The Worst

By Alice Duncanson (02BA), 2020 Write Now Finalist

By the time the closed-circuit television alerts you to some strange activity happening on level three, you're a couple hours into one of the most dull shifts you've had as a cashier at the Iowa Memorial Union parking ramp. On the one hand, you've had plenty of time to study for your Spanish test; on the other, this is how you've spent your Saturday evening: sitting in a parking booth while the streets pulse with nightlife up the hill to the east.

But what is that you spot through the grainy monitor? Is that...a man pulling a ladder from the back of his pickup truck?

You lean in for a closer look and recognize a guy from cinema class. He struggles to control the ladder, nearly ramming a nearby Prius. He'll never get it down the stairwell, you think, as you watch him slowly come to the same conclusion and walk it down three levels of the ramp. When he gets to the bottom, you're waiting for him, head hanging out of the cashier window in the crisp March air.

"Hey," you say. "What are you doing?" And even though the two of you have never actually talked in class, he smiles, resting the ladder on the ground.

"Offensive Boy is here," he says, pointing toward the IMU. "He's staying at Iowa House. A friend who works there tipped me off." You've heard about Offensive Boy. What college student hasn't? He travels around to universities and waves a camera in students' faces, trying to get them riled up about things like the right to carry guns to class and transgender people using the bathroom. You've recently read in the Daily Iowan how a student at another school punched him for bursting in to the men's room with a camera.  

"Can you keep a secret?" he asks, looking around the empty ramp. You nod. "I know which room he's in. I'm going to climb up to his window with my camera, maybe catch him doing something embarrassing," he shrugs. "Turn the video in his direction for once."

You try—and fail—to suppress a giggle at this plan. "You're not very good at this, you know. And if you wanted a video, a drone might have been easier."

"Nah," he disagrees, "I only do handheld." A regular Lars von Trier, you think.

 "What if his curtains are closed?"

"His room overlooks the river. Who wouldn't love that view?" You look at him as if to say, Offensive Boy—that's who.

"You know," you say. "You could get in a lot of trouble. Go to jail. Get kicked out of school."

He thinks for a moment. "But it's for art," he argues, his brown eyes pleading.

Damn it, you think. You're a sucker for art. (And, you're loath to admit, sometimes for the men who make it.) If he has any chance of succeeding, he's going to need someone to help him with the ladder.

As you and Gabe steady the ladder against the building (you've only just learned his name, quickly introducing yourselves as you crossed Madison, each holding an end of the ladder that is way heavier than it appears), a knot begins to form deep in your stomach. Though you locked the door and put up a "Be right back!" sign at the window, you've left your post—a fireable offense. You love your job as a parking cashier; to lose it over Offensive Boy is unthinkable.

"Uh, I really have to get back," you say, as Gabe climbs toward the second story window, his camera on, documenting your crime. The scene by the river is still as can be; no one milling about, no one crossing the footbridge—not that you can see, anyway. Your knees are practically knocking together and you can't think of anything but losing your cushy student job and getting expelled from school. You don't have the constitution for crime.

Gabe, on the other hand, is undeterred—absolutely fearless in the quest to expose Offensive Boy. "Oh wow," he whispers down, camera trained on the sight inside. "This is better than I ever could have imagined."

When you get back to your post at the ramp, campus police are idling in the exit lane, waiting for you. This is it, you think. I'm busted. You suck in your breath for courage as you unlock the door to the cashier booth and face the officers.

"Hi there," you say nervously, peeling your "Be right back!" sign from the window. "I was just in the bathroom. So sorry."

"We figured," the driver says. "Thought we'd wait to make sure you got back safely before taking off." As they drive away, you breathe a sigh of relief that you're pretty sure Gabe, still filming at the window, can hear. And just for good measure—part of the plan you'd concocted upon saying goodbye—you text him a quick warning: the police are driving about.

Later, when you're off work—cash drawer counted, job intact—Gabe uploads the video the two of you edited together to a burner channel he's called Students Against Offensive Boy. Within an hour, it has 12,000 views. By the next evening, over three million.

When classes start up Monday morning, it's all you hear about: the video that took down Offensive Boy and ran him off campus.

As the other students in your cinema class debate the ethics of taking secret footage—even of a person generally regarded as terrible—you and Gabe share a quiet smile. You're bound by this secret now.

And that afternoon, when Offensive Boy posts his response video—"I don't do that while watching videos of myself," "That was a gag gift," and your favorite, "Iowa students are the worst"—you see a text from Gabe.

"Consider this your official welcome to Students Against Offensive Boy. There may be only two members in our club, but we're powerful."

"Also," you text back, "the worst."

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