Originally Posted To suɹnq ʇı
Time is a finite and fleeting resource. I think we can all agree to that. It is elusive, slips from your grasp like quicksand if you try to pick it up. Though we have clocks, they can’t truly measure time. Even the atomic ones in the laboratories with the massive antennae miss a nanosecond here and there. Inconsequential for our purposes as beings neither on the level of the mayfly or of the tortoise, but gaps in the record nonetheless. Gaps which, given our understanding of time, have no reason to be there.
But I see all this from another angle. Start from the premise that time is a finite resource. Now envision time as a commodity. Of course it is. Now take every second of every day you can’t account for. The moments you lie back in the park and watch the clouds, getting swamped with projects that demand completion, one second it’s noon and the next you look up at the window and it’s pitch black. Where did the time go?
If you would, see these holes in your perception as snippets to be bought and sold on the time exchange- as a commodity, of course. When you’re not looking at a clock, the beings which run this time exchange can steal a few moments, or restore a few moments to you, and you’re not likely to notice. And even if you are looking at a clock, they can add or subtract some seconds and you won’t notice. Unless you obsessively stare at your clock 24/7, you can’t be sure what I’m saying isn’t true. If you’ve ever slept, make that uncertainty double. They sometimes take whole hours when you’re unconscious.
Invisible worlds like these aren’t worth seeking out. If the beings who run the time exchange know you’re onto them, they’ll steal less time from you. They have other clients to attend to. So don’t try and catch them doing this. Just keep that in the back of your head the next time you feel you’ve been sitting in on a lecture for an hour and it’s only been five minutes. It’s not your short attention span. It’s the purchase and sale of your time- time is a finite commodity, but that does not mean it can’t be traded like gold or silver or any other limited resource.
While I am not a time-exchanging being myself, I performed various tasks which I suppose you could say were in the general realm of buying and selling time. Doing things quicker so that other people could enjoy themselves. Repairing roofs, cleaning out gutters. But my biggest passion, early on due to a course I took in high school, was videography. The idea of capturing a moving image and then being able to watch it later so impressed me that upon graduation and enrollment into a prestigious law firm I took up editing work on the side.
It was a tactless and soulless endeavor, but it fed my obsession. I had the basic equipment- camcorder, various lenses, a fresh supply of tapes and a CD-Rom with a decent moonshine-level video editing program baked onto it. I would always be there, a consistent presence in the lives of my neighbors, not hanging around to take part in the festivities so much as to get every close-up and every angle. I would set weddings to soft violins, birthdays to a boiling calliope and frat parties to hard rock, and it paid well, and my clients were always pleased with the perks and package bundles I assembled.
I was considered insufferable among my immediate circle, at my sister’s wedding I took photographs without compensation. My sister came up to me while the crew was cleaning up the gazebo, and I was fiddling with my equipment, and she told me that my having pushed the camera in her face as she strode down the aisle was one of the most humiliating experiences of her life, and that if I wanted work professionally I would need to learn things like the rule of thirds and so on. I didn’t care for any of that. I cared only for the facts, an accurate record of the events which had transpired, with no aesthetic flairs or gimmicks, and told her as much.
When I got married, two years later, I was pleased to find my wife was more permissive. She allowed me to keep a full box of tapes in the garage, never objected to the power consumption my Camcorder took, but beneath it I now suspect she was in actuality as angry as my sister, being aware that no good could come from my all-consuming passion with a lens and a microphone.
And there it was, arranged on the shelf in alphabetical order- every birthday, notable event, town parade, or idea I had was transcribed onto gelatin-coated plastic, fed onto a spool, and held in cold storage. And the calendar pages turned and my wife became pregnant, and as she went through labor pains I stood beside her, ample memory in hand, strap buckled tight, lens pointed at her face. And the pain she felt through this ordeal was real, and it was manifest.
The first time I saw Ellis, it was a bitter cold night on the patio and we were hosting a kind of celebratory gala. It had been forced upon us by our respective social circles, and the weather was not conducive to a festive atmosphere. We stood hanging in frigid silence and ate dry meats which had been catered by a Grecian specialty shop, and my wife stood by the firepit trying desperately to keep her arms warm. And the air was permeated throughout with a kind of lingering frost which accumulated on any surface it could find.
And while during the event my mind was elsewhere- watching our peers, seeing how they responded to these circumstances, and so on, I have viewed the tape from that night. I had been to the camera shop that day and nabbed their entire supply of VHS tapes, and whenever I play these tapes in particular there appears to be more static than on the rest of them. An inordinate quantity. You glimpse Mr. Greskin pouring wine, you observe through the temporal veil Talia Chenowitz complaining about her heels, however they are covered by a thick layer of distortion.
And it is my sincere belief that this static is only the frost, and that while I did not notice it at the time, the frost made the gathering look more like a living recording than an actual flesh-and-blood circumstance. It is eerie to see a world which fades in and out as this ice particulate drifts lazily through the air on winds unspoken.
Ellis stood by the decorative hedge, making small talk with one of the curators of the local museum. She was old and weathered, and I picked something up about a bird. Ellis went immediately to his jacket pocket and retrieved a small note pad, jotting something down at a frenetic rate. While I didn’t know his name and was unaware of his occupation, I knew certain things from this initial encounter.
