A short story by Rick R. Reed
She had promised herself she would limit her time on the computer to less than an hour a day. And now, here it was, a quarter after twelve and Nancy was wide awake, all the books in her apartment read and neatly catalogued on living room shelves, TV turned to low, all sixty channels broadcasting tedious talk shows, infomercials, nature specials and old movies no one wanted to see when they first came out.
Nancy’s tiny office, off the dining room, beckoned. It seemed the Macintosh within called on her to forget her resolve, forget the mounting amounts of money her Visa statement detailed each month, the forty and fifty hours of on-line time she could only barely afford and that was only if she subsisted on beans and rice. She knew she shouldn’t do it, knew she should head instead into the bathroom where she would brush and floss and then go to bed, where she could lie awake, dreaming of lithe bodies (unlike hers), blonde women with pert, small breasts (unlike hers) and perfect rows of white teeth that lit up a room when the woman smiled (completely unlike Nancy). Perhaps, she thought, rationalizing now and not really caring, such a woman awaited her electronic embrace on “System Up” the service to which she subscribed. When Nancy “chatted” in one of the rooms, she became Raven, the dark-haired, wild-eyed Cuban vixen whose depravity knew no bounds and whose witty repartee would enchant and seduce, inspiring the most fervent love and devotion.
Nancy did manage to will herself into the small bathroom, with its claw foot tub, rusty metal shower enclosure, cracked tile floors and paint-chipped walls. Nancy took one look at her reflection and despaired. She had heard all about self-esteem and knew she shouldn’t denigrate herself so, but the woman who peered back at her was not one who could snare a beautiful, nubile young thing. Nancy could have never snared such a creature, even when she was twenty years younger, when she bore an uneasy resemblance to the Nancy of comic strip fame. Now the woman who looked back at her was of healthy proportions (fat), intelligent looking (mud brown eyes enlarged by pop bottle thick lenses, framed in tortoiseshell), and had the kind of haircut she could kindly refer to as sensible (black hair chopped short, just below her ears: Louise Brooks gone sour).
But on “System Up” Nancy could be whatever she wanted, hiding behind a barrage of wit and verbosity, mistress of the clever quip and the alluring line, perfect for quiet, private chats sheathed in the safety and security of instant messages, her own private room (Meet me in the “Mistress of the Night” room) or e-mail.
Nancy did pick up her toothbrush and even decorated its bristles with a ribbon of bright blue gel.
Then set it back down on the little plastic counter beneath the medicine cabinet mirror.
To justify talking tonight, tomorrow, Nancy would not visit her on-line service at all. No matter that, tonight, she could not afford it, no matter that a good night’s sleep might afford her a halfway productive day tomorrow at First National, where she worked as a loan officer. Tomorrow, after all, was Friday and she would have the entire weekend to rest.
So it was no surprise that within minutes Nancy found herself in the tiny bedroom she called her den, seated in front of the Mac screen, watching as the little icons lined up as the system powered up, aiming her toward her destination in cyberspace, where life was beautiful and unfettered by concerns about loneliness, unworthiness and the clock ticking relentlessly downward toward a passing no one would mark.
Nancy pointed and clicked on the System Up icon (a tiny computer with a big, Superman-like “S” on its monitor screen). She waited for the prompt that would allow her to enter her screen name (Raven) and then her password (SapphoXX). Nancy listened hopefully for the electronic voice to tell she had mail and once again was disappointed to see the closed mailbox icon, with its taunting “no mail” message.
Quickly, Nancy moved through the screens until she was scrolling through the Member Rooms, looking for “Chicago f4f” hoping she wouldn’t be denied access because the room was full. Nancy was pleased to see there were 15 members in the room (a good number) and within moments, she was in.
The screen was blank. Nancy typed “Good evening, ladies,” and waited. Within moments, another message popped up, from a familiar screen name: Flshsinner.
“How you doin’, Raven?”
“Looking for love in all the wrong places.”
