It was curious, I thought, just some piece of spam email that made it through my filter.
But the subject line, saying only ‘Delete This’ followed by three exclamation marks, seemed odd for spam.
But hey, it worked, had my attention. To spite the trick, I swiped the header in my email app and touched delete. And that was it. Email sucks. I smiled. The chime from my cell phone signaled a new message. I popped out of email and into messages. A message from a number not in my contacts waited for me at the top. The message preview was short.
I felt a little uncomfortable.
How did that happen? The moment I delete the email with this subject line, this text arrives.
I frowned. If I had been hacked this was going to be a huge hassle. I touched the message preview and it opened to reveal nothing else. I glanced at the sender’s number, did not recognize it.
I better get this over to IT right away.
With a few touches the message was forwarded to my IT guy.
I went back to email, into the trash folder and looked at the email header I had just deleted.
The sender line read: firstname.lastname@example.org I googled the domain, a static page, very strange, it says “delete this” in black letters, thinly edged in white with blood red splatters, against a black background.
"So, what does that mean?" I said aloud and then looked in the direction of my seat mate in first class. She seemed to be ignoring my utterance as she fingered through her Facebook app. I looked back at the webpage. It was disturbing.
I forwarded the email to IT, and texted again for good measure, wanting to get the prompt attention of IT, hoping for resolution by the time I landed.
Our flight was in a runway delay. Everyone was engaged with extra minutes available for online interaction or information. Against my practiced rule regarding suspect email, I decided to open it.
‘Thank you,’ it said, and down a few spaces, ‘Call the number. Don't text.’
A few spaces down it listed a phone number, it was the same number as the text.
I scrolled the message, nothing else. I hit reply.
‘Who is this?’
Send. I went back to my message app.
‘Who is this?’
Send. The email chime sounded before I could escape the message app. A reply.
‘Call the number. You have two minutes.’ “Alright! What the f***! Who is this?” I said out loud.
My first-class companion looked up from Facebook with a question and indignation on her face.
I nodded to her with a contrite expression, then returned my focus to the email message. I scrolled down, again, nothing else.
A new text message popped up along with the familiar chime.
‘You were told not to text. You are running out of time. Call the number now.’
The captains voice came over the speakers.
“We have been cleared for takeoff…” His voice droned on.
I was sweating. A thin film of perspiration covered my arms. I felt a little faint, like I had just rose to quickly. I touched the phone icon. As the phone app opened, the number was waiting for me. I frowned, now I was worried.
How is that possible? I’ve been hacked! Are they watching me?
I cast a suspicious glance at the tiny camera lens on my phone.
‘Call the number now.’
I touched the number and held the phone to my ear, hearing the ring sound that told me it had connected.
I looked around me. I felt the clammy sweat of fear bead on my brow. I listened to the ring.
“Sir, you have to turn off your cell phone now.” The flight attendant looked at me from the aisle.
“Yes, of course.” I took the phone away from my ear and smiled. He turned away and moved up the aisle. Quickly I leaned down, reaching for my bag under the seat in front of me and staying out of sight of the flight attendant. I held the phone to my ear. It was still ringing.
‘Your call has been transferred to an automatic voice message system. At the tone, please leave your message for’, there was a pause, a name should have followed but instead there was silence, and no signaling tone.
And then I heard my voice, say my name, and the sound of the short tone signaling me to leave my message.
I rose from my hiding, leaving the phone held in my lap. I looked around nervously. Everyone was looking at me. Their expressions were accusing me. I turned to see my seat mate looking at me with accusation.
“You better leave a message. You are almost out of time.” She said.
Numb with confusion and fear, I stared at her.
How? The question echoed in my head.
I lifted my cell phone from my lap to address it with my message.
“This is James, what do you want with me? Who are you? Why are you doing this? How are you doing this? Please stop.”
“Thank you for your message James,” I heard myself say from the phone, “I was afraid you would not make it on time.”
I stammered something into the phone, sitting erect in my seat, my phone to my ear.
There was a tap on my shoulder. It startled me. Nervously, I looked around. Nobody was watching me. They were all engaged with themselves. Nodding off. Talking to a seat mate. Leafing through the flight magazine. Reading a book. Reading from a tablet. They were not at all interested in me.
Had I imagined their stares just a moment ago?
“Sir, you need to turn off your phone. It must be turned completely off before we can depart.” The flight attendant was looking at me with serious countenance.
I heard my voice say something from the phone.
“Don’t hang up. You only have one thing more to do.”
“I can’t hang up the phone.” I said to the flight attendant. “I’m sorry, it’s very important. I am almost finished.”
