Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
This is difficult, very difficult. I am not at all comfortable with this. I keep reminding myself why I’m doing it. These are not the typist’s words. The typist is not me, but my sister. I don’t know if she believes me, but she’s giving me the help I need, the help I’ve needed for a while now. She is transcribing what I’ve spoken to her with a trembling voice. I could not type it myself since I do not own a computer anymore. What has happened has tainted technology for me, presumably forever. I wanted this to be in the past. I wanted to lock it up in a box never to be reopened, but I have to visit that dark place now. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. I am managing in my life, not thriving, but managing. I have a small place where I keep the television on all the time. I like the sound. I sleep with on so that the noise will drown out the bumps and whispers that plague me now. It was a television that prompted me to do this, to tell this story. I was awake one night, as I am most nights, and I came across a television program called “Catfish.” I did not know what this show was about or what the title meant. I was horrified when I found out the premise of the program, people using fake photographs to meet romantic partners on social networking websites finally revealing the truth to those they had fooled. The deceit did not shock me nor did the anticipation of the reveal. I was so stunned that there were still so many people on the Internet who would search for a fake photograph to lure others into conversation and romantic relationships. This concerned me so much because it is exactly what I did and its what changed my life forever.
I will start from the beginning, the pertinent beginning. When my family first got the Internet my sister and I would stay up late during the summer and venture into chat rooms. This was before webcams and digital photography so people didn’t really ask for photos of their chatting partners. A description would suffice and it didn’t really matter what you would make up. Of course, I would create someone who I thought was the ideal beauty. Someone who was tall and thin who had long hair and a perfect smile. Needless to say in reality I did not fit this description. I have no deformities or abnormalities, but I’m not a dream girl by any means, just plain. I could be in a room with you for an hour and you may not notice. I’m that type of girl.
Usually, the Internet was reserved for weekends and holidays. I was part of the last generation whose entire youth did not revolve around the Internet I suppose. That all changed when I was a senior in high school. This was during Myspace’s glory day. Suddenly there was a way of communicating online that did not involve a chat room. Your whole existence could be laid out for all to see. Your likes, dislikes, education, hobbies, musical preferences and, yes, pictures, were right there in front of everyone. All the kids at my school had joined and talked about it often, but they rarely mentioned talking to each other on Myspace, but rather they would speak about all the new friends they had made through the site. This intrigued me. Could I be someone completely different on Myspace? Could I start from scratch? No one had to know the real me, or at least I could show them only the parts I wanted them to see. How terribly I wish that this silly idea had never come to fruition.
I filled out my Myspace with truthful and accurate information. I listed my favorite bands and movies, my birthdate and a short bio revealing that I liked swimming and watching horror movies. Everything I posted was true except for the photograph. I knew that if I posted my own photo I probably wouldn’t get much attention. I will admit, as stupid as it makes me feel, that is part of what I wanted, attention.
I wondered how to find my new face. Maybe I could scan a picture of a pretty girl from my school. No, then people from my area may recognize her. Being oblivious to the obvious I, at last, realized that the answer was right at my fingertips. Myspace had millions of users. I could just search for the Myspaces of girls my age and pick one whose photos I could steal. As naïve as it may sound I thought I was the first and only person to do this. I felt ashamed, but reconciled my guilt with the fact that I wasn’t hurting anyone, or so I thought. I decided to search for girls who lived far from me so as to not be found out by someone who may know the girl in reality. I live on the east coast so I picked California, a large state full of cute sun kissed girls.
I scanned through dozens of profiles passing on girls who were too this or not enough that. I don’t really know what I was looking for exactly. I did not have a clear picture of the girl I was looking for, although many of these girls were beautiful, none of them seemed quite right. I was growing tired in my search and wanted to take a break, but instead I decided to scroll through one last page of profiles.
I remember it clearly the photo, that photo. It was on the second to last row from the bottom of that last page I clicked on. I have tried to describe the girl pictured, but my descriptions always seem to fall short. You would not mistake her for a supermodel, but you would definitely look twice at her. The picture showed the girl from the knees up. She was youthful, but womanly. She wore a light blue sundress with thin straps that showed her lightly tanned shoulders and arms, which hung casually at her sides. Her light brown hair was put into a high ponytail with the long bangs tucked behind her ears. She wore no apparent makeup or jewelry. She had a close-mouthed smile and almond shaped sea green eyes. It was her eyes that interested me the most. I had always wished that I had green eyes instead of my chestnut brown ones that my sister would liken to roaches when teasing me. I do not remember anything else about what was shown in the photograph or the Myspace profile, I just remember the picture. I knew this was the picture I had been looking for. I quickly opened her Myspace, saved the lone picture that was posted and uploaded it to my own profile.
