Chat Room

by Kit

"Uncle Jaaack?"

The slightly plaintive tone, the extended vowel, and the rising inflection in the boy's voice indicated that this was a preamble to a question, or a complaint, or possibly both. Jack looked away from the computer screen toward the doorway of the room that served both as his office and as his occasional dining room. He smiled at his eight-year-old nephew.

"Yes, Alex? What can I do you for?"

The boy, tall for his age and rather skinny, frowned at his uncle's all too familiar catchphrase. He might be only a kid, but he'd already learned to share his family's low opinion of Jack's rather puny attempts at humour.

"Someone keeps trying to chat with me," he said, sounding somewhat annoyed.

"Chat with you?" Jack said, his mind was switching from business mode to baby-sitting mode. He mirrored the boy's frown. "What d'ya mean, chat with you?"

"On the computer," the boy said, irritated by his uncle's apparent inability to comprehend the obvious. "Chat with me on the computer. But Mum and Dad said I mustn't chat with people on the computer unless one of them is with me."

"Quite right, too!" Jack said approvingly. Then his frown, which had begun to dissolve into a smile, suddenly returned. "You mean now? Someone's trying to chat with you now?"

"Yeah," the boy replied, a note of exasperation entering his voice. "They keep interrupting my game even though I don't answer them."

"But... but they can't be," Jack stuttered. "Your computer doesn't have an internet connection."

"Well they are!" Alex said, raising his voice in frustration. "I keep closing the window and it just keeps coming back again."

Jack was sure that the computer Alex was using for his games had no internet connection. That room wasn't wired, Jack didn't have a wireless router, and even if a neighbour had a wireless internet connection, the computer had no wireless card. So his first thought was that Alex was playing some sort of joke. However, the boy seemed so earnest and he apparently genuinely wanted help with whatever was spoiling his game.

Perhaps there was some fault with the computer, which he'd bought at a house clearance sale just a couple of weeks ago. At the time he'd been looking for furniture and maybe some crockery, but he didn't need another computer. He already had a desktop computer for his work and a laptop for personal things. However, when he saw such a high specification machine for such a low price, especially as it came with an excellent monitor, he couldn't resist the temptation to buy it.

"Okay," Jack said and sighed, "let's go and take a look at it."

He swiveled his chair away from the desk and followed his nephew upstairs to the spare bedroom. There, Alex stood to one side while his uncle examined the monitor, but the only thing on the screen was the paused game.

"The chat window was there when I went down to see you," Alex said defensively.

"You're sure that it's not just part of the game?" Jack asked doubtfully.

"Of course I'm sure!" the boy said in a tone that implied that his uncle was a complete moron. "I've played this game millions of times and never seen that before."

"Okay, then," Jack said placatingly. "If you see it again, come and get me straight away."

"That's what I just did," Alex responded pointedly. He sat down and resumed his game, completely ignoring his uncle.

Jack sighed and went back downstairs, trying to switch his mind back to business mode as he descended.

Although he'd always been very fond of his nephew, Jack was regretting letting himself be persuaded to look after him while the boy's parents were at work. Alex used to be a very pleasant child, but over the last few months he'd started becoming less respectful and occasionally downright obnoxious toward his uncle. Jack blamed all the violent video games that Alex seemed to be almost addicted to. However, when he'd mentioned that to Linda, the boy's mother and Jack's older sister, she'd told him, with only the barest hint of politeness, to mind his own business.

Had it not been an emergency, Jack thought, there was no way that he'd have agreed to look after the boy for what would be at least a week. However, it was the middle of the school holidays and Linda's usual child minder had come down with the flu. When Linda had phoned, pressuring him to look after Alex until the minder recovered, she'd appeared to believe that 'working from home' wasn't really working at all, and so keeping an eye on an eight year old boy would be a piece of cake.

I retrospect, Jack realised that he should have told Linda that it just wasn't possible, but ever since they'd been kids she'd relished the role of big sister. By cajoling or bullying, she always managed to get Jack to do what she wanted. Maybe the situation wouldn't have been so bad if Alex had been content with playing computer games or watching TV, but he kept insisting that Jack go out to play with him, lamenting that staying with his uncle meant that he was miles away from his friends.

So it was that Jack was falling behind in his work, and that only added to his current problems. The neighbour with whom he shared a wall in his semi-detached property was currently renovating his part of the building, and thereby generating constant noise. This was not only irritating in itself, but had indirectly caused Jack's girlfriend to dump him.

She'd said she wanted a real man for a boyfriend, not a wimp who was too scared to stand up to his sister or complain to his neighbour. When Jack tried to point out to her that it was politeness and consideration, not fear, that motivated his actions, she disdainfully pointed out that he was talking utter crap. Then she walked out of his life forever.

Jack sighed as he sat back down in front of his office computer and tried to bring his mind back to the letter that he'd been writing.

"Uncle Jaaack!" Alex called down from the top of the stairs.

