The Video Tape – part 3 of 6
By Michiel van Laarhoven
Not for years had we been in the plaza where the Apollo Theatre was. The paved square was a sea of polished stone now, as it used to be populated by a dozen pine trees. ‘They make it seem like Christmas every day of the year,’ Electra had said when they were little. It was getting very late, and people fled the area back to their homes – hands in their pockets, chins to the ground.
All the bars were closing down, except for one. Outside, three men in suits too large for their skinny bodies were playing a slow, jazzy tune. One of them played the piano and one of them a saxophone, while the third sang in a beautiful, crisp voice. It was a strange sight to behold, as this small, charismatic night club band was playing for absolutely no one, outside on a cold night. But their smiles were wide and their commitment strong, as if they were playing for an audience of hundreds. The leading man noticed me and provided a wide smile full of rotten teeth.
‘This night, the night of wonder,
Where I, only I can hold her,
And we stroll, gone in the night
This night, the night of wonder
Where I, only I had shunned her’
For a moment, I was distracted by the hypnotic band, as I swiftly smoked away a cigarette. Electra snapped me out of it and we moved across the square, towards the old Apollo Theatre. It used to be one of the largest movie theatres in the city, carrying seven floors, sustained by thick pillars: its design reminiscent of a town hall.
As we walked up the steps to the entrance, the calming music dwindled out of reach. Nevertheless, I had the queer feeling the leading man was still staring at me, his eyes gently stroking my back like a hairy spider’s paw caressed a stunned fly before devouring it.
I shook off the eerie feeling to make room for another one. As we swung open the doors of the entrance, we had stepped back into our childhoods – which were undeniably as tainted and intoxicated as the tarnished and inclined interior of the theatre hall. Deeply embraced by hellish shadows, the once shiny floors were now a layer of poorly poured concrete so cold the frost licked my toes. The cash registers were empty and closed down with shutters and most of the film posters had been ripped from the walls.
‘The hall was larger back then,’ Electra whispered.
‘You were smaller,’ I countered.
My fingers slid inside my jacket, where my firearm was hidden. Behind the cash registers the shadows had moved. Were my eyes just accumulating themselves to the dark? Or was the dark accumulating to me?
‘She say anything about how we are supposed to get it?’
‘No. Just that it was here.’ My eyes were fixated on the shadows.
‘We should look for it, then?’
I nodded slowly, before we warily moved on towards the staircase behind the cash registers. I stepped on a piece of broken glass, right as I heard a thud. Without hesitation now, I grabbed my gun, clutched it firmly in my fist and I stopped so abruptly Electra bumped into me.
For about thirty seconds we looked, waiting for the silence to comfort us like when the warm water of a bath embraces your body. Then – another thud! The warm water drained in mere seconds and we’re left in the cold. It was undeniable now.
‘We’re not alone, are we?’ Electra said as she whipped her hand gun from her ankle holster. I didn’t speak, nor did I move as we waited for damnation to unfold. It felt like we were standing there in fixed positions for at least an hour, breathing as softly as we could, listening carefully to each occasional noise the theatre made.
A lot of the old, shut down buildings in the new town were infested after the revolution, so we were careful not to disturb the peace, because that would be like throwing rocks at a ripping dam.
I knew the path would lead to a big staircase. I lowered my gun and took my lighter out of my pocket to see something, but all I saw was the first step of the staircase. Holding the lighter as far in front of me as I could I slowly started moving again, hearing Electra’s feet tapping the floor as well. My thoughts were frozen, but I told myself I wasn’t scared, because what was there to be scared of? The dark?
We moved on, now starting to mount the steps of the main staircase. When we were about halfway, the light I spread touched upon something. Perhaps a pole, or a chair? No, it moved slightly. I held up my gun. Electra gasped.
The figure was sitting with his back against the balustrade, his head toppling to his shoulders. Cold sweat rained across his temple; his skin looking like a melted candle.
