Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
James said he found the iPhone in the lawn as he was leaving the party. Afterward, we wondered what had really happened, how he had actually found it. But then, when he told us, we had no reason to not believe his story. He was walking out, he explained, completely hammered, and there it was: a pink 5C covered with dew from being out all night.
“You stole someone’s phone? Not cool, James,” said Hayley. We were standing it in our apartment’s small kitchen, lit quite brightly by the early afternoon sun. James had just come over, but in his defense, it was probably much more like morning for him. I had only been up for a couple of hours, anyway. Spring semester had finished a few days ago and all the dandelions were coming out, yellow headed and alive in the few green spots in the city. Hailey’s internship at the museum wasn’t starting for another two weeks and my work in Professor Isle’s lab was on hold until he came back from vacation, which meant we had nothing to do except talk too much and drink too much and sleep in too much and way, way too late.
James lived in our apartment building, on the bottom floor. I knew him from my fiction workshop. He had gone to boarding schools and wrote a lot of stories about the sadness of being rich. He DJ’d Monday nights at the college station, playing hipper than thou indie rock and dub reggae. I’m making him sound a lot worse than he is. He always had good hair.
In a plot twist that didn’t surprise me at all, Hayley had slept with him (“I don’t regret it Ariel. All great lives feature things some would call failures, but we libertines call them the forge that tempers our personal steel.”) but only a couple of times. He had initiated extremely awkward hugs with me, but that hadn’t evolved into anything more physical. Thankfully.
“I didn’t steal a phone. I’m not, like, a thief.”
“And yet here you are,” Hayley said, “with that phone you didn’t buy.”
“You act like I’m breaking windows and snatching shit.”
“No, Ariel. I am not breaking windows and snatching shit.”
“Thank god. Don’t think we weren’t worried,” said Hayley.
“Do you guys want to know why this phone is weird?”
“Sure,” I said, “show me.”
He slide the phone on and punched in the security code.
“Hey,” said Hayley, “how do you know the code.”
“I didn’t,” he said, tapping at the screen, “but this morning I just put in some random numbers and it, boom. It worked.”
“What a crappy pin,” I breathed. “that person’s email password must be password.”
“Maybe it is, but it’s not on their phone,” said James, “they don’t have an email set up, or any apps, or contacts.”
“What the fuck do they even do with their phone then,” demanded Hayley, “only make phone calls?”
“No. No calls in the history. Received or outgoing.”
“So there’s nothing on it?” asked Hayley, “maybe it’s a new phone or something?”
“It’s not a new phone,” he flipped it over. The back of the phone was covered in scratches, tiny spider web cracks running in and out. “See? Somebody has had this forever.”
“So, there’s nothing on it and it’s got a shitty password. James I hate to complain about your attempts to bring mystery and excitement into our lives and our, you know, our kitchen,” Hayley gestured at the tiny room we were all packed into , “but this isn’t exactly Cicada 3301.”
“There’s not nothing,” he said, indignant, “there’s a video. you want to see?”
“Not nothing is a double negative,” I said, “you would say “there isn’t anything” or, maybe, “there’s something on it” instead. Does that make sense?”
“I hated your pedantic criticisms in workshop, Ariel, and I dislike them in real life too. People sometimes talk because they like how words sound with each other. They aren’t always in blind thrall to the completely imaginary, class-centric, often internally contradictory rules referred to as “grammar.” Now, did you want to watch this? Because, it’s a little, umm, fucked up. To be honest.”
Hayley and I looked at each other. She shrugged.
“Obviously we want to watch,” Hayley said, “right? Why wouldn’t we?”
“Right,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
The video started to play.
Images of the ground appeared: rocks, dirt, leaves. The camera was shaky. Shoes appeared in and out of the frame, just the uppermost tops of shoes. They looked like chucks. You could hear footsteps, breathing. It was obviously someone filming themselves walking.
“Did you already watch this?” Hayley was staring at the screen, her brow furrowed.
“Yeah, I did, be quiet though.”
