Something waits beneath the graphical flat water
| Have you spoken to the dead? You don't need a Ouija board, or a forgotten ritual; they speak, unbidden, wanting to be heard. Behind the written words, they speak to you unbeknownst. Their silent voices hide behind glowing screens, and who knows where they exist out there in the digital ocean. What do they have to say to the living, and what do they want with you?
<dragon420> Look I'm drowning!
<dragon420> I'm in the water.
<CoolGirl68> This underwater tunnel is cool! Did you make it?
<CoolGirl68> Well I'm getting off. Was just waiting for something to download.
You had disconnected from the server excited to play a new game, and if there was anything odd about your conversation, you only felt it as the passing fears from disconnected dreams that haunted the darkest hours of night, and when you woke up in the morning you only felt the edges of the anxiety before it was washed away by the morning sun.
And now you stand, alone, among all these people dressed up in their finest clothes, and with sad faces, they crowd around the casket where your friend's body lay--or where you hoped it lay. He was dead, and his body lay up there in the casket: you mouthed the words repeatedly, like a silent prayer, but with the profane thoughts of seeing him again worming their way in. And all you can think of is that night.
When you started your job, you saw your friends less and less until the only reliable time you could see them was when you played online games. You all owned one game where you could build machines, and buildings, and even entire cities together. And that fleeting contact kept you going. But that night, you had bought a new game with dragons and magic, and you wanted to play it instead. And as it downloaded, you launched the building game to kill time and talk to your friends. The loading screen flashed by, and you saw someone was on the server, and as you appeared in the world wearing a stylish pink dress (or at least, it would be stylish if it wasn't so pixilated), you saw it was your friend Lewis.
You didn't see him anywhere around the central cube that functioned as your base, but you found a new tunnel carved into the flat surfaces of the rocky cave, and you followed it until its walls became glass, and you could see the ocean floor beyond. Long strands of kelp stretched upward far above your head, and the seafloor was dense with green seaweed swaying as if there was a breeze, and far above, you could see the wavering surface shinning in the light of the digital sun. Lewis was swimming, just outside the tunnel, in an undulating motion like a dolphin if they were shaped like bricks. And he typed out the messages, and you hadn't payed attention to his talk of drowning or understood the joke, he was making, and you had logged off--untroubled.
And when you fell asleep that night, you dreamt of calm waters drawing you closer and closer to its surface that mirrored the blue void above--and something waited beneath. And when you woke up, you turned on all the lights, and you looked at your phone glancing up from time to time, and after you had scrolled down a long way, you realized you didn't remember anything because all your brain power was being used up listening to the quiet morning. And when you received the phone call from Lewis' mom, you felt the full force of dread that had snuck up upon you, and you learned he had died in the night, and it didn't surprise you because you expected it. And you sighed with relief when you heard, he died late at night: he wasn't dead when he talked to you. You tried to scrub the thought from your mind. The funeral was in two days, and they passed in a blur, and nothing mattered, and the thought of playing games made you sick, and you wanted to lay in bed all day, and you didn't want to go to the funeral, but you felt guilty at the thought of missing it.
And the day of the funeral arrived with the sun shining brightly down, and the air was sweet with spring flowers. It was all too nice; it should have been raining; the air should have been brooding with potential thunder and dark clouds. You put on a black dress, but it was ill-fitting, and you were already sweating, and the fabric stuck to your back like a clammy hug, but you went to the funeral anyways.
And you found yourself here, alone, trying not to think of the dead. The air is cloying from the flowers arranged around the casket, and the myriad of different perfumes people are wearing. You are on the verge of tears as you walk around mechanically whispering pleasantries, but you can't cry, and you feel like everyone looks at you with accusing eyes. You feel like you are intruding.
But you are still there when the service starts, and you sit down and look over at the casket; it's closed, and at first, you are glad you can't see the waxy face, but as the Minister talks on and on, his words fade, and your thoughts travel down unbidden paths where you wonder if there is anything in the coffin at all. "I'm drowning," you hear the words in your head, and you imagine water pouring out from beneath the lid, and it cascades down and pools into crystal puddles on the floor. And the puddles grow with inching fingers like feelers finding their way towards you. They reach your feet and grasp your ankles like warm hands, and the water is flat, and it creeps up slowly until it is at your neck, and then it swallows you whole, and in the depths, something is waiting. Clink, clink--the sound is high pitched and muffled beneath the water, and you look up and see the casket swaying back and forth, and the movement becomes more violent until the lid must fly open and reveal the emptiness within, but Lewis' Mom gets up to speak, and when you look back, the casket is sitting quietly with its lid shut tight, and the air is dry as bone.
The casket teeters on the edge repeatedly as different people talk on and on until the only thing that will ease your mind is to open it. And you have a chance as the service ends, and you find yourself up front, one more time, before the casket makes its final journey, and you reach out a hand, but all their eyes are on you, and your hand recoils, and you and walk away as fast as you can, and as you reach the warm sunlight, you want to run, and you want to scream, but the eyes are all around as tears stream down your face, so you choke and cough instead until you arrive back at your apartment and shut out the eyes with the door.
The memory fades away, but the bags under your eyes and the ringing in your ears from your boss screaming at you for breaking something for the third time this week are the only lasting evidence of your long sleep deprivation. And you haven't gotten back on the server since that night, but you can't bear to take it down. But a month passes, and then another, and you feel like you can get on--one last time.
