C O M P L E X    S T A R T L E    R E S P O N S E

by Miracle Jones

Noel said: “If you guys run the tapes and restock the candy, I’ll count down the tills. We can get out of here in thirty minutes. Put on whatever you want. Don’t let Denny pick, or it’ll be Bill Cosby again.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Denny said. 

But then Noel screamed “Oh hell no” from the back room just as I finished wiping down the front windows.

“What’s wrong?” I said, hating the dread in his voice. He came out to the floor. Noel and Denny were both blue-eyed blondes with high-and-tight fades, but Denny was a dangly plastic skeleton (lacking meat, hard to ever take seriously) whereas Noel was squat, froggish, and shrewd.

“Bets left a note," Noel said. "The call-list was so long this morning that she didn’t do any rewinds. Check that mountain of favorites she left and see if any of ‘em are rewound, okay? We’re not getting out of here before two, are we? Fuccccccckkkkk.”

I picked an amaray at random, shaking it to feel the living weight of the tape inside. The click-clack of the reels was satisfying and informative. I cracked open the amaray and noted the unhygienic split of the threaded tape without even checking to see what the movie was. The movie didn’t matter.

“Yeah, none of these are rewound,” I said. Instead of being spun all the way to one side, the reel was split between both spools. It was untidy. Obnoxious. Fucking disgusting. If you were to put the tape in and press play, it would start right in the middle of the movie, spoiling it for you. This also meant that the maniac who rented this movie only watched it halfway before turning it off. 

“Alright, MJ—rewind the favorites. Denny, run the tapes. I’ll do the wall. Fuck the candy. Bets can do the candy in the morning since we’re doing her rewinds.”

This was absolutely fair. Restocking the candy was much easier than rewinds. If we didn’t do the rewinds now, the whole system would cascade into failure. No matter what, the dropbox would fill up overnight from people dropping off “favorites”—what Blockbuster called movies that were no longer new and which people could therefore rent for five nights without late fees. Tomorrow was Saturday, which meant that we absolutely had to absorb some of the damage of the return stampede tonight to stay on top of the weekend and prevent congestion collapse.

“What the fuck is that?” asked Denny, staring over my shoulder. His arms were loaded with tapes in amaray cases that he intended to return to their dedicated spots on the floor. I was just about to put a naked favorite into the auto-rewinder.

“That’s not one of ours,” he said. “That title is just a scribble. What tape is that supposed to be?”

He was right. In the space on the tape where a movie title should go, there was nothing but a black spiral drawn in magic marker. I turned the tape over. There wasn’t a Blockbuster sticker on the back. I looked at the spine on the amaray—the technical term that Blockbuster used for the tape’s custom-branded plastic jacket. 

“Children of the Corn 2,” I said. “The Final Sacrifice.”

“That’s not Children of the Corn 2: The Final Sacrifice,” he said. “Put it in the trailer TV. Let’s see what it really is.”

“Let me rewind it first.”

“Nah, just put it in.”

I popped out the trailer tape from the networked VCR that played A-pop music videos and manic popcorn ads to all the TVs in the store. I put this new tape into the VCR instead. Denny put his armload of new releases down and sat on the counter. He took off his blue Blockbuster polo shirt, exposing his Roadkill Café t-shirt tucked into his cargo shorts. I sat down next to him, glad to take the weight off my feet. 

“Why’s it so quiet in here?” asked Noel, peeking out from the back room. “What’re you watching?”

“MJ found some weird tape that someone accidentally returned,” said Denny. “Probably porn.”

We stared at the default blue screen on the trailer TV above the register as the tape loaded. After a few moments, the blue screen was replaced by grainy video footage that looked like it was from a security camera inside of an elevator. The doors on the elevator opened. A woman in a puffy winter coat stepped inside. She carried a grocery bag and her purse together in one hand and she had a tube of lipstick in the other. She started applying the lipstick, using the elevator’s silver interior wall as a mirror.

Just as the elevator door started to shut, a man burst into the elevator and caught her by surprise, hitting her with a blunt object that could have either been a brick or a small potted plant. It was definitely terracotta colored. She crumpled, putting her hands up over her head. The man kept hitting her. The video was silent but you could still basically hear her screaming.

“Jesus,” Denny said. “Is this for real?”

“I think this is for real,” Noel said. 

“No sound?” 

I clicked the remote several times to check.

“No sound.”

As the woman cowered, the man looked all around him, staring for a moment into the camera. It was impossible to make out his actual features on account of the blur in the footage. He had a beard and haunted eyes. He leaned down and opened the woman’s coat, hiking her legs up as he fumbled with his own belt.

“He’s gonna rape her,” Denny said, excited.

The man picked up the fallen lipstick and looked at it, confused. Maybe he was making sure it wasn’t pepper spray. He only paused for a moment and then resumed pulling the unconscious woman’s dress down.

“Turn it off,” said Noel. “Where the fuck did this come from?”

I hit the off button. The footage went dead. We all gathered around the register above the cabinet with the VCR. 

“Let me see the tape,” said Noel. I popped it out and gave it to him. He stared at the magic marker spiral where the title should be.

“Pull up the account on the rental,” he said. 

I scanned the Children of the Corn 2 amaray with the laser scanner. The account came up. It said we had two copies and the last person to rent this particular copy of the movie was someone named Fox Mulder.

“That’s not a real name,” said Denny.

