Pretty much everyone had seen the documentary already. The last outpost of a fallen empire, deep in the outer rim, blissfully unaware of the broader collapse, blue and yellow standard flying high.
"Yeah, who hasn't? Just more 90's nostalgia crap," said Ryan. "C-listers talking about renting Independence Day."
"No, dude," said Avi. "There's another last Blockbuster. And it's not a documentary. It's a real place."
"You mean Last-Chance Video?" asked Ryan. "Cause that place closed when we were in seventh or eighth grade. Remember? When that kid hung himself outside during Halloween. Super creepy."
"Are you deaf? I said Blockbuster! It's out in Old Spring, near the Poconos. My uncle's been there. I'm gonna go with him. This weekend, Friday probably. You want in?"
Avi crunched his empty Mega-Lite beer can and flung it against the mini-basketball hoop trash can. The can hit the rim and hung there, stuck. Avi made no attempt to get up and fix it, so Ryan reached over and nudged in through the hoop.
"Alley-oop. Why, dude? That's almost two hours away, and it's supposed to snow bad this weekend. You really want to rent Dante's Peak or something? Want another?"
Avi nodded so Ryan tossed him a beer from the mini-fridge that he'd installed in his mom's basement, Ryan's temporary residence, which was becoming a bit more semi-temporary at this point. He'd just passed the two month mark and had to do the USPS change of address form from the library computer a few days back, cause his laptop screen wasn't working anymore, of course. He thought about texting Dawn, but it was still morning in California. Ryan squeezed his phone in his front pocket.
Avi cracked open his beer and chugged half of it, dribbling onto his thick beard. Ryan laughed - this was Avi, the kid who didn't touch a beer or weed or any other vice in high school. College changed Avi. And so had their mid-20s. Avi worked in the city now at some hedge fund, but came home every few weekends, especially now that Ryan was back from the west coast.
"My uncle made me swear I wouldn't tell anyone, but whatever," said Avi. "There's someone working at the Blockbuster, Ry. He's got this video player that... you're not gonna believe me."
Ryan plopped down on the couch, pulverizing an old potato chip into the cushions.
"It rewinds things"
"Don't all VCRs do that?" asked Ryan.
"No. Not like this. You can really rewind. You bring your home videos, and I don't know if I really believe this, but Uncle V says you can be there again... in the videos. It sounds crazy. He's been acting strange all week, honestly. But I don't know, what if he's right?"
Avi looked dead serious.
Ryan allowed himself to consider the possibility that Avi wasn't high out of his mind. That there was a way to relive his best memories caught on home video. Dawn... their college graduation, the camping trip in the Sierras... but then the more recent memories flooded in, and Ryan stamped those away.
"Sounds like your uncle's got a screw loose," said Ryan.
"You know V. You know he's weird, but he's not an idiot, dude. I'm going. I want to try it."
"What are you going to bring to watch?"
"So you are intrigued?" said Avi. "I'm bringing the tape from our sixth grade Medieval Times trip."
They both laughed.
"That day was awesome," said Ryan.
"Look, I need to get outta here, but if you want in, you should come on Friday. I'll text you."
On Friday morning, the forecast looked clear. Ryan had nothing better to do, so he texted Avi that was up for the drive to the Blockbuster. Avi took a while to respond. Ryan meanwhile dug up some of his old DVD-Rs from a plastic bin in his childhood bedroom, now home to his mom's Peloton bike.
Ryan finally heard back from Avi around noon.
What the-- thought Ryan.
Ryan saw the little dots appear next to Avi's name and then disappear. After a few seconds, an address appeared:
Ryan got into his old car from high school, with the little red dancing bear sticker on the back bumper. He placed the plastic crate of DVD-Rs on the passenger seat, thought about it for moment, and then reached over to buckle it in.
The snow started falling just as he crossed onto the turnpike, but Ryan barely noticed it. He'd plugged his portable CD player into the car's cassette deck using one of those truly magical cassette-to-headphone-jack things, and was jamming along to his favorite pop-punk CDs.
Ryan reached 44 Whistlemill by late afternoon. It was a stripmall, now stripped clean. Discovery Zone, Barnes and Noble, Jo-Ann Fabric, and -- there it was, like an empty cicada husk -- the other last Blockbuster.
