Someone mailed me a box of VHS tapes. Inside the box was a single piece of paper that read as follows:
I’m sorry about your wife. I know this doesn’t make things right, but I thought you should know what happened to her. Watch the tapes in order. Once you’re finished, please don’t try to find me. You won’t. If it gives you any relief, know that I am no longer associated with these people. God forgive us.
My heart was racing by the time I finished reading the parchment. My wife, Patricia, had been missing for over three years now. I had given up on ever finding out what happened to her. It was like she had simply ceased to exist one day. There had been no trace of foul play, no packed luggage, no note, nothing.
After two years of fruitless searching and miserable hope, I had finally given into despair. She was gone and she wasn’t coming back. Or she was dead. The following year I had learned how to cope with the awful mystery, the unknowing, the questions that shook my mind at four in the morning.
But now, once more, I found myself at the precipice of it all. I stood in my living room, holding a box of tapes and a note that prophesied the answers I had been searching for. I looked down at the plain-faced cardboard package and the small stack of old tapes inside. My eyes glided to the top of the pile. A dirty white label had been stuck to the top of the VHS. It read: #1 Orientation.
I glanced at the note in my hand, the one that had been in the box.
Watch the tapes in order.
I felt my stomach plunge into the depths of anxious fear. What awful revelations awaited me? Was this a road I really wanted to travel again? Did I really want to know? Of course I did. The fleeting doubt lasted only a moment before I stooped down and retrieved the first tape.
I still had my old VCR plugged in to my TV. I walked over to it, the tape held loosely at my side. My heart raced as I bent down and slid the cassette into the player. I pressed the “power” button on the TV and stood back up, waiting for the film to start rolling. My legs felt weak. My knees trembled. What the hell was I going to see? I tried to calm myself as the black screen flickered with lines of static. I sat down on the couch, my living room horribly dark and quiet. I leaned forward and cupped my hands over my chin and mouth.
The movie began.
A blue sky. Shots of fat, fluffy clouds crawling across a beautiful expanse. Cut to a single black bird soaring across the heavens. It gets lost in the sun. Back to the clouds. They’re going faster now. Someone is breathing heavily. It’s the only sound blanketing the images. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, big wet gasps of air. Breathing. Breathing. Breathing as the clouds roll by.
Another shot of the black bird. It’s far up above the camera. Something is wrong with one of its wings. It looks broken. The bird starts to fall. The breathing becomes urgent, inhale, EXHALE, inhale, EXHALE.
The camera tracks the bird down the sky. As it does so, the sky turns grey and then crimson. It happens in seconds. The black bird continues to plunge toward the unseen earth. The breathing is now intermixed with hitching sobs. It’s getting louder. It fills my living room.
The bird smacks into the earth and the sobbing climaxes into a long, horrible shriek. The bird has disappeared into a field of endless cows. They stand packed together as far as the eye can see, left, right, north, south, and over the horizon.
The breathing stops.
A voice whispers something through the speakers. I miss it the first time. The cows stand like statues beneath the blood red sky. The voice repeats. The whisper is urgent and the speaker is male. I strain my ears to pick up the words he’s saying. It seems to be on a loop. I count the seconds in my head. I get to eight when the words come again, a desperate trickle.
“Imperfect. Imperfect. Imperfect.”
Cut to a child walking alone down a dirt road. A boy. His back is to the camera. He looks like he’s maybe five or six years old. The lens has a brown filter over it, giving the shot a filthy, dry look. The boy is rubbing his eyes. It looks like he’s crying. Perhaps lost. The sound drops out. The boy keeps walking. He’s turning his head, as if looking at things along the side of the road that are out of frame. He starts crying harder. What does he see?
The focus blurs and then quickly cuts to a cluster of crows perched atop power lines. The blood-red sky is back. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. The crows flutter and shift along the wires, thousands of them. They open their beaks but all I can hear is the breathing. In the center of the frame, one of the birds takes flight. Something’s wrong. It freezes, mid-flight, and remains suspended in the air, a dozen feet above the others. The birds below continue to shift. INHALE, EXHALE, INHALE, EXHALE. The frozen bird suddenly zips up into the crimson sky, impossibly fast. It’s as if something has sucked it away. The camera spins to track it, but it’s too fast. It is gone.
The voice: “Imperfect. Imperfect. Imperfect.”
The birds scatter and the voice screams. I cover my ears, heart thundering.
Back to the boy on the road. Brown filter. I feel claustrophobic. The breathing is gone. Faintly, I hear a woman giggling. It’s quiet, as if she’s watching from the bushes. The boy doesn’t seem to notice. He’s crying again. Wait. My stomach rolls as I realize his left arm is torn off. Blood gushes from the stump and splatters onto the dry earth. The woman continues to giggle.
“Imperfect. Imperfect. Imperfect.”
