I sat poised on the edge of my seat as I booted up the cheap laptop I purchased second-hand. The device was slow, and I could hear the gears grinding as the login screen loaded. I expected smoke to pour out as I typed in my credentials. A pop-up appeared, asking me to restart and update.
With a deep sigh, I resigned myself to the update. What other choice did I have? My heart hammered in my chest as the files loaded and the computer ran through its diagnostics. This was the only way I could find Terry.
My boy had been missing for three days. At first, I thought he was visiting after school at a friend’s house. But he never returned home. He wasn’t the type to run away, either. I called the police, and they opened an amber alert. They ran ads to find Terrance Holcroft, age twelve, with brown hair and hazel eyes, last seen wearing an Adventure Time t-shirt and tan shorts. We lived in a transitory neighborhood. I hardly knew any of my neighbors, and none of them had seen Terry on the day of his disappearance.
I bought him a computer to play games with his friends and monitored his activity. He chatted with his friends over Twitch about Fortnight and Minecraft, along with Super Mario and gaming channels on YouTube. Terry didn’t troll. He was never cruel or abusive. I didn’t know what to look for and where to go. I logged into his computer to search for anything that would help. Searching through Twitch and Discord to find the same conversations with his friends and homework assignments, nothing new.
Desperately, I browsed online to find anything else to find him. A google site advised me how to review the router’s browser history. After reviewing the system log, I found Terry had been using a VPN. Pulling up the VPN history to find episodes of Dr. Who and Black Mirror and a plethora of anime. I was about to give up and shut down his computer when a chat window formed on the screen. The text was neon red and melted down on the page.
UNKNOWN USER: Mom, please help. I typed back; the font was practically bleeding off the page.
USER 1: WHERE ARE YOU?
UNKNOWN USER: I need you to get another computer, one with a different IP address. And I need you to use TOR. Here’s the site address so you can talk to me. A code string downloaded on the screen, and I feverishly scribbled it down.
USER 1: ARE YOU OK!
The screen went black, and I burst into tears. I hurried down to the local police office to make a report. The officer spoke to me in a soothing and condescending tone. They were doing everything to find Terry, but had no updates yet. That I needed to get some sleep and take care of myself. He gave me the card to a therapist, and I threw it back in his face. Gritting my teeth and keeping my composure, I silently left the police station.
I stopped by a computer repair shop and purchased a used laptop. It looked to be in decent condition and was no worse for wear. The update button hit 99 percent and restarted. After it booted up, I downloaded our VPN browser and a TOR browser. I typed the address Terry gave me into the browser, and the same chat window appeared, red letter garishly melting into the background.
UNKNOWN USER: So, you can follow instructions.
USER 1: WHERE IS MY SON?
UNKNOWN USER: They murdered your son over a year ago.
USER 1: HE’S NOT DEAD! UNKNOWN USER: Don’t you remember? Terry found a link, much like this one, over a year ago. He disappeared, and a few days later, they found his body mutilated beyond repair. They had to order a DNA test to verify his identity.
USER 1: STOP!!
UNKNOWN USER: They found the perpetrator. He had been part of child abduction and trafficking ring. They sentenced him to death because he kept his silence. My stomach lurched, and I wanted to reach through the screen and grab the person on the other side. I screamed, and it echoed throughout the empty house.
UNKNOWN USER: But you can’t let it go, can you? You keep searching for someone that isn’t there, someone who has been dead for over a year. Repeating the same patterns over and over thinking will not change your outcome. Your husband felt the same pain you did, but you pushed him away.
USER 1: I’M REPORTING THIS TO THE POLICE! UNKNOWN USER: Once this chat ends, all records of it will be gone. The police already think you’re crazy. They lie and tell you they’re still looking for him. They feel sorry for you. You lost your son and had to pick your husband’s brains out of the wall after he shot himself.
USER 1: SHUT UP!
UNKNOWN USER: I’ll tell you a secret. The man that sits on death row is not the same man that murdered Terry. Sure, he knows who did, but he’s taken a vow of silence for his master. I have an offer for you-I can bring Terry back and inflict all the pain wrought on him to his killer.
USER 1: WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS? UNKNOWN USER: The enemy of my enemy is my ally.
