“They’re from the background of your memories” he then repeated, gesturing slowly toward the tall grass behind him. As he walked in that direction, whoever was holding the camera dutifully followed. The old man then spread the tall grass.
Through the parted grass, I could see more distant figures milling about on an abandoned playground. Dressed in black robes, some strangely shaped helmet or mask concealing their faces. They seemed to be searching for something.
That’s when I noticed all colors had begun fading away. From bright sunshine, a blue sky and rich green grass to a muted sepia, so slowly that I didn’t realize it was happening until the scene was nearly monochrome.
In fact it was the changing of the seasons, from Summer to Winter. The trees, once lush and replete with leaves, were now bare. Twisted, skeletal branches reached up to the the cloudy winter sky. As I watched the robed figures wander, I noticed everywhere they stepped, the grass withered and turned to dust…leaving only naked soil.
Then one of them abruptly turned to face the camera. The video ended there. I couldn’t believe it, rewinding a ways just to be sure it wasn’t something wrong with the VCR. What the fuck? Has it always been here, waiting for me to watch it?
For that matter, why don’t I remember any of that from when I was little? It still seemed like it had to be a trick of some kind. Had to be, surely? Who was that man, anyway? What did he mean by “They’re from the background of your memories?”
The next tape was of a school play. I was the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. Besides the cringe fuel, nothing jumped out at me. I was about to eject it when I noticed the silhouette of a strange figure standing at the back of the stage, where the lights didn’t reach. Nobody in the audience seemed to notice. It wore a long black cloak and some large, bulbous headgear I couldn’t make out the shape of.
Now that I knew what to look for, I spotted another like him in the audience. Off to one side, obscured by the poor picture quality but wearing the same outfit and headgear. Bulbous, bone white and with a long, curved beak…an oversized bird skull.
As if realizing I’d spotted him, the one in the audience turned to look at me. Then, as before, the tape suddenly ended. I tried rewinding again with the same result. As soon as they know they’ve been spotted, it’s over. Whoever filmed these turns the camera off, or they stop the recording somehow.
I struggled to make sense of any of it, and failed. I at least knew it wasn’t simply a prank. Editing them into the audience so perfectly would’ve been a monumental task, and for what benefit? To confound me?
The next tape was of my mother singing in choir. I was there as well sitting next to my Dad, antsy as hell because of how long I’d been there. Two hours is an eternity to a kid. It was almost unsurprising when I spotted the black robed figure standing off to the side, tucked away in the shadows.
Then the choir began to sing a song I have no memory of. “They’re from the backgroooouuunnnnd of your memoriiiiieeeees” they sang, setting the old man’s cryptic words to a melody. “They’re from the backgroooouuunnnnd of your memoriiiiieeeees.”
I began to sweat. Who made this? Why put so much work into something like this only to leave it sitting in a box for however long, assuming I’d find it someday? The old man from before walked into frame, first peering at the robed figure in the shadows, then turning towards the camera with a knowing look. He slowly shook his head.
I grabbed thick handfuls of my own hair and tugged at it. Teeth grinding, anxiety consuming my mind. How? Who did this, and when? For what possible reason? Possibilities occurred to me in rapid fire, rejected just as quickly. None of them could explain what I just saw to my own satisfaction.
As before, the longer I watched, the more the scene changed. The colors were the first to go. Then the walls began to show signs of mold, wear, and water damage. As if the building were rapidly growing old all around those watching the choir, who seemed oblivious to it. The banner hanging over the stage grew bitter and yellow. The text changed along with it…to a now familiar phrase.
Only when the nearest black robed figure noticed the camera did the recording end. Why? To prevent me from seeing something, I assumed. But what? I rocked back and forth in the cot, gripping the edges of the blanket, overwhelmed by what I’d seen.
Sarah. Sarah has to see this! She’ll never believe me if I simply tell her over the phone or in person. So I texted her, something about how I’d mulled over what she said at the coffee shop and decided I really could use someone to talk to.
The text she sent in response sounded relieved. “Tomorrow’s a bit soon, I was thinking more like Friday, but I suppose I can shuffle some things around. I’m glad I got through to you. Don’t think that just because we lead separate lives now that I ever stopped caring.”
When the mania subsided, I began to wonder if I might’ve been wrong to deceive her. But I couldn’t keep this to myself, surely? Someone else had to know, and I couldn’t think of anyone else local that I trusted with something like this.
When the caffeine finally wore off and allowed me to get some sleep, it was unusually fitful. My dreams incorporated scenery from the tapes, including the rapid decay. That old man’s face kept appearing, uttering his cryptic warning.
I awoke just before noon. An impressive feat by my standards, as of late anyway. When I’m cooped up in that shed, if not for the alarm clock and my phone I’d have no idea of what time it is. My sleep pattern was the first casualty of that ignorance.
After taking a badly needed shower in the downstairs bathroom, I continued the slow process of packing everything up in preparation to sell the house. It’s no mystery to me why I’ve been dragging my feet, but that knowledge does nothing to accelerate the process.
I have to touch everything before I put it into one of the boxes. Feel the weight of it. Study it for any details I might’ve overlooked until now. These are all things my parents bought for one reason or another. Trying to work out why has become a sort of sentimental archaeology.
When someone dies, it isn’t just a corpse they leave behind. That’s actually the smallest part of their remains. The nucleus, certainly, but not the whole. Everything they did with their life which left behind some sort of tangible evidence that they existed…the choices they made, what they valued, what they were trying to accomplish spreads out from that nucleus like the spiderweb which remains long after the spider perishes.
Like a fingerprint. Or a puzzle. A baffling, convoluted mess of clues left behind which made perfect sense to the deceased, but which must be painstakingly deciphered by anyone else. Like trying to reconstruct from fossilized remains how the original creature looked, sounded and behaved.
So many papers! Filing cabinets full of them. Drawers, boxes and binders filled to the brim. Enough reading material for the rest of my life, though I’d have to first skim through to discover how much of it was personally written by either of them, and how much was just tax returns or whatever.
I’d just about gathered up enough to bind into a book when Sarah texted. I ignored it for a moment, still taking my time, reading a page full of messily scribbled notes that must’ve been my father’s. It was an itemized list of expenses for repairing a used motor boat he purchased once upon a time, but never did anything with.
When I finally bothered to check the text, she’d sent another two with irritated looking emojis, reminding me that I promised to check my phone more often. I called her and explained what I was in the process of doing when her first text arrived. Her tone softened somewhat.
“Oh, that’s…Well it’s good that you’re packing it up, I think. No good for you to keep it the way it is, haunting that place like a…I mean, that stuff will just constantly remind you of them unless you get rid of it. You don’t need to sell it, necessarily-”
Stay Tuned for Part 4!