History is unreliable, isn’t it?
History isn’t ever really what happened. Over the course of my time here I’ve come to understand that more and more- that nothing can truly replicate firsthand experience. And if you were ever to meet me, you would certainly get an impression. Unfortunately, all I can offer you now is a secondhand narrative, and whether you see me as the villain in this case will ultimately depend on what sort of person you are, how you see things. The experience any given document provides is unique to the individual.
Just realized. Writing this down is useless, because they’ll destroy it. What’s the point if nobody is around to read it? I guess everything we create is like that. Everything is subject to time. Everything decays. The failure of my efforts here prove that. Entropy seems to be a true universal constant, a reliable friend that shoves your face in the mud. As much as we might not want to admit it, we all die and there’s a point some time in the far future at which everything we did ultimately proves futile.
I guess holding onto the past is one of the things which sets us apart from the apes, the sentimentality of it all. It’s not practical, storing all this useless history. They say you learn from history, but when’s the last time Hannibal crossing the Alps taught you jack shit as far as acquiring food or shelter was concerned? Still, we do it all the same. In the hopes that one infinitesimal nugget of the ultimate truth might be concealed away somewhere in there. A semi-spiritual falsehood.
Why do we preserve things, or try to? If the sun will consume the Earth, expand in a rapid ball of flame, and we’ll probably be long extinct by then, why are we programmed, biologically, with this nagging desire, this incessant pursuit? What does it achieve? I’m still asking myself that while I type this- flames are only growing and the wind outside is stronger than ever before. They’re really close now. Walls can’t keep them at bay this time. I can’t deny that I am at fault, that somehow I’ve failed. One decision I made. Didn’t account for every contingency. Now it’s all going to be lost. All of it.
You’re probably wondering who I am, how exactly I rose to prominence. I don’t even know who I am anymore, really. All I know is that some force has carried me through this, changed me in several ways. What would I call this entity? Memory, maybe. Or maybe the Mouth. Because its gaping maws consume all. It wants to eat. I carry its dinner in, shovelfuls of it, feed the monster. A hungry sponge, representative of that human drive, the universal desire for readily accessible knowledge.
Then there’s the angry mob, pitchforks and torches in hand. Or hands, plural. They want to destroy the monster. It’s a relatively simple dynamic, really. I’ve dealt with all manner of rabble- human and otherwise. I’ve studied them, looked them in the eye, squared off against them for as long as possible. There is, however, as with all things, a breaking point, a pivotal moment. That pivotal moment is now.
I write this on October 31st, 2022, and outside The Others are gathering.
Now, if you paid attention to anything you’ve read, you might have mistaken me for The Archivist, that wanton murderer who made headlines in the early 2000s for killing women along the Cherry Creek bike path and taking photographs of their mutilated bodies in the quest for some sort of twisted satisfaction, or hubris, or a combination of the two.
That is only partially correct. I am The Archivist, though the entity writing this did not kill those women, because I am many people and have taken many different names. I must clarify that much before they get me. In my quest for immortality, I have become immortal in the sense that there are an infinite number of varieties of Ellis here in the present, as well as in the past. The future, however, may be another matter, and it certainly isn’t looking great, for any of us.
I’m crazy, you’re saying. Off my fucking rocker. Well, maybe I am. Have you considered that having thousands- no, millions- of consciousnesses compressed into one fragile calcium container will have an effect on someone? Has anyone ever given me the time of day?
Shelby, I know you’re in one of the adjacent rooms, and you’ll burn as much as I do when this teakettle boils, which won’t be long now. You’re destined for the same fate as I am, always have been, probably. How does that feel, dear Shelb? You and your condescension- your sense of being above it all- how many times I felt the urge to choke the life out of you and rid this world once and for all of your slut behavior, you can’t imagine. But I held back.
No, no. That’s the Archivist talking. Pay him no mind. He doesn’t matter anymore, I don’t matter either. I’ve been through a hundred incarnations at the epicenter of all things, reading beneath the underpass in a mobius cycle that note I wrote for myself. Always telling myself that killing those women wouldn’t further my life, that I wouldn’t be able to harness their energy to feed the Mouth, that it was unsustainable. And every time I disregarded my own advice, and this is the end result. Not only the end result for who I am now, might I add. I believe this to be the end of us all.
Valerie, a word on Valerie. I can’t even remember what she looked like. That’s how long it’s been, since I saw any of them. That’s what I’ve been trying to remember, that the more time you spend recording your family the less time you actually spend WITH them, as an active participant. It’s a trade we all make.
Why I must be PERSECUTED for this decision, a consensual choice on my part, I really have no idea. Cruel justice, twisted fate, if one of us were so vile why must we all be exterminated? Because I am a threat to them. I’m a penny on the railroad tracks, a detriment to progress, to unceasing change. A small dust particle gumming up the cogs of the cosmic clock. And until tonight, I have kept them at bay. But time stops for no one. And it’s my time now.
You hear that? Of course you can’t hear it. But the sound has been made all the same, never to be recorded on any tape or device, never to be heard by any human ear save my own. I forgot what that was like, almost- to have a unique and irreplicable experience. It’s the noise they make when their disgusting coats drag on the dirt road. Slithering, gasping through those orifices they call mouths.
I shouldn’t have dragged Jav into this, if I have one regret that’s it. Should have bought a calculator and done all the work myself. I would have sacrificed hours if it meant Jav was OK right now. But Jav isn’t OK. He’s spontaneously combusted.
I walked in on him tonight, pencil to his lip, he appeared to be stuck on something. Still clattering away at those keys, and when he saw me enter he stopped for a moment and looked up at me, and I thought I could make out his eyes from behind those sunglasses he always insists on wearing, though it may have been merely a trick of the light. Jav said he wore them because his retinas were sensitive, and whenever he took them off during a bright day it caused him headaches. So he slunk around in here like a bat in a subterranean grotto, among the piles and stacks of paperwork. I put sheets over the windows, turned the intensity of his monitor down 90%.
