Holding the unlabeled black video cassette somehow reassured her of the legitimacy of its contents. With that reassurance came effervescent nausea, an ugly, unreal sensation befitting the place she was in and the sight that awaited her.
There were thousands of purported “ffuns flicks” online, some more believable than others. Some were made for a laugh with puppets or shoddy animation, some made with award-worthy care and effects by aspiring filmmakers. None, however, were authentic. The big man with a gravel-lined throat and a measured manner of speaking, “Mick,” had guaranteed her this.
“We do not tolerate leaks. Cannot afford to. Confidentiality is critical to us. As for our buyers, they are not likely to spend a fortune on a ‘one-of-one’ item just to share it freely with strangers. And our suppliers—even those who never make it past the prospective stage—know better than to share our business.”
She nodded, confident in his truth and—as a prospective supplier—understanding the warning within said truth. One of Mick’s colleagues had met her at the door, frisked her and taken her phone before bringing her inside the building, a not-yet-gutted science building on an abandoned college campus. The man had escorted her to a first-floor classroom full of stained and weathered lab tables, empty or shattered glass beakers and vials, and overturned stools. The hand-smeared chalk scrawl on the blackboard appeared to be the remnants of an unfinished lesson.
At the front of the classroom was a television cart the likes of which she hadn’t seen since elementary school, and on the second shelf of the cart, underneath a tube television set, was a VCR. Both the television and VCR were plugged into a portable power bank on the floor. Static played on the television screen. She stood in front of it, video cassette in hand, every type of stinging, winged insect in the world flying in her stomach.
“Whenever you are ready,” Mick said. “If you are still not sure after what you see, we will part ways.”
Again she nodded. She put the tape into the VCR, pushed the play button, and straightened her posture to steel herself for what she was about to see.
On-screen appeared two men in a dark room. One lay supine on the floor wearing only black boxer shorts, the bare minimum for modesty. The footage wasn’t as noisy and opaque as she’d expected, and it was clear that the man on the floor—bald, bearded and withered—was quite pale. The man who crouched beside him wore a surgeon’s mask, an indistinct long-sleeve shirt and black pants, and he held a knife. The camera zoomed in on the masked man who showed off each flat side of the knife, as well as its edge, as though hawking it for an infomercial. He showed his free hand to the camera, then pushed the tip of the knife into his index finger just long enough to draw a bead of blood.
The camera pulled back to capture the complete scene again. The masked man seized the pale man’s arm by the wrist, held it up and stuck the knife through the cold white flesh, then withdrew the blade.
No blood came from the pale man’s wound. A viscous, yellowish fluid beaded up in the slit. The pale man did not flinch. Satisfied with his demonstration, the man in the mask exited the scene.
From the left of the screen entered a third man, bearded as well, but not bald like the man on the floor, nor as grey. He carried a long metal pipe, its weight evident in the way it resisted his grip in favor of gravity. It surprised her that this man was unmasked. Mitch and his organization must have had other means of ensuring the confidentiality of their “suppliers.” Perhaps it was as simple as the implied threat he’d made earlier—likely made to anyone who would appear on camera— coupled with trusting that no one would believe them even if they were inclined to tell their story.
Her nausea grew as she thought of some wealthy stranger seeing her face on tape, pausing at a point of preference to study whatever emotion was most evident in her expression at that moment.
The man wielding the pipe knelt before the body and gingerly touched its forehead almost as though checking for a fever. He bent over and kissed its cheek. When he rose his eyes were shut tight. He took a deep breath, another, another, each inhalation coming quicker than the last as though building toward a crescendo. She could sense that he was keeping a scream chained inside his chest.
He raised the pipe and brought it down onto the pale man’s head, throwing his body weight into the blow. Before this moment the video had been silent, and she had unconsciously presumed no audio had been recorded. The ping of metal meeting skull made her shudder.
It is a strange and obscene thing to see a corpse beaten. She could not have guessed how unusual it would be until seeing it for herself. The body, of course, did not move as though enduring an assault, but rather as though the man who clubbed it was merely trying to awaken it from a stubborn sleep. The days-long dead do not react to anything done to them. They do not raise a hand to defend themselves or shrink from the next impending strike or yell or moan or otherwise indicate that they are suffering.
The man administering the beating made his own suffering known, however. His pained, pitiful whining began after the fourth strike. It was a primal pleading that predated language. The man seemed intent on not speaking, and she thought she understood this. She would not want her words captured on tape either. It would be enough to have your face exposed, your deeds and desperation documented for someone else’s pleasure? Curiosity? Whatever their motivation, there were people who would pay a fortune to possess this, and your words—your thoughts—were one thing you weren’t obligated to give them during the process. But the man weakened. She could see that this was more difficult than he could have imagined. He broke.
“Goddammit, Billy, please!”
Another strike, now targeting the collar and upper chest.
“Billy, get up! You have to … damn it, please don’t make me …” He turned to the camera, looked past it. “Why isn’t it working? You said this would work. In the video you showed me that girl came back almost right away.”
Whoever he spoke to did not answer him. The man turned back to Billy, surveyed the damage already done—not visible on-screen due to the positioning of the camera—and retched. He gathered himself, raised the pipe again and beat Billy across the chest. The crack of bone echoed. Billy did not get up as the man had implored. The man turned to the camera again.
“What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t it working?”
Again, no audible answer.
“I can’t keep doing this. There’s not going to be anything left of him by the time I’m done. Just tell me what I’m doing wrong, please?”
The silence was suffocating, painful. The man dropped the pipe and turned to leave, then stopped himself. He screamed himself breathless, screamed with his entire body, screamed as if doing so would purge an illness from his cells. He picked the pipe up and turned to Billy again, delivering two more shots—the hardest yet—to Billy’s skull, chips of bone flying with each hit.
As he raised his arm for another strike, Billy raised his arm to stop the attack. The same arm that the man in the surgical mask had cut earlier. Blood now streamed from the cut, but only for a second before it sealed itself. A warmer, healthier color overtook the paleness of Billy’s skin. With one hand holding his attacker’s wrist, Billy touched his face with his free hand and sat up. The damage done to his head had mostly disappeared already. The few cracks and craters that remained healed in seconds in full view of the camera.
The puzzled look on Billy’s face was so profound it felt infectious, as though it could make you forget how to pronounce your own name if you looked at him for too long. He turned to the man who’d bludgeoned him back to life. The man whose love and want and will had un-killed him.
“Henry? What’re you…was I dreaming? I think I was just having the most awful—“
Henry hugged Billy as though he might vanish. His choking, ragged sobs turned the footage into something voyeuristic, more invasive than it had been just a moment before. As Billy, still bewildered, at last hugged Henry back, the video returned to static.
She stared at the screen for some time after, the men behind her in no hurry to turn off the set, take out the tape, or do anything else to disrupt her apparent trance.
The woman pictured herself in action, on the big screen of a buyer’s private theater as they sat alone and watched her beat and rip and claw at the body of someone she loved until that body breathed again. In her mind’s eye she watched the watcher, the audience of one, who leaned forward in their seat and did not blink for a half-minute or more, marveling at the woman on the screen who could commit such violence without a sound.
She turned to Mick and his colleagues. “What do we do next?”
The ghost town, much like the old campus, was not unknown or forgotten. It did not “hide in plain sight.” It was simply neglected. Forty miles southwest of the city, not too long of a drive. The ghost town didn’t have a notable history; it wasn’t a place where industry had once thrived but then withered, or where some horrific calamity had killed erstwhile promise. It was alone in the middle of nowhere, one of hundreds of such places in Texas, which had a surplus of nowhere.
The meeting place was the two-story brick courthouse. Unused since the 1940s, it was not the ruin she expected it to be. The windows were caked in grime, but unbroken. Even under the moonlight she could see the bricks had been baked and bleached by a century of summers, but they weren’t crumbling. None looked out of place. From what she could see as her car crept over the small hill leading into the ghost town, there was no damage to the courthouse’s roof. The building, or at least the exterior, was surprisingly whole.
She parked behind the building. One of Mick’s men greeted her, and she followed this man inside to a spacious, windowless room on the second floor. A former office, she guessed, now empty of everything save for Mick’s men, their camera and microphone, and the mostly naked body of a familiar man lying on the floor. She had braced herself for the sight of this body and was pleased not to pause or gasp or otherwise outwardly react upon seeing it. Yes, she felt the insects flying and stinging her insides again, with greater urgency now than when she’d viewed the videotape days before, but that was the least of the reactions she could have expected. It boded well for her intention not to give the camera—the eventual viewer—any emotion when it came time for her to perform.
The man in the surgical mask—the same as the one she’d seen on the tape, or did Mick’s men rotate in that role?—approached the body with his knife and authenticated the cadaver. That done, he stepped behind the camera, joining his colleagues.
Mick approached her before she entered the shot and held out a large rusty crowbar, hers to take. They had not discussed what weapon she would use and, until this point, she’d started to worry that she had made a mistake in not furnishing her own. She could only guess their reasons for not telling her they would give her a weapon—much less what weapon they’d give her. Perhaps it was to further agitate her emotions. It wasn’t enough that she would soon be trying to beat the soul back into the corpse of someone she loved and had lost so recently, but she’d be doing so with something crude and unwieldy.
She took the crowbar and gripped it tight, the rust chafing her palms. The discomfort felt important, meaningful. If anything about this felt too easy, she was sure it would not work.
She approached the body, glanced at the director who stood behind the camera, and waited for his signal that she could begin. The director nodded, and she held the crowbar up above her head. She had avoided looking at the face of the man on the floor until that moment when she had to spot her target before the first swing. He did not look like he was sleeping, her loved one. He did not appear to “be at rest,” despite the words appearing so often in the poem his mother had written and recited at his service. He looked like what he was: dead. Not a thing that you do, like rest or sleep, but a thing that you become. No longer human. No longer a son or brother or lover or anything that matters.
The crowbar seemed to gain weight as her legs and stomach and arms jellified. The burn and rush of grief rose from her chest, through her throat, into her cheeks and eyes.
Stop it, you will not give them this, she thought, and did not have to shut her eyes to picture the words in darkness or hold back tears.
The lights behind the camera blinded her to anything more than a couple of feet beyond them, making the room appear darker and larger than it was. She pictured herself on the screen of a home theater again, the buyer sitting in their seat with a glass of wine in hand, or holding a pen and pad, or nothing at all.
They think you’re going to cry, or scream, or fall. You’re not going to give them that. You’re going to keep it all for yourself and for what you’re here to do.
She swung, a clean, swooping golf swing that crashed the curved end of the crowbar into the corpse’s temple. The crowbar bounced off the corpse’s head, then off its shoulder, its skull undoubtedly fractured and its neck possibly broken, but there was no other movement. No reaction. It would take much more to bring him back. She had it all to give.
Their motel room awaited them back in the city. She had checked in earlier in the day, before driving to the ghost town. She’d needed to be sure the room and the location was as Mick had promised. The motel was small and quiet, one-story throughout. A place patronized by people with a vested interest in minding their own business.
Inside their room was their “payment package.” A flat fee in the low six figures, which would amount to anywhere from four-to-ten percent of the tape’s sale price, depending on the bidding. More valuable, perhaps, was the paperwork that accompanied the money. A new identity complete with requisite documents. An obvious necessity for the formerly deceased, but also a welcome option for the one who reawakened them and wanted to join them in a new future, particularly if they were already a fugitive who needed to burn their past.
She’d snuck a peek at her portion of the packet earlier and wondered how long it would take her to get used to her new name and learn not to respond to the old one.
Inside the car, her loved one shivered in the passenger seat. He had, at least, stopped repeatedly telling her “thank you” ten or so minutes ago.
“I can remember it,” he said for the fourth time.
“Try not to think about it,” she had responded the three previous times. This had only managed to calm him for a brief spell, so now she said, “What do you remember?”
“Being heavy, and being in the dark,” he said.
“Too heavy to move. Not like I couldn’t move–not like I’d lost the ability. Just didn’t have the strength. Too heavy. That’s how it felt.”
She had no response to this, and the silence between them made her impatient with how long the drive was taking. She pressed the gas pedal a little harder. They were close enough now to the motel for her to feel as though they should have arrived already. The sooner they got to the motel, the sooner she could get to work on seizing the future, cease dwelling on things she wished had gone better, and on ugly but necessary acts.
The man in the passenger seat started to shiver and fidget again, as if all the sensations that came with living again were an agitation to him, which she supposed they must be. She was surprised at how well she had accepted the reality of his revival. It was one thing to see it on tape, another to believe it was possible, and another still to experience it.
When his body had first lurched to life and begun healing, she’d been sure that Mick and his team had drugged her. It was beyond dreamlike. Dreams are far more disjointed. Seeing the body jump and its bones mend and its gashes close did not strike her as unreal, but hyperreal. Like she was undergoing a mental reawakening to coincide with witnessing a physical one. Everything in the world was more vivid and immediate than it had been moments before. The memories of everything she’d experienced prior to that moment instantly became a degree hazier and that much further removed from immediacy, to the point that later, in the car, she had to concentrate to fully remember why she’d gone through all this trouble and effort to bring this man back from the dead.
After reaching the motel and parking in front of their room, she came to the passenger side to help him out. His legs were sturdier now than when she’d had to guide him down the courthouse stairs and out to her car.
“They do not mean to be rude,” Mick had said of his men, who had stood and watched without offering a hand. “They just do not feel comfortable coming into contact with those who have come back.”
She had understood. They had no love for the bodies that were the central players in their films. If they did have love for them, they might not have needed people like her. The ritual was simple enough, they could have performed it themselves and saved an expense if not for the need of someone who loved the deceased urgently enough to bring them back.
She unlocked the motel door and allowed the man to enter first. He started to thank her once again, but froze when he saw the full-length mirror she had set up inside, facing the doorway. She stood behind him. Being a foot shorter than he was, she could not see his reflected eyes as he saw himself reading what she had written on the mirror with a black whiteboard marker.
The room still smelled faintly of ink. She stepped inside and closed the door behind her. The sound of the door closing made the man flinch. He did not risk any abrupt movement. A thin, tattered lie was weaving itself together in his brain; she could just about see it coming together through the back of his head.
A pop of gunfire cut him off before he could finish. The bullet entered his back, passed through his heart, exited his sternum and embedded itself in the mirror so fast it seemed to have occupied all of these places simultaneously. He fell to the floor facedown. She stood above him, aimed carefully, and fired two more shots into the back of his head. In recent fantasies she’d had of this moment, she’d pictured herself staring into his eyes so he could see how the love she felt for him had turned to poison because of his betrayal. So that he would know that it hurt her to do this, but she’d spent her energy back on the second floor of the courthouse, with the crowbar. She was too tired to turn him over so he could face her.
She laid on the bed. No one would come knocking at the door in response to the gunshots, at least not until after they had seen her leave. One of Mick’s people would arrive then to handle the cleanup. She’d take off with her payment package soon. For now, she had earned a brief rest.
Beyond being glad it was all over, and feeling sore and worn from considerable exertion and lack of sleep, she felt an unexpected sense of accomplishment.
And of the many incredible, improbable things she had done to bring herself to this moment, she was most satisfied with having the discipline to not respond to her old name.
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Johnny Compton is a San Antonio based author whose short stories have appeared in several publications since 2006, including Pseudopod, Strange Horizons and The No Sleep Podcast. His fascination with frightening fiction started when his kindergarten teacher played a record of the classic ghost story “The Golden Arm” for her class. The Spite House is his debut novel through Tor Nightfire.
Copyright ©2020 by Johnny Compton.
“FFUNS” was originally published March 6, 2020 by Pseudopod, Episode 692. Reprint rights acquired.
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