Frame 3:33,33 – Chapter 1

Chapter 1

The tick, tick, ticking awoke him.  Darren had fallen asleep at his workstation again. He wiped a puddle of spit away with his sleeve. A spool of fragile filmstrip revolved at a steady pace inside a glowing box connected to his desktop computer.  The film scanner was supposed to automatically slow down the speed of the spool before it reached the end of the the reel. Despite its intelligence and precision, the machine had no actual regard for the fate of precious film archives that Darren was entrusted to restore. As soon as his half awake brain engaged from suspension, he slapped the stop button with his hand and the spool slowed its revolutions into a halt.  He slid clean cotton gloves over his fingers, then gently removed the reel. He inspected it under a light, then very carefully placed it in a round metal tin, and gently sealed it shut.

He grabbed his mouse and shook it in his palm until the monitor stirred from slumber with a degaussed flash before the operating system logo made its presence known. His eyes squinted in the new brightness.  He opened the film capture folder and scrubbed through the timeline looking at the quality of the digital capture from the fragile celluloid original. He would need to do a great deal of color correcting to match it closer to the color palette of the filmstock.  The grain and detail would never quite be the same, the result was less Earthy but more brighter and clearer. He grabbed the file and dragged it toward his cloud storage drive. A jolt of adrenaline stopped his hand. What was he doing, the file needed final processing? He dropped the mouse like a hot gun. Once the scratches and tears were patched, a whole new generation could enjoy a rare gem, unseen in a century, but his work on it was not quite done. He felt privileged that he was chosen for this restoration project.  He felt a deep satisfaction that he could use his knowledge and skills to save the soul of these creative works as their celluloid shells decay. His pride was slightly tainted by the disappointment that this kind of work couldn’t pay the bills.

The 7:40am alarm to leave for his morning train broke the silence. 4:07am flashed on the screen of his bedside alarm clock. Damn it, not again! Was there a blackout last night? How did his alarm clock reset? If he left immediately he could make the first meeting on time.  He had not showered or brushed his teeth, so he threw back a shot of mouthwash and ran to the door with his cheeks stuffed like a hamster.

Darren locked his door still swishing the tingling fluid between his cheeks. He bolted out of the building’s side door onto Alert Alley. “Hey!” Paul, Darren’s buddy & building manager was in his path. Paul gripped a broom handle like a staff weapon with his thick black cotton work gloves.

Darren spouted the mouthwash off the side into the parking lot.

“Sorry sorry sorry!!! My bad!”

“Ha! Just don’t hurt yourself.. or anyone else.”

Darren waved and ran on but Paul continued.

“But if you do, remember to hide the body well!”

Friends of Paul’s called him Clawhammer as an endearment. He had different sized versions of the same tool all over his apartment from repair projects. If there was any blunt instrument he’d reach for to bludgeon someone to death, it would definitely be a clawhammer.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Darren apologized as he ducked into a meeting room crafted entirely from sustainable materials. He tucked his tail underneath himself as he scooted a chair into a narrow space between two people at the table.

Without the slightest inflection of animosity, his manager Chad genuinely asked, “Since you’ve just joined us Darren, perhaps you could give us an update on the revisions to the video metrics product.”

Darren parted his way through the elbows in front of him on the table. “I’m just not sure how useful some of this data is.  Building this system will be time consuming and we could redirect those resources into building a library of metadata, such as notes from the director’s, commentary from cast and crew, archive photos, related links, etc.”

“Our network partners depend on microsecond updates to measure the impact of their ads.  If traffic dips, so does the price per second of the ad time. You know how this impacts our revenue projections so accelerate deliverables and let’s get back on schedule.” His supervisor’s dull shark eyes retargeted to some interior thought only he could see on the wall. “Excellent brainstorming bro, let’s table your meta idea  for q3 year two. I’d like to see a progress report on the analytics by Friday, thanks! Deepak, where’s that auto-preview generator at now?  I’d like the animated thumbnails to pull more frames from the peak viewing times from the previous day. We have to maximize the discovery potential of our content.”

Darren’s place at the table was quickly miniaturized the second the spotlight shifted to Deepak. He slunk back and day dreamed he was at home laboring over the film preservation project.

The meeting room was empty.

Darren was sitting in the same chair but he was naked.

The cedar beams of the conference room groaned and crackled as if something very heavy was passing overhead. A green light slithered underneath the breaks in hardwood floors. Why was there so much space between the bamboo floor boards? He thought to himself, surely a person would fall through trying to cross the room.  Darren’s mind could not make sense of the angles of the walls. He thought he saw an iris peeking from behind the corners of the room. Underneath the green light, giant shiny segments chugged away in procession, clacking rhythmically against iron. The boards in the floor strained, rolling in a wave, raising and lowering the empty conference chairs around him. The wooden planks nearly vibrated apart and then slammed together violently.

Darren’s head jerked up off the back of his office chair.  The room was still empty, but the door was ajar and venting chatter and other office white noise. His clothes were on, but he wasn’t sure how long the meeting had actually been over.

