I was so happy to get this computer. For the last three years I’ve been on a laptop. Long story, boring, but let’s just say a fire took out my desktop and half the apartment complex I lived in while I was at school, and the insurance money would only cover a laptop.
But that feels like forever ago and work’s been good to me lately. I’m one of those freelancers that, not by choice, scrapes by doing odd illustration work, graphic design, that sort of thing, but lately it’s been less scraping and steadier work. I might get out of the bottom of the barrel at this rate.
Because, you see, I might be losing my mind. I’m kind of worried if I tell anyone this you’re going to say I’m, in the psychological professional parlance, “batshit crazy.” But I really, really need to get this out there. It’s probably just nerves or something, you know?
More on the batshitness in a minute.
So after three years of a tiny screen and six months of nicer and nicer bank account statements, I finally felt good enough about my income I decided to get a desktop again. Bought it two months ago. Still had to open a credit card for it, but hey.
27” monitor. God, it was wonderful after that tiny laptop. Still is for the most part. Except for the problem I’m currently having.
They say that you keep your desktop like your keep your place: the guy with all his icons arranged nice and pretty and only one program or window or whatever open at a time probably keeps a clean house.
I’m not like that. Most people I know aren’t. Right now I have six open. One is this Word doc, another is a different Word doc that’s an invoice for a client I’m having to send again because he’s suddenly forgotten he owes me half on completion, a Photoshop one, and a Chrome one with about seven different tabs. Plus iTunes and Finder.
Yes, I use a Mac. “Hyuk hyuk, you’d have to be batshit crazy to buy a Mac for pro work!” There. I beat the trolls to it.
The Mac is not my problem.
So I have these six windows open. They’re all stacked on top of each other, this window obviously open on top, corners and edges of the other sides sticking out.
This is how I normally work.
And about six weeks ago, that’s when the weird shit started happening.
I was working in Photoshop with one of those themed atmospheric Youtube music collections playing in the background on a Chrome window. You know, like “Epic Battles” or “Sad Ending” where someone’s put together a bunch of songs. Music helps me get in the mood of whatever I’m working on.
This particular piece was an illustration for an indie fantasy novelist: attractive chick in metal bikini armor on a smoky battlefield, breasts heaving, the whole classic pulp look.
The way Photoshop works is like anything else: the menu, document windows, and tool bars overlay your desktop so you can see behind it. For me, I keep the right column filled with the usual tabs: History, Layers, etc. and the piece I’m working on on the left.
If you’re not a Photoshop person, just imagine that if you split your monitor into three columns the right third is taken up by a tool bar and the left two-thirds are taken up by the document. There usually ends up being a smallish vertical gap that’s open between the two where you can see your desktop or other windows underneath it.
That night it was the Chrome window, the Youtube page, sitting visible underneath Photoshop, just a bar of it visible in that gap.
So I was coloring in the flats on Armor Chick, some kind of Celtic music coming from Youtube, when I saw a flicker of movement in the space I just told you about.
It wasn’t the video itself changing still images, like those song collection videos usually do. The movement came from down in what was the comment section, just that blank white part that’s to the left of the recommended videos where the text from most comments never quite makes it over all the way.
Something small and dark went from left to right. Like, I don’t know, there was something moving around on the Chrome window. Something independent of the window itself.
There was something just so off about it I immediately clicked down in the gap to bring the Chrome page forward. I figured it was probably one of those annoying as hell floating Flash ads or whatever they are. But there was nothing there, just Celtic music and a still image of something from World of Warcraft on the video. Plus Youtube comments. Speaking of batshit crazy.
Anyway, I didn’t think a lot about it at the time. Armor Chick’s novelist was paying me a nice little chunk of change to get her done in 48 hours. Don’t know why a novelist needs a cover in 48 hours, but as long as I get paid I don’t really care.
I can go right back to my invoices and tell you what night it was because I finished and billed the author the rest of my fee the next day.
March 5, 2014.
I forgot about the moving whatever-it-was, and about a week later I was working in a different program, InDesign if you’ve heard of it. I had a vertical gap in about the same place that showed the Word window open below it, where I was cut and pasting my client’s text from into my InDesign project.
A Word window. Not Chrome. Not Youtube or io9 or any kind of online, connected Internet-where-Flash-ads live kind of site.
And I saw it again.
It was a flash, just like before, only this time going right to left.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye, and it took me a minute to process what I’d seen. Something small and dark, a vague mass about two inches tall, had gone from right to left, but I couldn’t tell you what shape it was because I had my attention focused on the InDesign window right in front of me when it happened. I can only tell you how it moved. It was an organic movement, not like the crisp right angles and stuff you see sliding around on a level line in programs.
It was like something crawling.
