“Is there anything getting you down?” the spam message read. “Eye Into Your Soul can help! Click here to chat!”
Eye Into Your Soul
Warning: indicated animal cruelty
Hey guys, I’m u/GertieGuss. I help moderate a short story community called Odd Directions on Reddit. If you’re over there, you may have seen the silly flair next to my username: “my dragon is fuzzy and cute“. It refers to my cat Ambi. When she’s tackling you, she looks like a fluffy baby version of Haku from Spirited Away (in dragon form). Ergo: fluffy cute dragon. Also, her personality is dragon.
But I’m not writing this to explain my flair.
As an Odd Directions mod, I can see posts and comments taken out by spam screening. We get a selection of spam comments on the regular, peddling meditation channels on YouTube, sales for shops I’ve never heard of and do not know what they sell, NFT marketplaces, and something or other you have to follow the link to Telegram for.
They’re all removed immediately as spam, so I honestly have no idea why they even bother. But post after post, these removed comments are there, visible in a log of them in mod tools.
For the most part, I barely even glance at them. But every person has the grift they’re susceptible to, don’t they?
Some months ago, my eyes landed on one of these, and I actually read it. I was going through a rough time with my mental health, which I won’t detail. But because of that, this spam comment spoke to me.
Is there anything getting you down? Anxieties, stresses, or negative thoughts messing with your mind? Maybe you don’t have anyone to talk to, or don’t want to tell the people in your life all of it?
Eye Into Your Soul can help! You don’t have to say everything that’s upsetting you, just what you want to share. The Eye will understand, and will help you. It’s all online and completely FREE.
Click here to chat!
“Here” was hyperlinked. It was a moment of weakness, but I clicked on it. I was expecting to be brought to a login page, or some site that sold a bunch of stuff, and the chat was just a gimmick to get you in.
But instead I was taken straight to a chat page. It started blank but for the logo “Eye Into Your Soul” in the top left. Then I saw the three dots appear that indicated I was being typed to.
“Hi there!” said the first message, then, a second later, “What’s weighing on your soul?”
It took me a moment of deliberation to decide to just unload. I needed to, and that made me not care that this was some random site a spam message had taken me to. There was someone there ready to talk to me, and that alone impressed me.
The thumb on the scroll bar rapidly became tiny, my text filling the chat window like a novel I was trying to pound out in the space of mere hours. I’m verbose to a flaw, but the responses from the other end of the chat came quickly and without judgement, as though whoever was hearing my million woes was invested, reading every word I sent them.
And as I wrote, I let it out – I cried, I laughed, I ranted, and I snivelled quietly to myself while punching those keys to voice my furious shout. It was a catharsis unleashed in text on a random chat window somewhere on the internet. And like that often-unreachable pinnacle of writing focus, I didn’t notice time passing until a scrabble over carpet told me Ambi the Dragon was racing into the study behind me.
‘No – no naughty!’
My somewhat unintelligible line was so practised it was out my mouth before I’d realised my fingers were off the keys and my body was poised to leap.
Ambi the Dragon halted by the window. The sky had dimmed outside, her white fluff stark against the darkened floor-length window. She gave the fly screen before her an evaluating stare.
‘I’m watching you,’ I warned her. ‘Don’t you do it.’
Ambi has this way of looking over her shoulder at me. It’s a lot like a teenager daring you to put your foot down, only it’s astoundingly cute. Her big sky blue eyes locked on me, her head tilted like she knew exactly what I was saying and was considering whether she cared to listen to me. Relative to her eyes, her mouth looked tiny, like she was sucking in her lips as she contemplated the pros and cons of wrecking my fly screen.
‘No naughty,’ I repeated, pointing a finger I tried to make stern at her. ‘Give me a few minutes, and I’ll play with you instead. How’s that?’
Ambi gave me a long, slow blink. The internet tells me a cat uses that blink to show trust. In Dragon-speak, it means something akin to a deceptive smile. She gave me that, then, in the next second, bounded away from the window, tearing back out of the study. And I didn’t trust her one bit.
I bolted after her, knowing exactly what she was about to do.
But I didn’t get the full warning out. Before I’d said barely one word, Ambi the Dragon had already scuttled her way right up the bedroom fly screen. Hooked into it near the top, she ignored me, the runnels her claws had left behind decorating the netting.
‘I said no!’ I complained, then sighed as I caught her around the chest and carefully unstuck her claws from the screen. She let me do it, but the expression she turned on me when I had her freed and held up before my face was supremely grumpy.
‘I am a human who does not know how to replace fly screens,’ I told her, half in confession, half in patient rebuke. ‘If you wreck them, I have to learn. And buy the netting stuff. And the tool that does it. I don’t want to do this. So damaging things is naughty.’
My definition of the term “naughty” seemingly meant nothing to Ambi. The long fur around her neck was fluffed up like a 16th Century ruff on an indignant queen, her sky blue eyes glowering back at me. Her mouth opened a little, showing little pearly fangs, and she made one of her remarkable angry noises. It sounded like a mix between a cat’s meow, a dolphin’s laugh, and a jammed inkjet printer.
Nevertheless, holding her up before me, I continued with my earnest attempts to gently discipline her.
‘Please don’t damage the fly screens Ambalams. You have a ceiling-high scratching post to climb. You don’t need –‘
Her pearly whites appearing in a sudden flash, Ambi the Dragon launched forward and bit my nose.
‘Well that form of discipline doesn’t work,’ I muttered to myself as I freed my nose and lowered her to the bed. ‘What am I going to try next time?’
Ambi sat on the bed, fluffed herself up with further indignation, and stared defiantly up at me. My hands on my hips, I considered her.
Ambi thought being sprayed with water was fascinating, so all it did was give her more energy for practising fly screen parkour. Sharp noises only stalled her for a second. And trying to tire her out only lasted until she’d caught her breath back. Giving her a gentle talking-to was me scraping the bottom of the barrel for ways to deal with her. I hadn’t the wisdom or mental fortitude right then to come up with any other ingenious ideas.
‘How ‘bout we play?’ I suggested, snagging one of her toys off the floor. ‘You like this one – look, it’s scratching the blanket!’
Ambi glanced at the toy, fluffed her ruff larger, and glared at me. I darted the toy over, giving another section of the blanket a scratch from the plush bird. Rather than the toy, her eyes locked on my arm. Then her ears pinned back and her fuzzy butt wiggled. She pounced.
I sighed, watching on as the sinuous dragon did loop-the-loops around my arm, her bites many but not painful, her eyes huge, and her whiskers twitching with glee.
‘Internet suggestions: zero,’ I muttered, beginning the involved process of extracting my arm. ‘Dragon: five thousand and seventy four.’
When I made it back to my computer, Eye Into Your Soul had asked me twice if I was still there. Ambi taking on imagined specks in the carpet just outside the study door, I typed back.
Sorry! My cat decided she needed to destroy the fly screens. Had to try to stop her.
The three dots indicating I was being typed back to appeared immediately.
Aw! What breed are they?
The topic was a departure from what I had been sharing in the chat, but it was one I glommed onto eagerly.
Well, she’s supposed to be a ragdoll… but I think I got sold a lemon. According to the all-knowing internet, ragdolls are supposed to be really friendly, docile, and non-adventurous. She did not read the ragdoll manual. I joke she’s a dragon.
The moment I hit “enter” I had second thoughts. Not yet for any particularly rational reason, but because I felt I was misrepresenting Ambi. I hurried to add a more complete picture of the cat.
She can be really sweet. It’s just that she’s not quite a year old, and still has kitten energy. Well, kitten energy and like a teenage rebellion plus being… congenitally spoiled. And, in fairness to her, I didn’t let her out today. I usually let her outside for just a couple hours when I’m home so she can run up trees (which she’s surprisingly good at). Just playing with her in the house doesn’t seem to get her climbing energy out – she wants to climb higher.