USER 1: YOU CAN’T DO THIS. NO PERSON CAN BRING BACK THE DEAD.
UNKNOWN USER: Who said I was a person? “My son’s not dead.” I sobbed quietly, and my hands shook. I remembered the photos and the police reports. My stomach lurched, and I vomited before curling on the floor in the fetal position.
“Yes, I want to make him pay. I want my son back,” I murmured. The door opened suddenly, jolting me from my sadness.
“Mom, what are you doing in my room?” Terry turned on the light and looked curiously around the room. “EW, are you OK?” he groaned, eyeing the pool of puke.
“I… I was cleaning. I think I ate bad Chinese food. Look, I’ll go clean it up.” I hugged Terry close to me, and he awkwardly patted my back.
“Mom, are you sure you’re OK?”
I grabbed a roll of paper towels and cleaned the mess off the floor before running to the washroom to freshen up. I padded downstairs to find my husband drinking coffee downstairs and watching the evening news. The force of my embrace nearly toppled him over.
“Honey, is everything all right?”
“I’m just happy to see everyone.”
I kissed him, and a weight lifted off my shoulders. Terry and my husband were back, and everything was back in order. I noticed Terry was acting differently in the days that followed. He seemed distant and non-responsive. When I asked if he was OK, he said everything was empty and cold, like something was missing and that he felt out of place. My heart sank as I stared back at the laptop.
My mind wandered back to Terry’s murderer, who it was, what happened to them, or if they had a family. I shuddered and put these thoughts out of my mind. I sent Terry to school the following week as though nothing had happened. I considered burning the second-hand laptop as it sat in the corner.
I sat down to watch the morning news before going to work. My stomach lurched again as news frantically covered a shooting at Terry’s middle school. One student opened fire, killing 15 other kids. My phone started ringing, and I saw a squad car in my driveway. The officer told me that one of his classmates shot him and I needed to identify the body.
They took the shooter into custody and asked why a thirteen-year-old girl would open fire at a school. The shooter wailed. She saw her father burn to death in front of her. His flesh peeled from him. Ash spontaneously went up in flames. And if he were going to die, everyone would.
The bodies swayed in the cold January wind on the gallows the mob built. Tanks and military vans swarmed the National Mall as the angry crowd surged, shots of gunfire in the background.
I grabbed Erin’s arm and pulled her away as the crowd surged against military might. The same forces surrounded the White House and demanded surrender. Over a loudspeaker, the guard announced that the District of Columbia would be under lockdown until further notice and for the crowd to disperse, followed by more gunfire. Erin and I were tourists from California. But the surging mob ruined our vacation plans. The bomb forced a hole in the capitol building as the angry mob marched through, followed by screams, gunfire, and hanging bodies.
We ran toward the metro station, hoping to reach our hotel room safely. A crowd was already clogging the metro station. They carried Confederate and Nazi flags and demanded their leader’s release.\
A man in military fatigues yelled orders to the crowd through a loudspeaker. Another man, wearing a thin blue line shirt, shot the man on the intercom, and the crowd trampled over him toward the trains.
My heart caught in my throat, and Erin screamed as we ran up back the steep stairway to the city above, fighting through the frightened crowd. Another man in military fatigues waited at the top of the stairs, waving people past. A black van rested behind him.
“I’m going to need your ID,” he said.
Erin and I handed my state ID to the man in fatigues. He glanced over mine. He paused and searched Erin’s ID with more scrutiny.
“It says your name is Aaron?” he flipped the card, showing a picture of a young man.
“It was,” stammered Erin. “I’m transgender. We’re just trying to get to our hotel. Could you please let us through?” tears formed in her eyes.
The man’s eyes narrowed as he glared at Erin with hatred and disgust.
“Guys, we have a groomer,” he barked as he pulled Erin away from me and threw her down the stairs. She tumbled toward the bottom before landing in the crowd below.
“This is the beginning of your reeducation,” screamed the man in fatigues. I screamed in horror as the crowd trampled Erin and tore her to pieces. I squeezed my eyes shut, preparing for him to throw me into the mob.
“That’s what happens if you fall out of line and don’t obey,” said the man in fatigue as he squeezed my face and petted my hair.
