Selfies

Gaston Jenova

4,400 words
Content Warnings: gore, death

A shrill ding sang from the speakers.

Benny stopped chewing and raised an eyebrow, the next chunk of sausage hovering at the end of a fork an inch from his mouth. For a moment, he wondered if the ding had come from the video of a real-life autopsy currently playing on his computer, then remembered where he'd heard it before.

He paused the video by clicking on the eviscerated belly of the dead woman, then scrolled up to the top of the website. The page was entirely black and red, with text buttons and the main logo - the title Gorelicious written in dripping scarlet letters set atop a pile of severed heads, the tagline Every Gore Fiend's Favorite Stop printed underneath - located in the upper left corner. The New Message icon flashed, a tiny number One stuck to its corner.

He clicked on it and a drop-down menu appeared, displaying a thumbnail photo of a black Cheshire Cat and the message: Maexna wants to chat. She'd already broken the ice with that most concise of openers: Hi!

Benny frowned, and opened her Member Profile. He took one look at her profile photo in a larger resolution and realized it wasn't a cat at all. It was a selfie. The person on it stood on Pont d'léna, at the same spot Hitler had lingered at during his tour of Paris. The Eiffel Tower rose over her shoulder, its top cut off by the frame. She - her profile info identified her as a woman - wore a beige coat and a brown baseball hat with something that vaguely resembled Nordic runes woven on it. Her collar was raised so high it blocked her peripheral vision. A maroon bandanna hung around her neck.

Her face was a cloud of octopus ink floating where a head should be, so dark it looked like a hole in Benny's monitor. A pair of bloodshot eyes floated in that blackness, their pupils tiny and elongated and snakelike. The grin beneath them had no lips, no gums, no visible tongue. But it had teeth. Lots and lots of long, blunt teeth. The face, if you could call it that, had no other features.

Benny sat there for what felt like a long time, staring at that selfie with a mixture of revulsion and morbid fascination he hadn't felt since high school, back when things like guro and crushing could still thrill him. At some point he looked at the tray in his lap, the grilled sausages and microwaved french fries cooling on their disposable platters, and realized he didn't feel hungry anymore.

Gorelicious allowed its users to upload photos and videos, so they all kept their own galleries full of gross material. Maexna had a gallery too, named My Travel Selfies. It contained fifteen photos. In the oldest one, she stood at an empty intersection in the midst of some city that looked like it had fallen out of a Lovecraft story. The buildings resembled giant bronze obelisks, with slit-like windows strewn all over them seemingly at random, the deserted streets stretching into infinity. She must've used a special lens or combined multiple panorama shots, because the perspective was all wrong. She clearly held the camera at face level, yet somehow Benny could see both the rust-hued pavement and the soot-filled sky, even though the surroundings didn't look warped.

The second oldest had been taken a month ago at Tokyo, the third two days later at Beijing, the fourth at the Great Wall of China, and so on, across Asia and Europe, until it got to the photo from Paris. The same grinning creature appeared on every single photo. It creeped Benny out. He couldn't get over how real, how eerily there, it looked. Whoever had photoshopped it must've been a pro.

Pro or not, creepy or not, it almost surely belonged to someone who liked to mess with people while hiding behind an anonymous profile, and Benny had better things to do than argue with internet trolls. So he exited her profile and went back to watching the dissection.

Five minutes later, just as the coroner reached for the buzz saw, Benny heard another ding. Maexna had written: Hello?! You there?!

He gnawed at his lip, reading those three words over and over again. Then his curiosity got the better of him, and he typed: do i know u

Maexna: Hi! I'm a backpacker! I travel around the world! I'm on my way to Madrid now!

Ben87: i see

Maexna: You're from Miami?! Right?!

"What the hell?" Benny said, typing: who told u that

Maexna: You are?! Awesome! I saw Miami on TV and it's gorgeous! I love to travel! I meet people along the way and sleep at their places! It's really rad! Look!

She uploaded another selfie into the chat. In it, the grinning creature stood in what appeared to be the living room of a fancy apartment, all chrome furniture and stenciled wall paintings. An overturned chair lay on the floor behind her.

Ben87: answer my question

Maexna: It's Francois's apartment! I met him in Paris! He's an accountant!

Benny tried imagining a French accountant, and pictured a mustached guy in a striped shirt and a beret, working at a computer. He typed: go troll someone else

Maexna replied with a bunch of question marks.