I turned away from his look and spoke hurriedly into the phone.
“What? What do I have to do?”
“Hand the phone to the flight attendant.”
I was numb. I did not move.
“Sir, I’m sorry.”
“He, he wants to talk to you.” I said before he finished his abomination, and held the phone out to the flight attendant.
Quizzically, and with consternation, the flight attendant took the phone from me and brought it to his ear.
“Yes?” He said. He frowned and held the phone away from his ear, looking closely. “Sir, this phone is not operating. It has been turned off.”
“No! No!” I said and took the phone out of his hand as he held it up in front of him. “Hello. Hello. Are you there?” I addressed the phone in a frantic raised voice.
My voice inside the phone laughed. A horrible, maniacal laugh. I stared wildly at everyone around me. They all looked at me. They were concerned, afraid.
“Sir, I am going to have to ask you to exit the plane. Please gather your things and follow me or I will have airport police come and remove you.”
They did come and remove me. I screamed as they took the phone from me.
“Why are you laughing? Why are you laughing?” I screamed at the phone as one of the officers slipped it into his pant pocket.
They restrained me with plastic ties, hand and feet, and carried me off the plane. I screamed out for the phone the whole time.
In the terminal, I was sedated and lost consciousness. When I woke, I was in a hospital room. They had an IV in my arm. My arms and legs were bound to the bed. My head was propped with a pillow.
A nurse came into the room with a very curious expression on her face.
“You are awake.” She stated. “How do you feel?”
“I’m OK, I think. How did I get here? And why am I bound to this bed?”
“You don’t remember?”
“I remember, I remember everything. But I don’t need to be tied up like this.” I raised my arms and legs against the restraints in exclamation. “I’m OK, I need to be in Dallas tomorrow, I have clients.”
“Maybe you should see this.”
She turned on the TV set mounted to the wall.
I watched in horror as a video showed an airplane exploding on take-off, just as it clears the runway. It played over and over behind the slow-motion drone of the news reporter’s voice. And then, I watched as the reporter told me, told everyone, that just moments before, I had been carried off the plane, Flight 4387 to Dallas, screaming and bound. The video changed to footage of me being carried up the jet-bridge, through and then away from the plane door. I was being held for treatment, and as a person of interest to the investigation.
I was a suspect. A slow parade of “concerned” officials cascaded through my hospital room. Was I OK? Did I remember anything about the incident on board the plane? When I asked about my phone, they all feigned innocence. They had not heard of any concern over my cell phone. Almost a direct quote!
I was released from the hospital. No charges were brought against me. There was no evidence linking me in any way to the accident. My psychotic break was deemed a coincidence. After a few days, I was cleared and released. At that time, the authorities did not have a definitive cause for the accident.
I dreaded the results of the crash investigation. There were no living witnesses to what had happened to me on the plane. I had been truthful, if not complete, in my own sworn statements. By all accounts, mine, the jet-bridge video, and those of the airport police and paramedics who carried me off the plane, I was in an extremely agitated state, greatly concerned with my phone. One of the police officers noted in his statement that the phone did not function. He had taken it from me when they carried me off the plane. He said it was either broken or out of battery, it would not respond.
The phone was never returned.
I’ve been on anxiety medication since the incident. I lost my job and girlfriend. I’ve gained a lot of weight. The investigation into the crash of Flight 4387 is completed. It had something to do with wiring and oxygen tanks. It was a tragic accident.
That which I dreaded, the release of the cockpit black box recording, came and went. My conversation with the flight attendant, and eventual disintegration into raving madness, which I feared would be audible from my first-class proximity to the cockpit, were not included in any of the transcripts released to the news media.
I was in the clear.
Today there was a knock on my apartment door. Grimly, I opened the door expecting a visit from the building manager concerning my past due rent.
A small man, dressed neatly in an old fashion black suit, waited. He held a small package, precisely wrapped in plain brown paper. He handed it to me.
“He wants you to have this. There is a message from him inside. Good day.” He said and walked away.
I did not say anything. I was in shock. I think.
I watched him leave the frame of the door and stood there with the package in my hands. After a moment, I stepped through the door and looked down the hall, he was gone.
I sat down, opened the package, and the rest of my life unraveled.
The package, a small box, contained my lost phone and a DVD. Numb, overwhelmed with all of it, I stared blankly at the contents. The phone lay on top of the DVD.
For a time, I sat and stared at the box, feeling empty, alone, lost.
It started as a gnawing awareness in the pit of my stomach. The phone was going to talk to me. I was afraid. I did not want the phone. I did not want to touch it. It laid there, accusing me.
