The Unkind Rewind

by Gabriel Tuggle

     When I was a kid, Blockbuster sat up the street about two hundred yards from school. It was the first Friday afternoon since I’d turned thirteen, and that meant I was eligible for my own membership card. I could rent whatever the hell I wanted, baby. Our parents wouldn’t have been so keen on us skipping the bus, but they both worked late on Fridays. Besides, I hated the bus. It smelled like leather and fish.

     “Are we still going to Blockbuster, Kyle?” Denny, my eight-year-old brother, asked. He was clad in an oversized backpack – which used to belong to me until a group of gym class tormentors tied it to a basketball goal where I couldn’t reach it. Since then, I carried my books in my hand.

     Denny always waited for me on the school’s wide front stoop, and the Blockbuster sign was visible from here, suspended over the canopy of trees on the school’s front lawn. I squinted in its direction. It was the tallest monument in town, a giant blue and yellow brick tilted slightly off kilter, bearing its singular message to the world: BLOCKBUSTER.

     “I think we can manage it,” I said, as if it were a great journey. And in a way, it was. This was the early 2000s, one of the first generations of kids who were strictly prohibited from going anywhere by themselves. While other kids filtered out of the school’s gaping double doors and hurried for the buses, Denny and I slipped to our favorite place.

     The building was a small cube that sat between a divorce lawyer and Sun Tan City. Emblazoned over the dark windows was the slogan: Wow! What a difference!

     As we crossed the parking lot, Denny said, “I’m gonna get Reese’s Cups.”

     “With whose money, squirt?”

     He stopped as if that realization hadn’t struck him before. “Can you get them for me? Please?”

     “No way,” I said, remembering that I only had nine dollars. “You remember what the dentist said about your teeth. They’re baked beans. Every last one of em.”

     “I don’t have baked beans!”

     I brushed past him and reached for the glass door. He bolted inside after me; constantly afraid that being left alone would’ve meant being kidnapped. The stranger danger videos at school scared the shit out of him. Every kidnapper drove a white van and wore a dark coat, even in the summer. In Denny’s imagination, they probably all had Reese’s Cups, too.

     The entire front wall held the newest release, School of Rock, and a makeshift sign declaring they’d already loaned out every copy. I swear Blockbuster never actually had new releases. They just put up the display, followed immediately by a sign that read, “out of stock”. A cardboard cutout of Jack Black stood nearby, strumming the guitar silently, mouth open in a heavy metal scream. Aisles and bins crowded the small store, jammed with movies. Cartoony rolls of film unraveled over the thin carpet, letting everyone know that this was a Fun Environment.

     Denny begged me to rent a GameCube game for him, to which I told him to piss off. We were getting a movie. I wanted to get Total Recall, something I’d seen on HBO before. I particularly enjoyed the part with the three-breasted alien lady. But then Denny proudly reminded me that it was rated R and we were mere children.

     “I hadn’t thought of that,” I said, holding the VHS sleeve in my hand.

     “Let’s get a Nickelodeon movie. Can we, Kyle?” He looked up at me with dependent eyes, his face a mirror of my own, simply dialed back five years.

     I didn’t like kid’s movies. I always sensed the bullshit jokes and corny nonsense that the writers thought I was ignorant enough to laugh at. That was why I watched things like HBO with our dad. He didn’t care what we saw, and if he were there, he would’ve been glad to rent Total Recall for us. But we were alone.

     I held an appreciation for Nickelodeon movies though. Somehow they slipped past my bullshit radar. We settled on Rugrats Gone Wild.

     While we stood in line, Denny said, “Dad always says Film Reel Video is a better store. Do you like it better there or here?”

     “Dad only likes Film Reel because it has titty movies.” The lady in front of us threw a concerned glance in our direction, and then looked away.

     “He doesn’t watch em though.”

     “You’d be surprised.”