But I heard the neighbour shouting earlier. He’s complained about her in the past, so I didn’t want to let her out if he was already in a bad mood.
Honestly, I love my cat to bits. She’s naughty, but I know things are never too bad if her antics still amuse me, rather than give me no joy or make me angry. She’s really the best thing in my life right now.
Ambi had disappeared from my view. I heard her prancing about downstairs. I waited on the dots as I was typed back to. It took only as long as the previous message did for them to type.
I’m really glad you’ve got something good in your life. Having things that give us hope and joy are really protective for our mental health. Whatever else is going on, they are reminders that things are worthwhile.
I frowned at the message. It wasn’t just that it was longer, so should have taken more time to type. It was generic, and felt repetitive.
I started scrolling, tracking back over our chat through the intimate novel I’d shared and their brief responses. I hadn’t seen it while I was spilling my guts, but I noticed then how generic every one of their responses were. A bad feeling settling in my stomach, I came to a stop on a message they’d sent when I’d described my love of fiction writing:
I’m really glad you’ve got something good in your life. Having things that give us hope and joy are really protective for our mental health. Whatever else is going on, they are reminders that things are worthwhile.
When you’re hearing someone share their vulnerabilities and trying to be supportive, you do tend to repeat yourself a bit. It’s hard to think of something new to say every time. I do that myself, so I had no criticisms of it.
But the two messages weren’t just similar. They were identical. And I found more copy-paste responses; other responses that used “they” to refer to someone I’d identified as “he” or “she” – generic responses, as though there wasn’t actually anyone reading what I’d written.
It was a bot. A well-programmed one that did a good job recognising keywords, but a bot all the same.
I actually felt betrayed. I’d come to this chat because of its spam message – a message that was directed at people who felt they couldn’t share their vulnerabilities with anyone else. So I’d shared all my vulnerabilities with this Eye Into Your Soul. And all it was, was a bot.
Betrayed, and stupid. I should have guessed that. I wasn’t some naïve child – I should have known it from the start!
I jumped to the most recent message the bot had sent.
Do you want to tell me more about your pet?
No. No I did not. I considered writing back about just how pissed I was to find out they were a bot, but feeling stupid for believing they were real made me catch myself. Better not make more of a fool of myself by showing I was hurt.
I just hit the “X” on the tab. It didn’t close immediately. Instead, a window popped up. “Are you sure you want to leave?” it asked me.
Yes, I very much was. I stabbed the “yes” button. Again, it didn’t let me leave. It popped up another question: “Would you like to leave an email so we can chat again in future?”
Hell no. I’d already shared too much personal information with some unknown program on the internet. I was not leaving an email.
Thankfully, it let me close the tab after that. I sat and stewed in my hurt and fury, glaring at the list of removed spam messages in Odd Directions’s mod tools.
Could have been worse, I told myself. At least a bot doesn’t actually care about how stupid I am. A real person had greater capacity for malice.
Then again, a person would be behind the bot. If they cared to, they could sneer at me or be malicious with what vulnerabilities I’d shared. At least I hadn’t shared any names or locations – that was something. I hadn’t clicked on any links beyond the one into the chat; hadn’t given anything more personal than what was weighing on my soul.
I tried to just move on and not think any more of it. I achieved it when Ambi came scrabbling back up the stairs and into the study. She had a tin foil ball in her mouth. Sauntering over to me, she ducked under my desk, used a paw to get the ball out of her mouth, and dropped it on my slipper. Then she tackled my foot, winding around my ankle as her fangs went for my slipper.
‘This is going to be more of a problem when it gets warmer and I stop wearing slippers,’ I told Ambi, but I was smiling at her kooky antics. This was what she did when she wanted me to play ball with her. So I fetched the tin foil ball and tossed it out of the study.
Forgetting her fight with my foot, she bolted after it. I waited, and in short order she was trotting back, tin foil ball in her mouth. With single-minded determination, she returned it to my slipper, and launched into a new foot tackle.
I went to bed that night with a purring dragon who’d only run up the fly screens three more times, and the hopeful thought that whoever had programmed Eye Into Your Soul was just a philanthropic stranger who couldn’t talk to everyone, so had programmed a bot to help.
I did forget about it. I got on with all the other stuff in my life, engaged a real therapist, and tried to tame my dragon with a new tack: I’d avoid glaring at her or picking her up, in case that was aggravating her, and I’d stick to an exhaustive play schedule.
It seemed to help – at least she largely stopped showing her defiance by biting my nose – but it hardly solved everything.
‘No – naughty dragon!’
This was called from my front doorstep, at approximately nine at night. And it was called after Ambi as she ran outside past me. Unconcerned, the cat pranced around the front garden.
‘I thought you were sleeping!’ I complained to her, collecting the rubbish I was taking out. It was why I was taking the bins out then: I had thought she wouldn’t notice so I could get away with opening the front door without her rushing outside. This was also the main reason why I did let her outside sometimes: I’d given up always trying to stop her. ‘It’s dangerous to go out at night!’
Ambi didn’t give a toss. She was sniffing around the neighbour’s plants. I eyed the townhouse beside mine warily. It seemed my grouchy neighbour was upstairs, the lights on and curtains pulled. Hopefully we wouldn’t bother him. The last time I’d made noise at night he’d banged what had sounded like a huge pole against our shared wall. On other occasions he’d shouted out the window at me.
Lowering my voice, I said more quietly, ‘Just don’t go far, Ambalams. You get two minutes, then back inside.’
She didn’t pay me any mind, so with one bag of litter, one of kitchen rubbish, and, its handle hooked over my arm, the large tub of recycling, I trudged down the sidewalk for the collection of wheelie bins the townhouses in our complex shared. The bins are a few townhouses down from mine and stored in this sheltered pergola, screened from view by brick half-walls.
I’d found space in the bins for my two bags of rubbish when Ambi started shouting. Not in a way that sounded alarmed, but as though she was calling for me.
‘I’m here Ambs!’ I called back as quietly as was still effective. ‘Shhh! Shhh!’
She shouted again, and then again, and again, each one louder than the last. Getting worried that there was actually something wrong, I hurried to poke my head out of the shelter. I spotted the fluffy cat some ways up the sidewalk. She looked fine, so I just waved to her and called quietly again. It seemed that was what she’d wanted. She came trotting towards me, so I waited until she’d joined me to go back to the recycling.
‘Felt lost, did you?’ I whispered to her, checking bins for one that had room for my stuff.
Ambi’s big eyes reflecting the streetlight, she stared up at me and responded in a meow.
‘You wouldn’t have seen the bins here before,’ I talked (largely aimlessly) on. ‘I usually only let you out the back. New place to sniff?’
I continued to talk to her as I divided my bottles and boxes between nearly full bins. She’d taken up investigating the new space, but she responded every time I stopped talking, and that made me smile. I fully expected her to ignore me when I told her it was time to go home, but when I headed for the exit, telling her to follow, she hopped down from atop one of the bins and trotted after me.
‘Are you actually wanting to follow me,’ I asked her, ‘or are you just looking for treats?’
Her face supremely cute and innocent – like a smiling quakka – she looked up at me.
‘”Meow” follow me, or “meow” treats?’
Still trotting dutifully beside me, Ambi’s response was, predictably, ‘Meow.’
I chuckled to myself, but my silly conversation wasn’t allowed to continue. The sound of a window shoving open had me looking up at my neighbour’s second floor.
‘SHUT UP!’ the grouchy neighbour bellowed, spitting with rage and demolishing the fun quiet of the night. ‘IT’S LATE! DON’T YOU HAVE ANY RESPECT! SHUT UP – AND GET THAT FUCKING CAT OUT OF HERE!’ He gestured like someone trying to chop down a tree with their bare arm, his face contorted. ‘AT LEAST KEEP THAT SHIT INSIDE AWAY FROM THE BIRDS – WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?’
