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Home Video

Part 1

By Daniel BradburyPublished 2 months ago Updated 2 months ago 45 min read
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Some things are better left unwatched.

Reggie was a man who was driven to collect. Vinyl records, purchased indiscriminately, occupied uneasy towers of shelving leaning against his living room walls. The guest bedroom had never hosted company, unless you counted the endless piles of books that rested there. Thirteen separate editions of Don Quixote lay in various states of disrepair on the old queen-sized mattress. His bedroom was made accessible only by a narrow desire path through towers of vintage toys (still in the boxes), cookware, and celebrity memorabilia. A bobblehead figure of Jimi Hendrix watched over the eclectic hoard from the top of a tower of old cookbooks in the corner opposite Reggie's bedroom door.

His basement was a palace of memories. Photo albums, old clothes, advertisements for candies and hair products that hadn't sat on store shelves since the Reagan administration. There was a motorcycle, one of his dearest possessions, in the northwest corner of the basement that hadn't been manufactured since the late sixties. If Reggie sat on it and closed his eyes, he could almost feel the motor (nearly rusted into nothing) roaring beneath him like a cry of joy. Sometimes, if he was stoned enough, he could even halfway smell the wind of a Nevada desert whipping past his face. It always smelled like hot rocks, ozone and cactus flowers. A promise of something warm and hopeful just a few more miles down the highway.

Reggie wouldn't have been able to give you a reason for why he did what he did. Nor would he have been able to identify the common thread that bound everything in his house together. He would, however, have been glad to talk to you about his tapes. Reggie loved his tapes. Stacks of VHS tapes spilled from closets. They formed the legs for the coffee table, a bowed sheet of plywood, in his living room. Lopsided piles of them occupied the seats of every chair in his house (save one: the armchair in front of his television) like guests at some strange, silent party. The chairs around the kitchen table were occupied by horror, sci-fi, westerns, and romantic comedies respectively. The kitchen table itself was reserved for action movies. Out of all these tapes though, the ones he felt the deepest attachments to were the home movies. Reggie could watch them for hours. Home movies fascinated him in a way that no other media was capable of. These were records of real people, of real feelings: not the imitated happiness of the romantic comedies or the horror movies' reflections of anxiety. These were sacred things. They were soft immortality and Reggie was their devoted keeper.

He awoke on a rainy Saturday in November with nothing more than a vague feeling of unease to hint at the chain of events that would begin that day. He quickly shook it off. Reggie had plans. First, a breakfast sandwich from Succotash Café. It was a little more expensive than he could usually justify, but today was going to be Reggie's day and he was resolved that it was going to start with some real food. Then, he was going to make the trek to Sweet Springs Missouri for the flea market. He had heard on one of his usual forums that a new vendor was going to be there today. A man who specialized in video tapes.

Reggie's overcoat and graying hair were a common sight at the Sweet Springs flea market, some of the vendors even knew him by name. Carlotta called out a hello to him as he passed by her booth, and he offered a nod and a smile in exchange. She was nice enough, but she specialized in sheet music and Reggie was more of an appreciator than a performer (though there were ten acoustic guitars and a children's electric piano stashed in his garage). The flea market was hosted monthly inside a local high school's gymnasium. It was an ideal location for the vendors; the school didn't charge them to set up their booths there. However, it was less ideal in other aspects. The lacquered wood of the gymnasium floor and bleachers reflected sound like a mirror reflects sunlight, quickly amplifying the ambient noise of even a small body of customers into an all-consuming roar. Reggie wasn't a fan of crowds, or loud noises for that matter, but the potential gain of venturing to the flea market far outweighed the discomfort. There was Blaster Bobby with his haphazard piles of toy guns, bows and swords. Enough for a platoon of aspiring soldiers. Reggie didn't feel motivated to visit him though: Bobby had stiffed him on the sale of an original Roy Rogers cap gun a few months before. A few stalls away sat Louise with her collection of vintage posters. From where he stood Reggie could pick out a Fleetwood Mac concert poster that looked original, an advertisement for chia pets and a poster for the first Mission Impossible. Nothing he felt particularly drawn to.

He was just beginning to wonder if he had misread the forum post somehow when he rounded the corner past Nick's Knacks. If Reggie had been a man given to outward displays of emotion, he could have wept. He had never, in his near fifty years of life, seen such a glorious assembly of tapes. If the owner of this booth had been inclined to, he could have built a small castle out of all the VHSs that he had gathered. This thought was quickly banished though, as the idea of trying to pull prized tapes out of a free-standing structure without knocking it over was distressing, and Reggie was already on edge from wading through the crowd of people. The booth was even better up close. Nothing was incomplete. Everything was in excellent condition. New-old stock maybe? Reggie inwardly made a note to see if he could get the vendor to reveal his supplier. A note which was quickly forgotten when he noticed the cardboard sign in the back-left corner of the booth: Home Videos.

"Johnson family vacation, Colorado '98." "McKenna + Jordan engagement party May 15, 2006" "Baker family reunion 1987" crossed out and beneath it in a childish scrawl, "mega cool robot fite". Reggie could hardly believe his luck. He sifted through the tapes, his hands practically shaking with excitement: how many lives were preserved here? How many voices? Reggie checked his bank account, feverishly running calculations in his head. Maybe that was why he didn't hear the vendor approach him.

"Hello."

Reggie jumped, turning around to see who had addressed him. Reggie scanned the crowd around the booth and the few other customers who had come to peruse the tapes before he recognized that the greeting had come from below his field of vision. There stood a strange, haggard figure of a man. Reggie guessed that he would have been close to five feet tall when standing upright. However he had been twisted by some injury or cruel fluke of genetics into a bizarre posture that required both the use of a walker, and for him to crane his neck upward at an obtuse angle to meet Reggie's gaze. "Uh, hi." Reggie grumbled a response, then feeling the need to expand upon his greeting, "Nice collection."

"It is, isn't it?" The man's eyes flashed behind a thick pair of bifocals. "Picked up most of those horror movies from an estate sale in Kentucky. Kept the Exorcist for myself though. Personal favorite." He added with a sick-sounding chuckle. "I can tell though," the man continued, "you're here for something different, aren't you? You're like me."

