written and illustrated by Iron Eater


I can’t give you exact details, but at the time of the original incident I was living at an undisclosed address in the backwoods of Appalachia. It was a beautiful place, nothing but green during the day and deepest, most light-swallowing black at night, with plant life tumbling down over the hills in a wild race to see what could obscure more of the ground first. Some days I had to go out with some clippers just so I could look out past the porch. The only way in was a bare dirt road that didn’t become gravel for literal miles; it was so remote that even that seemed like a luxury. It took two hours to get to anywhere with so much as a gas station. You could feel nature ready to devour anyone foolish enough to dare bring civilization into such a wild and verdant land, which is why it was a tremendous pain in my ass getting half-decent wifi out there.

I needed a stable connection for more than just creature comforts, mind you. Wishes and dreams don’t keep the lights on or the fuel hopper full. When you’re in my situation you value your privacy, which means working from home regularly, and that means not needing to go hit a network dish with a broom every fifteen minutes if you ever want to get anything done.

At the time I’d thrown in with a certain search engine and navigation tool. “Better than Google!” the ads promised. Everything promises to be better than Google but this one was actually putting in the effort to back that up someday, and it was my solemn duty to skim through endless terabytes of raw images and process them. You can’t trust a computer to verify that all the right details are censored, or that it hasn’t gone and blurred out a street sign because it thought it was actually a face, and that’s before you even get to how much garbage data needs to be culled. If the right information isn’t in the right place there are problems. My job was to prevent such problems.

That was my paying work, anyway. Due to certain delicate social contracts I also found myself a moderator—they claimed I was a curator, but that was bullshit and we all knew it—of a semi-anonymous amateur horror writing community. A kind person would say that by letting young or otherwise inexperienced authors play around with their ids they can find the energy to practice their craft and refine it into something useful, and that it’s nice when the kids can entertain each other using tools they made themselves. I am not a kind person, so I always think of the derivative shock-schlock stories and the endless deluge of terrible comments instead. I hated it so much, but as I said, delicate social contracts were involved, so once in the morning and a few times in the evening I would log in to the hateful site and start shoveling until I’d satisfied my nebulous sense of obligation.

I strongly advise others to be wary of social contracts, at least when navigating the keyboard detritus of bloodthirsty tweens is involved.

The problem started when I noticed a particular face pop up twice in the same workday. It had been a long one, and I’d had to break up a fight about some goddamned thing or another four times in the space of five hours because the little shits on the writing site cared more about evading IP bans than agreeing to disagree about which cryptid had the best penis, so I was willing to write it off as a combination of fatigue and the fact that when you get right down to it human beings can look a lot like each other. It had certainly happened before, and a few acquaintances and I had had a nice little laugh about it through private channels.

What was wrong about the face was how intense it was. The photography equipment is not subtle, so there’s always pranksters deciding it’s a fantastic idea to fuck around with the data by wearing masks or setting up strange little scenes, but this wasn’t just another case of someone flipping off the camera. Said face was staring directly into the lens—which is a pretty good trick, since they’re not set at the angle they appear to be—and wearing an expression halfway between fury and deep, intense longing. The sort of thing they love to put on movie posters, right? Someone clearly had a bone to pick with the street imaging team.

Also wrong was exactly how it was shaped: alabaster skin, dark eyes that looked shadowy from sleep loss or illness, Mediterranean features with a hint of North African that contrasted with the fish-belly white of the complexion, black hair that looked pinned back with something. Masculine, but subtly off, as though sculpted by someone who had heavily researched how a man’s face should look but never actually seen one. I looked at people all day, everything from children to crinkle-skinned elders, their looks ranging from plain to stunning and back down to grotesque, and none of them had that same Uncanny Valley cast to them. It was like I was looking at an alien wearing human skin. All this and it—he, maybe, though I couldn’t be sure from just a photo—was emoting so fiercely that I suspected it risked making that just-wrong-enough face crack and fall away.

I was captivated.

I pinged Cheryl, one of the people doing the same work that I did for the company, and sent her the images. What do you think? I asked her over the secure line. She didn’t reply, so I shrugged to myself and went back to work. We all keep odd hours so it’s not unusual for conversations to unfold in fits and starts over the course of a day. I saved copies for myself, scrubbed the faces from the originals, verified the rest of the data against the checklist we all work from, and went on to the next task in my queue. I didn’t hear back from her until half an hour later.

About what? she asked me. Well, that was fair, I hadn’t circled the faces or otherwise told her what I thought was so interesting. I checked the pixel coordinates on my copies and sent them to her, along with a note that I was impressed we could get such distinct matching results in two different locations. The same face’s eyes bored into the camera in both some nowhere Australian mining town and from next to a bus shelter in Helsinki. Getting from one continent to another all for the sake of messing around with a few underpaid techs seemed like a lot of effort for a one-off thing, but I haven’t gotten to be as old as I am without learning never to underestimate the abilities of the bored and well-funded. Besides, I’d seen weirder stunts. At least this one didn’t involve a fake crime scene.

Cheryl was faster on the draw with her next reply. I don’t see what you’re talking about. There’s some uncensored stuff in the raw data but no glaring guy. I frowned and checked my copies. There they were, two angry-needy faces, clear as day and exactly where I’d left them. I checked the cached set I’d sent her and that solved the mystery: he was gone in hers, likely because I’d overwritten the master set on the server. I apologized and told her what had happened, and since she, like me, is interested in this sort of workplace blip she thanked me for keeping her in my thoughts. Wouldn’t it be weird if you saw him again? she asked, and I agreed, glad that text could keep things nice and neutral without my voice betraying how hopeful I was for exactly that scenario. I will wholly admit that I don’t get out that much.

I focused on my work for the rest of my shift—hardly an official thing, working remotely, but I’m a creature of habit and a regular schedule is good for me—and then prepared for the other needful deed of the day. That means I made myself a drink. Shortly into my obligation I had discovered that the secret to being a happier person was to never handle my hateful, endless amateur-writer-group administration queue without at least one whiskey sour in me. I tried never to get absolutely blotto drunk, because doing work while hammered is a good way to give a terrible present to your future, more sober self, but managing a throng of children and people you can’t distinguish from the children is something best done with a slightly softer focus on reality. Upon logging in my notification box had fifty-five different tickets in it about someone who kept editing someone else’s excessive use of “whom” from their entries. That was my cue to go back to the kitchen and mix a second little helper.

Edit wars were easy enough to handle: you temporarily locked a page to non-admin editing, then reviewed to see what the persons involved were doing, reverted or changed what you needed to, maybe handed out some strikes or probations, then went on your way. Trouble tickets about specific users required more effort since you had to actually skim logs, and unless someone’s life was in danger we had an official policy of not giving a shit about what people said elsewhere online. It didn’t really reduce how many times we were told about another user being mean in YouTube comments, but at least we had something we could point to. I’d long since made some form letters about it.