‘He’s so young,’ Electra said. They had kneeled in front of the boy, his long hair was as dry as the hairs on an old broomstick, and his fingers as thin as twigs. In his right hand he held a mechanical device the size of a carton of cigarettes, which began to make bleeping noises. The boy, not even noticing our presence, closed his eyes and grinned sheepishly, revealing his blemished teeth. Electra rolled up the boy’s sleeve to reveal the device had been melted together with the skin of his wrist, as if the machinery was growing from the boy’s body like a tumor. I recognized the device, as it had been used as medicine in the past for my father. The boy looked at the device and succumbed to honing laughter.
‘He’s killing himself slowly, but eagerly.’
‘Not without a glorious smile,’ Electra said drearily.
‘Glorious,’ I pondered. Is a smile still glorious when it is the only thing differentiating you from a corpse?
‘He smiles at freedom, I suppose.’ I frowned.
‘I don’t think he wants freedom, though,’ I said. ‘He chose to be enslaved.’
‘I don’t think he chose,’ she said curtly.
The boy’s eyes opened wide and his grin grew larger than his gaunt face allowed. He looked right at us, like he suddenly recognized us. Drool slid down his chin as he opened his mouth to speak.
‘K-K-K…’ he muttered. ‘Clementine. Clementine.’ He kept repeating the name of the woman he worshipped with a hoarse and trembling voice and Electra pulled me away and we moved up, as we still heard his voice mutter in utmost happiness: ‘Clementine. Clementine!’
As we continued to climb the stairs towards the second and third floors, we heard several beeps and buzzes. Bodies were scattered across the concrete of the mezzanine level between the third and fourth floor – some were sitting and some were lying flat on the ground, their limbs twisted in unnatural positions. All were staring at their devices, fused seamlessly with their veiny wrists, as if it was a mirror they were staring into, a mirror that showed them an idealistic life of beauty and holy bliss that made them something more than the heap of drained and emaciated body parts left on the ground for the rats to feast on.
The door to the next room was ajar, where the bar and the popcorn machines used to be. Electra softly pushed the door open and the room was full of people. All glued to their devices and they spoke no words, they just smiled as they laid motionlessly in pools of sweat and piss. Their bodies were warmed by blue fire, which rose from a number of shafts in thin beams, like hot fountains.
Electra clasped her hands against her lips and before her nose, and I was unsure whether she did it because of the shock she felt or the foul air that crippled our noses. Of course, we knew of the Infested, but not much. The only thing Clementine had told us once was that they were dangerous and hid themselves mostly in abandoned buildings across the city.
My spine tingled, as I heard some of them whispering her name. A lot of people worshipped Clementine as the goddess of this city, but it felt strange their whispers of worship were all they could murmur.
It was then when I saw it… A little girl, no older than three, crawled through the dirt and the shit, climbing over the pile of bodies clustered to their devices. Her puff, tiny hands found support on the faces and bellies of the Infested as she crept her way to a man she called daddy. Daddy was lying flat on his back, arms and legs spread out and some hard and thick vomit was spread out over his chin and chest.
My senses had faded away. All I heard was a chilling beep that tingled my ears as loud as a screeching train, all I smelt was burnt hair, all I felt was my stomach bending itself in a painful knot, and I tasted sour puke dripping slowly over the back of my tongue and all I saw was my sister running towards the child in a haze and taking her in her arms. The child screamed of fury, because she didn’t want to be taken away from her father. I turned around and ran.
As soon as I reached the humid bathroom, I quickly kneeled in front of the toilet bowl and just opened my mouth, completely emptying the inside of my stomach like I was a human fire hose. I then smelt the contents of the already clogged toilet bowl and I threw up again.
I crawled out of the stall and took a few deep breaths to try and calm my body. The state of the city was worse than I thought. I barely even recognized the place that used to be where my dearest memories laid buried – and now that grave was as obliterated as the rest of this world. With difficulty I managed to get myself on my feet and I stood up, looking straight in the mirror at my own reflection. My pale face was as glowing as a full moon and my eyes were as dark as a still lake. I was accompanied by the old man, who looked as frightened as ever.
