I’m a writer, OK? It’s what I do. I write fiction. Fiction. So forgive me if this story is a little…uneven. I didn’t think I’d ever write non-fiction, much less something like this.
I’m in a few writer’s groups on Facebook and I’ve got a couple group chats on Twitter I absolutely depend on for sanity. Writing can be lonely and it’s almost always done in solitary. Even if you’re not alone in the room, you’re alone with your thoughts all the time when you’re writing. I think that’s why we fill our heads with characters. So we have somebody to talk to.
The first thing I do when I’m making up all these voices in my head is give them faces. Sometimes, I “cast” Hollywood actors to play them in my head. I mean, they’re all me, but it makes me feel less alone if they have their own faces. It makes them feel more like them and less like me. Sometimes it gets a little old casting actors, and sometimes I’m too lazy to surf the internet for just the right picture. But sometimes, that’s great for procrastinating. Casting my characters, making mood boards, finding a soundtrack, all great for procrastinating.
One night, about a week ago I guess, I was surfing Facebook instead of writing, as one does, and came across an interesting post. Funny thing, I saw it twice in twenty minutes in two different groups.
That should have been a clue.
It was a website that gives you faces. All kinds of faces. Young, old, man, woman, all types and colors of skin tones and face shapes. Anything you could want, randomly. It was kinda funny, I thought, refreshing the page, how the A.I. could mash together faces and make someone who didn’t exist. I could use these faces with impunity in my stories. They weren’t real people. They were perfect inspiration. And from time to time, there’d be a face that was all messed up. Like the A.I. had gone a little off the rails, or used two faces that weren’t facing exactly the same direction. Or maybe a face that had melted into the background by accident. Funny little glitches, we’ve all seen a million of them in video games and CG outtakes.
The thing about this website is you can’t really save the faces unless you screenshot them. There’s no way to go forward or backward. You just refresh and get a new face. And so that’s what I was doing when I was supposed to be writing. Mindlessly scrolling through faces with a baking show on in the background. Kinda looking for my new main character, kinda just being fascinated by the tech. And there it was. There she was. My neighbor. I’m pretty sure it was her. I live in a military town, so sometimes it’s hard to get to know my neighbors. They rent a house and then they’re moving before the lease can even run out. My fiance was a military brat and he says making new friends over and over and over again is one of the hardest parts. I think most people don’t even try. So I don’t know it was her. Not for sure.
But it was her.
I often saw her in the mornings on my way to work. She’d be pulling into her driveway, coming back from P.T., as I pulled out of mine. Her bright yellow belt still strapped across her chest, hair up in a bun, sometimes sweat dripping off her browl. We’d wave to each other.
About the only time I ever talked to her was one morning she’d come back from P.T. and I was going to work, but between the time she left and came back, the wind had knocked her trash can over into the street. One of the bags split and stuff was just everywhere. The city will fine you if your trash is laying all over the place when the trash truck gets there, and it was only two blocks away. Sweat dripping off her face, she knelt with her bare knees in the asphalt and was scooping up trash so fast she had to be scraping a little skin off her hands, too.
I jumped out of my car and helped her scoop it all up before the truck got there. We laughed about the spring wind and how it knocked over the whole can, and she turned red in the face as we picked up her garbage. It’s funny how personal trash can be. Like we’re embarrassed to have other people see what we think is worthy to throw away. The tip of her nose redder than anything else, she almost shook my hand when we were done, stuck it behind her back instead, and apologized that I’d gotten all dirty before heading to work. The corners of her eyes turned up just a bit as she did. She was a nervous smiler.
Now there she was, on my screen, the corners of her almond eyes turned up. Sure, that’s a common feature. But I also remembered the few freckles on the bridge of her nose, about where glasses would lay. And there they were too, on the face of this person the website claimed “didn’t exist.”
I guessed maybe I didn’t remember her as well as I thought, and my mind was just using this A.I.-created picture to fill in the blanks. But I could have sworn she had that little line in the tip of her nose. I remembered it going red, especially in that funny little crease. I could see how the program could get one of these features, but all of them? I fell asleep a little after that, phone clunking to the floor and waking me up long enough to plug it in and roll back over.
The next morning, her house was empty. I’d seen the military movers enough times to know they were quick and efficient but it was like she’d moved out in the middle of the night. Just…poof. I went over and peeked in the windows, too startled by the empty house to care if someone saw me. It looked dusty inside and I just knew if I opened a door and went in, it’d smell musty, like it hadn’t been opened up for months. Just stale air and dust motes floating in the rising sun’s rays. Which, wasn’t possible. I waved to her yesterday. Yesterday.
My fiance was still asleep so I just got in my car and went to work. But it nagged at the back of my mind all day. I wish I knew her name so I could like, I don’t know, Facebook stalk her or something. Try to find out if she’d gotten a transfer suddenly. If, maybe, I was just remembering wrong. I’d been working a lot of overtime lately and maybe I got my days confused. Working six days a week will do that to you. Maybe it was a few weeks ago last time I’d seen her.
