The first DVD arrived in my mailbox on Thursday, April 11 2013. I remember because it had been rainy, one of those gross squishy spring days where your shoes stick in the mud that seems to be everywhere. My mailbox had leaked, making most of the mail inside soggy and damp — but not the slim, clear plastic DVD case stuck between weekly pennysavers and credit card offers.
It wasn’t in an envelope. It didn’t have a postmark or a stamp or even an address. It must’ve just been… left there.
In bold Sharpie-black letters, the disk read: BALLET RECITAL 1992
My first thought, naive as it was, was that Mom had probably dropped it off. Like, maybe she’d been converting some old home movies and wanted to surprise me. Seems so stupid now. I should’ve just thrown it away. Instead, I dumped the rest of the wet mail into the trash and slipped the burnt DVD into my MacBook.
It was Thursday, April 11 2013 that everything changed.
The footage started normal enough. Living up to the title written so neatly on the disk, I found myself watching a tiny version of me — little Amanda Schneider in ballet flats and a puffy pink tutu, twirling aimlessly around a stage with other 6-year-olds who twirled with the same childish aimlessness. Those white lines that used to come up on VHS videos with bad tracking crept in and out of the recital. They brought back a strange sense of nostalgia.
In a dark room, lit ruthlessly in the face by some off-screen source, sat a woman. She was wearing a ballet outfit, tutu and all — not unlike the one I wore in my recital video. On top of her head was a mussed ballerina bun, sadly askew. Her cheeks were covered in almost equal measure with third-degree burn scars and streaky smudged mascara. Over her mouth was a thick strip of duct tape.
Had it not been for the burn scars I might not’ve recognized her. But I did. That, and her eye — the one that was squinched almost closed, swollen from the burns — I could never have forgotten that eye.
It was my childhood best friend, Gretchen. Gretchen Hartman.
“Oh my god,” I said to no one in particular. It had been years, probably 9 or 10, since I’d seen her. Probably nearly that long since she’d even crossed my mind.
Tears leaked from Gretchen’s eyes, the normal one and the disfigured one. She kept shaking her head, looking off-camera at someone. Or something.
Have you ever seen something so unbelievable, so unexpected, that it doesn’t seem real? One time, when I was a kid, I saw a terrible accident. It happened right in front of me and I couldn’t look away but I couldn’t do anything to help, either. This felt like that.
Gretchen let out a wail from behind the duct tape and squeezed her eyes closed. She shook her head harder. Her shoulders strained helplessly against what could only be very tight bonds. I heard my heartbeat pounding thick in my ears.
Suddenly, Gretchen’s eyes popped wide open — like maybe she was in pain or something — and the footage cut off her following scream, going immediately to black.
I sat there for a long moment, dumbstruck. Then, across the screen in tall white letters standing out against the black like bones in tar:
INVOLVE THE POLICE AND SHE DIES
These hovered before me, then:
WAIT FOR MORE
And then it was over.
I stared at my MacBook. The video player stared back. With shaking fingers I clicked the play icon. I watched as the footage started over again: me in my innocent little ballerina outfit, Gretchen’s burnt skin, the bun askew on her head, the duct tape over her mouth. The squinted, squashed eye. The warning at the end: involve the police and she dies.
Of everything I’d seen in the video, that was the easiest to understand.
My hand hovered over my iPhone anyway. How would whoever had sent the DVD know whether I had called the police? Well, that was simple enough: they knew where I lived. That was obvious. The DVD hadn’t been mailed to my house, it had been placed in the mailbox, like a horrible little present.
While I sat there, MacBook glowing in the low light of that dreary April day, I found myself doing something I hadn’t done in a long time: thinking about my childhood. There’s a good reason for that, too. I avoided thinking about my childhood because we tend to avoid things with teeth, and my memories of growing up had just that — dark spots, black places, and gleaming in those shadows, long sharp teeth.
I met Gretchen when I was six years old, about three months after the ballet recital on the DVD. Dad had lingered in the hospital choking on his own blood for as long as I could remember; when he died, we couldn’t afford payments on the nice little brick house in Suburbia so a few days after the funeral Mom packed us up and off we went. I was pretty young but I remember thinking why so fast? Why now? Why did I have to lose my dad AND my house, my school, my friends — all in the same summer?
