Sorry for the period in the title.
Grey Void: A Cautionary Tale of Haunted Tapes and What Lurks Within Them
March 3rd. I was in my apartment, waiting for a friend of mine - Mark. He had told me earlier in the day that he wanted to come over in the evening, and that he had something to show me.
Before he knocked on my door - three knocks in quick succession, polite affair - I was browsing the Internet on my ageing, but well-kept laptop. I was browsing forums on the paranormal, as it were - I remember this particular post about a ritual, and demonic voices being rather unfriendly. At the time, I had not believed this rather mundane supernatural encounter, and the irony now stings like salt on a wound.
Mark did knock on my door, and I did open. He wore a stained blue t-shirt, and an expression of excitement on his face. In his raised right hand, I saw, he held a cassette tape. At a glance, it appeared to have no distinguishing features - a flat black case with a black roll of tape, seen through a plastic window in its centre.
"Good evening." I greeted him.
"Hi," He responded. "May I come in?"
"Of course," I assured him, moving aside.
He was well aware of the fact that I had had an old VHS player hooked up to my television – he had previously questioned me regarding its origins and uses; It came from my late grandfather, and its main function is to decorate the room. Some people tell me it serves this purpose well.
I inquired as to the tape he had brought – he told me he had gotten it from a pawn shop around the block, and that he was sure that it would contain something worthwhile.
If I was scared, he assured me, I could close my eyes. I planned on doing no such thing – all things are worth seeing, I thought, and my notebook, always at hand, had many blank pages, ripe for filling with observations of this, apparently, worthwhile tape.
And so, I tapped my glass of water against Mark's can of soda and flipped through the small, yellow pages of my notebook, while Mark set up the cassette player.
I vividly remember the way he pushed the button and almost hopped backwards to get to a comfortable viewing position on the floor.
The tape began.
Although I cannot deny that video did play, and I can no more deny that sound accompanied it, I find it very difficult to describe what it was I watched. Most of the screen was a light grey, and vague shapes seemed to flash on the screen - some, I identified before they disappeared, others evaded comprehension. They ranged from landscapes, to household objects, to scientific equipment, in a seemingly random manner. And then, there were the faces: Appearing every few seconds, minimalistic but distinctly human faces would emerge, with varying facial expressions. After staring into the eyes of the viewer for a period of between one and two seconds, they would flow into another mess of concepts, as was described previously.
The sounds of the tape, I could only describe as ambience, the most dense of its kind – every time I saw an object on screen, my ears would catch a glimpse of it in the cacophony.
The tape had quickly established a tight grip on my attention, and only when it slowed down did I notice Mark move closer to the screen. I looked at him and noted the expression of wonder written across his face.
After that, I realised that the tape had, as previously mentioned, slowed down. In fact, it seemed to have collected itself into another face, getting more detailed by the second. This one was certainly not human - its nose was too long, eyes too big, ears too... Well, absent. As it progressed, it began to look like the face of a dragon.
Mark crawled, on all fours, until he could touch the screen. He did exactly that, with his index finger, before rubbing it against his thumb.
"What the hell is this?" He asked, before turning to face me.
The following happened before I could reply:
The screen became completely grey. The physical space in front of me seemed to bend; Mark was consumed by the television screen. It was as if he was absorbed by a vortex at the bottom of a tub of water. As I watched, he seemed to be pressed into to the television screen, until I could no longer see depth across his body, despite using both of my eyes for perspective.
Space returned to normal. Mark, now squarely on the screen, stared at me. His eyes were wide with fear. Slowly, he began to fade - less and less detailed, he became, until he disappeared into a vague shape. This faded off, and the tape's typical behaviour resumed.
I wrote this down, furiously, in my notebook.
A little over a minute later, I was done. I looked around in search of my mobile phone, intending to call the police. It was then that the television screen turned to a pure, bright white. I could hear a voice – Mark's – emerge from the television. He spoke in gasps, as if he was struggling not to cry. There was a pause of about a second between every word.
"Do not touch the tape." He instructed. "Do not call. Do not post. Do not leave the apartment. We are watching you."
It turned to black. The tape, I noticed, was still rolling.
I wrote the message down in my notebook, and noted the fact that the act seemed to go unpunished.
I decided that it was within my best interest to obey. I opened some canned beans, poured them into a bowl, heated them in my microwave, rinsed a clean spoon from my cabinet to eat them with, ate them – supplemented by my unfinished glass of water from earlier – washed all the involved cutlery, tossed the empty bean can into my rubbish bin, took off my clothes, took a whiff, concluded that I would not need to worry about the laundry for the next few days, folded the clothes, put them on my bedside table, showered, put on a fresh set of pajamas from my wardrobe, and returned to the VHS player.
