Election Day wore on and hunger gnawed at Lauren’s belly. She’d been running on adrenaline and caffeine. When the lunch rush wrapped up, she took her break. Lauren inhaled a burger and fries, with just enough time for a smoke break.
Out back dumpsters divided each store’s boundaries in the strip-mall’s alley. The asphalt was smooth and bright black. The smell of the new pavement hung in the air. Laughter from two women a few stores down drew her attention. They looked to be having fun, but Lauren had been on overload with other humans and needed a second to herself. She fished in the pocket of her rumpled black hoodie and pulled out her cigarettes. She popped one in her mouth and dipped her hand in her pocket again, finding no lighter. “Dammit,” Lauren huffed. She turned to the women and called out as she got closer, “Can I get a light?”
The older of the two had flaming auburn hair and a ready smile. “Sure, darlin’,” she responded. “I’m Lana, but you can call me Red, and this is Marie. I’m cell store, she’s at the taco shop. I see from your name badge that you’re Lauren. You must be a server at the restaurant?” Red watched her lighter like a hawk until it was safely back in her hand.
“Yeah, we’ve been swamped! I’m really surprised. It feels like there’s an energy in the air. But, please, don’t talk about the election!” That’s all she’d been hearing all day as the televisions blared punditry and predictions.
Red chortled, “Actually, sweetheart, we were just trying to remember the names of those Russian bears. So, kind of about the election, but not about today, if that’s any help.”
Lauren didn’t want to be rude, though it was not any help. Can’t they talk about music or something? She sighed, “Of course, carry on. What are you talking about? Bears?”
Marie blew out her smoke as she giggled, “You know! Those bears that were behind hacking the 2016 election? They were Russian KGB-types. They hacked into the President’s opponent’s email accounts and used it against her. Then gave it to Wikileaks. We were trying to remember the name of the names the Russians used for hacking. They were silly names, I remember that.”
Lauren looked at her dwindling cigarette and wished that she hadn’t needed to use the lighter. She didn’t give a fuck about the Russian bears.
Red shouted, and Lauren jumped. “Hot damn! I remember. It was Fancy and Cozy. I don’t recall which was which. But, that was it – Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear. They sound so sweet, don’t they?”
Red’s chest rattled as she laughed from years of tobacco use. She started coughing and took a moment to regain herself. Lauren took another drag from her cigarette, ignoring the obvious. Red wasn’t healthy, but it wasn’t only the smoking. She’d battled breast cancer on and off for nearly a decade. She lost her health insurance when she had to quit her job managing a chain of gas stations because of her illness. It had been a downhill economic spiral since. Her husband contracted COVID and never recovered fully after, there weren’t many construction jobs for him anyway.
After Red caught her breath, she joked, “Give me another fucking cigarette, right?” Mocking herself. She seemed to have that same fatalistic attitude toward her addiction that Lauren would recognize in herself years later. After Lauren no longer felt young and invincible, but carried on with it anyway.
Marie said, “The Russians been putin’ out those deepfakes this time around again.”
“What the hell are deepfakes?” Lauren asked.
Marie responded, “They’re those manipulated videos and recordings that started coming out before the last presidential election. They’re people either on video or on recording saying whatever the fuck people making the video wanted them to say. They use little bits and pieces of public speeches from whoever they were targeting. If you’re only paying half attention, you just think it’s real and move on. And people ignore the fact checkers, because they’re boring and probably biased. Right? Ridiculous. You don’t have to make people believe something. You just have to make them confused.”
Red declared, “You’ve probably seen a bunch of deepfakes and didn’t even know it. They made it real tough on that guy running against the President. The Party was riding on a mountain of cash that poured in from his patrons – all the gentlemen and ladies he gave those huge tax breaks to. The President offered a service based approach to governance.” A mischievous smile on her face she said,. “His donors serve his need for reelection money and he serves them whatever fucking piece of the American pie he has the power to give ‘em.” She paused, “You get it? He’s a service president?”
Marie rolled her eyes. “You think you’re funny, bitch.”
Red added, “I am funny. But you know, they’ve sure kicked the hornet’s nest with those fake videos. Holy fuck. It’s scary. You know they first developed that technology for the porn industry?”
Red broke out in uproarious laughter and slapped her side, “You bet it was, those sonsabitches. Nasty bastards.”
Lauren was surprised to find herself delighted at the two of them. Though she wished they were sitting around a campfire instead of a dingy alley. She had probably seen deepfakes. Most likely they had talked about it on the TV when she was working. But she had seen so many political ads and memes and bullshit online that she wanted to vomit. She didn’t vote for the President, or anyone for that matter. Politics was too contentious and frustrating. One side with this. The other side with that.