This time the voice wasn't at all plaintive and didn't even hint at a question. Instead, it was full of annoyance and accusatory complaint.

Jack groaned quietly and clenched his fists as he wondered whether a defence of provocation or temporary insanity might be acceptable against a charge of killing a child. He took a deep breath and consoled himself with the thought that today was Friday and that he wouldn't need to look after his nephew over the weekend. Hopefully, by Monday the regular child minder would be well enough to return to her work.

"Uncle Jaaack!" the boy shouted, loudly and insistently.

Jack tried to think of peaceful, or at least non-violent thoughts as he left his seat and moved to the bottom of the stairs. However, the cute bunny rabbits and gamboling lambs that he tried to picture in his mind exploded into bloody pieces. Although this didn't have the desired calming effect, it at least left him with a sense of mild satisfaction.

"What is it now, Alex?" he asked in a carefully controlled voice.

"The chat window's back again!" the boy replied, frowning and obviously blaming his uncle.

After trudging slowly back upstairs, Jack saw that there was indeed a chat window superimposed on the paused game.

Lo&Lo> Hi

Then, as he continued to look at the monitor, more words appeared.

Lo&Lo> ne1 there?

The frown of annoyance that Jack had been trying to suppress became a deep and unsuppressed frown of puzzlement. He knew there was no internet connection, so he wondered where the hell this could be coming from.

"Well?" Alex said in a tone that demanded an answer.

"Erm, it must be a virus," Jack said weakly, expressing the first thought that came into his head.

In fact, he couldn't understand how it could be a virus. After all, when he'd got it home he'd found that the hard drive had already been erased. Also, before installing the games for his nephew, he'd taken the precaution of reformatting the disc.

"It's messing up my game!" the boy responded with an accusatory glare.

Jack looked at his watch and gave a sigh of relief.

"Your mum will be here for you in a few minutes," he said placatingly, "and there's not much I can do before then. Why don't you just save your game then go and watch TV until she arrives? I'll run some anti virus programs before your next visit."

"Oh, okay," Alex said with bad grace.

Jack went back downstairs, praying silently that Linda would arrive sooner rather than later.

After Alex had been taken home, Jack was too busy catching up with work to spend time checking the aberrant computer, so he didn't get the chance to look at it until the next morning. The first thing he did was to try running Alex's game from the saved file, just to double check that the chat window wasn't part of the game. However, he got killed so quickly by the bad guys that he couldn't stay in the game much more than ten seconds past the saved state. Then, just as he was about to run his anti virus software, a chat window appeared on the screen.

Lo&Lo> Helloooo!

Jack frowned and paused for a moment, then as he started the virus scan, his lips curled into the sort of smile he showed when stamping on a particularly nasty bug.

"Take that you little bugger!" he muttered.

The chat window disappeared, but at the end of the scan no viruses had been detected, so he decided to shut down the computer and go for lunch while he worked out what to do next. After he'd eaten, he went back upstairs and opened up the computer to see if there was anything that looked like wireless connection hardware. He didn't see anything obvious, but he didn't know much about computer hardware, so he decided to get the system running again then check yet again that there was no connection to the internet.

He sat back in the chair, puzzling over what to do next, but before he could reach any decision, the chat window came back again.

Lo&Lo> Hey! ur back!

Jack just stared at the monitor, frowning. All this was proving to be very frustrating, and he wondered if he should try to return the computer and get his money back. However, he wouldn't like to cause a fuss and then find out that the problem was really something simple that he should be able to fix himself.

Lo&Lo> U know, it's rude to ignore me and keep signing off. & why is ur user name blank?

Jack could think of only two possibilities; either this was some unknown and undetected virus, or there was someone at the other end of an internet connection. Although he knew nothing about Alan Turing, he had an idea. He concluded that if he actually tried having a conversation in the chat window, he would soon be able to establish the source of the problem. After all, viruses were not well known for their conversational skills.

> I don't have a user name

Lo&Lo> That's weird

> UR weird

Lo&Lo> asl

> ??

Lo&Lo> age sex location

> u 1st

The window closed, leaving Jack staring at the monitor and realising that the conversation hadn't lasted long enough to decide whether or not he'd been chatting with a real person. Suddenly discovering that he had a throbbing headache, he went to get some aspirins and washed them down with a mug of strong tea. After he'd recovered a little, he returned to the computer and found that the chat window was back on the screen.

Lo&Lo> u there?

> Yes. r u going to tell me ur asl?

There was a long pause before the reply came.

Lo&Lo> don't know

> won't tell u mine if u don't tell me urs.

Lo&Lo> I mean not sure

> ????????

Lo&Lo> 28 male

> where r u?

Lo&Lo> just here in the dark with this computer

> in ur room?

Lo&Lo> no

>where then?

Lo&Lo> dunno. just in the dark

> y not look round & see where u r?

Lo&Lo> too scared. now u tell me asl!

> 28 male Manchester

Lo&Lo> I think I'm there too. or was there

This weird exchange with a total stranger was making Jack feel uncomfortable, and he wanted to end the conversation. However, just in case there was a real person involved, he decided he ought to make an excuse.