I’m going to tell you right now I don’t do drugs, but I know what sleep deprivation is like. We freelancers don’t sleep a lot trying to do enough work to get by, so sometimes when we have crazy deadlines we stay awake way too long and things get goofy. I once put on that ten-hour loop of that “They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard” video and sang along for twenty minutes straight during the last bit of a super-crazy project that came right down to the wire, giggling the whole way through.
I know what sleep deprivation and how off it makes you. But this was 8pm at night and I’d just had a really nice, relaxing weekend back home at my parents’ house a couple cities over. I was wide awake and well rested.
I didn’t imagine it. Something had moved down in the window below the one I was on. It was dark and vague and misshapen, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how because I didn’t see it long enough.
As soon as I saw whatever it was, I remembered the first time this happened, and I clicked on the Word window, though I’m not going to lie and say I did it quickly. There was just something odd about it that made me not want to click, like it would be better to leave it alone until later. The image that popped into my mind was kids pushing sticks into a snake hole right after they’d seen it go inside.
But I clicked on it anyway. And the Word window popped up. Just text. White paper. Black words. No snakes. No fangs.
I clicked back to InDesign, but I kept my eye on the gap. On a Mac, there’s no single screencap button. You have to hold down Shift and Command, and then hit 3 to grab one. I moved my hands over, left hand resting on the first two and right one on the 3.
Tonight’s music, on a further down Youtube page I couldn't see at this point, was a classical collection. One song trailed off and another one started and nothing happened. Somewhere in my neighborhood a car went by with bass rattling its windows.
Deadlines. At this point I was thinking this was pretty damn dumb that I had stuff I needed to be doing and was sitting here waiting for… for what? Maybe it was an alert window from my Calendar or some kind of pop-up from Youtube that was forcing itself to appear over the Word window.
But it wasn’t. I knew it wasn’t, even then. Nothing I had ever seen outside of a video clip moved like that. Maybe even in one.
Now that I thought about it more, that tiny glimpse was of something kind of shuffling, and though I hadn’t clearly seen it I had the feeling it was like the silhouette of a person going on all fours if their arms and legs were broken. Stumbling along at unnatural angles, but with a purpose on its way to wherever.
Oh, yeah, did I mention we’re to the batshit part?
No marketing exec would sign off on whatever this was as a Flash ad, even if the window I had seen it on had been a Chrome one.
This thing left a sharp, cold feeling in your stomach. It was wrong, for lack of a better word.
I sat with my hands over the screencap keys for another song before I finally went back to work, daring it to cross back again. But it didn’t and the ice in my stomach finally went away and I got back to work after a break and some coffee.
A couple more weeks went by. Pay the rent, buy groceries, hang out with your friends when you’re not working like a dog. The usual stuff. Life stuff. I felt odd at times using the computer, like there was something watching me when I was working, but it didn’t happen often. The most I did was put a Post It note label, one of those skinny ones, over the built in camera on the monitor.
It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, and I was getting ready to go meet some friends for an early dinner- one of the only advantages to being a broke ass freelancer is you can let yourself out of work early any time you like.
iTunes was pulled up, though I’d paused it since I was done getting ready, and Chrome showing Facebook behind it. Underneath that I had Skype open in case my cousin overseas happened to get on.
I was walking past the monitor, looking for my keys, when movement caught my eye. It was in the bottom edge of the Chrome window. That same vague, hazy dark shape vanishing (scuttling?) behind iTunes.
But it was bigger than it had been: maybe the size of a fist now? Like it was closer? A chill ran through me. This was daylight. 4pm. I was happy. I was on my way to Mexican food and Dos Equis beer.
And now there was a streak on the monitor where it had been.
I crept up to the desktop and reached out, a little freaked out because, if this was just a figment of my imagination, why was I still able to see the streak? It was a dark, blackish mark, faint but definitely there.
I reached out to touch the streak, and my finger met cool glass.
The streak was under the screen.
I looked up, following the short path of the streak down and then up again behind the iTunes window. A cold certainty settled on me that whatever made that mark was still there. It’s stupid, right, to think that? But I was sure of it.
It was sitting right there under that window with its broken-looking limbs that it shuffled along with. And no face. I was certain it had no face.
All I had to do to see it was click the little red X at the top left of iTunes and reveal the Facebook page below. And I could see what was there, waiting for me. It has no face, I found myself thinking, my thoughts running away from me as I stared at the monitor.
No face but it’ll smile nice and wide for me somehow, a big, ugly red slash across the blackness where its face should be, and I’ll lose my fucking mind.
You know what I did? I headed straight for the door. “Fuck this,” I think I said, talking to the streak. “I'm gonna go have flautas and flan and beer and you are not going to be here when I get back.”
