Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
I am one of the biggest streamers on Twitch. I play games spanning all genres, and my streams consistently get over 20,000 viewers. I love what I do. It has taken me many years to get to where I am today, and not a day goes by that I wish I was doing something else.
That is until the horrifying events of last Friday happened, which have shaken me to my very core and left me wondering if I will ever stream again.
The stream started normally. I powered on my face cam, loaded up my Twitch interface, and then went live. My viewer count immediately jumped to 2,500, and within a few minutes was at 10,000. Although this has been the norm for at least two years, watching that viewer count rise so quickly still makes my heart race inside my chest. It makes me remember all of the streams that I did back in the day: when five viewers meant that my stream was popping off, and receiving even a tiny donation sent my head spinning through the clouds.
I greeted my chat, and then made a big announcement: for today’s stream, I was not only going to play the games of their choice, but I was going to play them with randomly chosen subscribers. I wanted to do something special for my sixth-anniversary stream, and the positive response was immediate. The chat board started filling up so quickly with comments and emotes that they flew across my computer monitor faster than my eye could register.
The event began successfully. I played a few matches of Overwatch with a guy who happened to be around my age (and who was hilarious) and then Dead by Daylight with a girl who had just finished high school. My stream quickly rose to 50,000 viewers, and might’ve even reached 100,000 had things not turned out the way they did.
As it stands, the stream took a frightening turn while I was playing with the third subscriber of the day—a seven-year-old kid named Tanner.
“Hello Dee!” he said after joining my discord server, opting to call me by my nickname instead of my streamer name.
“Hey buddy,” I said.
I could immediately tell by the sound of Tanner’s voice that he wasn’t any older than ten. For this reason, my initial thought was to discreetly find a way to dump him and then pick a different subscriber to play with. It’s not that I have anything against kids. I just felt uncomfortable streaming with somebody so young. I didn’t want to do or say something that might upset him, and I also wasn’t sure how my chat was going to respond. I have a zero tolerance policy for bullying or negativity during my streams, and the last thing I wanted to do was exploit this kid for my own personal gain.
When I turned my head to read the chat room though, the comments were nothing but positive:
He sounds so cute!
Come on Dee! Play with him!!
I wonder what game he’s going to choose?
These comments and several dozen similar ones flooded my monitor within seconds of Tanner’s voice ringing in my headset, so I knew that I had to play with him. If I backed out, then there would be an uproar.
I wish now that I had listened to my gut feeling and dumped him rather than put myself (and my chat) through what happened later. Looking back though, joining my discord server might’ve been the best thing that Tanner could’ve done that evening—for it increased his chances of making it through the night.
“Welcome to the stream,” I continued. “Do you know what game you want to play?”
He gave the answer that everybody in the chat had predicted, which spent them spiraling into awwwws and silly emotes.
There was an innocence to Tanner’s voice that made me like him immediately. I could tell that he was the quintessential kid: fun-loving, excitable, and quick to laugh.
“Minecraft it is then,” I said. “Let’s boot her up.”
We were silent as we launched the game. I knew that as a professional I should be making small talk with him, but I just wasn’t sure how to go about bantering with such a little kid. I don’t have any younger siblings or cousins, and my wife and I haven’t reached the point where we’ve decided to have kids of our own yet.
Luckily Tanner solved this problem for me.
“Should we play in my world or yours?” he said.
“Let’s play in yours. I think everybody would love to see what you’ve built.”
He sent me an invite. I accepted it, and then spawned into his world.
“Come and find me so I can give you a tour of my—”
His voice was interrupted by the sound of shattering glass, which boomed through his headset so loudly I had to lower my volume. Based on the explosiveness of the sound, I figured that its source was close to his computer.
“Is everything alright?” I said.
“Something just broke in the living room,” he said. “Let me check.” I heard the muffled sound of him taking off his headset, and then heard him quickly pick it back up and place it on his head less than a minute later. “Dee,” he continued, voice a frightened whisper. “There is a strange man inside my house, and he just went into my parent’s room.”
* * * * * *
The stress in Tanner’s voice convinced me that he wasn’t lying. I could practically hear the tears forming in the back of his eyes, and would’ve tried to comfort him if the phrases “strange man” and “parent’s room” weren’t ringing inside my mind so loudly they were threatening to block out all reason. I felt like somebody had laced the Dr. Pepper bottle resting beside my mouse pad with acid; I was experiencing a bad trip, and this stream gone wrong was my own personal hell.
