Monday, August 6, 2018

The Killer by Ronald Schulte

Ethan's career is paralysed because of his fear of public speaking, until he finds an app that claims to change your personality; by Ronald Schulte.

My mind was completely blank.

I glanced around the conference room, frantically trying to remember the words I had prepared. The silence stretched into awkwardness. I was acutely aware of the changing facial expressions of my audience. Many looked away as I struggled. Some nodded encouragingly, trying to will me back on course.

Finally, the hiring manager tried to jump to my rescue.

"Ethan? Why don't tell everyone a little about yourself?"

It took me a second to focus on the manager, whose name I couldn't even remember. My mind was a black sludge. This whole thing was a mistake; I didn't belong here.

"I'm sorry," was all I managed to croak out.

The room sat in stunned silence as I disconnected my computer and collected my belongings. A few of the people in the room were speaking to me but I ignored them.

I left without another word.



What a debacle.

By the time I unlocked the door to my apartment, I was no longer hyperventilating, and my heart had stopped racing. I grabbed a beer, loosened my tie, and flopped onto the couch. The beer didn't help much, but it tasted good.

I had a problem. At my desired pay grade, I'd eventually have to speak in front of people. Just showing up for today's interview had been a minor miracle, but I never should have attempted it. Better to find another opportunity with a less intense interview process. Better to deal with my stupid phobia after I've been hired.

With a sigh, I opened the professional networking app on my phone. There were over two hundred listings that matched my filter criteria. I'd seen many of them already, but I had nothing better to do. I worked my way downward from the top.

I continued browsing listings until a most unusual ad caught my attention. For thirty seconds, some black and white text was displayed on the screen. No video, no sound; only this text: "Stuck in a rut? Need a confidence boost for your next interview? Become the person they expect you to be! Install Personality Editor today on iOS or Android!"

What was this rubbish? I opened my phone's app store and found this Personality Editor. It seemed fishy; the details page was just a repeat of the text from the ad I'd seen, and the publisher was listed simply as "Publisher." The app was, of course, marked as having in-app purchases. Probably a scam.

I clicked the "Get" button anyway. What can I say? Curiosity killed the cat. The app was not large, and it downloaded and installed quickly. When the installation was complete, I found the app's icon - a multi-colored spiral - and double-clicked to open it.

The app guided me through steps to set up a user profile. I created a user ID and password (Ethan12345Tristan for both), entered the month and year of my birth, and answered a few survey-style questions about my personality:

Are you completely satisfied with your life? No

Do you suffer from anxiety? Yes

Do you fear failure? Yes

I answered maybe a dozen questions in all. After the final question (How did you hear about Personality Editor? Stupid ad) the app settled on a "Welcome" screen. The screen listed my user name, age, and Personality Profile:

Welcome, Ethan12345Tristan!

Age: 37

Personality Profile: Delicate Flower (Default)

Delicate Flower? I had to laugh. The words "Delicate Flower" were colored in blue and underlined - a link - so I clicked to see what would happen. A new screen popped up with a picture of a drooping daisy, along with a description: "Delicate Flower - You lack confidence. Others value your intellect, honesty, and kindness, but your anxiety distorts your self-image. You always defer to authority, and prefer to run from things you fear rather than face them head-on."

Bingo. And ouch.

To the right of the Personality Profile, there was a button labeled "Edit." Clicking this button revealed a scrollable list of personality descriptions similar to the one I'd viewed for Delicate Flower. The first two - Defensive Donkey ("...strong-willed... extremely stubborn... does not respond well to criticism...") and Sneaky Pete ("...dishonest... disloyal... but effective at producing results...") - included the option to "Select" the profile. The rest of the profiles had to be unlocked via in-app purchase.

Three profiles (Honest Abe, Cool Cat, and Loyal Dog) were priced at $5.95 per month. Oh Captain My Captain was more expensive at $9.95 per month. The final profile - The Killer - was the most expensive of the lot, a whopping $19.95 per month. These unlockable profiles included a free thirty-six hour trial period. This sort of hook was common, although the length of the trial period - thirty-six hours - seemed strangely arbitrary.

