UNFRIENDED COMPETITION FINALIST
I’d never been inside of one before. An awkward, out-of-place-feeling little room nuzzled between a failing Irish pub and an antiques shop, I’d honestly forgotten these things existed in the vast metro area of my city. Until I needed one. College essay, see, and I hadn’t even begun it – just my luck for my laptop to obnoxiously die the weekend before the paper was due. I tried to borrow a friend’s computer, but no dice; as for plan B, my school’s library was out of rentable laptops. To the local, seedy internet café I went then, where I had always been told the poverty-stricken perverts surfed for porn and the seemingly parent-less children crowded around online games.
The place smelled like a Chuck-E-Cheese. It was already dark and I was just going to take the subway back when I had put some decent work in, but the ugly pang of hesitation sunk into my stomach, looking into the depressing place. God did I not want to sit here and do work on a Friday night. Not only was it dingy and torn right out of 2005, but it was in a part of town I did not want to be at this hour, and since it was open until midnight I really had no excuse to leave early. I wasn’t about to risk failing another class, even for the sole reason that my mom would have ripped into me again. I groaned as I stepped through the threshold. At least it was empty.
Well… Almost empty. Some plain-looking guy was sat at a computer in the left-most row, but he looked so absorbed with his screen he didn’t even notice me walk in.
I took a seat at the very back, slung my backpack off, whipped out an external hard-drive and set to work.
Looking up and down the screen in front of me, I noticed how far I’d managed to come. I had been typing feverishly, incautiously, in a sort of trance with zero regard to my surroundings, and words filled the page. I had written no Pulitzer, but before me were two full paragraphs and a poor excuse for an “outline” for the latter three. It was something. And the more I finished tonight, the less time I had to spend in this fucking place tomorrow or even Sunday.
I lay back in my chair and gazed absently at the ceiling. My chair was squeaky, punctuating the silence in an ugly way. The light above my head was dim – in fact, all the ceiling lights seemed to burn pretty low. I would have been creeped out if I were a more easily spooked person, but I’m not. I’m relatively built, I’m a skeptic, and I don’t have that vivid of an imagination in the first place. So instead I was just bored.
My urge to procrastinate got the best of me, and soon I found myself wandering up and down the dozen or so aisles of outdated white computers that I’m honestly surprised didn’t still run Windows 95 (just XP instead). There was nobody around, not even that guy who was here an hour ago. I noticed his empty seat before I picked up on the lack of typing and clicking.
After a couple of laps around the café I decided to glance down the aisle the man had been in. I noticed a faint glow against the wall that comprised the space behind that row of computers, and I’m a curious person on the border of nosy. I didn’t expect to find anything except the Windows startup screen of a monitor yet to go to sleep… but I turned the corner and you can imagine my surprise when I find a laptop there. A new one, a really nice HP Spectre in great condition, and my first thought was why a guy with such a good computer needed to go to an internet café.
At closer glance, I could tell the laptop was actually thicker than normal – as if encapsulated in some sort of casing. The screen was open to its desktop, with a solid gray background that gave nothing away, and about twenty different folders and icons scattered about. I didn’t recognize any of them aside from the basic file; no Internet Explorer, no Chrome, not even an Adobe Reader. Just a bunch of weird symbols, some with non-English lettering. I really wish I knew more about software.
Two tabs were minimized on the bottom of the screen: a simple text box, and another that just had a square with a perforated outline. I hesitated.
Standing back up, I looked over to my side of the café. There was my bright screen open to the blinding white of a Word document, my backpack beside the chair, my water bottle, my phone. It would have been so easy to leave this stranger’s private computer where it was and ignore my pestering curiosity and propensity for poor decision-making. Glancing back at the foreign desktop before me, I stood for a moment, weighing the consequences. After a pause, I muttered to myself. “Not worth it.”
I walked away, and a woman spoke.
“Hello? Did someone say something?”
Freezing in place, for an instant I thought I must have imagined the sound. But barely a few seconds later, the same shrill, small, canned-sounding voice called out.
“Please talk to me,” she cried out very clearly, and I realized the woman sounded terribly afraid.
