Anna’s excitement built until she saw the building.
Stepping out of the Uber, she opened the email on her phone to make sure she had the right address. The numbers in the message matched the rusted numbers bolted into the brick, and when she squinted she could see that the sign at the end of the street did say Elmhurst Avenue. But still, the shabby one-story brick structure hardly matched the enormous studio she had built in her mind.
For a moment, she thought of getting back in the van and going home, but when she turned around the Uber was already disappearing around the corner.
She watched it go out of sight, then stared at her phone as if it would tell her what to do next. It did tell her she had no signal, which was odd this close to downtown LA. But to Anna, it made perfect sense in that moment, as if fate were pushing her out of her old life and into a new experience. An experience that was waiting right behind that door.
She studied the building again, if only to stall a moment longer. It was a decaying appendix growing from an ancient warehouse. The warehouse had a sagging roof that looked ready to collapse, and she supposed that must be where they did their filming. It sure isn’t Universal Studios, she thought, but what did she expect? For the kind of stuff they were filming, it was amazing they even had their own space. There was no sign in front, but that was also par for the course for this industry.
Anna was disgusted by her anxiety, and at the same time afraid to admit her excitement. She took a deep breath and went inside.
The lobby was surprisingly normal, though just as shabby as she expected. The carpet was worn, the walls were bare, and the few chairs were of cracked leather and leaked stuffing. Dust mites danced in the flickering glow of monitors behind the unmanned counter.
A bell announced her arrival, and an instant later a young woman appeared from the back room and took her place behind the counter, turning off the monitors with an unseen switch. Anna hadn’t realized how much of the room’s light they had been providing. “You must be Anna!” the woman said. “You’re a little early.” She leaned over the counter, spilling cleavage from her black tank top as she whispered, “You must be excited.”
Anna nodded. The woman was only a few years older than her, with curly red and black hair, a pretty face (though that was mainly due to her heavy make-up, Anna thought), and a figure almost too full to be sexy. “Were you the one I was emailing with?” Anna asked.
“Mostly. I coordinate everything for the studio, though Jim is the one who has to approve all the talent. I’m Becky.” They shook hands and Becky gestured towards one of the broken-down chairs. “Take a seat. Jim is just getting things ready; he’ll be out in a few minutes and then we can get started. Can I get you anything? A glass of water?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you.” She hung in front of the counter, not yet wanting to sit down. “Hey, isn’t there any paperwork? Forms for me to sign?”
“Oh, yes.” Becky said. “I forgot.” She rummaged through several drawers, also forgetting where the papers were kept. Finally, she produced a stack of blurry, faded forms and tossed them indifferently across the counter. “While you fill those out, I’ll go in back and see how Jim is doing.”
Becky disappeared into the back room while Anna uneasily crossed to a chair and sat down, feeling the leather crack beneath her and the stuffing ooze out even further. Becky hadn’t offered her a pen, but luckily Anna always carried one in her purse. She took it out and began to fill out the forms.
The first asked for her basic info: tiny, even cells for each character of her name, home address, and contact information. The last asked for her preferred stage name (if any). Anna chuckled. She hadn’t thought of that, though she supposed all the other girls had one. What was the rule? The name of your first pet and the street you grew up on? Or was that just your stripper name?
Just your stripper name. The thought made her nervous all over again. Anna had never been brave enough to get on stage, expose herself in front of a few drunken losers, and here she was preparing to do a video that would exist on the Internet forever, that could be seen by anyone who paid for a subscription.
Her fear threatened again to swallow her excitement, and again she thought of leaving. But she knew there was no turning back, just as there had been no turning back when she got out of the Uber, or when she left her apartment this morning, or even when she sent that first inquiring email a few weeks ago. Fate simply would not allow her to return to the outside world.
From where she sat, the outside world was a patch of sunlight on a moldy carpet. The universe had contracted to this dingy lobby.
The door to the back area flew open, almost making her scream. Becky reentered, followed by a short but well-built man with close-shaved stubble that wrapped around his chin and his scalp like a sheer scarf.
“Hi Anna, I’m Jim.” She was absorbed by the power of his handshake, the warmth of his touch, the richness of his voice. She knew then that she could do this.
She found herself still holding his hand, staring at the muscles trying to escape from his tight black t-shirt, unsure if she had ever responded. Jim laughed and waved her to the back room.
“I haven’t finished filling out the forms,” she instantly wished she hadn’t said. Jim and Becky shared a laugh.
