Wells Astrological Society: Chapter 4

9:12pm

There are more candles lit upstairs than when he had tumbled down into the flooded basement. There is caution in his steps, but it is unclear if that’s due to his injured leg or paranoia. This time, while in the sitting room, the cameraman takes good stock of what fills it. There is an overturned dining table with debris and yellowed newsprint all around it. A television that may not have ever been able to produce colored pictures sits in the far corner with a litany of destroyed and disposed clothing between it, a sofa that has become so stained it looks to only be a shadow. Pressing on, the recorder takes one glimpse at the topmost layer of papers to find the most recent date to be a decade past. Quiet as a mouse, he whispers into the microphone, “Ok, truth time now. Whoever is in here is in charge of that radio, or they’re a squatter. They’ve got to be upstairs. The bedroom down the hall is closed-off from the other side. Here goes nothing.”

To Lyle’s surprise, it didn’t take much work to convince Mrs. Harris to let him take the editing equipment her husband had used for VHS tapes. He couldn’t figure what reason could compel her to let some neighborhood kid who was almost a perfect stranger to her now take something so expensive out of her house without even the vaguest promise he would eventually return it. Lyle had to think she only could hold one of a few possible motives; maybe she didn’t know their worth or didn’t even care. It was likely she bought into that line about her late husband not wanting to leave work unfinished, or perhaps she didn’t want to disappoint anyone waiting on the film. What hardly occurred to Lyle until later was the notion that it was possible Mrs. Harris trusted him with the equipment and the job.

Upon getting home and setting up the equipment, this realization came to Lyle all at once and left him with a bad taste in his mouth. It wasn’t that he didn’t think Mrs. Harris and Aaron should trust him, he would do the job and return the equipment, but he hardly thought they’d have been so kind if they knew his motive. Sure, they could have guessed he was in it for some form of payday, but Lyle knew it wasn’t just money. He had a lot of respect for Micheal Harris and what he had imparted on him in the way of a hobby that might just get him away from his nowhere hometown. The man had always been cheerful, handy, helpful, and far more tolerant of regular frustration than anyone had a right to be. As far as Lyle could think, Mr. Harris was one of the few guys he knew that had become someone’s step-father and didn’t turn out to be an abusive or neglectful influence.

Sinking back in his faux leather desk chair, the impact of what had happened and what the future meant for the Harris family set in. It wasn’t the same thing as hearing about his great aunt Wilma passing from her injuries from that car crash. Not only was it not the same because Lyle’s thirteen-year-old mind couldn’t begin to absorb the depth of the revelation but also because he hardly knew Wilma. She was the kind of relative that reared her head every couple of years at Christmas, had a kind word or two for the family, and handed out hand-stitched sweaters that would make Bill Cosby feel sick. Aaron’s father had been more vivid and real, someone he knew as a friend and had seen regularly throughout his life. And there was that other notion, the roles the man played. He was a father, a husband, a small business owner, and Lyle couldn’t remember, but whatever his actual job title was as well. Add mentor to the list, he thought, knowing that couldn’t be overstated. The truth of this loss finally started creeping into Lyle’s mind, and he just had to sink down in his seat, contemplating his next move.

He knew he could let depression and remorse get to him, drag him deep into the depths that burnout and creative slumps would sink him to often enough. Yet, glancing over at all the new equipment he had to work with, not just in the few dry runs mister Harris had put him through on the equipment, Lyle felt a stir of energy. Not only was it a chance to put the equipment through its paces, but it was his best, and last, opportunity to show that his mentor hadn’t wasted time teaching him so many tricks. Hell, Lyle wasn’t even sure if most professionals in editing worked with VHS tapes anymore or learned the basics of such projects on modern hardware. Leaning over, he fired up the power and slid a plastic storage bin stuffed with videos between his legs.

None of the tapes suggested who had filmed them or what they might entail. Logos had been scraped off, and the white heading strips had been left blank, stained with age, shredded, or in the case of two, scribble in such a hand no one on this planet would be able to read it. Of the twelve, Micheal had evidently gone through ten and tried to establish some sort of order, as it was scrawled on the list left in the bin. The final two were either the last two or ones predating the others, and he hadn’t been sure what to do with them. What made this an issue was how they were filed in the tote, or more likely, how Aaron had shoved them in. He hadn’t marked them, though he could have, and based on the state of them, they looked jumbled.

Most of the tapes were the standard matte black that was expected of home videos on VHS tape; however, some were likely retail released films at one time. Four of them were not the right color; one was white, another slate, macaroni orange, and the final had cobalt blue that managed to sparkle with a certain luster despite its likely age. It was also possible that the blue tape was the only one in a good state of repair as the rest appeared as though they had all been subjected to various elemental conditions. A couple were dusty, cobwebbed, and worn with age as though they had been sitting in a basement window sill for a decade or more. Another was burnt, then a couple scratched as though used for a cutting board, and one was slick and oily yet stained as though dunk in a lagoon heavy with algae. Sliding the blue tape from its place, Lyle decided it would be best to work through them based on their state of disrepair. He could imagine this was how Micheal had done it, but even if he were wrong, Lyle had to start somewhere in the maze of tapes.