"How do you mean?" Reggie queried, an eyebrow raising involuntarily.

"You know, I've heard there are people in Africa who believe cameras can capture your soul. That they can preserve a little piece of it, trapped in the circuits or on the magnetic film. I don't think that's so crazy." Reggie shuffled his feet, unsure of how to respond. The man moved forward, adjusting a stack of tapes with his left hand. "I don't think that's crazy at all." He craned his neck upward again. Reggie couldn't see his eyes past the glare from the lights overhead. "That's why I keep these home movies. Not that many people find them interesting, but to the right person..." there was that unsettling laugh again. "Now normally," the man shuffled past Reggie, deeper into the home movie section of his booth, "when I encounter a man interested in home video, I'd tell him to take a look at some vacation footage, maybe a wedding video or something like that. But if I can tell a customer, and I can always tell a customer, you've already got a bunch of those, haven't you?"

"Yeah, I do." Reggie wore his shock plainly on his face. "How did you know that?"

"You sell these things for long enough, you develop a knack for reading people. And you, sir," he pointed emphatically to Reggie's chest, "are no stranger to home video. You need the full scope of human feeling at your fingertips. You collect emotions and experiences like the artist collects shades of paint, like the author collects words. You've seen more weddings than most videographers, more vacations than a resort town, and now you need something new." Reggie couldn't have feigned disinterest if he had wanted to. The man had him in the palm of his hand. "Tell me, sir, how many times have you seen someone capture anger? Real anger? What about fear? These are things we don't see often on home video, no indeed." As he spoke, the man tugged at an opaque plastic bin resting under one of the folding tables that made up the border of his booth.

"Is that what's in there?" Reggie felt a sense of disquiet rising to match his curiosity. Who exactly was this man? "Among other things, yes." The man laughed again, or maybe he coughed. Reggie couldn't tell. "But even then, you can find anger and fear on the nightly news, can't you? I'd wager you're in the market for something a little more...unique."

"I might be interested."

The man smiled knowingly, producing a small carboard box from inside the bin. "Then I'll tell you what. From one appreciator of the medium to another, I'll cut you a deal. Slide me ten bucks and they're yours: three tapes of human experiences I guarantee you won't find recorded anywhere else."

Reggie would later recall the smile on the man's face as menacing, but he couldn't be sure if it was a trick of his memory.

Reggie must have shaved ten minutes off of the drive from Sweet Springs to Kansas City on his return trip. He couldn't remember the last time he had been that excited to watch something he had bought. Of course, there was always the possibility that the man had sold him a box of friends reruns in beat-up sleeves, but the faded blue marker on the tapes, "MOVE IN DAY, COYOTE, BUCK TANK CANYON" made that feel unlikely. He stopped at the gas station to buy a case of beer and a fresh lighter and made his way home.

In the days that followed that Saturday in November, Reggie would often look back and wonder what might have gone differently. What if the tapes had been shredded or too warped to watch? What if his VCR had broken down? (This one made less sense; he had eleven VCRs for the purpose of guarding against that exact situation.) How might his life have turned out differently if something had stopped him from picking up the tape labeled "MOVE IN DAY", putting it into his VCR and watching it? At this moment in time, however, he felt nothing but excitement as he opened a beer, turned on his television and pressed play.

MOVE IN DAY

The television screen flickered into life, revealing the interior of a truck. The footage was poor quality even for home video, casting everything in a flickering pale green. Reggie could make out cacti and Joshua trees passing by the window of the vehicle. The radio was doing its best to push occasional snatches of "Losing My Religion" out into Reggie's living room through the ether of time, but the persistent grumble of the truck's engine was the canvas all other sounds rested on. "So," spoke a rough tenor voice from behind the camera, "ready to say goodbye to civilization for a few weeks? No women, no tv, no beer?" The camera turned to face the driver of the vehicle: a man wearing a highlighter-pink trucker hat and a sleeveless t-shirt, his face nearly obscured by a large pair of sunglasses. The man spoke slowly when he answered, as if he was considering every word before he said it out loud. The cadence of his speech made his southern accent sound much more pronounced than it really was, just a little extra weight on a couple of vowels, a tug on an 'r' or two. "Women out here have more in common with the lizards than they do with Demi Moore, tv sucks, and I can't look at beer here the same way since Europe. I think I'll be fine."

"You and Europe, man. You could work that shit into passing the salt."

"Listen, you drink a Weissbier while you're sat down at a biergarten looking at the alps, and then come tell me about PBR." The driver really leaned into the German pronunciation of the words.

"Tool." The videographer was only half kidding.

"Listen, Beetle, I'm not the one who decided to bring my new camcorder out on this job. You need to flash your money in everybody's face that bad?"

"Do we really have to use these stupid names?"

"Yes. You want a repeat of three years ago?"

"Fine." Beetle audibly sulked. "Well, if you really want to know, Fox, I brought the camcorder so we could help Dalt..."

"Heron. Especially if it's on camera, dude. Jesus!"

"Alight, alright, don't have a heart attack. I brought it so I could help Heron put together some footage for a new promo. The old one is kind of dated and we need the parents to see some smiling, rehabilitated faces on their TVs."

"That would be a good idea, if you knew what you were doing with that thing."

"How about you fuck off back to Germany."

"Once the check from this camp hits my account? Gladly."

There was a loud series of clicks as Beetle fiddled with the power button on the camcorder. A flash of static, and then the tape resumed. It took Reggie a few seconds to realize what he was looking at. Apparently, Fox was right to question Beetle's competency with the camera. There was a crowd of people surrounding a large campfire. Reggie could vaguely make out the silhouettes of more cacti in the background. A huge man, easily a head and a half above everyone else in the shot, was circling the campfire with his hands behind his back in a meditative posture. It could have been his surroundings, but something about his bearing reminded Reggie of a prison warden. A mess of wild and greasy blonde hair spilled from his head and past his shoulders. There was a bandana, with what looked like an American flag pattern, hiding the lower half of his face. The man began to speak as he continued pacing: a thunderous bass growl echoing out into the empty desert. "Do you know why you're here?" The question was met with silence. "Rhetorical question. All of you are here because you screwed up." A few of the people in the crowd shifted uncomfortably. "Maybe you were smoking dope. Maybe you were drinking. Stealing. Fighting. Maybe you think you're tough." The man paused and turned to face the campfire. "How about you, pink shirt? Do you think you're tough?" The camera turned to focus on a girl in the front row of the crowd. She couldn't have been more than sixteen. In just three massive strides, the blonde man moved over to the opposite side of the crowd: placing himself directly in front of her. The camera moved to get a better view of the action. The girl whimpered something that the camera couldn't pick up. "I didn't hear that." The tall man growled.