“LOL.” (Laughing out loud).
Hmm. This one was easy to amuse. “What brings you out on this cold winter night?”
Nancy waited for a full minute and when she got no response, typed: “I am Raven, mistress of the night.”
A screen name she had never seen, TepesAllure, popped up. “I thought I was mistress of the night.”
“I don’t know if there’s room for two mistresses.”
Flshsinner joined in. “Uh-oh, a cat fight?”
Nancy typed: “Tepes, there’s not enough room. What do you care to do about it?”
A tiny electronic gong alerted her that she had an instant mail message from Tepes. “Listen, bitch, I have more reason to be mistress of the night than you could ever dream.”
Nancy responded. “What do you know of my dreams, Tepes?”
“I know they’re the only lively thing shedding light in a bland void.”
The message chilled her, as on target as it was, with its casual cruelty. Nancy wasn’t sure she should go on. “Who knows what are dreams and what is reality? Perhaps my reality is the color and excitement filled world you could only envy.”
“I have no envy for the walking wounded, past her prime and desperate.”
Nancy swallowed. Her mouth suddenly felt dry. She leaned back and rubbed her eyes. Perhaps this was the CyberGod’s way of telling her she should have circumvented her office tonight and headed for the warmth and comfort of her flannel sheets, no matter how many hours she lay awake, tracing hairline cracks in her bedroom ceiling.
Nancy caressed the keyboard. “You’re a bit on the harsh side, aren’t you, dear?”
“Harsh side, dark side. I say what’s on my mind. And what’s on my mind right now DEAR, is you.”
“Why would someone like me be on your mind, when you’ve obviously decided I have nothing worth your interest.”
“I never said that. Describe yourself.”
And Nancy typed in the description that had become so familiar it might as well have been some sort of computer macro. “Long black hair, dark brown eyes, full lips (you decide), 38-24-36. Toned, muscular.”
“And I am the Queen of Sheba.”
The woman was a first-class bitch. Nancy wondered why she was bothering. She could leave this place by merely pressing the command and “Q” key and be out of here, away from this nonsense, safe in her bed, while visions of Morgan Fairchild danced in her head. Yet, there was a strange allure to her directness, to her refusal to accept any of the crap Nancy churned out, that other women ate up like a kitten lapped up milk. “Well, your majesty, what do you look like? And BE HONEST.”
“Honesty is my strong suit, my little lamb. I think you’d agree I look pretty good for my age, which happens to number in the centuries. Think Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger. Think elegance and grace. Feline. And don’t worry about gym-toned bodies and silicone tits, thank you very much.”
Nancy’s hungry mind conjured up the image: this fabulous creature at her keyboard, alone in some city apartment (a highrise, where the lights of Chicago’s skyscrapers were interrupted only by the dark void that was Lake Michigan). She realized suddenly how easy it had been to sucker in these women who found themselves one hand between their legs while the other caressed the keyboard as Nancy played up to their fantasies, becoming God’s gift to lesbians and the devil’s Tantalus to straight men. She wanted to believe it was some strange Catherine Deneuve at the other end of their electronic connection. But what was this strange business about being centuries old?
“Methinks you’re a little too enraptured with horror cinema.”
“Horror cinema has got nothing on me, my little bespectacled piglet. Horror cinema has managed to get so few of my traditions right as to be truly laughable. But there has been one tradition, rule if you will, they’ve always succeeded in getting correct.”
“And what would that be?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“You’re quite the mysterious lady, aren’t you?”
“You couldn’t even begin to guess.”
Suddenly, Nancy’s spine stiffened as a chill washed over her. The chill was unlike any ordinary chill; It had the feel of icy fingers caressing, just barely grazing the raised bumps of her spine, like long fingernails moving down her back. She wondered where the chill came from and looked up at her screen where the instant message from seconds ago still remained. The words “bespectacled piglet” jumped out at her, as if highlighted. The description, unflattering as it was, was true nevertheless. “Do I know you?” Nancy typed, fingers beginning to tremble, causing her to have to type the simple query three times before she got it right.
