by Mariah Eppes
That evening, Kaitlin and I were together for the first time in a while, sitting on her patio. While I tried to think of something to talk about, she alternated between taking small sips from a glass of water and waving invisible pests away from her face. Her kids were with their dad, and the cat was dead, so there wasn’t anything obvious or innocuous for me to land on conversationally.
I have a bad habit of bringing up inappropriate topics if there’s nothing obvious or innocuous to rely on (kids, pets). I wouldn’t have come to Kaitlin’s at all if I had known my nieces weren’t there. But the point is that I did go to Kaitlin’s, and since there was nothing to inhibit my bad habit, I brought up the Sara Chain Letter.
The Sara Chain Letter was something that happened to us when we were kids, in the summer of 2004. I was a few weeks away from turning twelve, and Kaitlin was thirteen. I remember it was before my birthday, because Kaitlin was teasing me about the short few months in which she was “two years older” than me. I’d also had my appendix removed that same week—maybe just a few days before the incident—because I remember being sore and a little woozy.
I couldn’t do much activity, which was why Kaitlin and I were spending so much time on the computer. My dad usually kept a time limit on our internet usage, but he must have felt bad for me after the surgery, because the rules had been temporarily lifted. This benefited Kaitlin more than me, since she was healthy. The internet was our main source of entertainment at that time and she took full advantage of having control over the mouse. I didn’t have the energy to do much else besides sit on a kitchen chair next to her and watch.
In 2004, lots of kids at our school were into weird stuff on the internet. Most parents had no clue what we were doing. Including ours: our dad had only recently gotten a laptop, and it was for work. The kids in my computer lab impressed each other with methods for getting past school-regulated firewalls, and shared new sites that hadn’t yet been detected, flagged as inappropriate, and blocked. Despite the school’s best efforts, plenty of explicit stuff was passed around. Mostly sex-related. But scary things were also popular.
One type of school-inappropriate content was called a chain letter. I’m sure you remember. A bunch of text, on a forum post or in an email, telling the reader they had four minutes to send the letter to ten people or else they would drop dead in a week. And other multitudinous variations. Chain letters were the most ridiculed and simultaneously the most feared, because back then, it was one of the only things on the internet that threatened to have an impact on your real life.
It was Kaitlin’s idea to find the Sara Chain Letter.
“Connor dared me to look it up,” she said.
Kaitlin liked Connor. I was supposed to feign ignorance until she properly admitted it.
“So do it,” I said.
“He said it’s scary,” Kaitlin said.
“It’s just a chain letter,” I said.
Kaitlin leaned back in the desk chair and peered through the threshold of the office, presumably to see if our dad was in listening range. When she was satisfied that he was at a safe distance, she said, “So you wanna do it?”
Mostly I wanted her to go to the virtual pet website we liked so I could watch her play. But I was too tired to call her out for trying to impress Connor. So I just said “fine.”
Kaitlin stared at me, testing my sincerity. I stared blankly at the computer screen. Then she went to a search engine. Or, I assume she did. Searching is so ubiquitous now that it doesn’t sound right to say she “went to” one. In any case, she searched Sara Chain Letter, and we were brought to a sparse white webpage with a block of black text.
I am Sara. I am 13 years old. I was murdered by my neighbor. I went to his house after school. My parents were at work. He murdered me with a knife. He stabbed me over and over. If you’re reading this then send this message to 13 more people in 13 minutes. If you don’t I will HURT YOU. I will come to your house tonight at 3 A.M. I will be by your bed and kill you like I got killed by my neighbor.
I started to giggle, but it didn’t have a chance to leave my throat. Kaitlin scrolled down, past the text, and there was the image. The photograph. Kaitlin said “oh” and scrolled back up quickly. But we both saw it.
The dead girl in the photograph was lying on her back, naked. The frame contained everything above her belly button. She barely had breasts, I remember. Her neck was turned at an unnatural angle and her mouth was too wide open. Her eyes were round and staring away from us. Her skin was tinged green. Her hair was stringy and dark and there wasn’t that much of it.
I’m sure Kaitlin screamed first. But we were both screaming when my dad bolted into the office yelling “What? What? What happened?” Kaitlin was hysterical. I remember it oddly, as if there were two of me; one hysterical and one watching, seeing all three of us. Kaitlin sank to the floor, on her knees, sobbing; I sobbed in the chair and wondered if I was going to throw up; my dad rubbed Kaitlin’s shoulders because she was closer to him. I remember that everything hurt like hell.
“It was probably fake,” I said to Kaitlin.
My dad had set us up in front of the television with plastic cups of water and slightly burnt frozen pizza. Neither of us were watching TV. Kaitlin shrugged and nodded. Her face and eyes were still wet.
My dad was on the phone arguing with our cable company, demanding that they take down the page. This was a time when people still thought someone out there had control over what went online. The idea of the page being gone didn’t make me feel better. We’d already seen the letter. We’d already seen her face.
