I first met Kate online in an Internet forum for a book we both loved. She was witty and clearly creative, and while we struck up a friendship almost immediately, eventually I developed more feelings for her. But I’m the sort of dorky guy who spends a lot of time at home alone, talking more with people on my computer screen than I do with folks in real life. My social skills are less than adequate, and the few attempts I’ve made at striking up a conversation with women face to face could definitely be described as disastrous. As Kate lived in London and I was here in the States – Michigan, in fact – it seemed harmless enough to encourage our friendship. Not likely I’d ever run into her out in public, which made me feel brave.
At first, our interactions online were limited to replying to one another’s comments in discussion threads, often bantering back and forth. Soon enough, however, we had friended each other on Facebook and followed each other on Twitter. We developed a joke between the two of us: To Scotland! We took it from the book we both loved so much, in which the characters, during good times or bad, would raise a glass in salute and shout, “To Scotland!” It was an insider thing, a marker of our friendship. Dumb, maybe, but it was funny to us. On my end, I sometimes used the phrase when I wasn’t sure what else to say. I looked forward to hearing from her at least daily and worried if I didn’t. I checked my phone obsessively at work for notifications, and when I was at home, I kept my phone on me at all times. My laptop moved room to room with me, always on.
I was glad she didn’t know me in real life. She might have thought I was some crazy stalker.
It was about six months after we had met online that Kate started to change. Initially, I thought she was just having a couple of bad days in a row, and I sent her a series of stupid, jokey memes on Facebook to cheer her up. But after a few weeks, it looked as though she was really struggling. Sounded depressed. I wanted to help, but was unsure what I should do. I sent her several concerned private messages, letting her know I was available to talk if she needed me. Every time I read one of her messages, I felt a horrible, heavy pain in my gut. More and more, she sounded so lost. So unreachable. The quick wit and clever banter were gone. Kate began talking about not wanting to stick around anymore.
She told me that she had a plan. She described it in minute detail.
I panicked. In my mind, I ran through all the things I thought might make a difference. I told her I valued her, valued our friendship. That I cared for her. That she was wanted.
I told her something I had never told another woman. I told her that I loved her.
None of this seemed to change her mind, and I frantically wondered who I could tell, what emergency service I could call to go help her. We were on different continents. I didn’t know her home address. I didn’t even know what Kate really looked like – her profile picture was just the cover of the book we both loved. Her online named was Kate Booklover, which I was one-hundred percent certain was not her real name.
What could I do?
I felt more than helpless. Impotent. I walked through my house, the same path over and over. I didn’t set my phone down at all. Just in case she reached out to me again, I wanted to be there. I didn’t sleep that night. I was sick to my stomach, and weirdly sweaty. My head was pounding. But I wouldn’t lie down. I waited, phone in hand. When my battery started to die, I plugged it in and sat on the floor, clutching it. Staring at the screen. Hoping. Praying she would message me again.
“Please, Kate. Please,” I begged her through the phone screen, though I realized how stupid it was. Not like she could hear me.
Why had I never asked for her phone number? If I had that, maybe I could have notified the police and they could have tracked her down. Instead, I was trapped in this living nightmare, waiting to see if my friend a continent away was alive or dead.
Her final message came through at four a.m. “Goodbye, Eric,” it said. That was it.
“No, Kate! No!” I screamed. Threw my phone at the wall. Scrambled after it to message her back. To beg her, once again, to seek help. Or to tell me where she was so I could send help to her.
But there was nothing more. Hours went by. She didn’t reply, and I knew in my heart she was gone.
I called in sick to work that day. I just couldn’t handle people. Besides that, I looked terrible. Dark smudges hung beneath my eyes. My skin was pasty. I looked like I was on the verge of throwing up. Or passing out. Maybe both.
I tried to tell myself I didn’t really know her. How could I be feeling such horrendous loss for someone I had never even met in real life? Had never held her hand or looked into her eyes. I didn’t even know what color eyes she had. What color hair. The truth was, if I had run into Kate somewhere on the street, I wouldn’t have known who she was.
That didn’t assuage my guilt or my grief at all.
Messages of disbelief and condolences to her family began to appear on her Facebook wall. Eventually, her profile was deactivated. Two days went by. Three.
I couldn’t bring myself to shower or dress. I spent most of that time curled up in bed, staring at the walls. Forcing myself to sleep. My limbs felt heavy. My eyeballs ached.
The fourth day, my phone started making that annoying dinging sound that indicated I had a notification.
I rolled over and grabbed it from the nightstand, hit the screen with my thumb.
The notification was for a private message on Facebook. I clicked the little red number on my message icon.
It felt as though my heart stopped beating for a second. My hands shook.
The message was from Kate’s account.
“I’m cold,” it read. “It’s so dark here, Eric.”
A noise escaped me, some kind of grunt and shriek mixed together. Gooseflesh erupted down my arms. Bile jumped up my throat. Then I realized, somebody was messing with me. It couldn’t really be Kate.
What kind of sicko would hack into a dead woman’s account?
I messaged back. “Who is this? I’m going to report you!”
Several minutes passed before I received another reply.
The second message was only two words.
It read, “To Scotland!”
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