Trish receives a mysterious box full of trinkets from a past she has tried to forget, and suddenly nothing feels quite right, in Leah Erickson’s creepy tale.
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The word came out in a wondering gasp as Trish reached into the box and lifted the object out.
The paper sleeve was faded black with a flat, eighties-style graphic in fuchsia, lime green and yellow. Some of the edges were bent and torn. But when she slid the cassette out, it felt solid and substantial in her hand. Written on the label in her own careful girlhood cursive, in Sharpie:
The large cardboard box that had been delivered to the front door had been addressed to her, at her new home, the house that they had just bought on a quiet cul de sac in the Stoney Acres development. But the name had been her maiden name, not her new married one: the sight of the unknown, unexpected package made her go still inside. She could feel the beginnings of cold panic starting to flood her veins. She had to fight it back, stay present, because she could feel herself start to disappear, to fade around the edges like fuzzy static….
…Of course she had known something bad was going to happen. Of course! Many times that week she had thought she had seen a shadowy figure at the edge of her vision. It was the shape of a large man. It seemed very real, but would flicker and disappear if she looked at it directly. It didn’t matter, though, because she could still feel its menacing presence. Watching her. Waiting.
Rob was still at work, but would be back soon. She had flicked a furtive glance down the street, then grabbed the box and darted inside, kicking the front door shut with a bang behind her.
Though the box was large and bulky, she held it as far from her body as she could, as though it were a bomb that could detonate at any moment. Set it on the kitchen table, keeping her eyes locked on it as she grabbed blindly for a knife from the wooden knife block which had been a wedding present. Her hands were slick with sweat and she fumbled and nearly cut herself as she sliced roughly through the tape along the box’s seams. She opened the outer, then inner flaps…
On top was an envelope on which was written in shaky script, I lost you long ago, Patricia. Inside was a photograph of herself that she had never seen before. It was obviously taken with an old point-and-shoot, non-digital camera. It was a photo of her as a young girl running across her front yard, and it was nighttime. She was wearing shorts. It looked like a firefly summer night. Was she playing tag with the neighbor kids, or was she running away from something? The scene was illuminated by what seemed to be car headlights, bleaching out the lawn, throwing weird shadows from the dark hedges…
She slammed the photo face down onto the table and scrunched her eyes tightly shut, pressing a thumb into the center of her forehead, willing herself to stay present in her body and not fade away. Because there was no time to waste.
The box was full of things that she recognized as hers, but she had not seen in so many years that they seemed like a stranger’s. A few sad looking Beanie Babies, a small plastic trophy for winning a relay race at Field Day, a couple of high school textbooks. A baggie of cheap, mismatched earrings. A large pallet of eyeshadows, smokey, glittery hues dug through straight to the pan. Random items, as though someone had blindly swept their arm across a messy bureau top in haste, dumping the clutter, without care, into the box.
It wasn’t until she got to the bottom that she had seen the video tape. Star Brite and the Dream Stealers? She hadn’t thought of that movie in years. It had been an obscure children’s fantasy movie that someone had taped from television when she was a kid. She had watched it over and over again, most likely because no one had bought her any other videos. As she held the cassette in her hand, a song, the ghost of a melody began to play in her head. Scraps of half-remembered lyrics. Watch me soar through open doors, no denying, feels like flying…
She couldn’t remember much else from her childhood, which was like a vague lunar landscape in her mind. But she remembered the feeling of watching that video. The way it had made her feel safe and happy.
She slid the cassette back into the paper sleeve and she jogged to her bedroom, shoved the tape into one of her drawers under some t-shirts.
This, maybe just this, she could keep.
Then she rushed back to the kitchen, threw the rest of the junk back into the box, and carried it out the back door. Opened the lid to the trash bin. She had to turn it on its end, angle it diagonally to get it to fit, pushing it down, down, DOWN.
She sensed a presence, someone watching, and her head jerked up into alertness. Scanning the yard, she saw nobody. Then she saw where a flicker of movement had come from: her next door neighbor, a pug-faced older woman with clipped gray hair, had lifted the curtain of her kitchen window and was frowning at Trish in concern. That’s when she all at once realized that she was breathing fast, sweat dripping down her back, mouth gone dry. She stopped what she was doing. A small, frightened smile twisted her lips as though the corners were hooked with fishing wire. Don’t look at me, please!
When the woman dropped her curtain down again, Trish unfroze and gave the cardboard box one more hard shove down into the bin, slammed and reslammed the lid, and hurried back into the house.