Keeping my eyes on the end result was what kept me going, that and the alcohol, and how much of each was required on a given day depended on how many threads I needed to delete about which admins were the most fuckable (their phrasing, not mine). I will note that at no time did I have any images other than a botanical woodcut taken from a 19th-century printing of Pliny the Elder’s writings associated with my name, nor did I socialize more than absolutely necessary with the userbase; most users weren’t even sure of my actual gender, and yet every week there’d be a weird new post in which people wrote erotic fiction about my administrator persona, poeticus. They never got the details right.

My goal was to suffer through my duties doing the work I’d agreed to do in a prompt, efficient, and fair manner. Not that it mattered how fair I actually was. No matter what I did I knew I’d probably wake up to a shiny new poeticus sucks cock thread on the private forums we didn’t moderate and they tried to pretend we didn’t know existed. It was true—even if only by technicality at the time, since being in the middle of the North American wilderness meant you’d be lucky if you saw anyone without going to town, much less someone who’d be up for getting their cock sucked, much less someone who actually met my standards, which I did and still do have—but it was also the sort of casual homophobia I was notorious for cracking down on, so it wasn’t like I was surprised. At least they usually didn’t capitalize the P.

I was looking over the recent uploads to make sure the children weren’t trying to post grainy titty pictures again when I saw the face again. It was in a photograph someone was trying to pass off as being of a giant Russian spider, and while the “spider” was center frame the face was part of a crowd. It had that same expression. The face’s owner was getting around more than I thought. At the time I assumed I’d missed a meme somewhere, since I avoided them as much as possible for personal reasons, and maybe pasting this weird-looking person into things was a fad I just didn’t have the context to understand. On a whim I compared when it was uploaded to my own records of when I’d had my own little run-in with the mysterious stranger.

The timestamps were identical down to fractions of a second.

It was dark but I was struck by an intense need to head into town. I don’t use my car except for emergencies, and usually I’m not one for going anywhere when I’m not wholly sober, but I knew myself better than not to pay attention to strange whims. I packed a little travel bag with my wallet and phone and locked the door behind me. What usually took two hours was nothing if you knew the right shortcuts, and I definitely knew them. To this day you could leave me blindfolded anywhere on that mountain and I guarantee you I’d find my way back home before sundown.

I strolled into the mom ‘n pop gas station on the outskirts of town—and which town that was I will not tell you, and I’m sure you’ll understand—just a little before 8:30 in the evening. Half past eight is nothing in terms of me being awake, but that far out in the country means it’s dark as a mine shaft if there’s any sort of cloud cover, so between the light drizzle the radio said we should expect overnight and the general season of the year there was a fat wall of weather between the ground and the stars. That gas station glowed like a Roman candle. They knew me there, since sometimes I’d get a little cabin fever and come down to talk to people, and the owners appreciated how I’d mind my manners and always find something to buy before I loitered around, so it felt like a safe place to be on a night with the heebie-jeebies. It was warm and dry inside as well as bright, so I poured myself a cup of head-clearingly black coffee and took it and a homemade egg-and-sausage biscuit up to the counter.

Mrs. Derrada was behind the till that evening. She was a sweet little old lady, everybody’s abuela even in the depths of hill country, and just like she always did she tutted at me for not having more of a meal. “Big boys like you should eat more,” she said as she rang me up. “One day you’ll just fold up and blow away on the wind if you don’t.”

“You know I have to stay on my special diet,” I told her. “Don’t tell the doctors I’ve been having your snacks on the side. They don’t like sneaky people.”

“Well, if you like our food so much you have to hide it from a doctor, I suppose I’ll let you get away with it just this once.” She laughed and I smiled. We had some variation on that exchange every time I bought something from her and it was a nice little refresher on how to speak with people face-to-face. Like I said, I lived way out in the woods, and that meant aside from the odd call to the utilities people to let them know I hadn’t died I didn’t talk to people very much. The Derradas performed a valuable service solely by existing and selling Slim Jims.

We chatted a little while I had my biscuit and coffee. Her grandchildren were all college-age now, and for some of them that actually meant college or trade school, which wasn’t as much of a given when you came from those parts and lacked the means to move away to places that weren’t quietly waiting for the land to swallow them back up. I let her do most of the talking, since that meant I could be part of the conversation without having to talk about myself, which as you have likely noticed by now is not a topic I’m overly fond of. It was much better to hear about someone’s new baby than have to explain to her the business with the children and their scary stories.

After a while Mr. Derrada came in from checking the pumps and joined us, and while he had much the same to say it was pleasant having another warm body in to fill the air. “Been cold up in them trees?” he asked me after the grandchildren situation had been revisited twice over. Mr. Derrada had actually been born in the farmhouse out behind the gas station, so he had the local accent his wife, who had first come up with her family from Nacogdoches, lacked.

“A little,” I told him. “I’ve put in orders for fuel for the generator and the pellet furnace already, so I should be prepared before it gets any worse.” My first winter had been miserable since I hadn’t prepared for it properly; I’d learned the hard way about ordering supplies while the weather was still balmy. From there I’d meant to talk about whether anyone was planning on selling firewood that year, or if the kids from town had been behaving, or some other bland and pleasant topic, but as I drained the last of my coffee I remembered that face again and how strange it made me feel. I collected my thoughts and said, “Could one of you telephone ahead to the Royal Oaks? I’m in a mood and I think I need to sleep in a different bed for the night. I’d be most grateful.”

“You sure you don’t want to stay in the side room?” Mrs. Derrada said. “It’s not much, but we’d be happy to host you.”

I thought about that weird feeling again. If it was going to follow me down out of the hills I didn’t want it anywhere near the Derradas, so I shook my head. “I just need to stretch my legs some and shake the dust out. I can run some errands in town so I didn’t walk out here for nothing.” That was good enough for them, so once the motel knew I was coming I cleaned myself up in the bathroom and bid the Derradas a fond farewell.

Mr. Derrada eyed the night outside, which felt like it’d gotten even darker thanks to my time under those harsh fluorescents. “Don’t you need a flashlight to be walking ’round out there, son?” He looked uneasy, but he didn’t need to; as long as I’d lived out there there hadn’t been so much as a shoplifter at that little gas station.

“Flashlights are for people who don’t know where they’re going, Mr. Derrada,” I said. Like I told you, I have an intimate relationship with that part of the world. Mrs. Derrada said something about how I never had so much as a candle all the times I visited and I was still in one piece—she mentioned my size again, which was a little awkward but did help make her point—and between the two of us that was enough to let the old man send me off without any trouble. I waved as I slipped past the halo of light that glowed through the station windows. I had no reason to worry, and I didn’t want them to, either. Good people are worth thinking twice about.