There were a lot of things, later, I’d want to yell back at him. Right then, my focus was on grabbing Ambi, who’d frozen in hunched fear beside me, and rushing with her back into the house. Better not to agitate my neighbour further by pointing out Ambs could barely catch a fly with my help. And, besides, his level of utter fury – over and above anything rational – had scared me too.
Bold and defiant dragon when in her comfort zone, being scared made Ambi reserved and in need of comfort. Even safe back in the house, she stuck by my feet all the way up to the study, and curled herself in close on my lap, purring loudly, when I scooped her onto it.
‘Really spooked you, didn’t it?’ I murmured as I gave her head a reassuring scratch. Petting her was reassuring me probably more than it was her. ‘Better be careful around the neighbour. He gets very angry…’
Her stare toward the window unseeing, Ambi kept up her loud purring. Feeling bad for her, I put an arm around her as I clicked through on my computer to distract myself by checking whether anything on the Odd Directions Reddit or Discord needed a response from me.
It was on the moderator Discord channels that something caught my attention. Written in our general chat, another moderator had shared a screenshot. Accompanying the screenshot was their message.
You guys seen these comments? Who is this u/EyeIntoYourSoul? They’re commenting on all of the posts, but they’re all removed as spam. I went to see who they were, but the account looks like it’s been suspended – so how are they even commenting?
Below this, another mod had already responded.
Not sure about the rest of it, but those spam accounts are always suspended or banned sooner or later. Guess they just make a new one and send out as many as they can before they’re banned again.
It wasn’t a satisfactory explanation, which had already been pointed out by the mod who’d sent the screenshot.
But I checked their account yesterday and saw they were suspended then. The screenshot is of the comment they posted today, despite the suspension.
The discussion had no conclusive answer for how the account was still commenting despite the suspension. That wasn’t what worried me most, however. I’d clicked on the screenshot to be able to read it. Written by Eye Into Your Soul in a comment on someone’s story was a message I knew was meant for me.
Always happy for a chat, whether it’s about your cat, your lost dog, or your uncle. Eye Into Your Soul is here to listen, whatever you want to say.
Reach out here any time!
Once again, the “here” was hyperlinked, and I knew where the link led to.
I doubted any of the other mods would know who the target of the comment was. But I knew. I had told Eye Into Your Soul about my dog passing, and how that had crushed me. I’d told the bot about my uncle, and how that situation had affected me. And I’d of course told The Eye about Ambi.
I didn’t reply to the Discord message. Instead I pulled up the subreddit, went into mod tools, and clicked on “Spam”.
The last time I’d checked the spam log had been when I’d followed the link to chat with the bot. That had been over two weeks ago, and every day since then, on every new story posted, there was a comment from Eye Into Your Soul. Every comment was removed as spam from u/EyeIntoYourSoul’s suspended account. And they all referenced something I’d talked to the bot about. One discussed family issues being tough. Another covered financial woes. Yet another talked about how work could get to you. It didn’t specify working in healthcare, which might have made the other mods think it was directed at me. Eye Into Your Soul kept it vague, but it was another thing I’d talked to the bot about.
One of the comments referenced breakthrough anxiety and self-isolation as a coping mechanism. It included the line “Talking to your cat can help, but your cat can’t talk back the same way Eye Into Your Soul can.”
That line, more than any of the others, sent a chill through my veins. I’d spoken to the bot about Ambi, yes. But I didn’t remember telling the bot that I talked to my cat. Beyond colleagues, Ambi the Dragon was the creature I spoke to most – she was my greatest confidant. And it felt, staring at that message, that Eye Into Your Soul knew that about me.
‘Creepy as hell,’ I muttered, half to myself, half to the purring dragon on my lap.
But, reassuring myself with a quick kiss of Ambi’s sweet head, I shrugged it off. The bot – or whoever was behind it – had probably just profiled me. Woman with anxiety who rabbits on about her cat? That probably screams “the cat is her best friend” to anyone and everyone.
That day, I clicked out of the spam log, and I tried not to dwell on it. But there was something so off about it my mind kept circling back to Eye Into Your Soul and its spam messages.
It was off-putting, in general, that the spam messages were now reflecting all the things I’d spoken to the bot about. What was more distressing about that, was it made the messages seem less like they were written by a bot. I’d come to the conclusion, from the generic and repetitive replies, that it must be a bot. But I didn’t think any standard bot was quite up to the task of crafting a new tailored invitation every day in a comment on a Reddit post. It was more likely a person was doing that.
There was, of course, the question of how the account kept commenting despite being suspended, but that paled in comparison of the building question in my head: who was behind the account, and what were their intentions?
Just crafting tailored invitations off what I’d told them… That was something I wished wasn’t happening. I didn’t like knowing that if I clicked into the spam log, I’d find some new removed message trying to talk to me. It felt invasive, and wasn’t something I knew how to stop – especially as Reddit had already taken ineffective action against the account.
But… What was their end goal? Did they want me to trust them to the point that I shared my personal details so they could steal money from me? Did they want me to spill something they could blackmail me with? Beyond an email, Eye Into Your Soul hadn’t asked for anything identifying. Getting money was usually the point of a scam, but this one seemed elaborate and labour-intensive without any mention of payment, questions about my name, or pitiable stories shared by them about needing funds to pay for someone’s healthcare or getting out of a war-torn country. All it had involved, really, was hours of me spilling my guts, and them responding with canned replies.
I couldn’t work out what the scam was. And I was even more disturbed that the whole thing was pretty deliberately aimed at people, like me, who didn’t feel they had anyone they could talk to. Who would I go to for help when the online service I confided in started to turn on me?
These thoughts spiralled in my head, working up my anxiety like a blustering wind disturbing a pile of leaves I was endlessly trying to rake. It had me avoiding going near the spam log for about a week, scared of activating that anxiety any more.
But after a particularly trying day of work, with a glass of red, instrumental covers of pop songs coming from my speakers, and four classy cheese strings already down the hatch (minus the pieces Ambi had stolen), I was fuelled by the fortitude being so over it can give you.
‘What’s the chances they’ve just given up?’ I asked Ambi.
In a corner of my desk, she was attempting to pretend she could fit inside the box my computer mouse had come in. It was her favourite box – principally, I was sure, because she hadn’t the self-consciousness to care that the tiny box made her less a loaf, and more a fluffy muffin top. She had a paw stretched out of it, her head resting on her arm and her eyes closed in, seemingly, complete comfort.
I scratched her head, which she put up with for a few seconds before, not even bothering to stop purring or open her eyes, she sunk her fangs into my hand, and left them there.
‘You want to be nearby,’ I said, trying to extract my hand, ‘but no pats. Gotcha.’
No removing my hand from between her teeth either, I discovered, as she kept grappling my hand back. I gave up, left the hand in her fangs, and navigated to the Odd Directions spam log.
u/EyeIntoYourSoul’s comments were there. A whole week’s worth of them, one on every posted story. I quickly forgot the pressure Ambi’s teeth were putting on my hand. I could barely feel the finger I was using on the scroll wheel. I’d thought the messages the last time had been bad. This time, it was a thousand times creepier.
Tingles of electric panic were zinging down my arms, and I’d only gotten to read The Eye’s removed comment from today:
You should always make sure you latch your back door. That fence isn’t too hard to climb.
Eye Into Your Soul is worried about you. Please feel free to chat here any time you need.
The blue and underline of the word “here” captured my eyes for a long second of tunnel-vision panic. And then, careless of teeth or reclaiming claws, I pulled my hand from Ambi and bolted down the stairs to the back door.
Without touching the latch, I grabbed the handle of the sliding door, and pulled. The door came right open.
