“There is no such thing as a woman on the internet. Every woman on the internet is actually a man pretending to be a woman.”
“So, you are saying she’s lying?”
“I’m saying he is lying.”
Lucie tossed her shiny blonde hair from one shoulder to the other to punctuate her point. From there, she stared Ned down as he contemplated whether to keep responding to the girl that he had been talking to online via the aptly name AnonChat.
“The user name is literally Ally Anon,” Lucie continued, “If you agree to meet this person, you will be tarred, feathered and chicken fried into Ned-tenders.”
Ned rolled his eyes, nevertheless closing his phone and sliding it into his pocket to signify the end of Lucie’s nickel-worthy dating advice.
Lucie didn’t prod any further and instead snapped open another beer as she grabbed her controller so they could resume their gaming campaign. Ned instantly felt his phone vibrate, another message from Ally, but he instead let the swarms of cacodemons and hell knights distract him.
Hours passed until the blue light illuminated the room strewn with empty beer cans and a 3/4th’s eaten buffalo chicken calzone. Before Lucie could give Ned the nod of approval to start another level there was a coughing sound from the doorway. Marzia, Lucie’s girlfriend, appeared to break up the two friends gaming session.
“You ready for bed?” Marzia asked, already dressed in penguin pajama pants.
Marzia lingered in the doorway. Although Ned considered her a friend, she seemed to still very much consider him Lucie’s roommate.
Lucie briefly considered rejecting the offer, but instead blinked off her controller and said her goodnights to Ned. Once Lucie and Marzia had gone off to their bedroom, Ned’s thoughts fell back to Ally.
He pawed open the AnonChat app until his most recent messages were displayed.
I think we should meet up too.
Ally had sent it three hours ago and he had yet to respond. Ned quickly glanced at the clock. The night had gotten well away from him, as the hour hand had already passed twelve and dipped all the way to nearly two in the morning.
The flashing cursor on the app almost seemed to taunt him.
He sent the message before his rational mind thought better of it. He plugged his phone into the charger for the night away from his bed and his thoughts and then went to bed himself.
Ally had responded seven hours ago. It must have been only minutes after Ned had set his phone down and went to bed. He picked his phone up off the charger and tucked it into his pocket like it was a secret before Lucie noticed.
She didn’t miss it.
“You are really going to meet this ‘girl’ aren’t you?” Lucie said, half a piece of wheat toast hanging from her mouth, “And he is going to kill you and chop you up into tiny bits.”
“I haven’t decided anything.”
Ned knew it was a lie and Lucie knew him well enough to know it was a lie. Lucie lazily slunk her plate into the sink before making her way down the hallway to the toilet. Ned took the brief respite from Lucie’s long morning bathroom routine to respond to Ally.
The Doctor’s Tavern?
How about Ruggles Arboretum? Should be quiet enough there :)
I have an idea. Ixwood, 10pm?
Lucie re-entered the room with an obnoxious yawn. Marzia, looking remarkably more put together than her girlfriend, followed close behind.
“Say your goodbyes,” Lucie said, tapping Ned on the cheek as she walked past him, “Ned’s going to go meet a stranger from the internet.”
Marzia furrowed her brow, “Lu, you met me on the internet.”
Ned felt another buzz in his pocket and everyone else heard it. Lucie flippantly stared at him from beside the dining room island, almost seeming to mock him. Begrudged, Ned removed his phone and saw the most recent message.
KK. See you then?
Before Ned could even think of a response, Marzia snatched the phone from his hand like a middle-school bully. She sped read through his most recent conversation, despite him trying to wrangle the phone away from her.
“My god, Ned,” Marzia said, looking at him with parental concern, “You can’t be seriously considering this? Also, this is very, very revealing about yourself.”
Ned stopped his feeble attempts to repossess his phone and stood frustrated. Lucie twisted her lips and sighed in a maternal manner. It was her way of signifying this wasn’t a joke anymore.
“Ixwood?” Marzia said, handing the phone to her girlfriend.
“Why the hell would you meet anyone there?” Lucie said, now thumbing through the conversation herself.
“I-I don’t know,” Ned said, “I didn’t respond to her yet.”
“Ixwood is a literal graveyard, Ned,” Lucie tossed the phone back to him, one eyebrow still angled, “I was kidding before but that is a god damn weird place to ask to meet someone for a date. And you told her about my sister?”
The phone buzzed again.
“Tell her no,” Lucie said sternly.
Ned let his fingers hover over the keys for far too long. Lucie took one step towards him to do it herself before he feverishly typed, “Can’t” and hit send.
Ally didn’t send anything further and Ned didn’t respond.
Three days passed before Ned found himself staring at the AnonChat app on his phone longingly. Why did he feel like such an ass for ghosting on a rando?
“Why do you keep thinking about this girl?” Lucie said, her eyes glowing momentarily in the bloody gore of several hell spawn as the two gamed together.