When you’re an adult you can put some perspective on the situation. Mom was always a proud lady, our funds had been drained with Dad in ICU for so long and she couldn’t bear a foreclosure on top of everything else.
I still think it was a shitty thing to do to a kid.
We took what Mom hadn’t sold and moved into low-income housing in what I’d heard called “The Bad Part Of Town”, all ominous and worthy of capital letters. We pulled up in front of it, a squat little yellow tinderbox half the size of our pretty gingerbread house with the sturdy columns and stained glass windows. Two square windows on either side of a door that seemed to me like eyes and a mouth, calling out, “Come inside, Amanda. I’m hungry. I want to eat you up just like cancer ate your Daddy up from the inside.”
The first day we were there, I couldn’t stop crying. I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t and Mom yelled that I was useless but I knew she was just upset about Dad so I went to sit on the crumbly cement step out front to let her unpack the kitchen in peace.
I rubbed at my eyes with the heels of my hands until I saw stars exploding in the darkness. It hurt, but also felt kinda good too, so I kept doing it even though Mom had said before that I shouldn’t.
“My mommy says that’s bad for your eyes,” said someone behind the exploding stars.
I stopped and looked up to see another girl, a girl my age with kinky red hair and thick cokebottle glasses. They had pink rims and I remember the color looked weird with her hair.
“Why?” I sniffled, trying not to let on that I was crying even though it was obvious I had been. “Is that what happened to you?”
The girl shrugged, but said,
“No. I woke up one day and couldn’t see Tom and Jerry very good on the TV and my mommy took me to the doctor and they said I gots near-sights.”
“Oh,” I said, assuming that meant she had almost-sight and accepting it as fact.
I didn’t really want to tell this red-haired girl with glasses that my life as I knew it was over, but for some reason I found myself saying,
“My Dad died,” I explained, wiping tears from my cheeks. I’d finally stopped crying. “He was sick for a long time and now we’re poor so we live here.”
An adult might’ve taken that as an insult but Gretchen’s face lit up.
“I’m poor too!” she exclaimed brightly, clasping her hands together. “Most everyone ‘round here is! But not a lot of kids. ‘Specially not girls. We could be friends!”
I sniffed again. Looked her over with the frank, unbiased consideration only children are afforded. Seemed to come up with one answer: all my friends were gone, Mom was mad all the time, and even though Gretchen wasn’t much this one would have to do.
“Okay,” I said, with not as much enthusiasm as I think she’d expected. Her face clouded over a little, eyes growing dark behind those thick glasses. Eager to get her good mood back — I’d had enough bad moods with Mom, as it were — I added, “I have a Lisa Frank friendship bracelet kit inside. You want me to go get it?”
Her smile returned, brighter than ever.
“Yep yep yep!” Gretchen chirped, reminding me of Ducky from “The Land Before Time.” Ducky’s my favorite, so suddenly I felt a little better. Better than I had in a while.
“Can I call you Ducky?” I asked shyly, unsure if this was reaching too far for a new friend. Gretchen flushed pink under her freckles, matching the rims of her glasses, and gave me a hard brief hug.
“I never had a nickname before,” she said. “Yep yep yep, I’ll be your Ducky, let’s make bracelets!”
And we did.
I heeded the DVD’s warning and didn’t call the cops. After a night of sleep, I still wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Gretchen and I hadn’t spoken in years, I wasn’t even friends with her on Facebook and didn’t have her family’s contact information. I considered calling Mom but I didn’t really want her involved in this either.
I was holding my iPhone in one sweaty palm, going over my options the way my grandmother used to worry over a small smooth stone with an imprint for her thumb, when it occurred to me.
WAIT FOR MORE.
I ran out to the mailbox even though I knew the chain-smoking mailman wouldn’t be around for another few hours and was less than surprised to see another slim, clear plastic case resting inside — docile yet dangerous, like a coiled cobra with poison fangs.
I pulled it out and cringed when I read what was printed on it, the same blocky permanent-marker print: SOFTBALL GAME 1995
This was only going to get worse.