A great wash of horror cascaded down from my head like frigid water. I’d been out all day, and the last time I’d gone near this door had been the day before.
My heart hammering, I stared at my back fence. It rose above my head height, but it wasn’t impossible to climb. Ambi did it a lot, and if I wanted to wobble about on the thing, I probably could too. And if I could, a lot of other people could.
The scrabbling of claws behind me had me shoving the back door right back shut again. This time, I made absolutely sure to latch it, and even checked it by giving it a tug.
Ambi had skidded to a hasty stop before the now closed door. She glared up at me, disapproving of the taunt of outside taken away before she’d been able to sprint out.
‘No,’ I said quietly. I swallowed once, twice, then a third time before continuing, ‘It’s getting dark. And we don’t know… who is out there.’
My words didn’t satisfy Ambi, and – now in full dragon-mode – nor did my conciliatory pat to her head. She whirled out from under it and launched up the fly screen.
I hadn’t the mind right then to bother about it. Spurred by terror, I checked every door and window, making sure all were secure. Then I looked to see if anything had been stolen.
It turned out a mad dash around the house was the idea I hadn’t thought of to deflect the dragon from her fly screen parkour: Ambi quickly decided she’d rather follow after me and tackle my ankles every time I stopped for even a second. Right then, I didn’t mind. I didn’t even mind when I scooped her up for a reassuring cuddle and she retaliated with a bite to my nose. I was just glad, even if someone had gotten into the house, that she was fine.
I couldn’t find anything that was missing. Nothing was even out of place – zero indication anyone had been in my home, even if I’d left my back door unlocked.
Released from my arms, Ambs had sat next to me. She peered up at me, glanced down to my slippers, and then, rather than tackle them, she stood up against my leg, her blue-eyed gaze earnest. It was a stare sweet enough for my heart to put the brakes on – for me to suck in several deep breaths and decide, just maybe, things were okay.
Except… there were still those spam comments from Eye Into Your Soul.
Back at my computer, Ambi playing with a feather under the desk, I turned my music up. Trying to feel comforted, I scrolled to yesterday’s comment.
Vets warn cats are lactose intolerant. It can be harmful to feed Ambi cheese. I know you don’t want to hurt her, so thought I’d warn you.
Please feel free to reach out here any time.
Ambi had made sure the feather was on my slipper so she could chew on both. She, I reminded myself, was fine.
Maybe I’d already used up the peak of my panic-energy, but my first thought was a desire to shout back at the comment – tell them that, for their fucking information, cheese strings were mozzarella, which was naturally low in lactose. My second thought was to realise if I was thinking that, then these comments had really gotten to me.
My third thought was to recall I’d never shared Ambi’s name with Eye Into Your Soul. I’d just called her “my cat”. I’d never told The Eye that I fed Ambi cheese strings either.
My finger was scrolling on to u/EyeIntoYourSoul’s next comment before I’d really worked out how freaked out I was by that.
Better not read this story. There’s a dog that gets hurt in it. I don’t want you to get upset by that.
Please reach out here any time!
And then, the previous day’s comment on a different story:
This story’s really sweet. I think it’d make you feel happy to read it.
Always happy for a chat. Just click here!
I hadn’t had a chance to read any of these stories. Not the one Eye Into Your Soul warned me off of, nor the one it prescribed me. And I was starting to get an added sense of some kind of… creepy paternalism from the comments.
That box is far too tiny for Ambi. That’s really funny seeing her squeeze herself into it.
Please reach out here if you need to!
And then, the day before that:
I know you get insecure about your writing. You should read this story. Your work is way better than it.
Don’t hesitate to come chat here if you’d like!
‘What… the fuck?’ I breathed. I shuddered.
You’ve got mould growing on top of one of your bookshelves. Mould can be connected to health problems. I’m sure you know that better than me, as you’re a nurse.
Please get in touch here any time!
‘The health effects of mould are overblown in the media…’ I whispered.
Just below that one was the last of the comments I hadn’t seen before. It had been posted on the story that had gone up not twelve hours after I’d taken out the rubbish and been shouted at by my neighbour.
Wow. Your neighbour sucks. I’m worried he’s a really cruel man.
If you ever want to talk about it, I’m here.
I stared. And then I blinked and shoved myself back from my computer. Ambi had lain down on my foot. She peeled her eyes open when I stared down at her, her contented quakka smile on.
I scooped her onto my lap, and started petting her with shivery hands. She took it, the naughty dragon seemingly gone for now, and started purring, luxuriating under a chin scratch.
I hadn’t really let the most obvious worry hit me yet. I knew it. But it took starting to hum along with my music and petting Ambi while she was safe on my lap to finally get myself to let it dawn.
Was this person watching me?
Not just watching me. But watching me inside my own house. Seeing the tops of my damn bookshelves. Seeing me giving up as Ambi snagged pieces of my cheese strings in dragon fangs. Watching me – what? Sleep? Eat? Drink my wine?
I grabbed my wineglass, and managed only one glug before I pulled a face and resorted to frequent sips.
How were they watching me?
I did have two home security cameras. One on the landing by the stairs just outside my study, and one downstairs in the living/dining room. Lowering my wineglass, I stared out my study door toward the camera – and then I screamed.
The scream was a testament to how terrified I was. I hadn’t seen anything frightening. Instead, I’d just heard something: the scraping of what sounded like a metal tube along the other side of the wall I shared with my neighbour.
And then, after a brief pause, I heard the loud SLAM and RING of my neighbour bashing that tube against the wall.
I hustled to put down my wineglass and kill my music. I assumed that was the problem, considering my neighbour couldn’t even see Ambi, and I wasn’t talking at any level he’d be able to hear me. Ambi herself had leapt onto all four paws, and that made me angry as hell – angry that this asshole, in the midst of all the other shit I was trying to deal with, had decided to take his insane anger out on a fucking wall and metal pole. Angry that he was terrorising my cat.
But, I supposed, it offered me the clarity to decide on one thing: I needed to talk to someone about it. And, right then, the one group of people who already knew some of the story might be awake and able to see what I wrote.
“Hey guys,” I wrote into the Odd Directions mod chat on Discord, “I think… I need some help…”
Change all your passwords! Especially the ones on your security cameras, but all of them. For everything! Maybe when you clicked that link to the chat you let in some kind of phishing thing and it’s gotten into all of your accounts and watching your cameras remotely!
That was the first piece of advice the other mods gave me. I’d already dumped towels over the two cameras I had fixed to my walls, blocking their views, and made sure my webcam wasn’t connected.
The next mod’s advice contradicted the first.
More like a TeamViewer or key logger thing, but I’m not a tech person… You didn’t download anything, did you Gertie?
I assured them I hadn’t.
Are your passwords easy to guess from what you told the Eye Soul thing?
No, they hadn’t been. Not at all. I’d always been careful about passwords.
Scrub your computer before you change your passwords! Look for any software downloaded to your computer around the time you chatted to them! Plus super virus check! I’ll report the account to Reddit – if that’ll do anything. Tell them the account’s still commenting despite being suspended.
“Eye Into Your Soul”? It sounds like something that will peep on you!
Yeah it did, and now I felt even more stupid. But I ignored that, launched a virus search, ripped open a new cheese string, bit into it without stringing it, and found where my installed programs were.
I knew the exact date I’d chatted with Eye Into Your Soul from the comments their suspended Reddit account had sent after I’d confided in them. I didn’t find any apps that had been installed on my computer on that day, and the only app since then, beyond varied updates from programs I recognised, was some supposed game that I had no knowledge of. I uninstalled that one, but to me it looked like a dead end, and, with the virus checker trucking on with no finds, so did that.