“Yeah, no shit,” said Noel. He entered his secret manager’s password. Now Fox Mulder’s credit card information materialized. The card number was a Visa with the number 6666-6666-6666-6666. It expired on Halloween in the year 2000.

“That’s fake, too,” said Denny.

“Wow, are you an FBI agent?” asked Noel. “So then tell me how the fuck this guy managed to get a Blockbuster card?”

Noel pulled up Fox Mulder’s rental history. It was all cop movies (Deathwish, Police Academy, Mr. Majestyk) and then crappy low budget horror movies (Motel Hell, Monkeyshines, Critters, The Gate). 

“Either of y’all know the dude who rented this?” asked Noel. “Either of y’all recognize this history?”

“Looks like he comes in during the day,” said Denny, pointing at the timestamp on his last rental. “Bets might know him.”

“I’m in school during the day,” I said.

“I’m drunk during the day,” said Denny.

“Was the whole tape just that one girl getting raped?” asked Noel. 

I put the movie back in the trailer VCR and hit rewind.

We watched the scene in the elevator play out in reverse. We spun past similar scenes, all jaspé security footage of women being assaulted in libraries, in the walk-in refrigerators of chain restaurants, in empty parking lots. There were also short videos of old Black men dying in the gas chamber down in Huntsville and at least one video of a dead woman in a ditch, where the camera lovingly lingered on the bruises on her neck. Cop lights flashed during this video, meaning that the video must have been filmed while cops were around. One of the strangest segments was security footage of a magician bleeding out on stage from a duct-taped ankle wound while people just stood around watching.

“This is some scuzzy snuff shit,” said Denny. “We shouldn’t be watching this.”

“Turn it off,” said Noel.

The tape wasn’t completely rewound, but I turned it off anyway.

“Let me think,” said Noel. “We rented the original tape to somebody who made a fake account. This account was created way before our time. Like four years ago. Only Bets has been here that long.”

“The footage was taped from closed-circuit TVs or something,” said Denny. “Maybe he’s a security guard?”

“There’s nothing we can do about it right this second. I really don’t have time for this and I’m only here for one more week. MJ, you’re doing the turnaround shift tomorrow morning, aren’t you?”

I did indeed have to work the turnaround shift in the morning. I lived within walking distance to the store so I didn’t mind doing the double shift on weekends, since it meant I would always have my Saturday night free.

“I’ll make a note, but don’t let Bets watch the tape, okay?  Bets doesn’t need to see this.”

“Sure,” I said.

“You’re my hero,” said Noel. “Since you’re on turnaround and since you’re doing me this favor, I’ll cut you loose early. Me and Denny will finish up the floor. Get out of here. Go home happy. Okay, Denny, put on Richard Pryor. My brain needs a bath. Pryor’s got soul.”

“And how do you define ‘soul’ without being racist?” Denny asked.

“Having fun despite the pain. Having pain despite the fun.”

I went home, but I couldn’t sleep, especially since I knew I had to be at work again in eight short hours. After a quiet eternity of just lying there trying to figure out where the tape came from, I walked back down to Blockbuster, let myself in early, and I made a copy of the tape using the trailer tape VCR and one of the extra VCRs that we rented out if somebody inexplicably didn’t have a VCR at home.

I don’t know why I did that. I don’t know why I do things sometimes. 


I took a nap in the break room on the couch below the picture of Micky Roemer–the general manager and the owner of both stores on the street–but I woke up a full hour before the next shift started. The drop box was completely full since people mostly returned their tapes in the morning before we opened. Tapes were also spilling out of the cabinet by the big glass doors that contained the videos from the walk-up chute.

The first thing you had to do with any returned tape was to check it in by scanning it with the laser scanner. If a tape made it to the floor without being checked in, that meant that somebody would be racking up late fees and would end up on the call list even though they’d returned their tape on time.  You could absolutely lose a customer to Hollywood Video forever that way. People got fired for shit like that.

I’d already made a good dent in running the tapes when Bets finally showed up. She was hungover and still wearing her make-up from last night. She walked right by me without even saying hello, only pausing long enough to put a tray full of coffees and a sack full of chocolate donuts on the counter for us.

Sue Ellen, the other CSR scheduled for the morning shift, was officially narcoleptic (a real diagnosis from a real doctor) and so she had a permanent Ritalin prescription which she graciously shared with anyone who asked. I heard Bets demand a few pills from her to get the shift off the ground. There was no shift worse than Saturday afternoon. Rotten little Texas families full of rotten little Texas kids.

“What’s this?” Bets asked me, returning from the break room, holding the tape from last night and Noel’s note about it. 

“It’s totally fucked up,” I said. “Somebody accidentally returned security cam footage in the wrong case. It’s Faces of Death or something. Actually, it was rented on an account that shouldn’t even exist. Noel thought you might know the dude, since he comes in during the day. The account is registered to someone named Fox Mulder?”

“That’s definitely a fake name,” said Bets. “He must pay in cash. I never look at their names when they rent if they pay in cash and don’t have late fees.”

“I think Noel wants you to call management about it. Like, he thinks this tape itself might be a crime. He doesn’t even want you to watch it.”

“Oh Jesus fucking Christ,” she said. She frowned at the Children of the Corn 2 amaray, trying to get it to make sense.

Somebody knocked on the window outside, startling both of us. The store wasn’t open yet.

There was a tall cop at the door. He had a floppy, mud-colored mustache and aviator sunglasses.

He was holding the missing tape, the real tape of Children of the Corn 2: The Final Sacrifice. He was pressing it to the window like it was a security badge and grinning. 

