Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
It looked innocent, guilty as an eye sore, maybe, but totally unremarkable. The porcelain-snow-globe-part-music-box sang and danced on a carousel of snow. Presents of all colors spun around a Christmas tree while Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” twinkled on loop. Like everything else in the antique store, it belonged to the miss-match of trinkets and junk.
I had been perusing the isles of tacky treasure mostly out of boredom. “Shawn’s Stable,” was a one story shop set up in the husk of an old bookstore. Most of the “antiques” were locally sourced: homemade pottery, too-far-for-Goodwill drop offs, and scavenged scrap from the pawn shop’s dumpster. Altogether they made for a unique display.
Everywhere you went, from the ceiling to your toes, there were shelves and hooks packed with clutter. It was only on my third walkthrough that I noticed the snowglobe, stuck on a high shelf, behind an empty metal tobacco can & a photorealistic painting of a Highway Culver’s. To be honest, I thought it was ugly – the snowglobe, I mean. The painting too, of course, but I was considering the glitter-crusted globe for my cousin Dwaine. I knew he collected them and thought it would make for a good Christmas gift. I turned it around, looking for a price tag, but found something else.
On the bottom of the snowglobe, imprinted like a stamp, was a QR code. That’s pretty high-tech for an antique store, I thought, do they have all their stuff listed online?
I scanned the code with my phone. Immediately a link popped up, directing me too… nothing. The web-page looked broken as I was met with a screen that read “This site can’t be reached.” That’s when I noticed the domain name. It was a random scramble of characters but with the extension “.onion”.
Now, my networking knowledge was pretty limited but I knew “.onion”. Google, Safari, all those regular browsers, they can only access certain domains – the ones they permit. This was not one of those domains. “.onion” was for the dark web.
As if finding a link to the dark web on the bottom of an antique snow globe wasn’t strange enough, the owner didn’t even seem to recognize it. In fact, when I brought it up to the front desk, he thought I was trying to sell it. The man, who I could only assume was Shawn himself, looked like an off-brand Santa Clause: old, rosy cheeks, and bouncy, but too skinny and too gray a beard to fit the mark. I asked Shawn if his store had a web-catalog and he chuckled. He said they didn’t even have a “Twitter page” and that all items should have been tagged.
I offered him $5 for it. He countered with $10.
Fake-Saint-Nick smiled as I pulled out the cash.
~ ~ ~
I was still planning on gifting the snow globe, but before I did, I thought I’d investigate the mystery imprinted underneath. The Dark Web doesn’t always mean “bad,” a better word for it would be “private.” For all I knew the link could have led to some guy’s super secret snow globe shop, or a webpage full of pirated movies. I doubted my cousin even knew how to access the Dark Web, but I was better off figuring out where the link led before I put it in gift wrap.
I had a burner laptop from when I used to work in a computer lab. It was nothing special but perfect for testing messy code and suspicious software. I triple checked my VPN, downloaded the tor browser (which could access “.onion” domains) and copied, letter for letter, the link from my phone into the search bar. And then, I clicked enter…
A second later and there was music. Slowly the web page transformed, opening like an old, 8-bit video game to reveal the words: “Pappy Puppy’s Parlor”
A video game. It was a video game. The words “LogIn” blinked in sync with the retro version of Mariah Carey’s song. I clicked it and the screen transformed again. Zooming in and drawn in grayscale pixel art was the front of a register. Surrounding it, on the desk and on shelves, were numerous decorative figures. But behind the desk and bouncing between two frames of animation was a cheerful figure that stared straight at me. “Pappy Puppy” looked like a beagle and was fully clothed, wearing a white apron and what could have been a conductor’s hat.
The figure jumped with a grainy yap and a text box appeared.
“Welcome to Pappy Puppy’s Parlor! Where every order is special!”
Okay, so there was a lot to take in here. Still at the forefront of my mind however, was the snow globe. Why would someone stash the link to a video game underneath a common-place antique? My first, albeit shaky, theory was that I had just stumbled upon a clue to some ARG or complex scavenger hunt. On my phone I tried googling “Pappy Puppy’s Parlor” but found nothing, or at least nothing that resembled what I was looking at. I didn’t know if that supported or debunked my theory.
