Today I found an unreturned VHS tape.
I am doing my usual Saturday morning routine when I spot it on my brand new IKEA coffee table. Battered by time, the plastic cover is peeling, but the name of the rental store is still visible. So is the lime green sticker stuck to its side with a hand-written code in black ink.
I stare at it for the longest time, unsure of what to think of the odd object, a relic of another time, sitting on my neatly appointed coffee table.
I hear my husband in the other room, feeding the dogs, telling them they were both good boys and the lawnmower across the street as the neighbor’s kid mows the first of the neighborhood lawns he’ll cut for twenty dollars a pop.
The voices on the television are muted, mouths moving in silence. It sounds like any other Saturday morning, but the VHS tape disrupts the whole scene.
Walking over to the coffee table, I stare down at the decrepit old case. The plastic is cracked along the spine, and one side of the vinyl cover is peeling. I poke it with one of my long fingernails, wondering at what kind of joke my husband has dreamed up. It falls over with an unexpectedly loud thud. I jump, weirdly unnerved.
The back door opens, and the excited patter of dog paws against the tiled floor follows.
It clicks shut, leaving the house ominously silent.
I can’t stop staring at the VHS case.
“Okay, dogs are fed and out in the yard. I’m ready to go,” my husband announces, entering the living room. “I want to go by the hardware store to pick up—”
“What’s the joke?” I point at the tape accusingly. “I don’t get it.”
He stares at where I’m pointing. “What’s that?”
“You tell me.”
“Well, it looks like an old rented VHS tape.” Giving me a quizzical look, he shrugs. “Where’d you find it?”
“There. Right there.”
It really does look odd, standing out sharply against our modern furniture and artfully decorated space. It just looks wrong. I can’t figure out exactly what it is about the plastic case, but I want to pick it up and hurl it in the trash.
Blot it from memory.
Make it go away.
“Did you put it there, Rach?”
“No, did you?”
“No, I didn’t. So who did?”
“It’s like it just appeared!”
“That doesn’t make sense, Rach.”
“I know, Phillip.”
My voice is edged with sarcasm. It’s the sound I get when annoyed or scared.
“Rachel, just throw it away. Your brother must have left it here last night as a joke. It was pretty late when he and the kids left.”
My husband makes sense. My brother does like to tease me about how neat I have to have my house. Leaving something like this to irk me is something he would do.
I can hear him now. “Oops, I think that picture is a little crooked, sis! Hey, is that basket off-center? What’s this old VHS tape doing here? I thought you banned all DVDs from your house and only stream! Call the IKEA police! There’s clutter!”
“Jeff is such an asshole,” I grunt.
I reach for the VHS tape, ready to throw it out and not ruin my mood, and therefore, our shopping excursion. We have a few more things to buy to make our new house look just right.
“Maybe it’s just a case with something in it,” Phillip says. “Like snakes that will jump out.”
My fingers close around the case, and the plastic crunches in my tight grip. I immediately know that he’s wrong. My breath catches in my throat. The feel of the plastic is familiar but odd. I can’t explain why it feels so off, so peculiar, but it does. It’s as though it doesn’t belong in the here and now but to another time. It shouldn’t exist anymore, and I know that fact to the core of my being.
I also know something else.
“I have to return it.”
* * *
“This is crazy,” my husband protests.
“I have to return it.”
The hybrid car’s whisper-soft engine is drowned out by the roar of the Saturday morning traffic heading downtown. We’re caught in a snarl of cars all trying to merge into the same lane. The one that will lead us to the old shopping center where the town’s most popular video store once stood.
“I have to return it,” I repeat.
Those words boom in my head, over and over again, giving me an awful headache.
“This is a joke, right? A prank? You and Jeff are pranking me, right?”
I open the case again, staring at the videotape inside. The label is half-peeled off, the title obscured, but I’ve dragged the name out of my memory. I’d watched it as a teenager. I dimly remember the film.
It’s an old black and white classic starring Katherine Hepburn we’d been assigned to watch for art class. I watched half, got bored, and turned it off, which makes sense. Inside the little bit of clear plastic, I can see the tape isn’t fully rewound. I snap the case shut.
“I have to return it.”
“I’m really getting tired of you saying that over and over again. This isn’t funny anymore, Rachel!”