Of all the choices, The Killer really struck a chord. Its description read: "The Killer - You are fearless. You seal the deal. You get what you want. You do whatever is necessary to achieve your goals. No one can stop you." I sat back, wondering what it would be like to be fearless.

I clicked the "Select" button.

Understand that I was on my sixth or seventh beer. I guess I just figured, why not? I would obviously cancel before the free trial period ended.

The app prompted me to enter payment information (I'd get charged automatically if I failed to cancel the free trial). Next, the app prompted me to set a "Revert to Default Profile Ring Tone." I had no idea what this mouthful meant, so I just selected a ring tone ("Star Rocket") at random from the list. Finally, a message instructed me to "Stare at the center of the screen until you hear your ring tone." I frowned; this was getting weird. But I clicked okay and followed the instruction.

The next screen showed a spiral of multi-colored rectangles that all seemed to vibrate and move inward toward the center; however, if I focused on any particular rectangle, it looked stationary. I did my best to focus on the center, but it was difficult. Eventually "Star Rocket" began to play, and a final message popped up: "Personality profile successfully changed from Delicate Flower (default) to The Killer." I clicked the okay button, then blinked and looked away from the screen.

I felt light-headed, dizzy, and a little nauseous. My eyes were dry and my neck was stiff. Was it from staring at those spirals, or was it the alcohol?

Or was it something else?

I closed my eyes; the sensation eventually passed. I absently touched my forehead. Was it possible? Had the app really...

Nah. I dismissed the thought with a smirk. I put down the phone, thinking I'd mess with the app again tomorrow. I heated up some leftovers, ate a quick dinner, and went to bed.



My Saturday hangover rearranged my priorities. I forgot all about the app. I never cancelled my trial subscription. Sometime early Sunday morning, while I slept, the Personality Editor app silently charged my credit card $19.95 and updated my account status from "Free Trial" to "Active."



Monday arrived too quickly. I sulked my way into work. I'd had visions of storming in and resigning in a blaze of glory, but there would be no such fun today. Instead, I opened my e-mail and started sorting through the dozens of unread messages from my day off on Friday.

I'd be okay. I didn't really hate my current job. But I'd sort of reached a dead-end. It was difficult to climb the ladder when you couldn't speak comfortably in front of people. It was true: The very same issues that hindered my job search also prevented me from advancing within my current job.

The phone rang. I picked it up with a sigh.

"Hello?"

"Hey Ethan." The voice belonged to Jim Collins, the lead developer for my current software project.

"Yeah Jim?"

"We have a little problem. You know that meeting at 2:00 today about the new website?"

"Yeah?" I already knew where this was going.

"Katherine just called in sick."

"And..."

"And you're the only person who really knows the code besides Katherine. We can't re-schedule, we've already pushed this back twice and the beta users - and their managers - are growing restless. I know these things make you nervous, but... can you deliver Katherine's presentation? I know it is short notice."

Just as I feared.

Except...

I realized, slowly, that I didn't fear it at all. I knew the material; I could handle it. Besides, it would be good to get some exposure in front of the expanded team.

"Sure, I can handle it," I found myself saying.

"Awesome Ethan, you're a lifesaver! See you at 2:00!"

The line went dead. I hung up the phone, leaned back in my chair, and stared blankly at my marker board.

What just happened?



The presentation went better than any I'd ever given. I couldn't answer every question, but that was okay; when all else failed I recorded the questions and promised to follow up with Katherine later. There were a few testy moments, but I was able to diffuse the tension with polite rebuttals and humor.

It was nothing short of a miracle.

By the time I returned to my desk, there was already a voicemail waiting for me. I dialed into my voicemail and listened to the short message: "Hey Ethan, Larry here. Just want to thank you for stepping up today. Fantastic job."

I hung up and realized I was beaming. Larry Krajewski was my manager. He rarely noticed my work at all. I couldn't remember ever receiving kudos directly from him.

Where in the world had this sudden streak of confidence come from? After all the years of fear and anxiety, why had I suddenly leaped out of my shell? It didn't make any sense.

Then I remembered.

I woke up my phone and swiped through my apps. Sure enough, it was there, on the last page: Personality Editor.