And that didn’t make me feel any better. In a whirlwind of anxious hurry, I used my phone to change password after password, hoping that if something had infected my computer, maybe it hadn’t gotten to my phone. My bank was fine, not a single transaction I couldn’t recognise. My government accounts seemed fine too, as did my insurance.
I was just starting to find the ground under me again, Ambi peering up from where she’d settled on the floor beside my chair, when the Odd Directions mod who’s the most tech-savvy logged on. He took a moment to catch himself up, then started typing.
If you saw nothing that indicated you downloaded and installed any software, then it’s really hard to think anything like TeamViewer or a keylogger is on your computer. If it’s only your security cameras you think have been hacked, then it’s much more likely it was a brute-force attack. Essentially, they use a program to send loads of potential passwords at your camera app until one works.
The glaring question, if that was the case, was how did they find my camera app to throw passwords at it?
Tracked it by your IP address maybe? Or maybe you did just give them enough info when chatting that they could work something out. Beyond my knowledge, but it’s sci-fi stuff to think some crazy virus can make it onto your computer just by following a link to a simple webpage. But yeah, change all your passwords just in case, and never click on that “here” again. That’s creepy as hell Gertie.
I was never going to click on any hyperlinked “here” ever again. Not anywhere. Just the thought of those creepy inviting messages, with that blue and underlined “here” on every one of them, made my skin rise from my body.
That message had made me feel better. One from a different mod had my anxiety ramping up again.
Did anyone come into your house? Can you check your security footage to see if anyone did break in?
I didn’t want to, but I did check – and I was reassured to see that with the towels over them, both of my security cameras were now seeing nothing other than terry-cloth blue. Going back over recorded footage, I ran through the past twenty four hours, then, for good measure, went back further than that, in case I’d left the back door unlocked any other time.
“No one,” I reported on the Discord, my anxiety sinking under a sigh of relief. “Thankfully, no one. Just me and my cat.”
I’m so sorry Gertie – this is all so creepy! Even if it’s just a prank or something, it’s really targeting people because of their anxiety or whatever, and that’s so evil! I’ve reported the account to Reddit as well… If you ever need someone to talk to, you can always talk to me. Guess you don’t know me either, but at least my tech ability is crap enough that I’d have no idea how to stalk you!
It was a kind offer, as were the messages that echoed the sentiment. I thanked all of them, truly glad I had gotten their help, even if the whole thing still had me on edge.
I’d run out of the cheese strings I’d anxiety-eaten for dinner, so, leaning back in my chair, I drained the last dregs of my wine. It had me catching sight of the towel over my upstairs security camera. I swallowed, and then shuddered. I wasn’t at all ready to take that towel off.
A fluffy leap onto my desk had my attention returning to Ambi. Cautious and hunched low, she made her way around my computer to the other side of the desk.
‘What are you doing?’ I murmured to her. ‘Being naughty?’
It was an easy guess. Coming in crouched low, the fuzzy dragon very carefully caught one of the cheese string wrappers in her teeth. She glanced at me with wary big blue eyes, scuttled to hide behind my computer monitor, and began growling.
‘Oh, it’s your wrapper, is it?’ I said, welcoming the offer of amusement.
She growled again in response, then from behind the computer came the sound of her chewing on the plastic wrapper.
‘Oh – no – that’s not a good idea!’
According to my dragon and her determined growl, she disagreed with me. Disagreed so much, in fact, that she bolted away with the wrapper, and led a merry chase around the house. I wouldn’t admit it to the naughty dragon, but it was the levity I’d needed just then.
Even with the fuzzy Ambi by my side, I didn’t sleep at all that night. Knowing there was no way I was safe to care for patients right now, I ended up calling in sick to work. I was at my computer when I got the notification one of our writers had posted a new story on Odd Directions.
I stared at the page, the new post right at the top and its author completely unaware that, just by posting their story, they’d facilitated a stalker’s communication with me. The post already had a count of two comments on it. One would be the auto-moderator. The other I was sure would be removed.
Odd Directions, a community that had long been a supportive and fun place to share the products of our writing hobbies – a community I’d helped build – had become the doorway to my anxious hell.
But I clicked into mod tools, and then into the spam log. It was there, right at the top.
I think I scared you. Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. Eye Into Your Soul is here to help you, not scare you.
Happy to chat about it here!
I recognised my mouth was hanging open, but didn’t bother to shut it. Exhausted – having spent the past twelve hours feeling my life had been invaded – what I was most aware of then was the audacity. The utter blind audacity.
‘Not scare me?’ I hissed. ‘How the fuck did you think I’d react?’
I glanced over at a muffled “mew”. Ambi was stood in the doorway, her butterfly wand toy in her mouth. She met my eyes, then trudged into the room, the wand toy’s stick dragging along the carpet behind her.
It offered me a reason to turn away from my computer – something I badly wanted to do. The Eye was just so beyond the pail it was like an instant headache to even try to comprehend it was for real. Ambi only wanted me to command the wand toy for a few minutes, though. Getting sick of me making her catch the butterfly, she pulled the stick out of my hand and trundled purposefully off with it. The stick clattering down the stairs behind her, she headed off to show the toy the laundry.
I hauled myself off the floor, squared my shoulders, and exited the mod tools page. Maybe it was a good thing The Eye had recognised they’d scared me. They were still trying to get me to go back to chat with them, so they couldn’t have comprehended much, but maybe this was the start of them leaving me alone. I double checked the security camera on the landing was still covered, and then went to pick some sappy rom-com to watch.
But Eye Into Your Soul didn’t start leaving me alone. I didn’t know why, and – particularly as their account was still suspended – I don’t know how, but their messages were at least predictable. The moment any new story went up on Odd Directions, The Eye posted their next removed comment to me.
I made myself confront each new comment every day. Why I did… I guess it was me trying to take some kind of control over the situation. To minimise my fear of it by tackling each new comment one at a time.
And… because I’d like to see it earlier rather than later if a direct threat to my or Ambi’s safety appeared.
Villain in this story is an evil neighbour. The writer a friend of yours? Eye Into Your Soul won’t use what you tell me in a fictional story.
Ready to chat here any time!
‘No, you’ll just hack my cameras and comment my life on every post,’ I muttered, half to my computer, and half to Ambi, who was stealing my nail file. I exited the spam log, checked my accounts, and changed my security camera passwords yet again to stave off any new brute-force attack. Then I shifted to Discord.
It does seem this Eye thing can’t see you anymore… I guess that’s something?
It was a message sent to me by a fellow mod who was helping keep watch on Eye Into Your Soul. They were right, and it was something I could find some gladness for. The Eye hadn’t gone back to being vague, but they weren’t making comments about the tops of my bookshelves anymore.
That didn’t mean they were letting up, however.
You should read this story. They do a good job getting into the interesting stuff quickly and their characterisation is vivid without dwelling on any character too long. You could learn something from it.
If you want to talk about writing or anything else, click here!
Fair criticism of my writing, but coming from someone terrorising me, it didn’t scream “constructive” or “kindly meant”. Not to mention Eye Into Your Soul had become the primary cause of why I hadn’t written anything for weeks.
Then the next day’s comment:
How is Ambi doing? She’s such a sweetie.
Free to chat here any time!
And the day after:
It’s got to be exhausting to do shift work, especially when you’re getting home late most days. It doesn’t leave you much time to socialise.
I’m always here to offer you that!
The day after that:
The main character in this one reminds me of you. She’s smart, pretty, and sensitive.
Next time you feel insecure about yourself, chat to me here!
That was the first time The Eye had commented on my appearance. It struck a new kind of deep and unsettling chord. I’d known they’d previously been able to see into my house. I’d tried not to think about it, but I knew they’d watched me – seen me scratch my butt, probably, when I thought I wasn’t being observed. Watched me hurry to get dressed before work from that damn security camera on the upstairs landing. Spied on me as I tried to make my un-athletic body deal with yoga poses.
