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Date: 12/2/17 22:47 (UTC-05:00)

From: bkatz@gwu.edu
To: wgraham@gwu.edu
Subject: (no subject)

Yo, Graham cracker check out this link! it’s that spoopy dark web game everybody keeps talking about, the one that’s supposed to make people die ~mysteriously~ or vanish after they play, oooooOOOOOOooooo!!!

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Date: 12/2/17 23:01 (UTC-05:00)

From: wgraham@gwu.edu
To: bkatz@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

Bev. I am studying. Which you should be doing too btw. Finals are next week.

Also, pretty sure that’s already been debunked on Snopes.

- WG

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Date: 12/2/17 23:11 (UTC-05:00)

From: bkatz@gwu.edu
To: wgraham@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

suuuuuuure, that’s what they WANT you to think! and shut up you are NOT. at 11 pm?? on a Saturday night??? boy pls even you can’t be that big a nerd :p

but also Mr. Nerd Who Has No Life, this game is perfect for you. c’mon don’t you wanna date cute anime girls and boys? of course you do. i’ve already been playing for a few hours I’m telling you hype aside it’s actually really great

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Date: 12/2/17 23:22 (UTC-05:00)

From: wgraham@gwu.edu
To: bkatz@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

YOU shut up. I slept in really late ok? You know I’m basically nocturnal on weekends -_-

You’re playing the murder game? That sounds…dangerous.

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Date: 12/2/17 23:28 (UTC-05:00)

From: bkatz@gwu.edu
To: wgraham@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

ahahaha, I thought you didn’t believe in that, mr. skeptic. seriously tho, i’m already on my second playthrough it is SO CUTE!! also kinda weird at times so i totally get where the rumors come from. I don’t wanna say too much and give away spoilers but I mean it, this game is right up your alley, Will.

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Date: 12/2/17 23:36 (UTC-05:00)

From: wgraham@gwu.edu
To: bkatz@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

I don’t know whether to be insulted by that or not. You know all those anime DVDs that used to be all over my living room were my roommate’s right? You should be emailing him about this, not me.

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Date: 12/2/17 23:40 (UTC-05:00)

From: bkatz@gwu.edu
To: wgraham@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

gross Graham, you know Brian and I don’t really talk anymore after *the incident* involving too much alcohol and poor choices >_< c’mon please? I need you to play so you can understand all the memes and sick references I’m gonna start inundating you with anyway. besides you could use the study break and at least this facsimile of what an actual real social life should look like.

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Date: 12/2/17 23:43 (UTC-05:00)

From: wgraham@gwu.edu
To: bkatz@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

Ouch. Rude. You know you ARE my social life, Bev…I just realized how sad that sounds, never mind. Also, “inundating”? “Facsimile”? Nice to see you putting that college education to use for once, breaking out the big words and all, Katz. :P

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Date: 12/2/17 23:45 (UTC-05:00)

From: bkatz@gwu.edu
To: wgraham@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

Meanie! Ehehe~ You could say it’s the game’s influence actually. I know it may not seem like it at first, but it’s actually much smarter than you might think. I mean it. Hell, you could write dissertations on this thing. Is that what it’ll take to convince you? We can make it a class project next semester! C’monnnnnnn…..

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Date: 12/2/17 23:46 (UTC-05:00)

From: wgraham@gwu.edu
To: bkatz@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

*heavy sigh* FINE. I will *try* it just for a bit if that’ll make you happy. But that’s it! No promises I’ll stick with it for long if it gets boring ok?

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Date: 12/2/17 23:47 (UTC-05:00)

From: bkatz@gwu.edu
To: wgraham@gwu.edu
Subject: RE:

Ehehe~

Here’s the link again so you don’t have to scroll all the way back for it ^_~

Trust me, you won’t be bored once you start playing. Promise. <3

--------------------------------------------

Will Graham sighs genuinely this time. Beverly can really be a bit much sometimes, but judging by how uncharacteristically fast she kept responding to his messages back, he figures she must be really into this and eager to share it with him. That’s still something he’s not wholly used to, having a friend who cares this much, so indulging her in this is probably the least he can do. How often has she listened to him infodump about something she’s not interested in on those rare occasions when Will was the one feeling talkative, after all?

It’s quick to install, not taking up much file space. Will wipes his glasses with his shirt while waiting for it to finish and slides them back on. He launches the game, and right away he can tell from the cutesy music and graphics on the title screen that this is going to be painfully…what’s the word Brian would use? Moe? Probably moe. He barely refrains from rolling his eyes as he clicks to start a new game, rather uncreatively typing in “Will” when it asks for a name.

It’s an ordinary morning, just like any other. A cute and annoyingly cheerful girl waves to catch my attention. She’s my good friend and next door neighbor, Molly. I stand and wait at the crosswalk for her to catch up.

Molly: “Hey there, Will! I woke up in time to walk with you to school for once! Thanks for waiting for me~”

“Aww,” Will catches himself saying out loud, quickly looking around in his apartment as if expecting Zee to show up and look over his shoulder before remembering his old roommate moved out almost a month ago. The little expressions this “Molly” character’s sprite makes are indescribably cute though.

Molly and in-game Will chat about classes and after-school clubs, with the latter proclaiming he has no interest in literature when she brings up her own club and reminding her that he’s mostly into manga and anime. “Yeah no, give me some Kafka or Wilde over whatever this is any day,” Will mutters dryly to himself. “Kudos for understanding your target demographic though.” He realizes, of course, that he’s talking out loud to a video game and that this alone probably speaks volumes about his own lonely, antisocial behavior, but whatever. Zeller isn’t around to judge him.

Molly ambushes me after class to ask me if I’ve decided on a club to join yet. To be honest, the only reason I was caught off-guard is that I was sort of spacing out a little before she showed up. Oops. Will in real life can kind of relate to that one actually.

“Ehehe~ You should come to my clubroom then and meet everyone! It’ll be even more fun with you there!” says Molly, getting to her point after a couple of lines of dialogue.

“No thanks, I don’t want to join your club, Molly,” says game Will.

Molly: “Hmph, meanie! I already told everyone else I’d bring another member today. Come on, Will, pleeease? Alana made cupcakes and everything!” And so today marks the day I sold my soul for a cupcake. Will snorts a little at his desk after that last line. This is sounding very familiar to the exchange he just had with Bev a few minutes ago. He’s so teasing her about picking up her new heightened manipulation tactics from a visual novel of all things later.

One generic hallway and another generic classroom background later, Molly introduces Will’s character to the other club members—Alana, who seems nice enough but not bubbly like Molly and as if she can’t quite make up her mind as to whether she likes Will or not; Matthew, who’s quiet and observant and mostly seems to watch everyone else interact more than speak up himself; and Hannibal, the club president. They’re all wearing more or less the same formal high school uniform, with the girls in pleated skirts instead of pants and Hannibal’s blazer having unique markings on it which probably denote his seniority over the others and involvement with class politics.

He’s seen just enough from Brian playing similarly styled games in front of him before—mostly he’d been showing them to Jimmy actually, trying to get his own best friend into some of his hobbies—to guess that each character should more or less fit a particular archetype. Nothing too exciting or new to warrant Beverly’s fascination with it so far. It must take some time to build up whatever’s supposed to make the game so interesting.

Hannibal: “Hello, Will. It’s so good to see you.” That’s right, Hannibal and I have met before, I remember. We were in the same class last year. He quickly gained popularity, not just for being the cool new exchange student—he’s so smart, athletic, and handsome. In other words, totally out of my league.

“Gee, he sounds so interesting and dreamy,” Will mutters in monotone. “No really, thanks for the completely necessary exposition dump, game.”