“We can save you,” he murmured as he zip-tied my hands behind my back and threw me in the back of the van.
There were six other women in the van with me, all with bruised faces and tears in their eyes. I only wanted to go to a few museums and listen to a few speeches. Erin was dead, and it was my fault for bringing her here.
Around me, everything burned, and gunshots sounded. This was America. This wasn’t supposed to happen here. The actual military would fix this, and we would have peace. But as the van took off, I knew I would never see California or my family again.
Once upon a time, there lived a royal family who lived in a magnificent castle high in the mountains. Their family had a dragon that guarded the pass to the mountains and kept the family safe. The dragon had magnificent ruby scales tipped with gold and golden belly, and his eyes were as green as jade.
The dragon would stand vigilant every night to protect the mountain from the neighboring kingdom and sleep during the day when the King’s guards were awake. The guards had a habit of oversleeping, so the King bought a magnificent red rooster to crow in the morning.
The dragon guarded his post all night, but when he turned to the bed, the Rooster’s incessant crowing kept him up all day.
“Little cousin,” bellowed the dragon. “Why do you insist on crowing every morn?”
“To greet the sun, and to make sure the humans are awake to work! For the day is ordained as a blessing,” crowed the rooster.
“Little cousin, have you thought that some people and creatures live by night?”
“Those are not safe or ordained by the sun. I care not for their slumber.”
“I see,” grumbled the dragon as he took his post.
That night, the dragon could barely keep his eyes open, but he caught a spy from the neighboring kingdom and smote him with his fiery breath. The king’s guard to their post and to rooster crowed throughout the day.
The next night, the dragon was so sleepy that he went into a giant slumber before the steps and a small team of from the neighboring kingdom broke into the castle and burgled all the fine jewelry and artworks.
The king was furious with the dragon and stormed down to the base of the mountain to find him sleeping.
“Dragon, what calls thee to be sleeping on thine post?” hollered the king.
The dragon opened one jade eye, and his yawn shook the whole castle.
“Tis the rooster. The arrogant bird’s incessant crowing has kept me awake every day since you brought him here. I would have roasted him myself, but for the reverence for your kingdom.”
The king’s manner calmed, and he nodded. “Ahh, I understand my friend, I will fix this matter by evening if thou return to thine post.”
“I most graciously agree, my lord,” said the dragon as he stood back at his post.
The following day, there was a guard who jingled a bell, but the bell went blessedly silent after the rest of the guard awoke. That evening, the royal family had the most exquisite dinner of roasted chicken.
The moral of the story, not everyone is a morning person.
I held my phone, displaying two concert tickets to a goth and industrial concert in New York City. I hadn’t been to the city in years, but my friend and I agreed to split a hotel room for the night. The hot summer sun was setting into a warm night, and the smell of asphalt and car exhaust wafted through the air.
The streets were teeming with people, the buildings so high they got lost in the clouds. My neck craned to reach the tops of the bright buildings covered in fog. The bus stopped at the hotel we were staying at. Jackie was waiting patiently for me, her dark hair blended into bright blue pigtails, and goggles sat upon her head. She had a fishnet top over a tank top, bondage pants, and huge platform boots. “This concert is going to be lit, Mel!” she said as she bounced on her toes and gave me a tight bear hug.
I wore a burgundy slip dress, fishnets, and Doc Martin boots. I had streaked my blond, curly hair with Manic Panic blue and purple. It was like old times, the times when we were in our twenties and went out to concerts and raves until the early hours of dawn.
I worked a full-time office job and lived with my husband; we rescued cats and had a small house in the country. We gardened, and he would occasionally go out hunting and fishing. Our most lively night out in a while was playing the occasional DND game with online friends. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the peace, but I missed the revelry of my youth. Jackie’s phone buzzed.
“Hey sweety, I love you! Mommy is just going to be out for a night with her old friend, can you put daddy on the line? Hon, make sure Cassidy gets to bed on time, and that her homework gets finished?” Jackie nudged me, “he wants to say hi,” she whispered while pointing the phone at me. Her husband, Dave on the other line, his blond hair had turned partially white and pulled back in a ponytail, but it was the same Dave that I remembered. “Good to see you, Dave, and Cassidy,” I said waving at the little girl with platinum locks in pajamas.
