After making a crawl through what had been a sitting room, they find themselves in the kitchen. A candle sits on the counter in a free space made by another entity. The place is in worse repair than the shed, with rotting food clinging to every surface. The refrigerator had clearly gone out long before his arrival, and the food inside was placed there even earlier. Taking a jug of milk that no longer resembled the substance in the slightest, he can see that it is years out of date. With great care, he shuts the fridge, passes out of the room, and ducks around the corner. He’s prepared for the moment of truth as he shakily reaches around the corner and flips on the kitchen light.
Lyle had been hesitant to open the package, terrified of what might be contained just beneath the neatly twisted twine. What was far more disturbing was how he came to have it but that only gave him more reason to be worried. The stranger didn’t seem to have a clue what was in the parcel and even went as far as saying his instructions came from a note. But who would have written him a note to deliver it, and how would they know any details of where Lyle would be that day? He could just as easily insist that the stranger himself was the one responsible for both package and plan, but that still left the question as to how he knew it at all. There wasn’t much point in wondering, Lyle concluded, he would end up opening the package one way or the other.
As tension built, while Lyle snapped the twine off with the box cutter, he began to speculate what was inside. Somehow he hoped it was some practical joke; he’d settle even for it to be a box filled with dog feces or rotting garbage. But then came the more incriminating and terrifying possibilities. What if it was something like child pornography or an object tied to a crime? He could be getting fingerprints all over a murder weapon, and that would mean the end of him were the police tipped off. Worse, he could be destroying evidence by accident and making it impossible for the law to catch up with the criminal. All woes and terror were banished, albeit only slightly, as the lid came off the box and revealed dozens of Polaroids.
They were all flipped down, as though he had opened the box the wrong way, flashing the matte black blank face up. Each was labeled with a number on the back, starting with seventy-four. This didn’t bode well, Lyle knew, and he wondered if he should call the police in case it was crime scene photos or something more dangerous. Still, despite his better judgment, he carefully extracted one picture from the pile. Slowly, anxious but as hesitant as a shaking hand could manage, he turned over the photo to face. Relief pushed through his body as though he had just been permitted to vomit amid a terrible bout with the flu. The image was of nothing in particular, but in many ways, something Lyle thought he recognized.
It was of a park, vacant, but with obvious signs of traffic in the recent memory. The green barrel for garbage was spray-painted over, and litter was scattered around it. It was chained to a signboard presenting a map of the trails and the park’s name though Lyle couldn’t quite make it out. A picnic table sat just about where the trees began to loom up and form the forest. Another one of those well-placed rests that would allow a family to serve up a cold dinner and, in turn, serve the family up to the mosquitoes. Innocuous as it was, Lyle decided to turn over another photograph and another, taking less and less care as he did so.
By in large, the Polaroids were reasonably tame, poorly framed, and for all intents and purposes, likely the handy work of a shutterbug with a poor trigger finger or a child. Some had a quality to them, but they were few and far between. One shot of a dock at sunset, likely mid-July, was almost good enough to find on a postcard if not for the empty cans of light beer sitting at the end of the dock. However, as quickly as Lyle had calmed himself with otherwise useless and neutral photographs of parks and rivers, all of which felt familiar, possibly from the area, he was unprepared to turn over the bottom-most layer of pictures.
They were at once entirely arresting, and the type of photograph Lyle wanted to immediately shred. He wished terribly they had been something shocking or even incriminating so he could come to terms with it. Seeing a bloodied body or someone freshly assaulted by the camera-wielding perpetrator would have been reasonable and far less off-putting. There wasn’t gore but a certain aura about the images that made Lyle’s skin crawl like maggots from burning flesh. A ramshackle hut dimly lit by twilight with a dark figure in the attic window, not a single feature discernible because of the lighting. Next, a flooded basement that carried empty boxes and old cans and an army of dead rats. There was a kitchen festooned with filthy dishes and other waste products, food of all sorts splattered and stuck to walls and ceiling. A bedroom was framed from the doorway, it still a bit visible on the periphery, which may never have been lived in looking as lifeless as it did. There were another dozen strange, almost fleetingly artistically constructed photos, but Lyle couldn’t bear it. What had broken him was the final Polaroid he drew from the stack, and with that, he felt almost as though he would vomit.
It was another that had that familiarity to Lyle but this one he could place as a location he had recently seen. The angular way the cornfield collided with the treeline forming a triangular swathe of empty grass for a backlot could not easily be duplicated. This image showed the whole yard, evidently from within the house as the window bordered the photograph. It was night, almost an entirely black picture if not for moonlight and fireflies to illuminate the vague impressions of damning details. The outline of a man, likely a man Lyle was confident, could be detected, and it appeared to him that they were dragging something bulky behind them. The quality of the photo wasn’t there, but it almost could have been that dog or a child. Lyle wanted to call the police, call Aaron, call anyone to show them the tape and the Polaroid, and see if it all came together for them as it did him, but he couldn’t prove anything about either. There would be far more explaining than he’d like, and by no means would anyone believe much of what he said. It was his word against inconclusive evidence that didn’t point in any one direction at anything at all.
Falling back in his chair, as paranoia suffused his every thought, Lyle fought to bring himself out of his terror only to reach a possibly more convoluted conclusion. It seemed unlikely and next to impossible for it to all fall in place, but this whole endeavor felt more like a joke than reality. He had to call Aaron and find out if he knew something or if anyone had sent him a package. As he picked up his phone, it started to ring, which nearly made him hurl the noisy thing against a wall in his startlement. The number didn’t register with him, it wasn’t anyone he knew, and there was no evidence in his phone’s record that they had called before, regardless he answered.