It was the realization that I was still maneuvering my character in Minecraft that finally snapped me back to reality. Here a child was in the middle of experiencing a life-threatening event live on my stream, and there I was mining a tree for its logs with my bare fists as “Subwoofer Lullaby” pulsed gently through my headset. The shame I felt at my selfishness, and forever caring so much about view counts and the fickle comments of my chat, still lines my throat to this day.
I closed down Minecraft, yanked my hand away from the mouse, and then placed my focus solely on the microphone and the sound of Tanner’s voice. Everything else that I normally cared about while streaming I buried under my desire to help this innocent kid, who probably fell asleep every night watching my YouTube videos on his IPad.
Doing my part to save his life was all that mattered.
“Tanner,” I said. “You need to call the police immediately. Are you by a phone?”
Luckily my voice came out steady. I was afraid that it would come out shaky given the adrenaline pumping through my body like a drug. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the comments of my chat room whizzing across my monitor like a broken slot machine. I did my best to ignore them.
“My phone is in the living room,” he said, voice just above a whisper. I could tell that he was only moments away from crying.
“Don’t worry buddy. I will call the police for you. Is there any place that you can hide? Where inside the house are you? Are you in your room?”
“Yes. I am in my room.” His tears had started falling full force, making his voice nasally.
The distant scream of a woman erupted in my headset. The scream sounded painful, and guttural, as if whoever was making it was having their vocal cords torn out one thread at a time.
For one of the only times that night, the chat became completely still.
“You need to hide now, Tanner. Is your headset wireless?”
“Good. Take it with you and crawl under your bed.”
For the next few moments, all I could hear were sniffles and the rustling sound of Tanner sliding under his bed.
“Are you safe?”
“Ok good. Stay put—I am going to call the police. But first I need you to tell me where you live.”
Luckily he knew his exact address, and I wrote it down using the pencil and paper I always keep in front of my monitor as soon as the words left his mouth.
“Good job buddy. You are doing great. Hang on for a second while I call the police, alright? Don’t take off your headset.”
“Don’t leave me all alone Dee.”
His voice was laced with so much feeling as he said this that for a moment I felt tempted to ignore the police and stay right there in the discord server with him. This feeling quickly passed though as another scream, this time from a male, exploded through my headset and sent the hairs on the back of my arms shooting into the air.
“I’m not going anywhere. I promise. This will just take a moment. Stay where you are.”
I quickly looked up the number for the police station in his city—which was in another state, so I couldn’t just dial 911—on my computer, and then pulled out my phone and gave them a call.
“Police department, please state your emergency,” said a woman’s voice in my ear.
I told her the situation in as few words as possible.
She paused for a moment before speaking, presumably looking at whatever resources were in front of her. “Our closest officer is thirty minutes away,” she finally said. “He will be there as quickly as he can.”
It was then that I realized how truly secluded Tanner’s house was from the rest of the city. From my initial scan of Google Maps—I had typed in his address on a fresh tab while I had explained the situation to the dispatcher—I could see how rural his neighborhood was. I doubted that it had a local Walmart, much less a regular police presence. The closest house was probably ten acres away, and the next one, miles.
“Yes,” said the dispatcher. “You heard me correctly. Is Tanner still on the line, er chat with you?” A rare slip-up, and understandable given the unlikelihood of the situation. I had heard of other streamers getting swatted before, but this made even that dangerous prank look like child’s play in comparison.
“Yes, he is.”
“Good. Is he still safe?”
“He should be. I told him to stay under his bed.”
“Tell him that a police officer is on his way, and that he needs to stay hidden until he arrives.”
I put my headset back on and relayed Tanner her message. He responded with a tear-clogged “ok,” and then I lifted my phone back to my ear.
“I told him.”
“Thank you. From here on out I want you to stay in the chat with him. Put me on speaker phone so that I can hear what you are staying, and so that I can advise you should any new developments occur.”
The moment the words speaker phone left her mouth I cursed myself in my mind. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Here I was surrounded by thousands of dollars’ worth of gaming equipment, and I was too stupid to think of utilizing a technology that even my eighty-year-old grandfather could use.