The walking stopped. The camera panned up and swung left, revealing a heavily forested landscape with the same path the person had previously been walking on running out into the distance, and then the camera swung to the right. There was a hill’s edge there, swelling out over a precipice, overlooking a not insignificant drop off.
“I recognize this,” I said, “where is this? Have you guys see this before?”
“Me too,” said Hayley, “it’s out in Machen park. I’ve gone jogging out there.”
“Watch,” said James, his voice tense.
The screen shook as whomever was holding it lowered it again. The breathing rasped. Then, there was another noise. Something that sounded like running. The camera swung up, there was a blur, a shadowy motion, some kind of noise, and then the person and the phone were moving. They went over the cliff, together. Then there was an awful noise and something far away, a weird familiar screaming.
The screen went black.
I looked at Hayley, who wasn’t saying a word, biting her chipped florescent green nails instead. James looked up.
“I told you,” he said, “it’s a little fucked up.”
Three hours later, we were in the woods.
“Bad idea, Hayley,” I murmured, walking on the path. “You’ve had bad ideas, but this is the worst.”
“Really? The worst?” She frowned. Mosquitos were starting to appear in the near dim. One bite me and I slapped it, leaving a long smear of bright red blood on my left forearm. “Ok. Maybe the worst. But don’t you want to see?”
“For sure. But I wished we had waited. Or asked James if he wanted to go.”
“He had to work,” she shrugged, “so I ain’t trying to hear that. I want to see what’s happening.”
We kept walking down the dirt trail. Most days there were joggers or other hikers, but we hadn’t seen anyone else. Everything felt static, like we were looking at a screenshot instead of real life.
“Do you think we’ll find a body?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Do you want to? It’ll be like “Stand by Me.” I’ll be River Phoenix,” she kicked a stick, “unless you want to be River Phoenix.”
“No, I’m ok. I don’t like people who die pretty and young. It makes me self conscious about aging.”
“I don’t know why people romanticize youth anyway,” she said, “it’s a hella temporary state.”
“People like to think things can last forever,” I said, then, “almost there.”
We walked ahead, toward the twist in the path where the video had been filmed. I don’t know why we were going there. It was dumb and we were young. What did we think we’d find? And why did we want to find anything?
“What did you see, when we stopped the tape for a second, right before the person holding the camera got pushed, or whatever?”
“Nothing, really,” I said, “we are almost there right?”
“I know it was just a shadow,” she said, “but I felt like I saw something.”
“Is it here?”
“Like — you know when an image gets messed up on a website? It’s just a digital scramble? Then it’s normal? It was like that — the glitch before it goes normal. But I know there wasn’t anything there.”
“Here,” I said. We turned the corner. We were at the little break in the park where the video had been shot. To the left, woods. To the right, the precipice. And there, standing in front of the cliff, was James.
He was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing in our kitchen: tight jeans, a black t shirt, black chucks. His back was to us, but I know immediately who it was. You can recognize someone without seeing a face.
In his hand, I saw a phone. He pointed it at his left, then his right.
I should had been screaming. I thought I would. And maybe some part of me believed I was. I looked at Hayley. Her mouth was open: veins popped out on her neck as her lips stretched wide and her eyes grew wider and larger. But no sound.
Something was coming.
I could feel it, in the woods, something was rushing moving towards us. To James. I wanted to scream, I felt like I was but I knew I wasn’t. It was coming.
James lowered the camera. The wind came and went by the two of us and into him. It looked like colors and decaying images, like a pixilated drawing of a tornado. It was a cartoon. It was t real. It ripped into his shoulder. I saw blood fly up and into the dead sky. He stumbled to the edge of the cliff. Then over. Then there was only the nothing of our screaming, suddenly audible and hysterical.
Everything after that turned into the slow, sick time, where events feel delayed, as if it was happening from a great distance. We ran down the path that looped down the hill, loose dirt and rocks slipping under our feet. My chest hurt, I remembered thinking as I ran; it felt tight and full of breaths I couldn’t believe I was still taking.