The last thing I’d wanted was for them to blatantly state they’d seen me.
I just shifted my gaze from the computer screen to Ambi. She had been showing my sweater sleeve who was boss, but somewhere in there she’d gotten sleepy. Now, her long fuzzy body precariously twisted around my arm, teeth and claws still hooked into the fabric, her eyes were drifting shut.
It’s some “nice guy” shit.
The deduction was another mod’s, and I agreed with it. Day after day, comment after comment, that was the vibe from The Eye I was getting too.
The other mod continued her thought.
Like “I’m so good for you, you just don’t know it yet”. Really creepy! Reddit’s done absolutely nothing about it, of course. I just got a stock response to my report.
Are you looking to move house, maybe, in case he can trace you? How are you doing Gertie?
I was looking to move. It wasn’t a quick thing. I needed to first find an affordable place not too far from work that was more accepting of cats than my current situation. Second, I needed to save up enough to fix the fly screens and pay for the move.
As for how I was doing… Despite all my efforts to feel I had some control over the situation, I was becoming paranoid as hell. I’d searched my house four times now, into every corner and cranny, looking for anything I could be anxious about: hidden cameras, signs someone else had been in there… just anything that looked out of place. I had to double-check the locks and every shadow in my home before I could even try to go to bed. I peered into the bushes outside my house when I came home from work, expecting to see someone hiding in them. And I was always terrified that when I opened my front door, Ambi wouldn’t be there.
It was irrational. It was my anxiety taking it over the top. But I couldn’t help it.
And it made me suspect everyone. A co-worker who looked a little too long at me. Family members I hadn’t spoken to in ages. My therapist. And even the other Odd Directions mods.
Rationally, I knew all of them were unlikely to be The Eye. Just like others had said, Eye Into Your Soul was showing themselves completely incapable of not coming across as creepy and paternalistic. I’d become certain that was why they’d used canned copy-paste responses when I’d chatted with them that first time: it was the only way they could sound like a reasonable human. No one I knew, online or in person, was that incapable of being friendly without seeming creepy.
Which made my suspicions turn to my neighbour.
I eyed his townhouse warily the next time I had to take the rubbish out. It was evening, and I’d been much more diligent about not letting Ambi rush past the front door when I opened it. She was shouting at me from behind the door I’d securely closed after me. That she was making noise just made my gaze at my neighbour’s place that bit warier.
I’d never seen my neighbour be creepy and paternalistic, but, in fairness, I hadn’t seen him try to be friendly either.
It was a crazy ploy to try to get to me if my neighbour was behind Eye Into Your Soul. Hard to believe he’d know I posted on Odd Directions at all, let alone that he’d hatch a plot to try to fish me in with spam messages just hoping I’d click the link to the chat.
As I finished sorting my rubbish into the bins I came to the conclusion I was really just suspecting my neighbour because he hated me. That conclusion didn’t make walking past his house on the way back to mine any more comfortable. As usual when the sun went down, my neighbour’s only burning light was upstairs, in the room that shared a wall with my study.
I swallowed and looked away from his curtained window. My eyes landed instead on something that glinted in the streetlight. I paused, squinting towards it, then took a step back to see it better through the branches of a young tree.
Affixed to the wall about one townhouse up from the shelter that housed the wheelie bins, was a security camera. I’d known the complex had a few, but I’d never noticed one there. As there was ivy growing across its bracket, it wasn’t new.
“It’s got to be exhausting to do shift work, especially when you’re getting home late most days.”
The Eye had sent that message after I’d blocked them from seeing through my cameras. It was also only after I’d tied towels over the cameras that my shift roster had changed to include more late shifts.
I put it together then, while I was staring at the external security camera owned by the townhouse complex. And then I recalled another comment The Eye had sent – that one that referenced my neighbour shouting at me and Ambi from his window. The camera I was staring at would have had a perfect view of that moment.
I hadn’t been able to block The Eye watching me from all cameras. I was pretty sure they had access to at least one external camera I had no control over.
Hurriedly fishing my keys out of my pocket, I jogged back to my front door. I’d pulled the blind down over the window beside my door. Ambi hadn’t cared about that.
The fluffy dragon was hooked by four sets of claws into the top of the window’s fly screen, her body squeezed up between screen and blind. She stared out at me, head between her paws and her eyes big and curious. Her mouth opening, she meowed at me.
‘Of course you’re there,’ I acknowledged. ‘”No naughty” really means nothing to you, does it?’
I emailed the townhouse complex manager about the camera. All I got back was a brusque denial that there had been any security breaches in their system. That night, I sent out eight applications for a new rental.
I honestly wasn’t sure The Eye did have access to the external cameras, it was just my suspicion. It was a suspicion, however, that saw no support from Eye Into Your Soul’s comments over the coming days. They said nothing that indicated they’d seen me notice the camera.
Climbing the fly screen of the front window became Ambi’s way of greeting me when I came home from work. The screen was rapidly turning to shreds, but I didn’t mind too much. Rather than my neighbour’s place or the security camera a couple townhouses down, I preferred to see a naughty dragon showing me, before I’d even opened the door, that she’d been fine in my absence.
Coming home before dark one day, I had a smile for the spirited Ambi as she mewed at me from her prime position near the top of the window. She was scrabbling down off it the moment I put my key in the lock. It was because she wanted to try her luck with running outside, but I chose to interpret her racing towards me as a “welcome home”. Ambi the Dragon took me catching her before she could bolt outside as an insult to her spirit.
‘Haven’t let you out much lately, have I Ambalams?’ I commiserated, pushing the door closed. ‘It’s too late to go running around outside… How ‘bout the balcony?’
Ambi was writhing and whining at me, wanting to be put down. When I did, she raced after me, following all the way to the upstairs balcony off my bedroom. The moment I had that door open, she was out on the concrete floor, rolling around in whatever likely disgusting scent it contained. I leant against the balustrade, and found another smile at her absolute glee.
‘Now that’s a fluffy belly, Ambs,’ I commented to her when she paused on her back, all four stubby legs suspended in the air.
The smile fell from my face the second I heard the neighbour’s balcony door shove open. Ambi took a moment longer to recognise the danger.
‘FOR FUCK’S SAKE!’
Ambi bolted back into the house. My neighbour’s face, staring at me across the half-wall partition, was contorted like a mad gargoyle. He came right up to the partition as he screamed on.
‘NO ONE WANTS TO HEAR YOUR STUPID FUCKING OBSESSION WITH THAT RAT – GET IT OUT OF MY FACE!’
‘It’s not in your face!’ I shouted back, before I could check myself. ‘You chose to follow us out!’
I don’t think he heard the second part of my shout. He was bellowing over me.
‘IF IT COMES ANYWHERE NEAR ME, I’LL FUCKING KILL IT!’
And that didn’t surprise me one bit. I didn’t bother to say anything more. Jittering with rage, I walked inside before he’d finished shouting and slammed the door.
The next morning, there was no mention of my neighbour in the comment from Eye Into Your Soul. That probably just meant no security camera could see our balconies, but it started feeding into a sense of relative safety I felt in places I couldn’t be watched.
Days, then weeks went by. My neighbour works Monday to Friday, so I took only the opportunities my shifts had me home while he was out to let Ambi outside the house. I worked with my therapist, and, more immediately helpful, started taking anti-anxiety medication. I was still checking The Eye’s comments every time a new story was posted to Odd Directions, but none of them contained anything new, and I began to develop a thicker skin for what I was thinking had become an emptier threat.
It was only when, for the first time in months, I broke out the ingredients for homemade pizza, that I realised I might have been smiling at Ambi’s antics, but I hadn’t actually laughed for a long time.
Ambi has three favourite food groups: cheese, meat, and bread. Pizzas, therefore, are what she sees as the optimal food. My contrasting perspective is that cats probably shouldn’t eat too much cheese, chorizo, or bread.
