Chapter 3:



Part 1: Headline

Owen had been so excited to wake up in the morning, he hadn’t even bothered with coffee. his blood was pumping from the moment he opened his eyes.

Originally, his plan had been to survey the A+ store during Austin’s shift, but he jumped the gun and began scrolling through local news stories for anything resembling a “sudden death at a local convenience store.”

Looking at his phone and reclining on his living room couch, he flew by various puff pieces on local events and headlines about robberies, hungry for the fruits of his labor. Suddenly, he froze, mouth agape in ecstatic shock.

“Death at A+ Convenience Store Puzzles Local Law Enforcement,” the headline read in bold black letters. Owen clicked through to the article and began reading at a mad pace, greedily sucking down every word like a bee swallowing nectar.

“An employee at a local A+ convenience store was found dead just after midnight last night,” the article began. “According to a witness at the scene, the cashier, a young man named Austin Goldthwaite, was found collapsed behind the counter with several serious injuries. The cause of these injuries is still being investigated, but local authorities have claimed they may declare the case a suicide.”

Yes! Owen thought merrily. I can’t believe it! It actually worked!

He laughed to himself, unable to contain his glee. However, his celebration was cut short when his gaze fell on the black envelope on the table in front of him. The implications of Austin’s death began crawling into the forefront of his mind like slippery black tendrils.

Not only had the photograph proven to be a powerful weapon, but its origin was still shrouded in mystery. Why exactly did it kill? Did it invoke some kind of vengeful spirit, like in the horror movies? Did it summon a demon or dark ancient force?

Owen rubbed the black envelope as he pondered the situation. If the photograph did use magic, it was something evil and twisted.

But did it really matter? Austin ended up dead anyway. What actually killed him was a negligible detail. The important part was that Owen now had a tool of death to use as he saw fit; to inflict upon the world that saw him as nothing more than filthy scum.

However, there was still a problem he had to get around. Showing the photo to people physically if he wanted to take them out was not only extremely limiting, but it could also lead to people catching on to how the photo worked. He may have gotten lucky with Austin, but it wouldn’t be like that every time.

What he really needed was a way to transmit the photo anonymously; to instantly send it anywhere in the world whenever he saw fit.

The obvious solution to this was the internet…

But would the curse still work in digital form? he thought to himself, absent-mindedly scooting the black envelope across the table with his finger.

Obviously, the only way to make sure would be to put it to the test.

Owen set about concocting a plan…

Part 2: Station 8

Owen pulled tight the dark blue blindfold around his face, and tied the back with a clumsy knot. It wasn’t the perfect form of protection, but it would do for now.

Now blinded, Owen clumsily fumbled around his bedroom, trying to get used to navigating without the aid of his sight.

“Thunk!” he accidentally rammed his little toe into the wheel of his computer chair and let out a brief grunt of agony. “Gah!”

Hopping on one foot, he landed onto his bed and clutched his bruised toe in a desperate attempt to ease the pain.

I guess I’ll have to move that thing out of the way first, he thought, lifting the blindfold. Lesson learned.

A few moments later, he adjusted the blindfold back onto his eyes and decided to give it another try. He grasped at the various devices on his desk to get a feel for where everything was placed. Once he was confident in his spatial awareness, he lifted the black envelope that had been resting next to his keyboard and opened it up, making a mental note of which side was which.

Carefully, he opened up the lid to his scanner and set the photo face-down onto the glass screen, trying his best to get the position just right.

After he had finally closed the scanner’s lid, he removed the blindfold and breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe the blindfold was overdoing it, but he couldn’t risk getting hit with the curse. He couldn’t die now that he had gotten this far.

Before all of this, Owen might have been indifferent to the idea that his life would end soon. He had very little in the way of future prospects, as well as a very strained relationship with his family. He didn’t even have any friends to confide in. He was just… lost.

In truth, he had been contemplating death by his own hand right before he stumbled across that van with the dead men inside, and it was likely he would have actually gone through with it too.

But the universe sent me a gift, he thought, smiling slightly.

It wasn’t a guardian angel that was sent to help him, but a demon of vengeance.

Owen merrily toyed with this idea in his head as he activated the scanner. For the first time in a while, he began humming to himself.

What is that song? He thought. All I remember is the melody…

He shook the question away. It didn’t matter. All that mattered for now was his plan.

After the scanner had done its work, Owen took a seat at his computer and opened up his file explorer. He had modified his operating system so it wouldn’t display images in the file explorer or in web browsers, thus minimizing risk of accidental exposure. There was still a chance, of course, but he had performed several test runs before going through with the real thing, so he knew that his modifications were solid.

Owen spied the new scan among the other files, named “433.jpg.”

That’s it! he thought gleefully. Time to put it to work!

He opened up a browser and went to the site “Station 8.” It was a popular image board that had been around for over a decade, and had a reputation for being the online equivalent of a sewer system. All of the internet’s worst characters seemed to end up there, and they got their kicks out of bullying others.

Since Owen hated a bully more than anything else, it was fitting that he’d target the world’s largest hive of bullies.

Another plus was that the image board automatically deleted threads after a few days at the latest, meaning that he would have a set timeline to properly measure the photo’s effects.

He grinned as he started up a new thread, selecting the “433.jpg” image to be displayed. It wouldn’t preview the image with Owen’s modifications in place, of course. He silently thanked his past self for going through all of those coding classes. Although his coding abilities never landed him a decent job, he was at least able to put them to use somehow…

Lastly, he needed some text to go along with the image. Drawing a mental blank, he shrugged and simply typed in “33,” the number written on the back of the photograph. Satisfied with this, he clicked the “submit” button and sat back in his chair, feeling the natural high from being able to flex his newfound power.