At the bottom of the path we jumped into the clearing where James had just fallen. But there was no James. There was no blood. Just a space where a body should have been and, in that area, a brilliant blue iphone.
We got back to our apartment after eight, exhausted and suddenly cold in the night air. Cars were backing up at the traffic light, the city starting to sound louder, different, as the streetlights flooded corners. I could hear music blaring from one of the cars as I unlocked the door, Hayley following me.
Once we were inside, Hayley put the phone on the kitchen table and walked out of the room.
“Where are you —”
“I need to take a shower,” she said. “Don’t touch the phone.”
Within moments, I heard the rattle of pipes, the rushing of water. I walked over to the fridge and poured a glass of the cheap American pink wine we drank too much of. It tasted like headaches.
I finished a glass. Then poured another. Then I pulled out my phone and texted James.
“Hey. How are you.”
“What happened inthe parf”
“*park. stupid phone. what was thet?”
My phone buzzed back. A little green circle.
“who is this”
“this is Ariel is this James?”
“sorry. wrong number”
“Is this a new phone? Did you just get this number”
“No had it forever sorrry. Have a nice nightZ”
Hayley came out of her room, her hair still damp, almost a half hour later. I was finishing my third glass of wine. She said hey and I said hey back and she grabbed the wine from the fridge and walked out into the living room and I followed her. She sat on the muted grey couch her parents had let her take when we moved in and I sat on the floor, leaning against the cold wall. Another kid lived in the apartment next to us, on whose wall I leaned. I had a semi whatever crush on him. He worked nights at a gas station and smoked so much I could taste the cigarettes sometimes through the walls. Was he there, I thought. Would he still be there?
“I looked James up on Facebook,” Hayley said. Her voice sounded numb. “I couldn’t find his profile. His tumblr’s gone too. So his Twitter.”
“I texted him. Somebody sent a text back saying I had a wrong number.”
“He’s gone. He doesn’t exist.”
“We’re going crazy. People don’t just stop existing.”
“You’re right,” I sighed, “he did.”
“So,” she took a swig off the bottle, “now what?”
“I don’t think there’s really a manual for this sort of thing.”
“There should be,” then, hesitatingly, “what is this sort of thing?”
“Whatever it is, it’s not real. Like, this isn’t happening. I don’t think this is real.”
“It is happening, though,” Hayley murmured, holding the wine. “It’s happening.”
“I’ve been sitting here,” I started, “trying to figure out what we know, like for a fact. I thought it might help.”
“Fuck no,” I laughed and she almost did. “But this is what happened: James found the phone, leaving a party. He never told us what party—”
“We didn’t ask.”
“I know. But on television shows they reconstruct these things. So, he finds the phone, figures out the password —”
“All fours,” said Hayley, “four means death in Japan.”
“— right? Watches the video, doesn’t recognize his feet in the video? Shows it to us instead of investigating, goes to work? That’s crazy: James doesn’t fucking care about his barista gig,” I said.
“But he went.”
It was silent for a minute or two, the sounds of traffic and night slipping the window, as both of us sat, not saying anything. Finally, Hayley took a swig, then:
“I think I know what happened. Maybe. Wait here,” she said and she left the living room and walked off to her living room. She came back, carrying her laptop.
“Did James ever tell you about that time his school bus crashed,” she said, as she sat down and started to typing.
“He did,” I nodded, “he was like ten and it skidded on black ice. He wrote a story about it. He seemed really freaked out by it.”
She opened up the laptop and passed it over.
The screen was opened to an archived article from a Connecticut newspaper. James’ home state. About a bus crash. One fatality. A ten year old boy. James Han.
“What is this? Did you make this up? Hayley if you made this up I swear to god I swear —”
“I didn’t make it up. I searched for him forever and there was nothing. Like he didn’t exist. Then I found that. It just appeared in a search like it had always been there. Read it if you want. Or don’t. It’s the story he told us. But in this one he dies.”