I was holding the camera at a slight tilt, it was heavy and my back was tired. And in this light the patio lamps were shining directly onto his face so as to make him a pivotal figure in the scene. Framed between two artificial juniper bushes, he was tall yet enthusiastic, and held his hands out, making wide motions and as he did this his short sprig of Alfalfa-hair bobbed gently in the frigid breeze, and his stance was that of someone trying hard not to slip on the black ice. Steady and measured.
I nearly said something to him then and there. But my sister came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if there was any scotch left. She had transformed into somewhat of a boozehound by this point, I can only surmise to compensate for my camera addiction.
By now our swath of suburbia was becoming ensconced in dreamlike paths of blue and swirling tapestries of purple, as the sun dissipated over the western horizon and the trees were filled with the rasping of crows. And she’s standing here under the floodlights and looks out of her league- waist deep among people she has no interest in. So I offer to drive her home.
As we make our way along those secluded lanes, those avenues of nocturnal quietude, she reclines and asks for me to turn up the heat. She lives on the other end of the city and I suspect that while she and her husband have been trying to conceive a child they’ve been unsuccessful. This has led to a sense of inadequacy about her, a melancholic stupor which settles onto her shoulders like thunder clouds even on the brightest days. And to think that I recorded their union on my Ccd-tr31, and that at any moment I can retrieve that tape and look for the first signs of crow’s feet at the borders of her eyes, for the first signs that something is off with their relationship- it’s an unsavory prospect.
She tells me that her husband is asleep, that he has a long day of work ahead of him tomorrow and that he was barely able to drop her off at the party. We pull around to the rear entrance and she hops out, and takes a can of spritzer from a cooler in the back seat. She’s going to drink herself into a whirlpool of regret, I realize, but at the end of the day it’s her life to live and I have no grounds to interfere. My brother-in-law is gaunt, homely, however from what I can tell he means well and has the best possible intentions given the circumstances which have brought us together like beads in a divine tapestry.
When I arrived back at our house the crowd had dispersed and the yard was devoid of life and I spent the next few hours disassembling the accoutrements, turning off the lights and bringing in the leftover food. I had missed out on a lot of recordable activity, activity which theoretically would be impossible to prove ever took place in the future. No visual record of it.
My wife said nothing as I snuck inside and vanished into the basement, where I kept my secret hoard. Had to put my camera away, disconnect it from its various ports and label the tape. In this inner sanctum, where nobody was to disturb me, I conducted a multitude of experiments and ventures which would make an amateur jealous and make an outsider scratch their head.
Before me, lit by one incandescent bulb and beneath wooden planks and dusty windows, were rows and stacks of VHS tapes- a mountain of them, valleys and crevasses of recorded footage. My entire life was here, most from my high school years or after. And in one corner was the sacred television, attached to the holy VCR via the gospel of the RCA cables, and in this cathedral of concentrated time I felt at ease, safe and solemn and contemplative.
The machine starts up and my friend Josh is driving across the state for the Heck of it. He turns in my direction and gives a thumbs up as the midday sun wavers and the radio blasts contemporary rock hits. Haven’t seen Josh in what seems like ages, last I heard he was at a rehab clinic.
Slip another tape in and my son is crawling over the rug in the living room. He is surrounded by blocks and playthings, and behind him my wife is sitting on the couch, a vacant expression framed by her auburn locks, apathetically reading a New York Times bestseller. My son turns toward the lens, and I imagine I appear like an insect thing to him, proboscis ready to strike, one dark eye trained on him and a mechanical head. He is puzzled.
I open yet another box up and I am greeted with the private recordings, the ones which legally I cannot release to the public as they feature people who only wanted copies of the tape as souvenirs. I came and was paid and then left. I grab one at random.
This was the ceremony of fire conducted by the occult society occupying the campus downtown. It is worse than I remembered, perhaps I ingested enough absinthe to block these events out. All around my vantage point there is blood and viscera, candles and ether, and a rune is deftly carved into a member’s stomach with a jackknife. I felt sick while recording it, but they paid me well. Enough to buy the thick crystalline windows which now sit at the far end of the greenhouse.
Was it enough?
One more flick of the button and the deck switches and I am once again present at my sister’s wedding. She walks down the aisle but her eyes are always on me, gesturing for me to drop the box and have a seat. For whatever reason, call it insensitivity or insecurity or depravity, I keep the box trained on her and her paramour, and he recites the vows and she recited the vows with less enthusiasm, and they kiss without passion and I see it all, and can witness it on repeat in hi-fi stereo for as long as I want as many times as I want. The same process looped ad infinitum. Start at the beginning of the runway of coupling, proceed. Press rewind and have these figures trip backwards like marionettes, pliable puppets who can speed up and slow down at my command.
It is after the wedding and my sister has something gnawing at her. She dips the ladle in the punch bowl, approaches me, and all the while I keep rolling. A ladle of some sticky alcoholic substance, cheap liquor. She screams and all the eyes of the people who have attended this, her most precious moment, remain still as cardboard cutouts. She whips the ladle behind her with a smooth pitcher’s arm and just as fast the camcorder is doused in that viscous tropical soup, at which point the tape stops and goes dark, and then it stops and I am alone in the basement at 3 A.M. and the screen is an infinite aquamarine.
I am softly crying in the inner sanctum.