The fastest way into town was another shortcut. I ran into another traveler, which was a surprise given the time and location, and we had a brief disagreement over who was in the right place and who was in the wrong. We settled things in the traditional way and I still had plenty of time to walk down to the motel before anyone could get to wondering what was keeping me. No flashlights were necessary.

illustrated by Iron Eater

The Royal Oaks Motor Lodge, which is a pseudonym much like everything else I’ve told you, was an open-plan motel built as close to the highway as possible, and this meant that it had actual asphalt paving the road that passed by it instead of the usual crushed rock mixed with mud. Its sign was wrapped in dimming neon that had once been shaped like a crown on a bed of abstract shapes. There were only two cars in the lot. A bell jingled when I pushed the door open and the desk clerk looked up from the dog-eared travel magazine he was reading. He was one of those people I knew well but had no name for, so he doesn’t need a false name for this account, but I was glad to see him all the same.

“The Derrada folks said to hold a room for you, but I didn’t think you’d be here so fast on foot. You hitchhike part of the way?” His voice sounded like twenty years of cigarettes.

“Something like that,” I said as I scraped my boots on the mat. Respecting others’ hospitality is another one of those things I have strong opinions about. So was not going into more detail than the night man at a motel needed to know. “How much do I owe you?”

He waved me off. “I know you’re good for it. Stay the night, or maybe longer, and we can settle up once you head back up to that little cabin of yours. Ain’t like there’s much competition for lodging, is there?” He slid a key across the desk to me and grinned. “You’re up on the second floor, just like always,” he added. It wasn’t my first stay at the Royal Oaks by a long shot.

The stairs creaked as I climbed them and the room had a familiar musty smell, not foul but definitely not lived-in, and I would’ve bet you a dinner that there hadn’t been more than two or three guests in there since the last time I spent a night in town. A quick check in the bathroom resulted in fresh soap and the little paper strip across the toilet seat, and the sheets looked reasonably clean when I turned down the comforter, and that was good enough for me. The deadbolt made a satisfying clack when I turned it. I kept my hoodie on as I started to unpack my bag; the motel’s elderly climate control was only ever too hot or too cold, and that evening it was the latter. The last thing I needed was half-frozen fingers while I was trying to do something important.

A laptop small enough to fit in my travel bag was generally not a laptop powerful enough to handle my actual for-legal-tender job, at least not in those days, but any asshole with a wifi dongle could moderate a wiki so long as there weren’t any weirdly formatted videos that needed to be vetted. In the interest of not losing an entire day I felt I could be that asshole. I had enough time to wash up in the bathroom while the thing booted up—not a full shower, since the air felt wrong for that, but a general brushing of teeth and washing of face that was enough to me feel like a new man after a trek through the back roads—and while I didn’t bring a flask with me I was softened up enough from walking around that I felt I could handle a few arguments about who Jeff the Killer’s girlfriend really was. I wrapped a towel around myself as a blanket and started chipping away at my fresh crop of complaints.

The weird feeling that had accompanied me down from the hills started fading as I lost myself in the familiar monotony of work. My duties went more or less the same as they always did: no faces popped up to stare at me and no suspicious timestamps bubbled to the surface. Living alone in the woods miles away from anyone could take its toll on a man, I decided, especially one who reviewed the nastier parts of people’s imaginations for hours at a time, and maybe the drink had made me a bit more sensitive to the mountain’s eeriness than usual. It was fine. I’d been telling the truth when I mentioned having errands to run to the Derradas, and sometimes sleeping in a different bed helped me appreciate what I had back at home a little more, so why not enjoy my little vacation once my obligations were accounted for? I could get back to excising unwanted orbs from photographs later.

I have perhaps exaggerated how much of my administrative duties involved separating squabbling children. You understand, of course, how the worst parts of a job expand in one’s recollections of it until it seems like little else remains but those parts, and this was no exception, as I have neglected to mention that my “poeticus” persona was also part of the writing-help team. Officially this was to encourage the skills of beginning writers and to help make their stories the best they can be, with good formatting and plots that, while perhaps formulaic, were still reasonably fresh and entertaining. Unofficially this meant bringing the hammer down on certain trends we found upsetting and encouraging certain others, as well as browsing existing articles that may have been edited in unacceptable ways. Sometimes users, sore and upset from having their work thrown into the grinder again, accused us of having an agenda. They never did figure out the truth behind that statement.

I had been working with a newer user to improve a story about a killer doll (another one, yes, but anything’s better than another fucking haunted video game), and between the semi-public nature of our work and the glowing feedback said user left on my talk page it didn’t surprise me when one of their friends asked for some workshop time of their own. They requested me by name. I am a shithead and an asshole when I must deal with the scary story children, but I am also not a monster, so I skimmed their request, noted what they wanted my advice to focus on, and opened up their draft. I was prepared for quirks of formatting, maybe some spelling issues. Maybe the plot would be too much like a movie that had come out recently. Every decent work rises from the mulch of a thousand false starts, so if an author is willing to learn I try to view their raw materials as the work in process that they are.

It was not a work in progress. It was a disaster area.

You do not understand what “disaster area” means in a fictional context unless you have done editing work yourself, and if you do I suspect you are bleeding already. In the event you are unaware of the lurking horror that is the amateur horror author, however, I will reconstruct something much like what I read. For reasons of privacy I will not recite the exact story I read. I should also note that while I have tried to maintain the style and shape of the original, I am the sort of person who unconsciously self-edits, and certain whims of grammar simply do not come across when not in print, so some of the subtler details will unfortunately be lost.

I loved to watch the scary movies so I would download them all the time to watch on my computer going to bed with Freddy, Jason, Mike Myers, Jigsaw, all those classic guys playing on the screen because I am just a horror freak! One day I saw a torrent for a new movie I hadn’t heard of with subtitles it was originally an Asian movie and it was called DEATH MIRROR and I was bored watching my movies so I downloaded it. “WATCH OUT FOR THE DEATH MIRROR!!” my phone went vrr vrr as I got a text and I thought that was cool and creepy because I had played a game before that would do stuff with your phone and email so it was real and I thought maybe the movie was like that and that was cool. I finished downloading and I watched it but the subtitles were so bad and after a while the screen was all black so I thought it was trying to make it like my screen was the mirror because it was black. I waited 20 minutes but it was still black. I got to the end and it was the same so I stopped it and put on another movie and that was black too so I just went back to the first one. There was weird music playing but still nothing on the screen and I didn’t hear people talking or anything so I got bored so I got up and went to wash my face. I looked at the mirror and I saw my reflection. “YOU SHOULD WATCH OUT!!” my phone buzzed as I got a text. “HE IS COMING THROUGH THE DEATH MIRROR!!” Then letters like the subtitles showed up on the mirror and they said DEATH MIRROR DEATH MIRROR DEATH IS INSIDE THE MIRROR so I pushed on the mirror and I felt something like centipedes inside it and when I looked at the mirror again my eyes were solid black like the death mirror had made my computer and since you read my story I am coming for you and will kill you!!!!!!