I opened the app and poked around a little. It was coming back to me. I remembered the personality profiles, my default setting (Delicate Flower), and the new profile I'd purchased (The Killer). I re-read the profile description for The Killer.

No way.

I didn't feel much different, really; the only difference was that when confronted with an uncomfortable situation, I no longer felt acid churning in the pit of my stomach, or heart palpitations, or the ridiculous heat of my ears turning red.

But how was this possible? How could changing a setting on an app affect me physically? I flashed back on the spiral pattern I'd stared at when changing my profile - did that have something to do with it? Was it some sort of hypnosis?

Did it matter?

I thought about this, and decided it didn't. The $19.95 monthly fee I was paying was a bargain - five cents less than the co-pay on my anxiety meds as a matter of fact.

Of course, if things kept going well, maybe I wouldn't need those pills anymore. I wasn't certain that the app was actually responsible for the change; maybe it was some sort of placebo effect, or maybe I'd just gotten lucky. One thing was certain, though: I was keeping the subscription.



It was no fluke.

On the heels of my successful presentation, I was called upon more and more frequently for client-facing presentations and report-outs to senior management. When Jim unexpectedly gave his two weeks' notice, Larry tapped me to take over as project lead. The team didn't mind; no one else really wanted the headaches of that position. It was a good fit all around.

My yearly review went very well. Larry gushed about my recent growth, and while my raise - five percent - wasn't crazy high, it was the most I'd received in five or six years.

Best of all, I no longer wanted to leave. I finally enjoyed what I was doing. I saw a definite path forward - upward - that had never been possible before. My mind was constantly churning through possibilities, exploring networking opportunities, thinking of ways to leverage relationships. I wished I'd possessed these skills from the beginning, but I fully intended to use them to the max from this point forward.

My successes weren't limited to the workplace. I joined a gym and lost ten pounds. I negotiated a great deal on a new car (I'd never had the confidence to haggle over a price before!). I even scored a date for the first time since my divorce.

No one can stop you.



My amazing run continued for a few more months. Whenever I set a goal, I achieved it; whenever I needed a win, I won.

But I wasn't infallible.

I'd been impressed with Brad Orton, the hotshot new hire fresh out of MIT, from the very first interview. I badly wanted Brad on my project team, and at that point, Ethan always got what Ethan wanted. So it was that Brad started on a Monday, and by Friday was the newest member of my team.

By the end of the first month, I was regretting my choice.

Brad spent his first few weeks reviewing the existing code base to become familiar with the implementation. Brad fulfilled this goal with flying colors. However, unbeknownst to me, Brad also used the time to compile a list of problems with the implementation: bugs, inefficiencies, security issues, obsolete technologies. It was a long list.

This state of affairs was the result of years of rushing to meet deadlines. We'd learned to live with it, but Brad wouldn't let it go. He took the information to Larry. They called me in and blindsided me with Brad's "report." I absorbed the findings while holding my anger to a mild simmer. The kid was masterful; he made sure not to point fingers at any particular developer or any particular decision.

Of course, half of Brad's list involved my own code.

When Brad finally left, Larry asked for my thoughts.

"I think the kid's ambitious," I said carefully.

"He sure is. I want to make him Lead Architect."

I stared at Larry, a bit shocked. I'd been planning to recommend Katherine for that role.

"He's awfully green, Larry... how will the team react?"

"Ethan, our innovation has slowed to a crawl over the last few years. Maybe a fresh perspective is exactly what we need."

My mind raced through possibilities. Would this move help me or hurt me in the long term? How could I use it to my advantage? How could I keep control of the situation?

"Maybe you're right, Larry. How about this: Give him his own branch of code where he can experiment and re-factor to his heart's content. He's obviously good at finding problems; let's see him solve some. He can recommend changes to the team and we can merge in the ones we like. If he does well and the team responds well, make it an official promotion."

Larry considered my suggestion. My goal was simple: I just wanted to buy some time. I needed time to figure out if Brad as Lead Architect was Good or Bad. I hoped Larry would buy into my idea; I didn't have a better one.

"Good thought," said Larry finally. "I'll think it over."



Larry didn't think it over for very long.

