As always, there was nothing but love, in all its many-splendoured, exceedingly-tedious forms.
Confession #1932: I saw you from across the library one stormy night and now you haunt my every waking moment.
Confession #1933: I sit behind you in Statistics, and have memorised the tender dance of your shoulder muscles under your t-shirt.
Confession #1934: Yo, you in the short skirts always in the corner table in Canteen A – wanna fuck?
A pity Natalie had to delete that last one for violating obscenity rules. It made her chuckle, which was more emotion than the others had stirred. Sad, really. She and Juen had been such romantics when they first started the site. This cynicism was not her fault. The unrelenting assault of lonely hearts would wear down even the staunchest romantic. The site was called University Confessions, not University Anguished Declarations of Love. Did no one have anything more substantial, more interesting, more un-bloody-boring to confess besides ‘I luv u, pls luv me back?’ Fine, there was that time where one person posted almost daily about how depressed and lonely she was, but even that only lasted for a week before being swept off the front page by the torrent of saccharine.
Time for a break. Natalie kept count as she strode out of the library. One at the bus interchange. One after the Middle East lecture. The last one two hours ago. Still on schedule. Hopefully Juen wouldn’t want to go out tonight, she thought as she lit up. Impossible to keep to five a day if they went out, and then she would have to cut down next week to maintain the monthly cigarette tally. Between the website, exams, and whatever shreds of social life she still had, it was tempting to consider shutting it all down to actually focus on old-fashioned book learning. Would never happen, of course. The site made too much money and had too much traction online. Plus, Juen would murder her if she quit, which would really put a dent in Natalie’s GPA.
So, for the near future, this was it. Study, moderate the site, smoke, rinse and repeat until graduation. What fun. Natalie slunk back into her seat and sighed at the rickety tower of books in front of her. Time to settle in for the long haul. But first, one final check of the site to see if any tortured souls had posted any new content.
Confession 1935: i killed someone 5 years ago. it was very easy. i dunno if i did it right tho. so im gonna try again soon. ive already chosen someone.
The world fell silent. The library and all within it stretched into infinity. Everything around Natalie was far, far away, distant stars in the twilight twinkling in view but out of reach. No. Wrong. Everything outside was not expanding. Instead, everything inside her was shrinking deeper into her churning heart, which was still pumping nicotine-laced blood through her veins. She stretched out a numb finger and touched the screen, leaving a single fingerprint. Beneath it was the confession. It was real. It was there.
“Did you see the picture I sent you?”
“Yup. I replied, right?”
“You said ‘lol’. What is that supposed to mean?”
“Well, grandma, ‘lol’ is millennial slang for ‘laughing out loud’, and – ”
“Juen, not funny.”
“Nat, are you taking this seriously? It’s a troll. Some loser messing around. We’ve had them before.”
“That was different – I mean, those were clearly jokes. This one – look, this one is serious, ok?”
She had no response. It just was. With the rest of the troll messages, she could always visualise the face hiding beneath. A sneer of superiority. A nasal snort of laughter. A pair of lips, twisted into a snarl. But not this. This was just itself. There was nothing beneath. In its simplicity was the clear ring of truth.
Natalie heard gunshots in the background.
“Are you actually gaming right now?”
“Uh, yeah. I was when you texted, I’m not stopping for some troll. Listen, Nat, just don’t post it. You haven’t cleared it yet, right? Delete it. Simple. No harm done.”
“But – ”
“Don’t make this more than it is. Get rid of it and move on. Ok? Thanks, love you, bye!”
Natalie took one final drag and flung the burning butt into the wall. When she got back to the library, the message was still on the screen, taunting her with its existence. Maybe Juen was right. She studied the confession again and again to see if she could discern any inauthenticity, running the words through her mind and mouthing them to herself until she could recite them from memory. When she finally looked up from her screen, there was nothing outside the library but darkness. The only ones left were her and a post-graduate student biting the lip of an empty Starbucks cup. Next to her laptop, the tower of books stood tall.
Fine. Juen was right. It was the work of a troll, who had messed up her night, her smoking schedule, and her mind with just five sentences. He could not be allowed to ruin her life. She would get rid of it. But first, she took a screenshot of the offending five sentences, titling it ‘just in case.jpeg’. Then she deleted the confession, with only the slightest hesitation when the dialogue box asked her if she was sure.
Days passed. Nothing happened. Study, moderate the site, smoke, rinse and repeat. Bit by bit, the mundane rituals that made up each day pushed the five sentences further away. However, in the stillness of the night, she could still feel the world spiral around her as she willed herself to sleep. Was it real? Was it going to happen? Would she ever know?
On the seventh day, a message came.
“So sad. Did you know this girl? Remember, if you are stressed, you can always talk to me. Don’t let this happen to you.”