There were six exclamation points. Six of them. I missed my liquor cabinet very dearly. The author would never improve without knowing how, though, so I took a few minutes to stare at the wall before compiling a basic list of themes they could pursue if they wanted to expand their story. My list was a long one. I hoped they’d be willing to look into the meta angle of their story where the movie created a mirror when it was played, presumably because the narrator could see their own reflection on a solid black screen, and especially since it was more interesting than the hyper-realistic blood fountains their peers liked inserting in fictional “lost episodes” of every single children’s show ever made. It also didn’t make any mention of shortcuts or other sensitive concepts, which made things easier for me. I fleshed out my feedback, pasted it into the story’s workshop page, messaged the user, and returned to my trouble tickets.

Part of the way through a mind-numbing plagiarism claim from a different wiki my screen flickered. Not the whole thing, I should clarify, but just parts of it, with single words changing in length for a fraction of a second before snapping back to normal. My power cord was in good condition and a quick scan didn’t find any malware or related nasties, so I ignored it. A few minutes later it happened again, so I saved my notes, recorded how far I was in the dispute in case anything dire occurred, and power cycled my laptop. It shut down and started back up without any trouble. Not thirty seconds into working again the flicker came back. At this point I knew I wasn’t dealing with anything as pedestrian as a tech problem so I gave it my full attention.

Different words would flicker at different times, and it wasn’t always the entire word that did so. It was nearly too fast for the eye to see. I couldn’t screenshot it—not that I didn’t try, but whatever was manipulating my screen didn’t want to be caught—but when I let my eyes relax enough to really look at what it was showing me I was able to pick out bits and pieces. Hunger, it said, and want, and find you, and consume. Individual words that combined promised the reader personal devastation and mortification of the flesh, everything electrified with an undercurrent of need like love poetry from a monster.

The feeling I’d managed to shake off was back again, but it was paired with a strange sort of intimacy: someone, or something, was fucking with me, and specifically me, for some reason. I don’t imagine you’ll think less of me for telling you I was touched. I also suspected I needed to touch base with someone more grounded than I was, so I coaxed my laptop into spinning up the required protocols to message Cheryl.

I think I played an old game like that once, she told me once I described certain parts of my evening and the flickering words. It ended up involving alternate dimensions and alien babies and things. You an alien baby, N?

I assured her I was neither of those things. We laughed about it together—as much as you can when you’re not using voice communication, that is, though I assure you that it’s possible—and I felt good for confiding in someone. She helped take my mind off of things by talking about the anomalies she’d seen during her own shift that evening: while I often found orbs of ghostly light that needed removing, she had an eye for after-images that looked like specters to the untrained viewer, and between rounds of sharpening letters on storefronts or obscuring the faces of joggers she had to carefully excise junk data that someone might have mistaken for shrouded figures crying out for revenge. That evening, Cheryl had been spending most of her paid time doing everything she could to be rid of some anomalies outside a nail salon in Brighton.

Check out this before and after set I saved, she said. I was just barely able to handle opening two pieces of more-or-less-raw data on my laptop, so I agreed, and the poor thing’s insides whined as it processed the files before opening them. I looked at the “after” version first, with its gray autumn weather and patches of damp asphalt and crisp lines on the mass-produced art on the sign; the scene looked perfectly normal. Our bosses would be pleased.

Flicking over to the “before” image, I had to hand it to Cheryl: the original was a solid mess of garbage data that wouldn’t do anything but give people the wrong idea. It was all really very tacky. Cheryl’s professionalism had resulted in not so much as a bloodied handprint making it into the image, erasing the memory of what had been before as neatly as any Hollywood movie magician. I let myself marvel at her craftsmanship even as I double-checked for leftovers she might not have been as sensitive to as I was. I also saw the face in both of them. By that point I wasn’t even surprised.

The flickering thankfully didn’t start up again, since it had made trying to read much more difficult than usual. You don’t see that weird face I mentioned looking out from behind the glass, do you? I asked her. She hadn’t, of course, which also failed to surprise me. I think I’m learning to recognize something new, I said. I’ll keep you posted on what happens. Our conversation wound down from there until she bid me goodnight a little after one in the morning. While my coffee buzz was long since gone, I was just enough on edge that I had to walk a quick perimeter around the motel before I felt secure enough to slide between the too-starched sheets and drift off.

Nothing of note happened during the night.

When the sun rose I woke up in spite of feeling a bit like death itself. The water for my morning shower was too cold to stand for more than a couple of minutes and the automatic kettle on the side table couldn’t get anything hot enough to make more coffee, so I made my way to the town’s only diner in a sour mood. They knew me there, too, though not as well as the people at the hotel and the gas station, so I didn’t even have to say anything for someone to bring me some black coffee and a plate of steak and eggs. A little bowl of hot pie filling (no shell, because they knew to be careful with the gluten) materialized once I finished my main course. I knew I was going to regret it later, as the “special diet” I spoke of to the Derradas is less an excuse and more an unfortunate reality of a sensitive stomach, but eating so much heavy food was a necessity of a lengthy visit into town. Anything can be camouflage if you skew it properly.

A hot meal and hotter coffee helped me feel more like a member of society again and the wait staff could tell; I didn’t know their names, either, but we knew each other’s faces (theirs were pointedly not pale and dark-eyed, and I will be honest and admit that I checked), and they asked me how it was living up in the green these days. I said it was fine, since usually it was, and that was good enough for them; the conversation then veered off into how things were locally, which was much more interesting. I’ve always liked knowing if I’ll need to adjust my errands around other people’s schedules. I was sure to tip heavily when I left.

There weren’t any faces staring at me while I picked up light bulbs at the hardware store, nor dark eyes peering out between the clothing racks at the Thrift-Again, and my stop at the library wasn’t punctuated by books jumbling their pages into menacing messages. My phone only played the music I’d told it to while I reviewed some of the older town records. I didn’t even find anything weird while checking the shortcuts in the trees out past the railroad tracks, and if you’d asked me where I expected to find something strange my answer would’ve been along a shortcut. It was a calm day overall.

Still full from the hunk of beef they gave me with breakfast, I decided to skip lunch. The day had stayed dim and slightly rainy the entire time I was out. I was in a good enough mood that I actually wanted to check on the author I’d given advice to the previous evening, though not so good I didn’t get a small bottle of bourbon from the hunting goods store by the old cannery just in case. There was no way I wasn’t going back to my room without little insurance in the event I needed to take the edge off. That my delicate stomach doesn’t reject hard liquor is one of life’s little miracles that I’m thankful for every day. I made a final circuit around the motel, filled up a container with ice from the rattling old machine on the first floor, and settled in for an afternoon with my laptop.

Who knew how much time my most recent protege would need that day, so I hurried through the usual assortment of dull admin things before checking in on the feedback pages I’d been shadowing. Sure enough, there was an activity notice on the god-awful one from last night, and the edit log showed that a great many characters had been added to the page since I last wrote there. I bolstered my spirits with a finger of bourbon over off-smelling motel ice and dove in.

