An Honorable Mention in the 2017 Spring Shock Trigger Warning Writing Contest

 

Clicking the link would be a mistake

I’d told Gramps a thousand times: don’t click a link if you didn’t expect the email. Even if you knew the sender, don’t click. It was the first rule of avoiding a virus.

Gramps rescued me from his son and the woman who called herself my mother. I handled his tech support. That seemed fair.

The sender just said [email protected] Never heard of it.

Delete it and move on. My finger hovered over the trash can icon. It was common sense.

Except for the subject line.

MOUSE YOU HAVE TO CHECK THIS OUT!

Mouse.

Not my legal name, Michael. Not Mike, what just about everyone called me.

Only two people called me Mouse.

Gramps let me change that name when he adopted me, after I talked to a bunch of shrinks.

Why’d my parents name me Mouse? Who knows? My therapist pointed out that mice took what was coming and didn’t talk back. They didn’t tell anyone what happened at home.

Once, I couldn’t walk it off after one of Dad’s benders. A teacher asked about my limp and I forgot to say I fell down the stairs. Cops came. Gramps picked me up from the Polinski Center.

After a few months, he asked if I wanted him to adopt me. When I said yes, Gramps told me I would become a Jeffries.

That made me think. I’d be changing from Mouse Shore to Mouse Jeffries. I didn’t want to stay a Mouse.

The Court gave me a lawyer for the adoption, Mr. Michael.  People listened to Mr. Michael. They didn’t hurt him.

I became a Michael.

Outside of Gramps, only Bella and her brother Zach knew about Mouse.

I stared at the link.

Comeseemenow_Bella.

Bella’s my best friend.

Some Ukrainian kid looking to suck my computer into a botnet or get my bank information wouldn’t know that.

Besides, iPhones didn’t get viruses. I’m 15 and have $23.67 in the bank.

I clicked the link.

The screen blacked out.

“Shit!” Had I just bricked the phone?

A blue circle spun, the screen flickered and video started streaming.

It showed Bella’s bedroom. Cat calendar on the wall. Absurdly huge alarm clock on her nightstand. The singing in the background confirmed it.

“Hey, Bella, you there?”

She didn’t answer. Was this a recording?

No. The calendar and clock showed this was live.

I should shut this down.

The sound of Bella’s singing kept me from closing video. Listening couldn’t hurt, could it? She’d finish this song. Then I’d turn it off. Definitely then.

Bella’s voice grew louder as she moved closer to the camera and then full view.

Literally full view. Or at least the PG-13 version.

I mean, I’ll admit to having thought about seeing Bella in her underwear a few times. Okay, more than a few.

The actual sight?

There weren’t words. My brain couldn’t process the scene.

A decent guy would stop watching.

I couldn’t. My hands wouldn’t have obeyed the order if my brain gave it.

Bella held a red shirt in one hand and a blue one in the other. She looked at them like her life depended on making the right choice. Her head bounced from side-to-side, golden ponytail bobbing.

Bella stopped singing and began talking to the shirts. Maybe interviewing them to decide which she’d wear?

That was so her.

This was so wrong.

I couldn’t stop watching.

She held the red shirt up to her chest. Then the blue one. Either of them would look amazing on her.

Bella turned from the camera and towards the mirrored doors on her closet.

Like an electric shock, that action jarred me. This was being a perv.

I killed the video feed and dropped the phone. It was tainted. I was tainted. Phone in hand, smart money would’ve been on me restarting the feed.

I took a deep breath. And another. After three more deep breaths, I picked the phone back up. One more deep breath and then a call to Bella.

“What the hell was that?” I asked.

“The word you’re looking for is hello,” Bella said.

“I’m looking for lots of words right now. But what was that with your computer?”

“Computer? I don’t think it’s even on.”

This could be a prank. Bella could pull off that email. But parading around half-naked in front of me? Was I that far into the friend zone?

“Check it. Then I think you need to come over.”

*

“I swear to God! It was right here!”

They looked at me like I was crazy. Who could blame them?

The email had vanished. The link went with it.

Nothing.

“So, if this is a joke, I’m not getting it,” Zach said.

He said it with a smile. Zach smiled a lot. He was the starting quarterback and drove a ’67 Mustang. He even got better than average grades. Why not smile?

“It’s not a joke!”

Bella giggled. “C’mon, Mouse. You always step on the punchline.”

