The Video Tape - part 6 short story
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The Video Tape – part 1 – Michiel van Laarhoven

The Video Tape – part 1 of 6

By Michiel van Laarhoven

I lay calmly and comfortably on a white cushion.
Like a globe, the mechanism beneath me gently spins around.
I am thrust into an inferno and swallowed by darkness in a curled-up, child-like position.
The last light escapes me and so I am drowned.

Here, I am born.
I die, until I get born again.
At least every now and then.
Until I am worn.

Video tape #122

An illustrious pillar of pale smoke was coiling through the wet stone street, fawning the darkness surrounded by it. Its shape was deforming and reforming, it grew and blossomed like a faint flower until it shed its petals. The fume gained strength from its source anew and shaped another pillar of reeling smoke, as if the city structures smoked cigars like the sad men inside, working late.

The impenetrable fogs now revealed a black heart, a heart quickly expanding into a human posture that strolled serenely in the night, marching closer. Reverberating footsteps accompanied the posture.
I was waiting for the shadow who used to be my father, as he gently strode towards me. Clack, clack, clack. The heels of his shoes smacked the drenched pavement softly. And I waited patiently, pondering that it had been a while since I last saw him.
My father was a good man, though not a strong man. If it was someone I inherited my persistent confidence from, it wasn’t my father. What the old man lacked in strength, however, he filled in spades with kindness. After sickness had befell him, there were few things left he was able to do and so he had stayed at home, taking care of me and my two sisters so we could grow up in a world that was becoming difficult and dangerous. Clack, clack, clack.
As children, our father took us to the movies almost every week, on Wednesday mornings, when the theatre had died out and the usually vibrant city was still in its peaceful process of starting to play a new day. He called us in sick from school, something I am sure he must’ve gotten in trouble with at some point.

We laughed and smiled as we made a run through the vast theatre hall to see who made it to the cashier first. The winner would pick the movie we went to. Poor Electra, my youngest sister, would constantly lose the race and she would grudgingly adapt herself to the choice of the winner. Yes, the fierceness of a child’s game was cruel sometimes. Unless my father carried her on his back, she wouldn’t stand a chance against the swift hounds of the family, me and my older sister.
My father usually heartily conversed with the cashier for so long, we would nearly miss the start of the movie, despite our best efforts of organizing races. Over time, the cashier came at our home to join us for dinner. It is only now I understood why, and why so often we went to the theatre on those specific Wednesday mornings. I smirked.
Clack, clack, clack.

As our mother had passed away giving birth to Electra we took care of our father as much as he took care of us. Once he had become sick, he talked to the cashier as if he’d never seen her before and we often went to see a movie for second, or even third times. The theatre was packed those days, the lines endless as a dreary math class. The laughs and the smiles hadn’t faded, though, and he often asked us to race him through the hall, across those shiny floors, not realizing we had grown too old for silly games.
The three of us took him to his seat, where he saw each and every movie for the first time. Clack, clack, clack.
The footsteps did not come closer, they simply kept clacking. The shadow in the cloud of smoke remained faint. I kept waiting, but my father never came. And how could he, anyway? Dead men don’t clack, after all.
I remembered the sturdy police officer, who wore a warm smile on a grizzled face as he firmly held my arm to make sure I wouldn’t run into the flaming house, collapsed in hellish fire.
‘It’s okay, kid,’ the police officer had said, confidently. ‘Your dad’s with us for a statement. He’ll join us soon. It’s just the house, kid.’

After my father was brutally murdered inside his own house, being hurled into a pool of gasoline and lit up like the fucking Olympic flame, there had been nothing but a shadow that remained of him; the shadow living inside my scorched heart. Whenever I saw the shadow, I grimaced and I waited and I remembered. He’ll join us soon.

