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Ghosts in the Forumby Ellen Million
It was a stupid disagreement. I didn't even remember what the subject was, only the hurt feelings, and the angry stampede through my computer to delete all the links to my once-beloved forum.
I had all but forgotten about it, after graduation, and the trip to Europe and the thing with Sam that was never a thing, and been quite happy for that forgetfulness - until I was cleaning up the machine to reformat and install the latest operating system, and found my cheat sheet of passwords. My username and password were still there, and the address to the site. It was too long to remember, and full of nonsense characters - one of the free, hosted boards that had been listed so-as to avoid searches. Our idea of security had been obscurity - no linking to the boards, just inviting specific folks to join.
I stared at the address for a long time before deciding to see if it was still there. I wasn't the same person I'd been, in the days of passionate comparisons of Tolkien, CS Lewis, Mercedes Lackey and the X-files. Probably, they weren't the same people, either - if any of those same people were still even there. What had it been, seven years? I'd been a teenager then - I felt like a relic now.
The last 25 posts in the gossip and discussion category were all spam. 'I am looking for a man to take care of me' and 'I just saved a lot of money on drugs at this site!' mixed in with generic 'i totally agree :P' posts that linked to porno sites.
It was dead.
I couldn't decide if I was relieved, or disappointed. When you love a community, you sort of hope it will survive you - and selfishly hope that it can't. My username didn't have its admin privileges any longer. I hadn't expected it to. I was more than half surprised the user itself hadn't been deleted - I was honest enough to look back with distance and know I'd left badly.
They'd left the thread that had combusted. It was only halfway down the page - beneath mortgage and easy degree promises. I half-smiled at the increasingly desperate and cheerful titles of Sandra's posts further down. She always tried too hard to patch things up. She'd sent a plaintive, encouraging email after I'd stormed off. I had deleted it with the rest of the forum memorabilia on my computer - too angry at the time to do more than skim through her usual peace-making platitudes. I'd even ditched that email address - it had been through the high school I was attending, and had been deleted when I graduated and moved on.
I opened the thread.
It was odd, reading ones own posts from so long ago. At several points, I winced, and wondered why I hadn't noticed at the time how high-handed I sounded. It was no wonder I had ruffled feathers. I was vainly relieved to find that his counter-argument still read like a spoiled kindergarten child's. We were both nasty and petty. Other people had chimed in - I hadn't remembered their posts, but they were better than mine - not so aggressive and personal, and wise in their disagreements with me. Sandra, and several others had stepped in, had I even noticed them at the time?
I'd lost that aggressive edge somewhere, I thought. Maybe with Sam. Maybe with the day job I'd been holding down like a half-way responsible adult since then, and the toddler. There wasn't time in my life, for 'fantasy' and 'reading for fun.' I'd decided not to get DSL when I returned from Europe, and the pains of dialup meant I used the Internet for little more than emails with my parents and cousins. Sometimes, it seemed like I'd lost my soul at that point, something hopeful and idealistic had gotten lost in the daily hassles and time-sucking requirements of being a single mother and soulless employee.
I read the thread slowly, deliberately, remembering how zealous I'd been at the time. It had been important, being able to prove a point about how magic was used in a scientific background to make up for a writer's deficiencies... some writer I hadn't read anything from in years, and my point was so convoluted that I had to read my own posts twice before I understood them. I found my adversary frustrating, but appreciable, with seven years to pad the raw nerves he'd uncovered.
And there, my frustrated resignation, my stormy, emotional departure... I read on a little further, and froze with my finger poised on the Pg Dn key.
I hadn't posted anything after that. I had deleted the links, gone on vacation, and come back to embrace 'real life.' The forum became something of my 'dreamer' past, from some forgotten time when I'd been so sure I'd be writer.
I hadn't posted again, I was positive, but there it was - another post, months later, with diplomatic aplomb that I hadn't figured out for another year, at least.
I hadn't written that post.
At first, I was outraged. Someone, imitating me, had posted under my name - my account - and said things that I hadn't intended. It was a violation. I had to read the post three times before the words would stay in order before my eyes.
It wasn't Sandra's self-effacing, apologetic kind of post - not that Sandra would ever stoop to pretending to be someone else... she'd been too wholesome to consider that kind of thing. (I was somewhat startled to discover that I still held her in some esteem. For years I had simply lumped her in with Them in my head. Them versus me - it seemed so childish now.) The post was exactly what I'd have written now, a handful of years later and a whole lot wiser. It was diplomatic, generous and classy - exactly what I would have liked to have written. And I hadn't. I was sure of that fact. The date was a time I'd been losing my soul in Europe with a man who hadn't loved me.
No one had replied - by that point, the forum had already crumbled into a ghost town.
I scanned the rest of that category in the forum, gnashing my teeth at the slow connection and grateful that at least most of the graphic signatures were only broken icons now. "I" hadn't posted again there.
Finally, I went to the writing category. In my teenage delusions, I'd been sure I was destined to be a great writer. I posted all of my angsty poetry and novel excerpts, and my circle of friends had replied with encouragement and praise. I fully expected them to be awful, upon distanced re-read. I hadn't saved any copies of any of it - that had been deleted in my great purge. I was quite sure it had been no great loss.
And there I was again - or whatever person had decided to use my account to post. A page of new items with no replies and no views. I opened the first in a new window, and impatient with the download, opened the second in another new window before it had finished downloading.
The first was a short fiction - and it was much better than anything I'd ever written. The second was a poem about Jessica, and my heart nearly stopped. None of Them could have known about Jessica - she'd been years after the purge, and there was nothing - nothing - online about her, that I knew of. Not even Sam knew about her. It was eerily accurate, and deeply personal.
I spent three hours in that category, interrupted by numbly feeding Jessica and putting her down for her nap. If anyone tried to call, they received only a busy signal while I read and read and read. As I'd suspected, the things I'd originally posted had been atrocious - the praise given was more kind and friendly than honest. But after the death of the forum, after some gap in time, it had grown. Not at first - reading backwards was like piling on spiky flaws, but I could clearly see the maturation of the writing style and concept of plot and vision.
Eyes aching at the unaccustomed length of time staring at a computer screen, I finally sat back and rubbed them. It was everything I would have written, if I'd continued to write.
This wasn't someone imitating me, or masquerading behind my account, I finally realized - it was me. Some part of me that had been lost for seven years. It was a ghost of me, in a graveyard of a forum.
Abruptly, midway through loading one of the later pieces - posted just months ago - an error screen materialized and the Internet connection was dropped. I smothered a noise of frustration and Jessica stirred in her sleep.
When I reconnected - the forum was empty.
No, not empty - the writing forum had a recent page of spam. Russian brides. Canadian drugstores. Nothing by the me that might have been. I fled back to the gossip board, and that awful thread.
It had ended after Sandra's post. There was no me-that-wasn't-me. The apology had never been written. I shook myself. Of course not. I had never written it.
I made dinner, fed Jessica, and went over the paperwork from the office in a haze - and compulsively checked a dozen more times for the posts that were no longer there. Had they ever been there? "Am I mad?" I asked Jessica, but she only whimpered in frustration for a toy out of reach. She didn't care for mes that might have been. I gave her the toy and finally, reluctantly deleted the password cheat sheet that had been my last tie to the forum.
While the computer reformatted and after Jessica had resigned to staying in bed, I impulsively took one of the steno pads out of my work bag and began to write. It was halting and awkward, unplanned and un-plotted, and it completely lacked the grace that my ghost pieces had gained, but it was a start. And somewhere inside, long-forgotten, something woke up - something that felt remarkably like a soul.
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