“There’s something different tonight,” he said. I remember this bit distinctly. “Calm before the storm, that’s what they call it. It’s so fucking quiet out here, no wind and no crows and the hills way off. Went outside to take a look at sundown, El. There were lights out there.” I couldn’t stomach to tell him, even then, in the throes of death, what I’m telling you right now, which was wrong on my part. I liked Jav, he was a good scout. Gave his all to this organization, out of all the workers under my watch he was the only one really dedicated to keeping the enterprise afloat. I should have told him, even if it meant him getting upset, even if it meant him accusing me of holding things back.
“What kind of lights?” I asked, knowing full well what kind of lights they were. It was All Hallow’s Eve, the night of the dead, when the boundary between realms is ever more pronounced. Down south in Boulder, Jack-o-lanterns were carved and the wail of the otherworldly was carried on sour wind. No wind here, of course. Only the noise Jav’s pencil made tapping the desk. He was jittery.
“They were like the seven lights,” he whispered. “Seven lights on the black hills.”
“Come again?” I was tired at this point, exhausted from weeks of paperwork. The sheriff still gave me a strange look whenever I drove into town for supplies, even if the Carlyle case had been dropped and we had been determined exempt from responsibility. The stress alone from the mountains of forms and legal hassle was enough of a punishment.
“It’s from a book I read,” he murmured in a strange drawl. “Long time ago, must have been 15. I can’t place the name of it, it was a weird book. About the end of the world, the ultimate destiny of humanity. They all gathered in this megastructure, a towering pyramid, and waited for the inevitable. The extinguishment of all life. They just sat around, complacent, while the fabric of reality fell apart and the danger grew, steadily. The inevitable, Ellis.” As he said this the sheet on the window directly above his desk fell and I could make out the nocturnal landscape- the billowing tufts of vegetation, coated in a thick twilight haze.
“You should read less,” I told him, and then I shut the door and walked back to my office. And I knew that if he died, he would die in ignorance. Ignorance was preferable to knowledge, I reasoned. Knowledge of what they were capable of. Better to die in euphoric oblivion than to die knowing that you could have prevented your own death with better utilization of said knowledge.
The clock on the wall had stopped, and I changed the batteries but to no avail. The hands read 9:19 and I knew that this was also an ill portent. Even the familiar ticking of the timepiece had left, and the claustrophobic quiet set in. Not so much as footsteps in the hallway, no noise from Shelby or Dan, despite their being here. We were all caught in our own separate bubbles, because as every great strategist knows you must divide the enemy before conquering. They had really thought this through.
Time had stopped, I realized, gazing at my desk and the broken clock. Time did stop, at least for me. Peals of laughter. Laughter without reverberation, without echo, a noise which died down as soon as it erupted, and within seconds it was gone.
As the night continued my security was gradually stripped away. They knew how to do it, to make their presence known and their anger apparent, though in ways which stifled the soul, ruined perception. My desk seemed to quiver, ever so slightly, and the walls had an effect where they looked as if they were caving in, like those old traps in the adventure serials, though they were actually steady. I dipped down to my file cabinet where I always keep a bottle of Jameson handy. Poured myself one shot, then another, although the burning sensation in my throat didn’t make me any more aware of my surroundings.
Was Valerie right to leave me? No, she wasn’t. I was a casual drinker, had one beer at the football game and another at the wedding, and because of this she thought she was too good for me, and she assumed- blindly, like the fool she was- that leaving me would afford me a period of self-reflection. It didn’t. Without her I only nursed the bottle more. Not enough to create what I am today, no, that has to do with who I am internally, who I’ve always been. The whiskey played no part, really. I have to believe that.
My eyes teared up and I wiped at them with the sleeve of my jacket, and my nose was hot. It had been a stupid idea, I realized. The room kept fading regardless. In and out it went, like someone had snuffed a candle, as if the curtains had gone down on the scene right before the cast entered and the play began. What would it be? The Conqueror Worm? Ha ha. More laughter.
Without thinking of the end result I gazed down at my hands, which had developed wrinkles and clenched the edge of my desk with vitriol. They were devoid of blood, pale and distant, and as I continued staring at them they multiplied thricefold- one hand with an unusual amount of hair on the back, one with a decidedly feminine appearance, and my own in the middle. They expanded upon themselves in an intricate geometric pattern, and if I cocked my head ever so slightly they would rotate in response.
Screaming from Jav’s office. I didn’t even know Jav could make a noise like that, all the marrow in his bones having congealed, a rictus screech which permeated the walls and housing, caused me to knock my shot glass onto the floor, whereupon it evaporated into a crystal dust.
I fumbled with the handle on the door, tripped over my feet en route to his enclave. The room was quiet from the outside, only the sound of his wall clock, slowly counting down the minutes and seconds to our mutually assured destruction. I paused, hesitated, tried making up some excuse for myself as to why I shouldn’t take a gander past the frame, knowing full well what lay inside. But things like that don’t really worry me anymore, at least not as much as they used to, and there was no reason he should be any different. He was only a sack of flesh.
As I presumed, what had been Jav was now a mutilated sheet of cartilage and organs strewn across every square inch of his former workspace. Both kidneys thrown haphazardly onto his keyboard, his face somehow even more disturbing without those cheap shades on, eyes clawed clean from their sockets but still staring right ahead at me, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw how they had taken most of his skin, from his back, and draped it over the monitor. They really had done a neat job on him. Fuck, I thought aloud to myself, and rammed my knuckles against the wood. We are all done. Toast.
I whirl around and Shelby and Dan are standing there, eyes wide, Shelby is digging her nails into her palm and Dan’s right hand is clenched around her left. Her bottom lip is quivering ever so slightly, matching in perfect time the undulations of the pendulum on Javier’s wall-mounted timepiece.
“I can explain,” I said, putting my hands up, neat little smirk. Already my shirt is coated in bloodstains from the aura of guts permeating the place, red mist has arisen from the cadaver, and the first signs of decay are setting in, creating a real stench. They both look as if they’re a million miles away, and they probably are, because to see me like this, in this state, drunk out of my mind and standing before the disemboweled remnants of my former colleague, yet with the same casual indifference I always maintain- they must find me a particularly sociopathic gremlin, devoid of a human temperament.
“There’s nothing to explain,” says Dan. “We want out. Now.”