Swiftly, I sloshed through streets draped in freshly fallen rain. I was summoned by the sound of the ringing payphone, its cries crossing the tall buildings and machinery of the new town: a threatening place that still made my heart pound and my fingers sweat as the pernicious smell of burnt stone haunted my nostrils. Electra followed me like a hushed street cat.
‘Yes,’ I answered, as I picked up the payphone.
‘The location is the Apollo Theatre,’ the voice of the woman said drearily. ‘The package contains a video tape. Be very careful with it, it contains vital information we need.’
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line.
‘Thank you.’ She sounded tired. Emotional, even.
‘You’ll give me the name?’ I asked, perhaps a little bluntly. She sighed.
‘I will.’ I hung up.
‘Thank you.’
For a moment I stood still by the payphone, my head hung. I heard a train catapulting over the bridge above us, firing across the iron tracks that contoured the city’s skeleton. The voice of Clementine had sounded old, as if her words had to tear themselves through her vocal cords to be impelled outside dry, dead lips. While it felt like yesterday we had first met, she now seemed an old woman whose energy had sprung from her body – except for those magnificent green eyes of hers that not only had seemed to penetrate me through the pay phone, but seemed to still industriously observe me.

‘What’s she say?’ Electra asked. She was hidden in the shadows, only to be made out by a glowing dot that exposed the sharp features of her face. The glowing dot faded away and dark smoke crawled towards me. She smoked the metal ones… the fake ones.
‘She told me the location,’ I said. A smile suddenly stretched the muscles in my mouth. ‘Apollo Theatre.’
Electra stepped into the light. She switched off her metal smoker and she was grinning – no, laughing. As if I had just told her the best joke she’d ever heard – and in a way I had. It seemed too surreal to not be a joke. With a deep grin on my face, I shut my eyes for a moment. I heard her laughing, but I didn’t see her hollow cheeks, the circles under her faded eyes, the withered black curls that fell on her bony shoulders, nor even the fiery scar that had painted her face in one, red stroke. I heard her laughing, and I just listened. For a split second, I recalled who she used to be – a child.
I opened my eyes again and she was standing right in front of me, still sustaining the broad smile on her lips and dimples in the corners of her mouth. And tears in the corners of her eyes. They ran down her cheeks.
‘Wanna race? Winner decides the movie.’
‘You know I always win, and I always decide,’ I said earnestly, but we both knew I was teasing her. She licked her lips in mischievous fashion, as she snatched my bowler from my head and jumped towards a spiraling fire escape with rusted handles. Electra ran atop the steps, hysterically laughing. I didn’t really care for her new-found behavior, as I felt stilted and not ready to be free as a kid. The job wasn’t done yet, after all. I took out my package of full-strength tobacco, and rolled a cigarette the way it was supposed to.

I lit the wrinkled butt and took a draft, feeling the smoke flowing through my lungs in a calming manner. My eyes had dozed off for a moment and I found that I was tired, feeling like this day had went on for a hundred years. I realized that I was looking at a reflection of myself in the display window of a burnt down shop, melted by the great fires of the revolution, I assumed.
And yes, there he was again: the old man, standing behind me in the reflection of the display window. I didn’t have to turn around to know that the man wasn’t there, because I saw the grave, old man many times, only to let my fingers touch and wave through thin air around me. He did nothing. He just stood there, looking terrified, as if he knew that his life had no meaning, no purpose and no reality to even have purpose and meaning in. The old man was gone as quickly as he appeared, disappearing into the thin air he didn’t exist in, waiting for the next opportunity to look over my shoulder. Was I crazy? Maybe I was, but I added the thought to my list of other thoughts I didn’t really care about.

I turned around to see where Electra went, and I saw she was now at the top of the fire escape, looking out over the city. She threw my bowler into the night and it swirled away, surfing on the flow of the wind as she shouted a cry of what must have been victory. She then looked at me and motioned I should join her. I shook my head as I threw my cigarette butt in the sewer.
I already knew what she saw. The purple glow of the city stretched miles, and miles into every direction and sported thousands of towers like a slick castle made solely of squares and rectangles. The white smoke of modernized industry clutched the metropole in clawed fumes, as if the city had just been extinguished by an infinite amount of firemen, and steam was still rising from the ashes. The fumes flashed like thunderstorms, with bright colors of neon lights bursting through their bellies.

