REEL MONSTER


The mid-1980s...


ONE

“Video Palace” was one of the first video stores to be born out of the video age. Of course, this was before any type of Blockbuster Video ever came about. And it goes without saying that nobody knew what the heck Netflix was...or a Redbox, for that matter. Video stores hadn’t really been franchised yet. They were mostly independently-owned deals, each with a unique name and personality of their own.

The interior design of “Video Palace” was pretty simple: buzzing fluorescent lights, movie posters surrounded by blinking marquis lights, and red, wall-to-wall carpet that was supposed to evoke feelings of the ‘red carpet’ at a Hollywood movie premiere. The smell of fresh popcorn hit your face with a vengeance as soon as you walked into the store (Mr. Craven - the owner - purposely kept the machine near the entrance to instantly pull his customers into a movie mood). Bags of the popcorn were sold for a dollar apiece and cinema-like buckets were also available for an additional 25-cents. Then, of course, there were Milk Duds, Snowcaps, Good ‘N Plenty and Ju Ju Bees available at the front counter, all packaged in Jumbo-sized boxes like how they were at cinemas.

There were three televisions spread throughout the store - two small ones that hung from opposite sides of the ceiling, and then one giant, big-screen TV located on the floor in the way back of the store. This TV was basically the antithesis of the slim widescreen televisions of today. The thing weighed a ton, had a huge fanny and had to be transported via wheels.

All three of the televisions were synched up to one VCR that Craven controlled from behind the front counter. It was usually playing a family-friendly movie, like Swiss Family Robinson or something else from Disney or at least something that the MPAA rated to be no higher than PG. Craven, of course, only played his favorite movies and knew all the content by heart. This meant he never had to worry about any surprise curse-words popping up when a mother and her little children were in the store.

Like most video stores of the era, Video Palace was also notoriously known for its “Adult Closet” in the way back of the store. Craven was never proud of this closet, but he came to terms with the fact that he needed it as a way of keeping up with his competition. On most nights, there was usually some shuffling coming from the closet and then eventually a middle-aged man would emerge looking sheepish and a bit red in the face. Remember, these were the days before the Internet, so the fellers had to feed their appetites for everything pornographic via videotapes. Playboys, Husslers and Penthouses could only give a gentleman so many jollies. Most of these gents couldn’t afford the Spice Channel either, unless they had a scrambler, but those were hard to come by.

Other than ‘the closet’, however, the store was a family-friendly place. Mr. Craven treated all of his customers with the utmost charm, charisma and friendliness. He loved talking movies with his customers. And they loved talking to him as well.

Tonight was no exception to the rule.

“How are you tonight, Sir?” asked Craven, who was dressed like the usher to a movie theater (black pants, white shirt, black bowtie and cummerbund).

“Great,” said the customer, who looked like an accountant or broker who just got off his shift in the financial district. It was ten minutes of ten and he was the last customer of the night.

“Did you find everything you were looking for?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Excellent. Could I have the last four digits of your phone number, please?”

“Seven-three-three-five.”

Craven typed the number into the IBM computer and summoned the proper account.

“Last name?” he asked, just for verification.

“Barnes.”

The information checked out OK and Craven proceeded to scan the customer’s rentals: A Fish Called Wanda and Back to the Future.

“Aaah, yes...excellent choices,” Craven said to the customer.

“I’ve heard great things.”

“You won’t be disappointed.”

Craven finished scanning the videos and placed them at the far end of his counter, on the other side of the security gate that stopped thieves.

“All set. Enjoy the movies.”

“Thank you,” said the customer as he grabbed his rentals and left the store.

Mr. Craven leaned over the counter and watched the customer exit into the outside parking lot. His eyes were already rather magnified from the lenses of his coke-bottle glasses, but they became even bigger and wider, almost to the point of looking...well, a tad mad. Only the God that created him could have known what was going on in this man’s mysterious mind.

He scooted out from behind the counter and scurried over to the store entrance. The parking lot outside was dark and deserted - no action as far as he could see. Mr. Craven glanced down to his brand new digital calculator watch: it was still two minutes until closing time, but the parking lot seemed quiet enough and he couldn’t really wait to get down to business.

LOCK! SHACKLE! SNAP! He secured the door with three separate locks and shut the Venetian blinds over the store’s front windows. Then he killed the fluorescent lights and tiptoed to the way back of the darkened store. Just to be on the safe side, he figured he ought to take a peek into the adult closet, even though the contents inside disgusted him more than anything in the world. Craven was the kind of guy who preferred a Disney movie over a pornographic film any day. He was a kid at heart. His body was sixty years old but his heart was about twelve.