“Fine,” I say, waving them away. “Just leave. I’ll deal with this by myself. I’ve got to-”
“The front door is locked,” Shelby interjects. “Back door, too. You locked us in here, so we’re asking you very nicely- we are asking you as politely as we possibly can- to unlock the fucking doors.” There are tears welling up in her eyes, her voice is wavering somewhat and she’s making fists. The last thing I need right now is an outburst from either of them, or panic. Panic is what the enemy thrives off, chaos is what feeds it. With a nimble step, I slam the door to Jav’s office and put my arms around both their waists, ushering them a safe distance from the carnage.
“Be quiet,” I say, as the overhead lighting flickers on and off. “They can hear you if you give into irrational apprehension. I never locked the door. I swear.” Both of them are speechless, frozen like ice figures at a winter carnival, and I’m stumbling over my words, trying as best as possible to explain just how messy things are going to get- how fucked we all are, as a group, as martyrs to the cause. Part of it’s the whiskey, the other part is merely my poor oratory capabilities.
Just as I am about to launch into a diatribe which neither of them really want to hear, I am interrupted by a faint chime, way out in the furthest recesses of the building. It’s the doorbell.
Shelby breaks from my grasp before I can catch her, screaming at the top of her lungs, she probably assumes it’s the police or an erstwhile pizza delivery. I and Dan race after her, and Shelby- being the hapless idiot that she is, an idiot I foolishly entrusted with petabytes of information, records of things of interest to all humanity, backups of those and backups of those backups- in one fell swoop she jiggles the handle and opens Pandora’s box, letting them all inside, letting every last one of them to complete their foul work. She is the contingency.
They’re all invisible to the naked eye right now, of course. In their place there’s a small trick-or-treater standing on the stoop, a peculiar sight given Hygiene’s remote location. At ten feet away, I am 90% sure it is not human. At five feet, witnessing the thing’s placid, all-knowing response to Shelby’s unhindered screaming, I am 100% certain. She pauses for a moment, stops screaming. Lifts her hand to her jaw and looks out at the night visitor.
It’s clad in shabby blue denim, an archetype made manifest. It’s wearing a mannequin mask without features, displays no emotion, no personality, virtually no sentience. It merely stands there, on the threshold, pail full of glistening candy clenched in its disturbingly small little gloved hands, and behind it the fields of the St. Vrain Valley blow and whisper in muted tones, and the telephone wires above hum ever so faintly beneath the sprawling canvas of starlight.
“Trick or treat,” it said.
I slammed the wooden slab in its cold face, scrambled to yank the metallic keyring from my pocket and inserted it into the slot. Shelby had been knocked back by the force of my movements, which were spontaneous and loose. Dan was desperately attempting to make a call to the outside world on his cellphone, but the screen only displayed an image of two fluorescent eyes and a sharp grin. He yelped, tossed it to the floor where it made a resounding thud, and backed away from it.
“Okay,” I said, running my fingers through my hair. “Shelby, you’ve just let them in. That thing out there- it’s one of them, I’m sure of it. You can’t leave. You hear me? YOU CAN’T FUCKING LEAVE, because if you do they’ll kill me. We fight to the end.” Shelby was sobbing endlessly into her elbow, and Dan, being the soft milquetoast he is, rushed over to console her. I stood firm and scouted the immediate vicinity, poking my head out like a tortoise.
“Let ‘THEM’ in,” shouted Dan, his neck tendons on full display. “Elly, who are THEY? There’s YOU and there’s ME and there’s HER. That’s IT. Unlock that fucking door or I am going to beat you up and kick my way out if I have to.” He raised one fist, and I nonchalantly strolled over to a desk and picked up one of the VHS tapes.
“Okay, let me explain this.” Deep breath, clock ticking. “The outside you’re seeing out there is not outside. It’s actually inside. Inside this.” I held the tape up, flashed it from face to face, yet neither of them seemed to recognize what I was talking about. I sighed. Had I been too obfuscatory?
“All Hallow’s Eve,” I continued. “Halloween. You know what it is. It’s an occasion which we, as a species, have collectively agreed serves as a conduit between the living and the dead. Tonight, of all nights, I had hoped we could just come here, sit down, do our work, spend the night, have some idle chatter in my office, Hell, I even had some scary movies planned that we could watch, if we all got our work done. But we HAVEN’T been getting our work done, have we? We haven’t been as EFFICIENT, no. Because you know, and I know, we all in the back of our minds ACKNOWLEDGE, that something is different about tonight. And that’s where they derive their power from. From the collective unconscious.”
“You’re crazy,” objected Dan. “You are fucking insane. Let us by.”
“That’s not a real highway, Dan!” I shouted, pointing with one shaky finger out the window. “It might LOOK like it, sure. But it’s only a recording. I’m not sure of what. The highway how it was in 1992, or 1994, or newer, maybe it’s digital. Didn’t get a good enough look at it. Point being, you can no longer trust what you’re seeing, because they’re inside. They’ve made it past the containment field.” At this term, Shelby looked up from her mucus episode.
“Containment field?” she bawled. “Ellis, what are you talking about?” That voice. Like nails on a chalkboard. Coming from that scrawny, makeup-covered larynx. I resisted the glistening temptation to wrap my fingers around her vocal cords and once and for all put her out of her misery.
“It was installed by the old staff,” I muttered. “Dan, you remember that thing you found? Out by Highway 36? Last September?” The lights above us started letting out strange micronoises, barely imperceptible unless one were to listen closer, and if one did listen closer, it created a feedback loop of amplification.
“I have no idea what you’re even saying,” he said, trembling frantically. “Ellis, you let us OUT-”
“No,” I said. “The barrier is MADE out of that thing, Dan. Designed by experts. And tonight, of all nights, your fucking girlfriend had to open it like a stupid fuck, and now we’re all dead. Who knows, Dan? We probably died five minutes ago, for all we know. We’re on a ghost ship now, voyage of the damned. Whooo-hoooh-hoo-” Grabbed the tape, forcefully smacked it against the table, where the plastic housing snapped in half, the gray reels within sputtered and spiraled to the floor in a butterfly cascade. Didn’t even know I was capable of that level of strength.
