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Play it again

By Taylor Denlyn

At 2 a.m. the wind doesn’t so much howl as whimper. The bars had closed, and the few people on the street showed themselves out by staggering on foot or into ride-shares. Jack hadn’t been drinking, he tried that, and it didn’t help much. Besides, he was warned several times not to mix booze with the prescription sleeping pills he had also given up on.

 

Jack had begun to think of his insomnia as less of a medical condition and more of a habit he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of yet. He had gone through all the tests and exams his primary care doctor had recommended. He had gone to the referrals and to the specialists. The specialists could only come up with psychosomatic reasons and suggested Jack go to a shrink instead. She was the best psychologist that Jack’s insurance would pay for. She said she thought Jack just needed to relax.

 

At first, Jack would take drives out into the city, trying to tire himself out, but with all the intoxicated people out that time of night, he couldn’t help but think about Joey. Eventually, Jack parked his Jetta in the garage under his apartment building. That’s when the walks started. Jack thought it would be safer to burn off some energy, although there was little of that these days. It wasn’t that Jack was wound-up. Jack was tired and had been for a long time. He could close his eyes and sometimes drift off briefly, but then he was awake. Eventually, Jack would fall asleep for an hour or two and sometimes as much as three or four, but never more. It was out of sheer exhaustion that he was finally able to doze off. 

 

On his walks, Jack tried to hasten the exhaustion but mostly found himself window shopping. That night he took a left turn on Buchanan Street for no other reason than for the last month, he had been turning right. The old strip mall was two blocks up and just past the entrance to an alley. Jack had to shield his eyes from the passing headlights of a police cruiser and wandered into the darkened parking lot. 

 

Most shops and stores had been on the way out before the pandemic, creating an atmosphere of drabness that smelled like popcorn. To Jack, empty spaces of commerce always smelled like popcorn. Childhood memories of the smell of K-Mart, he thought. Jack knew all the shops would be closed; even during the day only a handful of them were open. This Space Available signs posted in the empty windows. A light came from a small storefront in the middle of the row. 

 

Jack walked along the row of vacant spaces until he was standing at the window of the only open store. Its sign was an electric buzz of color. From close up the sign was a wave of beautiful neon nostalgia. just the same. It flashed in alternating blue and blueish-purple light: ‘PLAY IT AGAIN 24 Hour Video’

Jack opened the door and stepped into a store flooded with bright fluorescent light and staged with display racks. VHS tapes in row upon row, all neatly faced and alphabetized. The glass door swung closed behind him, and a tinny ding-dong sounded from the ether announcing a customer had entered. Jack took in the ambiance of the video store as if he had just wandered into his childhood home for the first time in decades. 

 

Jack stepped forward down the center of the store, flanked on either side by white wire racks displaying copies of videos sorted by category. New Releases in the front row to his right, just in front of the door, presumably to attract customers, although the term New must have been used jokingly, as there hadn’t been a new release on VHS for well over twenty years.

    

Jack saw the section marked Staff Picks to his left, showcasing a sampling from most categories represented. The next section was Comedy spanning both sides of the aisle. As Jack made his way from row to row, he saw signs for Westerns, Horror, Classics, Drama, Family Films, Award Winners, Foreign (this section was the most sparsely stocked), furthest back was Special Interests. 

 

The walls along either side were lined with wooden shelves holding VHS tapes for sale with movie posters and full-size cardboard cutout promos. The counter extended from wall to wall with waist-high swinging double doors in the middle. Next to the register were two plastic binders labeled Nintendo & Sega. Above the counter was a sign telling customers to Be Kind, Rewind, but with the word ‘Don’t’ written into the space next to ‘Rewind’ underlined with three red lines.

 

Jack soaked in every inch of the store. He smelled the plastic and candy, fresh carpet and stale gum balls, and there was popcorn. This popcorn smelled like wonder, not economic collateral damage. The machine holding the freshly popped corn rested on the left end of the counter next to a yellow plastic basket holding paper bags for scooping the buttery popped kernels into. Beside the basket a small wooden tree sat holding wildly colored suckers that were poked in at odd angles by their sticks as the branches. On the floor in front of the popcorn machine stood a small but well-stocked beverage fridge filled with sodas, pops, and drinks, all colorfully lined up. 