"I'm not tough. I'm not trying to cause trouble." She sounded terrified.

"Well according to your onboarding papers, you caused plenty of trouble back at home. You think dealing pot is a joke?" It occurred to Reggie that every time the man said something like "dope", "drinking", or "dealing pot", it sounded awkward and unnatural.

"You don't under..."

"I understand perfectly well, you little leech." The man snarled. "You think you're a kid and none of this crap can touch you. Why shouldn't you get a little extra money for that nice dress? For some movie tickets? What's the worst that could happen?" As his tirade continued, his voice steadily increased in volume. "Well since you asked, I guess I'll tell you. Time doesn't stand still, pink shirt. One day you're gonna look in the mirror and you're going to see a twenty five year old woman looking back at you. And unless you take this opportunity to make a change, I guarantee you won't like what you see. Maybe she'll have trace marks up and down her arms. Maybe she'll be worn out and used up from letting any man with two legs and a beating heart take a piece of her virtue. Maybe she'll be looking in the mirror in a prison bathroom." He leaned on choice phrases in his speech, apparently unaware that the right term was "track marks". The girl was on the verge of tears. The man turned to address the rest of the crowd and when he spoke again, he was shouting like a preacher. "All of you are here because you're like her. You're leeches. You've figured out you can be comfortable living outside the law. Outside what's right. But that garbage doesn't last forever because it can't. You can't suck the life out of society, out of good Christian men and women forever, because God and the law have a way of sorting that out." He paused, presumably to catch his breath. When the man spoke again, it was in a much softer register. "You're probably angry right now, angry at us for stealing you away from your homes. Angry at your parents for signing you up for this program. Angry at me for calling you on your bullcrap. I understand. Why wouldn't you be? But I promise you, once you graduate from this program you will thank me and your parents. You've all been given a new lease on life, and you're going to learn to appreciate it soon enough. Get a good night's sleep tonight, we start hiking at dawn."

The camera clicked off. When the next shot came into focus, it showed the inside of a rudimentary cabin. It reminded Reggie of the shelters he'd seen following his father on the Appalachian trail years before: crude, dirt-floored, generally awful. There was a plastic table in the center, seating three men. Reggie could see Fox, the driver from the truck, as well as the large man from the campfire ceremony seated facing one another. The other two, he didn't recognize. One of them was standing with his back to the camera and stirring something over a portable stove. He was thin, bordering on unhealthy, and wore his hair in one long black braid down the middle of his back. When he spoke, his voice was soft and raspy; making everything he said sound like a secret. "That was one hell of a speech tonight, Coyote. I think a couple of them actually shit themselves."

"Thanks. And watch your mouth. We lead by example here, Snake."

"Hey I read the employee manual too, but I don't see any kids here."

"Doesn't matter. You perform how you practice. If the kids hear you cursing, that puts you on their level and If you're on their level, you can't lead them." Snake made a sound that Reggie couldn't identify as acknowledgement or exasperation.

The man seated at the head of the table was the youngest of the group, looking more like the teenagers gathered around the campfire than the other men in the shelter. He was the next to speak. "So, uh, Coyote?" Coyote turned to look at him. "What happened here three years ago? I've heard you guys mention it once or twice: 'we don't want a repeat of three years ago'. What do you mean?" Even through the television, Reggie could feel the tension settle into the room when he had finished speaking. "I don't know if it's our place..." Coyote began, but Fox cut him off.

"The kid has a right to know, Coyote. Call it crisis prevention or whatever." Coyote seemed to consider this, and then spoke.

"Alright, I guess. It's Moth, right?" The young man nodded. Coyote settled back into his chair, considering the can of soda in his right hand before he spoke again. "In eighty-eight we had these sisters. Jennifer and Joyce. Before we started using the code names. I don't remember what they were in for, I think it had something to do with a prank at their school that went really sideways. Joyce had a lot of anger issues too, I think?" It was hard to tell, But Reggie thought he could see something like regret creep onto Coyote's features as he spoke. "Anyway, middle of the hike the kids start complaining about some animal circling their camps at night. Say they can hear it sniffing at their tents, their gear has been messed with when they wake up in the morning. We didn't think anything of it at the time. It could've been coyotes, real ones," he added with a humorless laugh, "or maybe they were lying to us. Trying to get us to end the hike early. Most of these kids had been in and out of juvie since they could ride bikes, so we figured that was a possibility. We told them to suck it up, cut their rations and kept moving."

Beetle chimed in from behind the camera. "Yeah, but a few days later it all went south." Coyote gladly ceded the role of storyteller to his coworker. "The guy who used to have your job, Mark, had been hovering around Jennifer since the start of the hike. She didn't want anything to do with him, of course, but that didn't matter much. Kept bothering her and bothering her. One night, he tries to make a move and she freaks out. Knocks him down, starts hollering something fierce. She gave him a nasty black eye." Coyote shook his head, ashamed.

"What happened then?" asked Moth, his eyes seeming to stare directly into the center of Reggie's screen.

"Next morning?" Beetle paused. "Jennifer's missing."

"Christ." Breathed Moth. Coyote shot him a nasty look. "Sorry, C."