I was at the door when I realized I still didn’t have my keys.
Looking back, I was only half surprised to see them sitting on the desk, next to my keyboard. That’s where I usually leave them. It didn’t make it any easier to go back over there.
Telling myself grown adults don’t get freaked out by dumb stuff like this, I made myself stride across the room and grab my keys, never taking my eyes off the streak.
I had the sudden, strange idea that if I clicked the Chrome window to bring it forward, the thing would just slip to the iTunes window behind it. It was staying out of sight, you see. It didn’t want me to see all of it just yet.
That kind of stuff is crazy. But I thought it all the same.
My hand hesitated over my keys. I was scared. It was the middle of the day and it was just my computer but I was scared shitless of it nonetheless.
At the last second, before I backed away, I screencapped the desktop. I didn’t stick around to open the jpg the Mac automatically generated and stuck in my documents folder, but it now I had done Something, at least. It’s important to feel like you’re doing Something, right?
So I got the hell out of Dodge and had dinner with my friends and came back much later that night, half drunk and very pleased with the world. I was sure I’d just freaked myself out earlier about some trick of the light or glitch in the monitor or something.
The smudge was gone. The screencap didn’t show anything either, which is why I’m not bothering to upload it.
I slept pretty well that night.
The next morning I came into the living room in my pajamas, on my way through to the kitchen to get breakfast started, and wiggled the mouse as I passed, thinking I’d put a video on while I was cooking.
The computer woke up, and there were dozens of windows sitting open on the screen. Some Word documents, some Chrome windows all opened in their own window rather than a tab, and other apps, too.
They were arranged in a neat corkscrew spiral descending inward, the topmost one a Chrome window open to a local news site, but the story was an old one, a nasty domestic abuse murder in the next city over that made headlines last year, when a husband chopped his wife into twelve different pieces and left her in the bathtub.
The murder victim, a young woman in a casual, overly filtered Instagram shot, smiled at me.
Click the little red x, her smile seemed to say. Click all of them. All the way down to the last one.
I forgot about breakfast. I turned the monitor off, convinced for a horrible moment it would come back on. But it didn’t. I sat down on the old, beat up sofa I got from my folks and whipped my phone out. “Mac reformat,” I typed.
Because that’s what you do. Logic. None of this hoodoo shit. You just have to keep a straight head.
Weird stuff on the computer? Some kind of virus. I download files all the time as part of my work. This could all just be some weird virus I got somehow, written by some jackass in the People’s Republic of JackAss-ia.
It would suck having to reinstall all my software, but the woman’s face floated in my mind, smiling and perky and totally unaware she was going to end up a bloody pile in a bathtub.
I had backups. I’d do this right. Unplug my external back-up drive and flash drive, and nuke the desktop, and if no further weirdness happened, then I knew the infection had been on the machine itself and it was clean now.
So if no more of this crazy shit happened until I plugged either the external or the flash drive in, I’d take the offending, infected piece of hardware and beat it into pieces with a hammer and then do another reformat on the desktop.
I’m starting to sound a little more batshit, aren’t I? It’s logical, though. It really is.
If something is in the system, like a virus, you can get rid of it. Right? It’s just a matter of corralling it, forcing it into corners and then dealing with it. Logical. Simple.
So I turned on the monitor, studiously not looking at the spiral of windows waiting for me, and went through all the steps to reformat the Mac, choosing the most stringent option that is actually Department of Defense approved for data eradication, according to the site I was reading.
It felt nice. It felt thorough. I made bacon and eggs and ate while I waited on it to erase everything, reboot, connect to the Internet, and ask me for my Apple ID to log in. I thought about telling someone, but what exactly was I going to tell them?
I logged in. And after a moment the desktop with that default galaxy wallpaper came up and the spiral was gone. The girl was gone.
There were just two windows, both Word and neatly stacked one on top of the other.
The one on top was blank. The second one, the top of it poking up from behind the first, was named look.docx.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. This was bullshit. I did not go through 24 years of life to crack up like a fucking lunatic. I took another breath and opened my eyes.
The hidden doc title now read: LOOK.docx.
I unplugged the goddamn thing.
Fuck this shit, I remember thinking. Fuck it all.
Unfortunately, like that 50s style art gif that keeps going around with the dude throwing papers in the air - “Fuck it!” and then later picking them up again, my decision to stay the fuck away from the computer lasted about two days.
Time to pick the papers up.
My livelihood depends on this computer. I have clients waiting for their work, and the last thing I need is bad word of mouth.
The laptop got sold weeks ago. Can’t go back to it.
I can’t take the desktop back. 14 day return policy.
I can’t afford a new computer on top of the payments I’m making on this one. I’m still in the bottom of the pay barrel, even if I’m working my way out of it.
