BY: MARCUS DAMANDA & S.H. Cooper
“No, that’s a mistake. I don’t owe you shit.”
It was a rough morning at the return counter.
Summoning patience, I said to him, “It was due last night.”
“I got here first thing—no one’s had a chance to rent the stupid video yet—and you’re charging me a late fee? Three dollars and ninety-two cents … I mean, where does that number even come from? This is a joke, right?”
He was a kid, a good five or six years younger than me, but still a little old to be renting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And he was leading the way for the upcoming goth generation that would gain traction in the mid-nineties, with his nose ring and his half-blue hair spiked with some kind of gel. Or maybe it was toothpaste. Hard to tell. He thrummed his fingers on the countertop as though expecting some kind of retraction or apology, the cheap metal of his faux silver rings clacking with impatience. The account holder names on the computer read Gregor and Molivia Dunn, and the cardholder Peter Dunn. They had several other videos still out, but only this one was past due.
“I’m sorry, Peter, but—”
“Peter, is it? How about ‘sir’? I’m a regular customer.”
He was. And I was a six-month employee of the Erol’s Video on the corner of Duke Street and Van Dorn, notable mainly for its size—which was tiny. It was the smallest in the chain, a real corner video store, with a total stock of 1,100 tapes and only five people on the payroll. There were never more than two of us at a time, and frequently enough it was just me.
It was Sunday morning. My boss, Rob, was in the back, working on the schedule. He’d put me in charge of opening. I was a new club supervisor—basically a regular employee with keys, not yet management—and today that meant I had to make this little asshole happy, or at least make him leave before other customers showed up.
“I’m sorry, sir. I just run the barcode through the reader. Says the tape’s a day late. Plus twenty-five cents for the rewind fee. And tax.” I tilted my head at the Be Kind, Please Rewind sign on the door. The fine print underneath read, $0.25 Rewind Fee. Thanks for your consideration!
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he said in a low voice. Then he jabbed his pointing finger at the small rewinder next to the computer. It was shaped like a T-Rex head and roared whenever it was done rewinding. Jurassic Park had just come out last week. “Rewind it yourself,” he snapped. “You can do it in thirty seconds with that thing.”
“Yes, Mr. Dunn, I’m going to,” I said, still keeping my cool. “The fee is store policy. It prints on the receipt you signed when you rented the tape—and I’d appreciate you not swearing at me, please.”
All according to the employee manual. What I wanted to say was, Listen, Raphael, I’m an actual blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do, so if you don’t want me to shove that tape sideways up your teenage mutant ninja ass, then just pay the fine and get out of my face.
“Really?” he demanded. “You’d appreciate that, huh? You know what I’d appreciate?” A quick glance down—at my name badge, I presume, and not my tits. “Carly?”
I heard the door to the broom closet—that is to say, the manager’s cubby with the lockup desk and the small safe—open as I answered, “I presume you want the fee waived. I can’t do that, Mr. Dunn. I’m sorry.”
“What I’d appreciate is some fucking customer service, Carly, you dumb bitch. I’m not fucking paying that bullshit.”
From behind me, “Cancel the account, Carly.”
Peter’s mouth opened in shock as Rob appeared at my side. He was a big guy, my boss man, and he towered over scrawny little Peter like Goliath over David. He tapped the screen.
I moved the mouse on the pad, clicked the bright yellow X on the account screen. “Canceled, Mr. Dunn.”
“Hold on,” Peter started, “I just didn’t think I should have to pay the fine—”
“And now you don’t,” Rob said. “Leave, Mr. Dunn, and kindly don’t return. My employees don’t make enough to put with your mouth. Try Blockbuster.”
His eyes flitted between us, then settled on the schedule on Rob’s hand. I could almost hear his petty little brain working, trying to come up with something. “I’m sorry,” he said at length. “Look, it’s my grandparents’ account.”
“Have them call me, and I’ll just make sure you’re removed from it. Not their fault.”
“I apologize,” he said. “I’ll—I’ll be cooler about it. I’ll even pay the fine.”
Rob pointed to the door. Stupefied, Peter turned to it. He hesitated, then pushed through.
I looked at Rob, raised an eyebrow. He seemed to read my mind. He shrugged and smiled.
Before the door shut completely, I called after Pete, “Turtle power!”
Rob and I had a good laugh over that. Then he slid me a paper copy of next week’s schedule, and I saw the reason he’d been so eager to rise to my defense. He was a good guy, the boss man was, and he probably would have done it anyway, but …
I looked up at him, disbelieving. He’d scheduled me for two AFD’s next week as well as the monthly midnight inventory.
“Sorry, hon,” he said. “Buddy called in and quit last night. Not even a two-weeks’ notice to fill the position. Nothing I can do.”