I tilted the stranger’s laptop screen a little straighter and looked at the minimized tabs. The text box I left alone; the mysterious one I opened.
It was using some browser I didn’t recognize, called “Tor”, and yet for some reason it seemed familiar. Several tabs were open on it and I clicked through them systematically. One held a mysterious string of hyperlinks set against a blank background; another one was in what I think was Cyrillic and had random images of people’s faces; a third was just lists of unfamiliar names organized into three lengthy columns. With a shock I opened the last tab to what disturbed me the most.
What filled the screen before me was a very dark, fuzzy image of a tiny enclosure, windowless, and bare of carpet or furniture. A frail young woman was sitting in a heap in the center of the room with crude-looking chains roping her hard to the ground. And then, the woman moved.
Her head swung wildly around, her matted hair sweeping the shoulders. She was pale, weak-looking, and very obviously frightened, but otherwise appeared unharmed. She moved like an abused animal backed into a corner. And I spoke back to her, without really thinking, “Hi … uh … Who are you?”
The woman snapped her head to the camera, which must have been the location of my voice. In a panic I looked for a webcam on the laptop, which I saw had been taped over with black adhesive. After staring at the camera for awhile, me gazing on in a confused stupor, she began to sob uncontrollably. She begged me desperately to help her, to let her out, to call the police, in one thin stream of rambling messiness. I tried to form a coherent reply amidst her cries but I honestly was too shocked to say anything. And before I could, a large man in dark clothing swiftly entered the woman’s enclosure and without hesitation began savagely beating her with his fists and feet.
I slammed the laptop shut. Adrenaline was coursing through me. Cursing myself I carried it over to my backpack, stuffed it inside, saved my essay to my USB and left the café.
I don’t really know why I took it with me – I’ve always been impulsive, and maybe that inner desire to investigate took hold of my senses. Maybe instead it was just an instinct to help somebody in need. Sitting in the soft light of a coffee shop deeper in the city, the computer perched menacingly on the little table in front of me, I thought about what I was going to do when I opened it up. I glanced to my right and looked at my phone, the emergency number already typed. I was terrified and yet excited in some twisted way, an excitement which blinded my common sense. Despite feeling very out-of-place in the midst of something that seemed much more intimidating than I was, I decided at last to open it again. Really I expected a password screen and a dead end, maybe hoping for it, too – but the black desktop encouraged me to simply press enter, which I did. And there was the woman.
She was splayed awkwardly across the floor, breathing deeply, and every inhale seemed to hurt. Given the mediocre streaming quality I couldn’t make out individual injuries but she clearly appeared worse than when I’d first seen her. With a sick feeling I realized her left elbow and wrist were bent in an extremely unnatural way. I plugged my headphones into the jack and spoke to her, getting right to business.
“What happened to you and where are you? I’m in the south part of the city. I’m Alex, I’m just a college kid“ – I noticed how shaky my voice sounded just then – “What should I do?”
She jerked her head towards me, but didn’t say anything for a moment. “Call the police,” she whimpered in a low voice. “I…” Glancing around herself, the woman looked more helpless than ever now; “I don’t know where I am.”
Without breaking eye contact with the screen, I reached for my phone and dialed the number. My heart was pounding again.
The call rang for a while, and I had completely blocked out my surroundings. My thoughts were racing and I tried to piece together what I was going to say, but I found it hard to concentrate, the image of the woman being beaten burned into my mind’s eye. I had no idea what the hell I had gotten myself into and I began to think about tossing the laptop and jumping ship, but then something strange happened.
A voice answered the other end, but it didn’t ask me what the emergency was. Instead it spoke in a very AI-sounding tone a simple, “Hello.” In a hurry I began to rattle off what I had encountered but quickly was interrupted with the same “Hello” in the same monotone, robotic voice.
I paused and waited.
“Hello. Alex. The text, Alex.”