> hungry. going for dinner now

Lo&Lo> hope ur back soon!

Unable to close the window, Jack shut down the computer. In fact, he wasn't at all hungry and just wanted time to think, so he leaned back, rested his head on the back of the chair, and closed his eyes. It didn't take him long to conclude that, virus or real person, he needed to get rid of it so that the chat window wouldn't open when Alex was here. He decided to do a low level format of the hard drive and a clean install of the system.

The following day, just as Jack was preparing to reinstall Alex's favourite games, the chat window appeared.

Lo&Lo> Hey! I missed u!

Jack swore under his breath and decided that this was almost certainly not a virus. His initial impulse was to shut the computer down, read the manual more carefully, and have a closer look inside the box, just in case there was a wireless device that he'd previously overlooked. However, he also found himself curious about this unknown person, and couldn't resist the temptation to find out more.

> Who r u?

Lo&Lo> Chaz. who r u?

> Jack. Why r u on-line so much? No job? Nothing else to do?

Lo&Lo> I'm always here. Used to have a job, but usually on-line when not working.

> Why on-line so much?

Lo&Lo> enjoy chat - and porn! :)

> no girlfriend?

Lo&Lo> ??????

> real thing is better than porn

Lo&Lo> not always it isn't - but why say g/friend?

Jack didn't understand why Chaz would ask the question when the answer was so obvious. It occurred to him that Chaz might be mentally challenged, and so he decided to try a different approach.

> u live alone?

Lo&Lo> Yep

> get many visitors?

Lo&Lo> Mum sometimes but not recently.

> who do u usually chat to?

Lo&Lo> lots of people but you've been the only one on-line for ages. I'm LONELY!!!

As he read that last line, Jack, who knew what it was like to feel lonely and isolated, felt a wave of sadness and pity for Chaz.

> I can chat for a bit if u want

Lo&Lo> GREAT!! :) What do u like to do?

> Lots. TV, movies, food, travel

Lo&Lo> NO! I mean what u LIKE to do! oral?

> u mean sex?

Lo&Lo> YESSSSS!!!!!

Even with his few close friends, Jack wasn't accustomed to discussing sex, and one of the many accusations his ex girlfriend leveled at him before she left was that he wouldn't talk to her about anything intimate. However, this total stranger would never know who Jack was, and they'd never meet in person. The knowledge of his anonymity made him feel safe and decreased his inhibitions. He thought that it might be interesting and even exciting to talk about sex with this unknown person.

> I like oral. Doesn't every1? :-)

Lo&Lo> I love to suck a nice juicy dick

This piece of information took Jack by surprise and caused a sudden shift in his perception of Chaz.

> u gay??

Lo&Lo> Duh! why else wd I b here???

> here??

Lo&Lo> in this gay chat room

> I'm def NOT gay!

Lo&Lo> Ha! they all say that. if ur not at least bi, y r u here?

> I didn't know here was for gays

Lo&Lo> lots of guys on here say they r str8

> I am. TOTALLY!

Lo&Lo> OK! OK! But we can still chat? just b friends?

Jack thought about this before responding. He wasn't totally comfortable with the idea, but for some reason he felt sorry for Chaz, who was obviously lonely and needed a friend. Chatting to Chaz for a bit longer might be considered a good deed, and it wasn't as if he'd actually have to meet him in person. The idea of playing the part of the Good Samaritan gave Jack a feeling of superiority, and that was a feeling that he experienced only very rarely.

> ok - but no yucky sex talk

Lo&Lo> U think sex is yucky?

> men with men is

Lo&Lo> don't u like gay people?

> there ok. just don't like what they do

Lo&Lo> know any gay guys? have any gay friends?

> know some. not to talk to. not as friends

Lo&Lo> so I'm the only gay guy you've really chatted with?

This apparently simple question made Jack freeze with indecision. Memories that he'd long suppressed began to rise up in his mind, and he tried hard to push them back down. The obvious thing for him to do was simply to say 'yes', but for some reason he didn't want to lie. Anyway, why should he bother lying to a complete stranger?

> on-line ur the only one

Lo&Lo> but u said u not talked to gay guys and have no gay friends

> that's now

Lo&Lo> u talked to gay guys in the past? had gay friends?

Mentally squirming, Jack now regretted not lying in response to the earlier question.

> just 1

Lo&Lo> a friend?

> don't want to talk about it. tell me something about u

Lo&Lo> like what?

> anything. y r u in the dark? what job did u do?

Lo&Lo> not sure. it's all fuzzy

Now Jack was getting irritated. Either Chaz was lying or he'd lost his memory and was in some sort of hospital. Maybe the dark room Chaz was in was intended to help him recover. Whatever the case, it didn't seem worth wasting any more time on him.

> no point chatting if u can't remember anything. bye

Lo&Lo> Wait!! Don't go!!!! it's fuzzy but gets clearer when I'm chatting to u. when u go away everything gets even fuzzier. when we chat I remember stuff and can tell u.

