The Pledge

📅 Published on September 27, 2021

“The Pledge”

Written by Matt Dymerski
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 10.00/10. From 3 votes.
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I was skeptical when my online friends first linked me to the supposed “evil Kickstarter”  that was going viral on the less-than-wholesome forums we frequented.  We were an unmoderated haven for trolls, weirdos, and radicals, sure, but this Kickstarter was something else entirely.  It seemed to have no publicly stated goal; the writers had only promised “something awesome”  if the funding amount was reached.  Stranger still, the rewards were all hidden except for the first level.

In the “Pledge $1 or more’  box”  the text read: “Want to get started?  Throw in $1, and you’ll receive access to the higher pledge tiers.  Also, two things will happen.  You will have a minor intangible wish granted, and we will send you a video of one of us kicking a random stranger!  Estimated Delivery: Tomorrow.”

Tomorrow?  Don’t these rewards usually only get sent out after full funding?  But I understood what they were going for.  This was a gimmick to get attention, and judging by the high number of backers listed in the box, it was working.  Screw it, I thought.  I’ll throw in a dollar and see what happens.

As I woke up the next morning, I trudged around the kitchen making coffee and then sat sipping it at the table while trying to escape the grogginess of sleep.  All I wanted was a day to myself to avoid the grinding monotony of classes.  At that moment, my phone dinged.  Lifting it, I saw that someone had sent me an email with a video attachment.  I instantly became fully awake as I realized what this was.  Opening it with trepidation, I hit play and watched.

Five teenagers in black hoodies and expressionless white masks ran through an alleyway together, often looking back at the camera and laughing.  When they reached the street, they made a beeline for a tired businessman on a bench, and the lead kid ran right up and kicked him in the shin.  Confused and angry, the businessman leaped up and began shouting, but the hooligans were already running away.  The last few seconds of the video were a close-up of a white mask and dark emotionless eyeholes as they fled the scene.  The speaker said, “This one’s for you, Jason Phillips.  Thanks for your dollar pledge!”

It would be an understatement to say I was put off.  They were actually going around kicking people in return for a dollar!

I had to call the police.  I picked up my phone again, moved to action by the fear that I might be liable for this—but my phone dinged again.  I had a text message and an email from the official college department telling me that classes were canceled today on account of a bomb threat.  I sat in silence until it hit me: I’d just been wishing for a day to myself.  Had these violent teenagers guessed that would be my minor wish?  Had they called in a bomb threat to get me the day off?  I shivered.

I couldn’t call the police.  I couldn’t be connected to this.  I would be expelled at best and jailed at worst.  They might even look into my history of trolling online, and then I’d really be screwed.  How the hell had they gotten my name?  Had I been so stupid as to use my real credit card?  I flipped through the logs and confirmation emails, but no—I’d taken the proper precaution and used an anonymous cash card.  How had they gotten my information?

Oh.  My friends had to be in on it.  Of course!  This was all a prank!  Well, they’d gotten me good.  There was probably no bomb threat at all.  The text had likely been faked or spoofed somehow.  Smiling the whole way, I went to class anyway.

But it was canceled, and cops were everywhere.  Rather than going home, I stopped in a Starbucks and pulled out my laptop.  Was it paranoia to avoid using my computer at home?  Something about this seemed off.

Checking the Kickstarter again to try to understand what was happening, I saw that I’d been given access to the $5 tier.  “Now that you’ve seen we’re legit, why not up the stakes a little?  Pledge five bucks and we’ll get you something tangible of your choice worth $500 or less.  We’ll also send you a video of us punching a stranger in the face!  Estimated Delivery: Tomorrow.”

I could actually feel my circulatory system in my torso thanks to the stressed beats within.  It was not a pleasant feeling.  But pay $5 and get something worth $500?  The first thing that came to mind was that gaming console I couldn’t afford.  All my classmates were talking about the greatest new games, but could only watch gameplay videos online to carry on the charade that I had them myself.

In some sense, I believed that the Kickstarter videos were staged and that the end parts with the close-up and my spoken name were edited onto the end of each file they sent out.  Reassuring myself, I pledged five bucks.