     The fellow at the counter was not the longhaired teenager we were used to, and that was the first sign that something was off. It was an old gangly man whose eyes were so far back in his sockets that they were trying to bury themselves. He seemed like the kind of guy who would enjoy a titty movie.

     “Hello, children,” he said. His smile was rigid and straight like an upside down trapezoid.

     I suddenly didn’t want to rent anything anymore, but Denny marched right up to the counter with childhood ignorance. He glanced back, his eyes asking if I was stepping up to plate or not. For someone who was so afraid of stranger danger, he could be a real dumbass.

     A small plaque was screwed on the wall behind the counter. It read, “New Management” in plain black text. The new management was the most nefarious looking bastard I’d ever seen in my thirteen years. He reminded me of Freaky Fred on Courage the Cowardly Dog. The man’s thin frame towered over us just as the Blockbuster sign towered over the store. His blue polo shirt hung loosely from his narrow body, tucked into gray slacks.

     “How are we today?” He spoke in such a slow, smooth way that made me feel three years old.

     “We’re okay,” I answered.

     He examined the VHS sleeve, and then disappeared in the shadowy back room that always had every movie ever made. He came back with the orange Nickelodeon tape in his skeletal hand.

     “Do you have a kid’s membership with us?” He leaned far over the counter and eyeballed me.

     I choked, unable to speak at first. “No. I don’t.”

     “Would you like to sign up for–”

     “No.”

     Denny glanced at me curiously, and then shifted his attention back to the candy shelf at our knees. He looked longingly at the Reese’s Cups.

     “All right,” the employee said, never breaking his smile. “A three day rental comes to five dollars.”

     After I paid, he slid the tape across the counter and pointed at it with a bony finger. “Do you see this sticker?” He tapped it with a long fingernail. “We take this policy very seriously here at Blockbuster.”

     It read, “Be kind! Please rewind!”

     “I understand,” I said.

     I expected that to be the end of it, but then the man leaned over the counter even further, lurching out at me. I smelled Chesterfields on his breath. He said, “Do you know what happens to little boys who don’t rewind their tapes?”

     At that moment, I wished we could’ve afforded a DVD player. I shook my head no.

     “Well,” the employee tilted his head in thought. “Let’s just say that we’ll rewind you.”

     “What does that mean?”

     “Be a good little boy and you won’t have to find out, now will you?” He returned to his regular posture, a beanpole planted over the checkout counter.

#

     That night, Denny and I propped up in our respective bunk beds (I had bottom) and watched the movie. I was clever enough to hide the Blockbuster case in Denny’s backpack. I didn’t want our parents knowing we hadn’t taken the bus straight from school. After leaving Blockbuster, we’d walked two miles through bland suburbia to get home.

     The movie wasn’t too bad, but I thought the previous two Rugrats movies were better. Denny enjoyed it more than me.

     That weekend drifted by on a slow motion wave of boredom, as it so often does for children. Rain drizzled against the window, mandating that our Saturday take place indoors. I watched Denny play GameCube; he watched me put together a model car. Church crept by the following morning at a snail’s pace, the old pastor’s voice making me wish I were anyplace else.

     But after school on Monday afternoon, I met Denny outside on the front stoop. Kids zoomed past us on their way to the buses, which chuffed blue exhaust smoke at the curb. The air was pungent with diesel.

     I said, “You have the tape?”

     He shook his head.

“What do you mean? Where’d it go?” The Blockbuster man had nearly shit his pants over the rewind policy. What would he have done if we didn’t return it at all?

     “Mom found it this morning and said she’d take it back for us on her way to work.”

     I slackened my posture. “Oh. Okay.” I paused. “Did she rewind it?”

     Denny shrugged.

#

     That night, I was situated at my desk, secretly staring at my science textbook’s diagram of female anatomy. When Denny walked in, I slammed the book shut and crammed it in the drawer.

But Denny didn’t even notice. He looked concerned.

     “Do you know what happened to my GameCube?”