“You girls have a good time, and say hi to Spencer for me, it’s been years, we should all hang out sometime,” he said while ruffling Cassidy’s hair.
“Me casa tu casa,” I said.
Jackie and Dave talked a few more minutes about mundane married life before she hung up the phone.
“She’s darling,” I said.
“She’s a handful.”
“Dave’s a handful as it is,” I laughed as we headed into the hotel.
It had bright purple walls and crisp white flooring. The Violet was one of the fanciest hotels I had ever stayed at. Jackie talked to a handsome hotel clerk that checked us in and took our bags.
“Bellboys still exist?” I asked.
“Look, we saved our bonuses to be this bougie for once, and we’re going to see KMFDM, Ministry, Thrill Kill Kult, and The Birthday Massacre, it’s going to be so lit!” beamed Jackie.
We went to the elevators. Our room rested on the second to the top floor. The hallways had the same generic drab appearance many hotels had. I shrugged thinking our room would be generic as well.
Jackie swiped her card in the key holder and the room opened to purple walls and white shag carpeting. The coffee table comprised a white plastic triangle, and even the bathroom followed the same color scheme. It gave the room the late 80s, early 90s vibe. I remembered being twelve around that time, staying up late to watch weird alternative music videos, anime, and films on MTV. Or even watching British comedy shows on PBS. Jackie and I dressed in our pajamas. Now the world was a completely different place, with weird films and music videos streamed 24/7 on smartphones. We unpacked and put our clothes into the shiny white dresser. We were planning to go to the concert tonight and go sightseeing tomorrow before heading back to our lives.
“What should we eat in the City that Never Sleeps?” I asked.
“Girl, stick to Chinese food or pizza, it’s cheap and delicious, trust me,” said Jackie. Jackie had traveled to New York several times before, but always for business. I had opted to stay in the country only traveling to a small town for work. It was years since I visited any kind of city. I opened the window and glanced out, tall buildings as far as my eyes could see.
“Come on Mel, or we’ll miss the show!”
I grabbed my purse, and we both headed down the hallway. A small pizza place sat by our hotel, and Jackie was right, the giant slice was both inexpensive and some of the best pizza of my life.
We took the subway to the concert; I puzzled over the map with a confused expression but Jackie rolled her eyes and yanked me onto the next train.
“Trust me, babe, I got you,” she chuckled.
They packed the subway car with so many people it was standing room only. I couldn’t grab the rings at the top of the car and had to use Jackie to steady myself on the ride. We shuffled between several trains before getting out in Greenwich Village. We walked for blocks, through crowds of people and bright lights before seeing the Pyramid Club. A line of Goths snaking out the door.
A wave of nostalgia washed over me and I remembered taking the D.C. metro to go clubbing. We used to go out every weekend until D.C. built a stadium over Nation, the main venue in D.C., tanking the local scene. The concerts and club nights had moved to Philadelphia and NYC and we had gotten jobs and families and moved on with our lives. But tonight, was our return to the past, just for one time. Most of the people in line were my age or older. Still decked out with wild hair and makeup. I breathed a sigh of relief when a group of younger people stood behind us in line. A young woman with dark skin and golden contacts, her hair bound in yarn dreads, and her boyfriend with a bright red Mohawk.
“It seems like the Elders are out in droves,” she said under her breath.
I sighed as Jackie bounced on her toes until we finally reached the entry point. A bouncer with a shaved head and a thick Bronx accent checked our IDs and our purses before passing us through the door.
We walked into the cramped venue like old times, and the music played. We sang along with lyrics, but the singers have all aged. The crowd still enthusiastically sang and requested songs several decades old. After the last set the announcer stated there was a guest band on the ticket, and they were going to play their set.
Jackie raised an eyebrow, “ I thought they brought out new bands as an opener?” “Meh, let’s give them a chance. We should do this again, but maybe with some up-and-coming bands, you know, give the scene some support,” I said.
“You’re feeling old. Same,” she said, rolling her eyes.
The next set was a band name Return to R’lyeh. All the band members wore robes of purple, black, and midnight blue with hoods disguising their faces. The set had a strange triangular symbol covered with ornate sigils. “Looks Avant-Garde. I like it!” said Jackie.