“I’m not his girlfriend,” she said, audibly choking up. “I’m not yours. I work here, and I’ve been here since the beginning, and all I’ve ever received as a thank you for my efforts- without which, I might add, we’d be gone well over a year before tonight- are dirty glances and sexual harassment.” She wiped her nose, her tears had smudged her lipstick and she resembled a cursed painting lit ablaze.
“Whoa there,” I snickered, backing up into a corner. “Looks like it’s someone’s time of the month, huh?” I was well and truly beyond these events, watching them like a spectator at a baseball game, really without agency. If this were an inevitability, then nothing could be altered, and everything I said was not of my own volition. I have to believe that. Have to try.
“You are a sad, sick little excuse for a person,” she barked, her voice building like rumbling thunder, like the din on the horizon right before a downpour. “I would feel sorry for you, Ellis. I would. You lost your family, your job, everything you cared about. But I’m not your wife. Dan isn’t your son. You don’t have a family. Ellis. You’re dead. You died a long time ago, you’re a ghost in everything but name.” Her eyes flickered, glowing like distant candles in the encroaching darkness. Could she be-?
I didn’t wait. Hesitancy would only lead to further regret. I picked up the destroyed spools of tape off the carpet and in one smooth reflex motion wrapped them tightly around that thin, frail neck of hers, made sure to loop the tape to the extent that it would be broken, one circuit, then two, then seven. And her eyes began to water and a trail of saliva formed at the corner of her mouth.
Dan bolted towards us both, picked up some scissors from the corner of the desk and began cutting Shelby loose from her magnetic death. I smoothly bent down to grab one half of the broken plastic housing, and with one smooth motion I sliced through the flesh of his face like a chef’s knife through butter. He screamed once, a loud, feminine noise, jumped back, and collapsed into a miserable pile on the far side of the room, holding the gash I had given him as the blood thoroughly soaked his tacky retro jacket, the one he always wore for whatever reason.
This completed, I gingerly removed the spool from Shelby’s neck, placed both the tape and housing onto the desk, and shoved her limp body onto the floor beside Dan. At that moment, the lights turned off. I was feeling the effects of the drink now, the golden mental haze, the static, the distortion. Could barely stand on my own two feet, lights switching on and off, noises beyond the threshold growing.
“All quiet on the Western front,” I muttered softly under my breath, holding the table to keep my legs sturdy and prevent myself from vomiting what was left of the whiskey. Outside, thunder brewed, an atmospheric teakettle on to boil.
“I guess not.” I moved over to the window and there was some sort of vortex forming above the mountains- their dark outline framed by a skyward whirlpool of gray filth, concentric circles, which remained suspended a few thousand meters above the ground yet sent long, wispy tendrils of ashen fog onto the plains, billowing over each other successively. From the center of the turbulence, snares of jet-yellow lightning could faintly be made out.
“I guess I’ll tell you all a little story,” I said, pulling up a nearby chair and sitting directly in front of Dan’s weeping husk. “That’s what Captains do when their ships sink, I assume. Tell stories to assuage the crew of the horrors that lie beneath in the murky depths. Well, except for the Titanic, I suppose. They had a band. But we don’t have a band.” I notice a nasty gash on my left palm. Wonder how it got there, maybe Shelby did it and I’m incapable of feeling pain anymore.
“I’ve mentioned her in passing, you both know what she was like,” I continue. “I have a special collection of her tapes, hidden in the cellar. Never let either of you see it, for obvious reasons, because if you saw it you’d probably call the police. But I taped her all the fucking time. Going to work, walking around. Sometimes I’d park outside her office after dropping the kids off at school, and just point the trusty ol’ camcorder right up at her. I went to all this effort because I suspected she may have been cheating on me. Needed evidence to file the divorce papers. Needed justification, needed real hard stuff. So 24/7, while she wasn’t aware of it, I was filming her. Even had a miniature setup installed while we slept, just so I knew she wasn’t getting up in the middle of the night and sneaking out.” Slight giggle rises in the back of my throat, work hard to suppress it.
“Trust, that’s the key,” it dawns on me. “The ability of one party not to question the motives or biases of another party. That’s what I do. That’s what recording does, it removes falsehoods, improves trust. You might say we didn’t have enough trust in our relationship, that she was dishonest with me and I was secretive with her. I had to be secretive. I had to know I could trust her. The same way you can trust me, guys. Trust is important. Always has been, for the operation of this place. Honor system and all that.” Dan looks close to bleeding out completely, there’s a massive puddle oozing from his face, which is hidden in his slumped figure. Dear Shelby, meanwhile, lies passively on the floor. I consider going over to her, making sure she’s out, but stupidly I refuse. That may have been my last option to avoid what came.
“So one day, I’m camped out there,” I refrain, “Parked in the usual spot. She worked in Lodo. I’m a few stories down, just chilling in the family station wagon with the trusty cam pointed at a direct angle to where I can see her whole layout. And the whole time I’m so fucking apprehensive, because I know the other man is going to walk in and start making out with her. Something about this one day in particular just kinda hit different.”
“I didn’t really know what to expect from this mystery man. I imagined he’d be blond, muscular, well-built, square jawline, maybe. But that wasn’t what happened. I sat out there for around an hour, the occasional pedestrian giving me some weird looks every now and again, but I just kept on.”
“Right when my Hi-8 is about to run out, she crosses over to a certain corner of the room, out of sight. And she pops back into frame around 15 seconds later, carrying a TV. She set the TV up on her desk, then from the folds of her skirt she pulled out a VHS tape. Now, for me, this was aberrant behavior, considering she had never expressed even so much as a passing interest in this stuff. But she holds up the tape and turns it over, really considers it. After around a minute, she popped it in. Screen lights up, she flicks off the lights and pulls the shades down.”
“Luckily for me, my camcorder came with a zoom, so I pushed it to its limit, trying to get the picture behind the cracks. And what I saw, brief glimpses of it- hoo boy, what I saw is the sort of thing that I think is grounds for a divorce. She’s sitting in front of the TV, and staring into that all-too familiar aquamarine abyss, hands folded on her lap, clenched ever so slightly.”
