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.