He didn’t recognize the email address. It was just a jumble of seemingly random numbers and letters, anyway. B23IYRX. Probably spam. Weight loss pills or cheap gadgets or attractive singles who didn’t exist. Just to be sure, he read the subject line. “We have a surprise for you.” It said. Seems legit, Tom thought, laughing but not smiling as he sat in his darkened room, hunched over the glowing monitor. His cursor hovered over the email. His eyes shot to the clock in the upper right of the screen. Three forty-two a.m. Not like he had anything better to do. All his favorite websites held nothing new, for now. These were the in-between hours. The times when it was neither restless night, nor busy day, when the world slept with both eyes shut. Except for whoever sent the email.
Tom’s bony index finger, stained traffic-cone orange by the dust of chips, pushed down on the mouse button. The email popped open. No text. One attachment. A video. No thumbnail.
We have a surprise for you.
Must be one of those shock things. Tom’s mind suggested. He’d seen them before, on nights like this. Nights when the taste of energy drinks lingered in his mouth and empty cans and bags rested on the floor around his chair like insect corpses. Nights when he got bored. He never looked for them on purpose, never sought them out. Just browsing until he got to someplace where he knew he’d be likely to find a good one. He didn’t think he liked the shock videos; he wasn’t some kind of freak. He was just… bored. So, so bored. Blue-white light shining up from below his hollow, stubbly face, Tom opened the attachment.
A dull, grainy image flashed onto the monitor. Cheap camera. Tom made it full screen. The image began to warp. Clipping, digital screams flowed from his headphones. Tom’s face scrunched into a look of concern. This had to be fake. A clip from a horror movie or something. He moved his mouse to close the window. The cursor wouldn’t move. The screen hadn’t frozen. The video was still going. He checked to make sure the mouse was plugged in, taking his headphones off. The video was almost finished. Fifteen seconds left. The sound began to stream through the computer’s built-in speakers. Tom clicked mute, his fingers flying frantically. Nothing happened. Ten seconds. His thumb mashed the power button, trying everything he could to get that picture off the screen, out of his head. Five seconds. The useless click of the button was like an empty gun trying to fire. Four. He tried the mouse again. Three. Vomit was creeping up the inside of his throat. He could feel it. Two. Tom screamed out loud at the finale of the unreal horror show, taking place on his computer screen. One.
The window closed of its own accord. Tom grabbed an empty cellophane bag off his desk and puked into it. Tying the bag shut and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he looked back at the screen. He’d never seen anything like that before. Never even heard of something so awful. He knew there were sites out there that had things like this, or at least things that tried to be like this. Somehow, it didn’t seem like any of them would compare. It was so animalistic, so visceral, so wrong. Another thought occurred to him.
“This is illegal.” He murmured to the blue-lit half darkness of his room. He clicked on his browser history, thinking he needed to clear it, because they can trace those kinds of things. It wasn’t there. The top item on the list was just his email. Probably embedded the link. For all his knowledge of the web, Tom still wasn’t sure what that meant, but for now, it seemed like the rational option. He deleted the email, then went back to the familiar safety of mindlessly browsing social networks for the rest of the night.
When morning came, Tom was still at his desk, the computer’s screensaver making mesmerizing colors dance as he leaned back in his chair, snoring softly. He woke to the chime of an email notification. His eyes opened slowly, staring at the ceiling. His mind was full of blue-white fog as he struggled to remember that night. You had a nightmare. He thought. Nothing else. He sat up in his chair and looked at the screen.
New Message From B23IYRX!
No. This couldn’t be happening. The video was a dream. It had to have been a dream. Had to. He opened the message.
“Hey, Tom.” It read. “Did you like our present? There’s more where that came from.” Another link. His cursor hovered over it for a split second, then swept down to the reply button.
“Not interested. Go to hell, you sick freak.” He typed, and pressed send. That was that. He knew advertisers tracked people’s web activity. It was probably just another shock site, targeting him because of the pages he frequented. All he had to do now was wait for them to see his response and realize they’d wasted their time. As for the video, it was fake. Anyone could see that. Disgusting, maybe, but fake all the same. He slipped on his shoes, took the makeshift barf bag from last night out to the garbage can in the alley, came back in, and had breakfast.
At nine, he put on his purple polo shirt and took the bus to the supermarket where he worked. It was only a summer job, but it gave him some extra money, plus, it got him out of the house, and his mom liked that. He walked through the automatic doors and smiled at the fresh scent of cleaning product.
“Hey. Tom.” A voice called. The email flashed through his head. Did you like our present? He turned and saw the girl from the shift before his. She worked from one to nine a.m
“Hey, Sarah.” He said, with a small wave.
“You’re late.” She scolded, sarcastically. “You know, some people want to get home and sleep.”
“It’s fine. You okay?”
“You look like a zombie.”
“Thanks. Why don’t you run on home and go to bed like you were saying?”
“Just asking.” She said, walking out the door. He wasn’t okay. Not by any means. The email from that morning was still in his mind, like a persistent itch. He needed to scratch it. He needed to watch the second video.
At first, he was hesitant. After all, it was disgusting, it was wrong, it was… evil. That’s what it was. Pure evil. No other word for it. But he had to see it. He’d been wondering about it. What fresh horror could possibly follow up what he’d seen last night? He told himself it wasn’t important at first; that he should just stop. But as the hours of his shift wore by, all apprehension gave way to curiosity. He had to know what came next.
As the sun rose high outside, Tom put out the “register closed” sign and snuck out to the alleyway. Pulling his phone from his pocket, he clicked the mail app, then with a series of taps on the screen, pulled the last message from his trash bin and opened the attachment. As the video buffered, he actually crossed his fingers in hope that it would work, something he hadn’t done for years. Not since he was a child.
After a tense, sweaty moment, the video loaded. It was only a little longer than the other one. A few seconds past three minutes. He sat down on an overturned plastic crate beside the dumpster and stared at the screen as the images began to flash by, and the screams came from his speaker. The camera quality was low again, the image coarse. Maybe the same person recorded both of them. Maybe the same person sent them to you. He thought, eyes wide and breath short. This one was worse. Much worse. He swallowed, forcing bile back down his throat. He held the phone with one hand while he clasped the other over his mouth in shock. His eyes never left the screen. God, he could almost smell it.
Tom was so focused on the hellish images of the clip that he didn’t notice when a blue minivan pulled up a little way down the alley. So distracted that he didn’t hear the footsteps on the gravel, not even when the balding man in the green shirt stopped and stood behind him. He didn’t even look up until the video was finished, and when he did, an aluminum baseball bat landed squarely on the back of his head.
The man in the green shirt was small, but strong enough to lift Tom into his car. The emails were working well. This was the third one he’d gotten this month. Amazing what you could do with technology.
Tom woke up about halfway though the drive to the cabin. His head was pounding and he couldn’t see or move his hands. He smelled musty fabric and realized there was a burlap sack over his head. He could feel some sort of movement, hear a soft rushing sound, the noise of the highway. If he was in a car, screaming wouldn’t do any good. Then there was a voice.
“Are you awake? Listen to me. Keep your head down. Do not move. If you disobey me, I will shoot you.” Tom did as the voice said. He could smell something metallic, mixed with the warm scent of the cloth bag. Blood.
He didn’t know how long it was before they stopped, but when they did, he felt someone grab hold of the rope around his wrists and begin to lead him. As he was pulled along, he began to see through sound. Car door shutting. Footsteps on gravel. Door opening. Door closing. Footsteps on wood. Door opening. Footsteps on concrete. Fluorescent lights being switched on. Door closing. Voice.
“Smile.” The man in the green shirt said. The bag came off. Tom opened his eyes. He was looking straight into the shiny, black lens of a video camera.