A numbing dread creeped into my stomach. I pulled the phone from my face – the number did not read 9-1-1, but some random string of digits with an unfamiliar area code. I hung up in horror. Deliberately typing out 9-1-1 this time, I pressed call, but found as the dial began to play that the same strange phone number blared across the screen. My phone dropped into my lap and I yelled. The lone Barista, the only other occupant of the shop, looked curiously in my direction.
And then I remembered the downsized text box on the laptop.
Slowly, deliberately, I moved the cursor to the icon. I hate to admit how afraid I was by this point, but my fingers were literally trembling against the trackpad. I clicked.
It was just an address – nothing more, nothing less. As I stared at the words and numbers before me, the woman began to wail quietly into my earbuds, questioning my sudden silence, begging me to help her, painful-sounding sobs choking her words. They know who I am, I kept thinking to myself, ignoring the girl. How do they know who I am? I desperately racked my brain for how my phone could have been manipulated and my identity revealed. If this was the dark parts of the internet I had heard about, and it really seemed like it, I was probably dealing with very serious computer hackers. I’d never felt so vulnerable.
It was all too much, this discovery so much bigger than myself, and I was way over my head. So I picked up my stuff in a panic and ran, leaving the laptop.
Before I exited the shop, however, I did go up to the Barista and ask him to use his phone, or any phone. The large man smiled blankly at me, even looked a little sad, and told me, “No phones.”
And rushing out the door without questioning him, I only later realized that that man had not been behind the counter just moments before I approached him, that the Barista who had turned towards my yell had been somebody entirely different, and that the one who had denied me a phone call seemed far too old, too foreign, and too out-of-place to work at this coffee shop. I was in such a frenzy it didn’t even register to me that he had no uniform.
The laptop was sitting in front of me. I can’t believe I didn’t notice the guy place it.
I took a long and unusual route to a more distant station because I was afraid of being followed, I put my phone away after every text and call I tried to make to my parents wouldn’t go through, and I watched my back carefully while I was on the move. But as I sat nervously on the subway, which now was completely and suspiciously devoid of people, the drunk man had slipped it right in front of me without me noticing. It must have been him; the typical looney subway lurker, dressed like a homeless hippie from the 60’s and rambling incoherently into his brown paper bag, was the only other person in that car with me. And he had just gotten off, and the laptop had just appeared in the seat in front of me.
Adrenaline was coursing through me again and I angrily flipped it open. There wasn’t even Wifi on this subway but the stream was still steady, and the woman, having been without my company for a while now, looked much, much worse.
Some of her hair looked like it had been torn out in chunks; clusters of it littered the ground around her. Unmistakable blood dripped in thin streams down her face and torso, and her spaghetti-strap top was stained dark. Both of her feet were missing – it wasn’t an illusion, they had clearly been removed directly above the ankle. It took me a moment to notice that the pale extremities had been carelessly thrown to the ground behind her broken body. I gasped and found myself crying silently, feeling more helpless and torn than ever before.
She heard me. Weakly, she tried to lift herself to her one working limb, squirming in pain, and managing to ask again for my help. Nobody had ever sounded so pitiful.
“I’m going to try,” I lied to her in a trembling voice, wishing I hadn’t opened the laptop. Before I shut the screen again, however, I pulled the text box back open. Perhaps morbid curiosity got the best of me – it always does. And to my horror, despite my unwillingness to accept it could be, the text had changed. Beneath the address it now read,
“You are stuck, Alex”.
And then the subway train screeched to a stop.
I knew immediately something wasn’t right. The emptiness of my car had begun to frighten me immensely, and we were definitely not at my station. Too much time passed before the train doors opened, and I cautiously stepped out of them, leaving the computer in my seat with the girl’s growing wails echoing around the room.
I did not know where I was. It seemed like a typical downtown subway station, but at the same time there were no signs to indicate where I was, and even the maps of the system had been removed from the underground walls. It was half as lit as it should have been, making this nightmare almost comically dark. The whole place felt… abandoned. Glancing around I tried to think about how long I had been travelling, how far I might have come, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember. I cursed loudly at myself and tried not to panic, despite feeling very alone and out of my element, which had been the case since quitting on my stupid fucking essay. The subway train hadn’t left yet – the doors were still agape and silence tilled the air save for low cries from the computer. I decided to just ascend the steps and take it from there; I was bound to recognize something.