When a customer sees the schedule taped to the inside of the checkout counter and asks what “AFD” stands for, I always tell them “A fine day,” and that’s usually sufficient for them to work out what it really means. Two all-day shifts in a week plus inventory—not to mention the half-day shifts—put me well over the “part time” category I’d signed up for back in December over winter break. I was a twenty-three-year-old graduate student working on my masters with a five-year-old daughter at home.
But it was summer break now, and Rob knew it. I could try explaining to him that it wasn’t much of a “break” for me if I spent forty hours a week of it here at “the first name in video,” but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. His hands were tied. I finished my shift without complaining and, armed with an advanced-screening copy of Good Morning Vietnam and yet another Care Bears video for Cassidy, left at three o’ clock to begin the quarter-mile walk home to the apartment on South Whiting Street. Free videos and reduced-price microwavable popcorn—these were the things we counted as “benefits,” working for benevolent old Erol.
I expected my husband Scott would be furious with me, or with Rob.
“You should put in for time and a half,” he said over dinner, “since you’re technically only a part time employee.”
“That’s not how time and a half works,” I reminded him. Scott was on salary plus commission and didn’t understand such things. “That’s for Sunday hours and holidays, not for being shafted by Buddy.”
“Well, the extra hours won’t hurt,” he said, shrugging, twirling a fork in his spaghetti. “The extra money, I mean. Times are tight.”
That was true. But they were always tight. They wouldn’t get un-tight until I finished school and got some real work. Jesus, when would I even find time to work on the stupid thesis?
The settling quiet grew uncomfortable. I was glad when Cassidy, sensing the Mommy-Daddy grownup talk had subsided for now, broke it. “What’s … ‘inventory’?”
She said it just right, perfectly pronounced, even though it had been at least ten minutes since I’d dropped the word on them both. I smiled at her. “Just work stuff, bunny.”
“Past bedtime,” she said. “Won’t it be scary?”
I shook my head, “No, not at all. It’ll be boring, like waiting at the doctor’s.”
“But with work,” Scott chipped in helpfully, raising his glass in mock-toast.
She considered that. “You can bring Funshine Bear,” she said. Then, after thinking seriously for a few seconds, “or Braveheart Lion.”
I leaned over and brushed her bangs out of her hair. God, I loved her. And boy, did she ever need a haircut. “Funshine Bear,” I said with a wink. “Mommy will need all the funshine she can get.”
I liked weekdays at the store. They were quiet. Relaxing. I could sort through the returns with very little interruption. I had my back to the counter when I heard the bell over the front door tinkle, signaling the arrival of someone to disrupt my blissful quiet.
“Welcome to E —” I started in with my usual, overly cheerful greeting as I turned.
“You kicked out my grandson,” the customer, an elderly man with a hard-lined face, interrupted gruffly.
He was stooped slightly and leaning on a cane. His khakis were pulled up so high that his shirt was almost unnecessary. He clutched a tape in his free hand; the colorful front made me suspect it was a kid’s film.
“I’m sorry?” I mustered a polite smile.
“You kicked out my grandson, said he was banned and you were terminating our account!”
Ah, of course. The little snot nosed punk from the previous day had sent Grandpa in to fight his battle for him.
“I apologize for the inconvenience, Mr…er…” I trailed off into an awkward silence as I realized I didn’t remember his name.
“Dunn,” he growled.
“Yes, sorry, Mr. Dunn. Your grandson was very rude when I told him that his video rental was late and —”
Mr. Dunn interrupted me again. It was easy to see where the kid got his sense of entitlement.
“Peter is a good boy! He comes here, he returns his video. What is the problem?”
“He brought it back late and we charge a fee for that,” I said, pointing to the nearby sign spelling out our policy. “When I told him that, and that there was an additional fee for not rewinding, he lost his temper.”
“So you’re the one making trouble for him?”
Sometimes it took a lot not to grab the “Be kind, please rewind” placard and ram it so far into a customer’s ear that the message finally reached their brain. This was one of those moments. I folded my hands on the countertop and let my smile fade into an apologetic, but still firm frown. “My manager made the call, but I support it completely.”
“Where is this manager? I want to speak with him! You’re just over-sensitive. Peter is good.”
“Sir, he was using foul language and —”
I was suddenly reminded of when my daughter was a younger toddler. The tantrums that girl could throw! At least those made sense: she’d run out of juice, her sock was on the wrong foot, I finally gave her the cookie she’d been asking for all day. All perfectly reasonable!
For a two-year-old.
The whole Dunn family had apparently never outgrown the whole “irrational response to a minor inconvenience” thing.
I’m a professional, I’m a professional, I’m a professional. Deep breaths, Carly.
“I’m happy to reinstate your account myself, Mr. Dunn, but Peter won’t be added back to it.”
My customer service facade was starting to slip and I accidentally let loose the exasperated sigh I’d been trying to save for after he left.