“I—I—I’m not joking.”

My face burned with shame. I hadn’t stuttered in years.

They didn’t believe me.

I couldn’t blame them.

They pitied me.

I couldn’t forgive that.

“You saw a video stream from my computer’s camera?” Bella asked.

“Yeah.”

“And I was singing?”

“Yeah.” One word answers seemed safest. I’d told her about the singing but hadn’t said anything about the near nakedness.

Bella’s not a moron. She did a mental calculation of the timing and blushed. Her mouth opened and then closed. No one wanted to hear the answer to that question. I tried to keep a poker face and avoid answering it without being asked.

“Bella, you know Mouse wouldn’t come up with something like this. Me, maybe, but not him,” Zach said. He looked worried. Zach never looked worried.

Bella chewed her lower lip. “Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll cover the laptop camera with tape. I should’ve anyway. Zuckerberg does. I’m going out with Dylan tonight but I’ll have Dad run the laptop to his IT department. They can see if anyone was remotely accessing me.”

I stopped listening after the going out with Dylan part. This was their third or fourth date. Each one felt like a gut punch.

Dylan Andrews played football with Zach He looked like the kind of guy she should be dating.

They kept talking and I just nodded.

*

The phone beeped. New email.

My hand scrabbled on the nightstand. There wasn’t a reason to take my eyes off The Office.

MOUSE YOU HAVE TO CHECK THIS OUT! This time it was from nowh[email protected]

I snorted. Bella, having some fun.

No, she’d gone out with Dylan. My hands flexed and I let out a long breath.

Zach. He’d been texting me since he and Bella had left this afternoon. He still thought it had all been a joke.

I opened the email, expecting a picture of his middle finger. I’d shoot a picture of my middle finger back. Fun for all.

Except there was no picture. He just sent a link.

The link.

Commeseemenow_bella.

Well played, Zach. I clicked the link.

I was going to send Zach a picture he couldn’t burn from his mind. Thank God for the Internet.

My phone blacked out again and buffered before the video started.

The black and white image was familiar to cause my gut to tighten.

Bella’s front door.

I’d helped her dad install the security camera. He made me promise not to give her and Zach the password.

They couldn’t be doing this.

Bella got out of Dylan’s car, waited for a second and shook her head. The car sped away. Huh. Dylan didn’t walk her up. Asshole. That felt kind of good.

Zach had to know I felt about his sister. Did he want me to see that this date bombing?

Anything else was just cruel. That wasn’t Zach.

The punchline had to be coming.

Bella ignored the security camera and hunted through her purse for keys.

She also ignored the shadows around her.

Maybe it was easier to see from my point of view but the movement in the frame behind her seemed… off. It might have just been an artifact from the cameras. Her dad hadn’t invested in the best. But no glitch I could think of would cause this.

The trees and bushes stood still but the shadows moved.

No, moving wasn’t the right word. They thickened, like an oil spill.

It didn’t act like a spill though. The slick ignored everything we’d learned in physics and flowed upwards into a pool. Even if we were in some Black Mirror episode where shadows became liquid, they wouldn’t flow like that. Bella’s house had decent drainage. It should be flowing away from her.

Was this some sort of CGI? Zach playing an oil spill in reverse?

Bella hunted for her keys.

I wanted her to find them, get inside.

She had them in her hand.

The pool glistened and trembled.

Bella turned the key. Or at least tried to as the keyring slipped from her hand.

The slick moved closer to her, covering the sidewalk. It stopped just behind her, quivering.

She bent down to pick up the keys.

“Come on.” I whispered it to my phone.

I’d seen that sort of intensity before in my parents’ eyes.

Anticipation. Hunger.

My mouth was desert dry.

This wasn’t a joke. It was anything but a joke.

She needed to get inside.

It was too late.

Thin ropes launched from the slick, wrapping around Bella’s wrists and mouth.

Bella fought. She ran track and played volleyball. She’s strong. Wiry muscles popped out against her skin. Her eyes widened and she tried to scream.

More of that damned darkness just slapped over her waist, around her throat.

A second passed.

Then it was over. The tendrils pulled her into the darkness.

Bella was just gone.

I tried to understand.

“W—w—what the hell?”

This couldn’t be real. That last link was fake. It had to be.

I called her.

Her phone rang straight to voicemail.