I was anxious to check Myspace the next day. It was Sunday, but I awoke shortly after sunrise and hurried online. I had about a dozen messages and at least twice as many friend requests, mostly from men. I accepted everyone without checking their pages; I was just so excited to have these people notice me, or who they thought I was. The messages were pretty obligatory, “Hi, how are you?” “What’s up?” A couple of them were more specific with questions and several mentioned how pretty “I” was. Of these messages one stood out. It was from a guy who I will call “Ken.” “What did the girl mushroom say to the boy mushroom?” His message asked. I responded back with “What?” As I waited for a reply I opened Ken’s Myspace. He was from my state, but a different town a few hours away. He attended the local college where he was studying political science. He wasn’t someone who, perhaps, would be considered great looking, but he had a friendly smile. I suppose “friendly” is the first word I would use to describe Ken.
I hoped that Ken would reply. I wanted him to break up the monotony of the one-word messages I was receiving. How disinterested I was in these men and how much I wanted to hear from Ken made me realize that more so than I wanted unfiltered attention I wanted someone to talk to. Finally, I got a response, “You’re a fungi :)”
Over the next couple of weeks Ken and I sent messages back and forth. We told each other stories from our childhoods, shared movie reviews and discussed whatever happened to be on our minds. The more we talked the more I liked him. He never crossed the line between flirtatious and inappropriate. Sometimes, I would forget who he thought I really was. I would let myself believe that he liked me, the real me, but then he would mention something about that picture. He liked the hair, the smile, her legs…those eyes. Ken never brought up the fact that I only had one picture or had no Myspace friends who seemed to actually know me. I think, maybe, he just wanted to believe she was real. She could make him forget all the inconsistences and suspicions.
Ken brought up speaking on the phone after about a week of chatting. I was apprehensive about letting this guise go further than an online friendship, but I did want to speak to him, to hear his voice. I finally agreed and eventually Ken and I were spending hours on the phone with each other each week. Our online correspondence became less frequent, but he would still send me messages when he was at school telling me a joke or a story from his day. I didn’t pay attention to any of the other people I had on my page. I stopped accepting friend requests or responding to messages. I was satisfied with just talking to Ken.
On a certain day I was scanning my messages to see if Ken had sent me anything and noticed that I had a message from a girl named Melissa. This was very unexpected. I almost never got messages or friend requests from girls. The message was one line, “I think someone stole your pictures.” Followed by a link to a Myspace. The link opened to Sarah’s page, and I saw my new face staring back at me. The clothes were different. She now wore blue jeans and a light pink sweater, but had the same hairstyle and the same coy smile. The picture was odd. It looked as if someone had taken off the clothes in my picture and replaced them, like a paper doll. It was too convincing to be photo shopped. The stance, the direction of the camera, the angle, everything was the same, except for the clothes…and the eyes. The sea green that had struck me was instead a dark hazel. I don’t remember what I thought at the time, perhaps, just the lighting or digital enhancement software was to blame.
Sarah had several hundred friends and a mile long list of comments citing her beauty. She was listed as being from the Midwest, but her admirers came from all over. At first I was afraid that I had been found out, then I realized that if this is the real girl from the photograph I could possibly get more pictures to add to my page’s validity and hopefully keep Ken believing I was this girl. I checked her pictures, but she only had the one. I saved it and tried to post it to my page, but each attempt ended in an error message. I gave up, but bookmarked Sarah’s page.
As the weeks went on Ken and I grew closer. He had brought up meeting in person several times, each ending in an excuse on my part. In retrospect, my excuses didn’t hold much credit, but Ken always accepted them so we kept to our phone and Myspace conversations. As often as I would check my own page for Ken’s messages I would check Sarah’s page. New pictures were never uploaded and the latest comment was posted over a year before. I was curious about Sarah’s life. I wanted to know what this girl with the perfect face was doing. How was she living her life? Was she as happy as I would be if I were her?