I drank more than my share of beer that night with my roommates.  Trying to pretend like everything was fine, I forced smiles and told some jokes.  One of my friends mentioned that I seemed strained, but I laughed it off and said it was just the stress of upcoming finals.  The beer helped me sleep, but I awoke with a start and ran downstairs as morning light shimmered in through the windows.

There was already a package on my doorstep.  It was addressed to someone named Ricardo Jimenez, along with a note that read “Happy Birthday, son!”  I opened it, but I already knew what it was: someone else’s gaming system had been diverted to my address.  As I opened the box, my phone dinged, and my blood ran cold.

Were they teenagers?  They were thin and lanky under their black hoodies and blue jeans, but their masks hid any identifying features.  Watching them run, I noticed their gait seemed odd, and I steeled myself as they burst out of a different alley and ran at a haggard mother pushing a baby carriage.

I screamed at my phone, “No!”—but it was useless.  The lead hooligan ran straight at her and popped her in the side of the face with a punch that took a straight line.  From that, I knew they were the same height as her.  I absorbed that fact to counter the horrible feeling that I’d caused this to happen to some unsuspecting mother on the street.

Again, a mask filled the video view for the final sequence.  “Thanks for your five-dollar pledge, Jason Phillips!  I hope you enjoy those games!”

The gaming system found a new home in a dumpster five blocks away from my apartment.  I couldn’t keep it, not after what I’d seen, and I certainly couldn’t sell it without confirming intent for any police that might be chasing these guys down.  On the walk back, I took a roundabout route, and I eyed every car around me with suspicion.  No one seemed to be taking note of my presence…but why should they?  To the real world, I was just a random college senior.  They had no idea what I did or said online.

Classes blurred by.  I could think of nothing else but the Kickstarter.  I knew I would see another new pledge level if I looked again, but I feared what I would find.  Between classes, I tried to contact the friends that had linked me to it.  None of them were responding.  I was still half-certain they were somehow in on it, but the feeling this whole thing was giving me—I just couldn’t be sure anymore.

My resistance lasted two days.  Ostensibly, I was checking to see when the mysterious goalless Kickstarter was ending, but I couldn’t help but glance down and see the $10 tier.  “You’re in it now, friend!  For your amazing support of ten dollars, we will free you from an intangible chain that’s weighing you down.  We’ll also send you another of those videos you love.  In this one, we’ll non-fatally stab someone just for you!  Estimated Delivery: Tomorrow.”

Stab someone?  My god!

But an intangible chain weighing me down?  I knew immediately what they meant.  My student loans!  I hit the Pledge button without letting myself debate further.  My student loan debt was over eighty-thousand dollars, and it represented a lifetime of tithing servitude that I would never fully repay, not with the way the economy was going.

Wine was my friend that night rather than beer.  I sat watching pirated movies online until the sun came up, not bearing to think about what I’d done.  At the same time, I very much needed this to be real.  When the Student Financial Services office opened, I was there.

As I barged in the instant the clock hit the hour, a blonde fellow student looked up in surprise.  “Can I help you?”

“Yes, I need to check my debt balance.”  I tried my best to look calm, but I guessed my terse restraint just made me that much more suspicious.  “My name’s Jason Phillips.  Here’s my student ID and papers.”

“Sure,”  she said, taking my paperwork and turning to her computer.  After a moment of typing, she began to recite, “If this is about a payment, you can go to our—”  She stopped typing.  “Oh.  Looks like you have a zero balance.”

Barely able to keep myself from shaking in my sneakers, I clarified, “No debt?  It got paid off?”

She shook her head.  “No.  You’ve never taken out a loan with us at all.  You’re enrolled, but the Registrar’s database says you’ve paid in cash every term.”

“From what accounts?”  I asked, forcing a nonchalant smile.

“Oh, we don’t have access to that here.”  She gave a small laugh.  “I’m just here through work-study.  Is something wrong?  I’d kill to be debt-free.”

My phone dinged in my pocket.  “Don’t say that,”  I told her far more seriously than I intended.  “Don’t say that.”