Ryan slammed his palm into the steeting wheel. It was clearly abandoned. He slipped the car into a spot right by the store. He got out and stepped into the snow in his sneakers. He cupped his hands to warm them, and then went to the front door of the Blockbuster.
No lights were on inside. The shelves were completely empty. He saw a knocked-over poster that was clearly Michael Jordan's silhouette. Ryan texted Avi again, and only received two words back:
Then Ryan saw it. It was the name of the Chinese buffet, which actually looked to be open.
Ryan went into Jade Garden and made a plate of lo mein, chicken and broccoli, and one of those sugary donuts, cause why not. The meal was pretty good, but not worth the two hour drive. It was time to get out of here before the roads got worse.
The only other customer in Jade Garden was a narrow-faced, bearded man who caught Ryan staring at him and smiled -- he was missing his two front teeth. Ryan turned away. When he looked up again, the man had left the Chinese buffet and was walking over to the Blockbuster. Ryan watched him jingling something at the Blockbuster door, and then open the video store door and walk inside.
Ryan left two twenties on his table and ran to his car, now covered in snow. He unbuckled his his crate of DVD-Rs and went inside the Blockbuster.
A single set of fluoresecent celing lights was now turned on, in the way back of the store. It really felt like Ryan was walking into a zombie movie. Or a veliciraptor scene.
"Hello?" said Ryan. "I saw you there, in Jade Garden. My friend Ryan... he sent me."
"C'mon back", replied the other man in a light, reedy voice.
Ryan walked towards the voice.
"What can I help you with, son?"
"I brought these DVDs," said Ryan.
"I can see that," said the man. "What are they?"
"Home videos.. of me. And my ex."
"I think can help you, but it's going to cost you."
Ryan sighed. Another grifter.
"What's it cost?"
"Oh, I don't charge you money. I can't. That's now how this works. Understand something, and listen good. You can only go back once."
"This door here," said the man, tapping on the RESTRICTED STAFF ONLY door, "is a one-way door. You can leave this place now, with your box of memories, or you can come with me and live them one last time -- but you'll never remember them again."
Avi... was this why Avi was being weird?
"But you need to decide now."
Ryan looked at his box of Dawn and nodded. He pushed through the staff-only door and found a wood-paneled den with a couch and a big CRT TV console. He plopped down on the brown-flannel love seat.
The other guy sat next to him, "Well, where are we?"
"What are you talking about?" asked Ryan. "This is your store."
"Describe what you're seeing," said the man, so Ryan did, feeling oddly compliant.
"Typical suburban home, makes sense. I see a lot of this. Are we somewhere you recognize?"
"My dad's... place. When I was a kid."
Ryan felt like he couldn't move, like he was glued to the couch. The TV flickered on. Just static.
"And what are we going to watch?" asked the man.
"Dawn. My ex-girlfriend and me," said Ryan.
The man laughed. This sparked something in Ryan.
"Hey! What is this? Why can't I get up? Who are you?"
"Call me Gideon. I'm neuro-physisist at Old New Jersey State University. I study human memories, the mind, with a focus on nostaglia. Oh, and I used to work at this Blockbuster part-time. This room we're in... this room is a projection of your subconscious."
"So, you can't see this room?" asked Ryan.
"No, I can't. You've been unconcious for the last 30 minutes, ever since I drugged you in the Jade Garden. We're running out time now. The DVD-Rs you brought will start playing soon. With this remote in your right hand, you can rewind if you'd like, but every rewind costs you the equivalent time at the end of the video. You cannot pause. You will wake up once all of your DVDs are complete."
"Wait!" shouted Ryan.
Ryan blinked and he opened his eyes to white.
He was in his car. He couldn't open the door. He rolled down his window and snow fell in. He pushed out as best he could, finally wriggling the door open. It was bright -- morning again. He was in a strip mall parking lot, parked in front of an empty Blockbuster. A plow was clearing the lot behind him.
Ryan got back in his car and saw a box of old DVD-Rs buckled into the passenger seat.
His phone buzzed. Someone named Dawn.
Ryan didn't have the patience for robo-texts this morning and wrote back:
The number texted back right away.
Ryan shrugged. He grabbed the box of DVD-Rs and carried it to the trash bin outside the Chinese buffet, flinging them into the garbage. Then he drove home, hopefully in time to catch the big game on TV.