I asked my fiance about it later. We were almost asleep, my exhaustion from working so much catching up with me. I’m not eighteen anymore, I need more than just beauty sleep at this point. “Hey babe?” I asked him. He grunted, on the edge of sleep too. “Did you see our neighbors moved?” When he nodded and rolled over, I shrugged and did the same, nevermind that I heard him mutter “yeah, months ago.” I wish I’d taken a screenshot of her face on that website. But I didn’t, and it never reappeared. I must have been imagining things, I told myself.
I couldn’t get it out of my head, though. The next day, I showed one of my coworkers the website. We talk about my books sometimes, so I brought it up as a point of interest, and then we got to talking about the tech involved. “Deepfake is some scary shit,” he said. I didn’t know about that, but I was starting to worry that wasn’t all it was. Especially because I refreshed the page again, looking hopefully for one of those funny glitches, when his face popped up.
My coworker, standing right in front of me. Header at the top of the page saying “That Person Does Not Exist,” his picture below it. I know now you’re thinking I’m really crazy but I’m telling you, it was his face, right down to his crow’s feet and the tiny mole just over his left eyebrow and his one uneven ear. I’m not shitting you, and I don’t think it was just some trick of throwing faces together so much that the A.I. came up with one that was real, even when they claimed it wasn’t. I tried to show it to him but my finger slipped and closed the browser. When I reopened it, it was another face.
The next day at work? Empty desk.
I know what you’re thinking. He quit and didn’t tell me. But I’m telling you now, that’s not possible. I’m his boss. If he quit, he would have had to tell me. Had to. I went to HR and you know what they said? “We’re not allowed to discuss employee files.” As if that makes any sense.
I stood in front of his desk for an hour after that. It was dusty, like no one had sat there for a while. He’d been hired by our last boss, about two years ago, and the dust looked at least that thick. We’d gone through a rough patch when our boss passed away about a year ago and our little group had grown closer after that. There was no way he’d quit without telling me, move all his stuff out in the middle of the night or before the crack of dawn like one of the other guys had done. No way.
At the company luncheon a few weeks ago I’d met his daughter, so I asked around to see if someone had her number. The worst part of not finding her number and not finding her online was that no one I talked to remembered him. Not just in that vague way people can be like, where they can’t put a face to a name. They didn’t even remember someone sitting there. Some of them would pretend they knew who I was talking about by fake-nodding their heads, but you could see the recognition wasn’t there in their eyes. They were lying to make me feel better but it was as if he’d never existed.
Just like the website said.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I ended up at the kitchen sink, lukewarm glass of water in my hand, chalky taste of antacid tablets on my teeth and in the back of my throat, staring at my disappeared neighbor’s house. In the dark, the shadows shifted over it when the wind blew and the windows looked like they could see me staring at them. Black holes in the face of the house, pouring their emptiness into the street, over the sidewalk, and up the walls of my house. Eventually I closed the blinds to keep the darkness out there, turned on all the lights in the front of the house, and curled up in the corner of the couch with a blanket over my head.
I shouldn’t have gone back to the website.
I had a fiance. I did. We’ve been together for ten years. He’s way younger than me, and when we first started dating he almost broke up with me because he couldn’t stand the taunting his friends gave him for dating a “cougar.” All my friends teased I was robbing the cradle and gave me knowing glances about his youthful physique. We got through all that bullshit because in spite of what seemed like an insurmountable age difference, we were really in love. These things happened.
But the morning after I saw his face on the website, a face I know better than my own, his side of the bed was empty. No note. None of his clothes in the closet, none piled next to the bed in that stupid clean clothes pile that never gets folded, his computer was gone. All of his stuff was gone. I know I’ve been working a lot but there’s no way I missed that. There’s no way. There’s no way. He was there when I went to sleep, snoring away, keeping me awake until I passed out from pure exhaustion. If he’d been leaving me, there would have at least have been an argument or something, wouldn’t there? Ah god, I don’t even know anymore.
I called his mom. Left her a message. I texted his sister, but she’s left me on read for like twelve hours now. She’s busy with her own family but all I can do is stare at that little “read” on the text message and wonder what she’s thinking. What does she know? Does she even know he exists? If one of them would just answer me.
Now I know, though. I know the secret. “Thatpersondoesnotexist dot com” isn’t A.I. It isn’t deepfake tech or any of that other bullshit. It’s a fucking curse, and it’s erasing my whole life. How many other people has it erased so it can steal their faces? Wearing their faces like its own, culling the population one, by one, by one.
How could I not refresh until I saw my own face? I took a screenshot this time. It’s next to my computer on the desk, my own eyes staring up at me while I type this. If it erases me, I figure it’ll erase this computer too. My own clothes, my furniture, my trash I threw away and don’t want anyone to see. I’m posting this story, I just hope it doesn’t get erased from here too.
Call my mom, somebody. Tell her I was real. Tell her I love her. Show her this picture of her baby. Don’t let her think I didn’t exist.
originally published on reddit