So you can understand why, in the face of this mounting pressure, this slowly rising miasma, this daily preoccupation, I turned to Ellis for guidance and for clarity.
When you first enter the field of law you hear about the insane returns, the smooth sailing and the lavish yacht clubs. Here I was, three periods after the bar exam and still no yacht. And what’s more, I failed to garner respect or even mutual admiration from my colleagues. While I was performing at a satisfactory level, they always refused to speak to me in the elevator, or include me in the office betting pool. I came in early, looked over some case files, ate lunch on the marble table in the main wing, reviewed some clients, that sort of thing.
You can see why the tapes were my only break from this cyclical dead end I found myself in. Against all odds, the harder I pushed, the more nowhere I got. This lesson in futility coupled with the rapidly deteriorating quality of my existence was like a fall from a great height- as the ground approaches I came to terms with just how sick and incompetent the world was, when you got right down to it.
Nights in the basement. Studying every spool. It was a kind of ritual, a scripture I wrote and programmed into my schedule. Had to fit in enough time to go down to the video room, mark the labels and cross the boxes, check every tape and play it, and watch it, sit through it patiently until the end arrived and it turned to static and went click.
Because, when you get right down to it, they provided me with a valuable insight- to study human behavior, the angles at which my old friends folded their arms, the outdated fashion and the impermanence of national trends. The passage of time made its presence known while the calendar rolled forward and the tapes stacked up and I recorded everything, from my son’s Little League games in the summer to carving pumpkins in the fall. I filmed other people, too, at the park and on the slopes, sledding and talking and driving. I pressed the button and flicked it off when the tape ran out and then I labeled it and vacuum-sealed it. Catalogued and cross-indexed.
And it was somewhere around the second year of this madness that my mind returned to that party held on the patio, and the way I had seen Ellis. Between the bushes, hands at the ready. Talking about something. What had he been speaking with the old woman about?
It had been lost in the mixture of light chatter and polite concessions, but the tape held everything. I could enhance certain portions, repeat them until what Ellis had said became clear, solidified. I spent the rest of the day down in the grotto, combing through boxes and boxes of this temporal effluvium. The tape in question was ultimately to be found in a nondescript plastic bag in the closet on my left.
The first thing I noticed when I popped this tape in was how distorted Ellis was in contrast to the rest of the attendees. He looked like people on thermal cameras do. No amount of distortion could produce an effect this distinct. There was Mr. Laynor by the oak, dressed in grey polyester, as casual as always, and here was this strange freak whose alfalfa-hair had become an intense violet and whose face was softly glowing. And over everything there was a thin yet unmistakable layer of static snow.
“Ellis,” says the old curator, whose floral-print dress fails to hide her sagging figure, whose digits are like the talons of some great eagle. “How nice to see you here.” The figures are distant at this point, though you can see the way Ellis perks up at the sound of his own name and turns. And now you can see how red he is, a scarlet wave of uncertainty on this gelatine length. And I approach through the crowd. Standing and watching, one step forward every now and again.
“Nice house,” says Ellis. “I wonder if they can afford it.” Wry laughter. As Ellis laughs he deinterlaces, turning into several crooked little slats, then reassembles into what could loosely be termed a corporeal figure. The rest of the party continues as it had, same ice particulate on frozen winds and idle small talk between islands of compatriots.
“We have a disc for you,” she replies after some careful deliberation. “The heron. You know. We spoke about it on the phone earlier, and-” Turning away from the crowd, though still in view of my lens, she grabs a floppy disk from the recesses and folds of that floral attire and gives it to Ellis, who looks it over before taking out some sort of protective case, snapping the floppy inside, and hiding it deftly. It is difficult to make out given how often he melds and wavers, but the basic nature of the disc and its size relative to both Ellis and the old woman are perceptible to the trained eye, of which I possess two.
Ellis now turns in my direction. He sees me, but pretends, for the sake of the old woman, whose sanity would surely be dashed like a ship against the rocks were she to know she were speaking to a demigod who can alter the state of recorded physical media at will, not to perceive the surveillance. The tape flutters and spits as the conversation continues, but the audio is now chopped and Ellis is more unstable than ever, creating lines and patterns around himself which the everyman would not believe were possible to create using the medium of VHS.
What he did is difficult to describe in words. His structure- head, body, legs- were not so much disappearing completely as they were echoing in and out, like a distant scream off a faraway canyon. He was phasing. I guess that’s the best way you could put it. Not an entity present in the present presented by the tape, but an entity whose consciousness was so greatly expanded that he could interact with events in the present as well as this physically recorded past. Phasing slowly through all possible permutations and distortions, scribbling madly on that notepad of his, all while the curator stood idly by and waited, the tennis balls at the base of her walker succumbing to the frost. She shook and pulled her thin garment closer around her waist. The static collects like snow on the bottom of the screen, piling up on the edges, falling from the top as if the screen were a windshield. Little grains of static. Not snow. Static.
Oh, Ellis. You know something I don’t, don’t you?
As the static snow accumulates and covers the entire party, the screen flickers out and the tape cuts and I’m alone in the cool tepid seclusion, with more question than I’ve ever had- thoughts shugging along smoothly, I yank this obscene treasure from the slot and return it to its box.