     I glanced over my shoulder and said, “Do you have amnesia? It’s right over–” But the place on the floor where it should’ve been was a blank patch of carpet. I tried to remember if it had been there when I walked in the room. Usually I stepped over the controllers on my way to the desk, and I even closed my eyes trying to recall, but I couldn’t.

     Do you know what happens to little boys who don’t rewind their tapes?

     “Did mom or dad take it?” I asked.

     “I already asked them.” Denny’s face was solemn and a little sad. “Did you hide it?”

     He was accustomed to me pulling pranks like that. “No I didn’t.”

     “Then somebody stole it!” Denny said. He plopped down on the edge of my bed and brought his knees to his face. “And my games are all gone, too.”

     I glanced over at the milk crate in the corner where he kept them. It was empty.

     Let’s just say that we’ll rewind you.

     Denny’s livelihood revolved around his GameCube, and before that, it was his Nintendo 64. Like best friends, he and his video games were inseparable.

     “Well… just watch TV or something, and I’ll go look for it. Okay?”

     Denny nodded, on the verge of tears. He trusted me to his core, and I was a big enough asshole to take advantage of that from time to time. There were other moments when I hid his things, namely his shoes when he was running late for something, but this time I was in the clear. I’d been staring at a vagina diagram for a half hour, pencil clutched in my fist so that from the hallway, it looked like I was doing homework.

     Cartoon Network snapped onto the old Zenith TV, and then I disappeared downstairs. Mom and Dad were in the living room.

     “Does anyone know what happened to Denny’s GameCube? He looks kinda sad without it.”

     Dad glanced up from a hardcover book. “Who?”

     “Denny.”

     “Oh, right, Denny.” Dad face held a worried expression, his stress lines showing the dawn of middle age.

     “GameCube?” Mom said. “Denny hasn’t got a GameCube.”

     “You bought it for him last Christmas.” I went to the mantle over the fireplace and picked up a framed picture. It was of Denny and I on the couch, controllers in our hands as we played Super Smash Bros. “The GameCube is right here in the–”

     My words trailed away. It was no longer a picture of Denny and me. It was just me with a void spot on the couch to my left. No GameCube. I held it in front of me, dumbfounded.

     Mom said, “What are you getting at?”

     “You all right?” Dad asked.

     I dropped the picture back on the mantle with shaky hands. I said, “Mom, did you rewind the tape before you took it back to Blockbuster?”

     She chewed on a pen, taking her attention away from the crossword puzzle in her lap. “No, I didn’t. Did you rewind it when you watched it Friday?”

     “No, Denny was supposed to this morning.”

     “Well maybe they’ll fine you and it’ll teach you boys not to run around on your own after school.” She scribbled in her crossword book again, her mind only half present.

     I fumed and went back upstairs. I fully expected Denny to have vanished, but when I pushed the bedroom door open, he was there. He glanced at me sadly.

     “Did you find it?”

     “No,” I said. I almost started to tell him about the photo from the mantle, and then thought better of it. He was eight years old. He didn’t need to worry about that, too. “Maybe it’ll turn up someplace.” I sat down beside him and clapped him on the back. The mattress creaked beneath my weight.

     “I hope so.”

#

     Mom brought my laundry upstairs a short while later, which I accepted as a wad in both arms. I went to work folding all of it (my least favorite part), and then came time to put it away (my second least favorite part). When I peeled back the closet doors, Denny’s clothes were gone. His half of the closet was a barren space, picked clean of everything. I shot a wild glance over my shoulder to see if he noticed, but he didn’t. He was lost in an episode of Johnny Bravo.

     I swung the closet doors shut as if to shield the sight. I crossed the room and opened Denny’s dresser. The drawers pulled out easily because there was nothing in them. They were empty and hollow.

     “Hey, Denny,” I said. “How are you feeling?”

     “Good,” he said. “A little tired. Why?”

     “Just curious.”