“He’s not in at the moment. Would you like to come back later?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! Have him call me. My number should be in your system. I’ve been a good, loyal customer, and this is how you treat me and my family?” He slammed the tape he’d been holding on to the counter mid-sentence. Four teenage mutant ninja turtles grinned up at me from the cover. “You need to work on your attitude and your movies! This one is broken!”
“Don’t waste any more of my time: you watch it, you figure it out!”
“Mr. Dunn,” I tried one last time to appease him, but he waved me off with a liver spotted hand and shuffled back to the door, grumbling all the way.
I saw him off with a one finger salute at his hunched back and grabbed the tape off the counter to toss it into the review bin. As far as I was concerned, this was Rob’s problem now.
My problem, on the other hand, was that there’s only so much to do on a weekday morning at the video store, and I was one of only two people who actually knew how to fix a broken, or eaten, tape. After everything was filed, the countertops gone over, the stock dusted and the floor vacuumed, I was still looking at another four hours before I’d even have Stephanie for company on my first twelve-hour AFD.
The monotony was broken up a bit every time the return flap outside opened and another tape was dropped into the bin waiting beneath it. Although it only took a moment to scan the bar code and register it as being back in stock, it was better than standing around and twiddling my thumbs. Most of what was coming back was kids’ movies, which wasn’t so unusual immediately following a weekend, but with every scan, the confused wrinkle in my brow deepened.
“Dunn, Gregor. Dunn, Gregor. Dunn, Greg—What the hell?” I muttered as the same name kept popping up across my screen.
I finally figured this was another act of petty revenge: return every film he’d taken out at once and make me check them all back in myself. It did beg the question, though, when had the man even had time to rent all these? And why were they all children’s films?
Despite being somewhat put off by it all, I dutifully got them all back into the system and lined them up on the counter beside me so that I could start bringing them back to the shelves. I caught sight of the Ninja Turtle tape still sitting in the review bin, but I left it there. I was going to put off working on that particular problem for as long as I could.
With my task complete and no other pressing matters at hand, I picked up the store phone. Cassidy was sick today—great timing, God, thanks for that—and Scott had taken off to stay home with her. He picked up on the second ring.
“Yep. How is she?”
“We’re trying an early lunch since she skipped breakfast. Hold on.”
The phone was out of his hands in seconds. I could recognize my daughter by her breathing.
“Bunny, how you feeling?”
She was slow to answer. “Tired,” she said. “Bad.”
I scrunched my eyes. I almost fanned myself, for Christ’s sakes. I told myself it was only a low-grade fever. Kids got them all the time.
I shouldn’t be here, I thought.
“What can Mommy get you tonight?”
“My Little Pony,” she answered.
Videos. More videos. Always.
“You try to eat what Daddy gives you and take your nap after, okay? I’ll bring home some pony magic soon as I can.”
After a few more minutes of nervous conversation and reassurances with Scott, I got off the phone. I went to the kids’ section. I pulled the Pony tapes and checked them, one at a time. Three of the five were unwound.
God damn it, Rob, I thought. He was the worst with this kind of thing, much worse than Stephanie—especially with the kids’ tapes and anything under an hour in length. What would Peter Dunn think?
Stephanie’s on shift for inventory with you. Have her do the whole section while you catalogue.
Meanwhile, I put Cassidy’s next rental in the T-Rex head and, with a sigh of resignation, took the Turtle tape back out of the review bin. Outwardly, nothing looked wrong with it—other than is wasn’t rewound. I held the small release button and peeled back the guard panel. The tape was perfectly smooth, not a wrinkle to be seen. If it had gotten eaten in the reel at all, a person could cut off entire feet worth of tape, join the two ends with a bit of Scotch magic, and no more than a second or two of the video would be lost. Most people never even noticed.
But, no. I’d have to watch this thing.
I popped it in. The Turtles came on. As long as I could hear them in the background while I pulled the Dunn account back up, everything would be fine. I just wanted to know if they had anything else out, if I needed to worry about round three.
The sound cut off. Static. I turned to the counter monitor. Gray and white fuzz. What the hell? Had Gregor tampered with the tape? This was an erasure. And that—that was a voice, even with no video to accompany it. It was hardly to be heard, deep in the background, shrouded by the static …
“Su-vess sangvat suss-quena suss veta …”
Then, more Turtles. What the fuck? I hit eject. I checked the top of the cassette, the record-block indentation that could be sabotaged—again, with nothing more than a bit of Scotch tape. But if Gregor had done this, he’d taken the tape back off afterward. And why would he have done it? Why let me know anything was wrong?
Because he’s a petty schmuck who wants you to know he punished the whole store. Asshole.
I cut out the offending section. Customers came and went. Stephanie showed up right on time to help me finish the busier afternoon and evening—a long day, but basically normal. I went home at ten-fifteen.
And was more than a little surprised that I hadn’t just rented one of the My Little Pony videos. I’d taken them all.