It was still going.
I took some pillows and a blanket from my bedroom, moved to the wall opposing the TV, and lay down to sleep. I found that I had a lot to think about, trying to connect the dots between what I had seen and the many paranormal tropes that I was familiar with, which helped me fall asleep rather quickly.
I woke up eight hours later to a musical note playing from my television. I looked at it, and saw that the inhuman face was back. Although it had some reptilian features, it would be a stretch to call it a traditional dragon - its snout was not quite large enough, and its eyes were too round.
I reached for my notebook and pen, but stopped myself when space shifted again. The television screen expanded to almost fill my vision, and the monster developed from a detailed sketch to a real creature. It crawled, and it pivoted on two limbs, and it walked. It stood.
The space shifted back to normalcy, and I found myself face-to-face with a black-scaled reptilian humanoid. It looked at me, almost expressionless. The television screen blinked to darkness.
I would not describe it as very intimidating - though the digits on its hands ended in long, sharp claws, it was quite thin, and almost the same height as myself.
"Greetings, mortal." Said the creature. Its voice was distinctly masculine, and it spoke in a gentle, soothing manner.
"Good morning." I replied.
The creature let out a low hum and walked over to the window. It peeked outside, holding the blind with one hand.
"Look at those clouds," It said. "I don't think the morning will be good for much longer."
The reptilian turned to look at me again.
"Unless you like rain, that is."
We maintained eye contact for three seconds. The scaled chest moved up and down, slowly, as the humanoid breathed.
My conversational partner broke the silence.
"Regardless," He said, looking around the room, "You summoned me, yesterday. What is your desire?"
I regarded the question, and the speaker. I did not believe that his intentions were of positive disposition, but I decided to indulge the bluff, in hopes of gaining information.
"I desire to know who you are."
Hearing that, he cocked his head back, and continued to glare at me for two seconds. He then smiled, and answered:
"My name is Jareth. I am a demon. I spend my time haunting humans."
"'Haunting' how?" I inquired.
He looked annoyed.
"Have you been watching, or what?"
He held the expression for two seconds, then turned around. He walked over to the kitchen, which was a small arrangement in the corner of my living room.
"You want your friend back, don't you?" He asked, inspecting the knives on my wall. He picked one up and swung it gently, presumably testing its balance. Light from the lamp reflected off the blade, into my right eye. I blinked.
"Yes." I replied.
He put the knife back onto its magnetic rack and turned around, pushing off with his left foot to pivot, in a circular motion, on his right, before using his left to steady himself in his new orientation.
"You must perform a ritual." He said.
He walked to the centre of the room, wasting the dampening potential of the small, brown carpet on his already-silent footsteps.
"What's the most valuable thing you have here?" He asked, looking around again.
I thought about it. My house was by no means luxurious - I made it a habit to base my purchases solely on cost-efficiency. Me being the only resident, few complained.
"My refrigerator." I declared, after several seconds of silence.
He turned to face me, an expression of something between annoyance and surprise on his face.
"A refrigerator? That's nothing!" He exclaimed.
He strode widely to me, and proceeded to circle around my body.
"Well, we could take a limb, maybe..." He mused, looking at my right arm.
"One of your senses, perhaps?" He continued, the statement seemingly being pointed towards my crotch.
"Your frontal lobe would probably do..." He informed my left knee.
He stopped his movement and looked me in the eyes.
"Or maybe... your virginity?"
He moved closer to me. I could feel, even without direct contact, the heat emitted by his body. His expression turned to a gentle smile.
The sound of three loud knocks caused him to look away. They had come from the door. The knocking repeated. Jareth patted me on the shoulder and tip-toed into the dark recess of my apartment. I moved to open the door - turning the lock, then the handle. The door opened easily, without a sound.
"Hi, Arthur." Said the new arrival. It was Trent - I had seem him around town, usually wearing a dark trenchcoat, or at the very least a black T-shirt. His choice of dress often contrasted his bright, young face, his blonde locks, and his physique - even while a foot taller than me, he looked as if he could hardly throw a punch. I could recall hearing girls call him the world's least successful vampire.
"Good morning." I greeted him.
"How's the day been to you? Heard a rainstorm might be coming, you know?"
"So I've heard." I replied, ignoring Trent as he leaned inside the territory of my apartment.
"Say, I was just in town," He said, looking around and sniffing, "And I smelled the distinct scent of a demon."
He looked at me, with a facial expression excitement and mild confusion.