“We’ve spoken in your dreams.”
“Seriously,” Nancy pleaded in her electronic voice, the one she thought of until this moment as throaty and seductive. Now the voice was wheedling, whining, a little too low pitched and dense to be heard distinctly. “You seem to have picked up certain of my physical characteristics and I wondered if you were just a good guesser or if you’re someone I know.” Nancy racked her brain, trying to recall who at the bank she might have told about her after hours “social life.”
And came up blank
. “I told you. We’ve spoken in your dreams. For the last several months, I’ve visited you there, in that gossamer world, where I found the two of us to be highly compatible.”
“And why is that?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“What can you tell me?”
“I can tell you that I can see your worth.”
“Wonderful.” Nancy keyed in, rolling her eyes.
“Would you like to know more?”
“Knock yourself out.”
“I don’t think you take me seriously.”
The word dead floated before Nancy’s eyes. Again, she had the prickly sensation of cold, as if something large and icy stood just behind her, casting a black shadow. She glanced over her shoulder and saw nothing more than a painted white bookcase, filled with paperbacks and a framed poster above it: two tabby kittens on a red sweep, one atop the other. Nancy contemplated shutting off the computer and banishing this bitch to cyberspace where she could play mind games with some other unsuspecting soul.
“Feeling a chill, Nancy?”
The room seemed to shift just a little, as Nancy might imagine the movement of a room during an earthquake. Seconds passed while she tried to quell the shaking in her fingers enough to be able to type again. “Again: do you know me?”
“Better than anyone, I’d guess.”
“How did you know my name?” Nancy knew she’d never put any real information in her member profile and the only answer must be, had to be, that this bitch knew her. Nancy didn’t know how, she didn’t know where, but there had to be some way this woman knew who she was. Or perhaps, she wasn’t speaking to a woman at all, but one of the young guys who worked at the bank, one of the ones who whispered and snickered when she passed by, her nylons swishing, sounding like an insect.
“Your name is written on my heart.”
“Oh stop it!” Nancy typed back, weary now of this assault. She wondered again why she just didn’t stop, but something kept her fingers glued to the keyboard. And she suddenly realized that something could very well be the simple fact that for the first time, in years, she was feeling a little excitement. For the first time since she could remember, someone was taking an interest in her, no matter how twisted or mocking that interest might be.
“You know you don’t mean that.”
“Oh what do you know?”
Nancy rubbed her arms together over her ample breasts, trying to dispel the completely unreasonable cold that overwhelmed her. “No one knows everything.”
“I know everything about you: all about the loneliness, all about the hours spent in front of the computer or, barring that, the TV or your nose buried in some God-awful Rita Mae Brown novel.”
Nancy closed her eyes, feeling as if a bright light had just been shined on her, exposing everything she thought hidden from the world. “You know nothing. I don’t know who you are, but you’re certainly not right about anything. I couldn’t even begin to abide this creature you describe.” And then, despair threatening to overwhelm her, typed: “I am Raven, mistress of the night.”
“If you’re mistress of the night, honey, I’m Hillary Clinton.”
Nancy barked out a short burst of laughter. She felt herself backed into a corner and knew no way to get by this, what had she said her name was?
TepesAllure...Nancy looked at the screen, thinking that Tepes held some familiarity for her, but in spite of mentally searching her memory banks, could come up with no match for the name. She wanted to ask again who this person really was, but knew she would get no less a cryptic response than she already had.
She changed her tack. “So what brings you to your keyboard tonight?”
“Why me? I don’t think we’ve spoken before.”
“Not like this.”
Nancy flashed on the few pathetic sexual encounters she had had over the years, encounters she could easily count on two hands, okay one hand. All of them with older, professorial women, who followed her home, satisfied themselves and never called again. Could this be one of them? It had been two years since the last unsatisfying liaison; Nancy had bought her computer within the last year.
