My friend and I have been in pre-production on a short film for what feels like forever. Recently, we finally started shooting. I’ve got a pretty busy work schedule, so all I had time to do was set up the shot and then leave. It was pretty basic, stationary, a middle shot of the white wall on the north side of my apartment, a blank canvas for my friend to act on. He had the skeleton of a monologue written up, but we agreed from the start that a lot of the dialogue could be ad-libbed. He and I have been writing and hanging out together for years so our banter has developed a sort of improvisational comfort.
I told him I’d be back in a few hours. I trust him with my camera, even though one time he dropped it. It’s funny how careful he is these days.
I rushed to get out of work as early as I could and came back to my apartment. The lights were out and I found my friend on all fours behind my desk, trying to find the firewire port on the back of my computer. I was a little startled to find him there, like if I hadn’t noticed him hunched over the apartment would have looked completely empty. He must have been excited to start editing because he left all the color tape on the floor that we put down so that he could hit his marks.
We ordered a pizza and turned down the lights so we could review all the takes on my large monitor. Well, our large monitor. We split it for the purpose of feeling a bit more professional. Even though we were holed up in my tiny one-bedroom with the sink full of dishes, we like to pretend.
I was smiling the whole time, watching him go through the monologue, succeeding for the most part at keeping a straight face. It’s a dark comedy, and we’ve spent so long on it we’re not even sure if it’s funny to anyone but us anymore. But the shot looked great, and he threw in a lot of really good ad-libbed lines that made me laugh out loud.
One of them was weird though.
Halfway through the forth take he interrupted the flow of it, and his face got all serious, but kind of vacuous-looking. Like he was just spacing out. He looked straight into the camera and said:
“Turn it off.”
I looked at him and paused the playback, asked him what the hell that was.
“I don’t remember saying that,” he told me, staring at the wiggling stationary image on the monitor. His face back to its exasperated grinning. “And I can’t believe I looked at the camera, that’s like, the one thing you’re not supposed to do.”
I told him it was alright and unpaused the playback. He continued the rest of the monologue perfectly. It’s a shame we can’t use the take, but I didn’t mention it to him. It’s an emotionally tense situation when you work so close, and it’s best to tread lightly on one another’s feelings.
Watching the same thing over and over can be just as exhausting as reading it, so after a while we kind of started to talk over the playback, wondering when our food would get here and what our next shoot would be. But I happened to look back at the monitor a moment, and I noticed a little black spot in the upper left corner of the screen. Instinctively, I reached up to rub it away with my thumb. It didn’t budge.
“We just bought this thing,” I said, ready to be disappointed that it was already losing pixels. But as I leaned in closer to the screen to assess the damage, the little spot began to grow. Almost floral-shaped, but wiggling, amorphous like an amoeba. Struggling like being born out of the wall of my apartment. My friend and I, ever in-synch, both turned to look at the wall like a couple of idiots. Of course, there was nothing there. But when we looked back at the screen the spot continued to change, it’s sloppy petals undulating at random.
“The fuck…” Nearly in unison, and we both reached for the spacebar to pause the playback.
“I thought you said you already reviewed the footage,” I said, my eyes still fixed on that strange stain.
“I mean, I fast-forwarded through it just to make sure nothing catastrophical happened, but I would have noticed that.”
It was still moving, shaking itself into bloom before our very eyes, the edges of it nearing my friend’s body in the shot.
And then it started playing again. I knew neither of us could have hit the spacebar, because we were both white-knuckling on the armrests of our chairs.
He’d been midway through a sentence when we paused it, but when it started back up he was silent, that same empty look on his face.
“Turn it off.” Again, and out of the corner of my eye I saw his mouth drop open.
I looked at him, deadpan, ready to be angry that he was eager to play pranks while we were supposed to be working our asses off. But from the look on his face I could tell he really didn’t remember saying it.
“Are you alright, dude?” I asked. We both have a history of mental illness that has manifested itself a bunch of different ways, so we know to check in with each other when we start acting weird.
But he just stared at his own face on the screen, watching it become swallowed up by darkness.
The knock at my door made us both jump and reach for one another like that might help us.
“Pizza…” His voice was soft and I could tell he was freaked out.