Leaving my kid when she wasn’t feeling well was never easy, but the bills and those who collected them weren’t forgiving when Mommy missed work, no matter how good the reason. On the morning of my second all-day shift, I rolled Cassidy and Braveheart Lion up in her favorite blanket on the couch, kissed the tip of her nose, and slipped out the front door while she watched another tale of magical little ponies.
I was surprised to find the store still locked when I arrived. A quick peek in the windows revealed that the lights hadn’t been turned on either. Rob was often the first one in when he worked mornings, but it appeared I’d beaten him there that day. I shrugged it off—it wasn’t like it had never happened before—and let myself in. I had expected it to be as quiet as it was dark inside, but even as I pushed through the door, I heard a familiar, if soft and muffled voice, coming from the broom closet excuse of a manager’s office.
“Hey, Rob, it’s me,” I called as I slipped behind the counter to tuck my purse into its designated spot.
I didn’t get a response, just the continued sound of Rob talking.
He must be on the phone, I thought. Maybe he was trying to work out Mr. Dunn’s issues. That should be fun to watch. I suppressed a grin and tiptoed to the office door, which was partially open. A dull, flickering light spilled out from within and I poked my head around corner to give him an encouraging thumbs-up.
But Rob wasn’t in the office. The voice I’d been hearing was his, but it was coming from the small TV in the corner that we used to watch security footage and bad tapes. Curious, I pushed the door open just a bit more with my fingertips and stepped farther into the office. It was a feed from the camera positioned over the manager’s desk, used to watch people cash out their registers after a shift. I couldn’t imagine why he’d have left a security tape of himself playing; maybe to show me something?
No. He hadn’t left it playing. He’d set the play timer for when he knew I’d be here. For now.
Rob was in the middle of the screen, the telephone cradled between his shoulder and ear. He was absently playing with a pen while a cartoon played on the TV behind him. It seemed he’d been in the middle of reviewing another kid’s tape before calling Gregor Dunn.
“Uh huh,” Rob was mumbling. “I do apologize for that.”
While he spoke, he lightly tapped the tip of the pen along the back of his hand.
“I’m sure she didn’t mean to offend.”
Another pause while Mr. Dunn responded.
Tap tap tap went the pen across the back of Rob’s hand. The silence was filled by a cartoonish giggle in the background.
“She’s a good employee.”
At the very least, it was nice to know Rob really did think well of me. I scoffed softly and started to reach for the VCR to stop the tape. On the screen, the pen’s taps had turned into jabs. I paused, my finger resting against the eject button, and I leaned in slightly. The pen was definitely starting to sink deeper into the back of Rob’s hand, but he wasn’t reacting in any way. It was like he didn’t even realize he was doing it.
He continued to defend me even as he started to draw blood with harder, sharper prods of the pen tip.
“There are rules in place, Mr. Dunn,” Rob said.
He set the pen aside and started picking at the small wounds with his thumb and forefinger. He tugged at the edges, causing dark bubbles to well up, and jammed his nails into the torn skin, digging and twisting and widening the wounds. Wet squelches punctuated his words as he gored into his flesh.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” he said without sounding the least bit sorry at all.
He never even flinched.
And in the background, almost like human static: Mortistra, sessuva, sangvat suss-quena …
With queasiness fast rising into my throat, I finally hit the eject button and the screen went blank. I turned away from it, a hand over my mouth, and faced the desk. Dark, dried spots of red dotted its surface. Lying in one was the same pen Rob had been holding in the security footage.
I turned it off. Noted the tape on the top of the TV, the one he’d been reviewing: Thundercats.
I fumbled for the desk phone, jabbed the buttons from muscle memory. Waited. It rang four times. Rob didn’t pick up.
Instead, he came ambling through the door, belting his keys with an offhand little jingle as he shut himself inside. “Hey, Carly,” he said, as though nothing were wrong, as though he had not just punched a dozen holes into his hand the night before.
But his hand—I was staring at it as he came into the manager’s cubby, bearing donuts with a wink … It was uninjured. And—no blood on the desk …
I bit back my inclination to say anything stupid. I took a moment to think. I put the tape back in, rewound it a few minutes. “Rob,” I said, “I need you to watch this.” And I hit play.
He opened the box as the reel spun. Inside were not only donuts but a couple small coffees tucked into cupholders as well. He passed me one. Impatiently, without a word of thanks, I took it and thrust my finger at the screen.
And—nothing. Only the phone call, and Rob tapping the pen against the back of his hand as though conjuring fortitude with it. I ran my hand through my hair, caught between frustration and a threatening panic attack. What the hell? I thought. Am I seeing things, or what?
“I know,” Rob said, completely misunderstanding me, chuckling. “That old dude is relentless, Carly. And his grandson, apparently, has worn out their welcome already not only here, but also at Blockbuster, Forbes Video, Hollywood Video …”
I just blinked at him. I seriously didn’t know what to say. I’d had an … episode, it seemed. Hopefully that would be it. And Rob … well, he didn’t need to know.