As Ken and I grew closer I lived more in my fantasy life. I imagined the two of us together in reality, having those comfortable conversations in person. I would let myself day dream about the life we would have together, sharing an apartment, getting married, having children. As much as I lived for these fantasies and my talks with Ken I always ended up feeling guilty. I thought about this man who, possibly, loved this woman he hadn’t met. I wondered if he thought about us the same way I did, but his fantasies wouldn’t be riddled with my shame. I finally convinced myself that, perhaps, Ken did not really care about that picture. Maybe it didn’t matter as much as everything else about me that he liked. Could I actually come clean?
Each day I wrestled with these thoughts. They accompanied me during every task, growing more prominent when I would check Sarah’s Myspace page. Having checked it every day for months at this point it had become part of my routine, then, one day, it was gone. Only an error message appeared when I clicked on the link. I tried several times growing more and more anxious. I had not realized how attached to Sarah I had become. I believed she was the girl I would give anything to be. If I knew more about her, knew her, maybe I could start to possess some of whatever she had that was so captivating. Now she was gone, lost. Maybe she just made a new page, wanted to start fresh and get away from all the men that flooded her Myspace. I had convinced myself that was it.
I resolved to search for Sarah. I knew which state and town she was from and all of the other identification markers I needed. I filled them in and looked in dismay as more than a hundred pages of results were found. I went through page after page of 18 to 20 year old girls from her area. I tried all the zip codes for the city looking at a 25-mile radius, but page after page of disappointment was turning into fear. Somewhere between the 60th and 70th pages something caught my eye. The display picture appeared to be one taken by a school photographer, with that familiar yearbook pose. I clicked on the profile and, yes, there they were, those same sea green eyes that I found so fascinating in my picture of the girl. This wasn’t her face though. This face was that of a cornhusk blonde cherub. Her sincere smile revealed misaligned teeth and several acne patches marked her skin, but those eyes were there. What caused my heart to drop even more than seeing the eyes was what read above the photo, “R.I.P.”
I wanted to just get up and walk away from it all. My gut, my intuition, told me to leave it all behind, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t walk away from Ken. I knew that. Any strength that I had was usurped by my desire to have him. I suppose somewhere buried with that desire was also a curiosity. I wanted to know more about that girl whose eyes my picture shared.
The “about me” section listed the girl’s full name, date of birth and date of death. I will call her E.M. to protect her family’s privacy.
E.M. had died close to a year earlier, just before her 16th birthday. My eyes were burning badly from looking at the computer screen for so long. Tears began to roll from them. I can’t say whether they came from the eyestrain or something else that was gnawing me from the inside. Those eyes, they seemed to burn right through me.
The information categories on the page were scarcely filled out, but several photos were posted. They pictured scenes from a childhood, a little girl sitting on Santa’s lap, holding a miniature pumpkin, cradling a new baby, all with those eyes staring into the camera lens. I clicked back and read the “who I’d like to meet” section and read instructions to contact the local police with any information. Why would the police need information? What happened to this girl? I knew I didn’t’ have the kind of information they wanted. Anyway, if I were to tell them this strange tale I would have to come clean about my Myspace and the picture I used. I did not know what to do, but I knew I couldn’t let it end there. I began looking through the short friends list of the dead girl. As I clicked to go the last of two pages I noticed one of the friends’ names. I frantically clicked back. There was a girl with E.M.’s last name in its unusual spelling. Maybe this is a relative, a sister perhaps. Maybe she could and would give me the information I so desperately sought. I sent a message to her that I’m sure was riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors. I just needed to know who this girl was and what had happened to her.
The next day I received a reply message from the woman with E.M.’s last name.
E.M. was my cousin. She was murdered about a year ago. Please contact the authorities if you have any information, our family would appreciate any help.
I could almost feel the sadness in those words. I could almost touch my own fear now. I messaged E.M.’s cousin back expressing my sympathy. I wasn’t feigning this concern, but in complete honesty I wanted to know what happened to her. I needed to know to sooth my own fears. What was I afraid of though? I was afraid of it all ending, of everything ending. It couldn’t end. I felt like everything was slipping away. I felt like Ken was slipping away. I couldn’t fathom losing him. I had to do something drastic.
