BY JOHN STEGNER
University of Virginia, '15
2015 Adroit Prize for Prose: Runner-Up
Lying on his stomach, head tilted to the side, he stares at the first cached image result for naked on the computer he’d been given for his thirteenth birthday, a practical gift that had been wrapped with the message A Gift from Your “Homeschool” Principal! indicating his father, but signed in his mother’s handwriting. It is dark and he is under his Charlotte Hornets-themed comforter staring and pressing his waist against the mattress.
The computer had come pre-loaded with a filtering software which activates upon the visiting of any site which falls under its dozens of categories from pornography to gambling. He found that using the cache function, which highlights the word searched on the page itself, completely changes the hyperlink and bypasses the filtration software. He discovered this while researching the Cardinal, North Carolina’s state bird. This was a revolution— heretofore his primary source of confused erotica were detailed family-focused reviews of R-rated movies with laundry lists of objectionable content: A man and a woman kiss passionately, they pull each other's clothes off, et cetera.
He exits the window and hides his computer for days, opening it only at night. He discovers the history function a few weeks later while attempting to return to said bird information page. Sitting in the middle of the living room, his sisters watching television and his mother cooking dinner, he is horrified to discover the recorded history of sprawling hyperlinks all leading to pixelated jpegs from anatomical Wikipedia articles. It’s there he finds it: at the top of the list, the text reads clear browser history. He clicks and it is all gone. Every night after he stares he clears his history, and the content on the gray-blue window of the Windows 98 browser seeps into the netherworld of deleted content. It’s the same window in which he forwards guilt-inducing chain emails that cite John 3:16 in underlined all-capitalized Comic Sans, and in which he cross-references Scripture during his father’s Bible study; but these are the only windows anyone but himself knows exist, his internet history being the embodiment of that old hymn: All the guilty past is washed away,/From its penalty I'm free.
He clears his history after searching rock music and watching several youtube videos. He clears his history whenever he visits a website for punk music. He clears his history after two weeks of playing a medieval-themed online game for six hours. He clears his history after he creates a separate email, kn1ght0fHeaven@aol.com, to talk to players from around the world. He clears his history after his mother expresses concern for the time spent in his room with headphones. He clears his history when his father screams that he has been neglecting his Bible studies, that he seems spiritually precarious, that he might as well not be saved if he doesn’t act like it. He clears his history when he deletes the email and game account, saying goodbye to everyone at three in the morning, four hours before church.
He clears his history after joining a message board for Christian teenagers, calling himself All4Him and advancing his age by three years to seventeen. He clears his history because it is excessive; it is recording hours and hours of time; and it is a feeding, growing testament to that which he lacks. He clears his history after a twelve-message long jocular conversation about sexting with a girl named GodsTinkerBell. He clears his history after an hour-long conversation in which he pleads with a girl not to have an abortion, only to discover that JesusIsAlright69 is male and wants his age, sex, location now, just tell me now u 12 yr old faggot. He clears his history when his father demands to know what he has been doing with his because his mother claims that he has been spending hours alone. He clears his history when his father joins the message board and finds that he has not been commenting on the Bible threads, but rather those entitled Music, Random, and Social, and that he cites television shows and music that are not allowed in this house.
He clears his history after searching pornography addiction, how to stop looking at porn, and accountability program. He clears his history after emailing his friend with the subject title Awkward Question… in order to set up an accountability partner who would see every site regardless of its cache.
He clears his history after sending Sara, a girl he met at a youth retreat for fifteen to eighteen year olds— and who sat next to him during every dinner even though she was two years older than him and had been on the retreat since she was fifteen— increasingly romantic messages via email because her dad reads all of her instant messages. He clears his history after every chat between twelve and two in the morning, ten to twelve for her. He clears his history every time he sends a message to the ether, every time he refreshes the page until new message reveals itself. He clears his history after showing her lyrics to songs he’d written about the difficulty of faith. He clears his history after revealing the hidden account he’d created on YouTube for piano covers of pop songs. He clears his history when he tells her his parents don’t want him to go to college. He clears his history when he tells her that they know he emails her, that this is the absolutely last straw, that he is no longer allowed to have unsupervised computer access. He clears his history after writing immediately after that message that he loves her. He clears his history after she writes that she cannot talk to him anymore because it’s too risky.
He clears his history after searching self-accountability, his friend telling him that the program is bullshit and that he’s tired of worrying about what he looks at accidentally. He clears his history after searching Christian doubts, after searching is my friend saved?, best friend going to hell?, debating with an atheist, historical evidence preceded by Jesus Christ and Noah’s Ark, and is real preceded by God’s Love and universal morality.
He clears his history after searching anxiety and sleeping pills safe?. He clears his history after searching for secular schools, and after applying to Duke and UNC. He clears his history after searching dependency override, after emotional abuse, after religious parents, after living away from home, and after financial aid homeless youth clause UNC. He clears his history after searching for the school counselor-on-call. He clears his history after searching for the cheapest hotel room within the area. He clears his history after searching broken nose long term symptoms and car rentals. He clears his history when emailing a friend in Chapel Hill about crashing at his place because of some shit.
He clears the history after six months of uninterrupted browsing on the computer provided by his university, after YouPorn— and not YouTube— is Google’s historically educated assumption that reveals itself during class, that n summons nude models and c spawns college girls in the two sequential tabs, all of which were compiled during the Christmas break his roommate went back home. He clears his history when when pirating movies and music, when searching marijuana side effects, when searching how long can I smoke without lung cancer, and when Facebook messaging friends of friends about meeting up at two in the morning with money. He clears his history after twelve rows of nearly identical hyperlinks beginning with http://netflix.com/ and ending with a stream of digits signifying twelve episodes of South Park all watched consecutively until his thoughts were laced with what the fuck, dude? for the next hour. He clears his history after poring through lists like 12 Signs You Might Be Depressed and The Ultimate Bipolar Quiz and Clearing Anxiety: A Few Lessons You Can Learn. He clears his history after searching how to be social and how to enjoy things and fuck this shit and why the fuck am I like this? in rapid succession.
He clears his history before sending his counselor an email that he wants her to forward to his parents, one that states he does not hate them nor does want them to be in any sort of trouble, but that the past few years have been utter hell, that he is happier now than ever before, that he wants them to know that they caused him x amount of grief more than anyone else in his childhood, that he is possibly irrevocably fucked-up because of it, and that he never wants to see them again. He clears his history after he deletes the message. He clears his history before sending his counselor the message for his parents that he is doing better than ever before, that he is happy with the amount of financial aid provided to him, that he has a bright future in mechanical engineering, that he is both healthy and without a car and is thus unconcerned about insurance, and that he hopes years down the line that they could one day reconcile. He clears his history after deleting the message.
"Ambitious and inventive, 'Cleansing' is powerful and sad, compelling and complex. It is refreshing to read such a modern story written with this much heart."
- Alexander Maksik, 2015 Prose Prize Judge
John Stegner studies English Literature and Fiction Writing at the University of Virginia, and currently resides in the bovine wonderland of Powhatan, Virginia. He has been published in Quail Bell Magazine and The Writer’s Eye Anthology, and has received the Wagenheim Prize for Best Short Story from the university.
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