I hit the speaker button, placed my phone in front of my keyboard, and then nuzzled my headset back over my ears.
The sound of Tanner’s shallow breathing greeted my flesh. He sounded like a small and wounded animal, caught in the middle of a railroad track as a freight train came hurtling towards his head.
“Hang tight buddy. A police officer is coming as quickly as he can. You are doing great.”
“Thank you, Dee. I always knew that we would be friends.”
Before I could respond to such a touching remark, a scream so guttural ripped through the headset that I nearly reared back in my chair.
“Are you ok?” I said, trying to keep my stomach acid from rising into my chest.
“They are in the living room now,” he said, voice almost a sob. “I think he’s killing them.”
Several more screams burst through the chat.
“He’s killing them!”
“Keep your voice down Tanner! Or he will hear you.”
My command was greeted by whispered sobs.
I imagined Tanner’s voice shrieking in my ears as he met the same fate as his parents, and sped along the officer’s patrol car in my mind.
Another volley of screams berated my headset, flooding my ears with a twisted crescendo of guttural yells. These screams seemed to go on for an eternity, and then my headset went silent.
Several agonizing minutes later the dispatcher’s voice sounded through the phone on my desk, telling me that the officer had just arrived at the front of the house. This news came much earlier than the initial estimate of thirty minutes, and filled my body with joy.
“Keep hiding, Tanner,” I said. “That police officer I told you about just pulled into your driveway. He is there to help you.”
A few moments later the sound of gunshots burst through the headset, followed by another round of screams.
Terror gripped my lungs at the sound. Coming in guns blazing like that I’m sure hadn’t been the officer’s plan; something must have happened. My guess was that he had been ambushed, and I desperately hoped that he had been the one to come out on top.
“What are you hearing now Tanner?” I said.
He was silent for a few moments, and then said something so horrifying that it has haunted me to this day, and will continue to do so until I am old and gray.
“The man just said dumb f-word cops. Their heads don’t come off like they used to.”
* * * * * *
I slumped back in my chair, blood draining from my face like water down a drain. I’m sure if I would have looked up at my monitor I would have saw a ghost staring back at me. My already sky-high stress levels went plummeting into the stratosphere, and I couldn’t tell up from down.
“Their heads don’t come off like they used to.”
“Dumb f-word cops.”
The sound of Tanner’s hoarse and innocent voice projecting the words of such a sadistic man will echo for an eternity in the darkest chambers of my mind.
So horrified was I by the thought of what had happened to that poor police officer tears nearly filled my eyes. Now wasn’t the time to let my emotions get the better of me though. Given that there weren’t any other cops in the immediate area, I knew that I was the best-positioned person to help Tanner escape this situation alive, and (as much as it frightened me to think about) in one piece.
“Just sit tight Tanner,” I said, voice almost as hoarse as his. “I’m going to find a way to get you out of this. I promise.”
“I trust you,” said Tanner. He had stopped crying long ago. I could tell that he had fallen into survival mode, and respected him all the more for it. Although he wasn’t my kid, and I had only known him for such a brief time, my newfound responsibility towards him made me feel as if he had been born into my arms.
“Hang on for one second. I need to talk to the woman on the phone again, ok?”
I took off my headset and leaned in closer to my phone. “Are you still there?”
“The officer you sent is dead.”
“Are you sure? How do you know?”
“Tanner heard him get…beheaded.” I knew of no other way to say it. “He can hear the man who killed him talking to himself about it in the living room.”
Hearing this brief comment from the dispatcher filled me with almost as much dread as the thought of hearing Tanner’s last breath billowing through my headset—for it was the moment that I realized just how much of a dangerous turn the situation had taken. If a professional police dispatcher, who dealt with emergencies daily, was shocked enough to make such an out of character comment, then something truly extraordinary was taking place.
“I have a swat team on the way, but it will take them at least thirty-five minutes to get there. And this time when I say thirty-five minutes, I mean it. We were lucky that officer Brunswick was able to arrive at the scene so quickly. The swat team is traveling from town, which is a lot slower going.”
I pictured officer Brunswick’s body laying in the middle of Tanner’s living room, bloody and headless, and thought that he was anything but lucky.