“We’re making a small fortune on the kids’ rentals, anyway, and not just because of junior’s developmentally regressive Turtle fetish. His wife’s been in here every morning I’ve been here all week. Grandma Dunn’s going to put Erol’s youngest through college at this rate.”
“But—” I started, unsure of where I was going to take the sentence.
“Turns out she runs the daycare off Little River Turnpike.”
And for some reason, beyond the obvious, that was extremely troubling to me.
“Carly please, don’t sweat it,” he said, leaning over me and punching the eject button. “It’s not like I’m going to fire you over these assholes, now, is it? Have a donut, for Pete’s sakes.”
It was the hours, I told myself, as the week drew on to Sunday, to inventory night. Juggling parenthood, work, and my thesis research was having the better of me. I made sure to put myself in bed by 6 PM Sunday. I wasn’t going to make things any better by shambling into work like Dawn of the god-damned Dead.
The first time I woke up, it was Scott, and it was ten o’ clock. And he was ready to go.
I turned from him, yawning. “Work, jerk. … I need to sleep. Tie a knot in it until tomorrow, would you?”
I don’t remember falling asleep again. Nor do I remember Scott falling asleep next to me. But it was only half an hour later, and Scott was snoring like a foghorn, when I woke up a second time—and suddenly, gasping for air as though I’d been holding my breath.
Standing at my bedside, Funshine Bear in hand, was Cassidy. Her eyes were half-lidded. Drool coated her chin, a trailer of spit hanging off the end long enough for a spider to swing on.
She didn’t say anything. Her head twitched. One eye blinked, but not the other.
I sat up. “Cassidy, what’s wrong?” I was about to nudge Scott.
“I was … watching you sleep,” she said, slurring words, drawing the trailer of spit up and into her mouth with an indrawn hiss. “Nothing’s wrong, Mommy.”
Now I did nudge Scott. He groaned. I took my daughter by the shoulders, peeled an eyelid back. I didn’t even know what I was looking for. I felt her forehead, which was warm.
“You’re pretty, Mommy,” she said, “when you’re not … breathing.”
“C’mon,” I said. “I’m taking your temperature. Then a drink of water and back to bed.”
Ninety-nine degrees. Nothing to go the ER over. I tucked her back in. Her eyes fluttered with unclaimed sleep. She was back to normal.
As for me, I’d have another half hour to sleep at best. I might as well not even bother.
“Mommy’s going to sing to you,” I said with a sly smile, a loving threat.
“You … won’t get me,” she said like always, smiling back, yawning.
I ran my hand through her hair, kissed her forehead.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, when skies are grey.
You never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
My sunshine, however, was gone by the third line. As for the Funshine Bear, which I replaced in her arms with Braveheart Lion, she’d be coming with me to work tonight.
I don’t know what it was about Funshine Bear, but having him strapped into the car seat beside me as I drove the quiet streets to work had a comforting effect. It was probably because he smelled so much like Cassidy. Nothing could quite soothe my frazzled nerves like reminders of my little girl. I kept him tucked closer to my chest, just under my chin, after I arrived at the store.
Rob was just packing up to leave when I popped my head into the office.
“Sure you don’t want to stick around with your night crew?” I teased.
“After the day I’ve had?” he grumbled.
“Bad one, huh?”
“Between all the damaged tapes those damn Dunns have been returning and the amount of assholes who’ve come in today, I’m surprised I haven’t started drinking already.”
“They returned even more movies?” It didn’t seem possible. How had we had any kids films left?
“Yeah, and they managed to record over a small segment of each one, the bastards. I’m still digging myself out from that mess, spent half the day on the phone with Loss Prevention, but I can’t do any more today. I’m gonna head out. Tell Stephanie I said thanks for stepping up.”
I followed my boss to the door so I could lock it after him.
“Is it even legal for her to work overnight?” I said with some levity.
At only fifteen, we both knew well and good that allowing Stephanie to do inventory with me wasn’t exactly on the up and up.
“She wanted to. I won’t tell if you don’t,” Rob replied over his shoulder.
I chuckled to myself and let the door swing shut before twisting the deadbolt into place and flipping the “open” sign to “closed”. My purse and Funshine Bear went into my cubby under the counter. While I waited for my young coworker to arrive, I got out the inventory lists we’d be working from and organized them onto clipboards for Stephanie and I to work off of.
I intentionally put the kids’ movie list at the bottom. The less I had to think about Gregor Dunn and his strange method of revenge, the better. I had enough on my plate to worry about with my baby girl being home sick.
A knock on the front door. Stephanie was peering in and, when she saw me heading over, she waved a little. She was an energetic, friendly girl, not the brightest crayon in the box, but certainly the happiest. As I let her in, a siren kicked off somewhere in the night.
“Kinda spooky being here so late, isn’t it?” Stephanie said by way of cheerful greeting.
“Nah,” I said, “just like any other day at work.”
