Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
It came in at night, when Charlie Posner was sound asleep on his right side, snoring so loudly you might think he had an engine in him. His computer lit up, and the tiny red circle which indicated an incoming email blinked on the monitor. For a few hours it sat there, waiting in the dull blue light of his computer, waiting for Charlie to wake. At around three in the morning when it was still very dark out, the light from Charlie’s monitor shining through his undrawn curtains was brighter than Sirius. But he didn’t wake, not for another thirty minutes. Lights never bothered Charlie, he could sleep through rain or shine. At 3:32 he stopped snoring, choked, and then jerked forward.
His mouth was dry as a bone and he knew that was likely the reason for his headache too. Without opening his eyes, he pawed around on the nightstand for a water glass. There wasn’t one, Goddammit. Reluctantly he swung his feet out of bed. If he didn’t, the hangover would be exponentially worse by morning. When he stood up the pain sunk in his head like a bucket of blood, and he wondered whether finishing off that case of Pilsners last night at Doherty’s with Arron and his girlfriend was really worth the trouble. It was the only weekend Arron could come to visit before he moved out West, and they had to celebrate. Arron was going to be a father in under a month.
Arron’s impending fatherhood posed a number of looming questions to Charlie. His older brother had always been irresponsible, even Charlie could admit that. It wasn’t that Arron didn’t care, more that he lacked the necessary conditions to cultivate a relationship that was meaningful enough to inspire commitment and responsibility. Don’t get it wrong, Arron loved his family, but there was only so much they could do to motivate him. An outsider might have called him lazy, a trait that ran in their family. But Arron had a big heart, and when he met Geneviève she sparked a new devotion in him. He became a new man. Now she was eight months pregnant and Charlie could hardly believe he was looking at the same Arron Posner who had drunk half a handle of vodka at his senior prom and puked all over his date. They laughed about that story last night, and Charlie was laughing about it to himself now, as he shook the last drops of his urine into the toilet and went to grab a glass of water.
On the way back to his room he poked his head through his sister’s door. Ella was fast asleep in her bed, cuddling a stuffed tiger close to her chest, and breathing softly. There was a moon shaped nightlight over by her window that was flickering, Charlie noticed it from out in the hall. He unplugged it and plugged it back in, and it gave off a steady stream of blue light. It reminded him of his computer.
READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!!
That’s all it said on the subject line – there was no name, no visible address, and nothing to identify where the email came from other than those five words. Charlie wasn’t one to be needlessly tempted by ambiguous, unmarked junk mail. His older brother had warned him time and time again about the dangers of computer viruses and phishing scams, but in his half-asleep state he gave in to curiosity. He clicked it, and the blue light from his computer monitor turned red, filling his otherwise darkened room with sinister light. His eyebrows came together as he scanned the page. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes to verify what he was reading.
Subject: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!!
YOU HAVE BEEN CURSED BY FURY AND BLOOD.
AS YOU READ THESE WORDS DARK MAGIC IS TAKING HOLD OF YOU.
THERE IS NO ESCAPE.
THERE IS NO CURE.
ONLY PROPAGATION SATISFIES.
ONLY PROLIFERATION FREES.
SEND THIS TO TEN PEOPLE OR YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY WILL DIE.
It was a mass message, forwarded to Charlie by an old co-worker he hadn’t spoken to in over a year. Charlie was one of ten recipients in a list of email addresses he didn’t recognize. He hated chain mail with a passion, and was more than happy to be the one who put an end to the pesky ritual. But as he scrolled towards his trash bin, something caught his eye. It was an attached message from the sender which read: I am so, so sorry. He thought that was strange, why would they continue this annoying chain if they felt sorry about it? But that was about as far as his thought process went. He was tired, and the computer light was making his headache far worse. He moved the email to his trash bin, switched off the monitor, and got back into bed.
In the morning his hangover had subsided to a dull pain behind his eyes, which a cup of hot coffee and a joint could easily cure. His sister, Ella, was cross-legged on the living room carpet watching cartoons and still clinging to her stuffed tiger. Charlie poured himself a coffee from the fresh pot on the counter, and went to sit beside her. He ruffled her hair playfully.
“Don’t Charlie.” She whined, pulling away.
“Super Kids, they have powers like flying and laser eyes and mind-reading.”
“Oh yeah? And what’s your power?”
“Big brother smashing!” Ella leapt on Charlie and began to pound his chest.