The black spot was gone and the shot was back to normal, his monologue continuing.
“–and scene,” he said on the monitor, and I rolled my eyes. No one really says that.
We came to some sort of vague, noncommittal agreement that we were done working for the night, that were enough good takes for us to choose from, and decided to watch television and have a drink together before he left to walk home. It was dark out, of course. It always is. But that night when he left I told him to be careful.
I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I turned the monitor back on and rewound the footage. Even sped up, I could see the black void appear and then shrink, could see the serious look on his face. I paused it just before the first time he did that weird ab-lib, and then hit play.
“Turn it off.”
I know it’s stupid and that even shooting on digital a million things can go wrong, but I wasjust so unsettled by all of it. And once I had some time to calm down, I reasoned that he wasn’t really the type of person to play pranks.
I woke up the next morning and realized I’d forgotten to scrape the tape markers off of my floor. I’m old enough now that I ache at the end of the day, so it’s no wonder I’d skipped crawling around on my hands and knees the night before. But when I had my first sip of coffee and walked back out into the living room, the marks were in the wrong places. The wrong place, actually. All of it was smooshed together in one area of the hardwood, and I padded over in my slippers to see.
The strips of tape had been torn to half their width, skinny and flimsy as if to be more economical with the material, and rearranged in a message.
TURN IT OFF
Since I’d just woken up and was still kind of scared, I didn’t think to take a picture to send to my friend. It might have been a good thing; if I’d shown it to him he might think I’m the one pulling the pranks.
But neither of us are like that.
I scratched it off the best I could; it had been on there so long it wouldn’t just peel off like it should, so now there’s a sticky spot on my floor.
We met at the edge of the woods with all of our equipment. He’s the proud owner of a tripod, and he carried it over his back like a stick with a bucket of water on each end. It’s a short walk up the trail to this big field on a hill. No one really can claim ownership of it, so the grass grows tall and never gets mowed. This time of year it’s all turning brown, shaking and flowing in the wind. It’s a beautiful sight, and we were beaming to be able to capture it on film, even if it’s a little dramatic for the comedic aspect of the film. But we’d be dumb not to take advantage of the opportunity, so we set up the tripod near the base of the hill. It’s a chase scene, and one of the shots is very wide, just my friend sprinting across the crest of the hill to get away from me. Needless to say he has quite the lead on me in the script. The idea of his long limbs flailing in the distance as music blares made us laugh hysterically.
There was no use tiring both of us out, so he climbed the hill alone, noting how out of shape he is. I shouted something up at him about how next time we should get salad instead of pizza, and he gave me an exhausted thumbs-up once he reached the top.
I gave him some time to recover while I set up the shot. We have a deal with one another when it comes to directing. I used to be an art history major, and looking at so many busy landscapes, so many depictions of Greek myths and the abject terror or Hieronymus Bosch has set me up to be really good at the composition of wide shots. He’s much better with things that are closer up. We both agree on a storyboard before shooting so it’s cohesive in style, but we know how to play to our own strengths.
I broke the composition up into approximate thirds. The top third was the sky, homogeneously overcast. The middle third was the horizon he’d run across, and the start of the hill, and the lower third was the bottom of the hill where the color of the grass was cast in shadow.
“Whenever you’re ready, run!” I shouted at him, starting to record. I stepped back, my eyes darting from the top of the hill and to the view screen, back and forth.
At first I thought my eyes were fucking with me, tired from moving so much, so I focused on the far end of the top of the hill, the rightmost area captured in the shot. The wind seemed to cluster there, like a tornado. It spun the thick, tall grass and I grimaced, wishing the entire landscape could stay a bit more uniform. The little twister would be distracting.
My friend had his hands on his knees, stretching and cracking his neck to get ready, so he didn’t see it at first. He didn’t see how that patch of grass seemed to grow and rise, twirl like a storm up from the ground.
“Hold on–” But I wasn’t loud enough. He began to run, straight across the crest of the hill, making a beeline for the churning grass.
I’ve never seen anything like it. It seemed to stretch from the ground like a parasite from a dead bug, or like tentacles surrounding a ship in a pirate movie. Golden-brown and slithering upward, a veritable tower of dying grass. It grew thicker, longer, gaining limbs.
