The first time I saw the man in the ski mask I thought it was just a recorded feed on a pop-up window. I do browse porn sites sometimes so it’s not unusual to get random feeds, although they usually reveal scantily clad women. Without even thinking, I exited out of the browser window and went about my day. I had a lot to do. My girlfriend was coming back from a business trip and we were going to have her parents over for dinner.
We have a very modest studio apartment in downtown San Diego. Truthfully, we could have upgraded a while back but there’s something about a studio that we can both appreciate. The open spaces and the concrete minimalism can be inspiring at times. But it is impossible to convey this to Rachel’s father. To people like him, a man is only worth as much as his house and his yard.
Throughout the day I succeeded in caging all of the wild laundry into bins and corralling a herd of old beer cans. The space was looking a little cleaner, if not empty. An oriental patterned partition was all that sectioned off a small bit of the studio by way of a makeshift bedroom. As I finished up in the kitchen space, I saw that my laptop was lit up again. There was the man, looking directly at me. Now I was getting nervous.
“Hello?” I asked.
He stared quietly. He had cold, blue eyes and chapped lips. A disturbing thought overcame me. Could he see into my room? But I would have to accept an invitation, or allow a feed or something for anything to look through my web cam right?
“Can you hear me?”
Still, he did not acknowledge my presence. This was not a porn-site popup or anything like it. This was something else, but I had no idea what. Hovering the cursor over the X button on the screen, I waited a moment longer before closing out. The man rolled backwards in his chair and the room opened up behind him. It was white and bare, except for a couch. As he moved to the side, he revealed a man sitting on it and lolling his head back, as though he were heavily inebriated. He was muttering something, but his voice was muffled and inarticulate.
I knew right then that the smart thing to do would be to turn off my laptop and close it, but something held me glued to the scene. Whether it was the ski mask, the barren state of the room or the incapacitated man on the couch, I got a feeling of urgency. Like I needed to know what was happening here. Had I accidentally stumbled onto some random feed? Obviously this is just wishful thinking. I had been chosen and I was too curious to refuse.
The man had rolled right out of the shot. I took the chance to get a bottle of wine and a glass from the kitchen. I figured I needed to be at least a little liquored up anyway before having to deal with an entire night of my step-father’s light-footed insults. When I came back, the man in the mask was sitting on the armrest beside the man on the couch. He was holding a piece of cardboard.
Looking closer, I could make out the words: “What shall it be?” written neatly in marker. The inebriated man seemed to be rolling back into consciousness. His head slumped forward, his mouth so slack that drool spilled down onto his chest. As he turned to face the ski-masked stranger, his eyes went wide with fear. He faced forward again and I felt as though he was staring directly at me.
“No,” he groaned. His voice was slow and stupid. He was definitely under the spell of some intoxicant. “Why’dsyou pick that?”
I glanced around, then felt foolish for doing so. The ski-masked man gave me an “Of course he’s talking to you,” kind of look. I felt like his cold eyes conveying so much without needing the aid of his voice. His whole countenance was silent and menacing.
Why did I pick what? I then realized that I was still holding a corkscrew, having been about to open my bottle of wine. My stomach lurched. The man in the ski mask had disappeared.
When he came back into the shot, he too was holding a long, sinister looking corkscrew. The man on the couch groaned in protest, but his arms flailed inconsequently. The masked man was upon him.
The doorbell rang. I slammed the laptop shut and almost leapt to my feet. My heart was racing, my imagination still clinging to the man on the couch. Why me? I went to the door to find Rachel and her parents looking impatient.
“Celebrating early?” her father asked, eyeing the bottle in my hand.
“Guess so,” the words came out but my thoughts were not present.
Dinner went on just as expected. Terribly. It was at least easier on me because the scene I had witnessed on the laptop served as a kind of anesthetic to her parents’ verbal assault that would otherwise have wounded me. The night moved in a kind of molasse dream whilst I fake laughed, forced kisses and shook clammy hands. And they were gone. But now Rachel had turned on me.
“What’s your problem?” she said as soon as they had gone out the door.
I did not know how to explain. I went to the usual standby.
“I’ve been sick the whole time you were gone. Just now feeling a little better.”
I tried to look as pathetic as I could, and must have done a half-decent job. She crooned, “Oh I’m sorry.” She kissed my forehead and I felt like a real piece of shit, but there was no way I could say what really happened. I kept glancing nervously at the closed laptop.
She had had a long flight and was jetlagged. I told her to get some rest and I was going to space out on the couch a little. As soon as I could hear her breathing get heavier, I flipped open the laptop and booted it up. There was still a window open. The man on the couch was fallen over, limp. Something was dripping down from the couch cushions. Held up against his body was a large piece of paper where there was written: “2143 S. Humphreys.” Now I really was sick. That was my address.
I didn’t wait until morning. I woke Rachel up and told her everything. We took the laptop to the police, but they say they can’t trace anything back to him. We’ve been staying at this little hotel around Oceanside since then. We have another computer, but I taped a piece of duct tape over the camera lense. Every now and then I still get an e-mail with the subject line:
“Corkscrew corkscrew, where are you?”