All told it was much more coherent than the first attempt. The author’s work was still unfocused and overeager, but they’d taken a lot of my advice to heart already. Gone was the vague “Asian” descriptor in place of an actual country, and while it was a bit awkwardly-phrased we now had a bit of background on the mysterious movie. Ever since The Ring and all its remakes and knockoffs you just can’t escape stories about videos serving as hosts to otherworldly powers, but much like a haunted house story you can make the reader care about familiar trappings if you set the stage properly. All part of how legends work these days, right? Of course I’m right.

The next few paragraphs—there were paragraphs this time, not just a solid wall of text, and it was like a choir of angels had descended when I saw that—talked about the movie, which now had some semblance of plot before it went black, and saw the narrator scrubbing through the empty footage actively looking for things instead of sitting placidly with their boredom. They also had more of a reaction to the phantom texts and tried to figure out who was contacting them. That was yet another topic I’d talked about, what with making characters active instead of passive, and I will be honest with you and say I was getting pretty invested in that silly little story I was helping someone haul from the neophytic mire.

A little bit of better pacing went a long way. How the narrator ended up in the bathroom I’m still not entirely clear on, but the subtitles-in-reflection thing made a return, the phone gave them a final warning, and the ending still had them possessed but in a less overdone manner. While we would still need to work on some of the details (I am never going to allow a writer to get away with calling a video codec “666player” if I can help it), the plot felt less cramped. Damn near everything I’d mentioned in my notes was on display in some form or another. I approved. Or at least the bourbon and my ego did.

I was prepared to write up the next round of revisions when the flickering text came back again. By that point I was hardly surprised. I doubted that the author I was advising was somehow responsible—it was too obvious, for one, and there are strict unspoken rules about who is allowed to use the site and in what ways—but whoever was fucking with me was probably aware of my site activity somehow. My curiosity slightly outpaced my annoyance. I’d received no emails, seen no popups, and my malware scanners were silent; whatever was happening was doing something other than scraping my passwords or frying my CPU. This was at least more interesting than the last time someone had tried stealing my bank information.

Letting my eyes relax, I tried reading the peekaboo lettering again. It was different this time: gone was the menace, instead replaced by gibberish and the occasional slash. It took me a minute to realize I was being shown a web address in scraps and fragments, and I only knew that much because I recognized part of the URL as belonging to a certain site for sharing certain media of a certain nature. You know the one. There was a little notepad and a mostly-functioning pen on the nightstand, so I pieced together a complete address bit by bit and with a healthy dollop of trial and error. I burned the paper afterwards.

Once properly assembled, the link led to a private video on an account I didn’t recognize. The only other uploads on the channel were a few seconds long and were apparently tests of uploading protocols and video filters, as even the most exclusive userbase must deal with a learning curve now and again. You might have seen said test videos’ content on more mainstream sites, maybe accompanying a blurb about someone’s outing the day before. The actual linked video, however, was different.

The running time was nearly half an hour long and the preview thumbnail was of some sort of trail cam, probably the motion-triggered kind that people set up to watch birds and animals. There were no comments, or even a description, and no evidence I’d be doing anything but wasting my time while staring at trees; no evidence, that is, aside from the site it was on. I got up long enough to throw the deadbolt on the door before clicking play.

There was no sound on the footage at first, just the swaying of distant leaves and something small and furry nibbling at a bait block positioned in front of the camera. Maybe it was a chipmunk. I’ve never been very good at telling small mammals apart and it really isn’t important. The critter perked up its ears at something offscreen and bounded away; a little while later a pair of hikers, a man and a woman, walked in from the opposite direction, both paying the camera no mind. Sometimes one of them would stop to take a picture of something. They passed through without incident, which surprised me. The footage continued running so I turned my image processor’s eye to the background, my logic being that there was something here I was meant to see. Why else this site, why else send it the way they had, why else send it to me? A site not even a TOR server could touch was an awful lot of set dressing if this was just a prank. I scanned the trees, the shadows, even the clouds. The video kept running; a normal trail cam would have shut off by then. Something was there, but what?

You have likely already guessed that when I finally found something out of the ordinary it turned out to be the face again.

It was glaring at me from halfway behind a tree, the expression as intense as always, and shortly after I noticed it the body attached to said face started unfolding. It was tall, very tall, and lean, and its proportions were just as subtly off as the face itself, though I imagined if the figure folded itself up again it could pass for a very large man. When displayed in full splendor, however, it was clearly inhuman. A man’s ribs can’t do that and leave him still breathing. The figure spider-walked its way across the clearing, lifted a many-jointed hand towards the camera, and stopped the recording with a click. There were still a good twenty, twenty-five minutes remaining in the video, and scrubbing ahead I could tell it wasn’t all black screen. The universe missed out on a perfect chance for irony by not including garbled subtitles along the bottom.

A wave of nausea rippled through me as the video continued, leaving me suddenly aware of how heavy my breakfast had been despite how late in the day it was. I drank the water from my melted ice and refused to let myself get sick, which worked reasonably enough, though my mouth still tasted wrong. Cryptovideography is not a field for the weak of constitution.

After a few seconds of blackness the screen jump-cut to the inside of a filthy house. I couldn’t tell what room it was supposed to be due to all the clutter, but judging by the state of the food containers piled in one corner it had been lived in for quite some time. There was a doorway with no door. Someone was sleeping on a filthy mattress halfway out of the shot, with only their legs and socked feet visible; I knew they were sleeping and not dead because they stirred on occasion. A tall, pale shape walked past the empty door, stared in at the camera—it was the owner of the face again, because of course it was—and continued on its way. Something rustled before the camera was knocked over and the footage was interrupted by the RGB mosaic of digital tearing. I glanced up at the video information again. The title was “something you would like,” all in lowercase. I liked, yes. I liked very much.

Things continued in this manner: something would be filming, people would be present, and then the beast of bones and elbows would blossom from its hiding place, still unnoticed. Sometimes it would calmly avoid detection in densely-traveled areas. Here I am, I found myself thinking for it. Look how easily I exist, and no one knows. No one except for you, now. My pulse quickened. I knew about it, and it apparently knew about me. You could read a lot into a video like that.

The final shot was of the flirtatious entity padding through an abandoned building. It swerved around the hulks of long-dormant machinery to approach the camera head-on. I assumed it would switch off the feed again, or maybe destroy whatever unfortunate device was recording its presence, yet neither of these were correct; instead the face loomed, huge and milk-colored, and pressed its socket against the lens until the screen was black again. Another URL appeared on the screen. I hurried to jot down what I could on a piece of unburned paper—a more difficult prospect than it sounds, as I had been thorough in making sure nothing with stray indentations had remained—before the video stopped. Rewinding it did nothing: it had played for me just the once and would not do so again.

What I wanted to do was to follow the link immediately, as it was for another part of the same site, but I disliked the idea of potentially empowering an unfamiliar egregore on an empty stomach. I couldn’t go back to the diner again or I’d risk making myself sick, and while I had food back at my house I wasn’t quite ready to return home, which left me in a bit of a spot. It was a crapshoot, but I decided to try my luck foraging in the wilderness like my ancestors; you don’t live out as far away from the city as I do without picking up a few tricks for emergencies, and after all, I’m a man of tradition. With luck there would still be something worth finding before the deepening cold drove everything indoors or underground.