I called Zach. Voicemail again. He’d probably gone out tonight, too.

Just Mouse staying in his bedroom watching reruns tonight.

No. I didn’t have time for self-pity.

GRAMPS!” I screamed, bursting out of my room. “GRAMPS!”

The television blared downstairs, so that meant he was down there.

I took the stairs two or three at a time. My heel landed wrong on the last one and I flew forward, landing on my chest. It knocked the wind out of me but I pulled myself up.

“Gramps!” One more time. He was asleep on his La-Z-Boy.

“Huh? What?” He blinked a few times.

“W—w—we.  We. H—h—have to go. Bella’s!”

“What?” Grandpa asked, raising his hand and rubbing his eyes. “Take a breath and slow down, boy.”

His face tightened. It’d been years since he heard me stutter.

“You know what time it is?” He looked at his watch. “Too darn late to just go barging over there.”

I shook my head. “H—h—have to.  Bella’s in t—trouble.”

His head snapped up. “Calm down, Michael. Remember what Trina taught you.”

I hadn’t seen the speech therapist since – well, I can’t remember when.

I told him about the videos.

His forehead wrinkled in thought. “Are you sure?”

I nodded. He looked like he was about to ask another question. Gramps had been a prosecutor before he retired. He liked asking questions.

But he stopped himself. “Sounds like someone’s playing a damn cruel joke here. Go get a jacket. We’re going to get to the bottom of this.”

*

It was not a joke.

Bella was not at home. She never made it inside.

Dylan swore he dropped her off and drove away. He hadn’t been happy with how the date ended.

They found Bella’s body three days later, under some cardboard boxes in a canyon.

She’d chosen the blue shirt.

Zach was popular, so no one talked about it to his face. But teenagers are animals and word got around. That word was meat. Bella looked like hamburger. Adults blamed coyotes and rats. At school people whispered it happened before she died.

No one knew. A person didn’t kill Bella. Animals didn’t destroy her body.

The shadows did it.

I told the cops. The detective in charge, Dixon, a huge man with red hair and redder face, thought I was crazy or lying. He didn’t try to hide it.

They leaned hard on Dylan. Everyone thought he was the last one to see her alive.

They were wrong but I didn’t count.

The email had vanished like the first one. Dixon took my phone but the police technicians found nothing. The detective glared when he handed it back to me.

School was worse.

Most people ignored me. Some snickered.

Only one person mattered.

Zach.

I’d avoided him since the funeral. And two weeks after that.

Enough time passed. I had to do this.

He was eating lunch under a tree, alone. That surprised me.

After Bella’s death, Zach missed two football games. Then he came back with a vengeance.

I don’t know much about sports but I’ve always gone to games to cheer for him. Before Bella’s death, he threw a lot. Now Zach ran the ball. He slammed into the other team, daring them to take him down. They did but not until he devoured yards. Zach led us to the CIF playoffs for the first time in a decade.

Apparently, that’s a big deal. It made him a star. Finding him alone was damn near impossible.

This might be my only chance and I owed it to Zach.

I marched toward him.

He was staring into space or just didn’t want to acknowledge my presence.

“H-H-Hey,” I said after about thirty silent seconds.

“Hey,” he said, still not looking up at me.

I kicked at a rock. And then another.

By the time he spoke, I’d kicked away all the rocks and scraped up the grass.

“What the hell man?” Zach asked.

The words punched me in the gut.

He blamed me.

It seemed fair, since I blamed myself.

“I—I—I’m sorry.”

Zach jumped to his feet and took a step towards me. We stood nose-to-nose. “How could you do it, man?”

“I—I—I—”

The words would not come out.

“You were her best friend. My friend.”

“I—I—I—”

I still couldn’t say a word. Tears filled my eyes.

“And you haven’t said a word. Two months and you haven’t called. You barely said a word to me at the funeral and then you just ghost. What the hell were you thinking?”

I forced myself to look into his eyes and took three deep breaths. “It’s my fault, Zach.”

“Bullshit, Mouse. It’s his fault. It’s whatever asshole killed her.”

“I saw it h—ha—happen, Zach.”

He shook his head. “You saw something, Mouse. Maybe whoever did this was stalking her and was crazy good with computers but they didn’t find anything on your phone or the security system at home. Dylan says he dropped her off but that asshole didn’t even walk her to the door.”