“A picture of me flashes onto the screen, in vibrant living color. It’s an old picture, from our honeymoon in Petomele. I’m standing in front of the tripod, and she’s next to me, waving gently. Behind us I could just make out the rising crests of the Spanish Peaks, which manifest as light twin blobs. Val stares into this portrait, this living memory, this preserved moment, and it does something to her neurochemistry, something I doubt I’ll ever fully understand. Right before she went in, the camcorder’s battery sputtered out, rendering this one of the only pieces of Valerie I can’t prove occurred. I was left to witness the unfathomable with only my eyes and memory to aid me.”
“She began rubbing the TV, gently at first, then moved into a full embrace, the side of her head resting on top. Nudged her cheek against the screen- that warm static caressing her, light sparks causing her to smile as she gazed with a profound longing at the footage. The shot had now moved to a point where I was sitting on a rock and she was sitting on the ground next to me, and we were holding hands. I guess I had forgotten what it felt like, to hold her hand. I can only imagine that was somehow what she felt, in real time, as she pressed her nose and palms up against the simulacra, a warm feeling of the past, an irreplicable feeling, a sense of true contentment.”
“She licked the screen. LICKED it, I’m telling you, pressed her lips up against it and held on for dear life like a ship caught in a tempest, embraced that television set with every ounce of strength in her, showed it the kind of affection I don’t think we had shown each other in half a decade. At this point, I was trembling with all kinds of thoughts, turned away from the window and tapped the steering wheel lightly. I had seen enough, enough to know where I wasn’t wanted.”
“I was my own enemy,” I concluded. “I was the perfect man of her dreams, my past self was somehow superior to my present self, and I was the other man. A fucking VHS tape of myself. Call me crazy, all you want, but I think that’s about as cuckoo as it gets, kissing one of them.”
“What happened to her?” Dan asked feebly, slouched on the floor.
“I don’t rightly know, Danny Boy,” pausing as I wander around the carnage I’ve wrought. “Can’t say for sure. Last letter I got from her was sometime around 2016. Think she’s living somewhere up in the mountains, one of those small towns where I’m unlikely to find her. Not that I’d want to. Breckenridge, Alma, somewhere like that. And I’m better off for it. How could I possibly hope to accomplish this- all of this- with her to worry about?”
“Maybe you are better off for it,” he says, giggling softly. “Maybe this is where you belong, Ellis. Surrounded by your best friends and your all-important work, armed with your boundless intellect and your captivating humanity. You’re right to ward off the monsters, you know. Keeping us safe like this, safe and secure from the truth.” Cackles like a hyena, bloodstained hands making mobility difficult for him, sticking to the rug in some spots. That scar will last for the rest of his life, it’s beginning to congeal but he’s still in no state to get up.
“Glad to hear it!” I yell, stepping on his knuckles with my full weight, producing an audible crunch. He screams once, grips it at the wrist, fingers all mangled as if he just arose from a car accident, tears streaming out of those bloodshot eyes. I can’t even begin to imagine how much pain he’s in at the moment. His scream sort of fills the room, but it doesn’t matter. Nobody will hear, because nothing is outside. The Archive is no longer a fixture on the Earth as you or I might define it.
“You overestimate your own importance,” I retort. “I didn’t hide their existence from you because your survival was vital. I hid their existence from you because I knew that if you learned about them, you would leave. And that can’t happen. Especially not now. Need someone with me to spend the wee hours with. How’s the quote go? Something about the weary and the damned.”
I stumble over to my rotating chair, wheel it over to where Dan is cowering and spin around a little. I can hear them, in the walls, their building noise creating a kind of all-consuming hiss. Ambient yet unmistakable. Wails in the mix, slow calls from beyond the threshold. Dan hears them, too, at least I think he does. He has to. How could anyone in their right mind deny that racket?
The ground outside is now thoroughly coated in whirling static mist, and across the highway a hazy figure darts into the camouflage brush of thistle weeds and cattails on the border of the Saint Vrain Creek. I can hear the creek, rushing along in the darkness, making its way through the rocks and gullies, splashing with vigor as if the mountain runoff were abnormally excessive. The figure is barely visible, perched on an outcropping roughly 50 meters out, well beyond the highway.
“One thing you do make, Danny Boy,” I lament, settling behind a table and turning the bloodied cassette fragment over and over in my hands. “Good company. The first time I saw you- and this is why I chose you to keep the Night Watch- I thought, ‘if he were alone here at 3 A.M., he’d still be nice to have around.’ And you are proving that. Just stay right there, wait until morning, and maybe we’ll both be alright. Maybe, via some miracle, the sun rises and they leave, and we’ll make it out without any scratches. Well, except for that one. That one will last a lifetime.”
So many grooves, so polished, well-engineered, developed by only the best at JVC. Now, coated in the flaky scarlet life-juice, it’s scented with an iron tinge. It’s a shame I had to break it to teach them a lesson about employee compliance, I think while Dan just sits there motionless. Probably head trauma or something. I wouldn’t know, I’m not a doctor.
Sounds coming from the roof. My eyes dart upwards, trying to catch their pattern and frequency. How many of them are even now darting around with their arachnid methodology, ripping the shingles to bits, tearing Other-sized holes in the infrastructure? I shudder as the sounds continue. Thumping, distant thuds from their shoes, light brushing sounds from those bristle-coated extremities. And the eyes, the piercing eyes which scan every room, trying to coax us out like vermin.
I rush up and make sure the doors are locked. Yes, locked. Still there. Still in the upright bolted position, sigh of relief. I’m going to make it through. Going to be fine. They can’t get in unless you let them in. I’m hoping she didn’t let any of them in. Didn’t see anything. Probably safe. Breath.
“You know what’s funny?” he murmurs after an indeterminate period of time. “And I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Only 6 hours of footage fit onto a standard tape. And that’s in extended play. All those security agencies that used to buy up all the tapes in bulk, all so they could record onto them every single night, feed them into the CCTV cameras, keep them around for a month in case they would prove useful to law enforcement, and then re-record over them, or destroy them. Tapes couldn’t even capture 24 hours of every day, 7 days of every week. What makes you think you can capture your entire life, much less the entire life of everyone who’s ever lived?”
“You haven’t been doing that?” I pause. “We have a CCTV system. And lots of blank tapes you could have fed into it. Just to be sure. You are our first line of defense, you know. Or were, before tonight.”