Out in the hallway, I sat and watched the video.  The same five black-hoodied, white-masked thugs were running through an alley.  As they emerged onto the street and headed for a bald teenage girl in a shirt that read ‘I stood strong, I fought hard, I won’, I closed the video and put it away.  I couldn’t watch it.  I recognized that kind of shirt from my father’s own struggle with cancer.

The shaking wouldn’t stop, and I imagined I was bright red from the absolute chaos going on inside my chest.  Oh God, I was free of the debt, free of the weight of eighty-thousand dollars that had racked up when my father’s illness ate my college fund.  I was free of the debt and I was happy for it.  I was happy!  Meanwhile, some teenage girl that had just survived the unthinkable was about to be stabbed in exchange.  My only consolation, as snot and tears plopped onto the floor by my sneakers, was that the pledge box had specified non-fatal.

“Are you alright?”

It was my turn to look up in surprise.

“It’s not often that someone comes in freaked out and sad that they have no debt,”  the blonde girl from the front desk said.  “Something’s the matter, isn’t it?”  After studying my face, she sat next to me.  “I’m Kelly.”

“Jason,”  I told her, unable to look her in the eye.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong, Jason?”

It all spilled out of me in one long babbling wave.  The Kickstarter, the pledge tiers, the bomb threat, the kick, the gaming system, the punch in the face, the canceled student loan debt; she sat and listened to all of it, wary.

After I was done, she nodded once, narrowed her eyes, and then said, “Show me the video.”

That was not the reaction I’d expected.  I’d been braced for disbelief or having the cops called on me.  Instead, I asked, “Are you sure?  It’s—”

“Just show it to me.”  She took the phone and watched without a visible reaction.  After I heard it say my name and thank me for the ten-dollar pledge, she said, “Well, they stabbed her.  But I think she’ll live.”

I finally found myself able to look at her.  Now that someone else knew, I wasn’t so gripped by terror and self-loathing.  “You’re not scared?”

“I don’t know enough to be scared yet.  Do you have the other two videos on this phone?”

“Yes.  Here.”

She watched the previous two with the same calculating gaze.  Once they were over, she said, “They always originate out of sight.  Why is that?  And who exactly is doing the filming?  Tonight, let’s get these on a bigger monitor and watch for reflections.  These look like random city streets.  There’s no way they’ve got all the angles covered—and if they do, you’ll know it’s fake.”

After a sigh and a nod, I told her, “I have a desktop computer at home.  Two big monitors.”

“You a Computer Science major?”


“Alright, here’s my number.  Text me your address, and I’ll come by after work and classes.”

Taking my phone back with a sense of dumbfounded shame and hope, I asked, “Why are you helping me?”

“Maybe I’m one of them,”  she said with complete neutrality.  “And this is just a way of secretly getting closer to you.”

I laughed nervously, but she returned to the Student Financial Services office without taking it back or even hinting that she was joking.  Something about her deadpan attitude made her seem trustworthy…or maybe I was just desperate to have help in this.  But I had no other option anyway.  That night, I sent her my address, and she showed up with a laptop of her own and sat at my desk alongside me.  I loaded up the videos on my large monitors, and we began to go through them frame by frame, staring at every single blur and corner.

“Hackers of some sort,”  she guessed, drinking from a very large fountain soda she’d brought.  “You’d be surprised the kind of information they can get online.”

“Oh, I’m no stranger to hacking,”  I replied, feeling much better now that I had an ally.  “I basically live on the Internet.  Career no-lifer here.  But this is a whole other level.  Calling in bomb threats, redirecting mail, canceling debt, and all without any police attention that I’ve seen: these guys are good.”

She glanced up at one of the tab names in my browser bar above the video.  “You frequent that forum?”

Red-faced, I quickly closed the tab.  “I’m not a brony, I swear.  I was just trying to get info on these guys.”

“I believe you,”  she said sardonically.

There was nothing in the first or second video, even going frame by frame.  “Could just be unlucky,”  she commented.  “Load up the third one.”

I glanced over at my small digital clock.  “Are you sure?  It’s two in the morning.”

“I’m sure.  There’s something here.”

Again, I had to ask: “Why are you helping me?”