The woods got dark almost immediately as soon as the sun started to set. To make a long story short, I found a clearing where some of the local kids had been trying to summon the Devil based on guesswork and half-remembered stories from church lock-ins. It would have to do. Beer cans and condoms are not a very nice ambiance for living off the land, but I was grateful for what I could scrounge up even though I could feel a film of filth sticking to me as I stepped through the discarded cigarette butts and into the waning light. I had to wash my hands for quite a while once I made it back to the motel. My mouth still tasted of hairspray. Getting food poisoning from my own carelessness was not an option.

Once my hands were clean again I locked as many parts of the door as I could, drew the blinds, and pushed a chair up under the doorknob. If the second video was anything like the first I couldn’t allow for any interruptions, be they from well-meaning motel staff or something else. My hands shook with excitement as I typed in the address. What did my mysterious antagonist want to share with me this time?

The URL led to another private video, this one titled “for poeticus.” At least now I felt vindicated in suspecting they’d been trying to get to me through that silly website, since my legal name is nothing like my handle and my actual name isn’t that close, either. The timestamp was identical to the ones that had followed me this far. My stomach gurgled from my makeshift dinner as I drummed my fingers next to my touchpad; I hoped that I’d made the right choice in waiting this long, or trusting my dinner to the whims of providence, or avoiding shortcuts there and back. I hunched over my laptop like a cathedral grotesque and clicked the play button.

Gray midday light sheeted through windows speckled with rust and curls of peeled paint. It was the same abandoned place as the first time, but from a different angle. I realized that I’d seen it before, back when it was newer: the video had been shot down at the old cannery. Knowing how close my admirer was, or at least had been, was like a punch in the gut. I was supposed to be paying attention. Paying attention was what both of my jobs required, plus the one other job I don’t talk about much, and being caught unawares by something this significant was practically a personal insult. I would have shut the window in disgust if the face, and everything connected to it, hadn’t chosen that moment to appear from behind a shabby mound of painted steel.

How can I describe what happened without cheapening what I saw? There are ways that time and space and digital video are meant to behave, and what I beheld ignored all of it. You may be familiar with the concept, and if you are you understand why even someone as in love with words as myself finds his tongue stilled when I must recreate the scene for another. There was the debris-strewn factory and there was the hungry-eyed thing and there was interaction with the space between them, and at certain points the footage was spliced with similar clips to the first video: he moved unseen, and sometimes he acted unseen, and in every shot he was beautiful and terrible and made from impossible angles. Reality boiled in his wake. This thing corrupted the nature of was and was not, and now he was performing for me in an act of unreal exhibitionism.

I jerked off furiously. I was turned on, and mad at myself for being turned on, and mad at the video thing for slipping past my radar, and glad that it had anyway. Every door he walked into that he didn’t walk out of on the other side felt like a lead-in to him posing, exposed, on a stairwell that curved in on itself, and I hated him so much even as I wanted to take his cock—yes, he had one, as much as he had any anatomy that could be described using such familiar terminology—and feel it in my hand or taste it against my tongue. I wanted to wrench his head back by that long plait that draped between his shoulders and lick the ridges running down his neck. I wanted to keep my knee on that bird’s nest of bones that passed for his chest and touch him until he was helpless, then come on his face even as his eyes bored through me with their black and wanting stare. I really wanted to fuck myself on him and maybe finger his ass a bit. My orgasm was perfectly timed with the video’s end.

Once I was sure I was finished I cleaned myself up in cold shower water and kept my eyes towards the bathroom door the entire time. Nothing happened, not even when I was toweling my hair dry and couldn’t keep watch, and I didn’t care about the nothingness because I was too busy making plans. Sleeping in my boots was a miserable idea that I simply refused to budge on, but I was determined to bed down in everything else: both layers of socks, my jeans, my hoodie, the whole kit. I also coaxed my laptop into setting up a few failsafes with my primary job. If I was going to leave, I was going to leave well-prepared.

My stomach had settled enough by then that I felt comfortable pinging Cheryl. I think I’ve got things figured out, I told her. I don’t know everything about that thing I keep seeing, but I know more. I know where he is.

Are you going to be okay? she asked me. Cheryl’s always been the sort of person to be concerned for others, even ones in situations like mine.

I think so, I said. That was mostly true. Everything’s taken care of if this doesn’t work out. I’ll message you in a few days if I can. Been a pleasure working with you.

Take care of yourself, N.

I’ll do my best.

Once my laptop was packed up again the room was still and quiet save for the songs of night insects drifting in from outside. I stared up at the ceiling. My would-be paramour had an affectation for one particular time, which wouldn’t come around again until the sun was already up, and while that should have been a comfort it just made me second-guess myself. Was it a smokescreen to catch me off my game? Had that creepy feeling I’d gotten really been intended to flush me out of my little warren? Had I put people in harm’s way by talking to them? Was someone else using my shortcuts?

I couldn’t answer all of those questions, but shortcuts were another matter. I closed my eyes and let my thoughts drift out to touch the places around me. They all smelled right, even the one where I’d caught an intruder earlier, and the ends lined up where they were supposed to, even the ones that wrapped around a little oddly. One of them was feeling a bit ragged so I had to dip into my reserves to patch it up; the horror-loving kids had recently fallen in love with the idea of holes in the world that things could pass through, so I had plenty of metaphorical spackle to smooth things over. It was a solid benefit of an oft-loathsome social obligation, and maybe I encouraged authors to include that sort of detail in their work and maybe I didn’t. The zeitgeist is an unreliable resource at the best of times. I think I was justified in taking what I could get.

Making repairs in the warp and woof of the world is a tiring process even when you have the time to prepare for it, and I definitely hadn’t prepared enough. It felt like I’d been pushing a pickup uphill. My ears strained to pick up out-of-place sounds, but the crickets’ chirps failed to grind into static or shrill into a tinnitus hum. If I stayed up any longer I’d just feel worse, I decided, so I allowed myself to drift off. I had very informative dreams that night.

I woke up the next morning to a storm-dark sky and lightning in my veins. It was time to settle up my tab and return home.

“Leaving already, big guy?” asked the night clerk when I shambled up to the desk. It was early enough that the day staff hadn’t come in yet. I nodded and tossed him the key, which he caught in midair like a heron going for a fish. He tallied up my fees and gave me the papers to sign without asking me any more questions. I paid in cash, just like always. It’s good to have an understanding. “Hope we’ll see you again soon,” he said as he returned to his magazine, the same issue as the last time I’d seen him. I wanted to grab him by the collar of his cheap shirt and yell that he was setting me up for failure with talk like that, that I was so deep in somebody else’s story that even jokes could make things go very wrong, but no, he didn’t know any better, and to be frank I wanted to keep things that way. It’s easier when people don’t know certain things, isn’t it?

