For what seemed like hours, Harper Tully stared out the narrow rectangular window as she chewed on her bottom lip.
The focus of her attention was a small brown box sitting on the stoop a few feet away from her apartment’s front door. It was an awkward angle, but she could just make out the top of the bag that was sitting inside of it. It was well within reach if she simply opened the door to claim it. She wouldn’t even have to step outside.
She noticed that she was nervously running her fingers across the thick curtain. Frowning slightly, she released the cloth and stepped away from the window. This was ridiculous. She was acting like a scared child.
Harper unlocked the front door and placed her hand on the doorknob. She curled her fingers around it with every intention of turning it, but instead she simply stood still and continued to chew on her lip.
On the other side of the door was the food that she had ordered an hour earlier. The friendly-looking delivery driver had left it on the stoop just as she had requested in her online order, and he had waved pleasantly at her when he had noticed her looking out the window. She had waved back politely and watched him walk back to his car before driving away.
He had been wearing a mask the entire time he was outside the apartment. She had noticed that he had even left it on when he pulled away from the curb. It was extremely unlikely that the virus could be transmitted on the box or bag, and she knew that the restaurant she had ordered from took the best possible precautions when preparing food. There was absolutely nothing to worry about.
She closed her eyes. She had never been prone to this sort of panic before the pandemic. If anything she had been the opposite, rushing into things without fully thinking through the possible consequences. Something had changed inside of her during the long months of lockdown.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she turned the doorknob and opened the front door. A warm breeze blew in from outside, and the sensation of it washing over her skin made her panic start to rise. She opened her eyes and quickly retrieved the box before slamming the door shut.
She tried to slow her breathing as she took the box into the kitchen. Setting it down on the counter, she quickly washed her hands before also applying hand sanitizer. She put on a pair of rubber gloves before laying out two rows of paper towels on the counter next to the box.
She removed the paper bag from the box and set it onto the paper towels. Opening it, she pulled her sandwich out and carefully unwrapped it from the thin paper that covered it. When she was finished, she put everything but the sandwich back into the box and tossed it into the trash can. She sterilized the area of the counter that the box had been sitting on before getting a plate out of one of the cabinets and taking her food into the living room.
Harper sat down at her desk and started to eat, tapping one of the keys on the keyboard to bring her computer out of standby mode as she did so. The screen turned back on and she was once again looking at the message board she had been reading through all morning. A number of new posts had been left since she had stepped away, and she read through them all eagerly.
It didn’t take long for her to finish. She set down the remainder of her sandwich on the plate and leaned back in her chair. The only sounds in the room were the low hum of her computer’s fan and the ticking of the clock in the hallway.
She reached over and picked up a blanket from off of a nearby footrest. She put it over her shoulders and pulled it tight. As was becoming more and more common, the room felt large and empty even though that wasn’t actually the case. She felt isolated and alone as she waited for a new post to appear on the message board.
Harper didn’t know most of the people that posted on this particular message board. The ones she did know couldn’t be considered anything more than casual acquaintances, people that she had shared some online conversations with at one time or another. That wasn’t all that different from her life before the lockdown had begun. At work she had known many of the people she worked with but hadn’t been close to any of them.
At first she had only gone to the message board every so often out of mild curiosity. Now, though, she was on it practically every waking moment. There wasn’t anything special about it. It was just one of those boards where people would chat about everything from the weather to politics to the ongoing pandemic. It had become a familiar place, and it was the only thing that she had that was close to contact with the outside world. She had felt that need for connection strongly, especially recently.
A notification that a new post had been made appeared on the screen. Harper practically flung herself forward as she clicked on the button to refresh the page. After a moment of loading the title of the post appeared at the top of the message board.
She stared at the words for a long moment. It wasn’t very often that she saw a post title that was that short and to the point, and it was rare that personal feelings such as that were discussed on the message board at all. She opened the post and found that the full text was only two additional words.
She shook her head. It was probably just a spam post. Those happened from time to time on the message board. Usually it involved messages claiming that people could make massive amounts of money working from home, though, or the occasional statement touting the sexual performance enhancement of some wonder drug. This one didn’t seem to have much of a point.
She made a face. There was always the possibility that it was someone trying to find another person to hook up with. Those kinds of posts were much more rare, as there were simply better places on the internet to go to for that.
The disgusted look slowly slid off of her face as she reread the words. It could also be a real person that was really feeling that way and was reaching out to other people. That would have taken a lot of courage to do.
Harper looked away from the computer screen as she mulled it over. Coming to a decision, she turned back to it and hesitantly typed a response.
I am, too, she wrote.
She began to feel embarrassed the moment that she made the post. If she could have immediately removed it she would have, but this particular message board didn’t allow for the deletion or editing of posts. Her cheeks grew warm as she left the desk and went into the bathroom.
She splashed cool water on her face and looked at her reflection in the mirror. The expression she saw on herself made her smile crookedly in a mixture of exasperation and amusement. She had replied to an online post using a pseudonym. No one would know that it had been her. She was feeling self-conscious for no reason.
