And another short story destined for virtual obscurity. Enjoy, invisible readers!
The Video Store
The moment I rounded the corner, I knew class had been canceled. As early as I tended to be, a few of the other students were always gathered outside the lecture hall by the time I showed. But today, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
I glanced at the note on the door. It read: “Professor Geary is out with the flu. He will NOT be present for Intro to Film. Many apologies.”
An email would’ve been nice, but I couldn’t complain. Instead of spending the next three hours hip-deep in the French New Wave, I had the entire afternoon to myself.
For a moment, I considered getting a jump start on my midterms, but figured the studying could wait. Even though I’d been living in Prescott for nearly a month, I had gotten any exploring done. What could I say? I’d been dealing with a lot – adjusting to life as a freshman, getting settled into my apartment, learning how to tolerate my new roommates, being away the family.
But with class out of the way, this seemed like a perfect time to correct that.
Not having a car, I had to make do with the bus. It wasn’t long before I found myself in downtown Prescott, surrounded by used bookstores, upscale cafes, and vegan-friendly restaurants.
I hefted my backpack over my shoulder, relishing the crisp, clean air and quiet, laid back atmosphere. As I made my way past the brick-and-mortar shops, I spotted a sign across the street: “Fred’s Fade Out Video Store.”
It made me chuckle. A mom and pop video store? Hadn’t they gone extinct?
I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic as memories flooded back – Blockbuster Video, the distinctive smell of buttered popcorn and chocolate candy, cardboard cutouts, an endless maze of aisles with all the movies an eight-year-old could want.
Of course, that was ten years ago. Like the rest of the world, I hadn’t given video stores a second thought in a long time. My curiosity grew. Before I even realized it, I was crossing the street as if to meet an old friend.
After taking a single step inside, I froze. All around me were shelves and shelves packed with movies, thousands of them. Almost every square inch of wall space was occupied. Hell, there was even a staircase leading to a second, equally jam-packed floor. But the place wasn’t cluttered at all. Somehow, despite the sheer volume, the movies were arranged with an almost scientific precision – perfectly straight, not a speck of dust to be seen.
The thing that really got me, though, was the physical format of the movies themselves. As I scanned the incredible library, I couldn’t find any DVDs or BluRays. Nope. Just thousands of VHS tapes. Again, I chuckled – this time from disbelief rather than nostalgia.
My gaze swept the entire store, resting on a man. He stood with his hands folded behind his back, looking right at me with a warm, pleasant smile. How long had he been standing there?
I blinked in surprise and considered the man for a few more moments. He was bald and wearing glasses that made his eyes look as big as an owl’s. The guy couldn’t have been more than five feet tall and he looked even skinnier than me. Had I seen him on campus, I would’ve assumed he was just another brainy professor.
“Hi,” said the man, his voice deep and powerful. “Welcome to Fred’s Fade Out Video Store. I’m Fred.”
“Jason,” I blurted, still feeling a bit caught off guard.
“Good afternoon, Jason. Are you looking for something in particular today, or just browsing?”
“Browsing, I guess. To be honest, I haven’t seen a video store in a long time, especially an independent one.”
“We are a dying breed, aren’t we? Although I like to think Fred’s is the exception to that.”
I gave him a slight nod, my gaze drifting back to the shelves. “Not sure I’ve ever seen a VHS tape up close…”
“I’m sure it must seem rather odd to a young man such as yourself. We do carry a small selection of DVDs in the back room, but the vast majority of our titles were produced well before the digital age.”
I shrugged. “Why not just convert them?”
Fred looked genuinely confused. “Why? The tapes are in excellent condition. You know what they say: if something isn’t broke…” He indicated my backpack. “I take it you’re attending the university?”
“Film major?” he asked in a hopeful tone.
“To the utter delight of my parents,” I answered.
“Then you will certainly appreciate what we here at Fred’s provide. Of course, if you’re searching for the latest romantic comedy or summer blockbuster, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. The titles we offer are films you’re not going to find on Netflix.” His smile widened at my obvious intrigue. “In fact, you can search the entirety of the Internet and nowhere will you locate any of these films.”
I furrowed my brow. “Just what kind of movies are we talking about?”