Benny minimized the messenger, opened the Contact Moderator link, and choose the Report Abuse option. A white box opened, with Describe Your Issue printed above it. He wrote, user maexna is a troll and doesnt even post any good gore, ban her pls, and clicked Send. It made him smile.

In the meantime, Maexna had typed three more messages, asking where he'd gone and what was a troll and was something wrong. Benny clicked the chat settings and clicked the Block Communication With This User option.

Splat, goes the bug, he thought, smiling.

The next morning, while sipping coffee and sending out job applications, Benny heard another ding. He opened his Gorelicious inbox, and then just sat there, staring at a new message from Maexna, his mouth slack. It read:

Hi, Benny! I'm almost in Madrid! Haha, it's getting hot here!

 
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It wasn't a virus.

Benny still couldn't believe it. He'd been absolutely positively five-million percent sure it had to be one of those trojans that enabled hackers to access your computer via the internet. When neither of his two anti-virus programs had detected any malicious software, he'd thought, Screw it, and formatted his hard-drive and re-installed Windows. But no, despite being blocked, Maexna could still message him.

So how did she do it? Did she hack Gorelicious? Benny guessed it was theoretically possible. But why? Would she really go to all that effort only to mess with him? Even if the answer was yes, it didn't explain how she knew where he lived.

He typed Maexna into Google. To his surprise, the search yielded thousands of results. Apparently, World of Warcraft had a boss with the same name, and the internet was chock-full of discussions on how to kill it. The nerd behind Maexna's profile must've deliberately picked that name to make Googling harder.

Harder, but not impossible, Benny thought, and spent the next three hours trying out different search hooks and riffling through the results. Eventually, he found two people who had the same problem. The first, a woman from Bejing, posted at a Chinese tech support website, mentioning Maexna by name. Benny ran it through an online translator, and inferred from the rough translation that she'd tried blocking Maexna on Facebook, but that Maexna could still send her messages. She got two answers. One told her to just ignore the troll, the other helpfully replied with I don't know. Yeah.

The other person, a man from Belgrade whose user name was Mirko, wrote about Maexna on a Serbian forum where real hackers supposedly hung out. He explained how she began by telling him disjointed stuff about her travels and asking if he wouldn't mind performing an occult ritual for her, only to start telling him about animals she'd tortured and sending him disturbing photos of "her friends" once he began ignoring her.

Mirko claimed he'd tried everything, from blocking her, to taking his laptop to a repair service, to making new social media accounts, to reporting the problem to the cops, all without success. He concluded by posting a link to Maexna's photo blog - it showcased the same selfies as her Gorelicious gallery, listing Abberon in the Dark as her hometown and Armenides of the Deeps as her religion - and offering cash to whoever could rid him of her.

He got five pages of replies. Some laughed at him, telling him the link didn't work and that he was probably too much of a caveman to properly use the Block function. Others dug into it, talking proxies, encryptions, extensions, and other computer sorcery Maexna could've used to protect her profile and worm her way in. Mirko kept posting for two days afterward, answering their questions and providing all the logs, codes, and IP addresses they asked for.

Then he just stopped. The self-titled hackers kept asking questions for a while, then began wondering why he wasn't posting anymore. Some assumed Mirko must've been privately contacted by a hacker who could solve his problem. Others thought he'd made up the entire story as a prank. The discussion soon died off.

Benny opened the My Travel Selfies album again. Sure enough, Maexna had been to Belgrade. The selfie showed her standing on Branko's Bridge, the Danube, and the Kalimegdan fortress at her back, the clouded sky rendering the scene flat and gray, like a washed-out painting. She'd uploaded it ten days ago. Mirko's original post on the hacker forum was twelve days old. The date of his last post coincided with the date of Maexna's Belgrade selfie.

Benny scowled. Unless Maexna had Serbian-speaking friends who could impersonate Mirko for her, there was just no way she could've planted this "evidence." Also, the hacker forum seemed like a tiny and obscure community; Benny basically stumbled upon it. No way she would've gone through so much trouble without at least some way to guarantee Benny would-

Ding.

"Oh, go to hell," Benny said, and opened his Gorelicious inbox.

Maexna's message read: Hi Benny! It's new selfie time! She followed it with a link to a Madrid selfie. On it, the grinning creature stood with its back to the Royal Palace, the windows shimmering in the afternoon sun, the scene crowded with tourists brandishing cameras and soft drinks.

