“What the hell is her problem?” I thought to myself as I sat in my cubicle. Angela, one of my co-workers, was staring at me. More accurately, she was gawping at me. At my face. I wanted to scream at her, flip my desk over and demand what the fuck her problem was, but I just kept my head down. You see, this had been happening ever since I got a job here. In fact, anytime I got a new job, my co-workers would end up staring at my face.
It happened in public too. People in the street, on the hyper train, everywhere I went people were always looking at me, and I don’t know why. When 5 PM rolled around, I gathered up my things and headed out. Even tonight, it was no different. Everyone I passed seem to at the very least give me a sideways glance. It was intoxicating. Absolutely blinding rage filtered into every electrical impulse in my body, every time someone looked my way.
I got home and decided I would do a facial scan in my mirror. I locked my eyes on my face, and using my internal scanning system, I searched the internet for pictures of millions of humans. My face seemed just as human as any of the ones in my search… I decided it was probably best I just change my face and look for a new job again. Perhaps this time it would be different? Perhaps finally people would stop staring at my face.
The next day I traveled to a job interview after I posted a resignation letter to my old place of work. Nobody seemed to be looking at me. Not a single glance on the way there. “Finally!” I thought. Even if it only lasted a week like the other times, it would be a sweet release from feeling like a goldfish in a bowl!
The interview went well, and I headed home with a skip in my step. When I was on the hyper train, though, there was this one guy who seemed to keep looking in my direction… No, no… he was looking at my… at my face. I decided it was just one guy… right? You get weirdos on the train all the time, so I just tried to distract myself with a newspaper. I picked it up and looked through the headlines.
“Android units recalled after sensory module errors cause artificial paranoia,” it read. I saw the logo of the company that made me in the picture below it and shuddered. I hope they never found me. I looked at another headline. “Fourth victim of murder spree found.” My eyes widened, and I read on:
“Another body of a young man has been found in a park this morning, the latest in a sequence of vicious attacks. Much like the other bodies, he was found with his face removed, almost surgically, and left for dead sometime late last night.”
I looked up from the newspaper…
Why the hell was that guy still staring at my face?
Estimated reading time — 56minutesMy name is Jim. I’ve been in and out of construction contracts for the last seventeen years. Between those contracts, I do what I can to make a few extra bucks, since you never really know when the next contract will show up and unemployment pays you just enough to lay awake hungry at night. Most of us have heard of Uber and Lyft. I figured it was the perfect way to sustain my take-out burrito habits until my next work order. However, my driving record isn’t exactly clean.
I owe a few thousand dollars in fines for my DUI from three years ago. Before anyone goes up in arms, no one was injured and I wasn’t in an accident. I was leaving the liquor store for the third time that afternoon and was busted by a cop, waiting in the parking lot for me to wobble back into my car. It’s pretty foolish considering the liquor store is in walking distance, but my drunk brain was more concerned with being mugged than being caught by police. Lesson learned, I’m sober now. Fatter from an oral fixation on Mexican food, but sober.
When I failed to meet the requirements on Uber, I went searching online for something similar to ride sharing or some sort of P2P, smartphone type work. I came across an app called Cerber. I was reading one of those “10 ways to make money without bleeding out” articles when I saw an advertisement for Cerber on the side of the article. Big, orange letters glowed against a black background with the phrase “hellish commutes made heavenly.” I found that to be cheesy marketing, but since I’ve never heard of this specific company before, I figured they were a startup and wouldn’t be too picky about participants. I went ahead with filling out a brief application, submitted and hoped for the best. This is where it started to get weird. Immediately after I hit “submit,” my phone rang.
It was 11:47 P.M. when I pissed myself to the phone ringing. I looked at my phone to see “UNKNOWN” illuminating the screen in my dimly lit bedroom. I don’t answer those calls during regular business hours, let alone during the late night. I decided to respect their privacy, ignore the call and not bother to find out who was calling me. I shoved another taquito in my face, and made my way towards my unmade bed. As soon as I dove into my flattened, stale pillows to begin my pity party, my phone rang again. It still said “UNKNOWN,” but it was now coming in as an emergency. Why?
I answered the phone to a woman’s voice veiled with a cheerful disposition that had to be fueled by caffeine and cocaine. “Hello! Is this James Atwell?” She chirped.
“Uh…yeah? Who is this?”
“Hi! This is Adeline with Cerber calling you back about the application you just submitted!”
“Oh, uh,” I was still tonguing chicken taquito out of my teeth “hi. That was awful fast, did I submit incorrectly?” I said with clear apprehension, but moderate enthusiasm. These folks were fast.
“No not at all!” I could hear her clicking her mouse as she spoke to me, “I just wanted to alert you that we have reviewed your application and would like to know when you could start!”
“Uh,” I struggled to get some pants on, cradling the phone between my ear and shoulder. I finish buttoning my pants and say “now, I guess. Are people active this late?”
“Oh yes! Our most active hours are between 10 P.M. and 4:30 A.M.” she stops clicking her mouse “Please download the application onto your phone, quickly make a profile and you’ll be ready to receive requests! Do you have any questions?” I can hear her smiling, gross.
“Uh, no. I don’t think so.” I say as I finish zipping up my jacket.
“Wonderful! Thank you for choosing Cerber! Give them hell, Jimmy boy!” She hung up before I could respond. Give them hell? What the actual…okay, well no time to waste, I suppose.
I download the app, make my profile and mark myself as available. I drive a relatively new SUV so I’m not exactly convinced I’ll be first pick. Gas isn’t cheap and everyone wants to save money. This means I have some time to clean up the taco foils and cardboard boats out of my car. About twenty minutes into trying to alleviate my car of the turgid smell of jalapeño and old cheese, I got my first ring. It was a ride request for one person, a man named Ray, seeking a ride to San Francisco. The city is about an hour from where he’s requesting the ride, but a drive I am very familiar with. I tap on “accept,” throw the bag of trash in the garbage bin and start heading over to the pinned location.
To my surprise, I was directed to a neighborhood that was just a few blocks away from me. I parked outside of a post-80’s style suburban home, coated in sharp sparkle and salmon pink paint. From the door, I see Ray emerge from his pastel green door and immediately, I knew something was off.
Ray was obscenely tall. He had to be an easy seven-and-a-half feet, slouching. He shoved his pallid hands into the pockets of his gray jacket, hood pulled well over his head so that his face wouldn’t be seen. His long thin, legs, adorning blue jeans and clean, black dress shoes, carried his slender frame at a calm stride to my vehicle. As he came closer, I noticed he was wearing a tie and a formal jacket under his normal hoodie. Different strokes, I guess.
He approached my window, his head down and said “Jim?”
“Yeah, you’re Ray?” He sounds so normal. This man is anything but.
“Yeah. Would it be too much trouble to ask you to fold the first row of seats for me? Because, you know. . .” he gestures below his torso to his knees, all while still keeping his head down. He didn’t want me to see his face, but I didn’t feel threatened by him, so I just ignored his lack of eye contact.
“Yeah, sure. No problem at all.” He steps back so that I can open my door and access the back seat. I folded the first row of seats so that the third row was the only place left to sit.
Ray climbs in, takes his seat and buckles up, “Thanks, man.”
“Of course, bought this thing for comfort anyway, know what I mean?” I chuckled. He remained silent with his head facing out the window. Awkward.
The silence of the drive was excruciating. I did my best not to spend too much time glancing back at him. He hardly moved. Every few minutes he would uncross and re-cross his legs. My nervous tendencies finally got the best of me and I had to be “that dick.”
“Those are some serious stems,” I nervously chuckle, “you play basketball as a kid?”
Maintaining his gaze out the window he replies “That’s a serious gut, you eat a lot of food?”
I got immediately defensive, but I brought this on myself and kept my mouth shut.
“Doesn’t feel good, does it? Someone commenting on your size.” He said so calmly.
“No. It doesn’t. I apologize.” I say through gritted teeth. I was no longer inspired to conjure up anymore small talk for the duration of the ride.
About thirty minutes later, we arrive at his destination, which lead me to old Fort Miley. I never recalled this place having an actual address. While my gaze was fixed on the location, dumbfounding me as to why anyone would want to be here this late, he slowly got out of the car and closed the door. He kept his back to me and pulled out his phone as he started walking away.
I was still very much in a state of “what the hell” when I got a notification on my phone. He gave me five bat wings and a 20% tip, bringing the grand total to $1,279.37. My jaw about hit my lap at the astronomical amount. As I brought my face up to try and stop him and alert him of what had to be a mistake, he kept walking, put his hand up and gave a gentle wave. I watched him until he was far into the trees before I finally looked back down at my phone. He left a written review for other riders that read “Go easy on him. He’s new.”
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
I sped home as fast as I could without tipping off any highway patrol. I ran inside my house, darted to my computer and tried to make sense of what I just got myself into. To my chagrin, I couldn’t find a single thing on the internet about Cerber. Not even a website, beyond the application page they offered through the advertisement.
I sat back in my chair for a moment, my hands in my lap and continued to process everything. Who pays that kind of money for an hour ride? Who the hell was in my car? What the hell was in my car? I grabbed my phone and opened the app again. Maybe something was there that could provide some kind of answers. Well, I found my answer.
I clicked on the menu option that you would see for most applications and found a description option. It read as follows:
“Cerber is a dedicated ride-sharing company that ensures anonymity and safe transportation of the paranormal.”
It goes on to talk about rates, amenities and safety measures. I never had a chance to read the terms and agreements, no one does. I went back to check everything I signed and sure enough, it’s a transport service for ghosts and shit.
The rates applicable to me are too good to pass up. Two-thirds of what it cost to pay my mortgage was made in a matter of an hour. Maybe this is dangerous, maybe it’s absolutely insane, but I’m going to stick this out and see where it takes me.
* * * * * *
I WAS NOT READY!
Tonight has been insane. I got “waterproof” seat covers (let’s face it, water is not the concern here) and salt-free snacks. I had a hard time finding a way to get “finger foods,” so I just got unsalted nuts and dried fruit. I had no clue what paranormal entities ate, so I took a stab. I learned quickly that paranormal entities couldn’t care less about almonds and dehydrated nectarines. Can’t blame them.
I tried my best to get a good night’s rest after the strange evening I had. Part of me was too shaken to sleep, the other part was partial excitement on what my next rides would be like. I eventually gave up on sleep and went to a general store to pick up snacks, water bottles and seat covers. After coating my car in as much vinyl preventive measure as humanly possible, I treated myself to enchiladas and a cold Pepsi. After my meal, I felt accomplished enough to attempt sleep again. I was awaken by another “UNKNOWN” call again at 11:47 P.M. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who was calling me. I eagerly picked up the call, nearly dropping the phone, “I have questions!”
Adeline burst into a giggling hysteria and replied “Oh I’m sure you do, Jim. What would you like to know?”
“First off,” I held a finger in the air, ignoring that this was a phone call and not a physical confrontation, “why the hell are you calling me so late?”
“Last time we spoke, it was this exact time. You answered then and I figured if I called you at the same time, you would answer at that exact time.” She said calmly and slowly. Good point. I carry on with false confidence, trying to pretend that I don’t feel as stupid as I sound.
“Second, I want to know if the payment I received was a mistake.” I asked, chewing on my thumbnail.
“No, not at all. Was that not proper compensation? It appears that ray gave you a pretty generous tip. Would you like to file a dispute?” I could hear her clicking her mouse again.
“NO!” I yelled into the phone. Mostly because I wouldn’t want to see what’s in store for anyone that pisses Ray off. I clear my throat and continue, “no, sorry. I just feel like that was maybe too generous? Why was the fee so high for Ray?” I’m so afraid of the answer.
“Jim, I can assure you that the compensation was not an accident. Do you remember the part of the application that asked you if you had a spouse, relatives, children or friends?” My heart found its way to my colon. I knew where this was going.
“Yeah, I remember.” I practically croaked my answer, my throat felt so dry.
“Well, to put it as gently as I can,” she stops clicking her mouse, “the riders that you’re transporting are not typical beings like yourself. Most of them are harmless, but some. . .” insert long, unnecessary, pregnant pause, “. . . can be dangerous. If something were to happen to you, we would prefer not to worry about liability lawsuits. It’s not that you’re life bares little meaning, it’s just business Jim.” I sit back and recall my answer. I have no one. I answered “no” to that part of the application.
I let the answer sink in too long and hear Adeline chime in, “Are you still with us, Jim? Did you have more questions?”
“Uh,” I close my eyes and try to gather my thoughts, “Yeah. What sort of amenities and safety measures should I be worried about?” I ask, rubbing my very stressed out temple.
“We’ll start with the uncomfortable topic of safety measures, get the ugly out of the way,” she begins with a soft, yet sinister tone, “you should get yourself an air-tight container to hold sage and a lighter inside. Sometimes certain entities can leave behind an unseen residue and the moment you feel a heaviness after your passenger has exited, you’ll want to burn some of it in your vehicle until you can feel the tension has dispersed.” I scurry to find a pad and pen to write this down. She continues, “You’ll also want to invest in a raincoat or poncho.”
“A rainc- Adeline. . .” I ask in exasperation.
“Yes, Jim. A raincoat.” I roll my eyes and continue to make my list, “Make sure you invest in a facemask, protective eyewear and booties. You can never be too careful.” She finishes.
“Alright,” I complete the rest of the recommended items list, “Now what about the amenities?”
“That depends on how willing you are to get your hands dirty for your riders,” I could hear the smirk, “just how important is it to you to ensure your riders receive the highest quality experience?”
“Not very,” I say defensively. I’m sure the government is already tapped into my line by now, “I just want to drive and maybe not die. Extra steps sounds like it could tamper with that.”
She lets out a chortle “Is there anything else I can do for you, Jim?”
“Uh, no,” I feel no more confident now than I did before picking up the call, “thanks, Adeline.”
“No problem, Jimmy boy!” Her sickening disposition returns as if this is all so normal for her work nights, “Can we count on you to continue driving for us?”
I stare off into the bedroom wall, chewing on that question. Why shouldn’t I? The money is right, the work is interesting, and I make my own hours. I would be an absolute fool to turn this down. The worst that happens is I die and after discussing the pitiful state of my private life and the lack of people therein, it doesn’t seem so bad.
“Yes,” I say, switching the phone from one ear to the next, “Yeah. I’ll keep driving for Cerber.”
“Wonderful!” She exclaims, “Good luck! I’ll be in touch!”
“Thanks. Have a good night, Adel. . .” the line went dead before I could finish.
It was already after midnight, it’s time to get my ass into gear. I don’t have time to pick up the safety items, I survived without them last time and
I feel like I’ll get more ride requests on a Friday night, safety gear is going to have to wait.
I park at a local donut shop that remains open 24 hours. It’s not tacos, but I can get a churro there, close enough. My phone dings with a request from someone named Borg in a residential area just four minutes away. The final destination was a twelve minute ride to an old industrial building that I thought was shut down. I accept the request, dust the cinnamon-sugar off my shirt and start driving. I’m instantly relieved when I see that the request didn’t come from Ray. He was nice enough, but his potential is absolutely terrifying. I pull up to a very plain and vapid home. It was well kept with a brand new fence, it was just ordinary. So far, so good. Then Borg walked out.
Again with the tall! He was a mammoth of a man, standing at least seven feet tall, jaw slack, with a large set of tusks weighing down such massive jowls, dripping with saliva. Borg was dragging a very large hammer, wearing mild construction gear including a hard hat, tool belt and cement crusted boots. My eyes were wide, drawing in as much of this creature as my retinas could handle.
“JIM?!” He bellowed as if trying to call my attention from across four football fields.
My body still vibrating, I reply with, “BORG?!” I don’t know what compelled me to be so risky as to yell at him, but my body was going rogue at this point.
“YES, BORG!” Borg opens my door with shocking delicacy, climbs into the back seat, accidentally slamming his hammer on his own foot. He didn’t flinch, but I totally caught that.
Borg stares at the back of my headrest, breathing like a hog with bronchitis. He had breath bad enough to gag a maggot.
“Just getting off work?” I ask to try and stave off the wet snorting sounds from behind me.
“YES. BORG BUILD FENCE. BORG NEED BEER.” Oh buddy, I can relate.
“Jesus, Borg! Do you have a volume dial?! Tone it down and break the knob off, for the love of god!” I finally snapped. This is how I die.
To my surprise, Borg lets out a thunderous cackle so loud that I’m sure it gave me prostate cancer, “JIM FUNNY! BORG LIKE JIM!” I give him a weak smile and decide to just focus my attention on the road. We were rounding the last turn of the trip.
I pull up to the abandoned warehouse and it’s just as dilapidated as I remember. The metal walls and roof were coated in rust, the wooden beams poking out of place with dry rot and patches of unkempt weeds swallowed up any semblance of a driveway. I come to a complete stop and Borg plunks his massive boots onto the gravel. He gracefully closes my door and walks over to my window, “THANKS JIM! GO SLEEP! JIM LOOK BAD!” Are you fucking kidding me?
“GOODNIGHT BORG! GO SLEEP! BORG TOO LOUD!” I bark at him with a grin. He grins back and begins his short, seemingly painful walk to the front doors of the building. I caught myself half-smiling as the doors shut to his murky mansion, when it was violently interrupted by the realization that the smell Borg emitted had not followed him out of my car. Oh no. This is so bad.
I quickly drive to a nearby gas station to assess the damage. This giant, sticky man-fetus was making all that noise for a reason. He literally shit his own pants in my back seat and his internal matter leaked EVERYWHERE, leaving big, Borg butt cheek imprints.
My night was clearly shot. I bought some paper towels, bleach, air fresheners and a few taquitos from the gas station I was stopped at. It took me a full two hours to clean this hazardous waste out of my car, but I was still able to alleviate the blasphemous evidence from my back seat. It was around 3:52 A.M. when I finished. I remembered Adeline saying that the highest hours of operation ended around 4:30 A.M. so I went ahead and put out a ready signal to try and salvage my night. How I wish I would’ve gotten Ray instead, anything else would have been better than this traumatizing experience.
I got another ping almost instantly after putting out signal. At least I had another fat payout to look forward to. Then I noticed something strange. The request was coming from the very gas station I was already parked at from someone named Angela. Stranger still, there was no destination that followed. Albeit bizarre, I figured it was an app malfunction and I accepted the request anyway. Immediately after accepting, my back door opened and shut so quickly that it almost sounded like one fluid motion.
“Hi, James.” That voice. There’s no way. My blood instantly turns to ice and my body starts shaking violently. This isn’t happening. This can’t be real.
I turn my head slowly, shuddering at the woman who sat in the back seat. My horrified gaze met with her milky eyes, shattering my senses like glass. Of all the terror, sadness and despair I’ve ever encountered in my life, it’s incomparable to what I was feeling in this very moment. Tears involuntarily streamed down my face, my mouth hanging open, hands tensed into fists on my steering wheel, white-knuckling my grip as if I may be ripped right through the roof of my car. This isn’t real. It just can’t be real.
The request… came from my dead sister, Angela.
* * * * * *
Angela died at the age of 24, I was 28. My sister was a tiny, intelligent, nerdy and independent woman, who prided herself on her ability to quote every scripture in the Bible in a nondenominational way while also being able to recite every Greek god, their spouse, children and histories therein. She had a natural curiosity for stories, sincere compassion for the voiceless and loved her family deeply. Angela never missed a single Christmas dinner. She was working on her doctorate in international mythology before she died. You all thought that a philosophy degree was useless? Angela and I were very close. The four of us as a unit had very healthy relationships and could always rely on each other. We kept our circle small and tight.
Her body was found dumped on the side of highway 5 and it was in terrible condition. For those of you with weak bellies, I urge you to skip over this paragraph. Her body was severely sexually assaulted with instruments that involve slicing holiday ham. Her head was almost entirely severed from her shoulders, appendages were found in a black garbage bag placed right next to her corpse. Stranger still, her cause of death was not due to any of these fatal blows. She was hot-shotted with heroine and was dead before this massacre could have taken place. The reason they know this is because when a body dies, blood coagulates and takes on a viscous texture, causing blood to pass through veins and arteries at a much slower rate. Pair coagulation with a stopped heart, no longer able to circulate and pump blood, you get a very minimal mess and little blood spatter. Perhaps the most ominous and puzzling part, she was found wearing a necklace that no one in my family recognized. A small, silver bullet dangled from a delicate silver chain. It was like an anti-trophy, a clean break-away from the typical psychopath. This person was a sadistic showman that meant to confuse and bring an unreasonably high shock value to anyone who stumbled upon the knowledge of this crime. It worked. The case grew cold and hasn’t been reopened since. None of us ever got closure from her death. Just two years after we buried her, our parents committed suicide. They locked themselves in the garage, doused themselves in gasoline and lit themselves in fire. They were found still holding hands with no sign of struggle. The death of my parents didn’t affect me as bad as Angela’s death did. You expect your parents to expire. You don’t expect your baby sister to be slaughtered. No one is ever ready for a call like that.
My baby sister, the one who intentionally got a job at the bookstore to sneak books out simply to learn, was gone. Any hope and good that was left in me was buried along with her. I traded in the notions of starting my own family for the more tangible future in alcoholism. My baggage was exhausting enough for me, there’s no reason to subject that sort of madness any further. The gnawing pain eventually went numb and formed invisible mental scar tissue to cover up any residual damage from that impact. Yet here she was, staring at me with a vacant expression, from the backseat of my car.
I jumped into the back seat and hugged her tight, sobbing for several minutes, while she tried to hush me as though we were being watched.
“James, please,” she said trying to quell the inconsolable teenager I was in that moment “I need your help.”
I immediately shot back, grabbing her arms, “I thought I would never see you again, Angela. It’s been ten years.” I said, gathering my composure.
“I know,” she looked down in her lap trying to hide her own pain, “I’m sorry. I would have come sooner. . .”
I cut her off, resting my hands in my own lap and say “wait, why now?”
She looked back up at me and said “I would have come sooner, but you were self-destructing. Seeing ghosts would only amplify that sort of behavior, so I watched from afar.”
“Okay,” I nodded, looking past the milky desaturation of her eyes and into her now very present soul “I can understand that, but you are here now. What exactly do you need my help with?”
Her face became very stern, replying with “I messed up. You know how I was studying black masses, occultism and ritualistic spiritualism?” I nodded and she continued, “well, I was turning up empty handed in every path I traveled, so I dug deeper. . .” she became uncomfortable and shifted in her seat, “I decided to go through the dark web to find what I could on summoning entities. I eventually came into contact with a man who only referred to himself as Wade.” she turned her face to the back of my seat and shut her eyes as if she had to scrape to the bottom of her cerebellum to recall the next few steps, “he claimed that he could summon Baphomet and that he would perform such summons for me. However, I already knew that Baphomet could not be summoned. So he was either going to make a huge fool of himself or I was going to witness one of the most intelligent entities ever written about. Both results would have been fruitful for my research. I was so concerned with just wanting more experience, I never stopped to evaluate the risks.”
She let herself chew on that for a minute. She looked like she was truly checking out of the conversation, so I softly spoke “Angela?”
She shook her head, bringing herself back to the discussion, “I’m fine.” She pushed her hair back and that’s when I saw the giant, dark bruise with a tiny hole in the center of it, like an eerie halo. I chose to ignore it for now because I was growing impatient and wanted her to wrap it up.
“We met at a coffee shop close to where I lived and he drove us two hours out of the way to what looked like a barely standing building, lights still flickering inside. We walked in and he instructed me to take my shoes and coat off. When I was done taking my second shoe off, I blacked out. I’m not sure how long I was out for or what delivered me to being unconscious, but I woke up clearly drugged.”
“It was heroine,” I interrupted, “the cops told us you were hot-shotted. That’s how you died. They had told us you were not an addict since you didn’t have any other physical distress from active use.”
“Yeah,” she rubbed her neck, staring forward, “well, he didn’t kill me right away. He put an IV directly into my neck and delivered it slowly enough to keep me tranquilized first.” A clear expression of rage swept over her face, her voice still calm, “I woke up in what looked like a mortuary. I was on an old, metal gurney, sustained by leather straps. That wasn’t even necessary, I couldn’t even lift my head let alone escape. I knew I was going to die. I was just afraid it wasn’t going to be quick. He told me that I was stupid for seeking dark answers to dark questions and that my demise was entirely my fault. He wasn’t wrong. I put myself in that exact position, I felt foolish. I should’ve known that summoning Baphomet wasn’t possible and that should have been enough to raise some red flags.” I rolled my eyes at that last part. Nerd alert.
“He told me that my death was important regardless of how I had arrived to this situation,” she continued, her voice taking on a monotonous infliction, “he said that he wasn’t even part of any known religious sector. That he was a one-man worship and that it was because he was a true god among men.” Her mouth curled up into a slight smirk and she said, “I verbally retaliated though. My last words before he mainlined China right into my jugular were ‘I thought gods were perfect? You have mustard on your shirt and you reek of dollar store aftershave. You’re not a god, you just suffer from narcissistic personality disorder.’” She cackled at her own remark. I wanted to cry just watching her reflect any sort of positive feeling. I’ve missed her so much.
“Well that pissed him off enough to end it,” she said half-smiling, “I hope it brings you some sort of peace knowing that I didn’t suffer.”
I nodded and replied “it does, but what exactly do you need my help with?”
“Well, I want you to find him, I guess,” she shrugged, “I’m not his first and only victim. I’m not exactly sure what I want you to do once you find him, but I want him to stop this psychotic church-of-self agenda.”
“Do you have any sort of lead you can give me?” I ask eagerly. Maybe she wasn’t sure what to do after he was found, but I had a few ideas. I may even call Ray for help.
“It’s been ten years.” She said, looking directly into my eyes, “but I do remember where the location is. The funeral home that I died in.”
My hands start shaking, my breath trembling, “where was this exactly?” It was then I heard my Cerber notification chime. She finally added the destination to the ride she had requested. I look from my phone resting on the dash to her. She was smiling such a warm, lovely smile for being so dead.
“What do you say, James,” she lifted her finger, pointing at my phone, “shall we begin?”
My body fled with pinpricks of pure adrenaline, “Hell Yeah,” I jumped to my front seat, “I’ve been waiting ten years for this.” We started driving down I-5 south. We had a three hour journey ahead of us. The tip better be fat.
* * * * * *
Angela and I spent the ride in relative silence for the first hour. Something wasn’t sitting right with me. When telling me she wanted me to find him, my mind was too focused on the possibilities of torturing this crackhead that killed my sister, I almost missed that last part.
“Angela,” my inquisition sliced through the quiet hum of my tires and penetrated her gaze on the road.
“Yeah?” She was holding herself as if she was cold.
“There’s something that’s bugging me.” I say, tapping my thumb on the steering wheel.
“What’s up?” No sign of a guilty conscience and I’m not sure I felt so comforted by that notion.
“When you said ‘find him, I guess,’ what exactly does that mean? What do you mean, ‘you guess’?” I was trying to hide the accusatory tone, but I’ve always been terrible with composing myself.
“Well, I don’t really know. I feel like finding him and the resolve therein may allow me to leave this purgatory of just walking around the living. You know, unfinished ghost business.” She genuinely sounded theoretical.