“How then, how have we spoken?”
“Your desire speaks to me.”
“I’m not horny.” Nancy typed, bland, to the point.
“I wasn’t talking about that kind of desire, although that sort of exploration does hold its charm, does it not?”
What would Raven say to that question? Nancy wondered. And then berated herself for being such a fool. Things had gone beyond Raven. “I wouldn’t know.”
“I’m sure that together, we could find out. But let me tell you: your body is not what I’m after, at least not in that sense.”
“What then are you after?”
“What are you, a hemophiliac?”
“You’re very funny, Nancy. A hemophiliac, actually, is a fantasy partner of mine. Mmmm...imagine, blood that doesn’t clot. Are you getting the picture?”
“You’re in the wrong room. There’s a vampire chat room. Just go back to Member Rooms, locate it and double click.”
“I’ve located what I want.”
“I don’t think you have. I have to be getting to bed. It’s late and I need to get up early.”
“Don’t leave. We’re just beginning to scratch the surface.”
“Go scratch yourself!” Nancy typed quickly and even more quickly pressed the command and Q button to quit System Up. She hit the return key hard when the prompt came up asking her if she was sure she wanted to quit. “Yes, damn it, I’m sure!” Nancy hit the power button and tried to get hold of herself. She was panting, her heart was racing and a thin line of sweat had formed at her hairline.
Later, Nancy found herself awakened from a restless sleep, filled with shadowy images and strange beasts, unidentifiable, lurking around just this or that corner, waiting to pounce.
She sat up in bed, looking down at the silver slats her mini blinds and the full moon outside conspired together to create. She brushed some hair out of her eyes and wondered what it was that had awakened her so abruptly.
Then she heard it. Gong. The sound was familiar but seemed to have no place in this restless landscape.
Gong. That chiming again.
And then Nancy recognized the sound for what it was. She lay cautiously back down, thinking the noise had to be a fragment of dream lingering just past wakefulness. If there was such a thing as “lucid dreaming” then perhaps dream images, aural or not, could be a little slower in dispersing than her waking mind could dispel them.
And finally Nancy realized she should have become aware of the sound long before, but the sound was so out of place in her little night-quiet apartment that her mind didn’t accept it. When the gong chimed again, Nancy arose, putting sheet and blanket warmed feet to a chilled floor, and shivered.
The sound was so familiar because she heard it most every night. It was the sound alerting her that she had an instant message on her computer, as part of System Up’s online service.
“God, did I forget to turn off the computer?” Nancy wondered, groggy, thinking with dread of all the hours of wasted time on the system she had used while sleeping.
As she headed toward her den, she knew with a certainty beyond doubt that she had shut things down before retiring. Some sort of glitch maybe? But what sort of glitch would turn the computer back on and sign her on to the service once more?
The door to the den was open. Inside, Nancy could see the pale glow from her monitor screen and the memories of TepesAllure rushed back and Nancy paused at the door, afraid to go inside, for fear of what might be waiting. Perhaps, she thought, anxiously gnawing at a nail that was already bitten down to the quick, someone had broken in and was using her computer.
Perhaps it was TepesAllure herself. After all, she knew Nancy’s name, knew what she looked like. Was it really such a stretch to imagine that she knew where Nancy lived and had come to call?
Briefly, Nancy considered tiptoeing back to the living room, where she could dial 911 and report an intruder in her apartment.
And then what? What if the authorities came out to find a lonely woman who had forgotten to shut off her computer before going to bed?
Nancy stepped inside.
The den was empty.
Nancy sat, feeling weak and dizzy, in front of the computer, where a message flickered on the screen.
“Don’t sleep, Nancy, the night is winding down, faster and faster, like water going down the drain. Dawn approaches.”
“Who are you?”
“I am TepesAllure, mistress of the night.”
“I thought I was… oh never mind. What’s going on here? What do you want from me?” Nancy’s eyelids burned. She needed sleep.