I want to explain to him that I can’t say anything else. That every time I open my mouth, the words slip out. I struggle to change them, to tell him I am scared, to tell him that this isn’t a prank.
“I have to return it.”
“The store doesn’t even exist anymore, Rach.”
I want to tell him that I know that and that I don’t want to go to the empty husk of a store. I want to go home, to bed, and hide under the covers. I want to start the day over and never see the VHS sitting on the coffee table.
But, of course…
“I have to return it!”
“This is ridiculous,” Phillip says for the hundredth time. “Once we get there and you see the store is closed, you will throw that damn thing away, right?”
With a sob, I whisper, “I have to return it.”
“This isn’t funny, Rachel,” Phillip mutters, shaking his head. His floppy brown hair falls over the lenses of his glasses, and he pushes it back with irritation.
I try again to throw the VHS case down on the floor of the car. I will my arm to move, for my fingers to release it, but instead, I open it again.
Be kind. Rewind.
The little sticker sits close to the small window that reveals I hadn’t done that task at all.
“What the hell?”
Our little, economical car slows even more. I look up to see the metal frame that once held the sign for the video store rising up over the line of cars in front of us. I watch as, one by one, they turn into the old parking lot.
Tears stream down my face as Phillip glances at me with uncertainty. “Rach. Is this some kind of flash mob thing?”
“I have to return it,” I whisper.
He turns into the parking lot, and the old shopping center spreads out in front of us. It’s old with a for sale sign in every window. There’s been talk of knocking it down and building luxury apartments. The parking lot is always empty, but not today.
Cars slowly glide into parking spaces.
“I don’t like this. Whatever you’re part of. I don’t like it!” Phillip slams his hand against the steering wheel. “Rachel, this isn’t funny!”
“I have to return it.”
I attempt to drop the tape again. My fingers only clench harder.
“We’re not doing this. Whatever this is!” Phillip twirls the steering wheel, u-turning sharply, then slams on his brakes.
My brother’s SUV parks in the next row over. It’s clearly his vehicle. There is a huge Dallas Cowboys decal on the back alongside three football decals with my brother’s name and those of my nephews: Jeff, Justin, Jonnie. Since his wife died, football has been the one thing that keeps them bound together other than grief.
“I knew it!” Phillip shakes his head with disbelief and starts to chuckle. “You almost had me!”
The heavy feeling that’s been weighing on my chest becomes so substantial I can barely draw a breath. I don’t want my brother and nephews here.
I don’t want to be here.
Phillip parks turns off the car, jumps out, and walks toward the SUV. “You almost had me, Jeff! I was almost falling for this Stephen King shit!”
I don’t want to open the car door.
I don’t want to get out.
I want to go home.
These thoughts don’t stop me from climbing out and standing in front of the abandoned video store. The blank glass windows that were once full of movie posters are empty and grimy. There is a pale outline that shows where the heavy neon sign over the portico once stood. The only thing that is the same is the OPEN sign in the window.
A thumping noise draws my attention to the car next to ours. A man sits behind the wheel, banging his head against it. Faintly, I hear his voice sobbing, “I have to return them.”
My brother appears, his sons trailing behind him. He’s clutching a video, too. We’re close in age and greatly resemble each other. We both have strawberry blond hair and freckles. The boys have dark hair and eyes, like their dearly departed mother. Ages fourteen and ten, they look as confused as I feel.
My husband is laughing with relief. “Jeff, seriously. How did you rig this up? I know it was you! Rach doesn’t have it in her to go this far!”
“I have to return it,” Jeff answers, holding up the VHS.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. So you got me. Who are all these people?”
More cars are arriving.
People trudge across the parking lot toward the front doors. I watch as a woman holding five videos struggles to open the door before a man, gripping just one tape, opens it for her. They disappear inside.
I want to get back into the car.
I want to leave.
I walk forward instead.
My brother falls into step beside me.
“I have to return it,” we say to each other.
“Uncle Phillip, can you make them stop! I don’t like this,” Jonnie, the youngest, complains.
Not looking up from his phone, Justin says, “Yeah. It’s dumb. Not funny at all.”
“C’mon, you two. It’s over. You got us. Let’s go do something together now. Maybe pizza? A movie?”
As we draw closer to the store, I can see empty shelves lined up row after row. Worse yet, there is a line forming just beyond the doorway.