“You mean, you don’t know?” Still sounding like I’m interrogating her. I can’t help it, I’ve seen some weird shit and since she’s my sister, I feel like I can ask away, no-bars-hold.
“Strange, isn’t it?” She says, cocking her head to the side, allowing her eyes to do what I assumed was a blank stare. Her peepers didn’t creep me out until then. “You would think that dying delivers a sense of clarity or answers some questions. That’s just not the case. Dying is like exiting scene one and walking into a different set, in a different costume and unrehearsed lines. It’s confusing. I’ve read a lot about souls being trapped because of unfinished business and I can’t help but think I’ll be closer to resting if I try every avenue, no matter how cliché it sounds.”
My heart crawled into my throat, choking me with sadness. I just got her back and she’s already trying to leave. I try to soften the mood and say “Well, why do you even want to go to heaven? There’s no affirmation in the Bible that says there will be tacos on the other side. Why chance it?”
“I don’t even know if heaven is real. I know this isn’t necessarily my eternity, but heaven could just be a fairy tale for all I know,” dammit, that backfired. Now I feel worse.
“So you’re saying that, what? Your soul just dissipates?” Still swallowing as much sorrow as I could.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” she almost sounds annoyed. I’m not sure if my stupid questions are irritating her or if she’s irritated with her own lack of answers, “I’m saying I don’t know. I’m saying that I do know that I’m stuck and don’t know what the next step is or what arrives thereafter.” She stares out the window, concluding this discussion. I may suck at reading women, but I could tell I wore out the topic. I left well enough alone, grabbed another cold, gas station taquito and munched in silence. Sort of. So crunchy, even cold.
My phone dinged with another Cerber notification. I squinted at the request to share a ride with the current passenger. I guess even the supernatural care about the environment too. Makes sense, they’re typically immortal or live longer than humans anyway, being mindful of cutting back where you can is never a bad idea. They may also be just as cheap as my sister too, who knows.
“Hey Angela, someone wants to share your ride for about fifteen minutes, is that cool?” She nodded, still brooding in her own, nerdy and dramatic state of despair. I hit accept to someone named Siobhan.
I pulled up to a lake that was pinned in the request. Standing there was a gorgeous woman, long red hair, waxen skin and a black dress that only revealed her head, hands and shoes. She was a petite little thing, which I thought would be a relief. She looked WAY too normal.
Siobhan climbed into the back seat and said “Thank you, I didn’t think drivers were ever in this area.” She flashed a sweet smile and buckled her seatbelt. She looks like a human, but humans are definitely not allowed to use Cerber, so what is she? This wouldn’t typically bother me if she had a third eye or a protruding underbite of razor-sharp teeth, but she just looked like the average commuter and that was unsettling in this very specific circumstance.
“I can’t say that they are, I just happened to be in the area,” I said staring at her through my rear view window. Angela seemed to be fairly unfettered by the new passenger. She had nothing to contribute.
I pulled back onto the freeway, glancing every few seconds to see a smiling Siobhan, looking back at me. She’s likely under the impression that I’m thinking of a decent pick-up line. In actuality, I was trying to read the room a bit to see if it was appropriate to ask possibly the dumbest question I’ve ever verbally vomited.
“So uh, what are you?” I ask.
“W. . .what’s that supposed to mean?” She asked so defensively.
“I mean what kind of thing are you? You look way too normal to be using Cerber. So what are you?” It would take an expert team of surgeons from France to remove the foot I just shoved down my own throat. If you can believe it, I was entirely shameless in my questioning. My sister was clearly appalled, since she turned her head towards me, mouth agape in utter horror. If she didn’t look so dead, it would’ve been funny. However, she looked very dead and that caused my body to visibly shudder.
“What are you talking about?! I’m clearly a beautiful woman!” Siobhan all but screamed at me.
“Yeah, James. Shut all the way the fuck up.” My sister hissed through her freaky, postmortem teeth.
“What?” I ask, thinking my question was perfectly valid. I should’ve guessed that Angela knew something that I didn’t by her reaction. I should’ve stopped there, apologized, waited until Siobhan exited my car and asked Angela what the big deal was. But I didn’t. Oops. Big oops.
From the back seat, I could hear gurgling and panting. I look in the mirror to see that Siobhan was shaking violently and her skin was bubbling. It looked like black billiard balls were crawling violently under her epidermis. Her eyes took on a bright yellow, a rectangular iris forming like that of a goat or frog.
“Goddammit, James. Now you’ve done it.” Angela yells in a panic, wincing and huddling by the car door. It looked like she was trying to brace herself for a detonation. Well, I guess she technically was.
Siobhan’s face started to stretch, her face forming a long, horse-like muzzle. Her arms wiggled into a transition of black tentacles, writhing and rapidly becoming larger. Her long red hair morphed into wet, obsidian strands. She looked like a horse-octopus. Between glances of the road and my rear view mirror, her physical being became far more atrocious and I couldn’t help but autopilot my way down I-5 in the meantime. I could see her chest heaving and falling with every snort of hot breath. She went from being this tiny doll to being a massive mess of tendrils behind a set of glowing eyes. She quite literally filled most of my car.
“What…what the hell are you, lady?!” My voice cracked as if I was sixteen again. That sort of sight will suck the masculinity right out of you and make you a mouse in no time flat.
A sharp bray escaped her horse-like lips and caused me to lose hearing. I could see that Angela was trying to bark the answer at me, “what?” I ask, hearing my own heavily muffled reply.
“She’s a kelpie!” Angela screams, throwing her hands up.
“The fuck is a. . .” I couldn’t finish my question before one of Siobhan’s slimy tentacles plunged its way into my mouth. As if I hadn’t humiliated myself enough with my tone-deaf night of interrogations, I subjected myself to real life hentai on top of that. Super.
I take one hand off the wheel to try and yank the tentacle out of my throat, swerving at 75mph in a frenzied panic. Another appendage wrapped around my chest, my throat and my left leg. As if my stupidity wasn’t done controlling the events of this evening enough, I decided to let go of the steering wheel entirely to get a better grip. Bigger oops.
I was losing consciousness and strength quickly. I haven’t been able to breathe for a good two minutes now and with a surging adrenaline rush to try and stay alive, my legs involuntarily stiffened to find leverage. On the gas pedal, of course. Biggest oops.
I found myself speeding down an empty highway, wrestling with a pissed off pony-pus, trying desperately to stay alive and crashed my tank of an SUV into a ditch. Though it was extremely dangerous and entirely unintentional, totaling my vehicle is what saved my life.
I blacked out temporarily and woke up to an uncomfortable stillness that followed the car accident. I could hear Siobhan breathing quietly in the back seat and it sounded like that’s all she was doing. I slowly looked back, blood trickling into one eye and see that she’s still knocked out. After feeling relief wash over me, I was hit with an overwhelming amount of pain from the impact as well as overexertion from defending my airway. I crawled out of my car and dropped to the ground, directly onto my back, knocking the wind out of my already fragile chest. I gripped my shoulder and let out a man’s groan. I lay as flat as possible, looking up and trying to mind too much movement of my neck and back. Angela pokes her face into my vision directly above my body and I ask her to get my phone.
Angela hands my phone to me and I tap on the emergency number, bringing the phone up to my ear.
“Hi, Jim! It appears you’ve been in an accident,” it’s Adeline with her annoying, jovial voice, “I’m sending two drivers to your location, both equipped with Cerber employed physicians. I assume your sister will be joining you?”
That bitch. I’m agitated and grateful all at once. “Yeah. . .” I choke out to her, “have him pick up three tacos, a burrito with extra nacho cheese and a bottle of acetaminophen. You’re buying.” I drop my arm to my side and allow myself to pass out.
I wake up four hours later, suffering a very minor concussion, a shattered esophagus and some bruising on my bones. We were put up in a mediocre hotel room, stocked with an obscene amount of Mexican food and a tall bottle of heavy painkillers. I sit up, knock the painkillers off my nightstand and grab a burrito. Alcoholics shouldn’t touch opioids, I already knew that. I’ll pay myself on the back for the one responsible decision I made by stuffing my face with my favorite addiction.
I quietly ate my burrito in bed and glanced over at Angela. She was sitting in a dusty rose slipper chair, arms folded and staring at the ceiling with her legs crossed. I looked back down at my burrito and allowed myself to bathe in shame for my irresponsible lack of couth. The disheartening fact that I almost died in two different ways in a matter of five minutes was startling and blanketed me like a guilt quilt. I messed up so bad tonight and I’m due for a round of penance.
“I’m sorry,” I say, my mouth full of burrito innards, “I wasn’t thinking properly and put us into a dangerous situation-,” she raises her hand at me, gesturing for me to quit while I’m ahead. I listened this time, mostly because my mouth was full.
“I’m already dead, doofus,” she calmly reminded me as she continued to stare at the ceiling, “I wasn’t in any danger at all. There’s seriously no need to apologize.”
“Alright,” I say, emotionally wounded, “where’s my car?”
“You totaled it, James. We’re gonna be stuck here for a few days until Cerber can iron out the details with your insurance. Adeline called me and filled me in on the process and said she’s going to take care of it. There’s nothing that can be done for at least two days, so focus on healing. We waited ten years, we can wait two more days.” Her disposition softened, trying to soothe me.
“Okay.” I continue eating my burrito, reflecting on the antics for the evening, “Angela?”
“What?” She asked as if she was prepared for another blow of foolhardy questions.
“What the fuck is a kelpie?!”
* * * * * *
I was a complete ass to Siobhan and apologized to her. I added $1,000 of my own cash to her Cerber account. Sadly, that only gets her as far as four blocks. She was gracious about it. Siobhan apologized for power-fisting my throat, I told her she had no reason to be sorry and we ended our call on a good note. She gave me four bat wings and a review that read “He’s cute, for a Neanderthal. I’d ride him again.” Which was beyond kind of her, but now I’m not sure if she was pissed or flirting. Both, maybe? I will continue to do my best at keeping my mouth closed. My social ineptitude is staggering, but I’m learning a very valuable lesson in humility.
Not much transpired in the first day. I didn’t have insurance through Cerber and the agents that handle my claims specifically are human. Adeline is having a wicked hard time finding an “in” with the company that I’m insured with. She says that if it takes more than a week, they’ll just replace my car altogether and terminate the claims. Why they don’t just do that anyway, who knows. Maybe it’s her way of insuring that I stay in one place and heal as best as I can. She could just be putting it off to practice a little damage control. Something tells me it’s the latter.
Cerber put us up with some pretty awesome accommodations. Angela has been balls-deep in books for days now, trying to figure out what that silver bullet could possibly mean. She thinks that if we find its meaning, then we can find the origin of Wade’s beliefs. We find the origin, we can combat them properly. Not sure how useful I can be in this situation, but even if I just get a front row seat to watch her haul off on Wade, I’ll be satisfied.
Accommodations also include an unhealthy enablement of my Mexican food obsession as well as a personal nurse and doctor. They’re both black-eyed people, which I’m not entirely sure what that is, but they’re nice enough. Probably the tamest entities I’ve ever been around. Fun fact; paranormal medicine is a thing and it’s incredible. My esophagus, concussion and superficial injuries have completely healed. Get this- they were able to inject a rapid healing medication that was taken from a strain of werewolf flu! I look and feel like I may stand a chance talking shit to a kelpie again. Kidding. Sort of.
I spent a lot of my time talking to Borg on the phone. I guess he caught wind of the accident and was disheartened by it. Ironically, he sent over an iron nail. It was delivered to me in a tiny, green box with a note that read “Borg sorry Jim got mouth violated. Borg send iron nail. Good for fence, good for kelpie.” What started as a gratitude phone call, turned into construction shop-talk on a few occasions. Borg like Jim. Jim like Borg.
On the second day in, I woke up at 2 A.M. to Angela’s face about an inch away from mine. I flew up onto my bed like a weird sheet surfer, screaming nothing intelligible with hands above my head, spider monkey style. I plunked down on the bed, gripping my chest and said “What, Angela?”
“You talk a lot of shit for someone who startles so easy,” she says slightly amused, “I have found plenty on the silver bullet, but not anything that makes sense.” She walks over to one of many books she has littering the floor of our room.
“Alright,” I swing my legs over the side of the bed, placing my hands in my lap. “So what have you found, then? Can we use it against Wade in any way?”
“Not that I can tell, no,” she says, looking down at her book, “I’m only finding ways to defeat evil entities with silver bullets. Nothing that says they’re used to aid them. This is assuming, of course, that Wade is evil.”
“Excuse me, if?” I ask, completely bewildered.
“Yes, if. Just because he killed me, does not mean he is evil.” She said so confidently.
“Okay, I’m lost. What part of murder is not evil?” I ask, my head spinning.
“Murder to you, sacrifice to the other, martyrdom to another, death isn’t always meant to be sinister. Just because I didn’t want to die, doesn’t make his objective evil. We may have been going about this the wrong way the whole time.” Angela sat on the floor with her legs crossed, putting her head into her cupped hands.
“So, you’re thinking this is some sort of protection doodad?” I ask.
“I guess,” she folds her arms tight against her chest, “I’m still not entirely sure. We may have to just fly into this blind. I would suggest contacting a priest, but given your line of work, it could tarnish anything you have left of your credibility among the paranormal.”
I throw both fists up, give her the double-bird special, “Oooookay. On that note, I’m going back to sleep.”
As soon as my head hits the pillow, the hotel line rings. I throw a bit of a flailing tantrum before picking up the phone. On the other end, I can only hear a faint rustling of what sounded like wind, “uh. . . hello?” I ask, looking at my sister with one eyebrow raised.
“Hi, James.” It’s a man who sounds like a cat that ate the canary.
That’s when I notice that Angela is violently shaking, cowering against the corner of the room, eyes welling up.
“Who is this?” I ask the man with a hint of concern to my disposition.
“I hear that you’re looking for me,” he says in his smooth as cream voice, “I’m Wade.”
“YOU SON OF A BITCH! You bet your sorry ass I’m looking for you!” I scream into the receiver. Pure rage surged its way through every nerve in my body like I was electrocuted with blind madness.
“Calm yourself, child,” now he definitely sounds condescending, “you’ll get your chance. I’m in need of a ride. Do you happen to have time for a request?”
“Oh, are little bitches considered paranormal now? That’s news to me. I thought cowards like you had a super cool fan club that congregates in the basement for pre-murder, circle-jerks. Does that come before or after fucking your mom?” Sorry, folks. I tried. But let’s face it, he had that coming and I’m sure a lot of you would be disappointed in me for not properly tearing this dick-wart to shreds.
He laughed in an unsettling manner, “oh child, you know not the dire situation you’ve stumbled into,” I clench my teeth, blood boiling so hot that I can feel myself sweat as he continues, “that’s fine. In due time, I suppose. In the meantime, please respond to my request. I’ll be waiting.” The line goes dead.
I waste no time and call Adeline immediately. She picks up the phone and starts with “James-“ panic shrouding her voice.
“I don’t want to hear it, Adeline,” I get dressed, putting the iron nail in my pocket, “get me a car. Now. I don’t give a damn what it is, get a car out front.”
“James, I’m not above begging, please don’t-”
“Car! Now!” I scream at her and hang up.
“Angela, we’re going for-“ I stop and come to the startling realization that Angela isn’t in the room anymore.
I frantically race to my phone, ignoring the Cerber notifications, and try calling her. My calls went straight to voicemail. I could feel my torso caving in, anxiety rushing over my body. He must have her. I don’t know how, but my intuition is telling me that he somehow has her.
I run down to the front desk of the hotel, finding a silver plate holding a set of keys and a note from Adeline that reads, “please, in the name of all things holy, don’t do this.” I swipe the keys and rush out to find a standard, black luxury sedan waiting for me. I all but fly into the front seat, turn the ignition and mount my phone on the dash. I tap the Cerber app and buckle up as it loads. My sister is gone, I am armed with absolutely no useful information, nor any weapons. I can’t just let this opportunity slip, especially with my sister being held hostage. I’m rushing into a situation with my presence and good intentions only. This is how he wanted it, though. I had no time to waste.
Cerber booted up to the request home page with one notification already three minutes old. I tap on accept. “Gotcha, asshole.” I say as I accept a request from Archangel Michael.
* * * * * *
Before we get into this next installment, I wanted to dedicate this episode to the memory Keith Flint and the thousands of others who have lost their fight with depression. This one also goes out to those currently fighting your way through it, you’re not alone and help is more local than you know. Thank you, Keith, for bringing an edge to electronic music and for trying your best to fight your demons. You will be greatly missed in both the music industry and the hearts of all your fans. The candle in the window tonight is for you, brother.
Now, on with tonight’s installment.
The location to picking up Michael was a shanty little bar that looked like it allowed indoor smoking and turned a blind eye to quaaludes. Michael was dressed in cowboy boots with an adorable matching hat, a pastel orange, western-style shirt and very neat blue jeans. He resembled either a cop or someone who was trying to be cowboy for the very first time. Kinda like those Scandinavian folks who are obsessed with westerns and intentionally go to the Alamo without a field trip slip. Westerns are boring and I’m not sorry for saying it.
He almost anxiously got to the front passenger seat of my car. His apprehensive nature completely negates what I heard on the phone. Goody, more weird shit that doesn’t make sense. Maybe I’m just too simple, who knows. He gets into my car and I look at him like I’m expecting the first swing. Up close, he looks exhausted and in the middle of existential crisis. I did NOT want to relate to this weirdo.
“Are you the asshole?” I ask, completely ready to die. It’s inevitable in this line of work.
“Are you the intellectual? Oh, right, you’re the dumbass that is about as well-mannered as a toddler riled up on Red Bull.” Oh my god, he is me. I think I’m in love.
“Who are you?” I ask, completely befuddled. I wanted to kill this guy just two minutes ago, very slowly. Now I kinda want to take this inside for a beer.
“Now you can’t read either? How did they even let you have a license? In fact, how are you even still ALIVE?” He gave me this crazy, wide-eyed expression, leaning his face entirely too close to mine. Oh, and yes. He did sound like a genuine cowboy.
“Are you just going to keep asking me unhelpful questions or are you going to play ball and tell me what in tarnation is going on?” Yeah, I mocked him. We’re in love now, it’s okay.
“Alright. I’m not Wade, I’m Michael. The archangel. I’m not going to waste anymore of your time, we have shit to do, son.” He said pointing to my mounted phone. On the screen was a destination in a residential area. A nice neighborhood. That doesn’t settle me in anyway, rich people are creeps worse than my passengers. Self-made monsters. Terrific.
“While we make our way there, you mind telling me why you decided to intercept my very well-earned date with death and dismay?” I ask, less pushy. Despite enjoying this back-and-forth banter, I figured it was a bad idea to piss off an angel responsible for assembling victorious, ethereal armies. I may be sassy, but I promise I’m not as stupid as I look. I don’t care about dying, but no one is actually trying to earn a fast track to hell.
“Divination, son, what’s it look like?” He asks putting a poorly, handmade cigarette in his mouth, “you’re about to go marching to your death and you have the balls to think you’ve got the balls for it.”
“Uh…what…” I ignored the fact that he lit up a cigarette in my car, which is typically a no-no, since this is technically a company car and I’m still pissed at Adeline. I was just traveling down an even deeper rabbit hole of confusion, “Alright, I need to re-examine the facts. You’re an angel, right? As in one of THE angels?”
“Yeah,” he took a long, heroic drag of his cigarette and continued, “And I’m here to save your sorry ass. You’re about to tangle with a lone skinwalker.” He raises his eyebrows at me.
“The Native American myth?” Guess I shouldn’t call it a myth at this juncture.
“That’s right. What’s dangerous about a lone skinwalker is they’ve been cast out of their tribe. He’s only 150 years old, very young.”
“Yeah, he’s basically a fetus.” I say rolling my eyes.
“No, you would be a fetus in this situation. There are skinwalkers that are nearly as old as me.” I immediately wanted to ask how old he was, but I thought better of it. “The reason he is so dangerous is he’s lawless. Not bound to any tribal rules, though skinwalkers have little of those to begin with.”
I impatiently tap my thumb on the steering wheel, now slightly excited to land at our next stop. I think I know what’s coming.
“Since you’re too bullheaded to back down and too stupid to handle this alone, I decided to help you out.” He grins, showing a couple gold-capped teeth and radiating confidence. In turn, I also felt confident.
“Thanks. Now where are we?” I ask, putting my car in park and killing the ignition.
“I have a guy who keeps everything you need right here in his home. Can’t exactly run a store front with this type of material on account of licensing being a necessity in this state. Some folks just need to handle an advanced problem just one time.” He unbuckles his seatbelt and climbs out of the car.
Michael doesn’t bother knocking and enters the home. Every room was unburdened by furniture as well as a lack of lighting. We head down to the basement which was lit with a light violet, bathing the room in an emotional shade of calm. Littered about the room, which I can only describe as an organized mess of different types of weapons, stood a drag queen. Yep. Very clearly a drag queen. The only reason I could even guess this was the cartoon inspired makeup and a wig that looked like it could be a living creature, piled high on his head. From the neck down, he was dressed in a skintight tracksuit, exposing his well-kept physique. I know, keep your mouth shut, Jim.
“Azazel, I’ve brought the kid with the mouth on him,” Michael says, pointing behind himself and at me.
In the most flamboyant voice imaginable, Azazel replies, “hey, honey. You’re dancing with a skinwalker?” Azazel does a mild salsa dance behind his work bench.
“So I’m told,” I’m trying to remain professional because not only am I standing in the presence of an archangel, the drag queen standing before me is a demon. I know what Azazel is.
“Okay, I’m going to give you a 9 millimeter handgun, two 11-round magazines of pure silver, a Molotov cocktail and a lighter. Now, you can’t kill a skinwalker with silver, it’ll only slow it down. Do your best to aim for his legs and arms. When a skinwalker dumps its human form, it’ll have freakishly quick abilities in both arms and legs, so don’t skip any limbs.” By the time Azazel was finished giving me these directions, he had piled everything into a backpack.
“I’m sorry, I have to ask,” both Michael and Azazel were looking at me as though I was burdening them, “Angels and demons work together?”
“Fallen, asshole. I’m a fallen.” Azazel crosses his arms, glaring at me.
“Right. You guys actually work together?” I ask.
“Yes,” Michael replies, “fallen were angels once too. Not all demons have bad intentions. Some like humans quite a lot and want to maintain a sort of balance.”
“Alright,” I grabbed the backpack, completely done with religious topics, “You mind fixing the interception, Michael? I would really like to finish this.”
“Sure, kid.” he waves at Azazel and we begin our ascent from the basement.
“One more thing, Jim,” says Azazel, waving, “don’t miss. You can’t afford to miss.”
I nod with a smile and say “Thanks, Azazel.” He smiles and turns around to finish his original project.
As we’re walking back to the car, I rehearse my plan in my mind. I’ve never actually shot a firearm before, so this was going to be interesting. I’ve also never had to huck a Molotov before. I may actually die trying to kill this thing.
Michael and I get back into the car and I ask him, “Alright, I have to know, why is Azazel a drag queen?”
Michael let out a single chuckle and said “Well, Azazel was cast out of heaven for teaching humans how to build weapons and put war makeup on. He’s always enjoyed cosmetics, so he decided to make it a hobby.”
“Sounds reasonable,” I said, with a genuine nod, “so what does Wade want?” Obviously, Michael has answers, I’m not going to be shy about asking. Not that I ever had that problem to begin with.
Michael pulls out another shanty stoge, lights up and gets comfortable, “Do you remember what it was like losing Angela? How you felt lost and empty, and your life just had less flavor?”
“Yes.” I replied.
“Well, when some folks lose their sense of home in their people, they begin grieving in one of two common ways. Some become hollow, much like you. Some become angry and develop an insidious agenda. They hurt others to gain control of their own pain.” Michael says, never breaking eye contact.
“So why Angela?” I ask.
“Victim of circumstance, son. She’s special, but not that special.” He replied.
“Any idea as to why there was a silver bullet hanging from her body? What about the insanity parade he conducted on her corpse?” I’m angry now. Not at Michael, I haven’t had a taco in several hours.
“I put the bullet there. I was hoping that someone would have caught onto that clue. Of course, that was bust,” He takes another drag of his cigarette, “the mutilation was pure rage. He’s lost and upset. That’s why he killed Angela before he had his fun with her-“
“Watch it, Michael,” I said swiftly, “my sister isn’t a sideshow attraction.”
“Easy, son,” He said calmly. I was actually hoping to piss him off, “point being is he didn’t have a reason. The whole point of all of this is he’s just doing vile things out of rage.”
I was entirely unsatisfied with that answer. It’s one thing to murder someone with intent, but to entirely disregard all life over a temper tantrum is a whole other level of evil.
“Do you know where Angela is?” I asked.
“She’s home, kid,” he said, pointing upward, “her time here was served. She brought you to where you needed to be. So it was time for her to return.”
The oxygen in every fiber of my being was sucked right out of my body, “oh. . .”
“Sorry, kid,” he puts one hand on my shoulder and squeezed, “but we all go home at some point. That’s just how it is.”
“Yeah.” I croaked. What was the point of even going after this thing now? The only reason I got involved was to help Angela cross over. She’s done that now.
“Listen, I know you’re probably thinking of quitting. Would you honestly want this to happen to another young lady? A child?” He asked me, gently.
“You put way too much faith in my integrity,” I shook my head, scoffing, “but no. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I’m going to finish this.”
“Good.” Michael said patting me on the shoulder.
We spent the rest of the ride in silence while Michael chain smoked. I continued to rehearse my plan and I was losing confidence with every repetition. Maim and set it on fire. Maim and set it on fire. Maim and set it on fire.
I pull up in front of the bar I had originally picked Michael up from. Since Michael was not a danger to me in the slightest, his ride ended up being free. That’s fine, I was in no position to pout about finances after the free gear to roast my sister’s killer.
Michael gets out of the car and rounds his way to my window, “You gotta lay off the Mexican food, son. It’ll kill ya.” He half-smiled and walked away.
“Thanks, Michael.” I replied, watching him walk into the bar.
I decided that this job was far too much for me. I couldn’t possibly do this. Well, not alone. I exit the Cerber app and decide to make a phone call.
“JIM?!” Borg barks into the phone.
“BORG!” I replied, attempting to match his gusto.
“HI JIM! FEELING BETTER?!” I can hear his tusks scraping the phone as he spoke.
“Yeah, Thanks Borg,” I put the backpack of arsenal in my back seat, “you feel like taking down a skinwalker with me tonight?”
“BORG HATE SKINWALKER. BORG HELP. JIM HAVE RIGHT PROTECTION? JIM STUPID, BORG HAVE TO ASK.” That gelatinous, jovial dick.
“Yes Borg,” I say, trying to remember his honesty isn’t personal, “I have silver bullets and a Molotov.”
“OKAY, JIM. ONLY FIRE KILL SKINWALKER. BORG WRESTLE FOR JIM.” I could hear whatever poor recliner he was ascending from cry out as he stood.
“Thanks, Borg. Oh and one more thing,” I add.
“YES, JIM?” Borg replies.
“Take a shit before you get into the car, please.”