"We spent a week looking for her. Called in dogs, choppers, the whole nine yards. Nothing. Mark was obviously a suspect, but they couldn't prove anything. In the end they decided that whatever was circling the camp must have carried her off when she got up to piss." Beetle sighed. "Joyce wouldn't let it go, obviously. Her family sued, went after Mark, went after Heron's whole family. Almost took the company down, but we pulled through. So get this though," Beetle paused again before recounting with ghoulish enthusiasm, "after Mark got off? Joyce found him. Got ahold of some company records somehow and figured out where he lived. Drove to his house and cut his head off with a kitchen knife. The coroner said she started with his eyes." Moth absently traced the base of his neck with his forefinger and thumb.

"That wasn't a necessary detail." Fox chastised. "We're trying to warn him, not scare him away."

"Dude, this is warning him: we use the codenames to make it as hard as possible for the kids to find out who we really are. That way if one of these brats gets their feelings hurt they can't show up to your house in the middle of the night."

"The codenames are just one of the new safety measures we've undertaken here." Coyote turned to Moth, assuring him. "All our employee information is much more secure now. It's just an extra layer of protection."

"I don't know, y'all." Moth sat back in his chair, concern plainly visible on his features. "Couldn't we get around all that by not doing things that might make them react violently?"

Snake let out a sigh of exasperation. "These aren't model kids, Moth. They're stealing, fighting, most of them smoke pot at the least. Plus, some of them have some real issues upstairs, you know what I mean?" Snake tapped his temple with an index finger. When he turned to his coworker, Reggie could make out an attempt at a goatee on snake's face. "Some of these kids will respond to the program, we can teach them to respect authority, make a difference in their lives. Others though? They're too far gone. Those are the ones we've got these safety measures set up for."

"That makes sense, I guess." Moth didn't look convinced. He stared out the window of the shelter, seeming to consider something. "What about the animal?"

"What animal?"

"The one that carried Jennifer off. Did you ever figure out what it was? A coyote isn't big enough to kill a teenage girl on its own, and the kids wouldn't have described it as 'an animal' if there was a pack checking out the camp."

"We never did."

"Oh."

The shelter fell into an uneasy silence. The only noises issuing from the tape became the moan of the desert wind and an occasional clank as Snake's wooden spoon met the side of the pot. After about fifteen seconds, there was the same rustle of motion as Beetle looked for the power button. The tape ended.

SOMEWHERE IN MISSOURI

Reggie had to hand it to that vendor, he hadn't lied about the tape being unique. He couldn't put together an exact figure for the number of home videos he had watched, (somewhere in the thousands, probably) but none of them came close to what he had just seen. In Reggie's experience most people thought in similar ways. They tended to place value on the same things. Children. Spouses. Work. Recreation. Friends. Usually in that order, too. As a consequence, most of the things they chose to film fell under one of those five categories. Reggie had seen endless birthday parties, towers of weddings, the occasional recording of a monster truck rally or a baseball game from somewhere in the nosebleeds. Never, in his long and storied career as an archivist had he seen anything like the contents of the tape labeled MOVE IN DAY. The whole thing, from the moment the first shot had shone through his television, had carried a profoundly eerie feeling. True, the concept of kidnapping delinquent teenagers and putting them in a kind of desert labor camp was disquieting enough, but there was something else about the video that was harder to explain. A feeling that perched on the back of Reggie's neck like a vulture. All he knew was that there was some reason, just past the edge of his understanding, that he ought to be worried about the people on that tape. There was a storm on the horizon, and it was moving in fast.

It wasn't like Reggie to look into the histories of the videos he bought. He preserved the lives captured on the tapes: he didn't pry into them. People wouldn't understand if his snooping was discovered, first of all. Second, and the mere thought caused a sick feeling to blossom in his stomach, he couldn't stand the thought of discovering that the subjects of his tapes were dead. The responsibility of preserving the last existing echoes of their lives would be too much to bear. He preferred, almost exclusively, to remain ignorant.

Which is why this hunger, this urge to know what had happened to the people on that tape felt so strange. Stranger still, was the feeling's urgency. A search query of "troubled teen industry, snake, fox, coyote, moth, beetle, heron" turned up nothing. No surprises there. BUCK TANK CANYON, however, bore fruit. The videos had been shot in Arizona. That wasn't much, but it was something. "Arizona, Jennifer, troubled teen, 1988" came up weirdly empty. All he managed to uncover were a few old yearbook photos and an article on endometriosis. "Arizona, wilderness therapy, 1991" produced a smattering of newspaper and magazine scans about troubled teen programs in the state at the end of the previous century. "Wilderness therapy: hope for troubled teens or mill for parents' green?" "I worried for my son's soul, but wilderness therapy brought him back!" "The difference between medicine and poison: wilderness therapy may be effective. But is it safe?" Reggie sighed. Maybe what he was looking for was buried deeper down in the search results, but it was getting late and the beer he drank earlier had gone to his head. It was a problem that could wait until later.

That night, Reggie had a dream.

He was standing in a shallow canyon. The walls of the canyon were alive. Breathing and shimmering like the sides of some huge animal. He could feel wind on his back: a soft hand pushing him forward, urging him to take the next step. Reggie began to walk. He would go where the wind lead him. He wasn't afraid. The soft, flickering green of the moon made shadows race across the canyon walls like frightened birds. The dark reflections of cacti danced and shifted, they became the shadows of men. Their black silhouettes followed behind Reggie in a bizarre, solemn procession. At a right turn, a stag stood on its hind legs at the lip of the canyon. Looking down at him. Hunger radiated from the animal like heat from summer pavement. A hunger that could eat the whole world alive and come back for seconds. Reggie froze, knowing with a certainty only dreams can provide that he had seen something that was not meant for men to see. The wind at his back became the pull of a hurricane, invisible hands tearing at his hair and his clothes; forcing his feet forward. Forcing him to see what was around the corner. He thrashed and struggled, pleading with it not to make him go. Not to make him look at it. The wind sounded like screaming. Someone begging for their life. The stag opened its mouth in a predatory grin.

Reggie woke up crying.

He was not a man given to nightmares, but was even less likely to search for meaning in them. Besides, whatever anxiety Reggie felt over the contents of the tapes, or his dream for that matter, were far outweighed by his curiosity. There were two more tapes left, after all. He briefly considered lighting up before putting COYOTE in the slot of his VHS player, but determined the interplay between the content of the tape, the THC, and the residual bad vibes of his nightmare could have unpleasant consequences. He made some toast, fried an egg, and sat down to watch.

