My wife and I have a tradition. Every anniversary, after we go to whatever theatre or fancy restaurant we can scrape up the dough for, we give each other a present. She gets me a new tie, and I get her a cartoon.
Growing up, my wife loved animated television shows. It was her hobby, when she wasn’t doing schoolwork, chores, or playing with her friends, she was watching cartoons. She continued this habit from diapers to art school, and had built up quite the collection, sprawling across a huge collection of DVD’s, VHS tapes, Laserdiscs, and even some film reels. That’s actually how I got to know her. I liked to talk with her about what animated shows were my favorites while she painted.
So every year, I try and find some cartoon that she’s never heard of. I don’t always succeed, but I was riding high after last year’s victory; I had managed to scrape up an ancient Ukrainian VHS in a Book Nook. It only cost me three bucks, and thankfully it didn’t crumble to dust by the time I got home with it.
This year, I was determined to beat her again, but work had been pretty busy lately. I’m a substitute Elementary School teacher, and the flu had knocked a good number of teachers out of commission, so I was pretty much busy all day. As luck would have it though, I found my salvation in a colleague, Milos.
Milos was referred to exclusively as Mr. C by all the students, since his Eastern European last name rolled off the tongue like a sea urchin. A grey-haired man in his early sixties, he spoke with a heavy accent and was notorious for never remembering anybody’s name. But all the kids liked him thanks to his polite, harmless nature, and the faculty was quite fond of him too.
One afternoon, during Lunch, I was in the teacher’s lounge drinking a soda, and in came Milos. I waved, and he gave me a smile in return. He bought himself some peanut butter crackers from the vending machine and sat down across from me. We talked for a little while about whatever stupid decision the School Board had made, and the conversation eventually changed to that of our wives. He had been married for thirty years, so he had much more to say than the five I’d been together with my spouse. I told him about our anniversary tradition, and he sat up a little straighter.
“It’s funny you should mention that. I was going through my attic last week, and I found a box of my Mother’s video cassettes.”
“Really? That’s interesting, what was inside?” I asked.
“Most of them were old recordings of me as a young man, but one of them was a cartoon that I had never seen before.”
“My wife would probably know what it is. What’s it called?”
“I am not sure,” Milos said, pausing to think. “But I had never seen anything like it. Quite strange. I only watched one episode before I lost interest.”
I asked him if I could borrow it to see if my wife had somehow overlooked whatever cartoon this was.
“Ah, you can have it,” Milos said with a wave of his hand. “I’m too old for such things.”
“You mean it?”
“Yes. The condition is poor, but it still runs in the VCR.”
We made an agreement, and Milos showed up the next day with a tape. I offered to buy him lunch in exchange, but he politely refused, saying ‘getting rid of some of the clutter is payment enough.’ I examined the tape, tucked into a blank sleeve with some text drawn on it in Sharpie. It was written in Cyrillic characters, so I had no idea what it said, but there looked to be eleven episodes of this ‘strange cartoon’ recorded onto it.
So, I completed my day and came home at around five. My wife wouldn’t be home until eight, since she was attending an auction, so after I finished my paperwork and ate some supper, I decided to check to see if this tape contained anything that my wife’s watchful eye may have accidentally overlooked. I went to the living room with a glass of white wine and our cat, Frisbee, and popped the old VHS into the tape player, sitting on the loveseat with Frisbee purring in my lap. I had laid my laptop next to me so I could decipher some of the text if need be. It took a couple of seconds, but I soon saw the tracking signal show up on screen. The only semblance of credits was a few words that briefly flashed on the black screen. They were written in plain white text, and I paused the tape to type the words into Google Translate. As you all know, Translate isn’t a flawless program, to say the least, but it claimed that the words were Bulgarian, and translated to something like ‘This is the first episode.’
The episode started in what looked like a college dorm room. There were two beds, and the only occupied one had someone sleeping under the covers. This person woke up and tossed his covers off. He looked like an average college kid, with scruffy facial hair and a university T-shirt on. He ambled away into the bathroom, which was off-screen, and after a few sounds of rustling clothes and running water, walked back onscreen in a jacket and toque.
One thing I noticed off the bat was the meticulous detail put into the art and animation.
