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It’s an easy mistake to make, actually, to not realise you’re dead. It’s like those women who don’t know they’re pregnant until the baby’s head pops out. There are signs. Obviously. You aren’t stupid. You can put two and two together. But then you’ll divide them or subtract them. Anything to stop them from adding up to four. Because that isn’t the answer you want.
For me, and I’m sure it will be different for you, because I can’t imagine anyone else dying in such ridiculous circumstances as me, the first sign was in the shape of a half-devoured Happy Burger hanging out of my mouth. I could see it on my iPad in front of me. The camera was still on from where I’d just used it to peel my eyelashes off. There was a bit of fluorescent cheese dangling off my lip like a dead goldfish. My mum always said eating that stuff would kill you. Suppose she was right for a change.
I couldn’t feel the cheese, though, which I thought was weird. But in my defence, not “I’m dead” weird. So I tried to push the cheese off, and I couldn’t. I was using my hand, or at least it felt like I was using my hand, but nothing on the camera changed. Not even a little bit. And even though I thought I was crying, felt like I was crying, no tears came.
A stroke, I decided. Like Maggie’s mum had a few years ago. Miserable old cow. Stroke didn’t kill her, so why would I think I was dead? Didn’t stop her from giving me a hard time either. Or telling Maggie I was a bad influencer. I think she meant bad influence, but she was a right cow, so maybe she meant what she said. “Flaunting myself on the internet”, she used to say, like I was on one of those porn sites. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing that, but that’s not what I do. Did, I mean. Sorry, still getting used to my new status.
All I did was share makeup hacks and promote health supplements. Occasionally gossip about celebrities. You know, the stuff people gobble up when they’re hungry for something to make their lives a bit less miserable. But I guess Maggie’s mum didn’t like things that made people happy. She was the reason Maggie stopped calling me. I’m sure of it. Or she was the reason I stopped calling Maggie. I don’t exactly remember the details, but I know it wasn’t my fault that Maggie stopped being my best friend. My only real-world friend.
Anyway, when Maggie’s mum had her stroke, her face drooped to one side, like it was trying to escape her skull. Can’t blame it, frankly. So I looked a bit closer at my face in the camera. It was like it had a filter on it. You know how you move your head this way and that, and it sticks to you, and just for a second, you think that’s what you really look like. And then it makes you feel sad. Because the real you, your real life, your real face, will never be as good as what’s on that screen.
Except the filter on my face was fucking horrific. It was worse than reality, and that’s saying something. My eyes were wide open like I’d seen Harry Styles in the local supermarket. That kind of shocked. No eyelashes, false tan half scrubbed off, and hair extensions half pulled out. And I was wearing an old jumper with holes in it. My favourite one. It’s got Snoopy on the front. Dad gave it to me just before he left. I didn’t look like me. Not the me I was used to seeing on that little screen.
Don’t panic Dani, I said to myself as I panicked. Everyone looks like shit without their face done and with no filter on. And you’re probably hungover. That’s what this is. You drank that whole bottle of prosecco after you sent the photos off, you silly sod, and then you passed out.
But the wine bottle was unopened. The little metal cage keeping the cork and my celebrations locked up tight. But I sent the photos to the PR agency. I could see their emoji reaction to my DM in the corner of the iPad. And that little pixel heart gave me the rush of relief it always does.
I was so excited when they DM’d me. That’s right, they reached out to me. I didn’t go chasing them. Someone had finally noticed me. They only work with influencers they think have potential. People worth their time. They are using the photos and clips I’ve sent them and deep faking them into cool places I’ve never been to, wearing incredible clothes that I’ve never been able to afford. When my account blows up, brands will start paying me to actually go to the places and actually wear the clothes. Be the actual me. Not this mess sat here.
All I had to do was hide out in my shitty little flat, so no one found out I wasn’t really living the successful life the agency had made up for me. Then I could get out of this shitty flat and live a successful life, for real. Except I won’t live any kind of life now, will I? Because stupid Dani couldn’t even do that right. I killed myself with a greasy Happy Burger. A fucking Happy Burger. I bloody hope that thing decomposes before they find me. It’s not on-brand for me to be eating a burger. I promote vegan food. Christ. If anyone finds out that’s how I died, I’ll die again of embarrassment. And I don’t want to do that.
Because it was horrible, actually. Dying. I was devouring that fucking burger. Really hoovering it up. I haven’t had one in ages, but I figured, if I was stuck in this horrible bedsit for months, I might as well enjoy it. Then a bit of the bun got stuck in my throat. I panicked, tried to cough it up, and then drifted off to sleep.
