Aug. 9, 2021

Episode 13: PROJECTION

Episode 13: PROJECTION

A man finds strangely familiar movies outside his door, someone pushes a rock up a hill, a dog chases its tail, and Wren takes things into their own hands. (CWs, minor spoilers: blood, death, brief mention of sex, some language, vomit, birds, dogs,...


A man finds strangely familiar movies outside his door, someone pushes a rock up a hill, a dog chases its tail, and Wren takes things into their own hands.

(CWs, minor spoilers: blood, death, brief mention of sex, some language, vomit, birds, dogs, derealization)

TRANSCRIPT:

WREN: The crowd at the Song Bird had vanished. The edges of the room faded into a misty gray. The woman I’d been talking to was gone. All that remained was the stage, awash in nightclub luminance. There was something standing on the stage. A kind of shapeless being. Its body was waving like a dead flag stirred by a subtle breeze. Harsh noise blared through the ashen bar. It seemed to be facing my direction despite its lack of features. I turned to run for the exit, but the door was no longer there: the back half of the dive bar now extended into an endless void. The jittering form reached out, and from its hand erupted streams of black ribbon. They curled around my feet with some force and bound my movement. I kicked and tore at them, but it was no use. They continued snaking up my legs.

The shape on the stage bellowed again, a horn from the lighthouse of the damned, and the ribbons tugged hard at my feet, knocking me down and pulling me toward the thing. The strands were halfway up my torso, and quickly began restricting my arms as I clawed at the checkered linoleum floor. I was pulled halfway up the stage, wrapped nearly to my throat in tight black bands. The closer I got to the umbral figure, the harder it became to breathe. My chest tightened, and each breath felt like I was gulping down burning air. I felt a hot jolt run through my body. I wriggled furiously and knocked over the microphone stand. Feedback screeched through the ethereal room.

Just as the ribbon was about to encroach on my lips and stifle my cries, something emerged from the gloom beyond the walls. It flew between the projector and lyrics splashed on the screen and for just an instant, it cast an avian silhouette against the wall: a huge feathered beast, wings flared and talons outstretched to strike. It slammed into the shadow on stage and tore through the strands confining me. No longer connected to my would-be abductor, they lost their mystic pull. I broke my arms free and tore through at the constraints around my feet. It wasn’t until later--hunched over my stained coffee table with a mug of green tea, draped in a blanket and shaking--that I realized what had been wrapping me: magnetic ribbon, the kind used in video tapes.

The giant raven stood on stage with its back to me, its foot on the slowly vanishing shadow monster. It struck me as odd that the thing had any form at all on which to step. But now was no time for wandering thoughts.

I tried to call out, but my voice was hoarse and dry. The bird didn’t move.

WREN: “You saved me from...whatever that was. Can I repay your kind favor somehow?”

The hulking corvid turned its head back to me. It had no beak, nor feathers on its face. Instead I saw pale skin, dark eyes, lips; upsettingly human.

AVERY: “You already have,” 

WREN: it replied in a voice that sounded uncannily like my own.

And then the bar was back, and I was standing alone and disheveled in the middle of a vibrant dance floor. No bird, no shadow, no ribbon. Just me, alone among the crowd.

I fled the bar and didn’t look back. Though looking back now, I think I forgot to pay my tab. I should probably return soon and hope for a better experience.

Now, let’s take a look at the penultimate letter in Conway’s backlog. It is addressed to a John Johnson at 123 Cool Street, Real City, Ohio. Right...seems like the only indication of where it came from is the stationary, labeled “Welcome to the Deerland Mall.” I don’t think I’ve heard of a Deerland, Ohio, nor its mall. Let’s see what this letter has to offer.

CONWAY: Let me tell you a story. An aspiring screenwriter and college dropout was working at an indie movie theater. Let’s call him John. He worked the late shift, usually slow now that the old college town was starting to lose most of its college students. He used his free time in the projection room to work on his scripts. He had a friend, we’ll say David, who said he was “in the biz,” whatever that means. About once a week, David sent over some weird reel he’d gotten a hold of. Once the manager was off for the day and the crowds had all but gone home, John would set up the projector and screen whatever wild stuff David had found. Exploitation flicks, experimental genre stuff, early short films by famous directors. It wasn’t always that exciting, though. Sometimes it was boring b-roll footage, or badly transferred home movies. Regardless, John would screen them and then he and David would talk about it the next day.