* * * * * *
After I finished my call to Borg, I spent the drive steeping in my own thoughts. My heart found a new way to break as I sat in silence, knowing I likely won’t be seeing Angela again. I never questioned if she was dead or not, but I had become so subconsciously numb that I completely forgot what it was like to hurt. I was actually grateful for the pain. With every tick that increased the number on the odometer, so did my wrath. I didn’t even have the urge to stop and get taquitos. I spent ten years waiting for some sort of closure and even though I was robbed of an opportunity to say goodbye for a second time, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of completion. I know who killed Angela and I was on my way to give him a Borg beatdown, there’s no better closure. I may not be able to say “goodbye” to Angela, but I take great comfort knowing that I’ll be able to say “hello” again instead. For now, I will allow myself to hurt. It helps chip away at any fears that I may have left.
I pull up to Borg’s dilapidated ruins. Borg is outside carrying what looks like a large sword as he waddles his way up to the car. Shit, is he going to fit in the car?
“Borg, what in the holy hell do you have in your hand?” I ask as he packs himself into the front passenger seat.
“BORG BRING FALCHION SWORD. GOOD FOR MURDER SPORT!” Borg says with an infectious amount of excitement.
“You don’t think it’s overkill? I have a gun, you know.” I reply.
“JIM HAVE PITIFUL BOOM STICK. BORG HAVE REAL WEAPON. JIM JUST JEALOUS.” Borg says, hauling the ridiculous blade over his shoulder and into the back seat. I dropped the topic.
“Borg?” I swallow loudly as I continue, “You wouldn’t eat me. . .would you?”
“BORG LIKE JIM. BORG NO EAT JIM. EATING JIM WOULD BE LIKE JIM EAT DOG.” Borg says, matter-of-factly.
“You sassy bastard,” I laughed, “alright, well I’m glad that you find me too adorable to eat.” I fire back.
Letting out his booming laughter, he replies, “JIM NO CUTE. JIM JUST HELPLESS.” He laughs harder, clutching his gelatinous gut.
“Alright!” I chortle, “Are you ready to help me end this?”
“YA, JIM. BORG AND JIM GO PARTY NOW.” Borg smiles. Jesus, this is how orcs party? Ogres? I shudder to think of what a Borg bachelor party would be like.
We spent most of the ride talking about our plan and construction hacks, all while Borg sharpens his sword. I don’t think scraping this thing on a rock actually improved anything. However, I grinned at the idea of Wade suffering at the will of a dull blade.
“In five miles, take exit for Fink Road.” The GPS chimes.
Borg semi-silently lifts his head, looks at the phone, then looks at me, “NOW WE GET SERIOUS JIM.” He was trying his best to keep his voice down, but still failed.
“I know, Borg.” I said, throttling the gas.
“In a half mile, take exit for Fink Road.” The GPS continues.
I come off the freeway and start my way down Fink Road. The road is barely paved and unlit. I flip my high beams on and continue speeding my way through thick darkness. Looking behind me, I can only see a faint glow of my brake lights reflecting off of the clouds of dust kicked up behind me.
“In twenty-five miles, your destination will be on the right.”
Borg must have sensed tension and says, “JIM, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT PLAN.”
“Uh-huh.” I say, keeping my eyes on the road.
“WHEN BORG SEE SKINWALKER, BORG ATTACK. BORG STAB SKINWALKER AND PIN HIM TO GROUND. JIM SHOOT SKINWALKER KNEES, ELBOWS AND EYES, IF JIM CAN AIM.” Borg says, as gently as an orc can.
“Yep, got it. Then what?” I ask, still keeping my gaze focused.
“JIM LIGHT MOLOTOV AND SMASH ON SKINWALKER HEAD. SKINWALKER WILL IGNITE. VERY FLAMMABLE.” Borg replies.
“Flammable?” I ask, puzzled.
“YES. SKINWALKER AFRAID OF FIRE, BECAUSE SKINWALKER CATCH FIRE EASY. BORG LIKE TO WATCH.” Borg lets out a creepy, thick giggle.
“That’s sick, Borg.” I nervously laugh along with him.
“In seven and a half miles, your destination will be on the right.”
I feel my knuckles whiten, death-gripping the steering wheel. I accelerate to seventy miles an hour. I am so ready for this and truly looking forward to my next burrito. If I can manage to make it out alive.
We pull up to a vacant mortuary. No one appeared to be standing outside, no lights were on and the atmosphere was entirely silent as if we were standing at zero gravity.
Borg reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a pair of glasses, taking great care not to scratch the lenses.
“Great,” I say, “I’m armed with weapons I’ve never used and my backup is a handicapped Ogre.”
“BORG NOT OGRE! BORG ORC! JIM HAVE HANDICAP MOUTH!” He barked at me.
“Alright, I’m sorry. I’m just nervous, I guess.” I reply.
“IS OKAY, JIM. PLEASE FOCUS.” Borg replies with sincerity and confidence.
I keep my headlights on and stare at the front door of the mortuary, waiting for this thing to emerge. I almost missed Wade walking out from behind the left-hand side of the building. He was dressed in a pinstripe suit, slicked jet black hair, bronzed complexion and a fairly young face. Michael said he was around 150 years old, but he looked like he was in his early twenties. He stood grinning at me, locking my gaze. Borg and I look at each other, nod and get out of the car. I swing the backpack over my shoulder and Borg does the same with his falchion sword. We begin towards Wade at a cautious pace as he glides towards us, entirely unfettered by our preparedness.
We all stop walking once we’re about ten feet away from each other and I say, “Wade?” My voice was about as smooth as gravel.
Wade opens his arms as if to embrace, “Jim!” Both Borg and I put one leg back, bending our knees to receive an attack. Wade puts his hands up and lowers his head slightly, “Alright, you don’t trust me. That’s probably wise on your part.”
“I learned a little bit about you.” I start in with my infamous false confidence, “That you’re a skinwalker and not even your own tribe wants anything to do with you. Did you get caught strangling the family pets?” I finish, satisfied with that low blow, which I could see ticked him off.
“No, not for strangling family pets,” he started pacing, circling. I didn’t see Borg flinch, so I tried to relax as much as possible. I trust that Borg will lead when it’s time to move, “I can see that you’re not entirely certain what a skinwalker is, or you wouldn’t be asking me such a foolish question. That’s your first mistake.”
“Trust me pal, I’ve made many mistakes before this one. Pretty sure a kelpie popped that cherry for me.” I reply with cool ease.
“Right,” he rolls his eyes, “well, a skinwalker is essentially a Navajo medicine man that’s succumbed to dark magic.”
He looks up at us, as if expecting some weird withdraw or newfound fear. I’ve met quite a few beings who could decimate this freak.
When Wade doesn’t receive his desired reaction, he continues, keeping his hands behind his back and standing up straight, “Medicine men have been known to live far beyond the normal expiration of a human. However, medicine men who insist on using dark magic to assert themselves in war? That is greatly frowned upon. My tribe couldn’t handle my ideologies, so I was cast out and you know what? It’s been the most liberating experience I could have been gifted. I roam as I please, I live as I please and I kill as I please.”
“Gross.” I reply, my blood boiling. Borg remains stoic and silent, fixated on our target. He looks so damn cool right now.
Wade gets impatient, “Child, you will either worship me or fear me. The only other option is death.” He sneers, his voice starting to gurgle. I’m guessing this is his rendition of wolfing out.
“I didn’t come here with silver bullets and an orc to join your shit show religion, Wade.” I yell at him. Years of frustration, pain and despair have led me to being absolutely fearless and angry. “I came here to annihilate you for your crimes against humanity, particularly against my sister. I have literally ghost-toted legendary entities that would serve you up on a slice of toast before a morning run. You’re just a well-preserved human with magic tricks.” I reply with searing vitriol.
This does him in, I finally touched the nerve.
“You will respect me!” He screams in his watery voice. It sounds like something is bubbling up from his throat. His skin begins to turn bright red. I don’t mean his cheeks, every exposed portion of his skin is turning red. I can see Borg bracing for something. In turn, I do the same.
“Looks like the tea is on. Come at me, bitch.” If those would have been my last words, that would’ve been epic.
The skin and clothing begins to melt from Wade’s exterior, revealing a dark shade of espresso. I could hear his bones crack and his limbs disjoint until he drops onto all fours with his head down. His roar could only be described as a puma’s with the bass cranked all the way up. Once Wade was finished transforming, he slowly lifted his head and that’s when I finally felt dread in his presence. Half of his face was occupied with a lipless mouth adorning large, pointed teeth. He had small, black eyes fitted just above his shapeless nose and long black hair that went down to his waist. I watched his chest heave and fall with every breath as he stared straight at me.
Borg snaps into action and darts after Wade, raising his falchion, accidentally smacking me in the face with it. I hit the ground and yelp out like a wounded coyote, holding my face in efforts to quell the ringing in my ears.
Borg turns around, still holding his sword up high, “JIM?!” In a flash, Wade tackles Borg right into the car with enough force to cave the driver side door in. Broken glass rained on top of them as they struggled. Wade sunk his massive teeth into Borg’s shoulder, causing Borg to scream and release his grip to favor his new wound. As I squint in their direction, I notice Borg trying to get on his feet while Wade starts speed-crawling towards me. I panic and start scurrying backwards, trying not to look away from this horrifying psycho, spider sprinting in my direction. In my sad attempt to back away, I realize that I’m nowhere near my weapons. Fucking oops.
I hear Borg stumbling his way towards us, falling to his knees every so often, undoubtedly from the pain. I just had to stall this thing for a few seconds to allow Borg to catch up. Wade jumps on top of me, sitting on my stomach and squeezing my throat with both hands. He laughs in a very moist, deep and devious manner while I try clawing at his arms for release. It simply wasn’t working. I could hear Borg getting closer, breathing heavy and clearly struggling. I have to do something.
That’s when I remembered grabbing the iron nail that Borg had gifted me. I quickly shove my hand into my pocket, feeling the cold, rough surface of the nail. I yank it out of my pocket and slam it right into Wade’s neck, causing him to release his grip and reach for the nail. In that split second, I wiggle from underneath him. Borg grabs Wade by the hair and slams him onto the ground. Borg treated Wade like a ragdoll and kept swinging him around until Wade could no longer move, entirely immobilized and worn out. Borg slammed Wade into the dirt, shoving his falchion through his chest and burrowing the other end into the ground beneath him, pinning him in place.
“JIM, GET MOLOTOV.” Borg says with exhaustion.
I fumble my way to the backpack, pulling out the anarchist’s grenade, and run over to Wade’s body. What’s really creepy is he was still breathing even with the blade buried deep into his chest. He didn’t bleed either, like some sort of sentient corn husk doll.
I stand over Wade’s body and light the Molotov, watching him look up at the sky. He had nothing to say and no fight left to offer. I very nearly felt sorry for him. I raise the Molotov above my head and slam it right into his stomach. His whole body engulfed in a matter of seconds in soft chartreuse flames. Borg and I both dropped and sat in silence, panting from expulsion of adrenaline and newly acquired pain.
“Are you alright?” I ask Borg through breaths.
“BORG FINE.” He replies, shifting his weight.
“Thank you, Borg. I couldn’t have done this without you.” I try really hard not to tear up, but since Borg and I have already crossed the threshold of leaking bodily fluids a long time ago, I allowed myself to sob.
“IS OKAY , JIM,” Borg says, gingerly hugging me about as gently as a rusty bear trap, “WADE GONE. NOW JIM CAN HEAL INSIDE.” He finishes, patting me on the back.
I limp over to the car to retrieve my phone and realize I have thirteen missed calls from Adeline. Here we go. I call her back and she picks up in the middle of the first ring, “Jim?! Are you alright?!”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks to Borg, of course.” I reply.
Adeline lets out a sigh of relief and says, “Thank goodness. Is Borg okay?”
“Yeah, we need a ride though.”
“What happened to the company car you had for a grand total of six hours?” She’s furious. So much for being worried about my safety.
“Well, the driver side got crushed in the middle of our dispute.” I reply, wincing at my own words.
She lets out a snort and says, “Alright, I’m sending a car after you two.”
“Thanks, Adeline,” I reply. “After this, you won’t be hearing from me anymore. I don’t think I can work for Cerber any longer.”
“Think again, Jim,” she says with a maniacal tone, “You now owe me a car. I’ve already ironed out the kinks with your own car, but you’re going to stay on with Cerber and regain enough funds to cover the damage of the one you borrowed. Once you repay me for this car, only then will we talk about releasing you from Cerber. Do you understand me?” She huffs.
“I guess,” I reply with defeat.
“Good. I’ll allow you one week to recover, but then I expect you to be accepting rides immediately after. Oh, and watch your mouth. I’m getting complaints about your attitude from the clients.” She finishes.
“Yeah, okay. Sorry, Adeline,” I say, rolling my eyes.
“Wonderful!” She replies in her signature, bubbly tone, “Get well soon, Jimmy boy! Thank you for being a loyal employee at Cerber!” The line clicks and dies.
Estimated reading time — 7minutesRoger glanced around the desert once more. Nothing but the cloudless sky and the sand scattering in the wind, with a few cacti dotted around the landscape. With nothing else to do, he checked his magazine, already knowing how many bullets he had. Full. Adjusting his helmet, Roger sighed and turned back to face Elliot.
“What a waste of time. It’s hot as hell in this uniform. I fucking hate being deployed in the desert. The sand’s more of a threat than anything I’ve seen so far.” Roger picked up a handful of the yellowish dust, letting it slip between his gloved fingers.
“Yeah, if there were any actual threats out here. I can’t remember the last time we actually saw anything.” Elliot replied, staring off into the horizon, his visor dampening the bright sunshine. His heavy boots were sinking slightly into the ground, causing him to constantly have to re-position his feet.
“Me neither. Still, better than just sticking around back at base, getting yelled at by Sergeant Brills.”
Elliot narrowed his eyes. “Hills. Sergeant Hills.”
The sun beat down heavily upon the pair as they moved onward, barely bothering to check their surroundings. The landscape was almost completely flat, not a single incline in sight apart from a cluster of curved dunes lying in the distance.
“Some guys were telling me about out here,” Elliot spoke up.
“What did they say?”
“Eh, it was some weird conspiracy theory kind of story. Allegedly, the army developed some weird cyber-robot thing, trying to make the ultimate soldier. Like in the movies. The thing, they said it was like…like a synth from Fallout. Exposed wires, metal plating. In the shape of a human, right?”
“Yeah, go on.”
“So, they made the frame and the consciousness of the thing, and they wanted to give it emotions as a test before they gave it organs and such, y’know, to try and make it as close to a human as they could, so it would blend in. They also gave it a bunch of special abilities, like superpowers. Nobody knew what kind of powers, but there were a lot of suggestions from everyone. Stuff like laser vision and secret machine guns hidden in its arms.”
“Sounds like a load of shit to me. Soldiers are always making up stuff to entertain themselves.”
“Yeah, but here’s the thing. When they gave it emotions, they went too far. Ended up making it too real. So it didn’t want to fight and stuff, it just wanted a normal life. And before they could disassemble it and start over again, it ran off into the desert. Some of the guys said they saw it the other day, moping around in its metal frame.”
“Heh. Maybe we can catch a glimpse, make this deployment useful. Let’s head over to the dunes, there might be a few targets camping there.”
Nodding, Elliot walked calmly by Roger’s side, noting an increasingly ominous feeling as the dunes moved closer. They were mostly smooth and curvy, with some large chunks of rock scattered around, poking up from the sand. Roger headed up to the top of one of the slopes, staring out across the horizon.
A small opening was poking out from the side of one of the dunes, seeming to lead into a cavern of some sort. Intrigued, Elliot quietly stepped inside, forgetting to report the discovery to Roger in his curiousness.
It took a few seconds of adjustment before Elliot’s eyes could make out anything. The cavern walls were covered in bizarre etchings, stretching out across the ceiling. Strange footprints were etched in the sand where Elliot’s boots lay, not like that of another soldier or animal. Elliot traced his hand across the marks. The longer he looked, the more similar they looked to words or phrases. He could just make one of them out.
“Lonely. So lonely.”
Taking a step back, Elliot gasped, frantically glancing around the walls once more. It was the same message, carved everywhere it would fit.
“Lonely. So lonely.”
Elliot rushed out of the cavern, the previous sense of dread now encompassing his entire body.
Roger’s arms were twitching slightly, his face pointed upwards to the sky. The skin from his legs began to peel back, exposing a chrome-colored surface. Within a few seconds, Roger’s body had shed like snakeskin, his uniform dropping to the sand. And standing in Roger’s place, a grayish android, the sunshine beaming off its polished torso.
“Why did I even try?” The robot’s voice was slightly metallic, like a monotone text-to-speech engine.
Elliot’s mouth drooped open in shock.
“Roger had a family. I could feel his memory of them in the back of my consciousness. It’s a side effect of the process. In taking over a body, I gain access to their memories. Roger had a wife and a kid. Another feeling I’ll never truly know,” the android continued.
The saggy mound of Roger’s wilted flesh rolled slowly down the slope, piling up at Elliot’s feet. Elliot felt as if he would vomit.
“I can only host the appearance of a body once it’s dead. That’s how I was programmed. It was an infiltration tactic by my designers. I guess it did work after all. Roger was dead before you were even deployed with him. I found him alone in the desert yesterday, separated from the other soldiers. He was a goner anyways, I suppose. Dying of heatstroke and dehydration. Still doesn’t make me feel better.”
There was a long pause. The wind began to whistle through the dunes.
“I just…wanted to pretend. Pretend I was human. Pretend I had friends, connections, people to talk to and listen to. There’s nothing to do, no-one to talk to out here. They hurt me, Elliot. They broke me apart and built me up again time after time, until they got me just right. The scientists. The doctors. I can never go back. I’d be scrapped for parts.”
Elliot aimed his rifle directly at the android, emptying his entire magazine into the creature. The deafening sounds of gunshots echoed through the desert, carrying on for miles.
“I’m bulletproof. Go ahead. Kill me.” The android’s weary voice continued. “You aren’t the first to try.”
Bullets bounced off the machine’s metal plating like hail off a car windshield. Exasperated, Elliot pointed his weapon down, staring blankly at Roger’s remains.
“He was my friend.”
“Think yourself lucky for what you had, as the joy of friendship is unknown to me.”
Elliot scowled. “What are you? What the fuck even are you?!”
The machine turned to face Elliot, exposing its bulbous, robotic eyes. Its face was expressionless, unable to convey even a single emotion.
“You really have no idea, don’t you? You’re barely less of a machine than I am. Want me to show you?”
Slowly, the robot stepped over a piece of Roger’s uniform. Its movements were janky and unnatural, a quiet whirr escaping its body every time it took a step. Before Elliot had a chance to react, it had snatched a handgun from the sand and shot a bullet straight through Elliot’s temple. Elliot stumbled backwards, collapsing face first onto a rock.
Stunned, Elliot gradually pushed himself back onto his feet. He was alive. Reaching a shaky hand to his head, he could feel two sparkling wires poking out from his skin where the bullet had gone through. On the side where the bullet left, he felt a large computer chip embedded within him. A mechanical voice echoed through his head:
“Structural damage detected. Repairing wounds.”
A surge of unimaginable pain built up rapidly in Elliot’s temple. He screamed violently, a gush of blood flowing down his face. The opening was burning itself shut, the broken skin fixing itself back together on both ends. Elliot gritted his teeth, on the verge of tears. A few more seconds passed, and the injury had completely healed.
“You’re a prototype, like some of the others. I could tell by the glint in your eye. All prototypes have the glint. You’re part human, part machine, Elliot. Roger wasn’t a prototype, but I reckon he would have become one eventually, had he survived a few more weeks at base.”
“What…the fuck…did they…do…to me?” Elliot panted, his hands clutched onto either sides of his head.
“What they’re going to do to everyone. Why make one ultimate soldier when you can make millions through the miracle of cybernetics? Of course, you aren’t meant to find out. There’s a device in your head that deletes the memory of seeing the wires and computer chips if you get injured in the field. It works for seeing other people’s injuries too. I just shot straight through it. If I had shot you in the leg, you’d have forgotten there was any injury at all by now.”
Elliot fumbled around with his holster, eventually pulling out a ridged knife from his waist. With little hesitation, he stabbed the knife deep into his arm, ripping open the flesh like paper. A series of flashing lights and green cards exposed themselves, coated in a slimy layer of broken skin. Elliot dropped to his knees, crying out once more in agony.
In a psychotic rage, Elliot dropped the knife and began to rip out the hardware, tossing it carelessly through the air. Metal wiring and rugged chips flew out of his forearm, scattering onto the sand. Soon, only an empty space was left, devoid of bone or muscle.
“Kill me. Kill me!” Elliot begged the robot, grovelling at its metallic feet.
“No. You aren’t the first to ask,” it answered, looking down upon Elliot with pity.
Jabbering insanely, Elliot leaped off the top of the slope, landing on his neck with a savage crunch. The robot gazed down at his broken body, as the sand in the wind slowly piled on top of the soldier, the desert swallowing him whole.
Estimated reading time — 8minutesI think when most normal people think of the Internet, they’re thinking social media, online shopping, news, and the occasional porn site. Now people talk about “The Dark Web,” a place of untamed wilderness, where gangsters are selling guns, using Bitcoin to do untraceable transfers to build a criminal enterprise.
But somewhere in-between, there are places that straddle that fine line between the illegal and what anybody can find with one wayward Google search.
That was how I found out about “Dimindbak.”
You might think I misspelled it, but no, that’s how he uses it. Or she. I just assumed he, but I’m not really sure, since Dimindbak uses a voice changer whenever he goes on the air. Yes, on the air. Dimindbak regularly appears on weird, late night radio shows…the real late stuff, as in airing just before bakers are getting up in the morning, all about alien conspiracies and the Reptilians (If you don’t know about the Reptilians, look them up online. There’s hours of fun about them).
The only reason I even know anything about Dimindbak is because of a friend of mine. My friend was in a car accident awhile back. She was at a red light and a teenager on a learner’s permit didn’t hit the brakes soon enough. While the cars were only mildly damaged in the crash, my friend got really bad whiplash and refused to see a doctor. Her mother died in a malpractice suit, and she’s been leery of doctors ever since.
Trouble is, now she gets chronic neck and back pain, sometimes to the point where she has to stay in bed all day. At first she just tried Tylenol, but it just dulled the pain, it didn’t get rid of it. She turned to all sorts of holistic stuff, but that didn’t do the trick either.
One day, her pain was so bad, she called me up crying, saying she didn’t know what else to do. So, I tried to be a good friend and went to look up something she hadn’t come up with yet. Most of my searches ended up either finding vitamin dealers, herbal supplements and teas, or weed dealers from states that had legalized the stuff. I was at a loss.
Then, on a whim, I tried “physical intervention.” I thought maybe it would lead to some weird chiropractors or healing doctors who might work like chiropractors, but with more crystals and patchouli.
Instead, a couple of clicks in, there was Dimindbak.
You might now be picturing a website full of dark symbology, mystic runes, weird rituals, and near Satanic references. Dimindbak was none of these things. The whole site looked like fan fiction devoted to Star Trek, but with less comprehension. Rotating GIFs leftover from the mid-90s cluttered the page like a back alley full of wooden pallets. The color scheme was all pseudo-futuristic, with a lot of metallic whites and grays.
It was also hilarious. I spent the better part of the day reading over the blog postings, as he rambled on about distant galaxies, contact with higher beings, and how positivity would make all our dreams come true.
Well, maybe I was a little cynical about it, but if you saw it, you might cut me a little slack. And yet, the guy had a whole team of devotees. He actually had a forum where people could talk about their own connections to a higher power, and very few of them looked like trolling posts.
But the big kicker was when I read about the “command.”
In one of his most recent posts, he talked about a method by which these higher beings could fix everything wrong with you; a code phrase. Just speak it three times, out loud or in your mind, and these benevolent beings would be able to gain control of your central nervous system and correct all your ills.
I sent the link to my friend. I didn’t send it as a joke, but I was hoping maybe, just maybe, she would read it, understand how silly all her worry was, and finally see a doctor before her pain got much worse.
She wrote me back a day later.
“Thanks, it worked! Feeling so much better!”
I couldn’t believe it. I had to see for myself. I drove over to see her.
It was the first time in a long time I had seen her with a smile on her face. She said she hadn’t slept so soundly since the accident. She wasn’t quite sold necessarily that it was aliens from another galaxy that did it, but she was damn sure something fixed her.
It wasn’t even like the phrase itself was a self-help mantra, or a daily affirmation. It was just gibberish, really. But she said it was really something special.
I checked her Facebook page the next day, and I saw an update where she had created a new group: Healing Through Command. At least 15 people had signed up for it. My jaw dropped. She was already spreading the word to other people? Hey, if it worked, more power to her.
I, on the other hand, had a life to live, and I went on with business as usual. I kept checking in, though, and saw the group was getting bigger…almost ridiculously big.
I called her once the group had reached 1,300 people.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Oh, great! No more pain! I’m so glad you found that site, it’s been so helpful!”
“I see your Facebook group is really talking off, too.”
The line went silent for a minute.
“What Facebook group?”
“Your one about healing through command.”
“What are you talking about? I haven’t been on Facebook in months.”
“Well, maybe somebody hacked your account. You’ve got 1,300…” I checked the site again. “Whoa, now almost 2,500 members.”
“Can…can I call you back?”
I didn’t hear from my friend for awhile. I did keep checking in on Healing Through Command, and was amazed how well it seemed to be working. People by the thousands were signing up for it, and it wasn’t just bot accounts…I read through people talking about how their gout went away, and how their migraines disappeared…hell, one guy even said he didn’t need a wheelchair anymore.
It even melted my cynical little heart to read about so much good being done.
Months went by, and as the holidays approached, I decided to give my friend a call.
She didn’t pick up. Weird, because she usually did when I called. I tried three more times. Still nothing.
I drove over to her place to see if maybe she was just busy feeling good, maybe leaving her phone at home while she went out for a jog.
I rang her doorbell. She didn’t answer. Maybe she really was out for a jog.
I was about to leave when I heard a crash from inside. I knocked. The door came open a little.
Why would she leave it unlocked? I pushed in and called to her.
“Go away!” The way she screamed it, I almost did. But I couldn’t. Something was definitely wrong.
The scream had come from her kitchen. I went in to find her there.
She was holding a knife, and it was covered in blood. On the floor was a body. I recognized it…her ex-boyfriend, Sam. He had stopped seeing her when her neck pain had gotten worse; I’m not sure if she had tried to patch things up or he did, but by the wound in his neck, it had not gone well.
She looked up at me. “I told you to go! I don’t have much time! Every day they have me a little more and more…”
“What? Who are you talking about?”
But suddenly, her eyes glazed over. Her mouth forced itself into a smile. She lifted the knife and pointed it me, but it was slow, shaking, like she was fighting some irresistible invisible force.
“Why, hello. Good to see you. I’m afraid I am busy right now. You should go.” Her head ticked back and forth, like a clockwork figure. It reminded me of that robot from The Great Mouse Detective movie; a wobbly, unsteady thing that tried to imitate life, but wasn’t truly alive.
That was when she moved to stab me. I raised an arm to defend myself, and I just managed to deflect it away. But she was fast, and she immediately went to do it again. I grabbed her wrist. It didn’t do much good. She was unusually strong all of a sudden.