The rest of the crowd nodded in agreement with curious stares towards the new band. There were no instruments, and they chanted, their voices low and throbbing. “Huh, must be some sort of Gregorian Chant, awesome!” I said. Had I known what they were chanting I would have changed my mind.
I stood, enthralled by their words, warmth flooded over me and it felt like time went still. The last chanter made a strange symbol with his hands and vanished into a fog. A lot of the bands had smoke machines, leaving the stage foggy. But when I turned around, I saw nothing but fog. The club stood empty behind me. “Jackie!” I called, but there was no answer. There was no one, nothing. I was alone. I ran out of the club into the city night. The streets were empty, the traffic lights clicked on in silence. No cars drove on the summer streets.
I ran blindly through Greenwich village to the subway station. It was empty but the trains still ran. I swallowed, trying to remember the combination of trains that lead us here. As I boarded the car, one chanter stood fully in his robe.
“What the hell happened? Have you seen a tall woman with dark hair and platform boots in all black?” I realized how stupid that question was after leaving a Goth club. The robed person stood and chanted, I could feel pressure form of me, and squeezed my eyes shut. The subway stopped at an empty station. I fished out my hotel key card and read the address. I deciphered the chart as best I could and went on several empty cars until I found the hotel.
Jackie knew this city better than I did, if I could find my way here, she shouldn’t have a problem. I checked my phone, it now had a pyramid symbol surrounded by sigils. What the fuck.
There must have been acid in the absinthe I drank that night. I would go to sleep and wake up with a pounding headache. Jackie would ream me out for leaving her at the club. We would go to Chinatown for lunch and sightseeing and buy tacky souvenirs, it would be fine. But nothing was fine, everything was empty and alone. I entered the hotel, and the lobby was dark. The elevator buttons had strange symbols. Heart pounding, I pressed the one that had a pyramid in the center. The elevator seemed like it was taking hours to reach the floor. A cold hand touched my back, I turned around and saw a robed figure behind me; it pointed toward the door and chanted.
The elevator dinged and opened and I ran out into the hallway as fast as I could. The hallway looked the same, generic with a patterned rug and flickering fluorescent lights. I searched desperately for our room number, but no room number appeared. The hallway was endless.
This was a dream, I would wake up and take the long bus ride home, my husband would pick me up and I’d be home with Silky and Lacey looking up with their big green eyes, meowing for their dinner.
But my room was nowhere in sight. Tears clouded my vision as I ran down the hallway. All the doors and rooms were identical, After several hours I found another elevator.
I pressed all the buttons and sat in the box’s corner. The elevator went at normal speed and all the buttons dinged; the doors opened to the empty hallway after empty hallway until I reached the top floor.
When I came out another robed figure chanted and pointed. I felt numb as I walked toward a large ornate door. My key card fit into the door and it opened onto a terrible cosmos. Words cannot comprehend what lies beyond the door, and once I stepped through, there was no coming back.
A bright light shone through the cracks, I opened the door with a creek to see a creature on the other side. The monster existed beyond physical description in terrifying beauty. Its scales contained colors not found on any earthly plane of existence. Robed figures surrounded the creature, chanting in an unknown language. My body pulsated, and I danced in time to the rhythm.
The next thing I knew I was back in the Pyramid Club dancing next to Jackie. The group of robed figures cleared out of the stage while the crowd yelled repeatedly for an encore.
“That was one hell of a show,” said Jackie as she took my hand.
The crowd milled around the merch booth and the bar. We opted out of buying overpriced rail drinks but bought overpriced band t-shirts instead. The crowd funneled out of the club into the crowded streets, and we followed.
The robed figures appeared, chanting out of the corner of my eye, only to have them disappear when I turned my head. I went through the next day in a daze. We wore our band t-shirts and jeans and sensible Vans for walking. We had a continental hotel breakfast followed by shopping for more overpriced souvenirs, and a bus tour throughout the city. We stepped off in China Town for lunch; the food was delicious but distant like someone else was eating the food.