"May I come in?"
I took a second to consider - Jareth was unlikely to be happy about the situation, but I judged that he was unlikely to exact vengeance upon me. So, I decided, I should see what happens.
"Certainly." I said, and moved out of the way. He stepped in, confidently.
"Thanks, mate. Have you ever seen a demon before? Nasty things. I always carry my, what'cha call it," He reached into his back pocket, his feet far apart. "Blessed steel."
He held a switchblade.
"I'll have that."
He could not finish the word as the knife was snatched from his hand and thrust into his throat by Jareth.
"Right," Jareth said, urgency in his voice, "Get some spices, a lot of them. And shut that door!" He waved his hand vaguely, in the direction of the front door and the kitchen.
I closed and locked the door, before forcefully opening one of my kitchen cabinets and removing a large box of chili powder, and a bag of flour. The smell was strong, and it inhaling through my nose made me feel the tear glands in my eyes activate.
Jareth pushed Trent, now just barely gasping for air, onto the carpet in front of my television, and hurredly took the spice box out of my hand.
"Dori me," He chanted, quickly spilling the spice to create an encircled pentagram on the carpet. "interimo adapare dori me."
He kneeled down, grabbed the unmoving Trent's black T-shirt, and started rubbing it between his hands. His face showed intense focus.
"Ameno, ameno, latire, latire mo."
The shirt burst into flames.
The flame behaved unnaturally – it didn't appear to waver, instead standing straight and consistent in strength. It burned quickly, reducing Trent, the knife, and the carpet to ashes, but leaving no smoke. It did not spread. Additionally, I noticed, the pentagram began to glow a bright red.
Jareth let out a weighty sigh.
"My friend should be coming by now." He told me, smiling.
He made eye contact with me again, and his smile died on his lips.
"While we wait," He said, "Have you anything to eat?"
"Yes," I announced, "Canned beans."
"Sounds exciting." He responded, unenthusiastically.
I took two more cans of beans out of a cupboard in my kitchen, poured them into a bowl each, heated them in the microwave, one at a time, got two spoons out of another cupboard, put one into each bowl, and took my position at the table, stretching over it to put one of the bowls on the other side. Jareth had already taken a seat in front of where it now lay.
We ate for the next fifteen minutes. Jareth's gaze took turns between directing itself towards me, and the front door, though he glanced at the pentagram, now dim, a few times. I would describe his facial expression, while he looked at me, as suspicious.
I considered standing up, walking past him and getting my notebook, but decided that I would rather not annoy him, which I suspected doing the aforementioned might result in.
Eventually, Jareth pushed his bowl forward, and spoke.
"He's still not here." He declared. "I suppose I shall go over to his place, see what's keeping him."
He stood up, and moved to the corridor leading to my bathroom and bedroom, thereby cloaking himself in darkness.
"Don't stand too close to the shadows." He said, and evaporated into a puff of smoke. The smoke did not dissipate as much as it vanished, three seconds later.
I took both of the empty cans of beans, tossed them into my rubbish bin, washed the spoons that Jareth and I had used, wiped my hands dry, and walked over to my resting place from last night, picking up my notebook and pen. I sat down, and proceeded to note down the events of the morning.
"Don't trust him." Said an unfamiliar voice, originating from the corridor behind me. "He might seem friendly, but he hides dark secrets." The voice was deep, and dry. Its tone appealed less to one's sense of danger, and more to their judgement. "Trust me - I know."
I did not respond. I sat still, for about thirty seconds, and awaited further action – a sound cue, or a visual one, that would point me towards an appropriate course of action. None came. I continued writing.
I was not finished when four knocks came on my door.
"Looks like he's gone, the prick." Said Jareth, as annoyed as ever, after I let him in. "Oh, he knew I called, don't you doubt it. He just didn't think I was important enough."
I grunted in response, hoping to convey vague agreement and general disinterest.
"So, Arthur," Jareth walked over to the tape player, and gave it a light kick. "We still have one friend, don't we?"
The television turned on.
"What's his name, anyway?"
"Mark. Let's pay him a visit, shall we?"
He turned towards the screen, before snapping back.
"Oh, and bring a knife."
I took a quick few steps to the magnetic knife rack on my kitchen wall and picked up the smallest knife – a four-inch paring knife – before joining Jareth in front of the screen.
I watched the shapes move, create images – I could recognise them more quickly now, feel the rhythm of the noise. The screen began to grow.
"Hold tight." Jareth said, and softly grabbed me from behind, sliding into an embrace. He breathed upon my cheek. His breath had no smell. I concluded that Trent had simply made it up.