The e-mail announcing Brad's promotion came just after lunch. I found out via the e-mail, same as everybody else. Apparently Larry was done confiding in me on the matter. As I sat back contemplating the ramifications of the move, it hit me: I had lost. For the first time since adopting my new Personality Profile, I had failed to achieve an objective.

This realization filled me with rage unlike any I'd ever felt, red-hot and raw, emanating from the pit of my stomach. My grip tightened on the arms of my chair; my neck muscles strained as my jaw clenched. My mind raced; I could no longer focus.

The next thing I knew, I was standing at the door to Larry's office. I glanced around, feeling disoriented. I had no idea how I'd gotten there. I couldn't remember deciding to walk to Larry's office, nor could I remember the walk itself. I had a gap in my memory, as if I'd blacked out. I felt sweat on my forehead, and tension in my arms from the fists I'd been making. I stood there stupidly, unsure of my intentions. Had I meant to knock on Larry's door? Or had I meant to kick the door in? The latter seemed more likely. But I felt calm enough now; the anger was gone. I walked back to my cubicle.

I deleted Larry's e-mail, then got up and walked to the water cooler. I filled a paper cup with water, took a sip, and wondered what was happening to me.



The blackouts weren't frequent at first, but they were always disconcerting. The pattern was always the same: If I failed, I'd get angry, and then I'd sometimes black out. The predictability was comforting, but another aspect was more troubling: The blackouts were getting longer.

The first one had lasted maybe ninety seconds. However, each subsequent episode had lasted a little longer. The most recent - triggered by an architectural argument with Brad and Larry that I'd lost - had lasted nearly ten minutes.

Oh, and I was pretty sure that this time I'd trashed my own cubicle before snapping out of it.

Luckily, the argument occurred in a stairwell, when the office was nearly empty. Larry and Brad both left for the day immediately afterwards. I remember turning to head back to my desk in a huff. The next thing I knew, I was staring down at a maelstrom of papers, notebooks, an overturned chair, and a broken keyboard. I glanced around nervously, wondering if there were surveillance cameras in this part of the office.

As I surveyed the mess, it occurred to me that the damage could have been worse; I'd blacked out for almost ten minutes. What else might I have done in those ten minutes? What else might I have done during my previous blackouts?

I quickly cleaned up the mess, then took a quick sweep around the office. Nothing else seemed out of place. I peeked in on Brad's cubicle and Larry's office; both seemed untouched. I breathed a sigh of relief, satisfied that the damage was limited to my own cubicle. I made one final stop at a storage room to swap out my broken keyboard for an intact one, then left for the evening, feeling that I'd dodged a bullet.



I began chronicling the episodes - date, time, duration, location - in an effort to better understand what was happening. I'd managed to keep it secret thus far, but what if I blacked out in the wrong place at the wrong time? I'd never experienced anything like these blackouts before installing the app; coincidence seemed unlikely. If the app was responsible, I had to face a difficult decision: Was the benefit worth the risk? It killed me to consider this, considering how far I'd come. But if the blackouts continued, I was worried I'd eventually do something I'd regret.

After much soul searching, I decided enough was enough. I'd do one final important presentation, then end the charade. When I arrived home the evening after the presentation, I sighed, grabbed my phone, and opened the Personality Editor app. I navigated to the Profile tab and located the "Revert to Default" button. I raised my thumb to click the button...

And found that my thumb wouldn't respond.

What the hell??

I pulled my thumb back; it worked in that direction. But I couldn't click the button. I tried using a different finger: Nope. I placed the phone on a counter; this time I couldn't even raise my arm to attempt a click.

I turned toward my laptop, thinking I'd look up a doctor or therapist who might be able to help... but my feet wouldn't budge. Instead, I watched in horror as my body turned back, reached out for the phone, picked it up... and smashed it to the floor. The phone cracked, the battery popped out, and just like that I regained control of my actions.

I dropped to my knees and gathered up the remains of the phone. Was it over? Had destroying the phone freed me from the unwelcome side effects? I found the battery and attempted to re-insert it, wondering if the phone still worked at all.

My hand tossed the battery across the room.



I was stuck.