One evening, deep into the greasy salty night, John nodded off while waiting for a delivery. It was only for a minute, but when he woke up, a film canister was there at the door to the projection room. John looked the canister over. No shipping package, no label, no markings, just a clean metal disc. John loaded it up as usual. As the flickering quicksilver poured through the empty theater onto the screen, John was struck by something. He knew the star of this one. Not like in the way you “know” a celebrity, he really knew her. He couldn’t see her face right away but he knew it was her: an ex of his he hadn’t talked to in years. She wasn’t an actor, never showed an interest in it to his knowledge, but there she was. 

She was winding down the aisles of a brightly lit grocery store. She picked up a box of fruit loops and put it in her cart. Then she was outside shivering, looking up at the full winter moon through cloudy breath. The moon was a bowl of cereal she ate for breakfast, then click clack off to work along the rumbling subway tunnels, click clack keyboards and phone calls, the touch of fur under palm, and then the reel stopped. 

There was no dialogue, no real characters, no theme or meaning he could really get at. The backgrounds and settings were all vague, almost abstract. But it all seemed a little familiar to John. He felt a wave of deja vu wash over him, a memory tingling in some lost corner of his mind trying to get his attention.

The next day, John called David and asked him where he got the film. David had no idea what John was talking about. He didn’t send any reels that week. John told David to hold off with the movies for now, just to see if any more of these unsourced films showed up.

And show up they did. 

***

Saturday night somewhere in Pittsburgh. Interior of John’s apartment. He’s fast asleep in bed. We can hear his snoring as we pass through the open window. Tight shot of John’s face, then crossfade into the dream.

John is on a plane, middle seat surrounded by faceless strangers murmuring incomprehensible dialogue. “Watermelon, peas and carrots, lorem ipsum.” He looks around the flying tin and sucks in the stale air. The window shade is open, cloudless dawn or dusk or the dead of night shimmers out of view. The plane cruises through thick rivulets of puffy clouds. John is terribly thirsty. He tries to signal for a flight attendant but his arm won’t rise. He tries to talk but his voice comes out in a soft hiss. He screams, but his expletive barely moves past his lips before silently crashing to the floor. 

Then John is sitting in the terminal in Germany with a return flight in a week. But he’s forgotten to call off work. He tries to call his boss, but the line won’t connect. Wide shot of John’s bedroom, he bolts upright and looks out the window. A plane blinks in the sky over the city. Scene.

***

Sunday night came around and John was at the theater as usual. He was scribbling away in the moleskine notebook as the projector streamed a vision of another world on the screen. The click and whirr of the machine was a nice distraction, a good way to occupy the nagging part of his brain that always pulled at his attention.

Just as he had started writing some snappy dialogue, there was a clank outside the projection room. He peeked outside, and in front of the door was another blank canister, the deliverer nowhere to be seen. 

There was no one in the audience, so no one would mind a quick change of scenery, right? The projector buzzed and spun the new reel. Light filtered through the 35mm print, spitting its magnified contents across the room. When the first image appeared, John’s breath caught in his chest. He felt the creeping itch of panic in his throat like rising seawater. There was a plane, a crowd of people, an open window, a thirsty patron, a terminal. Exactly like John’s dream, or what he could remember of it. That’s when he realized why the first mysterious film was so familiar: it was a dream he’d had a few weeks back. Fragments of half-forgotten sights and sounds flashed in a jumbled collage in his mind.

“Holy shit, is that Emily?” David asked as the two sat in the audience for a private late night screening of the first mysterious film. “I had no idea she could act. This is pretty good!” John was less enthused. “Sorry. It’s so short though. Is that it?”

John said that had to be it because that’s all that was in his dream. 

“This is literally unbelievable. Like I don’t believe what you’re saying. Wait a week, and if another comes in, call me right away. We’ll watch it together and I’ll see if you’re just messing with me.”

John had fitful sleep the following week. He couldn’t focus on his writing. He was getting irritable and paranoid. Someone had to be watching him, right? How else would they know this stuff? Were they reading his journal?

John woke up that sunday groggy and distracted. He couldn’t remember his dream clearly, something about a street maybe. But come nightfall, another canister showed up at the projectionist’s door. John set the reel spinning and David watched.

In the film, David was in the middle of Hamburg, Germany, or rather what a young white guy in America who’s never been abroad might imagine Hamburg looks like. He was wandering through the streets and looking at the various buildings. He kept turning to the camera and saying something, but there was no sound. Then the screen went white.

“What the hell was that?” David accused more than asked this time. “Were you spying on me or something? Where was that? I don’t recognize it.” John reiterated the theory about his dreams. David was pale now, the reality of what was going on finally sinking in.