It seemed that Chaz needed a therapist, not an internet chat room, and Jack didn't want to be a therapist. He also didn't want to be the focus of attention of someone who was apparently so needy. However, there was nothing else that he desperately had to do, and he didn't want to just abandon the poor guy. After all, Jack had already accumulated enough guilt in his life without adding any more now.

> ok. what can u remember? where were u before this dark room? were u in an accident?

Lo&Lo> don't remember an accident. last thing before here was sitting in front of my computer - not this one - in my house. then black until I was sitting here chatting with u

> where's ur house?

Lo&Lo> not sure. Denton? maybe? sounds familiar.

The fact that this computer had been bought in Denton briefly crossed Jack's mind. However, a lot of people lived in that part of Manchester, so it wasn't a particularly remarkable coincidence.

> what about ur job?

Lo&Lo> seem to remember it involves shuffling lots of papers in a big office

> u have lots of gay friends? str8 friends?

Lo&Lo> a few. tell me about ur gay friend

> told u I don't have one

Lo&Lo> but u had one

> didn't say that

Lo&Lo> u implied it and I get the strong feeling u did

> long story. not for now. anyway, I'm hungry. going for lunch. bye.

Lo&Lo> u be back later?

> probly. bye!

Lo&Lo> bye 4 now

Jack stood up, and without even trying to close the chat window, he went downstairs. The window remained open on the screen, the cursor blinking like a heartbeat.

As he went downstairs, Jack's stomach rumbled, and he realised that he really was hungry. He ate while watching the news on TV, and after finishing the sandwiches and mug of tea he sat back in his chair while he considered what to do next. He'd said that he'd return to chat with Chaz, but it hadn't been a promise, and he didn't really want to tell Chaz about the one and only gay friend that he'd ever had.

Ever since they were both eleven years old and had started attending the same secondary school, Jack and Charlie had been best friends. They were like brothers, and maybe they were so close because neither had any real brothers. Jack just had an older sister and Charlie had no siblings at all. Although their houses were over a mile apart, they spent most of their spare time together, mostly at Jack's house, mainly because Charlie's dad always seemed to discourage visitors.

One evening, when they were both fourteen, they were doing their homework together in Jack's bedroom. For the previous three years this had been their routine on most school nights, but on that particular occasion Charlie had been unable to concentrate. They were both sitting side by side across the bed, backs cushioned by pillows propped up against the wall. Charlie, the taller of the two, put the book he was holding down with the others that were piled between them.


"Mmm?" Jack responded without looking up from his book.

When Charlie remained silent, Jack looked up and gave his friend his full attention. Charlie took a deep breath before speaking.

"I thought... well... I want to tell you something..."

Jack's forehead creased into a puzzled frown. This sort of hesitancy was not at all the sort of thing he expected from Charlie, who was always the more confident of the two of them. Charlie, the handsome blond, almost always took the lead in whatever they did together, and Jack knew that Charlie was brighter, even though he sometimes didn't do very well at school. He wondered if this unusual behaviour might have anything to do with Charlie's dad, who often beat his son, sometimes severely. Charlie never spoke about it, so Jack pretended that he didn't know.

"Well, anyway..." Charlie eventually continued, "I'm gay."

At first, Jack didn't believe it, and thought it must be some sort of sick joke. Charlie was a great guy, and there was no way he could be one of those disgusting perverts that were so despised by all the boys at their school. Unfortunately, the more he studied Charlie's face, the more he doubted that it was a joke. Then he remembered how, for a few months around the time they were first able to come, they had messed around wanking together. However, by mutual unspoken agreement, that activity had been abandoned.

"I'm not!" Jack protested vehemently, just to set the record straight.

"I know that," Charlie said with a sad smile. "Otherwise I would've told you ages ago."

"You've known for ages?" Jack asked, surprised and a little hurt.

"Well, for at least a year."

Charlie studied Jack's face, trying to gauge his reaction and guess his thoughts. Jack, unable to take this scrutiny, turned his face away then got off the bed.

"I have to go to the loo," he said. Then, still avoiding eye contact, he left the room.

It wasn't really a lie. He didn't need to use the loo for its usual purpose, but he did need to use it as a place to be alone while he sorted out his thoughts.

While he sat on the closed toilet seat, many different and confused thoughts went through his head, and tears began to run down his cheeks. He still couldn't really believe it, yet he felt angry and betrayed. He felt pity for the friend, whom he'd always admired. He dreaded what would happen if anyone found out. The boys at school would certainly make Charlie's life hell, and there was a good chance that Jack's parents would no longer allow Charlie to go into his bedroom, and maybe not even allow him into the house.

Jack lost all track of time as these thoughts went round and round in his head, but there was always one thought that formed the centre around which all the others revolved: Charlie was his best friend. Eventually, there was a knock on the door.

"You okay?" Charlie asked, barely audibly. "It's getting late. I ought to go."