“Fuck, no,” he retorted, giggling slightly under his breath, bubbles of agony forming on the bottom lip. “I use my intuition. My presence every night. I’m in the here and now, to borrow a phrase. I don’t think I’ve ever used that CCTV system, Ellis! Not once! I’m too busy actually looking around the halls, actually inspecting signs of entry! Isn’t that ironic, Ellis? I work here and I exist here, in the present! And I could care less about becoming like you, feeding tape upon tape into slot after fucking slot for no goddamn reason-” I throw the broken cassette at him and it hits him square in the jaw before clattering onto the rug in the pool of dried blood beneath his elbow. That seems to calm him down.
“You’re starting to sound like THEM, Dan,” I seethe. “One of THEM. And believe me, after all we’ve been through tonight, I don’t want to believe that. I want to stand here in solidarity with you. We represent humanity, Dan. We represent people. We stand on the side of curiosity and of research. We stand for what makes us Homo Sapiens. Ever since the first little monkey started doodling his parents in the dirt in the Great Rift Valley 3 million years ago, we’ve been blessed with a curse. Memory retention. It’s not fun, Dan. It’s not fun, or enjoyable, or pleasant to retain memories of what you’ve done, what your ancestors have done, what fucked up shit has gone on during those 3 million years we’ve occupied this little Beryl fragment. But we retain it all the same.”
“Why? Why remember?”
“I don’t know, Dan!” I yell at the ceiling. “I really don’t know why! It’s like the act of creation, isn’t it? Why do we create anything, as people? Why do we build monuments, paintings, temples, effigies, formations out of stone, knowing that they’ll all crumble to soot and ash eventually? Creation and retention, both ultimately meaningless activities we occupy ourselves with, because our time here is finite and we need some busy work. Two sides of the same coin, pointless and futile, yet each in a headlock with the other-” They heard it. Of course they did. Another thump, this time from upstairs. They’ve made it in. Inside the building, through the roof. On the third or second floor, can’t really tell which.
“Why not take some pictures of her?”
“What?” I ask. My mind was momentarily elsewhere.
“That’s what we do, isn’t it?” he gestures over toward her limp body. “We take pictures. We take videos. Take a picture of Shelby’s body, so everyone knows what you did here tonight. So the knowledge is laid bare, out in the open. Free access to information. That is what we do here, isn’t it?” I take a step back. Finger to the lip. Lost in contemplation, sounds coming from upstairs, restless, moving, WRITHING-
“Wouldn’t work,” I respond after a brief period. “Everything is already gone. No more archive.”
“But you remember,” he says. “I remember. I’m here, Ellis. You’re here. We’re both present. In the here and now. I want to see a photo of her before all this disappears or whatever you said was going to happen. One last photo, or video. Your choice. Or are you a hypocrite?”
“What? No, Dan, honestly-”
“You are, Ellis.” he stands up, trembling on his feet. “You claim you want to keep the past alive, yet you bury secrets. You can’t do both, either you stand for complete transparency or you don’t. Either you make everything public or you don’t. These are the rules you’ve set up for yourself. I didn’t make them. You’ve walled yourself into a corner. Take some fucking photos of her dead body. Now.”
"Be reasonable,” I say, scampering off to retrieve the proper equipment. “I’ll do it. Just- hold on a second.” Dan’s fists are balled up, looks like he’s going to cry, and he’s nearing me an inch at a time, blood be damned, he’s actually getting close. He could take me in a fight, I think. But that would only be if he were in the right state of mind. Can’t be, with all that blood lost from his head. His brain is sputtering out, lights dimming and flickering behind his pupils. I dart around him holding the gray case.
“Here.” And I pull out the camcorder. Load a fresh, brand-new, never before opened Hi-8 tape into it, press the top and hear the gears rotate and whir as it ejects, pop it in position, close it, listen to those gears click and whir, metal and plastic grinding together. Strap over the shoulder. Position myself right where Shelby’s body would be, close my left eye and open my right, peer into the viewfinder.
Clicking the button, it flashes on, a miniature monochromatic cinema. Stats in the corners, I point it around the room. At my chair. It makes a tiny, nearly inaudible click. Focus, fade. I point it at Dan. He’s staring at me with those sunken pupils. Probably going to fall over into a heap at any moment. He arduously raises his hand. Waves hello for the camera. More focus. Crystal-clear image. Turn it toward where Shelby is lying.
Shelby isn’t there.
I inhale sharply, heart skips a beat, lower the viewfinder. There she is. Rumpled skirt, ribbons of tape unfurling from around her neck, still not moving. Look back in the viewfinder. Gone.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. Is there a hint of awareness in his voice? Is he privy to something I’m not? Of course he is. She and him, they worked on this together. She fucking knew what she was doing by opening the door to that little gremlin. He shrugs, his wound seems to have entirely coagulated by now and he’s only barely groggy, coming out of the daze. Emerging from the long dark corridor, looks healthier now that he’s standing on both feet and breathing into his lungs with a wide stance.
“It’s impossible,” I mutter under my breath. Look back in the camera, flip through all the settings, fade and adjust the dial. My left eye sees her body, my right eye sees the floor. The viewfinder is lying to me. Lying about what is immediately apparent in the physical world. My camcorder- the same I brought to my sister’s wedding, to my wedding and to countless other events- one of the only friends I have left- has become as unreliable and treacherous as my poor delusional employees.
Trembling, I set it back down onto the desk. Look at it with a fear-soaked gaze, wistful and longing, as if the only tether which had been holding me to this mortal plane has been unceremoniously severed with a rusty pair of pruning shears.
With one fell swoop I bring my fists down onto the device, lean my forearm in where it catches the viewfinder right in the joint, and it releases an impressive shower of white hot sparks which I recoil from, screaming as all those intricately crafted pieces release themselves from the housing and the motor, which had still been running, sputters until it transforms into a mighty blaze which engulfs the lower left section of the desk in a terrifying bonfire.
The overhead lights flicker off, droning to a crawl. Dan remains still, his facial muscles made taut and eerie in the low night, as the fire continues and the pervasive scent of burning metal increases. We stand at opposite ends, the uncontrolled chaos the only barrier between one of us ripping out the other’s guts.