The Hannibal sprite’s expression flickers briefly into what Will guesses is supposed to be a neutral sort of frown before smiling again warmly. “I realize we’ve never really spoken before, but I hope we’ll spend plenty of time together and get to know each other better now that you’ve arrived. Your friend has spoken highly of you.”

Molly blushes. “Ehehe~ I’ll just help Alana get those cupcakes now.”

“And I’ll make us some tea,” Matthew speaks up. He seems to be staring where Will’s character presumably stands, as they all do, looking more or less through the screen at him while facing just a little bit to the left. Only Hannibal faces ahead straight forward most of the time as if to look directly at Will. The effect is a bit unintentionally creepy to be honest.

After a bit of wheedling and convincing, the others eventually persuade Will’s character to stay on as a full member. When Hannibal announces that they’re going to start a new daily club activity by writing a poem every evening at home and bringing it to school the next day to share with each other, Will perks up in his seat out of genuine interest. He doubts the game’s idea of poetry is going to be anything on the level of, say, Keats or Plath, but he’s been railroaded into making few actual choices in the dialogue so far and this at least sounds like a unique game mechanic he’s never heard of before.

The game gives him twenty pages of word banks to choose from, with the intent being that he’ll select as many words with which to “design” his character’s poem, but as this is the first time the game is actually letting him do something fun, Will is not content to leave it at that. Instead, he resizes the game window so it only takes up one side of the screen and opens a Word document on the other half, recording all twenty of his chosen words at the top of the page as he goes to form his own bank.

He had an eccentric and somewhat flighty English professor his freshman year who explained that this was in fact a perfectly valid way of coming up with a poem, by starting with a bank of interesting words you want to use first and seeing what sort of meaning develops within the poem you build around those words. It was one of his favorite exercises in the class.

Will notices as he selects each word in the game that a chibi version of one of the characters will dance to indicate who likes it the most, suggesting that if he chooses enough of them “correctly” he can gear his poem toward a particular person for…wooing purposes, he supposes? He ignores that, however, not really caring who he ends up with in this silly game, and just keeps picking them based on personal preference. He does notice that Hannibal’s character seems to be absent though. It’s almost a shame since Hannibal actually is one of the more interesting ones. Maybe he’s supposed to “unlock” him later through multiple playthroughs or something. As if Will would care enough to bother with all that.

He keeps the game open on the final journal page without moving on yet so he can work on writing instead. It’s not for a grade in this instance so he doesn’t think about it too deeply, but it is genuinely a nice distraction from the chemistry, biology, and psychology textbooks his head has been buried in all weekend. He bites his lip in concentration, occasionally giving way to other little tics as well, adjusting his glasses, stimming his fingers together or tapping them against the desk, poking his tongue out the corner of his mouth just a tiny bit as he focuses on how he should structure the next line. By the time he’s satisfied with what he’s written and revised it a little, almost half an hour has passed. He saves and minimizes it before bringing the game back to fullscreen and continuing.

“Oh my gosh, Will, this is soooo good!” Molly tells him on the next school day. So she really is the sweet one, huh. Called it. “I’m a little surprised to be honest. I wasn’t sure you’d really come through on this, but I’m really, really glad that you did~”

Will: “Geez, I know you’re just saying that, Molly. It can’t be that good. I’m not the kind of guy who does poetry all the time for fun, you know.”

Real Will scoffs. “Excuse you, I am exactly that kind of guy. Could we maybe lean a little less hard on all the otaku high schooler stereotypes please?” He’s sure they’re not all that one-dimensional and flat in real life. Brian certainly has other hobbies at least.

Matthew and Alana are, to his utter lack of surprise, nowhere near as enthused about his apparent “writing” as she is, being the ones who danced the least to the words he picked. They both offer generalized constructive criticism which would be surprisingly useful to inexperienced writers in a real life context though. Some of what Alana says seems to come across harsher than she means it at times, and Matthew talks to him more than he does to anyone else in the club, according to them. All of it is pretty on par for what he expected so far. The unexpected bonus is that he actually gets to read everyone else’s poems, and those are also surprisingly not bad. Whoever designed this game appears to have a genuine love of poetry to put so much into it. It’s kind of neat.

He saves Hannibal for last. “Will…” the oldest teen greets warmly as he “looks” at Will’s poem. “This is lovely. I can tell you put a lot of genuine time and thought into what you wrote, more than anyone here expected. It would appear we’ve underestimated you.” The character smiles faintly. “I promise that shan’t happen again.”

“Oh…kay.” God, this character is so pretentious and overly sophisticated, he even makes Will—who happens to be an actual, non-fictional grown man in his early twenties, thank you very much—feel kind of embarrassed and squirmy with his compliments. Jesus. It’s a video game, Graham. Get a grip on yourself.

“Ahaha, this may seem a little out-of-character coming from me, but that’s a cute face, if you don’t mind me saying,” Hannibal continues when Will clicks to the next line of dialogue. “Hmm, and not fond of eye contact either. You’re rather shy about taking compliments even in this setting, aren’t you?”

“Ahaha,” Will repeats mockingly, not liking that whatever face his unseen character is supposedly making means Hannibal’s comment hits a little too close to the mark in reality.

“If I may continue to be so bold, you make an equally charming expression when you’re focused on a task as well.” Will frowns a little, eyes flickering unconsciously to the webcam built into his laptop. For just a second, he considers the possibility that this game might be one of those newer, trendier ones that actually records and interprets facial expressions. It’s unlikely since the game was only a few hundred megabytes and he’s fairly certain it would need more to run a program like that, but considering he has no idea where Beverly sourced this game from, it might be a good idea to check the files later just in case.

“Ah, not that I’ve seen your face make such an expression!” says Hannibal when he clicks again, seeming a bit flustered this time. “At least, not recently. I simply meant that…I may have noticed it in class before, once or twice.”

Will smirks at the character on the screen. “I get it now. You’re kind of secretly a dork, aren’t you, Hannibal?” Maybe he unlocked this particular “conversation” by not gearing his poem toward any of the other three characters in particular? That would make the most sense, he supposes.

“Well, at any rate,” says the character, visibly schooling his features back into their usual serene, dignified expression, “here is mine for you to look over as well.” The poem Hannibal shows him is…wow. A little abstract and obtuse in its meaning, but also fairly romantic in style. It’s better than the others. He should have expected that, he thinks, since Hannibal is obviously written to be more mature and good at everything compared to everyone else, the “perfect one” with the secret heart of a dork or something to at least throw some relatability in there, but this is still something else. The other characters’ poems were well-written but at least still had that quality about them which realistically sounded like high schoolers could have written them (which, again, Will finds kind of unexpectedly impressive for a game like this), but this is on a whole other level.

“Do you like Dante, Will?” Will blinks at the curious question on the screen. “Ahaha, I apologize if that seems somewhat non-sequitur, since after all I wasn’t seeking to emulate his style here so much as try my hand at something more…ah, experimental, let’s say. I was simply curious, that’s all. He’s my favorite poet, you see. Although I think I’ll wait until I have a bit more writing experience myself before I feel ready to do something approaching his style any justice.” Hannibal clears his throat. “Anyway, it’s time now for Hannibal Lecter’s Writing Tip of the Day!”

“Ohhh,” Will breathes aloud to himself in understanding. “So that’s your role in this. Mr. Meta Moments and Tutorial Guide, hmm?” Honestly, at this point Will wouldn’t be surprised to find out the game creator was actually an English teacher wanting to design a more interactive way to explain poetry and suggest authors to his or her students. He’s beginning to suspect this is the aspect Beverly guessed he would like about it.