Then, her mouth dropped its smile, while the rest of her continued to push the knife closer and closer.
“You have to do it. I’ve tried…they won’t let me harm myself.”
It took me a moment to realize what she meant. To this day, I still cannot completely forgive myself for what I did, even though I still try to tell myself it was the right thing to do.
I twisted the knife and, using that unusual strength against her, forced the knife into her own heart.
I sat in her kitchen, with both bodies on the floor. I know I cried for awhile, and then called the police. I assumed they wouldn’t believe me, but I didn’t care at the time.
I then looked around her home. I needed something, anything to explain what had happened.
I found it in her basement.
Set up in the middle of the open, unfinished space was a door frame. It looked just like she was installing a new room in there, but the frame wasn’t attached to anything…no walls, no hinges. Just a frame, with empty space.
The only thing out of place about it was an electronics box attached to one side, with a keypad attached to it. But instead of letters and numbers, the keys were blank.
I checked her bedroom. I found papers shoved under her bed. Most of them were pieces of note paper, with symbols drawn on them. Some others were detailed drawings of the door I had found in the basement. There was also an electrical diagram, but I had no idea what it meant; I’m not an electrician, but even I know some of the stuff on there wasn’t from anything built on this world.
And then there were the last few pages. Notes my friend had written.
“What is all of this? I keep finding these when I wake up.”
“I’m not remembering things I did in the middle of the day anymore.”
“Oh, God…I think I killed a cat. It’s hanging from the clothesline in my backyard.”
“I WOKE UP IN THE BASEMENT. I WAS STANDING AT THAT KEYPAD. WHAT WAS I TRYING TO TYPE IN?!?”
That was the most comprehensible. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
The handwriting on the weird pages was different from my friend’s normal handwriting.
I smashed the door to pieces. But I don’t know if it helped anything. I just wonder if the rest of her Facebook group is doing the same thing.
I had just finished another level of my favorite game app when the usual ad popped up. I know the companies that design these games need to make money somehow, but the frequent ads get annoying really fast. The only good thing about most of them is how short they are. This one was different though; it convinced me to watch with its familiar opening tune.
I recognized it the moment I heard those somber violins play. It was Chopin’s “Funeral March”. Anyone who has ever watched a cartoon is sure to have heard that composition before. It was frequently played whenever a character was about to meet his doom.
As the music progressed, a brightly colored noose slowly descended, swaying back and forth, until it reached the middle of the screen and then stopped. The title of the game started to come into focus, letter by letter, while random photos of people’s faces appeared with their heads centered in the loop of rope. The head shots where all cropped neatly so that the rope fit perfectly around their throats.
Holy shit, I thought as the last photo that appeared in the noose was the one I used for my Facebook profile, cropped just like the others. I know it wasn’t a major stretch for a game to do something like that, I just wasn’t expecting it. That upped the cool factor for me.
By the time my picture was displayed the title of the game had fully appeared and the music cut off.
HANGMAN, it declared in an old west style font, each letter hanging from a rope.
Kudos to the game’s marketing department, the ad managed to pique my interest. Eager to learn more, I tapped the screen expecting to be redirected to the app store where I could read an overview of the game, see some reviews, and maybe watch a video or two of the game play.
I was surprised when I was redirected to the game’s website instead. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a game that redirected me straight to a website. I figured there was some sort of contract that forced users to go to the provider’s official app store. I wasn’t going to let that deter me from playing though, not if the game was as cool as I was hoping.
The only information listed on the website was the following: You have been hired as the town’s new Hangman. Executions are scheduled every three days. In order to keep your job, you must execute your target within 72 hours. Do you have what it takes to man the gallows?
The text was followed by several photos showing how to pick your targets and how to go about “hanging” them. From what I gathered, this was another one of those augmented reality games that used your phone’s camera as the “noose” to hang your targets.
When you first start the game, you select your target from a list called THE CONDEMNED. Once you have made your selection, the target’s picture is shown on the bottom left of your screen with a countdown timer underneath it. If you tap the picture, you are then taken to a map that shows your current location along with the projected location of the target which was supposed to be accurate to about 1,000 feet.
Once you have located your target in the real world, you are supposed to tap on the noose icon which would open your phone’s camera app with the minor addition of there being a CGI noose hanging in the middle of the screen. You then hold your phone so that your target’s head appears in the middle of the noose for 3 seconds. If you succeed in doing that the camera takes a picture and you will have successfully hung your target.
After you have hung three targets, you would then be given the choice of being promoted to the next level or retiring. The listed levels were Hangman, Executioner, and Reaper. The game’s site also featured a leader board that had several gamer tags listed as a Hangman, but no one yet listed as an Executioner or Reaper. I suspected that was because the game was recently released and nobody had the time to advance yet.
I love dark games, and this one sounded like a lot of fun, at least fun for someone with a twisted sense of humor like me. I quickly tapped the download button, excited to start playing. Normally, I’d be telling all of my friends about the game, but not this time. I wanted to get a head start and be the first person to make it to the Reaper leaderboard before anyone else.
As I waited for the game to download the typical user agreement popped up. It was a dozen pages of the same legal nonsense presented with every game these days. Does anyone even read those? I had no intention of starting now. I quickly scrolled to the bottom of the text and clicked the agree box, which closed the pop up box and allowed the game to finish downloading.
Moments later I was prompted to enter my gamer tag before it would allow me to continue. I entered the tag I have been using since the sixth grade, “NAMredNELS”; or as many of you may have already guessed, “Slenderman” spelled backwards. What can I say? I went through a phase when I was younger. Like most of my friends at the time, I was obsessed with the character, I grew out of it, but the name stuck.
Once the game accepted my tag I was ready to play. The first thing to pop up was a group of photos of people with the title THE CONDEMNED at the top of the screen. There were about a dozen photos shown and I needed to pick one of them to hang. As I was trying to decide an UNAVAILABLE stamp appeared over one of the photos. I assumed that meant someone else had already chosen that person. Good to know I wouldn’t be competing against other players to hang the same person.
Since this was my initial attempt to play the game I decided to pick the first name on the list, a person whose tag was listed as “Negan8.” How original, I thought. As you can guess he looked like a total ass-hat right down to his bleached blonde crew cut and the sports jersey he was wearing. I hate sports and had no idea what team the jersey was from and didn’t care to find out. The fact that he was wearing it was enough to tell me I wouldn’t like him, but I was sure I was going to enjoy hanging him.
I tapped Negan8’s picture and confirmed him as my choice. Eager to get started I tapped his picture again to determine his location. It looked like he was over in the shopping district near downtown. If I had to guess I’d say he was probably at the mall hanging out with his buddies. They should be easy to find as they walked around like an army of clones who thought they owned the place.
I looked at the time. It was almost four o’clock. If Negan8 was at the mall I doubt he’d be leaving anytime soon. It was Friday and he was likely planning on hanging there all night. I wouldn’t be able to get out of my apartment until after five and wouldn’t be able to make it to the mall until around six. That should have given me plenty of time to track him down and hang him assuming he was still at the mall by the time I got there.
I kept myself occupied by watching TV while I waited for my brother, who was also my roommate, to get home with the car. I frequently checked the Hangman app to make sure Negan8 was where I expected him to be. As I suspected his location didn’t change by more than a few hundred feet which still put him within the radius of the mall.
When I arrived I parked as close to the food court doors as I could. That was where most of the people my age tended to hang out on Friday nights and that was where I thought I had the best chance of finding Negan8. It was also the most central location to the various spots the app had placed him over the past two hours.
The food court is designed in sort of a U-shape, with the doors I entered being in the bottom center and access to the rest of the mall being at the top. I walked around the food court twice without finding him and decided to sit down and see if his location had changed on the app.
As far as I could tell he should be somewhere within 1,000 feet of me if the app’s margin for error was accurate. Since he wasn’t in the food court, that meant he had to be in one of the stores nearby. I got up and walked over to the store directory to try and determine which of the shops he would most likely be interested in.
I had to admit I liked the game so far. I was starting to feel like a detective trying to track down a criminal and the chances were pretty high in my opinion that Negan8 probably was a criminal of some sort. I amused myself by thinking I was doing the world a favor by hanging him and wondered if I could get bonus points for hanging his posse.
I was able to narrow down my choices to three different shops. My number one choice was Champs, a store that sold sports clothing. I figured a guy like Negan8 couldn’t own enough sports jerseys and was probably always on the lookout for more. My number two choice was Lids, a store that sold baseball caps. I never understood how a store like that could survive in the mall. Do they really sell that many caps, or are they just ridiculously expensive? Either way, I figured my target likely owned a few. My final choice was GameStop. I only added it to the list since it was in the vicinity and everyone I know owns a Playstation or an Xbox. He probably did too.
I left the food court and headed towards Champs intending to walk by and see if my target was inside. When I got there and noticed how big the store was I decided to do a quick walk-through instead, but he wasn’t there.
I headed on to my next destination, Lids, but I could see he wasn’t there either. That store was tiny and I could see the interior well before I got there. That just left GameStop.
I stopped for a second and pulled my phone out to check my target’s current location which according to the game hadn’t changed. He was here somewhere I just had to find him.
I continued on my way to the game store which took me past the south entrance on the opposite side of the mall from the food court. Near that entrance is a large decorative fountain filled with coins. It was from there that I heard a group of guys suddenly start laughing obnoxiously. Naturally I turned to see what was so funny and was surprised to see my target sitting on the edge of the fountain his three cronies standing in front of him laughing.
I changed course and started walking around the opposite side of the fountain trying to find a good vantage point for my phone’s camera. I hate the mall and wanted to hang Negan8 and get out of there as soon as possible. Crowds weren’t my thing and the mall was quickly filling up with shoppers.
“Shut up,” I heard Negan8 say to the trio standing before him.
“You’d suck as a detective,” Beanpole taunted. “You’re like Inspector Gadget.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Pimple face whined. “Your time ran out hours ago. Why are you still looking for her?”
“It’s because he has the hots for her,” Chubby answered. “He likes those nerdy girls.”
All three of them started to laugh again. Negan8 just sat there glaring at them.
Interesting, I thought to myself. It seems Negan8 may be playing Hangman as well and failed to hang his first target. I wonder if that is why he was listed as one of the choices under THE CONDEMNED when I was picking a target. If that was the case I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.
I walked around the fountain until I came to a bench that gave me a decent vantage point to sit and aim my camera at Negan8, without being too obvious. I wasn’t able to hear the rest of their conversation from where I was sitting, but from the looks on their faces, it was obvious his friends were still giving him a hard time.
I opened the game and tapped on the noose icon which opened my camera app. I held my phone like I was reading a text, while trying to angle it to get Negan8’s head in the middle of the noose. Once I had him lined up, a countdown started. The number 3 appeared at the bottom of the screen.
As the number 3 was replaced by the number 2, Negan8’s hands flew up to his neck, grasping at something. I looked over at him, then back at my phone. His hands were perfectly lined up with the game generated noose on my screen. It was as if he could feel it and was trying to remove it from his neck.
Beanpole, Chubby, and Pimple Face started to panic after they realized their friend’s distress wasn’t an act. Negan8 stood up as the counter changed from 2 to 1, his face turning blue. Without realizing it, I had also stood up which kept his head locked into my phone’s noose.
I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I watched in horror as the counter changed from 1 to 0 and Negan8 fell backwards into the fountain. His friends just stood there and stared as nearby shoppers rushed to the fallen kid’s aide. That broke me out of my paralysis. I quickly turned and walked out of the south entrance and around the outside of the mall until I reached my car.
I didn’t look at my phone until I was sitting in my car. When I did, what I saw made me sick to my stomach. There was a CGI cut screen of an executioner hanging a man over and over with the words: CONGRATULATIONS, YOU DID IT. Underneath that was: CLICK HERE TO CHOOSE YOUR NEXT TARGET. The worst part was that the picture my phone had taken of Negan8, as he died, was superimposed over the hanging man’s head.
I drove around town aimlessly for the next few hours, trying to make sense of what had happened. Trying to find some way to accept it and move on, but I couldn’t find the silver lining.
When I finally returned home, I walked through the door to find my brother sitting on the couch playing the Xbox.
“Where the hell did you go?” he asked without pulling his eyes away from the military violence exploding on the TV screen. “I thought you were just going to the mall.”
“Out,” was all I offered in explanation and headed to my room.
“Hey!” he called out. “I was meaning to ask you…have you heard of that new app game called Hangman?”
“Why?” I stopped and turned towards him.
“I downloaded it a few days ago and tried it out. Running around trying to take a picture of someone is stupid. I was just going to tell you not to bother with it.”
Once I had locked myself in my bedroom, I opened the Hangman app and tapped the “CHOOSE YOUR NEXT TARGET” button. I wasn’t surprised by what I saw. There was only one person listed on the “THE CONDEMNED” page, MJRgreeff. I always hated that gamer tag. My brother thought it was clever because our last name was Greeff, and he liked being a pain in the ass when he played games, thus the Greeff/grief play on words.
I guess I should have read that user agreement before I started playing.
There’s no interesting backstory here; I didn’t buy this thing from some, like, creepy garage sale. I didn’t get it as a gift from some estranged relative that doubled as a cultist or anything. The TV was bought at the mall, for fuck’s sake. It was sitting on a shelf, ordinary as anything. It’s a cheap one, too. Nothing about the way it looks would suggest that this thing would be as screwed-up as it is.
My new television plays shows and programs that shouldn’t exist. At least, it plays things that I’ve never seen on regular television before. No sane person would ever air some of the shit I’ve seen this thing put on for me.
When I brought it home this afternoon, I spent some time screwing around with it, as one does when they buy new electronics: hooking up the cable cord, making sure my Fire Stick was working alright, etc., etc. But there was one thing that caught my eye.
You know how every television has a “Source” menu that brings up a series of options? Aux, USB, HDMI 1, HDMI 2, all that stuff? This new TV of mine has all that, but there’s one other extra “source” that I have never seen or heard of before. It’s not mentioned in the manual at all, and I cannot find anything online that can tell me what it is. There’s no given name for this source, as the menu on the TV simply refers to it as “|||||”.
When I first selected the “|||||”-source, it took me to something that seemed like cable television, but it was nothing of the sort. There were channels, yes, but I’m not talking TNT or AMC or any of that – I don’t think anything broadcasted on the “|||||”-channels would be allowed on cable TV.
Allow me to explain…
As soon as I hit “|||||”, I was brought to Channel 32, which was airing some kind of family sitcom. I let it play as I started Googling an explanation for this extra source, trying to figure out if this was perhaps a manufacturer error or something similar. I was mostly focused on reading, so I wasn’t exactly paying attention to the show that I had left on, but a line was suddenly read that made me snap my attention back to the TV:
“Just where the fuck have you been?”
On the sitcom that was airing, a father was scolding a teenage boy who had just snuck into the kitchen in the middle of the night. The kid was dressed up but looked a mess, likely having been out partying. As soon as the father swore at her, the studio audience for the show laughed.
“I—” the kid began.
The father cut him off. “I’ve been waiting here for you all fucking night. Where the fuck have you been?”
The studio audience laughed again.
What the fuck? I thought, putting down my phone. What kind of show is this?
“I…I was at a party,” the son admitted.
The father, a large bearded man, took a dangerous step closer to him. His eyes were wide and manic. The son took an instinctive step back. The reaction seemed far too genuine for a sitcom.
“A party,” the father repeated. “You were at a party?”
“Yes, Dad, I—”
The large man’s hand slapped his son across his face, making a meaty *thud-*sound. The kid gave out a yelp in pain and shock, and fell onto the floor of the kitchen. The father stood above him, practically frothing at the mouth with anger.
And, for a third time, the studio audience laughed.
“I’m sorry!” the kid wailed from the floor. “Please stop! I’m sorry!”
But the father was now kicking him relentlessly. His back was to the camera. The scene faded to another one with a light-hearted jingle, reminiscent of so many other sitcoms like Full House or Family Matters; we were now in a living room. The kid from the previous scene was sitting on a couch, bloodied and bruised. A young girl, perhaps the character’s sister, was sitting next to him.
“You know you can’t just sneak off like that,” the younger girl was saying to the beaten boy. “Daddy gets mad when you do that.”
“It hurts so bad.” The beaten son said, starting to choke up. Tears trickled down his cheeks from his bruised eyes. The studio audience laughed and clapped.
What the fuck was I watching? It was shot and timed like it was supposed to be some sort of comedic family show, but everything that was happening was just horrible. At the time, I wondered how such a thing could possibly be given air time.
Although I was disturbed, I was also extremely curious. I sat down on my couch and watched the episode of this horrific show right to its end. There was maybe five minutes left in the episode, and all it consisted of the two siblings crying and admitting that they wished they could escape their father.
With every sob and admission of sadness from the two characters, the studio audience kept laughing and clapping. Like as if these poor kids’ misery was the most hilarious thing they’d ever fucking seen.
When the credits rolled, the show’s theme song played – it was upbeat and merry, as if its premise had been about a goofy family getting into hijinks rather than a miserable one abusing itself.
I sat there for a moment or two trying to process what I had just watched. The entire thing made me feel unclean. When another episode started to air, I changed the channel to…
…what looked like a home-shopping network. There was an older woman with white hair, smiling brilliantly at the camera. Graphics displaying phone numbers and prices framed her, making a perfect little portrait of capitalism on my screen. My wife watched networks just like this one all the time, usually to admire jewelry we can’t afford…but this was something different entirely and, much like the sitcom, it was different in all the worst ways possible.
On some networks like these, they’ll sell clothing or accessories and have mannequins set up to help display the products. This channel did the same, but instead of wearing a dress or a necklace, this mannequin was wearing a leather leash, strapped incredibly tight. The old spokeswoman held the end of the leash in her hand.
“…as you can see here,” she was saying. “The grip is significantly strong around the neck, ensuring your property’s immediate obedience. Nothing’s quite as persuasive as a crushed throat.” She gave a little giggle at that.
“I see we have a buyer named Emily from Wisconsin,” she carried on. “Very quick to the phone, ma’am. We hope you enjoy your new LethalLeash.”
A woman’s voice spoke out on speaker phone: “Thank you, Amy! I absolutely love it and cannot wait to try it out.”
“Glad to hear, sweetheart. Let’s move on to our special deal for this evening.”
The spokeswoman, Amy, walked to the right and the camera panned to follow her to the next product.
Standing in the room, chained to the floor and gagged with a metal block strapped to her face was a young woman. She couldn’t have been a day over twenty. Her eyes were wide capital O’s of terror, and although she tried to scream, the gag reduced her noises to low muffled groans.
She looked like she was a pretty girl, but her face had been so badly brutalized that it was almost impossible to tell.
“For our next offer, we’re giving you a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Not only will you be receiving this lovely Product…” Amy stroked the chained girl’s hair. “…but you’ll also get your own set of LethaLeashes for free! The variety pack includes leashed in a variety of colors and designs, so you’ll have the perfect one to match your Product! Call in now and take advantage of this incredible deal.”
What should have been a phone number came up on the screen, but instead of numbers it was just a bunch of symbols that I have never seen before.
The shot faded to briefly show off the “variety pack” of brightly-colored, yet painful-looking, leather straps before fading back to the young woman’s terrified face.
Amy suddenly exclaimed, “Wow! That was fast. The caller is Ted from Brooklyn. Congratulations, Ted, we hope you enjoy using your new Product.”
A low, raspy voice said on the speaker phone: “She looks just like my ex-girlfriend, so oh do I intend to enjoy using her.”
Two men in black uniforms and masks came into the frame, unchained the young woman from the floor, and carried her away. Despite the gag, she was screaming so loudly it was audible now. She tried, to no avail, to kick at her captors.
Now completely disturbed, I raised the remote and turned the channel. As I did so, I realized my hand was trembling.
An infomercial for a fitness program came up this time. I tuned in right as they were showing off “Before” and “After” pictures of a woman who purchased a workout package called “Pure-Motive”. The woman had been very large, and had lost something like eighty pounds in just a couple of months.
The woman in the pictures spoke to an interviewer: “It’s the only method I’ve tried that actually works. If you’re trying to lose weight fast, this is for you.”
The shot changed to the same woman running on a treadmill, her face beet red. Behind her, a thuggish-looking man stood with a large shotgun pointed directly at her back. A cigarette dangled loosely out of the corner of his mouth. He was staring intently at the woman, as if ready to pull the trigger at any moment.
It then cut to another “Before” and “After” pair of pictures, this time of an obese man. There was a brief bit of footage where he was doing squats with a couple of dumbbells. Another creepy-looking thug was standing right behind him, holding a revolver close to the poor guy’s head.
“It’s the only thing that works!” this satisfied customer said happily. His voice sounded weak.
A montage of horrible shots came next: a woman running on a track with a man holding snarling dogs close behind her; a group of people doing jumping jacks while thugs with assault rifles walked around them, watching closely; and, finally, an incredibly large person trying to do pushups. He was crying hysterically.
A voiceover said condescendingly, “There is no room for laziness when it comes to Pure-Motive!”
The large man was no match against gravity and fell flat upon his face. As soon as he did, he screamed: “No! No, please!”
Four men came into frame and started to kick the shit out of him. They went on for what felt like forever, until the guy was spewing blood and teeth out of his mouth. One of the four thugs went off-frame, and then came back with a sharp-looking machete.
“No!” the large man managed to cry out. “No, don’t!”
The thug raised the machete up with both hands like a Medieval executioner, then brought it down to the large man’s head.
I changed the channel as soon as the blade hit its mark.
This channel aired a commercial promoting a new burger from some restaurant-chain I had never heard of. It soon became apparent that the burger was made from people – most specifically, their limbs. For a dessert, the restaurant was serving large bowls of human ear wax. Two actors looked hungrily at their bowls and then started to dig in. I retched and changed the channel.
Channels 9, 88, and 202
Despite being so horribly disturbed by all of this, I kept flicking through channels. Some morbid curiosity had rose up inside of me. Part of me believed that there was no possibly way I was actually seeing the things that the TV aired, that I had somehow gone mad…but most of me felt that it was all true, and if that was the case, then I was in the midst of something impossible. And I had to see whatever came next, as repulsed by it as I may be.
Channel 9 was airing some rock concert. The singer went to the mic, screamed “ARE YOU READY?!”, and then pulled a small switchblade from his pocket. With a click, the blade sprung out of its handle and the singer brought it right into his face, over and over again. A shot of the crowd showed they were all doing the same, some with knives of their own, others with shards of glass. They all seemed to be enjoying it.
Channel 88 had a game show that launched terrified people at a brick wall using catapults. I got the gist quickly and again changed the channel.
I flipped past Channel 202 as quickly as I could, because it freaked me out quite badly; it was footage of a bare-walled room with a young woman sitting in the middle of it. She was staring at the camera (at me, I thought immediately) with eyes that were small but had humongous sockets. It looked like some sort of horrific insect-human hybrid was staring through me.
This channel had a wildlife show, but it was displaying all sorts of horrific animals that do not exist on this planet. Tall, canine-looking creatures with stilt-like legs preyed upon a car-sized slug. The slug had two hands, each with about ten digits, that slapped uselessly at its assailants.
There was a “narrator” for this show, but just as he started – “As you can see, there is no hope here for the useless goddamn creature” – he was suddenly interrupted by a chorus of death rattles.
The sound unnerved me greatly. I changed the channel.
Another infomercial. This one was for a product that was literally just chocolate-coated human feces. When I watched one actress gleefully take a bite and happily sigh as if she were savoring the flavor, I had to quickly change the channel and then rush to my bathroom to vomit.
As I crouched above my toilet, hurling and heaving, a sound suddenly came from the TV:
I looked up from the toilet bowl.
“Hey!” it continued. The voice was eerily familiar. “Hey! Hey! Hey!”
Trembling badly, I mustered up the courage to leave the bathroom and see what was happening on the TV next.
The infomercial was gone. The channel had changed to 345, despite the fact that I hadn’t touched the remote. This particular program featured only one star performer – me. Or, at least, some horrible copy of me.
“I” was in the same room as the monstrous woman from Channel 202. She was gone, and “I” was sitting where she had been. This copy was looking at the screen, same as the woman before had done, and was crying. In its lap there was a long black cord with multi-colored wires sticking out of the end.
“Help me,” the thing was saying. “Please help me.”
It brought the cord up to its face, holding it in both hands.
“Help me please,” it said again.
It opened its mouth and in went the cord. The sharp wires cut around the copy’s lips, and the expression on the thing’s face made it more than apparent that they were cutting inside his mouth as well. Blood poured down its chin.
From behind its back, the copy pulled out two other large cords. Both of these were quickly shoved into its eyes. The copy raised its head up to the ceiling of the room and screamed, the cords dangling from its face.
Although the camera had remained locked on the copy for the entirety of this, it was now starting to pan to the right; the direction from which the cords were coming. The shot moved from my deformed other-self and walked towards a white door, the bottom of which the cords were feeding through. Light shone on the other side of the door, and the entire TV screen seemed as bright as the sun as that door opened on its own.
The channel changed on its own once more…
What I was suddenly looking at was a wondrous display of swirling colors on the screen. Reds, blues, greens, all fading in and out of one another, an impossibly-beautiful sight to behold. When I briefly took my eyes away from it, all other colors around me seemed to be muted, dull. I fixed my eyes back on the screen and felt a rush of pleasure. The three hues were soon joined by more: purples, yellows, oranges.
I couldn’t look away. Everything went numb. My body felt like it was melting, melting and becoming one of those swirling clouds of color.
This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, I thought. And the most beautiful thing I will ever see.
Another thought came, an alien one: Was it worth watching everything else? Was it worth it just to see this?
Although my eyes were still glued to the screen, I felt myself frown. Had that been something I thought, or something that had come from the TV itself?
It was almost like a little of both.
The alien voice kept on: Was it worth watching everything else? Just to see this?
“Yes,” I said immediately. “Yes, absolutely.”
Reds, purples, greens, oranges.
Would you keep watching? Would you keep watching to see this again?
Colors, oh God, so many colors…was this the Source? Was this channel, these swirling colors, the Source of everything I had just watched?
It most certainly felt like it.
Would you keep watching? the Source asked again. Would you explore all those channels, just to get back here?
I didn’t answer. My attention was still almost completely focused on the waving colors.
Here, looksee, said the Source.
One by one, the colors faded away. I was now back looking at the room from Channels 202 and 303. “I” was still sitting there, cords dangling out of my face like grotesque growths, but I was not alone: the tiny-woman was there, as were dozens of men, women, and children that had been similarly disfigured.
Join the others who kept watching. Watch with us, the Source said.
“Watch with us.” The people on the screen talked in unison, as if they were part of a sermon.
Watch with us.
“Watch with us.”
Whatever ecstasy I had felt from looking at the colors quickly sobered up and was replaced with fear. I hurried over to the television and pulled its power cord out of the socket behind it.
Shaking, I sat down on my couch. When I glanced at the clock in my living room, I was shocked to find that around five hours had passed since I first put the TV on. Had I really been staring at those colors for so long?
I’ve been sitting here for another hour, just looking at the blank TV and thinking. I plugged it back in, but have not yet turned it on. I keep fiddling with the remote.