We did not move – even Jareth seemed to be satisfied with his position within my private space.
The grey void around us, however, did. The alien, yet familiar shapes now assaulted us from all sides, and the sounds seemed to envelop me fully.
"What you see around you," Jareth explained, "Is the pure essence of life. It is creativity, imagination. It takes all kinds of shapes - many are still reminiscent of their past lives - food, cars, faces... These people, you put them in a field of endless white, and they still can't think outside the box!"
"Grey." I corrected him.
He moved slightly away, and shot me an annoyed glance.
"We must focus now, Arthur. We're going to a room – square, concrete, on the large side. Mark is inside, a chain around his neck. See it... in your mind."
Although it was just a swirl at first, I gradually saw the pattern within the shapes – the slight dents in the walls, the penumbra formed by the overhead light. And the familiar shape of Mark, on his knees, his head low. We stood directly in front of him.
He looked at us with sullen eyes. Jareth approached him.
"Hi, Mark. How are you holding up?"
The room stood out me in its design. On the surface, it appeared to be the simplest, most bare construction imaginable. This property, however, drew the eyes to the most minute of details; More so than ever before, I saw could see the individual cracks in the floor, the walls. They almost seemed to form pictures all of their own.
"Arthur..." Mark said, breathily, before turning to Jareth. "You arse!"
Jareth took a step to the side, forming an isosceles triangle between Mark, himself, and me. He faced me.
"You know how this goes," He said. "Kill him."
Mark opened his mouth in an expression of disbelief.
"Come on," Said Jareth to Mark, in a demeaning tone, "You knew it was going to happen."
He turned to me again, grimness in his face.
"Don't hesitate – or I will kill you, too."
I approached Mark, slowly, knife raised in my hand. I saw Jareth move in an arc, as if removing himself from the scene. Mark tried to get up and back away, but was grabbed by Jareth, from behind.
"Stop, Arthur!" He exclaimed. "You can't do this!"
Upon hearing this, Jareth made an audible "Hmph!" sound. He now held Mark, firmly, both on their feet.
I walked towards Mark. I stopped when the knife was a few centimetres away from him. Before I could thrust, however, I realised several things: I realised that I had enjoyed the time I had spent with Mark – all the public gatherings during which we nested in a corner and hung out on our own, away from the group, all the times we snuck out of public gatherings to hang out on our own, in what was almost a private nest, all the times he had supported me in dealing with unfriendly schoolmates, all the times we had consumed drinks together... I realised that I appreciated him for it. I felt grateful, and killing him, at that moment, would be such an awful shame... such a shame... such a shame...
I realised that I could not do it.
My grip on my knife loosened, and my knees buckled. I felt a pressure inside my throat, and the sudden urge to shed tears. My head angled itself downwards.
Jareth pushed Mark back down onto his knees, and approached me.
"So, then," He began, "Did you decide that you'd rather die than obey me?"
He began to walk around me again.
"Is this you putting down your foot? Proving, once and for all, that Arthur is a man of righteousness, who lives and dies by his principles?"
He stopped. I noticed that he put slightly more weight on his left leg than on his right.
"Or could you just not do it?"
I raised my head to look him in the face. He was smiling - he began to laugh.
"It's all right," He said, through his glee, "You're just a man, after all."
He took me by the arms and raised me to a standing position.
"I'm sorry," He said, softly, "You just had me doubting back there."
Once again, he pressed himself against me – this time, fully, chest to chest. As his hand slid to remove the knife from mine, he kissed me on the lips, his eyes shut. This lasted three seconds, during which he exhaled through his nose in a manmer which conveyed, to me, that he was experiencing pleasure.
Slowly, Jareth leaned back, and peeled himself away.
"Go on," He invited, "Ask the question. You know you want to." He looked solemn.
"Are you going to kill us?"
He smiled, and walked, gracefully, behind Mark. Mark's eyes widened. He had looked confused while Jareth kissed me, and downright terrified now.
"Of course." His arm moved behind Mark, and my friend screamed out in pain.
"For now, though, I think I'm going to have some fun with Mark here."
He winked. Mark writhed in pain. It seems that his body was not ready to speak, or even moan.
"Go home, Arthur." Suggested Jareth. "And run fast."
This was my last chance to escape. I took it.
Two days have passed – the cassette is destroyed, my apartment is abandoned – all the things I needed, I packed in a backpack. Jareth the demon has not shown himself since, but I often feel as if a threat is pushing on me from somewhere out of sight, ready to impale me. It follows me like my own shadow – sometimes, I feel, my shadow stands too close.
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