I couldn't search for doctors, purchase a new phone, or even read about the Personality Editor app; if I attempted any of these things, my body simply wouldn't respond.

I could see no way out, but I did my best to survive; what else could I do? As the weeks stretched on, my life devolved into a series of close calls, involuntary actions, and gaps in consciousness. Things couldn't possibly get any worse.

Then Larry disappeared.



Larry rarely missed work, and when he did he always called. But no one really worried until mid-morning Wednesday, when we discovered that Larry's wife had filed a missing person report. She'd last seen him leaving for work Tuesday morning, and he'd never returned. His car had been located in a ditch late Tuesday evening on a back road maybe five miles from his home.

I was terrified.

A poor project review on Monday had led to an ugly argument. Brad was upset that I hadn't incorporated some suggested changes into the product; I was upset that Brad had brought this up in public. Larry was mad at both of us; he advised us to get our crap together if we didn't want the project cancelled. It was the angriest I'd ever seen Larry, and the first time I'd ever heard him yell at Brad. But he'd yelled even louder at me, and I'd given it right back. It was a miracle that I hadn't blacked out afterwards.

But I had blacked out Tuesday morning before work.

For nearly an hour.

I watched desperately as cops arrived at the reception area to take statements. What had I done? I'd been out of it from roughly 7:45AM to 8:45AM. The blackout had started while sitting in heavy traffic and had ended in the parking garage at work. Had I been angry? I assumed I'd simply been irritated by my poor choice of route. But Larry's house wasn't that far out of the way. Could I have exited early, done something to Larry, and still made it to work within an hour? It seemed unlikely.

But not impossible.

As the police interviewed colleagues, I became very nervous. Would they tell the cops I'd been acting strangely? I knew people were whispering about me; they could sense that something was off. I also worried about the post-presentation shouting match. Would that argument make me a suspect? Maybe neither of these circumstantial facts was compelling in isolation, but together, might they raise some eyebrows?

When the cops called my name, I stood up and nervously followed them into a conference room. It was strange; I hadn't felt butterflies this way since I'd blown that job interview all those months earlier. It was almost enough to make me wonder if my Personality Profile was starting to lose its edge.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried; I never answered any questions. That strange force - which I now called "The Killer," after the Personality Profile name - took control and answered for me. None of the answers shocked me; I would have answered most of the questions similarly. Still, there was something The Killer was dancing around; something subtle he was avoiding. It seemed The Killer had an agenda.

Soon the interview was over. The police didn't seem very interested in my information. They'd asked about the argument; The Killer had answered truthfully. More importantly, my erratic behavior had not come up at all.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I walked back toward my cubicle. I was in control again, for the moment. It occurred to me that I really needed a bio break. I hurried to the bathroom before The Killer had a chance to reassert itself.



About thirty minutes after the police interview ended, The Killer abruptly powered down my laptop, grabbed my wallet and keys, and headed for the parking garage. Nothing made sense anymore. At first, The Killer had only asserted control when I threatened to leave; now, The Killer's motives were unclear.

The Killer got into my car and started driving. I had no clue where we were headed. My reflexes screamed at every stop sign, red light, and turn; my mind shouted at my body, but my body wouldn't listen. When we got off exit 8, I realized with considerable relief that we were headed home. I settled in for the rest of the ride, hoping to perhaps regain control when we reached my apartment.

That did not happen.

We parked the car, ran up the stairs, unlocked the deadbolt. Walked through the kitchen to the hall closet. Opened the closet, grabbed a bunch of stuff: some old plastic shopping bags, two bottles of bleach, latex gloves (I had no recollection of purchasing these!), duct tape, a hammer, clear plastic tarps. Ran back down the stairs, threw it all into the backseat of the car. Climbed back into car, turned on the ignition. Put the car in reverse, but then abruptly put it back in park... hesitation, but why? At this moment I fought like hell to regain control, sensing a moment of weakness, but...

Turn off ignition. Run back up stairs, past apartment this time, through short hallway, down stairs on opposite side of building, outside to little utility shed that is never locked. Open shed. Take shovel. Close shed. Run back to car. Throw in shovel. Get in.

Go.