But I didn’t. In fact, standing on the empty corner of a city street I had never heard of before, I realized I was in a part of town that seemed completely devoid of all life. The buildings around me were vacant and littered with broken windows, and all the nearest entryways were boarded up. I started walking towards the nearest street lamp, taking in the industrial feel to the area, and noting how little sound I could hear; adrenaline still pumping, I felt as though an attack could happen at any moment.
With a jolt I stopped and stared at the aging warehouse across the street: The address painted across its metal doors was identical to the one on the laptop. At least I thought it was, but I had no way to check without the computer itself. I wasn’t about to make sure, but in this moment I felt very toyed with, the gravity of how out-of-control this situation had gotten truly registering in my mind. I was rooted to the spot, maybe a hundred yards from the subway station, staring into the warehouse and wondering hopelessly what was inside, and knowing I wouldn’t dare to approach it.
At the same time, some noise was barely audible in the wind around me, something deeply unsettling. My attention refocused, I strained my ears to pick it up. A few steps closer to the street and it hit me. Screaming.
The girl’s screaming. Not from any device… In front of me. In the building.
I ran. Guilty as I may feel for the rest of my life, I bolted like my life depended on it. To be honest, it probably did.
I’m typing this in an alleyway now – I have no idea how far I’ve come. The only people I’ve encountered outside have paid no mind to me, but a couple times I’m certain somebody was watching me from down the street. I only stole glances before continuing to run.
I just want to get home and put everything behind me. I’m never going to mess with other people’s shit again. I’m going to call my mom and tell her I want to come home for a little while, and then I’m going to ace my classes and move on. I am also planning on completely discarding my devices and getting a new phone and computer. God I hope this doesn’t follow me….
The street I’m approaching seems familiar. I might be able to make it back soon.
I’m so stupid. I’m so naive, so impulsive, and so, so stupid.
It took forever but I finally made it back to civilization and to my apartment building. I told the guy at the front to call the police, but when he asked me why, I blanked. There was nothing about my story that sounded believable and what’s more, I was afraid to be tied to the event in any way. I had nothing to give the cops anyways aside from some vague details about a laptop and an address I’d already forgotten. So I hurried up to my room, while the man at the front watched me expressionlessly. And now I am sitting in my bedroom and that laptop is right beside me.
Nothing seemed out of place; my front door opened fine and was still locked, no windows or lights had been tampered with, and yet placed delicately on top of my pillows, screen opened, was that God damned fucking computer. I couldn’t believe it – hell, I desperately didn’t want to, but yet there it was, undeniably. My body was instantly wrought with mind-bending horror as reality sunk in and survival mode overtook me.
The woman was moaning non-stop now. Her eyes had been brutally gouged out and I had vomited in fear and shock at the sight of her in my own home. I didn’t open the text box but I am sure there was more to read.
I’m typing this out because my texts won’t deliver to anybody, my calls won’t go through even to the police, and my one outdated landline is doing nothing but beeping dial tones. I’m typing because I’m terrified for my life and I think I’m trapped here. I don’t know what will happen next, but I know it can’t be good. Just now I heard something heavy drag across my living room and there is definitely somebody outside this door. I tried screaming for help out the window but I’m so high up, and none of my neighbors have done anything if they can hear me at all.
I hate myself. I hate how compulsive and nosy I am. I hate that I had to be so bad at college and so unlucky that I ended up in this whole mess in the first place. I hate how fucked I am.
The last thing the woman said to me before I tore the laptop battery out was a choked warning, something that chilled me to my very core. “They like to play games,” she had sobbed to me, before the large man returned abruptly and began to work on her mouth with a pair of scissors. The computer hasn’t done anything since then. I was sure to smash the screen with the bottom of my lamp.
Somebody is turning the doorknob to my room now. The tiny lock on it isn’t going to be enough and if they want me this badly, the dresser in front of it won’t do much either.
I think my life might be in danger.
CREDIT: Austin Weynand
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