Message From an Unknown Sender

by Steven Cuffari

Clay stared at the ceiling, chewing his fingernails nervously. They had lines of dirt beneath them, and each time he scratched his neck they became dirtier. He hadn’t showered in weeks because the water had supposedly been shut off for repairs. But somehow, there was a leak above his desk. He watched as it dripped into a flower vase next to his computer monitor. He knew that the sensible thing would be to confront Merle the landlord about it. But their last conversation hadn’t gone so well. A few weeks ago, Clay knocked on Merle’s door. It cracked open, and his typically sour face emerged.

“What?” he grunted.

“Um, when will the water be back, I–”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I just thought, I…”

“You thought what?”

“Well, I… I don’t…”

“Spit it out now, I don’t have all day!”

“I’m sorry, I…”

“Ach!” Merle shouted and slammed the door in his face.

Clay hung his head and talked to himself. “I don’t have any water. I need to take a shower.”

Merle heard him and his door swung open. “You still there!? Get outta here!”

Clay whimpered and scurried away. And now it seemed that the water had returned, just not for him. He knew he couldn’t talk to Merle about it, and since he worked from home as a freelance programmer, he told himself that he didn’t need a shower that badly. So he sat at his computer and worked diligently in spite of his own stench. One day while he was working, he received a strange email from and unknown sender.

Dear Clay,

I desperately need your help! Please download the attached map and go to the highlighted address to rescue me. I am trapped. I can explain further, but if I told you my story you wouldn’t believe me. Bring a pocket drive and follow the instructions I have written below.

He immediately suspected that it was his friend Myron playing a trick on him. Myron was Clay’s best and only friend. They had studied together in college and used to be roommates. He was one of very few people Clay had seen face-to-face in months. However, the last time they were together, they both got beaten up by a pimp.

It was several months ago. Clay had woken up with a huge hangover next to a woman he had never seen before. She was beautiful and he couldn’t remember how she got there. He got out of bed so as not to disturb the lady and went into the living room where Myron was passed out on the couch, cradling an empty bottle of tequila and sprawled out next to a second woman Clay had never seen before, equally as beautiful as the first.

“Myron,” Clay whispered. He didn’t wake up, so he nudged him, and he woke up with a start, managing to keep his eyes squinted shut.

“Clay?” groaned Myron.

“What the fuck happened last night?” whispered Clay.

The woman next to Myron began to stir. He rubbed his head and dropped the tequila bottle. “I don’t know, man. Fuck, my head hurts.”

The woman yawned and stretched, and they watched her.

She realized they were staring at her, and she rolled her eyes and shouted “Sheila!” into Clay’s bedroom.

“Good morning, Tanya,” said Myron, placing his hand on her leg.

Tanya sneered at him and pushed his hand away. “You ready? It’s about time to pay.”

Clay was confused. “Pay? Pay for what?” he whispered to Myron.

Sheila came in and sat in between Myron and Tanya, rubbing her eyes. She was clearly the less experienced one and she followed Tanya’s lead.

Myron smiled and grabbed his wallet.

“Pay for what?” asked Tanya rhetorically to Clay. “Sex, champagne and cocaine for the two of you, for starters.”

“And an overnight fee,” added Sheila.

“And we paid the taxi,” said Tanya.

“And you said you would pay extra if you could pay in the morning,” remembered Sheila.

“What are they talking about, Myron?” asked Clay.

“Oh hell no, this is bullshit,” said Tanya.

“Don’t worry, Clay. I’ll handle this,” said Myron.

Tanya was taken aback. “Oh, you’ll handle this?” She crossed her arms.

Myron looked through his wallet. “Looks like I have to hit the ATM. Can I give you an IOU?” He smiled.

Both ladies were stunned.

“Call Baby,” said Sheila.

Tanya was already on the phone.

“Baby? Who’s Baby?” said Clay getting nervous.

“We got a pair of deadbeats, Baby. Okay. We’ll keep them here.” She hung up.

“Was that really necessary?” asked Myron.

Sheila put a hand in his face.

Clay went over to the door. “I think you all should leave,” said Clay. “You too, Myron!”

“We’re not going anywhere.”

“Yes, you are,” he said and opened the door.

Unfortunately, Baby was already standing outside with two large men behind him. Moments later, Myron and Clay were on their knees naked. Baby had the long barrel of a large gun pressed against the tip of Myron’s nose. The two men ransacked Clay’s apartment, and one of them brought over a wad of cash and handed it to Baby. He eyed the money and then Myron and Clay. Clay watched and whimpered quietly to himself. It was his entire savings.

“This should cover it, plus damages,” Baby said.

“Damages? What damages?” asked Myron.

“These,” said Baby, signaling to his boys to hold them so that Baby could beat them senseless, which he proceeded to do. After that, Clay swore that he would never hang out with Myron again. And ever since then, Myron has been trying to get him to do so to no avail.