I took as many shortcuts as I could on the way home. I didn’t even stop by the gas station, since I could feel something important filling up my footprints as I walked; the Derradas didn’t need to get involved with that. This was my land, these were my people. I had responsibilities. Halfway back home I had to stop and cough up a chewed-on plastic barrette from dinner, which I grudgingly slipped in my pocket to dispose of later. I didn’t know my pursuer’s intentions—not all of them, anyway—and I didn’t need to be leaving any sort of trail that could be used against me. Have you ever dealt with someone who knows how to use sympathetics? I have. It isn’t pretty, and that’s why I always burn any loose hairs I find on my brush.

The greenery started closing in as I started on the last stretch up the mountainside. It was a tangle of life, its leaves smotheringly lush, and it knew me and I knew it as my boots fought against the lingering mud of the unpaved road. I’m not about to tell you that the place was sentient, because it wasn’t, or that I could even communicate with it, because I couldn’t, but it fit me the same way a bed you’ve owned for years fits your body perfectly. I knew every nook and cranny, every hill and dale, and every shortcut that let you cover a jaunt of several miles in a scant few steps. This was my home, as it had been for a very long time. This was where I was meant to be. There was nothing out in the green worse than I was, of this I was certain. I probably shouldn’t have left.

Before I unlocked my front door I turned around and took three pictures of the misty trees outside. I didn’t look at them as I slid my phone back into my front pocket. It was important to keep them fresh.

Inside everything was as I’d left it. If my suspicions were correct, and I put a great deal of stock in my suspicions, I knew what I needed to do. I unpacked my bag as calmly as I could and put away the various things I’d picked up while in town. I swept the floor. I trimmed the plants on the porch. I even checked my work messages—nothing dire had happened during my outing, nor had I expected it to, but it never hurts to be aware—before sitting myself down in my reading chair and watching the battered old digital clock on my desk tick down the minutes.

When the minute and the hour of the timestamp arrived, I thumbed open my phone and looked at each picture in turn. Each had the same pale face in it, each in a different place, and I knew for a fact there had been nothing out there before.

“You might as well come in,” I said, and he did.

Strictly speaking there shouldn’t have been enough room inside that little cabin for him to fit as he was, but I’d been sure that it met certain specifications shortly after moving in. He didn’t enter through the door. He didn’t have the smell of spaces between spaces on him so I was fairly certain he hadn’t used any shortcuts getting there, or at least not any of the ones I tended, and that was a pretty good trick if it was true. His expression hadn’t changed from the one he’d worn the entire time he’d showed himself to me; for a moment I thought it might’ve been stuck that way, but for just a moment I saw the mask falter as he looked around my home for the first time. When put together with what else I knew it explained everything. It was hard to stay angry, but I tried.

I gestured to the chair across from mine. “Have a seat.”

His limbs hinged like a fanciful insect’s as he wedged himself into place. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a horrible rattling came out; the words he said formed themselves in my brain instead of as actual sounds. I have come across the veil to—

“How new are you at this?” I asked. The rest of the words in my head fell away before they could finish. I’m very good at interrupting.


“I said, ‘how new are you at this?’ It’s not a difficult question.” I leaned forward. “Be honest or this will go very badly for you.”

His glare turned sulky and he gave me a number. It was a low one, but higher than I’d expected. High enough that he should’ve known better. How he was still in one piece was a mystery. Also a mystery was how he’d made such a nuisance of himself without anyone else knowing about him. Most people couldn’t get away with that much walking through horizontal time without leaving a pictorial wake a hundred miles long and bright as a Christmas tree, but here he was, stealthy as a leaf in the woods, my guest and now my problem. And what a problem he was.

I crossed my legs and laced my fingers against the back of my neck. “I’m not going to ask you your secrets, just as I expect you won’t ask me mine,” I said. “I just would like to know why you decided, of everyone you could have chosen, you went with me.”

I saw what you do. I saw how you take the words and use them. Then I looked through the holes in things and I saw you and the flesh you wear. I wanted it. I wanted you to see me, too. He tried to exude that awful feeling I’d been battling on and off for the last few days, but it was my house he was in now, and I was ready for him. I knew what he was really saying despite his attempts to talk around it. Once he realized I was on to him he had the decency to look embarrassed.

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

I use tools, just like anyone else. I like the way you make the tools better. You were looking at a story tool I wanted to exist—

“You didn’t write it yourself, did you? That’s tacky.”

No. Someone was reading some tools you’d touched, and then they made something new, that’s all. He fidgeted. This isn’t how it was supposed to go. You were supposed to be amazed. You were supposed to understand. Have you ever had an experience with unfiltered sulkiness broadcast directly into your head? It’s very awkward. You’re the good one! You’re poeticus! You’re poeticus who changes the words! A pure thought does not stammer, but if you get used to having people stick words into your head you can tell when they might have. I felt like someone had dumped an entire bucket of mealworms into my subconscious thanks to how unfocused everything was. I also was not impressed by him using my admin handle.

“That’s not my name. That’s just what I go by. It has no power over me.” I rubbed my temples. “You’re also shitting where I eat, and I don’t have patience for that. By rule of law I have the right to sunder that body you’re wearing and kick your ass from here to Bowling Green.” My guest moved to defend himself but I held up one finger, stopping him in his tracks. I gestured again and he sank back down into his chair, and I could tell by his eyes he hadn’t expected that would work on him. Let no one tell you I don’t know the value of a good surprise. “But, and this is a very significant but, I have a soft spot for dumbass kids who just woke up from hibernation for the first time since 1983 and aren’t used to the ins and outs of how they’re supposed to handle digital media yet. I’ll teach you if you’re willing to learn.”

It was ’87, he said, and I could taste his wounded pride. He scratched at his cheek with a hand that had the wrong number of fingers. Why do you think I am new?

“Because you’ve been very rude and very sloppy. Both junior-league mistakes.”

Oh. He didn’t seem to be quite familiar enough with his body to pull it off, but I could spot someone trying to mimic a nervous tic from a hundred paces. Maybe he was meaning to chew his lip. You’d really do that? Teach me?

I shrugged. “Sure. You’ve clearly got the skills, you just have to know what to do with them. Are you interested?”

He didn’t accept but he didn’t refuse outright, either, so I prepared us both a nice lunch to eat as we avoided the subject by discussing the importance of being janitor to a collective imagination. It turned out he really hadn’t written the little story himself—and thank the stars for that or there would’ve been hell to pay come audit time—but had heavily influenced its creation once he’d learned what a rush it was harvesting ideas from online sources. We spoke at length about how that sort of thing was properly done. There’s rules for everything, and if we all ignored the rules there’d be an enormous mess. Worse, I’d be out of a job, and I’ll be damned if I’m ever working in a call center again.

The matter of how I managed for myself came up and I told him about the work I did. I showed him Cheryl’s pictures and noted that his face was missing from them now. He was fascinated by her work, and for good reason: I handled orbs and unwanted scenery like cult debris or sloppy shortcut exit points, but when you had a manifestation problem, that was when you called for Cheryl. Without us carefully editing behind the scenes the entire thing would be pointless. The dead have no respect for accurate geodata.