Initially, Jack was tempted just to let him go. That would give him more time to think things out and postpone the need to confront the problem. Then he realised that at least one thing needed to be dealt with as soon as possible.

"Wait," he said, his voice hoarse with emotion. "I'll be out in a minute."

He stood up and washed his face, then opened the door, hoping that the redness of his eyes that he'd seen in the bathroom mirror wasn't noticeable to others.

An uncharacteristically nervous Charlie was standing, fortunately alone, in the hallway.

"I'll walk with you to the bus stop," Jack said, his voice not much more than a whisper.

Charlie, already holding his bag, led the way downstairs, and they both remained silent until they were outside in the street. Jack made sure there was no one in sight before he spoke.

"You've not told anyone else, have you?"

"No, erm, not yet, anyway."

"Then don't. Not anyone," Jack said firmly.

"But, we're okay, aren't we?" Charlie asked, a slight tremor just detectable in his voice. "We're still best friends?"

"Yes," Jack said decisively. "As long as you don't try and do stuff with me, and as long no one else knows about you, then we're still best friends."

Jack had expected Charlie to be happy with that decision, but instead he frowned and looked disappointed. He appeared to be about to say something, then changed his mind and just shrugged his shoulders before eventually speaking.

"Okay," he said sadly. "If that's the way you want it."

"Good," Jack said, oblivious to the tone of Charlie's voice. "Now we've got that settled we can forget all about it."

After finishing his lunch and considering whether or not he should continue his chat with Chaz, Jack decided that he might as well at least go and see if the chat window was still open. If it was then he could try and get Chaz to dig up more information about himself, and if it wasn't then there was nothing he could do. The window was indeed open, and he saw that a line of text appeared as soon as he entered the room, an observation that sent shivers down his spine. Although this was seriously creepy, and although his common sense told him not to get further involved, he felt a strong urge to read the message.

Lo&Lo> Hey! :-) Have a nice lunch?

> Yes, thanks. & u?

Lo&Lo> Not been hungry

> remembered anything else?

Lo&Lo> Yeah. quite a few things. it's amazing how chatting with u seems to bring things into focus. like u r a lens for me

> lol. so u think I'm a pair of specs?

Lo&Lo> More like a telescope! lol

> so tell me what u remember now

Lo&Lo> I remember I was once very happy then very sad

> that's not very specific. every1 could remember that

Lo&Lo> I remember being betrayed by someone I loved

> Most people could remember that too. Sheila, the g/f before last, was shagging one of my mates for months before I found out.

Lo&Lo> there r worse betrayals than that

Suddenly, Jack felt very uncomfortable with the direction that the conversation was taking, and he decided that a diversion was required.

> what about happy memories? ur family?

Lo&Lo> my mum was great. I loved my mum

> loved? is she dead? I'm sorry

Lo&Lo> dunno. don't think so. still fuzzy

> u remember ur dad? brothers? sisters?

Lo&Lo> hated dad. don't remember bros or sis

>I have a big sis

Lo&Lo> bossy! :)

A shiver went up and down Jack's spine. This was getting creepy again.

> y u say that??

Lo&Lo> dunno. aren't all big sister bossy?

> yeah, I guess

Lo&Lo> thanks for coming back. I'm not so scared and lonely now

Jack was suffused with a warm, glowing feeling, which he attributed to the fact that he'd done something positive and had that good deed recognised.

> I'm glad. hope u feel even better when ur memories come back

Lo&Lo> u know, it's not so dark here anymore. I think I can even see the walls. pale blue or maybe grey.

That description could also be applied to the colour of the walls of the room in which Jack was sitting. However, it wasn't a great coincidence, bearing in mind that it would probably also apply to thousands of rooms in England.

> u remember how you got there yet?

Lo&Lo> not really. last thing I remember b4 here was chatting on-line, then everything went black.

Contrary to the many assertions that Linda had made over the years, Jack wasn't stupid. There was no doubt at all that he had many faults, some of them pointed out publicly by others, especially Linda. However, although he was by no means a genius, he certainly wasn't stupid.

He was quite capable of making observations and reaching relatively reasonable conclusions. However, if the logical conclusion wasn't reasonable then he had to ignore it. If his deductions led him to something that he couldn't believe and didn't want to believe, then he had to dismiss it. There are none so blind as those who don't want to see.

Lo&Lo> Hey, can you send me a pic?

> of me? I'm not gay

Lo&Lo> yes, of u. and I know ur not gay. I just like to see who I'm talking to

> will u send me 1 of u?

Lo&Lo> I'll try. sometimes this computer won't do what I want

> Yeah! I know how that feels! :)

Lo&Lo> So will u send a pic? u just have to drag it into the window

> don't have a pic on this computer

Lo&Lo> on a usb stick?