‘Hello,’ I said sheepishly, and I had wanted to turn away. Before I could, however, the old man held his forefinger before his lips and shushed.
I could hear him as if he was standing right next to me. Never before had he shushed me; never before had the old man done anything whatsoever. He disappeared the next second and my reflection was alone again.
Before I had returned to my sister, I already heard her screaming voice. I ran into the hall with the pile of bodies and found her, holding a man’s collar tightly in her fists as she was violently shaking him.
‘Where is the video tape!’ she yelled. ‘Where is the fucking video tape! Tell me, you little piece of shit! Tell me! TELL ME!’ She started to hit him. I could tell from her bloodied knuckles and his depraved, crying face that she had been hitting him repeatedly.
‘Stop it, Electra,’ I said calmly. She ignored me and kept burying her fists into his face. I knew there was only one way and I moved Electra aside as I bent down to him. His face seemed fake somehow – his motions were rigid, like an old cartoon. It fueled me with fury and sadness. With tremendous force I ripped the device from his wrist – for a short moment the skin stretched, then broke. He screamed in agony as blood squirted from his veins.
‘Where is the video tape?’ I asked him, in a polite tone.
The man kept crying in pain, trying to cover his wound with his hands. But blood kept pumping through his fingers, sputtering in big splatters on the floor.
‘Tell me where I can find it,’ I said, as I held the man’s shoulders tightly. The man shook his head – he had no idea what I was talking about.
But he managed to form words: ‘They – they’re upstairs.’
I let go of the man and I turned around, as I heard him dropping down with a loud thud. I took Electra’s hand, but I saw her face was frozen, depicting dead eyes and a strange grimace. In the blazing blue light of the fires around us her pale visage looked sculpted. She had stopped – even the sweat drops on her forehead didn’t roll down.
‘Electra?’ She had lost her will. And I understood. We had done exceedingly gruesome things in the name of vengeance and justice, but never before had we seen something this gruesome and never before had we robbed an unarmed man from his life without warning and without wavering. Though what meaning did his life have? His life was so thin it had become invisible and his brain must have been nothing but a void of electric pulses that carried neither emotion nor thoughts. Perhaps my ripping apart his wrist artery was the first real thing he had felt in years. For the rest of his sullen days he would have been unable to break his pattern of slowly welcoming death. Or would he have just stood up one day and left the building, without looking back, climbing up from a well of despair? I think not.
‘I will improve the city, Electra,’ I said. But I didn’t believe myself when I saw the trail of bodies in the corners of my eyes. ‘I will – I will save our world. Your world.’
‘Are we stitched to this life?’ she murmured, with a vague hint of an honest smile. ‘Am I better once we kill father’s killer? Or am I weak forever if I break free now?’
I looked at her, and I saw someone beautiful, someone strong, someone real. Ever since father died we had been dragged through a road of crooked nails, and there was no way back, just forward. Except maybe for her.
‘Go outside,’ I said to her. It wasn’t a command, but an answer to her plea for help. It seemed to take several minutes before her eyes whirled in my direction. Her look filled my stomach with a sinking feeling I couldn’t describe. I smiled at her and I held her cheek, feeling her scar touch my finger. Memory couldn’t describe anymore how she got that scar. It was as faded as the wound itself.
It was as faded as the day I decided to drag us through a life of vengeance and justice. I won the race and I chose the movie, and Electra went along. But she wasn’t a child anymore. Not a little sister.
She was still staring at me, and then she nodded. She walked past me and I smelled her scent fleetingly, and now she was gone. I ultimately could describe the sinking feeling in my stomach: disappointment. The way those dark eyes had looked at me was something I would never forget.
Je vindt hoofdstuk 1 van The Video Tape hier.
Je vindt hoofdstuk 2 van The Video Tape hier.
Je vindt hoofdstuk 4 van The Video Tape hier.
Lees meer verhalen op Fantasize in de rubriek Vertellingen.