Would you keep watching?
The programs this thing presented to me had been the most horrific things I’d ever seen on a screen. However, those colors had been the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen on a screen.
Would you keep watching?
I mean, the remote’s in my hand. The colors are just a couple awful channels away.
At 11 PM on Sunday night, I got one while downloading free stock images. It was a photo of a path through the forest.
SELECT ALL SQUARES WITH PEOPLE.
Okay. That was easy enough. In the center, there was a jogging woman in pink shorts. She took up a few of the middle squares, and I clicked them all.
I pressed VERIFY.
It didn’t work.
SELECT ALL SQUARES WITH PEOPLE, the message said again. I took off my glasses, placed them on the table, and squinted at the image.
No. She wasn’t the only person.
Several feet off the trail, at the very edge of the image, I could see it. The edge of an arm clad in a black sweatshirt, with a pink thumb poking out.
I triumphantly clicked the two squares containing it. VERIFY.
The image blinked as it refreshed. Then the same text popped up, as if to taunt me: SELECT ALL SQUARES WITH PEOPLE.
I rubbed my eyes and stared at the image.
The trees cast low-resolution, blocky shadows across the path. The woman’s ponytail swung to the left, mid-motion. Patches of yellow sunlight dappled the surrounding forest. I studied some of the darker shadows, far from the path; but none of them matched the silhouette of a person.
I glanced to the edge of the image.
The image had changed. The arm at the edge of the photo was now further in the frame, taking up three squares instead of two. Bulky shoulders and dark jeans followed it.
And the jogger was just slightly further down the path – as if she’d just taken a step.
The touchpad was slick under my fingers. My heart pounded in my chest. Slowly, I dragged the cursor over the three squares and clicked them all.
The image blinked.
SELECT ALL SQUARES WITH PEOPLE.
I leapt back from the computer.
The image was different again. The man was further in the frame, taking up five squares. His hand was stretched out towards the jogger, just inches from her shoulder.
And the jogger…
She was turned towards him, eyes wide. Mouth open in a silent scream.
Click, click, click. I furiously clicked all the squares. VERIFY.
SELECT ALL SQUARES WITH PEOPLE.
The man’s face was finally in frame.
The hood of his sweatshirt was pulled tightly over his head. A translucent Halloween mask poked out from underneath, pressed against his features.
His hand was latched onto her arm.
She was screaming.
Click, click, click.
The image disappeared.
I’d passed the reCAPTCHA.
* * * * * *
I reported what I’d seen to the police. At first they thought I was crazy, but as I gave a detailed description of the images, they frantically took notes and asked me questions.
The woman matched the description of a local woman, Kaylee Johnson. She went missing a week ago, during an afternoon jog on the wooded Lakewood Trail.
The last few weeks have been a nightmare. A terrible, terrible nightmare. I’m still pinching myself every now and then, hoping to wake up. Sadly, it only leads to the skin of my arms being extremely red.
I guess I’ll just start by introducing myself. I’m a father of two, a husband to a lovely wife. That may seem like a great life to some, but to me, even though I love them dearly, it’s been incredibly stressful. You see, I’m a construction worker. I never went to college or high school because I wanted to pursue a career in music (which didn’t turn out so well, obviously). 9 years ago, I married the love of my life. 8 years ago, we had our daughter. 5 years ago, we had our son. 2 years ago, my wife, who used to be a high school teacher, lost the use of her legs in a car accident that killed her sister. She was driving from her mother’s birthday party, which I didn’t attend because I was taking care of the kids (my wife doesn’t trust babysitters ever since that one episode of The Simpsons). It was late at night, both her and her sister had a bit too much to drink and, well… the doctor said she could never fully recover.
The medical bills have been insane, and I haven’t been able to pay them with my income. I can just feed my family every day, but only just. I’ve been stressed out the last 2 years. I do get panic attacks sometimes when I think too much about it. I’ve also been sleeping very badly the last 2 years.
A friend and colleague of mine knows this about me. He’s a great guy, helping me and my family out whenever it gets too rough. He knows I’ve been dealing with a lot of stress. He says he can see it taking a physical toll on me. One day, he came with a recommendation. A new phenomenon he read about, or so he said (he probably is too embarrassed to say that he just enjoys listening to it in his downtime). ASMR, short for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” though he just called it “tingly goodness.” He told me that it was a great stress-reliever, that it worked for him too. He gave me simple instructions: go to YouTube, question myself what has given me the “tingles” before, and search for it. That night, I decided to do as he said, because I’m pretty desperate for stress relievers.
I thought about what gave me those “tingles” before. I remembered my grandmother, who used to whisper in herself as she got older (God knows why), which gave me those “tingles” my friend described. So I typed in: “Whisper ASMR.” I clicked the first video and it worked its magic. Tingles all over my body. I searched for more videos, and more, and more, until I got addicted. And the next night, I did the same thing. I listened to ASMR until I got a bit desensitized. I kept clicking videos, but they were having no effect on me anymore.
At least, until I found a video by a channel called “Heavenly Whispers ASMR.” The video consisted of a girl with her strange microphone with two ears on each side, who was wearing a black top, had black hair, and didn’t reveal the part of her face above her red lips. Her whispers were magic, although unintelligible. I probably sat there for hours listening to the videos of this mysterious girl. Luckily, she had a lot of videos on her channel. The tingles were intense. I was in heaven, floating away from all my troubles. I almost fell asleep behind my PC. I got up and went to bed once I saw that it was 1 AM already.
Lying in bed, I was ready to go to sleep. I closed my eyes. Now, normally, there’s silence once you’re the last in your home to go to sleep. However, once I closed my ears, I heard whispers. Unintelligible whispers. Confused, I opened my eyes again. The whispers were gone. I was pretty convinced that I heard those whispers, just as I heard them when I was listening to that girl’s videos. Closed my eyes and heard the whispers again. I tried to ignore them this time. Who knows, maybe there was a logical explanation. There had to be.
The next morning, the whispers were gone. I really longed for them again, however. So, on my way to work, I put in my earphones and listened to her videos. I was really addicted and listening to them a lot didn’t lessen the tingles. The 50th video was still as effective as the first. On my way home, I listened to it again. It got me in a pretty good mood, actually, which was something my wife noted when I came home. I just felt so incredibly happy.
That night, I listened to some of her videos before going to bed again. These ones were a bit different. A lot of “sss” sounds, almost snake-like. They were incredible, but I couldn’t help feeling pretty uncomfortable when I went to sleep. Pretty paranoid, for some strange reason. And once again, when I closed my eyes, I heard the whispers. However, when I opened them again, they didn’t go away. It was pretty scary, looking around the room but hearing those unintelligible whispers right in my ear. They didn’t disappear the next morning either. I was eating breakfast, not hearing my wife or kids through the whispers in my ear. At the construction site, they blocked out the loud noises of the machine. On my way to and from work, I put on the loudest rock music I could find, but the whispers were still louder. I was getting pretty annoyed. I remember having a pretty short fuse once I got home, which scared my children and caused my wife to be worried about me. That night, I tried to flush out these whispers with different kinds of ASMR: fabric cutting, tapping, and such stuff. However, I had no success. The whispers in my ear where still there, all through the night, and the next morning too.
The next day, something happened that gave me goosebumps. I came home from a long day of work, annoyed with the whispers, when my kids came out to hug me once I got out of my car. We went inside, I cooked dinner (as usual), and then I went to my PC again to look up some solutions for the whispers. That’s when my son came to me with a question that really confused me. He looked at me, very confused, and asked, “Daddy, who was that woman in your car?”
Now, that’s a pretty weird question since there was no woman in my car, so I asked him what woman he was talking about. “The one with the black hair,” he responded.
I was pretty confused, but I assumed it was just some weird game or whatever. He just kept asking, however. “Daddy, the woman with black hair and the red lips.” I got goosebumps once I heard him say that, but I just responded by saying that there was no woman in my car and that it was his bedtime.
That night, I was trying to sleep despite the whispers, when I heard the door to my bedroom open. Curious, I raised my head and looked in the direction of the door, where my daughter stood.
“Hey sweetie,” I said quietly, “what’s the matter?”
She just stood there, however, and I could see that she was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked again.
“There’s… There’s someone in my room,” she responded.
“Everyone’s asleep honey, there’s nobody in your room.”
“There is. A woman. She’s been saying things.”
“What’s she saying, sweetie?”
“I don’t know. She’s whispering.”
Now, if you ever wanted to see a grown man almost shit his pants, that would have been your chance. I couldn’t sleep that night. Not just the whispers interrupting the silence, but the whispers reminding me of what both my son and daughter told me today. I’ve never felt so strange. I felt like I was a kid again, afraid of the dark and the monsters under my bed. I got goosebumps all over my body, especially my legs.
That night was horrible. I called in sick that day, because I didn’t sleep at all and was feeling ill because of it. I’m pretty sure I would have fallen asleep behind the wheel if I drove to work today, or that I would have killed someone with some tools because I was so frustrated at everything and everyone. I asked my neighbors to take the kids to school, while I was in bed all day, trying to get some sleep. But my thoughts were clouded with confusion and fear.
I can’t remember when exactly, but I finally fell asleep. In my dream, the whispers continued and I saw her red lips and black hair. I woke up, sweating. It was dark both inside and outside. Downstairs, I could hear my neighbors talking, probably helping out while I was trying to get some sleep today. I heard my wife talking and laughing, which was strange, because I could feel an arm on my chest. I could feel a warm breath in my neck. I could hear the whispers coming from the same direction as the breath.
I looked into her dark face, with her red lips, and her blue eyes. I screamed and ran out of the bedroom, downstairs, almost falling of the stairs. I really couldn’t explain what happened to the neighbors, my wife, or my kids. It was pretty embarrassing, but I didn’t feel embarrassed. I was scared.
It’s been six days now since this occurred. I can still hear the whispers. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get rid of them. And I’m pretty sure I’ll never get rid of that feeling that I’m never alone. There’s one thing I’m sure of: I’ll never listen to ASMR again.
Reading Time: 64minutesSometimes I find it hard to believe that I’ve been an internet user for twenty years now. That’s older than some of my co-workers. It’s over half my life. And still the internet feels like “the new thing.” I used to take it for granted, like we all do. But at least I remember what it was like when it wasn’t there. When you had to leaf through an encyclopedia set to find an answer. When you could only find Gillian Anderson’s picture in magazines. Or later, when songs took 30 minutes to download and full-length movies were almost impossible to find, because no-one’s hard drive could hold them.
First getting online was super exciting. I mean, the first time I did it without supervision. Because I knew I had anything at my fingertips. I could type it into good ol’ Lycos, one of many pre-Google search engines, and there it would be. I was interested in naked celebrities and the paranormal back then. I was only 13, give me a break. I was so interested in the paranormal, I built a Fortunecity free homepage all about the occult and The X-Files. I linked it to the DarkNet webring, where all the best “dark” websites and homepages came together. Pages on spell books, goth babes, the occult, dark art, and a gross-out page or two. It was through the webring that I met Angelica.
Angelica hosted a Wiccan geocities or tripod homepage that I found particularly alluring. No wait, it was Angelfire. She just made the best of some cool animated gifs, midis, and frames—amazing stuff at the time. Just like her, the page was creative and attractive, but also simple. The reason I bring all this up is she suddenly contacted me just a few weeks ago by email asking, “What’s been happening?” A catch-up question. We had almost 20 years of catching up to do. And this is pure Angelica: She signed the email with her ICQ contact #. I enjoyed the quaint touch. It’d be like someone in the ‘90s sending a letter with a wax seal, right?
I replied back with a summary of how my life had gone over the past 18 years or so since I’d last communicated with her. 18 years—makes you think. She shot back a response almost immediately asking for details. We exchanged a few emails this way. I was pretty excited to come home from work and write to her, actually. Nothing romantic. It was just—it was reconnecting with my past. It’s a strange but addictive feeling.
Soon I started to notice something just a little off. She never really answered anything about herself. She ignored my suggestions that we text or talk on the phone. All she wanted was to know more about me. It got me wondering. Like maybe she’s dying and just doesn’t want to say. So I asked her. I asked why she wasn’t sharing and if there was something I should know.
I start reading over her previous messages for clues, and I noticed something that didn’t occur to me at all until then. Her email address was at globetrotter.net. That may not mean anything to you. But it struck me as strange. You see, Globetrotter was a Canadian ISP way back in the mid-90s. I didn’t even realize they still hosted. I know a lot of people still have their old email addresses for sentimental value and all. But it’s like she was purposely trying to be old school. Something about it creeped me out. Like she was trying too hard to make me feel nostalgic or something.
Again, I didn’t have to wait long for her reply. Oh, she didn’t answer my questions. She asked me, “Hey, do you remember The Hole?” I didn’t know why then, but the moment I read that sentence, I felt uneasy. Like I was being watched. I had a hazy sense that I’d dreamed about something called ‘The Hole’ once. Whatever it was, I was instinctively repulsed by it. I couldn’t remember anything solid, though. In my head I went over IRC rooms, websites, newsgroups, webrings—all the old internet stuff—and came up empty.
She sent me another email before I could even reply:
“You really don’t remember? The Hole was our little secret. Not many knew about it. Even fewer how to find it. But we found it. It was right there all along. Sometimes, when you’d load DarkNet in Netscape, there’d be a tiny black dot in the bottom, left corner, in all this blank space. You had to hover over it exactly and click it. Then you’d be there. You’d be in The Hole. You remember it now, don’t you?”
She was right, I did. I just didn’t remember ever calling it “The Hole.” What I remembered was that secret little space we found. I remember it was like the browser didn’t see it as a real website or something. There wasn’t even an address to copy and paste from the bar. It was just the letter ‘M.’ I tried everything to pin it down to an IP, but ‘M’ was all I could ever find.
Another thing I remember is that I never liked that place. Not at all. There was nothing there. It was all empty. I remember being excited the first time we found it, because it was something hidden. And it felt like somewhere we shouldn’t be. Then I hated it. Because it was just empty. And it made me feel bad and empty. Not boredom. Like it wasn’t supposed to be there or anywhere, wasn’t part of anything.
I wrote Angelica back telling her I wasn’t interested in talking about that. I didn’t hear back from her that night. That was unusual. She normally replied right away. Eerily fast, I realized while mulling it over. It was like she already had her answer typed out and it didn’t matter what I actually said to her. Now that I was waiting for a response, because this whole thing had me inexplicably shaken up, of course she didn’t reply.
The next day, when I got home from work, an email was waiting. She said, “We were missing so much. The Hole has so much for us to discover, so many secrets, you could just keep going and going. It’s like an endless puzzle. Everyone else stopped at the first layer. You remember that, right? I just knew there had to be something else in it. I knew no-one would create and hide it for no reason. I kept going back to it, looking closely until I discovered how to go deeper. And I kept going. It’s still there, you know. It’s not too late. The webring is gone, Netscape is gone, but The Hole is still there for you.”
I felt a strange chill down my spine that I brushed off as nerves. I was up for a promotion and a little stressed, after all. Then I started to wonder if she was pranking me. Angelica wasn’t really a humorous girl. She’d laugh at your jokes. But she didn’t really make her own. In fact, something about her earnestness was really disturbing.
I didn’t reply to her right then. I decided to run some checks on her, because things just weren’t adding up. I started with her email address, to see if she’d been posting anywhere. I was searching for a while before I hit something. I didn’t find any forum posts or websites or anything like that. What I found was that her email host, globetrotter, had stopped hosting. Eleven years ago! The email address she was writing from was impossible. Now I knew something was wrong with her. If it was even really Angelica.
I mean, why would she go through so much trouble to create a fake email address that mirrored whatever email address she would’ve been using in the ‘90s? That wasn’t just quaint anymore. Also, we hadn’t talked in 18 years. Why did she suddenly want to reach out to me? And why just to talk about some long-forgotten website? Because I felt like that’s what she was building up to all along. The more I thought about it, the more weird it seemed.
I should’ve just ignored her and went on with my life, but I wanted to know what was going on. I kept digging around. I used her ICQ number, her name, the state I believed she lived in. I could find no record of her doing anything after her Angelfire homepage. No Facebook, no Google Plus, not even a MySpace. It’s like her last presence on the internet actually was in the ‘90s. Like she disappeared completely, waited in hiding for almost twenty years, then reappeared just to talk to me about an old website. The whole thing was so bizarre, I started having trouble sleeping. I was having nightmares about staring into a monitor, not able to move. There were computers all around. And I was concerned about the beehive in the corner.
After that, I went a week without sending her an email or her sending me one. I felt guilty about it. But I had every right. I just knew I’d regret it if I sent her another email. And it seemed like she took the hint at first. Until a new email came in. This one was short and to the point.
It read: “I think I’m coming to the center. You could spend your whole life in here.”
I remember those words exactly. Oh yes. Because whatever the hell they meant, the way she said them, so real and urgent, was really upsetting.
I didn’t dare answer her. Another week went by without a strange email. This one was a different kind of email. This one didn’t even have an email address. That was spooky enough in itself. It gets worse. The text read, “Don’t trust emails, not from good place, delete and forget.” It wasn’t signed. I figured it had to be Angelica. It just wasn’t her style.
Not long after, I received another email from Angelica with instructions of where to go looking for The Hole. A place on archive.org, on their “Wayback Machine,” still had the dot to click on. That was the only way in, she said. It had to be the dot. I thought about going to check it. I would have. Except I was afraid of it. I couldn’t remember what happened to me with that site, but I knew there was something bad about it.
Then another email came from the blank email address. In the body, just the link to a gopher site. Now, I hadn’t seen a gopher site in a good 15 years. I had to download an old browser just to access it. If you weren’t on the internet back then, Gopher sites just housed a bunch of text files in folders, usually. You’d go to Gopher colon slash-slash blahblah dot com. They were usually run by universities.
This particular gopher site only had a few files. All audio files. I listened to them all. They had different filenames, but they were the same. The muffled sound of a boy’s voice saying, “Help me, please” over and over. I was shaking. I got the police involved this time. They thought I was being pranked. I asked them if they could at least look into Angelica. I told them all I knew about her. The only thing I didn’t tell them is who I thought the voice was. I know it’s crazy, but, the reason I didn’t tell them, is that I’m pretty sure it was my voice when I was a boy.
I stopped received emails from Angelica and the blank address after that. I hoped it was over. I think a month passed before anything else happened. I got the promotion. Things were feeling normal. I told myself some secrets are best left secret. Well, I got a large, manila envelope in the mail. No return address. I went against my gut and opened it. Inside was a printout of all my correspondence with Angelica. All of it. Not just the new stuff. Emails I’d written her back in the ‘90s.
I took this stack of papers to the police. This was evidence. They told me they still thought it was a sick prank. That struck me as odd. I asked them “But why ‘sick’?” That’s when they told me they actually had heard back from the local PD where Angelica lived. She’d been a missing person since 1999. Her parents offered a reward and everything. They never found her. No clues. One night she was in her room, listening to music, on the computer. In the morning, she was gone without a trace.
I was so shocked I had to sit down. Maybe it was a prank. But then, what if it was her? Wouldn’t her family want to know? Maybe she’d had a psychotic break or something? What’s this stuff about “The Hole”? And what about the blank email address? I didn’t have a clue.
The police were no help with these questions. And I was pulled back in. I decided to go looking for any contacts I could remember from the time when I was speaking to Angelica. Anyone who would’ve known both me and her. We had a few mutual contacts. Mostly people from the webring, but also people we introduced to each other. Just not many I remembered by their real names. Actually, none.
There was one guy. He went by the handle Rapskhellion_42. He was an odd guy, into hacking and anarchy—the good, clean internet taboos we had back then. He’d been on the net forever, since the days of bulletin board systems. That guy, if he was still around, he’d probably still be going by the same username. So, I got to searching. Not only could I not find any trace of a Rapskhellion_42, I couldn’t find any Rapskhellion at all. He was all over the web in the day. So that in itself was weird. Like someone scrubbed any trace of him.
That’s when I got the idea to go dig out my old computer. It was an old 1997 HP running Windows 98. I had it stashed in the basement since I went to college. It would at least have all of my old contacts stored just where I left them. If it would even load. I had to wait 5 minutes for it to boot up. Then I got the Ethernet cable plugged in. It was like it’d just been in sleep mode for two decades. And there they were, my desktop icons for IRC, ICQ, Netscape and even Napster. Napster! I learned there was more to music than the radio from Napster. Some good memories.
I honestly wasn’t sure ICQ would load. I believe ICQ still exists in some form, but I just doubted their servers would still accommodate the old software. One of the key features of ICQ that made it so ahead of its time was that, besides being the only instant messenger, it also allowed offline messaging. I mention that because, not only did ICQ load, but it loaded with a message. That perturbed me a little, because it’s like it was just waiting for me, knowing I’d boot it up. Except for one detail. The message was dated from November, 1999. It was from Angelica, so it had to have been sent right before she disappeared. It just said, “You coming?” It sent a shiver down my spine. Where was she going? Could I have helped her if I’d seen it in time? Why’d she act like I knew?
Even weirder is that I’m sure I’d been on ICQ after November 1999. I’d say I used it up to 2001 or so. That’s when I went to college. It’s like the message got trapped in the server all that time and I was only getting it now.
I closed the message and looked for Rapskhellion_42. I was hoping just to find an email address on his ICQ info. I really didn’t expect to see a green Online icon beside his name, but that’s what I got. That only added to how unsettled I was. I almost had to check to make sure it was really 2017. Anyway, I fired off a message to Rap saying, “Hey man, long time no speak.” I didn’t want to just start with ‘business’ after all that time.
I was relieved when he replied back with a friendly hello and asked me how I was doing. After exchanging pleasantries, and catching up a little, I had to ask him why he was still using ICQ after all this time.
He said it’s because of Y2K. “Y2K really happened,” he said. It just didn’t happen the way everyone expected. It was way more insidious. We all thought computers would just stop working because they couldn’t handle the millennium change. But it wasn’t that they stopped working. Something happened inside the “connection of things,” something bad. The old equipment would be fine, as long as it didn’t get ‘patched’. But everything made after December 31st, 1999 would be tainted. That’s why he still used ICQ and never let go of his NetZero dialup connection.
I hadn’t heard a Y2K conspiracy theory in a very long time. So that was interesting. I chose to ignore it and asked him if he knew about Angelica going missing back in ’99. He said he didn’t. He figured she just dropped off the internet. But, he said, it’s no coincidence she went missing right at Y2K. “A lot of strange things happened then. The world changed. Only a few people even noticed.” Rap was always a little on the fringe, but what he was saying was strangely upsetting. Maybe it was just hitting too close to home. If that last message really was sent November, 1999, then he was right, she disappeared right before Y2K.
Given his views, I went ahead and told Rap everything that had happened. He believed me. That was a nice change, in a way. It also made it feel more real. I was shaking while typing.
He told me my story reminded him of something he’d heard from another old friend just recently. There was this guy, “R0xT4r” or to his closer friends just “Reggie”, who used to frequent an internet forum on hacking and phreaking back in the mid-90s. This guy had a lot of friends there, was well-spoken and clever enough to earn real respect. Over time, as often happens, he just drifted away from the forum. His posts became less frequent as other aspects of life preoccupied him, and soon enough he was gone. The forum strove for anonymity, for obvious reasons. So, no-one kept in contact with him.
The forum’s still there, Rap said. Nowhere near what it used to be, but the regulars like him are dedicated. A few months ago, after twenty years absence, Reggie suddenly showed up on the forum again. His posts were polite, conversational, but just off somehow. Like someone feigning familiarity. He was just trying so hard. It was weird, but they were happy he was alive and well, so they replied to him and brought him up to date. Then, without acknowledging anything they said, he started making post after post about how his life was revolutionized. He found a whole new frontier of hacking. “The hacking begins inside you,” he said. And he wanted to show it to them.
The forum folk were flabbergasted by his odd behavior, so they started interrogating him. He went silent for about a week. Then he sent one last message, saying, “I love you guys so much” with a TinyURL link. Rap’s friend thought it was all a joke and that Reggie was just leading the whole forum up to an epic rickroll. He didn’t click it, because he didn’t need to hear any Astley and he was busy with something else.
He came back to the forum later and decided he was going to go ahead and click the link anyway. It may be something legit. On a whim, he refreshed first to see if anyone replied saying what the link was. He sees a post in reply from a very trusted and respected member of the forum saying, in all caps, “DO NOT CLICK THAT LINK, WHATEVER YOU DO! AND THAT IS NOT REGGIE.”
For an old pro to use all caps? That was serious shit. Even I knew that. So that was enough to dissuade everyone from clicking. The fake Reggie deleted his account immediately. The forum moderator and others tried to figure out who the guy was, but no luck. The guy who made the all-caps post explained after that he tried to safe browse the link with an old Linux box and whatever was in there wrecked it. And that box had security out the wazoo. He couldn’t explain it. Also, before the computer wiped out completely, he said he thought he saw something. The regulars pressed him to say what it was. He made them promise first that it stays with them. He said he saw a picture of his daughter on the screen. She’d died five years ago. There were no pictures of her on the computer. Worse, he’d never seen that picture before. That, more than anything, convinced him to post the warning in all caps. Whatever it is, he said, it’s evil.
Rap added, “If you’ve been on the internet long enough you learn that. There’s evil out there. Not the child porn or torture videos. Something deeper. Something hidden in all the code and connections. Maybe it came from us at one point.”
He was giving me the creeps. So I tried to bring the subject back to Angelica. He said, “No, listen. Sometimes it tries to get out.”
That was enough. I told him he was freaking me out with that kind of talk and I had enough to deal with.
He said he didn’t understand what I was talking about. He still reads my homepage all the time and that I’ve been doing great work exposing the evil. Thing is, I don’t even have a “homepage” anymore. That thing was taken down in like 2001.
He insisted it was my Fortunecity homepage. He’d been reading my updates all these years, even after we lost contact, he said. I sent him a link to prove to him that Fortunecity doesn’t even exist anymore.
Rap went quiet for a few minutes. Then he said he was looking at the homepage at that moment. It was last updated just a few days ago. And it was all about what they were talking about now and what was going to happen next. “It’s a doozy,” he said, then immediately went offline. I sent him a message with my contact info and to let me know if he was ok. I haven’t heard from him since. I’ve checked ICQ a few times and he’s never been back online…
I had to walk away from that computer. I felt like I was being watched or something. Every noise was freaking me out. After a sandwich and some tea, I went back just to shut it down. That’s when I noticed a folder on the desktop that stood out. For one, I never really kept folders on my desktop. And two, I didn’t remember this folder at all. It was called “Noah’s Cape,” which sounds like a crappy Bible game. I never played crappy Bible games.
Something about it didn’t seem right. I opened it. Inside was all pictures and wav files. My instincts told me to get out of there. One picture after another was just kids. Teens, boys and girls, sitting at their computers. None of them seemed aware they were being photographed. The pics all seemed pointless. All I knew for sure is I didn’t take or download those pictures. Ever. They were all time-stamped 11/21/1999.