My dragon does not care about my perspective.
It became a race around the kitchen, me on lumbering human legs, and Ambs on her stubby but surprisingly fast ones – both of us dashing for who could “rescue” what ingredient first.
‘No – no – no!’ I laughed, snatching the chorizo from between her fangs. ‘No naughty! Come – no! Down you go – not the dough!’
Disgruntled and yowling at me, Ambi jumped from my hands before I could lower her right to the floor. She spun around, sat, and glowered up at me. I might once have thought she’d stay there, at least for a few minutes. I didn’t think so now, especially not with pizza the prize.
‘Here,’ I said, taking two grated pieces of mozzarella and feeding her them on the floor. ‘Just a little bit of cheese.’
She purred loud and happy as she munched the cheese. And then, before she was done purring, she launched right back up onto the counter.
‘It’s because you’re one year old tomorrow, isn’t it?’ I chuckled. ‘You think now you’re a big girl you should get a whole pizza slice to yourself?’
Ambi’s response was to make a mad dash for the bag of cheese.
That was the first evening in ages I’d felt light-hearted enough to laugh – as though the cage of anxiety around my chest had been released and the weight of doom evaporated from my shoulders.
I woke up the next day smiling, Ambi asleep tucked in close between my arm and chest. She woke as I got up, and followed me downstairs to fight my slippers as I fetched coffee. While she left to go bounding around after a tin foil ball, I headed up to my computer.
I’d woken late on a day off. The newest story was already posted to Odd Directions. As had become my routine, I clicked into mod tools, took a sip of coffee, and found the spam log.
I just about dropped my coffee. Hastily, I stashed it on my desk.
Happy birthday Ambi! One year old already!
Always up for a chat here!
There was no way – I hadn’t told anyone about Ambi’s birthday! Especially not Eye Into Your Soul.
Ambi’s claws were tearing her up the stairs. I heard her barrel into the bedroom. I knew she was going to run up the fly screen. I didn’t move.
The blood in my veins froze. I think my heart stopped. Because the voice that had rebuked Ambi wasn’t mine. It was a man’s. And I didn’t recognise it.
I stared out of my study doorway. The camera mounted on the wall was still covered by a towel, the fabric secured with rubber bands.
It had started moving, the veiled camera panning right. My phone wasn’t in my hand, my computer wasn’t logged into the app – I didn’t even remember what password I’d changed it to last time. I wasn’t controlling the camera.
But, in my growing false sense of security, I hadn’t changed its password for a few days.
The camera was now pointing into the bedroom. There was no way it could see anything. But it seemed it could hear Ambi was still partaking in her fly screen parkour.
‘Naughty dragon!’ the man cooed from the camera’s speakers. ‘Don’t wreck the fly screens! Your mom doesn’t like it.’
Ambi didn’t sense the danger. Though she’s both curious and scared of strangers, she didn’t react at all. The horrible thought that this wasn’t new to her filtered into my stunned brain. Frozen in my chair, I thought maybe Ambs had heard this voice many times before, when I’d left her home alone.
And then I flew out of my chair, jumped, grabbed the camera, and ripped it off the wall. Five smashes with the bathroom stool against the tile floor, and the thing was pieces.
‘Eye Into Your Soul is just here to help!’ the man’s voice called from the camera downstairs. ‘I don’t mean to scare you!’
I thundered down the stairs. I couldn’t reach the downstairs camera, so I smashed it with Ambi’s metre-tall scratching post.
My hands were cut, scraped, and bruised; Ambi was staring, scared, down the stairs at me. But the cameras were silent.
I rolled to sit on the floor, and started to cry. I’d been scared – been panicked, anxious, and worried. But this was the first time I’d actually let myself cry over the whole deal. Pressing shivering hands to my face, I sobbed and sobbed on the floor.
Until a startled little dragon, her blue eyes huge and watchful, stepped up onto my leg. Ambi’s innocent face peered into mine.
I found a tremulous smile, stroked her back, and said, ‘Any chance you want a small slice of leftover pizza?’
It felt like an inadequate attempt to reclaim the freedom and happiness of the previous evening, but I did have one small chuckle watching my dragon’s insane delight over finally having even the tiniest slice of pizza to herself.
‘Happy birthday, Ambalams.’
I’m honestly just trying to help you. I don’t mean to scare you.
Always looking out for you. You can chat with me here anytime.
It took so much for me to hold to the promise I’d made myself and not click that damn hyperlink just so I could do the typing equivalent of screaming my lungs out at this guy. That was the message he sent the following day, and a similar one again the day after that. The Eye was completely oblivious to how much he was not helping me.
There was nothing else to do but start all over again with raking my nerves and sense of security back up. Back to square one, just, this time, with calm pills.
It wasn’t a done deal, but a new rental agreement was looking promising. The new place would be a much longer ride to work. I needed cheaper rent to make up the penalty for breaking my lease. But the new place’s tiny garden had an even higher fence than the one I had now, and one massive tree stood in it. Ambi would love that tree in her own, mostly-secure back garden.
One foot in front of the other, and every day telling myself I was reassured that Eye Into Your Soul’s comments contained no new thing he’d learned by spying on me.
It started to work. I embraced the day I laughed again at Ambi trying to fit herself into an envelope. I made pizza that night.
My first day off in many was a Thursday. I wasn’t surprised, then, when cooped-up Ambi shot out past my feet the moment I opened the front door to grab a delivered parcel.
‘No –‘ I broke off, and just sighed, stooping to grab the box beside my door. Ambi was already tramping away under bushes. I watched her for a bit as she wound her way toward a tree and stared up at it, her face alight with enthusiasm. She jumped, hooked her claws into the bark, and up she went, sinuous, white, and fluffy, but better than good at climbing all the way up to find a fork to sit in.
‘Naughty little dragon,’ I named her. Even from the ground, I could see the quakka smile on her face as she settled into the fork to watch the world. She could come down just fine, and it was a weekday morning. There wasn’t really a better time to let her climb for a couple hours.
I got my coffee and went to my computer. It was only about nine, and today’s writer hadn’t posted their story to Odd Directions yet. Taking advantage of my neighbour not being home, I switched on my music and listened as I caught up with what else was going on in the world. I could see the tree Ambi was sitting in from my study window. In glances every several minutes or so, I checked on her, smiling at the sight of her enjoying her lofty perch.
The neighbourhood felt peaceful for a time, people at work, children at school, and my life, this morning, feeling normal. It was in the quiet between songs that I caught the sound of a rubbish truck somewhere a ways down our road. The sound suggested it was time to bring Ambi in. I didn’t want her getting scared by the big truck and the workers jumping out to collect our wheelie bins. In her fright, she might run off in a bad direction and get lost.
I looked out my window at the tree. She wasn’t in the fork, and nor had she climbed further up. She’d come down then, so I headed downstairs and out the front door, calling for her.
I didn’t see her immediately, so I headed off, looking into flowerbeds and under bushes and parked cars. Ambi never really went far, and, so long as she wanted to, she came when called.
That I didn’t see her, and she wasn’t coming, did start to make me worry. I fetched a packet of treats from the kitchen and headed out again, shaking it as I called her name.
It was her failing to come for treats that really worried me. That, and the sound of a window rolling shut from my neighbour’s house.
I whirled around and stared, the treat packet clenched in my hand. For a moment before he stepped away, I saw my neighbour staring out at me, his mean face hateful.
Every particle of air in my lungs evacuated it. What felt like a crushing band around my chest prevented any air from sucking back in. I sprinted for my neighbour’s front window, and lost my mind.
‘GET OUT HERE – GET OUT – WHAT ARE YOU DOING! WHAT DID YOU DO WITH HER?’ I screamed, pounding on the window. ‘WHERE IS SHE? HAVE YOU GOT HER IN THERE?’