That was about four weeks ago.
I’m still stuck in front of the iPad. It’s not gone off because I’d plugged it in and switched off the auto power-off so I could watch my feed while I ate my burger. I’m not sure why I haven’t gone to wherever it is you are supposed to go after you die. So, I’ve been watching myself in the camera since then. Not much else to do. And let me tell you, the dead face filter has got a lot worse. Now I’m a bit bloated and a bit well, green. It’s making the neon cheese look even brighter. I’m still watching my Instagram feed too. Worrying about how many likes I’m getting. So not much different to when I was alive, really.
But now I’ve got so much more engagement since the agency is posting for me. And I look bloody fantastic. Even I’m almost convinced that’s me on the screen living my best life, being #blessed. The agency answers everyone’s comments and DMs. It sounds just like me. Well, you know, the online me. But they aren’t answering Meg. The kid who wrote to me about her parents splitting up. I said I’d respond to her myself. Fuck.
She’s been in my DMs. Thanking me for the parcel I sent her. Wasn’t much, really. Just some makeup and stuff I thought she might like. And some textbooks that she couldn’t afford. And an old iPad. She needs them for school. Meg is such a bright kid. Got a real chance of doing something with her life, getting off the estate. She’s got her exams coming up. I hope she’s been revising. She’s so lovely. She deserves better. I don’t want her to think I’ve left her. Abandoned her like our dads did to us.
She says she wants to be like me. But I tell her she can do better. She doesn’t believe me, though. Thinks I live such a great life. I bet she won’t be saying that when she finds out I choked on a burger in a dingy bedsit with no makeup on. That I’d lied to her. That I was what Maggie’s mum always said I was. A bad influence. God, I hope she doesn’t find out. But what if she doesn’t. What if no one does? Will I be stuck here forever watching the fake me #livingherbestlife while the real me is #deadanddecomposing?
I’m realising that no one may notice for ages. Bills are being paid. Thanks to the agency, I’m generating an income as an influencer, so the lights are still on. And the smell? I always have an electric diffuser filling the air with wealth-attracting essential oils. I wish I was joking.
And the agency is too good at what they do. They’ve even DM’d my mum, convincing her that fake-Dani is real. Even if she did suspect it wasn’t me, she doesn’t know where I live. I gave her a fake address in Kensington. Not because she would ever bloody visit. I just wanted her to be jealous. Or proud. Not sure which. I wanted her to think I’d finally done something with my life, despite her.
Maybe if no one knows you are dead, you don’t get to leave. Is that why I’m stuck here? Two fucking months of looking at my dead reflection. Watching all these people loving my posts. Loving me.
Except it’s not me they love, is it? If they did, they’d realise it wasn’t me. They’d worry why the real me hadn’t been around for a while. Maybe if no one cares you are dead, you don’t get to leave.
It’s been three months now.
I still can’t look away. Not in that doomscrolling way, I seriously can’t look away. I can only see what is in front of me: the iPad, a dusty bottle of unopened prosecco and the reflection of the fucking burger on my face. Still. Not. Decomposed. I’ve started to wonder how long it will be till one of my fingers literally falls off and hopefully hits the right key and shuts the down the bloody iPad.
Meg messaged a day or two ago. It’s hard to know when. Time has become a bit blurred. It was the day that old rockstar got his todger out, whatever day that was – yes, I know that doesn’t narrow it down too much. Anyway, it was that day she sent a message. She said she’s done well in her exams. Clever girl. I knew she would. But then she said she’s been going back over my recent posts. Something wasn’t right. Was someone running my account now?
If anyone was going to spot it, it was Meg. I don’t want her to think I’m a fake. I want her to know the truth. I want her to know I’m proud of her for passing her exams. I want her to know I care. I want her to know I live in this awful, tiny flat. Alone. No expensive holidays. No real friends. That I died with dayglo cheese stuck to my lips, in a snoopy jumper I kept because I liked to pretend dad had given it to me before he left. He didn’t. I picked it up at a charity shop when I was ten.
Sometimes, when I think about Meg finding out I’m dead, or that I wasn’t who I pretended to be, or the Snoopy sweater, or dad leaving without saying goodbye, or how mum’s breath used to make me retch just before she walloped me, I feel like I’m screaming. Except the noise I hear isn’t my voice. It’s stuff in the flat, moving. So I think, somehow, I’m moving it.
I’m working out how to focus and not be aware of my reflection on the screen. I can photoshop it out and zoom in on the little icon I need to somehow press to get the live stream going. I just hope Meg doesn’t see it. I hope someone else does. Then reports it. Then the agency sends someone to check on me.