“This is sick. Bad sick. That means someone is watching this and putting it into to film. What if you have a messed up dream, or like a sex thing with somebody, or a nightmare. Are there other copies being sent to other theaters? I don’t want people seeing this.”

It was all too much for John, too intimate, too unsettling. We can’t control what we dream anymore than we can control our heartbeat or our appetites. It just is what it is. But what if what it is is really rotten? And what if someone else finds that rot at our core?

These were John’s thoughts as he looked over other jobs for the week. At least maybe if he got away from the theater, this would all stop. Made about as much sense as how it started. Why did David have to start bringing over bootleg reels anyway? He’s the one who got John into this and

Interior. Unknown time. John is standing in a stark white bathroom, the floor stained deep red in a growing pool. There’s David, his throat slit open, painting streaks of crimson on the wall as he flails and grips at his wound. In John’s hand is a straight razor, you know like the kind old barbers sharpened on that leather strip. Real Sweeney Todd stuff. David chokes and bubbles until his body slows and he slumps against the wall. John climbs in the shower behind him and closes the curtain. The blood rushing in his ears is the deafening sound of waves on the shore. He can still see the red smears through the plastic curtain in a smudged vignette, and the red on his hands drips into the tub. He sees a blur that used to be David in the corner. John’s vision shakes as the blur that was David rises. Circles of pulsing light shoot through John as the blur that was David comes closer, one unfocused hand reaching, gripping the shower curtain. It pulls, the cheap pvc sheet ripped from its hooks, and falls over John’s head. He tumbles backward against the shower wall. The blur that was David leans in, and

John was back at work screening some real junk for an audience of two. Probably teens there to make out. He was drawing little ink circles in his notebook. He hadn’t had any good ideas in weeks. All of his thoughts were occupied by his current...predicament.

He draws the circle bigger and bigger, until it expands beyond the borders of his notebook and paints black lines in the air. The ink begins filling the room. It threatens to absorb him into its eternal center. He tries to run but his legs are

John’s notebook hitting the ground stirred him. The projector was spinning dry and the only patrons departed. He must have dozed off. He stuffed his notebook in his bag and moved to leave when he saw the canister outside the door: a round tin streaked with red.

John’s heart fell through the floor. Metaphorically speaking, that is. Good stories should have metaphors, right? The last real dream he could really remember was...

There must be some kind of sickness in us, in humans. We know we shouldn’t but...well, we just can’t walk away, can we? This sickness, curiosity. A cruel prank by god, maybe. Or an evolutionary mechanism to get us to destroy ourselves. We stick our fingers in a dog’s mouth then act surprised when we get bit. We can’t turn our backs to the fire even as it melts our faces. We can’t leave well enough alone, we can’t just accept that some things aren’t meant to be seen, to be known. Yeah, even when we do know, we just have to see for ourselves to be sure, don’t we? Or maybe that’s just me, and I’m..ah, what’s the word…

John watched the movie, of course. The razor, the blood, the shower, the blur that was David, all there, all realer than real on that massive screen. He ripped the film from the projector, jamming and tangling the whole thing up. He called David. Tried to anyway, but David didn’t answer. He figured his friend had a late night or early night or whatever the hell kind of night it would take to make things okay. But John didn’t know that David would never answer a call again.

***

Interior, projection booth, midday. John is playing one of the summer’s box office hits for a packed audience. He pops in the second reel and gets ready for the switch. When the old reel runs out and the new one starts, the screen glows with morbid celluloid.

Razor, blood, shower, blur. John feels his body go cold from the inside out despite the heat. He sees every mistake he’s ever made, every regret he has, pass before him, and before the audience.

They watch as if nothing’s changed. John stands up and creeps toward the small glass porthole in the booth. He looks out over the patrons. He can’t quite make out any faces, but they’re all watching his worst fears intently. Then the bloody short ends and John appears on screen, standing in the projection booth, peering out the tiny window. John’s breaths are ragged, his mind racing through justifications for what’s happening, but there’s only one. He wipes the dripping sweat from his burning forehead and the John on the screen does too. He holds up his right hand and movie John follows. He trips backward, disoriented and sick to his core. John’s back slams into the projector as he stumbles. It falls, the film seizing up in its mechanism, and then shuts down. 

The audience erupts in applause. John sits against the broken projector. His stomach’s churning something fierce. He can feel it tickling the back of his throat again. From his mouth pours black tape, technicolor nightmare ribbon, in spools on the floor. He pulls and retches as the film exits his body. The audience cheers. Curtains. Scene.

***

Now what was the lesson here? Was all that oddness just a dream? That would seem a bit cheap, wouldn't it? Or is John himself just a dream? Or, maybe, you’re the dream, and John’s the dreamer.