I let him inside.

“Looking for this?” he said. He put the tape down by the register. He grinned at Bets and then he grinned at me, pushing his cop shades high up on his cop nose.

Everything suddenly made perfect sense. He didn’t even have to explain what must have happened. The tape he switched out must have been some sort of evidence compilation tape from the police station. Bets looked at me and I nodded as if everything that was happening was good and correct.

“Yeah, that’s the one we’re missing,” I said, getting the spiral tape from beneath the counter and handing it to the cop. He took it from me and then he looked at me for a long time.

“We were just about to call you about it,” I said. “The police in general, I mean. Not you specifically, sir.”

“Right,” he said. “Some dumbshit really screwed the pooch on this one. Not me. One of my boys.”

By “my boys” did he mean one of his own children or did he mean one of the cops who worked for him? My lack of a clear response as I tried to figure this out made the cop wilt. As I fumbled for what to say next, his avuncular intensity deflated under the weight of my tentative confusion. It was unsettling to see a cop so unsure of himself.

“You’re in high school?” he asked me eventually.

“Yes sir,” I said.

“High school job,” he said. The cop motioned for me to come out from behind the counter and to join him privately for a moment. I did as I was told while Bets looked at me curiously, letting me take responsibility for this. 

When we were alone together, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a business card. On one side there was a shield logo with the same colors in the same proportions as the Lone Star Flag. Eagle wings were spreading out of the shield’s shoulders. On the other side the card said: “Captain Nathan Carr.” There was a phone number but no email address. Nobody had email addresses on their business cards back then.

I was suddenly thrown back to my elementary school years in the DARE program, getting lame prizes for knowing world capitals or the difference between PCP and meth.

“Put that in your wallet front and center,” he said. “I’m not going to say it will get you out of a ticket. But just let anybody who pulls you over see that card first thing before they write you up. If they ask you how you got it, you just say you did me a favor once.”

“Wow,” I said. “Thanks, man.”

The cop awkwardly shook my hand and then walked to the door. 

“Y’all go ahead and cancel that account,” he said right before leaving. “And y’all go ahead and have an outstanding day.” It was a command. We were legally obligated to have an outstanding day. 

As soon as he was gone, Bets cozied up to me faster than green grass through a goose.  

“What he give you?” she asked.  “A ticket?”

“Opposite,” I said. “Get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“White boys gotta stick together,” she said. 

“The master race is beset on all sides by the conspiracy of the bungled and botched,” I agreed dreamily. I was already lost in thought. What were the odds that the dude wasn’t even really a cop?  Could that be possible?

I hated the fact that I had been the one who had interacted with him. I hated the fact that I had a copy of his tape still sitting in my backpack in the break room. I regretted every single aspect of our interaction and every single aspect of how I had handled myself regarding the situation thus far. 


“So what happened to the tape then?” Noel asked me later in the week during my next night shift. Noel was adding information into the system from a “new customer” application that Denny had just handed to him. It was one of Noel’s last nights working at Blockbuster as our night-shift manager and it was the last night that Denny and I were both working together with him.

“He just took the tape away with him in the end.”

Noel stopped typing and narrowed his eyes.

“Alright, Denny—I know this is fake, you dumb asshole,” yelled Noel. “Peter P. Person? You aren’t even trying.”

“No way,” Denny yelled back. “There’s a credit card number and everything.”

“This is definitely the correct amount of digits for a credit card number,” said Noel. “And they’re all definitely different numbers. So I guess you aren’t a completely useless rural simpleton. And yet, I fear that cow prions have completely eaten all your gas station meat-stick brains.”

“That’s Peter P. Person over there,” Denny said, pointing through the windows to a man smoking a cigarette in the Taco Cabana parking lot. “He’s waiting patiently for his temporary membership card. Print it up and I’ll give it to him personally.”

“You saw this man’s government-issued driver’s license and his corresponding VISA brand-credit card with your own inbred redneck peepers?”

“Definitely,” said Denny. “Listen man, credit comes from the Latin ‘to believe.’ Where would we be in this world without trust?”

The printer in the break room started whirring. Noel retrieved the card, slipping it into the hard gel paper stock to make it an official blue temporary Blockbuster Video card. Very prestigious.

Noel gave Denny the card and Denny put it in his pocket.

“What’re you even going to do with that, you chaw-chewing spitcup motherfucker?” asked Noel.

“Truly don’t know yet,” said Denny. 

“Fine,” said Noel. “You aren’t my problem anymore. Nothing here is my problem anymore.”

“You ready to start drinking yet?” asked Denny. “To celebrate?”

“Only if Peter P. Person is paying.”


On my break, I called the number for HPD from the phone in the break room and asked to speak with Captain Nathan Carr. The dispatcher didn’t say “not possible” or “that man does not exist.” The dispatcher said, “please hold, transferring you to Major Crimes.” I hung up. The phone rang. I switched to a different line and picked the phone up and pretended to be talking to my mom. When I saw the first line stop blinking I took the phone off the hook for ten minutes while I smoked a cigarette out front. No one noticed. Major Crimes didn’t call back.


We sat in lawn chairs in the backyard of Denny’s brother’s house, drinking Lone Stars packed in ice out of the old drop box. The drop box had been stolen from the curb by Denny’s older brother back when he was a manager. The top had been sheared off and it had been turned into a beer cooler.

I’d never had more than one beer at a time in my whole life, but today I was determined to drink at least six. Bets said she was going to give me a ride home so I didn’t even have to drive. Fuck yeah! Office party.