She had forgotten the photograph. “He can never find out,” Trish whispered in a hiss as she lit the gas stove top on high, then held the photo over the flames until it started to burn at its edges, a bright glowing rim of chemical blue, chemical green.
Rob came home and they ate dinner just like they always did, on the thick plates of stippled pottery that had been on their wedding registry.
It had only been four months ago, their wedding. That day seemed so long ago now. The stiff outfits and the posing for photos, the pressing of bodies and well-wishes, and then after, the all-inclusive in Cancun, where… they had mostly slept, rousing themselves to visit the flickering, disorienting light of the casino, or to spend a few hours on the small, littered hotel beach, where at first Trish had resisted, but then felt obligated, to gather up the single lost foam flip flops and drink bottles and deflated foil balloons that washed in on the waves…
It had all happened so fast it was like being abducted on a dazzling space ship and then abruptly deposited here, in this house, in this life. And ever since, the two of them felt shy together. Like two commuters, strangers, pressed together in a shared train compartment.
That evening as she loaded the dishwasher and tried to act casual, Trish’s heart flailed in her chest like a trapped bird, and she felt a bit dizzy. But she couldn’t faint, she had to concentrate. She told herself she was thirty-one, an adult. That she had chosen this life, she had a new name, was building an excellent credit score, belonged to the right neighborhood association… and there were no shadow creatures following her. The idea was delusional. But her self-soothing thoughts sounded like lies, only made her more certain that she might scream or pass out. Compulsively, without realizing, she began mouthing words. First silently, only moving her lips. Then out loud, singing the words in a thin quavering voice:
“When the night terrors have begun, I will shine straight to the sun… when the clouds form above, I shoot out my beams of love…”
Rob looked up at her quizzically from where he sat at the table, answering email on his laptop. “What are you singing?”
At first Trish didn’t answer. There were flashes in her brain of bright animated cartoon stars glimmering in a friendly cartoon sky. And a sense memory of the smell of dust and ozone. Whatever it was, it made her feel calm enough to sing a little louder:
“No denying, feels like flying, as I soar through open doors, no more tears, hey hey hey…”
Her young husband smiled hesitantly. “I’ve never actually heard you sing before.” He was also thirty-one, slightly built. Boyish, yet balding prematurely. He had graduated from seminary school, which made him always seem young-old to her. All that education, but without the life experience to bolster up his knowledge. It seemed a bad combination, and it made him seem adrift, lost. She often caught him giving her long, wondering looks, studying her, and she felt he was looking for more than was actually there.
“It’s just this silly song from a movie. From when I was a kid.”
“Oh.” He said, nodding gravely. He knew nothing about her childhood, and had learned not to press her. All he knew was that in the ten years they had dated, she had never invited him to visit her family, and had no family at the wedding. Well, you know, they’re busy. And they don’t like to travel. His own close knit, large family had felt sorry for her, rushed to fill in the void, to make Trish one of their own. And she was happy to let them, and to let any talk of her own past fade away.
His parents had paid for the wedding, all of it. Helped them get the house. A starter home in a nice neighborhood, and the brothers had helped them do the kitchen. Real granite countertops, recessed lighting, nickel hardware. Standing in it now, it was glossy and beautiful. A place where nothing bad could happen.
But then, for a quick panicked moment, she was convinced she had caught a whiff of the acrid chemical smell of the burning photograph, that hot acid-green flame. Her heart raced as her mind lurched back to the cardboard box, which now seemed like a living, pulsing thing that could escape. Surely she had crammed it in deep enough, into the bin. Tomorrow was garbage day, and it would be gone…
“Trish, are you okay? You went away for just a minute.” Her young-old new husband smiled uncertainly as he tried to catch her eye. Tried to connect.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. It’s just been a long day.”
The next day Trish went to her job as usual, to teach her class of kindergartners. She loved her kids, truly only felt at ease with five- and six-year-olds. She loved to bring home their art, their self-portraits that often featured giant heads with tendrils of limbs coming straight out of them, no bodies, smiling and floating unmoored in empty space, their names printed across the tops in large jagged irregular letters.
But even here in the classroom, as she guided the children through letter-of-the-day activities, then an art project of tissue paper collage, and on through music time, she didn’t feel truly present. Her mind was elsewhere. Always distracted. Looking around for the shadow creature. She could feel its presence, even if she couldn’t see it. Its black gravitational pull, cold as deep space. Shaped like a man, but she knew it was a monster. It could be in the hallway looking in. It could be lurking in the coat closet. Only her constant vigilance could keep it away, keep the kids safe.