I moved the mouse around. As it hovered over certain items, like the letter bin or register, the cursor turned into a paw print, indicating what was interactable or not. Off to the left there was a message box labeled “Tips.” The message changed every twenty seconds or so, rotating between seemingly innocuous statements like:
“Remember! Wash your hands before and after every meal!”
“Remember! Pappy Puppy says be safe and don’t share your name with strangers!”
As I was scrolling around, and trying to google anything about weird dog-themed video games, there was a sudden ding! The letter bin rose with an envelope. I clicked on it and a typed letter popped up. It was an order – like, a restaurant order for a quote, “Bacon, Lettuce, & Cheese Sandwich & 10oz Orange Soda.”
At the bottom was a play button. Clueless, I clicked it and my screen changed into a minigame. Before me was a stack of plates, cups, and assortment of ingredients. Following the logic here, I made the order, clicking on different images to assemble a bacon, lettuce, and cheese sandwich plus an orange soda. Then, I clicked the only other button on screen, which said “Done.”
The main menu appeared again and the register chimed. Aside from Pappy Puppy jumping with glee, the count on the register increased, rising from 0 to 5 cents. The sound of a paper shredder played and the letter icon I had opened previously was torn apart. The tips window changed too and read,
“Remember! Pappy Puppy always cleans up after every order!”
Okay, so it’s a fast food simulator, I thought.
I went through some of the other icons. On the desk and opposite of the letter bin was a service bell. Clicking that pulled up a shopping menu. There were options to buy ingredients and supplies, each with varying costs, and then there was an option called, “Special Orders.” But what this was for, I couldn’t tell. Clicking it instantly closed the menu.
I played around a bit more, testing different options, but most of the icons in this game seemed broken. I’d hover my mouse over the register and a paw print would appear. But when I clicked my mouse, nothing happened.
Occasionally, there would be another ding! as orders stacked the letter bin. They were all like the first, a short mini-game with a payout of anywhere between 1-10 cents. After a few minutes of playing around I had racked up a whopping $1 and 48 cents.
Maybe this was a scavenger hunt. Or maybe I was missing some hidden reference, or maybe this was just a broken game in development. In any case, I didn’t think there was anything left for me to see, so I went to close the tab…
But, just before I did, something caught my eye.
Hidden on a shelf behind Pappy was the small shape of a snow globe. It was nearly indistinguishable from the overflowing background, and were the icon not so eerily similar to the tacky decor physically sitting on my desk, I wouldn’t have made a connection. Memories from when I used to play point-and-click adventure games came flooding back. There was a term I used to hear thrown around, it referred to whenever a game designer hid some puzzle on screen, tucked within the artwork – pixel hunting.
I brought my mouse over the microscopic image. No paw print appeared, but I clicked anyway. When nothing happened, I moved my mouse only by a hair and tried again. Again and again I tried, shifting the mouse pixel by pixel with no results, soon wondering if I was only driving myself insane until-
The screen flashed. It was almost too quick to notice, but I caught how Papy Puppy refreshed his animation. But what did I do? I went scoping through the menu but the only obvious change was that the count on the register had reset to zero. I clicked on the icon, and this time it worked. A text box appeared with two options listed as “withdraw” and “deposit.” Not thinking, I clicked on one of them and suddenly a separate tab opened up on my computer. I closed it quickly, thinking it might be an ad or virus, but from a glance it looked like a website for trading crypto currency.
If they weren’t already, my eyebrows were becoming bent into a question mark. I then remembered the shopping menu and dragged my mouse over the bell icon. There, I clicked on the “Special Orders” tab, and what appeared next was… a menu. Like for a restaurant.
Similar to the fast-food mini-game, I had the ability to design my own sandwich. It was fairly limited – I couldn’t change the buns or burger and there were only three layers of condiments. If I tried to add anything more it would only swap out the last layer. There was also an option to customize my drink but only its size. I could enter any number, but no matter what, I was stuck with an orange soda.
I wasn’t sure what would happen if I submitted an order. Would it direct me to another link for crypto cash? Or was this just another unfinished part of the game? I gave it a try, requesting a burger with eggs, lettuce, and (just to mess around) another layer of eggs, plus a 12oz strictly-orange soda. As soon as I clicked “done,” Pappy Puppy was jumping up and down. A message box read:
“Thank you for submitting your order! Pappy Puppy is cooking it now!”