“I asked you a question. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Maybe I would, at least to a certain extent,” he smirks, crossing his arms. “Suppose your camera has been giving you an inaccurate picture of events as they happened. Suppose your perception, the way in which you assimilate information, has been distorted from the moment you set foot here, or long before that. Not just your camera. Your eyes, your ears. How can you trust what happens anymore?” Sweat rolls down my forehead, causes my sprig to droop ever so slightly, mats of hair clustering together on my skin. Argyle fabric on my arms starts to become abrasive and claustrophobic.
“You trust recorded media,” he reiterates. Still in obvious pain, though trying to deny it. “Say you can’t trust it. Say THEY have the ability to alter it, Ellis. Say THEY have the ability to make you see things that aren’t there, imitate people, take shape and form and pull themselves out of the void, out of the dark caverns of fear, will themselves manifest.” He takes one weak, half-hearted step toward me, and in response I hit the desk with the palm of my left hand.
“Damn right!’” comes the growl from my lips. “They can do that and more, Dan! Fuck, you’ve been BLIND not to notice what they’ve been up to! They get inside your HEAD, Dan! Maybe my perception is screwed six ways to Sunday right now, this very moment! It doesn’t matter because they exist! I KNOW they exist!” He’s backed me into a corner now. Metaphorically, not literally.
“You can’t know anything if you can’t trust your own perception,” arrives the expected retort. “Say I’m one of them. The real Dan was never here tonight, he had an errand to run and passed out from exhaustion. I snuck in here, Shelby said hi. Fooled her, convinced you. What if that’s the case? Are you going to kill me? Go ahead.” He spreads his arms and raises his neck, giving me ample room to cut it open, releasing a torrent of blood. I’m too fatigued myself to move from my position.
Analyze him, very carefully. Up and down. Get all the features. The eyes. Something dark about the eyes, pale and glinting with an unnatural opacity. Deep breath in, deep breath out. Oxygen to the brain. Need no clutter, but the fire is still consuming the desk and the heat is growing.
“You’re bluffing,” I whisper. “Not one of them. Fuck you, Dan. Liar. Thought I would fall for that.” A wave of my arm and Dan seems to fade back into the darkness, into the dusty stacks of tomes behind the growing onslaught of licking flames which has now separated the desk into two pieces which clatter without fanfare onto the carpet. The carpet catches on fire. The carpet is extremely flammable.
“You’re right, Ellis. I’m not one of them. Because they don’t exist.” I preemptively whirl around and see Shelby, standing with unwieldy confidence, tape completely unwound from her neck and dangling from her grasp like a tassel in the breeze. Embers frame her as a thing to be reckoned with, an unavoidable obstacle. Her irises glitter in joyous malcontent, the corners of her carnelian lips drawn into a wild grin of immense pleasure.
“Hi,” she croons. “Remember me?”
Those polished demon nails grip my ears, create tangible indentations on the auricles, she thrusts me headlong into the gathering orange light, and I take a deep breath in, try to resist her strength, yet despite my vigor she overpowers me, nears me ever closer to the heat, the hundred-degree air choking me, breathing in smoke and dust from the ashen remains of the camcorder, surrounded on the blazing polyester rug by all the cogs and various metallic components which composed it.
You’ve probably wondered what it feels like to come in direct contact with open flame. You’ve seen a candle burning, a stovetop going, and you’ve mulled the possibility over in your head about how it’d be to immerse yourself in that chemical reaction, of your own volition, of course. To pinch the flame, lightly tease it, and then, if the sensation were too intense, to recoil and get some ice on it. But you want to know. You want to know because we require a fundamental understanding of a given experience to fully plumb the depths of it and, if necessary, avoid it in the future. We pursue this end even to our own detriment.
My face wasn’t entirely prepared for the 2,000-degree onslaught dear Shelb subjected me to. I could feel the border of the flame, and then the very heart of it, the eye of the storm, the loss of sensation in my cheeks, the incomprehensible agony as my tongue became swollen from complete immersion, my skin losing all its moisture in a matter of seconds. There is a point, I believe, at which pain cannot be described in terms the average person is likely to understand, a threshold so high that, much like infinity, it defies comprehension or serious analysis.
There was a slight popping sound as my left eyeball became engulfed and spilled over with a tablespoon of vitreous body. Unable to withstand the pressure anymore, I made every effort to hurl myself away from the fire, and it remotely seemed at that same moment Shelby herself decided I had enough and eased her grip. We both flew backward, with most of my clothes still burning. I flailed around like a salmon, trying by any means necessary to make the pain stop and deprive the remaining flames of their precious oxygen, though with the vision of my left eye completely removed it was a difficult endeavor.
“We have to leave, Ellis,” she screamed. “Give us the keys! Now!” I made a feeble attempt from my lowly position on the floor to reach up to her collar, grab her and maybe throw her into the fire, but my muscles didn’t seem to be cooperating with the signals my brain sent. All over were the marks of scars and burns, third-degree by the looks of them. My tissue had become a barren pocked wasteland of scarlet agony. Slight whimper from my throat.
The top of the room was filling up fast with smoke, the only window looking out onto the St. Vrain Creek blocked by a massive bookshelf which had toppled over sometime during the brawl. Dan coughs pensively into his elbow, desperately looking at Shelby, who shrugs at him and begins rifling through my pockets frantically like a maniac for that elusive keyring- the only device capable of ensuring their freedom from this slow demise.
“Ellis,” Dan repeats, firm yet crisp into my ear. “Give us the key.”
Shelby’s nimble digits rifle through my jacket and she hears a faint jingling sound, a beacon of hope amid the crackle and hiss of the imminent amber death. Exploring further upon my person she retrieves the key, holds them up to make sure they’re real, breathes out what is either a sigh of desperate relief or an attempt to rid her lungs of that foul methane and asbestos cacophony- the same one which filled my nostrils and undoubtedly filled Dan’s.
My vision was going fast by now, darkness setting in, small blind spots which grew and melded, yet I could see Shelby’s arm wrap around Dan’s, they staggered toward the front door and leaned on each other, used each other as walking sticks. In that moment I wondered why it was that, after all these years, all these trials and tribulations, I had nobody to lean on.