Again, I attempt to turn around.
Inside my head, the litany continues.
I have to return it.
* * *
The smell of mildew assails me and rot the second I step over the threshold. The only light comes from far in the back of the store where the checkout counter is located. I glance over at the discolored spot on the gray rug where it used to sit.
Why has the location moved?
The line is not too long. I’m about twenty people from the front. I open and close the case again, the little sticker tormenting me.
“I need to return it,” my brother says to me, his voice ragged.
“What is it?” I ask, looking at the case in his hand.
We both gasp and stare at each other in surprise.
“An old Eddie Murphy movie,” he answers in a soft, hesitant voice. “Oh, God. I can finally say something other than—”
“I have to return it,” a middle-aged man says, falling into line behind us.
“Where did you find yours?” I ask.
“It was on the kitchen counter this morning,” Jeff answers. “You?”
“The coffee table.”
We talk over each other in a rush, matching our experiences, realizing that we’re both trapped by something beyond our comprehension. The people in front and behind us join in the conversation. Now that we’re in the store, we can finally express ourselves. We’re all scared, clutching old VHS tapes, and still in line.
“I’m leaving,” Jeff announces.
He drops out of line and storms up to the door. A few others move to follow.
“Please stay in line! I’ll be with you shortly,” a voice calls out from deep in the store.
The people who had started after Jeff fall back into the queue.
Jeff stretches his hand out toward the door, visibly struggling to reach it. It’s as though something is holding him back.
“Sir, please get back into line!” the voice calls out again.
“Shit,” he grunts.
The door swings open, and more people stumble inside.
“I need to return them,” an elderly woman says, holding up three videos.
“Get in line, please.”
I hear a noise behind me, twist about, and see a man in a red vest place a video on an empty shelf. I can’t see his face clearly in the dim lighting.
“I’m calling the police,” another man announces. His white face is pale, sweaty, and terrified.
I wait for him to do what he said, but he doesn’t.
He stays in line.
We all do.
* * *
I watch my husband and nephews through the dirty glass windows.
Phillip is comforting them, holding Jonnie close to his side. Justin is yelling, pointing at the screen on his phone. Other people have joined him. A woman and man viciously argue outside the entrance, her fingers digging into his arm. He wrenches free, opens the door, and joins the line.
Another video is placed on an empty shelf.
As people return the videos, they’re being restocked. But I don’t see anyone leave the store. I don’t know where the people are going after they finish at the counter. I strain to see, but the store is only lit by a single fluorescent bulb over the counter at the rear of the building.
The sickly light barely penetrates the gray gloom.
We’re getting closer to the counter.
I am starting to hear what is being said.
“I meant to return them, but I went off to college. My mom was supposed to do it, but I guess she forgot, too,” a woman explained.
“I’m sorry, but it states clearly in the contract that you’re responsible for returning store property or suffering the penalties.”
“I’m returning them now.”
“Which I do appreciate, but you must pay the penalty.”
“She’s so mean,” I whisper to my brother.
“The manager,” I answer.
“It’s a guy,” my brother says, frowning.
I lean out of line to peer past shoulders and arms at the counter. My view is blocked by the next customer at the counter.
“Our VCR broke. I remember now. That’s why I didn’t rewind it,” a man calmly explains. “I know we returned it. I don’t understand how I found it in my home office this morning.”
“The penalty you're charged with is for not rewinding it. It states clearly in the contract that all videos must be returned in the same condition they were rented. Which means you must rewind it or suffer a penalty.”
“But, my VCR broke.”
“That is not my problem. The contract is clear.
I pull the case open. I stare at the VHS tape. It’s not rewound.
I estimate there are seven people in front of me now.
There is a rap on the window. I turn to see Phillip motioning to me. I shake my head. I don’t want him to come inside. He walks to the door, pulls on it, but it doesn’t budge.
Another argument is underway.
“It was my father’s account. He’s dead now.”
“I understand, but it states plainly in the contract that anyone with a membership card under your father’s account is responsible for his rentals.”
“I didn’t rent it! He did!”
“The contract is very clear.”
More people enter the store.
I see Phillip trying to follow.
He’s thrown back so far into the parking lot. I lose sight of him. My nephews start to scream, running after him.
I look at Jeff, and he’s crying.