The wav files were the sounds of typing, muttering, chairs moving. The sounds of people at a computer. The sounds of surveillance. Until one of the files. It was a voice I’d never heard before. I know it. Because I don’t think anything could’ve made me forget that voice. It was a hollow, metallic voice, almost inhuman, but a man. It whispered with a hiss, “You coming?” and its whispers were like flesh sizzling on iron.
Nothing of this earth should talk like that. What it said—it was the same as Angelica’s message. Also from ‘99. I shut down the computer and left the house. I didn’t even want to be in my own home. I just drove around for a while. Thinking. Whatever was going on, it was really not good. Yet, I couldn’t let it go. I felt drawn into something secret and I wanted to figure it out. For Angelica’s sake, too. If she really was a victim.
I decided to contact my buddy Ben. He’s a real computer wizard, works IT at the University of Guelph. I know that may not sound like the most prestigious place to be, but they actively poached him. He’s good. Anyway, I gave Ben an idea of what was going on and asked if he could get a lock on that gopher site for me. I also asked, if he could safely do it, to see if there was anything to this Hole site. He said that wouldn’t be a problem.
The next day he already comes back to me with the question, “Is this some sort of a joke? I don’t like wasting my time.” I’d never seen Ben even slightly irritated before, but he was mad. He told me when he traced the gopher site, it turned out it was being hosted right there at the University of Guelph. But they didn’t have a gopher site, he said. Never have.
I assured him if it was a joke, I wasn’t in on it. So he said he’d try to find the server tower it was running on. If he could do that, he could read the logs, find out who set up the damn thing.
While I was waiting for Ben to get back to me, I got a call from a Detective Thereault. The police hadn’t shown much interest in my case, but it happened to land in front of this guy. Thankfully. He said the simple fact that Angelica had disappeared meant there was the possibility that a crime had taken place. I agreed. Because of that, he had done a little more work and, he felt I should know, he found Angelica. When he told me she was alive and well, I was thrilled. He said she voluntarily ran away from home and chose not to have contact with her family. She declined to say why, and he had no right to compel her otherwise. Legally, he was bound to protect her privacy. The point is, “there was no crime.”
However, when he told her how it came about that he went looking for her, she asked him if she could speak to me. He said he took the liberty of accepting for me and passed on her phone number. I thanked him heartily. It was the first bit of good news, the first real break, in this mess.
As soon as I hung up with the detective, I called her. I was nervous. It’d been so long and I was excited to hear from her again.
She answered quickly and asked if it was me. I told her yes and said it was nice to hear her voice after all this time. Then she said, without any pleasantries, “It wasn’t me sending you messages.” I told her I’d figured that much out already.
“I don’t think you understand,” she said. “I have never once in my life sent you any sort of communication. I don’t know you at all.”
A part of me was screaming, ‘She’s lying.’ She just sounded so certain. It almost felt like drowning. Because if she wasn’t lying, a whole chunk of my youth was a lie. I told her all I knew about her, personal things, and she said they were true. I told her how I found her through her Wiccan homepage on Angelfire and I described the page to her and the webring. She said she didn’t make “that thing” and I should never have gone there. “It’s bad,” she said and wouldn’t elaborate.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Then I told her all the details I knew of her personal life, about her likes and hopes and dreams and her family. She said it was all true. But whoever told him about it, it wasn’t her.
That’s why she wanted to talk to me now. So I would know the truth. She remembered how it used to happen every now and then a long time ago. She would have people tell her they talked to her online all night, but she knew she’d never spoken to them. And they’d tell her she was doing things she knew she’d never done. She was asleep or sometimes not even in town. Then they’d get weird or disappear.
She remembered this one time she was doing her math homework, and a random guy messaged her with the solution to the problem. She was terrified. But she asked him how he knew her math problem, was he spying on her. And he told her, no, she asked him for help. She didn’t believe him. So he sent her a screenshot. The message was from a day ago. She’d just gotten the homework that day.
She said the worst it got was when she messaged a close friend of hers she saw online on ICQ. Her friend replied with, “Who is this?” She thought it was just a joke, so she said something silly, she didn’t remember what. Her friend said she didn’t think it was cool to be hacking Angelica’s account. Or if this was her brother, to knock it off. Angelica swore it was her. And her friend replied, “Umm, I know you’re not Angelica, because Angelica’s sitting right here with me.”
She knew this friend wouldn’t joke like that. She didn’t have the imagination for it. Whatever it was, her friend really believed she was in the room with her. But she wasn’t. Her friend always insisted she was there that night. She said Angelica was showing her her cool, new homepage. The friendship fell apart after that, because her friend got strange. That was the first she’d ever seen of the homepage and she knew it was “bad juju.”
I asked her if she’d ever heard of The Hole. She went silent for so long, I thought we lost connection. She said she’s still there, she just never expected to hear that again. There was this guy who used to harass her back when she was just about 12 or 13, on IRC. He called himself “HolyMoses.” He started off nice. He seemed to understand all her problems. And to know what she was thinking. At 12, that felt romantic. But she noticed weird things, like he didn’t seem to have any life or personality. Any time of the day, he was always online and active. But no-one knew anything about him.
One day he started telling her stranger things. Like, “Do you remember the three men dressed as bees at the Halloween party?” She didn’t know what he was talking about. Eight years later at a college Halloween party, she saw three men dressed as bees sitting in the corner of the room. They weren’t doing anything. Just sitting still and staring at the floor. Then they turned to her and their eyes looked so black. She ran out of the party.
Another time he told her, “You can drink and smoke, you know. You died in a car crash.” It scared the life out of her. She briefly wondered if she really was a ghost, she said. When she told him to stop telling her things like that, he said there was a place she could go that was for special people only. And she’d never need to go anywhere else. It was a place on the internet that was infinite in all directions. She said she remembered him saying that specifically. And everything she needed would be there. It was called “The Hole” and she just had to send him a message with the letter ‘M’ to get there.
She actually tried to do it, because things weren’t going well for her. But she sent the letter ‘N’ by accident, because her hands were shaking. HolyMoses went offline and she didn’t see him after. Until 2010, when she got an email from TheNewCommandments@HolyMoses.com saying, “You coming?”
If anyone was impersonating her, she said that was the most likely person. At the time, she was so naïve. Looking back on it now, talking to me, she said he was the creepiest person she’d ever encountered. Just thinking of him creeped her out. And made her afraid he’d sense it somehow and come for her.
“I don’t know you, but I told you all this for a reason,” she said. “What you’re digging into—be careful. There are a lot of very bad things hidden in the old internet. Things the Twitter and Tumblr generations will never see. And lucky them.”
She promised we’d never speak again and bid me a good life before hanging up. I was left reeling. What she said meant whoever I spoke to for years in my teens—I don’t even know who that person is. It was all a lie. And why? What’s so interesting about me? I wondered how much else in my life was trickery.
Before I could dwell on it too much, Ben called me back. He said he’d managed to track the server to a storage room in a sub-basement below his office. He was aware of the basement, but it was abandoned years before he even started working there due to ventilation and mold issues. It’s just full of old IT crap now and some storage lockers.
Someone had set up the server in a storage closet and the closet itself was completely obscured by old computer equipment probably for years. He figures that’s why it was never found. Meaning the server had been running under their noses all that time.
When he gets in, he sees an old desktop hooked up to a landline. Beside it, he saw a notepad with “PLEASE STOP” written on it. That alone made him want to get the hell out of there. The whole place is covered in thick dust, too, and his allergies were acting up. Somehow the server was still running. He has to hook up a monitor and keyboard just to interact with it. One thing he said in passing really disturbed me. He said, “The ironic thing is, the server was built with an auto-shutdown date. And the date was the same day I was there to shut it down. Dude, it’s like it knew I was going to be there that day.”
He said after shutting it down, he went and told his manager all about it. Just a fun, IT anecdote. His manager told him there’s really only one man who could’ve set that up. Back in the early ‘90s, he said, a guy worked in the department they all called “Milky,” ‘cause his last name was Melke and he was really white. He was a little eccentric, too. That had nothing to do with milk, it just happened to be true. Then he had a burnout and he got a lot eccentric.
It started with him pounding his desk. The manager at the time asked him if he was ok. According to Ben’s boss, he answered with, “There’s no way out.” Then he heard Milky say something like, “You think you exist, but you’re just another part of it. Everything is just another puzzle. Do I exist?”
After that, the rest of the department started getting nervous around Milky. You just got bad vibes around him, the manager said.
It got worse. Every day around 3pm Milky started standing in a dark corner of the office, facing the wall. He’d mutter some things. The guys joked that he was at his prayers. But he’d always come away looking more upset than anything else. Once a new guy asked him if he was a Muslim and he replied with, “I’m sorry.”
The guy asked what he was sorry for.
“It was telling me how your children die,” he answered.
Toward the end, before they fired him, he started telling them about how he found a place on the internet that wasn’t made by humans. The guys joked that it was SkyNet. But he said it wasn’t created by machines either. It was always there, the internet just found it by accident. It showed him “things he couldn’t unsee.” Ben’s boss even recalled that he started to tear up.
Ben’s boss told him it was sad to see such a smart guy clearly losing it. Even though Milky was never caught stealing anything, equipment disappeared during his shift. Probably the equipment that went into the server. When they fired him, he told them that the secret place got into his head and that he’d sometimes wake up in strange places and had no idea how he got there. They never saw him again after he left that day.
Ben said, after that story and that creepy gopher server, he straight up refused to look into The Hole. I told him it really wasn’t that bad and to quit being a wimp. That’s when he said he hadn’t told me everything. The server had a linkup, through the phone line, to a really old webcam. One of those low res webcams where the image updates every 4 seconds or so. It’d been running non-stop since ’97. All of the saved images just show the front of someone’s house. The same house back to ’97. He sent me some of the photos. Because he knew what it was. It was my house.
“Why would this guy have been spying on you all those years ago, man? How did he even know you? It doesn’t make any sense and it honestly scares the shit out of me.”
And here’s what I told him. The thing about that webcam is, I just bought this house two years ago. That camera was pointed here before I ever moved in. It was just an astronomically improbable coincidence. At least, that’s what it should be. But I didn’t believe that’s what it was anymore than he did.
* * * * * *
The next day, I was still reeling from my conversations with Ben and the real Angelica. I ran it over in my head so many times. Like, maybe the police made a mistake. So of course I’d never spoken to this woman, she was the wrong Angelica. But no, I knew everything about her. Someone systematically deceived me for two years. And someone had been recording a house I was going to move into for twenty years. And someone had recorded me when I was a boy. What happened twenty years ago to cause all this? It was so insane. I started questioning everything. I felt I was being watched constantly.
I started to wonder if my Mom remembered anything. She saw me more than anyone at the time, naturally. When I called her up, she said she was expecting me to call. I generally didn’t call during the week, so I asked why. She said because of my little prank. I grew concerned immediately. I wasn’t pranking anyone.
I tried to calmly ask her what prank. She said the two guys. They showed up with a note from me to let them in. They don’t say anything or do anything. They’ve just been sitting there, with their chairs pulled together, in her kitchen. Just looking at the floor.
“You don’t recognize them at all?” I asked her. She laughed and said no, but I think she was starting to realize I didn’t know what was going on. “They’re dressed in bee costumes,” she said, almost as an afterthought.
I told her to calmly get out of the house and call the police, because I didn’t have anything to do with this. She said she was upstairs. She’d have to go past them to get out. I told her to keep me on the phone until she got out. I listened carefully. It seemed to be taking forever. Finally she said, “They’re gone. The front door was left open.” I told her to call the police right away and check in with me in a bit.
While talking, I had absent-mindedly walked from my office to my own kitchen. My front door was also left open. Not only was it locked just a moment ago, but it seemed like quite a coincidence.
I closed the door and locked it. Then I looked all around the house with a kitchen knife in hand. I have a one-storey with a basement. So it was easy enough to cover all hiding places. Fortunately, there was nobody. So I tried to tell myself I just didn’t close the door right. Until my neighbor came over and asked me if I was having a costume party. I said no. That’s when he told me he saw two guys in bee costumes leaving my home. They just walked straight across the road and behind the neighbor’s house, into the woods. “How can they even see in the woods at night?” he asked.
I picked up my mother and we went to the police station. I figured this one would be best in person. All these strange events barely seemed coherent. But I got the feeling it was all connected in some way.
The police were baffled. They admitted someone was harassing me. But without more evidence, there was really nothing they could do.
When we were making the report, my Mom told me she was thinking about something just after this happened. Because it struck her as odd. “Do you remember how you had this dialup modem and when you’d run it, you could swear you’d hear a little voice inside talking to you?” The way she said it, like it was nothing, sent a shiver through me. Because I didn’t remember that at all. “What?” was all I could say.
This is what she said: “Yes, you’d set it a-go and in all the beeps and pops you said there was a little voice in there with a message. To me it was a lot of crazy noise. But you made me get real close and listen. And you told me it was saying, ‘Everything’s better in here. Abracadabra.’ Can’t believe I even remembered that.”
I told her I couldn’t remember that. That sounds crazy. But she just gave me a blank stare. I thought maybe she was concerned. So I started to tell her about what was happening. The whole Angelica thing. So she’d understand. I was saying, “You remember that girl I used to chat with online in the ‘90s, Angelica?”
She kept giving me a blank stare, like she couldn’t understand me. So I told her more. How I met her on the webring my fortunecity page was on. And didn’t she remember my homepage at least? She shook her head. What she said next scared me in a way I’ve never been scared before. She told me she got an internet connection after I left for college, to email me. But before that “we never ever had the internet in our home.”
I said she must’ve gotten hit in the head. Because I remember distinctly all these experiences being online. Building my homepage. Yiffnet. IRC. ICQ. All of that was when I was in high school. She flat denied it.
She said she remembered, though, that I used to tell her I’d found a way to get into the internet without a connection. I’d have to call some number with my modem. Then I’d have to sit still at the screen for a few minutes. Something like that. She always thought I was joking.
Before Det. Thereault came to get us, she looked into my eyes. “You should be careful on that internet, y’know,” she said. “A lot of bad things on there.”
She rose to shake the detective’s hand. I was grateful to get off the subject. The detective offered to have a friend in computer forensics take a look at some of the sites I’d reported. But he didn’t have much hope.
After I got back home, I secured the house one more time. Then I got to work. The best lead I had at that point was this ‘HolyMoses’ character. So I downloaded mIRC to see if I could find him in his old haunts.
It had been a long time since I’d used mIRC. I barely remembered how it worked. And there are so many channels on EFNet, it would take forever. So, I decided to focus on channels that would’ve been relevant to “Angelica” back in the day. I just started asking in channels, like @gothic and @vampires, if anyone knew of HolyMoses or heard of him. But each time I mentioned him, the channel fell to almost complete “silence.” I didn’t get a yes or a no, I got ignored. Sometimes users even started to leave the channel. I was about to give up and try another avenue when I got a private message from “u47284u”.
He (or she) told me I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing. I asked him why. He said it “doesn’t come off well to them,” whatever that means. He also said HolyMoses is just a bot. It’s been around forever, never logs off, and is almost always idling for days at a time. I told him if that was true, why was everyone so reluctant to talk about it? I didn’t want to tell him Angelica’s story. I just wanted to find out what he knew.
He said the whole thing weirds people out because nobody knows who built HolyMoses. Nobody. Over decades, no-one has ever claimed ownership. Not even trolls. Nobody knows where it came from. Or why it’s there. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just there, he said. That’s the creepiest thing about it. Always just there.
Legends had built up around HolyMoses, he said. Like it was a government supercomputer monitoring IRC. Or it was the KGB. Or a “ghost,” a bot left running long after the owner died and his bank account kept paying the bills. But no-one knows. It was just there.
Users tried messaging it and it never responded. It never interacts in any channel. It offers no services. It has moments of apparent activity where it’s no longer idle, but no-one’s been able to detect what it does during this time. Except occasionally a change of channel, seemingly at random.
He said there was only one time when it did anything substantial, as far as anyone knew. Once in over two decades. And that only made things weirder.
I was typing out a message to ask this guy what it was, because he wasn’t saying. But just then I heard what sounded like my front door slam. I paused and listened carefully, trying not even to breathe. I didn’t hear anything. So I rushed out to the front door. Nobody was there, nothing disturbed. The doors were all closed and locked. I chalked it up to nerves and went back to my office.
When I got back, u47284u had sent me a message: “Where’d you go? Hope nothing strange happened.”
That was a little eerie. But I was focused on getting answers, so I ignored it and asked what it was HolyMoses did. He said, “Fine, I’ll tell you.”
And this is what he said happened. In 1999, at 5AM CST on November 21st, HolyMoses joined the channel #ornithology and made a series of short statements. First, “Deceive them” at 7AM, “Empty it” at 9AM, “Abandon them” at 6PM. “Turn back” at 9PM. And “Have it your way” just before midnight. Then it went offline until January 5th. “Why?” he asked. Why be silent and useless for years, do that, and then never do anything after? Sometimes, when he really thought about it, he said, it gave him the serious heebie-jeebies.
That was all he knew. Or anyone knew. And he reiterated that I really shouldn’t be looking into this and to just drop it. I thanked him for his help.
I remembered a little more of what commands mIRC had after getting into the groove some. So I tried a WhoIs on HolyMoses, to see if he was out there. He was! Or it was. It was on one channel only, #stilllife. It’d been signed on for 16 days and idle for 3. Its IP was showing only the letter ‘Y’.
I was thinking about going to the channel and messaging him. To see what would happen. But I suddenly got another message from u47284u, “I TOLD YOU TO DROP IT!”
I know it’s just text, but it freaked me out. I closed out of mIRC immediately and walked away. I figured it was just a nut trying to psyche me out. And y’know what, it worked.
I continued to argue with my mother the next few days about what she’d said. Telling her she confused reality with a Lifetime movie. But she assured me there was no internet in her house while I lived there. She said I had my floppy disks that I’d take home with me, but that was it.
We went on arguing for a while before it occurred to me to ask, “Take home from where?”
She said she didn’t know. I’d go out at times and I’d come home with disks. I had a Sterilite tub full of them in my closet. None of them were labeled, so she didn’t know how I had any idea what was on each one. But I seemed to know. She remembered how I’d dive into my bin and dig around through all the black disks and pop up with just the one I wanted. Generally she didn’t intrude on my privacy, she said, she just saw me do it a few times.
Of course, I didn’t remember any floppy disks. Either my mother was becoming senile, or I was losing my mind. Both possibilities were upsetting. My Mom’s a really good person. She’d had a rough time since my dad died a few years ago. But she was super caring. She didn’t like to see anyone hurt. And she could see I was truly upset, not just trying to be right. So, she gave me a big hug. And she told me I should ask Ricky.
Ricky. I hadn’t thought of him. Ricky was an old high school buddy of mine. Well, we were friends from Grade 2 until we left for college. We just drifted apart after. I had him friended on Facebook and we never talked. You know how it goes. She said when I’d go out to wherever it was I went, I usually had Ricky with me. We’d walk all the way across the bridge into town to pass our weekends.
I decided to take her advice. I sent Ricky a message on Facebook. He wrote back really fast. I was surprised, because I never see status updates or any activity from him. I asked him if he was free for a phone call. I was scared about having another internet-only conversation, frankly. Facebook said he was typing a reply for about five minutes without anything happening. I was wondering what the hell novel he was typing. Then my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. I know I never gave my number to Ricky, so there’s no way it could be him, I though. While I waited, looking at my phone, Ricky started typing out periods over and over. I answered.
The voice on the other end sorta sounded like Ricky. As much as I could remember. But like he was really far away on a beat-up CB. I don’t know why, but it made me feel weird and uneasy. I said I think we have a bad connection. He said it’s the best possible and that he knows. I was about to ask what he knows when he said, “alt dot rec dot birdwatch” and hung up. I got a message on Facebook saying, “Nice catching up.” He wouldn’t answer anything I said after that.
I asked folks I knew if Ricky was okay. Apparently he was in a car accident years back and was mostly bedridden. I made a note to try visit him someday…
Anyway, alt dot rec dot birdwatch, is of course a UseNet newsgroup. I used to browse newsgroups all the time as a teen. Mostly for the porn. I was surprised they still existed. Now I had to look up how to get to them. I remembered being able to do it through my email software. But apparently that’s not a feature of Outlook anymore. So I looked up newsgroup readers and found one I’d used back in the day. Then I found some servers and started looking for alt.rec.birdwatch.
When I finally found it, it turned out to be mostly British up-skirt photography. I didn’t understand why Ricky wanted me there. Until I saw a post with the header, “Remember the dog?” and instantly felt clammy and cold. I didn’t know why, but there was something to it. Something I couldn’t put my finger on.
This is what the post read:
“Everyone remember how sometimes you’d go in there and it’d be all dusty and no-one was there like it was abandoned years ago but you could still go sit at a computer and get online? And remember how sometimes you’d go in and there’d be these people there and they were really weird and they’d just watch you like you were a rat in a maze and sometimes they were in costumes? Anyone remember the dog? Sometimes there were no people and there was just this dog at the counter. I think it was a golden retriever. It never panted. But it watched. And sometimes it’d make you do things.”
That was it. And that was enough. I was trembling and I didn’t know why. It didn’t look like anyone had replied to the message and it had been posted 3 years ago. It seemed so out of place.
I kind of started to remember. I remembered at least that there was an internet café in town. It didn’t last long. Like most internet cafes, it popped up around ‘96/’97 to take advantage of the internet craze and let people who didn’t own computers experience the wonder. When personal computers became more common, they died a quick death.
This café was popular with the teens in ’96. It got stale after that. That’s when something happened to it. It changed management or something. It changed. We tried going back just to hang out. But most kids didn’t want to be there anymore. I had some friends who just wouldn’t go. Or say why. But Ricky and I would hang out there all the time. Why couldn’t I remember that before? Maybe Mom was right all along. Maybe that’s where I was on the internet.
I replied to the newsgroup message with, “Why wasn’t I able to remember?” It was a long shot, since the post was so old. Then I started looking through the other posts, to see if there were others like it.
There were others. They were all vague. But I knew what they were about. I knew.
“Sometimes when we were hanging out, we thought we were there for just an hour or so. But when we came out, the whole day had passed. And when we talked about what we did there, we had completely different stories. Even though we were together the whole time. It was like an acid trip. And we were stupid kids, so we kept going.”
The Egypt. That’s what the place was called. None of these people would say its name. But I remembered it then, suddenly. That strange, little internet café, just behind the post-office, where I didn’t even realize there was commercial space before. The Egypt.
Someone else posted:
“There was this one time when my friend dragged me along and I didn’t feel like being there. The owners or staff or whatever weren’t there that day. It was the dog. I don’t like to think about it. Remember how it never panted? Somehow that sticks out after all this time.
“We were just goofing off. Nothing special. When I looked over at my friend’s screen, he was watching a live webcam of my bedroom. Just staring at it. I’m thinking this is a dumb joke, but it pisses me off. So I told him that was weird and I was not okay with a webcam in my room. He just said, ‘Something’s going to happen.’ Gave me the heebie-jeebies. He wasn’t joking. And it didn’t even sound like him.
“Here’s the thing that gets me most. I decided to leave, but need to piss first. On the way out, I go over to my buddy and he’s still watching the webcam. That annoys me. But worse, when I look at the screen, someone’s in my bedroom ransacking the place. Under the mattress, in drawers. I’m ready to go home and get one of dad’s golf clubs. Then the guy looks right at the camera and starts taking it down. I saw that dude’s face. It was me! No doubt about it. That was my face. How is that possible?
“You’re thinking the webcam wasn’t live. But it was…”
Someone replied to that post with:
“When you were in the bathroom, did you try knocking on the wall? Someone knocks back.”
Someone replied to that with:
“I did. He said he’d let me in, but there’s no door.”
In the sea of birdwatching photos and up-skirts dating back to ’95, that was all I could find. Took me all night. I closed it down. It was too much. I was psyching myself out. The next day, I had a reply to my post asking why I couldn’t remember. It read, “You weren’t meant to.”
I felt it then. That something really wrong would happen in that place, the Egypt.
So I started doing some research into local records to see if I could find who owned it. They’re public records, so it wasn’t hard. I’d expected to find some change in management in the ‘90s. Or where the place got sold in the 2000s. I expected wrong. It was purchased in 1980 and had had the same owner ever since. A company or organization called ‘The New Way.’ It sounded like a cult. The weird thing is, that place was never used before the Egypt, as far as I know. In 1980 there wasn’t really an internet. So… who would buy a place and do nothing with it for 15 years, just waiting for the internet to happen? It all seemed too mysterious. Plus there was nothing about this company anywhere.
It’s hard to describe how alone I started to feel at this time. I talked to some people in my life about what was going on, but their help was limited. That’s why I decided to try to go back to alt.rec.birdwatch, if it was still there. At least there someone might be having a similar experience. So I made my post. I asked if anyone else had heard of The New Way.
Then I waited. To my surprise, I got a call from Ben right after. He asked me if I’d “done anything” recently. I asked him to be more specific.
“You must have done something, because something happened,” he said.
I still had no idea what he meant. He sounded strange. His words were just slightly slurred and there was no accent anywhere in his sentences. Just a string of words. Almost like a robot, but not quite. And it had that distant quality Ricky’s call had.
“Something’s happening right now,” he told me. “I booted it up again.”
Ben was just the most rational, bland guy. Something was definitely wrong for him to be acting like this. I asked him if he was ok. He said that I needed to check my messages. I asked what messages.
He insisted, “Listen. You have to check your messages. They’ve been waiting for you.”
The whole thing didn’t feel right at all. I asked him again what messages he meant. All I heard was little whispering sounds, like pst-pst-pst. I thought I was losing him. But when I listened carefully and turned up the volume, I heard it. He was saying “please” over and over and over. I felt a pit in my stomach. I asked if he needed help, if there was anything I could do. He went silent for several seconds.
“PLEASE!” he shouted so loud I dropped my phone.
I scrambled to put the battery back in with shaking hands. And then I called in a wellness check on him. I called the Guelph campus, too, just in case. I didn’t know what else to do. I’d never experienced anything like that. I checked my email right after to see if I had anything from him. But I didn’t.
I had no voicemails. The only other ‘messages’ I could think of was ICQ. So I powered up the old computer again to check on my ICQ account. It’s possible there was nothing. I just had to make sure. It took forever to load up. But there was a message waiting. It wasn’t from anyone I recognized. The name on the account was “Bernie Busch.” The message said, “Heaven.” There was a link to an mp4 video. I clicked it. The download box said it would take 30 hours to complete. So I just let it go.
I tried replying to “Bernie,” too, but ICQ alerted me that the account was disabled. I also couldn’t find any results on any search for such a person. I don’t think Ben would ever make a fake account like that. But how did Ben know about the message?
I got contacted by someone from Guelph University’s campus security later that day. They asked me when I’d last spoken to Ben. I told them he’d just called. They said he hadn’t been to work in a few days and has not been answering the phone. I was apparently the last one to hear from him. They recommended I file a missing person’s report. I asked if his family shouldn’t do that, but the dude just snorted. So I made the report, over the phone, to the Guelph PD. I was pretty worried about the guy. I hoped he was ok. I also hoped his disappearing had nothing to do with anything I got him involved in.
