by Sean M. Thompson
Cort’s father, Francisco Garcia, sipped his coffee. He smiled in the way all fathers do when they’re pleased to see their children again. It had been too long since he’d seen Cort, and he always liked to catch up with his boy; his little boy, and Cort was thirty now, but in some way he’d always think of his son as a small child, when he’d play in the backyard of their house before the divorce.
“I’m stuffed,” Francisco said, and noted his son’s nod of assent.
Cort wasn’t shocked his dad was full. His father had eaten such a large plate of Linguini it was a wonder he could still speak.
“I really don’t know how you aren’t obese,” Cort said.
“Good genes, plenty of exercise, I guess.”
Cort relished the moment, free of stress. Especially after all the weirdness with the disappearance of Katie earlier in the week, hanging out with Scott, trying to see if anyone had seen her. Cort tried to enjoy the moments when he noted they were good; hold onto them the way other people might hold onto knick knacks.
Life would beat you down, if you let it. So it was important to recognize the good times.
The lights were low, provided primarily by a candle in an empty wine bottle on the table. The restaurant was small, with paintings of villas and the Italian countryside along the light yellow walls. You hardly had elbow room, but the food was so good you didn’t care. It was a favorite spot of his dad’s. They went to this place at least twice a year.
Wasn’t a terrible way to spend a Friday night, stuffing your face with your dad in Boston’s North End. Cort certainly wasn’t having much luck in the coliseum fight to the death known as the dating scene, so why not catch up? It really had been too long.
“You talk to your mother recently?”
“No. I was going to call her tomorrow.”
“She worries about you, you know. You should call her more.”
“She’s my mom. That’s what moms do, right? They worry.”
“Es verdad,” his father said.
Later, walking the streets of the North End en route to get cannolis, Cort asked his dad if he’d heard anything at work about the Demon.
“It’s a computer virus called ‘the Demon’, or maybe ‘the Red Screen of Death’. You heard anything about it yet in the office?”
Francisco gave Cort a puzzled look.
“Haven’t heard anything yet, son.”
“Yeah…you might not ever.”
Cort felt pretty dumb. It was like he’d just asked his dad if he’d seen any leprechauns lately. I must sound like some kind of crazy person asking this shit.
Cort wrote a note into his phone: Call mom tomorrow.
“Anyway, let’s go cram some more food down our gullets,” his dad said.
“Why the hell not?” Cort replied, and his father’s high cholesterol was a good reason why the hell not, but Cort kept that comment to himself.
Scott drove, and his speakers pumped out heavy bass, Rick Ross rapping how God forgave, and he didn’t, and how only hustlers could relate to such a sentiment.
Cort was in the back seat, drank from a mix of rum and orange juice in a little silver flask. He liked the mix, because a lot of people hated it, so less people tried to get a hit off his booze. He did feel like a loser being older than twenty-one pregaming before a party, though.
A lot of the time Cort felt like he was too old to be doing…literally every type of social activity he engaged in. But there was also the sense that being an adult nowadays had a different connotation. The world was changing, and it was normal to do things children liked to do at, say, thirty-one. Case in point, take that new Pokémon game everyone was losing their minds over. These weren’t children playing the game, well, not exclusively. These were people with children of their own, by every definition adults, and yet playing a game made for children.
“Whose house are we going to again?” Cort shouted over the music.
“Janet’s!” Scott shouted back.
Cort gave him a thumbs up, and went back to staring out the window at the other Friday night people. They were around Allston, and though he disliked the area, Cort liked Janet (or at least thought he liked Janet), if in fact Janet was the Janet he’d met at a dinner party a few months back who he was thinking of. His memory had always been full of holes; it was a wonder Cort could remember to dress himself in the morning.
Some guy on a skateboard ate shit trying to jump over a planter built into the sidewalk. Cort laughed, felt guilty about it, and then gave up any attempt at having a conscience and continued to laugh at the man’s pain. Such was the world, wasn’t it? There were whole shows designed around laughing at other people’s pain.
He was just being a member of society. Cort hadn’t designed the system, he just played in it.
More than half of the party were staring at their phones. It was funny, it made you want to stare at your own phone in turn, even though you’d feel like just another statistic. There was a strange comfort in disappearing, even surrounded by people you could make an honest to God, face to face interaction with.
Cort had always been awkward. Maybe he thought too much, worried too much, but even thinking this was thinking too much for a party, wasn’t it? He’d always envied people either willing to get so loaded people enjoyed them, or so naturally charismatic people loved them.
Cort had never been one of those people. The things people laughed at the hardest he said were statements he always expressed in perfect sincerity. But then, again, the society he lived in laughed at others’ pain, didn’t it? So, it all made sense, in a deranged sort of way.
Shit or get off the pot, right?
The speakers blared some incessant mix of pop and pop rap, which he found about as enjoyable as a frying pan to the face. And it all came back to dumbing everything down: the music, the conversations, even the fun had to be dumbed down at these kinds of parties. Or, at least, that was how it seemed to him.
Cort saw Janet (or the girl he thought of as Janet), standing by the entrance to the kitchen, under the door frame. He caught her eye, and was pleased to note she was in fact the woman he was thinking of from the dinner party. He was fairly sure it was, at least.