“I surrender, I surrender. I’m no match for your strength.” He laughed, they both did. “Where’s Mum?”
“She went to see Grandma. I think she’s in trouble.”
The smile went away from Charlie’s face.
“Why do you say that?”
Ella shrugged. “Dunno. Mum was in a big hurry this morning.”
Charlie frowned, but stayed seated where he was on the carpet for a few minutes. The TV was blaring with explosions, buzzing, and other cartoon nonsense. He left Ella glued to the screen and went back into the kitchen to pour himself another cup of coffee. He wasn’t sure at exactly what moment he decided to call his mother, but when he did it went straight through to her voicemail. He looked around for a note or instruction, any kind of indication of where she might have gone. There was nothing, so Charlie forgot about it. He rolled a joint, snuck out the back door so Ella wouldn’t see him, and then returned to zone out on the couch watching cartoons. After about an hour he went into his room to take a nap.
When Charlie woke up, the sunlight gleaming through his window was mild and orange, he’d slept nearly the entire day. His clock read 5:34 p.m., but he’d forgotten to turn it an hour forward for daylight savings, so it was really half past six. He rubbed his eyes and rolled over, covered in a sheen of perspiration. That’s when he heard his mother’s voice out in the living room. She wasn’t alone, his aunt, Sylvia, was out there with her. Charlie pulled himself out of bed, and got a towel from his closet. He headed towards the bathroom to take a shower, but on his way, he froze. His mother was hunched over on the couch, crying, with aunt Sylvia on one side consoling her and Ella on the other looking forlorn. Charlie frowned and went into the living room.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Oh, Charlie. Come sit down.”
His heart was beating faster now, he didn’t like to see his mother cry.
“Charlie, it’s Grandma.” She said. “She’s passed away.”
The first thought that popped into Charlie’s head was: the email. But he forced it out quickly, and reason began to take hold. His second thought was to his grandmother’s age, he couldn’t remember it for the life of him. She was old, that was certain, but old enough to die? Charlie didn’t think so. He scanned his mind for conversations around the dinner table about Grandma’s health. Was she the diabetic, or was that his other Grandma?
“That’s awful,” he said, “how did she die?”
“They’re not really sure. She called this morning complaining of a fever and nausea. I took her to the doctor and she collapsed! Her blood pressure dropped, and they tried to get her stabilized, but it was no use. Her heart just gave out.”
Sure, it was a strange coincidence. But not strange enough to worry, not yet. Charlie took his aunt Sylvia’s place on the couch and put an arm around his mother’s shoulder. He tried to console her, but inside he was consoling himself. It was just an email, he thought, there’s no such thing as curses or dark magic. His aunt had to leave at around seven o’clock, her sitter was only booked until 7:30 and her kids were younger than Ella. Charlie watched her pull out of the driveway and waved as she disappeared down the block.
“Could you make Ella some dinner tonight?” His mother asked. “I’m going to go lie down, I’m not feeling too well.”
A chill ran down Charlie’s spine. He nodded.
After his shower he put on a movie about a group of talking cats for Ella, and put some water on the stove to boil. He broke the dry spaghetti in a bowl, and stared into the boiling water dumbly as thoughts swirled around in his head. What in God’s name had he gotten into last night? Had somebody spiked his drink? His disbelief was like a cork in a bottle, one that was slipping rapidly. His mother was tired, that was all. She’d had a long, grief-stricken day and she needed a good night’s sleep to gather her wits and see to the funeral arrangements tomorrow. If she wasn’t able to, then it would be Aunt Sylvia, and if not her, maybe Charlie himself. He would have to be strong for his mother now.
Ella helped distract him from his worries a little. The two of them ate dinner together on the couch – Charlie’s famous Spaghetti Bolognese. The cat movie ended with a showdown against a pack of wolves, and when the battle concluded, Ella was fast asleep with her head in Charlie’s lap. He switched off the TV and carried Ella to her bed. He plugged her nightlight in, and left her door open a crack, just how she liked it. Then he poked his head in on his mother. She was fast asleep as well, but there was something wrong. Her breath was coming out in wheezy, labored gasps, which frightened Charlie. He resolved to take her to a doctor tomorrow afternoon, to be safe.