#

     When we went to bed that night, I lay awake for a long time before drifting off into some thin gray world between sleep and wakefulness. I had no dreams, only unclear thoughts about Denny, as if I was trying desperately to gather my memories of him before–

     Before what?

     My eyelids popped open early – five o’clock, a time normally reserved for rolling over and dozing some more. It had been the kind of meager sleep where I was glad it was finally an acceptable time to get out of bed. We didn’t have to be up for school until six, and if we were pushing it, six-thirty. I was relieved to see that the top bunk still hovered over my head, shadowing my bottom bunk in perpetual darkness.

     Completely alert, I rolled out of bed, careful not to hit my head on the top bunk. I’d busted my head open on it once, and instead of taking me to the hospital, Dad cleaned the wound with diesel fuel and smothered it in an old t-shirt. On my feet, Denny’s mattress was at eye level, and I should’ve been staring him in the face from this position. But the only trace of Denny was a rounded indentation on the pillow. The Pokémon covers were draped over the mattress, looking ghostlike without Denny’s small body tucked underneath.

     Then there were footsteps in the hallway, and a light came on. I rushed out and said, “Oh Denny, you scared me for a minute.”

     But Denny wasn’t there. It was Dad. He was hunched over in the hallway tightening his bootlaces. He said “What are you doing up, son?”

     “Have you seen Denny?”

     “Who?”

     “Denny.”

     “Who’s Danny?”

     “Is Mom awake?” I peeked past Dad toward their bedroom at the opposite end of the hall, but the door was shut.

     “She’s sleeping still. Who are you talking about, ‘Danny’?”

     The blood drained from my head, and I felt like a weightless man drifting across a cloud. I said, “My brother.”

     Dad chuckled, buttoning his work shirt. He looked scruffy and worn in the bathroom’s dim yellow light that spilled a rectangular sliver into the hallway. “You need to go back to sleep, buddy. You’re dreaming again.”

     I opened my mouth, but snapped it shut. I glanced back into the bedroom. The top bunk was gone, a realization that shoved me into some unknown world of make believe. I leaned into the doorframe, holding back a scream. There used to be a professional photo of Denny and I hanging on the wall, both of us dressed in matching polo shirts. It was now a photo of me, alone.

     All of Denny’s things had gone along with him. When Mom woke up, I waited for her to mention my little brother, to ask if he was coming down for breakfast. She never did. When we got in the car to go to school, she never asked if he was coming. And that afternoon, he wasn’t waiting for me on the front stoop outside, clutching his backpack straps in his fists.

     I never told a soul. I’m a fairly private person, but even that was difficult to keep secret. My little brother’s existence now belonged to Blockbuster. If I brought it up to anyone, I’d have been labeled a loon, yanked from school and sent to an institution. I wanted none of that, so I just kept Denny Stills a quiet little secret until now. Because I knew precisely what happened to him. Blockbuster rewound him.

     That was fifteen years ago, and Blockbuster has been out of business for a long time now. But evidently they haven’t forgotten my debt.

     Today I came home from work (I’m a high school teacher), and noticed the welcome mat was gone from my doorstep. I figured someone stole it, so I went inside and realized all the magnets from my fridge were also gone. Weird thief.

     Tonight though, I went downstairs and saw I had no furniture anymore. It looked like a house that someone hadn’t moved into yet, the kind of open space a realtor would prance through. But I know what happened. I know because it happened to Denny.

     So I’m writing this now, very quickly, in hopes that it will stay behind after I go – wherever I’m going. Over the course of the past couple hours, everything in my office has vanished, that is, except for this desk, the computer, and myself. I smell the chocolaty peanut butter of Reese’s Cups.

     It won’t be long. Existence stretches thin by the minute, as if the fabric of me is being split between two worlds, and my trembling hands are starting t

THE END

Gabriel Tuggle is a speculative fiction writer from central Kentucky. He is twenty-one years old, and will soon graduate from UK with a degree in english.

Jim Phoenix

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About the Author

Real skull. Don't ask. You wouldn't believe it if I told you.

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