...Unfortunately The Killer was still completely in charge. The Killer drove for ten minutes. Twenty. Thirty. I had no idea this time where we were headed.

Exit (unfamiliar). Turn left. Turn left again. I was thoroughly lost; The Killer apparently wasn't lost at all.

Turn right (into a residential neighborhood).

Turn right again (onto a cul-de-sac; I could see the circle maybe a half-mile away, at the end of a tree-lined drive).

Pull over (halfway down this street).

Turn off ignition.

Turn around. Put on latex gloves. Hold hammer in right hand, obscured inside plastic bag. Leave shovel for now. Put everything else in one bag in left hand. Bleach heavy; don't care. Leave car, lock door. Walk back to beginning of street; turn right. Walk half block. Cut right into little overgrown copse of trees. Stop. Peer out through leaves at back of house (I saw a blue Colonial, the first house on another dead-end street very similar to the one where we'd left the car).

Nod head.

Sit down.

Wait.



My left foot was asleep. The Killer didn't care. We'd been hiding for almost four hours. I couldn't turn my head or even move my eyes. It was like watching from the control room while someone else operated the camera. The Killer was fixated on the blue colonial, so that's all I could see at the moment.

As we waited, I tried to analyze my predicament. I could only assume that The Killer had killed Larry during that last blackout. Had we now returned to the crime scene to better cover The Killer's tracks? It made some sense, given the tarps, shovel, and bleach. But this wasn't Larry's house - I'd been to Larry's house for a barbeque - and why would a clean up operation require a hammer? Felt more like we were stalking a new target.

I hoped my instincts were wrong.

About ten minutes later, a silver BMW pulled into the Colonial's driveway. Oh no. A chill ran down my spine.

Brad drove a silver BMW.

From my vantage point, I could see the garage door located on the side of the house. The door opened, and Brad pulled into the empty two-car garage. The door slowly started to close.

The Killer sprung into action.

Sprint across yard, slide under door before it closes, huddle near BMW's rear passenger door.

The garage door, sensing an obstruction, rose again, lights flashing to indicate a problem. Brad cursed and pressed the remote button again; this time, the door closed all the way. Brad exited the car with his backpack and entered the house.

Creep around car, step onto landing, press button on wall, make garage door open again. Wait.

I heard more cursing, then footsteps. Brad re-appeared, peeking out to see what was wrong with the garage door.

Swing hammer at Brad's head.



The Killer sat at Brad's kitchen table. Brad sat across from The Killer, bound to the chair with duct tape, head slumped forward, alive but unconscious. I wanted to scream, run, yank out my own hair, anything but sit here in this room.

But I couldn't.

The Killer was waiting for Brad to regain consciousness. I wished The Killer would just get it over with. Better than subjecting the poor kid - and poor me - to some sort of slow, sadistic torture game.

Blood trickled from just above Brad's left ear. The Killer had landed a single solid blow, but he'd held back; I could have swung the hammer a lot harder. The Killer had wanted Brad to survive that initial hit. Even so, it still took almost ten minutes before Brad's eyes fluttered open. I watched as Brad slowly absorbed the situation. Finally, Brad's eyes focused on us, and confusion clouded his face. I doubted he'd had time to register the face of his attacker before he'd passed out.

"Ethan? What is this?"

"What did you tell them, Brad?" The Killer sat calmly, arms folded on the table, hammer on the chair to his right.

"Tell who? What are you talking about?"

"The police. What did you tell them?"

"I told them I don't know anything," said Brad. A trickle of sweat ran down Brad's forehead.

"Of course you don't know anything. None of us know anything. Still, I was a little worried you might have mentioned me to the cops. Did my name come up at all?"

Hesitation.

"No, I don't think so," said Brad. More sweat.

Grab hammer. I couldn't believe how fast The Killer could make my body move. Smash table. A third of the tabletop splintered off and fell to the floor. Brad flinched violently, causing his chair to topple over backwards. He lay on the floor, stunned.

The Killer calmly placed the hammer on what remained of the table, then pulled a seat much closer to Brad. He turned the seat around and sat on it backwards, casually, arms folded on the chair back, peering down at Brad from above.