He lay in bed for what seemed like hours, but that goddamn lying clock told him only thirty minutes had passed. Charlie was wide awake. He’d napped for too long during the day, and the sound of his mother’s breathing coming through his walls assured he wouldn’t get to sleep. He got out of bed, rolled another joint and slipped out through the back door. Only this time the weed made him paranoid. When he was back in his room, his mind was fraught with anxieties, to the point that he had to get up and pace around to rid his body of tension. The power button on his computer blinked ominously, beckoning him to press it. So, he did – he turned it on and the oppressive blue light filled his room. He navigated to the trash bin of his email. It was still there, waiting patiently, knowing he would come back for it. His cursor hovered over the email.
He stood up. Get a hold of yourself, Charlie, it’s only an email. It has no power, it doesn’t mean anything other than the meaning you give it. It’s junk mail – spam, trash, garbage – just bits of pixels on a screen that can’t harm anyone. But then why was he so frightened of it? Why was he so afraid to click it one more time? He wasn’t afraid, he couldn’t let himself be, that would make it real. He sat down, moved the cursor, and clicked on the email. That deep red light hit his face again. He read it over word for word, then clicked into the information to try to figure out where it came from. There was nothing except the address of that former co-worker who forwarded it, and the nine other addresses to whom it had been sent. Those poor souls, were they going through what Charlie was, had they figured it out? No. Stop. There’s nothing to figure out, there’s nothing going on here. Beneath the body of text, Charlie notice something he hadn’t seen the first time. It was a symbol, some kind of little blue eye. An evil eye.
Then that tiny red circle which indicated an incoming email blinked on the monitor.
He dragged the cursor over it, and clicked.
THERE’S STILL TIME TO SAVE HER.
Charlie jumped back from his computer, a sound like a yelping dog escaped his lips. Nope. Nuh-uh. This was not happening. He was asleep in his bed, deep in some kind of stress dream. That had to be it. He ignored his trembling hands as he switched off the monitor, and practically dove under his covers. Somehow, amidst his unyielding fear and the sound of his mother’s uneven breathing through the walls, sleep came to him.
The next morning, he made sure his mother was still alive, and went out before she woke up. He’d asked his best friend Fred Ogilvy to meet him at Doherty’s. Charlie needed a second opinion. When Fred came through the front door of the bar, Charlie was at their usual booth by the jukebox, looking sullen and far away. He was clutching a pint in his hands.
“Little early to tie one on, dont’cha think Charlie?”
Charlie barely looked up.
Fred frowned. “Hey, you okay man?”
“I didn’t sleep very well last night. I need to talk to you about something.”
Charlie told him the whole story, from receiving that odd, threatening email to his Grandma’s bizarre death, and his mother taking ill. Fred listened to him ramble, speaking in a low frantic voice, with a mounting suspicion that his friend was losing his mind. When he was finished, Fred told him so.
“You got a couple screws loose, Charlie, always have. But stop kidding around.”
“I’m not kidding. I’m fucking terrified, Fred. What the hell do I do?”
“There’s nothing you can do. Your Grandma was old, no surprises there. Your Ma’s probably got sympathy pains or whatever you call ‘em. This is all scientific stuff, my boy.”
“Didn’t you hear what I said? I got an email last night that mentioned her directly. How do you explain that?”
Fred smiled and shook his head. “You’re keyed up, buddy. I ain’t saying you’re imagining things, maybe you just misread it.”
Charlie’s face was still possessed by terror.
“Fine,” Fred said. “Let’s say it is real. Seems to me like you’ve only got one option.”
“You’ve gotta send it around. Pick ten people and just, send it.”
Charlie thought about that for a moment. “But if it is real, and I send it around, I might be killing someone’s family.” They both sat in silence for a few more minutes, as Charlie finished his beer. He got up from the booth and started for the door when Fred called after him.
“Hey, Charlie.” He said, with a strange, childlike fear in his eyes. “If you do decide to send it around… make sure you don’t send to me or anything, eh?”
Charlie nodded, and left Fred in the bar.
When he got home, he knew immediately something was wrong. The front porch light wasn’t on, and it was dark in the living room window. His mother always made sure these lights were on, even if it the world was coming to an end. He burst in through the door, and ran to her bedroom.
“Mum?” He called. “Mum!”
Her bed was empty.
“Charlie?” said a thin, whimpering voice. His sister, Ella, was standing in the doorway. Her face was red and puffy. Even in the half-light of their hallway he could see she’d been crying.
“Where’s Mum?” He practically shouted in her face.
“Gone? Gone where?” Ella didn’t answer right away, so Charlie grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “Where’s she gone, Ella?”