And my friends? Who’s going to believe me if I say I need to borrow their machine and install GBs of high-end Adobe crap on it to do my work and then camp out at their place for the foreseeable future because, hey, mine has some freaky ass thing in it that has started to talk to me and likes to crawl around on deformed limbs and let me catch glimpses of it when it’s in the mood?
It’s stress. It’s got to be. Or some weird bug in the hardware.
So I tiptoed around the living room for two days and got back on when I couldn’t make up any more excuses for pushing back deadlines. Time waits for no freelancer. Ha ha.
Everything was fine and the strange windows were gone, no sign of either “look” file in my Documents or anywhere else. And I found a new system that seemed to work.
I kept one window open at a time. Only one program, and one window. If it’s got nothing to hide behind, what’s it going to do then? It can’t appear, I guess, when I’m watching the only window up.
Yeah, this all sounds pretty fucked up, doesn’t it?
I did this for about a month now, and to be honest now that I’ve written all this out I feel a lot better and maybe it’s time to get back to my normal way of doing things. It’s really annoying having to close a program every time I want to open another one and I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Maybe my batshit craziness is just some sort of OCD trying to manifest under the pressure of no steady 9-5 job.
So tonight I decided to get back to work, and write this entry. So now things are back to normal with the six windows up that I mentioned all the way back at the beginning of this.
It’s time to get back to grownup land, right? Things have been fine.
They were fine. I was going to end the post here.
It’s back. I can feel it.
Just saw it. It’s much bigger now, about two-thirds the height of the screen. Growing? Closer?
Keep typing don’t look at it. It keeps appearing in different places along the edges. Maybe the edge of its face, looking directly at me? I don’t know. It’s dark and hard to see but it seems there are wrinkles in the little bits I can see that come and go as it leans in and out, but it’s too fast for me to focus on. Maybe they’re cuts.
God Im scared.
I’m going to cut and paste this into the blog window I’m posting at and keep typing from there. I feel like if I type it’ll keep me grounded, thinkingclearly.
I just switched to the Chrome window and x’ed out the Word file. Nothing so far.
X’ed out the other Word file without looking at it first. Nothing. Haven’ts een it. But God it feels strange in here. Like something’s been pushed back, away from me and further into the computer.
Four windows left. Chrome, iTunes, Finder, and Photoshop. iTunes gone. Nothing. It’s definitely a face of some kind from the bit I just saw darting out andback in. Or it would be but nthing’s there. Black. Line of red around where the mouth would be. You can’t focus on it, even if you’re staring at it right when it appears.
Maybe this is just like a virus. Or you can treat it like a virus. Corner and get rid of it. YES!
I mean, if it has to jump to windows under the top one when I pull that window forward, that means it needs somewhere to go, right? That’s what it feels like, like it’s jumping.
It just looked out again. I saw it this time. It was smiling. Its mouth is ragged like a strip of fabric torn downthe middle. Jesus Christ..
FOCUS. DO NOT LOOK AT IT All I have to do is get down to the last two windows and click the little red x on the bottom one without bringing it forward.
It won’t have anywhere to go since it already left the top one and I’m looking right at the top one. It can’t do that for somereason.I’msure of it.
God it feels weird in here, like the air itself is trying to crawl across my skin.
iTunes, gone.Finder, gone.
Ok, one more. Photoshop, gone.
Last window. Nothing’s appeared. I haven’t seen any movement in a solid minute.
KEEP TYPING> Does it know I’m pushingit back? I can feel it moving back into the computer, further away from me, like ice sliding off a roof. But it’s harder, sdudenly, like it’s hit a barrier.
Ohshit. I have all these tabs open in Chrome. X, x, x, motherfucker Don’t you dare show me anything.
Ok. There’s just the one window open now, and I’m staring straight at it. It’s this blog entry. When I closed the second to last one just now, it’s like all of the ice and tensionvanished. I beat it. I fucking beat the thing!
I’m looking at the only window left, and nothing. Don’t see naything, My hands are shaking.
There was nowhere for it to go. That’s got to be it. I’ve killed or it stripped it of its power or whatever but it’s not lurking behind any windows now.
I’m going to post this, and then x out this window out. Even if it’s here somehow, on this page, it’ll really have nowhere to go then.
Fuck you, whatever you are.
I’m not going to let stress get me allk itscrouchedbehnd themonitsor
Atme hel p
YOUFOUNDLOOKEDSAW ME! I LOVE HIDING GAMES. I SEE YOUSOFTBLOODTHING. I SEE YOU HAVE SOME WINDOWSTABSPLACESFORMETOHIDE IN YOUR METALWIREBOX. SEE YOU SOON.