Finally, it was nap time. As the children settled down on their mats, she could hear their soft inhales, exhales, snuffling and snoring. She was all at once exhausted. She closed her eyes, and let herself drift. Her body was so tense that she could hear creaking if she turned her neck. She breathed deeply, pressed on her temples to ward off a tension headache. Breathe in, breathe out.
After some moments, there was a flickering sensation on the insides of her eyelids. Then the flickering arranged itself into shapes, dream-like images. There again was the friendly cartoon sky. But now, Star Brite’s glittery rainbow chariot pulled by two pink-maned stallions flew across with a soft whoosh. Then the song started to play again in her head, and the urge to move her lips, to lip synch, was overpowering:
When the night terrors have begun, I will shine straight to the sun…
Not only did she see the images and hear the music, but now there were other sense-memories. A sensation of watching the video on the huge blocky cathode ray television. She remembered the static field emitted by the TV screen. The way she could run her hand across the dusty screen, and hear the staticky pop of electrodes. That smelled like ozone! If she pressed her nose against the screen, she could feel the static fuzz tickling her eyelashes, her tongue –
– Her reverie stopped when she was startled by a noise: a whispering, hissing noise that made her gasp aloud. But it was only one of the children’s puffer coats that had slid off the knob to the floor.
Stupid, to be so scared of nothing! A bit desperately, she tried to return to the safety of the memory. Once her heart slowed down, she was able to ease back in. Lovely details rose to the surface of her dream consciousness. She remembered pressing her face right onto the TV screen as her mother had told her not to do, so close that Star Brite was nothing but a field of glimmering pixels. And Trish herself was dissolving into it, into an analog wave of electrons, into Star Brite. Soft static buzzing on her face, fuzzing her eyelashes. It all felt so soothing, so easy. Like a benediction. Sometimes she would rewind parts of the video again and again, in a sort of blissful bounce. No one was there to tell her not to. Forward, back, forward, back. Until she attained a kind of ecstasy.
But the bliss of memory was jolted by an intrusive voice that seemed to whisper into her ear: “Remember how you were always scared to get to the end of a video?”
It was true, she was, but sometimes she dared herself to do it anyway, when she was watching at night all alone. To see what came after the credits were over. Because it seemed that there must be some great secret at the end, something bigger and scarier than she could ever imagine. It would spook her badly, when a video came to its end. The credits finished, the music fading out. And then the startling FBI warning came on, before the screen would turn white, and there was a high-pitched droning noise, before the screen turned to a final, terrifying black: this is what always made her whimper in terror and run from the room, hands clenched over her ears…
The sound of children giggling from their mats on the floor brought her suddenly back to the present, the classroom, her eyes dry and blinking. Uncomprehending.
“What are you laughing for?” She asked, her throat tightening so that her voice was high and tense.
Little Jack Bove, newly six, with his bristly dark hair, narrow stalk of neck, and large green eyes that never missed a thing. Out of habit he raised his hand before answering, “Because you were singing, Mrs Moore! You were singing in your sleep that you were flying through the sky!” The children started up laughing again, now louder.
“No more talking,” she said more sharply than she had intended, looking away so no one could look into her eyes.
When she got home, she rushed to check the trash bin at the side of the road. Empty! The cardboard box was gone, as though it had never existed. Rolling the bin back to its place outside the back door, she felt shaky with relief when she entered the kitchen, collapsing into a chair. She was safe now. If the box was gone, those shadowy figures that lurked at the corners of her vision were surely gone, too. And to be honest with herself, it was probably all in her head, anyway, and she should never speak of it to anyone.
Maybe there had been, in fact, no box. And maybe the video cassette was something she had kept close, all this time. It had always been hers. She had just forgotten about it.
Rob got Chinese takeout on the way home, that they ate at the table, on their wedding pottery, like they always did on Fridays. A ritual that they had cultivated in their new marriage, something to anchor them together.
Their new/old marriage. Rob was a corporate pastor, at a tech company. His first job out of seminary. He counseled everyone from the CEOs to the IT team. There had been layoffs recently, it had been rough. She knew this wasn’t how he thought things would be, and tonight he looked glassy eyed and distracted.
“Hey,” she said brightly, as she broke open a fortune cookie. “Did you want to watch an old video I found? It was my favorite movie when I was a kid, I was just talking about it.”