“Connor–!” I shouted. Clearly he’d noticed what was happening, because he stopped dead in his tracks, craning his neck to look up at the monstrous thing. It bent forward, as if it had the capacity to inspect him. The sound it made…it was as if the wind had gotten trapped between the fibers of the blades of grass, and it howled so deep I swear it shook the earth beneath my feet as I ran.
I don’t know why I ran. And not even away, like a smart person might do. I can line up a shot, but maybe my self-preservation suffers for it. All I knew was that my friend was being dwarfed by something impossible. Something huge and billowing, something I could tell was filled with malice.
I sprinted up the hill, no care for my lungs, shouting his name between bounds. About halfway up, I felt my foot hook beneath something like an old tree root. But there were no trees, not for yards and yards. I hit the ground with a grunt, palms outstretched and digging into the dry dirt.
“Shit–” I squirmed, turning over to try and free my ankle. What had tripped me was no root.
It gave me pause, even in my urgency, to see brightly colored tape clasped over my leg. The same yellows reds and greens as we use to make our marks.
Breathless, I struggled, bending forward to tear at the tape. I’d gotten good at it that morning, scraping it from my floor, but still I winced at the sticky feeling on my fingers and under my nails.
“Connor!” I shouted, into the void, hoping he was still alive to hear me up at the top of the hill, knowing my soft spokenness would drown in the field. I twisted myself free from the rest of the tape and scrambled to my feet, trying to orient myself and find him.
The horizon was flat above me. No monstrous grass tornado, no gangly, frightened man.
“Fuck–” through my panting and my panic, I mumbled. I could feel a lump in my chest that wanted to rise. I wanted to cry, like I could, in that moment, process that my friend might be hurt. By whatever the fuck that thing was. Gulping and gasping, I made my way to the top of the hill as fast as I could. I ought to have been wary of tripping again, but as I said. Lack of self-preservation. A lack of understanding how the hell that tape got there.
I tried to cast a wide net, spreading the tall grass with my arms, hunched over and looking for him. I’m not a big dude, so you can imagine the frustration at how little ground I was covering.
Finally I saw the soles of his shoes. Old things. He’s had them forever. I dropped to the ground and climbed toward him, grasping for his wrists to feel a heartbeat. But first, I saw that his chest and stomach did rise and fall. Too quickly from the fright.
“Oh thank fuck–” I scrambled up closer and hooked my hands beneath his arms to try and right him. He was wide-eyed, shivering. “Did…” I whipped my head around as if I could catch the thing. “Did you see it?”
He nodded and turned his head to me, a desperate and pleading glance on his face.
I knew then that he understood. What happened the night before had been no prank. Something was wrong, either with the world or with us, and we knew well enough and from experience which of those is more likely.
I helped him to his feet and we made our way back down the hill. The tripod was still upright and the camera was still rolling. I switched it off without hesitation. I just…didn’t want to deal with the fact that I’d caught it on camera. Like most things between us, we understood the truth, though. We’d have to watch it at some point.
“Maybe we’re just tired,” Connor suggested. This time he had his tripod, collapsed, in both of his hands, held tight to his chest.
“Yeah, and…I mean, we both saw it, maybe we’re spending too much time together.”
“Yeah, like how we finish each other’s–”
“If you say ‘sandwiches,’ I swear to god.”
Even if the slight sense of calm we felt from joking around covered our terror, I knew we were both still reeling. He got into his car and I got into mine. Maybe we need a few days off from the movie and from each other. It happens in even the strongest of friendships, though admittedly for very different reasons.
I got home and placed the camera on the countertop with the lens cap on, just unable to deal with it right then. All I wanted to do was have a drink or eight, and to wash that sticky feeling out from under my nails.
Gin always gives me nightmares. Maybe it was a bad choice, given the circumstances, to shake shot after shot of Beefeater in with some juice and ice. No matter what I downed though, I’d wake up just as groggy and listless, swearing I heard the soft beeping of my camera beginning to record.
I’m still not sure if it really happened.
But, dream or not, I climbed out of bed, arms wrapped tight around my waist, cold in my ancient t-shirt and boxers. Sure enough, the green light was on, and the lens cap had been removed.