The President’s trick of obfuscation worked on Lauren and countless Americans for his election and for his re-election. He was doing the same thing for the midterms, though his tactics weren’t as effective. After George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police, protests and activism unfurled around the world and across the US. The President’s people doubled-down on their racist tactics, and large majorities of Americans finally saw that their emperor had no clothes. If it had not been for widespread voter suppression and foreign interference, the President would have lost.
Red added, “All the President ever did was tear his opponent down. He couldn’t sell his own clown show! They’re doing the same with this election to try to take back the Senate. The Opposition controlling it is the only thing stopping him from full-on kingship. His supporters would love that. Have you seen those ridiculous memes of the President’s fat ass painted all young and hot? He’s all muscles and hero, waving a flag. It’s truly nauseating.” She pretended to gag.
They all chuckled. The conversation was heavy, but Lauren was pleased that the mood was light. It reminded her of an easy version of her dad and sister where there were no emotional entanglements and lots of swearing. Her dad didn’t even laugh anymore. She thought about Rachel’s text and had pangs of guilt for not having responded with more. Anxiety tightened her stomach as she dreaded going back to her shift. Her manager said that the place can get rowdy during elections, depending on how the results come out. Lauren rationalized enough time for another cig. “Hey, can I see your lighter again?”
Red pulled out the yellow Bic and held it up. “See.” Her shoulders jiggled and she handed it to Lauren.
“Very funny. The people who like him think it’s cool that he’s such an asshole. It’s like instead of them trying to be better people, they have a leader who says it’s okay to act like jerks. They feel like he’s one of them. So if you criticize him, you’re criticizing them.” She was pleased with herself to have something to add to the conversation. Nearly all Lauren’s friends either followed the President or stayed quiet. Lauren wasn’t the kind to bring such things up or be able to offer much when it was. She’d built a wall in her consciousness to separate the scary part of the world from the rest. But Lauren understood how the President’s people thought.
Red had the presence of someone who was continuously waiting to put in her opinion in any conversation. She blurted out, “Do they know that he’s shitting on gold toilets, when they can’t even pay their bills? Or he used to before he got this president gig that he didn’t even want. He was using his candidacy to promote his failing businesses. He actually said the White House was a dump when he first got elected. What a dipshit if he thinks his tacky ass fake Roman crap looks nice.” Red craned her neck at Lauren and said, “You’ve got a sweet face. I think we assumed what side you were on. Here we’ve just been going on and on.”
Lauren raised one eyebrow, “Fuck, girl. I don’t have a side. It’s all good.”
Red’s expression remained placid as screams echoed in her head. In these times, not choosing was making a choice.
Marie wrapped her arms around her chest. She shivered, “I’m getting a little cold. We’ve been out here forty-five minutes already. Maybe we should go home?”
Red poked her, “You baby! It’s still like sixty degrees or something. Come on! Stay with me a while longer. Eddie’s fine and your kids are big enough to make their own damned dinner!” She assured Lauren, “We’ve always talk like this. Don’t worry. We’ve known each other forever.”
Marie’s mouth curled down in the corner as she addressed the accusation. “I know…I spoil them. The world is just so harsh, I wanted to create a bubble of good for them. I think I did go a little far, though! Eighteen year olds really shouldn’t expect dinner served to them every night.”
Red said, “No they shouldn’t. They need to grow up. I’m sure you’ve got plenty to eat.”
Lauren reached out and gave Marie a quick squeeze on her shoulder. “I’m sure you were a good mom.”
Marie managed a weak smile. She was slender and fragile. “Thanks. Okay, let me text them. Red, you’re right. I’ve been trying to resist their bitchiness. They got themselves in a snit once when I was out and they ran out of toilet paper. I’m like, go to the store! Jeesh! I’ll catch hell for this, but that’s okay. Give me your hat, though. I’m chilly.” She pulled out her phone, wrote her kids and turned it to silent. Red threw the hat and Marie grabbed it against her stomach. “You whore,” she said. They all laughed again. Emergency vehicles blared in the distance.
Lauren thought both politics and conspiracies were bullshit, though, her mind kept picking at what they’d said about the Russians. She ventured, “I’ll probably regret asking this…But I’ve heard a lot of conspiracy theories, but nothing about these bears. Why would they want to steal emails?”
Red coughed, “Well, hon, this isn’t a conspiracy theory. There were major reports, people testified before Congress and all that. There were lots of news stories. You must have heard, working there.”
“When was it?”
“I don’t know, about three or four years ago maybe. Hard to remember. The news is like a motherfucking firehouse coming at you constantly.”
“I didn’t work here then. I’ve been here about a year. Otherwise, I stick to entertainment news. Cat videos. Social media. That sort of thing.”