You start the launcher and the game takes a moment to start. You navigate to the server, and your heart starts pounding in your ears--someone is already on the server.
"It's not him," you say to your empty apartment. But you have to be sure, so you text your friend.
<Ren> Hey, you on the server?
<Ethan> Nope, can't get on since the funeral.
You have been staring at the screen absently for five minutes before you look down at your phone and see his response. The cursor trembles over the Join button, and you miss it the first time you try to press it, and you hover over it again, but you don't want to click it. You take a deep breath, and you use your other hand to push your finger down on the mouse button telling yourself it is one of your other friends who stopped playing ages ago. You see the starting text flash on the screen, Loading..., and your character shows up in the glass tunnel beneath the ocean, and you think about Lewis, and you almost log off until...
<dragon420> Look Im dorwning
<CoolGirl68> What kind of sicke joke is this
<dragon420> Im n the water.
<CoolGirl68> What the Fuck is worong with you
<dragon420> Its Me! Im Alive!
<CoolGirl68> stop it
<dragon420> i'm deAlive! Come to my apartment and you'll see.
You log off, and you go into the settings to delete the server, and you hover over the button, but you can't do it--what if you can see him again? You know it isn't possible, but he lived just across the parking lot on the third floor with three windows overlooking the parking lot, and maybe he is waiting there--it can't hurt to find out.
The next day you find yourself walking across the parking lot until you reach the bottom of the stairs. You walk up the first flight of stairs, and they are made of tan boards of wood, and it smells like a new deck with just a hint of cinnamon. The floor creaks above you--it's coming from one of the other apartments; you know, but you don't believe it. And you are going down the stairs two steps at a time, and as you run across the parking lot, you look back and see the three windows like eyes covered with the white film of the blinds. The film flutters like a twitching eyelid.
Now every day, you start the launcher and look at the server, and someone is always on--but you can't join again. And as you walk to your car, you pass by the eyes, and you fear what is waiting behind. And you find yourself pondering the eyes at odd times when you are alone, and you are spending more and more time alone, and it takes up more and more of your time until it's the only thing you can see when you close your eyes.
The next time you reach the door, and you stand outside for a minute. And you become aware of the sounds coming from within. You hear the clicking staccato of typing, and the creaking of a chair as someone shifts, and then another creak as a weight is lifted off the chair, and the soft footsteps, on wooden floors, approaching the door. This time you take the steps three at a time, and when you hit the ground, you hear a door open above--you know it was just coming from a different apartment--but you don't look back as you hurtle across the parking lot. You don't want to see anything watching you from the semi-darkness at the top of the stairs.
And you check the server more and more, but there is always someone online, and you can't help but feel they are waiting for you. You have been taking more and more time off work until you are afraid, they must let you go, so you get on the server, once more, not knowing what you will do. But, before you can do anything, you get a new message.
<dragon420> why Did you RUn Away?
<CoolGirl68> Your dead I went to your funerla
<dragon420> Nah come over. I wont' Bite. <skeleton emoji>
<CoolGirl68> Alright Im coming over.
<dragon420> YES! Eat you soon!
<dragon420> *see LOL Damn Autocorrect
You log off with a bang as you slam your mouse and keyboard against the desk, but the anger drains away like water into a drain. You feel something pulling you towards his apartment; you feel the cold hands pulling you down towards calm waters towards the bottomless depths. And you know something is waiting, but you don't know what, and you can't go because it's too dangerous, but what if he is there? And you find yourself opening the door and walking away from the warmth and safety.
You walk across the dark parking lot with the smell of ozone in the air, and the noise of a few late-night cars passing on the highway nearby. The light on the landing of the third-floor flickers, as you reach the bottom of the stairs, and you walk up the first flight of stairs, and you walk up the second flight of stairs, and then you are at the door, and the light flickers once more and goes out, and you hesitate, but you can't leave because there is nothing here that could be worse than the last few months.
You put your ear against the door, and you can feel the smooth surface of green paint. The air is calm and no sounds come from within or without. You reach out and grab the door knob; it's cold like a corpse's hand. You twist the knob, and you open the door. It makes no sound as it swings open. And you walk into the apartment, and you flip on the lights, and they blind you for a moment, but you don't blink. And, slowly, you see the apartment laid out before you--desolate. You search it turning on all the lights and looking in every corner and in every closet, but you find nothing.
And the silence and emptiness are in the room with you, hanging over you, distrustful of your sudden intrusion, and it reminds you your friend is gone, so you turn off all the lights and leave taking each step at a time, and as you walk across the parking lot, you look back, and there is nothing in the darkness at the top of the stairs, and the blinds are flat against the window panes. You close your door softly. Leaving it unlocked behind you, you organize the messy kitchen that was getting away from you. You almost walk on your tiptoes the whole time because you feel so light.
For the first time since your friend died, your excited to get on the server. You sit down and launch it, and your heart gives one irregular beat at the loading screen, but there is nothing to worry--nobody is on the server. And as the world loads in around you, you see the tunnel again, and you feel sad. And then Ethan joins you; he must be feeling better too.
<FireLight> Hey whats up?
<CoolGirl68> Look I'm drowning!