COYOTE

The screen of his television flickered into life, showing an expanse of desert: scrub brush and tumbleweeds dotted the plain like the punctuation on some huge page. Some treatise on desert history as long as the horizon. The towering forms of mesas presided over the dusty red-brown earth like watchtowers. How much had they seen in that desert? What were they watching for, now? If he was being honest, Reggie wasn't sure he wanted that question answered. He could hear the ambient noises of horses nickering and snorting in protest as they were fitted with saddles for a day's ride. "Look at that." He heard Moth's voice issue from behind the camera. "You guys can gripe all you want about how you miss booze and girls, but you won't catch any views like that in Phoenix."

"Quit waxing poetic and come help me get these saddlebags on Shadow. He's had an attitude all morning." Beetle's voice called from somewhere behind the camera. As the frame swung around to meet the source of the voice, Reggie realized it was the first time he had ever seen its owner directly. Beetle was a squat, dark-eyed man with dust colored brown hair and a mouth that seemed to rest in a kind of half smile. His musculature owed more to genetics than dumbbells and there was an air of trouble about him. A kind of stance, or an awareness maybe, that could only be earned through a personal familiarity with bad situations. Reggie would have bet money that he was there to handle the kids if they got violent. "Sure." Replied Moth. "Where did you put those apples? A bite or two might help him feel a little more open to the idea."

"They're next to my pack in the shelter." There was a clatter as Moth put the camera down on a bench, leaving it to stare at the assembly of employees and horses. Reggie could see that the shelter the employees (counselors, as he would later learn they were called) had stayed in was situated at the top of a small hill, functioning as a kind of natural panopticon. The camera's perspective, combined with the poor quality of the tape, made the scene look almost surreal. Like Reggie was looking at an abstract painting that had somehow come to life. There were two small camps about a hundred yards apart in the valley below the hill. The tents had been assembled by amateur hands, giving the effect of a field of crumpled paper balls. The few trees and bushes that clung to life in the desert valley were reduced to soft green brushstrokes. The kids who had begun waking up and milling around became pointillist dots of light. The rock wall at the opposite end of the valley was transformed into a flickering reddish smear. Reggie was captivated by the accidental art. So much so that it came as an even greater shock when he noticed what was standing on top of the wall.

Through the haze of celluloid it was difficult to make out, but as Reggie moved his face closer to the screen he could see it clearly: it was a stag. He tried to soothe his nerves. It was just a deer. It had nothing to do with his nightmare. Whatever creatures or symbols his subconscious had dredged up had no relation to anything in the real world, videotaped or otherwise. It was probably just a whitetail that had drifted a little too far from the grasslands. However, a change began to register in Reggie's perception: slowly, purposefully, the deer was turning its head to look at him. Not the camera, not the kids, him. Reggie was transfixed, unable to move as he watched the creature's gaze drift over the tents, past the horses, up the hill and directly onto his face. At that exact instant, there was a ringing in his ears so loud it caused him to cry out and cover his head. When Reggie opened his eyes again, the stag was gone.

Reggie paused the tape with sweat beading on his forehead. His heart was threatening to leap out of his chest. Two newborn fears shifted into focus. First, what if he was losing his mind? Normal, healthy people didn't feel waves of malice radiating off of a deer on a videotape. They didn't freak out after making eye contact with an image of an animal that had probably been dead for decades. All the same, Reggie had felt it as clearly as he would have felt a hand on his shoulder or the wind in his face. Something had been profoundly, terrifyingly wrong about that animal. This lead to the second fear. An anxiety that was far more worrying even than the first.

What if he wasn't crazy?

He knew what he had felt. The deer hadn't just been aware of him, it hadn't just stared at him. It had stared into him. Somehow, across the gulf of time that creature had tried to reach out for Reggie and hurt him. If Reggie really wasn't crazy, if what he saw and felt was real, what had he walked into? More importantly, could he still get out of it? He stared at the screen; a flickering, jumping frame of the valley. Maybe if he just stood up from his chair, walked over to his television and turned it off, maybe whatever he had seen would remain trapped within the confines of that VHS. Maybe he could still be safe. "Now that," Reggie thought with a kind of grim resignation, "is actually crazy." The deer, if it really was a deer at all, had been in him. If it wasn't already in his house, at the very least it had his scent, his essence, whatever the hell something like that used to hunt its prey. Maybe there was still a way to outmaneuver that creature, maybe what Reggie had seen wasn't a death sentence, but one thing he knew for certain was that he wouldn't be helping anything if he stopped watching now. Reggie opened a beer. It may have been morning, but he wasn't about to approach the rest of the tape without some kind of chemical buffer.

The camera clicked off, presumably the doing of Snake or Coyote trying to save battery. When it came on again, the shot was from horseback. Reggie could see Snake a few yards ahead, his horse proceeding at a leisurely stroll. Coyote rode about fifteen yards to Moth's right on a palomino stallion, chewing on a piece of beef jerky. His American flag bandana had been repurposed as a hair tie. Reggie could hear Fox shouting from somewhere behind the camera. "Come on, leeches, move it! It doesn't hurt that bad, put your pack back on your shoulders before I fill it with rocks!"

"Pick your feet up! Haven't you ever walked before?" Beetle chimed in. "You better hope this program toughens you up, because you losers wouldn't last a week in the real world!" He added as his horse trotted into frame. The camera turned to focus on him and Moth spoke from behind the lens. "It's like you guys are trying to make them mad." Beetle slowed his pace so that he was riding directly next to the videographer. "Did you ever watch Spartacus?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"When that Roman captain said 'hate keeps a man alive', he was more right than he knew."

"You mean these kids are in danger out here? Do we have enough water and food for them at the next camp?" Concern was plainly audible in Moth's voice.

"Dude, we're in the middle of the desert. It's almost a hundred degrees and it isn't even nine. Of course they're in danger. Plus, angry kids march faster and I want to get set up early tonight."

"Jesus Christ, Beetle." Moth swore.