“Star Brite and the Dream Stealers.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s kind of weird, no one has. I mean, it’s no big deal…” She glanced at her fortune: DON’T LET YESTERDAY TAKE TOO MUCH OF TODAY. She rolled it up into a tiny ball in her fingers.
“Trish, of course I want to see it! I don’t know anything about when you were a kid.”
“I mean, it’s no big deal, whatever…”
“Trish…” Now he looked grave, and was looking at her too closely. It occurred to her at that moment that she had always been his project, since he’d rescued her, a sad scholarship kid who lived in his dorm and never went home for holidays. Maybe he loved her too much. It would break his heart, to know she didn’t believe in god. Maybe this was all a mistake.
But she had to, at least, try. Try to get closer to him. Try to share at least this one thing, because it wasn’t fair to keep everything a secret. She fetched the cassette from its hiding place. All at once it felt important for him to watch it with her, together.
“I’ve had it all this time and forgot.”
Rob was pouring himself a small bourbon as he did more and more recently. “How was school?” he asked.
“Okay,” she said as she fumbled with the wires that connected the VCR to the television. They had never tried hooking it up before. Rob had boxes of vintage video tapes that he brought from his childhood home, but they hadn’t gotten around to watching them yet. “Am I doing this right?”
“Yeah, you got it… I think. Make sure you got the yellow cord plugged in. Just click through it till you see the blue screen. No… yeah. There you go.”
She slid the cassette in and waited. It whirred, hiccuped, and then simply… stopped.
“Oh, I guess it was at the end, maybe. I’ll rewind it.”
“So what IS Star Brite and the Dream Stealers? Is it a cartoon?”
“Yeah. Seems like they showed it on TV once and apparently I was the only one who saw it.” She squinted to find the rewind button, pressed it.
“Was it a toy? A franchise?” Rob knew his franchises. He had a whole bookshelf devoted to Star Wars, Marvel and He-Man paraphernalia.
“I don’t know, I never saw a toy. It was sort of a fantasy story? It’s like a knock-off of a franchise, I guess. Or an amalgam of knock-offs. Star Brite is, like, the guardian of dreams? She protects the night sky, and she protects people from bad dreams. She flies around in a sparkly rainbow-colored chariot. But then there was the Duchess of Darkness, who has a bunch of these little googly eyed furball creatures that are The Dream Stealers. They steal people’s dreams and trap them in a giant crystal. Then they, like, insert nightmares in their place, if I’m remembering right…”
She trailed off, because the tape had stopped rewinding and was now making a deep grinding noise.
“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
“Well, that tape must be twenty, twenty-five years old at least, right? These things degrade. Or the tape heads might just be dirty. It’s not your fault…”
“I know that!” She hadn’t meant to shout. But somehow the task was beginning to feel dire: she had to make it work. If she could just see the video again, just rewind to the beginning, then time itself would go backward. To when the bad things hadn’t happened yet, and never would.
“Trish? I mean, speaking of bad dreams, well, are you, um, still taking the lorazepam the doctor gave you? I know you weren’t sleeping much at all this week. I see you looking at the ceiling sometimes at 3am and you look… you know…”
“I don’t need the pills, I’m fine.” She ejected the tape, inspected it, and put it back in. Held her breath and pressed play.
First a heavy beat of silence. Then something lurched forward and the sound came blaring on, so loud it made her jump. The tape was near the end, because it was the scene where Star Brite was zooming around the night sky in her chariot, zapping the crystals of stolen dreams with her ray gun, setting them free. Star Brite with her flowing blond tresses, her star headdress, and overly large blue eyes. Something about the screen image looked strange, as though the colors were out of alignment. Vibrating at the edges.
No denying, feels like flying, as I soar, I say NO MORE!
And even the song was different than she remembered. Shriller, more hollow and sped-up.
“Can’t you rewind it? Trish?”
“No. It won’t go back any further. I guess we’ll just have to watch from here…”
Now it was really at the end, it had reached the crescendo where all the characters were singing together, even the Dream Stealers, holding hands in a big spinning circle, before the image exploded into a shower of glittery stars, and the ending credits began to scroll.
“It looks like an anime, sort of. Gotta be Japanese. So, this was your favorite, huh?”
“I don’t know. It’s… not quite like I remembered it. It’s just kind of… different.”
“Well, I guess sometimes things aren’t as great as we remember them.” Her young-old husband was looking at her with his lips slightly parted, thinking for a long moment. “Trish, you know you can tell me anything, right?”
“I…” Her eyelids began to flutter, “of course I know that. We’re married, aren’t we?”