I didn’t add that it was almost impossible to be creeped out when I was working with the human embodiment of sunshine, particularly when she kicked off her shoes as though she were at home. I shrugged and actually followed her example. Why not? It’s not like we had customers.
She trailed behind me while I returned to the counter for our inventory lists, chattering all the while about how cool it was to be back at the store at night and how she hoped her cat, Fluffernutter, didn’t miss her too much.
“Usually she sleeps in my bed, but tonight I think she’ll go in with my parents,” she was saying.
I was momentarily distracted by a pair of cop cars speeding by the front of the store, their lights and sirens cutting a loud, red and blue streak through the darkness. I watched them flit between the movie posters that lined our front window until they careened around the corner.
“…Carly?” Stephanie was standing beside me, glancing from the window to me and back again.
“Huh? Sorry. Just wondering where they were off to in such a hurry,” I said.
“I hope it’s nothing bad!”
I smiled thinly and nodded my agreement. I knew better, though. Here in scenic and relatively murderous downtown Alexandria, the cops didn’t move that fast unless there was something nasty waiting for them.
“Well, the excitement’s over. Why don’t we get to work, huh? Faster we get done, faster we can clock back out.”
Stephanie, always eager to please, nodded enthusiastically and took the clipboard I offered her. I’d put off sending her through the children’s section until it was time for me to barcode Tuesday’s new releases into the system. One of them, I still recall, was an old-people comedy-drama with the strange name of The Cemetery Club.
Funny, the way you remember even the little things from the worst night of your life.
The sirens came and went, came and went. By the time the third round of cops came whizzing down Duke Street at seventy-plus miles per hour, pursuing no one at one-fifteen in the morning, I was seriously tempted to turn one of the monitors onto regular TV and check the local news. The temptation only worsened when an ambulance followed.
“Someone’s having a bad night,” Stephanie said, her face wrought with concern even as she stifled a yawn. She rolled a cart full of tapes behind the counter, all of which needed rewinding. Bright and colorful ones, for the most part, He-Man and Transformers and Power Rangers, etc., etc. Too many to manage with any efficiency in front of the counter. No, she’d be putting them not only into the T-rex head but also into the three VCR monitors we kept behind the checkout counter.
“You can say that again,” I said, but I thought, More than one someone. I then reminded myself that I could either make this night take even longer by looking into it, or we could finish the work and go home. “Don’t bother calling Mom and Dad when we’re done,” I told her. “I’ll just drive you.”
It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to wait on her parents. I didn’t want to be alone when I left, either.
“If you’re sure,” she said, turning on the VCRs and their monitors.
The phone rang, manager’s line. I sighed. There was a chance it could be Rob—but at this hour it would probably be Scott. It would be an update on Cassidy. From the counter, Funshine Bear smiled at me reassuringly.
“Back in a sec.” I went to the cubby and shut the door to take the call. “Hello?”
Breathing. Soft and shallow. Familiar.
The breathing stopped.
My voice picked up, filling with a mother’s edge. “Cassidy? Cassidy Breanne, this is Mommy talking. Speak to me.”
I softened my tone even as panic slowly percolated in my blood. “Honey? Cassidy? Put Daddy on the phone. Go get Daddy.”
And then—thump. A single blow against the outside of the back door, the one we used to get rid of the trash and doubled as our fire escape. I lurched, nearly dropped the phone, caught the shriek before it could pass my lips. From the other side of the door, a … mewling noise, something like an agonized cat … or a tortured child that had forgotten, or never learned, to speak.
From the phone, Cassidy’s voice: “Mommy?”
“Cassidy? Oh, my god. Bunny, go get Daddy. Get him now.”
Her voice was … calm. Somnambulant. It was the voice I had heard at my bedside. “I can’t Mommy.”
“Cassidy, you go and get your father this—”
I jerked, let out a quick, “Jesus Christ!”
From my daughter: “Sortus convet retalvia sangvat suss-quena …”
And another sound, a larger one, muffled through the door that led back to the customer floor. Hammering. Fists on glass.
Oh my god. Oh dear, sweet Jesus.
I slammed the phone down. Gave the connection a half second to reset, while at the same time reaching with my other hand to fling the office door back open.
The fire escape: Thump.
Stephanie was on her knees, staring into one of the monitors. Static stared back at her. Beyond her, past the counter, shadows against the glass. Small shadows. Children. Hammering on it. Beyond them, the city lights sparkled impassively. More sirens.
I dialed 911, shouting, “Stephanie, come here! Stephanie? Stephanie! Move your ass!”
She didn’t move. She was transfixed. She might as well have been a photograph. She didn’t even blink.
The phone rang. And rang.
From the monitors, more voices in the static. They grew clearer as I awaited rescue on the other end of the phone. They spoke in unison, three voices, one at each monitor, two of them old, one of them young: Gregor, Molivia, Peter …
The kids at the glass—they were maybe seven to ten years old. Boys and girls both, maybe five or six of them. Their clothes were bloody. One of the boys had a screwdriver. One of the girls had a kitchen knife. Their hands drew back as one, struck as one against the glass. And the thumping against the fire escape grew stronger, too, as though another hand had joined it.