The creature, Maexna, looked more real than ever. Its huge eyes reflected the sunlight, making the tiny elongated irises and the web of capillaries snaking toward them stand out in stark contrast to the whites. Its teeth glistened like porcelain, their surface tinted yellow. Particles of dust, illuminated by the sun, stuck to the darkness that was the rest of its head like specks of snow on a dog's fur. It still sported the same thick coat, bandanna, and baseball hat, even though everyone else in the shot wore t-shirts and bermuda shorts.

Benny wrote: u could make tons of money with those photoshop skills

Maexna: What?!

Ben87: that monster face in ur pics looks super realistic. u could get a job photoshoping celebrities for magazines or somethin

Maexna: What monster face?! That's MY face! Don't be mean!

Benny snorted, then typed: why just selfies? why not ask ur madrid friends to take a pic of u?

Maexna: No way I'll let some dumb humans touch my phone!

Ben87: got a real high opinion of ur friends huh?

Maexna: You're 100% right though! My arms aren't long enough to get a wide shot like I'd want! It's so annoying!

Ben87: do u know a guy named mirko?

No reply. After a minute, Benny typed: cmon im all ears, but still got no answer. He imagined the guy behind her profile - a long-haired, zit-faced couch potato with a shaggy beard - pacing in a darkened room, wondering how Benny had found out about Mirko. It made him chuckle.

"He shoots, he scores,"Benny said, and started browsing the newest vivisection videos.

 
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Benny slipped the key into the lock, and thought: This is the first day of the rest of my life.

Fifteen minutes ago, just as he was leaving the supermarket, he got a call from one of the factoring firms he'd e-mailed his job application to. The sleepy woman on the other end of the line wanted to know if he could show up for an interview on Monday, 9am sharp. Benny said yes, of course he could, and that was it, he was on his way to what might be the start of his career. It made him grin so hard he had to resist an urge to message his friends and family about it.

He strolled into his apartment, the bag of groceries balanced under his arm, and shut the door with his butt. Whistling, he kicked off his sneakers and went into the kitchen, where he looked at the mountain of dirty dishes in the sink, considered washing them, and decided his mood wasn't that good. He glanced at his computer as he made his way to the john... And stopped in his tracks, his whistling cut short. New messages waited for him in his Gorelicious inbox.

"Well, fuck you very much," Benny said. He proceeded to the toilet and did his thing, refusing to be disrupted by Maexna's bull, then sat in front of the computer. Her new message read: I took your advice! Look! She accompanied it with a photo of a long metal stick with a handle at one end and a frame-like contraption at the other, laid on a polished wooden table.

Benny typed: whats that

Maexna answered immediately, as if she'd been waiting for his reply: It's a selfie stick, Benny! I put my phone on it and then I can get a much better angle, like someone else is photographing me! You're a genius!

She uploaded another selfie. Sure enough, she stood farther from the camera, her right arm extended toward it, holding the end of the selfie stick. Benny could see the lower half of her body now. She wore baggy black pants and work boots crusted with mud. Not an inch of skin to be seen. Aside from the monster face, of course. Even her hands were wrapped in leather gloves. His eyes swept over her surroundings - a clean orange wall with a framed icon of some saint, a dark wooden table surrounded by matching chairs, a brown carpet woven with a subtle beige texture. Another one of her friends' apartments. A pretty cozy place, too... But something about it bothered him.

Except "bothered" was too weak a word to describe it. Rather, it put him in that twilight zone between creeping discomfort and true dread, where one feels like the food churning in one's stomach had suddenly gone bad. It filled him with uncertainty, as if he'd missed a crucial detail and his subconscious was trying to point it out. He leaned forward until his nose almost touched the monitor, inspecting each crease in Maexna's coat, each smudged pixel, searching for-

Ding.

Benny jumped, blinking rapidly. Quickly, as if to hide it before somebody saw, he minimized the photo and looked at the chat. No new correspondence from Maexna. He scrolled up and, sure enough, the New Message icon was flashing. Moderator wants to chat. It read: We received your complaint about user Maexna.

"Finally," Benny said, and typed: yeah shes spamming me right now. ban her pls

Mod: Are you sure you spelled her name correctly?

Benny frowned. He opened Maexna's profile and re-read her name, looking for any unusual characters or symbols masquerading as letters. When he didn't find any, he copied it into a word-processing program and tested it out in different fonts. Plain old letters.