“The forgotten ones.” Without breaking eye contact, Fred reached towards one of the shelves, selected a tape, and offered it to me.
I smirked at the cover – naked women with vicious, animal-like expressions, their hands reaching out like claws. Above the pack of feral-looking women, spelled in blood-red lettering, was the title: Torture Tramps.
The tagline proudly exclaimed: “Thumbscrews! Buzz Saws! Ice Picks! Humans Skinned Alive! And that’s only the First Five Minutes!”
“What if I was to tell you that the movie you’re holding is, by far, the worst film ever made?” asked Fred.
I cracked a grin. “I don’t know. I’ve seen Plan Nine from Outer Space.”
Fred burst into a laugh. “Plan Nine might as well be Casablanca compared to Torture Tramps. Upon its release in 1977, this film sparked immediate outrage for its relentless depictions of gore, sadomasochistic abuse, psychological humiliation, and many other things I dare not speak aloud. Its story concerns a pack of young, sex-starved cannibals dwelling in the sewers, where they place their kidnapped victims through gruesome and reprehensible tortures. That tagline is quite accurate – the opening sequence ends with the castration of the high school basketball star. The film was quickly pulled from grindhouse theaters and officially withdrawn from circulation. Torture Tramps goes far beyond bad taste – it is a worthless, ugly piece of filth, totally devoid of artistic merit. This isn’t just bad cinema – it’s an affront to basic human decency. In fact, during the film’s brief theatrical run, an urban legend developed that not a single person had the stomach to sit through an entire viewing.”
I gave him a skeptical look. “You get a lot of requests for Torture Tramps?”
“You would be surprised. Curiosity is a powerful thing, particularly when it’s regarding a forbidden subject.”
Part of me understood exactly what he was talking about. As I looked at the poorly-designed cover again, I couldn’t deny a bit of temptation to see if the hype was real.
“But before you go thinking we only peddle cinema’s most revolting atrocities, allow me to show you another title.” Fred crossed to the other side of room, his magnified eyes focused like a laser beam as he retrieved a second tape. “An animated Danish film from 1954 called Nice People. Told entirely from the perspective of a squirrel residing in a family’s backyard. It begins happily enough. The squirrel comes to love the family living inside the house. But slowly, he catches glimpses of what it’s really like behind those locked windows – spousal abuse, alcoholism, infidelity, child neglect, even a self-induced abortion. The squirrel is totally powerless to help as the situation grows more and more unnerving. Finally, the neighbor’s cat attacks the squirrel and eats him alive. The film is a profound meditation on loneliness and existential dread. Thanks to a wave of toxic publicity, this little gem has spent the last sixty years in cinematic limbo.” Fred carefully tucked the video back into place, adding, “This is less a video store than it is a shop of oddities. All of our titles have a unique story behind them. When you rent from us, you rent a part of history.” He raised an eyebrow. “Care to take a look around?”
Before I could answer, a picture on one of the cover spines jumped out at me. It was the crude drawing of a face – green skin, pointed chin, black eyes with no pupils, pretty much the stereotypical extraterrestrial.
I picked up the tape. The cover was completely black, showing only the title: “THEY ARE HERE: AUTHENTIC, REAL-LIFE FOOTAGE OF AN ALIEN ABDUCTION. WARNING: NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.”
“I take it they had video cameras on the spaceship?” I asked jokingly.
“It doesn’t take place on a spaceship.”
“You’ve seen it?”
“I’ve seen all the videos in our library. That one comes from a young documentarian who claimed to have received the footage from an anonymous source. Unfortunately, the documentarian was killed in a car accident shortly afterwards. The film itself was dismissed as a clever hoax.”
“I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. I’ll simply say that if it is indeed a fake, it’s nothing short of a masterpiece.”
I smirked. This guy was a good salesman. “Guess I could use a laugh. Now all I have to do is find a VHS player…”
“You mean a VCR,” said Fred, moving behind the counter. He reached down and produced a boxy device and a pair of AV cables. “Complimentary with every rental. Shall I go ahead and ring this up?”
“Sure, what the hell?”
“That’ll be five dollars, please.”