Over breakfast while my son tries telling me about a new line of action figures my thoughts are forever drifting back to Ellis and his weird skill. My wife asks me what I’m thinking about, I ask her who everyone at the gala was, she says he didn’t know many of them, some of them invited more strangers, who in turn invited more strangers. I tell her to narrow the list. She counts a few names off her fingers while she stirs oatmeal. I need coffee. It’s going to be a long day ahead, I can feel it.
Surely, I tell her, you noticed the gaunt man with the hair product. Surely somebody must have known him. The curator seemed to. Yes, the museum. That would be a worthwhile lead to pursue. Adventure, intrigue. The plot thickens. The oatmeal cools and I barely have time before I shovel spoonfuls of it down my gullet and then I’m striding down the front walk and slamming the door of the sedan. It’s a weekend and I have all the time in the world.
The museum is dark, small but kempt, nothing impressive in here save dust-covered tomes and oxidized relics. It’s a kind of holdover from the days when suburbs were a new concept and the nuclear family was a sacred doctrine and milkshakes were a nickel, though this lends the place a sort of incorrect feeling rather than some idyllic charm. It is an establishment where ideas go to die.
I jettison through the sarcophagi and trunks, eventually arriving on the second floor via a flight of stairs. The curator’s office is only a short walk from here. I gather my bearings, walk forward and don’t look back as the enclave seems to swallow me alive and the particulate in the air gathers like a swarm of angry hornets. In her office she waits, talons folded in on themselves, wizened and ripe, the overseer of an inheritance of useless garbage nobody bothers to visit.
“Here for something?”
“Yes, actually.” cut straight to the point. I sit down before her. On the wall is a calendar a decade out of print, over her right shoulder a broken toaster oven. “That man you were talking with, at the gala. You remember. You gave him some kind of data on a floppy disc. Something about a bird.” She shakes her head, and the noise emanating from her lips is akin to wry papyrus which has settled in a suboceanic pool in the dead sea, with a proto-indo-european language inscription which may or may not have been fabricated by a Saudi swindler.
“You’re out of luck, boy,” she says, rearranging her ornamental scarf. “I don’t remember much about him. Nice party you threw. Loved the cause. I always think that it’s important to give back, you know? When I retire- which will be next year- before that I’ve always made sure to donate. It makes you feel good to do something for other people. And it was nice, the chauffeur that night helped me out of the car and over the ice on your sidewalk.”
“Yes, that’s nice, but-”
“The disc.” Her earrings tremble in the afternoon still. “Can’t say for certain whether you want that. It is an internal matter, I figure.” When she says this- internal matter- her eyes become clouded over by a fog and her lips clench ever so slightly, thin though they are they transform into a disturbing vice, and the flip clock on the left of the desk moves its panels.
“I just want to know where I can find him.”
“Finding him won’t be easy,” she says. “He moved upstate some time ago. Said it was to relocate his private collection. All I can do is give you his phone number. His address, I don’t know. Think it was a small town near the state border.” I nod and she withdraws a small notepad and pen, pulls off the top sheaf and scribbles something onto it. I take it from her, look it over, and smile. What he knows, I can’t say for certain, but he’s onto something.
“Don’t mention it.”
I hit the road and the Interstate is like the ribbon off a cassette, unfurling into endless possibilities, slick with fresh jet black tar. The skies overhead are damp and overcast, but show no signs of rain- the clouds keep the small droplets for themselves, gluttonous clouds hanging low over the prairie, they descend and swallow the earth like
(static, like static)
As if they were conscious- not rain, but fog, a deep fog which clings to your clothes and makes inhalation difficult, reduces eyesight. I flip on the brights of the sedan and hit the pedal and figure the journey will seem shorter. I revisit the page with Ellis’ address, flip it over, make sure it doesn’t get damp. Need to roll up all the windows. The fog gathers thicker, until even the red reflections cast by the rear lights of the cars ahead fade out as if they were in a movie.
When the mist dissipates it’s 6:00 P.M. and the sun is setting and darkness is gathering, but all the same I find myself in the small town, which seems to be a kind of parallel to my own. Some of the names of the streets are identical, even down to their consecutive arrangement. Little souvenir shops line these lamplit lanes and nocturnal pedestrians step quietly along the evening paths, the romantic gardens. All of this is fine, but it’s not what I came here for.
His getup is a short, ugly little grey building next to what seems to be an office of public records, although it’s hard to make out the title on the front. The grey building looks as if it’s foreclosed property, but all the same I step out and press the imperceptible electric buzzer which leads into the belly of the beast on frayed wires and then, somewhere within this cavern of mysteries, I hear a slight squawk. Someone inside shuffles papers, looks toward me, and behind the dirty glass on the windowpanes he approaches. The sprig of hair stands as an electric bolt.
“Hi. Anything I can help you with?”
“Yeah. Can I come inside.”
“Of course,” he says, and moves aside. “Usually we don’t offer tours except on Sundays, but I’m the only one here and I’m bored. Sometimes you get so lost in your work you need a break, you know.” My pupils adjust to the piss-poor lighting in this place. It’s a shambles. Cans of beer scattered around, a rusty sink in one corner which I take serves as a photo development reservoir, given the clothesline hung over it, and an easel. Ellis grins and rubs his hands together.
“Welcome to the Hypnagogic Archive.”
“Hypnagogic what?” The quality of the air here is substantially lessened, too. I think it’s chalk.