We ate giant Twizzlers from giant bags. We tossed Raisinettes at each other and pounded SURRRRGGGGGGGEEEEEEEEEE between beers to stay awake. We argued about Tarantino, Lynch, Lee, and Stone.

“Did y’all get all this candy where I think y’all got all this candy?” Noel asked.

“Uh no,” Denny said.

“Y’all know how shrinkage works right?  Y’all have to keep meticulous records and then you scan extras during inventory. But it all compounds, you know. Y’all gotta keep scanning extras every single month and average it all out. Y’all gotta have some months where you don’t steal anything at all.”

“Yeah yeah,” said Denny. “We know the drill.”

“I’m passing on hard-earned skills here,” said Noel. “Revel in my wisdom.”

“How does it feel to be a college graduate?” asked Bets. With her hair down and eyeshadow on, she looked loose and fun. But I liked the stern, hard-working Bets—the Bets who didn’t take any shit from anybody and who always knew the exact withering thing to say to a customer who refused to pay their late fees—the Bets who wanted to be a movie producer some day and who spoke both perfect Spanish and perfect English. 

“It feels good,” said Noel. “Are you asking because you finally wanna hook up with me now that we no longer gotta tell HR about our scandalous love affair?”

“I ONLY fuck my employees,” said Bets looking at me. My heart basically stopped. Did she know about my enormous crush on her? Obviously she did. But I was a high school CSR and she was a Sophomore at the University of Houston. I should only be interested in girls my own age from my own school, right? 

“So what’s the deal, Denny?” Bets asked. “I saw you walk out with forty tapes today. You rented all those tapes on your own account? Even with the employee discount—dunno man—seems excessive.”

“Not me,” said Denny, grinning. “They were all rented to a private gentleman named Peter P. Person. I’m just holding on to them for him.”

“Fuck off,” said Noel. “That’s your plan? You’re just going to create fake people using fake credit cards and rent movies to them whenever you want and never pay the late fees?”

“Yes,” said Denny. “That’s my plan. Got the idea from that cop. Fox Mulder or whatnot.”

“That could actually work,” said Bets. “I don’t really see how it could go wrong, actually. The whole point of having the credit card on file is so that we can charge you if you steal movies. But if the credit card doesn’t actually exist, then it will just bounce. We’ll get memos and extra training about looking at people’s IDs when they make new accounts. But we aren’t the DMV over here. It isn’t a federal offense or anything to rip off a Blockbuster.”

“Just a normal felony offense,” said Noel.

“Damn Bets, I wasn’t planning on keeping those tapes forever,” Denny said. But I could see bright new worms wriggling in the manure of his eyes. “Would this work for video games too?”

“What about whole video game consoles?” I asked.

“Sure, but tapes are actually more expensive than video game cartridges to replace. Each new release costs us like 150 dollars a piece from the studios. That’s why the late fees are so high—we need to rent out a new tape like twenty times before we start to profit. So we incentivize the churn.”

“What’re you studying in school again, Bets?” Noel asked, closing one eye and putting his hand over it as if she were giving him a headache.

“Business, my friend,” she said. She looked around, bored. “You trashed yet?” she asked me.

“Not even hardly wobbling,” I said.

“Listen, I gotta open tomorrow. So if you want a ride, it’s gotta be now.”

“I want a ride, Bets!” said Noel. 

“Me too!” said Denny.  

“You’re too old for me,” she said to Noel, grabbing my arm to steer me to the side gate. “And you’re too country,” she said to Denny.


In the Italian film A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, the practical effects genius Carlo Rambaldi–who would later go on to make the puppet from ET–created six mechanical dogs that were split open so that you could see their insides. Wires were connected to their oozing organs. Servos pumped blood to their exposed hearts, which were knotted like tumors and shivered like drumskins as they beat. In the film, the dogs whimper as their essence is cycled between them. They don’t look particularly realistic these days, but they were so disturbing at the time that the film’s director had to explain how they worked to a series of increasingly stern and skeptical Italian judges, even bringing the machines to court.

In a book from the ‘70s called The Family, the author Ed Sanders claimed that Charles Manson and his followers once stole a film camera from an NBC van that had been left unattended. They used this camera to film themselves torturing animals and having drug-fueled, LGBT-friendly group sex. Sanders claimed that they also filmed themselves committing ritual murders in the desert during their sojourn in Death Valley before Tate-LaBianca. No footage from this time period has ever been found. If this footage ever existed, it seems certain that one of the biker gangs who hung around with them would have destroyed it to avoid incrimination. But maybe the bikers kept the footage around to show at parties or to initiate new members? Maybe it is some white supremacist’s reluctant family inheritance, black magic history passed down parallel to the public record as secret murder art?

At the front of the train in every subway car in NYC there is a poster advertisement locked away under plexiglass. Locked behind this poster and therefore only accessible to the MTA, there is a running tally in slashed lines of all the people that each particular train has killed–all the dead from strokes and gunshots, all the dead from overdoses while sprawled out across three conjoined plastic seats, all the dead from being clipped or pulped or flattened. There’s cameras at every station. Every public space has a kill count. Someone is always watching, keeping score. 


“Do you want to help me open tomorrow?” Bets asked me as we sat in her car in front of my house. 

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Anything you need. It would be overtime for me though.”

“I’m the only manager right now until they elevate Denny so overtime is my call,” she said. “You’re kinda addicted to work, huh?”