The backgrounds had all kinds of extra things to look at, a model airplane half-way built sitting on a desk, open drawers with clothes hanging out of them, the light of the window fading and reappearing in accordance to unseen clouds. And every frame of the character’s walk cycle was unique, no re-used shots or loops. Every step he took was slightly different than his last one. If this was a weekly cartoon, the animators must have been working pretty damn hard to deliver this level of quality.
Anyway, this character left his room, and walked down an empty hallway, his sneakers making hollow thumping noises against the ground, once again sounding like each sound effect was unique. It reminded me of Courage the Cowardly Dog; the creators claimed that they wanted to make a cartoon based largely around sound. For all I knew, this could have been their inspiration.
The protagonist left the building, the outdoors a dreary looking representation of an urban landscape with a layer of what was either mist or smog hanging over the tops of the windowless buildings. There was no soundtrack, just the sounds of his feet on the pavement and urban ambience in the background. The distant roar of traffic on a freeway, the occasional shrill ‘backing-up’ signal, once I heard a squeal of brakes… Oddly enough, I didn’t see a single vehicle. I could see the individual wisps of breath rise from the protagonist’s mouth, implying it must have been cold out.
So far, so good.
I didn’t recognize anything, and I doubt my wife had seen anything like this. The whole thing also had that level of pretentiousness that she fell for hook, line, and sinker.
Minutes came and went as I watched this poker-faced young man walk to whatever destination he was heading to. It didn’t take long for me to lose interest; good animation or not, boring is still boring, and watching this kid trudge down an empty street wasn’t all that riveting in my opinion.
The only event worth mentioning during this endless walk was when the kid walked past somebody else. The angle of the shot was positioned so it faced the stranger’s back, they were dressed in heavy clothes too, and the two passed each other with a quick greeting without even looking at each other.
He stopped all of a sudden in front of a largish building, and he looked up at it. Even though it lacked any defining features, the boy seemed to recognize it and went through the door.
When he entered, there was a small group of girls, all holding thermoses, talking quietly in the corner of the lobby of whatever building this was, and they all went silent when the protagonist drew close to them. He stopped, and he stared at them. The girls all looked like they were trying to hold back laughter, and the guy had the same bland expression he had the entire episode. They stared for a good five seconds before one of the girls promptly threw the contents of her cup into the guy’s face. He winced and stumbled back with a hand over his eyes.
Apparently they found their random act of cruelty hilarious, because they started cackling like harpies. The scene switched back to the guy, who was now covering his whole face, liquid running down his hands and dribbling all over the floor.
As he tried to right himself, he slipped and fell, landing back-first onto the floor. The girls’ laughter was rekindled, and now they were pointing and drawing as much attention as possible, despite the fact that no one else was around. I was shocked when I saw that the skin on his face was blistering, that beverage in the thermos must have been hot.
After the poor kid got back to his feet, he pushed past them and traveled deeper into the building, the girls threw what was left of their beverages at him as he fled. The episode ended with a close up on the main character’s blistered, distraught face.
At this point, I had to fast forward because the speakers had suddenly released a deafeningly loud shriek. Frisbee fled out of shock, and I seriously think that if my volume had been turned up any higher, my wine glass might’ve shattered. Thankfully, that seemed to be the end of the episode, so I didn’t have long to wait before I could go back to normal speed. I turned my volume down to almost silent and warily pressed the play button. The electronic wailing had vanished, and apparently another episode was beginning.
The title-card read ‘and this is the second one.’
It was identical to the way the first episode began, beginning with the protagonist, his face unblemished, climbing out of his dormitory bed. My initial thought was that there was a recording mistake, but this theory was quickly debunked when I realized that the protagonist was in a different set of pajamas. This time, instead of going to the bathroom, the kid went to the desk next to his bed and sat down.
In one motion, he swept all of the clutter off of the surface, papers and food wrappers fell to the ground beside him and the model plane smashed into dozens of little pieces. He opened the top drawer and removed a sewing kit, placing it onto the desk. It cut to a view of his face staring down at the palm-sized kit on the desk. He withdrew another object from hammerspace (for those unaware, hammerspace is the area where all cartoon characters pull their supplies from, that is to say, nowhere.)
It was a doll, a crude, stereotypical caricature of a baby. Its eyes were gazing off into the distance and the mouth was puckered in a dopey little ‘o,’ with blushing red cheeks and hair the color of sand. The protagonist stared down at this doll with the same poker face he had kept up since the first episode. He then picked up the needle from the sewing kit, threaded it, and began to work on the doll.
The shot was angled in a way that you couldn’t see the doll while he sewed it. The screen showed the protagonists face as he worked for a good minute. Then, he appeared to have finished, and it showed the end result.
The doll’s face was snared in black thread. Its eyes were now X’d out, and a sinister grin was formed with tiny vertical lines serving as the mouth, and two longer diagonal ones shaped in a way to resemble eyebrows. The cute, innocent little thing now looked like some kind of wicked voodoo artifact.
The protagonist stared down at his masterpiece and actually cracked a tiny smile. As macabre as his creation was, he seemed genuinely proud of it. The episode ended after that.
I’ve seen some bizarre animation in my lifetime, from Coonskin to Heavy Metal to The Triplets of Belleville, but this… this was the type of thing you’d find in David Lynch’s garbage disposal, the kind of artsy, disturbing crap that some uber-Christian Mom probably thought contained a demonic message telling little kids to eat babies.
But hell, it was unique, and it was free, so I decided to use it. I was about to stop the VCR, but then the next title card popped up. Instead of just a few words, this one looked like a whole essay, the entire screen taken up by words. Credits, maybe? Just to satiate my curiosity, I typed a few words into Translate to see what it said.
“Iassen hello this is my…”
It was a message. Now intrigued, I typed in the rest of the text, and, accounting for Google Translate’s many mistakes, I think the message roughly translates to something like this;
“Iassen hello this is my animation for academy. I (labored?/worked?) on it for a long time and I have ??? for you. I (hope?/wish?) you enjoy and I will do it soon.”
Further research taught me that Iassen is a Bulgarian male name, and, coincidentally, there’s an artist named Iassen Ghiuselev who’s done a lot of illustrations for children’s books who’s also, you guessed it, Bulgarian. Whether or not this is the same Iassen this message was addressed to is beyond me, but there you go.
The third episode had the exact same beginning as the first two, and I was sensing a pattern forming here. The same kid got out of bed, wandered into the bathroom, freshened himself up, and came back fully dressed. Looking carefully, I found the stitch-faced doll from the previous episode on his desk, the needle jabbed vertically into its forehead.
It was eerily similar to the first episode, but with an entirely new set of animations to show the exact same events unfolding. I wasn’t looking forward to watching the kid make his pilgrimage to that building again, so I took the opportunity to use the bathroom while the tape ran.
Unfortunately, while I was out of the room, that ear-shattering squeal rang out again, and I had to hurry back to shut it off once more.
I kept the audio muted for my sanity’s sake as I watched the next scene unfold. The girls who had mercilessly harassed the protagonist earlier were nowhere to be found, and he continued into the next room without incident.
It was a large room, presumably an auditorium, with a bunch of folding chairs set up in front of a raised platform. On this platform stood a new character, a man about my age with coke-bottle glasses and a dorky pink tie. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say he was supposed to be a Professor, since the protagonist was clearly in college.
After a few more people filtered into the room and sat in the audience, The Professor, as I’ll call him, began talking. I tried turning the sound on to hear what he was talking about, but the audio was overlaid with screeching, so I had no choice but to mute it. I did my best to try and read his lips, but I think the dialogue must have been in Bulgarian, too.
About a minute into his lecture, The Professor took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes before putting them back on and continuing. He was either really engaged with whatever he was talking about, or really angry about it, because he was going off the rails. I could see his face flushing and beads of sweat emerging on his brow. And the audience of about six people didn’t seem to care in the slightest.
Mid-rant, the Professor’s eyes bugged out of his head, and he grabbed his neck, as though he was choking. His glasses fell off and his tongue stuck out rigidly as he stumbled around, grasping at his throat. It was animated with hideous detail; I could see every individual vein swelling up on his neck, and someone even took the time animate the ribbons of drool running down his chin. Despite his obvious distress, not one of the audience members budged an inch, staring at him with bored indifference.
Eventually, the Professor collapsed onto his back and lay spread-eagled on the platform, two streams of blood trickling from his eyes, as though he had just been strangled. The audience sat there for a moment before calmly getting up and exiting, not looking or speaking to one another. The episode ended with an overhead view of the auditorium, the Professor left abandoned on the stage.
From this point on, I’m not going to describe every single episode with such detail for brevity’s sake, I’ll just summarize the basic plot and show what the title card at the beginning said.
Text: “It should be clear what this (is/means/represents?)
The Protagonist goes to his desk again and starts writing on a piece of paper, scratching at the back of his neck constantly. Near the end of the episode, The Protagonist examines his fingers, which are now bloody. A shot of his neck reveals a giant welt, which he seems to have scratched to the point of bleeding.
Text: “I wish it could have been this easy.”
The Protagonist picks up the piece of paper he was writing on, which still has bloody fingerprints on it, and tucks it into an envelope, exiting his room with it. He goes to a new building, which resembles another dorm, and slides the letter under the door of another room marked 056. He leaves, and a close up on his neck reveals a bandage, which he promptly tears off. The wound from the last episode is absent.
Text: It was all so ???
The Protagonist goes to another new building, a dining hall. He meets the stranger from the first episode, whose face is still hidden, and the two sit down together and talk. The rest of the episode is only one shot, an over-the-shoulder view of The Protagonist from behind his friend. As the two of them talk, one can see a member of the kitchen staff overzealously tenderizing a chunk of meat in the background, bits of gristle flying all over the place. The episode ends after the stranger gets up and exits, leaving The Protagonist to sit by himself and stare into space.
Text: “I tried not to ??? what I (was/felt?)
The Protagonist goes to his desk again and starts scratching down the beginnings of another note. The camera cuts away at about the two minute mark to the door, where an envelope slides under it into the room. The Protagonist goes to pick it up, and suddenly becomes very excited when he sees the sender. He returns to his desk with an eager look in his eye, and sits down to open it. The camera faces his back as he reads it, sitting silently. He starts to tremble. He balls his fists, crumpling the note into a wad and hurling it against the wall. He storms into the bathroom, and the rest of the episode is spent staring at an empty room and hearing the kid shouting and crying off-screen.
Text: That isn’t important.
This is the shortest episode, narrowly scraping the four minute mark. The Protagonist is absent, his bed empty. Instead, the opposite bed is shown to have someone in it, someone who’s neither visible nor asleep. The figure twitches and thrashes around under the covers, but is unable to get up. The reason is clear; the blanket is anchored to the bed with barbed wire, each length tied to an opposite side of the bedframe, so the person (at least, I assume it’s a person) was tied to the bed like luggage to the top of a car. The figure squirms for a good while before going limp.
There was no title card for this episode.
This episode has its typical beginning, The Protagonist getting up and putting his clothes on. The opposite bed is unoccupied again, with no signs of a previous struggle. The Protagonist stops halfway to the door, and turns around. He looks directly into the camera, smiling, and starts talking. I had pumped the volume down to barely audible to avoid any more yelping from the speakers, so I tentatively turned it up a few notches. I was immediately punished for my curiosity when that ghastly wail presented itself again, drowning out any semblance of dialogue, and I silenced it in disgust. The Protagonist speaks to the viewer for a few minutes, laughing every once in a while, and then exits, ending the episode.
This episode lacked a title card as well.
This episode was shown from a top-down perspective, and appears to pick up exactly where Episode 9 left off. The camera follows The Protagonist on his walk to the same building he traveled to in Episodes 1 and 3, zooming out to an almost outrageous degree when the camera enters the outdoors. It got to a point where The Protagonist was merely an ant sized figure scuttling down a turgid collection of identically colored rectangles.
It was at this point where the video appeared to have been damaged, the image being shredded by stripes of black and white static and jerking violently. I heard the VCR give a panicked whir as it tried to make sense of the corrupted film, and eventually, the TV screen was engulfed in snow.
I should have been pleased that I wouldn’t have to watch any more, but there was an inkling of curiosity I couldn’t get rid of. True, the show’s narrative had been wafer-thin at best, but I kind of wanted to see the eleventh episode, just to see if it brought the plot it pretended to have to a close.
I got my wish.
As I was searching for the remote, the static on the screen flickered. I paid no mind at first, until it flickered again, this time more violently. The wall of hissing nonsense that covered the screen was flinching like something on the other side was trying to force its way out.
And all at once, the picture snapped back into existence. It was another title card.
Thankfully, I had finally found the remote, and I got a chance to pause it and type the text into Google Translate.
It read, “This is my favorite episode.”
I remember letting out a noise of confusion when I un-paused the tape.
It showed an empty room with four chairs arranged in an untidy row, a small table sitting beside them. The animation was completely different from the previous episodes. Unlike the pseudo-Disney, hand drawn nature of the previous ten, Episode 11 looked more like it had been rotoscoped. Rotoscoping is an animation technique where artists trace over live-action footage frame by frame, it’s a very old practice. If you’ve ever seen the music video for “Take on Me,” you can get an idea of what the scene looked like, except much less professional.
The image remained static for a few moments until someone appeared in the chair second from the left after a jump cut. It was a girl, unconscious, from the way she was slumped over.
Soon after, another girl blipped onto the frame, seated on the farthest right, similarly limp. Eventually, all four chairs were occupied by an unconscious girl.
Even though I probably shouldn’t have, I unmuted the television. There was no shrieking anymore, or any noise at all, for that matter.
I jumped when the silence was broken by a loud creak, followed by some footsteps. There was a noticeable dip in audio quality, the sound being muffled and dull.
When the footsteps stopped, there was a short thud and a shrill noise that sounded like someone undoing a zipper. The angle was obstructed when a body moved in front of the camera.
With the boiling lines of the rotoscoped figure twitching like mad, it took a second for me to realize that this person was showing a small cylindrical object to the audience. The person set it down on the small table and removed a tiny pill from their pocket, promptly swallowing it.
They turned to one of the girls, who was still unconscious, and gently shook her. When there was no response, they sighed and walked off screen, returning a few seconds later with a bucket. They threw the contents of the bucket directly into her face, the girl waking with a frightened squeal. After she blinked and spluttered for a few moments, she looked up at the offender. A look of absolute horror spread across her face.
The person spoke, disclosing his identity as a male. Then I felt my stomach tighten. I knew that voice. It was the Protagonist.
I haven’t the slightest idea what he said, but the girl furiously shook her head to deny whatever he accused her of. He then lunged at her and seized a fistful of her hair, the girl beginning to scream and sob hysterically. The Protagonist snatched the cylinder off of the table and showed it to the audience a second time, before…
A knife sprung from the other end, it was a switchblade. He then drove it into the girl’s neck.
She was unable to scream now, the blade must have hit her larynx, a feeble gurgling noise was the only thing she had left. The Protagonist removed the knife, blood spurting from the wound. This was the only thing that had any color through the entire segment, being a muddy red. The girl beside her had woken up, and was set to screaming when she saw her neighbor gagging on her own blood. The Protagonist clapped a hand over her mouth, slitting her throat with one quick slash.
I couldn’t take it anymore, this had officially crossed the fucking line. I lunged for the remote, but I moved too quickly and knocked it off of its place on the armrest and it tumbled out of reach. Cursing myself, I got down on all fours and grasped for it, trying to ignore the agonized screams and pleading coming from the television. By the time I finally found it, I was too late. The deed had been done, the bodies lying in monochrome silence.
I was seconds from pushing the damn eject button, seconds from contacting Milos and demanding what kind of sick joke he had played on me.
But I didn’t… Something stopped me.
The Protagonist… the murderer, had taken something out of his pocket, and now aimed it in the direction of the corpses.
A cell phone. It wasn’t even an old fashioned model, it looked identical to an iPhone, the animator even shaded the Apple logo to make it more pronounced.
That wasn’t possible. This was an old cartoon, there was no way in hell that there could be an iPhone in it. And besides, if this really was a recent cartoon, why was it on a crappy VHS? And how did it end up in the possession of an Eastern European substitute teacher?
Did Milos make it? Was this his idea of a practical joke?
The last few minutes of the tape consisted of The Protagonist taking pictures of each of his victims. But every time he snapped a photo, there would be a cut to a different image; it was the same scene, but it was live-action, with grisly, full-color images of the girls and their wounds. The tape ended with a final message, which I had no time to translate. I was busy rifling through one of the kitchen drawers for the school directory. I finally found it and tracked down Milos’s number. I had never contacted him before, but I needed answers now.
I froze. I heard the familiar sound of the door closing, and my wife entered the kitchen, carrying a large canvas-like package.
“You’ll never believe what they had there. Thank God we’re so poor, or I would…”
Her smile evaporated when she saw my expression.
“You’re pale. Do you feel alright?” she inquired.
“I… need to make a phone call.” I managed to say. I grabbed the phone off of the receiver and dialed in the number while my concerned wife went to put her things away.
I paced the kitchen as I listened to the taunting buzz of the connection noise in my ear.
Finally, Milos picked up the phone.
I was ready to let him have it, but I didn’t want my wife to hear anything.
“Milos, it’s Greg Sykes. I need to talk to you about the tape you gave me.”
“Oh, hello Greg. I’m sorry to hear that you’re having trouble. Is it broken?” The naivety in his voice made me want to throw the phone across the room.
“No, it’s what’s on the tape. That isn’t funny. In fact, it’s pretty damn sick. Did you honestly think that giving me some fake snuff movie for my wife would be cute?!”
There was a pause. “I don’t understand.”
“Episode 11, Milos! Those dead girls!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Stop playing innocent.” I kept my voice low, but I made sure to fill each word with venom.
“Where did you get those pictures, huh? Some gore site?”
“Calm down. What do you mean by ‘dead girls’?”
“Milos, I’ve already told you that this isn’t funny, just apologize and we can put this past us.”
There was another moment of silence before Milos spoke again.
“Greg, listen to me. I don’t know what you saw, but I can assure you, I didn’t have anything to do with it. Do you need me to contact the police?”
“You’ve scared me enough, god damn it! Isn’t it enough that-”
A shrill scream from upstairs cut me off. My brain didn’t bother to register anything until I reached my wife. I was downstairs, and then I was upstairs, like I had teleported. It was afterword when I became aware that I had rammed my right big toe into the bottom step while I was sprinting, trailing blood up into my bedroom.
My wife was pressed against the bedroom wall opposite the window, her package jettisoned in the center of the room. I had no need to ask her what was wrong, she was already pointing. The window now had something scrawled into the glass. Three symbols in a vertical column.
And below this, nailed to the sill, was a crude baby doll, its eyes X’d out and given a malevolent smile with black string.
The police were already on their way, Milos had contacted them after I had dropped the telephone. I was going to search the house, but I realized that the message in the window was carved from the outside. I settled on locking every feasible entrance to the house, not bothering to question how someone could have reached our bedroom window on the second floor without a ladder.
After everything was done, my wife and I sat in the bedroom. She must have been crying, I remember her shaking in my arms. I know I should have been trying to comfort her, but I spent every moment of that agonizing wait for the police staring at the window.
I practically flew to the door when I heard the urgent knocking, pulling my wife with me. I wasn’t going to let her out of my sight again. I hesitated out of pure paranoia, leaving my wife to open it for me.
“Greg and Lisa Sykes?” A middle-aged cop stood on our doorstep.
Lisa invited him inside, and the officer promptly yelled “Jesus Christ!”
The VCR was ablaze, melted to a rectangular block of slag. It must have been lit on fire earlier, and we just didn’t notice up in our bedroom.
The tape was still in there. It was going to be ruined, that was what had started all of this, that was what the police had wanted to see! I grasped for the VHS slot, and tried to ignore the pain from the burning metal. It took both my wife and the cop to pry me off, despite my protests that we needed to get the tape out of there.
I eventually calmed down enough to explain what was going on to both of them. They both listened carefully, despite the insanity of the story. I told them everything, where I got the tape, the weird title cards, the flawless animation… Episode 11.
The cops got ahold of Milos, but could ultimately find nothing incriminating. He couldn’t answer any of my questions either, insisting that he had never even seen the tape before he found it in the attic. We haven’t spoken since.
The case was eventually dismissed as harassment, I had no point to prove since the evidence had been destroyed. Try as I did, I couldn’t get the VCR to open to retrieve the corpse of the tape. My wife has been acting more uncomfortable, even after I stopped mentioning the tape and we got a new window.
That final message after Episode 11 somehow remained stuck on the screen even after the tape should have been ruined. When I couldn’t sleep that night, I translated it.
“Episode 12 coming soon!”
Written by Theboywithburninghands