“Hypnagogic Archive,” he fiddles with a film canister next to a Commodore monitor. “We preserve things. You know, films and music and like that, for future generations to enjoy. I think we were featured in a local newspaper lately. Check this out.” He tosses me the canister, and I look it over. Some Super 8 reel, ostensibly of a family’s camping trip to Yellowstone National Park in 1975.
“Most of our collection is newer than that,” he says. “We specialize in the area between 1990 and 2010. People submit things to us, we look them over, vouch for their authenticity, and put them in a database. Look here.” He saunters over to the Commodore monitor and taps a key, and the thing springs to life, displaying the modern-day Internet on a device which was manufactured before the Internet existed. The site is tacky, with a nauseating color palette and a confusing layout.
“This is nice, but it’s not what I came for. Do you have VHS tapes?”
“VHS tapes! Do we ever!” He lets out a manic guffaw and opens a massive bureau which is filled to the brim with tapes, all kinds, shapes, and sizes, even a section cordoned off for Betamax. It made my basement collection look like an anthill by proportion. I had once seen a documentary of a Los Angeles show hoarder whose closet was the size of a garage. What Ellis had going on here was nothing short of a madman’s dream. There were so many of them that it would be impossible for one person to view them all in a lifetime.
“Mostly donated, like the rest of the archive,” he remarks casually, and sniffles. His chin has stubble and he smells like Hell. He checks his watch and squints because the only light coming in is from a window which is obstructed by seven strips of flypaper, all of which hold wriggling death. I step into the bureau and look up and around, just trying to fit into my head how so many tapes could exist in one room. It is a difficult thing to envision.
“Well, listen,” he remarks, “I was about to go on my coffee break. Mind joining me? My treat.” I look outside. My sedan seems safe enough out here. The rain clouds gathering way out look as if they’re headed in the other direction, however the night still has a somber blue daguerreotype effect to it. Something about this room seems familiar. Maybe I see a little of myself in Ellis.
“Sure,” I respond after a moment’s hesitation, and this lanky freak and I step out onto the front porch- which is barely one ledge- and he locks up. One thing I do notice while we make our way to the souvenir street I spotted on my way in is how he keeps looking over his shoulder and gets more nervous the further we are from the building. After around three blocks I pick up this tic of his and check over my shoulder as well. Nothing but the cool waving branches of the maples and the scent of a backyard barbecue.
It’s an hour later now and the moon is on full display, and Ellis and I are discussing preservation techniques outside a small cafe with peppermint stripes on the awning and romantic neon lights on the windows. Ellis’ peppermint mocha possesses a thin wisp of steam, my hot chocolate is cheap and sterile and what one would expect from a flavorless tourist trap like this, but it does offer insulation and comfort. Ellis continues to pretend that we’re on the same ground, but he bited his nails and can never seem to hold eye contact with me for over a minute before glancing at the nearby alleyway, where an ivy-coated fence sits steeped in unseen mystery.
“No. Well-” he taps his fingers methodically on the satin tablecloth. “Trouble, you know? Being the leader of an organization this large, it comes with a lot of responsibility. We get prank calls, we get nasty e-mails, we get straight up harassed. One guy threatened to report us to Congress, as if we were in violation of the Constitution itself. It’s crazy sometimes.” He takes a sip and foam collects near his philtrum, which is abnormally tall.
“All that about tapes and blog posts? What’s there to get heated over?”
“As I understand it, there’s a fever of sorts. Look at you for instance. You’ve caught it. The obsolescence bug. You like old shit. You think it makes you fun and interesting to refuse to move on with your life. You sit stubbornly in the face of oncoming traffic. I’m the same way. My wife divorced me because I kept filming things. You know the morbid joke about the nut who witnesses a car wreck and can’t help but film it? I was that guy. No joke.” He points at an intersection about a block off, where a stoplight hangs from a wire and you can just make out the text on the green sign. He shakes his head and gulps down another foamy mouthful. I imagine this is a habit for him. Above us the rainbow striped umbrella ruffles itself back and forth. It’s a surreal visage.
“Right there,” he says, deadpan sincerity. “I was walking to the drugstore with my camera to get some film developed. This truck comes barreling down from over there, a Volkswagen Bug collides with it head-on and both the drivers are killed on impact. And I film it. I get every last detail. I actually pulled out my spare film, stuck it in the camera and pulled the film I was going to develop out, exposing it to the light. And then I went to the drugstore and got the photos of the crash developed instead. That’s how deep into this I am.” He sets the mug down, contextualizes his status as a citizen of this forgotten burg, and as the thoughts of these photos flood back a twisted rictus grin spreads like syphilis from ear to ear. He tilts his head so as to ask if I’m in on the gag. I just remain with my legs crossed in contemplative confusion.
“Point is, it’s a sickness,” he continues. “You give man the ability to record absolutely anything, set it to paper, and he will. Sky’s the limit. I remember when I got my first Camcorder for my 11th birthday. My head exploded. I spent days and weeks just pointing it at shit- the sky, the ground, rocks. Just the idea that I had this magnetic power in my hands was enough to get me on a roll.”
“Describes me to a T.” As I speak the interstate in the distance becomes a dazzling carpet of headlights and taillights, and beyond that the country fields whisper in rural platitudes. Ellis’ mocha has now completely cooled as a sharp wind begins humming from the East.
