01 Feb I Own a Tape That Changes Each Time I Watch It
I found it in a box of old VHS tapes I picked up from a flea market. I hunt for deals there, sellers are often just looking to unload the crap that sits around off their hands. I buy in bulk then check the goods—tossing out duds and ensuring items work, are clean and include the necessary pieces—before jacking the price and selling them on eBay.
Videotapes are usually a minimal profit at best, but I’ve found rare items; first releases, black diamond edition Disneys and rare cover versions that collectors eat up. At any rate, I picked up a large box of tapes that looked to be in great condition for $5, and it wasn’t until I got home that I started checking them thoroughly. When I did, I found a standard black video cassette tape missing a box.
Normally, these don’t interest me because they’re usually unsalable. Secondly, this had no standard label so it was likely some home movie. What stopped me from tossing it right then and there was the black strip punch label stuck to the back that read “23/2/11” in blocky white raised numbers. I suspected from the dating system it was European and when it didn’t play on my NTSC VCR, that confirmed it. I huffed as I returned to my closet and fetched the European PAL deck. It was only 6 PM and I had time to kill, so I popped the tape into my old VHS player and pressed play.
The footage was black and white, shot high up from the center of a room where the wall met the ceiling. The camera was pointed down to a thin woman hunched over in a wheelchair. Based on the angle and the stillness of the footage, it was clearly a surveillance feed. The footage was grainy, but I could see the seated woman looked disheveled; her gray, chin-length hair was matted and messy, and she appeared to be dressed in a filthy hospital gown.
The way the woman was positioned looked still and unnatural. I quickly realized her wrists and ankles were bound to the wheelchair with straps. Both the walls and floors were padded with quilted square cushioning, and the door behind her had a slot in it, resembling something out of a mental hospital or a maximum-security prison. Just a second after the recording began, the bound woman raised her head and looked directly into the camera.
I immediately felt a growing sense of dread as the intense stare of the woman burned into my retinas. Some primal part of my brain awoke and implored me to get away, but I just watched as curiosity and fear mingled into an all-encompassing wave of building anxiety. The woman just sat in her chair staring, but I felt my mouth begin to dry and my breath felt abrasive. My sinuses burned, and soon I felt the patter of liquid onto my lap from my nose, but I couldn’t turn away from the screen.
I heard a rapid tapping and it took a few seconds of trying to understand the sound before I realized it was the chattering of my teeth. I was shivering, and my arms and legs trembled as I watched the woman on the screen tilt her head to one side as if observing me through the screen itself. That feeling of impending danger heightened, and I wanted to turn it off at that point, but I just kept watching as the woman began fidgeting in the wheelchair’s restraints. She was becoming progressively more agitated; thrashing until the chair began to rock between the two large wheels. After a few minutes, she opened her mouth and began to scream.
The tape was silent, but I swear I could hear her faintly, though not through the speakers. It was like she was screaming from inside my head, small and muffled from deep under the folds of my brain. I felt my lips crack in stinging slivers. I began to wonder just how long I’d been watching the tape, but I was enthralled by the unsettling footage, unable to stop it.
Eventually, the door to her room opened and two large men in white uniforms entered her padded cell. One was shorter with a shaved head and stocky build, the other taller with a slender frame and face framed by dark bangs. The tall man began holding his head in apparent agony, screaming and then dropping to his knees on the padded floor. He remained there as the shorter guy struggled to remove the cap from a syringe.
I only then noticed the subtle relief my own body experienced. It was as if whatever had taken hold of me—the intense dryness in my throat, a pulsing headache and the palpable dread—had redirected its focus. The man on his knees began to shiver and soon enough his nose streamed down a dark rivulet of blood.
The shorter character with a shaved head had uncapped the syringe but was clearly struggling. His right arm drew it closer, needle first, towards his own eye. His left was gripping his other wrist, struggling to redirect its course. I watched in horror as the tip punctured his eye just a centimeter or so. He seemed to regain control and quickly removed it. He then stabbed the needle into the bound woman’s shoulder and pressed the plunger fully down.
The feeling of intensity seemed to wash away from both the onscreen characters and myself. Euphoria set in as my previous state of dry, labored breathing and chest pains left me. The two workers at the hospital, prison or other such facility both seemed to recover as well, the one helping his cohort to his feet. The two men left the room, securing the sturdy door behind them.
I watched for a few minutes as the woman in the wheelchair slouched and then dropped her head. She looked to be asleep or at least heavily sedated. She remained that way for a good minute or two after the men had cleared out. I watched her slack body for a few more minutes in utter fascination until the tape reached the end and stopped with an audible click.
The intense anxiety dissipated completely, and I only then realized how absolutely drastic the shift in my own state had been. I felt as if I’d been desiccated, every ounce of water in me sucked out, yet my nose was wet and dribbling down my chin. When I wiped it instinctively with the back of my hand, I saw that it was blood. There were dark red spots on my lap as well from where it had poured out during the viewing of the tape.
I stood up on muscles that ached and groaned. I glanced at my phone for the time and stopped in place, my jaw agape. The time read 6:00, the same time I’d started watching that tape. I was about to chalk it up to a glitch when it changed to 6:01. There was no shadow of a doubt in my mind that I’d watched that tape for a good 10 minutes or so.
I stretched my aching muscles and walked to the bathroom to clean my bloodied nose. I downed a quart or so of water, dying of thirst. I waited a few days before even considering watching the tape again. When I did, everything that secured my knowledge of the world I knew seemed to crumble.
It was a sunny afternoon a week later when I built up the courage to watch the tape again. I just felt the urge to confirm what I experienced was real and not some effect of delayed food poisoning, an allergic reaction or some other bizarre coincidence. I popped the cassette tape and rewound it, which took only seconds. When it stopped, I pressed play.
The woman bound to a wheelchair once again appeared on the screen and a foreboding feeling of dread began to simmer inside of me. Something was different though. The woman was askew, facing the camera still but at a slightly different angle as if her wheelchair had shifted. On the floor behind her, black spots where the guard had yet to collapse were on the floor. It was as if the tape was showing a continuation of what had previously been recorded.
My palms began to sweat and my throat dried like an arid desert as I watched the woman staring into the camera once again. Her hair was shorter, trimmed down unevenly as if someone had hastily clipped the matted patches and knots. I knew it was impossible, but the tape appeared to be now showing a different recording altogether. Then she looked up at the camera and I felt it again.
My throat swelled and dried and my breath began to burn. Her dark eyes locked onto mine through the screen. I felt the spasm in my arms and legs as they began to shiver. My sinuses flooded and my nose began dribbling out a thin stream of blood, which dripped rhythmically onto my shirt. I watched, unable to peel my eyes away as the woman in the wheelchair yanked her spindly arms, snapping her restraints. I let out a yell as she stood up fully, revealing her filthy hospital gown.
She walked slowly towards the camera and her wrinkles came into view through the fuzzy tape. Her features looked young but her pale skin was wrinkled and speckled with burst capillaries. Her eyes were milky with cataracts and looked wild with excitement. She drew closer, getting larger on-screen until her face was clear and she mouthed something I swear I could hear inside of my head. She spoke the words “Je te vois,” and a hint of a smile crept onto her face before the tape clicked to a stop.
I haven’t yet worked up the nerve to watch it again. I bled a significant amount during the second viewing and I’m frankly scared of the videotape. I attempted to make a copy, but it showed nothing but a black screen when played. I even tried recording it with my phone but the TV screen in the video is black aside from a flicker. What I just can’t shake are those words she’d spoken that resonated from deep within my skull. They’re French, and they translate to “I see you.”