I'm sure you've heard of Skype. It's a free, instant-messaging program, allowing voice and webcam chat with people the world over. I've been using it to keep track of old friends: we all went off to college a fortnight ago. Last week I was talking to Annie, a girl I used to go to school with. We'd both just moved into our flats, we were both single and the first semester hadn't yet begun - so we found ourselves with plenty of time to chat. Usually, we'd Skype at least once a day. The stuff we talked about isn't hugely interesting: she'd bought new headphones, I had watched The Princess' Bride for the first time. It was just nice to have some familiar company amidst a time of such great upheaval, you know?
Anyway, it was a Tuesday morning. I'd been out clubbing the previous night, and was pretty groggy and hungover, but I was awoken by the plaintive buzzing of a Skype call. Cursing the fact that I'd left my laptop on and massaging my temples, I stumbled out of bed.
My bleary-eyes struggled to focus on the painfully-bright monitor before me. Annie was, of course, dressed, made-up and grinning, sporting her new headphones. She gave a cheery wave, to which I responded with a half-smile.
“Well aren't you the life of the party this morning?” she teased.
“You should've seen me last night. My dance moves put the whole club to shame.”
“Big-Fish-Little-Fish doesn't impress anyone. Hey, don't you have an introduction meeting with your tutor today?”
I glanced at my calendar, but the ink refused to stop squirming on the page. I assumed she was right, but even the small amount of sunlight that seeped into my gloomy domain, under the curtains, was eye-watering.
“Yeah, fuck that,” I groaned. “What about you? What are you doing today?”
“Hoping to get a call from Erin. She just took off yesterday, during a fire drill. She left a letter on her desk, saying that she was going home.”
“Which one's Erin, again?” I asked, half-serious. You know how it is: your friends talk about so many people that they just blur together after a while. Annie made an unimpressed face.
“My flatmate. She lives across the corridor from me. She just vanished. I mean, it's only been a day, but we were thinking about calling her parents, just to check up on her.”
I shrugged. “Do it. Better safe than sorry, eh?”
Before she could reply, there came the sudden shrieking of an alarm. Annie said something which was drowned-out by the noise, and I covered my ears, wincing.
“Wh-what did you say?” I asked. She had to shout directly into the microphone:
“I said: that's the fire-alarm! I'd better go outside, or the warden will have a fit and make us do the whole thing again.”
“What time shall I call back?” I asked, raising my voice as much as my pounding headache would allow.
“Don't worry, I'll only be gone for, like, five minutes. I'll just leave Skype on.”
With that, she was gone, pulling the headphones off and placing them on the keyboard. After a few minutes, the alarm cut-out.
Then the door opened. It wasn't Annie, though. It was wearing a blue, paint-stained boiler-suit; a beanie-style hat; and a mask made from the bleached skull of some kind of goat or sheep. My eyes were drawn to its hand, however: a rubber glove, wrapped around a hook; the kind you see behind the counter in butcher's shops. For a few seconds, I just sat there, numbly wondering if this was Annie playing a creepy joke on me. Then I snapped into action.
“What the fuck do you think you're doing?!” I yelled. “Who are you?”
There was no response from the figure. It couldn't hear me: the headphones were still plugged-into Annie's laptop. Instead, it simply stood there, taking in the room. Ten seconds later, it began to approach the desk. I fumbled for my phone. I had to warn Annie! I selected her number from the speed-dial, not taking my eyes off the figure on-screen. It was peering intently into the camera; eyes glittering behind empty sockets.
The masked figure froze. Then, slowly and deliberately, it reached its free hand off-camera. I squinted against the pixelated image, then my heart sank.
It was holding Annie's phone. She'd left it on her desk.
The figure cocked its head to one side, throwing me what I presume was supposed to be a pitying look, before it hit the off-button on the mobile and placed it beside her laptop. It reached into its pocket, produced something white and dropped it atop her keyboard. I only saw it for a second, but it looked like an envelope.
It wandered across to her wardrobe, opened the door and climbed inside, stooping to fit. It hesitated as it did so, and turned to look directly at the webcam. The light caught its teeth, as though it were flashing me a cruel grin. Then it pulled the wardrobe shut.
I glanced down at my phone. I had to call the police, there was no question of that, but even as I dialed the first '9', I realized the futility of the gesture. There would be the bother of them finding and contacting the department in Annie's city, fifty miles away. I called anyway.
“You're through to the Emergency Services: which service do you require?”
“Yeah, I need to talk t-”
I paused, mid-sentence.
I had paused, because the door had opened and Annie hurried inside. Her hair was wet from the rain, and she smiled as she approached the webcam. I yelled as loud as I could for her to run, and I felt the tears pinching the corners of my eyes. Annie didn't hear me. She sat down, picked up the headphones and began to adjust the strap-length.
Over her shoulder, the wardrobe door stirred.
“Hello, sir? Which service do you require? Sir?”
“Sir? Are you hurt? Do you need an Ambulance?”
“Are you still there?”
Written by Steven Shorter