Floors are supposed to be cold. That’s why socks and slippers exist, right?
But the first day in my new house, I found a warm spot on the kitchen floor. There was no mistaking it – while the rest of the floor was uncomfortably cold on my bare feet, this one square-foot near the island was warm. Pleasantly warm, like the car seats with the built-in heaters.
But you know what’s not pleasant? Fire hazards.
So I brought in my brother to look at it. He does a lot of home repairs, and I figured he would know what was going on.
“I’m worried it’s an electrical problem. Like a fire hazard.”
“It does feel warm,” Landon said. He lowered his ear to the tile, his face screwed up in a frown.
“So? What do you think it is?”
He rose and nodded solemnly. “Unfortunately, it’s…” He paused, staring at me intently. “It’s a steaming pile of shit, right under your floor.”
He broke into guffaws.
“What is it, really?”
“I have no idea! What am I, the dude from Curb Appeal?” He threw up his hands. “Google it or something, I don’t know.”
“Can’t you figure it out?”
“Not without pulling it up.”
I sighed. There was no way I was burning cash on this. My kitchen budget was already set aside for tearing down the wallpaper. It was horrendous – yellow with black polka-dots. I’ve never even seen polka-dotted wallpaper before.
So I tried to ignore it. But the next night, after eating an elegant dinner of canned tuna, I heard it.
A soft, high-pitched whine.
It was extremely faint – I only noticed it at all because the house was so quiet. Since I had just moved in, there wasn’t even the hum of a refrigerator or television to drown out the noise. I walked around the room, trying to pinpoint the sound. After four rounds in the kitchen, and one misguided attempt in the dining room, I finally realized –
The sound was coming from the warm spot.
Of course, I called Landon back.
And of course, he wasn’t helpful.
“Maybe it’s bugs,” he said. “Maybe you got a big ol’ termite infestation under there, and they’re all chittering to each other, and –”
“Ew, no, Landon.”
“What if it’s a dead body?” he said, now thoroughly intrigued. “And the noise is the buzzing of all the flies eating it?”
“Or what if it’s… a live body? And he’s just waiting, down there, humming to himself, waiting for the right time to strike?”
I told Landon to leave after that.
And for almost a week, I survived without giving the warm spot much thought. Whenever I walked across the kitchen, I stepped over that area; I ate my dinners in the bedroom, and never let it get too quiet down there. Everything was going fine.
Until I got the email.
From the sender’s address, I would’ve guessed it was spam. It was a seemingly random string of letters and numbers.
But the subject line caught my eye.
UNDER THE FLOOR
The rest of the message was blank.
That’s when I picked up the phone and called the handyman.
As he was working, Landon and I grew nervous.
“Maybe it is a body,” I whispered to him.
“Nah, Rosie. It’s probably just an electrical thing like you said.” But I could tell he was nervous, too. No jokes, no smiles – just his eyes locked on the handyman.
As the tile fell away, we both gasped.
It wasn’t a body, or a termite infestation.
It was a computer.
And a rather old one at that. A bulky desktop, crammed into a hollowed-out space in the floor, its fan working overtime to cool the CPU. The black cord snaked around and disappeared under the intact tile, plugging in somewhere unknown.
Landon and I stared at each other, at a loss for words.
“Got this monitor from my buddy Tom,” Landon said, hauling a beaten-up BenQ through the front door. “It’s got dead pixels and stuff, but we’ll see what’s on there.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to see.
Landon slipped his fingers into the space between the computer and the surrounding floor. With a grunt, he heaved it up, and set it on the counter, pulling the power cord taut. He fumbled with the monitor cable, and after several tries, clicked it into place.
The screen blinked on.
From the blue task bar, and the image of a rolling hill behind, it looked like a standard Windows XP screen. The icons on the desktop looked normal, too; they all linked to standard programs, like Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, and Yahoo! Messenger. Nothing looked out of place.
Until I noticed the icon in the corner.
A little yellow file folder marked PUBLIC.
“Why is it called ‘public’?” I asked.
“Maybe other people can access it, somehow. Or maybe it’s just a list of all the files they’ve uploaded online,” he replied, shrugging.
“Well – click on it!”
“I can’t very well do that without a mouse, can I?!”