I let the office door swing back shut, ripped open the drawers on Rob’s desk and fumbled through them, still cradling the phone at my ear. I’d lost count of how many times it had rung by now. Had I mis-dialed? Were they that fucking busy tonight? Was this happening everywhere?
And the only weapon I could find was a stupid letter opener. Well, that and the fire extinguisher on the wall. But the thought was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of jingling bells.
Stephanie had moved after all—and opened the front door.
I charged onto the customer floor, ripping the extinguisher from its mooring as I went. At the same moment, five children leapt through the store entrance and fell upon Stephanie, wailing and hissing, their hands and arms flailing, most of them already coated with blood that hadn’t yet dried.
From the TV monitor, the voice of Peter: “Fucking bitch. See what happens when you fuck with the family Dunn, huh, don’t ya? Don’t ya, Carly? Gonna get what’s coming to you.”
Stephanie didn’t make a sound as they bowled her onto the floor, onto her back. The girl with the knife found her abdomen before I was halfway there.
“Sangvat suss-quena!” she screamed, bringing the blade down.
The boy with the screwdriver palm hammered his weapon through her left eye socket before I could reach her—and still, Stephanie uttered not a word. She lay there, let them stab her—repeatedly—and did nothing.
“Scratha poxi orbidae!” he cried.
When another of these rabid little urchins suddenly found me and hissed at me, her mouth fully open, showing the gap of her missing front teeth and trailers of drool, I didn’t wait. I didn’t slow down because they were children. Oh, hell no. Fuck that.
I swung the fire extinguisher around and into her as hard as I could, making only the most marginal of efforts in my panic and disbelief to avoid taking her full on the side of the head. I broadsided her against the shoulder, sent her spinning, and shot a hearty blast of flame retardant into her face. She stumbled back outside, shrieking.
Another of the TV monitors—an old, ragged female voice I assumed to be grandmother:
“No one loves my grandchild. They do not understand him. They are hateful. You are hateful.”
I didn’t particularly love these children either, just now. A second had climbed up my back, clawing at my ears, pulling my hair. “Fuck you!” I called back at the monitor, sending the kid clear over my shoulder and out the door, right into the girl I’d … extinguished a moment ago—and who was already trying to find her feet again. “Is this how you fucking run your daycare, bitch?”
As if the lady on the monitor could hear me. As if she were live.
Below me, the girl with the knife, the boy with the screwdriver—both continued to brutalize the already dead Stephanie. They were completely oblivious to me. And I could already hear the others from around back scuttling to the front, even as the two I ejected stood up like little Energizer demons.
The fifth kid was on my leg, trying to bite it off. I peeled him off by the hair, shielded myself with his thin, squalling body—and bull rushed into my other attackers. And so I was able to leave three of them outside of the store in time to slam the door back on them …
“Do you know what you’ve done?”
The voice of Gregor Dunn—fucking Grandpa of the year.
I picked up the fire extinguisher, gritting my teeth.
“Do you know what they did before coming to you? Do you know how many children have tried to get you, what we have unleashed upon your city? Do you see, Miss Carly? Must I explain?”
The girl at Stephanie’s stomach was swirling her hand in the open wound like finger paint, coming up with chunks of her liver and intestine. The boy had gone to her other eye, by now, gouging at it, scraping it out a piece at a time.
Stephanie. My co-worker. Fifteen years old. My … responsibility.
“You did it,” I seethed. “Whatever it was, it was you, you sick decrepit fuck.”
And, howling in disbelief at my own self, I brought the extinguisher down, first over one head, then the other.
Where the hell were my police? Where was my ambulance?
In the fresh fallen quiet, I got my answer. My call to 911. It was still ringing. And beyond that, at the emergency exit again …
The kids were both alive, their breath ragged but regular. I bound them with duct tape, pausing to retch every time I caught an accidental glance at my teenage charge. The children in the store were immobilized. The kids outside—the ones out front, at least—were standing in an unfazed, determined, somnambulant line, once again hammering on the glass in perfect synchrony.
Cassidy—Scott. The phone …
I ran back to it, was about to put it down, hang up—
“911. What’s your emergency?”
I wanted to scream again, to demand in the loudest possible way the answer to one stupid question—where have you been all this time? But time—that was a factor. For me, at least, and for my family. And for the two kids I’d clocked with the damned fire extinguisher.
So instead I told her. I expected her to hang up on me. I was sure she wouldn’t believe any of it. I paced, talking her though everything, every last bit of fantastical and absurd truth—and she never questioned me. She assured me the authorities were coming, they wouldn’t be long—
The blade had slid under the crack of the emergency exit door just as my bare foot had brushed it. I felt my skin separate in a deep, eight-inch gash from heel to toe. And I fell back, stumbling over the chair, wailing in agony and shock, dropping the phone.