He creaked the door to the closet open, took a quick peek inside - being sure not to make any eye contact with any movies lining the shelves - and saw that there was no sign of any creepy gentlemen left over. In the past, he’d had problems with certain men hoping to be locked into the place over night. Their intention was to watch all the pornographic movies they could feast their eyes on and play with their body all night in the most filthy of ways.

Fortunately, there was no sign of any creeps like that tonight. Yuck! Disgusting specimens of the human species.

Craven shut the closet door and sidestepped his way over to a shelf of movies lining the back left wall of the store. This was the special “Johnny Cruise” section that he had just recently assembled now that Johnny had more than a dozen movies under his belt and many more on the way.

He took one more peek over his shoulder to be absolutely sure the store was empty and then reached for a video entitled STOP! OR THE NUN WILL SHOOT!, which was by far Johnny Cruise’s worst movie and considered - according to many critics - to be one of the worst movies of all time, perhaps even making Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space look like Citizen Kane. The movie was an action comedy about a nun who witnesses her best friend (and fellow sister) being murdered by an unknown assailant on the convent grounds. Johnny plays a cop who is assigned to catch the killer and he also has to protect the nun from being silenced by the killer. Of course, the cop teaches the nun how to use a gun for protection and that’s basically where the movie’s title comes from.

Yes, STOP! OR THE NUN WILL SHOOT! was, perhaps, the worst movie of all time and the video itself hadn’t been rented by one single person since the first month of its release a few years ago. Mr. Craven was pretty sure that the chances of this video being removed from the shelf were slim to nil, so he knew that it was the best video he could use to conceal the lever. Wait, the lever?

Yes, the lever.

Mr. Craven removed the dusty STOP! OR THE NUN WILL SHOOT! video from the shelf, only to reveal a mysterious red lever that said “Pull Me”. Craven’s eyes swirled with utter madness as he ran his fingers through his wild, white hair. "A-hee." A giggle bubbled out of his throat and he did exactly what the lever told him to do: he pulled it.

Suddenly, the shelf of videos started to rotate ninety degrees like a secret passage in some old Scooby Doo cartoon. “A-hee-hee-hee!” cackled the wild Craven. He took one last peek over his shoulder and placed the STOP! OR THE NUN WILL SHOOT! videotape right back where he found it. Then, he entered the spooky passageway and got swallowed by an abyss of darkness.

The shelf of videos rotated back to its original position, just like nothing ever happened.



TWO

The secret laboratory was something straight out of some B-1950s-science-fiction movie, like Howard Hawks’ The Thing or Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. There were beakers bubbling with mysterious green potions and test-tubes smoking with purple chemical compounds and even one of those Jacobs Ladder things with that electrical charge that went bzz bzz bzz. Cobwebs covered a shelf of leather-bound books lining the back wall and one of the books looked like something the Evil Queen would have been using in Snow White when she turned herself into a hag.

What stood out the most in the laboratory was a wooden perch in the far corner of the room, and on this perch was a big, black raven named Maxwell. This was Mr. Craven’s pet bird of several years, the closest living being that ever came close to being his soul mate, as Mr. Craven never had any interest in getting married or being involved in any kind of a serious relationship. Yes, that bird and his movies were his only true friends. He would have never been able to give any other living person more love than he gave to his bird and his movies. It just wasn’t possible. And this simply wouldn’t be fair for any woman out there in the world. He would have been a terrible husband, not to mention a terrible father.

“Maxwell, my darling!” shouted the wacky Craven as he entered the laboratory with a wild grin smeared over the entire lower third of his face.

Maxwell puffed out his feathers, flapped his wings twice and let out a squawk.

“I know, Maxwell. It’s been a busy night, my sweet. But now we can resume our more important duties.”

Craven grabbed a white lab coat from off a wooden rack and put it on over his video store uniform. Then he drew his full attention to an observation table in the center of the laboratory. On the table was Craven’s latest project, what he considered the project of all projects. It was no Frankenstein monster or Bride of Frankenstein or anything along those lines. No, it was a strange machine, rectangular in shape and silver in color. There were also dials. And knobs! And buttons!!

Mr. Craven hovered over the machine and started to caress the top of it with his hand, like it was the newborn child he never had. Then he reached into the chest pocket of his lab coat and pulled out a small screwdriver.

“Ah, Maxwell. With a twist of this screw here, my creation will be complete!”

Maxwell squawked in delight as Craven inserted the Phillips-head screwdriver into the machine’s last remaining loose screw. With a simple twist, the screw became tight and the machine was officially complete.

“At last, it is finished!”

He took a step back from the observation table, trying to get a better birds-eye-view of his creation. His eyeballs were practically popping out of their sockets now and the teeth to his grin started grinding together in almost an animalistic excitement.