Natalie pulled up the link her mother sent. A third year accounting student had died in her hostel room. Overdose of sleeping pills. There was a printed note to her parents left neatly on her writing desk, next to a pile of exam notes that had been torn to ribbons. The verdict was suicide.
“That was it. It has to be.”
“Nat, I hate to break it to you, but people commit suicide. They do it all the time.”
“So you’re telling me what – this is just a coincidence?”
“No. I can’t believe it. We get that confession, and in a week, someone dies? I looked it up. Over the past decade, one person has died at this university. One. And that was a car accident. The timing is too perfect for this to be coincidence.”
Juen put a firm but tender hand on her shoulder.
“You’re punishing yourself for nothing. The police found no trace of tampering. The girl, whatsername, Alison, was seeing a shrink for depression. She had a tumblr filled to the brim with anxiety and stress. She was depressed, and she killed herself. That’s all. It sucks, but it had nothing to do with you.”
“We have to tell somebody.”
Juen’s grip tightened as Natalie coughed out a lungful of smoke.
“Nat, think about what you said. We have no proof beyond that confession. We don’t even know that they are connected. And think of the poor family. You want them to go through all that pain again because of a what-if?”
“I don’t know, ok? I just think that we need to do something, tell somebody. The police, maybe.”
“Ok. Say you tell them. Then what? The site becomes a virtual crime scene. You want that kind of publicity? You want more sickos copying our mysterious stranger?”
“Fuck the site. Who cares? We need to find him, this is the only way.”
“Fine. If it makes you feel better, I tracked the IP of the post the day after you showed it to me. I never told you because you were worried, and I didn’t want to make it worse.”
“But I deleted it.”
The contempt in Juen’s voice could cut through steel.
“Oh sweet child, do you think it just disappears because you tell it to? Stuff on the Internet doesn’t go away that easy. This is why you’re the face and I’m the brains. Anyway, I pulled it up and tracked the IP. It came from the main library.”
He was right there with her. Hiding in the bookshelves, on a floor above, or maybe even sitting across her at the study table. Watching and waiting to see what she would do. Everything inside her began to shrink again. Juen continued, her voice a foghorn cutting through the smog in her mind.
“How many people were in that library at that time? Hundreds. Probably over a thousand. We only have the public IP address. Nothing else. This isn’t a needle in a haystack, it’s a needle in a bucket of needles.”
Natalie crouched down and clutched her knees, tucking her head between them, trying to ignore the squall in her stomach. She was falling into herself, becoming smaller and smaller. Soon, she would not even be there at all. Just a void inside her body where she used to be. She felt Juen’s arm over her shoulder.
“Breathe. Follow my voice. Breathe in. And out. And in. And out.”
Natalie obeyed. The blood came back to her hands, which were gripping her knees so hard they had turned pale. She stood back up, clutching Juen’s arm for support.
“This is not worth it. You know what happens if we tell the police? Nothing. And that’s if we’re lucky. If we’re not, they dig the whole thing up, her parents go through hell thinking that their daughter has been murdered, the site gets dragged through the mud, we get pulled into an investigation, and at the end of it, we get the same result. Nothing.”
Juen’s jaw was clenched, her voice unfaltering. In the simplicity of her words was the ring of truth. Natalie looked into her best friend’s open, clear eyes and answered, with only the slightest hesitation.
“Hi, are you Miss Wong?”
“Call me Natalie. You must be Alicia. Nice to meet you.”
Natalie stood up to shake the girl’s hand and give her the once-over. She was tall and skinny, shifting her weight between both feet with nervous energy. There was something endearing about her – a goofy, nerdy charm.
“Take a seat and order anything you like. It’s on me. I recommend the berry compote waffles, they’re amazing.”
It took a while to cajole Alicia into ordering something more substantial than coffee. A good sign. Previous applicants who were too free with Natalie’s money were often found wanting. Either they talked too much, or paid more attention to the food than the interview, or in one exceptional case, would not stop staring at Natalie’s chest. This girl, however, seemed quite suitable.
She was certainly saying the right things. How she hoped the internship would help her understand human connection. How she would give one hundred percent if chosen. How inspiring it would be to intern in a female-led tech company. Natalie had heard all these things before, of course. But in contrast to the practiced poise of the other candidates, Alicia’s demeanor had the clear ring of truth – voice cracking with excitement, gawky arms gesturing wildly, emotions spilling over, unable to be contained within. Yes. She was the one. The awkwardness would go away with maturity. It was a small matter compared to the girl’s enthusiasm and curiosity, which would bring her far if given the right guidance.