“Aren’t we?” He laughed to make it a joke, to make it okay. She could feel him looking at her with deep concentration. As though she were an ancient screed or a palimpsest, from a seminary class.
She had her hand held up, ready to spring forward to press STOP. But then she held herself back. Because all at once, she was tired of being afraid all the time. She wasn’t a child, after all: she would no longer let herself be afraid of what was at the end of the video.
She had forgotten that it was recorded from TV. Before the credits were even over, a voice over was talking about the shows coming on next. Then it switched to a commercial for some kind of oven cleaner, showing a woman in rubber gloves wiping down a counter, clearing a path of dazzling white through grimy black, then tossing back her glossy hair, about to say something to the camera.
But her words were cut off when the picture began to dissolve into blurred bars of static, and something else was coming into view. It must have been taped over a home movie, because now she was astounded to see a fuzzy, staticky image of the kitchen of her childhood home. The camera panned the room haphazardly. It was full of people, faces she knew, her grandparents, her aunt… then suddenly, abruptly, the camera zoomed onto her own face. She was just a little girl, sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a stricken expression as the lights dimmed and the room began to sing “Happy Birthday”. Someone slid a lit birthday cake in front of her, and the reflection of the candles made her large brown eyes look even more deep-set into her narrow young face.
“Look at that!” Her husband exclaimed. “It’s you! How old are you here?”
Trish quietly, flatly, read aloud the digital date stamp in the corner of the video. The person filming zoomed out again, and began to swing around the room. Zoomed and focused on the doorway in back of young Trish, where there stood leaning a large man, a tall man, who was wearing a raggedy flannel shirt rolled up over his meaty forearms. Baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He wasn’t singing along, had his arms folded and was smirking down at the girl…
Trish felt sick to her stomach. Somehow she thought she’d never see his face again. Like something from a nightmare, it felt like something had just pulled her down suddenly into brackish dirty water and she was drowning.
Then the scene began to fade out, slowly, like a flickering ghost, and another home movie was bleeding in. Someone was in the back of a car and filming the road speeding by beneath them. The car radio was faintly playing something that sounded like country music, bluegrass, it was twangy and yearning and lonesome. The yellow dashed lines on the road seemed to pulsate like a migraine. Flash of the sky, a dark jagged line of trees, telephone poles flashing by going faster…
Trish suddenly became aware that she had stopped breathing, and had become faint. She stabbed at the stop button. But it would not stop.
Her husband was frowning at the screen, leaning forward. “What is this? And who was that man in the other frame? I saw your face, Trish. Who was that…”
It wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t rewind, now a new scene blipped abruptly onto the screen. They were outside of her old house, it was twilight, the streetlights were on, it was too dark and shadowy to make out any details but she could hear the sound of hard breathing, the sound of someone running, fast. Someone in the distance calling out in a singsong, Patricia, where are you?
She tried to shut it off again but her vision was flickering like a strobe, she couldn’t see what she was doing. She grabbed for the connecting wires at the wires but her sweaty hands were shaking, she couldn’t move fast enough, STOP STOP STOP!
Someone suddenly came up behind her, a man had his arms around her, she screamed. But it was her own husband, who reached around her and somehow made the tape stop, made it eject.
“Oh my god, Rob, how did you do it, it… it wouldn’t stop…”
Her husband yanked the cassette from the machine with a violence she had never seen in him.
He was looking at the cassette with a fierce expression. An expression of… anger. He who spoke so beautifully of the light of the covenant, Augustine’s theology of love, now wore the face of someone she did not recognize.
He did not answer when she called, “Rob, where are you taking it?” She could hear him stride resolutely out the back door, to the shed. She went to the back door and opened it; from the shed she heard the sounds of a hammer hitting and shattering plastic, again and again and again. When he came out he held a mass of broken plastic panels and unspooled tape in his hands. He threw them into the trash bin without a second look.
When he came back into the house he sat back on the couch, drank down the remainder of the bourbon, fast, and she could hear how hard he was breathing. Could see the way his hand shook ever so slightly.
He met her eye for a moment, and there was a fierce, flinty rawness there. Just for a moment, like a glance into the too-hot sun. Then the moment passed. He looked down, gathered himself.
When he tried to speak, it came out first as a small croak. He cleared his throat, but said nothing more. Again, he caught her eye, and this time she didn’t look away, because she couldn’t. And she realized they were sharing a conspiratorial smile. And, strangely and painfully, laughing.