Three men sit at a bar. They all wear black jeans, band t-shirts, have tattoos. Their hair is messy-looking, as if they are allergic to combs. They are skinny but not fit, with round bulges like melons through their midsections and spindly, atrophied arms propped lazily on the table. One has his head resting in his hands as he drifts in and out of consciousness – you can watch it happen. He is having a million tiny dreams, consuming the night as if it is a slideshow projected onto a wall. One of them doesn’t have much hair – the sides are decent, but a peninsula has formed into a high point on his forehead (his friends tell him he should shave it altogether, the effect would be preferable), but the man has chosen to hold out obstinately to the bitter (and inevitable) end. The rest of his hair has grown thin on its own, or rather, has not grown at all, with nothing new to account for stray hairs that are lost individually, one by one, nearly imperceptibly due to how thin each of them are, as if the single hairs disappear almost by magic. The truth becomes rather evident when he sweeps his apartment and finds a brown pile like a giant rat before him. Though such hard evidence is difficult to refute, his resolve remains stubbornly intact.
The balding man goes to the bar and has a shot in secret. He always has shots in conjunction with every drink. His aim is to multiply their potencies exponentially in pairs, always counting two drinks as one single drink, as if taking the first shot very quickly erases evidence that it ever existed. He forgets about the shots, and wonders why gets so drunk. He looks over his shoulder at the rest of the group and tips the glass back. Once finished, he places it quietly back on the bar upside down. He returns to his friends, bringing drinks with him, holding three glasses together carefully as if they are one solid object, transformed magically into a delicate bomb within his hands, dangerous and counting time slowly in regularly sectioned increments. It’s his round, and there were three before it, and it doesn’t seem as if the night will end anytime soon. They left work late, after nine, maybe closer to ten, and decided together on having a nightcap to keep things moving from here to there before the darkness takes on a life of its own, holding them captive, trapped easily in the gentle rushing tide. They touch glasses and take sips, then gulp. The balding man speaks.
What have I been up to? It’s not great. The kid goes to sleep, and it gets quiet for once. Katie’s already in bed. I can almost hear the quiet. You know what I mean by that? It’s hard to explain, but it seems the quiet seems loud, almost deafening. I watch some videos and get myself into bit of a rabbit hole. The sound is low; the lights are out. You know, you just click on a link, and it leads onto another one, over and over, and I just keep clicking, not really paying attention to what I’m doing, not looking at exactly what it is I’m clicking. My brain switches onto autopilot. It’s late, I’m tired. Eventually, before I realize it, I find myself somewhere really weird. I can almost feel the site looking back at me.
The dark web, gasps the man to his right.
What’s the dark web?
Secret sites, deep in the internet. Hacker stuff. Illegal stuff.
I don’t know if it’s the dark web, whatever it is, but, eventually, I come to this page, and the background’s pure black, and there’s just about everything you can imagine on there. It feels like the page is whispering to me. ‘George…George.’ Maybe it was. It seemed alive, conscious though I know that sounds crazy. People selling drugs, pornography, animals, pee, weirder stuff. Some links I stay far away from – I’m no weirdo – but others are sort of tempting. I let the cursor hover over them a little. It’s late, I’m bored, I don’t know – the screen glows, pulsing bright then back dark again, hypnotizing me in a way, green text over black, and I just don’t know anymore. There’s a section marked ‘life and death’, and I click on it, and all these thumbnails pop up.
That stuff could be really illegal. I mean just watching that stuff might be illegal.
I would have just turned off the computer and gone back to bed.
I know I should have, but I’m not really thinking right then. I’m in a trance. I’m just clicking links. None of it’s real. It feels like I’m in a movie.
Did you watch?
I watched a few.
What were they?
All different. The videos were mostly accidents, stuff like that. I couldn’t read titles, it was all in Russian or something, so I’m not sure what each of them were when I click on them. I pick one at random just to see what it is, and it begins with a young girl doing a vlog or podcast or whatever you call it. I’m set to close out the window if anything bad happens, but it seems fine at first. She’s alone. I mean, she’s complaining, but what kid doesn’t? She’s young, not quite a teen. I don’t know, maybe eleven or twelve? Anyway, she’s talking about people in her school and her parents and how no one gives a shit about her, and then you see this chair off in the background. I’m not even thinking. I don’t see it at first. The whole thing’s around forty minutes long. She starts crying. It’s getting emotional, even to me it’s getting emotional, and I’m crying along with her because I realize what’s about to happen. I can’t help it. Tears stream down my face. I really felt for her, you know? I felt as if closing the window would be leaving her behind, leaving her all alone in that room.
Then what happens?
It seems like she finally gets everything off her chest, and I’m hoping all, but it wouldn’t be on the weird site if that’s all there was. I see there’s still ten minutes left. Then she stands up, walks over to the chair.
Oh no. No way, man. I couldn’t.
I know, but I can’t stop. I’m in too deep by that point. I feel like I have to see her through to the end, like I’m there with her, and then she stands up on the chair and I see her put something around her neck, and she kicks the chair away. I’m bawling by then, trying to stay quiet so I don’t wake the kid or Katie, but all I want to do is crawl inside the computer to help her, to lift her up and cut the rope, but I can’t. There’s nothing I can do for her, and it kills me. Eventually, she stops moving. Someone comes in the room, screams, then it goes black. It turns out she was getting abused by her stepfather. I looked it up. It’s a woman that comes in and finds her.
You watched everything?
Three times. I couldn’t help it. I had to. Every time, I felt there was something I might be able to do, like I might be able to stop it, to change it, but it always turns out the same way with her on the end of the rope.
I know. And now, I can’t get her out of my head. I feel like I see her everywhere. All day long, I see her.
The men finish their drinks in silence. A few minutes pass. One of them looks at his phone and says it’s getting late. The other man agrees that it’s pretty late, then remarks that they have to be to work early the next morning. The men gather their coats and briefcases hastily and say goodbye to the balding man. He says he’s going to stay there a while and have one more drink. They leave him, and he finds himself alone in the darkened room, watching the shadows as if they’re about to come alive.
Ryan Seagrist is a writer, songwriter, and musician. His work has appeared in Cyprus Dome, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the List Magazine (Scotland). He is a 2018 Springing Center Fellow and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.