Dylan had never been charged. He still got jumped two weeks after Bella’s body had been found. After he got out of the hospital, his family moved him out of town.

“I saw her trying on the shirts. I saw…. I saw the shadows take her.”

Zach opened his mouth. Then he closed it, his hands balling up. His head rolled back and he looked at the sky and then me.

“You didn’t screw up that night, Mouse. Every night after, though? You’ve been a piss poor friend.”

I couldn’t argue. I’d come to apologize. If Zach wanted the apology for something else, I wasn’t going to argue.

“I—I’m sorry.”

And then I sat down next to him.

*

I deleted the email.

MOUSE YOU HAVE TO CHECK THIS OUT!

Probably a reporter.

After the first week, Gramps filed restraining orders against two guys who stepped onto our property. Another reporter parked across the street and took pictures with a telephoto lens. His car came up flagged as stolen and he spent the weekend in lockup until it got sorted out.

I guess Gramps still had friends on the force. The stories spread and the jackals moved away from our house.

That didn’t stop reporters from trying to get to me. Gramps told me we could change my email and my phone number.

I’d changed my name because my parents were morons and I hated it. That was my choice. No one was forcing me to change my numbers or my handles.

Now I just deleted the emails every hour in a block. It was easier than going after each one individually.

Another hour had passed and I sent the junk to the trashcan.

Except one of them did not want to go away.

MOUSE YOU HAVE TO CHECK THIS OUT!

It stayed there, subject line still bold and unread. I hit delete.

It did not move.

Son of a bitch.

I tried deleting it for a third time.

The cockroach email refused to die.

I stared at the message.

My heart started hammering.

This was a glitch. Had to be. The same way Spotify didn’t always sink to my Bluetooth speakers or how Facebook sometimes just opened and crashed.

There was a simple solution. Power cycle. The first – and best – standby for tech support. That would clear this up.

My thumb touched the power button.

Bella, Zach and I watched horror movies together. We laughed at people doing the stupidest things. They lived in a universe without horror movies. That was the only way they could be that clueless.

I should ignore the email and power cycle. That was the last thing someone in a horror movie would do. That made it the first thing I needed to do.

The email would go away.

I restarted the phone.

And still had one email.

MOUSE YOU HAVE TO CHECK THIS OUT!

Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. My hands were clammier than chowder.

The rational part of my mind screamed to throw the phone away. Or, at least, grab Gramps and have a witness.

That was a great plan. Except he’d gone to the casino with some of his old buddies from the DA’s office for all-you-can-eat lobster and penny slots.

I’d begged him to go. I wasn’t a baby and could be left alone for a night.

That same rational part of my mind begged me to leave the phone alone until he came back. He wasn’t spending the night there.

That last suggestion made me question how rational the voice in my head really was. I couldn’t leave the phone alone. The email would sit there, like the heart in that Poe story. I’d either open it or go crazy.

Maybe I was already crazy.

I clicked the link. But not before I screenshotted it. Fool me twice, shame on me. I wasn’t getting set up for a third time.

Comeseemenow_zach

The video began.

Zach sat at home, watching TV. I don’t know where the video came from this time. Maybe his TV. Maybe his PlayStation. Everything came with a camera now.

The video went on like that for another five minutes or so. Then it just ended.

I checked Facebook.  According to Nearby Friends, he was a mile away. Home.

This time there was proof.

*

“Man, there’s nothing there. It’s a picture of nothing. Literally.”

He was right. It was a black screen, like the camera had accidentally gone off in my pocket.

There had been a picture. I’d checked before meeting up with Zach.

It had been there. Now it wasn’t.

“I’m telling you the truth.” I had taken three deep breaths, thinking long and hard about that sentence so I didn’t stutter. This had to be clear.

Zach shook his head. “Look, man, you feel guilty about Bella. So do I. But you’re, what was it you said the shrink said? You’re externalizing or whatever it was. I did it some too. That’s why I was so damned aggressive and stupid out on the field. I lucked out and didn’t get myself wrecked.”

I hadn’t wanted to see a psych again but Gramps insisted. They didn’t get it.

“But you were w—w—watching TV last night, right?”

“Yes. Like most nights.”

“But I saw it.”

Zach stood there, silent. He cocked his head like I was a dog that had done something completely unexpected. Then he had a half smile.

“I… Man, do you hear how you sound?”

“D—D—do you think I’m lying?”