I was expecting more, given how rare these films were. I handed him a five dollar bill and he placed everything into a large plastic bag.
“Have it back no later than Friday,” he said with a sparkle in his eyes. “And enjoy.”
I cut the exploring short and caught the next bus back to my apartment. My roommates both had class that night, so I waited until they were gone to hook up the VCR and load the tape.
I took a seat on the couch as grainy white text appeared against a black background. It read: “DEPARTMENT OF THE AIR FORCE. CAUTION: THIS FOOTAGE IS CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET. ALL INDIVIDUALS HANDLING THIS INFORMATION ARE REQUIRED TO PROTECT IT FROM UNAUTHORIZED DISCLOSURE IN THE INTEREST OF THE NATIONAL SECURITY OF THE UNITED STATES.”
Nice touch, I thought. The black-and white, the scratchy sound quality, the numerous video artifacts – at least there’d been some effort to make this look authentic.
The message disappeared, replaced by a sudden string of codes. They flashed by rapidly, too fast to decipher.
The next thing to appear on the screen was a man in a military uniform. He was sitting behind a desk, both hands folded in front of him, a grim look on his rugged face. The set had a bunker-like quality to it. There was a series of folded American flags behind the man, along with a wall-sized map of the US.
“Gentlemen, we have carefully weighed all possible aspects of the EBE proposal with the utmost scrutiny and rigor. While we loathe permitting the abuse of American civilians, we also understand that failure to accept would most likely result in a partnership between the EBEs and the USSR. Such a partnership would pose incalculable risks to the American way of life. Therefore, we have no choice but to accept the offer – on the condition that all individuals selected for experimentation are returned promptly, with little to no recollection of their ordeal. The EBEs have agreed to this. As a show of good faith, they have allowed a small delegation to personally view and film a routine abduction scenario.”
The screen fizzled to black. Seconds ticked by. Nothing. I waited anxiously, wondering if the tape was busted. I stood up to check when the screen crackled back to life. A group of men, a dozen of them or so, stood in a dimly-lit space, dressed in medical garb and surgical masks. Where were they? A hangar? Someplace underground?
A muffled voice from off-camera said, “Rolling, sir.”
One of the men nodded in response, possibly the same man from the introduction.
The camera panned to a black table sitting under a bright spotlight. From out of the shadows, a child-sized figure emerged – a humanoid creature with a hairless, elongated skull and two wet, glittering orbs for eyes.
I shot forward, absolutely stunned. That wasn’t a kid in some rubber suit. It couldn’t be – not with such a skeletal, stick-like body. A puppet, then? How did they get the details so perfect – the deep wrinkles and moving chest, the pulsing veins, the protruding ribcage? How did they get it to walk so smoothly? Where the hell were the strings? Was it a digital composite? I searched for any glaring CG flaws – jump cuts, pixel distortions, inconsistencies in lighting and shadow.
I found none.
More and more creatures followed out of the darkness, gathering around the table, waiting for something. A final figure emerged. It was a creature identical to the others, with one exception – the alien towered above the others, standing at least eight feet tall. As the large alien strode up to the table, it turned its head directly towards the camera.
My jaw dropped and my heart raced. I became instinctively, undeniably aware that the tall alien wasn’t just staring at the camera.
It was staring at me.
As those cold eyes drilled straight through my core, a hypnotic haze consumed my vision. I was swept away like an ant in a tidal wave.
After a few moments, the haze cleared to reveal a spotlight shining in my face. I winced at the burning sensation, trying to blink away the white specks swirling in my eyes. As the disorientation melted away, I realized I was lying on my back and that my clothes were…gone.
I shivered, partly from primal fear, partly from the freezing surface against my bare skin. I tried to stand, but the muscle didn’t budge. All I could move were my eyes – my frightened, pleading eyes.
Shapes appeared, looming over me. I blinked some more. The shapes resolved into the faces of the alien creatures. Their moist, ebony eyes peered down at me with businesslike detachment, as if I was nothing but a lab animal.
A scream demanded to escape my lips, but I could only watch – totally helpless – as one of the creatures aimed a pen-shaped device at my right shoulder. My skin tingled with a warm, vaguely pleasant sensation. As the tingling faded, two of the creatures pulled something into the light.