"Empathy won't earn you a bonus." Chuckled Beetle. "And keep your voice down before Pastor Coyote hears you." He seemed to take Moth's silence as an invitation to talk more. "That guy really drank the Kool-Aid when he got hired. He sure believes in all of...this." The end of the second sentence was delivered with a broad gesture and a pitying expression. Beetle turned and stared ahead for a moment before continuing. "That corny ass sales pitch about us rehabilitating these little junkies? Turning them into upstanding republican-voting citizens? Get real. We march them from one end of a trail to the other and shout the word 'responsibility' at them a few times a day. If that's what it takes to straighten you out, you were never that bad in the first place."

"You made a weird choice of career for somebody with so little faith in the program."

"I made a brilliant choice in career. I sit on a horse, eat beans and jerky for a few months, then spend the rest of the year drinking beer and playing pinball." At this rebuttal, Snake slowed the pace of his horse so that he rode abreast of Beetle and Moth. "Speaking of which," Snake rasped, "I think there should still be some beverages left in our hiding spot from last month."

"Snake, you beautiful son of a...!"

"Shut up!" Snake growled. "The stash won't do any of us any good if Coyote hears you crowing about it," then, turning to Moth, "speaking of which, think you can distract him while Beetle and I go get it? I'll leave a beer in your saddlebag as payment."

From here, the tape flashed between a number of disjointed shots from the day's hike. A row of teenagers sat on a rock wearing expressions ranging from anger to exhaustion, their hair plastered to their foreheads by sweat. "Looking good, leeches." Muttered Fox from behind the camera. There was a brief shot, only a couple of seconds, that zoomed in shakily on a roadrunner as it darted across the trail. Another short flash showed Moth reclining under a large bush, his head propped up by his saddlebag. Reggie could hear Coyote shouting something about water rations in the background.

At last, a shot of a campfire came into focus; much smaller than the one from MOVE IN DAY. Fox, Coyote and Moth were the only counselors visible around the fire. Snake and Beetle must have already left to dig into their stash of alcohol. In the distance Reggie could make out another small campfire, presumably belonging to the campers. Maybe it was the celluloid or the fuzz of the cathode ray tubes, but the campers' little fire looked desperate somehow. Like it wasn't so much there to provide light as it was to keep the darkness at the edges of their camp. Reggie hoped that it would succeed.

"Give it another thirty and then one of you needs to head over there and tell them to put that out." Coyote grumbled as he looked over at the teenagers' campfire. "I want to try to make it to buck tank in the next few days, and we're not gonna get there if we keep today's pace. The kids need rest and so do we."

"Fair enough." Fox produced a cigarette from somewhere in his pack and lit it, taking a deep drag and laying on his pack. "I nominate Moth."

"You're too kind." Moth chuckled. "I'll finish my food and go hassle them. Will one of you go and turn the camera off? I don't think anything else is going to..." He was cut off by a chorus of shouts rising up from the other camp. The three men were immediately jerked from their restful postures and faced towards the sound of the shouting. "Change of plan, I guess." Coyote grumbled. "Grab the flashlights, we need to get over there as soon as we...wait, do you hear that?" The three counselors paused, Moth cocked his head towards the source of the shouts. Reggie leaned in towards his television, trying to make out what had given Coyote pause. For the most part, the noise from the other camp was a cacophony, but there was one word Reggie heard break through again and again.

"Help."

The camera shook madly as Moth grabbed it and began to sprint to the other camp. The shouts of the campers became a single thread in a tapestry of noise. The clatter of the plastic lens cap hitting the side of the camera as Moth ran, the panting and cursing of the counselors, the frantic sound of their footsteps as they sprinted. It was almost two minutes before they arrived at the camp and the shot finally stabilized. "What's going on? What happened?" Coyote panted. The answer came in fragments of terrified shouts, all of the campers trying to be heard at once.

"There's something stalking us..."

"An animal..."

"...heard it prowling around the edge of the camp..."

"...the horns were..."

"...couldn't see it..."

"It was huge..."

"...think it looked like horns..."

"We heard it breathing and..."

"All I could see was its horns..."

"Alright, everybody shut up!" Coyote's voice was like thunder, silencing the shouts of the campers and echoing out into the desert like a gunshot. "You're saying an animal is circling the camp?"

"Not just an animal," one boy began to protest, "it was fucking huge and.."

"What made you think that when I said 'shut up' I wasn't talking to you?" The boy fell silent. "It's got horns. You all made that unnecessarily, annoyingly clear. You know what kinds of animals don't have horns?" The teenagers were silent. "Predators. Predators don't have horns, you illiterate dweebs. Whatever was investigating you, not prowling, not stalking, didn't mean you any harm. Now put out your campfire and get into your tents for lights out. I don't want to hear so much as a fart come echoing from your camp once I've turned in or it's your necks." Moth shuffled closer to Coyote. "But Coyote, don't you think that..."

"Be quiet. We'll talk once we're back at camp."

Moth made two more attempts to open a conversation with Coyote on the walk back and was shushed both times. Whatever was on the lead counselor's mind required absolute privacy to talk about. When they were back in the glow of their campfire, Moth couldn't contain himself any longer. "Dude, we've got to send somebody over to keep watch."

"Moth."

Moth was growing steadily more anxious: the camera was starting to shake as he held it. "They were terrified! You couldn't see that? What if there really is something out there and they're in actual danger right now? We have to go over and keep watch."

"Moth."

"Just yesterday you were telling me about how something could have carried off that girl Jennifer. You really think two totally unrelated groups of kids could come up with the same story three years apart? What if the thing is back and it's hunting the fucking kids?"

"Moth!" Coyote's voice was a threatening growl. "You think I don't know that?"

"And you're not going to do anything?"

"If we made a big deal out of it what would that accomplish? Huh? It would only frighten them worse than they already are. It's better for them to believe that it's nothing. We'll give them an hour to fall asleep and then I'll go keep watch. Cool your jets."

