It was the same feeling.
What you would hear described as bone-tingling, and what I had, myself, described the same way. A heavy coldness at the point where my sternum meets the emptiness of my chest cavity, like the reverberations of metal striking metal. A finality of knowing that the world, so steady on its axis, so settled in its orbit, had shifted in just that moment.
When I quit the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I felt a nagging loss, knowing that I would never feel that way again. That singular sensation had cost me five years of my life, in exchange for a consent order and a fine that amounted to less than a week’s worth of the corporation’s revenue. I couldn’t sacrifice another five years like that, but that version of me had also been the most alive, almost omniscient. I saw beyond what I saw; I could see the past and nearly the future.
I didn’t have social media at first. But I had a camera, and the scenery along the Algarve – the sun-dappled ocean roiling its foamy waves onto the fine sand, the vibrant, oily green leaves that everywhere seemed to make you forget the garish town center advertising fish & chips and biergartens a few miles away – told me to look and look again. I was familiar with that instruction, and like the diligent lawyer I was, I listened.
It was easy to start posting, and every like was a small pat on my back, a burst of dopamine. My original plan had been vague, a six-month sabbatical to decompress, but not having a real plan meant that the appearance of anything resembling one easily became the default. I was traveling and surfing by day, editing videos and trying to crack the platform’s algorithms by night, and one day I looked up and realized I was a geriatric millennial turned geriatric influencer. My follower count broke four figures, then five. It doubled, then tripled. I was climbing the influencer tiers from nano to micro to macro, hustling harder than I had ever hustled before. I spent less time on the beach and more time in front of my laptop, but wouldn’t you for those engagement numbers?
The word “evidence” comes from the Latin evidens, meaning clear, from the verb videre, meaning to see or observe.
I was assigned the chat transcripts. Wading through thousands of pages of sports trash-talk, personal insults, and boasts about drunken antics and trying to find something useful was like trying to decode the Rosetta Stone with a handful of broken tablets: it wasn’t impossible, but no one was going to argue it was pleasant.
Then, when the nonsensical shorthands started to make sense, when the appearance of particular usernames meant that something was about to happen, when I could match the timestamps with the timeline my colleagues put together, that feeling hit me. What I had were contemporaneous confessions. I thought I was after some crumbs of truth secreted in mountains of verbal garbage, but the truth was right in front of me the whole time, startling in its simplicity once my brain finally processed what it was looking at.
It was not a feeling you ever forget.
In the lull between Easter and the start of the summer tourist season, the coastal towns had an air of collective restlessness about them. That morning, I drove out to a small beach popular with surfers, near a campsite and half-hidden behind a dense mango grove. As usual, I filmed the drive, my dashcam angled towards the ocean. It was a bargain with the devil: the footage was a mother to edit, but people often commented that it made them feel like they were driving alongside me, away from the rainy gray that was every post-prandial Wednesday afternoon of their lives.
A week passed. One evening, I was drifting off on the couch, tired after wading through videos of the past few days, when my Whatsapp notifications blew up. The messages, from a group chat of fellow digital nomads in the area, were a jumble of all-caps and exclamation points. CHECK YOUR VIDEOS!!!, they screamed.
A British backpacker traveling with her boyfriend had gone missing. They had stayed at the campsite near that beach and had been seen fighting in town. The boyfriend turned up in Lisbon two days ago, alone and barely coherent. Flyer images popped up on my phone, the sunburnt face of a young woman peering out, asking forlornly in a variety of languages, “Have You Seen Me?”
I had already watched all of my footage, already knew where I wanted to make the cuts and where I’d add some funny and self-deprecating commentary. I didn’t want to go back through it all again, but I had a sense.
It was just like when I finally understood the made-up acronyms and jargony lingo of people who thought they were on The Sopranos instead of sitting in an open plan office with a headset. The movement on the right hand of the screen, enlarged and enlarged again, the time slider clicking forward by fractions of a second, slowly resolved into the shadow of a person, wait, back again, forward again, two people, zoom in on that frame, is that dark shape the cliffs just beyond the mango groves or only pixels shapeshifting at this level of magnification? Two people, on a sheer drop, forward two seconds, back, back, once more, is that a seagull or a cloud or a body, suddenly aloft over the ocean, suddenly gone, another body still standing there?
Fuck, I thought. The numbers this post would do.
I closed my eyes. That feeling again. Chat messages that could mean nothing or a conspiracy. Shapes that could be compression artifacts or death.
I picked up my phone and looked at the flyer. My fingers were typing before I knew what they were doing.