She looked me straight in the eyes, which I’d found was rare for her.  “It’s a mystery.  Don’t you want to solve it?”

“They’re hurting people.”  My heart was beating fast again, for many reasons.  “This is messed up.  They’re halfway to their fundraising goal, and I don’t even know what’ll happen when they reach it!”

“Could be some sort of terrorist attack,”  she mused.  “But that doesn’t seem right.  These guys have some sort of moral code lurking behind their cheery shenanigans.  They’re giving you things, but they’re also hurting people.  Before we look at the third video, what’s the next pledge tier?”

I opened up the Kickstarter and stared.  “You’ve come so far in support of our grand goal!  What’s a few more dollars?  Pledge $25 and we’ll get you something tangible that will go a long way towards your happiness and freedom.  Our video offering here is also pretty kickass—pun intended.  With this tier, we’ll send you a video of us kicking someone you know!  Estimated Delivery: Tomorrow.”

She looked to me.  “The cost in violence appears to have gone down.”

“But now it’s someone I know,”  I said with hesitation.  “But what does that mean?  What level of being familiar with someone means I know them?  Do they mean my friends online?  Classmates here?”

“The choice is yours,”  she replied, still neutral.  “But that seems like a small price to pay for more information.  A fourth video would help, along with seeing them in action again.”

“That’s true.”  I’d been thinking that myself.  Before I could second-guess the decision, I clicked the Pledge button again.

She gazed around my bedroom.  “Nothing happened.”

“Well yeah, it’s not immediate.”

“Then let’s go over this video.”

We began going through the third video frame by frame, looking for any hint of editing or angles that might show something the five masked, lanky figures had missed—and I lost all feeling in my limbs for a moment as I finally saw it.  Pointing, I drew Kelly’s attention to a reflection on a passing car window.  Five black hoodies and white masks could be seen, but—.

“There’s nobody filming,”  she said with confusion.  “That’s where the camera should be, right?”

“Yeah—!”  I half-shouted.  “There’s the pole that just passed on the left!  Where’s the cameraman?  Where’s the camera?!”

While I got up and began to pace back and forth in a panic, she sat in her chair, staring down at the desk and murmuring to herself, “Hacking, coding, digital alteration—buried for us to find—they want us to be scared.  They didn’t make a single mistake in the first two videos.  Why now?  They knew we’d comb through and find it.  All part of the gimmick.”

“Yeah, yeah.  That has to be it!”

“But to edit the reflection on glass on a moving car so perfectly,”  she continued, rocking back and forth slightly.  “It’s amazing.”  She snapped out of it then and looked at me.  “It’s too late to walk through the city.  I’m staying here tonight.”

Just like that, one confusing terror drained out me to be replaced by another.  “…okay.”

She slept on the other side of my bed while I remained awake.  I was getting increasingly fatigued, but I was far too tense to sleep for many reasons.  Morning came as a gradual grey lightening, and I sat up wearily just as the sounds of a loud and heavy truck began emanating from outside my window.  Kelly awoke and popped up instantly with no sign of exhaustion.  Together, we went outside to see a heavy-set man operating a winch to lower a sports car onto the pavement.  “You Jason Phillips?”


“Got some ID?”

I showed him.

He grunted.  “This car’s for you, kid.  What’d you do, get all A’s and your parents bought you a car?  This one’s an easy hundred-thousand.  Must have been some tough classes.”

Staring, I said nothing.  He handed me the title after I signed something on a clipboard, and, suddenly, I was the new owner of a Lamborghini.  The deliveryman knew nothing of interest, only that the order had come in online and cleared, and I was left to sit in my new sports car while my phone dinged every so often to remind me I had a new video.

This didn’t do it for me.  I didn’t care about a car.  I wasn’t really that material.  Except—what else had the tier said?  Something about freedom?  A car meant the ability to travel.  With a car, class would no longer be a twenty-minute walk away.  I could give rides to people, curry favor…  impress girls.  I looked over at Kelly, who stood studying the title and paperwork.  Did this kind of thing impact her at all?  Nothing seemed to faze her.