Zach didn’t say anything. His staring at the ground said it all.

He thought I was nuts, like everyone else.

“I don’t know what’s going on with you, Mouse, but she was my sister. Let’s not talk about this again.”

It wasn’t a request.

*

I thought about getting rid of the phone. I could get by with just a flip phone.

Not that many people talked to me. Even Zach wasn’t returning my calls.

No one wants to be friends with a crazy person.

If I lost it, the plan could work. But I’d have to explain to Gramps the reason why I didn’t want a new smart phone. Telling him about the email and video with Zach meant getting sent back to the shrink.

Rooting the phone and killing its email app that might work.

I shut off Netflix and pulled up my browser. Some forums might help me.

I lost myself in a rabbit hole. It felt good. No one on the bulletin boards knew me. They just saw a challenge from an anonymous poster. And they came up with ideas.

There might be a way to get away from this all. A quick connection and the phone was linked to my laptop. Run a program. Then it was a simple matter of restarting the phone and my email app.

Freedom.

Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

Power cycle.

A fresh start.

The phone fell from my hand.

The icon was still there. It showed one email.

“No. No. No. No. No.”

I don’t know how long I laid on the bed rocking. But the phone was still there, with that single message.

It could be innocent.

Could be.

I’d done everything right to remove the app. The fact that it was still there with a single message meant something.

The smart thing would be to take a hammer to the phone or drop it in the toilet. Anything to destroy it. Then maybe this would stop.

Or maybe it would be a betrayal.

The first email showed Bella. The second showed her disappearance.

Then an email about Zach. And now another.

I might not be his friend any more but he was still mine. If I just ignored it and something happened, what did that make me?

I opened the email and clicked the link I knew would be there.

The video started.

Zach walked on the overpass above the 78, by the mall. The camera watching him was mounted high, taking in the streets and cars.

A red-light camera.

Zach tossed a football, ran a couple steps ahead and catching it. Lost in the motions of his game, he wasn’t thinking of Bella. He was happy.

I smiled.

He threw the ball and ran forward. But he was so intent on his target that he missed a crack in the sidewalk. His foot caught and Zach stumbled but did not fall.

He missed the ball. It went flying past the overpass’s rail and into the brush below.

Zach walked over to the bridge of the bridge and looked over.

He didn’t see the shadows. Maybe he couldn’t see them.

I did.

There was only one thing I could do.

*

“Dixon,” the bored voice on the other end of the phone answered. Dixon looked like Abraham from The Walking Dead, if he’d been at a desk job instead of fighting zombies. Answering the phone might as well have been running a mile.

I took a deep breath, centering myself. I would not stutter. “It’s me, Detective Dixon. Michael Shore. I mean Jeffries. Jeffries.”

“Whaddya want kid?” More huffing.

I told him about the video. Every detail I could remember. When I started talking about the shoes Zach’d worn, Detective Nixon stopped me.

“Kid, this ain’t funny anymore.”

“What?”

“This game you’re playing. I don’t care if your grandpa has pull with the DA’s office or the King of Siam. You knock this crap off now.”

“I—I d—d—don’t know what you mean. What crap?”

“You know where I am?”

“N—No sir.”

“I’m heading to look at a body. Your buddy Zach. Or what’s left of him. The only reason I don’t have you in cuffs now is there’re people that said he jumped. Damn near hit a truck on the way down. I don’t know if he told you what he planned and you just let it happen or what. I’ll tell you this though. You bug his family with this crap and I will have you in lockup. I don’t care who your grandpa is.”

I felt like a balloon that had been punctured.

“I—I’m sorry.”

“That’s a good thing kid. A good thing.”

*

Dixon must have called Gramps. He came to my room and just stared – didn’t even try to talk to me. He didn’t know what to say to me. That was scarier than anything Dixon threatened.

I guess I didn’t know what to say to him either. I just closed my door when he left.

My phone dinged.

An email. I screamed, throwing the phone across the room. It hit the wall with a satisfying thunk.

If there was any justice in the world, the thing would shatter.

No such luck. It landed face up. Not a scratch.

Screw it.

All this time, there was one thing I hadn’t tried: replying. Maybe whatever bastards that were doing this would give me an answer.

Maybe not. It didn’t matter. It just needed to end.

I clicked email and looked at the link.

Comeseemenow_michael.

End

******

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