The five girls stared in abject awe at the little black laptop on the floor of Elizabeth's bedroom, as if it were a sentient being with a willful intent of ruining their social lives. None of them had any ideas, so they looked from one to another in search of some bit of inspiration concerning the laptop they apparently could not shut off.
The girl with the short hair, the jock, paced at Elizabeth's side and pulled thoughtfully at her lip. Though she wore shorts beneath her Notre Dame athletic shirt, it was so long it more resembled a nightshirt, “What the hell was that?”
One of the other girls, the tall one with the dark skin, muttered, “Easy Trugg.”
“No, I'm serious, Keevah. You got five fifteen-year-old girls chatting online during a sleepover, we're all wearing – you know – nighttime stuff, and some perv is watching us? Doesn't that creep you guys out just the tiniest bit?”
“Absolutely,” Keevah nodded and hugged herself as she suddenly became aware of how short her shorts were.
The blonde girl at the back of the group of assembled girls took a step back, away from the laptop, as if it were a landmine and she needed to get as much space between her and it to keep clear of the bulk of the shrapnel. She shivered and said, “I wish you hadn't said that, Trugg.”
Another girl, Blake, tugged at her long, dark, braided hair and suggested, “Maybe put some electrical tape over the webcam? So they can't see us?”
Elizabeth shook her head, “The webcam was off.”
“But maybe they found a way to hack into your computer and use the damn webcam without your knowing about it.”
“That doesn't sound very –“
“I have Kinesio tape!” Trugg pulled a small box from her duffel bag and held aloft a roll of electric blue fabric tape like a prize from the Midway to show all her friends.
“What the hell is Kinesio tape?” Elizabeth asked.
“It's for my shoulder,” Trugg returned, as if that made any sense.
But Elizabeth still had that questioning look on her face so Keevah, who had also played a fair amount of sports in her time, clarified, “It's therapeutic, supposed to provide support to injured or fatigued muscles.”
That answer meant about as much to Elizabeth as did the going price of giblets, but at least she was able to say, “Oh.”
Trugg fixed a three-inch strip of the tape over the webcam at the top of the monitor, but the blonde, Quinn, insisted on another layer, “For opacity.”
Trugg shrugged and affixed another strip over the first. Couldn't hurt, she thought, and threw the remaining roll of tape back into her bag.
The screen, which had been idle, blinked to life: HELLO? WHO TURNED OUT THE LIGHTS?
Quinn and Keevah both chirped a small scream before slapping their hands over their mouths.
Blake leaned in closer to the laptop and said, “Whoa, that is fucked up. Look at my arms!”
Elizabeth, just inches away from Blake, looked and saw a wave of gooseflesh roll up and down Blake's arm like an unwanted red tide, the fine hairs on her forearm standing statically at attention. Blake's obvious unease made Elizabeth shiver uncomfortably.
HEY, WANNA PLAY A GAME?
From the back side of Elizabeth's bedroom, Quinn mumbled, “Just shut it off, Lizzy. Just turn off the fuckin' thing!”
But Blake cocked her head to one side, curiously. She, like Trugg, was usually game for anything.
PICK A NUMBER BETWEEN ONE AND FIVE AND HOLD UP THAT AMOUNT OF FINGERS OF YOUR RIGHT HAND.
Trugg quickly reached over Blake's shoulder and flipped the laptop the bird. Through gritted teeth she growled, “How about one? Asshole.”
But the computer screen only flashed: VERY FUNNY TRUGG.
Trugg snapped her hand back quicker than if she'd stuck it in a wall outlet, “It knows my name! It fuckin' knows my name!”
YES, I CAN STILL SEE YOU.
“Jesus Christ,” Blake whispered and looked gravely over at Elizabeth, who could only stare.
From somewhere behind them, Quinn was pacing and muttering, “Oh my God, Oh my God,” like a twisted mantra. Keevah hugged her and tried to calm her down.
Angry now, Blake punched at the keys: WHO ARE YOU?
NOT YET was the response.
Blake looked at Elizabeth and frowned, “What the hell does that mean?”
Elizabeth shrugged and ventured, “Maybe they'll tell us at the end?”
“I don't know,” Blake shook her head and said, “but I am not playing this guy's bullshit.”
“How do you know it's a guy? Why not a girl?” Elizabeth asked.
Blake grimaced, “This doesn't feel like a girl. Feels like a guy.”
“A creepy guy,” Trugg interjected from behind.
Blake typed: YOUR GAME SOUNDS STUPID.
BUT IT IS NECESSARRY, came the response.
Blake felt her patience escaping as she looked up at the ceiling and sighed. When she had finished collecting herself, she typed: WHAT DO WE GET IF WE WIN?
HUMOR US. WHAT DO WE GET IF WE WIN?
The screen was blank for a few moments, then: YOU GET TO LIVE.