They were holding my severed arm. My arm…they’d cut if off!
Despite the volcano of horror erupting inside my gut, I managed only a weak moan as the creatures moved off with my cleanly amputated limb.
The skin on my left shoulder began tingling. I squeezed my watery eyes shut until the tingling stopped. When I dared to crack my eyes back open, the haze of tears blurred everything. I blinked several times. My vision cleared up and I saw my left arm – sliced off at the shoulder without a trace of spilled blood, the exposed bone glistening in the spotlight.
I sobbed as the tingling sensations crept over both of my upper thighs. Within seconds, the creatures pulled my legs away from the rest of my body. They weren’t going to leave me like this, were this? Why didn’t they just kill me?
Please kill me, I wanted to beg them. I tried to force the words out, but I couldn’t – I couldn’t do anything as they lowered a machine that stretched my mouth open. One of the creatures leaned towards me, my own terrified face reflected in its gleaming eyes. The creature reached into my mouth with the pen-like object. My back molar tingled. Another alien reached down with a pair of tweezers and yanked the toot out of my jawbone. The creature dropped my bloodied tooth somewhere off to the side as the tingling sensation spread to another tooth. And another. And another.
Rivers of sweat poured down my temples as every single tooth was extracted. I let out a long, pathetic whimper. What else could they possibly do to me?
I gasped as the pen-shaped object was aimed directly at my face.
Oh, God. No!
The tingling began at the top of my forehead, moving down the sides of my face inch by inch, finally ending at my chin.
The aliens reached out with hook-like instruments, dug beneath the loosened tissue, and started to peel. An excruciating moment later, my own face was staring back at me – a hollow-eyed flap of skin, permanently frozen in a look of utter fear.
Why was I still breathing? Why hadn’t I died? Why didn’t they just kill me?
“Christ, this is routine?” asked a human voice.
“Don’t worry,” replied another human. “He won’t remember much.”
Suddenly, the tall alien produced a mechanical device equipped with a long, thin spike. A high-pitched shriek assault my ears as the spike whirred to life, spinning in a rapid blur. Without hesitation, the tall creature plunged the spike into my nasal cavity. I groaned as the spike drilled into the depths of my skull and triggered a series a loud, wet pops. All I could feel, besides pure despair, was the relentless spike drilling and deeper into my brain.
I woke up.
The tape was still playing, but the screen showed only black. I sucked in a gulp of air, trembling and confused. Finally, I managed to drag myself back to reality. The green glow on the digital clock read 9:18 pm.
An hour had passed. I’d fallen asleep. It was a dream. I’d fallen asleep. I was a bad nightmare.
I pulled myself off the couch, staggered into the bathroom, and checked the mirror. I looked okay – pale and sweaty, but I was in one piece. After stripping off my clothes and finding no scars or blood, I downed some Pepto-Bismol and ejected the tape.
When my roommates came back, I told them I had the flu and went to bed. Hour after hour, I quivered under the sheets, telling myself it’d only been a nightmare.
But I couldn’t ignore the lingering chill of a tabletop on my back.
I skipped class the next day and went back to the video store. I didn’t want that tape anywhere near me.
“I trust it met your expectations?” asked Fred, placing the VCR back beneath the counter.
I mumbled something and turned to get the hell out of there. As I stepped out of the door, I heard Fred’s voice one final time.
“It’s just like I said: when you rent from us, you rent a part of history.”
My next stop was a doctor’s office. I had to be sure. My stomach twisted into a queasy knot as the doctor examined the x-rays.
“Well Jason, based on what I see here, I have no choice…but to give you a clean bill of health.”
Relief washed over me, my shoulders sagging as the pent-up tension drained away.
The doctor gave me a sympathetic look. “Something made you come in here. What’s bothering you?”
I took a deep breath, ready to tell him about the crazy dream. Then I caught sight of something on one of the x-rays – an odd mark inside my nose. “What’s that?”
The doctor shrugged. “Minor scar tissue,” he said, reassuring me with a smile. “It’s perfectly normal for anyone who’s ever broken their nose before.”
I stared at him, dumbstruck. The words came out very, very slowly. “I’ve never broken my nose…”