Dan rubbed his face, Shelby caressed her neck, both surprised by their respective injuries. She raised the keyring, hit home in the latch and then Dan grabbed the handle and twisted it, wide open, fresh night air, stars and the moon gleaming above. Both step out onto the first step. Darkness.
I don’t know if they escaped. Don’t know where they are now, like to think I imagined that part, they’ll suffocate in here with me. But the more I think about that the more I manage to convince myself that they did get out, and that there won’t be any escape for me.
When I came to it was several hours later from the look of things, most of the room had been disheveled aside from the door, which now had a toppled bookcase leaning across it. The fire had mostly gone out, a section of the ceiling had collapsed in on itself and the roof was leaking with the remnants of nocturnal mist. It was freezing, save the small outcroppings of fire scattered around here and there, real autumn weather setting in. Early morning of November 1st.
You probably know the feeling of foreboding you get in certain places. A kind of malignant presence, all-consuming and unexplainable. Not a ghost, not a sentient entity. A feeling. A feeling that something very wrong has gone on here, irreversibly wrong and undefinable, yet unquestionably evil. These were the attributes I can assign to this pseudo-Archive, the broken mirror image of what had been.
The sun hadn’t yet risen, and everything was coated in a thick layer of pale blue. With the strength of a racehorse, I rose to stand and to test the door. Of course it was locked. Of course she had locked it, she would have known it could be locked from the inside. Of course.
I’m so tired, even as I write this, every muscle in agony, screaming for rest. Yelling to be let go. But I can’t leave. Even with the left eye socket completely devoid of terrestrial sight, I still see things out the corner of it every now and again, little flashes of white. Little blips. A summons from beyond, perhaps.
I stumbled around the wreckage for a half hour or more. No escape, of course- all the exits had been carefully obstructed by them, they would do that, had seen to it that I couldn’t enter their maddening illusory funhouse even if I wanted to. I strode among the remains of my profession as I imagine a reverent academic would stride among the ivy-coated brick walls of a college campus, with jubilation and awe.
I happened upon my office. It was virtually untouched from last night, save of course the unmistakable aroma of charred furniture and that sickly dawn hue. A dozen VHS tapes, scattered across the floor, all of them melted through the heat into amorphous mockeries. They had been here, and shown evidence of their interference and callous wreckage like wild beasts of the wood. She had given them safe passage in. There were still some out there, had to be. Didn’t dare peer out the window.
A TV was set up on top of my desk. How thoughtful they had been, meticulous in every little detail of their routine, to provide me with a means of travel. Though the lights remained off, the TV was on, displaying the beautiful Lapis Lazuli vortex I had come to know through years of trial and error. Sat down in my swivel chair to mull the night’s events over in my head, order of events. Clutching my temple.
That’s where I’ve been. Here, at my desk, notepad and ballpoint pen, scribbling these etchings down so I won’t forget them. I can’t forget them. Not as long as the TV remains on. Not as long as I’m presented with that default status of nothing, it burns my remaining eye like lemon juice, because I know it isn’t really nothing. I know that, somewhere deep within the assembly of the machine, there’s a conscious brain active, working against me, displaying text and tracking information when called upon to do so.
I’m right where I was last night, albeit no more whiskey. I’m sober, fully aware of everything even if all there is to be aware of is the accursed screen they intended for me to discover. I’m studying it real close. Every last node in the RGB color display. Red, green, and blue, all shining through with crystal clarity, creating close approximations of every other color. Now they only imitate a wide turquoise absence.
It’s time for me to leave, isn’t it?
They say that when you die your entire life flashes before your eyes. I remember nothing, I’m drawing a blank on nearly every count. I remember so little about my own time here, despite my efforts to initiate and promote memory. I wasn’t that notable a person. I tried my best, maybe that’s all anyone can really hope for when it comes to this. That you tried your best. You failed, but you exerted something.
Exertion doesn’t matter to them. I know that. Just like I know that this isn’t the real archive. That it’s been gone since the morning, that this TV isn’t real, that it would be impossible for it to be turned on, for me to be looking headlong into the cyclone of cosmic microwave background. These things are all thoroughly impossible. Yet they’re here regardless. Slowly, I am being erased. My effort, my work, my dreams and aspirations. They’re gone now, replaced by only a dull throbbing near my left cheek and mild amnesia.
This didn’t start with me and it won’t end with me. It started a long time ago. I know it did, can’t assume everything revolves around me, that would be what they expect yet I defy their expectations. I’m not the main character of any narrative, I’m only a small piece, a cog in the machine. Cogs and gears grinding together to turn the hands on the axis. Wherever it started, in whatever long-forgotten unrecorded era, it started with viscera and electricity. I can be certain of that.
Yet it seems as if it began for me in that underpass on South Broadway, camcorder slung over my shoulder, walking along the fence surrounding the vacant lot, peering into the decrepit buildings with the shattered windows in the hot arid midday sun. How long ago was that?
Was I the one who did that, or was that someone else?
You can hear them, probably, if you concentrate. In the thick of absolute silence, you can pick up the rustling sound they produce as they slither across the ground.
I’m so cold. Blue light filters in and the screen hums perpetually with the long blue continuum, and outside The Others are gathering their forces. They continue to accrue out there in the dark and evil dawn, rallying the troops, in solidarity against my accursed and frail body. They envy the flesh, the tangible, the apparent, for its self-evident properties. In mere moments they will break through the door downstairs, ascend to where I’m sitting, force me headlong into my favorite place.
All of them, every last one, the little trick-or-treater and the woman with the barrel, the enigmatic spectre who knew the perils of life too early and the bird- damn the bird- all of them, a coven of freaks and rejects who manifested themselves through ink, to climb the stairs and hoist me by my shoulders and put me out of my misery- or perhaps to place me into a greater misery than I have ever known until now.
I have no respect for the past. I pretended to, for a while, might have even convinced myself on the surface level that I did, yet I violated its sanctity and plundered its depths. I discovered information that should not have been made public, knowledge which, if discovered, would shatter the limits of human perception, defy all reason and in a mad rush spring forth in an unrestrained geiser of anger and indignation. I did not listen. Maybe I should have.
Because I can hear them now. I’m listening. They’re on the other side of the door to my office.
You can hear them too, can’t you?
You would have to be crazy not to hear them.