Hi folks! It’s time for another fiction excerpt from ol’ Rob. This one is from a horror story about the dark side of internet culture, called White Birches – because I am useless at making up names for things.
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The disk arrived at the office on a Wednesday. It was in a jiffy bag, the address crudely scrawled across the front in permanent marker. There was nothing else inside the package. There were no written instructions, and no explanations: just a DVD covered with strange, red symbols. The sort of symbols that Arthur Brown or King Crimson might have gotten kicks out of.
They received these every so often. They were usually pranks from bratty teenagers, bored of smoking pot and video games and instead turning an instant of their attention to the much-maligned local paper. Curiosity would get the better of the journalist, and they’d have a look at the disk’s files. Normally the disks were full of extreme fetish pornography, with the odd nasty virus thrown in for good measure.
It didn’t feel like a prank to Amanda, though. For one thing, the kids were usually desperate for their prank to work. The jiffy would at least have contained a note reading “IMPORTANT”, “SCANDAL” or “COVER-UP INFORMATION”. The symbols were new, too. If this was the work of kids, they had a damn sight more creativity than the usual little shits.
That meant it was the work of a local nutter: a penchant for symbols, sloppy handwriting, no explanatory documents. It reminded Amanda of something she’d been given a couple of years before, whilst working an internship at a slightly more respected news source. The package then had consisted of a CD-ROM with a couple of hundred documents detailing a man’s eating habits and bowel movements. She had, after reading an ode to the effects of raw beef, decided not to view the accompanying video.
Still, this didn’t put her off. She put the disk into her ancient, clunking desktop, and it immediately started wailing in frustration. After a minute of processing – probably deciding if it was worth the risk of doing something useful and raising Amanda’s expectations – it read the disk. There was only one file: ASH.mov.
Amanda had a choice: to either continue writing her current, fascinating piece on a local gentleman’s classic motorbike collection, or play the file. She made the only choice a journalist in her position would ever take, dreams of Watergate in her eyes.
It soon became apparent that her presumption had been accurate. A tall, slightly overweight man stood in frame, behind a mahogany table in a dark room. The walls were covered in what looked like newspaper clippings. He looked directly into the camera for a brief moment, and then stripped, carefully placing his clothes on the table. He then ducked under the table for a moment, returning with a tin of black paint. He opened the lid and plunged his hands into the paint. Slowly, precisely, he painted the entirety of his body with his hands. When done, he closed his eyes, a shadow in front of the camera, the only light coming from somewhere off-shot.
The footage cut to a forest, at night. The painted man was walking through the trees, being followed by a cameraman. He stumbled through the undergrowth, the light from the camera’s lamp picking up on the splotches of dark red amongst the black where the man had cut himself on thorns and broken branches. Eventually, the painted man and the cameraman reached a lake. The painted man turned to the camera, and stood, silently. After a few seconds, the footage cut to black.
It was the work of a local lunatic, just as she had predicted. There was only one difference for Amanda. She knew who the painted man was.
The man’s name was Andrew Cleveland. An old school acquaintance, Amanda had not seen him in years. They had not been friends, only taken classes together, a decade and a half before. They had barely spoken, even, but Amanda remembered names, faces, places, times. As soon as she saw Andrew’s face, she knew who he was. She knew that he had sat two rows behind her on Mrs Tavistock’s Maths class. She knew that he had been part of a quiet, unassuming friendship group that was neither popular nor ostracised. Back then, Andrew had been turning into the normal, adequate, standard British male. Something had happened, to turn him into whatever it was he had become.
Mental illness can hit anyone. The most seemingly well-adjusted person in the world can suddenly shift roles, drop into the dirty-windowed world of depression. Doesn’t matter how normal, how rich, how secure. It will seep inside the veins, attack from within, and leave its victims as nothing more than an empty shell. Andrew Cleveland had clearly been affected by, well, something. Amanda didn’t know him. She had no idea what had happened in his life, the innermost workings of his mind. She never had done, not really, but this shadow seemed a far cry from the boy she had once known.
She decided to investigate. Not just for the story, if there even was one. Fall all she knew, it could have been some kind of stunt. He could be perfectly happy, having just done something for laughs or as some kind of stunt. But there was no point in trying to be a journalist with integrity if, when something interesting came up, you dropped it for the mundane, suburban regularity of safe stories. She dropped her editor, Clive, an email, and didn’t wait for a reply. One way or another, ASH.mov would have her attention.
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That’s it, for now. Another post soon!