Jenny is surrounded by boxes, standing in the living room of her dream house. It has been only a matter of weeks since she received a letter notifying her of the passing of an estranged relative. In that letter, the eccentric and reclusive Aunt Kaye bequeathed Jenny her 19th century Victorian home that looks down on Providence, Rhode Island from its place on a hilltop, along with a substantial inheritance. Within days, Jenny had packed up her tiny apartment, quit her dead-end job and moved across the country to her own personal mansion.
Jenny was never that close to Aunt Kaye, but her childhood memories still held some vague impressions of this place. Beautiful summers and terrible winter storms, old fashioned gas lamps and water basins filled from a pump in the basement. Luckily the old place had been retrofitted with new electrical work, plumbing and central heating and cooling. All it needed now was a touch of 21st century technology.
Jenny sits on a plastic-draped couch and pulls a business card out of her pocket. It had been given to her by the realtor as part of a “Welcome home” care package, along with brochures for nearby attractions, a map of Providence and a travel size toiletry kit. The card reads “HPL Cable and Internet Service.” Oddly, the phone number only has six numbers listed after the area code. Jenny dials just for the hell of it and is surprised to reach an operator.
After a very pleasant conversation, an installation tech is sent to Jenny’s house and is expected to arrive within the hour. Pleased with their customer service so far, Jenny sets about unpacking the TV and setting it up. By the time she has the stand built, mounts the flat screen and connects all the peripherals, the tell-tale chimes of the front door ring.
“HPL, ma’am, how are you today?” asks the technician. He is surprisingly well dressed in a button-down shirt, slacks and even a smart little bow-tie. He even has slip-covers over his loafers. Jenny had been expecting muddy boots, a beer gut and plumber’s crack. She gestures for the man to come inside and he does, carrying a tidy installation kit with him. He lays it out expertly next to the television. Jenny watches as the man removes odd looking equipment from the kit. While she’d seen cable boxes, modems and wireless routers before, this looked nothing like them.
“I know it looks a bit strange,” the tech says, following her confused expression, “but it’s a proprietary piece of equipment we like to use. Our company’s President is a little on the eccentric side.”
The technician removes an oblong box of brass and polished wood. There are little windows of ochre-colored glass set into it at odd intervals. The technician places the box on the TV stand and extends a v-shaped antenna from the back of it. After flipping a few switches and turning a few dials, a line of electricity arcs between the antennae.
“That should do it, ma’am. If you have any questions, you can call us 24/7 at this number,” the tech says, handing her another HPL business card. He packs up his installation kit and stands up to leave. He hands her a remote that is styled in brass and wood, similar to the arcing box on her TV stand. “Just press ‘0’ and a tutorial will explain how to work everything. Good day, ma’am.” The technician makes his way out the door.
“Wait, don’t you have to connect something here?” Jenny asks, but the tech is already gone. She turns back to the TV and it turns on of its own accord; a daytime soap starts playing. Jenny looks over the strange box that’s still crackling with electricity. There are no electrical wires coming out of it, no ports for a cable going into it. By rights, nothing should be working at all.
Jenny presses the ‘0’ button and the TV screen rolls black. A countdown appears like in an old fashioned film reel. She takes a seat on the couch as the sepia toned filmstrip starts up. A man in a 1920s style suit is standing in what looks to be a lab. Goggled scientists work diligently in the background, pulling on levers and cranking gears with rubber-gloved fingers.
“Hello there. We here at HPL are constantly working to improve upon our technology and provide top-notch service for our customers. Now, sit back, relax and let us show you the wonders of HPL.”
Jenny does as the baritone voice on the TV suggests. The heat of the room and exhaustion from the move seems to get to her. In a second, she passes out on the couch.
She wakes with a start; the room is dark and the TV shows nothing but static. There is a misty fog lying low along the floor and it brings with it a creeping chill. Jenny walks over to close the windows, thinking this is a typical occurrence on New England nights. She finds them inexplicably shut. Thinking that perhaps the technician left the door ajar, Jenny crosses the floor to find that it’s closed as well.
Turning around, Jenny finds that the fog is flowing down the staircase from some source on the floor above. But something she sees at the top of the stairs freezes her steps. Two beady eyes glow in the dusky light. Soon, the eyes are joined by many other pairs, all jostling and scrabbling over each other. There comes a scratching sound wafting down with the fog.
The gas lanterns that line the wall along the staircase flare to life spontaneously. Though the dim light is enough to pierce the fog, it also shows Jenny the source of the scratching noise. Dozens of oily black rats are gathered at the crest of the stairs, clambering over each other in a writhing pile. Something keeps their hungry eyes at bay and for that Jenny should be thankful.
She turns back to the front door and goes to make her escape, planning on waiting until the morning to call an exterminator. As she opens the door, she finds the way blocked by a fearsome creature. All angular limbs and lean muscles, it waits, hunched in the doorway. Before Jenny can slam the door closed upon the devil, it shoots a barbed tongue at her, narrowly missing her face. She closes the creature’s tongue in the door to Hellish sounds of pain and rage.
Turning away from the door once more, Jenny finds that the rats have descended the stairs and now occupy every square inch of the floor and furniture. Some are chewing their way out of the walls, others burrow out from the couch cushions. The fog continues to thicken, obscuring most of the vermin for better or worse.
Jenny makes her way to the couch where her purse lies and, inside it, her last chance for help. She feels the snap of backs and the bite of tiny teeth as she steps on countless rats. When she reaches her purse, she notices the TV no longer shows static. The black screen seems to be bulging and flexing, as if some monstrous thing was attempting to break free from inside.
Jenny pulls the phone out of her purse and frantically searches for the business card left by the HPL tech. She punches the numbers in and hears the blissful ringing tones on the other end. The rats continue to bite and scratch at her legs. The bulging TV screen begins to crack, threatening to shatter.
“Thank you for calling HPL. Para espanol, marca dos. For trouble with your service, press 1.”
Jenny presses the number 1 so hard she nearly breaks her phone. Behind her, pieces of LCD-laden glass fall onto the floor. The bulge presses further out into the room. The rats stir into a frenzy.
“Thank you. For trouble with your cable television, press 1. For trouble with your internet, press 2. For all other issues, press 3.”
Jenny presses 3 to the sound of squealing mice and shattering glass. A bundle of coaxial cable bursts through the television screen and whips around the room like a massive tentacle. Jenny makes a run for the stairs, rats be damned.
“Thank you. All operators are busy assisting other customers at the moment. Please stay on the line and we will assist you as soon as possible.”
An old time jazz tune plays through the phone as Jenny scrambles up the steps. A second tentacle of cable wraps around her ankles and hauls her into the air. On the floor below her, rats leap up out of the fog, trying to sink their razor sharp teeth into her flesh. The cabled tentacles begin to retract, dragging her back across the room and into the television itself. As Jenny’s body disappears within the flat screen, she grabs hold of the edges of the TV in a last ditch effort to save herself. The cellphone falls from her hand as she is pulled into the abyss.
“Please stay on the line. Your call is important to us.”
In the light of day, a well-dressed man enters the house upon the hill in Providence, Rhode Island. Other than the millions of tiny scratch marks all over the floor, not a thing is out of place. He sets down his briefcase and pops it open. The man picks up the brass and wood box, which is slightly heavier than it used to be, and places it back in the case. He snaps the lid shut and leaves, locking the door behind him. He makes sure to leave a business card behind for the realtor's next client, as per their ongoing arrangement.