“Is this Lyle Palmer?” asked a mature yet feminine speaker.
Numbly but far more at ease than he had any right to be, he murmured in return, “This is, and you are?”
“Lisa, Lisa Schieber, you called and left a message for me today. You said you wanted to know about my brother, right?” she sounded more skeptical than Lyle felt at the moment. He barely got out a confirmatory noise before she began, “I don’t know what my dad told you about Jeremy, but he’s been in the wind, let’s say, for a while. He was supposed to take care of dad. With his memory issues, it’s a problem, but he up and left town years ago without a word or a return address. This was before cell phones were common, so it was hard to track down. See, we moved out of state, my husband and kids, and dad won’t move down here, so it’s been a concern for a while. Has someone seen Jeremy? Other than my father, he might think he saw him last week, but… well, Alzheimer’s, you know?”
“Yeah… No, I don’t think anyone had seen him. I was asking because, well, long story short, there are some tapes here, and your father was the only one I could think of who might still use a VHS camera. It’s nothing, I think, just trying to get it back to the rightful owner. He said Jeremy had his camera, but if he does or not, I think I’ve got it wrong,” Lyle responded, unsure how to explain the strangeness going on and sure that anyone else hearing it would assume he had lost his mind.
Lisa sighed, “Okay. Well, thank you for calling. If it does turn up, it’s a family video of ours; let me know. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the tapes or photos from when we were growing up, and I’d like to have it if that’s what it is.”
“I will, but I don’t think this is of your family. Not really sure who it belongs to, but… Yes, I’ll let you know if it is. Thank you for getting back to me,” he half-heartedly remarked before hanging up.
Lyle hadn’t expected the returning call and only felt worse for having made initial contact in the first place. It seemed to him that the Reed family had one trouble after the other, and it wasn’t going to be getting better. Herbert’s wife was gone, his daughter moved far away, and his son was hardly more than a mention, it seemed. He felt terrible for having stirred up trouble for the family, even if Herbert might not know it. There was a bit of disappointment for him knowing that Lisa had been so hopeful that the tape belonged to her family, but then remembering what in entailed, Lyle was happier it wasn’t.
Sometime after the call, Lyle returned to combing the videos he had in front of him, feeling the Polaroids were finite and exhausted already. Exhaustion weighed on him as well, but he thought that closing his eyes would mean seeing that back lot pressed into the vision of his dreams. However, as terrible as that triangular cut of weedy grass was for him to consider, Lyle hadn’t even gotten the half of it yet.
As he pressed on through more of the mixed tapes, he came across some more of the usual recordings directly from the television. Another local newsreel had made it in, but it was hardly more than a segment. Lyle didn’t care much to pay it mind, something about a missing person who likely washed up downriver when he was still in diapers. It seemed too intentional and again made him consider the possibility of the whole act being just that. A missing person case was just too simplistic and run of the mill to not have crammed in some cheesy, middle-class, no budget found footage film. But as those chances of denial began to cross his mind, Lyle was made to immediately second guess.
There was another innocuous video that felt more or less in the vein of a home movie dug out of anyone else’s trunk of tapes. The camera was slowly meandering around a home that was far less well-kept than Lyle would assume a grown adult would want on video. It was likely, he supposed, the little girl from the previous video was operating the camera. That idea gave him a cold chill, but he didn’t let it stop him. She must have spun around as the video and audio blurred, making whoever called out to her sound less than coherent. Not a moment after she turned, she began to head from a cluttered living room down a short hall. They were singing, happy birthday, it sounded like, but the audio was corrupted partially. As she turned the corner into what was evident to be the kitchen, there was an unpleasant discovery.
Lyle at once thought that equipment had failed, on his end or perhaps the recorder in the child’s care. But on a second look, there could be no doubt that the only light in the room was from the candles adorning the cake. Where that wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary in the average house, it was the gleaning of the candlelight against the family’s faces that caused Lyle pause. They were reflecting it without interruptions from blinking eyes or moving jaws. Their faces were like pits of night or pure pools of oil, black, abysmally black, and so dark they shined. Yet, the little girl continued in, setting the recorder on a countertop as she approached her family.
With the child in frame, Lyle was convinced he’d see something, a dead giveaway that this was some teenager’s lame production in an attempt to form a career as a filmmaker. Instead, Lyle looked into the depths of destruction, a depraved and twisted image that could not have been achieved by makeup or superficial effects. The girl’s face was whole but entirely unremarkable like that on a cheap dollar store doll. She was dressed in a fashion that would make a mother in the nineteen-fifties proud. Her blonde hair was pig-tailed and had matching monarch orange bows the same hue as her dress. However, what Lyle honed in on, what was the defining characteristic that sunk any hope this was some joke, was the hole.
From the back scalp down her neck and seemingly where the dress concealed, there was a gash in her flesh. It was not bloody or bolstered with gore or tissue attempting to conceal and scar over. It better represented an opening in a sleeping back minus the zipper. It looked like it was perfectly cut and meant to be there by design, and where Lyle may have excused it as lighting, he could not deny how the skin moved. And then, just a second before the video hit an abrupt end, he swore he saw something wriggling out of it.