I recovered myself enough to eat the pizza and then sought out Dad. He was sitting at the desk chair, fruitlessly reading the user policies of our internet service. I sat down in the same chair I had so recently, so innocently inhabited; it now had an ominous energy.
I don’t remember the details of our conversation. But I know I asked him, “Is that picture real?” Because Dad looked at the computer screen, at the bouncing geometric screensaver, and said “Yes.”
I went back to the living room.
“Kaitlin,” I said
“What?” Kaitlin said sullenly. Her water was still undrunk.
“I was right. Dad found out the picture was fake.”
Kaitlin said nothing. I took the lie further.
“It was a movie prop.”
A cartoon character on TV screamed Oh my god!. I remember that because the voice had the cadence of natural speech, as if the character had responded to me.
“Okay,” Kaitlin said.
I felt it was my responsibility, a new role that I’d acquired, to protect Kaitlin from the disturbing truth. I used this new role to bolster me that night, lying awake, as the clock got closer to 3 AM. I was strong, Dad had decided I was strong—and obviously I was stronger than Kaitlin. I did not need to be afraid that the thing I had seen would appear. And Sara did not appear.
I didn’t tell Kaitlin the last part when I mentioned the Sara Chain Letter on her patio. But that didn’t stop her from wrinkling her nose, swiping at another invisible fly, and saying, “I do not want to talk about that.”
It was fair of her to say, since I knew this was not something I should have brought up on a perfectly nice summer evening. Bad habit. We had not discussed the Sara Chain Letter since it happened, not once in seventeen years. To be frank, we hadn't discussed much at all in at least fourteen of those seventeen years. Since our mother died—not long after the chain letter incident, actually—we had grown apart. We were very different people and grief had made that obvious.
Kaitlin took a sip of water. “Also, you remember it wrong.”
“What do you mean?”
“You fell asleep on the couch. Dad told me the photo was real. Not you.”
“That’s literally impossible,” I said.
“You must have overheard us while you were sleeping,” Kaitlin said. “And then dreamed it was you.”
Something about her matter-of-fact tone made me suddenly, viciously angry. I knew I had to temper my reaction. Flying off the handle would only give her a greater sense of superiority.
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to upset you,” Kaitlin said. “But I guess you knew all along.”
So much for tempering. “Okay, this is stupid,” I said. “Because that is just not true.”
The moment had stayed with me—Dad confiding in me that the photograph was real—because it was evidence that I had a stronger emotional constitution than Kaitlin, a resilience she lacked. I’d held the suspicion for years as a kid, but this memory represented the first proof. It must have been me, or else how would I have felt secure in the belief all the years after?
“You were on painkillers,” Kaitlin said.
“You were coming off anesthesia.”
“I couldn’t tell you because you would have been upset.”
“Well, obviously I knew, and I’m still here. So.”
“And am I too.”
Kaitlin rolled her eyes. “Don’t be like this.”
“Be like what?”
“We’re trying to have a nice evening and you’re starting a fight.”
“Just because I think you’re wrong doesn’t mean I’m starting a fight.”
“Let’s just call Dad and ask.”
“This is ridiculous,” Kaitlin said.
I was already dialing. Dad answered, we exchanged short evening hellos.
“It’s nice that you two are together,” Dad said.
“Yeah. Can you settle something for us?” I said. I heard Kaitlin scoff.
“Remember the chain letter website? The gory one that me and Kaitlin saw when we were kids?”
“Yeah, the Sara Chain Letter. It was, like, a scary letter, and there was a picture of a girl's body at the end. We saw it and freaked out.”
“I don't know…”
“Dad. The dead girl. On the internet. There’s no way you forgot about that.”
“I never had anything to do with the computers in our house. I hated all that stuff. Still do.”
Kaitlin and I exchanged glances.
“Dad, you didn’t forget. It was such a big deal,” I said.
“Put him on speaker,” Kaitlin said.
I did, with some familiar resentment. Kaitlin always thought she could accomplish whatever it was I had failed to do. That had not changed, not since we were children, not since she told me matter-of-factly that I didn’t care enough, and that was why our mother wouldn’t visit me in dreams.
“After the appendectomy, Dad,” Kaitlin said. “That summer. We were in the office and you let us play on the computer with no time limit.”
“Yeah. Oh, hun. The picture of the dead body? Oh. Hun, that was your mom.”
“What?” I said.
“That was your mom. She was home with you two. I was on that big work trip. ’05, right? ’04?” He paused, as if in reminiscence. “She didn’t give you a time limit? Ha. She never told me that.”
Kaitlin stared at me.
“She didn’t tell me what happened until I got home. She didn’t want to upset me. There was nothing I could have done,” said my dad. “Plus, she knew I was sensitive to that kind of thing. I could never do blood.”
“There wasn’t any blood.”
Said Kaitlin and I, at the same time.