Back in the day, we used to see these very sad photos on the sides of milk cartons with the word MISSING in capital letters. The black and white photos never really meant anything to me. That all changed when I saw my friend’s face on there.
The long messy hair, his crooked smile, and the yellow jacket he would wear almost every day, now all greyed out in that portrait.
We met in 1st grade at the lunch table. The lunch ladies set up an ice chest with ice cream bars by the trash cans with a sign that said 25 cents. They were orange-flavored, and not very good, but I would always carry a quarter with me and waited for Wednesday to come just to buy one. I was about to stand up to throw my tray away, when I heard the sound of a coin hitting the ground and rolling toward me. I looked down and stepped on the old quarter as a nerdy-looking kid came up to me, tried to say something, looked down, and began to walk away.
“Hey,” I called to him, “here’s your quarter.”
Without saying anything back, he got on one knee and reached for the coin. He struggled a little to pick up the quarter but eventually got it between the nail of his index finger and thumb, then walked toward the ice cream table.
I grabbed my tray and walked over to the trash can and stood in line behind him by the table.
It’s been a long time since then, but we eventually became friends and I would go over to his house across the street and he would come over to mine to play Game Boy games and let each other borrow game cartridges. He was really good at finishing up the games.
I remember he was good at a lot of weird things, like cheating at card games, dominoes, and could figure out some pretty odd things. Once we got computers in our classroom in 3rd grade, I started noticing a change in how he acted. During lunchtime, we would hang out in the library of our school and he would show me pages, which much later I found out were actually forums, where certain users would release challenges that anybody could work on through programming software.
I never really got into it and would usually play Doom, hidden away from the librarians and aides, but Carlos got really into it.
Some of the tasks seemed simple, but they had many steps. They were like puzzles or scavenger hunts that you would eventually direct-message to someone, a stranger, on the internet. As a prize, you’d receive some type of virtual points that would show up along your username on the forum, and you could get up to level 100 and be an “expert” or something like that.
It was the summer between 3rd and 4th grade when things really started changing.
His parents had gotten him a computer and a dial-up connection, so we would play chess and look up cheat codes for games, but he always seemed to be working on these forum challenges on the side.
One day, Carlos told me that he had gotten a message asking him for “The day when everything disappeared” which, according to him, was also part of a challenge. Eventually, he would only talk about databases and laboratories.
He started mentioning things about dimensions and alternative numbers.
I followed along with his stories, pretending to understand him half the time. I didn’t know I would be questioned over these things. Now I wish I would have paid more attention.
One particular project he mentioned before he went missing, was a search for a man. Supposedly, a man had been captured and had released a series of coded messages. One of the messages was a scanned photo with a date and short description on the back.
I remember this project because Carlos started becoming obsessed with me learning a type of system to read messages using a walkie talkie, then with images. When my family got an internet connection at my house, he started sharing strings of numbers that another program would capture and would spit out a sentence in plain English. This message then had to be counted for syllables, number of vowels, and referenced with a table that we had made up. It seemed interesting at first, but an hourlong process just to get the word “macaroni” seemed pointless, even for 9-year-old me.
I was walking home from school when a black car pulled up next to me and a man rolled down his window to say my first and last name. I admit that I was a chicken back then so I just ran as fast as I could through the little groups of kids along the way home without looking back, finally making it home.
I never found out what that was all about, as I don’t think the car even followed me home.
As soon as I turned on the computer and booted up the connection, I got a string of random letters and numbers. Carlos hadn’t been in school that day, so I figured he had just sent me a message out of bored. I pasted in the numbers into the program, and it calculated a 7. 7 meant H. Then I kept entering results until I read the whole word: HIDE.
That was the day Carlos disappeared.
A police officer showed up the following day at school to talk with me, and my dad was there with him, along with my 4th grade teacher. Thinking back, I don’t know how much that teacher knew Carlos since the school year had just started, but she tried to help out, saying very nice things about Carlos. Things about his grades, and stuff like that.
I remember feeling confused and sad, and had to answer many questions about Carlos, including things he would do on the internet. I told him about the challenges and about the latest project, but the police didn’t seem to understand anything.
I never saw Carlos again. I spent years visiting the forum until it was taken down or transferred, and eventually I just stopped. But I know he’s still alive.
After graduating college and moving into my own apartment, I found that old computer and to my surprise, it booted up. All of my childhood memories started running wild through my head as I saw the old windows 95 logo and the icons of the crappy games we used to play.
What made my stomach turn, though, was the hundreds of transfers I received when I connected the internet adapter. They were from Carlos. The last one had been sent to me 6 months before turning on the computer.
I’ve decoded every single one, and they all seemed to be repeating patterns.
ALTERNATIVE, LIFE, EIGHTYEIGHT, HARBOR
ALTERNATIVE, LIFE, EIGHTYEIGHT, HARBOR
All except for one word, “HIDE” which was randomly placed in between all of the single word messages.
I’ve asked some of my programmer friends about this, and they’ve said that it does not seem to be automatically sent, and that the word HIDE might actually be a command and not a message, and that the messages may have been sending undetected.
I’ll keep working on finding out where he is or at least how send a message back to him. I’ve got a couple of friends together to help me on this project.
Despite all of this, I’m glad Carlos is alive. One time my dad said that he was too smart for his own good.
I think some secret organization discovered that as well.