Your grandmother had written it down on a blue note card she must have kept in her old mahogany secretary desk. You remember the desk because of the way its writing surface opened and closed like a castle drawbridge. You imagined being a Medieval knight or archer, defending the Castle Desk by stabbing all comers with your sword, or spearing them with your arrow while safely perched behind a battlement.
Your grandmother wrote it down after you feigned but then did not feign and actually stabbed the family cat with a pair of scissors you imagined was a sword. The cat was an ally of an invading kingdom, you’d attempted to explain, though you didn’t really understand the fuss. After all, while costly emergency veterinary surgery and many stitches were needed to repair the damage, the cat ultimately survived. It likewise learned to keep its distance from you.
You still imagined piercing your adversaries, running them through, forcing the flesh to yield.
Your grandmother noticed this and decided some instruction was necessary. So, she wrote it down on a blue note card, as both sound advice and a resolute order: “Don’t Be Evil.” She gave the card to you and said you were to always keep it with you, as a reminder. “When in doubt, read the card,” she’d said.
In time you’d learn this slim phrase was Google’s unofficial slogan until they got more comfortable with the idea of being evil. Perhaps it was better to think of evil as something all around you, and maybe even consistently in you, like water – and you’re fighting to stay afloat, as most of us do, in an ocean of the stuff while spending your life lost at sea.
You were a pliable child, though, so you did as your grandmother asked and kept the blue note card with you even as you grew older, wiser, more capable of doing harm. It served you well, especially in those morally ambiguous situations people sometimes find themselves in. Beyond that, it protected you from situations that were anything but morally ambiguous but beckoned to you, nonetheless.
Whenever you were tempted to push any of your peers into traffic while you waited for the school bus, you deferred to the card. You read it and knew better than to startle elderly people by popping out at them from their bushes when they closed the living room blinds before turning in for the night. Scanning it stopped you whenever you had the opportunity to mug someone who seemed both well off and relatively easy to mug, even though in your own mind it was only ever for the fun of it.
You practiced at laughing, at letting yourself get caught up in your own laughter whenever these urges would strike, to double over in a fit. It never felt quite natural but it did keep you from acting on your worst impulses and obeying the mandate of the card.
There was only that one time, in Chicago, getting on the elevated train. You were visiting your friends, Mike and Kayla, from college. You’d decided to head up to Lincoln Park on the brown line while your friends were away at work, to see what was there to see. But in a rare moment of absentmindedness, or maybe it was caprice, you’d left the blue note card on the coffee table next to the couch in your friends’ apartment.
At the el station, there were all these people thronging toward the platform’s edge. It was cold and they were herding through the narrow entrance of each passing train car, searching for warmth, displaying the same instinct as a deep-sea diver coming to the surface for air.
A man dressed in wintry clothing, bundled up so his face was concealed, with only black, empty eyes exposed, reached out to you with a leather-gloved hand. In it was a red note card. You took it from him. The card said: “Just Be Yourself.”
The man vanished down the stop’s staircase before you had a chance to ask any questions.
Your mind twitched with the memory of a college psych course you’d taken with Kayla. She was trying to tell you about the plans she’d been making for the weekend, parties and bars you’d go to together. The plans hadn’t involved Mike yet. Actually, that would be the weekend Kayla and Mike first met, when everything changed for the worse.
The professor had been lecturing about the ideas of Carl Jung. This had gotten your attention, and miffed Kayla when she eventually realized you weren’t listening to her. The professor said Jung had argued there’s a fourth face of God. In Jung’s book The Answer to Job, he explained it all, God is evil, too. God did terrible things, mistreated Job, and then had Jesus pay for his own sins. How was that not evil, really? you thought.
The professor went on about the metaphorical implications of Jung’s theory, but you’d already heard what you’d needed to.
Even God is evil. His works are evil. There is no devil other than God, but at least God’s capable of feeling guilty. Sort of. Maybe. Seems like God makes other people suffer on his behalf, though. So He can experience their pain vicariously? That’s messed up, you thought.
No one is as evil as God. Not even me, you thought. God treats humanity’s existence like a thing to be laughed at. God mocks human pain. How could He expect any better from His creation, then? How could He keep the paradoxes of existence from swallowing Him whole?
Then again, who were you to question the contradicting realities of God? Maybe, it was right, good even, to embrace evil, to laugh at anyone who didn’t know it. You pulled out your blue notecard and stared at it, then returned it to its place of prominence in your binder. You centered yourself on the weekend, to Kayla and all the plans for you she had in store. Kayla smiled, seeing you redirecting your attention back to her, away from the silly lecture by the silly old psych professor who rambled on and on.
You were all of a sudden back on the el platform in Chicago. You stared at the red note card the man had handed to you for a moment. You let the card fall to your feet and watched as it was swept away by the freezing wind.
And all of a sudden, there was Mike. It was definitely him or someone like him, or who cared who it was? The only thing that’s evil is doing nothing, depriving yourself of the very thing you want most in this world.
Then the trill of metal scraping against metal, the sound of the approaching northbound train. You heard it before you saw it. Soon you were staring at the pale oculus of its headlight that was bearing down on you.
Someone like Mike was, too. Someone exactly like him. Too much like him.
Impossible to ignore him.
A single scream and then many, and then you heard them all become indistinguishable from raucous laughter, guttural laughter, the sound of hyenas shrieking in the night. This laughter appeared to know no end.
The red note card was lost, but you were, for a moment at least, found – laughing, like it was all just some joke to you, too.