Cut to a wooden cross standing alone against a black sky. The film skips suddenly and the cross is upside down and the sky is red. Standing at the foot of the inverted cross is a single goat. As it turns its head slowly toward the camera, the scene shifts.
Brown filter. The woman giggling. The boy’s other arm is gone. He lurches forward down the road, his clothes dark with blood. The camera zooms in. The back of the kid’s head fills the screen. Something is sticking out of his head. Something covered in blood. Something moving. The image blurs and I strain to see what it is. Before I can, the scene changes.
The inverted cross is backed by red sky. The goat is gone. The shot is further away this time. I lean forward. Something is standing behind the cross. A deep, ambient rumble shakes the speakers. It fills me with unease as it soars and then plummets. What is standing behind the cross? I can see it shifting slightly, as if it’s hiding.
The scene jumbles and it’s back to the boy. His legs are gone and he’s squirming on the ground. He leaves a trail of blood behind him. He’s weeping, but he doesn’t stop. What is he trying to reach so desperately? The woman isn’t giggling anymore. She’s crying.
“Imperfect. Imperfect. Imperfect.”
The voice fills me with dread each time it comes.
The camera pans up, slowly, the road stretching out before the lens. The brown filter bleeds into neon red. The boy’s destination becomes clear.
It’s the inverted cross. It stands alone on the hilltop. Something is standing in front of it.
It’s a goat.
It’s a goat standing on two legs. Its fur is the color of midnight. It watches the boy. It does not move.
The boy stops wriggling. The woman stops crying.
The boy is dead.
The camera refocuses on the goat.
The voice returns one last time: “Perfect. Perfect. Perfect.”
The screen cuts to black.
What the hell…
I released a breath I didn’t know I had been holding. The VHS ejected itself and I just stared at it. What had I just watched? What did any of it mean? And more importantly, what did any of this have to do with my missing wife?
I eyed the box of tapes. There were still more to go. I brought the box to my side and picked up the next tape. It read: #2 Exposure. My stomach tingled with dreaded anticipation. But I knew I had to watch these. I had to watch all of them.
I swapped the tapes in the VCR and pressed play. Sitting back, I braced myself for the unexpected.
A dim room. A large oak table surrounded by towering bookshelves. The interior is lit overhead by some unseen light source. It casts shadows across the frame. There are people sitting around the table. Men, women, maybe fourteen or fifteen in all. They’re dressed well. An air of formality bleeds between them. They’re talking. The audio glitches for a couple seconds and then I can hear. The camera remains motionless throughout the exchange.
“If we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do it right.” -an older man at the end of the table.
“I agree. The other sects have pursued the Blessed Bloodlines, as we have, but their methods of extraction have evolved beyond the Old Ways.” – A woman on the left.
“Is this woman really the one?” – A man with long gray hair.
“We believe so. Derek has befriended her at her place of work. He’s gained her trust. He’s spoken with her at great length. He can bring her to us. It won’t be difficult.” – A woman in the back.
The first man again -“I want this done right. Once we have her, she will be indoctrinated according to the Old Ways. Our sect has always taken great pride in remaining true to our origins. If this woman really is of the Blessed Blood, then I want the extraction to mirror what our forefathers intended. The other sects have wandered from the path. They use crude, newer methods. But not us. We will remain true to ourselves and our oaths.”
“Can we really be so close?” – a small, frail woman in the corner.
“We have been rigorous in our search and I see no reason to doubt our findings. This woman has to be the one. Her blood is old and runs red with history. We have traced her lineage as far back as the records allow. We have every reason to believe that she is the offspring of Judas the Iscariot.”
“You think she will be able to bring forth Azazel?”
“She is our greatest hope.”
“Then…it is decided. We will go through with the plan. Have Derek retrieve her tomorrow. The rest of us will prepare the sanctuary. I will prepare the goat and attend to the milking myself.”
The screen cuts to black and then quickly displays an empty, windowless chamber. Concrete walls are illuminated beneath a single, dangling bulb. It looks like some kind of basement. Jump cut to the same room. A single, massive goat stands in the center of the frame now. It looks like the same black goat from the Orientation film. It doesn’t move. It just stares at the camera. I wonder if it’s even alive. It’s just so…still.
The image flutters. The goat is now standing on two legs with its back against the wall. A naked man is on his knees before it. It looks like he had been whipped. He has a bowl placed in front of him.
He is masturbating the goat.
The man empties the semen into the bowl and then begins to fellatiate the flaccid member back into erection. When he is satisfied, he begins to stroke the jutting organ once more.
The screen flickers and the room is empty once more.
Except something has been added. Something that leans against the wall, draped in shadow.
It is a massive, X-shaped wooden cross.
The tape ends.
I took a moment to collect myself. My mind reeled and my stomach churned. What the hell was all this? Who were these people? The woman they had talked about….could that be Patricia? Had she been abducted by these fanatics?
I squeezed my eyes shut, head thundering. There was only one way to find out.
I turned to the box of tapes.
I had to keep watching.