After a while he guided the conversation somewhere interesting. I saw you watched my video, he said. I hummed in agreement but didn’t say anything, instead looking out the front window at the hints of gray sky peeking through the leaves. The second one, that’s the one I mean. Did you like it? He flushed an irrational color. Ah, the callowness of youth.

“Yes, I did.” I smiled, and since we were in private company I let it split my jaw and travel down the front of my neck to curl fetchingly above my sternum. He’d been trying to get my attention for what felt like ages my then. It felt good being able to flirt back. “I should also let you know that I’m between boyfriends at the moment, and that I think you’re pretty cute.” Normally I wouldn’t consider coming on to a potential student, but he had introduced himself to me with a personalized sex tape. It can get very lonely out in the hills. If nothing else I could leave him in better shape than I’d found him, smarter and fiercer and hopefully ready for a relationship that didn’t involve hijacking someone’s web browser before the first date. Diamonds in the rough are a weakness of mine. I suspect that’s why I endure being an editor.

He was shyer in person, which didn’t surprise me, but still forward enough to make the first move, which almost did. He was eager as a puppy, horny as a teenager, and shaky as a newborn deer. I let him kiss me with inexpert enthusiasm as he groped my back a bit before figuring out where my ass was supposed to be; in his defense, mine wasn’t quite in the same place as his. He towered over me until he managed to get my hoodie and flannel off (I was still wearing everything I’d walked home in), at which point I unfolded my torso for him. The little gasp he made when I let my bones click into place was priceless. I’ll never get tired of seeing someone’s face light up when they see what I look like when nobody’s looking.

It had been a long time since I’d gotten laid, and longer still since it had been with someone with similar quirks, but I still insisted on pacing myself. We quickly negotiated certain things. Social afflictions were not something we needed to concern ourselves with, for reasons which you are no doubt intimately familiar, but even when dealing with the not wholly real one must draw a few boundaries, and eager as he was I didn’t want him making any unfortunate mistakes before he had the experience to fix them. He seemed surprised when I demanded to bottom for much of it despite us agreeing mine was the more forceful of our personalities. I don’t think he was lying when he said I wasn’t his first, but I suspected then as I suspect now that he hadn’t had a chance to get that knife of his whetted by someone who knew what they were doing. Still, I had offered to teach him, so teach him I would.

He was still wearing that silly face of his when we started, but it didn’t take long for him to relax and let me get a more intimate look. Those dark eyes of his were just as black and fathomless up close as they’d been on camera, and I could admire my reflection in them; it was no secret where he’d found that little “Black Mirror” idea he’d been urging that poor author to write. His smile was nearly as lovely as my own—I’ll have you know I receive constant compliments on my teeth when in the right company, and on both their shape and their number—so much that it was almost a shame to hide it with kisses. The long hair, thankfully, stayed put; only by sheer force of will did I keep from anchoring my fingers in it and pulling his head back. I didn’t want to scare him, not that early and not that way. We had other things to get to first. I shimmied out of my jeans and pulled him across the cabin onto my bed.

Once again, mere words fail to encapsulate what we did with each other. Oh, there were some aspects that were perfectly pedestrian, such as the heat of his cock against my skin or the way he hissed with pleasure when I caressed his inner thigh, but how to describe the way we bent for each other? What vocabulary could possibly contain how I prepared him and myself for further delights? It’s easy enough to describe how he grabbed my hips as I rode his cock, and the way I clenched down around him every time I thrust down against him, and the way our sweat glowed in the light of the few bulbs I’d turned on before sundown, but how to accurately say what we did beyond that? How to express erogenous zones that exist only as concepts, or the interplay of angles that defy any protractor? How to truly capture the feeling of bringing pleasure to anatomy that can scarcely be comprehended by the human eye? I rarely get maudlin over how my preferred style of fucking defies language itself, but it seems something of a copout when I’ve told you this much already. Alas. Simply know that as a kaleidoscope is to a single fleck of color, so too was our sex to any singular attempt at more earthly coupling, and that we achieved this much despite me being out of practice and my youthful partner having more excitement than sense. I do hope you’re jealous.

I didn’t end up sucking him off (for reasons of hygiene, even if something of a formality in this instance), nor did I pin him down and come on his face (for reasons of etiquette, as I’d failed to ask about it prior), but I did coax him into seeing if he enjoyed being fingered, which was a resounding success. It also resulted in him wanting another go at my ass again, which I was all too happy to oblige even though I knew I didn’t have much more left in me. You simply can’t put a price tag on a top who takes direction well.

“So does this mean you accept my offer?” I asked afterwards, once I was finally too tender to continue. I had folded myself back up again and was looking out the window into the sundown-tinted greenery beyond. Soon it would be as dark as the ocean floor. A cold breeze filtered in through where I hadn’t yet sealed the windows and ruffled my guest’s hair where he lay curled up against me. It felt like my kind of weather again.

Maybe, he said after a moment’s thought. Am I agreeing to being your student or your boyfriend?

“Either or.”

He grinned, sharp and vicious, and it looked much better on him than that expression he’d worn while loping after me through film and footage. I want both. I was so proud.

We came to an arrangement. I didn’t ask for much, just companionship and maybe an extra set of hands patrolling my territory, and in exchange I showed him many things. I taught him why we never share our names. I taught him how to keep an eye out for supernatural phenomena in map images and how to cleanly purge it for public use. I taught him how to moderate a particularly shithead-filled chat session, as well as tips for keeping his trouble ticket queue down. I taught him how to speak with sound instead of thought. I taught him how to make himself look more natural, and a bit less like me, to avoid uncomfortable questions. I taught him which people were my people—our people, at least for a little while—and which ones are fit to be handled in the traditional way when appropriate. I taught him how to use shortcuts and the rules there were about them. I taught him how to watch for intruders on shortcuts, too, and how to watch from many directions while doing a perimeter sweep.

That’s how we found you, and you know what all came after that.

I know I didn’t need to tell you all this, of course, but it’s nice being able to share a little personal history with a captive audience, and I always have been in love with the sound of my own voice. You’ve been magnificent, not that you’ve had much of a choice. It really does mean a lot to me. I’d hate to burden someone else with all of this, and Cheryl’s heard it all a hundred times before, bless her, and it looks like our little talk has given us enough time for my student to make the preparations we needed. Didn’t you hear him come in? No, of course you didn’t. He’s learned from the best.

Now then. I think it’s time I teach him how to clean up a mess.

illustrated by Iron Eater


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2 thoughts on “Narcissus

  1. That was really good, and really creepy. I loved the way you made things appear pretty normal (data scrubbing as a job, forum moderation, taking shortcuts), then slowly added things that made me shift my understanding of those terms. The other bits of dissonance were well done, too, like the narrator saying they were “touched” by the creepy horror-movie stalking. And the just-vague-enough physical descriptions towards the end. I really enjoyed reading it.

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