He carried a few items home from the grocery store in each hand. The weight of the bags didn’t burden down his shoulders. He wasn’t eating much.  Food had simply become fuel to power him through the long hours. His eyes studied the segments in the sidewalk. They reminded him of frames of a film. He tried to picture the squares sequenced together, the particles of granite in the concrete would look like dancing snow. A stenciled graffiti tag on the sidewalk would strobe subliminally. “I’m proud of you” it stated. This was one of his favorite pieces of city-scrawl. He looked up and across the street to wave.  He used to see his friend James walk along the opposite side of the block each week when he brought home groceries. He wished he stopped and caught up more often. It was still hard to believe he was really gone. No one expected him die from a routine outpatient surgery.

His house keys crashed and tinkled together on a table just inside the door.  Darren poured himself into his ergonomic, padded workstation chair until his weight drifted against an arm rest. He grabbed his mouse and shook it in his palm until the monitor blazed into life. His pupils shrank to infinitesimal points as his eyelids narrowed to adjust.  

Darren’s eyes burned with anticipation.  He pushed a box full of film canisters to the side of the table and pulled a polished leather case closer to himself.  He unsnapped the fasteners on the lid. Inside was a velvet sleeve wound in ribbon. After unspooling the ribbon, he pulled out a mint condition canister of film adorned with geometric art deco shapes. He removed the lid carefully with the cotton gloves and placed it upon the velvet sleeve. He removed the spool of film and looked up adoringly at the frames of the celluloid through the light of the window.

There was nothing particularly notable about this little piece of film other than Darren’s fascination.  It was not considered a favorite at the archive, critics neither dismissed it nor praised it, it wasn’t a first, or an innovation, most viewers found it enjoyable, but not particularly memorable.  When Darren watched it, he felt his heart dance like a toddler. The music made the whole universe feel like a silly adventure.

The film strip contained a short animated tale of a diminutive clown named Buffono that seems to make everything difficult for himself.  It was created as comedic relief between newsreels and the main feature when movie tickets only cost a dime.

He babied the celluloid until he could carefully align the spool onto the film scanning machine. He locked it into place, and then gently closed the transparent cover. He watched from the other side like an anxious new dad outside of a nursery window. The box glowed and the familiar tick, tick, ticking of the movie passed through the teeth of the wheels and picked up acceleration till it hummed a lullaby.

The capture software displayed the progress in a window on his monitor.  Each frame was played back with a slight delay as the computer processed the image. “That’s not right.” Darren had literally seen this footage more times than any other in his entire life. He could not help but notice the clown seemed to be in a different episode. He checked the canister case out of paranoia. It was the same one he’d put away the night before that he’d opened and closed hundreds of times. Yet, on his monitor in the preview window, the clown wasn’t slipping on banana peels and squirting himself in the face with seltzer water. Buffono seemed to be panicked, claustrophobic. He kept desperately searching opening doors as if there was some sort of elusive exit he could not find .

In a state of alarm Darren flung open the transparent cover on the film scanner.  The machine let out a terrible grinding sound. He reached in to grab the celluloid he held so dear and felt teeth press around his hand. The light within the machine went nova.

All was silence and dark.

Darren could hear himself breathe but he could not feel the floor. Even in the absence of all light he sensed a yawning chasm as if he were on the edge of a cliff. The lights from his computer’s processor and hard drive twinkled out of the blackness. His room flickered up as if all the atoms of the room were powered by a fluorescent light ballast. The spaces between the walls opened. It was as if all of objects in the room rotated in direction he could not understand and twisted without changing their actual dimensions.  When he angled his head just so, it seemed like a face appeared out of the furniture and decorations of his room. When it blinked Darren stopped breathing.

After a moment, it all seemed kinda normal. “This has happened before,” Darren realized.

“Always happening, always now.”

“Sorry I keep forgetting.”

“Your memories of now can’t be stored inside your lifetime.”

“That’s not your face”

“I drew a an emoji on the tip of my finger”

He knew that there was no finger to be seen either. Metaphors were probably all he could comprehend.  He could not recall who or what this was, but he felt entirely comfortable being naked. Oh, yea, that’s right, he never was wearing anything during these…breaches? That wasn’t the word. He was entirely trusting, and that made him feel a little paranoid in the absence of understanding.

“What do you want?”

“You’re being transferred.”

“Oh yea.  Why is this taking so long?”

“Ascendance takes a lifetime, every nanosecond of experience. There is no shortcut.”

Darren realized he was sliding his chin around in his own saliva on the desk. He smacked his lips as he realized how dried out his tongue was in his own mouth. Metallic teeth marks tracked across the back of his hand and palm on his right hand.  It stung a little bit when he grabbed his mouse and reflexively shook it to wake the monitor.

The film scanner was still open.  Mechanically, everything was in perfect order.  From the stinging marks on his hand he expected a mess of gears and bits of celluloid.  His beloved animated film was nested inside. He pulled the filmstrip out of the machine and delicately placed it in its deco tin, wrapped it in the velvet sleeve, and then secured it within the case.

Darren’s phone did a notification dance across the table.  “Emergency at the office” – Richard. What? It was 8:30 at night! Darren wanted to ask what the emergency was, but he knew Richard would have already sat down his phone and was back to mashing buttons on one of his games.  Even if the building was on fire, he expected Richard would be enveloped in flames long before he noticed he was actually ablaze. Darren felt like had no choice but to go into work and investigate further.

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