 

Jack was at the counter facing backward, still taking in the gloriously recreated 90’s video store aesthetic, when a voice called out from behind the counter and through a small door marked Staff Only.

“Be right with you,” the voice said.

 

“Take your time,” said Jack.

 

A thin man of about forty or forty-five came through the staff door carrying a stack of videos and placed them on the counter. His hair was black, mostly with specs of grey starting to show, but just barely, it was all slicked back. Only where the fluorescent lights caught them were the silver strands of hair betraying the uniform darkness of the rest of his hair. Despite the late hour, his eyes were bright and kind, and he wore a t-shirt with Frankenstein’s face on it.

“Just had to grab some more stock to put out; how can I help you?”

 

“I just saw this place and...” 

 

“You had to come in?” The man said.

 

“How long have you been open?”

“We’re twenty-four hours here, all day and all night.” The man said in a smiling pitch.

 

“I mean, how long has the store been here? I don’t remember there being a video store, well... anywhere.” Asked Jack.

 

“We just opened up a couple of weeks ago, but honestly, I’d been eyeing this spot for a while.”

 

“I haven’t seen a VHS let alone a VHS rental place, since I can’t even remember,” Jack said.

 

“Yeah, I get that a lot; it’s pretty niche. Most folks moved on to DVD or Blu-ray or.”

“Streaming,” Jack interrupted. “I haven’t seen a 

 

DVD in years either.”

 

The man regarded Jack for a moment smirking. The man carefully placed the stack of tapes on the counter. 

 

“Take a look around; we have hidden gems on every shelf. I’ve curated each movie myself; there’s bound to be a few on the racks you’ll remember.” 

 

For the moment, Jack forgot how tired he was. He forgot about wandering through the streets chasing illusive sleep. Jack was, for that moment, his adolescent self on a Friday night, picking out movies to consume over the weekend. He could feel the wonder he had taken for granted as a boy with limited movie options, all neatly placed on shelves for 48 hours of rental bliss. The man exited the back room and closed the door behind him. Jack noticed a beaded curtain hanging down, separating the tapes in that area from the rest. A sign above the curtain read: Adult Entertainment [18 and older].

 

“I’m sure I don’t need to check your I.D. if you want to step around and take a peek at those ones.” The man said.

 

Smirking, a pfft through his nose, Jack only said, 

“No thanks.”

 

“No worries at all. Have you pegged for more of a sci-fi or horror kind of guy? I’m a horror geek myself, from way back. We have the best selection of all the campy greats right up there.” He said, pointing to that zone of the store.

 

 “Almost all of them in perfect condition, a few with some tracking lines here and there, but the playback is guaranteed.” Said the man. 

 

“Tracking lines?” Jack asked.

 

“Yeah, these are all original copies, video tape decay is a real thing, but with care and a little TLC, these tapes are still going strong.”

 

“I’ll poke around a bit if that’s okay,” Jack said.

 

“Of course! Let me know if you have any questions; I’ll just be sorting out these ones.” The man said, patting the stack of tapes on the counter.

 

Jack wandered the aisles, slowing and wistfully taking in every cover, he’d pick one up occasionally turning it over to marvel at the summary on the back. Jack lingered in the Sci-Fi section; the man really knew his customers. Jack found a box he hadn’t seen since ninth or tenth grade. He held up the cover with wide eyed amazement. He flipped the box over and was flooded with nostalgia. Late nights on the couch popping in the tape and wrapped up in a blanket. The telltale sound of the ‘Coming Soon’ titles, the screen of the FBI & Interpol warning before the feature presentation. 

 

The movie was Oblivion. Jack marveled at the cover. The movie title spelled out around the top of a tin star sheriff badge with a reptilian alien’s eye-patched face staring out menacingly and the words: ‘Cowboys, Aliens... The Frontier Will Never Be The Same’ in a digital clock font. This was an awesomely so-bad-it’s-brilliant film that, even as an adolescent, Jack knew was awful, and he loved it. Jack loved every moment of the films                 ninety-five-minute runtime.

 

Jack took the tape box to the counter and placed it face up. The man set down the video cassette he was cataloging and said, “That’s a good one!” 

 

 “I haven’t seen this since middle school; I completely forgot about this movie!” Jack paused, “I must have seen this twenty times; I used to watch it ‘til the end, then rewind and start it over. My cousin and I used to...” And continued almost under his breath, “We always watched it together.” 

 

Jack began to think of his cousin Joey. Flickering through his memories was Joey, more like a brother than a cousin. They were inseparable all through childhood and into high school until that drunk decided to drive down the wrong street, and Joey stepped off a curb for the last time. Maybe that was part of tonight’s insomnia. A few days from now would be Joey’s Remembrance Day which meant a FaceTime call with the family.

 

“Have you seen the sequel? It came out the same year. George Takei and Isaac Hays were in both.” Said the man.    

 

“Yeah, but this one is,” Jack started.

 

“Classic.” The man finished.

 

“So, how does this work?” Asked Jack.

 

“Well, let’s set you up with a membership first. Do you have your driver’s license or I.D. with you?”

 

Jack reached for his wallet and pulled it from his hip pocket. Since he had taken up middle-of-the-night strolls, he felt it best to keep his wallet in the front pocket. He laid his card on the counter, and the man picked it up and entered numbers into the clunky old-style keyboard and monitor. It was a relic as well, fitting in perfectly with the retro-cultivated decor of the store. The monitor was huge and grayish-beige. Jack caught a glimpse of the screen and saw it was black with a green cursor and text fields.

 “You found one of these that still works?” Jack asked, referring to the hulking computer on the counter. 

 

“eBay,” the man said without looking and continued typing, asking, “Is this your current address?”

 

 “Yep, been there for years,” Jack answered.

 

“Alright, now I’ll just need a card to put down for a deposit, and you’ll be all set.” The man said, handing Jack back his I.D., adding, “You can pick up your membership card when you bring your rental back; my laminator takes a while to heat up.”

 

The man entered Jack’s American Express and asked, “Should we use this card for the rental as well?”

Jack nodded while excitedly looking down at the Oblivion box. “Yes, please,” he said.

 

“That should do it. It’ll be five dollars for the two-day rental; we do ask that you don’t rewind before you bring it back; I’ll take care of that; you must be careful with these old tapes, and most people’s VHS machines that are still around can be a bit harsh on the tape while rewinding or fast forwarding.”

 

“Oh, that,” said Jack. 

 

“You don’t have a player, do you? No surprise; hardly anyone does these days except the hardcore tape heads. No worries, we can rent you one until you’re ready to make the jump and get one of your own. You can still get pretty good deals online if you know where to look. We can even do minor repairs here if you find one.” Said the man. 

 

 

 

“That would be great; how much to rent one?” Asked Jack.

 

“I’ll set you up with the player and an adapter to take the RCA to HDMI for $20 a week. How does that sound?” the man asked.     

 

“Put that on the card, too, then?” 

“Perfect!” Said the man. 

 

The man brought out a hard plastic suitcase-like box and set it on the counter. Jack could tell by the sound it made when the man set it down that it was substantially heavy, and the case itself would have been right at home in a movie holding an action hero’s artillery rather than a thirty-year-old VHS player.

 

The man punched in some keys on the ancient keyboard, and a dot matrix printer sprang to life from behind the counter. The man tore off a strip of paper from the printer and slid it across the counter to Jack, along with a pen bearing the store’s name and phone number. 

 

“You sign there on the bottom for the rental. The top sheet is yours; I keep the yellow.” The man explained.
    Jack slipped his keys into the door of his walk, balancing the enormous VHS case between his torso and akimbo left knee with the plastic videotape case clutched in his teeth. He entered and headed to the flatscreen mounted on the wall in front of his sofa. The adapter was simple enough, and he inserted the video tape into the player within minutes. His dark living room was awash in bright red light from the T.V. as the familiar FBI warning filled the screen. Jack fell back into his sofa and glanced at the clock on the wall. It was 3:10 a.m. 

 

The previews began to play, announcing coming attractions, all of which Jack remembered seeing, either the movies themselves or at least the trailers. Finally, the opening credits. Jack relaxed into the cushions and let the low-resolution, high, saturation images wash over him as he sank deeper into the cushions of his sofa.          

 

By the movie’s halfway mark, Jack had begun to drift to that place where eyelids are heavy, and breathing is slow. Ninety-five minutes in, Jack was asleep as the credits started their crawl. Not even the sound of the cassette ejecting caused him to stir. 

 

The vibrational hum of his phone on the surface of the coffee table as it seized in timed jitters across the glass woke Jack. The sunlight had enveloped the room. Jack reached out to steady his phone and looked at the time. He had slept through two meetings and missed several pings on his work Slack channel. Eight hours Jack thought, eight. He stood and stretched before going to the small dining room table that doubled as his workspace and opened his laptop. 

 

He saw his reflection in the dark mirror of his sleeping scree. Despite his hair smashed upward on his left side and the fabric pattern of his sofa tattooed on his cheek. He looked fine. Better than fine. The screen came to life, he looked great. 

   

Jack logged on and made a video call to his supervisor, explaining that he had forgotten to put an early morning doctor appointment on his calendar and apologized for missing the morning scrum. Jack’s excuse was accepted without question, and Veronica even remarked that Jack seemed rested and closed the call with a smile and joked about making sure he got his copy written before “EOD.”

 

Jack checked emails and followed up with his team messages. He typed up his project. He finished his work within a few hours, and Jack felt normal for the first time in recent memory. It was 2 p.m. From the window of his third-floor apartment, he looked out on his neighborhood in the daylight. He glanced to the VHS player sitting on the console under his T.V. What the hell. Jack took a soda from his fridge, pushing the Brita pitcher aside. Jack plopped down on the sofa. He decided to watch the movie one more time before taking it back. After all it was responsible for the first night of good sleep he had in months. Besides, he though one of his best memories where of watching Oblivion and so many other movies all alone on the family sofa. 

 

He reached forward to press the button but remembered the sign ‘Be Kind, Don’t Rewind.’ And as the man said, videotape decay is a real thing. Jack finished his drink and removed the tape, placing it back in its protective clamshell case. He decided to take the videotape back and rent another. Perhaps he could sleep at a normal time, maybe even in his bed.

 

Jack opened the door to the street on the first-floor lobby and passed into the daylight. He stepped off the curb without seeing the Prius. The car broke hard, steering into the street inches from Jack, and came to a stop. The driver lowered the passenger side mirror and began to yell something that could have been, Are you okay? Did I hit you? What the fuck, man? Jack’s lips contorted back, wincing, his eye mouthed, “My bad,” before registering whatever the driver said. The driver just shook his head and pulled away. 

 

Rounding the corner onto Buchanan, Jack whistled as he strolled to Play It Again. The strip mall was slightly more populated during daylight hours. A few cars in the lot and a seedy-looking liquor & cigarette store was open. In between two of the shuttered shops, a used exercise equipment place was open as well. Jack had no interest in a storefront selling “glassware” that was stocked to with bongs and pipes, Cheap Nag Champa incense fumes floated out into the walkway. 

 

The purple and blue neon lights glowed and pulsed in the daylight as Jack entered Play It Again. He scanned the titles of videos briefly as he made his way to the counter. The only other customer in the store was handing the man behind the counter his yellow slip. The customer looked too young to remember the old video stores. Jack glanced down and saw a copy of Hot Shots Part Deux. The young guy brushed passed Jack on his way out. 

 

“Returning?” The man at the counter asked. Jack nodded while raising his eyebrows, his back to the man. 

 

“Yep, watched this one last night; it held up,” Jack replied.

 

“Glad to hear.” The man replied.

 

The man slid the clamshell to the end of the counter, where it disappeared off the back edge with a soft thud, presumably into a bin with other returned tapes waiting for a careful rewind. 

   

“You must work a long shift,” Jack said. 

 

“Well, we are open twenty-four hours.” The man said.   

  

“Yeah, so I’m going to go find another one. I made sure not to rewind.” Jack added.

“Awesome; let me know if you need anything or have any questions.” The man said.

 

“Sure, thanks.” Jack nodded again as he turned to browse the racks. 

 

 

The man must remember him, Jack thought. I was just in here last night. Not even last night; I was in here this morning. Jack studied the tapes in the horror section. He picked out and examined the video boxes, trying to decide between Return of the Living Dead and Leprechaun. For Jack, this was a tough decision to make. On the one hand, Leprechaun had Jennifer Aniston going head to head, two feet above head to head anyhow. But ‘Return’ had a great soundtrack and was hands down the best zombie movie ever made. There was that and the memories that came along with it. 

 

Jack first saw Return of the Living Dead because he overheard his favorite teacher, Mr. Holden, talking to another teacher in passing. Holden’s class was where Jack discovered his love of writing. Mr. Holden drilled the methods and rules of The Elements of Style but also inspired Jack to join the staff of The Roster, his junior high school’s student paper. By the time Jack hit high school, his prose was refined, and his articles tight and perfectly structured; because of Mr. Holden’s class, Jack loved the written word and had the elements of grammar down cold. 

 

Return of the Living Dead won out, but Jack told himself that Leprechaun would have to be rented soon. He took the box up to the counter and slid it toward the man at the computer. 

 

“Do you have your membership card?”

 

“Not yet. Did you say I could pick it up when I returned my rental? Your laminator?”

 

“Oh, sorry, what’s your name?”

“Jack Plummer...” 

 

“Okay, got it right here. Do you have your driver’s license or photo I.D.?” The man asked.

 

Jack handed over his license, waited for the man to confirm his identity, and then reached out to take his driver’s license and his new Play It Again card. The capital ‘I’ in It only slightly bothered him, but he took note of the infraction. 

 

Jack stopped at the gas station across the street from his apartment. He had a hankering for frozen yogurt, and from his late-night walks, he was very familiar with the soft-serve machine near the coffee station. Jack’s phone vibrated in his pocket, a text from Mom. 

 

3:45 p.m.

[Jacky I wanted to talk a bit before we get on the family call for Joey. Love you!]

 

Jack had long since decided that it was an autocorrect. “Joey” could be any number of things. Maybe she meant jokes? Did she want to play a joke on Aunt Linda? I’ll ask her later he thought, but he wanted to finish his yogurt before it melted and knock out a little more copy for work before he got into a call with the family.

 

 

 

3:56 p.m.

[Hi Mom, I love you too. I’ll give you a call after work.]

 

 

Jack wrote a little. After getting in the habit of finishing up his work in the middle of the night, Jack had trouble plugging away. He shut the screen on his laptop, ensuring his phone was still connected to the work chat, and settled into the sofa. It was only 5:00, and the daylight was just starting to fade. Jack looked at his phone and decided that texting Mom back could wait until after the movie.

 

5:19 p.m.

[Sorry, Mom. Still working. I’ll call in a bit. Love you]

 

 

Jack settled in and pushed play. Twenty-eight minutes into the movie, just as “Tarman,” the melting zombie from the chemical drum, made his glorious entrance. Jack’s phone vibrated at the moment the speakers crackled loudly when the two main characters screamed at the sight of the zombie coming for their Brrraiinnss! The notification was left on read. The video ejected when the tape ran out; the mechanical clanking woke Jack this time. He had fallen asleep before the movie was even over. He picked up his phone and saw that he had missed a call from his mother, but there were texts as well.

 

7:19 p.m.

[Jacky really was hoping to talk]

 

7:36 p.m.

[Are you there. We are on the call. Aunt

Linda is wondering if everything is okay]

 

8:02 p.m.

[Are you okay??? Call me. Love you] Jack began to text.

 

8:52 p.m.

[Sorry, Mom. Got held up. Talk 2 U in the morn love U]

 

He decided rewinding halfway back wouldn’t hurt anything. How would they know? The clamshell did say Play It Again after all.

He pushed the tape back into its slot, and the machine took over, pulling the video in the rest of the way and closing the swinging hatch. The credits rolled by in rapid reverse, then the mushroom cloud, the rain, the quick panning over the cemetery, and the retreating hoard of zombies returning to the grave and away from the line of cops. The movie rewound faster and faster, streaked across the screen with tracking lines squiggling through the scenes. Jack pressed ‘pause’ as the tape rolled back to the last spot he remembered. Jack pressed play. 

 

He finished the movie and felt tired enough to try sleeping in his bed. It took less than a minute after his head sank into his pillow to fall asleep. The alarm on his phone went off at 6:30. 

 

Jack thought he should get an early start and wrap up his copy before the rest of the team or Veronica was online. Jack decided to work from bed and returned to the comfort of his duvet with his laptop. Jack opened the lid and logged on, opening the last draft of his content on the shared file. Jack took a quick glance at his notes and began to type. 