Starting a tape made the maze no more straightforward than it had been upon looking down into the plastic bin that housed, entirely ignorant of what may lurk within the cassettes. Hours crept by in instants as Lyle would search through a tape, stop, view it, and try to decipher a hint of what happened in the video, only to continue forward through the VHS. Some were almost pure darkness, a vague sense of light spotted in the distance or as the recorder focused in on something far smaller than the camera would allow. Other times, he would encounter what was obviously a recording from television that had been, to his befuddlement, live at some point in human history. There were old Chuck Jones cartoons and adverts for items that were either no longer in production or so underutilized in modern times they may as well not exist. A litany of old newsreels were worked in, which would have helped date the tapes if only they were of anything but local news. The best Lyle could glean were months, if not only seasons. He was ready to retire from viewing for the night after seeing it was well past time for sleep when he struck gold.

There it was, plain and simple before his eyes just after the roadrunner shot past the coyote at the beginning of another toon. The frame was centered on a shy-looking beagle less than a year old, hardly much bigger than a soccer ball. Its fur and markings insisted that one of its parents had been part if not full golden retriever. The sun shined off this light tan coat before the recorder tilted up from the pup and focused on a boggy-looking backlot to a house that Lyle couldn’t think was in the area. Far off the tree line, surrendered to a river or possibly a lake if it were in Minnesota. There were two small huts, a tool shed, he thought, and maybe a garage specifically for a snowmobile or rider lawnmower. Sound finally erupted from the speaker as the cameraperson, a girl, called out towards where the woods met the neighboring cornfield.

“Silas! Silas! Silas, come on, you won, dinner is almost done, and everyone is ready to eat!” the girl called out, her voice youthful, belonging to a kid, not even a teen. There followed silence from all but the cicadas that continued to screech their song only to be joined by the serenade of bullfrogs by the stream. However, the pup by the girl’s side quickly began to yip and bark and affect its best yet hardly intimidating growl. The girl started to try to calm the dog. The recording focused on the beagle for a moment before erratically jumping up to a shot of the shrubs that butted up against the field at an odd isometric angle. She directed hers and the camera’s attention again at the dog as she tried to drag him inside, only to look up again. At the point between field and forest stood a man that would have looked out of place anywhere in the shot.

He was gawky and thin though his abdomen bulged as though he had the beginnings of a potbelly forming beneath his button-up white shirt. His black slacks made his legs almost disappear with the shade of the trees pressing into late day if not for the glint of a well-polished copper chain that ran from his hip to his right pocket. On his left side, another article dangled, but this was far more organic. His arm looked broken, hanging limp and almost stretching a foot lower than his other arm. Lyle would have guessed the man had been in some accident, possibly in the field or the river, if not for his clothes or that expression. The stranger had on a sickly smile that made Lyle’s blood run cold even when viewing it through a monitor and countless years of time. It may have been a more mild expression if the man was not so well and cleanly shaven and his face was not assembled with so many stiff and harsh angles. What alarmed Lyle all the more, as he searched the shot and the man grew larger in frame, were eyes that could have been transparent.

It was an uncanny effect, Lyle had to admit, as he began to consider this was an attempt at some form of horror film. If it were independent, this cutting-edge technology to make the eyes look hollow and cast the scene behind the strange man would have been out of any average person’s price range. But the attempt to put the movie on VHS tapes showed a nuance that pointed the finger at some sort of professional or connoisseur of terror. A passion project like this might have far more money sunk into it if it meant a lot to the creator. Still, Lyle couldn’t reason why it would be dropped deep into the strange collection of other media on the tape. And that was when the reel came to a screeching halt.

The hollow-eyed man reached out, and the lens was covered, followed only by a sensation of spinning. The microphone was muffled at this point, but Lyle could hear the distinct cry of a dog in pain and, more damning, a child in terror. Finally, after an uncomfortable moment of silence, the STOP prompt appeared in the corner of the screen, and Lyle could hear the tape rewinding to the start. Cold as he would be on any winter day, Lyle brought shaking fingers to his phone and sought Aaron’s number.

“Aaron, do you know anyone around here your dad would have been working with that was developing a movie? Like a real movie movie. Not a home movie or a dedication to someone for their fiftieth anniversary,” Lyle almost whispered into the phone, half afraid he would be shouting otherwise.

A groggy Aaron answered back, “Do you know what time it is?”

“Yeah, I know, but I need to know to right now. Am I working on someone’s movie, or what is this?” he shot back, flustered beyond belief.

Muttering, half-awake, Aaron gave a simple reply, “They just showed up here, like I said. I’ll call you when I get up and talk. Bye.”

Lyle slid back in his chair and watched the screen fade back on from black to reveal the time. It was two in the morning, and he hadn’t even considered laying down to rest. It was either going to be a long day of work in the morning, or more likely. Lyle hit the button for work and left a message on the machine. He wasn’t going to be able to sleep the night and damn sure wasn’t going to be able to focus on work even were he well-rested. This project had his attention and all his time until it could be verified as some sort of art film.

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