Cort maneuvered his way over, and took a quick hit off his flask for courage before he began the introductions. He prayed that this was actually Janet, and not some random woman he was about to embarrass himself in front of.
“Hey!” he shouted.
“Hey!” she shouted back in turn.
Janet motioned to the kitchen, presumably because it was quieter in there, easier to talk.
“That’s a little better,” Janet said once they’d made it inside the better lit kitchen.
She smiled, and it brightened Cort’s mood; miraculous, considering mere minutes before Cort didn’t think it would have been possible.
He noted Janet’s canine teeth were a little sharp looking, and was intrigued to learn he found this to be cute. He then became cognizant of how many seconds of silence had elapsed, and he desperately searched his brain for a statement, any statement…
“Yeah, a little quieter. Yeah.”
Oh, this is going great, he thought.
The silence ticked away, every second amplifying his feelings of conversational failure.
He decided he’d just do like Hunter S. Thompson advised: When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
“I like your sharp canine teeth,” he said, and Janet laughed.
And he still felt uncomfortable, so he grabbed a beer off of a nearby table, popped it open, and started to chug from it.
“I like that you didn’t bother to ask if you could have that beer,” remarked Janet.
“Uh, I can give you a few bucks – ”
She remembered his name, so that was something. Although, she could just be one of those people that was really good with names…
“Guilty as charged,” she said.
Cort laughed, and his laugh was a little too loud, and someone from in the living room, where the party proper occurred, gave him a funny look.
“You wanna get dinner sometime?” he asked, then immediately thought wow, way too soon, Cort.
“Sure. Not with you, though.”
I’m just gonna go jump off a building, he thought.
“I’m kidding! What’s your phone number?”
“Asking for mine. How progressive.”
“Progressive, shmogressive, a number is a number. Gender should have nothing to do with it.”
I hope I don’t fuck this one up, Cort thought.
They chatted for another half hour. They talked about work, she talked about renting, the trials and tribulations of losing a job, which she had last year. A good conversation, and when Scott nudged him on the shoulder and explained he was taking off, Cort felt better than he had in a long, long while.
It was always nice when people surprised you.
“You two seemed to be hitting it off,” Scott said, as they left the house.
“I’d like to think so,” Cort said.
They climbed into Scott’s car. Cort making a grunting noise. He really needed to lose some weight. The spare tire was a product of a sedentary lifestyle, one full of take-out and lethargy.
“Yeah. I think we’re gonna go to dinner,” Cort said.
“My man!” and Scott shot him with a finger gun.
Cort mimed taking the hit, and slumped in the passenger seat.
A Saturday, and for some reason Scott had come over. Nice to have someone around, so Cort tried not to get too annoyed about Scott’s lack of prior invitation.
Cort was scrolling through some of the Facebook statuses Katie still had up. One caught his eye.
“You know, it’s twisted, but it sounds like it’d make a good drinking song,” Cort said.
Cort handed his phone to Scott, who read the post, and giggled.
“You got any more beer?” Scott asked, and for some reason felt the need to mime a man drinking, tipping his hand to his mouth.
“Yeah, you don’t need to act it out. I know what a beer is.”
They drank, and then drank some more for good measure. Then they sang the lyrics of Katie’s post, and Cort really hoped none of his neighbors could hear. They sang it as a round, then they danced while they sang it. Frankly, Cort was embarrassed how much time they spent singing the fake song by what was clearly a mentally ill person.
When they’d grown tired, Cort asked if Scott had heard anything from Katie’s family yet.
“Not yet. No.”
They sat in silence.
“We probably shouldn’t have sang that. This whole thing isn’t funny.”
“No. It isn’t,” Scott said.
Scott left the room, grabbed another beer out of the fridge, without asking if he could. Cort threw him a bottle opener. Scott drank deep, finishing half of the beer in a few moments.
“I’ve been drinking a lot lately,” Scott said.
“It’s sorta understandable. Katie disappearing is pretty fucked.”
“It’s not just that,” Scott said.
Scott finished the beer and sighed. Cort felt for his friend. It was obvious he was really stressed out.
“You remember Abie?”
“She’s gone missing too.”
Cort wasn’t sure what to say. One disappearance was odd, but two, in the same month? Cort heard someone shouting in the hall, momentarily distracted. He came back to the present.
He tried not to show how strange this news made him feel. He wondered about the nature of the mind, and how technology could affect it. How little anyone really seemed to know about the effects of say, the Pokémon game everyone was playing, or even the little stuff like all the apps people used everyday on their smart phones. The burning question was, could a virus sent through the web really mess with your brain? Is that what really happened to these two women? It was science fiction, someone’s made-for-TV movie. There was no way this could be real. There was no getting over the doubt.
The doubt was what kept Cort from freaking out.
He scrolled through Facebook, and looked at another post from Katie on his phone.
Later that night, Cort looked to see if there was anything Abie had posted. There were a few weird tweets.
There was another one where she said she wanted to kill herself. Cort made a note in his phone to ask Scott if Abie had a history of depression, or had ever displayed any suicidal tendencies.