“Being busy makes the time go by faster,” I said. “I like the feeling when my time is deleted and then I just get a paycheck.”

“Paying out overtime to you actually makes sense, so don’t even worry about it. You really grind. When you’re on the schedule, we could be down like a whole person and still get everything done. Ugh, we both gotta work tomorrow but I’m not even remotely tired. How about you? Do you want to come over to my apartment and hang out?”

I didn’t answer. I was simply too shocked.

“Do you want to kiss me?” she asked.


“If we keep making all these fake accounts, we’re literally going to have to fake a robbery to explain all the stuff we stole,” I said.

Peter P. Person, Herbert H. Hellraiser, Wiley Coyote, Manford Mann, Ignatius Popular, Helen H. Human, Tonya Harding, Joey Buttafuoco, James Lament-Configuration, Christian Jesus, Marvin P. Martian, Kaeto Kailin, Marv Albert, Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Cassell, He-man Eternia, She-ra Eternia, Johnny H. Maniac, Bill B. Blockbuster.

“Literally?” Denny said, mocking me. “Management is literally trying to kill this store. Everybody literally goes to the good Blockbuster now. It’s literally only a mile away. Even my mom and my brother literally go there.”

The good Blockbuster was right down the street, tucked in behind the Kroger. That was the Blockbuster where everyone actually went now when they wanted to rent a video. They only came to our store if the good Blockbuster didn’t have the new release they were looking for and if they were totally committed to exhausting all their options. We usually only disappointed them further.

Our Blockbuster had an international Klein blue and lemoncello color scheme. The new Blockbuster introduced midnight purple, graphite, and racecar red. It was always a fun party over there at the good Blockbuster.  

“No, listen, we get one of our friends to come in late at night and pretend to rob us. They pretend to steal an entire duffel bag full of tapes and Playstations but no cash. And that will account for all the missing merch if they ever do a real inventory here.”

“They’re never going to do a real inventory here! I’m in those meetings now. They’re gonna shut this place down next year. They’re writing everything off here as a loss. I’m talking total liquidation, son!”

“Okay, but what’s the harm in trying out my plan just in case?”

“The harm?  If we pretend to get robbed, then we really will get inventoried!  If they actually do inventory us, they’re going to discover that this hypothetical robber had extremely good taste in movies. We can’t risk it.”

“Are you still stealing all those Pokemon cards though?”

“It’s my retirement fund, son. Kids are going to pay a million dollars for those in twenty years. If you want to get rich, invest in nostalgic little nerds.”

“I guess you’ve got an answer for everything. It’s hard to argue with a man who goes to meetings.”

“I’m literally the boss of you. And I tell you that you must hand me that joint immediately because you are literally just holding it in your fingers while trying to look cool and you are literally just wasting the smoke.”

“Whatever, Denny.”

“You just got MANAGED, son. How does it feel? Does it feel good?”

“They’re going to start making us run the cards when they sign people up. They want us to start doing some kind of microtransaction to prove a card is legit, charging people a penny or something. And then the plan is that every new membership is going to be a Rewards membership that people gotta pay for at the register with a legit card.”

“Fuck, that would ruin everything,” said Denny. “Where’d you even hear that?”

“Bets told me.”

“Let me think about that. You really heard that from Bets? Shit, that would be terrible. Okay, that is actually interesting news. I gotta think about this.”


Bets’ apartment was a one bedroom on the first floor of an apartment complex and it was clean. She didn’t have any posters on the walls and her bookshelves were full of business textbooks, biographies of famous CEOs, and self-help paperbacks with pastel san-serif fonts. When I teased her about this, she didn’t think it was funny. She got  defensive. She told me I needed to read real books and think about real things.

We didn’t hook up. We kissed once and then she said she was exhausted and that I was like a little brother to her. I fell asleep on her loveseat sofa with my shoes on and my feet in the air. Then we went to work together the next morning.

The thing that changed the most about our relationship after that night was that she tried to schedule us working together less often. I wasn’t sure if this was to protect me or to protect her.

I got the feeling that she would have outright fired me if she thought she could get away with it. It wasn’t cruel or malicious or an abuse of power or anything: it was just some unfortunate boring human shit that we now had to deal with together.

After a few weeks, the whole situation made me feel numb. I didn’t want to hang out with any of my old friends or even play Warcraft. All I wanted to do was read Umberto Eco and be alone with my thoughts.

One night it got so bad that I decided to sit down and watch the spiral tape again. I decided that I needed to watch it from start to finish, uninterrupted, as a challenge to myself.

I don’t know why I decided that I had to do this. I think part of me wanted to see if watching the tape alone turned me on sexually or if it truly sickened me as it had done when I watched it with other people around. Despite my disgust, there had to be a reason that I wanted to have my own copy. Maybe wanting to watch the tape again had something to do with how Bets had treated me. I didn’t want to think of myself as a man who hated women and who wanted to hurt them, but you can’t really help what turns you on.

Anyway, at the time I just did it compulsively, the same way you might eat a whole sleeve of Girl Scout thin mints while bored and high at your little sister’s soccer game.

I was storing the spiral tape in the back of my closet in an oversized soft plastic Disney clamshell for “Beauty and the Beast.” I locked my door, retrieved the tape, and put it in my tiny TV that had a VHS tape player built into the bottom. I waited for the tape to dock and then I waited for it to rewind all the way to the beginning.