Ned didn’t respond, but that spoke volumes for someone that knew him as well as Lucie. Suddenly, the screen stopped on the pause screen and Lucie lowered her controller.
“Maybe I was a bit harsh,” she said, “I know things haven’t been great with you in the whole dating game since…”
“You can say her name.”
“I’d rather not,” Lucie said emphatically.
Lucie winced at hearing the sound of her own sister’s name. It would be six years since she died next month. At the time, she and Ned were 22 and had been dating since senior year of high school. The only result of the tragedy was his and Lucie’s strengthened bond.
Can we talk?
Ned looked briefly at the incoming message from Ally Anon.
Lucie nudged Ned, “If you want to meet this girl. I am going to come with you.”
Ned opened his mouth to object, but thought better of it. Lucie had been with him through the roughest points of his life and he knew she only had his well-being in mind.
Sorry about bailing on you. If you still want to meet, I am up for it.
Ned didn’t like the anxiety that came from online dating. It had been so effortless for him with Amanda. He never had to even go through a courting process like this. They were just friends who became boyfriend and girlfriend.
Yes! Of course!
Marzia walked through the living room, but quickly scurried away after Lucie’s hand waving.
If you are up for it… :)
The dot, dot, dot, that signaled Ally’s typing vanished and the little green circle blinked grey as she signed offline. Ned stood holding his phone, not even noticing that a smile had formed on his face.
Shortly before 9:30pm, Lucie and Ned were getting ready to drive out to Ixwood Cemetery, much to Marzia’s protest. Lucie was taking her job as bodyguard very seriously, and procured a pair of binoculars and kitchen knife to accompany her all-black outfit.
“For the record, this is a completely insane idea,” Marzia exclaimed, “There is nothing normal about meeting a stranger you met online at a graveyard.”
“Nothing normal about ole, Neddy either,” Lucie said, in cartoonish, insincere way.
The silent look between her and Marzia conveyed that Lucie thought Ned was nuts too, but was appearing to be on his side. Ned appreciated it.
Foolishly, Ned had checked the AnonChat regularly since his last correspondence. Ally Anon had not signed in since they last spoke. He did not share this information with the others.
Marzia turned her cheek to Lucie’s goodbye kiss as they left. Lucie drove the 20 minutes through the center of town to where Ixwood Cemetery was located. As she shifted into park, the clock displayed 9:48pm.
“You are dead sure about this?” Lucie asked one last time.
“I have a feeling. It’s a good feeling,” Ned replied, “I know it’s hard for you too…”
The two friends sat in silence until it had been sufficiently awkward. It was a clear night and pleasant. Both Ned and Lucie opened their mouth to speak but got no further. Thankfully, a bouncing beam of white-yellow light from someone’s flashlight appeared approaching from the other side of the several rows of headstones.
“Must be her…or him.”
Ned dryly smiled before exiting the car and going to meet the mystery girl from the internet. The graveyard grass was a green-grey in the surprisingly bright moonlight. Ixwood was newly developed land and had become a dedicated grave site two years after Amanda’s death. The headstones were smooth and modern and it significantly reduced the creepy factor.
The person carrying the flashlight stopped by an old tree about two hundred yards from where Ned and Lucie had parked.
The walk over was cool and calm. Crickets and other night fauna could be heard rustling nearby, but for whatever reason, Ned felt at ease. When he was within ten feet of the figure, his anxiety ceased entirely.
It was a human woman. Not all women on the internet were men.
Ally Anon was probably four inches shorter than Ned at five and half feet tall. Her auburn hair was tied politely in a ponytail. She smiled courteously at him. She was strikingly beautiful and Ned hadn’t felt a drum in his heart like this for six years.
“Hello,” she said, eyeing him as curiously as he did her.
Ally’s voice was slightly hoarse. It was a bit deeper than the average woman, but Ned’s voice was probably a bit higher than the average mans.
“Hello.” he said.
“I can’t believe you wanted to meet here,” Ally said, brushing her thin hair from her face, “It’s a little sketchy.”
“It’s not traditional,” Ned replied, “But it’s private!”
Ally breath laughed. It was the sort of laugh for something you didn’t want to laugh at it, but couldn’t quite stop yourself.
“So, why did you want to meet out here?” Ned asked.
Ally swayed back and forth. Ned noticed now that her fingernails were digging into her thigh.
“Why did I?”
The two exchanged brief looks of concern. Their eyes started narrowed, but grew wider and wider as a daunting realization swept over them.
Ned’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Once, twice, three times. He tried to ignore it but the quiet of the graveyard betrayed him. Four, five, six times.
“Check that!” Ally said.
Ned removed the phone from his pocket on the ninth buzz. The AnonChat app opened and the familiar conversation between he and Ally had nine new messages waiting for him.