“Now, with anyone else, that would be healthy,” he continues after another lukewarm sip. “But we’re not like anyone else. You and I, we have the fever. Give us a camera, we will cling desperately onto the lens and the viewfinder and the aperture. It’s not that we’re self-absorbed, it’s not ourselves we shoot, always. Sometimes we shoot things at angles which are incorrect, off-kilter, we capture things nobody else is willing to. And as you do this, you begin to realize that the world is far, far more expansive and vast than you ever could have imagined.” As he says this he pinches the tablecloth and holds it up, about a foot over the table.
“This tablecloth,” and he displays it to me with his palm outstretched, “To anyone else would be a tablecloth. You eat shit on top of it. However, to us, we understand that it is in fact woven from thousands if not millions of microscopic fibers, each with its own story to tell. The thread which holds the seam at the edges together also tells its own story. So many stories to tell, in everything. So little time. Finite, fleeting resources. But we do our best, try and document every little detail before it goes by, as if to show other people- to communicate with them, perhaps- that on a galactic and minute scale, the world is incomprehensibly complex. Infinity is the sort of concept which would put Cthulhu to shame. Infinite possibilities, infinite unseen things, infinite inexperienced possibilities. Not just in the universe. Here on Earth, too. There is an infinity here on this planet, if you scale the focus in enough.” His speech was relatively hypnotic and I had a difficult time following what exactly he was getting at.
“Okay, so picture this,” he backs his chair up and spreads his arms wide, as if to make a point. “You get your dream job. You are put in charge of archival efforts- the preservation of not only your own material, but the material of thousands. You are, in effect, a guardian of time.”
“I was made owner and operator in 2018. The previous owners said very little to me, and I only heard from them sporadically on the phone. I had first been made aware of the archive in 2014, it was smaller then, but it had a dedicated following. Coming into inheritance of an establishment this important- it felt like winning a golden ticket. Dopamine floods the brain, impairs rational judgment. I spent the next few months after that fixing the place up, getting some new workers in. Couldn’t pay them more than peanuts, really. But we did it. And for a while, every day was an exciting new voyage into the unknown. Combing the stacks, sifting through the calendar pages, rooting around in the hourglass.”
“It sounds fantastic,” I said, as he finished his drink and set the mug gingerly down. His hands were throttled with adrenaline and his eyes were beginning to flutter. The solitary wisp of hair swayed to and fro like a kite as the wind chill set in. Behind us, the lights of the cafe darkened and the man behind the counter walked out and locked things up for the night.
“Might want to get moving,” he called out to us. “Storm is on the way.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” I waved back. Ellis said nothing, only stared ahead blankly at the juniper-lined street, as if he were trying to recollect something from the deepest abodes of his cerebrum. Something wild and electric.
“I remember the first time I saw one of them,” he exclaimed over the breeze, which was now dipping close to 30. “Everything slows down, you get the same effect as a cassette where the heads are ever so slightly misaligned, such that one head spins faster than the other. The effect is slight, but it is noticeable. The tape isn’t spooled in properly. Same with time, when The Others make their appearance. I was lying awake at 2 in the morning, and the TV abruptly changed to static. I fidgeted with the remote but I couldn’t turn it back to the show I had been watching, and the volume wouldn’t go down, either.”
“While the static continued, and the noise and the shadows it cast on the ceiling sucked me in deeper, the ceiling fan above me began spinning on its own. Within a minute its blades were caught in a frenetic blizzard, and the TV grew- well, I wouldn’t say it moved closer, per se. The static obscured my vision, the room was drenched in a sea of uncertainty, and all of a sudden my mental patterns were divided into three like a shattered windowpane. I was thinking three things at once and seeing four things, and none of my divided selves would ascertain which among them was the true me. As the noise grew to deafening heights and the fan consumed my field of vision, a hypnotic dervish, I let out a long, guttural scream. And it was then, I think, that The Others came in.”
“The Others were six feet tall, if I remember correctly there were two of them. They had thin, hair-coated limbs, like arachnids, their faces were gaunt and pale, with Medusan glass eyes and featureless, thin lips. I wasn’t able to make out much in my state.”
“The closest comparison I could draw, though even this may not totally convey the utter and abject terror I felt when I beheld them, would be to the sick feeling a lot of people report when they view The World’s Wound, by Birkhäuser. Although, like I said, that may not be the best comparison. That work is about division of the psyche, whereas The Others were of such unity and direct intent that I could feel them dissecting my mind, gradually unraveling my psyche and I continued to scream, and then at last they spoke into my brain.”
I nodded, I had seen the piece in question at a local exhibition a few years prior. While the man leering from behind the corner had little effect on me, I could sympathize with whatever Ellis had gone through, he related these events with the utmost sincerity. Stories are powerful tools, implements which can have untold effects on someone’s mental state. Whether Ellis’ own experiences were genuine was largely irrelevant- in his own way, he had lived them.
As the street was engulfed in shadow and a torrent of freezing rain began pouring from the heavens- if it weren’t for the canopy we were seated under, we would have been drenched- the luminosity of Ellis’ eyes proceeded to fade in and out, like a lightbulb with a short circuit. And then they became static.
“W e a r e t h e o t h e r s. Y o u m u s t a n s w e r f o r w h a t y o u h a v e d o n e , e l l i s.”