But I was not nearly as stoic.  The fourth video immediately began in a dark gap between two houses, and the five white-masked perpetrators ran across the street toward a house I recognized.  As they broke in the door and the sounds of my mother screaming reached my ears, I watched in abject horror as the invaders broke my dad’s at-home medical machines and began brutally kicking him until he was crawling on the floor.  Exact grammar was important: the first tier had said that one of them would kick a random stranger.  This latest tier had simply said the video would be of ‘us’  kicking someone I knew.  I hadn’t paid close enough attention!  My jaw began trembling as I watched the five run from the house, laughing.  “Jason Phillips, thanks for your continued donations!”

“What is it?”  Kelly asked.

Through the open car window, I handed her the phone in silence.

She watched it calmly.  “This is great.”

“Great?”  I screamed.  “Did you see what they did?!”

“Yes.  They entered a place they did not control, and by the color of the sky, it looks like they literally just did this.  They’ll have screwed up this time.  They didn’t give themselves a chance to edit the video.  Get inside and get this on your monitor.”

Wiping away tears, I did as instructed, and we began going over the fourth video frame by frame.  It was gut-wrenching to see my father beaten so brutally after what he’d already survived, and to know that I did that—it was something I could never apologize for.

Kelly said, “The Kickstarter’s almost at its goal.”

Glancing at my other monitor, I saw only a sliver remaining to be filled.  It was me, wasn’t it?  It was counting down for me.  I kept finding excuses to gain things at the cost of others, and I kept finding ways to feel confused or surprised about the result to shirk responsibility.  It had clearly stated what would happen in each tier.  In fact, while Kelly continued studying the fourth video, my eyes strayed to the fifth and final tier: “Are you ready for the Change?  Pledge the maximum amount and we’ll reach our goal.  Untold wonders await our most devoted supporters.  We’ll also send you a video of us killing someone you know!  Don’t worry, it won’t be a family member.  Estimated Delivery: Immediate!”

Untold wonders?  What could that entail?  They’d already done such incredible things, but they’d all been within the realm of possibility via computers and social engineering so far.

Next to me, Kelly gasped.  “They missed one.  They missed a reflection!”  She grasped my arm, but I just kept staring at the Pledge button.  Untold wonders?  “They’re not human!  Jason!  Jason, look!  You have to look!”

My hand floated to my mouse, and I moved the pointer over the Pledge button.  I had an idea of who would be sacrificed, if not a family member.  Kelly seemed like a great person, strange in some ways, very caring in others, but did I really value her as highly as whatever these untold wonders were?

I didn’t know her that well, but yes.  Yes, I did.  She was human, and she was alive, just like me.  This wasn’t some anonymous person on the Internet that I was slinging insults at.  This was a real person, and I understood now that they had always been real people behind their monitors somewhere in the world.  God, I’d been a terrible person.  The stress of my father’s illness and the pressure on my finances and family had pushed me in a dark direction, a direction I now had to resist.  I let out a sigh and released the mouse.

The spell was broken.

It was over.

The madness was over.

“No more,”  I said with relief.  “I can’t go down this road any further.  It’s just not right.”  I turned and froze; the ominous black maw of a gun barrel had been pointed at the back of my head, and it was now directly touching the bridge of my nose.  “Kelly?”

She slowly withdrew the weapon and slotted it into an unseen holster.  Still eerily calm, she began to walk away.

“What was all this?”  I called after her from my seat, my mind racing from the adrenaline.  “Was this some sort of test?”

She paused at my door.  Without looking back at me, she said softly, “Yes.  A test for admittance—and you failed.”  Her gaze turned slowly toward me, and now that she was no longer putting on an act, I understood that her expressionlessness was that of an animated corpse.  “But I’m glad you did.  You wouldn’t like it where we’re from.”

With that, she was gone, and I was left to quiver in my chair, process what had happened, and stare at the one reflection the editors had missed in the fourth video: the face of the cameraman.  It was a demonic, hollow-eyed, maggot-infested sneering visage; it was a face that would haunt my nightmares for the rest of my life.

It was my face—almost.

Rating: 10.00/10. From 3 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Matt Dymerski
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Matt Dymerski

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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