“One,” Ned felt someone’s hand grab his shoulder and twist him around.
It was a male voice and Ned stumbled backward against Ally as she turned to face three masked figures in the graveyard with them. A fourth person, being held at knife point, was Lucie.
“Welcome to the game!” the first man announced.
Ned’s mind quickly rebooted. His voice box couldn’t remember English-language words. Ally reached out and grabbed his hand tightly as they pressed their backs to the old tree.
“Oh my god, don’t kill me,” Ally pleaded, “I knew this was a bad idea!”
Ned looked briefly into Ally’s eyes. There was true fear staring back at him. Somehow, he and this girl, had both been duped into being here.
“Begin,” the leader said.
Ned watched as the other masked member, the one not holding Lucie, pulled out a camera and pointed it directly at him.
“We live?” the leader asked.
The third masked member nodded.
“Eleven-thousand in the room already, sir.” the voice was female.
The brute masked person holding Lucie walked forward, bringing Ned’s best friend into camera view alone with he and Ally.
“This is going to get us so many extra views!” the knife-wielding brute said, another male voice.
He relinquished the knife from Lucie’s throat and she now stood on the opposing side of Ned. Ally’s fingernails were now digging into Ned’s palm. Instinctively, Ned reached for Lucie’s hand.
“Twenty-thousand viewers,” the female said.
“Alright,” the leader said, “It’s time then.”
“Time for what?” Lucie screamed, turning on a false bravado.
The male henchman walked away from the group until he reached a row of headstones. From behind them, he pulled open a massive, long pole and stick that Ned soon recognized as a harpoon and a harpoon gun.
“Thirty-two thousand viewers worldwide.”
The male assistant tossed the harpoon and gun separately onto the green-grey grass at Ned’s feet.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Lucie began whispering under her breath.
Ally’s fingernails dug even deeper into Ned’s palm. They exchanged brief looks with one another. Ned realized he was truly meeting Ally for the first time just now.
“What the hell is going on here?” Ned finally said, although his voice cracked like a pre-pubescent teen. The leader and his two followers reveled in his fear.
“It’s a red room,” Lucie whispered to him, “Dark web shit, I’m guessing.”
Ned didn’t have time to get an answer from his friend before the leader cut him off. The leader stepped into camera view, holding a voice distorter to speak with his live audience.
“Ladies and gentlemen, over the past few weeks, this man and this woman,” he gestured to Ned and Ally, “believed they were talking to one another over the internet. But both of them were really talking… to me.”
The woman behind the camera held up a hand of five fingers and another hand of zero, signifying they had surpassed 50,000 viewers.
The leader began to read out several of the messages he and Ally Anon had exchanged with one another. Then, he read some that Ned had not been a part of. Lucie had been right. There was a random man waiting for him on the internet, pretending to be a woman.
“But we have a special treat for you tonight!” the leader continued, “Instead of watching this man choose whether to kill this woman to save himself, or to kill himself to save her, we have a new wrinkle! Because our male protagonist brought this friend!”
The camera panned to Lucie. She was terrified, but probably looked the toughest out of the three of them. Even still, Ned could hear her heart thumping in her chest.
“Seventy-six thousand,” the brute said.
“Will he choose to save his friend or will he choose to save the girl?” the leader announced, pausing for dramatic fanfare, “A tale as old as time.”
The leader turned to Ned. Even through the mask, Ned knew there was a sadistic, vile smile on the man’s face. Lucie spit towards him.
The man turned back to the camera, “Cliché, right? Who wouldn’t choose to save their friend over some random girl they just met? So, tonight, we will offer the ultimate choice…”
Ned felt sweat sting both his eyes. The cool spring night suddenly seemed like a mid-August afternoon.
The leader grabbed the harpoon and its’ holster and fashioned the sharp spear into the projectile and cocked it.
“I offer you this choice, sir. Yourself, the girl or your friend. Two must die,” the leader approached with the harpoon gun outstretched, “Pass or play?”
Ned felt knots in every muscle. The harpoon gun remained so still in the leader’s hands but he was shaking like a leaf. The camerawoman moved closer, zooming in on his terrified, pale face.
“We’ve reached one-hundred thousand viewers!” the other male said with such fervent glee it made Ned sick.
“It’s time to choose, dear boy. I’ll ask one more time. Two of you must die. I am giving you the opportunity to decide if you want to make that decision or not. You can kill this random bitch. You can kill yourself an be the great white male hero. Or you can kill your dead girlfriends’ sister and maybe finally move on from the baggage that’s put on you?”
Ned felt anxiety taking over. The fight or flight response in his brain was broken. He wanted to grab the harpoon gun, but his body betrayed him. It was a paralysis of terror. If he played, he would choose who died. If he passed, the leader would simply ask one of the girls or kill them all.
The leader inched the gun to the precipice of Ned’s hand.
“Last time I will ask…
Pass or play?”