We got turned around on our way back and nearly missed our bus. All the streets looked similar and would switch back between Little Italy and China Town. Frustrated we stopped at the fruit stand, and another robed figure was cutting fruit, I blinked and shook my head only to find an old shopkeeper in its place. He shook his head and muttered something about tourists in a New York accent before pointing us in the right direction.
We got back on the bus and visited the rest of the New York sights, the Flat Iron Building, the 9/11 memorial, and the Empire State Building. It was evening by the time we got to Times Square but you wouldn’t have noticed it from all the bright lights and teeming crowds. The Pyramid Sigil appeared on one of the digital billboards, the text underneath it flashed you will always be ours. I shook my head and there was nothing but a normal advertisement for Calvin Klein.
“Oh my God!” said Jackie, and I thought for once she saw the same thing I did.
“Phantom is playing! On Broadway!”
My heart sank as she joyfully bounced on her toes, she would never know what I have seen, or the fear that followed me. I was going mad, and she did not know I was spiraling.
I watched the show, but I focused on her swooning and singing along with the lyrics, afraid that they would fill the stage with robed figures and sigils if I so much as glanced at it. Jackie at least brought some sense of normalcy.
We went back to our hotel and spent the rest of our time watching old movies on YouTube, The Goonies, The Neverending Story, and The labyrinth. I tried to keep a conversation with Jackie and not look at the screen, afraid of what I would see. I’ve already seen these movies dozens of times in my childhood.
I finally turned in for bed but chanting filled my ears. I kept seeing the sigils in my sleep and had vivid dreams of the creature. I woke up early the next morning in a fog. We ate another continental breakfast, and she gave me a huge bear hug before calling her family once more.
“I’m heading back home, Mel and I had a great time. I waved to Spencer and Cassidy, but they were digital replicas of them, not my real friends.
“Ask Dave what his schedule is. We need to hang out more often,” said Spencer.
“I will. We’ll talk soon,” I said, but my words were hollow.
Jackie gave me a bear hug before I boarded the Greyhound Bus back home. She waved as she climbed into her SUV. On the bus ride home everything was still out of place. I thought that the feeling would fade as I left New York City, but I was wrong. Five hours later, I got off the bus at my stop in West Virginia. I stretched my legs and my husband, Dave was waiting for me. I climbed into the huge truck and he smiled. I kissed him, but his lips felt foreign, was this, my husband?
“I missed you,” I said.
“I missed you too, did you and Jackie have a good time?”
“Yeah,” I said blankly.
We drove back to our mountain home through the forest. Talked about everyday, mundane things, but the conversation was not real to me.
When I looked at the forest, the trees seemed different, twisted somehow and shadows loomed in the darkness. Dave pulled into the driveway, wheels crunching on gravel.
We had a small house with a huge yard, but something moved around the parameter in the dark. I walked inside and Silky and Lacey rubbed against my legs. I petted them but I couldn’t register the softness of their fur.
Dave had cooked some venison from his last hunt, and we ate but the food had no taste. I wanted to scream, cry and claw the numbness away, to feel something. But I couldn’t will myself to even do that like even my anger was not my own. Dave and I made love that night, but my body was not there, I was watching everything from another space and time. But his breath comforted me as I lay on his chest, listening to his heartbeat.
“Hon, what’s wrong? You don’t seem like yourself,” he said while playing with my hair. I wanted to tell him everything but was afraid he would find me crazy. Instead, I told him how I felt, the hollowness and disassociation.
“It sounds like clinical depression. It’s OK, and none of this is your fault. We’ll make an appointment with a therapist tomorrow and get through this together, sound good?”
I nodded and hugged him tightly. This was all in my head, I had been working too many hours and neglecting my mental health. This was some odd manifestation of burnout that built up over the years. I fell into a comforting sleep in his arms. I woke up to a bright light several hours later. Groggily I stirred from bed and went to the back deck to find the creature surrounded by robed figures. I rushed downstairs to wake up my husband, only to find a robed figure in his place. It chanted and pointed to my closet.
I wanted to scream but did as the creature said. I opened the closet to find a midnight blue robe, covered in sparkling stardust. I undressed and threw the robe over my body. Unknown words spilled from my lips and I became one with the vibration. I no longer was out of place, the robed figure took my hand and lead me toward the creature, a bright light surrounded me as I finally came home.