“If it comes anywhere near me, I’ll fucking kill it”.
That’s what my neighbour had said, and that was what was racing, again and again, through my mind. I’ve never experienced such frantic panic. I couldn’t feel my face – couldn’t feel my arms even as my hands slammed into glass and the bars over my neighbour’s window.
My phone was beeping again and again in my pocket. It could have been the police calling me, ready to arrest me, and I wouldn’t have given a fuck.
I pounded and screamed, and pounded and screamed – I even tried to ram my neighbour’s door down. But he didn’t even make an appearance.
A second attempt to ram the door jarred my shoulder badly enough for me to feel it this time. My teeth grit in my mouth. I gripped my shoulder, my eyes flooding with tears.
My phone was pinging frantically at me now, the noise like a panic I couldn’t stand anything else expressing right then. I snatched it out of my pocket and glared down at it, ready to smash it to pieces on my neighbour’s window.
It was a discord message from another mod that flashed in a notification across the top of my screen. It was followed instantly by yet another.
@Gertie AMBI IS IN A GARBAGE BIN! YOUR NEIGHBOUR PUT HER IN A BIN!
For a moment that could have been an age, I was paralysed. The rubbish truck had reached our townhouse complex. It was up the road at the far end, workers pulling wheelie bins out of the second shelter that contained the other half of our complex’s rubbish; the mechanical arm of the truck grabbing bins in its steel grip to hoist them up where the rubbish was dumped in an uncaring tumble into the compactor.
Energy flooding back into my body, I ran, sprinting in bare feet down the sidewalk. I hadn’t been paying attention – had no idea whether, in the time I’d been freaking out on my neighbour’s window, the rubbish collectors had already emptied our end of the complex’s bins. I hadn’t paid attention to what direction the truck was coming from – didn’t know if all I’d find when I threw open lids would be empty plastic bins.
‘AMBI!’ I cried, swinging into the shelter. ‘AMBI!’
I registered the overflowing bins a second before I heard a tiny, muffled meow.
A pre-emptive wash of relief doused me from head to toe, then I scuttled forwards, throwing open lid after lid and calling again.
Ambi was good. Just like the last time we’d been in this bin shelter together, she responded every time I spoke. I tracked her meow to a bin filled with tied garbage bags, and saw nothing in the bags on top that indicated a live cat was in them.
I hauled those bags out, dumping them on the ground and calling Ambi’s name again.
Still muffled, her voice was louder now. Tucked below another bag, I saw a black one moving. I grasped it, pulled it up, and with a quick snap, tore the side of the bag open.
My neighbour had put her in with his kitchen rubbish. Food scraps, cooking grease, paper towels, a used tissue, and a couple mouldy vegetables spilled out. But so did Ambi.
The rubbish truck had pulled up outside the shelter. Ambi’s fluffy fur was filthy, but she was whining, trying to claw her way up to me, her big blue eyes scared and staring up at me.
‘I got you,’ I breathed, scooping her into my arms. My face screwed up, and, however dirty the cat was, I buried my face into her fur as two fat tears fell out of my eyes. Just as the workers filed into the bin shelter.
My arsehole neighbour hadn’t killed her, but he had done something to injure Ambi’s leg. It was a trip to the vet that day, as I snivelled, my hands shook on the steering wheel, and my shoulder screamed every time I moved it. None of Ambi’s bones were broken, thankfully, so it was a wait and watch her limp until the soft tissue healed.
He’d hurt her leg, and he’d terrorised her. It was two whole days of Ambi trying to make herself small and hiding constantly either on my lap or by my feet, before Ambi the Glorious Dragon came back. Even for a while after that, any clanking noise, the rustle of a rubbish bag, or a rapid movement, would have her shrinking away, her wonderful enthusiastic spirit leaving her.
It doesn’t seem anyone ever called the police on me for trying to smash into my neighbour’s house. Maybe no one else noticed over the sound of the rubbish truck, or maybe just whoever was home at ten AM on a Thursday hated the man too. I’m pretty sure the reason my neighbour didn’t call the police on me was that he knew he was guilty of animal cruelty.
I made a police report against him. They said they’d get the security camera footage from the townhouse complex’s manager. I knew personally how unhelpful that manager was.
I might have been tempted to file a police report against my online stalker as well while I was there, only…
I’d gotten to check Odd Directions later that horrible day. Ambi curled and shaking on my lap, I saw the day’s story had been posted about ten minutes before I’d gone out to call Ambi in.
I’d clicked into mod tools, then into the spam log. For so long, Eye Into Your Soul’s predictable pattern had been to send a single comment the moment a new story was posted.
That day, he’d sent two. The first was the standard fare, ending as they always did with an invitation to follow the hyperlinked “here”.
The second had been posted six minutes after the first:
YOUR NEIGHBOUR HAS AMBI! HE PUT HER IN A GARBAGE BAG AND DUMPED HER IN THE WHEELIE BINS! GERTIE, READ THIS!
Maybe The Eye is a “Nice Guy”. Maybe he’s an absolute creeper with zero personal boundaries. But he’s not as evil as my neighbour. When it comes to redeeming acts, that message was a great one.
When I first saw that message, I’d still felt at the knife edge between the way my day had gone, and the way it could have gone – as though the parallel universe that had split off was still close by. Close enough that I could sense a link to a far more broken and frantic version of me, not knowing where my beloved dragon had gone, while Ambi’s body got crushed in the compactor of a rubbish truck.
Had Eye Into Your Soul not been constantly watching me – had they not sent that comment; had one of the other mods not seen it and started frantically pinging my phone… that was exactly what would have happened. And I will be eternally grateful for their help.
I have since moved to the new rental where Ambi has her own tree. It took her a while to work up the courage to go outside and climb it, but she got there. And she now stays extra close to either the house, or my heels, whenever she’s outside.
Eye Into Your Soul has kept touch via removed comments on Odd Directions. I’ve seen no indication that he can watch me now, or has access to anything I don’t want him to.
The police let me know two weeks ago that they’d been unable to get ahold of the security camera footage from my old complex’s manager. They had, however, received it from an anonymous source with the email handle EyeIntoYourSoul@*******.com.
For the most part, I don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know why The Eye took such an obsessive interest in me. I don’t know whether receiving that video from The Eye will be of use to the police. I have no idea who The Eye is, how he achieved what he has, or even what part of the world he lives in.
But I do think that, in their own strange way, they honestly were trying to help.
I vowed to never follow that hyperlinked “here”. Today I did. I didn’t want to restart anything, but I did want to send one message:
Being watched and messaged really scared and worried me. I have to say, though, thank you so very much for saving Ambi. I will always be grateful for that. You really did help.
And then I closed out of there, before the dots had even finished indicating a message being typed. I was certain I wanted to exit the page, and I did not leave an email.
This story was originally written for Odd Directions’s “Oddiversary” event. The theme was “Odd Directions Meta” – as in, you had to reference the community in your story. It was a competition event, with all participants avoiding posting elsewhere while the competition was on. Also, this story won! 😁
Ambi is my cat, and she’s similar to how she’s depicted here. In real life, however, she has 2 humans and 2 older cat buddies to keep her entertained. We worried the older cats would struggle to accept her, but it turned out there’s a gap in their dynamic Ambi fits right into, and that gap is “baby of the family”. So it’s likely some of her spoiled child behaviour is actually the result of being pampered by not only humans, but two older cats who help keep her fur well groomed and tolerate the silly little one when Ambi tackles them!
Also, Ambi is not fed pizza, or much else variation, as we discourage pizza in particular and the poor girl has IBD so is on a rather restricted diet. There’s a good chance that’s a big part of why she wants pizza so much. Thankfully, in real life, her behaviour has improved a lot.
But she’s still a dragon.