“Wait, I think I’ve got one.”
After riffling through a few of the boxes in the family room, I came back with a mouse. And then, with baited breath, we clicked on it.
It opened up to a myriad of folders. 102705… 010206… “They’re dates, I think,” Landon said, scrolling through them. He clicked on one at random – 073007 – and it opened to an array of images.
He clicked on the first one.
It looked like a still from a security camera or a webcam. Black-and-white, grainy, blurred. But I could make out a woman, walking down the sidewalk of a small town. She was looking over her shoulder, her dark hair whipping around to cover her face. A block or so behind her, there was a fuzzy, black speck.
“Go forward,” I said.
Landon didn’t respond.
Click, click. Now the woman was out of frame, although the top of her elongated shadow could still be seen at the bottom. The black speck had grown – it looked like a figure.
I grabbed the mouse from Landon.
Click, click. The figure was closer to the camera, now. It looked like a woman, though it was hard to tell from the fuzziness of the image. Something seemed off about her face, though; it was much paler than the rest of her. Except for the eyes, which were darker than I’d expect.
“Who… is that?” I said to Landon.
Click, click, click. The woman was close in this one. I could see now what was going on – she was wearing a white mask. It reminded me of one of those fancy masquerade masks, from the upslanting eye-holes. But it covered her whole face, not just half.
“What’s that in the background?” Landon said.
I squinted. It looked like there were more black dots – on the sidewalk, in the street. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe if I scroll forward…”
Click, click, click, click!
The black dots had coalesced into a crowd of people.
All wearing the same white masks.
“What – what are they doing?!” I asked, my throat suddenly dry. Click, click, click.
But no more photos appeared.
“That’s the end of this folder. Dammit.”
“Aw, man! I hate cliffhangers!” Landon said, forcing a laugh. “Seriously, though, it’s probably just a Halloween party or something. Or one of those, uh, what are they called – flash mobs?”
“…Right. Yeah, of course.” I went back and clicked on the next folder.
The point of view wasn’t the street anymore. Instead, it was a bedroom. With flowered wallpaper, gray carpet, closet doors on the far wall…
It wasn’t just a bedroom.
It was my bedroom.
The wallpaper hadn’t yet faded; the carpet wasn’t yet threadbare. But it was, without a doubt, the same bedroom.
“That’s my bedroom, Landon.”
Click, click, click. There was someone sleeping in the bed. It was a blonde woman, on her back, arms splayed out and limp. Is she dead? I thought. But after making it through twenty photos or so, she rolled to her side.
I clicked through another several photos before I stopped.
I pointed to the closet doors. A sliver of darkness had appeared between them.
Click, click, click.
The sliver grew wider. And in the shadows of the closet was a pale, grainy object. It hung as if suspended in thin air, surrounded by the sea of gray.
Click, click, click.
The door swung open.
It was one of the masks, faced at the sleeping woman. Click, click. My hand shot to my mouth, and I watched the scene unfold with wide eyes. Over the next few photos, it crept out of the closet, and pulled a pillowcase over the woman’s head. She started to thrash, but was dragged back into the closet by the masked person.
The next hundred photos were of the empty bedroom.
I looked at Landon. He just stared at the computer, mouth agape.
I clicked out of the folder. “How long do these go on for?” I asked, scrolling through the folders. 092807… 031211 … 050715 …
And the very last folder:
“That’s – that’s today’s date,” I stuttered.
I scrolled through the photos.
The strength drained from my legs. I gripped the counter as I swayed violently.
No, no, no.
Me, sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal. Click. The handyman, crouched over the floor, cutting up the tile. Click. Landon, hooking the computer up to the monitor.
And the last few –
Photos of us, looking at the computer, our faces contorted with worry.
“Wait – that’s impossible – I don’t even see a camera,” I stuttered, trying to convince myself. It has to be fake. If there isn’t a camera in here… it must be a hoax.
Landon was already scouring the room – opening cabinets, crouching over the stove. “I don’t see one,” he replied.
I stared at the far wall. That horrendous wallpaper, covering every inch – yellow with black polka dots…
One of the dots, near the upper right corner, wasn’t a dot at all.
It was a hole.
And in the darkness, I could just make out a tiny, blinking red light.