Immediately I saw something new that I hadn’t noticed while watching it in reverse the first time with the others. The first image on the tape was just a piece of paper with the number “37” on it. The camera focused on the number for just a few seconds before transitioning.

The opening piece of security footage showed a man with a small knife—almost a pocketknife—crouching behind a hedge in front of an apartment complex walkway. It was different to watch this alone and not fast and backwards. He was wearing black leather gloves. I could feel the blood rush to my head. I was doing something forbidden and I liked it. A woman in very short shorts and a Lola Bunny t-shirt that was twisted up into a summer tank top was walking up the sidewalk drinking from a 7-Eleven Big Gulp. It looked like a typical hot Houston day. The man with the pocketknife leaped out of the bushes and tackled her and then dragged her back to where he’d been hiding. You could see her legs thrash in the bushes and you knew he was raping her but you couldn’t actually see it. There was no sound.

As soon as her legs stopped kicking, the scene changed. This sudden shift was disorienting, but it created an aesthetic of surprise for the entire viewing experience that drew me in further. The next scene was a car accident. It was a highway fatality, the kind you saw every day on I-10 and that you usually ignored to keep from crashing yourself. It was shaky video camera footage of the burning wreckage. A little Volkswagen van had been turned on its side. The camera lingered on a man who was splayed out in the grass of the feeder median with his arms missing from his body. The camera got closer. You could see a police baton knocking out bits of glass from around the driver’s side window and then the camera peeked into the wreckage. In fact, the man’s arms were still attached to the steering wheel. 

There was a woman in the passenger seat missing her head. She was naked from the waist up. She had enormous breasts. She was wearing a golden belly necklace. Her thin wrists were covered in golden bangle bracelets, and her smooth legs and knees were spread. The camera lingered on her beheaded torso, ogling her in the smoke and fire.

I watched a teenager in a latex mask hitting another teenager in the head over and over again with a mallet in a public restroom. I watched a woman strangled under a ride at an amusement park, where you could see the little shoes of children running to and fro in the slice of light above where the murder happened.


I watched more women getting raped in grocery store parking lots late at night. They were dragged into the back seats of their own cars after they had unlocked their doors. I could tell that this set of rapes was all the work of one person, but catching him wasn’t the point. The point was watching the women in their sexy skirts swish through the darkness of a mall and then seeing them get abducted. You knew what happened to them even if you didn’t see it.


“Know what these are?” Denny said, fanning out a stack of credit cards at me.

“Those are credit cards, Denny.”

“Close but wrong. These are PREPAID credit cards. You know what prepaid means?”

“I have no clue, Denny. And I also don’t care very much.”

“It means that there isn’t a name on them, but they’ve got a number and an expiration date. You can use them to buy anything you need, but you don’t need actual credit at any company. You can fill them up with cash or whatever, but there isn’t like a monthly credit card bill or anything. What I’m saying is that you could still use one to buy a Rewards card, hypothetically. Truckers are getting them for their expenses right now, so my brother can get empty ones whenever he wants. These are gonna be huge.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You aren’t even listening. You don’t even care. But this is genius.”


I don’t remember this part. I think I watched that tape a lot of times. I think there was a period where I watched it every night before going to bed and all that implies for a healthy teenager.


Denny called me at 8 in the morning which made no goddamn sense at all. He was always drunk or at least asleep until noon. Hearing from Denny at 8 in the morning was like a total eclipse. It made me want to throw a virgin off a ziggurat in order to feel safe from the gods again.

“Hey man, can you come to the store real quick?  There’s a big emergency here. Can you get over here like right away?”

Something in his voice told me that this wasn’t a Denny-prank or typical Denny-histrionics. Something actually was brutally, catastrophically wrong. Night was day; the blood tide was coming and the end times were here.

“Did I fuck something up?” I asked.

“I can’t really talk right now. Just get over here immediately. Drop whatever you’re doing and get over here as soon as you possibly can, okay?”

“Denny, is this about the credit cards?”

He hung up. I called the store, but no one answered. I didn’t know what else to do so I put on my uniform and I hoofed it to the bad Blockbuster where I worked. 

There weren’t many cars in the parking lot of the bad Blockbuster, which was not surprising at all considering that the store wasn’t open yet. Even from outside, I could already see that everyone who worked at the store–including Denny–was seated in folding chairs in a circle in the empty place where there was an ancient coffee stain in the carpet that looked like Wisconsin. I walked inside with gut-sinking trepidation. The situation looked like a reckoning.

It wasn’t just Denny, Bets, Sue Ellen and the other CSRs. The general manager was also there. This was the guy who owned both stores, Micky Roemer. I’d never actually met him, I’d just heard about him. Micky says this, Micky says that.

Maybe this was the liquidation. Maybe we were all finally getting fired.

“Howdy,” I said.

“Sit down,” said Micky Roemer. “Sit down right over there in that empty chair. So this is finally everyone?”

“All the current employees are here now,” said Bets. Her face was puffy and she looked hungover. Had she been crying?

Denny just looked scared. He looked scared shitless. I looked at him and he tried to tell me something with his eyes but I couldn’t figure out what he wanted to say. I sat down.

“So you’ve all been stealing from me,” said the store owner. “And not just shoplifting, but honestly this seems like an organized criminal conspiracy from where I’m sitting. We’re going to decide precisely what we’re going to do legally soon, once we’ve figured out the exact extent of your pilfering. All you CSRs are probably going to avoid jail time since you’re all underage. But we are going to do every goddamn thing we can to you, I assure you of that. We’ll be contacting your parents soon, first of all.”