“I told you what I wanted, my dear. I’m simply waiting for you to give it to me.”
“Yes, that hot, pumping life juice.”
“Well, let me slit my wrists to make you happy.”
“What a perfectly mundane idea. I have in mind a more sensual connection.”
“Look, it’s late and I don’t have time for this.” Nancy pulled the plug from her computer, causing the monitor to go blank and Nancy to sigh with relief, or perhaps disappointment. But pulling the plug was the sensible thing to do and Nancy always did the sensible thing. It had gotten her where she was today.
She headed back toward the bedroom.
Rushing back to her den, where the interior was once more warmed by the glow of the monitor, Nancy froze in absolute terror, her eyes moving from the glowing screen to the empty electrical socket in the wall, back and forth, back and forth. “This has to be a dream,” Nancy whispered to herself, a pounding starting at her temples and her respiration coming more quickly. She sat heavily in the desk chair, because she thought her legs would no longer support her.
“You’re not rid of me that easily.”
“What do you want?” Nancy typed again, weary and nauseous.
“Then take me,” Nancy typed, her fingers hitting the keyboard uncertainly. “Just come over here, waltz through the door and take me. I’m tired.” Nancy typed, looking outside her den and making sure her front door was locked with both deadbolt and chain.
No instant message came and Nancy sat staring at the screen, wondering what had happened to TepesAllure. Perhaps Nancy had been too direct. Perhaps she had tired of the game.
Perhaps I’m going insane, Nancy thought, uncomfortable with the feeling that her last thought was most on target.
Nancy typed. “Where have you gone my precious? TepesAllure, you’ve allured me and left me high and dry. Is that all there is?”
The screen remained blank, taunting her. Isn’t this always the way? Nancy thought, shivering and rubbing her hands over her bare arms to warm them. The weird sensation of chill overcame her once more, as if something cold and dark were moving behind her, just out of sight.
But this time, the chill seemed more real. Nancy could have sworn she heard a whisper of movement just behind her. Goosebumps formed on her flesh and her heart began to beat more rapidly. Part of her wanted to turn and look and the other part wanted to remain frozen, staring at her unanswered message on the computer screen.
More whispering movement, then, and a chill that ran up her spine, like a cold draft blowing in. Nancy bit her lower lip. “Please don’t make me look,” she whispered.
And then, Nancy shuddered because she felt what she could swear was a breath on the back of her neck. Yet this breath did not seem human; its icy chill seemed so far removed from human that it could make her scream.
But Nancy was not the type of person to scream. She was far too sensible for that.
She whirled in the chair, thinking that at last she would dispel this late night nonsense and return to bed. Everything would look different, laughably different, in the morning.
A beautiful woman stood behind her. Nancy froze, voice caught in her throat by an unseen hand, which squeezed, squeezed until all the air in the world vanished. Before the woman came nearer, Nancy knew she had seen this woman before. Had seen her everytime she typed out a description of Raven to some lonely soul out there in cyberspace, who wanted to believe so much that she did.
And then with movement not even perceptible to Nancy’s human gaze, the woman was upon her, all fangs and wild, feral eyes, biting and ripping her flesh, drawing her blood from her so quickly Nancy didn’t even have time to scream. She heard, through the woman’s passionate whisper, “You invited me in, my sweet. I’ve been waiting so long.”
The last thing Nancy heard was the sound her head made as it hit the hardwood floor, a dull squishing sound.
She had never tried any of the chat rooms before. She likened them to personal ads and phone sex lines, ploys for the desperate, ploys for the unattractive who needed to hide behind a veil of electricity to attract a suitor.
But tonight, Heather was bored. And, as she tossed her long blonde hair over one shoulder, she knew this would at the very least be good for a laugh.
In the Chicago f4f chat room, she typed. “Good evening, ladies.”
And a gong sounded. Heather looked up to see the instant message, from someone called Raven.
“I’ve been waiting for you. In fact, I’ve been waiting all my life.”
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