I sit, poised and ready, at my laptop, my hands circling the keys like hawks stalk prey. I have wanted to tell someone, anyone, for a long, long time. But I could never bring myself to do it. It is a story too unconventional. Too strange, to put into a casual conversation. But now, I just want it out there.
It was 2008, an age where, while the Internet was not new, it was still underdeveloped. Back then, I loved it. Through the eyes of the avid programmer I was, it had a soul to me – a network of a million stories and opinions, of companies not yet known, forums filled with chatter, and libraries of information.
I was always foolishly signing myself up to things I would never use, just so I could feel a part of it. I remember always achingly wanting a website of my own, but I was only 15 and my parents didn’t even know what a website was, let alone how to buy one.
So, it was a summer holiday of some kind. A long, long expanse of doing nothing, occasionally broken by a trip to some country or another.
It was a hot night in July, I think, when it happened. It was sometime around 2am or something, and I was still browsing on my computer (I was lucky and had it in my bedroom, which was a rarity in those days).
I get an e-mail.
Immediately intrigued, as I had never got an e-mail at 2 in the morning before, I eagerly opened it up. Now, back then, automated e-mails were very scarce, and were only operated by either the best, or the spam, websites.
The e-mail appeared like it was automated to me – no subject, no headers, no contents even. The sender’s address was something like a jumble of random numbers and letters. The strangest thing was, however, was that a file was attached. A GIF.
By now, I had already been analysing the email. The sender’s address was clearly a fake. A thing spammers did back then was to use PHP to send an automated email with no sender’s address, meaning that when the email was received by the email client, it would generate a random address to fill the gap, meaning the spammer could not be traced.
I felt that this was confirmed when considering the fact that the message had no written content at all, the attachment had no preview and was named “NoFile”. Windows had (and probably still has) a list of things it can use to fill data gaps in files that are missing information, and if a file is missing any type of name, it uses “NoFile”.
So, all in all, this was an odd email. I figured it must have been from one of the many websites I’d registered onto.
Intrigued, and with nothing better to do, I opened the GIF.
It was of a young woman, standing, facing into a tall mirror, brushing her brown hair. The background was entirely white, so I figured it must be some kind of clipart thing. But, somehow, it struck me as odd. I watched it for a while, trying to examine it closer. The pictures were very low-quality, so I could barely make out any details, but I was certain that when the animation “repeated”, it wasn’t repeating at all.
Her hand that was holding the brush moved slightly different, each time. I immediately figured that it must be just a very long GIF, which was not too rare. But the e-mail client clearly stated the file was only 5KB, which was far too small for a GIF lasting nearly a minute. And it still went on.
At this point, I was determined to see some kind of jerk or irregular movement, reassuring me that it was only a loop of pictures, and that it ended somewhere.
But it still went on.
It was now over a minute and a half. I never thought about closing it, or just going away to bed. I just wanted to see the whole thing. I wish I hadn’t.
It got to about 2 minutes now. My eyelids began to droop. I have no idea what time it was then, but I was tired.
So tired, I hardly noticed as the lady in the GIF stopped, and turned towards me, her cold eyes meeting with mine. They were wide open, glaring, emotionless.
I was wide awake now. Deciding this was just too weird for me, I got up to make a swift click of the mouse and close the thing down. Only I didn’t. I couldn’t. My hand didn’t want to move, and neither did anything else.
I was stuck, staring into the dead eyes of the lady in the GIF.
By now, the pictures were almost perfectly still, as if it had stopped. But they hadn’t. I watched helplessly as her eyes began changing. They became wider, and full of fear and horror. Her mouth slowly was slowly opening, unnaturally wide and completely black inside.
And then came the scream.
A woman’s scream, her scream, distorted, fuzzy broken up, but full of anguish and pain. GIFs don’t have sound.
Pulling myself from the paralysis, I jammed my thumb into the shutdown button on the computer. Blackness hit the screen.
I was left, horrified, sweating and shaking, staring into my reflection on the glassy monitor.
I did not sleep that night. Nor the next.
It was a week until I could bear to turn on that computer again, and I stayed firmly away from the e-mail program. I was more desperate, than anything. Desperate to find out this hoax, to see just one other person’s similar terror when they received it, to share the trauma together. But there was nothing.
Eventually, I even mustered the courage to try and find the GIF on Google Images, just to see that it existed elsewhere, or at least find its creator. But there was nothing.
I realised that the quicker I forgot this happened, the better, so I went to the news bulletins, sure that I would find something there to bother me instead.
I read through the headlines of war, famine, disease and pestilence, until I reached the header “Local News”. And then I saw her. The lady in the GIF.
Only, she was in a photograph. Smiling, warmly. Full of life.
Immediately, I scroll down to see the headline.
“Missing: Have you seen this woman?”.