Marie said, “Cats, bears, what’s the difference!” The three of them chortled. “Here’s the deal, the President was colluding with Russia so he could get dirt on his opponents. That’s why. A lot of people suspect the President has mafia ties, too. He’s certainly friends with a lot of mobsters. And we all know what they say about the type of company people keep! He’s probably laundering their dirty money through all his properties and this German bank that’s shady as fuck. He also probably owes Russia a ton of money loaned through this bank, since no one would give him shit after his last bankruptcy. All I know for sure is that he was colluding with them then, and he’s still doing it. No matter what Herr Gropenfuror tweets out about witch hunts.”
“I still don’t get it. Why does Russia care what happens with our country?” As the sun was setting, a cool breeze kicked up. Lauren soaked it in, since she’d been broiling inside the restaurant.
Marie and Red both started to answer at the same time, then did the “no, you go” with each other.
Finally Red proceeded to answer, “They didn’t really care that much about who won at first, because they didn’t think the prez was going to get elected either. We were far easier to manipulate than the Russian dictator Putin could have imagined in his wildest wet dreams. He just wanted to stir up shit here and weaken the person who finally won. Russia is a country that was once a superpower, but has been fading. Putin wanted to throw his weight around on the world stage. He loves his useful idiot now, though. He’s not giving him up. Fucking Putie Pie.” Red pretended to gag.
Marie added, “Putin is a criminal. He’s running his country like a mafia state, and he’s robbing his country blind. He wanted to make the US look shitty so that his own people didn’t have a model to strive for. You know what I mean? Like, if his people saw that the rest of the world was fucked, maybe the Russians wouldn’t care so much that their own country had gone to hell. ”
Lauren chuckled. “But why would this guy think any of it would work?”
Red said, “Honey, they’ve been doing this for years. We go way back with the Russians. Right? The whole Cold War and all. They planted fake stories in newspapers back then too, but especially during the civil rights era. They helped us pick at our own wounds. They’d get us to hate each other a little more than we already did. They’re doing the same thing now only on a grand scale through our phones and computers. Shit we’ve never dealt with like whether or not Black lives really did matter, or whether women should be able to control their own bodies. As a country, we let this stuff fester. So, all they have to do is throw out a whole bunch of crap that’s at least half true enough of the time that they can slide in total and complete bullshit other times. They even funnel money to pay people to cozy up to politicians through American organizations like the fucking NRA. And don’t even get me started on how they’ve played guns against us! Fuck. If they tear us down by tearing us apart, Russia suddenly looks a lot more attractive and stable to Putin’s people. Russia did the same goddamned thing all over, with Brexit and screwing with elections. Putin’s a little man, who’s probably got a little dick. He wants to throw the whole world into chaos so he can fuck his big pile of money.” Their uproarious laughter echoed through the alley.
Marie added, “Race stuff was one of his favorite things to fuck with us about. For sure. Remember all those riots that went down a few years back? They really poured fire on that. Playing both sides to get everyone everyone even more worked-up. Didn’t help that all the crazy white supremacists and the goddamned drug cartels got into the frey. They were burning buildings and looting, blaming Black people and Antifa for all the destruction. I’m not saying there wasn’t some of that, but most of it with people out of town creating trouble. Burning those people’s communities. Pisses me off. But, the President’s supporters ate it up and blamed Black people and liberals. Such shit!”
Red threw in ominously, “ There’s so many links between the Russians, the mafia, and all these white nationalist. And our President is in the middle of all of it. Scares the shit out of me.“
“I don’t know, ladies. This is sounding crazier and crazier. If what you say is true, we don’t need conspiracy theories. This stuff is bat shit.”
Conspiracy theories had reached their zenith at the time. Not long after this smoke the women had together, the government infiltrated news stations and paid off or intimidated journalists to do their bidding. They also planted enough false stories that no one could believe anything anymore.
Before then, most conspiracies could be proved or disproved by a few clicks of the mouse. But instead people filled the spaces left where education and will to learn left off with whatever crazy thing that sucked them in. People who believed bonded together in an alliance that gave them a sense of knowing and insight. They had taken the proverbial red pill that gave them infinite more understanding than all the sheeple who didn’t partake. This created an in-group bond that filled a similar void in the hearts of Americans that the President himself filled for some. And that cults, gangs, hate groups, extremist religions or codependent relationships did for others. There was an emptiness in modern people’s souls that only genuine connection could fill. Though these other things could soothe wounds in the short-run, they all shared in common that they left people shattered. Even if those adherents never woke up. Where we go one, we go all – was the enticing message of the most popular online conspiracy group that supported the President. Q Anon purported that the he was fighting a global cabal of evil to save the world from pedophilia and greed. Contrary to being the raving buffoon most people saw, Q said that the President was a very stable genius who was playing three dimensional chess, while his opponents played checkers. Q’s followers believed deep down in their hearts that their President was good, decent, and competent. Despite all evidence to the contrary.