“That’s alright, you can do that later,” he said.
She stared at the forms a moment longer, now aware that she was stalling. “What about the thing about a stage name? I don’t have one.”
“That’s ok, most of the girls who come through here don’t. You could always use the old rule about your first pet and the street you grew up on.”
So she had been right. “Mine would be Zooey Sunset. That’s not very good.”
Jim thought it over a moment. “That works. In fact, I kind of like it. It’s cute.”
Anna decided that she agreed and wrote it on the form. Then she turned to the next page, a series of staccato statements with boxes next to each one for her initials. I HEREBY AFFIRM THAT I AM AT LEAST 18 YEARS OF AGE…. I HEREBY GIVE IRREVOCABLE PERMISSION TO USE MY IMAGE, VOICE, AND LIKENESS FOR ANY PURPOSE….
“You can fill that out later,” Jim interrupted. “It’s giving us permission to use what we record today on the site, but I never make girls fill it out until afterwards. If you decide you don’t want us to release this, just tear up the contract and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Anna couldn’t help but return his smile. She felt, for the first time today, safe. In a place where she came to find excitement, and, she had to admit, a little bit of danger.
“Ok, should we go back?”
Anna nodded and followed him towards the door. “You can give those papers to Becky,” he said. “Oh, and the purse, if you don’t want to carry it around. Becky can put it in our locker backstage.” Anna handed both things to Becky and followed him. At the doorway, she cast a final look back at the outside world. From where she stood, it was a shabby street encased in dirty glass. She smiled and stepped through the door.
She had expected to enter into a cavernous space, a studio that filled the entire warehouse she had seen outside. Instead the space around her constricted into a narrow corridor of black tarps hung from floor to ceiling, an improvised hallway dark enough to force her to stop, giving her eyes a chance to adjust to the dark.
Finally she saw Jim, his shirt a patch of darker, truer black that floated just a few feet ahead. She hurried to catch up, nervously babbling as if trying to find her way by echolocation. “Thank you so much for accepting me. I just love your site, and I’m really excited to be on it.”
He paused, and in the dark she could feel him smile back at her. “I’m glad you’re excited, Anna. But do me a favor and save it for the interview, will you? I really like to capture this natural enthusiasm on video.” Jim pulled back a tarp, seemingly at random, and revealed a blinding slash of light. “After you.”
Anna turned back in confusion. Becky had somehow snuck off, probably taking some other passageway in the darkness, though Anna had never heard her push the tarps aside. Anna shrugged and stepped through the opening. For the second time in less than a minute, her eyes had to adjust to a sudden change of light, but when her vision came back, she found herself on a set she had seen a dozen (no, admit it, a hundred) times before.
In reality, the red leather sofa (by far the best piece of furniture she had seen so far) looked much larger than it did in the videos, though she supposed everything looked small when it was displayed on the tiny screen of an iPhone. She imagined how small she would look on someone else’s screen.
To her surprise, that thought did not fill her with terror, or with shame, but only a sense of… oneness, as of someone who has finally found their place in the universe.
She sat down on the sofa without having to be told. She knew the drill, she would be interviewed here first, give coy responses to his questions, and then be led (or, if necessary, forced) to the next set, where the real action began.
They always cut that transition on the videos, but she supposed the other set was behind one of the tarps that made up three of the four walls in this room. Behind the couch was a prop wall with tattered Art Deco wallpaper. It was the only wall they ever showed in the videos, and until now she had assumed it covered all four walls. Up close, she could make out the pattern: angular female faces framed by vines or tentacles.
Jim picked up his camera, and in a moment his face become a great black eye with a tiny red blinking twin. “Ok, can you tell us your name?”
She smiled into the camera, trying hard not to squint. The lights that flanked Jim were much brighter than she had imagined and hot enough to make her skin stick to the leather. She swallowed. “Hi, I’m Zooey.” She bit back Anna at the last moment, so late she thought it must be noticeable, but Jim said nothing.
“Nice to have you here, Zooey. Are you excited?”
“Of course I am,” Zooey said.
“You’re very pretty.”
She thanked him, though she knew he was lying. She was thin, mousy, not much of a bust, or any curves to speak of. Still she had done what she could, gone tanning for the first time in years, put blonde streaks in her hair, ditched her browline glasses for a new pair with sleek, rounded frames, and bought a brand new outfit, though she knew it would not stay on for long.
“Is this your first time on video?”
“Wow, I’m honored,” Jim said, even though all the other girls Anna had watched gave the same answer.