I reconciled that some how, someway, I could convince Ken that the picture, that girl, didn’t matter. I was the person he wanted. This was the only solution. Going deeper into this dark unknown matter was not feasible. I called Ken right away, he didn’t answer. I left a voicemail agreeing to meet him on Saturday, two days away. Since I had called him so hastily I panicked and blurted out the first meeting spot that came to mind, a community lake. I didn’t think to take into account that it was mid winter and there would be no shelter from the cold. I thought about calling him back and changing the meeting place, but I was afraid that I would just chicken out and tell him I couldn’t make it since as soon as I hung up the phone I regretted making the call at all. Ken called me back a couple of hours later, the ringing made me jump from my seat as I was so focused on the computer screen waiting for a reply from E.M.’s cousin. I didn’t answer, but I could hear the exhilaration in his voice when I listened to the voicemail he had left. I didn’t know if he was excited to finally have one of our wonderful conversations in person, or maybe he was just eager to see that picture come to life.
I spent little time contemplating Ken’s motives compared to what I would have before I discovered those eyes on E.M. Instead, I spent the next two days and nights at home, forgoing school and sleep. I would pace my floor to relieve the aches in my back and neck that came from spending my time glued to the computer waiting for the Myspace replies I would receive from E.M.’s cousin. I spent much time crafting my messages, trying to mix in the right amount of concern and condolence with prying questions. I wanted to successfully build a rapport with the cousin. I wouldn’t get the information I needed without it.
I found out through E.M.’s cousin that she was shy and quiet and had few friends. She was teased for her weight, caused, in part by the beta-blockers she took for a heart ailment. Her parents were divorced and she rarely saw her father. She was an avid reader especially loving adventure novels. Her favorite author was Jon Krakauer. Her family thought this was odd since she spent most of her time in her room and didn’t seem to like the outdoors very much. The police had no leads to go on concerning her death. E.M. didn’t seem to have any friends and had never had a boyfriend that anyone knew of. Her untouched bag was found near her body and she was not sexually assaulted. There was no apparent motive, but the manner of her murder led police to believe it was not random, that she was specifically chosen. Why was she chosen, this simple little girl? I sent one last message to the cousin asking her to explain. My message was blatant and I hoped that our prior communications provided efficient sincerity and ease to warrant a reply.
My lack of sleep and interaction with others made these days melt together. I did not have a real sense of time and a barely a sense of place. The center of my existence became the Myspace inbox. I now know that the final message came on Saturday at approximately 9 o’clock in the morning. This message from E.M.’s cousin still makes my heart stop when I picture in in my mind’s eye. I don’t claim to have a photographic memory, but what is below is, I’m sure, that final message verbatim.
E.M. was found in the bathroom at a park not far from her house two days after leaving to go to school. There was no running water in the bathroom so no one really goes in there. Two teens went into the bathroom, probably to get high, and found her. They thought she had passed out. She was on the floor with her eyes closed. They tried to wake her up by shaking and screaming at her, but couldn’t. After calling 911 they continued to try to get her up. They lifted her eyelids. Her eyes were gone. There was no blood, no fingerprints, nothing. Police couldn’t find a real cause of death, just that her heart had stopped, but obviously they knew it was murder.
I read this message over and over, holding my breath each time. Her eyes were gone? How could someone’s eyes be gone? No blood? That’s not possible. Is this a lie? I knew it wasn’t. I’m not sure why I believed in E.M.’s cousin’s validity, but still, none of it made sense. Why was she there alone? Was she alone? I couldn’t send the cousin another message. I wasn’t concerned for her state of mind having to rehash the awful details of her family member’s death, but I was certain she had told me everything she could. As a testament to my own state of mind, instead of searching for help in reality, I dove back into the cyber world for answers. I had the information; I knew the name, date, place and enough other details to narrow down my search. I found news articles on E.M.’s death and read each one. A teenaged girl being mutilated in a park bathroom was not a story many papers would pass up. Most of the articles revealed nothing I hadn’t learned from the cousin, but at the end of one of those stories was a short paragraph. What I read left my head spinning and my stomach churning. The body of a yet identified young man was found less than one mile from the scene of E.M.’s murder. Police did not know if they were connected, but there was no apparent evidence that they had known each other and for the first time the article gave E.M.’s middle name as “Sarah.”
After vomiting mostly bile into my trash bin, I wiped my face on my unchanged shirt and continued searching the paper’s archives. There was only one further article that mentioned the young man. It said nothing more than the previous about his death, but it did mention his name. I found the man’s Myspace. It became apparent why it was assumed that he and E.M. did not know each other. He was catalogue perfect and why would a catalogue perfect young man be associated with a chubby, shy, 15-year-old girl? He was also from a neighboring state, possibly explaining why the local papers covered his death so little. I rifled through his page. There were no answers. I clicked around desperately looking for anything. He had one blog entry titled “school.” In it he explained his frustration with and dislike for academics, every subject except literature. He had recently gotten into Jon Krakauer, “Thanks to Sarah.” He wrote.