The effect was so instantaneous I nearly fell over backward. His pupils and iris had been replaced by a constant stream of impenetrable cathode noise. He sat in his chair and slumped backward, and the mug slipped from his grasp and shattered into a hundred fragments on the sidewalk, all while the neon sign in the window of the cafe blew sparks and he merely stared ahead with that projected face like a conduit of electricity. All while I slowly stood up and turned around, ready to dart.
He caught what I was planning and lunged forward, clutching onto my lapel with an animal ferocity. The static dissipated and he put his face very close to mine, and with brute strength he gripped the sides of my head and forced me to make direct eye contact with him. His eyes were now only inky pools, devoid of energy or humanity, and his voice was like the noise a ghost freighter makes when it dashes against an atoll in the deep unseen hours:
“They’ll try and threaten you, you hear!” he shouted above the blistering cold. “They’ll do anything to make you give up what you love, extinguish it, all for their stupid equations and calculations! You can’t, you hear! You can’t let them win! REMAIN STRONG-” And with this last he folded back once more into his seat, entirely depleted, and without another word exchanged I stole back to my car and drove back to the city, and all the while I could only think of those static-filled eyes and the world I had unknowingly crossed over into.
We were duplicates in many ways, Ellis and I. He lived in a simulacra of my own residence, a thin wispy shadow without form or substance. And if what he said had been on the mark, I would need every ounce of my resolve. I floored the pedal and while the rain covered the highway in buckets and droves I tore around the traffic and like a lightning bolt at 80, 90 mph I tried getting as far away from that horrible place as I could. I needed sleep, and a prolonged recovery period from what I had just witnessed.
Over the course of the next few days I contacted my loved ones to let them know that I might be leaving soon. Ellis had contaminated me somehow, he had alerted The Others to my existence, a big red flashing alarm which wouldn’t go away. I was marked, a target on my back, and as the days passed and I spent every waking hour in a gathering dread I knew that they were very real and that they were closing in. I didn’t have long now.
It’s difficult to describe the exact sensations- isn’t that what ultimately defines the process, intangibility? No. You know something is wrong, something is obviously wrong. Out of place. When I returned to my house that night, my wife seemed a million miles away, a small and insignificant presence, and the following morning over breakfast what she had said meant virtually nothing. I was contemplating the basement- all those tapes- those endless stacks of concentrated time, extract of the decades.
I called my sister the day after that. She was having issues with her husband, she said, and as my encounter with Ellis had been the dividing line of my existence I was now able to detect colors and tones to her voice which implied he had been messing around with some girl at the office. She had seen it coming, she said, hadn’t I seen it coming? I had to admit to her, outright, that I hadn’t seen it coming, but now I did. I was tired, though, too tired to intervene, too weary and frail to become involved in terrestrial affairs. The world around me was changing, and even as she related her husband’s infidelity I became aware of the ways in which it altered itself- the walls and furniture began flickering into and out of hue and saturation, such that sometimes when I touched them they would attain a grayscale consistency, or wobble between like a poorly soldered circuit.
And my vision went from a flawless 20/20 to an indistinct blur. Glasses did not help, and I would not under any circumstances make my failing vision apparent to my wife, because visiting an optometrist would have been a waste of time. The damage was irreversible, and perhaps this was the worst aspect of the process- the inevitability, the long and slow decline. Like cancer, the world unraveled slowly and I was left to watch as the skies became a pale gray and the birdsong dried up, and even the taste of all food resembled sandpaper.
There was one room in the house where my vision returned and the color was impeccably vibrant, however. The basement. I spent hours watching my collection, revisiting my life, and in doing so it was as if I lived through the entirety of my life again on those tapes, as I had filmed and recorded every event, for so many years- and I sat in my broken-down recliner and viewed my recordings for days on end and my wife remained upstairs. She knew, of course, that my mental state was fragile, that my tapes were at this point perhaps the only thing I could utilize to maintain something resembling sanity, and so she kept to her own devices as I did to mine.
Soon enough, whispers permeated the upstairs hallway and if I was walking slowly enough I could make out small hints of their form in certain rooms at certain times of day- usually evenings. My home was now foreign and alien, a hostile environment where nothing was certain. As days bled into weeks I saw less of my wife and son- they were present, although I didn’t notice them. They left me like phantoms, became impossible to touch or see, and the house felt more like an enormous mouth, with rows of dagger teeth. Something that would, in due time, digest me and escort me to somewhere beyond.
I spent most nights awake in the recliner, viewing the tapes in a successive marathon, knowing that if I slept they would likely hold me in an asphyxiated grasp. I never once looked behind me, only straight ahead at the multitude raster images which seemed to project themselves outward from the television’s glass and fill the room with noises and sights- sights which were inaccessible for me upstairs, or anywhere in the outside world. And as I combed through the stacks I discovered more forgotten recordings- recordings which, logically, could not have been made by me, though given that I had long since abandoned reality and logic I paid little mind to their otherworldly subjects.
In one, a group of young people sat huddled in a circle late in an autumnal cemetery, murmuring verses of an archaic language in unison, and I felt as if the tape were sucking me into it, such that if I were to speak to them they would respond to me as if I were a spirit, and though I said nothing they gazed up at the cloud-coated moon all the same, waiting for something to be said.