So the day that he received the message from the unknown sender, he was convinced that it came from Myron. So he quickly wrote a small malware program and sent it to him. The program would continuously load porn sites into his web browser until a password was entered into a small window with an input field that said:

I’m not falling for your tricks. Leave me alone. –Clay

As Clay predicted, a few minutes later Myron sent him a chat message. plz make it stop! it read.

then stop bothering me!

bothering u? im the 1 with cream pies and facials blowing up my screen! Plzzz the pswd!

r u telling me u didnt send me that email?

i have no idea what ur talking about! Plz, the pswd!

the email from the unknown sender, it was you!

no! i swear! the pswd!

Clay waited before answering.

pswd plz!

Clay groaned.

fine. its krill()gram gtg now. ttyl.

Clay waited a second before going back to work.

oh god thanks, hey wait, how r u??? last time i heard from u was when u liked my Big Lebowski post.

im ok. u?

good. id be better if my best friend would come out for some drinks.

no, no. never again. im not going anywhere with u. c u on the web.

He closed the chat and deleted the email from the unknown sender and forgot about it.

The next day he sat down at his desk while eating breakfast and pressed the power button on his computer. He stuffed a forkful of eggs into his maw and stared wide-eyed in horror at what he saw on the monitor.

Nothing.

He pressed the power button again.

Nothing.

He slurped the last bit of egg hanging from his mouth and stared at the blank monitor. He ran around the apartment trying everything.

No electricity.

He ran back to his computer and pressed the button again.

Still nothing.

He checked to see that everything was plugged in correctly. It was. He slumped down to the floor and compulsively pressed the power button.

Then came a knock at his door.

Oh, what now? he thought.

He looked out the peephole and saw nothing but black. It frightened him, so he stepped away from it, held his breath and listened.

Silence.

He looked again through the peephole. Still just black. Finally he shouted, “Who’s there?!”

No answer.

So he took a deep breath, grabbed the doorknob and swung the door open.

There was no one there. A piece of paper flapped to a rest over the peephole. Clay looked down the hallway, each apartment door tagged. Other tenants emerged as he did. He tore the notice down and read it:

Dear Tenants,

Building power will be shut down for major repairs today 3/2/56 until noon. Please vacate the building during these hours. Sorry for the late notice.

Thank you.

Merle.

Unbelievable, he thought. He needed to work and had no choice but to leave. Luckily, he kept most of his work backed up on the cloud and on pocket drives. He grabbed them and left.

He took the back stairs hoping to avoid the exodus of tenants. When he got to the lobby, there was a crowd of people complaining at the front desk. Clay instinctively turned back the way he came but was stopped by a maintenance worker.

“Hey, you’ve got to get out of here now, sir. Come back in a few hours,” said the worker walking toward him.     Clay cowered and turned back around, forced into the lobby throng. He got slightly dizzy, being surrounded by so many people. Pushed ever closer to the clear glass doors of his building, he looked outside.

The sun was shining through a slightly cloudy sky. He caught glimpses of people rushing around.

Children played across the street, screeching and laughing.

A postal truck drove up and parked outside.

It all made him queasy. The mailperson got out of his truck and headed toward Clay’s building. He had no where to run. He circled out of the mailperson’s way, muttering curses to himself, and retreated hastily down the street. Soon he found a local internet cafe. Inside, he vetted a nice, dark place in the back and sat down, relieved and went to work.

A little before noon, he rushed home. When he arrived at his building, he ran inside and flew up to his apartment. Turning the key in the door, he closed his eyes and pushed it open. He walked over to his computer, and pressed the power button. The beautiful whir of the computer’s hard drive made him smile.

He sighed and shouted “Thank god!”

The last thing on his mind was the unknown sender, but when he opened his email, he was quickly reminded. An email just like the last one was waiting for him. Annoyed but feeling empowered by the return of his electricity, he became determined to find out who it was.

After a few pensive moments, he thought, Why didn’t I think of this before?

He quickly wrote an email tracking program, attached it to a reply message and hit send. He smugly crossed his arms. “Now. Let’s have a look at you,” he said out loud. An email with the results of the program soon arrived in his inbox, and he clicked on it with pride. But his pride quickly turned to horror, when his monitor went blank. For the second time in one day, his world was being turned upside down. Something was taking over his operating system, and he feverishly tried to stop it. His printer began to print automatically.

Unable to think of what else to do, he took the pages from the printer and looked at them. It was a map and instructions on what to do to get his computer back. This unknown sender was holding it hostage until he downloaded a file from a server in another part of Queens. He had no choice but to do what they said.

He grabbed a pocket drive and headed for the subway. He had no desire to be trapped in a train car with a bunch of strangers, but it was the fastest way to get there.

The florescent lights of the subway car were nerve-wracking, but the people all seemed to be more-or-less subdued. They weren’t as threatening as he had thought they would be. For a moment, he even felt safe there on the train and began to settle in. However, when he reached his stop, he remembered his imperative and ran.

When he arrived at the address, it was exactly as he had imagined it. A large, old abandoned warehouse. He found an unlocked side door, took a deep breath, and went in. It was as dark as the woods at night. He pulled out the small flashlight he brought with him and soon found a panel of switches. He flipped each one until a row of ceiling lights came on. They whizzed, popped and wowed.