Was this the same Sarah with my picture? Was it E.M.? I remembered her cousin’s description of the girl who loved to read adventure novels. Was E.M., Sarah? The fragments began link together in my head. They were still fuzzy, but coming together nonetheless. The seconds masquerading as hours had reversed their roles. It was now 2:20 pm, 20 minutes past my scheduled meeting time with Ken. My legs got me down the stairs and out the front door despite their flaccidity. I only remember the constant red lights from the drive to the lake. I had driven there at least a dozen times in my mother’s blue car, but each stop light seemed like a fresh obstruction, put there just to hinder me.
The lake is too big to freeze in the winter, but the water is too frigid for fishing and air too cold for jogging its perimeter. I expected the parking lot to be vacant and was startled by the lone black four-door backed into one of the spots. I parked across from it and hurried out. I saw no signs of life, only the swaying of the bare trees in the heavy woods that surrounded the vast lake. Was I too late? What was I too late for? I had no fewer questions than I did before, just more avenues to get lost in, more places for that unknown horror to pounce out from. I stood at the lake’s edge, my face and hands numb. I had not thought to dress for the temperatures and wore only a long sleeved shirt and thin cotton pants. I stood at the water’s edge and stared into it. In this temperature it would not take long. I could just end it, be done with it all. I would never have to think about Ken, Sarah, E.M. or those eyes again. Most of all I could bring an end my shame.
My contemplation was broken by a sound behind me. This sound was quiet. Not a sound that would illicit a quick turn around and investigation, but rather the kind of noise that makes your breath halt and your legs turn to stone. It was familiar, but still unidentifiable. What was it? Dragging, yes it’s dragging. It was closer now and still moving. I had only two options, turn around and see or just walk, walk into that icy mud colored water. I don’t know why I made the choice I did, but in my mind I see myself turning around in slow motion, with all the color draining from my surroundings. There he was, Ken, standing there. His normally olive skin was white, his mouth gaped open and his eyes stared at me with bewilderment. I could feel the tears turn cold as soon as they left my eyes, freezing on my cheeks. I stared into his eyes, neither of us moving. Suddenly, a burst of dark blood leapt from his opened lips, splattering onto my front. I was so stunned that I stumbled back hitting the shore crashing water. The temperature robbed my lungs, but no more than Ken’s body falling on top of me did. We lay there in the water, me struggling to breath and Ken gurgling and convulsing. As I was pushed further down by Ken’s weight my eyes saw it. It was standing over us, the beauty replaced by unfathomable decay. The skin dripped with puss-likened liquid as the straw hair danced in the winds. Its eyes, those eyes, just vacant holes indicating the status of its soul. My hands gripped Ken’s wet coat as it neared me. I was crying, but my throat had tightened so much that no sound could escape. It was there right above me, the dreadful image eclipsed only by the odor from it mixing with the lake’s damp aroma. It was there so near that it was all I could see; this was it, then…black.
I woke up to my face burning so badly it felt like a match had been lit inside my sinuses. The familiar sense of confusion was much stronger. Voices were muffled and foreign. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Shhh.” I recognized my mother’s tone. Her words were unclear, but the shushing soothed me. I thought I was dreaming. My eyes were closed. I needed to open them to wake up. They won’t open. Why won’t they open? I believed I was saying this out loud, but instead I was screaming, a primal, instinctive scream.
They’re gone. Those eyes are gone; my eyes are gone, replaced by forever darkness. I was saved from the water, first by Ken as his dying body’s last warmth was given to me, or the warmth that I stole, which is how I describe it. The second person to save me was an out of man visiting the lake for sightseeing. I told the police about Ken, he wasn’t found, even after the lake was dragged. Maybe the lake scavengers got him, or maybe he’s still down there, still waiting for that girl. I will never see Ken again. I will never see anything again. The irony is that of all the things I miss seeing, I miss the face looking back to me from the mirror the most, my plain face. I write this, not to frighten the reader, but with hopes of stopping other people from turning away in disgust at their own reflections and looking for someone who they wish to be online. But, if you still want to find that perfect face to parade as your own, please, if you see a beautiful smiling girl looking straight through you with chestnut brown eyes, look away from those eyes. Those eyes are mine.
Credit To – Ju-Ju B.
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