One tape caught as its focal point dark glimpses of a kind of gaudy shag carpet which gave way to an infinitely recessing series of Escher staircases that defied gravity, an installation so immense that it could not have been constructed under the constraints of physics as we know them. This recording said little about its cameraman, who was only breathing heavily and occasionally muttered someone’s name.
Yet another tape consisted of choppy and extremely distorted commercialized promotional material for a lucrative institution in the military-industrial complex I had never heard of, which manufactured bizarre devices for utilization in some nonexistent conflict.
Shoving another tape into that accursed slot revealed a young man in a dust-caked garage. Behind him you could make out a sunlit suburban lane, although he was secluded in the bucolic afternoon shadow, fidgeting with what appeared to be an old camera. To the person filming he explained the mechanisms in the apparatus, the buttons one would press to achieve a given clarity and focus. Undoubtedly a fellow traveler of this insane thoroughfare.
And then there was the final tape- a tape which only displayed a levitating male head with spectral blond hair, his sockets the consistency of the cosmic microwave background, his skin more potent than the elephant’s foot, and it occurred to me then that this entity, whoever it may have been, was the epicenter of the universe itself, a being older than time and space whose presence in these affairs was constant and unceasing.
And then the screen went dark and I was left in a deeper fog than ever before, a noiseless and sightless hell. Only the small emerald vacuum fluorescent display of my VCR before me, and behind me stairs I would never again ascend, though they led to the kitchen they also led to nothing, and as such I remained stable with controlled breathing and an unflinching gaze, hoping that when they found me they would make my final interminable ordeal quick and painless.
They emerged then, from the floorboards and the closet, and as the television set switched itself back on they huddled around me, and I was indeed as frozen and complacent as a cryonics patient, held captive by their collective will. The Others swarmed in a nightmarish huddle from all sides and their gangly extremities connected like nodes of an interface. The static roared, a sizzling white-hot ocean in the inner sanctum. It spilled from the edges of the screen like liquid, poured onto the outlet and the power strip, all while they opened my jaws and a roar came issuing from them- my orifices seared as if pressed onto a grill, and their crimson stares were at all times directed upon me, ruby spotlights that would not be diverted, either through language or through will. I had none left to speak of.
“W e a r e h e r e,” came the silent whisper in deafening agony. “W e a r e n o t t o b e e r a s e d , n o r d o w e t a k e k i n d l y t o i n t e r f e r e n c e. T h e f t m u s t b e r e s o l v e d . T h e f t m u s t b e r e s o l v e d . T h e f t m u s t b e r e s o l v e d .” Their ganglia intermingled and the static submerged us all in a deep buzzing sea, such that the liquid poured into my nostrils and my ears and I felt it, the voltage and the atomic equations, the sweet juice of substance. And through this veil I witnessed my VHS collection, consumed by flames, swallowed in its entirety by the licking tongues of an electrical hazard, reduced to ash and smoke. Utterly destroyed beyond recognition. The Others held me in a vice, away from the inferno, such that all I could do was watch as my life’s work- the pursuit which I had dedicated so much to- was decimated in the blink of an eye.
I was dropped from a monolithic height and flew into the staircase, and I felt my respiratory system collapse as the polyethylene debris filled my lungs. With my last ounce of strength I dashed upstairs. The smoke was just like the static, it permeated every room and consumed every exterior. As my home ate itself, as the oxygenated fire turrets burst forth, I scrambled for the front door, and fell forward onto the lawn. The soft blades of grass welcomed me and I caught a short glimpse of my wife and son huddled in rags as they observed the spectacle. Then the paramedics picked me up and issued me several tests.
“You’re lucky you came out of there alive,” said one, as the popsicle-colored rotating strobe light atop the ambulance illuminated a section of the second story which came crashing down in a deadly cascade. As many as twenty firefighters stood in formation, extinguishers in hand, though their efforts were in vain- The Others would not rest or cease the onslaught until our home had been completely destroyed, eradicated from existence, all memories and recollections absent, save as mental images.
My sister approached me just as they were escorting me into the ambulance’s rear doors. In her left hand she carried a small camera and a canister of film. I was still too detached from the immediate moment to instantaneously register what this meant.
“I’m sorry about this,” she said.
“Sorry you had to be here to see it. How’d you get here?”
“She called me over,” gesturing to my wife. “A few minutes ago. Told me I would need to bring the Polaroid and take a few snapshots, for when the insurance people get here.”
“That’s good. I need to rest up now. It’s been a long day. Will they drive over to your place?”
“I’ll probably drive them. You just rest.”
She walked off towards the smoldering wreckage and the paramedics gave me a few final instructions on how to stand and how to breathe. I sat down on the stretcher, surrounded by a forest of gas masks and gauze, and as they locked me in and the driver turned the ignition I realized what would happen if my sister were to capture on film a house which, in order to maintain temporal equilibrium, had been erased. I began banging on the doors, begging for them to let me out and stop her, screaming at the top of my lungs for someone to come around to the back and unbolt the doors, but the ambulance had started by then and we were well past the driveway, sailing on at full speed with the popsicle-colored sirens blaring.
It’s been half a year now since she died. She was found beaten to death, and they suspect her husband, who even now is out there somewhere, on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. I don’t care much whether he’s prosected or not, however I do wonder how she felt in those final moments, if she was as terrified of reconciliation as I was. I realize now that perhaps they only spared me because they knew she would be the final element in the chain of preservation.She had always been an avid photographer.