“…gotta be fuckin’ kidding me…” I whispered. Approaching slowly, I grimaced, one shaking hand reaching out for the camera as if against a heavy wind. Whirling, howling… But eventually I got close, placing my fingers on the lens cap to lift it and screw it back on. But the streetlights outside shone precisely on the glass of the lens. Illuminating it like a clue. I squinted, sleep in my eyes, and noticed a small smudge on the lens. Black. In the top right corner.
I bent at the waist to take a look and scrape it off. Just a coincidence. A bug must have flown into it during filming…I leaned in close, accosted with the unpleasant sight of my tired reflection. Eyes puffy, hair a mess. I blinked like I might go away.
I could swear my eyes were not my own. What was looking back at me was not me. I don’t know how else to describe it. As my lips parted in confusion, as if to ask the empty apartment for advice, that awful, howling, wailing noise came flowing from the lens.
I screamed, childish and high, hands clasping over my mouth as if I were the one responsible. I stumbled back until I hit the wall.
And then it was morning, and I felt like I was dying. My break was not off to a good start.
I couldn’t stay away. I watched the footage. It took me so long to process what I’d seen, I couldn’t even speak. All I could do was text Connor and tell him he had to come over.
The lights on, the volume low, we watched it together. I stood behind him, biting my thumb, pacing, my gaze flickering to and away from the monitor. What was I expecting? That something different might show up? Wishful thinking. I couldn’t shake the dread.
It started out right. He was standing on one end of the crest of the hill, hunched over and trying to breathe. I could hear myself tell him to go when he’s ready. I could hear the wind pick up, horrendous against the little built-in microphone. At least we were going to put music over this scene…
And then it started. The growing grass burgeoning out of the ground like so much smoke. I saw myself run in a panic, scrambling up the hill. When I tripped, Connor flinched as we watch. Like he knew. This was when it would get weird.
I got up, just like I did, but I didn’t finish running up the hill. I turned where I stood and walked with purpose back down, heading straight for the camera. Once I got closer, we could see that my face had that same void-like expression that his had in the first part of this disaster. I could barely hear myself over the howling of the wind, but once I concentrated, rewound and played over and over, I could tell what I was saying:
“Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off.”
In the distance, the monstrous tower withered back into the ground like a wave crashing in the surf, and then I ran back up the hill like I remembered. The rest was as expected, a few moments of nothing and then the two of us stumbling back down the hill, my frightened face close to the lens as I shut the camera off.
We were both silent for a few minutes, staring at the blank screen. I could see his shoulders rise and fall with the beginnings of panic. I know he’s got a nervous stomach. I usually don’t, but right then I felt so full of bile I swore I could feel it threatening my every pore.
“What the fuck is going on?” I asked, a hoarse whisper. Like he should know. Like I hadn’t mumbled that same question under my breath countless times.
“I…what should we do?” he asked. There are no rules for this. No handbook. It sounded so stupid in my head, saying it out loud, all the possibilities.
I’ve never believed in the supernatural. I was raised under the strict belief that there are no ghosts, and that the devil won’t bother me if I try to be good. So I could barely bring myself to posit it.
“…something’s wrong. With the camera.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t. Maybe it’s us.”
“Maybe it’s our movie.”
I managed to snort at the suggestion. Like we’d somehow summoned some kind of evil with our script.
“We’ve worked so hard, man,” I lamented, flopping down into the adjacent chair, placing my hands on my head, fingers through my hair.
“I’m gonna do some research.”
Anomalies in digital film. Folie a deux in creative partners. Nothing we found online sounded at all like this. We were hesitant to even tell our friends. They think we’re odd enough without this mess.
I’ve said it before. We don’t make the best decisions. Our curiosity and our stubborn determination to finish our work drove us to speculate and plan. We were going to figure it out, never once mentioning the danger, how scared we were.
We left all the lights on at night. He slept on the couch, the cameraplugged in and running, facing that same white wall where this all began.
We split a Xanax before bed, knowing we would have a rough time sleeping without it. He stayed up, I stayed up. I’ll did some research until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, having no inkling of what we’d find on that camera in the morning.