The problem with dismissing all conspiracy theories out of hand was that some were indeed real. The Tuskegee Syphilis study. Poisoned alcohol during Prohibition. Lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction to justify war. And on… Americans knew that there was something fundamentally wrong with their country, and they turned themselves into pretzels looking for answers. And buying into conspiracy theories took much less time and personal introspection than unraveling the underlying real conspiracies that were right in front of us. These crazed ideas served to divert America’s attention from the rich, the powerful and the connected who were robbing the country blind and sending us down a rabbit hole of dictatorship. All while the planet that was burning alive. The Russians understood this phenomena and aligned their misinformation campaigns to match and amplify. Lauren had little patience for any of it. News. Fake news. Conspiracies. Politics. Since she could not distinguish among them, she ignored them all equally.
Red took a final drag from her cigarette and blew out her smoke as she said, “The Russians did the same goddamned thing during the pandemic. Pumped out a whole fuck ton of false information from their internet troll farms they set up in these poor countries. Cheap labor, right? Assholes. They throw a bunch of stuff onto Twitter and Facebook. It’s mostly reposting fringe views to make it look like more people think that way. So, if they’re fifty people with a hundred fake accounts each in God knows how many locations… You do the fucking math at how easy it is to get shit trending!” Red huffed. “They cover the same stuff on their propaganda cable news station and radio stations. RT and Sputnik. Even a lot of my friends watch it! Say it’s more trustworthy than the American press. Unfucking believable, is what it is. Information warfare is what they call it now. Who was it who said something about the best way to control someone is to get them to think what you want them to, then they do the work of holding themselves back all by themselves. Like those anti-vaxers who’ve been spreading measles and telling people not to get the corona vaccine. Russia fired up that shit, too!”
Lauren snorted, “What?!”
“Yep. Anyway, there’s a whole bunch of countries hacking us now, like China, North Korea and Iran. And there’s terrorists, and rich fucks and freaks doing all this same stuff with misinformation. They saw how easy it’s been, and that’s the way they meet their goals. It’s like Americans forgot that what goes on in the rest of the world comes home to us. The President didn’t care and never put resources toward fixing our vulnerabilities. Prick!” Red started laughing and hacking.
Lauren said, “Red, this is sounding crazier and crazier. I don’t know if any of what you said was true, but if it is we don’t fucking need conspiracy theories. Cuz this is batshit.” Lauren stomped out her butt and put it in her pocket. “It’s been way fun, but my manager is going to kill me if I don’t get back inside. I should have been in there ten minutes ago. If I see ya again, I’ll wander over. But, I’ll try to bring my own lighter next time.” Lauren could hear the car doors slamming outside as customers were coming. She hoped she didn’t stink of smoke too bad, but knew she did.
Red finished her cigarette at the same time and tossed the plastic filter into the clog of trash in the bushes between the strip mall and the store next door. For all Red knew about Russian election interference, she knew little about how that country was trying to dominate the Arctic, since the sea ice was clear most of the year round now. There was fierce competition for these shipping lanes and the vast supplies of oil and gas that lay beneath. Even as Russian and other scientists were seeing methane boil out of the oceans, gas and oil companies conspired for years to deny their own data showing that the world was getting hotter. The companies quietly shored-up their oil rigs to manage the ever-raging storms that they were largely responsible for creating. They reinforced their pipelines, built roads and adapted to the realities of a hotter world. All the while lying their asses off to everyone else. They were the ones who wrote the playbook on how to execute an alternative fact campaign. The ad men and women grew richer along with their patrons as they sowed doubt in the minds of Americans as to whether climate chaos was real. And they painted a greenwashed picture of their toxic legacy. The best PR money could buy claimed uncertainty when they long realized there was none. Then they went to work for another killer – Big Tobacco.
The cigarette manufacturers were facing their own crisis of data, one that told a clear picture of the harm. And just like big oil, they had known for years what their products were doing and said nothing. Still they rolled out their doctors and convinced a good many of the public that smoking wasn’t all that bad after all. That cigarette butt that Red threw out was emblematic of their campaign of deception. It was ingenious, as it drew people into believing that there was a cleaner way to breathe in the noxious smoke. There’s no clean smoke, whether it’s burning from the end of a cigarette, a car’s gasoline engine or a smokestack.
As Lauren was headed to the backdoor of the restaurant, she heard Red cackle, “I hope we didn’t scare her too much.” Lauren thought that Rachel might actually have liked them. They were about the same age and seemed to share the same politics. Though, Lauren was still a bit puzzled by it all. Rachel probably couldn’t have gotten past all the smoking and free flowing profanity. Especially Red. REd and the Russians, Lauren thought. Boy, she was a firebrand! For all Rachel’s worldliness, she couldn’t get comfortable with so-called white trash. Lauren wondered if that’s how Rachel saw her. She washed up while her manager scowled. The restaurant was filling again.