One of the towers, shaped like a tall cylinder, or maybe a bullet, was the tower Electra was fixated upon. Clementine’s tower. The Temple, it was called.
Very clearly I recalled the first day I had entered the temple: thin drops of rain were draining the heavy clouds when fires molded the city. My father had just died and I could barely walk, as if my weary legs were attempting to propel themselves through a thick pool of blood. It was she who gave me the hand I needed to be given and it was she who told me the words I needed to be told. I had kept tumbling through the pool of blood, step by step, until I couldn’t anymore and my legs sunk too deep into that veil of red. When I finally couldn’t walk anymore, it was she who carried me.

Clementine – the ruler of the city. Some say she descended from the stars, some say she mounted up from down the sewers. But all I knew is that there were no stars, not in this place. Her beauty had been unprecedented and she had smiled her smile of purity and she had said that all was going to be okay. Clementine looked after Electra and me for a long time. We had been raised in the shadow of the temple in the new town and now we did what we were asked to do. It took more than smiles and money to sustain the rule over the city and above all, to germinate and evolve it into a place to be alive in, Clementine would say. The leaders of the city were old-fashioned and dragged this place through the mud, but it was Clementine who smoked them out with the fires which she believed to be glorious.
An hour ago we put a bullet between the brow of one of the men that formed the leash that held the city. Electra and I. No mercy. Were we murderers? Without a doubt. Seekers of revenge? Justice? Absolutely.

When Electra and I were on the way back to the old town a few hours later, I was still sunken in my thoughts about Clementine. I remember all the times we cried, whether those were tears of sadness or horror, she was there to wipe them kindly from our faces, whispering to us. Until there were no more tears; until they were all dried up. Many men worked for her and she told us she would make the city a safer place, a better place.
At dinner, about three months ago, she had been ranting about how new technologies she developed would advance the city and its civilians.

‘I want to kill him.’ My fists had been shaking and I had dropped my glass to the floor, where it had shattered into pieces. ‘The son of a bitch who killed my father. I want to kill him.’ A silence had dropped at the long dinner table, only broken by the leaking pipes, the drops ticking away the passing time. Electra had been playing with her food uneasily, looking from me to Clementine.
Clementine’s face hadn’t moved a wrinkle, as her emerald eyes seemed to effortlessly pierce through flesh and bone. Lights from flashing billboards outside had colored her appearance purple and blue.
‘I know,’ had been the words her mouth had formed. She had said it in a way that reminded me of how my father had said those words when the doctors told him he would one day not be able to recognize his own children.
I had taken a deep breath and said: ‘That’s when the city will be safer.’ Once all the bones in that motherfucker are broken, I had wanted to add. But we were still eating.
I had simply wanted revenge. Yes, I had been reduced to having the most obvious goal rooted in the blackest hate. Something so simple, so cliché, so… boring, in fact. Yet, it was logical to me. I was so utterly dumbfounded and disturbed by the idea that someone could kill such a lovely man, who could barely leave the house by himself because of his illness and who had three children that loved him so dearly. How could someone just set him on fire without giving a single fuck? And then just… walk away. So I just answered something illogical with something logical. I didn’t really care about the justice standpoint – whether someone like that truly deserves to die – it was more like a huge pimple: a big red one you keep pinching, but just won’t pop. The person who killed my father was an immensely fat, pulsing, almost-bursting, obscene pimple, and once I’d pop it, the pure satisfaction will be so great I can finally look in the mirror without some compulsive need to pinch something.

I just knew that with all her power, Clementine knew who this pimple was. Knew where I could find him. And she did. A couple of days later, Clementine had sent Electra and I on assignment to kill the leash holder whose death would bring back something the city had lost long ago: freedom. It took us three months to hunt him and his leash down and once we had done that, we were to retrieve the important video tape Clementine had lost. She had promised me that if I would help her deliver this endlessly doomed city, she would deem me ready to face the sad piece of shit who murdered our father. Once I would bring her the video tape, she would give us the name.
‘What are you thinking?’ Electra asked. We were on the train. Two wet, dark figures contrasted against the white walls, floors and chairs of the compartment.
‘Blood,’ I answered.
‘Blood, he answered,’ Electra imitated mockingly.
I looked at the window-reflection. The frightened, old man was travelling with us as well.

The Video Tape

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