“We have to get out of here,” I whisper.
“How? Can you leave the line?”
I will my feet to move, but they refuse. I shake my head miserably.
Several more videos are placed on the shelves closest to us.
“If you don’t rewind your rentals, you are in clear violation of the contract.”
The woman’s voice is familiar and grating.
I lean to one side and finally see the person at the counter. It’s Katherine Hepburn. Young, perfectly coifed, and dressed as the video store manager, she’s also in black and white. Literally, she appears as though she stepped out of the very film I’m holding in my hand.
“What is Eddie Murphy doing working here?” my brother asks in confusion.
The man in front of me turns around, his face gray beneath his tan. “No, it’s Bruce Willis.”
I glance at the videos they’re clutching in their hands.
“The manager looks like the stars in our movies,” I whisper.
The line now weaves in and out of the shelves being slowly restocked. More people stumble through the door. There is a crowd outside. An ambulance and police cars are near the rear of the parking lot.
People outside are trying to stop those clutching videotapes from entering, but they are tossed back by an invisible force.
“We’re not going to get out of here, sis,” Jeff sobs.
My chest hurts.
I wish I had rewound the damn tape.
Why had my teenage self been so damn lazy?
I just had to push the rewind button.
Hell, I could have rewound it by hand.
“Yes, we are getting out of here,” I say to my brother.
I tell him what to do.
* * *
I lay the VHS case on the counter and stare at Katherine Hepburn’s face shimmering in black and white. She smiles at me and turns to glance at the ancient computer screen beside her elbow.
“Now, according to your—”
“I rewound it.”
Katherine Hepburn hesitates.
“I rewound it.”
I open the case.
She stares at it for a long moment.
“The contract states I have to return it as I rented it. I just did.”
Her long fingers close over the case and snap it shut. “So, you did. Thank you for your business. Have a nice day.”
Turning, I smile happily at my brother. We both spent the last few minutes desperately rewinding the videos with our fingers. It had been hard, but we’d done it.
“Let’s go,” I say to him.
“He can’t leave yet,” Eddie Murphy says.
Pale, shivering, and perspiring heavily, my brother sets his video down on the counter. “Rachel, please go.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
“No, just go.”
Eddie Murphy is grinning behind the counter. “I see by your account you never returned the video you rented.”
“No,” I whisper.
“Take care of the kids,” my brother answers, tears in his eyes.
Then I’m standing outside the store.
* * *
I sit in Phillip’s hospital room on the spare bed with my nephews nestled into my sides. Phillip and I watch in silence as the news reveals the long lines of people vanishing into old video stores. No one can stop them. The pace is steady. People enter but never leave. Attempts to storm the stores fail.
Police, special ops, gangsters, have all tried. They rush forward only to be thrown back. In the Middle East, they attempted to bomb the store, sucking their civilians inside. The dropped bomb bounced off the roof, rolled down the street, and blew up another building.
I watch as a presidential candidate joins the line. The secret service attempt to pull him out, but are tossed away like ragdolls.
A very famous supermodel staggers into the line, clutching two videos to her chest. They’re Disney movies. Who will greet her at the counter, I wondered? Cinderella? Or Aladdin?
* * *
The world is so much emptier. So many people are gone now.
The survivors live in a state of shock and denial.
We all follow the rules to the letter.
No one will ever break a contract again.
Crime vanishes overnight.
No one dares to break the law.
* * *
A month later, I find my old membership card to the video store in the back of my wallet. I’d been getting out money for their school lunches when I found it. I’m surprised to see the yellow and red logo. My nephews look up from their breakfasts, eyes wide, recognizing it.
Anger fills my chest.
I take hold of it, intending to rip it in half, but my husband shouts and grabs my wrist.
“The back! The writing on the back!”
It reads: Do not destroy. Return to the store to cancel your membership. Destruction will ensure penalties.
My husband buys a safe that evening.
We put the card inside.
The next day we bury it.
* * *
Today I wake up and walk into the living room.
A children’s book sits on my coffee table.
The sticker on the side reveals it was issued from my elementary school.
I never returned it.
Michael launched Your Money Geek to make personal finance fun. He has worked in personal finance for over 20 years, helping families reduce taxes, increase their income, and save for retirement. Michael is passionate about personal finance, side hustles, and all things geeky.