“Just like he did in the park”
“…yeah, like that.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but I think he was dead when we met him. And maybe the James we met was a glitch.”
“So if James was a glitch, are we? Because when I was eleven I —”
“No, Ariel,” she said, calmly, “stop. I don’t want to hear about you almost dying when you were a kid, because I almost died when I was a kid. So what does that make us?”
Neither of us said anything for a moment. Finally, I coughed.
“…do we want to look at the phone?”
“No,” she said, “not tonight. Tonight, I’m going to go take an ambien and go to bed. Let’s talk about this tomorrow. Ok?”
An hour later, when I was sure she was asleep, I walked out into the kitchen. I didn’t turn on the lights. The traffic signal from the visible intersection outside the apartment glowed green through the slats of the blinds. I picked up the phone. I punched in 4444. It opened.
It was the same as the other: no information, no apps, no photos. One video.
I stared at it until I couldn’t anymore. I hit play.
Whoever was filming was running, causing the camera to bounce up and down nauseously. They were on Sigmund Street which, as one of the major streets near me, I recognized almost immediately. I had the volume down but I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear anything. The figure ran, desperate and moving from one side of the street to the other, coming to a sudden stop as they reached Eddelstein Bridge. I saw their shoes, briefly, then there was a long pause. The feet moved from one side to the other, transferring weight, tapping. And then there was something else in the frame. The screen shook, the image growing wildly pixilated, and then the riots colored turned abruptly, mechanical black.
It only took a few minutes to get to the bridge. No one was really out, since the area was mostly retail storefronts which had all been closed for at least a couple of hours at that point. My steps sounded echoey.
I could see her from far away, standing motionless in the blank night. The sky was void of clouds, letting the moonlight translate everything. Especially her.
I didn’t think she was going to move. I thought she’d be like James, but once I was almost twenty feet away, she turned.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey” I answered, “I’m sorry I watched the tape.”
“Don’t worry,” she waved me off, “I would have if you hadn’t.”
“What do we do now?”
“That’s easy. We tell each other how we died. You go first.”
“Okay,” I said, “I was eleven. It was at school. Sixth grade. I was climbing the rope.”
“I hated the rope.”
“Me too. Before this happened, even. I got to the top and — you know how it was secured to the ceiling? On that latch?”
“It came off the latch.”
“Oh my god.”
“I fell like fifteen feet. Completely fine. No injuries. Everybody told me how lucky I was. But I didn’t feel lucky. I felt like something had fucked up.”
“Like you should have died?”
“Yeah, like there was a mistake.” A car drive by with a missing headlight, an urban cyclops, “what about you?”
“I was sixteen. In my house. I took a bottle of Prozac,” she shrugged, “I liked the irony. Whatever. But, yeah. A week later, I got out of the hospital. The doctor told me it was a miracle I was alive. But I don’t know. Maybe there was just a wrong line of code somewhere. Maybe —”
She didn’t finish her sentence.
Her screams didn’t sound real as the thing broke into her, her eyes flashing sudden vicious strange awareness as her body rose into the air, briefly, her brown and blue new balances twisting inches above the cement, and then she collapsed, twitching on the ground. When she landed I was able to move, but it didn’t matter. She wasn’t there. Just an iPhone in the middle of the street, with a series of spider hairline cracks in the case.
Around noon the next day, I had made it to the living room, staring at the ceiling. My phone buzzed. I had been texting Raj — the guy Hayley had been dating — a few minutes ago.
“yeah for sure come on over. Doing zero rn. what’s the weird thing you wavy to show me?”
“I’ll show you whenI get there,” I typed, “can I bring Hayley?”
“*WANT not wavy :/
But yeah for sure Bring her over. Who is she? I know her”
I looked at the empty spot in the living room where there used to be a grey couch.
“oh wait,” I typed, “she isn’t here rn.”
Credit To – Kevin Sharp
Note: Crossposted from /r/nosleep with explicit permission from the original author.