I knew it was a bad idea but I had to see this through. I had to tell someone what happened. The next morning was the scariest experience of my life. I don’t know how to describe the feeling I had in my chest. It was sort of like my heart had been taken out and frozen, then shoved back in to thaw and melt into my ribcage.
I woke up in the very early morning, judging by the periwinkle tint of the sky through my blinds. The lights were off, and I assumed Connor had done it so thar he could sleep. I inhaled to yawn, but drew so little breath. I shrugged my shoulders to stretch and they wouldn’t move. At first I was horrified it might be a new onset of sleep paralysis, but soon enough my eyes adjusted, and I began to recognize the feeling that held me still.
Tape. Tape wrapped around my knees, my waist, my shoulders, my wrists. My mouth. I whined into the gag, the sound echoing loud in my ears. Yet still I tried to scream for Connor. It didn’t occur to me that he might also be restrained. In my bed I lay awash in shining plastic color. Red and yellows and blues and greens, strapped to me so tight like a second skin.
I tried to sit up, but it was so thick I could barely bend my back that way, so I rolled over. My bed isn’t astronomically high off the ground, but the sight of the drop was enough to make me wince. Squealing still, I wiggled to the edge of the bed, tucked my chin down as much as I could so that I wouldn’t hit my head on the bedside table.
I landed with a thump, muffled some by the rug. I had landed on my left elbow, and I swallowed down the sudden dull pain, choking on it behind my colorful gag. That same lump I’d formed the other day, frightened on the hill…I realized then that it never left, never dissipated. It rose in my throat, and I could feel the welling of tears behind my eyes.
But I didn’t sob until I saw it.
The camera, on the floor, its little green light on. The lens was facing me. Dizzy still from my Xanax slumber, I let my body go limp a moment, defeated, too exhausted to even be bothered. If I could just shut my eyes so tight, if I could just pretend I was swaddled in a blanket, I could fall back asleep and it would all be over.
But I had to see it through.
Furrowing my brow as if I wasn’t petrified, but determined instead, I began the slow struggle to worm my way over to the camera. I had no plan for what I’d do once I got there, but I kept shouting behind the tape to try and wake Connor up. I heard no stirring from the couch, and I was so low down I couldn’t see him, either.
My whole body was sticky like grime. Every movement sounded like a worm through the mud. I wiggled and wiggled and wiggled until I was in line with the camera, my face mere feet from the lense. I made a desperate sort of face. Like I was asking it to let me go, to have mercy, that I was sorry. For what, I couldn’t be sure.
I whined again, pathetic and scared.
The view screen was facing away at first, even though I’d shut it before we went to sleep. Clearly whatever my own hands can do has no significance, though. With my eyes wide, stinging, I saw it happen. I swear it. The screen began to flip, click-click-clicking at every interval, until I was met with the sight of my own horrid state.
I yelled. Connor’s name was muffled by the gag, which now was starting to break down against my tongue. Adhesive and stringy fibers crawling over my teeth and into my cheeks. I tried so hard to breathe through my nose to keep from passing out, but my respirations were so fast I felt lightheaded regardless.
This time, those eyes were mine. Pupils wide in the early-morning dark, cheeks red and abraded by the too-tight tape. Looking like a child lost in a crowded place. I felt again that same malice I’d felt on the hill. This thing was forcing me to watch. Forcing me to look at myself, helpless, breaking. To stay hopeful that I’d see someone to save me coming into frame.
And I couldn’t look away. I can never stay away.
It took hours. Grimacing, squinting, weeping and screaming, I moved as much as I could. My joints twisting back and forth to try and loosen my restraints, disgusted by the sticky, oily feeling all over my skin. I heard nothing from the couch where Connor was supposed to be.
Eventually, though I was sure then that I was imagining it, the restraints began to loosen, their fibers sick of my tempestuous squirming.
I am, in every way, too petulant for this thing that had me at its mercy. In the face of it, that looked so much like my own, I watched my own tears dry and my own limbs shiver loose from its hold. I stared myself down, hurling silently every insult, and I was not even sure at whom they were aimed. Myself. My friend. The camera.
I spat, drooled, chewed at the gag until it split open enough for me to speak. Sloppily, exhausted, like I’d been dosed with so much novacane.