Ben87: yes its maexna

Mod: We don't have a user by that name.

Benny's frown deepened. He copied the link to Maexna's profile into the chat, and wrote: thats her

The moderator didn't reply for a few seconds. Then: The link doesn't work.

Ben87: it works im lookin at it

Mod: All I get is an error. Maybe you copied it wrong.

"No way," Benny muttered, then copied the link again and double-checked it before sending.

Mod: Doesn't work.

Ben87: shes been spamming me for days and i cant even put her on block!!!!

Mod: I'm sorry to hear that, but she's not registered on Gorelicious, so I can't help you. I suggest you ignore her. Trolls tend to go away when you don't feed them. Do you have any other issue I can assist you with?

Benny stared at the screen, his fingers intertwined between his knees, his mouth working.

Mod: Are you there?

He swallowed dry phlegm, and wrote: sorry for botherin u

Mod: No problem.

Benny leaned back in his chair and drew both hands through his hair. "How the hell is she doing that," he said to the keyboard.

He re-opened the last selfie Maexna had sent him, the one from the Madrid apartment with the orange walls. He expected to spend the evening staring at it, searching for the one elusive detail that had disturbed him earlier, and was surprised when his eyes immediately jumped to it.

The detail was on the far left corner, an olive shape, the remainder of it cut off by the frame. It was out of focus, but Benny could tell the object lay on the brown carpet, its weight slightly distorting the beige texture. He guessed it could be a part of a sofa... Or a dropped pillow... Or a camera glitch. Still, to him it looked a lot like a bent elbow, as if someone lay on the floor there, just out of the shot. Also, was it his imagination, or did the carpet seem darker around it? As if they'd spilled something there.

Benny messaged her: u must have no life whatsoever to make this crap

No reply.

 
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Maexna broke her silence two days later, right after Benny arrived home from the job interview.

It hadn't gone well. He didn't think he'd said anything wrong, but the wispy-haired blonde had acted bored and uninterested throughout the meeting, like she was just going through the motions. He went home, teeth clenched, sat down to watch a video of a botched enterectomy and - when the ding rang from the speakers even though Benny had already disabled all sound notifications on Gorelicious - he nearly flung the coffee mug at the screen.

Her message read: Hey Benny! I arrived at Miami! I'm in your neighborhood! She followed it with her newest selfie, this one taken at a beach after sundown. She stood at the line where earth met ocean, one of her boots resting on dry sand, the other dipped in salty water. A city rose behind her, its many lights glittering like pearls. The description read: Chillin' in Miami! This selfie stick is the best thing ever! Can't believe I didn't buy it earlier!

Benny bit the inside of his cheek, refusing the acknowledge the goosebumps rising all over his arms. He knew the beach she'd taken the photo at, all right. He'd been going there since he was a toddler. He typed: u didnt answer my question about mirko

Maexna: Mirko?! Mirko Stefanovich?! My friend from Belgrade?! You know him?!

Ben87: he wasnt ur friend

Maexna: Nonsense! Of course he was! I slept at his apartment! He was boring at first, but then we took some selfies together and it was tons of fun!

Benny copied the name Mirko Stefanovich into Google and clicked search. A list of Serbian articles appeared, most of them less than two weeks old. He enabled the translate-to-English function and realized the links all led to news articles. The automatic translator tended to mangle longer sentences, but the phrases he could readily understand - phrases like "found dead" and "brutally murdered" - made his hands and feet go bloodless.

He clicked on one of the links. It led to an article on a local newspaper's website. The page was all blue and white and filled with drop-down menus and banners showing men who looked so sleazy they had to be politicians. Crammed between all that, the article spoke of a "savage crime" that took place in Belgrade two weeks ago, and reassured the readers the police was still searching for the perpetrator. It ended with a photo of a bearded man dressed in jeans and a leather jacket. "The victim, Mirko Stefanovich (34)" was written under it in small font.

Benny copied the link to Mirko's picture into his correspondence with Maexna. He hit send, then wrote: is this ur friend?

Maexna replied instantly: Dunno! Maybe! This is an old photo!

Ben87: is it him or not?

Maexna: Can't tell for sure! I'll show you one of the selfies I took with him, and you can be the judge! Okay?!