> ok just a sec

Even though he never sent photos to strangers, and indeed rarely took part in on-line chats even with friends, Jack went and transferred a couple of photos from his laptop to a USB stick. Perhaps even more odd was the fact that he wasn't doing this reluctantly; he genuinely wanted to do it because he wanted to please Chaz. He returned to the spare bedroom, and the files were sent successfully. That convinced Jack that somehow this computer must indeed have an internet connection and that he just didn't have the technical skills to work out how.

Lo&Lo> Wow u r cute!

> I told u I'm not gay!

Lo&Lo> Yeah. u told me and I believe u. but it doesn't stop u being cute!

> u going to send me 1 of u?

Lo&Lo> ok

Without any request for permission, a file began to transfer onto Jack's desktop. However, when he opened it, all he could see was a uniformly black rectangle.

> didn't work. no pic. just black.

Lo&Lo> it's the only one I've got. looks ok on here. try again?

> ok

Again the file apparently transferred, but when opened it still showed the same black rectangle.

> still didn't work

Lo&Lo> sorry. want me 2 try again?

> No. don't bother

Lo&Lo> hey, u know tho - the pic you sent looks vaguely familiar. maybe I know u?

> doubt it

Lo&Lo> but I know lots of str8 guys

For some reason it seemed extremely important to Jack that Chaz didn't know him in real life, and he was now deeply regretting sending the photos.

> not me

Lo&Lo> OK - but u had a gay friend. u were going to tell me about him.

> no time now. have to get ready to go out.

Lo&Lo> pity. things are just beginning to get clearer. maybe I can remember y ur pic looks familiar.

> sorry. gtg. bye

Desperate to end the conversation, Jack tried to close the window, but it stubbornly remained open, so he shut down the computer and left the room. In truth, he had no plans to go out, but he certainly had no intention of chatting to Chaz anymore, at least not until he could sort things out in his mind. There was something that was concerning him even more than the fact that Chaz might recognise him; it seemed that as Chaz's thoughts and memories became clearer, his own mind became more and more fuzzy.

That night Jack slept very little and spent much of the time tossing and turning fitfully. Even when he managed to doze off, he was awakened twice by nightmares, the contents of which he deliberately suppressed and tried to forget. Unfortunately, he couldn't completely forget them, because they were actually snippets of real memories.

For a few months after Charlie announced his sexuality to Jack, life went on as it had before, and the subject was never mentioned again. Jack carefully avoided bringing up the topic and deliberately diverted any conversation that might tempt Charlie to even hint at it. Eventually, Jack even lost the slight concern he'd had that Charlie might try to molest him. Then, shortly after Charlie turned fifteen and a couple of months before Jack's fifteenth birthday, everything changed.

One Saturday evening, as the two friends were walking to the bus stop after seeing a movie, they were approached by a half dozen older lads. As they got closer, it became obvious that they'd been drinking, although they all seemed capable of walking steadily and purposefully. Jack recognised three of the lads as being in the final year at his school, but the others were unfamiliar and looked even older.

"Hey! It's the queer boy and his little friend," one of the boys from their school slurred loudly.

Jack was horrified, and wondered if they'd just guessed or if they'd somehow found out. He looked at Charlie, who was unsuccessfully trying to hide his fear.

"C'mon," Charlie hissed, grabbing Jack's arm.

Accepting Charlie's leadership in this, as he did in most things, Jack allowed himself to be guided across to the other side of the street. Charlie walked quickly, but carefully tried not to give the impression that they were running away. However, the pack of inebriates had decided on their quarry and they were not going to give up the hunt. Before Jack knew what had happened, he and Charlie had been bundled into a dimly-lit alley and were surrounded.

"My mate says you're a dirty, disgusting queer," the largest boy said, his voice quiet but menacing, as he pushed Charlie's shoulder, making him stagger backward.

Jack fully expected Charlie to deny this accusation, and was preparing himself to back up this denial. Thus, he was surprised and stunned by Charlie's response.

"What if I am?" he said calmly but defiantly, though he couldn't hide the tremor in his voice.

"If you are," snarled one of the other lads, "then we don't want your sort in our school."

"And we don't want you here, either," the oldest one added, his voice still quiet but now even more menacing.

Somehow, probably because they had all their attention on Charlie, Jack had managed to slip through a gap between the two nearest lads, and he was now cowering with his back against the brick wall. His mind was so paralysed with fear, and everything moved so quickly that he could never remember the details of what happened next. Arms, legs, fists, feet, heads, spit, all aimed at Charlie, but occasionally making contact with Jack. A cacophony of curses and incoherent raised voices was followed by a ragged cheer of victory.

The last member of the gang to walk past Jack on his way to the end of the alley leaned over and threatened him. "Keep yer mouth shut or you'll get it even worse than the queer boy," he hissed, spraying spittle into Jack's face.

Then he was gone, leaving a silence, broken only by his own sobs and Charlie's wheezing coughs. Eventually, when Jack had recovered from shock and fear sufficiently to take in his situation and surroundings, he found himself sitting on the ground, back propped against the wall. Charlie was on the ground a few feet away, curled up in a foetal position.