“What do we do then? He doesn’t have that much time.”
“You need to tell Tanner to flee the house the moment he has the chance. His house is in a densely wooded area; he can take refuge in the trees until the swat team arrives. Ask him if he has any windows in his room.”
“Okay. Good idea.”
I grabbed my headset from its place on my desk and then threw it back over my ears.
“You still with me, Tanner?”
The way he sometimes called me sir was so endearing that it only made me like him (and fear for him) even more.
“You need to run out of your house the moment you get the chance and hide in the woods until more policemen get there. I know it’s scary, but you have to trust me. Are there any windows in your room?”
Tanner’s answer made me place my head in my hands. What kind of room didn’t have any windows?
“I don’t think I understand. You said that you are in your room, right?”
“Yes. But my room is in the basement.”
Of course, it was.
At this point, I couldn’t see any variations of this situation that ended with Tanner leaving the house alive. He might as well have been stranded on the moon for all the good anybody could do for him down there. The thought that he might get pulled out from under his bed at any moment, screaming bloody murder, before the sadist slashed him to pieces burdened my every breath.
Before I had a chance to consult with the dispatcher about this new development, Tanner’s whispering voice once again greeted my ears.
“He’s looking for me, Dee. I can hear him walking around upstairs. He keeps saying that he is going to find and kill whoever is hiding from him.”
My heart just about leaped through my chest.
Once I took a breath and thought about it though, it made sense that the intruder now knew that there was somebody else inside the house—for why else would a police officer arrive at the scene, gun drawn, unless somebody had reported him?
“Everything is going to be fine. Just stay where you are. More help is on the way.”
“You don’t understand. He is coming down the hall towards the basement. I can hear his footsteps getting closer.”
Tanner’s voice started speeding up.
“I have to do something Dee. I can’t stay under my bed. He will find me too easily.” I heard the sound of thumping footsteps approaching through my headset. “Oh my god—he’s at the top of the stairs. He’s—”
I heard the rustling sound of clothes sliding across the carpet.
“Tanner!” I shrieked. “Tanner!”
The cacophony of a body tumbling to the ground razed my eardrums. I heard the sound of a knife splitting flesh, and then a scream so guttural it made all of the previous screams I had heard that night seem like laughter.
I nearly passed out in my chair. I felt like my heart was being torn from my sternum. Had I really heard what I just thought I had heard? Had Tanner, that innocent little boy who had just wanted to play Minecraft with his favorite streamer, really just been massacred in his own bedroom? I couldn’t stomach the thought. This couldn’t be happening. The universe couldn’t be so cruel as to rob this innocent child of his beautiful life.
Just as I had given up hope that I would ever hear Tanner’s voice again, his voice rang out, loud and clear, through my headset.
“I got him, Dee,” he said. “I tripped him as he came down the stairs, and then merked him with his own knife—just like you would have done.”
I looked over at my monitor, and through the thousands of pepe hands and poggers I could see whirling across the chat at a nauseating pace, my eyes locked onto one word, which stood out among all of the emotes like a signpost glowing through the windows of a speeding car:
* * * * * *
As proud as I am of Tanner for taking the situation into his owns hands, and ending the life of that miserable wretch, I am having difficulties finding myself again after such a traumatic experience. The memories of that stream haunt me daily, and plague my sleep with brutal nightmares.
It’s not the sadist that haunts me—although I think about him a lot too—but the prying, invisible, 50,000 pairs of eyes that were watching the events unfold in real time through my stream. They had loved every minute of it. It was the best stream that they had ever seen, and probably ever would.
It was this thought that caused me to have a realization: they would watch the same thing again if they were ever given the chance. If it happened in a different time, in a different place, and to a different kid, they would drop everything they were doing and glue themselves to their computer screens, as if they were watching an episode of Game of Thrones.
After my experience that night, I learned that human beings flock to violence just like junkies in desperate need of a fix. They search for it on the dark web, they buy it on discs, they read about it in books, and sometimes (if they are lucky enough) they even watch it unfold live on Twitch.
In this way, I learned that we are all like the sadist. We might not act on our violent impulses, but we revel in them nonetheless. We need the Tanners of the world to suffer—for without them, what else is there to entertain us?
That is why, my friends, the biggest stream of my life scarred me for life, and I will never stream again.
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