 

It was early afternoon. Just after the team’s usual lunch break, Veronica’s notes and edits started to appear on the screen. One after another, edit requests filled the right-hand side of the document. Highlights started to cover vast stretches of text, then came the P.M.s. 

 

V. Hernandez

Jack, what happened to the quarterly recap? 

 

J. Plummer

Hi V. What do U mean?

 

V. Hernandez 

*You

V. Hernandez

This copy needs to be rewritten. It’s way below par.

 

J. Plummer

Let me take a look at you’re notes

 

V. Hernandez 

LOL

 

V. Hernandez 

*Your

 

V. Hernandez

Come on, Jack. Let’s huddle up this afternoon. Put some time on my calendar.

 

J. Plummer

Okay. No problem 

 

Jack opened the tab with the document and read each line he had written, pausing at each spot Veronica had left a note. He did notice more than a few errors. He thought about each line, reviewed the notes, and made corrections. Was it Accepted or Except? Jack paused to consider. Did that last sentence use the correct tense? Jack decided to google the difference between Affect and Effect. He crawled his way through each note and every highlight before messaging Veronica.

 

J. Plummer

Ready to take a look?

 

Friday afternoon meant the likelihood of a reply was low, even for Veronica. Jack kept an ear out for the ping, just in case. It was 4:15, and only a hand full of non-action-needed emails had come through. There was nothing from V. Hernandez. The document notes had all been answered slowly but completely. As Jack packed up the tape to take back, he thought why do I even work here? 

 

Now that he had been sleeping again, Jack had been reaching out to his friends again. He’d been out for drinks and dinners with people he had neglected for months. 

 

“What a difference a little sleep can be,” Jack said. Jack spoke to Cyril over FaceTime. “I just couldn’t sleep for so long, but I’ve been watching these old movies on tape. Old stuff from when I was a kid. Did you have those little video stores, or did you go to one of the chain ones?” Jack asked. 

 

“I kinda remember Blockbuster, and what was that other one? Hollywood Video! Yeah, that’s the one we went to.” Cyril beamed.

 

“This place is just like a small one from back home. And they only have VHS. I had to rent a player from them too.” 

 

“Didn’t you have that little T.V. in our dorm room with a tape player built into it?” Cyril asked.

 

“Yeah, but I got rid of that thing years ago. I think while we were still in the dorms.” 

 

“It’s great that you are getting some rest, though; you’re looking much better.” 

 

“Hold on a minute. I keep getting these spam texts.” Jack said swiping the text away.

“Is it the same number every time? I get the ‘probable junk’ notifications and block them,” Cyril said.

 

“I’m blocking this one now. The weird this is the I.D. on it says, Mom.”

 

“Weird?” Offered Cyril.

 

 Jack wrapped up his call with his college roommate and picked up his copy of Hook to return to Play It Again. It was a guilty pleasure. A movie he loved as a kid. A step back into a simpler time. He couldn’t remember when he saw it as a child, just a vague recollection of sitting next to another kid on one side and a soccer mom on the other. At a theater maybe? It took him a few weeks, but Jack had worked through most of the HORROR and SCI-FI sections. 

 

Aside from the foray the night before into Robin Williams’ Peter Pan flick, Jack had been starting to work his way through DRAMA and had put a dent in ACTION as well. Even though each rental was for two days, Jack never kept one more than a night. He rented Forest Gump, and wondered why he had photos of himself with groups of strangers on the walls in the hallway and held up by magnets on his fridge. 

 

Jack rented Volcano, Twister, Outbreak, and Armageddon all in one week. He called this disaster week. Ever since disaster week, Jack had wondered whose keys were in the bowl by the front door. The tag had the Volkswagen emblem on it, and there was a fob, but Jack didn’t own a car. Jack never even learned to drive. 

 

He had started to hit a stride again at work. The edits still came, but he was starting to vet his content through Word to catch the grammar and spelling errors before copy/pasting it back into the shared docs, which had helped a little. 

Veronica told him that he had lost a bit of his spark, but she was confident he would find his way back and that he should take some time off. The inference was whether he wanted the PTO or not. 

 

Jack still seemed to be a stranger to the man behind the counter, despite seeing him nearly every day. He was always friendly and helpful, so Jack let it go without much thought. The man with the slicked-back hair was at least cordial and sometimes downright pleasant, though he was never familiar. 

 

Jack placed Hook on the counter, started toward the DRAMA section, and saw a new tape, at least a new to-the-store one. Peeking out of the ACTION aisle was a copy of Gymkata. Jack grabbed the box immediately. He loved this movie; Gymkata was one of those movies he had watched twenty times or more as a kid. The story of a gymnast competing in a death match on an island who had learned to mix his gymnastics knowledge and martial arts to fight his way to victory. Jack took the box to the counter right away.

 

“That’s a great one!” The man behind the counter said. 

 

“I must have worn out the tape on this one as a kid. I watched it so much.” Said Jack. 

 

“Well, don’t do that with this one, please.” Said the man, continuing, “Remember, no rewinding.” And pointed to the sign hanging behind the counter. 

 

“I know, I know,” laughed Jack.

 

“Seriously, no rewinding.”

 

“Yeah.” Jack handed him the yellow slip and took Gymkata home. 

 

Jack sat on his sofa with a massive bowl of popcorn, big enough that he hoped to last through the movie without pausing to get more. The movie started and Jack settled in.

 

Jack watched to the end credits with popcorn to spare. He loved this movie at some forgotten time as a kid and still loved it. Jack started to Google the film to see if he had missed any hidden gems and decided to hell with the sign. He pushed in the rewind button and let it rip, careful to pause before the tape could jerk at the sudden stop at the beginning of the tape. As soon as he came to the FBI logo, he did just that.

 

He watched the movie again the whole way through. Satisfied and happy, he decided it was time to the hay. Jack slept all night, still dreaming about Gymkata. It was Saturday, and Jack had no plans. In fact, all of Jacks’ weekends had always been free. Even if someone wanted to get together, Jack didn’t know anyone, anyone except for the video store clerk, and he didn’t really know Jack.  

    

Aside from the spam texts, calls, emails, and letters from scammers pretending to be family, work, or even the police, there was no one. The police had come by though. A prank someone put them up to, telling the cops that they, whoever they were, were worried about him and he hadn’t been to work or called home in weeks. Jack assured them that he didn’t have a job, and that there was no home to call-home to. 

Jack got out of bed to make breakfast. Before reaching the kitchen, he saw the plastic clamshell case staring at him from the coffee table. Jack sat back into the sofa, reached forward, and pushed the rewind button. One more watch before taking it back, he thought. The sound of the reversing of the tape whined louder this time. It was almost a screech, then suddenly POP. 

 

Gymkata slid upwards and out of the tape slot, backing out of the playhead. Jack leaned forward to pull the tape out, and when he did, a tangle of black tape spilled out, dragging behind it like entrails. Jack pulled the tape gently, but even his gentle hand did damage. The tape came further out of the deck. Two split ends were dangling from the mass of twisted video. Jack tried as best as he could to contain the videotape in the clamshell. He had no excuse and would have to pay whatever the cost was to replace the video and possibly the artifact of a player along with it. What was I just doing? Jack thought. 

Jack looked down into the plastic box in his hand. It was filled with - a VHS? A Broken VHS? Jack looked up from the tape and stared at his front door, not knowing why. He just stared at the door. Was it a door? Jack wondered. He didn’t move; why would he?

When the police and landlord finally opened the door, the officer closed it again immediately as the smell hit him. Jack’s body lay still, collapsed on the floor, half blocking them from opening it further. 

According to the coroner, Jack had died of thirst and malnutrition. The coroner concluded that his emaciated corps had been lying there for at least a week. The temperature and rate of decay determined that. The date of the rental, his desiccated hand still clutched confirmed the suspected timeframe. What the coroner couldn’t explain was how it happened. How he thought, could an otherwise healthy man have died of thirst, which takes weeks… and malnutrition too? The body was mere feet away from a full refrigerator and a working tap. 

 

“Christ Suzan, the man had a full Brita pitcher on the top shelf of the fridge,” the coroner said to his wife over a glass of wine at home.

 

The coroner shook his head after taking a sip. “I just don’t know,” the coroner said, dragging every word out as if each were its own sentence.

 

Suzan, the coroner’s wife, pursed her lips and sipped from her glass. 

 

“It’s a crazy word, Jim. Hey, what do you say we go down and rent another movie from that new place by the old liquor store?” She asked.

 

“Sounds good,” said Jim.

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