As soon as his finger lifted from the mouse button, his heart started pumping like crazy, and his entire body was filled with an excited tingling. It was complete and total bliss.

Maybe this is how regular people feel when they’re in love, he thought to himself, still basking in the glow of his completed mission.

Of course, he didn’t know yet if the curse would still take if the photo was seen in jpg form. He now had to wait and see. If there were as many victims as he suspected there would be, he would certainly find his answer one way or another.

Part 3: Return

Owen had originally planned on getting himself a celebratory milkshake, but decided last-minute to make a little detour. He had to see the A+ store again, just to make sure Austin was gone.

He turned a corner about a half mile away from the ice cream shop which had been his original destination and traveled down a forest-lined road that led towards the intersection that the A+ gas station was stationed next to.

He hummed to himself as rain began to drizzle onto his windshield, still unable to place where exactly the melody in his head came from.

I hope Austin is really gone for good, he thought, turning on his old, rattling windshield wipers. Please let this be real and not just a dream!

As happy as he was that Austin had died, his final interaction with the man had been prodding him from the back of his mind since that night. Did Austin really intend to invite him to a party out of the blue like that?...

No! Owen shook that thought out of his head immediately. Austin simply wasn’t that type of guy. He probably planned on pulling some prank on me once I got there. That has to be the case…

He turned into the A+ parking lot and slowed his car down significantly. He rolled past the front doors to the store, greedily taking in the scene as if he were a bear finally breathing in the fresh spring air after a Winter spent hibernating.

The place was closed, the front doors wrapped up with bright yellow “caution” tape just like in the movies. A couple of men who appeared to be police officers were talking with the store owner just outside the building, while inside a maintenance man cleaned the place up.

As Owen passed by, one of the officers, a fairly unkempt detective in a long raincoat, locked eyes with him. It was only for a moment, but it was enough to shake Owen like a bolt of lightning.

Not good, he thought.

He suddenly remembered all of those crime procedural shows, and how the killer always returned to the scene of the crime, which inevitably led to their arrest at the end of the episode.

Did I really just do that? he asked himself. There was certainly nothing incriminating about him taking a look, but he had to admit it was more than a little reckless, especially considering how careful he’d been thus far.

He really wanted to slap himself. Stupid, stupid stupid…

Back onto the road, he began heading back towards the ice cream shop that he had originally planned to visit, but then decided that he wasn’t in the mood for a milkshake anymore.

His appetite had been spoiled.

Part 4: So Easy

The next day, Owen was once again excited to jump out of bed, but his excitement turned out to be in vain.

What the hell is going on here?! he thought, frantically scrolling through news stories on his phone. I don’t see a single story that fits!

House fire… robbery… earthquake… Nothing matched what he was looking for.

Irritated, he balled up his fist and punched the mattress of his bed in an impotent rage, then immediately tried to regain control of his temper.

Calm down, he told himself. Don’t be an impatient baby. Just give it some time.

He glanced momentarily at the computer in his bedroom, wondering if he should give it another go, then decided against it. There was still a chance that the curse worked, and he couldn’t risk overplaying his hand.

He put his phone into sleep mode, deciding finally that he should give it another few days before making an attempt.

Besides, he had to go to work today, and couldn’t afford dwelling on the issue for too long.

Alright… he slapped his face a couple times. time to move on.

Satisfied, he went about assembling his work uniform for the day: black pants with a navy blue polo shirt, the logo for the grocery store he worked at, Super Value, embroidered on the breast.

Just like with every other part of his life, Owen was forced to blend in and keep quiet just to get by. Stand out too much, and you risk getting hammered down back into place.

What good is living in a society like this if you’re forced to be a faceless drone? he thought as he slipped his work pants on.

Of course, Owen wasn’t just a drone anymore. He was something else now. He was a killer.

“BEEP BEEP! BEEP BEEP!” His phone went off, interrupting his train of thought. The caller ID said “Cyrus.”

Oh no, he thought. I really didn’t need this today.

After letting it go for a few rings, he hit the red “cancel” button to send Cyrus to voicemail, deciding that he’d call Cyrus back on his day off tomorrow.

He’ll be mad, but hopefully not too mad…

Cyrus was Owen’s step brother. He was a career criminal who was constantly in and out of prison. When Owen was short on cash a year ago due to an addiction to a mobile phone game he’d been playing, Cyrus offered to step in and help him out… With the expectation that Owen would eventually pay him back with interest, of course.

“What else are bros for?” he remembered Cyrus saying.

In truth, Owen just needed a little more time to save up some money and he’d be half-way there. He could give Cyrus a half of the money when he got his next paycheck, then pay him the rest later with the interest. After that, he’d hopefully never have to deal with Cyrus again.

Memories of Cyrus beating up on him began to flood back into his mind... The way Cyrus’ friends would throw rocks at him and laugh as if it were simply a funny little jest... How they would hold him down and burn him with lit cigarettes… The time Cyrus broke into Owen’s apartment to hide from the police…

It was all so despicable.

Owen instinctively glanced over at the scanner on his computer desk, thinking about the photograph resting inside.

Should I? he asked himself.

He honestly couldn’t think of anyone on Earth who would miss Cyrus much if he disappeared. Even Cyrus’ father was completely sick of his behavior and had recently cut off all contact with him. And Cyrus’ friends?...

They’d just find someone else to commit their crimes with, right?

Owen stood there in silence for a moment, contemplating if he really wanted to go through with the plan that had already begun forming itself in his head.

It would all be so easy…

Making up his mind, he grabbed both the black envelope and the blindfold off of his computer desk.

Real Aire
Joe Gold