The only thing that’s small enough to hit the icon is my desiccated finger on the Bluetooth keyboard. I once went to this place with school that had petrified trees. I came back and said I wanted to be an archaeologist. Mum called me a dreamer and laughed at me. So anyway, that’s what my finger looked like, one of those twisted trees.
Would mum laugh when she found out about all of this? Would she shake her head and tut when she realised it was all fake, that I was all fake? There was no Kensington address. No fancy clothes. No nice holidays? Do I want her to know that I was miserable, and I’d traded my soul for a few boxes of free slimming tea and some pixelated love hearts?
Try crying without your eyes. It sounds impossible, but you can do it. The crying is just the sadness leaking out. That sadness builds into a black hole when there’s nowhere to go. Sucking you inwards, turning you into a whirling ball of energy.
I imagine the ball of energy moving forward, and my finger hits the icon. And what’s left of me is live-streaming to Instagram. The hair hadn’t changed much, but the face underneath it now is like a bashed-up leather bag. Real leather. Cracked and uneven. Lived in, as my mum would say. Snoopy’s head is just in shot on my sweater. A pile of dirty laundry that had gained a nice layer of dust can be seen on the back of the sofa behind me. The bright green plastic cactus on the side table is the only thing that looks out of place. Too alive. Too fake.
The viewers are racking up. If there’s one thing social media loves is horror. This is it. Now they’ll see me. Now they will know. But hang on, what are these comments?
LOL @dani4reel would never be seen dead in that jumper
This is desperate even for @dani4reel
Oh, my Christ. They don’t think it’s real. They can’t tell when I’ve been photoshopped into a Bali resort, but they believe this is a set-up? Do they think this is bad taste? What about all that crap I’ve been selling? Take this potion to get smaller. Inject this one to get bigger. But only in these areas. Like this music. Post this support badge. Hate her. Love him. Now switch it around because it’s Domestic Violence week #imwithyou until the algorithm changes, and I need to get more likes, so now #imwithhim
Meg’s just joined. Please, Meg, switch off. Don’t see me like this. Thank God she left the live stream. A DM from the PR company. They’re apologising. They think someone’s hacked my account. A jealous influencer. They’re going to fix it. They’ll put out an apology. Insta won’t pull me. I’m trending too high. I just want this to stop.
Is this how dad felt at the end when the cancer was really bad? For months if anyone said they were sorry to hear he’d died, I told them he wasn’t dead. He’d left to live in New Zealand. I never stopped telling people that. Or myself. That was nine years ago.
This is today.
Someone’s at the door, yelling through the letterbox.
‘Dani? My name is PC Redmond. I’m from Watford Police.’ She sounds nice. I wonder who called her. ‘We’ve been asked to do a welfare check on you, love. Can you let us in?’
‘Can’t you just let yourself in? That’s why I called the police. I could’ve yelled through the letterbox myself.’ That’s Meg. I recognise her voice from TikTok. I told you she was smart.
‘We can’t just go in love; We need to have a good reason.’
Here’s a fucking good reason PC Redmond. I’m fucking dead. Come on in. You don’t even need to take your shoes off. My mum used to make people do that when we lived somewhere with nice carpets before dad died.
‘What sort of reason do you need?’ Meg is asking.
‘We need a reasonable cause for concern, a reason to think Dani isn’t well. You said on the way over that she’s been active on social media. That’s usually a sign that someone is ok.’
‘Yeah, but it’s like I said to you before, it’s not her doing it. That’s why I called.’ Meg sounds worried.
‘How do you know?’
‘She hasn’t sent me any DMs. She’s not sent me a care package for ages. Didn’t ask how my exams went last week. She’s my friend. A real friend. She wouldn’t forget that.’
I can make something fall. The picture I photoshopped of me with dad, wearing the Snoopy sweater.
‘Sounds like there is someone inside. There’s a window up there. I’ll see what I can see.’
There’s a noise outside. A rustle. A large gasp or a small scream. One of those. Hard to tell. Hard to remember. It’s fading like an old memory even though it is still happening.
I’m still looking at the screen, but it’s not as clear anymore. Like when you look at something through a dirty glass.
Their voices are closer. Meg’s is the loudest, the closest.
I see her brush the cheese off my lip before she gets between me and the screen, finally blocking my view. She’s looking right at me, not turning away even though I must look so awful. She’s taken what’s left of my hand in her hand. And for just a second, or an entire lifetime I can’t tell anymore, I can feel it.
I’m loved. For real.