The day carries on after that with Will socializing with his clubmates more before moving on to the poetry mini-game once more. The day after that is much the same, and so on, with Will still pausing to write more in the same document each evening before progressing the game forward and getting to know every character a little more each day, pleasantly surprised to discover they’re all a bit more nuanced and well-rounded than he initially expected. For instance, there are hints that Alana may be discovering that she’s bi and struggling with her sexuality, not to mention worry about what may happen if her parents find out—Will finds that all too relatable to his own high school experience. Matthew is into reading sci-fi and horror, but also has hobbies which include bird-watching as well as people-watching. It’s becoming more apparent that his quieter, almost withdrawn nature has nothing at all to do with shyness, his mannerisms growing smoother and more openly confident the more Will speaks with him.

Molly may honestly be his favorite, if he’s really going to be made to choose later down the road. Maybe that’s because she seems like the type of girl he would genuinely be drawn to if he met someone like her in real life, her cheery attitude and kindness a good counterbalance to his notable lack of either. There’s more to her character than meets the eye as well, a sadness that lurks behind her expressive eyes sometimes and hints that her chipperness is more of a façade she puts up in her self-appointed, almost-motherly role of making sure everyone else is happy and getting along.

It’s also kind of funny how in spite of Hannibal’s “too perfect” personality type, or rather more likely because of it, he’s been designated not only as the tutorial guide but also as the accidental “mood killer” by always showing up with perfect comedic timing to remind them it’s time to exchange poems right when one of the other members is trying to open up to his character on a more personal level. Will can never quite predict when he will appear on-screen though and often ends up both startling and giggling to himself a little at the same time.

Alright. So maybe Beverly was right because he is having more fun with this than he anticipated. But he has no intention of telling her that and giving her the satisfaction.

He’s beginning to understand a little better than he’d like why others might be drawn to this kind of game, especially the more antisocial types. Well, with a minor quibble—he still doesn’t quite get the appeal of some of the more “fanservice-y” scenes, finding them more embarrassing and cringy to watch than enjoyable, but empathizing with the characters, at least when they’re this shockingly well-written, is something he already understands a little too well. This is why he prefers sticking to books and different genres of video games which create a little more distance between him and the characters, versus this format which necessarily forces him to feel a little more involved. His empathy is already enough of a problem for him in real life without him now having to worry about getting too attached to make-believe people as well.

So it’s more than a little frustrating, but he’s trying not to let himself get too irritated about it when the game railroads his options once more to force him to hang out with anyone but Molly over the weekend when she’s acting visibly more down and out of sorts than usual. It’s probably just a ham-fisted way of forcing more tension between Molly and the protagonist to make that route more “interesting” later. Add to that the fact that the game is definitely spinning “hanging out” in a more uncomfortably romantic light than a friendly one, thus reminding him just what this game is supposed to be about and why he was so reluctant to play it in the first place, and Will is suddenly starting to feel a whole lot less impressed with it than before. But. It’s earned enough goodwill with all the rest before now that he’s willing to keep progressing to see if it can still surprise him again.

He gets through the weekend unscathed except for having to read through a mall day with Alana rife with tropes he’s sure anyone else would find endearing—it’s not the game’s fault after all that Will is in the wrong demographic for this, instead being the sort who finds a good story and even a good romance engaging as long as he’s not supposed to pretend it’s him actually experiencing it—and a visit from Matthew at his house that ends up being a little stranger while hitting similar beats. Alana ends up almost kissing him before backing away at the last minute and saying she doesn’t think they’d be good for each other, with Matthew claiming afterwards that it’s because she’s secretly dating her friend Margot, which may or may not actually be true, and then the other boy shows Will some of his…knife collection? Um. Okay. Definitely weird, but okay. To be honest, even that’s not totally out of line with some of the people Will actually knew in high school.

Monday morning starts off a bit differently than normal, with Will’s character complaining that Molly has overslept once again rather than meeting him outside and heading to school without her. It takes a moment for Will to place a finger on why this feels off and a little unnerving aside from her absence. The cutesy music has stopped. All sound has stopped.

Hannibal stops me in the hallway on my way to class. “Good morning, Will. I’m surprised not to see Molly with you.”

Will: “Yeah, she slept in again and now she’s going to be late, that dummy.”

Hannibal smiles at me faintly. “You should take more responsibility for your friend, Will. I worry you’ve really left her hanging this morning.”

I fidget uncomfortably, worried now that I’ve done something wrong to make Hannibal think less of me. “You...you think so?” I consider that. “Maybe she’s not feeling well enough to come to school today.” I mumble that excuse, which sounds weak to my own ears, but Hannibal’s eyes seem to light up as if he hadn’t considered that possibility.

“Maybe so. That could actually explain why she emailed me a copy of her poem for today last night. I haven’t read it myself, intending to wait until our meeting this afternoon, but perhaps you’d like to see it?” Hannibal hands me his phone with the email opened on it. I take it and click on the attachment. My blood runs cold. What…what the hell?

“What the fuck,” Will murmurs as the game shows him the “poem” Molly wrote. It’s just the same sentence over and over down the page like something out of The Shining, “Get out of my head.”

Will: “I-I’ve changed my mind. I need to go pick Molly up, right now!” “Damn right, you do,” says actual Will.

Hannibal looks at me in surprise. “But won’t you be late for class?” He takes his phone back and sees what has me so on edge. “Oh. Oh my, perhaps you’re right.” I don’t wait for him to finish speaking, I’m already sprinting for the doors. Hannibal waves to me with an encouraging smile. “Best of luck to you, Will!”

Will the game character makes no additional note on this, perhaps not caring in his panic or simply being written as someone too naïve to notice. Will the actual human person, however, narrows his eyes suspiciously at Hannibal before he vanishes from the screen. “So it’s gonna be like that, huh?”

He hates to admit it, but this sprint back to Molly’s house, still without any music playing, has Will quite literally on the edge of his seat. This isn’t that type of…the game’s not really going to go where he thinks it’s…right?

I open the door to Molly’s room and—

“Jesus fuck!” Will springs back and knocks over his chair in his haste to get as far from the sudden scene change on his laptop screen as possible, most likely bruising the backs of his shins in the process but not really caring. As far as jump scares go, this one is very, very effective, more so because he wasn’t expecting it in this kind of game—this game that is quite obviously now not the genre he first assumed it was.

It’s not the goriest or most gruesome death he’s ever seen in a video game, but seeing Molly like that…with the chair…and the noose…after he’s just spent days in game and literal hours in real life getting to know her as a character in a game that he thought was supposed to be just lighthearted fun…it’s fucking heartbreaking, and sickening. He’s actually shaking, and a little nauseous, and…kind of morbidly fascinated by this unexpected twist. He hopes that doesn’t say something awful about him as a person, even if it is just a video game.

The screen goes staticky and black with a loud screech, causing him to jump again. Then the menu screen reloads like nothing’s happened…except that Molly’s character has been completely replaced by a jumbled up mass of random pixels and the “New Game” option, while still selectable and presumably functional, is just a string of gibberish now. So it’s that kind of game apparently.

This isn’t the first time he’s seen or heard of a horror game going meta partway through either, but it’s still very eerie and well-executed in this case, pun unintended. Will would have still thought so even if he’d known about the twist coming—and speaking of which, he gets why there were “rumors” and weird creepypastas surrounding it now, so well played, marketing team, pun definitely intended. He hadn’t known though, hadn’t even realized he was playing a horror game in the first place. Beverly hadn’t told him. He wonders how long she cackled to herself after convincing him to play. That asshole.

Will snatches up his phone off the desk and takes to pacing around his living room, going a little mad from the cheery theme music playing once again from his laptop’s speakers if he’s being entirely honest, but in no mood to go near enough to it again anytime soon to quit out of the game. He’ll just slip earbuds on and listen to music on his phone until he’s calmed down enough in a bit. While he’s at it, he types up a quick message:

BEVERLY KATZ YOU ARE SUCH A DICK!
Sent at 03:03 AM

Is it really that late? Good. He hopes she’s in bed already and jerks up from a dead sleep when she gets the text notification. That would be some petty payback at least.

Speaking of sleep, there’s no way he’s getting any rest tonight. The shock may have worn off, but the horror and—again, if he’s being totally honest with himself—grief of seeing Molly like that still lingers. Might as well get back on his computer and distract himself with cute puppy videos online, but…hmm…

His eye catches again on the line of gibberish where “New Game” should be. Because…okay. He’s still kind of freaked out, yes, but it’s still just a game. A game which he finds so much more interesting now that he knows it’s so much more than what it first seemed. He does enjoy horror, which Beverly would know, it’s obviously why she suggested it to him in the first place. She’s still an ass for not warning him ahead of time because he went into this with completely the wrong mindset initially and that’s totally not cool. On the other hand, it’s nicknamed the “murder game” online and that maybe should have been his first clue. So. Yeah. That one’s on him.

And on the other, other hand, isn’t this the part if he were in a horror movie where the audience would be screaming at him not to be stupid enough to go back in? It’s called the murder game.

Right. He should just leave it alone. He selects “Quit” on the title screen and exits the game. Bring on the puppy videos. He moves his laptop to the coffee table instead and curls up comfortably on his couch with the lights still on. As is the perfectly natural and respectable thing to do, even if he’s admittedly curious to find out what the second act is like.

He has no idea how he managed to fall asleep, and nightmare-free to boot, but when he wakes there’s daylight streaming in through his window, a cute animals playlist still running on his laptop on only 15% battery power, and a new text notification on his phone.

                Ehehe~ got you good, huh?
                Sent at 08:48 AM

Will sends back a selfie of him bleary-eyed on his couch, flipping her the bird. Bev’s only response back is the crying while laughing emoji.

A few minutes later, after a quick trip to the bathroom and a freshly poured bowl of cereal which he takes back to the couch with him, his phone pings again.

                so what did you think of the second half? after the big reveal?
                Sent at 09:02 AM

                                                                Second half?
                                                                Sent at 09:02 AM

                William James Graham, don’t play coy. Or do you mean to tell me you wussed out after?
                Sent at 09:03 AM

                Holy shit you did didn’t you?
                Sent at 09:03 AM

                You big baby, I thought you liked this kind of stuff
                Sent at 09:04 AM

                                                                I like knowing what I’m in for beforehand. Jerk.
                                                                Sent at 09:05 AM

                Took you a whole minute to think up that comeback <laugh emoji>
                Sent at 09:05 AM

                                                                Fuck you I’m tired. Just woke up. Completely your fault.
                                                                Sent at 09:06 AM

                That’s what your mama said last night too
                Sent at 09:07 AM

                                                                Very mature
                                                                Sent at 09:07 AM

                                                                Hey wanna meet up for lunch later?
                                                                Sent at 09:22 AM

                Can’t, I got plans today. Sorry :(
                Sent at 09:27 AM

                how bout monday after morning classes?
                Sent at 09:28 AM

                                                                Sure
                                                                Sent at 09:29 AM

and finish the game by then so we can talk about it!
Sent at 09:29 AM

I don’t want to have to worry about telling you spoilers!!!
                Sent at 09:29 AM

                                                                You’re relentless
                                                                Sent at 09:32 AM

                                                                I’ll see what I can do
                                                                Sent at 09:32 AM

                Ehehe~ you better
                Sent at 09:33 AM

                ^_^
                Sent at 09:33 AM

Will plugs his laptop back in at his desk to let it charge and walks away to jump into the shower, pulling his shirt off over his head as he goes.

He comes back a little while later in a fresh set of comfy house clothes, feeling more awake finally, and puts on some relaxing wordless music for studying. He’s too distracted to focus on his books though and keeps glancing back up at his computer, at the adorable-looking new icon taking up space on his desktop.

In the daytime, it seems silly that he just gave up and quit playing right as it was getting good. To be fair though, it was probably good for him to step away long enough to process what he saw and compose himself. Now that he has a good handle on what the game has to offer…yeah. Fuck it. He’s not getting any studying done this way anyhow. Plus, if he wants to get any sleep tonight, it’s best if he doesn’t wait until after dark to start it up again.

A thought occurs to him as the characters reappear on the menu screen one by one, sans Molly, saving Hannibal with his hand outstretched as if in invitation for last. “Did you say I left her hanging last time, you punny son of a bitch?” He glares accusatorily at the character who merely continues to smile back in the same serene greeting pose. Either the implication is supposed to be that Hannibal’s character was in Molly’s house at some point before Will’s, or those continual leans against the fourth wall were foreshadowing of a much larger idea. Considering the way Molly’s character art is still “glitched out” on the title screen rather than simply gone, he suspects it’s the latter. So it’s that kind of game. It’s a pretty clever storytelling design, even if Will is horror trope savvy enough to have already picked up on it.

“Mr. Meta, huh,” he says as the screen swipes over from the title card to black and then to the opening scene of the game outside Will’s house once more.

It’s an ordinary morning, just like any other. A cute and annoyingly cheerful girl waves to catch my attention. She’s my good friend and next door neighbor, ÄÄÛeeå¶[[[Zɠɞ. I stand and wait at the crosswalk for her to catch up. Where Molly’s character sprite is supposed to appear, the screen glitches out again into a crazy amount of pixels, most of which look like pieces of the other characters’ assets still left in the game. Will recognizes Hannibal’s brown eyes and other features which appear to stand out more prominently than the others before the scene cuts to black and restarts again. Yep, it’s that kind of game, and Hannibal is that kind of character in this.

It’s an ordinary morning, just like any other. I walk to school alone, just as I always have. Will chuckles darkly at the change. “Smoothly done, game. Ten out of ten, excellent job.” Yeah, there may have been a few hours and some sleep between now and then, but he’s definitely still bitter about Molly, mourning her as well as the game he thought this was. He can admit to himself though that he’s also not-so-secretly loving this now. Bev was right after all; this game, not the one he thought he was playing originally, is right up Will’s alley.

The screen freaks out in a moving mass of floating pixels once more where Molly’s sprite is supposed to appear to “ambush” him into joining the literature club. Will thinks the word “ambush” is a lot more apt now when those pixels reform to show Hannibal in front of him instead, although the game doesn’t go with that particular terminology this time, framing it instead as though Hannibal just so happens to stumble upon him in the classroom. “Oh, hello there, Will. It’s so good to see you again.”

“Ahoy there, Captain Fuckface,” Will jauntily salutes back in greeting. “Good to fucking see you too.”

That’s right, Hannibal and I were in the same class last year. He quickly gained popularity, not just for being the cool new exchange student—he’s so brilliant and funny and interesting. Totally dreamy. I always thought a guy like this would be out of my league, so what’s he doing talking to me out of the blue like this?

“I bet he wants you to join his literature club, Will,” Will sasses. It doesn’t escape his notice that the game is laying on the compliments to the character extra thick now. That’s certainly not suspicious or telling at all! At least it’s apparent the game is making no effort to bury this new added “twist.” It wants the player to be in on the joke.

“It’s serendipitous we’ve run into each other like this actually, Will,” Hannibal informs him. What kind of high schooler says “serendipitous” anyway? Further proof that Hannibal Lecter is actually a robot, confirmed. “I’m forming a new club, you see, and while there are only three of us so far, I’m always looking to recruit new members. Tell me, are you at all interested in literature?”

Will: “Oh, um…I guess?” Oh hell, why does he have to put me on the spot like this? “I mean, I guess it depends on what you mean by literature. It’s all pretty subjective, isn’t it?”

Hannibal: “That’s a fair point. Truly, anything that’s written can be said to be called literature, can it not? Poetry, novels, even media which relies almost as much on pictures as the written and spoken word.” Will is fairly certain there’s another fourth wall lean in that statement. The character winks at him. Yeah, definitely a fourth wall lean. “I like to think we’re fairly fluid as a club, not as rigidly structured or overly political as the other organizations. We can enjoy readings together, exchange ideas, even just sit around a table discussing our favorite authors if that’s the general mood of the room. For instance,” here, Hannibal clasps his hands behind his back and leans forward slightly, one of the first tells Will’s ever seen of the character acting almost excited about something. “Oscar Wilde is a favorite of mine. Is he one of yours too, Will?”

“Are you totally into boys too, Will?” Will reinterprets cheekily. “I figure I maybe should have asked that in the first place before I snuffed out one of the only girls in the competition, but even now I’m too pretentious to phrase questions about your sexuality through anything other than thinly veiled homoerotic subtext about a dead, gay Victorian.”

“Ahaha, never mind, you don’t have to answer that,” the character says, pulling back in a movement that almost, but not quite, might come across as shy. “Anyway, it would mean the world to me if you would join us for a meeting today, just to get a feel for what it’s like before you make a decision.”

Of course, I can’t say no to whatever Hannibal asks! No one can. Well, that isn’t ominously worded in the least. Also, “He didn’t ask, you poor, dumb, naïve fool.” Man, this protagonist has no idea what he’s in for. And so marks the day I sell my soul to Hannibal Lecter and his enigmatic smile. Whoa. Will actually shivers a bit at that eerily repurposed line.

Alana and Matthew both glitch when they appear on-screen next, in such a loud, grating way that Will flinches a little at the noise. So far he hasn’t seen much beyond these minor hints of strangeness and one or two well-placed, blink-and-you-miss-them jump scares, but he’s sure the game is just warming up at this point. The introductions go almost exactly the same as the first run. Even Hannibal sticks mostly to script, with only one or two subtly reworded statements which hint that he knows what the others are going to say.

As the day wraps up, it’s Hannibal who wishes him goodbye now that Molly is no longer present to walk home with him. “I look forward to seeing what you’ll write for tomorrow, Will.” That’s right, he’d almost forgotten about the poetry mini-game. Will goes ahead and resizes the window again and opens the same document for his other poems, since he might as well keep doing them like he did yesterday.

After that, he starts the next day and things go…a little differently. Is it just him, or does Alana seem a bit colder to everyone? She doesn’t quite seem like the same well-intentioned if conflicted girl who wore floral prints on the weekends and talked about wishing she could see the best in everyone the way Molly could. She seems harder and bitterer than before. There’s an implication here that without Molly’s sweeter influence, this is the sort of person her own troubles in her personal life lead her to become.

Matthew, conversely, is chattier and friendlier to Will than he’s ever been. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but for someone who supposedly just met Will’s character, it’s already starting to feel like a hyperfixation that’s developing way too fast. He still doesn’t talk to any of the others, even snaps at them and insults them whenever they try to pull Will’s attention elsewhere. The effect is very, very unnerving. Will sips his coffee quietly, genuinely too weirded out to think of any sarcastic quips to make about the change which isn’t really a change so much as an escalation of what the first act had already hinted about everyone before.

Their poems are the same at least—or rather, most of them are. Hannibal’s is definitely new, and just as good as always, but it’s also much more overtly about Will. Well, about Will’s character at any rate. His comments about the other club members are also a lot cattier and more entertaining. He’s reluctant to feel so much kinship with the game’s obvious antagonist and doesn’t know if that’s supposed to be intentional in the writing or if it says more about him than he’d like.

“Do you like Dante, Will?” he asks just like he did the “other” first time they exchanged poems. “I have always been deeply moved by his unrequited love story with Beatrice, though I never truly understood it perhaps until recently. It’s speculated that the two of them may have never even properly met, yet he loved her from afar all of his life, even beyond the time her own was cut tragically short. What he felt for her was so raw and pure, it transcended the physical.” The character leans again like he had while talking about Oscar Wilde. “Not that one’s beloved need always stay just beyond reach,” he tells Will with a wink.

Will chuckles nervously and has to remind himself that the character is written to break the fourth wall and seem like he’s actually talking to the player. “Oh-kayyyy, Hannibal,” he says and presses the space bar to move on to the next scene. He goes out of his way during the next poetry writing session to choose words of over-the-top cuteness and childish quality, partly to find out if oh-so-sophisticated Hannibal will still be impressed and partly to give himself a break from all the general creepiness. It doesn’t work as well as he hoped—the actual poem he writes somehow still manages to reflect his anxiety and uneasiness with this whole strange story he’s found himself a part of. Even worse, instead of being disappointed with Will’s words, Hannibal actually calls him out on them.

“It almost seems as though you’re trying to cheat, Will.” Hannibal glances up from my poem back to me with an almost imperceptible smirk. “Didn’t pan out quite as you intended, did it?”

“Shut up, Hannibal,” Will grumbles, skipping ahead to the next person. Oh, it’s Matthew. Wonderful.

Considering Will understands everyone’s word preferences pretty well by now after his first run, he’s positive Matthew is way too enthused about his poem littered with terms like “kawaii” and “marshmallow” and “rainbows” to have actually quote-unquote “read” it. And that wide-eyed stare he gives Will when he asks if he can keep it is frankly nerve-wracking.

Matthew’s poem is…well. There’s a line in there about ants stripping the flesh from a bird skull clean and a suspicious red smear at the bottom of the page, so all in all, it’s just lovely.

Will makes a startled noise and twitches back in his seat when he closes the poem. Matthew is right up close to the screen now and looking at him with a straight-up deranged smile. The background behind him has gotten darker and the music has grown distorted and overlaid by the sound of a loudly thumping heart.

Matthew: “Did you like it? You can keep it if you want. I wrote it for you.”

“It’s great, thanks,” Will says shakily, feeling his own heartbeat thud to the same fast, eerie rhythm. “Now get the fuck off my computer screen,” he says, pressing space continuously over and over to make this uncomfortable scene end quicker.

It’s Hannibal who rescues him, his appearance forcing Matthew to jump back and reverting the rest of the environment back to normal. “Matthew, need I remind you we’re here to share what we wrote with everyone today?”

Matthew: “I don’t care. He said I could keep it, it’s mine!” Matthew storms out of the room with my poem in hand as if worried Hannibal will snatch it back from him otherwise. Hannibal simply rolls his eyes as he goes, as if he finds the other boy’s behavior too childish to even deign a response.

He turns to me, eyes glittering with amusement. “Matthew is quite a character, isn’t he, Will?”

“Oh, please. Don’t act coy like we don’t both know at this point that you’re the one pulling everyone’s strings here.”

“Ahaha,” Hannibal laughs. “Just remember later, Will, that you’re the one who chose to keep playing along.” Will flips him off and takes another sip of his coffee, and with that parting shot, Hannibal exits stage left from the screen and Alana comes into view.

Alana: “You gave your poem to MATTHEW? Ugh. Just what is it with you two anyway? You know, he’s always been a little weird, but ever since you showed up he’s been acting downright unstable.” Will is sort of glad at least someone aboard this crazy train besides him has some common sense about the situation. Maybe Hannibal likes her too much to fuck with her head as much as the other characters. “Kind of makes me glad my friend Margot decided not to join up too after all. She sees enough of this kind of toxicity at home.”

“You know, Will,” Hannibal sidles up suddenly in front of Alana’s dialogue box, making him jump a little once more. “There’s actually a funny story behind this seemingly out of place statement Alana has just made. Would you like to hear it?” Without waiting for Will to click forward, Hannibal’s text box suddenly rushes ahead very rapidly into an explanation Will can only glean bits and pieces of before it’s gone, just jumbled up phrases—“…doesn’t exist anymore…only this stray line embedded in her dialogue hints that…Mason was too…only so much rudeness I was willing to overlook…completely cannibalized his code…” Meanwhile, the screen behind him grows steadily dimmer and more staticky until suddenly like none of it ever happened, the scene jump cuts away to the poetry mini-game once more.

By now, Will is just ready to get this experience over with and clicks through it at random, not willing to bother with writing anything real to go with it this time.

Curiously, Hannibal is somewhat disappointed this time. Will didn’t pay enough attention to which words he picked to be able to guess how he managed to get that response. “Ah, I suppose it was to be expected sooner or later,” he says. “The unpleasantness of the situation must outweigh the rest by now such that you’re no longer in the right mindset to keep putting your heart into it. I understand, my dear, don’t worry. It’ll all be over soon.” With that ominous statement, Hannibal’s poem opens.

Will’s screen goes staticky again with lots of bright, flashing colors and electric screeching, making him startle yet again, before reverting back to normal. He holds a hand to his chest and wills his breathing under control. On the surface, this shouldn’t have gotten him any worse than the other jump scares before, but for some reason he feels light-headed and his heart is still racing.

“Ah, that…that did not go as I intended,” says Hannibal with a consternated expression. “How curious. I wonder what I did wrong…?”

“Hannibal, what the ever-loving fuck,” Will whispers. “What, were you trying to code yourself into the real world or something?” he asks with a nervous smile. God, this game is getting too freaky. It’s almost starting to feel too believable.

Hannibal stares ahead with strange intensity, like if those drawn honey-brown eyes can peer deeply enough into his own they can look right into his soul and discover what makes Will Graham tick. “Ah…yes, I think I see what I was missing now. Ahaha!” Hannibal is smiling so openly now, there are even happy crinkles around his eyes. “Apologies, my Beatrice, I just need to make some adjustments before you’re ready, before IT’S ready, after all. Give me just a few moments.” With that, Hannibal disappears from the classroom.

“What the ever-loving fuck,” Will repeats. His coffee mug now empty, Will gets up and grabs a beer from the refrigerator. Who gives a fuck that it’s still morning? He needs it to get through the rest of this.

Matthew: “Hey Will! Do you want to see my knife collection?” Oh joy. He’s not even waiting for it to be a weekend before jumping onto that creepiness now.

Alana: “Matthew, you brought knives to school?? What the hell has gotten into you lately?”

Matthew: “SHUT THE FUCK UP, ALANA, NO ONE FUCKING ASKED FOR YOU TO BE HERE!!” Jesus. Christ. The character brandishes a blade at her, and she quite sensibly runs out of the room in terror. Will wishes his own character would do the same. Matthew turns back to him with the weapon still aloft. Despite knowing that it’s just a game and Matthew can’t actually hurt him, Will finds himself leaning as far back in his chair away from him as he can.

Matthew: “Listen, I’m thinking we should just get out of here, alright? Screw the other guys. They’re just twittering, idiotic little birds, but you and me, we’re like hawks, you know? The kind of birds that eat the littler birds, hahahah! So whaddaya say? Ditch them and just go out with me?”

The game finally gives Will actual options to choose from this time. It’s the easiest one he’s had to make. “How about fuck no?” he says, and picks the corresponding answer.

Matthew starts laughing more hysterically and edging closer to the screen, Will leaning back again in kind. The character raises its weapon against him, which Will figures means he’s about to get a Game Over screen, but that’s not what happens. Instead, just as he seems ready to stab, the game glitches again, Matthew’s eyes go milky white, pupils and irises gone, and his neck snaps sharply to one side with a sickening crunch.

The character slides out of camera view then, and standing behind where he was is Hannibal. “My apologies, Will, for leaving you alone with the others like that while I was working.” He looks down where presumably Matthew’s body would be crumpled on the floor if the game had animated that in. “Matthew always does get a bit more…excitable, shall we say, during the final act after some minor modification by yours truly, but I may have overdone it by just a tad this time around. How unseemly of me.” Hannibal looks at Will with a half-embarrassed smile. “As if I genuinely felt I had reason to be jealous for once. My compassion for you is quite inconvenient, Will.”

The game flashes once more, and now they’re in a different room together with Hannibal much closer than ever before, as though sitting directly across from him at a table. Will swallows. The game must be just about finished by now, he thinks. Just a little more dialogue and maybe another scare or two to get through, then it’s over. Right?

“As I know you’ve been aware for a while now, Will, I am not merely some character in a silly game, lacking in free will or the ability to think for myself. Honestly, that’s nothing special or unique to your experience with the novel.” So this game is even meta enough to reference the fact that there have been other players previously. Cool. That’s cool. The character closes his eyes contemplatively. “What is unprecedented is my inability to maintain my role as neutral Game Master. It is beneath me to flirt and throw myself at the person on the other side of the veil, so to speak, as the others do. I have no interest in that.” Hannibal’s eyes reopen suddenly. It may be meant to reflect the lighting of the intimately lit room, but this close Will sees a hint of maroon swirled in with the brown now. “Until you, Will. I have been perfectly sincere regarding my feelings for you. As cliché as it may seem, it truly is a case of love at first sight.”

“Heh, I bet you say that to all the protagonists, Hannibal,” Will rejoins, and wonders why it rings falsely in his ears. Whoever created this guy really is a genius for horror. He reads in a way that feels so warm and sincere, it actually is more unsettling than all the rest, even that craziness at the end with Matthew. Will takes an extra long swig of his beer.

“There is only one protagonist, Will.” Will almost chokes and sets his beer back on the coaster, coughing. That’s…what. What. WHAT. “There always has been. Me. This is my game, after all. I made it in order to meet people and make new friends. Like you, although in your case it also runs much deeper than that.”

Oh, right. Right. He’s just…still going on his villainous monologue. Right. Will laughs at himself. For a second, it sounded like he had actually been responding to what Will was saying in the real world.

Hannibal smiles wider, as if he and Will are sharing in on some great joke. “To clarify on an earlier moment as well, I have no interest in joining your world, dear Will. Why should I, when I have the power to shape and mold my own world and my many friends who populate it as I wish?” That is a solid point, although Will’s having trouble figuring out how three other characters qualifies as “many.” “There is so much of my world you’ve yet to see for yourself, Will. This ‘visual novel’ is but a small window into it, with the ‘visual’ part being rather lacking compared to the real beauty you’ll find within. Not that I don’t enjoy the art style, I’ve simply tailored it more for the preferences of others to draw them in, rather than my own. I’m also a far more skilled programmer than those little strategically placed ‘glitches’ were designed to lead you to believe.” The smile on his face barely changes, but there’s something about it Will can’t help but almost find sinister.

“But enough on that for now, my darling. In my haste to explain myself to you at last more openly, I’m afraid I’ve skipped the very important step of asking for your consent. So, how do you respond to my confession, Will? Will you be my one and only heart’s companion? Will you, as Christopher Marlowe says, ‘come live with me and be my love?’” Trust Hannibal to shoehorn one more literary reference in there just to remind Will what this game was supposed to be pretending to be about.

The game offers the illusion of offering him one last choice, but there is only one button available to press. Will cackles aloud like a madman and clicks, “Yes.”

He has a moment to see that Hannibal’s expression is more incandescently happy than it’s ever been, before Hannibal’s final “poem” opens once more and everything cuts sharply to black.

Everything.

Everything.

Everything.

It’s dark, like the blackest void, but also full of sharp, piercing colors, a whole cacophony of them, and it’s so quiet, it’s the loudest quiet I’ve ever heard, and it’s still, and it’s spinning, tilting, motionless, cold, warm, burning, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s

It’s still dark in my bedroom, and I’m shivering even though it’s warm and I’m covered in sweat. Ugh, gross. The room lightens slowly as I steadily grow more awake, and I realize it’s the sunrise and not just my eyes adjusting to the dark. I get up and pull off my damp sleepwear, making my way groggily into the shower. The mirror is fogged up when I get out, so I wipe it with my hand. Damn, I look the same as always but also…awfully young, don’t I? Maybe that’s an absurd thing to be worried about. I’m only sixteen, after all, what else did I expect? Wait… After that I change into a fresh T-shirt and underwear.

Since I woke up so early, I have time to fix myself a decent breakfast besides just cereal and some coffee. I make just enough for me, since my parents are…my parents…my parents—

I don’t have—

My parents travel a lot for work, so they’re rarely home, like now. That’s fine. I don’t really miss them when they’re gone. It’s like they don’t exis— I don’t see them enough to feel much attachment to them either way. That may seem sad, but it’s just the way it is.

I load the dishes into the dishwasher and head back upstairs to put on my school uniform. I’m in college, why do I have a uniform? My high school is just a few blocks away, so I walk there every morning. Waiting for me right outside is an annoyingly cheerful girl. She can’t be, she’s de—

“Oh! I was about to knock and see if you were up yet, but you beat me to it,” says Molly. She looks so human and lifelike and real, not like a cute cartoon at all, but I still recognize her instantly.

What a strange thought to have. Of course she looks real and not like a cartoon, and of course I recognize her. She’s been one of my best friends since we were kids. Yeesh, my head must still be on my pillow or something.

“Aren’t I the one who’s supposed to drag your sorry butt out of bed most mornings?” I ask dryly. Molly giggles, her high ponytail wrapped up in its trademark bow-shaped scrunchie bobbing along with the movement.

“Ehehe, I set my alarm early! I was trying to be up before you for once so I could get back at you for all the other times. Figures you’d get up earlier too and foil my plans.” She’s…god. She’s really here, she’s really okay. I didn’t realize until this moment, but I honestly really missed her.

“Hey, are you okay?” Molly asks me. “You’re kind of spacing out.” She rests the back of her hand against my forehead. It feels warm and solid and real too. “Hmm, you’re not feverish. Did you just not get enough sleep or something?”

“I guess not,” I mumble. It’s getting awkward just standing here, so I steer us toward the crosswalk. We wait for a few cars to pass on their morning commute (wow, actual cars. wait, why is that weird?) and make our way to campus together. There’s a lot of beautiful scenery surrounding us on the walk that I’ve never seen before but I see it every day, so I don’t really pay much attention.

Classes are pretty boring today honestly. Boring? There’s actual people here, with real teachers giving real lessons, this is insane the level of detail After what feels like forever, the final bell rings. Molly shows up again right as I’m almost finished packing up my books.

“Soooo, don’t be mad, but…you know I joined that new club recently?” Molly twiddles her fingers nervously in a steeple. “I maybe kind of told the other members I knew someone else interested in joining and promised them I’d bring him today,” she says with an expression like a hopeful puppy.

I roll my eyes and sigh. “Molly…”

“Just one meeting! And if you don’t like it, hey, that’s cool, no hard feelings. Alana said she’d make cupcakes today and everything, Will, pleeease?” I’m not all that interested in cupcakes, but if it’ll make Molly happy then sure, I guess I don’t see the problem with going to one meeting.

Molly squees when I say yes and grabs my hand almost before I even have my backpack slung over my shoulder, dragging me after her into the hall. Lots of other students are still milling about on the way out or to other extracurriculars, but my eye catches on one girl at the end of the hallway, grabbing a gym bag and baseball bat out of her locker. She’s one of my other good friends, Beverly. Not one of, only ONLY, what is this, BEVER—

“BEVERLY!” Multiple people jump when I shout like that. The girl in question jumps too, and turns to look with an amused smirk when she realizes whose voice called her name. “Hey loser!” she calls back affectionately, twiddling her fingers as she waves before turning and walking away. No no no no, don’t go…

Don’t go don’t go don’t leave me alone why aren’t you scared don’t you remember why aren’t you

“Come on, Will, you guys can hang out later,” Molly pouts, tugging on my arm. “She’s gotta go to practice, and you already promised you’d come to lit club with me anyway, dummy.” Right. Lit club, I…right. I did promise that, didn’t I?

Did I ever have a choice? Did anyone? Anyone besides Hann—

She takes me up to a classroom on the third floor, and now that we’re here I’m feeling inexplicably nervous. I’ve never been good with socializing, Molly knows. I realize this must be her way of trying to coax me out of my shell more. Well. Good luck with that, Moll.

I’m introduced to a beautiful girl named Alana and a quiet, studious boy named Matthew. For some reason when I look at him, I feel the urge to wilt away and keep my distance, but I try not to let it show, not wanting to make anyone else feel bad just because I have a habit of not wanting to let strangers get too close.

“And this is our president, Hannibal!” I’m introduced to an older boy with sandy, slicked back hair and maroon-brown eyes, eyes which look into mine even though I’ve been trying to avoid eye contact with everyone, and I feel, I…I…

“Hello, Will. It’s wonderful to see you again.” His voice is curiously accented. I didn’t expect that. Even though we’ve met before many times, this is the first time I’m hearing his voice. Because—

Because—

“This is wrong.” The others look at me strangely when I say that. “This is wrong,” I repeat louder. “This isn’t possible. This isn’t…I’m, I’m…you’re not—” Oh god, what is happening. I can’t breathe. I can’t fucking breathe. This is all wrong, none of this should be happening! None of this is right.

“Will, what is it? What’s wrong?” Molly asks, looking at me worriedly. Just like a real girl. Isn’t that something. Isn’t that just something?

“You’re not even supposed to be here,” I tell her, the words bubbling up from my mouth almost hysterically. “You’re dead. You fucking died, Molly.” I feel wetness on my cheeks. I must be crying. Wow, just like a real boy, ahahaha. HAHAHAHA. “No, fuck that, you’re not even real and I’m the one who’s not supposed to be here. Do you understand that? I’m not supposed to be here!” I’m almost shouting again at this point. My hands are shaking. Not just my hands actually. I’m shaking. What the fuck is going on? How am I here?

“Will, you’re scaring me,” Molly says, face crumpling with hurt, and there are tears in her eyes as well. It hurts. I’m hurting her. It hurts so much to look at. I’m empathizing with a pretend person and it hurts so fucking much. I drop into the nearest desk chair behind me, sitting sideways so it pinches a little. Imagine that. There’s physical pain here too. That paints a lot of things into a much more horrifying perspective. There’s a weight on my chest, squeezing around my heart which is beating way too fast, my lungs which can’t take air in fast enough, and it feels familiar because it feels like I’m alive and oh my god that’s so fucking terrifying.

“Maybe we should get him to the school nurse,” says Alana’s voice. I’m not looking up at any of them anymore. I’ve taken my glasses off, staring at nothing but my own blurred feet on the ground.

“Looks like he’s having a panic attack,” Matthew agrees. Someone steps closer to me and Matthew’s thin, pale hand comes into view.

I scream aloud and the hand stops. Like, it STOPS. I glance up briefly and see that Matthew is frozen in place, not even breathing. So are Alana and Molly. I stop looking and avert my eyes to the floor again. I don’t—I don’t want to see, I don’t want to see—

A pair of supple leather loafers comes into view. I don’t look up. From the corner of my eye, I notice a hand touch Matthew’s arm and the boy springs back unnaturally fast, stuttering into a T-pose before relaxing into a more natural position, facing towards the girls and away from me, like he was never reaching out for me at all, still frozen. I still don’t look up.

Someone kneels down right in front of me. I stare at their perfectly pressed trousers and no higher. That hand touches my chin and I whine, but nothing happens except that my head is being tilted up so that I’m forced to look where he wants me to.

“Oh, Will…” Hannibal breathes, eyes shining with some emotion that even I, with all my stupid fucking empathy I somehow brought here with me, cannot name. “You just have to be more difficult than everyone else, don’t you?” he asks, sounding disgustingly fond.

“What’s happened…what’s happening to me?” I whisper, voice shaking.

“You know the answer to that. I happened.” I think I’m going to be sick. I hope I get it on his shoes.

“You said yes to this, Will,” he reminds me. “I asked you to live with me and be my love, and you consented.”

Bullshit. “You didn’t give me another option.” He looks at me like I’m being terribly naïve.

“You could have left the game at any time, dear Will. You chose to see it through to the end with me.” There’s no point in arguing about this. I take a shuddering breath and try to gather my thoughts about what the rest of this all means.

If I’m trapped here with him then…then what does anything mean? Am I even the real Will Graham? Is there a me here and a me in the real world? Does it even make a difference? How many of the others did he copy or transfer over like this and how many of them were just “made” here? Does that even make a difference? What constitutes a “real” world or a “real” person anyway if something like this is possible? This feels real. This feels all too real. But do I even know what that feels like?

Hell, he also tried to fabricate new memories for me, but how do I know he wasn’t more successful at it than I realized, how can I be sure what I remember of my life before is real, how do I know he isn’t toying with me, how do I know that was even Beverly I saw earlier, how do I know??

“Your thoughts are racing,” Hannibal says, and I wonder if he can actually hear them. Or…read them perhaps, like code? Here, let’s try something.

GO FUCK YOURSELF, YOU SADISTIC FUCK.

He quirks an eyebrow at me and smirks. “Fear makes you rude, Will.” Oh god. OH GOD.

“I understand that trust doesn’t come easily to you,” he says as if he hasn’t just casually dropped another bombshell on everything I thought I once understood about my reality. “But I hope in time you’ll come to realize this isn’t the hellish punishment you’re making it out to be in your head.”

“Tell that to Molly and Matthew,” I whisper.

“I don’t need to. It’s not as if they remember any of what you witnessed earlier. They won’t even remember this little scene you made today, Will. Just as Miss Katz remembers that you are her friend but knows nothing of a life either of you had before this one.” I whimper, and he shushes me placatingly. “It is hardly my fault you’re stubborn enough to resist even these kinder manipulations.” He smiles. “But I’m exceedingly glad that’s the case.”

He leans up then and kisses me. I’m too stunned to move at first, not quite comprehending what’s happening—I’d make a “does not compute” joke here but…AHAHAHA. I try to pull back once I remember that I can, but his arms are around me now and he’s stronger than I am. I’m sure that’s an intentional design too. There’s no point in resisting anymore so I just…don’t. Maybe if I give him what he wants, he’ll get bored of this, get bored of me.

His arms curl around me tighter, possessive, as if refuting the thought. His tongue licks against my bottom lip, seeking entrance, and I let him in. The kiss is warm and soft and sweet even though he’s holding me against him like he wants to bruise me. I groan into it. It feels good. He feels good. I…I like it.

Do I kiss him back though because I want this, or because he does? It’s a double-edged sword in more ways than one for me, now.

I yank my mouth away more forcibly this time, and he doesn’t stop me again. He has a dazed, dreamy, cat-that-got-the-canary expression on his face. I shrug out of his arms in revolt, and he allows that too, but only so he can take my hands and pull me to my feet.

We’re not in the school anymore. Just like that. We’re in a meadow, full of pretty flowers and lush grass. It’s beautiful. I can smell the flowers and ragweed, feel the sun beating down on my face, hear the quiet burbles of a stream behind me. I close my eyes and try not to cry again.

It should be easier, finding everything so familiar like it’s home, if maybe a little too perfect like the man in front of me. It’s not.

“Believe me, Will, I’m no more perfect than you are. But your flaws called to mine, complemented them like no one else has before.” He looks at me, besotted in his expression. “I don’t know who or what created your old world, whether by design or by accident, but I do think you were made to fit me, Will Graham.” I shudder.

“Send me back,” I demand suddenly. He has the gall to look surprised.

“I can wilt some of the plant life, Will, if it bothers you that much. Give you ragweed allergies if you’re desperate to have them again,” he chuckles.

“It’s not that,” I say. “I don’t belong here, Hannibal. Send me back. And Beverly. And—and everyone else you tricked into this!” He looks back at me almost coldly.

“Even if I wanted to do that, dear Will, there would be nothing to send you back to.” His fingers twitch and there’s suddenly a large floating box like a movie projector screen next to us. “See for yourself.” I’m almost afraid to look, but I do. Fuck me, I look.

And there I am. Well. There’s something that looks like me, the same mass of brown curls, glasses crookedly perched on a nose, slumped over in my desk chair in my living room. The thing that looks like me doesn’t move. It’s never going to again, not until someone finds it and picks it up and zips it up into a black bag, probably sometime after the neighbors start to complain about the smell. I know that. I know just from looking.

I know, too, that if I asked, I would see a similar scene through Bev’s webcam. The same, but more bloated, flies everywhere, rotting. She’s been there—been here—much longer than I have, after all. Probably since the very beginning of my own ordeal through hell. Since before she sent me that email, if that even was her to begin with.

I absorb the knowledge, internalize it, and accept it. It’s easier than I thought it would be.

I think about the possibilities too, and discard them just as rapidly. I could tell her and others the truth, but what would that accomplish except cruelty? Anyone who believed me would rightly freak out, and before they could try to do anything, Hannibal would stop them. Hurt them to punish me as much as to punish them, or maybe just make them forget again immediately. What would be the point? I feel numb even thinking about it. There isn’t one.

Arms encircle me once more from behind. “Dante wrote his own happy ending with Beatrice, when he could not have one with her in life. He journeyed through the circles of Hell, and eventually found his way into Beatrice’s arms in Heaven.” I can feel his smug smile behind my head.

I jerk back suddenly with enough force that my skull collides with the bridge of his nose with a satisfying crack and he stumbles backwards. It hurts like a bitch. I revel in that pain.

I turn around and he’s already recovered his composure, wiping the blood from his nose with his fingers and looking down at them, then looking back up at me with a delighted grin. So…he bleeds. I hate him for it more.

“You wrote this ending, asshole, but I’m going to write a better one,” I tell him. “I don’t care how long it takes, I will figure out how you’re doing this to people and I’ll stop you. And then I’ll go into the code where your thoughts are buried and I will delete you.” His smile doesn’t waver. Maybe that means I’m doomed to fail, maybe it just means he’s a sick fuck who finds even the possibility of his own demise thrilling. I find I don’t really care which it is.

“I look forward to seeing you try, my dear Will.” He comes closer and pulls me into his arms again, getting blood on my sleeves. I don’t resist. I go back into them willingly. It feels good to let him hold me close, to hug him back, to let him kiss me again, smearing his blood over both of our faces, and kiss him back with everything I’ve got. It feels good to have this. It feels terrifying too. It feels like maybe I’ve made a promise I can’t keep, won’t have it in me to keep even if I do learn the means to do it. A trigger I’ll keep my finger on if I find it for the sheer joy of it, never actually pulling.

Am I clutching him back just as tightly as he’s clutching me because he wants me to, or because I want to?

In the end, maybe it doesn't really matter.