Well, I’ll leave it to you to figure out.

Did I say a story? I lied: I’ve got three. See, three's a good round number. 

You know the myth of Sisyphus? Imagine you were cursed to push a boulder up a hill all day. When you get to the top, it rolls back down the hill and you have to start over again. Now repeat that forever. Imagine you had to grind away day after day, working yourself to dust for most of your waking hours. You had to toil and strain all your life for nothing. Just bearing the weight of that rock. The labors never cease. Camus imagined the absurdity of it all, figured sisyphus happy. I think based on experience, that's a load shit.

Now imagine someone came along and told you they’d let you switch places with the rock. You could finally relax, you could finally be on top. You could let someone else carry that weight for a while. I mean, someone’s gotta do it, right?

Do you think Sisyphus would take that offer? Would you?

All right, one more story. Last one, I promise.

There’s a dog all alone out in a field of broken corn stalks. He’s supposed to be hunting. But he sees something move behind him out of the corner of his eye. He spins around to catch it, but it’s gone. Then another flash of movement. He turns back and there’s still nothing there. He’s getting nervous now, his mouth hanging open, tongue lolling with each anxious pant. He stamps his feet into the dark earth and shakes. The movement comes back, but this time he waits. He’ll surely get it this time if he’s patient. His anticipation for the catch grows, his ears perk up. The thing behind him reveals itself. He spins in a tight circle and clamps down. Not quite as strong as the wolf, but there’s enough of the primal, ancient grit in him to kill. But what’s this? Whatever he’s caught is attached to him, coming directly from his hind quarters. He pulls, and feels the tug on his own back. It’s furry, and it smells familiar. He stands for a moment in that shattered field, tail in teeth. He’s forgotten what his purpose is. He tries to think of something all the way back, some instinct that runs in the blood of those who hunted mammoths and survived glacial flow, the fear of every human huddled in caves, huts, cabins. This isn’t what he’s supposed to be doing. There’s something else. But that thought is beyond him now. So he lets go his tail. Now he’s really gonna do what he’s told, what he’s trained to do.

Then the swish of something swaying behind him, a blur of gray or brown in his periphery, and it starts again.

Don’t go chasing your tail on a hunch or you’ll end up getting hurt. Stick to what you’re supposed to do. Some birds are just bigger than others, you know? Of course the big birds at the top of the feeder get their fill, but what they leave behind rains down on the sparrows and wrens below, and trickles down to even the lowest of birdkind. They all benefit if they stay in their places. Or so I've been told.

So which are you gonna be? The dog or the wren?

***

WREN: And with that, there’s only one piece of mail left in Conway’s inbox: the last letter on his to-do list the day he vanished. I suppose the backlog all recorded and archived, they’ll be sending me back to my original office next week. Or maybe they’ll keep me here a while to continue doing this. It’s hard not to wonder what happened, though. So many loose ends. I’m fighting nearly every instinct I have to look deeper, but I’ve been explicitly instructed not to do so--some might say threatened.

This has come to an inauspicious end, hasn’t it? Let’s see what this last letter has in store for us before we part.

It looks like a postcard, a little worn and discolored. On the front is a white lighthouse. The script below indicates it’s in Aisling, Ohio. And on the back is just one sentence. It reads:

 

Little Songbird,

That’s not your tail moving behind you. Bite, and don’t let go.

-Lucy

 

*off mic, shuffling, footsteps and a door closes* 

WREN, muffled: Hey, Martinez, when did this one come in? 

*unclear dialogue from a second person*

WREN: Are you certain

*unclear dialogue*

WREN: Who flagged it? 

*unclear dialogue*

WREN: No, no! Don’t get The Boss. This isn’t work-related, it’s...personal curiosity. 

*unclear dialogue*

WREN: Actually could you let them know I’m done with Conway’s pile here. And I think I’m going to take a vacation. Thank you!

*sounds of sitting back at the desk*

WREN: I’ll find out what happened to you, Conway, directives be damned.

Now where the hell is Aisling, Ohio?

*out of fiction credits*

Hey everyone, it’s your host here. Just want to give a shoutout to all the lovely patrons that help make this show possible. So thank you to carriers Flo and Jessica, and to receiving clerks Gadz, Paul, Spicy Nigel, and Patricia and to everyone else sharing and supporting the show. 

If you’d like to support the show and get your name in the credits like these fine folk, head on over to patreon.com/somewhereohio and sign up for one of the tiers there. Thank you again, and happy belated birthday, Nigel!