There was a chime sound. Text appeared on the phone’s screen.
‘Play the DVD.’
I felt for the edges of the DVD and lifted it from under, careful not to touch the phone.
The video began with a disclaimer identifying the contents as evidence in a criminal investigation. Any unlawful viewing would be subject to prosecution.
With that out of the way, it continued with the familiar footage of the airplane crash. But this version was not the news channel version. In what I assume was an edited compilation of several sources, this video showed the crash from several different perspectives. Some of it might have been taken by witnesses, not mounted surveillance cameras. Images jumped around. You could hear the exclamations and cries of people in the background.
Now the image on the screen was racing toward the crash site. One of the rescuers was capturing their rush to the crash site. The plane was burning. It was intact, but had a large hole in the side that was visible through the flames as the rescuer approached.
Everyone knew the story of the courageous airport baggage handler who had jumped into his supervisor’s truck, while others stood watching the scene, and raced to the burning plane. This video had not been released to the public.
As he approached in the truck you could make out three bodies on the ground, spaced along the line of the crash trajectory. They were not moving, and were burning. As the truck came to a furious stop it was enveloped in a cloud of dust. He put the phone, still recording video, on the dash of the truck, wedged against the windshield. As the dust clears you can see him running after a woman as she stumbles past the truck. She is frantic, beating with her burning hands at the flames engulfing her. She is shouting something, but I could not make it out. Out of the picture it seems he caught her and pulled her to the ground. I could hear them come to the ground and her new screams of anguish. Then I heard it.
“He won’t let us out!”
It was clear. She had cried out; He won’t let us out.
Cold terror replaced the resigned compliance I felt when I began watching the DVD.
I paused the video, replaying her words four times, then continuing.
The rescuer comes running back into the field of the camera and races toward the plane. He is running to the unopened emergency exit. He reaches for the release with his bare hands and jumps back in obvious pain. He spins in agony, then stops and rips at his shirt, shredding the buttons and pulling it off, quickly wrapping it around one hand, then he grabs back at the release for the emergence exit. It appears to pop, as if to open, but does not open. He falls backward in obviously renewed pain, holding his shirt wrapped hand to his chest.
The emergency door suddenly falls away from the plane. A body stands at the exit, on fire. The burning body pauses, as if looking around, and then takes a step as if casually disembarking. The body falls face first to the ground. A ghastly procession of six more burning people, stumble out the exit. Firemen and paramedics come rushing into the picture. The video ends.
I pushed STOP on the remote and fell back into the couch before the television. It was the most horrifying thing I had ever seen. The phone in the box chimed a new message. In terror, I leaned forward, peering into the box.
‘It is not finished.’
I knew there was no choice. I pushed PLAY.
The video of me being carried off the plane played. It was the same video I had seen a hundred times on news stories from the local affiliates, on CNN and FOX News, even on the BBC. I endured the video. I did not notice anything new until the very end. A few seconds of video played after I had been carried past the view of the security camera in the jet bridge. Faces from the plane were visible following my exit from the boarding entrance. They drifted away from the exit until just a flight attendant and a pilot remained. They looked briefly at each other then turned, the pilot toward the cockpit of the doomed craft, the flight attendant to his passengers. A head briefly appeared as the flight attendant turned away from the pilot. It appeared high in the frame of the portal, it was a man, obviously one last passenger grabbing a look at the crazy man. The flight attendant walked past him into the plane and out of the picture. The head lingered. I thought it might be smiling.
Another official disclaimer appeared marking the end of the video. I did not bother to stop the DVD. The screen went dark but the DVD was still playing, the numbers rolling on the LED elapsed time indicator. I waited for my phone to chime, announcing my next step into terror.
Then the television screen came to life. The image of the first burning body standing, pausing at the emergency exit portal, before stepping out of the plane, appeared on the screen. The image was frozen and zoomed to focus on the face. The image was clearly visible as a face, but was indistinct. A line passed through the image, and the face gained some feature. You could make out the eyes, mouth and nose. It was swollen but did not appear burned.
Next, the image of the man’s face peering out the plane portal as I was being carried up the jet bridge. As I watched the image was zoomed and enhanced. The face was clear.
It was my face.
An involuntary cry crawled up my throat. I drew a quivering breath through my lips and fell again into the couch.
The image of the burning man’s face appeared on the screen, alongside my face, peering out the portal. Lines began passing through the burning man’s face, with each line, more clarity. I screamed as I beheld the two images of my face, both smiling.
Another disclaimer appeared on the screen.
My phone chimed a new message.