There was a blur of static. When the tape came back into focus, Reggie could see the hint of a new day in the color of the sky. In that second twilight, the ambiguous space that's neither fully morning or fully night, the light warped the colors of everything in the shot. The rocks lost their trademark rust-brown and turned to gray. The leaves of the bush that sheltered the sleeping forms of Snake and Fox became a dusty royal blue. Even the sounds were different. All the creatures that had sought shelter from the punishing heat of an Arizona desert sun were crawling out from their burrows, squawking their greetings to one another. There was a rustle as the camera was picked up and the screen filled with Moth's face.

He stared off at something on the horizon, and in that moment he seemed a lot older to Reggie. Like he bore concerns that shouldn't belong to someone who had yet to see twenty five. Moth was silent for another few seconds before addressing the camera directly. "Coyote didn't come back last night." Reggie's stomach sank. "I stayed up. I couldn't sleep after all of that. I kept waiting and waiting for him but..." he waved some insect away from his face, refocusing his gaze in the direction of the teenagers' camp. "I'm gonna go look for him. Maybe he just fell asleep over there. Maybe..." The expression on his face as his speech trailed off seemed to suggest he and Reggie were thinking the same, awful thing.

It took a moment for Reggie to understand what he was looking at in the next shot. At first, he thought it was a remnant of some unusually dark Desert Storm propaganda that COYOTE had been taped over. A tattered fragment of an American flag, spattered with dried blood. It wasn't until he heard Moth cursing and heaving that he knew what he was actually seeing.

SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDWEST

In retrospect, Reggie probably shouldn't have gone into the office that Monday. It was the worst place to be after what he had witnessed over the past two days. The occasional rumble as a car drove by, the subdued clatter of his coworkers' keyboards, the whisper of the air vents all gradually faded into a kind of white noise. An un-sound that left Reggie's mind to endlessly watch and rewind the tapes. Reggie tried to concentrate on his work. There were invoices to be paid. A woman on the sixth floor he was vaguely familiar with needed a package delivered. There were emails he needed to send.

<Patrick,

I took the opportunity to get a gas card set up for your charger. As you may have heard, we're trying to monitor expenditures; especially those related to company vehicles. Keeping track of receipts can be annoying, so the bosses have decided these cards will help us. Thank you for using the card and have a good day!>

<Clementine,

I’ve been working on the spreadsheet of vehicles for you. Things are coming along for the most part, but I have run into a couple of issues that I wanted to make you aware of before I submit the complete spreadsheet tomorrow.

1. Until reading your requirements for the spreadsheet, I was in the habit of throwing away receipts and other records of service after I had completed the expense reports in an effort to cut down on clutter. I will start keeping those around from now on, but the data on vehicle maintenance is going to be a little limited.

2. Property services outsources the maintenance of all their vehicles to the Walsh building and was unable to give me any information on maintenance records as a result. I’m focusing my energy on getting that information this afternoon, I will let you know how it goes.

3. Gregg Merkowitz is in Aruba and I will keep trying to contact him, but I have been unsuccessful so far.>

Normally Reggie enjoyed his work, at least to the most reasonable degree someone could enjoy things like sending emails and scheduling vehicle repairs. He liked his office in the corner of the basement. It felt safe, secluded. Like he was an animal taking shelter in its burrow. He liked the quiet of it: no loud noises to disturb his peace of mind. He liked the clutter of the boxes, the stacks of files and office supplies. They reminded him of home. In a detached way, he could see a kind of black humor in how his experiences over the weekend had transformed all of these comforts in to alien, disturbing things. As though he was looking at them in a funhouse mirror. There was only one exit from the basement. What was he going to do if something cornered him there? The clutter that had felt so familiar just days ago now seemed threatening: hiding places for a predator. The quiet now felt oppressive. His ears strained at the slightest sound, what if that hadn't been the sound of heels clicking on the floor above him, but hooves? What if the whisper of the air vent was concealing the sound of breathing, only feet, or even inches away from his back?

These thoughts were temporarily pushed to the back of his mind as an email notification lit up his screen: there was an important delivery he needed to take care of.

In the world of business, aesthetic is everything. Marketing departments will spend weeks agonizing over the design of the desks at brick and mortar locations. Swedish-made wood composite and aluminum would give off a feeling of modernity: this is a company that has its finger on the pulse of current trends. These are people who aren't afraid to take risks. However, figured mahogany would imply the presence of old money. It would give customers the sense that they were involved in an institution that had stood the test of time. At Reggie's job, art was considered to be of great importance. In the parts of the building that saw the most customer traffic, the art leaned towards more modern tastes. There were a couple of angular portraits by some painter from the fifties Reggie had a vague familiarity with. For a while, they had even featured a painting by Yoshitomo Nara. They put an entire article about that one in the company newsletter. On the upper floors however, the ones that were likely to entertain customers from a more exclusive tax bracket, the art leaned towards classical tastes. The crown jewel was, of course, the original Degas (one of his more obscure drawings, Reggie didn't work for a Swiss bank after all) on the seventeenth floor. Most of these pieces were leased rather than owned, and as a result had to be swapped out once every couple of years. It was always a big event, and Reggie was always the one in charge of moving the paintings. His superiors had gone over and over the importance of grabbing the paintings in a specific way, in wearing the right kind of gloves, even in how he was supposed to breathe so as to avoid getting any particles of saliva on the precious artworks. Reggie thought it had more to do with pageantry than necessity, but no one had asked him.

The task Reggie had been assigned that day was to deliver a painting to the office of an important figure in the trust department and retrieve last year's model. Normally Reggie would have groaned inwardly at the prospect of having an afternoon taken up by the process of taking old art down, cataloguing it, placing it in the vault, contacting the owner to pick it up, and then mounting the new work. Today, however, he was grateful for the distraction. He needed something to focus on other than his own relentless anxiety.