The next day, I got an email replying to my post newsgroup post. I recognized the address. It was the same person who posted about the dog. She said I needed to call her urgently and provided a 1-800 number followed by what looked like a license plate number, 472BMT. When I called, I got an interactive menu system for a tanning supplies company. When I listened to the options, I got the idea that 472BMT might be how to navigate the menu. So I pressed each of the numbers in the order she said. The system said I was being transferred to an “Account Specialist.”
I heard someone pick up the line.
“You’re starting to remember, aren’t you?” a voice said.
I think I gasped. She said she couldn’t talk long, so I had to just listen. She wanted to tell me something that might help me. She said she started remembering about a year ago. She remembered the ‘sessions’ in the Egypt. They preyed on vulnerable, misfit kids. Whoever came there got introduced gradually to this website called The Hole. Once they showed it to us, we had to sit there and study it. Solve its puzzles. But it’d change us. That’s what they always said. She didn’t know if they built it or not. But it’s what they were all about.
“I think we’re still in the Hole,” she said.
I tried to ask her what that even meant. What she was talking about. She had already hung up before I got the chance. I tried calling her back, but the menu options didn’t work anymore. I was more confused than ever. I felt like I didn’t know what was real anymore. That’s a terrible place to be. Trust me. All I was sure of was that I’d come into something very wrong when I was a teen and it was coming back. I didn’t know why it took a vacation or what it wanted. I just wanted my life back to normal.
After that, I suddenly remembered the video file I left downloading on my old computer. I checked and it had completely downloaded. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what it was, but I played it anyway.
I knew what I was looking at as soon as the video started. It was footage of inside the Egypt. It’d been a long time. But it hit me fast. There was no timestamp, the footage was grainy and the tracking was off, but I knew it. It looked like it was from a corner security cam. There we all were, sitting at our computers. Strangely enough, our backs were to the monitors. We were staring at a wall. I spotted myself in the group. We just sat there, staring ahead. Nobody was moving or saying anything. I couldn’t make out what the computers were doing behind us, but we weren’t touching them. What were we staring at? What were we doing? Why would I do this? I couldn’t remember these events at all.
I was the only one that ever looked away from the wall. I kept glancing over behind the bar. It was hard to tell, but I think I was afraid of something. I looked frightened. I tried to make out what I was looking at, but the tracking lines were in the way. When they faded a little and I was able to make it out. Someone was standing there in the shadows. Whoever it was, at just that moment turned to look right at the camera. It’s like they knew I was watching. I know that’s crazy. But it creeped the heck out of me. I shut the video down there. And I don’t plan to open it again.
After that, I kept researching the New Way. ’cause there had to be something to it. I was able find a record that mentioned the owner’s name, Bernard K. Busch. The same name as on the ICQ message. I looked for obituaries, white pages, anything that could lead me to him. I didn’t think to look for missing person’s cases, but I stumbled on one anyway. An old homepage asking to, “Help us find Uncle Bern.” I emailed his niece (presumably) from the address listed asking for more information. The page was made in the year 2000, so I didn’t expect the email to work. But it did. I got a reply the same day asking me how I knew Uncle Bern.
I wasn’t sure how to answer, but I decided to go with honesty. I told her more or less what was going on, leaving out the parts that would make me sound delusional. This is what I got back.
“I’m going to put this all in one message because I don’t want us to have to talk again. Uncle Bern was a good man. He used to be a rabbi. He raised me after my parents died in an accident. He was good with electronics. He thought computers were the future. That’s why he called his company The New Way. He bought up all the commercial space he could afford with his inheritance. All over the country. It was more than he could handle. So he just rented it out.
“Life was good. He kept selling computers in his little shop. I helped when I got home from school and on weekends. He kept bees and I helped with that, too. Really, life was good. Until he married Connie in 1994. He met her during a visit to Europe. He said she worked in the same orphanage she’d been raised in and nobody knew much else about her. She was a strange woman. She didn’t like me. She was into things that scared me. I saw her make a homeless man cry by staring at him. Animals would go quiet when she was around. Sometimes she’d hide under my bed for hours, waiting for me to go to bed at night. When I did, she’d slide out and grab me. I’d scream and scream. She’d walk away like nothing happened. She didn’t laugh or say anything. It wasn’t a prank or joke. It was something else. I didn’t understand. I still don’t. I started sleeping on a beanbag chair in the basement after that.
“She’d often go into a corner of the room and whisper to someone. There was nobody there. No phone or nothing. She’d even get mad at whoever it was. Then she’d go back to knitting. She was always knitting something, but the things she’d knit were useless. Gloves with three fingers. Socks, but she’d seal up the ends, so you couldn’t wear them. I didn’t hate her. I was scared to death of her. I don’t know why she made Uncle Bern so happy.
“I remember the day she started pressuring him to turn his rental spaces into internet cafes. She told him the internet was the real future and would outlast computers. She’d say, ‘We are the internet.’ She made him get it at home, even though it was really expensive then. She had him go to this website she said didn’t really exist. I remember that, because it always made me nervous when she talked about it. Uncle Bern asked her who made it. She said she had no idea. Nobody did. She found it already made, just like everyone else. She told him it called to her. It called to everyone like her. At the time, I thought that sounded flakey. Now it just gives me creeps.
“Uncle Bern changed after that. They spent a lot of time on that website. I don’t understand it. There was nothing there. I looked over their shoulders and it was all blank. But they saw all sorts of things. And when the internet cafes started opening, more people were involved. It was strange. They would sit and stare into space. And strange things would happen. Like I could swear I heard a voice in my modem when I’d dial up and when I listened, it was saying, “it hurts.” I decided it was all in my head. Another time I got an email asking, ‘Why wasn’t I able to remember?’ I don’t know why that message upset me so much. Twenty years ago, but I remember it so vividly.
“One night when I was alone with Uncle Bern for once, I told him I wished things would be like they used to be. He said that’s what everyone wants. But it can’t be. He leaned in close and whispered, ‘It talks. Tells us things.’ He told me about how—this is strange and I didn’t understand it, but I’ll try—how human beings are set to be obsolete and they need to upgrade for the new era. He said Y2K—if you remember that—wasn’t going to affect computers like everyone thought. They’d be fine. It was going to change people. Either you evolved or you wouldn’t like what’s coming.
“I didn’t dare tell my Uncle Bern that this was crazy. I couldn’t hurt his feelings like that. But I knew something bad was going to happen. He and Connie went off to open their internet cafes all over and I left home for college. Uncle Bern kept in contact until 1999. Then he just disappeared. Connie, too.
“I know some bad things happened around those internet cafes. But it’s not Uncle Bern’s fault. Please don’t blame him.”
I had plenty more questions and I sent them to her. I never heard back. That’s getting to be a real motif in my life. But at least she gave me some answers. And it all led right back to the Hole. It had to be the same mysterious website. Just had to be. I figured if I ever wanted to know what was going on, I’d have to go to the Hole myself.
I pulled up the instructions ‘Angelica’ sent me on how to get there. I can’t say I felt like I was doing the right thing. I didn’t. It felt ass over tea kettle wrong. Like there was something really terrible just off-screen in my memories. I knew it was there, but I couldn’t see it. So I welcomed the interruption when my phone rang.
My neighbor was calling to tell me the man in the bee costume was back. He said the man was standing in my front yard. I walked over to the window and peeped out. It was nice and toasty inside, but I felt my whole body breaking into goosebumps. He was there, under the streetlight. Looking right at the window with his insectoid eyes.
I asked my neighbor how long he’d been there. He said he called me as soon as he saw it and that I should hang up and call the police. I started to do that. But there was no point calling the police. As soon as I hung up, he walked across the road and into the woods.
When hanging up, I received a notification on my phone of an email from Ben. There was no text, just a video file. I played it right away. It started with him speaking to the camera. He looked scared and like he hadn’t had sleep in about two days.
“I went into hiding,” he said, his voice shaking. “Things just got too weird. Little stuff at first. Then one night, like 3am, a group of people I’ve never seen before knock on my door I didn’t answer. I watched them through the peephole. They didn’t move. They didn’t knock again. They didn’t try to look in the peephole. They just stood there, staring at the door. They didn’t look homeless or crazy. Just people. Normal, everyday people. I called through the door that they had the wrong address. They started laughing, loud, fake guffaws. Then they silently walked away.
“Then I start getting calls where all I can hear is a man growling like a dog on the other end. And a few growly words, like, ‘why,’ and ‘abracadabra.’
“It must have really gotten to me, man, because I started having fits. I don’t know what I do during these fits. I know I upset a lady at the grocery store. Whatever you got me into, it’s bad juju. Like KGB. Illuminati bad.”
He pointed the camera away from himself to a computer monitor. When he was turning, I recognized the notepad on the desk. The same one from his description. He was in that basement storage locker. With the gopher site. I’d thought he’d shut that thing down. There was an image on the screen, updating every few seconds. But this one wasn’t pointing at my house like before. It was inside.
“Watch,” he whispered.
With each frame update, I saw a new shot of the inside of my house. First the kitchen. Update, the hallway. Update, my office door. Update, the door slightly ajar. Update, the door opened more. Update, entering my room. Update, me sitting at the computer. I could hardly breathe. I turned around slowly, expecting to see someone there. But the video wasn’t live, of course. When I turned around, the webcam was just a black screen. Because of that, I was able to make out the timestamp. It was tomorrow’s date. I’m sure someone just fiddled with the date, but that only made it creepier, if that’s even possible.
Now I had video evidence of breaking and entering. Except nothing to say who did it or why. I was losing confidence in police altogether.
The last thing Ben said on the video is that he went ahead and traced that link I gave him to “The Hole.” He was able to get a specific address. I knew the address he gave me very well. Because it’s duplex apartment I grew up in. That didn’t make any sense. Still, I knew if I wanted to know what was happening, that’s where I’d have to go.
My hometown isn’t too far from where I live now. I moved to go to college. It’s about a four hour drive away. My Mom moved to be close to me after Dad died, so I rarely have a reason to go there. I heard from Mom when they decided to abandon the duplexes. For whatever reason, they couldn’t sell or rent them anymore and didn’t have the budget to renovate, so the town government is just letting them rot.
When I first heard that news, I didn’t care much. I try not to get sentimental. But preparing to see the place again, where I had so many memories—it got to me. The days of watching He-Man in my fuzzy Star Wars pajamas. The days of watching The X-Files with Mom. The days of lying in bed all summer reading UFO books. Of course I realized it’d just be empty space now, nothing in common with those memories other than a floor plan.
Those feelings vanished soon after I arrived. I was able to sneak in through living room window in the back, just like I used to do when I’d get home from school and realize I forgot my keys. The moment feet hit the linoleum floor, the music started. It was low and distorted at first, so I couldn’t make out what it was. It didn’t matter. Someone had to be in there. And that someone knew I was there…
I waited for a sound other than the music. Nothing. I felt a little more courage. So I started walking toward the stairs. The music got louder, but no less distorted. The tune was familiar, though. I went up the stairs slowly. That’s where my old room was. By the time I got to the top, I knew what I was listening to. “Early in the Morning” by Vanity Fare. An oldie. And it was coming from a grimy old radio propped in front of my bedroom door. That was odd, because the same song started playing again when it reached the end. What radio station plays the same song twice in a row? I switched the radio off.
Doing that, I realized, telegraphed my exact location. I broke out into a cold sweat for a moment waiting for something to happen. But all I heard now was a buzzing from in the room. Like a beehive. I noticed my name placard was still on the door. Other people had lived there after Mom left, I’m sure of that. Either those people chose to leave my name on a door in their home, or someone had put it back. Either way was weird.
I opened it. I didn’t and still don’t know how to react to what I saw inside. The room had been set up to look exactly like it did when I was a teen. Not like it did after I left for college or even just before. Like it did in 1999. Down to the details. The Halloween lights around the desktop. Fangoria posters on the walls. My old Mr. T pillow on the bed. Someone had to have known my room in intimate detail to have done this. It was insane. Me, my Mom, and Ricky are about the only ones…
But there were some details that were off. At first, that was comforting. Then the more I thought about it, they seemed intentional. Like on the Candyman poster, it said it starred Tiny Lister instead of Tony Todd. And the wall was painted with the same style of stucco, but the color was a shade or two off. Things like that. They were everywhere. That was more troubling to me than the recreation itself. It’s like it was recreated in a bad dream. Or it all meant something.
I found where the buzzing was coming from, at any rate. It was the computer. It was running. I sat down and activated the screen. Like the rest of the room, the desktop was a faithful snapshot of 1999. Every icon just as I remembered. I couldn’t find anything running out of the ordinary. It was like being transported to the past.
That’s when I noticed the one thing out of order with my desktop. An icon way in the corner, almost off the screen, called “Milk and Honey”. I never had any such file. I’m sure of that. I started moving the mouse up to it. I felt strangely afraid to open it. Before I could, the radio started blasting “Early in the Morning” again. My heart almost stopped.
I looked behind me expecting the worst. Nobody was there. I got up to switch the radio off. But it was still off. I checked the batteries and there were none. That’s when I realized the music wasn’t coming from the radio. I don’t think it ever was.
I wanted to get out of there. I’ve felt fear before. I don’t think I’ve ever known what dread feels like before then. Not really. But I had to find out what “Milk and Honey” was. It loaded a Telnet connection. I hadn’t seen one of those in a while. The connection worked, because in a few seconds an ASCII mountain filled the window.
I waited and waited for something to happen. But nothing did. Just the mountain. I tried submitting some inputs. I even wondered if the connection died. I was going to retry, but I got a phone call from Det. Thereault just then.
“Are you alone?” he asked.
I thought that was strange. But I told him I believed I was. But I wasn’t sure. He asked where I was. I told him. He said I needed to get out of that house slowly and calmly, get in my car, and drive back to him. His voice—I knew that sound. It was controlled panic. Something was definitely wrong.
I was ready to listen. But I told him I wanted to know what’s going on. He said he had a gut feeling about something and decided to check back with Angelica to make sure everything was OK. Everything was not. He said that girl he’d put me in contact with two weeks ago was not Angelica. They had no idea who that woman was, because no-one’s been able to find her. The home she was in was apparently between renters. Nobody lived there at the time. All they found left behind was a script detailing what she was supposed to say when she spoke to me.
I was speechless. And confused. I’d just readjusted my thinking to believe everything with Angelica was a lie. And now that the truth about the lie was also a lie, did that make the lie true? But it got worse. Det. Thereault said he contacted Angelica’s family again and asked more questions. A lot more. She had every message I ever sent her printed out. Pictures of me. A map of my hometown. A doll. He said in some of the pictures I was clearly sleeping. Did I know of any such pictures? I couldn’t speak. He took my silence for a ‘No.’ And he was right.
“There’s more,” he said. “But you have to get back here now. Calmly.”
I thanked him and prepared to do just what he said. That’s when I noticed more had happened on the telnet screen. There was a question up. “Are you alone?”
“Is that you?” I asked, but the Detective had already hung up. I didn’t really think it was him anyway. I’d just hoped.
I responded in the Telnet client that I believed I was alone.
As soon as I did, sound started coming from the computer speakers. It came out slow and garbled. “This message is a warning transmitted by dilatons after after 21 hundred, break this device, shut it all down, get out, save yourself.”
I had no idea what it meant, really. I only remember it because it kept repeating, so I was able to record it. Other than that, I couldn’t find anything strange on the computer. I unplugged it from everything anyway, just in case.
I got up, ready to calmly exit like the detective said. I would’ve been ok, I think. But I saw something. Something that froze me in place. There were strands of dark hair flowing from under the bed. I just kept staring at them. Mentally, I needed to make sure I was seeing right, that it wasn’t just threads. It was dark in that area, after all. My eyes adjusted slowly and I realized I wasn’t just looking at hair. I had been looking right into someone’s eye for half a minute. And whoever it was had just been staring right back the whole time.
I screamed. And I ran, jumping several steps at a time, out the front door. Sure, it wasn’t my proudest moment. What matters is I lived.
I don’t know who that was. I didn’t want to find out. Knowing I was being watched that whole time. It still felt like that eye was on me. That’s pretty much ruined my memories of that place forever.
There was just one other thing to do in town while I was there. The Egypt. I don’t know if I disconnected “The Hole” by unplugging that computer. But I still had to face the Egypt again.
When I got there, the parking lot of the post office was completely empty. I parked in back, in front of the filthy, old windows of what used to be an internet café. I didn’t even have to break in. The glass in the door had already been busted. I just had to reach in and unlock. My hand started tingling as soon as I reached in. I kept expecting someone or something to grab my hand.
When I got in, I was shocked to see it hadn’t really changed at all. Computers everywhere. A sign-up sheet on the counter. And no-one there. I started hearing some low voices. As soon as I did, I looked around for a place to hide. The voices continued, distant and muffled. It took me a moment to recognize my own voice. It was the conversation I’d had with Angelica. The part where she told me about being seen in places she’d never been. It was coming from one of the computers. I got closer to it and I could see someone was up on the screen. I knew what it was right away. The animated skeleton gifs and links to conspiracy theories and Heaven’s Gate. Yeah, it was my homepage. The one that was deleted almost two decades ago. I never thought I’d see it again. But why? Who put it there?
On another computer, I saw a video of a middle-aged couple staring into the camera. Like they were watching me. And a little girl peeking over their shoulder. The woman said, “It chose you” and the man was shaking his head slightly. He looked frightened.
Then another computer started playing a song. I recognized the sound of Vanity Fare again. “Hitchin’ a Ride.” That made it click. I’d just walked into a trap. I had to get out.
But I couldn’t. These people started coming inside. I hadn’t even heard them approaching. A middle-aged woman with long, black hair, well-dressed. An older businessman, it looked like. A rough-looking homeless guy. More and more people crowded in without saying anything. They were moving toward me. I tried talking to them, but their faces were blank, emotionless. They didn’t seem to hear. I ran into the bathroom and closed the door behind me. It had a simple turn-the-bolt lock, so I locked it.
I pulled out my phone to see if I could get the police, but there was no signal. I started hyperventilating and had to catch myself against the wall. That’s when I remembered the story about the guy knocking on the wall. Maybe there weren’t bricks on the other side. I knocked for a hollow spot and when I found one I started kicking a hole in the drywall. I tore the rest of the hole open with my hands. There was space back there. I used my phone’s flashlight to look inside. The space was about two feet in width to the brick wall. I stepped inside. There were tons of floppy disks stashed in there. It was crazy.
I heard those people breathing outside the door. They weren’t trying to open it or beat it down. They were breathing heavily against it. Then I saw something moving under the door frame. I thought it was a finger slipping under, maybe trying to grab a shoelace or something. But it was too pink. Too wet. It was a tongue. One of them was licking under the door.
That scared me enough to go deeper into the space, stumbling over pieces of sheetrock. But there was nowhere to go. While I waited for something, anything to happen, I noticed two things. One, written above the hole I just made, on the inside, “The Hole” had been painted. The other, it wasn’t sheetrock I was stumbling over. It was bones. I don’t know how long I sat there. Suddenly the breathing sounds stopped. A few minutes later, Detective Thereault burst into the bathroom. The door splintered at the first thrust. Those people could’ve gotten to me if they’d wanted to.
The detective said no-one was out there when he arrived. While he escorted me out, I saw all the computers were gone, the guestbook, all of it. But the bones and floppy disks were there and very real. He said we’d have a lot to discuss.
After I got away from the police station, I came home and settled down to try and relax. Anything to rest my nerves. Just as I settled, I got an email notification on my phone that said, “please look” and provided a link. I didn’t recognize the number. But since the link was to a Guelph University page, I figured it was Ben.
The link brought me to the webcam that Ben found weeks ago on the Gopher server. I was regretting my decision to trust it already. Why couldn’t they just leave me alone? The frames kept updating, but nothing was happening. Until, with one update, I saw the trunk of my car was opening. When the frame updated 4 seconds later, the trunk was fully open and someone was hanging half out. I guess I was mesmerized, because I just kept watching, waiting for the next frame update. Whoever it was, he was standing at my door.
I went to my front door and looked out the peephole. No-one was there. I looked at my phone again to check the webcam. Someone was—or should be—standing right in front of it. Maybe it was something that happened in the past. I looked through the peephole again and it was blocked. It took a moment to realize I was looking right into someone’s face. An awful, hate-filled face.
I took my phone with me to my office and locked the door. I heard my front door knob rattling and then open. I knew I’d locked it. Whoever it was walked in purposefully right to the office, like they already knew where I was going. I didn’t have much confidence in the lock. I expected the door to fly open immediately. Instead, I heard a weird, distant voice, just like when I spoke to Ricky. It was like the weather radio tuned to the wrong frequency.
“Why did you leave?” it asked.
I called 911. I heard the operator pick up, but I couldn’t speak. The door opened and this person walked in. His face was hazy. But it was familiar. He had some kind of weapon. He forced me to get on my computer and go to the Hole. He walked me through each step. I didn’t have a choice. I did it. After all those years, there it was. The same, bland page that seemed to do nothing. But I could feel it like fingers poking in my brain.
It was like I was still in my office. But that guy was gone. So were other things. I could see things that were always there but weren’t really there. It was all the same, but just a little different.
I was still on the phone with 911, I realized. I tried to tell the operator that the man was gone. Nothing I said was coming out right. I kept telling the operator that I saw tot I saw a putty cat. And the operator was telling me, “That’s the Captain. He’s a jackal. And he’s not happy with you.”
“You ever heard of phreaking?” someone asked. It was disorienting, but I knew right away I was looking at Ben. And I wasn’t in my home. There was a guy standing with Ben that I didn’t recognize. I asked if I was in Guelph and how I got there.
He assured me I was in a motel in my hometown. He didn’t trust technologically facilitated communication anymore, so he came all the way to talk to me. And he introduced his associate as ‘Milky.’ He’d found him holed up in a Catholic commune in rural Ontario. They said I was in serious danger.
Milky spoke then. His voice was slurred. He was aware of it, because he apologized for it. He went on to tell me what happened to him. He said he’d been a part of this hacking community for years. Nothing for profit. Just good ol’ fashioned mischief. They especially liked dicking with fringe and religious groups. They started on IRC. When the WWW became the thing, they migrated to a web forum. One day a hidden link appears on the forum. Other members try to scrub it and insist that no-one touch it.
One of the guys on the forum, one of their oldest members who fled the Soviet Union back in the ‘70s, said he knew what it was. It was studied before and it was never, ever supposed to be available to the public. He’d seen what Stalin could do, what murderers could do, and he wasn’t scared. That was life. This thing scared him.
It sounded like a put on. Milky said this guy had a healthy sense of humor. But the guy swore it was real. He said it started way back when the first computers were being networked. The electrons and other particles that are brought together and herded about in making these connections leave empty spaces of nothing where they were. It’s like an “antinet.” And the more and more we connect all over the world, the more this emptiness grows.
And what’s so scary about that? someone on the forum asked. And he replied, “Just because it’s empty space doesn’t mean there’s nothing in it.” He wouldn’t elaborate on that. No matter how much they tried. He’d only tell them he’d seen it for himself.
Milky figured the guy didn’t want to make them curious about it. That failed. He was very curious about it. More than ever. So he clicked the link. He remembered being disappointed by it. Because it was just a blank page. But after clicking it, he started to notice strange things happening. He lost track of time. He’d be told by acquaintances that he’d done things he had no memory of doing. Or even that he couldn’t have done, because he was doing something else.
This one time, he heard his dog barking. It was 3AM. He got up to see what was going on. The dog was standing in the entrance to his living room just barking nonstop. He expects to find a mouse cornered in there. But he said he remembers being so startled, he tried to scream but no sound would come out. Two men in business suits were sitting on his couch.
He immediately thought of a mob hit. But it’s Canada. What mob? He turned on the light. They didn’t flinch. They looked like normal businessmen. They were staring at the floor, drinking Capri Sun. He told them to get out of his house or he’d call the police. They just got up and left. On the way out, one of them said, “You asked us to come and sit here.” He never saw those men again in his life.
Another time, he called his brother in Vancouver to wish him a happy birthday. They had a pleasant chat and he hung up the phone, went about his business. About an hour later, it hit him like a punch in the gut. His brother died two years ago. He always called him on his birthday. He just did it so reflexively, and when he got an answer, it was like old times.
“Who the hell was I talking to, man?” he asked.
His stories sounded a lot like the ones the fake/real Angelica told me about when I talked to her weeks ago. So either I was speaking to the real Angelica then, or maybe this wasn’t the real Ben and Melke. I guess I couldn’t be sure about anything anymore. At least it was less scary to believe they were real.
During that time, he said, he kept checking the Hole. He wanted to figure it out. He thought it was controlling him. He didn’t remember the things he saw when he visited. But he said the old Soviet was right. It wasn’t empty. What he saw in there—his brain wouldn’t let him remember.
I just wanted to know why all this was happening. Ben stepped in. He said there’s only one way he can think of for this ‘site,’ if it can be called that, to influence a mind that way. It has to be electromagnetic emissions. It must somehow be able to read them off of us and produce them as well. It’s a technique that was experimented with as a form of phreaking. But never with biological systems.
As to why, he didn’t think there was any purpose. It was just there and did what it did. It was the antinet. It introduces emptiness, division, and chaos instead of connection. That’s just a byproduct of its existence. And its existence is a byproduct of the internet. Like angry Facebook arguments are a byproduct of the internet. It was never supposed to be something you could just navigate to. It was theoretical. A thing a few computer scientists knew about. Somehow someone leaked it out there. It was all over. It was buried on the Heaven’s Gate website. Hacking forums. Occult sites. The fringe of the internet is where it moved.
That was a lot to take in. And I’m not sure how much of it I really believe. On top of that, apparently several hours had passed since the man made me click to the Hole.
I suddenly remembered what the 911 operator said to me.
“Who’s the Captain?” I asked.
Milky was shaving when I asked him. His hand stopped moving. I saw in the mirror tears forming in his eyes. He was visibly shaking.
“Captain Meat. From the Hole. It looks kinda like a dog.”
Then he went back to shaving like nothing happened.
Later I thanked Ben and Milky for saving me. For risking so much, really. Especially Ben. And for trying to warn me with the link to the webcam. But both of them denied ever sending that text. They asked to see it. They couldn’t figure out where it came from. They checked the link to the webcam, too. It still worked. There was the front of my home. My car, with the trunk still open. We watched it for a few frame updates before Ben noticed. Someone was in the trunk. It was dark and grainy. But that was definitely someone in there. And I shuddered when we all agreed that whoever that person was, they were looking right at the camera. Or us. We turned it off.
I woke up in the middle of the night a few nights later. We’d decided we didn’t want to keep paying for the motel, so we were crashing with my Mom by then. She was happy for the company. And she was obviously worried about me. She said I had to get a grip and not let my life slip away.
“Just solve this thing,” she said.
It was weird. It wasn’t the sort of thing my Mom would say.
Anyway, I woke up. Because I was hearing whispering sounds. You’d think louder sounds would wake you. But no. The whispers are the worst. I listened carefully. I tried not to move. I wanted to hear where they were coming from. It was a two-way conversation. I couldn’t make out any of the content, though. Just a word here and there.