“So what made you choose us to be the first site you appeared on?”
Zooey shrugged. “I just like the site!”
“You’re a fan? What do you like about it?”
She thought for a moment, recalling that first Bing search. She couldn’t remember now what she had been searching for. She had just been bored and frustrated at work, staring at her phone while sitting on the toilet, but the images she had stumbled upon were stamped on her mind forever. The young women writhing in ecstasy, their contorted faces and arched backs betraying a pleasure unlike any Anna had imagined before, that was certainly enough to grab her attention. But what excited her more was the sight of their lovers, wrapped around these young women in an unstoppable frenzy. The pleasure they felt was unreadable on the glistening, bestial pouches that served as their faces, but it was unmistakable in the curl of their tentacles and the wave of their insectoid stalks.
“I like that it’s…. naughty.” She said, trying and failing to find the right word. “It makes me excited, like I’m looking at something forbidden, something I shouldn’t be looking at.”
Jim waggled a finger at her playfully. “Of course you shouldn’t; a girl like you isn’t supposed to watch any porn.”
She giggled in spite of herself, but cut herself off at a noise coming from the far side of the room. A tarp moved aside briefly, and there was a quick, inquisitory snuffling sound, like a dog sniffing beneath a locked door.
She stared vacantly for a moment, then turned back to Jim. “That’s the crew finishing setting up. Hey Hugo, are we almost ready?” Anna hadn’t expected to see a crew, but a male voice grunted out a response and a moment later a man pushed his way through the tarps.
Hugo turned out to be middle-aged, weathered, with a dark flattop and a piercing gaze that seemed to be looking through Anna, as if trying to discover her true nature. “Yes, we are ready to go.” Hugo, despite his French name and American appearance turned out to have an Eastern European accent so stereotypical it was almost comic. “You can bring her in when you wish.” “Great,” Jim beamed. “Hugo, this is Zooey, my latest find. Zooey, this is Hugo, my producer and right-hand man. The site wouldn’t exist without him.” Hugo gave her a quick glance and slid back through the tarp. Anna stopped him with a question, leaving only his face poking out. “Hey, is it you who makes the Things?” she asked. “The creatures, I mean. They just look so real. You know, there’s a lot of other sites that do this sort of thing, but they always look so fake. You can tell the tentacles are just rubber and the slime is KY, but yours look so real, they really look alive.”
Hugo stared through her for a moment, then surprised her by throwing open the tarp and bending over in a stately bow. With the tarp raised like Dracula’s cape, Anna saw a series of tattoos running down the inside of his arms, strange characters she thought she recognized, but could not place. The angular lines awakened ancient terror within her, and when Hugo saw her staring, he pulled the tarp shut in a huff and smiled at her, again only a face surrounded by folds of plastic.
“Thank you, my dear,” he intoned. “We shall show you shortly how it’s done.” Then he vanished, as if the tarp had swallowed him.
Jim laughed and raised the camera again. It had been hanging at his side during this conversation, its red light blinking stupidly, but now he took up a new angle so he could cut out the last few minutes smoothly.
“So, Anna, are you ready to go?” She was so excited she didn’t notice him slipping into her old name, and neither did he. She could only nod and make a small noise in response. “Alright, why don’t you take your clothes off for me, then?”
She did as she was told, first removing her glasses and tossing them on the couch like she had seen the other girls do. Then she grabbed the bottom of her tank top and slowly pulled it over her head.
“So you have ever done anything like this before?”
Anna laughed as she pulled her hair free of the crumpled shirt, which she folded in a ball and tossed aside. “I don’t know how I could possibly do something like this anywhere else.”
Jim gave a laugh that wasn’t quite a response and went on. “Have you been with a lot of guys?”
“No. I was never good with guys.” She kicked off her tiny Keds, pulled off the striped socks underneath, and unbuttoned her shorts.
“How about girls?”
“No, I was even worse with them.” She pulled the shorts over her feet and tossed them aside. Now she had only her bra and underwear, but made no move to take them off. She had bought them especially for this, exactly as Jim had instructed her: they were revealing, snug and sexy, but thin and soft enough to be torn off easily. It killed her to spend the money on them (her salary at the library barely covered her rent, and even the five hundred dollars Jim had promised her wouldn’t go far in this town) but the expense was worth living out the fantasy that had consumed her mind for months.
“You want to go to the next room?”
Jim turned the camera off and led her through the opening Hugo had disappeared into. For a moment, they were again in a dark, narrow tunnel improvised with tarps. Through the tarps to her right, Anna heard more of those shuffling, animalistic sounds, but before she could ask Jim about them, they were on the set.
Again she was surprised by how much bigger it looked in real life. The sacrificial altar (corny and sexist, she thought, but it added to the forbidden thrill) stretched out before her, as enormous as a medieval banquet table. She wondered how she was supposed to climb on top, until she saw the plastic stepladder near its foot. Jim steadied her with one hand as she climbed up, and Anna was shocked to discover the altar wasn’t plaster, as she had imagined, but real stone. The cracks and weathering were not a convincing special effect, but were real, as if it really were the device of some prehistoric sect or an ancient clan of druids.
Anna crouched on the altar for a moment, running her hands over its surface. A series of symbols were etched into the side that faced the camera. As she traced them with one finger, Anna realized the symbols matched those she had spied on Hugo’s arms. That’s why they looked familiar, she thought; I’ve seen them in the videos.
Behind her, Jim picked up the plastic stepladder and moved it out of sight. “Lie down,” he instructed.
She turned around and spread her back across the altar, wincing at the chill and roughness of the stone. She spread her limbs as she knew she should, placing her hands and feet at each corner of the altar. Loops of rusty iron protruded from each corner, and leather straps were tied securely around each one.
Jim grabbed the two at the bottom and tied them around Anna’s ankles, much tighter than she would have wished. She jumped as something wet and cold brushed against her wrists. Pushing her chin towards the ceiling, Anna leaned her head back far enough to see Hugo’s face hanging upside down over hers. He gave a robotic, uncomforting smile and held up the leather straps, which he began to tie around her wrists. Only after he had pulled the second strap secure did Anna wonder why Hugo was wearing elbow-length rubber gloves. And why they had been covered with a cold slime that reminded her of snot or semen.
Hugo tested that the straps were secure and then disappeared behind the tarps. A moment later, a rhythmic metallic squeaking came from somewhere, like a cart with a heavy load and unoiled wheels. Anna craned her neck again, trying to see the source of the sound.
Through a gap in the tarps, she caught a narrow image of Hugo pushing a metal cart with a large object on it, a heavy box covered with a tarp. In that brief instant, Anna could swear the tarp had been moving, as if something had been pushing at it from the inside.
“What was that?” She asked, her voice trembling. Jim barely turned from the candelabra he was lighting and smiled.
“Just Hugo getting the effects ready. You wanted to see how it was done, right?”
Right, she thought, it’s just an effect. Just a fantasy. Those things aren’t really real. But she began to think about the reaction of the women in the videos, a mix of pleasure, shock, and fear that she always found thrilling, especially as fear became the dominant emotion, mixed with pain as the videos came to their inevitable conclusion: the beasts tearing into the women as their lust became rage, ripping them limb from limb in a series of gory special effects even more convincing than the creatures. To Anna, that splatter was the ultimate orgasm, the release of a repressed . . . But that was why she had switched from Psychology to English last year. Understanding too much about the human mind took away the fun.
Jim lit the last of the candles with a long plastic lighter. The candles dripped red wax onto the pair of golden, seven-tiered candelabras on each side of her. Jim flipped an unseen switch and the overhead lights turned off, leaving only the flickering glow of the candles and a narrow strip of light from between the tarps.
Obviously annoyed, Jim threw the tarps aside and hissed at someone to turn the lights off. In the brief instant after he threw back the tarp, but before the lights went out, Anna caught a glimpse of Becky, standing in front of a card table on which Anna’s purse sat open, its contents spilled out and arranged in front of her. In that moment, Becky was holding up Anna’s wallet, taking out the driver’s license and credit cards and tossing them aside.
“What is she doing?” Anna demanded.
Jim gave an especially toneless chuckle. “She’s just checking your ID to make sure you really are who you say you are. We can’t film any minors, you know.”
Anna knew that. She wanted to believe Jim, and so she did. His explanation was better than the panicked fantasies that were brewing in her mind, somewhere just below the level of conscious thought, trying to make her back out of the one thing she had wanted for months.
Anna heard the click of a switch, and the camera’s red eye began blinking in the dark. “Zooey, are you ready to make your fantasy a reality?”
She nodded and tried to swallow. She told herself that the fear boiling in her stomach and rising to her throat was the nervous anticipation of someone on the verge of getting something they had wanted for a long time. “Yes,” she managed to choke out.
Again, she could feel him smile, although she couldn’t see his face. He raised the camera high as the tarp at her feet parted. Hugo stood behind it, next to the object on the cart. Quickly, he threw the tarp aside, revealing a small metal cage. He unlatched the door to the cage and drew back, vanishing into the darkness.
The door to the cage slowly swung open, pushed aside by a slimy, glistening object that reached slowly through the air, making tentative movements like an animal tracking a scent. Other shapes followed, a mass of tentacles that snaked along the ground and reached through the air. Some ended in pods of wriggling suckers or pulsing shapes that looked like flowers made of flesh. Some ended in masses of smaller tentacles that slapped and pushed each other as if fighting to go first. The largest and thickest of the tentacles ended in an opening that looked disturbingly like a human mouth complete with a full set of teeth that chattered and clacked as it sensed its way towards her.
Finally, the door was pushed aside and the main body of the creature emerged — a bony but flexible mass about the size of a Saint Bernard. The tentacles sprouted from its back while unseen appendages on the bottom propelled it forward. Its skin was leathery and coated with thick oil that it smeared on every surface it touched. The thing had nothing that Anna would call a head, but from a swollen bulge at the front, like the head of an octopus, a pair of squinting, blood red eyes protruded upwards.
As the thing squirmed out of the cage and felt its way up the altar towards her, Anna’s mind struggled to accept what her eyes already knew. There were no strings holding up the tentacles, no off-screen puppeteer. The creature coming towards her looked real because it was real.
She had only a brief moment to wonder where the creature had come from, and then the first of the tentacles brushed against her ankle. She screamed and pulled at the straps, which bit into her wrist and ankles without giving up an inch. The bulbous, octopus-like head peeked over the edge of the altar. The pair of blood-red eyes examined her with a disgustingly human-like intelligence, then narrowed with human-like lust. Anna’s screams broke down into furious howls as more tentacles slid up her legs, leaving trails of goo along her skin.
“What the hell is this?!” Anna shouted towards Jim, pleading with her eyes towards his camera.
“It’s your fantasy,” came the reply. “This is what you wanted, Zooey, and we are giving it to you. It’s normal to be overwhelmed when you finally make a fantasy come true.”
Anna was more than overwhelmed; she was panicked. The tentacles had reached her crotch, and the smaller masses of them were making writhing movements across her underwear, which she hated to admit she found pleasurable. A longer tentacle reached for her bra, cupping one breast with a sucker that began to rip through the fabric. Above her, the appendages that looked like flowers made of flesh (which she now realized must be some kind of sense organ) hovered above the rest like marshals commanding their troops. Above them was the largest tentacle, its even, square teeth chattering as it drew nearer to Anna’s face. As it closed in, she could hear its wild pants, even more human than the shape of its mouth. The pants grew heavier and faster, ending with a piercing grunt. At that, the tentacles ripped off her bra and underwear, tossing the scraps aside and attacking her orifices with renewed vigor.
The great body of the creature climbed onto the altar, landing carelessly on Anna’s ankle, snapping the bone under its immense weight. Anna screamed in pain and pleasure. Along her leg, she felt the squirming appendages that propelled the creature dig into her skin, drawing blood as its body moved over hers. The tentacles worked more vigorously, penetrating her orifices and her skin.
Anna looked around the room again for help, her eyes begging for mercy, her mouth filling with tears and snot. Next to the cage, Hugo had appeared again. His gloves were gone, and his arms were raised above his head. The symbols on his arms glowed red in the darkness. Jim still stood back, his camera trained patiently on her, his free hand shoved down his pants.
Both of them were chanting, and from above, she thought she heard the human-like mouth respond with chants of its own.
With the disturbing clarity of someone who knows their fate is sealed, Anna wondered how the other girls had endured this ordeal long enough to make their videos. She thought they must have been willing sacrifices, or more deranged in their sense of pleasure than she had proved to be.
The great body of the creature slid atop her. Its appendages thrust deeper inside her, its weight crushed her ribs, and unseen mouths along its bottom began to rip at her skin. The human-like mouth grunted again, and then lashed towards her, tearing off her left nipple in a flash of blood.
As the full weight of the thing slid inside her, Anna wished that she could die, still believing this was just a fantasy.
Peter Hurd is the producer, director, and co-writer of the indie horror feature “The Control Group,” available now on all digital platforms. “Anna’s Video” is his first published piece of fiction. He lives in Minneapolis and is currently writing his first novel.