divert from the traditional focus of the game, but share its spirit: e.g. Toronto Truck driver, Mandalay Bay, and NYC Hookah Bar. The details of each event are thrilling to Jonas. His enjoyment of each has become the lone fuel source for his persona’s force field. A cathartic release valve for arthritis of the soul, gout of the spirit, whatever it is about attempting to function in an abject society that wages an internecine metaphysical war.

However, everything is not what it seems. Jonas doesn’t simply enjoy the role of playing Hunter-Killer, chasing AIs around and wreaking simulated mayhem. Sometimes he takes the role of observer, cop, or victim, and tries to experience the event differently in some way, taking authentic delight in altering (or neutrally observing) harrowing events. How else could he imagine ever being a hero if he does not also play the villain? Sitting in his omniscient gaming chair, conjuring hypothetical scenarios, sometimes even hoping a kid with a gun runs into his classroom and is met with Jonas’s fast action/quick thinking.

He can’t dispute the basedness of it all. Teacher plays mass shooter game. Very easy optics to spin. No person, especially no one he works with—be it kid or non-kid—could ever accept that he simply finds it fun. Harmless fun. That each play-through of the Sandy Hook shooting teaches him a little more about himself. Another addition to his collection of versions of himself, an endless gallery of Warholian Templates: the same situation colored differently by infinite variables, infinite feelings, endless hypotheticals. Today, he plays with hate; today, he plays with heroism; today, he plays with mercy; today with boredom, today with desperation, today with sadness, today with bigotry, today nothingness, today, today.

Jonas could choose to be anyone: he could be Master Chief, Samus Aran, Solid Snake, James Bond, Jill Valentine, Lady Maria, Lara Croft, Gordon Freeman. But today, he boots up MSS+ and assumes the mantle of Parkland Shooter: Nikolas Cruz.

Familiar images in volume rendered voxels, UV mapped textures, polygonal mesh models—a concrete school building, sidewalk Uber drop-off point, maroon JROTC shirt

0’s and 1’s make up fleeing forms, shattering windows, bullet holes in cheap plaster

If context matters then it has to matter that Jonas doesn’t kill anyone through this play-through

He takes random shots through random space

Jonas runs the scenario and AIs react accordingly, panic and lockdown

He strolls through lockered corridors and exits to the tennis courts just like the storyline dictates

Instead of heading to Walmart, like Cruz, Jonas goes and sits on the curb, awaiting NPC SWAT to come surround him with guns drawn

Jonas often diverts from historical events. The game has its limitations, but allows for a pretty broad exercise in free will. At Mandalay Bay, he plays slots. In Isla Vista, he takes on the role of civilian and tries to talk to Elliot Rodger; he usually gets stabbed, but sometimes the AI offers vainglorious dialogue exchanges. In Toronto, he goes for a joyride. As Jonas finishes his now-cold food, on his worn gaming chair, he fantasizes about his boss paying him an unexpected home visit. Why would he come? He doesn’t know; maybe he forgot his paycheck and Jonas’s place is on Anderson’s way home. Maybe the strict stickler has a soft heart and sees the never-ending war going on behind glazed corneas. Whatever the reason, in the fantasy, the principal knocks on the door and Jonas leaves the game running just as something really, really bad is happening. At first the guy thinks it is the news—but no, he is educated on this sort of thing (requisite training for early school shooter warning signs in children)—he recognizes it from a school board presentation.

In many ways, Jonas wants to be caught and allowed no defense, no context, no explanation. It would be so easy to give up then. Mass digital crowds wielding hashtag-ended pitchforks. He’d become the eye of a new media storm, an echo chamber’s wave source. With the comfort of conviction, finality, and reduction, his accusers would vaunt their virtuous paths, exiling him to the place where people go when they are publically shamed. Home, probably. Except a home filled with anonymous calls, housing association complaints, maybe some graffiti and a brick or two. So…not a home. This hypothetical turn of events feels good; Jonas wants to embrace the losing of control, a resignation to misfortune and acceptance of some eldritch blueprint that guarantees entropic disintegration. He pauses MSS+ while checking the in-game time at University of Texas, Austin’s clock tower.

In Jonas’ fantasy, he gets one last day to politely tell his coworkers and students how corrosive they are as human beings. He feigns civility to his intrusive boss and asks for “one more day to say goodbye to his beloved school.” After checking in with security, he walks into homeroom late, tooth-borne rictus, tells Mary Linden how fucking annoying her dad is, and pegs his coffee at Simmons. No, correction: he takes the lid off and shotgun sprays his coffee on Simmons, Lilly, and Shah for being assholes who play Pornhub audio-chicken with their phones in their pockets during lectures. He yells across the hallway to Dr. Birbiglia that he can see him surfing Craigslist escorts on his off-time and that he hopes his wife gets tested. Jonas switches game scenarios as his mind reels with glorious imagery. He cruises innocuously, obeying traffic laws as the D.C. snipers, while telling all the people in his head all the things he wishes he could say. To Lidia: “Your nipples are always visible.” To Mr. Kurana: “You are miserable and I’m surprised your chain smoking hasn’t caused some evolved form of emphysema to develop, gain sentience, and leap out of your grey tooth-filled mouth.” To his students: “Most of you are hopeless and will only see career-level salaries as a result of your vampiric parents’ chronic nepotism. Eventually, you will all swallow some conveniently capsuled ethno-anti-woke-pill and find a digital campground to pop your tent in, where you and your fellow anons will regurgitate into each other’s mouths ad infinitum.”

Fantasy complete and game over. Jonas squeezes indented armrests, eroded fabric revealing daily habit. He stoops to turn the monitor off and catches his own image in the dusk-lit black mirror: another altar-offered hour, sane-saving annuity deposited. He prepares to prepare for bed, stopping again. He always does this because he knows he always will. Jonas tells himself he is not going into work and that he will call out—say fuck them—and sleep in. He tosses a paper plate in the trash, throws off pants with belt still on, skips brushing his teeth. On his bed, he runs a mental routine an old friend once taught him: rehearse your today and plan your tomorrow. Jonas runs through it all up until wanting to ditch work and says he probably shouldn’t. He tells himself tomorrow will be better, but probably not. He says he won’t yell at the kids, won’t sneak a cigarette, won’t play the game. But he will.