I got up slowly and looked toward the corner of the room. That’s where I thought the sounds were. It took a while for my eyes to adjust. When they did, I saw Milky kneeling in front of one of the electrical sockets. He’d whisper something into it, then turn his head and wait. And whispers came back. He saw me looking and said, “Some trick, huh?”
I guess it was ventriloquism. But why do that alone in the middle of the night? ‘cause he was crazy. I got out of bed and went out to the kitchen for water. I could see someone standing out on the front porch through the kitchen window. Figuring Ben couldn’t sleep either, I went out to ask him if Milky was really ok. Because he didn’t seem to be. I flicked on the outdoor light and stepped out. But it wasn’t Ben out there. It was Milky again. He tried to tell me something about constellations, but I walked back in. Something wasn’t making sense. There was no way he could’ve gotten out that fast. Some trick, huh?
I went into the living room. The TV was on. It was the episode of Seinfeld where George finds a doll that looks like his mother. That made me uncomfortable, so I changed to another channel. The program guide said The Ninth Gate would be showing. I always liked that one. But instead of The Ninth Gate, it was The Ten Commandments. Very different movies. Only one number off, though.
Seeing Hesston’s Moses posturing with the Egyptians struck me. I never did get to speak to HolyMoses. I let myself be distracted, chased off, or both. And everything happening just seemed to be getting more and more filled with coincidences and connections that weren’t adding up. Or added up too well. Which is the same thing, if you ask me.
I started up Mom’s computer. It still ran Windows XP. It was Dad’s computer and she didn’t like change. I had to download mIRC. As soon as I did, I connected to EFnet. This time I was going to talk to him. He wasn’t hard to find. Just a WhoIs and there he was, in @H1N1. He was the only one in there, besides me. Not a lot of bird flu fans, I guess.
Before I could send him a message, an email notification appeared on screen. I guess Mom had it on auto-start. The notification caught my eye, because it said it was from Det. Thereault, subject “Information Requested.” I shouldn’t have, but since it was from the detective, I felt it had to concern my situation. I clicked on it and read,
“As we discussed, here is the documentation on the dental records with the doctor’s signature.”
The attached document was about the skeletal remains found in the Egypt. I felt a sudden wave of horror, because I thought I knew what was coming. Dad’s bones somehow got in there. But I was wrong. They matched the skeleton up to my dental records. Mine!
“I don’t know who that man is,” he went on, “but he is not your son.”
That was just absurd. I knew my own mother, for Pete’s sake! I thought about deleting the email, but that wouldn’t do any good. Then I started piecing things together. Wondering if maybe I really was dead. Or maybe I was an imposter, and that’s why I had memory lapses.
Then I remembered I was just about to message HolyMoses. Why did something always happen when I was about to message him? It had to be a trick. I went back to IRC and sent HolyMoses a message.
“Who are you?”
No response. I got a sudden message from u47284u, “Do you know where your mother is?”
I ignored him. I sent another message to HolyMoses.
“Do you know what’s going on?”
u47284u messaged me again, “Are you sure she’s okay?”
I took a chance on what I remembered from Angelica’s story. I sent HolyMoses a short message.
The letter “M.”
This immediately triggered a file transmission, which I accepted. It was a video file. It downloaded in about 5 minutes. If HolyMoses was as old as they claimed, this video would’ve taken a day or two back then. The video was called, “Freedom.mov”
Milky came in from outside, stood a few feet away from me, and stared at me. That was unnerving enough. Then the pantry door started to open. Ben stepped out. He had to have been sitting cramped in there all that time. He also stood still and just stared at me. My Mom came in from outdoors—why was she outdoors and where? She joined Milky and Ben.
“What’s going on?” I asked them.
They didn’t speak. I felt the tension in the air and the assurance that something would happen. The suspense and stillness was getting worse than anything they could do to me. My heart was beating so fast.
And I had been hearing a dripping sound for a minute or two without paying attention. Too much was going on. Now I looked to where the sound was coming from. I saw fat beetles crawling out from Milky’s sleeves, over his hands, and dropping to the floor. What was going on?
I think I was so afraid I couldn’t feel it anymore. Slowly, I grabbed a loose USB dongle, attached it to my phone, and to the computer. I’m surprised that old computer could read the phone, but it did. While they stared at me, I transferred the video file to my phone. I unplugged the dongle, took my phone, and ran to the bathroom, where I locked myself in.
I heard feet shuffle up to the door and stop there. I turned on the shower to drown out sound and then started watching the video. The webcam being used was severely damaged, by the looks of it. But I could make out a very sickly looking older man. The audio was distorted. And I had the shower running. So I had to start it over and up the volume. The man said he’d been trying to warn me. The dilaton distortion from the Hole allows him to send messages during brief windows. If I am listening to this, he said, I am in the Hole and have been for a while. Other things are also in here. While he spoke, I kept hearing screams in the background of the recording, some sounded closer than others. He said these things don’t want me going anywhere. I need to get out before it’s too late. He knows, he said, because he’s me. The last thing he said before the video ended abruptly was “the birds and the bees.”
I couldn’t leave through the door, so I pulled up the blind to leave through the bathroom window. I almost shrieked when I saw my mother’s face pressed up against the window. I was trapped. I thought about pushing through anyway. But I couldn’t hit my mother. I could hit Ben or Milky if I had to, but not my mother. So I took the door. Nobody was there. That just made me worry about where they really were.
I stepped outside and still, nobody there. I hurried to my car before Mom could come around from the back. Then I heard rapid footsteps. Ben was running right toward me from way down the street.
“Stop hurting me!” he shouted.
But he didn’t look in pain. He looked in a rage. I got in my car and started backing up. When he got to me, he was pounding on the windows, still screaming.
I drove straight back to my home, leaving them all behind. The only explanation could be that I’m “in the Hole,” whatever that means. Because there was no other way Ben and my Mom would act like that. But when did that happen? And what does that even mean, anyway?
Before I even stepped inside my home, I knew something was wrong. Waves of something—just bad, pure bad—were hitting me. I opened my front door. Everything looked normal. I started turning on all the lights. And I grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer. Then I saw them. Two men in bee costumes sitting on my treadmill. Looking at the floor. Not moving. Almost like they were stuffed. Or forgot where they were.
“What do you people want from me?” I said.
I kept a tight grip on the knife.
They stood up. Then they both looked down the hall toward my office. I followed their gaze, but saw nothing down there. After a few seconds of wondering what they saw, I heard the song start. “Early in the Morning.” While I was looking down the hall, they were already heading out the door.
I decided to follow them. Because whatever started that music gave me a worse feeling than them. As I stepped out the door, I’m sure I heard a dog growling behind me.
I followed them across the road and into the woods. I turned my phone flashlight on to be able to follow them. It’s like they could see in the dark, the way they navigated the woods. The deeper we went, the more uneasy I became. They just seemed to keep going and going.
But the deeper we went, the more I started to hear birds. I never even thought of it before, but I hadn’t heard any birds for a long time. Weeks at least. Or locusts or any normal springtime sounds. The more I followed the bees, the more I heard the birds, until they got loud enough I figured we must be under a massive collection of nests. I kept following them until it got too loud to bear and then it sounded like machinery, like elevators. There was a machine. Hidden out in the middle of nowhere. I followed them inside and then…
And then I was back in my office, sitting at my desk, slumped over my keyboard. The corner of my mouth was wet. I must’ve blacked out. I picked myself up. It felt like I was just waking up from a deep sleep. The room was bright with sunlight. I could hear birds chirping up a frenzy outside. My screensaver was on. When I shifted the mouse, just to see what time it was, there was an email from the globetrotter.net Angelica.
It read, “Pretty intense, huh? You can spend the rest of your life in there.”
I sat disoriented for a while, before realizing I had to urinate, eat and drink. When I had done those things, I looked around my home for clues. The knife I’d taken was back where it belonged. My old computer was put up in its box. I called my Mom to ask if she was OK. She didn’t remember any of the events from the previous night.
That’s when I remembered the video on my phone. From HolyMoses. I checked and it was still there. I knew I wasn’t dreaming. I played it back. Here would be my evidence. The video was 2 minutes of distorted audio and video. In all the distortions, no recognizable sounds or images.
That was a few weeks ago. It’s taken me some time to get calibrated to reality. Nothing strange has happened since. I can’t explain what happened. Maybe I had a psychotic break. I was under a lot of stress at work. Maybe someone was gaslighting the hell out of me. Maybe there really is a secret website that uses electromagnetic waves to mess with your mind.
I’m just glad it’s over. I’m glad to be going back to work like a regular person. Making banana smoothies. Not thinking about sinister internet cafes. I really do remember the Egypt and the Hole and—it’s like reality all twisted. I’ll just end by saying I don’t think I’ll be feeling any nostalgia for the old days of internet for a good, long while. The only problem I’m having is, whenever I’m trying to sleep, I keep remembering the whole nightmare and asking myself, “Am I still inside?” But, then, what difference would it make?
Reading Time: 13minutes
My cousin Patrick was murdered a few months ago. Yeah, Patrick was weird and self-absorbed, but at the end of the day, he was only twenty-four.
I didn’t know much about what happened other than what his friend Jamal told me. Jamal had even posted on Reddit about it.
The whole ordeal sounded truly terrifying. Patrick had been murdered by a weird girl he matched with on Tinder. She’d worn a female mannequin mask, a design made even creepier by its permanent crooked smile. Like a mask made from human flesh rather than plastic or latex. Her name was “Shannon.” Or at least, that’s what she called herself.
Jamal had even showed me her profile. Sure, Shannon was pretty. An exotic black girl with striking eyes. But I could tell she was just being herself. No extravagant make-up or delusional vanity. Not like the lens-crazed models I’d see on all the other apps. She was genuine. And all too real… like a sexy horror movie villain brought to life. All mystique and mystery… but still fucking terrifying.
Like a haunting memento, Shannon’s profile was still right there on Tinder for all to see. Her mannequin mask concealed everything but those hypnotic eyes.
The police never found her. And at this point, I doubt they ever will.
When I was younger, me and Patrick were close. But we grew apart over the years… I guess that was normal considering how far we lived apart. I was in Rincon, Georgia, he was in Stanwyck. But I still felt terrible when I found out what happened. His issues didn’t make him evil. He wasn’t *that* weird. Then again, I guess I was more empathetic because I suffered from the same low self-esteem. Even with my attractive face, I was very much unconventionally handsome. Not hot enough to be a pretty boy. 5’9 and slender. Not athletic. Long brown hair, bright eyes. Pale as fuck. Shitty fashion. Yeah, all I could ever attract were guys. Not that I was mad since I was bi… but I preferred women. But for whatever reason, they didn’t seem attracted to me. And in a conservative, one-Wal-Mart town like Rincon… I mean being openly bi wasn’t exactly encouraged. And unlike with bi women, people always acted disgusted rather than aroused when they found out I liked men too. Maybe most women were hesitant to say they were turned on by it… I don’t know. Goddamn double standard.
I was also *horrific* at talking to girls. Here I was, twenty-one-year-old James Fulton and I could use one hand to count the number of times I’d actually had sex. With men and women. I guess my anxiety carried over into these real-life conversations. That and I wasn’t hot enough. Or confident enough for that matter. Not to mention I was taking all my illustration courses on-line at SCAD… Rincon was about forty minutes from Savannah, so yeah. Kind of a hectic drive just to go flirt with SCAD’s finest. Not that my social skills would let me score anyway.
So like a compulsion, I’d resort to Patrick’s hobbies. Yeah, I’d show off my body to people on-line. About the only way I could alleviate my loneliness. And on the internet, well, my social awkwardness didn’t carry over. I could see why Patrick did this, even when it almost got him killed and even when it ultimately did get him killed. There was excitement to sexting. To being an exhibitionist. I felt wanted. I felt so… sexy.
But I did get bored from time to time. Even on-line, I couldn’t make myself look better. Yeah, I was attractive but still kinda weird. I got called ugly pretty often… at least, I had my body to fall back on. Still oftentimes, there was only so far I could go by being well-hung. I mostly only attracted dudes.
I think the breaking point finally came on Bumble. This fucking app was literally tailor-made for women to go on sexting sprees with guys of their choosing. They were the ones who matched and then had the option to message the guy. And yeah… even when I used my best photos, I got three matches from over 500+ swipes. So, 497 out of 500 women found me unattractive enough to not even bother with a fucking swipe.
Then inspiration hit me. I was gonna make a fake profile. Rather than me, I’d use a super-hot guy for the pics.
I figured why not? It was Christmas break, and my parents were at my sister’s house for another week. I was home alone on a Friday night. No date as usual. Literally frozen in by the horrific frigid rain that may as well have been snow. Just trapped in our suburban fortress.
Sitting on a couch in the living room, my eyes stayed glued to my phone. A couple of empty beers on the coffee table.
I found my “actor” for the night. Logan McCarron. Some Instagram model and workout freak. Handsome in the country star Blake Shelton/Luke Bryan way. Like Bieber or the Kardashians, his Instagram was full of obnoxious vanity. A scrapbook of pics showcased his sexy face, warm smile, muscles, a trimmed beard, bubble butt, etc. He was a consensus All-American hottie. The perfect choice for the night.
Like a mad scientist, I set the profile up. For added realism, I even included links to Logan’s Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Everything was set. And within seconds, the matches piled up. Like a nude Matt Bomer had stumbled into a divorced housewives meeting (okay, a theoretically straight Bomer). Holy fuck, I hadn’t even begun swiping, and I had fifty matches… talking about easy living when you were traditionally attractive.
My swipe-a-thon began. And through the process, my phone buzzed with the ferocity of a dying bumblebee. The women messaged me first, and before I knew it, my inbox was fucking swamped. This wasn’t Farmers Only, and “Logan” was still a fucking beefcake dream. A tantalizing beacon for the app’s single horny women.
The messages ranged from innocent flirtation to awful pick-up lines stereotypically attached to loser men. Not to mention some outright lewd come-ons:
Damn, you’re fine
Dat ass doe 😉
Show me that butt, sexy
Fuck, come here now!1!
Excitement surged through my veins. I felt exploited and coveted. Fetishized. Like how I always wanted to feel but was never considered “hot” enough. If this was gender equality in on-line dating then sign me the fuck up. Just to sit back and bask in the glow of female admiration was fucking amazing.
Logan McCarron’s hotness was like a cheat code to a complex game. Flirting with women had never been easier. Once the conversations got rolling, I’d even tell girls my “friend” thought they were hot. Of course, that friend would be me. And the crazy fucking thing was that these ladies would be like “oh, he’s so cute.” Then sure enough, I’d be talking to them on Snap and sexting them. Logan was like the greatest wingman I never had!
Soon, I got a message from a short-haired brunette hottie named Taylor. She was 22 and a Georgia Southern student. Cute smile, a total coed. Hey sexy, she said.
Grinning, I sent a reply: What’s up, hot stuff?
From there, the conversation flowed like a smooth river. Constant compliments were traded. We made small talk about college. She’d even been to Rincon before! She had family here… I mean I actually had a shot at meeting Taylor if I played my cards right.
Then Taylor sent a message that caught me off-guard. Not from shock or terror. Just amusement. I have a secret to tell you.
Curious, I replied. Whats up?
Within seconds, I got a quick reply. As if Taylor already had the message ready: These photos aren’t me
I couldn’t help but crack a smirk. Oh, the irony!
Taylor continued: I’m not as pretty as that girl. I just know guys would ignore me if I used my real face :p
Chuckling, I responded: I doubt that. But I understand tho
With her typical ferocious speed, Taylor replied: It’s just guys always go for the superhot girls. And I want those sexy guys… I like getting their pics :p
Before I could reply, Taylor’s picture message dominated my screen. Like an Amber Alert, it conquered my iPhone.
The image made me jump back in fright.
There was a female college student sitting in a dark room. Dressed in a black hoodie and leggings. Even a vampire cape. Like a Halloween reveler who celebrated year-round. The mannequin mask concealed her face. The mask’s eternal smile taunted me.
I recognized the outfit all too well… the same mask Jamal had shown me. Shannon. Patrick’s killer. Only now, months later, she had returned. Only on a different app.
A roaring buzz from my phone made me jump again.
Uneasy, my trembling finger closed the photo.
Shannon’s latest message awaited me: That’s me 🙂
Too scared, my breathing grew heavier. I heard the rain’s incessant rhythm outside, but not much else. In this terrified state, I could only feel my gut twisting as if Shannon was crushing my soul. The doll mask forever emblazoned in my mind like a vision of Hell… I realized Shannon could elicit such fear merely through a keyboard. She had me too scared to even send a fucking message.
Another message hit me: What do you think sexy? :p
I struggled to type a reply: Where’s Taylor?
In a split second, Shannon responded: Don’t worry, she’s right here with me 😉
Then another picture swallowed my screen.
Just judging from the pretty short brown hair, I knew it was Taylor.
The twenty-two-year-old coed’s body was sprawled out on a bed. In the same dark room Shannon was in. Everything on Taylor a slaughtered mess. Aside from the brunette hair, all I could see was a smorgasbord of redness. Taylor’s blood gave the bed sheets and covers a new color. Her face sliced into smithereens like grotesque plastic surgery had been performed. Taylor’s body a mangled corpse save for the untouched brown hair… as if Shannon had kept her hair unscathed for a color contrast to all the crimson. Like a disturbed art project. And judging by the amount of time it would’ve taken Shannon to “operate,” I figured Taylor had been dead for several hours. Well before she matched and messaged me.
Horrified, I turned away. I felt my gut sink to even further depths. Straight to Hell. The montage of the mannequin smile, Taylor’s slaughtered corpse, and all the blood blared through my mind like a torturous montage.
My phone buzzed to life and the pic slid off my screen. I was back in my inbox.
A new message from a hot meathead guy was up top. J.R. I had sexted him earlier.
Hesitant, I clicked on it: Hey, gorgeous
I got ready to reply when another picture message popped up.
The photo was in a bright living room. There was J.R. laid out on a sofa. His throat slit in a thin line. Another surgical cut. Dry blood was strewn all around his throat like a gory necklace. His eyes wide open and staring at the camera.
Like an evil Angel, Shannon stood right above him. Her cape fluttering, a long knife in her gloved hand. Blood decorated the blade and Shannon’s mask. Like J.R., her eyes too stared at the camera. Only rather than a lifeless gaze, those cold eyes were focused. From my perspective, they seemed to be marking my soul.
“Fuck,” I said, my voice trembling.
I exited the pic and went back to my inbox. Too scared to even look at the array of pretty faces overpopulating it. For all I knew, Shannon had killed each and every one of them…
My phone vibrated once more, sending shockwaves through my fingertips. I saw a new message up top. From Shannon herself.
The profile pic was a close-up of her photo with J.R. Blood covered Shannon’s mask like make-up. Her eyes latched onto me and never letting go.
Looking back, I should’ve called the police right then and there. I should’ve told them about Patrick. About Shannon. And that she was back on the on-line dating scene. But I was drunk… and terrified. And I was alone. Besides, I knew what happened when Jamal called. Nothing. Like a ghost, Shannon always managed to disappear into the night.
Curiosity joining my horror, I clicked on the message.
Hey, cutie, Shannon had said in one of her typical teases.
I couldn’t make myself type a thing. All I could do was stare at that creepy fucking mask.
Shannon’s next message sent a chill down my spine. A scare that sliced through my dread like a powerful crescendo.
I’m coming for you now, baby 😉
Seconds later came another one: I’m ready for you. I just hope ur ready for me :p
Trembling, my eyes darted over toward the kitchen. The front door. Various thoughts plagued me… was the door locked? How far away was this crazy bitch?
Georgia Southern was just on up the road. And she’d killed fucking Taylor several hours ago… she could be in Rincon this very second.
I remembered what Shannon did to Patrick. They found his body hacked like a jack-o’-lantern. A knife had been jabbed through his eyeball… while he was still alive.
My phone vibrated once more. Startled, I checked it.
Shannon’s next Bumble text: I’m on the way now, baby
Regardless of the cold Winter, I felt sweat build up in my palms. My heart pounded at the speed of a helicopter rotor. The incessant raindrops echoed through my mind like bell chimes in a cemetery.
So you better get ready, Shannon went on.
Then she sent another message: Logan 🙂
Relief hit me hard. Of course! She didn’t know who the fuck I was. My name. My location. To her, I was Logan McCarron. The traditionally handsome country boy.
Shannon kept sending me more texts. And each one only gave me more hope. They hit me like blanks.
She sent me Logan’s Facebook link. His Instagram. A screenshot of the hometown he had listed on Facebook (Brunswick, Georgia).
Then she said this: 1306 Flowers Road
Like a dutiful detective, she even included a screenshot of this address she’d found on Google. Logan’s home address.
By now, a weak smile crossed my face. That wasn’t Rincon, Georgia or 1610 Wayne Road. Much less my fucking name. Catfishing had saved my fucking life.
Like a passive-aggressive avalanche, Shannon’s threats piled up in our chat.
I’m on the way, sweetie
I can’t wait, Logan
I’m gonna have a fucking blast cutting you open for everyone to see
Answer me, bitch!!
Like a deranged survivor, I cackled at them. And I didn’t respond to a single fucking one.
“Fuck you, bitch!” I yelled at my phone in triumph.
With authority, I tossed my phone on to the coffee table. My grin lingered longer than Shannon’s mask’s smile. Relaxed, I leaned back on the couch.
Ghost Adventures was still on. And rather than being distracted by the weight of dread, I could now watch this shit in all its cheesy glory.
Hearing my iPhone vibrate with steadier precision than the rain, I looked back at it. Shannon was relentless. And pissed.
Then some fear reappeared. I now realized she was about to track down Logan McCarron. I didn’t wanna think about his fate. Or the fact that if Shannon were to slaughter him, it’d be my fault. But I couldn’t lie to myself… for all my selfish vanity, I had a conscience. I had empathy.
Like I was confronting a traumatic photo, my cautious grasp snatched the still-buzzing phone. Then I did the right thing: I called the police.
If I thought my anxiety was bad with women, it was overpowering when talking to the dispatcher. The fact she was a female with a pretty voice didn’t help. But I did it anyway. I had to. And I managed to explain my crazy story. I mentioned Patrick, I told her about all the death pics I got. But at the end of the day, all I could really do was request a welfare check. The dispatcher was kind and patient, and that’s all I could ask for. A squad car would be heading on over to 1306 Flowers Road soon enough. And hopefully, before it was too late.
Anxious, I hung up and went back to Bumble. And like the ghost she always was, Shannon’s profile was gone. As were Taylor and J.R.’s. All the disturbing photos gone with them.
I was disappointed… yet I couldn’t help but feel some relief. Shannon was out of my life now. Out of my fearful mind. And off my Bumble. With sickened amusement, I couldn’t help but wonder which app this killer Cupid would end up on next? The bitch was a literal heartbreaker.
Over the next few days, I stayed off the apps as much as I could. But my loneliness only increased over the break… especially since my parents wouldn’t be home for a few more days. Like a drug addict, I needed those compliments. They cured my awful self-esteem. Even if it was just a temporary fix. They made me able to handle the isolation I felt. How weird I was. How ugly I felt. How much women weren’t interested in me.
About the only distraction I had was checking on Logan. Jesus, I felt like I was checking on a missing best friend at this point. And I didn’t even know a damn thing about the guy other than his attractive face and body. But there I was stalking his Instagram like a fanboy. I was scared for him…
But there were no updates. Every day and night I’d check, but there was nothing. And for an attention whore like I figured Logan was, I knew the silence wasn’t a good sign. This guy did multiple uploads a day. Gym pics like they were his religion. Him not posting wasn’t normal.
I felt like shit. And deservedly so. Even if I had survived… I caused the murder of an innocent guy. All because I wanted to show off to prettier women. Like a Catfish nutjob… only I was so bad at catfishing, I got my Goddamn cover murdered.
Deep down, I prayed Logan was okay. I hoped he was. Maybe the welfare check scared Shannon off.
Then in a sick cycle, I wound up back on Bumble. This time back to my own profile. The loneliness had finally gotten to me. The stress. And yes, the guilt. I had to jump back into my hobby. My exhibitionism ecstasy.
So here I am tonight, back to scoring with my usual unattractive women. Regardless of how conceited they are, I’ll still show them what I’m working with, at least. I’ll still get that thrill.
All was going well too. My usual session of frisky fun until I got a new message moments ago. The ghost had returned.
My phone buzzed like a taser hitting my hands as several more messages from Shannon poured in.
Feeling a chill, I stared at her profile pic in dread. Right at the eerie blood-stained mask. And at those piercing eyes.
My insides contorting, I clicked on the message.
Many different photos greeted me. All of them of Logan. The same sexy ones I’d used.
Like a scrapbook, I scrolled through the many pics. They led down to screenshots. One of them showed the fake profile I made. Then I saw where Shannon had sent me several other fake profiles that had used the same pics. All with different names and locations. Poor Logan had been an unknowing Bumble whore all along…
My heart fell like a collapsing roller coaster when I saw Shannon’s next message: You can’t fool me, asshole! This ain’t you!
Conflicted, I didn’t know what to do. Again, she’d avoided the cops. Shannon was still here. Still with me.
A new picture message hit me in the face. One of my smiling sext messages. Like the proud exhibitionist I was…
Whatever confidence I felt evaporated right there. Fear took over. I couldn’t control my trembling fingers. My pounding heart. My scared tears.
The picture went away. Then another message from Shannon greeted me: That’s you! 😉
“Fuck,” I said through the sobs. The iPhone shook in my grasp. I felt a mental breakdown erupting through my panic.
Here’s your friend, Shannon replied.
Another picture popped up. Even in my current state, I felt more tears pour down my face at a rapid rate.
“Aw, God…” I muttered in terror.
The photo showed Shannon holding up a pretty severed head. The coiffed beard made it obvious who he was even without the rest of his body. Logan.
Like red dye, blood smeared over Logan’s beard. His mouth was open to scream. His eyes wide open in fright. Logan’s neck was hacked in one cool slice. Surgical efficiency. One of Shannon’s trademarks.
And there was Shannon holding the severed head with pride. Her eyes stared on at the camera, and I could see how excited they were. How much sadistic fun she was having. I could even picture her own beaming smile behind that fucking mannequin one.
The photo went away and Shannon’s next message appeared.
Through the tears, I had to read it. I felt helpless and hopeless. There was no getting away from Shannon now. She had me trapped on Bumble. In my own exhibitionist comfort zone.
I knew you looked familiar, she said.
Shannon sent a video message. The footage of Patrick’s death. All the stab wounds he had to endure. His screams so tormented. The final jab in his eye a brute flourish of a finish.
I cried out in anguish.
Like an aggressive cop, Shannon continued hounding me. Taunting me. Torturing me.
Her next message arrived: I can tell y’all are related 🙂
Weeping, I tried to wipe away my tears. But they kept falling. Gallons of them splattered across the iPhone screen. Over Shannon’s confident profile pic.
I’m gonna find you now, Shannon went on.
“Oh fuck!” I yelled. “No!”
At the mercy of my phone, all I could do was stare at the screen. My emotions paralyzed me to the living room couch. All the terrifying murders I’d seen replayed through my mind. And the dread of what would happen next consumed my soul.
Like she was teasing a final stab, Shannon deliberated on her next message. Then, it arrived with a cold vibration: