Sunday morning, hours before sunrise, four teenage boys were still awake. After a long night of online video games, excess junk food, and two brief existential crises, everyone was at their limit for the night. They all sat lounged around the basement, which doubled as a poorly put together bedroom. One boy, Zack, flipped through channels on the TV, but the boy holding the sleepover didn't have cable. He was mostly met with loud static and occasional bits of grainy images and distorted voices scattered in snow. One of the other boys, Alex, yawned and reclined against the sofa. "Just turn it off. There's nothing on." "Wait, I found something." Zack stopped once he saw a clear, though low quality, picture of people. On the screen, an old man and a young girl stood with several puppets. The girl talked to one of the puppets about Jesus and drugs. "Fuck." "What did you really expect?" Alex sifted through an empty bag of chips. Juan, the boy whose house it was, crossed his arms and glared at Alex from the bed. "Hey, you ain't payin' the bill! If you don't like it, you coulda rented a movie!" "I was gonna, but I forgot to bring an HDMI cable, and your parents don't pay for any rental services. So unless you wanna watch on my computer..." Alex pulled out his tiny laptop from his backpack. The fourth boy, Eric, was half asleep. He muttered a few barely coherent words. "Let's order pizza again." Alex laughed and threw a pillow at him. "Yeah, I'm sure there's totally one open right now. Great thinking." Juan looked over at the Christian children's program on the TV. In a low voice, he asked, "Hey, what time is it?" "It's almost three." Zack said. "Damn. Is it really that late already?" Alex lay down on the floor. Juan kept his eyes on the TV. "Hey, you guys ever watched that local channel that used to play all those old kid shows late at night?" "The one that played those weird puppet shows and those British ones?" Alex looked over at him. "Yeah, that one! You ever watched it late at night, like really late?" "What are you guys talking about?" Zack asked. "It's a channel that doesn't exist anymore. My grandma used to put it on all the time when I was a kid because she didn't have cable." Alex sat back up. "From what I remember, it shut down because the company that primarily foot the bill decided to stop putting money into it." Zack moved over closer to Alex. "Why's that? Was no one watching it?" "I don't know. I think the owner of the company just lost interest in it. The channel was for educational programming. Back in the day, apparently, the company used to make a big deal about how they were helping educate the poor or some shit." Alex stretched and leaned back against the sofa. "The Moone & Wolfe Corp, that's who it was." Eric, who had nearly fallen asleep, sat up at that last part. He hopped down from the sofa to sit beside Alex. "Really? My parents used to work for them before we moved here. I had no idea they were involved in anything like that." "Never heard of them." Zack shrugged. "They still employ a large amount of people in this area. They do medical research, so that's probably why you don't hear about them much." Alex explained. "Why do you know so much about them?" Zack narrowed his eyes. "I considered them as a potential employer for after I finish college." Zack rolled his eyes. "Nerd." Juan got up from the bed and sat down with everyone else. "You guys are getting off topic. Did you ever watch it late at night?" "Nope." Eric said. "Never." Zack said. "No. I didn't want to watch it any of the times I did." Alex sighed. "Then I've got a story for you guys, tonight. You wanna listen? I gotta warn you. Shit gets real creepy and...mysterious..." Juan turned a flashlight on himself and made a sinister face. His theatrics were unappreciated. Alex rolled his eyes. "Oh boy. Here comes another one of Juan's conspiracy theories." Juan threw the flashlight to the ground. "You guys never believe me about anything!" "You have an X-Files poster behind you and an entire shelf over there dedicated to books on Roswell." Alex retorted. "Just listen." Juan said. He cleared his throat and lowered his voice to set the tone for his tale. "Okay, so there was this guy I was friends with back in elementary school named Steven Morales. We used to hang out all the time in fourth and fifth grade. He was always watching that TV station and this one show called um...what was it? Delilah's something...Oh, right, Delilah's Daily Dose. Man, he was obsessed with that girl. I think he had a crush on her." Alex interrupted. "Does this story have a point?" "Man, give me a minute. Anyway, the show was for little kids, but he always watched it. He told me the best time to watch it was around 3 in the morning. He said Delilah would talk to him then." Juan had a big grin on his face as he spoke. He knew that would get their attention. "Whoah, what? What do you mean talk to him?" Zack leaned in a little. "You sure your buddy didn't forget to take his meds?" Alex was less than impressed. "He was only on meds for ADHD. He wasn't crazy. Anyway, I thought, this might be some government brainwashing to indoctrinate kids at a young age into their master plan to control us all. So, we planned a sleepover at my house to watch it where I could record everything with my surveillance cameras." Juan said with deep pride. Zack stared blankly. Juan's parents couldn't afford basic cable, much less cameras around the house. "How..." Alex cut him off. "Don't. Don't even bother. Just let him finish." Juan continued. "We stayed up all night watching that channel. All these weird shows came on, but then it was finally time. Three o'clock. Delilah came on. There she was in her black and white dress, all cheery with her robot animal friends, but I saw through her. She started right away. 'Steven,' she said in her squeaky voice. 'You brought a friend today. What's your friend's name?' Knowing this was probably a trap to get information out of me, I lied and said, 'Ignacio Garcia.' She turned her head to me in the creepiest way I've ever seen. She looked like she nearly broke her neck to face me. Then she gave me one of those sickeningly sweet, fake smiles and said, 'Steven, looks like you brought a little liar with you! Why are you telling him to lie to me?' Steven pushed me, then he said, 'No, Delilah! He's not my friend! I barely know him. He's always lying to everyone!' I was like, 'What?' And then she brought out the giraffe robot. It had these eyes, man. Glowing red. It made this creaking noise I'll never forget. It was like nails on chalkboard combined with a rusty door hinge. She said, 'Nanny knows what to do with bad children, don't you, Nanny?' 'Into the oven.' The giraffe said. It had this human-like voice that sounded like a little girl. 'I'm not a bad kid, Delilah. I'm a good kid!' Steven said. 'I want to be with you, Delilah! I want to live in a perfect world!' Delilah curtsied and said, 'Oh my goodness! No one has ever asked to come join me! I can't refuse a good boy like you. Come join us, Steven!' When she said that, a strange man came out onto the set. He called himself Tom Summerfield." Alex raised an eyebrow at that name. "Tom stood beside Delilah and looked at Steven. He said, 'Hello, Steven. My name is Tom Summerfield. Miss Delilah tells me you want to come join us? Is that right?' Steven nodded his head and yelled, 'Yes! Yes, I do! Please let me be with Delilah!' 'What about your friend?' Tom said with a smile even faker than Delilah's. 'He's not my friend!' Steven had cast me out once again. I thought we were such good friends. I still don't know why he picked her over me. Must have been the brainwashing. Anyway, after he said that, Tom said, 'I see. Don't worry about him. We'll take care of everything.' Then the whole room lit up. The windows, everything. Then Tom was there behind us. I couldn't move at all. He said to Steven, 'It's time to go.' Steven got up and ran over to him. He grabbed Tom's hand and in a flash, they both disappeared. The room went dark, and there was nothing on the TV but an Off Air message. I quickly checked my cameras, and there was nothing on it. No part of the show recorded either. I searched outside and all over the house, but he was gone. Then I went to tell my parents about him disappearing. Naturally, they didn't believe my story either and told me they didn't know any Steven and I hadn't asked to have any friends over. I went back to my room, confused and then I noticed something else off. It was suddenly seven in the morning. There was no way that much time could have passed, but every clock in the house said seven. After breakfast, I tried talking to my parents again about Steven, but they told me to stop making up crap. Then I called Steven's parents. They told me they didn't have a son. I called everyone I knew who knew Steven, and it was all the same. No one knew who he was. I knew there had to be a way to prove he existed. He couldn't just completely disappear, even if everyone forgot him. I searched through my room again and while I didn't have any photos of him, I did have two pieces of evidence. Our fourth and fifth grade yearbooks. I showed them to everyone. Something even weirder happened. No one could see him in the yearbooks. They all told me I was pointing to a blank spot on the pages. What was even more bizarre than that was when I told another kid this story, who never knew Steven, and showed him the yearbooks, he could see the pictures of Steven. That kid moved away that Summer, but I finally met someone who could confirm I wasn't crazy. I never saw Steven again, and I never watched that TV show again either. We'll never know what really happened that day, but it was definitely a government scheme." Everyone stared at Juan. Alex was the first to break the silence. "Bullshit." "Man, what do you mean bullshit? You don't know! You weren't there!" Juan threw his hands up in the air. "The kid disappears and conveniently no one remembers he ever existed except you? You got that story off a website, didn't you?" Alex glared at him. "No, it's real! It really happened!" Juan got up and ran over to the closet. "Wait...I can prove it to you! Hold on a sec..." While he searched through the closet, the other three boys gave each other glances of mutual disbelief at Juan's story. Juan returned after a few minutes with two books in hand. "Here! My elementary school yearbooks." Juan skimmed through the fourth grade one until he found what he was looking for. He turned the yearbook over and pointed to Steven's photo. "There he is. There's his name." Alex still was not convinced. "And when you showed this to everyone, no one could see him but we can? Why's that?" "The only people who can see him are people who didn't know him or me." Juan said again. "Give me that." Alex yanked the book from Juan's hand. He whipped out his phone and started typing in something into a browser. "What are you doing?" Zack asked. "I'm googling him, obviously." Alex hit search. Juan gave them all a big grin. "You won't find him." Zack looked over at Alex's phone screen. "Anything?" "Not yet...odd...Let me try a few more sites." "He may not have much online activity. Some people are really private." Eric chimed in. "I told you guys, he disappeared!" "Sure he did. So, where did you get that story from? Did you just make it up or was that some shitty creepypasta you failed at retelling?" Alex didn't look up from his phone screen. "It's real! Nobody ever believes me about anything!" Juan retreated back to his bed. Zack tried to soften the blow. "No offense, Juan, but that story's pretty hard to believe." "Believe what you want. I know what happened that day, and I'm never going to forget it." Juan turned away from him. Alex wasn't done with him. It was in his nature to be insistent on finding the most logical conclusion even if it causes annoyance to everyone else around him. He sat down on the bed just behind Juan. "Quick question. If they erased everyone else's memories of this kid, why didn't they bother with you when you were actually there when it happened? Wouldn't it have been easier to just abduct you both or give you a false memory of him being kidnapped? Or if they wanted to completely erase all evidence of this kid, erase your memory too?" Juan was ready to answer Alex. He crossed his arms and stared at his I Want to Believe poster. "It's because they know I'm on to them and I say the truth. I say the truth so much they know people will only think I'm crazy. They want people like me to say the truth specifically so no one will believe it. It's all part of the plan." Alex rolled his eyes and went over to the couch. "Sure it is. Whatever. I'm going to sleep." "You can't handle the truth. Your mind is too closed." Juan shouted at him from across the room. "Yeah, I got this way from aliens probing my ass then wiping my memories of it too many times." Alex lay down and pulled a throw blanket over himself. Juan looked to Zack and Eric for support. "You guys believe me, don't you?" Zack nodded with an uneasy expression. "Ah, sure." "It's a very strange story alright..." Eric nodded while shifting his gaze to the side. Juan threw his hands up in the air and fell back on the bed. "Awe man, no one ever believes me." "It's not that I don't want to believe you, it's just a very...hard to explain story, that's all." Eric said. "Yeah, that's it!" Zack chimed in. "At least you guys are nice about it." After that, the boys all scattered to different parts of the room to sleep. Around noon, Juan's mother woke them up. Juan and Zack both had work later in the afternoon. Zack left first. Eric and Alex left together, as Eric had gotten a ride from Alex. While Eric and Zack thought little of the story, Alex was still running through the details in his mind on the drive home. He said little during the drive. Turning onto the road their houses were on, Alex said to Eric, "We're almost back. You wanna go home or stay with me?" Eric stared out the window. "I'd rather stay with you." "You gonna tell your parents?" "I'll text them later." Eric perked up after that. "So, where we goin'?" "I was gonna get something to eat, then take a walk on the trail." "Okay. Sounds good to me." Alex parked at his house. The two went inside and made lunch in the kitchen. After lunch, they headed to the backyard. About a quarter of a mile past Alex's backyard, there was access to a nature trail. The trail was a frequent hangout of theirs, along with the creek that ran just behind both their houses. After about a mile of walking, Eric noticed Alex's quietness continued. He walked a little ahead of Alex. "Somethin' on your mind?" "It's that stupid story Juan told." Alex stopped. "I know he's bullshitting. I have to prove it." "Don't worry about that. It's Juan. Most of everything he claims happened is bullshit. That shit was more fake than my aunt Tallulah's heart-stealing ghost girl story." "Something's buggin' me though. He couldn't remember the name of the channel or anything about Moone & Wolfe, but he did get one thing right." Alex walked ahead of Eric. "What do you mean?" Eric asked. "The current head of the local Moone & Wolfe headquarters is Dr. Thomas Summerfield. From what I've seen of the little information on him online and from the times I met him in person, he usually goes by Tom." Alex said. "Wait...then do you think some part of his story was real?" "Can't be. Children can't just vanish and everyone suddenly forget them. But, he could be misremembering what happened to deal with something else." Alex was quick to reason away the supernatural elements of the story. "We've had a lot of missing people in this area, the most famous being that scientist back in the nineties." "Pamela Archer, right. But most of the state is just backwoods once you get outside of Atlanta. Missing people's not really shocking." "Yeah, but here's the thing. When I was researching the company, I found something generally skipped over in a lot of reports on Miss Archer. Her former girlfriend reported to the police that she was being followed by a man claiming he worked for a medical research company. Most reports don't name the company, but I found a really old article that specified the Moone & Wolfe Corp." "How the hell did you come across that in your search?" Eric raised an eyebrow at that. "You know I'm very thorough...and I get easily lost clicking on random related things." "Still, that company has always hired a lot of people in this region. I doubt it's related." Eric said. He wasn't convinced by that detail nor did he think Alex would be. For Alex to be convinced something was off, there had to be something very strange going on. His stomach started to turn at the thought of what that might be. As expected, Alex had more to share. "There is one more strange detail I came across once I got side-tracked onto Miss Archer's case. Early on, not long after singer Kathy Beaumont brought the case to mass media attention, Pamela's parents were interviewed. They claimed they didn't have a daughter, and some of her other relatives also said the same thing...but not all of them." "What the hell?" "At the time, the media chalked it up to the parents trying to disown their daughter for being gay, but...I don't know. It's very odd. This may be a coincidence, but...Miss Archer was studying memory, specifically the ways in which it can be altered." Eric's eyes widened. "Why the hell didn't you mention any of this while we were at Juan's?" Alex turned his nose up at that. "You know what he would be like if I did. I'm not going to give that satisfaction to him unless it's completely provable." "You're so petty." Eric sighed, then laughed under his breath. That was typical of Alex. "So, what are you going to do?" "See if I can dig any deeper. I'm actually going to meet with Dr. Summerfield again tomorrow." "What? Really?" "He was apparently impressed with that research I did last summer. He wants me to do a little project for him. I think I'm going to turn him down, because he kinda creeps me out in general and I ain't got time for that shit, but my parents still want me to talk to him again." "What creeped you out about him?" Eric asked. "I don't know. The way he talks about things is...off, and he kept staring at me really weird." Alex cringed remembering the way Dr. Summerfield stared at him. "You sure that wasn't in your head?" "Nah, he was definitely looking at me weird." "Maybe he thought you were cute." Eric said in jest and nudged Alex's arm. "I highly doubt that." The thought of that made Alex cringe even more. Dr. Summerfield was at least twice his age. "I'm gonna do some more diggin' later, and maybe I can get something out of Dr. Summerfield about the TV show. I can remember that channel existing and it having weird shit on it, but I don't remember that particular TV show Juan mentioned. Hmm, maybe I can find some clips online at least..." "Maybe, but it is a local channel. There might not be much." "Yeah, I know." Eric changed the subject. "Hey, uh, thanks for inviting me out. I really didn't wanna go home yet." "I figured." Alex shot him a grin. "How'd you know?" Eric laughed. "You never wanna go home." "Yeah, I guess I don't." Alex's voice turned serious for a moment. "Is there a reason why?" "I dunno. I mean, it's just...My parents are just really...I dunno. I wish I didn't have to go home at all. I wanna move out already." Eric's response wasn't different from usual, vague and confused. "It won't be much longer." Alex reassured him. He was hoping to get more out of Eric. He tried again. "You sure nothing's going on?" Eric lowered his voice. "I don't think they want me home either anyway." That confession was new. Alex softened his voice somewhat and asked, "Why?" Eric looked around. The trail they were on was heavily used by locals. He waited for a cyclist to pass before responding. "I don't really wanna talk about it out here." "Oh, okay. Do you wanna talk about it later?" "Maybe..." Eric stared down at his feet. In a barely audible voice, he asked, "Hey, could I spend the night?" "Sure. I doubt my parents will care." "You sure? Tomorrow's Monday. We have school." "My mom's let you stay over on school nights before plenty. That's never been a big deal. You know that. You're practically over all week anyway. If we go to bed early, she won't complain." Eric had already spent the night Tuesday through Friday earlier in the week. At this point, he half expected Eric to ask to move in and considered asking Eric to do so himself. He hoped he might get more out of Eric once they went back home, but Alex was doubtful. Eric usually found a way out of explaining. He didn't want to give Eric the opportunity to "pretend" he forgot about talking. Alex ended the walk early and they headed back for the house. Back home, they went upstairs to Alex's bedroom. Eric lay down on the bed not long after they got back. Alex sat on the bed beside him. "You okay?" "Yeah...think I'm a little tired from staying up so late. I think I need a nap." 'Of course. A convenient excuse to not talk.' Alex thought. He flicked Eric on the forehead. "Jeez. You're eighteen years old, not five." "I've seen you take naps." Eric yawned. "Do you mind if I take a quick nap?" "Your quick naps are like two hours long." "I swear it'll only be fifteen minutes this time." "I'll wake you up when dinner's ready." Alex rolled his eyes and smirked. "You're so rude." "And you're a liar. Go to sleep." Alex got up from the bed and sat down at his desk. "I swear it'll be fifteen minutes." That was the last thing Eric said before quickly falling asleep. When he was certain Eric was asleep, Alex went back over to the bed. He sat on the floor and rested his arms and head on the mattress. Alex watched Eric sleep for a while, debating on whether he wanted to join him in taking a nap or not. Asleep, Eric looked completely vulnerable. Though he'd seen that empty, peaceful expression of Eric's many times in the last year, he never once took it for granted. Their friendship had been broken before. He didn't intend to let it happen again, even if that meant burying a few things out of fear. Around fifteen minutes from when Eric said he'd wake up, Alex lay down beside him and fell asleep. At six, they were woken up by Alex's mom yelling from downstairs. "Alex, dinner's ready!" "Kay!" Alex yelled back. He rubbed his eyes. "Shit, what time is it?" Eric noticed Alex beside him. "What are you doing? You fell asleep too? And you were getting on to me..." "I don't know how that happened." Alex shifted the conversation. "Did you text your parents?" "Not yet. Not like they texted me either." "I better tell her you're staying over. I'll be right back." Alex rushed down the stairs and to the kitchen. His mom was stirring something in a pot, still in her office clothes. "Hey Mom, can Eric spend the night?" "Tonight's a school night." She said. "Please! We won't stay up late." Alex begged in a childish voice. She cracked a half smile. "Oh, alright. But be in bed by eleven. I'll check." "We will, I promise! Thanks, Mom!" He hugged her before running back upstairs. Eric was still sitting on the bed. Alex leaned against the doorway. "She said it's okay. Did you text your parents?" "Not yet." "Do your parents not care at all that you're rarely home?" "I'm moving out in the summer anyway. Besides, I'm at your house. You live like three house over." Eric got out his phone and made a quick text. "I texted them just now. What about you? Do your parents not care that I'm over here all the time?" "They've started giving me the 'we'll love you no matter what' speech. I keep telling them that's not what's going on, but they never listen." Alex laughed. "Anyway, we have to be in bed by eleven." "We don't have to study tonight, right? Aren't we going to look more into Juan's story?" Eric asked. "We will, after we study." "Come on, it's not that important." "For me. You need to study. You know how quickly your grades drop if you don't keep a schedule." This back and forth had become a routine between theme for the last few months. "Does it matter anymore? I already got accepted into college." Eric gave his usual response. "It'll matter if you suddenly fail to graduate high school." As did Alex. "Okay, okay. We'll study." Eric wasn't about to let Alex win. "And don't give me that 'for you' crap, Mr. Can't Do Math For Shit." Alex had no response for that. "Shut up and get out the books. We're studying after dinner." After dinner, they went straight to studying. Tomorrow, there was a physics test. The reviewing was going well. Over the last two years, Alex had mastered finding every little technique that worked on helping Eric do well on assignments. It wasn't easy. Eric never thought highly of his own intelligence, despite being average in most subjects and excelling in math when he actually did the work. Alex made it his mission to ensure Eric graduated after Eric told him he planned on dropping out at sixteen. Prior to then, the relationship between the two was strained at the best of times and outright vitriolic the rest. Close friends in elementary school, middle school had them at each other's throats constantly and the beginning of high school, while less hostile than middle school, didn't start off well either. He calmed down significantly over sophomore year, in part from accepting why he was so agitated with Eric in middle school. While they studied at Alex's desk, the distance between them dissipated. The heat of Eric's body hit against Alex's skin in the small space between them. Alex wanted to close the distance completely. Eric accidentally brushed against Alex's arm. The contact sped up Alex's heartbeat, but he didn't let his reaction show. As a confused twelve year old, he would have been throwing punches. He laughed at himself in his head. At nine-thirty, they wrapped up their study session. Alex turned on his laptop and searched the name of the TV show Juan mentioned in his story. He found a summary of it on a list of local TV shows on someone's old personal website on a page called "Childhood Memories". The page consisted of a list of show titles with a summary and several screenshots. There were no pictures for Delilah's Daily Dose. The page seemed to serve as a reference for shows the owner had watched before. Alex read the information aloud. "Here it is. Delilah's Daily Dose, ran from 1996 to 2010. That fits with the time frame he mentioned, just barely. The show's protagonist, Delilah, would start each episode by greeting the audience and announcing what the lesson of the day was. She was assisted by her various robot animal friends, including Nanny the Giraffe and Bad Bear. The actress for Delilah used the pseudonym Delilah Dot. The real name of the actress playing Delilah is unknown, though viewers have noted she has a strong resemblance to former actress turned recluse Tina Tiffany. Tiffany was well known for playing roles as preteen and teenage girls due to her ability to pass as much younger than her real age. Tiffany has not made a public appearance since 1993, and there has been no verifiable evidence that Dot and Tiffany are the same person. Wow, what's that about?" "Why would anyone even care? It's just some local kids show." "I don't know. This show was only broadcast in Georgia." "Huh. Weird. Never heard of this Tina Tiffany lady either." Eric said. "The name sounds familiar...Hmm..." It suddenly came to Alex after he glanced over at the TV. "Oh right, her. My mom has some of her movies and her CD. She was a fan of hers way back when. I had no idea she just dropped off the face of the earth at some point. Wonder what this Delilah Dot looks like." Alex searched for images of Delilah Dot. A few pictures of Tina Tiffany came up, and nothing else. Eric tilted his head. "Nothing? What the hell? Why aren't there any pictures online? If people were speculating she was some actress, you'd think there'd be a comparison photo up somewhere..." "Let me try to find a video." Alex searched again. Only one video came up in his search, uploaded by someone going by the name badbear93. Alex clicked on it. The video was in black and white, and of someone filming their TV playing the show. It was too grainy for either of them to make out much of anything in the show. The audio was heavily distorted. In the background, a child could be heard saying, "This part's my favorite. Bad Bear, Bad Bear getting cooked." Eric gave Alex a weird look. "Okay...someone was bored. But why can't we find this?" "Let's try a general search on it again." Alex searched again. Toward the end of the first page, he saw something interesting--a forum called "Delilah's Good Girls and Boys". Alex clicked on it. The layout was designed to look like an old newspaper and everything on the site was in black and white. At the top of the page, underneath the title banner, was a section of text that read, "Welcome to Delilah's Good Girls and Boys, a forum dedicated to everything related to Delilah's Daily Dose!" At the bottom of the page was a small line about the site being run by someone going by the name nannysbiggestgirafan. "There's a forum for this shit?!" Eric stared in disbelief. "No pictures of Delilah here either. What's with that?" "And we can't see any threads without an account. Okay, let's take care of that real quick." Alex filled out the information on the sign-up page. He was met with a message saying "moderator approval needed to view and post". Alex rested his face in his palm. "Jeez, really? We have to wait for a moderator to approve it? It's a fucking local kids show!" "Who knows if this place is even still active." "Let's cross our fingers and hope the mod's still around. I'll bookmark this page for later." Alex went back to the search. He clicked on the next promising site. "Next site. Oh, this one's a...are you shitting me? A fanlisting that's still around in 2016?" "Maybe they have pics at least, or some more info." The fanlisting had no pictures of Delilah or anything else from the show. The website was in black and white, just like the last one and featured a similar theme. The owner of the site went by chefmonkey. There were several hundred members with names like nannyisthebest, nannysmynanny, delilahsgoodgirl, and drS-lil-toy. Badbear93 and nannysbiggestgirafan were also members. On the links page, "Delilah's Good Girls and Boys" was linked along with a list of links under a heading called "Educational". Alex hovered over the educational links, which had titles like "Modesty", "Color", and "Relationships". All the links under that led to specific posts on the forum. There were two more fanlistings linked, one called "Nanny's Obedient Children" and "Messages to Bad Bear". He opened each of them in another tab. There was no information on the person who put up the website. Alex clicked on the "about Delilah". The brief section read: "Delilah Dot is a delightful little darling who gives children her daily dose of doable goodness. She helps all the children become good girls and boys every day, one doable deed at a time. Delilah teaches you everything you need to know to be good, and how to get bad people out of your lives. With her robot friends, Delilah can do anything. No matter whose hand you're holding, good boys and girls always work hard to do their best for everyone!" There was another section titled "How to be a Good Girl and Good Boy". Alex clicked on that next. This page was written as a list. "How to be a Good Girl and Good Boy 1. Dress modest and clean. Good children don't distract others while working together. 2. Keep color to a minimum. Black and white are best. 3. Do doable good deeds daily. Always be as productive as possible. No procrastinating! 4. Work in logical groups. Remove distraction, remove incompetence, remove feelings. Concentrate only on the doable deed! 5. Put aside feelings and personal attachments in the group. This clouds judgment. Always make logical decisions. 6. Don't be a Bad Bear. Bad Bears get cooked. 7. Most important of all, always check on your neighbor. There's no point to a group if you don't check that it's always full of good children." "Okay...what the actual fuck is this shit about?" Alex clicked back. "Weird shit. What's on the other sites?" Alex bookmarked the Delilah fanlisting and moved on to "Nanny's Obedient Children", the fanlisting for Nanny the Giraffe. It was run by nannysbiggestgirafan. Most of the people who were fans on the first site also joined it. There was barely anything at all on Nanny's fanlisting. The site had nothing but a white background with black text and a few links in a list. Alex moved on to "Messages to Bad Bear". At the top of the page, in red letters, it said, "Bad Bears get cooked". This site was run by drS-lil-toy. In the top left corner, a sketch of a teddy bear with a button eye falling off was the only image on the page. The "Fans" page was the same set of people again. The only other page on the site was one called "Messages". On the "Messages" page, which was really a guestbook, various "fans" left messages to Bad Bear. The earliest message was from 2002 and no further messages until 2004. Messages ranged from sad to violent, but all had the same theme. They were clearly written by children. Alex and Eric read over the messages together. The first one was from chefmonkey. "My math teacher is such a slut. She wears low cut shirts every day. That's why her test average is lower than the other math teachers. I bet she wants all the boys to stare, or worse! One day, she'll get hers! Bad Bears get cooked." The next one was by nannysmynanny. It read, "I was born a Bad Bear. :( Nanny and Delilah helped me see what was wrong with me. Now I do doable deeds daily, as many as I can to compensate for being a Bad Bear." Alex scrolled further and stopped at a very strange and creepy one. This one was posted by badbear93. "It's so hard being a Bad Bear. I follow all of Delilah's guidelines. I've almost completely blocked out all my bad thoughts, but my brother doesn't even try. I got on his computer the other day and checked his history. He forgot to clear it again, because he's so incompetent. He'd be useless in a group. He had porn in his history again! Gay porn! I told my parents about it and now he's grounded! >) But I know he'll go back to his usual ways again. Sometimes, I fantasize about cutting off his hands so he can't use the computer anymore, but he'd still think about those things. Maybe if I cut off a few other things along with them...but I'm still a Bad Bear too. I should have been doing deeds instead of fantasizing. I have to work harder for Delilah!" Eric and Alex both looked at each other after reading badbear93's message. "Uh, do you think we should alert the police about this?" Eric asked. "I don't know...I don't know what they could really do about this anyway. It doesn't sound like they were planning on actually doing anything either, and this message is from 2004. If they did, we'd be too late." "I think we should keep reading. This shit is..." Eric's palms were sweating. There were twenty pages of messages. He was both intrigued and afraid of what might be lurking in there. "I don't wanna say Juan's right about this, cause Juan's never right about anything, but this shit...is starting to creep me out." "Let's see if there's any more from this person." Alex searched the page and got nothing. He moved on to the next page. There were two hits for "badbear93". Alex went down to the first one. "My brother's being put in military school. Finally! There might be some order around here! Or so I thought. Sis flunked out of college (red flag one she was coming back as a Bad Bear!) and she came home in booty shorts and a tank top. After she went out with Mom to look for a job, I went through her bags. I found a box of condoms! I also found letters and a picture of some Asian guy. Looks like he's her "boyfriend". Letter says he's leaving the country next month. Bad Bear, nothing but distractions. And no appreciation for the education Mom and Dad paid for. They picked out a nice school and major for her and everything! The worst part? I found an unfinished letter in there saying my Sis wants to get back in school just so she can go abroad and be with that guy in China! What's wrong with her? I'm going to go through her computer next time she's out." As soon as Alex finished reading that passage, he clicked down to the next one from badbear93. "Sis is even worse than my brother. She had pictures hidden in a box of that Asian guy naked! I cut them up and burned them in the backyard. She told my parents that she was planning on going abroad to study. They were rightfully angry, but let their emotions lead the conversation too much. Emotions always get in the way. She managed to convince them to let her go if she could save up the money and get loans. If they'd been levelheaded, they wouldn't have been manipulated by her. I wasn't going to let her manipulate them like that. I interrupted when I heard them say that and told them all about that guy and the condoms and the naked pictures. Mom and Dad were really angry then. They grounded her and told her they were going to find a nice private school for her to go to. Now she says she's moving out to live with a friend! Bad Bear, Bad Bear! I hope this is the last I see of her. I've been repeating Delilah's best tips for days so I don't go in there and cut her up. It's barely working. All that keeps me going is Delilah. I want to be a Good Boy for Delilah. I have to be. I will be. I want to hold Delilah's hand and stomp out all the badness in me." Alex clicked on the next page and searched again for badbear93. There were several hits this time. The first hit was a third of the way down the page. "Sis is gone. I cut up some of her things and burned them. No more distractions from her. Now my brother's back because he got kicked out of military school. So much for that. What a waste. He's been calling some boy on the phone constantly. I've been secretly listening in on their calls. I know they're seeing each other, but I didn't know for sure yet. Nasty! When my brother went out to get new clothes with my mom, I went through his room. I found a picture with that boy's name on it. He's some black boy. I checked my brother's old yearbooks and he went to the same public school my brother used to go to. Good thing my parents are putting him in an alternative school next. I told my parents about everything I knew, and my brother is on complete lockdown now. No TV, no phones, no computer, no going outside, no leaving the room except to go to the bathroom. They blocked that boy's number. My parents aren't the best they could be, but they haven't had any of Delilah's instructions and they still do pretty good all things considered. That didn't stop my brother from being bad. He started sneaking out at night. I knew he was going over to that boy's house, but Delilah says always make sure you gather every detail before making a decision. So I followed him last night. He met up with that boy in the woods. Then the most disgusting of things happened. I can't tell my parents because I wasn't supposed to be out either, which means the best option is for me to give him a punishment myself. I'm going to give him one Nanny would be proud of." "Holy fuck." Eric took a deep breath. "What do you think he planned on doing to him?" "Well, we still have several hits on this page. Guess we're about to find out." Alex hesitated on hitting the next button. He gulped and clicked. The next hit for badbear93 was in someone else's message, one by nannysbiggestgirafan. "Badbear93 turned out to really be a Bad Bear after all. But he's in a better place now. The state will keep him under watch at all times. There is a silver lining to Badbear93's loss of control. One less distracted person in the world. For that, a good job Badbear93, but next time, leave it to others! Bad Bears always get cooked, and his brother would have gotten his in time anyway. Badbear93 didn't know how to wait. Now he's all over the news as a Bad Bear for playing with ropes and sharp objects while his really bad brother looks like a saint. All the other Bad Bears out there are using this to look like victims. To all of Nanny's obedient children out there, don't be a Bad Bear! Always follow Delilah's advice to a T!" Eric and Alex were unable to speak for a while. Eric put his head in his hands. He was breathing heavily. "Tell me this isn't real. This is something people made up, right?" Alex used a few key details from the messages and searched for those along with the year of the last message, the state, and "murder". His stomach turned when he found exactly what he was looking for. He read aloud the first article that came up. "Trent Nightberry was convicted of murder earlier today for the murder of his older brother, Jason. Due to his age, where Trent will be placed in the long run has yet to be determined, but he will be kept in juvenile detention for the time being. The thirteen year old was found by his parents dismembering his sixteen year old brother in the middle of the night with his father's ax. Trent confessed to the police that he killed his brother because his brother was gay. Trent had discovered Jason was secretly seeing a male classmate. When the sixteen year old was asleep, Trent tied his brother's wrists and ankles to his bed frame and put a gag in his brother's mouth. According to Trent's confession, he first castrated his brother, then subsequently chopped off each of his hands and feet. His parents heard a strange noise coming from Jason's room and went to investigate. Kelly and Tod Nightberry were horrified by what they saw. Tod grabbed the ax from Trent and called the police after restraining the boy while Kelly removed the gag in Jason's mouth and cradled him. She said he didn't say anything to her, only crying before dying in her arms from blood loss." Eric got up from the chair and went to the other side of the room. He didn't say anything. Alex kept up his search. He found more information on Trent. "Trent Nightberry, born April 16th, 1993. He was eventually transferred to a mental hospital in early 2007 after only a few weeks in juvenile detention for murdering his older brother the previous year. Trent claimed a character from a children's TV show instructed him to get rid of 'bad people' and murdered another teen in the juvenile detention center he was placed in. There were three incidents prior to this in which Nightberry had injured other boys. After being transferred to a mental hospital, he killed another teenager and committed suicide. Several lawsuits were filed, from both Trent's parents and the parents of the injured and murdered children, against the state." "I don't want to hear anymore." Eric sat down on the futon sofa. "I'm sorry. Let's not look at this anymore tonight." Alex made a few more bookmarks and turned off the computer. "I'm sure the police have looked into that by now. That other user was also condemning what he did. I doubt there's anything else like that in there. That guy was just a crazy person surrounded by a bunch of weirdos. It's got nothing to do with anything Juan told us." "I feel sick." Alex joined Eric on the sofa. "Try not to think about it. Let's watch something on TV until eleven, okay?" "Okay." Alex turned the TV on. He flipped through and stopped at a cheesy sketch comedy show. Alex tried making small talk to further distract Eric. Eric's mood improved somewhat as time passed. Near the end of the show, Alex remembered something. "Hey, earlier when we were on the trail, we were talking about your parents and you didn't want to say anything out there. Do you wanna talk about that?" Alex asked. "It's eleven." Eric said, looking down at his phone screen. "Already? Damn." From downstairs, Alex's mom yelled, "Boys, get ready for bed!" "We are!" Alex yelled back. "Your mom never loses track of time." "I know. It's annoying." Alex got up from the bed. 'You dodged again. Why won't you tell me?' They quickly got ready for bed. Alex stood between the futon sofa and the bed. He asked Eric, "Hey, do you want to sleep on the futon or the bed?." "Bed's fine. No offense, but that futon kills my back. Can't believe you ask at this point. When was the last time I slept anywhere else?" Eric plopped down on the bed like he owned it. At this point, he had a favorite side to sleep on, preferring to sleep by the window. "Just asking. Sorry. It's from Walmart. Do you want the bed to yourself?" Alex knew what Eric's answer would be, but he asked out of habit. "We can share. It's not that cramped. Don't know why you ask that either. Heh." Eric patted the space beside him. Alex turned off the light and got in bed. "Did you set an alarm?" Eric asked. "Yeah." Alex settled into bed and stared up at the ceiling. He had a lot of things running in his mind. Juan's story, the websites they found, badbear93, meeting Dr. Summerfield tomorrow afternoon--getting any sleep wasn't going to happen. 'Great. And of course I have a test tomorrow...' Another thought cleared out all the other concerns in his mind. Eric moved closer to him on the bed. The warmth of Eric's body beside him was stimulating more than just his mind. He turned away from Eric. Eric said in a low, playful voice. "What? You're just going straight to sleep? No 'goodnight' and a kiss?" He wasn't sure why he did it. It was reckless and stupid. Alex turned back over and kissed Eric on the lips. "Goodnight." "Heh...I didn't expect you to actually do it..." Alex could hear in Eric's voice how embarrassed he was. "Are you awake?" "Obviously." Alex's heart pounded in his head. He did it again. To his surprise, Eric reciprocated the kiss rather strongly. Curious and confused by what was happening, Alex tested his luck and went for a deeper kiss. Eric was all too eager to French him. All of Alex's body was burning hot. He pulled away, trying to determine from the tiny bits of light from the window what face Eric was making at him. He couldn't tell. Alex said in a cold voice. "Go to sleep." "What's gotten into you?" Eric laughed off what happened. 'Were you just messing around?' Alex wanted to ask, but he was too afraid. He stared back up at the ceiling, frustrated and embarrassed. "Nothing." Alex did eventually fall asleep. He woke up to his alarm going off. Out of habit, he grabbed his phone and shut it off without bothering to open his eyes. The early morning sun replaced the moon's light. He looked down beside him. Eric was curled up against him, one of his arms resting on Alex's chest. Eric woke up shortly after him. He took in the position they were in. This wasn't the first time that happened. "Again?" "You're really clingy." Alex laughed to disguise his embarrassment. "Sorry, I get cold really easily." Eric didn't move away. "Hey, this is a weird question, but did you kiss me last night? I think I had a dream you did. Is that weird?" Alex's cheeks burned. "I kissed you." "Oh, so that was real. What's up with that?" Eric asked. "I don't know. You started it." Alex took in how little distance there was between their faces. His embarrassment heightened, but he didn't move away. "It's not that weird for friends, I guess. Some friends kiss, right?" Eric's face had turned as deep a shade of red as Alex's. Alex tried to shift the topic slightly to alleviate some of his embarrassment. "You used to kiss me all the time when we were little kids. Do you remember? My parents thought it was cute and your parents..." "Grounded me. Yeah. I forgot about that. That was like, second grade? I did it to Zack too. His parents didn't think it was cute either. I think I was going through some kind of weird phase." "The complete opposite of how you acted around me in middle school." Alex added. Before he started acting like a jerk to Eric in sixth grade, Eric was already putting up walls at the start of the school year. "Let's not bring that up...I'd like to repress all of middle school." Eric winced thinking back on it all. "You're not the only one. Sorry for picking on you back then." "It's in the past." Eric cleared his throat. He glanced to the side as he spoke, then back to Alex to check his reaction. "So, uh, are you okay with kissing? Like in private?" Alex's palms were sweating. He kept his voice composed and nonchalant. "I guess." Eric leaned in close. Alex mirrored his motions to meet in a brief kiss. Eric pulled away first. He laughed nervously. "That was a little more embarrassing than I thought it'd be..." "Change your mind?" "Nah." Eric's phone buzzed. He had set an extra alarm in case Alex's didn't go off or they overslept. He leaned over Alex to turn it off. "Shit. We need to get going." Alex was more than a little distracted by this. He shifted his gaze to the window. They were out the door in ten minutes. The physics test was during first period for Eric and third period for Alex. With the meeting after school, Alex hardly cared about the test. His nerves were starting to get to him. What they found the previous night disturbed Eric more than him at the time, but memories of their searches crept back into his mind. He hadn't thought of it at the time, but since the show only aired in Georgia, all those people on those sites had to have lived in Georgia at some point during the show's run. Any one of them could be a neighbor, a classmate, an old friend. He wanted to dig deeper into those messages. On the drive to school, Alex did the only thing he could think of to calm himself down. "Hey, tonight, do you wanna come over again?" "Sure, why?" "I'm meeting with Dr. Summerfield after school, remember? I know it's just another ridiculous Juan story, but after last night...could you come with me?" Alex gripped the steering wheel hard. "Scared?" Eric's tone was hard for Alex to read. "I don't know. For some reason, I have a weird feeling about this meeting." He could feel his palms starting to sweat again. "Don't tell me the head of the Skeptics, Atheists, and Agnostics Club is getting a little superstitious..." Eric joked around. "It's not...ugh, maybe a little. It's just that...you know, he already gave me the creeps before I heard that story, and I was weirded out about that stuff I found online about that Archer lady. Then there's Juan's story and the stuff from last night..." "Got you a little spooked?" "A little." Eric smiled at him. "I'll come with you." "Thanks. You sure your parents are going to be okay with that?" Alex asked. Eric waved off Alex's suggestion. "I think they've given up at this point." At school, Alex couldn't concentrate on anything. He wasn't sure if he passed or failed the physics test, and he didn't care. Instead of taking notes in class, he searched for more information on Delilah's Daily Dot. He didn't find any new sites of use, but he did come across the ones from the previous night again. He went back to reading the messages on "Messages to Bad Bear". He skipped a few pages into the "Messages" section. Some messages were very short, only a line or two of some cryptic, repeated nonsense like "Bad Bears get cooked" and "I'm doing my daily doable deeds for Delilah". A few were on the longer side. The first longer message on the page was from ts+dd=happyworld. "All the kids these days are dyeing their hair. So distracting! I used to think my old lit teacher was nuts when she said unnatural hair colors were a classroom distraction, but Delilah has made me see the error of my Bad Bear ways. I'm never going to color my hair. That doesn't help me accomplish anything. I'm thinking about cutting it super short so my hair will never be a distraction for me. I've already changed out my clothes, but Mom thinks everything I pick out is weird. She keeps trying to buy me clothes that look like highlighter markers! Highlighters serve a function. They're not to distract, they're for focus, but bright colored clothes won't help me focus. Mom's never been good at avoiding distractions. That's why she's divorced four times in the last six years and I don't know who my real Dad is. And why she leaves the empty beer bottles all over the driveway. Some of the people at school have started making fun of my clothes, but I have better grades than all of them. They're just wasting their time and mine. I can't wait until there's a world where people like them aren't allowed to exist." He moved on to another by someone going by the name mybwbubble. "Thanks to Delilah, I've been a part of three research groups, had four different volunteer jobs over the years, been an A student for the last three years, and I already have some college credit. My old friends abandoned me because I didn't want to go play basketball or video games or go to the movies anymore. No loss there. Now, one of them just dropped out of school. (Who didn't see that one coming?) The other three have decided to not get further education and are all working at fast food jobs that lead to nothing and one keeps hopping girlfriends as soon as the girl gets pregnant. He's on seven kids now. Stupid. No shock there with him since he was already a BBB, just like my stepsister. I've been silently waiting for my mom and stepdad's marriage to fall apart. Leaving my dad was my mom's biggest mistake. He's out there making over 100K a year as a well-respected professional and she's with this 50K a year loser in a CROSSED scenario. Bad Bear. I can't wait to leave this place and forget all about them." Alex took note of some of the new slang. Bad Bear seemed to be their catchall phrase for anyone who was an "undesirable" in their eyes. Thinking back on previous messages, he took a guess that BBB stood for "Bad Bear from Birth", someone "born" already outside their ideal. He wasn't entirely sure what that entailed. "Good boys and girls" seemed to be code for anyone who followed their rules. He had no idea what "crossed" meant to them. He was starting to piece together a profile for the average person posting, but he wanted to read more to be sure. He wrote down some notes and moved down to another lengthy message. The next was from lionbakery. "Since I learned of Delilah, I see how much of a Bad Bear I was. We were all Bad Bears in some way. Now we're Good Boys and Girls. There's still a little bit of a Bad Bear inside me, but it'll be gone eventually. I just have to keep following Delilah's example. I've gotten my baby sister to follow Delilah's ways now. Our parents think it's weird, but they aren't complaining now that I've been accepted into a school for gifted children and my sister is likely to get in too. No more F's again! Now they buy us whatever I say we need and have stopped giving us junk like character-themed toys and t-shirts. We even got them off watching cable TV and they have switched to reading books and doing community work to better the world. Soon, there won't be any Bad Bears in the house. Everyone will be good. If only I could fix our neighbors. They're always on some vacation or hiking trip, wasting time when they could be helping the world. And the kids spend more time on their swingset than studying, from what I've observed. I've started monitoring them and our other neighbors, taking note of what's going wrong in the neighborhood and devising ways to improve it. I think all us Good Boys and Girls should work on things like this. If we can't fix them or cook them, we should at least undermine them." Alex wrote down some more notes. Most of the posters seemed to be minors who should have been too old to be interested in a show like that and had something somewhat dysfunctional or stress-related in their home or school life. Following Delilah appeared to give them a sense of purpose, along with special treatment. Other people really were "bad" and they could become "good" and "special" by doing what she said. They also got a nice superiority complex as a result. The "bad" things people did seemed to be either trivial and for fun--like having hobbies, playing, or dressing a certain way--or revolved around things that certain parts of society already ridiculed people for, like sex outside of marriage, being gay, and failing to achieve a certain academic or professional standard. There seemed to be something else missing, something they were being more covert about, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was. All the people involved worshiped and idolized Delilah. He was starting to wonder if he'd stumbled into some kind of weird local cult. 'How the hell does a kid's show spawn a cult? That would have to be a calculated move, and it was taken off air by the company that was sponsoring it. Something's not right here.' Alex wracked his brain for a logical explanation, but he couldn't fit the pieces together. Shortly after he finished lionbakery's message, he got an email notification. He checked his email to see what it was. The email was from the forum mod. It read: "Dear delilah_fan, Your application has been rejected. You are not a good boy. Only Good boys and girls are allowed on the forum to help improve the world. When you stop being as much of a Bad Bear and change your ways, please resubmit your application. Have a wonderful day and always do your daily doable deeds! -nannysbiggestgirafan" 'Rejected? For being bad? What the hell? Did I fail some kind of test?' Alex couldn't think of anything he might have done wrong. Curious what the response would be, he emailed the mod back. "Hello nannysbiggestgirafan, Your application was only a form asking for a username, email, basic person info, and a password. What was the reason my application was rejected?" In ten minutes, he received a reply, but not from the mod. His message had been forwarded to another email. The email reply came from firstname.lastname@example.org. "Alex, we know what you and Eric are trying to do. You're both naughty boys! XOXO -DD" Alex nearly dropped his phone. The email he used to sign-up with didn't have his real name attached. He used a nickname on that one, and his professional email, which he doubted anyone could link to the other account, was under Alexis Linwood, not Alex. He couldn't think of any way Eric could have been connected in there at all. What DD stood for was obvious, but he wondered if it was someone pretending to be Delilah or the real actress. He replied back to the email. "I don't know anyone named Alex or Eric. I think you have me confused for someone else." The response came after another ten minutes. The bell rang as he received it. He had to wait another fifteen minutes before he could get a moment in to look at it. When he got a chance, he read over it. This one was longer than the last one. "Don't be stupid, Alexis 'Alex' Linwood, born January 29th 1998 in Atlanta, Georgia seven months after your mother, Amanda Strickland--maiden name Linwood, returned from teaching English in South Korea at age 25. Your mother married Edward 'Eddie' Strickland when you were four years old. You are an only child. You are currently a senior at Hiram High School in Paulding County and have lived in that county since you started first grade. You started going by Alex in second grade because you were being picked on for having a 'girly sounding' name. You met Eric Thomas in first grade and you both live on the same street and have since first grade. You are both planning on attending the same college. You submitted the forum application from your laptop last night and have been replying to these emails from your Samsung phone in class instead of paying attention like you should be. Liars are the worst kind of people, Alex. If you stopped being such a naughty boy, we might let you in. You're a smart boy, Alex, unlike your friend Eric. He's only average. If you stopped being so bad, you could be so much more. Please stop lying to me, Alex. You're only making a fool of yourself. XOXO -DD" Alex stared at the email for a while. He ran a few scenarios in his head. Most of the information could be gotten online if his location was known and his personal email and professional email had been linked somewhere at some point. He didn't think he'd allowed that to happen, but he couldn't be completely sure either. If whoever was emailing him could get that information, then they could find out relatively easily who he was related to. His mother talked about him and her husband frequently on her social media accounts. He did have a few accounts himself under his real name, for professional reasons, but those accounts were otherwise void of information. Eric's information could have been gotten by extension through the accounts of his mother and her circle of friends. Addresses would be easy to find, and knowing whether he was on his computer versus his phone wasn't too shocking to him nor that he was sitting in class on a Monday during a time school would be in session. What bothered him most was that whoever was emailing him knew that it was specifically Eric who was with him that night. Out of all his friends to guess, Eric was the most likely person, but there was no reason to presume he was with anyone that night. Before he had time to think up another response, the bell rang for lunch. He got up to meet up with Eric, since they usually ate out together. Zack caught him as they were both leaving the classroom. "What's with you? You've been spacing out all day." Zack said. "I have a meeting to go to after school." Alex kept his response vague. Zack was a good friend, but Alex didn't want him involved in what he was doing. "Another research project?" "Yeah, maybe." "Who's it with?" Zack walked with him down the hall. Alex knew being truthful would get him more questions, but he wasn't in the mood to come up with a convincing lie. "I'm meeting with the head of Moone & Wolfe Corp again, Dr. Summerfield." Zack's mouth opened wide. "Wait, so that Tom Summerfield guy is real?" "I told you, man!" Juan popped up behind them and got in between them. "Jesus! When the hell did you get here?!" Alex jumped back slightly, caught off-guard by Juan's sudden appearance. "Don't go, dude. That guy's crazy. I don't think he's even human." Juan warned him. Alex rolled his eyes. "He's definitely human." Eric walked up to them from the hall across from them. He turned to Alex. "Hey, we're still going out to eat, right?" "Oh, yeah. I was looking for you." Alex said. "What? You guys are going out for lunch? Can I come?" Juan asked. 'I don't have time for this.' Alex narrowed his eyes. "You paying?" "Ah, man. All my money's in school credit. Come on, I'll pay you back." Juan begged him. "I don't got any extra cash on me." Alex shrugged and hid a grin. He knew Juan wouldn't have any extra money on him and Eric couldn't offer as Alex was already paying for his lunch. 'That takes care of that problem.' "Sorry. We'll let you know next time." Eric apologized to Juan. He looked over at Zack. "What about you, Zack?" 'Shit. Eric, why are you so considerate? Now is not the time!' Alex quickly gave Zack a particular look. Zack knew exactly what it meant. He smirked at Alex before playing along. "Eh, I didn't bring any money either. Think I'm gonna be stuck with a soggy jelly sandwich and milk. I forgot to put more money back on my account." "Ah, sorry. That sucks. I wish I had some money to give you, but..." Eric fell for Zack's act. "It's okay. I got plenty to eat at home. I'll just make up for it later in the day." Juan put his hand on Alex's shoulder. He gave him a completely serious stare. "Alex. That Summerfield guy, don't go see him. He's no good." "I'll be fine." Alex brushed him aside. "See you guys later. If I wanna get lunch, I gotta go now." "Alex, don't do it!" Juan shouted. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever, Juan." They went to get lunch at a nearby fast food restaurant. During the drive there, Alex's mind was focused on the emails. He debated with himself over telling Eric about them yet or not. He decided to wait to tell him for the time being. He wanted to see what information he could get out of "DD" first and he knew the emails would freak out Eric more than him. He still had the meeting with Dr. Summerfield to go to after school too. At this point, he had no idea what to expect out of that. Alex parked in the parking lot of the restaurant. He handed Eric his food and organized the money in his wallet. Eric noticed how much was inside. "Hey, you had extra money!" "They don't need to know that." Alex grinned. The grin quickly faded as his mind returned to his previous thoughts. Eric picked up on the shift in mood. "Nervous still?" "Yeah." "How'd you do on the physics test?" "Eh. I don't think I failed it, but...I already had a high A average in that class. I doubt it'll drop too much." Alex asked, "What about you?" "I can never tell, and you know I always assume the worst." Eric laughed at himself. He noticed Alex's hands were shaking. He put his hand on Alex's. "You're really freaked out." Eric pointing it out only made him more nervous. Alex tried to calm himself, but couldn't. "It's nothing. Nothing's going to happen. Nothing's..." Eric leaned over and kissed him. They both were embarrassed by it. Neither said anything for a while. Eric broke the silence first. "Too public?" "Hah...yeah. That family was staring at us." Alex said. He didn't notice, but his hands weren't shaking anymore. "We should head back or we'll be late." "Yeah." Before heading back, Alex reached over and held Eric's hand. He could feel Eric staring at him, but Alex only looked ahead. Eric didn't let go until Alex started to pull away. At school, Alex reread over the string of emails. He sent "DD" a short email asking who was sending him the messages. "DD" responded very quickly. "Asking questions you already know the answer to is a sign of immaturity. XOXO -DD" Annoyed at this point, Alex decided to be a little obnoxious himself. "Presuming one is right without substantial evidence is a mark of arrogance and makes one ill-fitted for scientific inquiry. By the way, you never answered me on why I was rejected. Why am I bad?" "DD" took longer to respond to him this time. "A distracted mind makes one ill-fitted. You have a lot of bad behavior you need to change. For you, more instruction is needed than what you can find online and I won't allow you to corrupt the minds of the Good Boys and Girls I've taught by entering the forum. I'm sure you'll get instructed properly eventually. All those of value will be. XOXO -DD" Something eerie dawned on him. Some of the messages made references to people eventually getting "punished" in time, but he presumed then they meant some kind of delusional karmic justice. This response suggested some sort of long-term plan. 'Definitely a cult, with delusions of influence.' Both "DD" and the followers all seemed interested in monitoring and snooping on others. He thought up reasons why he might have been pinged off initially as not part of their group. 'What gave me away? Maybe I should have joined the fanlistings first. My email not being in those lists might have pinged off something. Or is there another site I'm not aware of that has some piece of information I'm missing?' Alex put aside responding to "DD" to do some more searching online. Over the course of the remainder of the school day, he ended up empty handed. Those websites were all he could find, the three fansites, the forum, the video, and the personal website. The fansites were clearly connected, and the mod's name and the last email from "DD" suggested the forum was also connected to the fansites. The video was posted by Trent Nightberry under his username badbear93, which connected that and the other places, as he had frequently posted on "Messages to Bad Bear" and was listed on the fanlistings as a fan. He presumed it was likely Trent had an account on the forum at some point as well. That left one oddity--the personal website. He went back to the page he found the summary for Delilah's Daily Dose on. He went to the main page to look for more information about the person behind it. Outside of the "Childhood Memories" page, there were a few more pages: "Funny Classics", which seemed to be a page of links to random sites covering anything from archives of some local supernatural and lore themed website to old movie websites; "Tribute", dedicated to pets, family, and friends who had passed away; "Journal", which was exactly what it said it was and contained a few sporadic posts from 2006-2014 about school, work, hunting, depression, and relationship stuff; and "About Me", detailing some basic information about the site owner. The site was run by a man who went by John R. He initially started the site to keep track of old sites he used to visit in middle and high school, and keep a record of "weird local shows" he had "fond and disturbing" memories of. John R. lived in Rome, Georgia for a long time, was a deer hunter, and toured supposed local haunted locations for fun. There was an email at the bottom of the page. 'Oh god, it's a Hotmail email.' Alex sighed. 'Well, I've got no other leads. Might as well give it a shot.' He composed an email to John R. "Hey, I came across your site while I was looking up old local shows and I was wondering if you could help me out. Where did you get your information from about Delilah's Daily Dose? I haven't been able to find anything about it anywhere. Thanks for your help and nice site!" Alex didn't expect he would get any response, and if he did, he doubted what information John R. would be able to give him would be all that useful. The school day was nearly over. Soon, he was going to meet with Dr. Summerfield. He repeated to himself in his mind, 'Nothing's going to happen. Nothing happened before. I'm being paranoid.' After school, Alex met Eric in the parking lot. Eric noticed Alex's change of clothes. "You look nice. When did you change?" "Right after sixth period." "Ready?" Eric got in the car. "I think." Alex started up the car and straightened his tie. "I know I'm just freaking out over nothing. I need to relax." "If things get weird, text me." "And what are you going to do?" "Hell if I know. But I'll find you. I'll think up a plan later." Eric gave him a silly grin. Alex laughed. "That's reassuring." The local main office for Moone & Wolfe Corp was in Rome, a bit of a drive from their school in Hiram. Eric made small talk during the trip to calm Alex down. Alex hadn't been to the building since the previous summer when he worked on a project for Dr. Summerfield about depression, therapy, anti-depressant use, and brain activity. He thought back on his encounters with the man. Dr. Tom Summerfield certainly had an authoritative presence, to the point of being unfriendly and unnerving. He never did anything particularly odd, outside of staring at Alex. The look he gave him was strange, not quite disgust nor hatred, but something definitely not good natured. When he worked with him, Alex was always on edge that he was doing something wrong. Dr. Summerfield constantly reassured him that wasn't the case. Alex glanced at himself in the rear-view mirror. 'What did you see wrong with me?' Alex pulled into the parking lot. He glanced around at the place. It looked exactly as it had before. He didn't know why he expected something different. In a way, it was a little too exact, as if every single thing was exactly as it was nearly a year ago. Something about it felt off, but he shrugged off the feeling as him being paranoid. The chain fence and the stretch of empty field around the long building brought back many uncomfortable memories from the previous summer. He tried burying those resurfacing feelings back down, but his anxiousness prevented him from pushing them away. Eric put his hand on Alex's. "Good luck. I'll be waiting." "Thanks." Alex didn't want to leave the car. He took a deep breath and went inside. The receptionist alerted Dr. Summerfield that he was there. He walked down that familiar, pure white hallway with its empty walls. His uneasiness only grew. At the end of the long hallway, he found Dr. Summerfield's office. He knocked on the door. He heard a familiar voice from the other side of the door. "It's unlocked, Alex." 'Why do you always do that?' When he worked for Dr. Summerfield last summer, the man had a habit of saying things like that before he could see it was really Alex at the door. He chalked it up to the man thinking it was amusing. Alex opened the door. As with the hall, the room was pure white and the walls empty. The furniture was all black. He had many memories of how uncomfortable the metal chairs were. Dr. Summerfield sat behind his desk in his white lab coat. "Hello, Alex. Good to see you again." "Hello, Dr. Summerfield." "No need to be so formal. Please, call me Tom." Dr. Summerfield wore a fake smile. "If you want." Alex remembered this routine of his. With the adults, Dr. Summerfield required them to all address him formally or as "Director", but with him, he was expected to call him "Tom". Alex found it infantilizing at best, and questioned the man's real motives behind that. "Have you thought over my proposal?" Dr. Summerfield asked. Alex stayed close to the door. "Yes, I have. I am sorry, but I must decline. It's not a good time for me. I'm about to start college in the fall and I'm moving out of my parents' house over the summer. I also have a part-time job I'll be starting in the summer too. I don't think I'd be in the right state of mind to dedicate the necessary amount of time to a four-year project like that right now." "I see. That's a shame. Are you dead set on attending college? I could give you a job right now that would pay far more than most you'll get with a degree." Dr. Summerfield got up from his desk and walked over to Alex. "I am aware, but if for whatever reason I have to change jobs, I'd still need a degree in this field to be hired by anyone else. If I already had at least a bachelor's, I'd accept, but...right now, I don't think it would be in either of our best interests for me to take on this project." Alex unconsciously stepped back against the door. "I assure you, you won't be tossed aside by us when the project is done. We always reward greatness. I'll leave the offer open to you. The project isn't set to start until June. Why don't you keep thinking it over and we'll talk again in June?" Dr. Summerfield placed his hands on Alex's shoulders and stared him straight in the eyes. He was still wearing that fake smile. "You're very persistent for someone trying to give a major research project to an eighteen year old still in high school." Everything in Alex was telling him to leave immediately. "If you don't have anything else to discuss with me, I think we're done for today." "Very well. Don't forget. June. Give it plenty of thought. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity." "I'll think it over." Alex kept his hand on the doorknob behind him. As he started to turn the knob, he thought back on Juan's story. "Actually, could I ask you about something?" "What is it?" "You've been in charge of the company since 1995, right?" "Yes, that is correct." "So then you would know about the local broadcasting channel the company used to be affiliated with. Do you remember a show called Delilah's Daily Dose that aired from 1996 to 2010?" Alex got straight to the point. He wouldn't get a better lead than Dr. Summerfield. "Yes, of course. It was one of our most watched shows. Were you a fan?" "Ah, no. A friend of mine was. He was asking me about it recently, but I can't really remember much about the show and I can't find any videos of it." "I have some old tapes around here somewhere. You can have them. Most of them are on VHS. Is that alright?" Dr. Summerfield walked over to the back of the office and opened up a big storage closet. Alex followed him over to the storage room. He went inside twice before, but now he was curious what he might notice in there that he thought nothing of before. "I have a VHS player in the attic that should still work. If not, I'm sure I can find one in a thrift store." "Just a moment. I'll bring them to you." Dr. Summerfield waved him back out of the room. He shut the door. A few minutes later, Dr. Summerfield reemerged with a big box full of tapes. "Here they are. The later episodes are on this DVD." "How come I can't find this stuff online?" Alex took the box from him. He glanced inside. The VHS covers were all white with a simple black font on them. The DVD was the same. 'That's the later episodes, huh? Why only one disc?' "There must not be a demand for it." Dr. Summerfield closed the door to the storage room. "Thank you. I'll be going now." Alex headed back to the door. 'Well, at least I got these.' As Alex was closing the door to the office, Dr. Summerfield said, "I'll see you in June, Alex." Alex froze. He almost said "yeah, see you then" to appease him. He kept his mouth shut and quickly closed the door. The walk back to the car felt like an eternity. He never got in his car so fast before. He dropped the box in the back seat and hurried to the front of the car. He nearly forgot to put his seatbelt on before driving out and said nothing to Eric upon getting in. Eric watched Alex. He noticed his hands were shaking again. "How'd it go?" "I don't want to talk here." Alex said in a monotone voice. "Okay." The rest of the drive was silent. Alex remained quiet until they were at his house in his room. He sat down on the futon and stared at the box of tapes. Eric sat down beside him. "What's up? Did...something happen?" "That guy...is really creeping me out. Why is he so interested in me? I'm nobody, and I've done nothing important. Something feels...off about all of this." "Did he do anything weird?" Eric asked in a low voice. Alex remembered the shoulder touching. It wasn't really inappropriate, but it bothered him at the time. He chose not to mention it. "Not specifically, but the way he talked to me was really...demanding. Like he already expects I'm going to do exactly what he wants." "What are those?" Eric pointed to the tapes. "Oh, these are tapes of that Delilah show. Tom...Dr. Summerfield let me have them. You wanna watch them tonight? I doubt there's anything out of the ordinary on them, but...they might be good for a laugh at least and we can finally see what this Delilah lady looks like." Alex barely caught himself. He recalled Dr. Summerfield had gotten Alex to call him Tom near the end of the project despite Alex not wanting to. He was disturbed by how easily he nearly slipped back into that, especially since until Dr. Summerfield brought it up, the whole name issue had completely slipped his mind. "Maybe you'll be less freaked out after you watch them?" "Yeah, probably." A knock came at the door. Alex's stepdad, Eddie, opened it. "Alex, dinner's gonna be ready in about an hour." He looked over at Eric. "Eric, eating here again? Does that mean you're staying over again?" "If you'll have me." Eric said. "You're always welcome, but when was the last time you went home?" Eddie asked with a concerned tone. "Um. Not that long ago." Eric lied. "You have been checking in with your parents, right?" Eddie asked. "Yeah, I called them earlier." Eric lied again. 'When was that? You never call them.', Alex thought, but he kept that to himself. "Alright." Eddie turned to Alex. "Alex, can I talk to you for a sec?" Alex got up and went downstairs with Eddie. "Yeah?" Eddie kept his voice low. "Is something going on at Eric's house? Does he not want to go home?" "Ah, I don't know. He's never really gotten along great with his parents, and he's moving out soon anyway. I don't think he wants to go back there much." Alex knew Eric wouldn't want them involved in his personal issues. He kept what he did know vague, but a part of him was bothered that he didn't know the whole situation either. "Do you know if there's a reason why?" "Not that he's told me. They don't see eye to eye on a lot of things. Maybe that's why." "Well, you should keep an eye on him. You're his friend. Or are you maybe..." Eddie changed his tone abruptly. Alex blushed and started back up the stairs. "I told you before, that's not what's going on! Jeez!" "Then why are you so embarrassed?" Eddie laughed at him. "Nothing's going on." "You know, Alex, no matter who you're interested in, we won't care. We just want you to be open with us." Eddie and his mom gave him this same line on a near daily basis at this point. "I am not having this conversation right now!" Alex ran back up to the top of the stairs. He stopped at the door when he heard his mother's voice. She was talking to his stepdad. "Are you teasing him again?" "It's so easy. I don't know why he doesn't just come out already." Eddie was still laughing. "Shh. Not too loud. We don't know if Eric knows." Alex's face went a deeper red. He went inside his room and slammed the door. "Jeez, he's an idiot." "What was that about?" Eric asked. "Stupid shit." Eric sifted through the box. "Do you have a VHS player?" "There's one in the attic. I'll go get it." "Kay." Alex went to the attic and got the VHS player. He came back with it and checked to see if he could actually hook it up to his TV. There was no issue there, and he set everything up. He took one of the tapes from the box, put it in the player, and hit rewind. When the tape was fully rewound, he played it. The show opened up with a white screen and black text. The text read Delilah's Daily Dose and in smaller print Episode 22: Doable Deed: Keep What You Need, Remove Clutter. After that, the screen switched to text saying Please Remember to Record. The show began after that. There was no opening theme song or credits of any kind at the start. The show was shot in black and white and opened up in a mostly empty room. In a knee-length dress with long sleeves and tights, a person--who he couldn't tell if was a young teenager or an adult woman--walked into the room. She had a bob haircut and perfectly even bangs. As the show was in black and white, everything on her appeared black except for the trim of her dress. Alex assumed this person was Delilah. "Welcome to Delilah's Daily Dose! I'm Delilah, and today's daily dose of doable goodness is about only using what you need and removing clutter. It may seem like fun to go shopping and buy lots of new things." Delilah got a box from under the table in the center of the room and dumped the contents of it onto the table. The items were all various expensive toys. Strangely, the toys were in color. Delilah made a sad face. "But too many things leads to clutter and confusion. You can't find what you need anymore! And all your money's gone to things you can live without. So when you need money for something important..." Delilah moved over. The camera panned to an old, broken bike. Delilah pretended to cry for a while. "It's not there to help you out! You don't need 300 toys with mascots and characters on them. A set of basic blocks provides plenty of fun without any frills to keep your young mind stimulated, and food is always more important than toys." The camera shifted back to the table. Delilah violently knocked all colorful things off the table. The only items she allowed to stay were a set of black and white blocks. "Next time you see an ad telling you to buy more toys, look around and enjoy what you already have." "Well, that's not too weird. That's actually a pretty decent message." Alex commented. "Yeah, but what's with this color scheme?" "I don't know. Is it supposed to look like some kind of black and white film or something? Where's all the color?" "Her clothes look old-timey. Maybe the set is supposed to look like an old film?" Eric rubbed his chin. "Then why were some of the toys in color? Fuck, why am I thinking about this? There's probably no reason at all." Alex gave up. It was a local children's show. Whoever made it likely had little experience or extensive professional training. They were likely putting more thought into it than the creators of the show. "Clutter exists all around you. From useless toys to TV shows made solely to sell those toys and all the useless jobs that exist to ensure those toys can be sold..." Delilah walked up to another table with brightly colored Lego pieces scattered about it. She cleared the table off with a white cloth. "If you get rid of them, then everyone can focus on what they really need." Delilah took out another box. She unpacked black plates and cups, and set the table with white mats and white napkins. "This shit's weird." Eric sat in confusion at what he was watching. "Yeah, but there's nothing in here that's too out there for a bad local kids show." Alex took notes as they watched. The layouts of the sites finally made sense, and he definitely saw the resemblance to actress Tina Tiffany in Delilah. As to why so many people were obsessed with it, he was still in the dark. "Working together is an important part of life. If we all work together, we can get the most done. But, people let other things get in the way. Friendship, romance, family--when we give other people special treatment, it disrupts the entire order and everything slows down..." Delilah slowed her voice and made robotic-like motions of pretending to shut down. "Never put anyone before anyone else, not even yourself. That's how you get everything done efficiently." Delilah walked over to a line of robot animals. She picked up a crate and handed it to the one at the start of the line, a tiny bear made to look like a teddy bear more than an actual baby bear. The little bear handed the crate over to a monkey who then in turn handed it over to a lamb, who carried the crate with its mouth by a string around the crate. The lamb finished the chain by handing the crate to a giraffe, who carried the crate in the same way as the lamb. Delilah walked to the giraffe and patted its lowered head. "Isn't that right, Nanny?" "That's right, Delilah." The giraffe called Nanny spoke with a mechanical, yet childlike voice. "Good Girls and Boys work together hand in hand no matter whose hand they're holding." "That thing is terrifying." Eric shuddered at the robot that towered over the others and Delilah. "Children who step out of line deserve to be kept out of line." Delilah said with a particularly perky tone. The little bear stepped out of the line slightly. Though Nanny the Giraffe was in black and white like the other characters, her eyes went blood red. She dropped the crate and walked over to the little bear. Her limbs made a strange screeching noise as she walked. The noise caused both Eric and Alex to wince. Nanny picked up the little bear in her mouth. The little bear went limp and made a sad face. The camera followed Nanny to a place that looked like a kitchen where a lion with a baker's hat was standing by an oven decorated with pastries. The lion opened the oven door with its mouth. Inside the oven were giant, bright red-orange flames. Nanny threw the little bear inside the oven. The camera stayed on the flames and the little bear getting burned until the lion closed the door. The camera panned over to Nanny. Eyes still red, Nanny said in her cutesy-robotic voice, "Bad Bears get cooked." "Holy shit. The fuck did we just see?" Eric couldn't believe his eyes. "That's one way to give kids nightmares." Alex jotted down some more notes. "A little extreme there...No wonder Juan could tell a creepy story about this shit...Did you see the giraffe's eyes? They went blood red!" "I know. Uh, let's watch a different episode." Eric was starting to get freaked out by the show. He picked up a different tape, not wanting to see any more of the episode even on fast-forward. Eric changed out the tapes and got the next one ready. The episode began like the previous one, this one being episode 33. Delilah gave a similar introduction then stated the focus of the episode. "Today, we're going to learn about colors and distraction." "What the hell? These are like weirdo employee improvement videos but geared towards kids." Alex tilted his head at that. He kept working on his notes. Like the previous episode, Delilah gave the audience a talk about the importance of removing things to be more productive and focused. At some point, the little bear did something wrong and Nanny brought it to the lion to be cooked. Each episode they watched followed this same format. He learned the names of the other characters. The lamb was a school teacher called Miss, the monkey was named Chef, and the lion's name was Baker. The little bear was never referred to by a specific name, but after each time the bear was put in the oven, Nanny would say the same line, "Bad Bears get cooked". He took it that the fans decided the bear's name was "Bad Bear". Eric eventually got bored of watching and got ready for bed. "I'm gonna go ahead and turn in. I don't think I can last much longer." "Kay. I'll probably go to sleep soon too." Engrossed in his note-taking, Alex stayed up much longer than he expected. He didn't notice that it was already three in the morning. He'd reached the end of another tape and put in a new one. This episode didn't have a card title and started with Delilah already in the center of the set. "Hello, little boy. Ready for another episode? It's fifteen past three, and all the naughty children are still awake. You know it's a school night! Naughty, naughty!" As she spoke, Alex checked the time. It was exactly three fifteen. Delilah winked at the camera. "That's okay! That's why I'm here. I'll turn all the little Bad Boys and Bad Girls into good children." "You're one creepy lady." Alex said to her. "Today's lesson is on order. The world is made of boys and girls, and together they make more boys and girls. This is the order of the world. Sometimes, some boys and girls come out wired all wrong and malfunction." Delilah did her slow, robotic routine again. "They try to make more children with the wrong combination. Boys with girls, girls with boys, that's how it is. Boys with boys and girls with girls leads to an empty world and nothing but wasting time!" Alex was taken aback. He wasn't completely surprised to hear those lines, but it still shocked him nonetheless. "Wow, that's more than a little inappropriate for a kids show...Who wrote this?" "But make no mistake! Not all things boys and girls do together can make children either, and that's also bad! That kind of touching should only be for making babies. Otherwise, it's a waste of time you could be spending working!" Delilah waved her finger at the camera. "...What?" Alex stared blankly at the TV. "And here I thought this was some weird, ultra-conservative Christian program...This is something else after all. What's with the obsession about productivity?" "If we didn't need more babies, there would be no need for those kind of interactions at all. Most people don't pick the best match either. They pick based on urges and feelings instead of choosing intelligently." Delilah went over to a table with little wooden people of different colors and black bowls on top of it. She arranged the wooden people all into pairs. Some of them she threw onto the floor. "In a perfect world, we could pair everyone up to the best matches and get rid of all the bad ones." "Wow. Holy shit, what the fuck is this?!" "Differences aren't bad, but too many get in the way and confuse everyone. It's easier to get along with people similar to you than ones who are different. That's why..." Delilah put different pairs into different bowls. She picked out a few more pairs to throw onto the floor from each bowl. "You should organize the world accordingly. Eventually, we can choose the best of the best from each and get rid of what's inferior. This also prevents confused, inferior children from being born. Mixing colors never leads to anything beautiful or pure, only splotchy ugliness." Alex turned the TV off. "So, eugenics and racial purity. Lovely. Why the hell did he give me these? Was he trying to piss me off?" Alex looked at his own reflection in the TV screen, disgusted that someone would think of him as inferior before he said a single word to them. If Dr. Summerfield sponsored and likely at least oversaw people who had a hand in the show's production, he likely had similar beliefs. Alex's disgust grew. Suddenly, all the strange looks Dr. Summerfield gave him had a new meaning. "Inferior, am I? Then why the hell did you want me to work for you?" Alex got up to get ready for bed. The TV turned back on. "Where are you going? The show's not over yet, Alex." Delilah said. Alex stared at the TV. "What the fuck?" "You don't like my show?" Delilah pretended to be sad. "No, I don't." "Awe, did I hurt Alex's feelings? If you weren't so weak, you wouldn't be feeling so down..." Delilah made her voice more chipper. "Feelings make everyone weak. I can teach you how to shut them off. Let's start a new lesson!" "Shut off, huh? Good idea." Alex unplugged the TV. The TV went out for a second, then came back on. Delilah waved her finger at him. "That won't work, Alex. You're a very naughty boy." Alex fell back against the futon. "How-how are you...? What are you?" Delilah laughed loudly at him. "You're so easy to read, Alex. That's why you're no good, no good at all. If you weren't so good at research, you'd get thrown away. Your dad already threw you away, didn't he?" "My biological father doesn't know I exist." "Or maybe your mom knew she shouldn't have been with your dad. Look, your stepdad is white just like her!" On Delilah's face was a devilish grin. "My mother broke up with him before she knew she was pregnant and her teaching job in that country had just ended. There was no point in trying to work things out with him. She met my stepdad at her next teaching job and they hit it off specifically because they'd both taught abroad before. It's got nothing to do with race." Alex snapped back at her. "Are you sure? How do you know your mom's not lying?" Delilah fake cried. "Your poor mom, never had any more children. All she got stuck with was you. How sad." "She has me." "But she wanted one with her husband, and she couldn't have any more. That doctor botched the surgery when he was cutting you out of her. And she didn't even know how badly until later! Poor thing! All because you were born!" She kept up the fake crying to the point of absurdity. "You know she would cry about it at night. I know you cried about it at night too." "Shut up!" "And your poor stepdad, stuck with a kid he can never pass off as his own and can't have any with his wife because of you." She fake cried a little longer before shifting back to her cruel grin. "Because you exist, they suffer. Awe, are you about to cry now? What kind of weak little boy are you?" Alex grabbed his baseball bat from the corner and aimed for the TV. "Hehe. How childish. Breaking the TV won't get rid of all the pain you cause." Delilah laughed again. "But of course you're so weak and emotional. You're wrong in more than one way." "There's nothing wrong with me." "You want to fuck him, don't you, Alex?" Delilah made a silly gesture with her hands in Eric's general direction. "What a little time waster you are. If we knock those emotions and urges out, you'd be so much better. Then you won't feel anything. No pain, nothing." "Why the hell would I want to do that?" "He's going to be disgusted when he finds out he's sleeping on the bed of someone who masturbates to him on a daily basis. What kind of friend are you?" Delilah clasped her hands together as if she were praying. "What are you?" Alex's hands shook as he gripped the bat. "Changing the subject won't undo all the filthy things you've done. Oh, my, what would your parents think? What will his parents think? I bet you molest him in his sleep, don't you, you horny boy?" Delilah's grinning only made him angrier. Alex shouted at the TV. "I would never do something like that, you sick fuck!" "Alex?" Eric sat up. The TV shut off. Eric and Alex both looked over at it. Eric looked back at Alex. "What's going on?" "I...I don't know..." He lowered the bat. Fear left him only for a moment. He recalled Delilah's final words. "Did you hear...anything she said?" "Who said? I heard you yelling something. Who was talking?" Eric rubbed his eyes. "The girl on the show, she was...talking to me." "What? I think you've been awake too long. Come to bed. What are you doing up this late?" Eric dropped back down against the bed. "I don't know." Alex had more he wanted to say, but he couldn't get any of it out and Eric was not awake enough to hold a conversation. He kept everything to himself. When he got into bed, Delilah's words came back to him. He looked at Eric beside him, cast into light by the moon. His heightened state of fear made him react more than usual to things. The slightest accidental touch from Eric was setting him off in ways it wouldn't normally. He distanced himself from Eric on the bed and turned away from him. His reactions embarrassed him. Eric rolled over and cuddled up against Alex in his sleep. Alex had no more room on the bed to escape to. His mind wandered to fantasies he didn't dare let anyone know of. Alex pushed the thoughts away. 'Would you really be disgusted with me?' Eric wrapped his arm around Alex's midsection. Alex flinched. "Alex...are you okay?" Eric asked. "Yeah..." Eric nuzzled in closer against Alex's back. Alex's heartbeat rang in his ears. When his alarm went off a few hours later, Alex found himself in a different position. He was laying on his back and Eric was sleeping against his chest. Eric noted the familiar situation. "Again?" "Still clinging." Alex made light of it. Another phone went off. "That was your phone." "Ugh, probably my parents." Eric checked his phone. He showed Alex his messenger app. "Look." The texts on screen read: "are you ever coming home are you with alex?" "When was the last time you went again?" Alex asked. "Guess I better go home soon before they flip out." Eric texted something back to his parents. Alex realized something. He had another potential lead right beside him. "Hey, your parents worked for Moone & Wolfe, right?" "Yeah, when I was really little." "When you're over there, do you think you could ask them about Dr. Summerfield?" "They never want to talk about back then. Dad says it brings up bad memories." Eric's voice trailed off. "Bad memories?" "I dunno. They've never told me any more than that." Eric stayed close to Alex, resting against him instead of getting up. Alex rehashed Delilah's words again. Eric didn't seem bothered by their current level of contact. If anything, Eric seemed to be pushing for more. A possibility sat at the back of Alex's mind, one he wanted to be true. For his own sake, he stayed distant out of fear of being wrong. 'He may think of this as getting closer as friends. If it were more than this, he might have a completely different opinion.' At school, Alex got around to checking his email. There were two emails that immediately caught his attention. The first was from "DD". "How did you like our first lesson together, Alex? XOXO -DD" For now, he chose not to respond to the email. He moved on to the other email that caught his attention, a reply to the one he sent to John R. "Hello, While my brother would have loved to know that someone was emailing him again about his page, I am sorry to inform you that my brother passed away last year in a hunting accident and I wouldn't be able to give you much more details than what's currently on his site. Thank you for your message though. John was always happy when he got an email about his site. -Sammy R." John R. was dead, died only last year. Out of the people he was able to get more background information on, both were dead. Alex shook off his suspicions. If the boy in Juan's story really did disappear, that may be a potential third person lost. Then there was the issue of Tina Tiffany mysteriously dropping off the face of the earth without a word to anyone. 'It's got to be a coincidence.' He wrote a response to Sammy. "Dear Sammy, I am sorry for your loss. I don't mean to potentially drag up any further pain for you, but do you think you could give me whatever information you do know? This must sound crazy to you that I'm so desperate for information. It's for a friend who also lost someone important to them. Any information you could give me would be very helpful." Sammy responded to him around two hours later. The second message had a different tone than the first. "Hello again stranger, I understand why you are likely wanting to look deeper into this. I'm sure you've already found the fansites and the forum by now. I deeply understand your friend's need for closure, but I suggest you don't dig any deeper than you already have. It's not worth it. Please abandon your search. -Sammy R." Sammy's reply was alarming, but didn't sway him. He had to know more. He wrote a quick email asking for more details and telling Sammy he understood the risks. Shortly before lunch, Sammy sent him another email. "If you really want to go in, I can't stop you. I'll give you what I have, but I must warn you again. As a woman who lost her big brother and watched the police refuse to investigate anything, I don't want anyone else to go through the same thing I did. I implore you to drop your search now. If you still really want to go through with this, here's what I know. I've had to send out this information to a lot of people in the last few months, so I'm just c+p-ing the information I sent to everyone else. If you want any more than this, I suggest you try emailing Kathy (email@example.com) and tell her you want info about Moone & Wolfe, but she's very slow to respond to emails. Delilah's Daily Dose aired from 1996 to 2010, lasting a total of 200 episodes. It was sponsored by Moone & Wolfe Corp and produced by a company called Lunar Vista, which is also owned by Moone & Wolfe Corp. No official credits exist for the show so this next bit of information is speculation from various people on the forum. Practically nothing exists online about it. If you don't know about it, you'll never find it. The script is either written by someone high up in Moone & Wolfe Corp, the regional owner Thomas Summerfield, or Delilah Dot. Supposedly, Summerfield used to be an author who went by the name Tom Oak in the late 80's. His books are all out of print but the forum users collect them and pass them around. You'll have to ask Kathy for pdfs. Delilah Dot is former actress Tina Tiffany. Why she is pretending to not be Tina, I don't know, but as a someone who was a fan of her, she's definitely Tina. One user uploaded a video onto the forum of Tina and Delilah singing to compare them, along with photos and sound clips from Tina's old movies. They are, as far as anyone can tell, the same person. The robots were likely made by a man named Kyle Coleman who used to be big in the local robot building scene. Users on the forum noted stylistic similarities between the robots on the show and his creations. No one knows where he currently is. Set design was likely by another local, professional set designer and puppeteer, Lana Holiday. She had the show listed on her old personal website as something she was involved with in the late 90's and wrote an article about what it was like to work for Lunar Vista in 1998. Her site is no longer online, and the article and reference to the show disappeared about a year after the show had been on the air. Don't bother calling or emailing her. She will tell you she's never heard of Lunar Vista. The voices of the robots Miss and Nanny were likely created in a program from audio of a real child's voice. Miss's is altered more, but is clearly sampled from the same person. Who this child was, no one knows. That's about all I could get about information on the people behind the show. One user collected up all the speculated people into a masterpost. I'll put my sources at the end of the email. As to why Delilah was taken off the air, I don't know. Moone & Wolfe Corp abruptly pulled the plug in 2010. After the 200th episode aired, the show was canceled and there were no reruns after that date either. The forum became its most active after the show was canceled. Now, onto those sites. To get onto the forum, you need to be a 'fan' on the fanlistings and register with the same name you used on the fanlistings and same email address. This gets you accepted and you can read certain parts of the forum after that, the 'nicer' parts of it called 'Doable Deeds' and 'New Children'. Under 'New Children', new users are encouraged to introduce themselves and talk about why they love Delilah. 'Doable Deeds' is where users post tips on how to be 'good children' and 'better the world'. These posts are pretty innocuous. If you want to see the bulk of the site, however, you must leave a message at 'Messages to Bad Bear'. My brother's message can be found in 2009 under the name retrotealdeer saying how many fond memories he had of watching Delilah's show. Many of the messages, as you've probably already seen, are similar posts, but others are more sinister. If you haven't already come across this, you should look into Trent Nightberry and user badbear93 to get a good idea of what the bulk of the active posters and sub-section mods are like. They will say the ones who've gotten arrested are setting bad examples, but at least six of the former mods that I've been able to track down have been locked up before, and out of those six, all of them killed themselves within a year after that point. You won't find much about them online. A lot of sites that had articles about them have been taken down, and finding news recordings is near impossible at this point. I did manage to get a few videos and reposted articles saved from the forums, and Kathy's collected up most of everything else. I've attached them in a zipped folder. The majority of the forum is only accessible after leaving a message. On this part of the forum, you can post photos, videos, audio, etc. If you post these in the other parts of the forum, you will be immediately banned. Calling Delilah a character will also get you banned. The forum treats Delilah Dot as Tina Tiffany's real persona, one she 'came into' after seeing the light about how to 'make the world right', which they speculate was from reading Thomas Summerfield's novels. They think of Delilah as their metaphorical goddess, and their god is Thomas Summerfield. Someone claiming to be Delilah posts under the account dotpoints and someone claiming to be Summerfield posts as thegooddoctor. They both post infrequently, usually to get onto someone for 'stepping out of line' or uncovering some information they didn't want out. Users post about who might actually be behind the show, ways to monitor and spy on people around them, how to covertly harass people, effective ways to manipulate people, and revenge fantasies. There is also a venting area simply called just that, 'Venting'. The venting area, revenge fantasies area (called 'Dreams'), and the confessions area (called 'BB Messages') are all moderated by user soontobe_dr_d. This section of the forum seems to have been made later than the rest by several years as there are no posts in those sub-forums prior to 2012. Under 'Venting', users post about their messed up family situations or whatever other things are bothering them and under the 'BB Messages', they all admit their "Bad Bear" tendencies like masturbating, cheating on tests, etc. Now, code words. They use a lot of them. Bad Bear/BB: Anyone who doesn't fit Delilah's/Thomas's order Bad Bear from Birth/BBB: Someone born 'bad'. This includes people who are born with disabilities, mixed race, LGBT, redheads, having green and hazel eyes, having freckles, and various other 'differences' from the 'average'. BBB's can become "honorary good girls and boys" if they fit all other ideals of Delilah. Crossed marriage/relationship: What they call marriages between people of different races, and sometimes marriage between people with too many 'different features' who are the same race, especially if a redhead is involved. They really hate red hair. They claim it's because it's a sign of their Neanderthal DNA and treat them like they're basically their own race. Sometimes also used to refer to someone who marries someone of a different social class, especially if someone married "down". Deviances: Anything that doesn't directly lead to productivity, they use this almost exclusively about sex (pre-marital sex and gay sex being the biggest 'deviances'). Inferior: Same as BBB. Distractions: Same as deviances, but they use this word more often when they're talking about things like people having hobbies, taking vacations, watching TV, etc. Distractions also include having friends. Good Girls and Boys: Basically, all of them, according to them. Neighbor Monitoring: Spying on people, they will refer to spying on even their own family as 'Neighbor Monitoring'. Better Breeding Stock/BBS: They believe certain races and ethnicities have inherent traits, and certain ones are more likely to have 'better quality' genes than others. They have all these charts about the right 'ratio' of each race that should be on the planet. It's exactly what you'd think it is. (Speaking of redheads again, apparently Irish have 0% good genes according to them. Anyone who's part Irish is automatically a BBB and should never breed because they have all those redheads and people with green eyes. Oopsies, and I have two kids already!) Their racial stereotypes are pretty much what you'd expect them to be. Logical Match/Perfect Match: Finding the right person to 'breed' with based on a bunch of different trivial crap. They have a lengthy survey that you can fill out and get matched with one of the other users. Some of the users who have done this and been 'matched' actually exchanged contact information and started arranging their future marriages. At least ten couples have gotten married once they both hit legal age when I was searching the forum. Bad Match: Marrying someone because you actually love them! GG/GB: Good Girl, Good Boy OC: Obedient Children, same thing as a GG/GB I Know Nanny's Lurking: A phrase they all use when making their confessions as their 'reason' why they're confessing--to avoid Nanny's punishment. Bad Bears Get Cooked: Their 'Nanny's gonna get you' reassurance statement about anyone who they can't immediately hurt. Daily Doable Deeds: Things like studying, volunteering for certain causes, etc. Logical Conclusion: Abandoning your religion/lifestyle/personal philosophy to worship Delilah and Dr. Summerfield instead. Dreaming of BGH: When the users fantasize about going to some magical place Delilah claims used to exist where everyone was 'perfect'. I've never been able to figure out what BGH stands for, and I don't think the users know either. In the Bubble: When users feel like they attain a certain amount of distance from everyone else in society and are 'at peace' or they feel 'all will be right with the world' soon. Those are the ones I was able to decode. There's a ton more that I couldn't sort out the meaning of. If you receive any emails from 'firstname.lastname@example.org' from someone going by 'DD', do not respond to this person. This person only sends emails out to intimate you. They will try to threaten you by revealing a large chunk of information about you that can be found online with enough searching and a detail or two they presumed based on your habits to get you to back off. Do not engage them. Whoever this person is takes on Delilah Dot's persona from the show and is the one actually running the forum, not nannysbiggestgirafan, though that user definitely seems to have some kind of ties to the company. I was never able to make the exact connection. As for who 'DD' is, it's likely whoever is writing the script as they imitate Delilah's character perfectly. Users all talk about something coming, some big change, but they repeat this same claim in every single year and no one ever posts about what this change actually is. That's all the information I could get. I am not looking any further into this. Do not email me again asking for anything else. I will not respond. Here are the links." At the end of the email was a list of URLs and there was a single folder attached named "media&articles". He would have to look at that later. Sammy's email was a lot to take in. It confirmed some of what he already suspected. The new information disturbed him. He made a note to himself to email Kathy at some point and added her to his contacts. He also had a laugh that the group would find him even more "inferior", with his mom being predominantly Irish and a redhead. 'Definitely a cult. What did Juan really see happen that night?' That was the easiest answer, but didn't explain what happened last night. Juan was prone to making up things, but Delilah definitely talked to him. He couldn't explain how she did it. 'There must be some trick to it. But what? How are they doing it?' There were so many questions running in his mind. The more he learned, the less clear everything was. What was the purpose of all this? He needed to see the posts for himself to get a better picture. Most of the URLs went to the forum. Now, he knew how to get in. Alex set up a new email account, joined the fanlistings, and registered through the forum again while using a proxy. All he had to do now was wait. Once he got in, he would make a message at "Messages to Bad Bear". Then he'd get access to everything. He wanted to ask Sammy more questions, but the end of her email made it clear she wouldn't give him anything more than what she already sent him. Her mentioning the police not investigating near the beginning of the email worried him. He doubted searching for a John in Georgia killed in a hunting accident would get him anything useful either. The bell for lunch rang not long after he finished filling out the forum application. As he was leaving the classroom, his phone buzzed. He glanced at the screen to see he had a new email, but he didn't have time to look at it. Alex took Eric out to lunch again. For now, he decided against revealing anything about the emails. He wanted to get a little more information before telling Eric. His mind was so focused on connecting pieces, he was barely paying attention to what Eric was talking to him about, mostly nodding and giving empty yeah's and uh-huh's at the right moments. His behavior did not go unnoticed. Eric decided to test how much he was actually paying attention. "We should skip the rest of the day and make out." "Yeah...wait, what?" Alex's train of thought completely derailed when he realized what Eric actually said. "Just kidding." Eric said with a big grin. "You don't need to start on that skipping class thing again. It was hard enough for me to get your attendance back up, Mr. Former Truant of the Year." "Awe, why you gotta bring that up again? Half a day won't hurt me. You can relax about that." Eric sunk down in his seat. "You can go home if you're sick. I'm not letting you slouch now that we're so close to the finish line. It's April. We only have the rest of this month and May left." "Yeah, yeah. It was just a joke." Eric rested his arm on the window and looked out at the sky. "But...I do appreciate you caring so much about that. So, thanks." "It's nothing. I just can't let you throw everything away like that. I know you're so much better than you tell yourself you are and I'm not going to let you fail just because no one else cares to see it." Alex was hit with a wave of embarrassment after he said that. "I know. Alex, thanks for everything." Eric looked back at him. He slipped his hand over Alex's. Alex put his other hand over Eric's and held it tightly. He wanted to confess, and he nearly did. When he wanted to go for it, the words wouldn't come out. Not sure what to do, he turned his attention to the clock. "Shit. It's that late already? We need to get back." "Let's skip!" Eric leaned over towards Alex. "We just talked about..." "My whole life isn't me needing to do good in school. Besides, I'm not wanting to skip for the same reason as before." Eric took the keys out of the ignition. He unlocked his door. "Come on. Let's go somewhere." "What? Where?" Alex reached over to get his keys, but Eric was already out of the car. Alex got out and followed him. "Who cares!" Eric laughed and put the keys in his pocket. He grabbed Alex's wrist and led him out of the restaurant parking lot and down towards the stores directly behind it. "For the next few hours, I'm your distraction from everything." Alex had plenty of logical reasons to give Eric why they shouldn't be doing this, but he couldn't get himself to say any of those either. He resigned himself to following Eric's whims. "You're ridiculous." Eric led him from store to store, not to do anything in particular. They didn't spend any money or stay anywhere for long. Mostly, they walked around and talked about trivial things. At some point, Eric went to the bathroom. While Alex waited, he checked his email. Another message from "DD". "Alex, I'm not dumb. I know that was you, naughty boy! I told you, I don't like liars. XOXO -DD" Alex retraced everything he did earlier. 'How did she know it was me?' "Whatcha doin'?" Eric leaned over to try and look at his phone. "Huh? Oh, just checking my mail. I keep getting a lot of spam lately." Alex turned the screen off and put his phone away. "Where did you wanna go next?" "We could stay here a while. We've only walked around half the store." "We're at Walmart. There's not exactly anything interesting to see." Alex laughed at himself. "I can't believe I skipped school and went to fuckin' Walmart of all places." "Better than what I used to do. I'd just stay home, mess around online all day, and stare at my walls." Eric walked ahead of him. "Don't worry about school right now. Don't worry about anything. Sometimes, you need to just take a break, okay? You always overdo everything. If Zack and I weren't around, you'd probably be content to spend all day trying to solve some puzzle in your head or whatever deep question you got stuck on needing to know immediately." Alex smiled. "Yeah, probably. It's kinda stupid. I waste my time more than you do at this point. It's not like I really care about any of those things. I just can't stand not knowing something." "And not being right about it." Eric added. "Yeah, and that. I'm pretty insufferable to be around sometimes, aren't I?" "I wouldn't use the word 'insufferable'. 'Difficult' might be a better word choice." Eric said. He kept his slight distance ahead of Alex. "Not that I really mind it. Besides, you've leveled off a lot from how you were in middle school. Back then, you were definitely, well..." "Insufferable." "Yeah, but so was I." They wandered aimlessly until around four. Alex took Eric home then dropped his things off at his own house before heading out on another walk. Spending time alone with Eric had significantly calmed his mind. He decided to take Eric's advice further and not work on anything in particular for a while. He thought about deleting all the emails and tossing out the tapes, blocking Dr. Summerfield's phone number, and asking Eric out. He didn't need to solve everything, and he already knew at this point he was in over his head. His desire to get to the bottom of everything was exactly what Eric said it was. He wanted to fit all the pieces together. He didn't really want to know where it would lead, and at this point, he was far more afraid of what he might find than curious. It would be best to forget it. Alex crossed the creek behind his house and headed down to the trail. That place brought back a lot of happy memories from the last couple of years. When he would help Eric with studying to get his grades back up, they usually went on a walk down by the creek or on the trail to take a break and relax. Sometimes, they came out at night even though the nature trail was technically closed to the public during those hours. Nighttime was his favorite time to go on walks with Eric. He liked looking at the stars and listening to the frogs and crickets with Eric close beside him. He thought about asking Eric to come on a walk with him that night. Alex's daydreams were cut short. Someone approached him from behind. "You watched the tapes, didn't you, Alex?" Alex knew who it was before he turned around. Every bit of warmth in him fled. "Dr. Summerfield! What are you doing here? I thought you lived in Rome." "I do, but I was visiting one of the buildings in Hiram. And please, call me Tom." Dr. Summerfield closed the small distance between them. "Why don't we go somewhere to talk? I know of a very lovely, private place." Eric looked around for anyone else on the trail. That area was usually busy with cyclists, but today there was no one around but him and Dr. Summerfield. He stepped back away from the man. "Uh, I should really be getting home." "You can tell your parents later that I asked to talk with you. They'll understand. It's important to make connections when you're an adult, and even more to keep them." Alex's efforts were in vain. Dr. Summerfield grabbed onto his shoulders and held him in place. Alex considered his options. He could try struggling to get free, but if he were caught again, that might make the situation worse. If he did as he was told, he might be let go, or he may never see his family and friends again. He took his chances on playing along, with some precaution. "Alright, but can I make a quick text first? I need to tell someone I'm going to be late." "Your boyfriend?" Dr. Summerfield kept holding onto him, tightening his grip. "What?" "That boy, Eric Thomas." "We're not dating." "Could have fooled me. You like him, don't you?" Dr. Summerfield leaned in close to Alex's face. Alex wondered what he might be planning on doing to him. He shifted his gaze away out of fear. "Um, we're close friends. It's nothing more than that." "Oh, I see. You don't want anyone around here to hear you. This is a very public place even if it's more on the isolated side. Anyone could just suddenly ride by. Go ahead and text him, then we'll go." Alex texted a short message to Eric. It read, "if you don't hear from me in an hour call the police Tom's here" Alex reread his text. 'Again? Why did I call him Tom?' "You finished? Let's go." Dr. Summerfield grabbed onto Alex's arm and led him off the trail, deep into the woods. They walked until Dr. Summerfield was satisfied with their distance from the trail near a sinkhole. He did not let go of Alex. "This should do." "What is it you wanted to talk to me about?" Alex wanted to struggle. The amount of pressure Dr. Summerfield was putting on him was starting to hurt. He forced himself to stay still. "What did you think of the show?" Dr. Summerfield asked. "I can't say I enjoyed it. Seemed to have a lot of inappropriate things in it." "I thought you'd say that. What about my proposal? For the project in June?" Dr. Summerfield dragged him closer to the sinkhole. Alex looked down into it. He couldn't quite see the bottom. There was too much shadow. It was deep enough to be dangerous if he fell in. "I don't really have time for that in my schedule." Dr. Summerfield suddenly grabbed hold of his other arm and pushed him towards the edge. Alex dug his feet into the ground as Dr. Summerfield leaned forward to set him off balance. He spoke calmly to Alex. "You really should reconsider. You won't get a second chance once July comes." Alex looked down into the hole again, then back at Dr. Summerfield. "What happens in July?" "What indeed." Dr. Summerfield shook him. "Listen to me, Alex. You are a very brilliant young man. You won't live up to your full potential working for anyone else. I can give you access to things now that I know you can put to good use in ways men with doctorates would fail to grasp." "What makes you think I'm so special? I'm only eighteen, and I've had little training and have very limited specialized knowledge." "That will come with time. Alex, with determination, anyone can pass exams, conduct studies, and come up with experiments. I'm not looking for someone with qualifications of competency. I'm searching for someone with lasting potential, someone who can see beyond the limited scope of the average man." "You think I'm someone like that?" "I know you are. All you need is to be molded a little further to push you towards perfection." He pulled Alex back towards safety and released one of his arms. He kept a firm grip on the other. Alex gave up on taking the obedient route. He struggled until he freed his other arm. "I highly doubt you could come to that kind of conclusion from observing me over a summer." "It doesn't take long to uncover what another is like." Dr. Summerfield walked towards him, intent on capturing him again. "A shame such brilliance came in an inferior package, but I suppose you being half-Asian did have its advantages towards your intelligence." "Ex-excuse me?!" "But you don't look quite right. I'm sure that must be quite confusing, not being anything." "I am not in the least bit confused about who and what I am. Dr. Summerfield, I wouldn't expect someone of your intelligence to hold such archaic ideas." Alex said. He wasn't going to play nice either. That hadn't gotten him anywhere before. There was no point in keeping up pretenses. "Is it really? This society has been making excuses for so many things for too long. In the end, all we've done is shield the worthless and put them on a pedestal. Idiots leading idiots, protecting idiots. Few are of any value, and without an ordered, organized society based on skill and worth, it will never change." Dr. Summerfield preached while Alex glared at him. "I could put you near the top of that society. Despite your inherent biological problems and your deviance, your mind is immensely valuable." "My...deviance? What the hell are you getting at?" Alex narrowed his eyes. 'How much does he know about me? He did know I like Eric, but how did he know? Delilah knew too. Why?' "You're a homosexual. Your desires defy your biological need to produce offspring. You want to engage in sexual activities solely to fulfill urges, at the moment specifically with that boy." The way Dr. Summerfield described his desires and feelings left Alex feeling disgusting. He dodged admitting to it. "How would you know that? And even if I was, there's nothing wrong with that. The human population isn't exactly in dire need of more children." "You waste that brilliant mind of yours on worthless distractions. I know you do. I know a lot about you, Alex. I make sure all candidates for employment are thoroughly researched. I know every school you have ever attended, every club you've been in, what position you played on the soccer team in sixth grade before you quit after two months, and what kind of pornography you watch." Dr. Summerfield smirked. "I know every text you've ever made from that phone, including what you sent that boy before we left. Are you that afraid of me, Alex?" Alex got a good distance from Dr. Summerfield and got out his cell phone. "I'm calling the police." "Go ahead." Dr. Summerfield ran to catch up with him. Alex dialed 911. He waited, but his phone wouldn't let the call go through. He tried again. Nothing. After a third try, his phone shut itself off. Dr. Summerfield stood directly behind him. "Is there a problem, Alex?" "What do you want from me?!" Alex yelled as he ran. He slipped on pine straw and fell. "Nothing, nothing at all. All I want is for you to think over what I'm offering you. I'll speak with you again in June." Dr. Summerfield took advantage of the moment to pin Alex down. He pulled a gun from his coat and put it against Alex's forehead. "Do you understand me?" "I...I told you I can't..." Tears slipped from him. What was happening to him was too strange to believe. Alex told himself he must be sleeping. "Then I wonder what your mother and stepfather will think when I give them a little call and tell them about the nasty secret their son's been keeping." "They wouldn't care about something like that." "Oh, is that so? You think you know them that well? Why don't I name some of the searches your parents have done recently. Let's see, what was in that list..." Dr. Summerfield pretended to be trying to recall information. He switched to a devious smirk. "Oh, right. Conversion therapy. Gay therapy. My son is a faggot please help. Are arranged marriages legal in Georgia?" "You're making that up. They're both liberal democrats that support gay marriage." "Do they really? Or is that for show? People wear a lot of masks. How can you be so sure you know them? I wonder, what they would think if I handed them a list of everything you've searched for. Perhaps I'll do that right now." Dr. Summerfield lowered the gun and traded it out for his cell phone. "No!" Alex pleaded. "I'll think over what you said. Please, let me go." "Good boy. I'll see you then." Dr. Summerfield stood up. Alex's phone came back on as he started to walk away. He pointed at it. "Oh, it looks like your phone is working again. You can call the police now, if you want." Alex scrambled to his feet and ran as fast as he could. Instinctively, he ran towards Eric's house instead of his own. He needed to see him. Eric happened to be outside in his backyard, sitting at a table staring at his phone. Alex found it in himself to run just a little faster. Eric heard the noise of Alex coming closer and got up. He ran to meet Alex. As he got close, Eric asked, "Alex! What happened? What the hell was that text? Why didn't you answer me?" Alex kept running and hugged Eric. His entire body shook. "Alex...?" Eric hugged him back hoping to calm him. "He's crazy. He's fucking crazy!" Alex buried his face against Eric's neck. "Who?" "Dr. Summerfield...he forced me to go with him somewhere and tried to coerce me into working for him...he knows everything about me...he shut off my phone somehow when we were alone and pointed a gun at me. I don't know what I'm going to do. If I say no, I think he's going to do something to me. I think he's going to..." Alex was so terrified he could barely breathe. "We'll call the police." Eric rubbed Alex's back. "No...I think he already has them on his side." Alex thought about Sammy's last email. A likely scenario for what happened to her brother was all too easy for him to imagine. "What? How?" "I don't know. I don't know." "Alex, calm down!" Eric pressed his forehead against Alex's. "What exactly did he tell you?" "He's going to meet me again in June. He didn't say when." Alex's eyes started to water. He held the tears back. "What if he did that to that Archer lady? What if she said no and he killed her?" "We won't let him do anything to you. We'll figure something out. I hate to say it, but maybe we should ask Juan about..." "Shh. Wait." Alex covered Eric's mouth. "If he can manipulate my phone, he can mess with yours too. No electronics if we talk about this." "What if our houses themselves are bugged or there's a camera somewhere?" Eric asked. "I don't know. Just...we have to at least not be near technology. Leave it in the living room. I have an idea of where we can go." They left their phones on the coffee table in Eric's living room and headed down into the basement. Eric was rarely home and they never went to the basement. Unless every room was bugged, it was unlikely anyone would bother with the basement and Eric's parents used the basement exclusively for storage and washing clothes. There was no need to worry about devices being used to spy on them with down there. Aside from that, Alex wanted to be somewhere no one else would see him crying. They sat down on a couch by the washer and dryer. Alex's clothes were covered in reddish-brown stains and the back of his left arm had a large scrape on it. Eric held Alex's arm up to get a better look at the scrape. He got up and sifted through the room to find the first aid kit, then made a quick trip upstairs to get a wet rag. While he cleaned up Alex's arm, Alex started to talk again. "I didn't tell you everything about the videos. When you went to sleep, they started getting weirder." "Is this about the girl talking to you? I'm sure you were just tired and..." Alex cut him off. "No. She knew my name. She knew things about my parents, what things I'm afraid of..." "What do you mean?" "She mocked me about what happened to my mom." "That thing with the doctor?" Alex wiped off his face. He stared down at the ground. He spoke quietly. "Yeah. I've always felt...like that was my fault somehow..." "What? That's ridiculous. You didn't do anything wrong. You were a baby. The doctor's the guy who fucked up." Eric tried to reassure him. "I know, but Mom couldn't have kids after that. I'm all she got, and I'm the son of a guy she broke up with a long time ago." "I doubt she thinks about it that way. I don't think your stepdad does either." "I know." Alex's eyes watered again. He stared up at the ceiling. "Mom would cry sometimes about it, during the second and third year of their marriage. She tried to hide it, but I could hear her. She stopped after the trial was over. They won a lot of money in that lawsuit. Mom would always say it was a blessing in disguise, but I wondered if she just got better at hiding it." "That was a long time ago. I doubt she's still thinking about that." "Sometimes, I wonder what they think when people stare, cause I don't look anything like either of them. I look like some guy I've never met." "They're probably just thinking those people are being rude assholes." Eric put the kit aside and hugged Alex. "Besides, you have some of your mom's features too. You're overlooking them because you're obsessing over the other parts." "You think so?" "Yeah, definitely. And I doubt anyone really cares that you don't look like your stepdad. People get remarried and have kids before marriage all the time. It's no big deal." "I guess you're right." "You let that girl get to you. That's probably what she wanted." Eric held him closer and stroked the back of Alex's head. "I know." Alex broke down again. "God, I'm such a wuss." "No one's here but me. I won't tell anyone you cried." "Thanks." Alex couldn't stop the tears. Seeing his tears wet Eric's shirt deeply embarrassed him. He didn't want anyone to see him like this. "How do you think that girl was talking to you? A VHS can't make that happen." "I haven't come up with an explanation for that yet." Alex couldn't stop there. It was time to tell Eric what he'd been up to at school. "There's more...I didn't want to tell you about this because I wanted to see what information I could get first, but I...I don't even know where to start with this." "Take it slow, start from the beginning." Eric cleaned off Alex's face. Alex told him everything--about the emails, "DD", Sammy and John, the forum content, the code words, Lunar Vista. Eric sat patiently beside him, listening to his every word. He never once interrupted to ask questions or cast any disbelief on what Alex was telling him. When Alex was finished, Eric simply said, "That's...a lot to take in." "I'll let you read the emails later if you want." "I can't believe you were going through that and I had no idea. I get why you didn't tell me, but I wish you would have so you wouldn't be holding on to all that alone. This sounds too crazy to be real. Maybe Juan's story was true after all..." Alex took a deep breath. "I hate to say it, but...I think so too." "Now that's something I never thought I'd hear." "I can't explain how, but I can't explain what happened that night either, or any of the other stuff. I shouldn't have...I shouldn't have looked into it at all. I'm so stupid! Why the fuck did I care so much?" Alex cursed himself. "You couldn't have known what looking into that would lead to. Whether you did or not, that Summerfield guy probably still would have started harassing you. Speaking of which...So, what happened with that Summerfield guy earlier? You said he shut off your phone? And he pulled a gun on you?!" "Yeah, when I tried to call the police. He also called me inferior, because I'm, well you can guess why." Alex was starting to regain his composure again. He relaxed back on the couch. "Seriously?! Guess that lines up with that kids show." "He threatened to push me down into that sinkhole off the trail too. I don't get why he wants me. Why me? Why can't he harass and stalk someone else?" Alex realized something. He jumped up from the couch. "I need to go home." "What?" Eric got up after he did. "I need to check on my parents." "You don't think he'd do something to them, do you?" "I don't know. I'll call you soon, okay? Stay home and don't go outside." Alex headed for the basement door that let out to the backyard. "Okay." Eric followed him over to the door to see him off. "Do you think he'd try to do something to me?" "You're as likely a target as my parents. If you see anything weird, call me immediately." Alex hung in the doorway. He didn't want to leave Eric there, but he didn't want to risk having Eric with him either. Eric couldn't drive and his parents weren't home yet. Eric had a bike, but it was at Alex's house. Alex had no choice but to walk home. It was only three houses over, but anything could happen in that small distance. "I'll call you around seven, okay?" "Okay." Eric hugged him. "I'll be waiting." Alex ran back home, taking the street instead of the woods. At least there, if something happened, there was more of a chance other people might see. By the time he reached home, he was out of breath. Both of his parents' cars were in the driveway. He stumbled into the house, exhausted. From the living room, he could see his stepdad setting the table for dinner and his mom was making sweet tea. A rush of relief washed over him. Dr. Summerfield's words hung over him. He prepared himself for what he was about to do. 'I won't let you use that as a weapon against me.' Alex walked into the kitchen. "Are you two busy right now?" "No, why?" His stepdad asked. "I wanted to talk to you two about something..." His heart raced. 'I can do this. Everything's going to be fine.' His mom stepped away from the tea. "What is it, Alex?" "I..." He started to say it. Tears welled in his eyes. 'No! Why the hell am I crying again? I'm not going to cry during this!' His mother looked at him with concern. "Dear, what's wrong?" "What is it, Alex?" His stepdad shared his mom's worried expression. "I'm gay." He kept the tears back. "I'm sorry. Do you want me to leave?" They both stared at him for a second, then looked at each other. His mother was confused by his assumptions. "What, no? Why would you think that? You know we love you!" "Alex, we don't care who you want to date. We just want you to be happy." His stepfather chimed in. "I know that." A single tear escaped his grasp. He cursed Dr. Summerfield in his mind for putting those cruel thoughts in his head, and himself for being weak enough to believe them. "I love you both." His mom gave him a hug. "Everything's alright, Alex." "Yeah, and besides, we already knew that for a long time now." His stepdad tried to lighten the situation. "I know." Alex didn't know why he was laughing, but he couldn't stop. "I've always known that." Alex told his parents he wanted to eat dinner in his room while he studied so he could call Eric right away. It was five past seven. He got out his cell to call Eric, but he already had an incoming call. He didn't recognize the number and it came up as unknown on his caller ID. Alex answered. "Hello?" "I see things went well with your parents, Alex." Dr. Summerfield said in a cheery voice. "You lied, you bastard!" Alex yelled without thinking. 'Calm down. I can't let him get to me. That's what he wants.' "A little white lie. I didn't mean anything by it. You should know better than anyone what your parents are like. Have you made your decision yet?" "I don't want to work for you. Please leave me alone." Alex spoke softly until his words became whispers. "Please...I won't say anything to anyone. I swear." "Words are cheap, Alex." "Can't you just keep monitoring me to see that I'm keeping my word?" Alex hated to make the suggestion, but he was desperate. He could put up with that if that man left him alone in person. "I can, but why won't you work for me? You don't really understand what you're throwing away." "I don't want to. Please leave me alone." Alex begged. "You'll come around eventually when you see the light. I wanted to ensure you would be in place before I stepped down as my retirement is soon. I suppose this once I could leave this to others." Dr. Summerfield's voice was cold and empty. "When you change your mind, someone will find you." "I don't think I will be changing my mind. Please don't contact me anymore." "Very well, but hold no illusions, boy. Someone is always watching. We always have been. Be a good boy now." With that, Dr. Summerfield hung up. Alex sat down on the futon and stared at his phone. Dr. Summerfield was backing off. He was both ecstatic to be free and terrified of it being another trick. He wondered how much it really mattered. Dr. Summerfield said there were others who might want him at the company. Once that man was gone, what would happen next? The phone rang again. Alex panicked and dropped it on the floor. The caller ID read "Eric". He quickly grabbed the phone to answer it. Alex held the phone to his ear. "Hello?" "Hey. You didn't call at seven. Is everything alright?" Eric asked. "I...I think. He contacted me again." "When?" "Just now, on the phone." Alex paced around the room. He checked out his window to see if anyone unusual was out there. "I don't think he's going to contact me again. He said he was stepping down soon anyway, but I don't know...Do you think someone else is going to contact me instead?" "I don't know. Actually, um, I wanted to talk to you about something kinda related to this whole thing." "Yeah?" "See, I've been thinking...I don't really think it's a good idea for you to be alone right now, and probably not for a while. We were already going to get an apartment together in June. Can I move in with you before then? You know, since...I mean, we can't really talk about this with other people without looking crazy and possibly endangering them. Things might be easier if I'm there with you." Alex lost his breath. He composed himself again. "You'd really...? But, I mean, won't that put you in more risk too? Wouldn't it be better for you to get away from me?" "I don't want to do that. Come on, I picked the same college as you because you'd be there and we were already going to live together soon anyway. I'm not chickening out now just because of some creeper." "I don't know...I don't want you getting hurt." Eric staying with him before the move was a secret wish of his, but this wasn't the circumstance he envisioned it happening under. If it would risk Eric's life, it wasn't worth it. "And I don't want you getting hurt. What's your point? How come only you get to decide how things go?" Eric refuted his concerns. "You really wanna do this?" "I won't let anything happen to you. I love you too much." There was a pause before Eric spoke again. "You're one of my best friends." "I love you too." Alex paused as well. He laughed under his breath. "Wow, this is awkward." Eric laughed too. "Yeah, it sounds a little romantic and cheesy to say it like that, huh?" Alex's face flushed. "Yeah...You know, there was one thing he got wrong. For some reason, he thought we were dating. Guess his surveillance wasn't as great as he thought." "Why would he think that?" Eric asked. "I have no idea. You'd think if he knew what porn I searched for, he'd be able to figure out if I was actually dating someone or not." Alex's face turned a deeper shade when he realized what he might have unintentionally implied. He calmed himself back down. 'No, it's fine. I'm going to confess to him at some point anyway.' "He looked at your porn searches? Hah, so what was in there? Something kinky and weird?" Alex kept his descriptions vague and silly. "More like 'porn with attractive people full video'." Eric laughed loudly. "I'm imagining that weirdo listening in on this right now, taking notes. You gettin' anything good out of this, Dr. Creeper?" "You know, I always thought Juan was crazy for putting so much duck tape over the webcam on his laptop...do you think someone was watching me while I was jacking off? Ew, what the fuck? For how long?!" The thought disgusted him. He grabbed some duck tape from his desk and put several layers of it over his laptop's webcam. "Ugh, I feel so gross right now." "It's even creepier when you think about how you did that project last summer. So if he's been watching you since then, you were under eighteen for most of that." Eric pointed out. "Sixteen's legal in Georgia." "Not for video recordings." "Ugh, I don't want to think about this anymore. I want to take every piece of technology in my house and set it on fire." Alex slammed the laptop shut. He returned to the futon, eyeing every item in the room. Anything might be being used to watch him and he had no way of knowing. There could be cameras hidden in the room, and his phone was always a constant source of potential snooping. There was nothing he could do. Fear sunk in again. "Eric, I'm...I don't want to die." "You're not going to die. We're going to make sure you stay safe, okay?" "What can we really do?" "I don't know...but we'll find a way." Eric asked, "Do you want me to come over tonight?" "Yeah...I...I don't want to be alone right now." "I'll walk over there as soon as I'm done getting ready." "No, I'll pick you up." "Still worried?" "Yeah. I'll text you when I'm there, okay?" "Kay. I'll get my stuff ready." "I love you." Alex blurted out, more out of fear he wouldn't get to say it to Eric again than anything. Eric went quiet for a moment. "I love you too. Bye." Alex hung up the phone. He let his parents know Eric was staying over again before he left. When he got there, he sent Eric a text. He parked further up in the driveway than he usually did and waited outside the car near the front door. He walked Eric to the car. "Sorry. Were your parents mad at you for coming over again?" Alex started up the car. "Yeah. Don't worry about that." Eric put his seatbelt on. "You look a little pale." "Really?" Alex pulled out. After less than a minute of driving, he nearly hit a car parked on the side of the road. "Watch it!" Eric yelled just before Alex nearly collided with it. Alex swerved just in time. Eric clutched the door with his right hand. "You almost hit that car." "Sorry!" Alex's breathing sped up. He was so freaked out, he didn't notice the car at all until Eric said something. The fact that he did that only made him more anxious. "Try to relax. I know that's kinda hard right now, but you don't wanna get in an accident three houses down from where you live." Eric turned on the radio. "Just relax, okay?" "I know. Sorry. I don't know why I did that." Alex focused on the radio and Eric's voice. "Thanks for coming over. I...I really don't want to be alone right now." "Are your parents not home?" Eric asked. "They are. I wanted to be with you." Alex didn't care how his words could be interpreted anymore. "Me? Only me?" "Yes, only you." Eric's eyes lit up. "I'll stay as long as you need me." "Thank you." Alex parked the car. He stayed close to Eric until they were inside the house. Once they were in Alex's room, he panicked again. He sat on the bed, his mind full of unanswerable questions and terrifying scenarios. He was powerless to do anything to keep himself and anyone around him safe if something did happen. Fear consumed him so deeply he was losing sight of where he actually was. "Eric, what's going to happen to me? What am I supposed to do? What if he changes his mind or someone else comes or...?" "Shh, calm down. I won't let anything happen to you." Eric joined him on the bed. He held Alex's hands and kissed him. In that moment, Alex's fear subsided. The thoughts left him. The only thing in his mind was realizing Eric was touching him. Eric pulled away. "Sorry, is that too much?" "No, I don't mind. Actually..." Alex forced himself to admit what he wanted. "I wouldn't mind if you kept doing that." "Really?" "Yeah." Eric kissed him again. Alex followed the forwardness of Eric's motions. There was no pretending this was friendly. Eric lightly pushed Alex down onto the bed. The texture of Eric's tongue against his own excited him. He let his hands wander in ways he would never dare to before as Eric did the same. Feeling Eric's body warmth against his own emptied his mind of every worry, every fear cycling inside of him. Between the overflow of excitement and happiness surging through him, there was no room inside of him for anything else. At the edge of his mind, Alex hoped in the future he might get to enjoy a more intimate form of contact with him. After a few minutes of kissing and touching, Eric pulled away and collapsed beside him on the bed with a big grin on his face. Alex wasn't going to wait any longer. He rolled onto his side and touched Eric's face. "You know...I've liked you for a really long time." "Me too." Eric said with a smile. "I know this is kind of a weird time to ask, but...I dunno, I mean. Given what's going on, maybe it's the perfect time. Will you go out with me?" "Yeah. You know, I was actually going to ask you the same thing tonight." Alex wanted to laugh at himself. There was never any reason to worry about what Eric might think after all. "Do your parents know?" "They've known for a while. I know they used to read my journal, but they figured it out long before then. It's taken a while for me to really get to accepting it myself. Which is weird, cause it's not like I was ever really homophobic or anything, but...I don't know. We do live in the South. I think I was afraid if I admitted it, something bad would happen to me." "Yeah, I think I felt like that at times too." Alex grinned. "Well, he's right now. You are my boyfriend." "And he's probably listening in on this conversation through something we forgot to toss outside." Alex laughed. "I don't know why I'm laughing." "I don't either." Eric did too. "I don't know what we can do, but I'm not letting go of you to anyone. I don't care if we get separated or they mess up my mind, I'll find a way to reach you and we'll escape." "That's pretty dramatic for someone who just asked me out a second ago." "Yeah, but I've known you since first grade. You're one of my best friends. I'd want to protect you regardless." Eric took hold of Alex's hand. "Eric, thanks." "Let's look up furniture together. We're going to need some for our apartment." Eric sat up. "But the computer..." "If he's found out everything else about you, he'll find out where you move. It doesn't matter. For now, let's act like he doesn't exist." There was nothing else Alex really could do moving forward. Eric's suggestion was the only option to maintain his sanity. Otherwise, Alex would spend the rest of his time looking over his shoulder, wondering what might be coming. He resigned to the uncertainty. "Okay, but no Craigslist crap." "Heh, okay." Alex turned on the computer. The duck tape was discarded into the trash. He sat with Eric on the futon, searching various sites to look for deals. Eric cuddled up against him on the futon. Alex slipped his hand into Eric's, switching to typing with only his left. An unpleasant thought broke up Alex's elevated happiness. Given their situation, he needed to have this talk now before they were renting together. "So, uh, not to be a downer or anything, but if say, we broke up..." Eric already knew what he was thinkning about. "We'd still be friends. Come on, we've known each other forever. Don't worry. I'm not going to suddenly leave you homeless. Do I look like someone who'd be that big of an asshole?" "No. Sorry, I'm just..." "We were going to move in together regardless, remember? You've supported me this long. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be going to college. I'm not sure if I'd have actually passed the graduation test..." Eric held onto Alex's hand tightly. "You would too." "You know I was a really...bad student before. I really was planning on dropping out on my sixteenth birthday. You helped me get all my shit back on track." "You helped me study too. I'm terrible at math." "So I'm good at like one subject." "No, you're just too hard on yourself so you don't try as much because you assume you'll fail anyway." "Hmm, maybe." Eric leaned against Alex. "My point is, I would have never thought I could do any of those things if it weren't for you. I'm not going to abandon you." "Thank you." He kissed Eric on the cheek. Alex glanced around the room. The box of tapes sat in front of the TV. "What should we do with those?" "Don't watch any more of the tapes. Let's just go to bed. We'll throw them away in the morning." Eric got up from the futon and pulled Alex up. They turned in early. Alex made no pretense of wanting to keep distance once they were in bed. With the lights off, he could only see Eric by the moonlight and street lights shining into the room. He held Eric's hand in the darkness. Eric had another confession planned for the night. "This is gonna sound crazy, but you know, I've always been afraid of losing people around me." "That sounds normal." "No, not like that. Like just disappearing. Everything. Like in Juan's story. Things like that scare me more than anything." "Seems pretty irrational, but after the last few days..." Eric's hand started to shake. "Sometimes, I think someone's already fucked with my head." Tension rose in Alex for what Eric might tell him. "Why would you think that?" "I dunno. I'm just being paranoid, but sometimes...I remember things that don't make any sense--places I've never been, someone I don't know..." Eric stared at the moon through the window. "You sure you're not just misremembering?" "Yeah, I guess." Eric's gaze was both intense and full of fear. "Alex, even if we get separated, even if someone screws up my mind, I'll find you again. I swear it." "You can't keep a promise like that." "You don't know I can't." Eric pulled Alex close and kissed him. "Promise me, when I wake up tomorrow, you'll still be here." "Of course." Shortly after, they both fell asleep, still holding hands. The night was uneventful until three AM. The DVD case in the box made a low humming noise just before the TV came on. Delilah peered into the room from the screen. "Doctor, all the children are asleep." "I know that, you silly program." Dr. Summerfield said as he entered Alex's bedroom. He picked up the DVD case and opened it. Inside the box was a tiny machine. He messed around with it before putting it back into the box. "Looks like these are just as effective as the technique we used during the mass broadcasting. I'm sure with more testing these will be of great use in the right scenario." Dr. Summerfield watched Alex sleep. He winced at the display before him while he prepared another machine he brought with him. After a few minutes, he held the machine up. The rectangular, flat machine had a screen in the center. On it, a list of people were displayed. Beside each name was the words "modification type" and a series of varying numbers. He double-checked everything before hitting the start button at the bottom of the screen. "It's a shame I have to use this on you, Alex. Altering memories in this way too extensively limits the entire brain. That's why I wanted you to come willingly. You're at your best value unaltered. Tonight, I'm only making a few minor adjustments." Alex slept soundly, unaware of what was happening to him. Dr. Summerfield smirked. "Fortunate for you, I'll be taking your memories of this foolishness and you two will be back to being friends again. I'd erase more of your memories together, but I can't go altering you too much. At the very least, I can get rid of this relationship for you. When you're molded right, you won't be wanting him anyway." The machine completed the program and shut off. "There. Everything's done. You won't be afraid anymore. That should make our second round of recruitment attempts much easier. Be a good boy now." "Be a good boy now." Delilah repeated his words. "All good children stay where they belong inside the space." Dr. Summerfield watched Delilah on the TV. He took a small piece of paper out of his coat and left it on Alex's desk. "Empty, it's all empty now. I'm empty now." Delilah's image faded out on the screen as her voice drifted. "Empty minds and empty space clear up room for clear instruction." With the case in hand, Dr. Summerfield left the room. The TV shrieked with static before shutting back off. In the morning, Eric and Alex were woken up by Alex's alarm. Alex stared at Eric, confused. "Huh?" Eric was equally confused. "What? What are you doing here?" "I live here." Alex said. "What?" Eric glanced around. He wasn't in his own house. "What the hell? How did I get here?" Alex rubbed his eyes. "Did we get drunk last night? Because I have no idea." "Why would we do that? And on a school night? I don't even like drinking that much." "I don't know." Eric stumbled out of bed. He didn't have a hangover and there wasn't anything in the room to suggest they were drinking at home. He knelt over the the box of VHS tapes in front of the TV. He picked up one of the tapes. "What the hell is this?" "VHS tapes?" Alex went over to the box and examined its contents. Alex noticed the VHS player sitting by the TV. He put one of the tapes in and played it. There was nothing but static. "What the fuck is this shit?" "Okay, last night, did we also go out while drunk and raid a thrift store?" Eric scratched his head. "A weird thrift store. What the fuck? I know where these are going." Alex picked up the box and dumped all of the tapes into the trash by his desk. "Did you always have a VCR?" "I think this is the one from the attic. I'm amazed it still works." He threw the box down beside the trashcan. "What the hell was that about?" "Dunno. I don't remember even drinking last night. I can't remember anything after seven. It's completely blank." Eric searched the room for more clues as to what happened the previous night. Alex tried recalling the previous night. Nothing came. "Huh...I can't either." "I remember I was working on homework and I had the news on in the background. And that's it. Actually, I can't remember a lot of yesterday...or the last few days. It's all...patchy. Why..." Nothing around them was bringing back anything. Eric picked up his phone from Alex's nightstand. His messages and inbox were both empty. "It's the same for me." Alex held his head. He retraced what he could remember, but there was barely anything. His memory didn't become clear until he thought back to Saturday night. "What the hell? Why can't I remember most of the last few days?! Jeez, I bet Juan would say we were abducted by aliens." "Hey, what's this note?" Eric picked up a piece of paper. Alex took the note from him. The note appeared to be in Alex's handwriting and said, "Call Tom later about the project in June." "I don't know. Tom Summerfield, I talked to him before, remember? He wanted me to work on something for him, but I'm going to turn him down. I don't have time for that." Alex rolled his eyes. "I can't remember. Who was he again?" Eric asked. "He's the head of Moone & Wolfe Corp. Huh, maybe he called and I left myself a note to talk to him later. I dunno." Alex tossed the note in the trash with the tapes. "Anyway, you wanna go get something to eat? I'm starving." "Yeah, sure." "Hopefully, I didn't take the SUV anywhere last night...but considering those tapes...ugh, surely I didn't do something so stupid?" Alex grabbed his keys and phone. "Let's hope we walked there." Before leaving, Alex checked his phone for clues. His phone was more than empty. It had been factory reset. 'What the hell did I do?' Alex re-entered the information for his email account onto the base mail app. His inbox and contacts list were empty. 'Shit. Well, I'll have to deal with that later.' "Something wrong?" Eric asked. "I have no idea what the fuck I did to my phone." Alex slid it in his back pocket. "You too? Mine's all cleared out." "Weird." Alex didn't think deeply on it. He walked ahead of Eric down the steps. Halfway down, he made eye contact with his parents, who were talking in the living room. One memory from the previous few days was crystal clear in his mind. His parents gave him looks and snickered. At the bottom of the steps, he tossed the keys to Eric. "You go ahead and get in the car. I gotta talk to my parents for a sec." "Kay." Eric headed out the door. Once Eric was outside, he talked to his parents. "We're going out to get something to eat. Did you want me to pick you up anything?" "We're good." His stepdad snickered with a goofy smile. "So, uh, you and Eric, uh..." "We're not dating and he doesn't know. Don't tell him." Alex knew this would happen as soon as he told them. "But you like him, don't you?" His mom said. "Jeez, do you guys really have to start on this right now?" "I'll take that as a yes. You should ask him out." She nudged him. "Mom!" "Are you going to tell him at all?" His stepdad asked. "I will, eventually. Not right now. I was planning on telling him after the graduation party. Anyway, I'll probably be home in an hour." He walked towards the door. The longer he stayed, the more annoying questions he'd have to answer. "Take your time." His mom said. His stepdad added, "Yeah, don't let us get in the way of you makin' your moves." "You two are so embarrassing." He paused at the door. Alex turned back to his parents. "Mom, Dad, uh, thanks. For taking everything so well." He waved goodbye to them as he left. Eric handed him the keys after he got in the car. Alex watched Eric sitting in the passenger's seat beside him. He wondered how Eric would take the revelation, and more than that, if there was any chance of them becoming more than friends. He wanted to know now, but he lacked the courage to confess. As he ran possible outcomes in his head, bits of hazy moments flashed briefly. Holding hands, kissing. Alex froze, forcing himself to focus on those bits of disconnected images. He couldn't tell if those were dreams or memories. 'No, surely that didn't happen...I'm delusional. I must have been dreaming that. Like that would happen.' "Hello?" Eric waved his hand in front of Alex's face. "Everything okay?" "Uh, yeah. Sorry, I spaced out for a sec. Where did you want to go?" Unconsciously, Alex put his hand on Eric's. He quickly pulled it away. "Ah, sorry. My hand slipped." "Anywhere's fine with me." "Let's go to our usual place for lunch. I haven't had breakfast there in a while." Alex pulled out of the driveway. He couldn't explain it, but he had a strange feeling something was very off. Logically, he should have been more disturbed that his memories of the last few days were mostly gone, but he felt nothing over it. He couldn't explain his apathy, nor could he get himself to care about it. At best, he only had a passing curiosity about his odd mental state about the issue. Eric was calmer than he should have been too. Something was wrong, and he had nothing to piece together what it was. Underneath those thoughts, something else kept lingering in his mind. Though he had no reason to suspect this, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched. Every so often, he checked his surroundings, searching for anything out of the ordinary. He found nothing. As he ate breakfast with Eric in that familiar parking lot, talking about trivial nonsense, his thoughts about what may have happened the last few days disappeared entirely. The worry about someone following him too faded. Eric seemed to have something on his mind. Alex asked him, "Is something wrong? Do you not want to go home again?" Eric played with the wrapper of his food. "I never want to go home. That's nothing new." "Why is that?" "I don't really want to talk about it here. Maybe later. Alex, would it be okay if I...?" "Spent the night. Yeah, it's fine." "Thanks." Eric fidgeted with the wrapper more. "Hey, do you ever worry that one day something important will just disappear from you and you won't know?" "What?" "It's nothing." Eric stared up at Alex with a strange intensity. "I don't want to ever forget you. I won't allow it." At Eric's words, Alex remembered more bits of images he couldn't place. An awkward moment on the phone. Holding hands in bed. The cold sensation of a gun pressed against his forehead. The images confused and disturbed him, but they left his mind as quickly as they came.