Guidance which Natalie intended to give. She made a mental note to rub the success of today’s lunch in Juen’s face. Save money, she said. Startups like ours have no funding to throw at fancy cafés. It never occurred to her that people were at their most authentic when they were relaxed and comfortable. In a high-stress interview situation, everyone was just veneer and façade. There was nothing real there. Insights like this were why she was the face and Juen was the brains.
“I – I actually have a confession to make. Just a small one. It’s harmless, I swear.”
That last statement was in response to the sudden tension in Natalie’s brow.
“There is another reason why I want to work for you. My older sister had depression. During her bad episodes, she would feel completely alone. But posting anonymously on University Confessions about her depression made her feel stronger, because she could be honest without anyone judging her. It gave her the strength to start a tumblr where she could be open about her condition. People, random strangers from her classes actually contacted her to tell her how inspiring her honesty was. It made her so happy.”
Submerged memories rippled to the surface of Natalie’s mind. A single anonymous person posting daily for a week about her sadness. A tumblr filled to the brim with anxiety and stress. She was depressed, and she killed herself. Natalie heard her voice coming out of her bone-dry mouth.
“Is your – how is your sister now?”
Even though Alicia’s eyes were welling up with tears, she spoke with an eerie calm. She remained perfectly still except for her hands, which were playing with an onyx ring on her little finger.
“She killed herself. Five years ago now. She overdosed on sleeping pills in her hostel room. My mother blamed herself for letting her stay on campus, but it seemed to help … until it didn’t. I know it’s just wishful thinking, but sometimes I wonder if I could have helped her. I was just a kid back then, but I could have said or done something. It’s dumb, but I feel guilty, like her death is on me. So when I saw you were looking for someone to help manage University Confessions, I knew I had to apply as a way of making it right. For Alison’s sake.”
The world fell silent. Everything started to recede far, far away beyond Natalie’s grasp, until there was nothing but the two of them and the dark. Natalie sat frozen, wanting to say something, but could not, for her body was no longer hers to control. Everything inside shrank deeper into her churning heart. She could not bear to face Alicia, instead focusing on the onyx ring in her hands.
“Oh, right. This belonged to Alison. I wear it as a way of keeping her close to me. Actually, there’s a weird story behind this ring. She ordered it on the day she died. The package arrived at her hostel room the day after.”
The waitress came by and placed their waffles on the table. All Natalie could do was stare at her plate, at the drops of berry juice pooling into a sticky puddle of crimson.
“So strange,” and here Alicia’s tone changed to one of uncertainty, “I mean, who orders jewelry online if they are going to kill themselves? It showed she was planning for the future, right? Why bother otherwise? That’s why I felt like I could have intervened – she must have been ok, but fell into an episode and did it on the spur of the moment – if I had done something this wouldn’t have happened – but that’s just wishful thinking, like I said. No point thinking about it. Only -”
“You wonder if you could have changed things. For the better.”
“Yes.” Alicia, still teary-eyed, looked up from the ring at Natalie, who still refused to meet her gaze. “You understand. I know you do. That’s why I want to work for you, and I hope I can be like you in the future.”
The sound of speeding cars jolted Natalie back to reality. She was standing outside the café, staring at the road in front of her. For how long? Shards of memories came back to her. Berry compote waffles, dripping crimson, barely touched. A young woman’s face, nervous and concerned. Have I done something wrong? No, no, it’s just – I’m not feeling well. A brief handshake, the feel of a cold onyx ring on her palm. A promise to call. Walking out of the café and …
Here she was. Alicia, long gone. Behind her, she could hear fragmented sounds from the café – laughter, the clink of cutlery, brief snatches of music. The sun was setting. She was alone. With trembling fingers, she fished out a cigarette from her bag and lit it up.
Could it be? Through the smoke, she could hear Juen’s retorts. Pure coincidence. Circumstantial evidence. What could we have done? But now there was a new voice, calm, matter-of-fact, but with an undertone of sadness and regret. Too perfect to be a coincidence. Just wishful thinking. Her death is on me. If only I had done something. Who to believe? Was it all just a random confluence of events or had she ignored the boastings of someone who engineered the perfect crime? And what was she? Innocent bystander tangentially connected to a tragedy? Or an accomplice who had enabled a murder?
There were no answers. Natalie knew there would never be any answers. She closed her eyes to focus on the things she knew were real – the smell of smoke, the sun in her eyes, the weight on her chest. She had never felt this weight before but she understood what it was, and she understood that it would always remain, dragging her further within. A confession hung on her lips, but she knew without hesitation that she would never speak it. It stung too much with the clear ring of truth. Silent, she stared through the smoke at the setting sun, waiting for the dark to arrive.
Timothy Yam is a civil servant from Singapore. He is the third prize winner of the National Arts Council’s Golden Point Award (English Short Story Category), and his fiction has been published in Anak Sastra and The Best Asian Speculative Fiction Anthology. He is currently working on his first novel.