When Jack tried to stand up, he found that his legs were too unsteady to bear his weight, so he crawled on hands and knees toward Charlie. When he got close enough to see his friend's face, it was covered in so much blood that he could hardly recognise it. Turning his head away from Charlie just in time, Jack spewed out the contents of his stomach.

The rest of the night was just a blur. Some unknown stranger must have called for the police and an ambulance, but it seemed the former turned up long before the latter. The police waited to take Charlie's statement until after he'd received treatment, but insisted that Jack, unharmed as he was, talk to them immediately. However, he just told them that he didn't know why his friend had been attacked, that he didn't recognise any of the perpetrators, and that it had been too dark for him to be able to identify them if he saw them again. It was clear that they didn't really believe him.

Fortunately, Charlie's injuries were mostly superficial and there were no broken bones, so on Monday morning he was back at school. The reaction that he received when he approached Jack hurt him much more than the beating he'd received from the gang.

"Keep away from me!" Jack hissed, looking around to see who might be able to see them together.

"What?" Charlie said, shocked and taking a step back. "Why?"

Jack walked quickly away, but Charlie followed, eventually cornering him in a deserted corridor near the canteen.

"Why?" Charlie asked again, putting a world of meaning into one tiny word.

"You promised," Jack said, his voice cracking. "You promised not to tell anyone about you... about... you know."

"I didn't."

"Then how did they know?"

"Mm, dunno," Charlie said. Then after pausing to think, he added, "Maybe they saw me pick up a free newspaper outside The Lion."

"The Lion?"

"Yeah, it's a, erm, gay pub."

"What?" Jack said, the word exploding from his mouth. "You went into a gay pub?"

"No, of course not. Not inside. The newspapers are on a rack just outside the door."

"You fuckin' idiot!" Jack said, feeling so angry and betrayed that it took all of his self control to keep from shouting.

Charlie looked stunned, as if he'd been slapped across the face.

"But I didn't tell anyone!" he protested.

"It doesn't matter," Jack said angrily, then he seemed to collapse in on himself, and his next words sounded more like a wail of sorrow. "Everyone will know now."

"So what?" Charlie replied, shrugging his shoulders and wincing as the movement caused pain to shoot from his bruised ribs. "I've told the police I recognised three of the lads, and I'm also going to report them to the headmaster. Even if they don't get locked up or expelled, at least they'll know they can't get away with that sort of thing again."

"Oh, fucking shit!" Jack said, and stormed off to his first class.

The rest of that day and the next two days Jack avoided Charlie, and even when they were in the same classroom he didn't speak to him or even look him in the eye. Charlie, assuming that his friend would eventually get over it and become more reasonable, didn't try to force the issue. Then, on the Wednesday night, he went round to Jack's house, where Jack's parents and sister were very sympathetic when they saw his bruised face, though it was clear that they hadn't yet found out why he'd been attacked.

"What do you want?" Jack asked coldly as soon as they got into his bedroom.

Charlie was shocked and hurt that Jack was still apparently blaming him for what had happened. He studied Jack's face for a couple of seconds and was sure that the eyes showed much more warmth than might have been expected from the coldness of the greeting.

"Look, I know you're not ready to talk to me yet, but I need a favour," he said, then paused, convinced that he could see cracks of emotion in Jack's stony expression. "The headmaster said he can't do anything because it wasn't on school property and in any case it's currently being investigated by the police. The police say that the lads I identified all alibi one another, and apart from my identification there's no evidence. They told me that the only other witness, you, can't identify anyone."

"I can't," Jack said, his voice cracking under the strain of his attempts to suppress his emotions.

"You must be able to! You saw them in the street even before they dragged us to the alley."

"I can't," Jack repeated, sitting on the bed and bowing his head as tears began to flow down his cheeks.

"If you don't," Charlie said sternly, "they'll get away with it... and maybe even do it again."

Jack was sobbing quietly now and had his legs pulled up, with his arms wrapped around them, his forehead resting on his knees.

"I can't," Jack repeated again, his voice muffled.

"I thought we were best friends," Charlie said, defeat in his voice as he tried to hold back his own tears.

After standing there for several seconds, he gave up and turned to open the door.

"We were," Jack said quietly as Charlie left the room, but his words went unheard, and they never spoke to one another again.

A couple of months later, Charlie moved to another school, where the homophobia wasn't quite so rampant. The two boys never saw each other again, though Jack could never forget his friend, and the suppressed guilt gave him frequent nightmares.

When Jack got up on the morning after he'd shut the computer down to avoid further conversation with Chaz, he was still tired, though he'd stayed in bed longer than usual, even for a Sunday. After breakfast, he began to feel a growing urge to go upstairs and look at the computer. There was no particular reason for it, and he had some important chores to take care of, so at first he dismissed the idea. However, the urge got more and more insistent, and eventually he gave in. As soon as he stepped through the door of the spare bedroom he saw a message on the monitor.

Lo&Lo> u didn't come back last night - I missed u!