"Are you sure you aren't holding something back? Think carefully. If I think you are lying to me, maybe we'll see what this hammer does to one of your nuts."

Brad cleared his throat. The Killer waited patiently.

"They did ask about the argument. I told them it was just work stuff, you know? No big deal. That's all, I swear!"

The Killer reached for the hammer and absently twirled it in his hand as he considered Brad's answer.

"I believe you," said The Killer finally. Brad relaxed visibly as The Killer placed the hammer back on the table. The Killer stood up and started pacing around the kitchen. It infuriated me that I couldn't know what The Killer was thinking.

"My wife will be home soon. You should leave while you can," said Brad from the floor.

"No she won't. She's in San Francisco," said The Killer without skipping a beat.

"How the hell do you know that?" asked Brad.

How the hell did The Killer know that? At first I wasn't sure. Then it struck me: The blackouts. The Killer must have been doing his research during the blackouts! He'd discovered Brad's address, done advance recon, picked a time when Brad would be alone. In that instant, I also realized what had been nagging me during the police interview: The Killer had purposely steered the conversation away from Brad.

This was totally pre-meditated.

"I know a lot of things, Brad. Don't lie to me again." From my peripheral vision, I could see Brad's eyes darting back and forth between my face and the hammer. The Killer simply continued pacing, making no immediate move toward the weapon.

"Here's the thing. I've seen how you look at me. I've seen how the others look at me. I black out sometimes. Forget where I am, what I'm doing. Everyone knows. You didn't think to mention that to the investigators?"

Brad glanced at the hammer, then back at The Killer.

"Yeah, I've noticed. But they didn't ask about that, so I didn't bring it up. Figured that's your problem, you know?"

This was taking too long. Why was The Killer stalling? We finally stopped pacing and took a seat next to Brad with a sigh.

"You did well. I wish I knew what happened to Larry, though. I'm planning to kill him myself if he's still alive."

Brad looked up sharply, and I was equally shocked, albeit for a different reason. The Killer had just claimed innocence in Larry's disappearance. Was my assumption wrong? Brad opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. There was nothing more to say. He knew what was coming. The Killer had just shared a very dangerous secret.

Brad now knew too much.

Grab hammer.

Walk behind Brad. Ignore thrashing; Brad can't escape.

Kneel.

Raise hammer.

What is that sound?

I heard music, slightly muffled but still audible. The tune was vaguely familiar - later, I'd recognize it as "Star Rocket," the ringtone I'd selected in Personality Editor as my "Revert to Default Profile Ring Tone" when I'd first configured the app - but at that moment I couldn't place it.

I was still holding the hammer up over my head. I closed my eyes, waiting for The Killer to deliver the final blow.

Wait a second...

I opened my eyes, then blinked several times.

I was in control again.

I lowered the hammer to my side and took a deep breath. I was covered in sweat. I started to shake.

Suddenly a hand reached out and grabbed the hammer, wrenching it from my hand.

I scrambled away as Brad swung the hammer wildly at my kneecap. His right arm was still duct-taped to the chair arm, but apparently the chair arm had splintered off.

Brad used the hammer's claw end to free his other arm from the chair, then slowly worked his torso free. Finally, he freed his right arm from the fragment of chair arm and stood up.

"You should have killed me while you had the chance."

Brad strolled across the kitchen toward me, casually swinging the hammer as he advanced. I just stood there and watched him, exhausted from hours of over-exertion at the hands of The Killer, trying to remember how to control my own muscles.

Luckily, my reflexes still worked.

As Brad swung the hammer at my head, I reached up and grabbed his wrist. Brad snarled and backhanded me with his free hand, sending me stumbling into the wall. As I straightened back up the drywall exploded just to the right of my face. I ducked away as Brad struggled to wrench the hammer free from the drywall, but Brad kicked my legs out from under me. I scrambled to my feet and backed around to the opposite side of the kitchen table - or what was left of it - as Brad finally managed to jiggle the hammer loose from the wrecked drywall.

Brad didn't immediately advance this time. He stood there for a moment, catching his breath. He glanced at the hammer, snorted, and tossed it out of the kitchen, into a hallway. He then opened a nearby drawer and pulled out the largest carving knife I had ever seen.