“Uh,” I said, looking around at the other employees. “Do you have any proof of this?”

“Just shut up,” said Bets. “Don’t make it worse. He already knows everything you did.”

“Everything?” I asked, looking at Denny. He shook his head slightly, but then he panicked because Micky Roemer saw him shake his head slightly.

“What was that?” said Micky Roemer. “What did that mean? That head shake?”

“He’s a good kid and he didn’t really do anything, okay?” said Denny, his voice trembling.  “If you have to fire someone, you should fire me, okay?”

“Oh, you’re ALL fired,” said Micky Roemer. “Did you think there was any doubt about that?”

He laughed. 

“Christ, what do you kids even think is happening here?”

Denny looked at the floor but then I caught a sidelong glance that was both menacing and calculating. I wished I could read his mind.

“Like I told you,” said Denny. “We’re going to bring everything back. We’ll bring back all the tapes and Playstations. Whatever you’re missing. We know where it all is, so it isn’t really stolen. It’s borrowed. It’s rented.”

“That’s a good start,” said Micky Roemer. “That’s a damn good start. So make it happen. Get out of here. I want everything that’s missing here in a pile by 6AM tomorrow morning and then we’re going to do a real inventory. Okay?  That’s step one.”

“I had nothing to do with any of this,” Bets said. “None of us did but Denny.”

All the other CSRs agreed, outraged at the injustice. I didn’t join in with the finger-pointing, but I didn’t defend Denny either.

“So none of you knew what was going on here?” asked Micky Roemer. “Then you’re all double fired for being utterly incompetent. I can’t believe you let this happen, Bets. After all I’ve done for you. After all I promised to do for you. Now to reiterate, you’ve all got until 6AM and then we’ll see what the cops say. Now get the fuck off my property.”

Everyone left but Bets who lingered, trying to talk to Micky Roemer alone. I wondered what she wanted to tell him.


“There are some things that don’t exist anymore,” Denny said through gritted teeth as we walked to his truck. “There are some things that got sold and maybe the cash also got spent.”

“I’m worried about Bets,” I said. “She doesn’t deserve any of this. What if they kick her out of college?”

“You should worry about yourself,” Denny said. “You should worry about your old pal Denny!”


I have this memory of falling down an entire flight of stairs when I was about three years old. I remember hitting every step, tumbling end over end. The narrow staircase was carpeted, but I remember hitting the tile floor at the bottom. I remember the sound of panicking adults as I lay there unconscious. But this can’t be a real memory, can it? My mom swears this never happened and if such a thing actually did happen, I would be dead, right? If only there were a tape . . . 


Unbelievably, there was a Nathan Carr right there in the phone book. Maybe it wasn’t the same Nathan Carr but I had to check. I looked up the address in my stepdad’s key map. I got the spiral tape from my closet and I got on the highway to go pay him a visit.

I was certain he was going to be at work when I arrived. I wondered what I would do when he wasn’t home. Would I break in?  Did I have that in me?

But he answered the door almost seconds after I knocked. He was absolutely flummoxed to see me standing there on his front porch. He seemed like he was expecting someone else. 

“Can I help you?”

He was wearing a Bud Light tank top and basketball shorts. He was barefoot and he looked like he hadn’t shaved in a week. He looked completely different out of uniform, but I recognized him on account of his disgusting mud-colored mustache.

“Captain Nathan Carr,” I said. “I work at Blockbuster. You accidentally returned the wrong movie to us.  I helped you out. I gave you your movie back.”

I could see his eyes glaze over as he retrieved the memory. He blinked rapidly and looked past me to my car, as if trying to see if there was anyone else out there.

“Sure, sure,” he said. “I remember you. What can I do for you? It’s my OFF day, son.”

“Well, it’s complicated,” I said. “There’s been some trouble at work and you told me to reach out if I ever needed help.”

He thought about this for a very long time.

“High school kid?” he asked me.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Though I do intend to go to college eventually.”

He thought about this some more. People blink to wipe away their previous thoughts when they reach conclusions. If you ever edit film, you should always make your cuts when your actors blink.

“Trouble at work? Did you get caught stealing?” he asked.

“The thing is,” I said. “I made a copy of that tape you returned. But I’m not here to blackmail you or anything. It isn’t like that at all.”

I watched his eyes. All he heard was “copy” and “blackmail.” He didn’t even hesitate. He opened the door wider and he got out of the way as I stepped inside his ranch house.

The first thing I saw was that Captain Nathan Carr of the HPD was some kind of a video pirate. His little house was full of videotapes in fancy walnut bookshelves, each of them neatly labeled, some of them still in stolen Blockbuster amarays that he must have rented and never returned, the same as Denny. There was a gargantuan television set against one wall and several others that he must have been using to make copies. There were also several computers on a big desk in one corner. There was a lit cigarette in an ashtray on this desk.

“Sit down, son,” he said, pointing to a sunken leather couch. He grabbed the chair from behind the desk and sat down across from me, resting the ashtray in his lap and taking a drag.

“I wasn’t lying: we’re in trouble and we could use some help,” I said. “My coworker Denny got caught stealing tapes that he was renting out to fake accounts, the same way you steal your tapes. He learned it from you, so I was thinking the least you could do was help him out. But that’s not why I’m here. If that’s all I wanted, I would’ve just called you.”

“So why are you here?” he asked.