It was, however, time for her to start getting some work done instead of hanging out on a message board. Working from home had a number of benefits, but one of the downsides was that she had a harder time keeping to a schedule than she did when she was still going into the office. A large amount of documents had been emailed to her earlier in the day and they needed her attention.
Harper returned to the living room and sat back down at her desk, fully intending to get down to business. She was immediately distracted by the sight of a notification that a reply had been posted to the message that she had left. Her first instinct was to ignore it; not only did she have work to do, she was also still feeling a twinge of awkwardness for having responded to the original post. Curiosity got the best of her, though, and with a certain reluctance she refreshed the page.
We don’t have to be.
She furrowed her brow. They didn’t have to be lonely? It sounded like a terrible pickup line. It seemed like she had been right about the poster just looking for a random hookup.
She sat back in her chair. Did that really make sense? She hadn’t provided any personal information about herself. Nothing about her location, or even anything about her gender and orientation. Her screen name was vague enough that it didn’t give away anything along those lines.
The other possibility was that this really was someone that was looking for a way out of their loneliness. In a strange way that made her feel more uncomfortable than if the poster was an indiscriminate pervert. It struck a nerve.
Shaking her head, she closed the website and opened her email client. If she didn’t get started on her work now she was going to miss the end of day deadline. She brought up the first document and began to read through it.
She had only gotten a few sentences in when her mind wandered back to the message board conversation. If the last post was meant to be taken at face value, what did the person mean when they said that they didn’t have to be lonely? Were they suggesting that they strike up an online friendship like modern day penpals? Or were they saying something else entirely?
Harper sighed. It was impossible to figure out without knowing more details. The only thing that was clear was that she wasn’t going to get any work done until she had some answers. She closed her email and navigated back to the message board.
Nothing new had been posted in the last few minutes. She reread the short message a couple of times before noticing that there was more in the post. At the very bottom of the screen was a thin black line. She scrolled down further and found that there was an image attached.
It was a handprint. The image was a bit larger than the size of her own hand, and the fingers were stretched out rather than pressed together. The shape and black color were formed by hundreds, if not thousands, of tightly wound spirals drawn around and on top of each other. She had never seen anything quite like it before.
Without realizing that she was doing it, she reached out with her right hand and moved it slowly towards the screen. It was like the person that had written the messages was reaching out to her in a way that was both figurative and literal. Her fingertips gently touched the monitor and came to a rest over those of the handprint.
It was an oddly poignant moment. Harper suddenly realized that this was the closest that she had come to human contact in over a year. She felt her eyes begin to tear up as she kept her fingers pressed against the warm monitor. She could almost feel the person on the other side of it experiencing the same emotions that she was.
She slowly took her hand away from the monitor. As much as she wanted that to be true, it was just a picture on a computer screen.
Harper wiped at her eyes in annoyance as she returned to her work. It was stupid to get so emotional over something as pointless as a post on a message board. She had much more real things that she needed to attend to.
It took a few hours for her to get through all of the documents. Two of them were rather complicated, and they had required research that had taken more time than she expected. She just barely managed to get them finished and emailed back before her deadline.
Once she had finally finished, she raised her arms over her head and stretched. Her entire body felt a little sore, but her neck in particular was bothering her. She rubbed it with the palm of her hand as she stood up from the desk. She was feeling hungry again. She went into the kitchen to scrounge around for food.
“Hello,” a voice whispered in her ear.
Harper yelped and spun around, fully expecting to see an intruder standing behind her. There was no one there. Her eyes went over every inch of the apartment that she could see, but she came up empty.
She slowly went over to the front door. A quick check verified that she had indeed locked it when she had retrieved the food earlier. Taking an umbrella out of the stand and holding it out in front of her as a makeshift weapon, she quietly went through the apartment room by room. The thought of someone being in there with her was horrifying. To her relief, though, she found that she was alone.
The voice must have just been imagined. Either that, or she might have caught a small snippet of a conversation from one of her neighbors. The apartment walls weren’t nearly as thick as the landlord tried to make potential renters think. The more she thought about it, the more that seemed like the most likely answer.
She put the umbrella back in the stand and returned to the kitchen, rubbing at her aching neck as she did so. There weren’t many options for what to make, so she settled on making herself a sandwich. That was two meals that day that consisted of only a sandwich. As she chewed on the turkey she wondered just how many of the things she had consumed over the course of the pandemic. There had been a time when she would only eat a sandwich as a last resort, but now she was basically living on them.
“Harper,” the same voice from before whispered.
She dropped the remains of the sandwich on the kitchen floor as she jumped. She turned around to look behind her even though she knew it was impossible for anyone to be there. She had been leaning up against the counter while she ate; the only thing behind her was the wall.
The ache in her neck intensified as a burning sensation ran up and down it. She moaned in pain as she held a hand up to it. There was something there. She couldn’t tell what it was.
She immediately felt a sense of dread. She had been so careful during the entire pandemic. Was this thing on her neck part of the symptoms of the disease? She couldn’t remember if growths were on the list or not. There were so many damn symptoms that almost anything could be seen as one.