Before Benny could reply, she sent another photo. He opened it without waiting for the thumbnail to load and-

The scream rattled his teeth and swished the contents of his skull. Something crashed and a jolt rushed up his spine, and then the room went completely dark. He took a step, then another, then his foot slipped and the world began to tilt. The floor slammed into him, driving his arm into his chest. Numbness ran up up up from his elbow to his hand to the tips of his fingers.

He moaned once, twice, then folded over. Bile burst through his nose and mouth in a sour stream, hitting the parquet floor with thick plop-plops. When it stopped and he could muster the strength to wipe the tears from his eyes, Benny realized the room hadn't gone dark at all. He'd been pressing his palms over his eyes without being aware of it. His arm felt like he'd burned it.

His eyes firmly shut, Benny crawled to his computer and dragged his fingers across the keyboard until he found the Escape key. He banged on it a dozen times before he felt confident enough to open his eyes and look at the screen. The Escape key had done its job, thank God. The damned photo was gone, minimized to a thumbnail. Quickly, before he could glance at it again, he deleted it from the chat.

Benny stumbled to the bathroom. He pulled off his shirt and washed his face, then closed his eyes and put his head under the tap, letting icy water soak his hair and trickle down his scalp. His thoughts kept slithering back to the awful photo Maexna had sent him. He'd barely glanced at it, but oh God, the fucking memory - of the ravaged thing that had once been Mirko Stefanovich, of the abomination Maexna hid under all those clothes - floated in the darkness behind his eyelids like the imprint of a flash.

"Jesus Christ," Benny muttered. "What the hell happened?"

Once, as a college freshman, he'd browsed a gallery of real police photos taken at the sites of severe car crashes. They were the worst he'd ever seen. Bad enough to make him feel ill. Yet they were as shocking as drawings of flowers compared to what the sicko behind Maexna's profile had photoshopped on that selfie. Yes, it had to be fake. Had to. Not even the likes of Dahmer and Chikatilo could commit such atrocities.

Benny returned to his PC, licked his lips, and typed the first thing that came to his mind: u psycho cunt

Maexna: Did you recognize him?! Is it the same guy?!

Ben87: go suck a dick

Maexna: What?! Why?!

Ben87: i hope u get cancer u sick fuck

Maexna replied with a dozen sad smiley-faces. Why are you so mean?! I thought you liked me!

Ben87: kill urself

Maexna: But I wanted to hang out! Be friends!

Ben87: yes please. i want u to come here so i can break ur fuckin teeth

Benny re-read the last line he wrote, and realized he wasn't joking. A part of him really didn't mind the idea of getting charged with aggravated assault as long as he got a chance to send the madman behind Maexna's profile to intensive care for a few weeks. Or months. Or, best case scenario, for the rest of his life.

Maexna: I'm sad now!

Ben87: eat shit and die

Maexna: Can I at least show you one last selfie?! You're going to like it! You've been there!

Ben87: no. go fuck urself

Maexna uploaded another selfie into the chat. Benny actually stepped away from the computer, as if afraid she might lunge at him from the screen. It was only after he'd taken a long look at the thumbnail to make sure it didn't contain any traumatizing photo-manipulation that he dared sit down again. He clicked the photo to enlarge it.

On it, Maexna stood in an empty hallway, its ceiling white, its walls faded turquoise. She was winking at the camera, her usual all-out grin replaced with a sly, knowing smirk. She had her back to a drab brown door with a number thirty-seven written on it in metal letters. A familiar door. Benny's door.

Benny just sat there, his hands clutching the armrests so hard his palms started to go numb. A question kept shrieking in his mind like an alarm klaxon: Did I lock the door when I came in? Did I lock the door when I came in? Did I-

A hand that wasn't really a hand at all fell on his shoulder. Benny opened his mouth to scream, but only managed a squeaky hiss. He tried to get up, to run, but his limbs were rubber, glued to the chair. A long metal stick with a black cell phone fixed to its end passed over his other shoulder, its camera pointed at him. He saw its owner reflected in the phone's glossy surface, and it was a being of wanton chaos and agony without end. Its voice sounded like slime dripping into a dusty bowl as it whispered:

"Say cheese."

Gaston Jenova is an economist by trade, storyteller at heart. He believes a strong work ethic is the root of all success, and that it is best to err on the side of action. A fan of all things horror, he is also an avid gamer, hobby blogger, hookah enthusiast, and a staunch dog person. He’s been actively writing since he was 16 and, unless something terrible happens, will keep writing for as long as he has stories to tell.