“She wasn’t getting any better,” Ella sobbed. “I called Aunt Sylvia and she took her to the hospital. She looked like a zombie, Charlie. She looked so awful.”
No, no, NO, this wasn’t happening. This could not be happening. He pushed his sister aside and dashed for the phone. He dialed Aunt Sylvia’s number. Please pick up, please pick up – nothing. He dialed his mother, and heard her cell ringing from her bedroom where she’d left it. His thoughts were going a mile a minute. What hospital did they go to? What was the fastest route? He couldn’t leave Ella alone at home, but he had to get there somehow, he had to tell the doctors about the email. Would they think he was crazy? Maybe, but it didn’t matter, he had to tell them. If his brother was still in town maybe, he could look after Ella while… his brother! Arron would know what to do.
Charlie dialed his number.
“Hello?” It wasn’t Arron, but his girlfriend Geneviève who answered.
“Hi, Gen? It’s Charlie. Listen I need to talk to Arron, our mother is very sick and –”
“Sorry Charlie, Arron can’t come to the phone right now. He can barely get out of bed. He must have caught a bug at Doherty’s or something, because he’s been feverish and nauseous ever since. Can I take a message?… Charlie, are you there? Is everything alright?”
Charlie was as white as paper. He let the phone drop out of his hand and fall onto the carpet with a clunk. It suddenly dawned on him that his soon-to-be niece or nephew might grow up without a father. Ella was watching him from the living room, her eyes as wide as storm drains. She hadn’t seen her brother this scared since he was her age.
“Charlie,” she sobbed. “Charlie, I’m scared. What’s going on?”
Charlie didn’t answer. He went into his room, switched on his computer and found the email. It was real – holy shit – it was really real. The cork of his unbelief popped like a champagne bottle, and his fear spilled over like bubbles. He retrieved the copy from the trash bin and prepared it for forwarding, but when it came time to type in ten email addresses, he froze. Who could he send it to? Who on Earth could he send it to that he wouldn’t be wracked with guilt over for the rest of his miserable life? How could he live with himself knowing he’d cursed ten innocent people? His old co-worker’s words rung in his ears: I’m so, so sorry. He thought about including a message of his own, but decided against it. That would make it too personal, too direct. He wanted to distance himself as much as he could from this. He chose ten addresses at random, clicking without looking who he was choosing. His finger hovered above the send button, but he couldn’t do it.
“…Charlie…” Ella’s voice drifted in from the hallway, and something in it made his hair stand on end. He got up and crept towards the door. Ella was standing there looking awestruck, her face was pale and clammy, except for a single crimson stream of blood dripping out of her left nostril into a tiny pool on the carpet. “Charlie, I don’t feel so good.” And then she collapsed.
Jesus Christ, NO! Not Ella, please not Ella. He fell upon her and supported her limp little head with one hand. Her skin was balmy as he caressed it, calling her name. And then, Charlie Posner did something he hadn’t done since he was very young. He began to pray. Silently to himself, he muttered a prayer for his little sister, as her ragged breath came out in wheezes, and blood dribbled from her nose. But it was no use, there was only one thing to be done, and Charlie knew it. He left Ella where she’d fallen in the hallway, and went back to his computer. He looked up at the sky, and asked God to forgive him. He clicked send. There was a small whooshing sound as the email disappeared into cyber space, and then, silence.
The Posner family made a full recovery, all of them, even Ella. She and Arron were moved to the same hospital as Charlie’s mother, and eventually, little by little, they all simply got better. The doctors couldn’t explain it, they weren’t even able to deduce what had put them there in the first place. But everyone was happy it was over with, everyone except Charlie. He was staring out the window of his brother’s hospital room, looking more lost than ever. He had condemned ten innocent families to this fate, to this horrible panicked chaos which had plagued him for the past seventy-two hours. The guilt was so heavy he could have died.
“What’s this?” Geneviève said, sitting on the edge of his brother’s hospital bed, her eight-months-pregnant belly protruding from a maternity shirt. Charlie turned just in time to see her click her phone, and a sinister red light dance across her face. She laughed nervously as she read.
“Goddammit Charlie, I hate these chain emails. Would you leave me out next time?”
The look on Charlie Posner’s face frightened them all.
“Charlie? What’s wrong?”
He contemplated leaping across the room to knock the phone out of her hand, but it was too late, she had already looked at it. Dear God, she had already looked.
Credit : E.S. Westhouse
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