Finding myself eye level with the crack and the knife, which kept swishing, seeking …
Until it stopped. Until the hammering up front stopped.
I forced myself back up, letting the phone dangle from the desk. From outside, even through the glass, I heard her as soon as she spoke. Her words were the words of the VHS tapes, that unholy, childish hammersmash of fake Latin and nonsense pureed in a blender, calling to me on repeat mode:
“… sangvat suss-quena … sangvat suss-quena …”
It was Cassidy. I went to her, as fast as I could hobble to her, snatching up Funshine Bear as I went.
She stood at the door, in the very center of the line of children. She held Braveheart Lion in one hand, a bloody butcher knife in the other. Her eyes were wide and blank and sightless. She put her knife hand up against the glass, smearing it crimson. The weapon slid from her hand and clattered to her feet.
I dropped to my knees, ignoring the agony in my foot and the sensation of blood pooling around me on the carpet. I was separated from her only by the glass barrier.
Sirens again—this time coming closer.
“Cassidy?” I called to her, my face streaming, my voice catching and hitching in my throat. “Cassidy? … Bunny? W-where’s Daddy?”
I was eye to eye with her, but she didn’t seem to see me.
“Don’t say that!” I shouted at her, my voice hoarse, my mind racing. I should go to her, push through the door, grab her, pull her in, fend off the others …
But, no. The police were coming. And the children—they weren’t hurting each other, now, were they? No, not even as the ones from around back joined the small crowd up front again.
Only the adults, or the ones who got in their way. Gregor’s voice echoed in my mind the pronouncement of my own damnation: Do you know what they did before coming to you? Do you know how many children have tried to get you, what we have unleashed upon your city? Do you see, Miss Carly? Must I explain?
I put my hand on the glass, mirroring hers. I held up Funshine Bear. Cassidy’s eyes found mine.
“I’m … going to sing to you, Bunny,” I said.
She blinked. Were her eyes filling with tears? It was hard to see through my own.
Was she coming back?
“You … won’t get me,” she said.
The sirens grew still louder, still closer. It was already over. The authorities would be here. There was no longer any need for me to do anything.
I drew in breath, steadied myself. Made an attempt, and found myself just able to do it. I sang to her.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy, when skies are grey.
You never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
Then I spoke the words:
“Please—don’t take away my sunshine.”
The kids had sat down. They were listening. Only Cassidy remained on her feet.
Until her eyes rolled back in her head, and slowly, as though settling for nap time, she sat down as well.
By then, the cops were pulling up.
It took Scott six months in the hospital to recover from the damage his five-year-old daughter had done to him in his sleep. Why she left him there and didn’t remain fixed on him, gutting him repeatedly as those other kids had done to Stephanie, I haven’t a clue. How she made it so far on the streets with the knife, a quarter mile to the store—even at that late hour—with no one stopping her? Well, I have an idea about that.
We weren’t encouraged, that summer of 1993, to talk about the night the children rose out of their beds and raised hell across Duke Street and Van Dorn. We were encouraged, through various ways and by various people, to say nothing.
There were stories on the news, of course—fake ones to account for the dead and the injured. Among these, apart from Stephanie, there weren’t any dead children. Those kids who “took ill” were all better by the morning, and they remembered none of it.
Neither Rob nor I—nor anyone else, so far as I know—saw or heard from the Dunn family ever again. I don’t think they fled. My story was out there, to all the right people, and the official media account is a car crash that killed them all. I like to think the powers-that-be, the ones who hushed up this nightmare, took care of them with angry, biblical justice.
But … I don’t know for sure.
Keeping quiet did make things easier. At least, it did for me and my family. Those bills I had trouble paying? Not a factor after that night. Erol closed the corner store on Duke Street and Van Dorn. I never worked video again—and when the world converted from VHS to DVD, I didn’t bitch.
I’ve never heard from Stephanie’s family. I have no idea what kind of … deal they got.
It’s weighed on my mind for twenty-five years, and no one’s encouraged me to silence for a very, very long time. It’s history—or it would be, if anyone remembered it. I’ve thought about keeping the secret. Scott thinks I should. He covers his injuries. He’s explained them away as surgery following an accident in the weight room.
Cassidy doesn’t know. She all grown up now. Scott doesn’t want to trouble her, doesn’t want to trouble her little ones.
But the thing is, Bunny found a used VHS player at a yard sale last week, along with a selection of Care Bear videos. My Little Pony, too.
And, well, she just couldn’t help herself, could she? Who could blame her? Her childhood wrapped in a box and all that. Scott tells me it’s no big deal—that it happened, yes, all of it, and it’s over. The tapes she found are completely harmless. What are the chances anything’s wrong?
Tell me—would you take that chance? Think about it.
I didn’t think so.