Nothing happened for a while. Even the once-constant dinging of incoming orders was strangely absent. I wondered if maybe I had glitched the game but messages were still flowing through the tips window, which now, looking closer, were different.
There may have been four or five phrases before, all of them unassuming. But now, some of the messages bordered on weird. Like:
“Remember! Pappy Puppy wants everyone to play fair! Or else!”
“Remember! Violators of Pappy Puppy’s Terms of Service will be met with due justice! Obey the rules!”
And even …
“Remember! Don’t want to get your paws dirty? Pappy Puppy can prepare any order just the way you like it!”
There were maybe a dozen more messages all equally bizarre and vague as to their meaning. On my phone, I wrote a few of them down (the one’s I just mentioned) and then halfway through copying another terrible tip, I heard it…
An envelope appeared in the letterbox.
For a moment I only stared at the screen and then the snow globe. There was some thought still tangled in my head, one I barely had time to unravel, but I clicked on the note.
I was expecting another message but this time, what appeared was a chat window. A message popped up.
“Hey,” it said.
I found I could type and replied, “Hey.” The name above the chat window was “Pappy Puppy Partner.”
“You order a 12oz soda & sandwich with WHITE eggs, GREEN lettuce, and WHITE eggs?”
I frowned. What was with the colors? And why were they in all caps?
I responded, “Yeah?”
What he sent next only confused me even more:
“So the double-eggs is a no go, but you could always swap out that third layer yourself. Easier than swapping out that first, amiright? If you’re still good with that, I can send you some samples.”
Samples of what? I thought. I was afraid of how to respond but simply typed, “Sure.”
In the chat window a link appeared next to message that read:
“Merry Christmas. Now pick your present:”
I should have closed my laptop. I should have never looked up that QR code or clicked on that snow globe or even submitted that stupid order. Because now the dread rising in my stomach was boiling over, now I had to be sure, now I had to prove to myself that that sinister suspicion growing within me was completely ridiculous…
I clicked on the link…
A second later I threw the laptop closed and chucked the snow globe into the trash, glass shattering. Guilt, anger, disgust, and flurry of contracting emotions spun around in my stomach, nearly erupting.
What I saw, what I still saw scorched under my eyelids, was an unwaking nightmare.
And now it made horrible sense. The hidden menus, the crypto trading, the ingredients. “White,” “Green,” and “White” or rather, “Swapped-for-Blond.” They were skin, eyes, and hair…
And a 12oz soda- God. It was an age. They were kids! Not just one, but capital S, plural, KIDS. I can’t believe I was so stupid. I can’t believe I even dared to check – It would have been so much easier to have stayed unsure!
I was pacing the room now, thoughts spinning out of control. I had to tell someone. The police! I realized. Then instantly, I remembered the shredded evidence discarded in my trash. I reached halfway inside but stopped, pulling back out with a second thought. Surely I needed to hand this over to the authorities, but I wasn’t going to lay any more fingerprints on that vile thing. So I bagged the trash tight and bagged it again, feeling the snow globe-water slosh around in pattern with my gut. Then I picked up my phone and made the call.
~ ~ ~
There were no other fingerprints found on the globe. And after an extensive investigation the police determined that neither I nor the store owner, Shawn, were involved in its making or distribution. They told me it was likely a drop-off, that the snow globe was intended for someone else and that I, by pure unluck, had found it first.
They tried looking into the website, but whoever designed it, whoever was running the operation, was three steps ahead. I guess my sudden log-off had looked suspicious because now, the link from the QR code only led to a blank page with a note:
“Pappy Puppy’s moving shop! We hope to see you soon!”
Ironically, just about the only “right” thing I did was click on that link. With painful detail I was able to give a description of some of the kids. The officers reassured me that my report will help identify them, but it’s a poor consolation.
I still got Dwaine a snow globe. He smiled when he opened his gift and handled it in a care-free manner that made me jealous. Then he placed it on his shelf with the rest of his collection.
I almost said something as he left to grab us drinks, but I shut the thought behind a smile. I hadn’t shared my story with anyone, nor would I. Not now, not when it’s supposed to be the season for giving and caring and love and not the wretched sins of miserable monsters.
I tried to forget what I saw and to think of better things and the family I was so lucky to have. But left alone with my thoughts, surrounded by cousin Dwaine’s collection, I felt those memories coming back…
And again, I wish I hadn’t checked… for every snow globe in his collection had a QR code underneath.