One of the comments under one of Abie’s tweets was a friend asking if anyone had seen the weird videos Abie posted to her YouTube channel. The girl on the comment had posted a link.
Cort followed the link, and there was a short video, thirty seconds. He clicked play, and watched as someone walked through a park; presumably Abie.
Someone behind the phone (what he assumed was a phone due to the picture quality) said:
“To be as the dragon, you must do what the dragon would.”
A group of teens on screen, a boy on the swing, a few girls smoking cigarettes, one guy playing with a basketball.
“For him,” said what Cort assumed was Abie, flatly, on the video.
He heard one of the guys on the swing ask, what the fuck?
Then the air exploded with the thunder of gunshots, and screams.
Cort flinched, closed the browser. He sat, in shock. Closed his eyes tight. Opened them again, not sure what the purpose of shutting his eyes was, just, a momentary break from seeing to calm himself.
Was this fucking real?
The events of the last week finally hit home. This wasn’t just some internet prank. Actual people were getting killed. Real people.
Except…were they? Really?
Slowly, Cort reopened YouTube, checked his history, and played the video again.
He paused the clip as soon as the gunshots started. The video quality was grainy. Cort couldn’t see the gun in the video. He watched the rest, looking for anything which could prove the authenticity of the clip, or the lack thereof. Though Cort saw the teens run, saw one of them clutching his stomach, how could he be sure this was real? A homemade squib for the blood, blanks in the gun. It’d be easy enough to fake the events.
There was one other video under Abie’s YouTube channel. This was of her face only. Cort braced himself, and pressed play.
“I’ve got this weird rash on my chest. It’s kinda like a triangle, with two points facing up. It’s not itchy, it’s just ugly, like, super duper ugly. Went to the dermatologist, he gave me some lotion to put on it. I hope it helps. I hate this rash.
“I feel really odd lately. Like I’m living in a dream. Like, maybe none of this is real. Like, maybe…maybe I’m not real. How would I know, though?
“How do I know any of this is real?”
The rest of the video was Abie filming the rash on her chest with her phone. She was right, it was pretty nasty. Red, raised, and kind of scaly.
Was it all connected? Cort remembered reading on that wiki entry for the Demon about rumors of a rash. Though, again, a Wikipedia entry was far from reliable.
Was any of it real at all? Or was it all just some kind of elaborate hoax? A prank so big many people were involved…a viral gag, so to speak.
Cort went to the kitchen, poured himself a glass of milk. Darkness clung to every corner of the room. He’d always been a fan of limited light, and coupled with his limited finances, a lamp a room seemed to be a sound decision.
He grabbed a bottle of sleeping pills from the cabinet by the fridge. Took a few, and swallowed them with the milk: tried not to feel like an addict.
Cort always had had trouble sleeping. So, he took the sleeping pills, though he tried not to do it every night.
But tonight…tonight something told him he’d need all the help he could get.
She walked in darkness, surrounded by the heavy, acrid stench of filth. The voice in her head sang a sweet melody of the deep. Her shoes were caked in human waste.
She’d never felt more alive.
Her reptile brain was front and center, fitting considering the rash which adorned her chest, back, arms and legs. It hadn’t reached her face yet.
Forward, following the song inside. Images of flames, of buildings crumbling, of gun shots ringing out all over the city. Of creatures skittering from the light, of dust clouds blocking out the sun. Of the way things would be, soon.
And always the song, always the voice, always the message of the depths; of the lost, of the broken, of the one cast down.
Her home…she had to find the one who would tell her of her new home, of her new family, of her new purpose. She needed this information, like an infant needs to be cradled in its mother’s arms.
A rat screeched at her, floating on a piece of cardboard. She snatched it in her hand, broke its neck. Sank her teeth deep into its flesh, too hungry to care about the foul taste.
“On, on, further,” she sang, her head full of love for the the champion of hate.
The man she had to meet wasn’t far now. The messenger on Earth: the one who would tell them the next phase in their evolution.
“On, on, deeper,” she sang, following a new navigational system in her head.
Her own personal GPS, courtesy of the voice in her head, and the process of changing, of becoming something more.
She didn’t miss her old life, the old routines. The old ways of man had been around for far too long.
This was destiny. This was fate.
This was the natural order of things.
Oh, but the walk was endless. When would she find the savior, the chosen one, the one sent to lead the way?
“On, on, darker,” she sang, and some instinct told her that around the next bend in the sewer, she’d find the ladder.
Sure enough, around the bend, there was a ladder. The manhole cover above was removed.
This was the way. Every part of her screamed at her body to move, to climb. To rise.
Hand over hand, up, towards the faint light. The voice in her head urging her on, giving her words of praise.
She climbed up and out of the sewer, and came upon a place she was unfamiliar with. It took her a few moments to realize what it was. Where she was.
A voice behind her then, the same as the one in her head all these weeks. The prophet. The one sent to lead them.
The Servant of the Pit.
A sweet voice for one such as him, full of compassion, and understanding.
“So glad you could make it, Abie.”
To be continued
September 13th, 2016.