Forgetting everything else, she rushed through the apartment to the bathroom. She turned on the light and stepped inside, closing the door behind her. Taking a deep breath, she turned to face the mirror.
Harper stared into the mirror, the eyes reflected back at her filled with fear. After a brief hesitation, she turned her head to the left to get a better look at her neck. There was a long scar that ran from just under her ear to the top of her shoulder that hadn’t been there before.
The scar began to separate. She gasped as she gripped the sides of the sink so tightly that her hands hurt. The flesh opened to reveal a dark gap, and each side of the gap was lined with pointed white teeth. Thin trickles of blood ran down between them and onto her shoulder.
“Hello, Harper,” the mouth said in the same whispered tones that she had been hearing.
She screamed. Her shriek echoed through the small bathroom, coming back to her from many different angles and causing her ears to ring. She continued screaming until she began to gasp for air and choke on her own saliva. She coughed and wheezed while the mouth continued talking.
“It’s okay, Harper,” it said soothingly. “I know that this is a shock to you. I’m sorry for that. It’s not my intention to frighten you. Here, let me help.”
She felt something begin to move under her skin. Turning back to the mirror, she watched as a long thin object pushed outward from the mouth and wound its way around the back of her neck and out of sight. It was like watching a jellyfish’s tendril move in water, except that this was underneath her own flesh.
“This will hurt for just a moment,” the voice warned her.
“Please,” she managed to get out. “Don’t do-”
She was cut off by a sharp pain at the base of her skull. She cried out as it grew stronger. Just when she thought that she would pass out, the pain was gone.
“There,” the mouth said. “That’s better, isn’t it?”
Harper took a few deep breaths. The… thing was right. There wasn’t any more pain, and she was feeling more in control of herself and less afraid.
“What did you do to me?” she asked quietly.
“I made it so that you’re more comfortable,” it replied vaguely.
“How? How did you do that?”
“I drilled a small hole through your skull. That allowed me to adjust the parts of your brain that were causing your panic.”
“You… you lobotomized me?”
“No, of course not. I’ve only temporarily affected your system. I wouldn’t do that to you, Harper.”
She stared at the mouth in the mirror. She knew intellectually that she should be more angry and terrified than she was. Those were the right things to be feeling in whatever this situation was. While she did feel them, they were much fainter than they should have been.
“What are you?” she demanded.
The mouth didn’t respond. Instead, she watched as another tendril began to snake out from it under her skin. It continued down her shoulder and beneath her shirt. She felt it go into her right arm, and less than a second later it reappeared from under the sleeve and stopped on the inside of her arm at the wrist.
A mass began to form at the end of the tendril. It caused her skin to bulge outward, stretching and pulling as something moved beneath it. As she watched the skin tore open, sending a spray of blood onto the bathroom floor. Despite whatever the thing was doing to her brain, she felt sharp pain radiate out from the wound.
Fingers extended out from the tear. They flexed as they pulled themselves forward and out of the gap. They were covered in slick blood, but not as much as they should have been given where they were coming out of. The flesh that she could see through the gore was pink and raw like a newborn baby’s skin.
Harper was paralyzed as she watched the fingers emerging. She just couldn’t accept what she was witnessing. It was impossible, and her mind reeled from it.
The fingers were followed by the rest of a hand. It pressed up against her own, and she could feel the warmth of the skin and the stickiness of the blood. For a moment the hand laid flat against her own. Slowly, the fingers moved and intertwined with hers.
“I’m the reason that you never have to be alone again,” the mouth said.
A third tendril, this one much larger than the previous ones, appeared in her neck. She could feel the heat from it under her skin. It felt… good. Comforting. Her muscles started to relax as the tendril slowly began wrapping itself around her. It wound around her shoulders before moving further down to encircle her waist. It was a loving embrace, the kind that she hadn’t felt in far too long.
Her eyelids began to droop. She was vaguely aware that dozens of smaller tendrils were now crawling under her skin and piercing through her skull as they made their way into her brain, but she didn’t care. Nothing else mattered except that she wasn’t alone anymore.
She looked into the mirror. Her right eye was beginning to change. The round iris curled into the shape of a spiral, the same shape that the handprint on the computer screen had been made up of. The vision in that eye warped and distorted before going black. She was now blind on that side. She vaguely wondered why she wasn’t upset about that before dismissing the thought.
“There are others out there that are lonely,” her loving companion told her.
“That’s… sad,” Harper answered slowly in a thick voice. “We should do something about that.”
“That is a very good idea, Harper. Why don’t you?”
She turned away from the mirror and left the bathroom. Each footstep felt like someone else was making it, and the short trip from the bathroom to the living room seemed like a dream. Sitting down at the desk, she tilted her head slightly as she looked at the monitor blankly. After a few minutes she opened the message board, clicked on the button to start a new post, and placed her fingers on the keys, the second hand growing from her right wrist moving slightly to allow her to do so.
I’m lonely, she typed. Are you?