“I’ve been watching that tape a lot,” I said. “At first I thought it was some sort of evidence compilation tape that you just misplaced, but I don’t think that anymore. You made that tape out of evidence, sure, but you made it yourself as a piece of art.”

He frowned at me, grimacing. He bared his teeth and shook his head, but he didn’t say anything.

“This may sound strange, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the beginning of the tape. The part with the blank sheet of paper that says 37 on it? That means there’s gotta be more tapes, right?  36 other ones?  Maybe a whole lot more?”

He considered this question. He stubbed out his cigarette and put the ashtray on top of the TV.

“Does anybody else know you’re here?” he asked.

“Everyone knows I am here,” I lied. “Bets, Denny, my parents. We need help and I told them I would go see someone powerful who could help us. So are you really even a cop?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m really a law enforcement officer. Which makes what you’re doing here very risky for you.”

“I understand that,” I said. “I’m aware of that. There’s just some things I want to know about. Some things I can’t stop thinking about. You can help me, and maybe I can help you. Do you know what a prepaid credit card is?”

He shook his head.

“It’s an experiment right now and they’re hard to find,” I said. “They’re meant for business people who are traveling, so you have to know somebody with a business account. Truckers get them too, evidently. You just call a number and add however much money you want. There’s no name on them, but if you run the card, it will make the payment just fine. I wouldn’t use any single card more than a few times, though.”

“I see,” said Captain Nathan Carr.

“This makes them untraceable for making something like a Blockbuster account,” I said. “But we didn’t get caught because of credit card fraud. We got caught because we were stealing Pokemon cards. Kids were asking for them and they were crying to their parents because we didn’t have the packs in the store anymore. And then their parents complained to our general manager and so we got busted. We’ve still got all these prepaid cards though. And we can get more.”

“That’s all very interesting,” said Captain Nathan Carr. “But I still don’t know what you think any of this has to do with me.”

“We can help you,” I said. “We can help you make more tapes. We can help you hide what you do. I just want to see your collection. I want to see how many there are. You’re making art here. And I really admire your dedication and theory. You make these tapes because you want people to see. You get to experience a thing again when somebody else sees it. And no one else has access to the kind of footage you do.”

He stared at me. He blinked some more. He blinked at me so much it was like he was trying to erase me with his click-clacking eyeballs. But I was still there when he was done. And so he seemed to make a decision. He stood up. He crooked a finger at me and grinned, the same grin as when he was holding the Children of the Corn 2 amaray up to the Blockbuster window by the walk-up chute.

He turned around and walked away. I followed him.

We don’t have basements or attics in Texas. So he just took me deeper into his house, to another room around the corner. He unlocked the door. He opened the door and practically pushed me inside. 

The room was wall to wall with tapes. All of them had that spiral symbol on the jacket. There was a comfortable looking leather chair in front of a normal-sized television set. There was a box of tissues and a mini-fridge.

“We make them, we trade them,” he said. “But I guess you figured that out already. Everybody has their own interests. I like to watch them all. I don’t play favorites. It helps me with work. Do you understand?  Seeing this shit makes me better at my job. I learn more about people. I learn more about what is possible.”

He was breathing heavy.

“I’ve seen tapes that feel like they came from the future,” he said. “I’ve seen tapes that feel like they weren’t even made on this planet. There’s some real sickos out there. Somebody has to see it all. Somebody has to know. Why are we recording all this shit all the time if there isn’t a person who sees it?”

He was really quite insane, but I guess he needed to have some kind of justification. I wasn’t really interested in his philosophical position. I was too overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the tapes. By how neatly they were organized. By how old some of them were. 

“With those prepaid cards, you can buy supplies,” I said. “Trading tapes like this could be easier. You could buy server space. Make websites. Reach out and connect with others. You could make more money. You could make tapes faster and more efficiently. And my friend Denny is going to need a new job. You don’t even ever have to meet each other. I can get you more cards in exchange for cash.”

He didn’t say anything.

“You just have to help us,” I said. “And I want to be able to borrow tapes from you every now and then. Just one tape at a time.”
He thought about this. He was definitely a man who liked to think before he spoke. He lit another cigarette and he smoked it. Finally, after a long time, he shook his head. 

“You’ll make your own copies and that makes me vulnerable,” he said. “It’s what I would do if I were you. But I’ll tell you what: you can come over here anytime you want. If you come alone. If you don’t tell anybody. We’ll make a habit of it. You can come over here and watch with me.”

I could tell how lonely he was. How hungry for human connection. How much he wanted someone to understand him and to make him feel like he was smart and important and not just some obsessive pervert. Tapes from the future?

“You just keep us out of trouble and I’ll give you back the copy I made,” I said. “I don’t know if I’ll be back here. Maybe.”

“You’ll be back,” he said. “You’ll risk it. You’ll come back alone and we’ll be best friends. You’ll see. Bring me back that tape and I’ll make a few calls. I know Micky Roemer personally. He’s one of us, in a way. There’s a tape of him here somewhere. A tape of him and that cute Spanish manager who works there, back when she was your age. I use that tape to keep him out of trouble. It’s good to have leverage on certain people in your town. Keeps them from being bad little babies.”

All the blood ran out of my face and I didn’t know what to say. 

“You want to watch that tape real quick before you leave? There’s a lot of other good stuff on that one.”

I sat down in the leather recliner. It wasn’t consent or a commitment or anything. I was just feeling lightheaded. But he started bustling around anyway, cackling and buoyant.

“I’ll get you a beer,” he said.




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(c) Miracle Jones 2024