The art that had been delivered wasn't a large work, only about sixteen by twelve inches, wrapped in brown paper to protect the canvas. Unusual, Reggie thought, since the executives usually preferred large statement pieces. Something to mount on the wall behind their desks, creating a halo of oil paint behind them as they set up trust funds for the city's upper crust. Also, he couldn't be sure if it was just residual anxiety from the events of the previous weekend, but he felt his nerves spike when he picked it up. Better to get this out of the way and get back home. He was in the act of composing an excuse to leave early, an upset stomach or a migraine, when the time came for him to unwrap the work and hang it. Absently, he pinched the corner of the brown paper wrapping and began to peel it back. He was so focused on what was waiting for him at home, (maybe a re-watch of lethal weapon two and a frozen pizza, he wasn't emotionally prepared for viewing BUCK TANK CANYON yet) that he didn't register what he was unwrapping until it was staring him in the face. Reggie felt his blood run cold, breaking out in the kind of sweat that only illness and genuine fear can summon. It was "Head of a Stag" by Albrecht Durer. Reggie stood immobilized, transfixed by the subject's hateful glare. It had to be a coincidence. Just spectacularly bad timing. These paintings were reserved months in advance, there was no way that things could have been set in motion that long ago. It couldn't be true.

Right?

What if the thing he had seen on the videotape, that un-deer, had known all along he would watch it? What if it had been hunting him for years, decades even, and this was just the creature closing in on him? What if he had been damned since birth? Had some ancestor of his run afoul of this thing and it was just now coming to collect? There was gray at the edges of Reggie's vision, the room seemed to rock back and forth like the building was caught in a gale-force wind. He didn't hear the painting clatter to the floor. He didn't hear the executive shouting at him about the value of the art he had just carelessly dropped. The stares and concerned questions of the other employees didn't register as he walked out of the building. Neither did the horns of the other drivers on the route back to his house. Reggie could practically feel the un-deer's breath on the back of his neck: if he was going to put up a fight, he thought with desperation, he needed more time to prepare. He needed to put some distance in between himself and it and he needed to know what was on that final tape. It was labeled in the same handwriting as the others had been, so somebody had presumably survived the encounter. If someone had survived, then there must be a clue on that last tape: something that would help him beat the un-deer, or at least escape it. A new feeling took roost next to his fear: determination. A plan had begun to form in Reggie's mind.

Reggie hoisted his television into the backseat of his car, followed by three separate VCRs (what if one of them didn't work?) BUCK TANK CANYON would ride in the passenger seat. He also brought a can of bear spray, a civil war era officer's saber that he had frantically gone over with a knife sharpener, and a pistol of dubious quality that he'd bought from Blaster Bobby a year ago. It was better than nothing. He drove until 1 a.m., finally settling on a motel somewhere in between Wichita and Oklahoma City. It was one of those prairie towns that's more a gathering of rest stops and fast food restaurants than an actual place. Normally Reggie would have made a point to avoid staying somewhere like that. He found little towns like that depressing and creepy in equal measure. That night, however, his instincts told him to seek out somewhere anonymous. Somewhere out of character for him. He needed to make it as hard for the un-deer to find him as he could. He also needed to make a phone call.

Reggie was nothing if not thorough. The Sweet Springs flea market required every vendor that they associated with to list their phone number and email address on their website. If there was anyone who could tell him more about the un-deer, anyone who could provide him with counsel, it was going to be that man. The vendor he had bought these damned tapes from in the first place. Reggie found the phone number and called, placing his cell phone on speaker as he nervously cleaned his pistol. It went straight to voicemail. Not surprising, given the time of night, but as Reggie was about to redial the number in an attempt to wake the mysterious vendor up, he heard the familiar rasp of his speech echo through his hotel room.

"So. You watched the tapes."

"You bastard!" Reggie shouted. "What the fuck did you sell me? You knew what was..." his tirade was cut short, however, when he realized he was berating the vendor's voicemail message.

"I guess you know what's coming for you, and you called this number because you thought I could help. First: no, I don't know what it's called. Believe me, I've talked to cryptid hunters, historians, medicine men, nobody could give me an answer. Most of them thought I was crazy. Second: you can't fight it. I found that one out the hard way." The vendor's sick chuckle was lent an eerie, digital quality as it crackled through the speakers on Reggie's phone. " Third: you've probably been seeing deer everywhere. Commercials, postcards, lawn sculptures, whatever. That's not you losing your mind, it's a sign that it's getting closer. If you haven't already, you should skip town after you listen to this message. The only thing that's worked for me until now is to stay on the move, to keep putting distance in between myself and it." There was a long pause. Reggie was about to hang up, thinking the message was over, when he heard the vendor sigh. "Maybe you've watched the last tape. Maybe you haven't. In the case of option two, I feel like it would be wrong not to tell you that there are two ways to beat it. To get it off your tail forever." Involuntarily, Reggie sat forward in his chair, his pulse quickening. "One, which you are unfortunately suffering the consequences of right now, is to offer it some more appealing prey. Get somebody else to sit down and watch the tapes of their own free will and it'll leave you alone."

Thanks, asshole. Reggie thought.

"Given how difficult it was to find you, I'm not sure you'll have much luck with that. The second option is on the last tape. The one about the canyon. Maybe you've got the stomach for it, maybe you don't. Good luck, kid." With that, the message was over.

Reggie wasn't completely sure what new knowledge he thought he would have gained from that phone call. Some childlike part of him had hoped the vendor would have had all the answers for his predicament. "Oh, it's easy! Just throw the tapes in a bonfire, whisper 'abra cadabra' three times and it's all finished." Reggie went over his options. He knew he couldn't run from it forever. His funds were already low, and with no way to make money other than panhandling (Reggie felt it was safe to assume that he was no longer employed) it was only a matter of time before he ran out of gas and food. He could buy himself a few days, a little over a week maybe, if he was clever with how he spent his money but he knew if he chose to rely on distancing himself from his pursuer he was living on borrowed time. His second option was convincing someone else to watch the tapes. However, he was aware that his urge to hoard physical media was unique. It was very unlikely, if not impossible, that he would find another person who would be curious enough about the tapes to watch them. It was less likely still that Reggie would be able to summon the social graces necessary to approach them in the first place. The last chance Reggie had was door number three. The mysterious final option suggested by the vendor. Maybe you've got the stomach for it, maybe you don't. There was only one way to find out what that meant.

To be continued...

supernaturalmonster
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About the Creator

Daniel Bradbury

Big fan of long walks in the woods, rye Manhattans, Spanish literature, jazz, and vinyl records.

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