Not good.

Brad prowled toward me, blade at the ready. I thought about running, but I was tired, and Brad's legs were younger. I didn't like my chances.

Not that my odds in the impending fight were any better.

I hid behind the damaged table as Brad attacked. Brad faked left, faked right, slashed around corners; I managed to keep just out of reach. Finally, Brad grew tired of the game and threw his body into the table itself, sending it sliding across the hardwood directly toward me. Before I knew it, I was pinned between the table and the refrigerator.

I flailed with my arms as Brad slashed at me from across the table. I deflected the first few thrashes, but the third nicked me on the cheek, and the fourth gashed my forearm. Emboldened by the sight of my blood, Brad drew back the knife and focused on my torso. I knew I wouldn't be able to avoid this attack. This was checkmate.

Brad grinned.

I cringed.

A flurry of motion ensued.

Brad dropped to the floor.

A man stood just behind where Brad had been standing. As I watched, stunned, the man dropped the hammer that he'd slammed into the back of Brad's head. He then retreated a few steps and stood with his back against the pantry, a look of confusion pasted on his face. I pushed my way out from behind the table and walked over.

"Larry?" I said, incredulous.

Larry rubbed his temples as he spoke.

"He called me Tuesday morning for a lift to work. Said his car was busted. I drove out to meet him. When I got there, he borrowed my phone, said his was dead. He tried to make a call but told me something was wrong with my phone. He showed me the screen - some crazy spiral crap - and told me to keep watching for the problem. But I didn't see anything, and then some music started playing, and I got nauseous. Then he said, 'Hey Larry - want to help me kill Ethan?' I said that sounded great! What was wrong with me? He brought me back here - in his car, which wasn't busted at all - and told me to hide in the basement until he came for me. But a few minutes ago something changed. I feel like myself again..."

Larry trailed off and slumped into a chair. Somewhere, a phone was still playing "Star Rocket." I eventually found the phone hiding in Brad's backpack in the hallway, just outside the kitchen. On the screen was a notification: "Personality Editor trial period has ended. Credit card declined, unable to schedule payment. Trial personality Loyal Dog cancelled. Default personality Oh Captain My Captain restored. Please update payment information to continue subscription."

I cursed.

"Larry, is this your phone?"

Larry glanced over, then nodded.

"Can you unlock it for me?"

Larry looked at me suspiciously - rightfully so, given everything he'd just told me - but he obliged.

With Larry watching, I found the icon for the Personality Editor app, selected it, and deleted it from Larry's phone.

"Maybe we should call 9-1-1," said Larry.

"Not yet." I knelt down on the floor and rummaged through Brad's pockets, eventually finding Brad's phone. I pressed Brad's unconscious thumb to the phone's fingerprint sensor to unlock it, then swiped through Brad's screens. I found Personality Editor on the second-to-last screen.

Brad's selected profile? The Killer.

Brad's default profile? Delicate Flower.

On the floor, Brad was stirring again. His eyes opened and locked on mine. With a sneer, he climbed to his feet.

I reverted Brad's personality to Delicate Flower. A ringtone ("Comet Dust") began to play.

Brad blinked. He glanced at Larry, then at me.

"I feel better. I think he's gone."

Then his legs gave out and he slumped back to the floor.



The Personality Editor app abruptly disappeared not long after the events I've just recounted. Some users reported side effects that lingered for weeks or even months. These reports were never fully substantiated. Rumors linking several deaths to the app were likewise never conclusively proven.

Some believe that the publisher caved to public pressure after all of the complaints. That's possible. However, one urban legend claims that they were bought out by one of the big social media companies. If they've incorporated the technology into their own software, millions of users might already be experiencing unexplainable personality changes.

The Killer could easily be controlling a veritable army of unwilling soldiers.

That's the main reason I've given up social media.

As for my original problem, it turns out that a good public speaking course is almost as effective as a personality-altering app, without the side effects.

1 comment:

  1. Exciting story with a nice twist ending. It was like watching a movie. I could easily see this as an episode of Black Mirror. Very nice writing, too. I was completely pulled in and now also feel extra-paranoid about social media...even right at this moment! Thanks, Ronald.

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