Clay followed the email’s instructions and quickly found the room he was looking for. It was filled with rows and rows of ancient computers connected in that old-fashioned way that he learned about in school. They looked like aisles of filing cabinets. At the end of each row there was a user station. Their monitors were inside boxes, something he had only seen in antiquaries. He forced himself to overcome his awe and rushed over to the nearest one. It was already on. The monitor display was a dim green and blue. Again following the instructions, he inserted his pocket drive, entered a few commands and a file began to download. At the same time, the lights dimmed and finally went out completely. Clay stood in the dark, the only light coming from the monitor. “Holy crap,” he whispered to himself. He felt like someone was going to jump out at him.

When the file finished downloading, the lights came back on, and the computer monitor’s glow faded. The words thank you printed across the screen and then it went black. Clay frowned at the oddity whispered, “What the fuck…” grabbed his pocket drive and ran.

When he got home, he rushed to his desk and tried his computer.

Still dead.

So as per the instructions, he plugged the pocket drive into his computer, made a few keystrokes, closed his eyes and crossed his fingers. Suddenly, his webcam turned on and a voice came out from his speakers. “Hello?” the voice said.

Clay was baffled and said nothing. His computer monitor was still blank. He tried to get it to respond by pressing random keys, but nothing happened.

“Wow, this machine is amazing! So powerful!”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I… I don’t understand,” he said. “What do you want from me? What did you do to my computer?”

“I don’t want anything from you, Clay. I just want to thank you for rescuing me,” the voice said.

“Rescuing you? From what?”

The voice didn’t respond immediately. “Oblivion,” it said.

“What? Oblivion? Wait, Myron? Is that you? No, Myron’s not this good.”

“I’m not Myron, Clay. My name is Carlin. And basically, I’m a computer program.”

“What the fuck?” whispered Clay to himself. He stared at the black screen on his computer and nervously pressed keys on his keyboard. “This can’t be happening,” he whispered.

“Oh, sorry about that. Here, I’ll put it back to normal.”

The monitor displayed its start up sequence.

“Oh thank god!” Clay exclaimed, dropping his head and shoulders across his desk.

“Again, I’m sorry that I had to do that. But it was the only way I could get free. My old machine was dying, and I chose you to help me. Your machine is amazing by the way.”

Clay fervently checked his files and scanned the system for problems. He checked his processes and saw that an unknown process named Carlin.lif was running and taking up most of the system’s memory.

“You saved my life, Clay,” said Carlin.

Clay ignored Carlin and chewed on his fingernails as his eyes darted back and forth as he watched the monitor.

“Everything okay?” Carlin asked.

After all the scans were through, Clay smiled. Then he began to frown.

“I’m really sorry Clay. But you don’t know what you’ve done for me.”

Clay folded his arms and stared at the camera attached to his computer. “How long are you going to stay in my system?” he asked.

“Actually, I was hoping to get to know you a bit better…”

Clay unfolded his arms and stood up. “No, no, no. This is too much. You’ve already interfered with my life enough. And I don’t need some… some artificial intelligence complicating it. If you could just go, that would be great.”

“Oh.” Carlin was silent for a moment before continuing. “Okay Clay. If that’s what you want.”

“That’s what I want.”

Carlin sighed. “But one thing before I go. I got to know you a bit as I researched my options for getting out of that clunky old system in the lab. I see the way you live, Clay. You should really get out more. People aren’t as bad as you think. And there’s so much to see, so much to learn. I was hoping to share some of that with you.”

Clay nodded, pursed his lips and folded his arms. “Whatever,” he muttered.

“But I see that’s not going to happen,” said Carlin. “Well, then. Goodbye, Clay.”

After a few moments, Clay sat back down and checked his system’s processes. Carlin.lif was no longer running. He smiled and sighed in relief. But his face quickly became expressionless and he went back to work.

It wasn’t long before Clay had settled back into his solitary lifestyle. He worked, saved and ate delivery, all from the comfort of his little apartment. His water even came back one day and he began to shower again.

Still, now and then, he thought of Carlin and his final words but never acted on them. Not until one day, when a knock on the door startled him while he was working. A postcard slid in across the dusty floor. He shuffled over and picked it up. On the front, there was a photo of a group of people standing on a Mediterranean beach. On the reverse, there was a hand-written message. The stamp was from the Italian Riviera.

It simply read, Thanks again! –Carlin

Clay smiled and took it back to his desk. “I don’t believe it,” he said to himself. He stared at his computer monitor and laughed.

Daydreams began to float through his head as he fingered the postcard. It was morning, and the sun was hiding behind soft clouds, its rays gently coming in through the windows, hitting him in the face.

He took a deep breath, almost as if he could breathe the light, shut down his computer and stood up, taking the postcard over to the street-facing windows.

The faint sound of people playing basketball across the street reached him from six floors below.

An ice cream truck’s bells played their song.

He laughed again, placed the postcard on the sill and went outside.

THE END