Unable to believe his eyes, Jack froze in the doorway. He was certain that he'd shut down the computer, and was also sure that he's switched the power off at the wall socket. Yet there on the screen was the message, and as he stared at it, another line appeared.

Lo&Lo> At least ur here now. Let's chat! :)

Jack, suddenly feeling light-headed, leaned against the doorjamb. He assumed that his lack of sleep had caused him to misremember what he'd done the previous night. Perhaps there was even a wild possibility that the message was a hallucination. After all, behind the message window he should be able to see the desktop image, but in the background the screen was totally blank. Another line of text appeared.

Lo&Lo> Look, I know u r str8 but I bet we can b friends. I'm remembering more now and I'm sure we've met b4. lets at least discuss it

An inexplicable desire to respond to the message seemed to be pulling him further into the room, and he took a couple of steps before he managed to tear his eyes away from the message. As he looked away from the monitor, he noticed the power socket on the wall and saw that the computer wasn't even plugged in. His heart dropped into his stomach and, overcome by terror, he fled from the room.

Once downstairs, he poured himself a large whiskey, though it was still not yet noon. However, the tremors in his hands ensured that a large quantity of the liquid ended up on the table instead of in the glass. The burning sensation as the liquor made its way to his stomach managed to distract him a little, even before the alcohol had time to take effect. A little later, the fear and tension had decreased enough to allow him to sit down in his favourite armchair and think about what he'd just experienced.

The more he thought about it, the more it seemed obvious that it had all been just a hallucination. He was tired and he'd been put on edge by the nightmares that he'd tried so hard to banish from his memory. Yes, he thought, that was the only explanation. Lack of sleep, combined with the frustration caused by the computer problems, had messed up his mind and made him see things that weren't really there.

He helped himself to a second glass of whiskey, and this time none of it was spilled, even though his hands were not yet totally steady. Returning to his chair, he sat down and took some deep breaths before sipping his drink. By the time the glass was empty, he'd decided that he was now back in control and that he should go back upstairs and demonstrate to himself that it had all been just a trick of his tired brain.

With just a little trepidation, Jack went back upstairs and almost fainted with relief when he saw that the monitor was totally blank. It was only when the air was suddenly expelled from his lungs that he realised that he'd been holding his breath for several seconds, ever since he'd reached the top of the stairs. Just as he was about to turn around and go back downstairs, a line of text appeared on the monitor.

Lo&Lo> u can't get rid of me just by turning off the power

Jack was so shocked by very existence of the words that it took a few seconds for the threat of their meaning to sink into his consciousness. What he didn't notice at all was the fact that they were no longer in a chat window but were now just bare glowing green letters on a blank screen.

Something snapped in his mind, and in an instant he was no longer a reasoning, rational human being, but had become merely an instrument of his own fear and anger. In a frenzied fury, he picked up the heavy computer chair and smashed it again and again onto the computer and monitor. He stamped upon the pieces that fell on the floor until what was left couldn't be crushed or broken any further.

By the time he returned to his senses, he was breathless and exhausted, and his feet were sore and bleeding through his torn slippers. A couple of letters from the keyboard were embedded in the sole of his right slipper, and the letter 'C' had penetrated all the way through, piercing his right foot. The room was littered by shattered pieces of plastic and by chunks of bent and dented metal. What remained of the chair could never again be used as a seat, though it might now be useful as a club.

After recovering from his exertions and tending to his damaged feet, Jack grabbed some large, heavy-duty, black plastic refuse sacks, and hobbled back upstairs. For the next couple of hours he filled the sacks with every single piece of the smashed computer, until there was not a single fragment left in the room. Then, just to be sure, he carefully ran the vacuum cleaner around the room and emptied the collected dust and debris into one of the bags.

Finally, he loaded all the sacks into his car and deposited them at the local municipal rubbish dump. When he eventually returned home, he was exhausted and aching all over, but he felt satisfied with a job well done. Of course, he wasn't exactly ecstatic about the money he'd wasted in buying the computer, but he consoled himself with the thought that it was better that he'd got the computer rather than some poor, unsuspecting child.

He rewarded himself with another glass of whiskey and relaxed into his favourite chair, intending to try to unwind by watching TV. As he reached over to the coffee table to pick up the remote control so that he could switch the set on, a flash of light in the corner of his eye distracted his attention. Looking up, he saw that on the otherwise blank TV screen were some green letters.

Lo&Lo> I'm not in the computer anymore

Staring in stupefied horror at those words, the fleeting thought passed through his mind that he was going to have to smash every piece of electronic equipment in the house. However, even before that thought had been completed, more words appeared in the screen.

Lo&Lo> There's no point. I'm not in the electronics

Jack was frozen in his chair, immobilised by terror and by the additional horror caused by the fact that as the words came up on the screen, he could also hear them spoken inside his head. He could only whimper as the internal voice continued.

"I'm inside you, now. Don't you recognise me yet? Don't you remember when you used to call me Charlie?"

The End

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