“Cobber…” I panted, my lungs so tired from all that screeching and panic. “Conb…”
What I felt was hopelessness. For some reason I was certain that, if I could just be louder, if I could just be free, he would wake up. Or live. Help me somehow.
In a rage, I groaned. I am not the sort of man to get angry, and even less so am I likely to show it. I wiggled forward, my limbs still numb and somewhat trapped, and I lifted my head, craning my neck. I brought my skull down so hard upon the camera. The last thing I heard was the view screen snapping off.
I came to, I’ve no idea how long after, laying in the corner beneath a blanket, my temples damp with a warm washcloth. My head was spinning and I could hear a strange noise coming from around the corner. Groaning, I shoved off the blanket and the washcloth, momentarily thrilled that I had the freedom to move. I was no longer restrained, but still there were scraps of tape and drying, blackened, pilling adhesive all over my skin. Weak still, nauseated and surely concussed, I began to crawl toward the source of the noise. It sounded like more snapping and clicking.
I found Connor, sitting cross-legged on the floor, his back hunched, picking apart the camera piece by piece. It’s a high-quality thing, so it takes great determination to tear it apart. And he had stripped it, so far, into its smallest little pieces. I could see the red on his fingertips, the blood. It streamed down his palms from how hard he’d been pawing at the plastic, the joints, the little screws and snaps. His breathing was shallow, like an animal devouring a carcass, so enthralled with his prey he cared not for how his mouth watered and dripped onto his bloody hands.
I crawled closer, ragged and conflicted. That camera had been my crowning purchase, a great pride for me to hold it in my hands as a vessel for creativity. But it hated me. It hated us. It wanted us dead and it’s only way to fight, now, was to scrape the skin of my dear friend’s hands, to bruise my brain and make me dizzy.
“Destroy it,” I bid him. “Just…fucking destroy it…”
Our tormentor in pieces, we stuffed it in a bag. Undignified and plastic, the kind you shove beneath your sink and forget about. I tied a double-knot at the top, handling it with such care you’d think it was filled with something rotten and full of germs. I know now that I can handle maggots and flies and the stench of decay.
But fuck if I’ll ever touch a roll of tape again.
We took it out to the old basketball court in the run-down park no one goes to anymore unless they want to die or buy heroin. Armed with Beefeater, I stood above our enemy with my hand wrapped tight around the neck of the bottle. I gulped some down, unmeasured, and then tilted it, pouring it onto the deflated, wrinkled grocery bag. When I handed the bottle to Connor he paused as if in doubt of what we ought to do. We’ve never known what to do. Sometimes, the only thing we know how to do is line up a shot.
But I also know how to use a lighter, and he knows how to make gin go down his throat just like I do. I stepped back as I dropped the zippo. One of those cheap ones with the decal that peels off so quickly. This one, the tongue from that Rolling Stones album. I felt my own tongue heavy in my mouth, still tacky from the taste of tape, still rough from crying.
The sight of the flame made me twitch. It rose and undulated just like our grassy monster. Exhaling as if for the first time in my life, I let my arms fall relaxed to my sides.
We clasped hands then, like we could show our burning terror our solidarity. We knew it could tell. We wanted it to know.
It burned a while, and no police came. That park exists outside of the rules. Outside of time, it seemed, because the moon never seemed to move in the sky. That, or our celebratory drunkenness was a tonic to reality. Not that we know a damn thing about what’s real anymore. But we refused to have our cores shaken deep enough to question our convictions. Maybe we’ll never talk about it. That time we were haunted, remember? No one will ever believe us. There’s always a scarier story, and one with proof. There’s nothing to tell from the tape I’ll be scrubbing off my body for weeks. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel clean again.
Aaron J. Muller is a transgender author and poet from Kingston, NY, where he lives with his husband and their two cats. He has been published by Taco Bell Quarterly, Drunk Monkeys, and Inverted Syntax, and is currently attending Bennington College in pursuit of his MFA in Fiction. He is a graduate of the creative writing program at SUNY New Paltz, where he won the Tomaselli Award for Creative Nonfiction. He writes at a very old desk beneath a judgmental, framed, scratched and stained print of The Birth of Venus.