“Years and years of work have gone into this experiment, Maxwell! And tonight we shall enjoy the fruits of our labor!”

Maxwell hopped on his perch and flapped his wings in over-excitement.

“Yes, tonight is the night, Maxwell! The moment has finally arrived!"

Mr. Craven couldn’t help but allow the cackles to bubble up his throat.

“A-hee! Hee! Hee!”

And more cackles.

“Hee! A-hee! Hee! Hee!”

By this point, Maxwell was flapping his wings and squawking maniacally. He didn’t understand a word Mr. Craven was saying but he could get a sense from his master’s energy that there was something to be absolutely ecstatic about.

“A-hee! Hee! Hee!!!” Craven’s cackles reached an unhealthy intensity and he suddenly began to feel a pain in his chest growing in strength. “A-hee...Hee...Hee...” Along with the pain, he started to feel a bit light-headed and his skin broke out in a sudden and strange sweat. It was about at this point that Mr. Craven knew something was terribly wrong.

His right cheek started to feel numb and he could literally feel the numbness travel down his neck, down his arm and soon proliferate throughout the entire right side of his body. Then he became conscious of his breathing, mainly because getting oxygen into his lungs seemed to get more and more difficult to accomplish. His breaths became shorter and shorter and he could literally feel the beating of his heart get slower and slower. And, then, without warning, he lost all balance and all motor skills. Quicker than a man could snap his fingers, Mr. Craven collapsed to the floor. And that was that. He was dead.

Maxwell’s squawking lessened as he realized something had happened to his master. He flew off his perch and landed on the chest of the lifeless Mr. Craven. The black bird gave his master a few pecks on the chest with his sharp beak, as though trying to administer CPR. But the bird’s efforts were done to no avail. Maxwell’s master was dead and there was no hope of resuscitating him.



Several Years Later...


ONE

The walls of his bedroom were in a transitional phase, which was actually reflective of a more figurative transition taking place on the inside of Mikey. Of course, there were still a few baseball pennants, racecar posters and other decorations that identified the room as a “boy’s room”. These decorations had been there since way before Mikey had been able to establish any kind of individual identity for himself. His parents had put them there when they were decorating the room, mostly in an attempt to instill an early onset of masculinity in their son. And also to ensure that he would grow up to be heterosexual.

But Mikey was sixteen now and trying to claim his identity as his own. So the Lamborghini posters were in the process of being covered by Guns N’ Roses, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and other ‘cooler’ posters that Mikey at least thought better defined him, though he wasn't really sure yet.

There was one part of his wall, however, that Mikey knew definitely defined him and always had defined him and that was the “Johnny Cruise” tribute, or what Mikey referred to as “the shrine”, although it didn’t really have candles or altars or anything like that. It was just a section of his wall that was completely plastered with various Johnny Cruise movie posters.

First, there was Johnny Cruise in a movie called WITCH RING, which was about a group of teens who discover a mysterious ring in a forest that apparently once belonged to a long-dead witch. The ring gives them magical powers, which are cool at first, but then the ring seems to create a portal that allows dark forces to enter their lives and, well, it becomes a good vs. evil kind of thing. This was one of Johnny’s earliest films, made when he was in his early twenties.

And then there was EDWARD TERRESTRIAL, a movie where Johnny finds an alien stuck on earth, takes the creature into his suburban home and introduces him to all the neighbors. At first the suburban neighbors are fearful of their new friend but then they think he’s cool and some of the women want to date him. Things get dicey, though, when the neighborhood bully gets jealous of all the attention Edward’s getting and makes plans to annihilate the alien.

Then, of course, there was SPEED HARD 2, which was your typical car-chase action movie. Johnny plays a retired racecar driver who’s forced to get back into the driver’s seat when his girlfriend is kidnapped. Instead of ransom, all the kidnapper wants to do is race Johnny in the race of all races. Will he get his girlfriend back alive? All he can do is race like he’s never raced before and find out.

Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz. Bzzz.

Mikey’s alarm clock was going off and there was movement beneath the dinosaur designs of his twin-sized comforter. His hand slithered out of the bedding, turned off the alarm and he poked his head out of his sheets. He was a scrawny kind of a lad with dark, thick hair, pale skin and cheeks that sunk into his head, making him look kind of emaciated.

He looked over to the clock and tried to read the time, but the red digits were blurry and out of focus. He rubbed the morning mucus out of his eyes and then his vision began to improve. It was 6:30am. Agh! So early in the morning, yet if he stayed in bed only a couple seconds longer there was the very real possibility of him being late for school.

He rolled his head over to a pillow beside him that was practically hanging off the edge of the bed (he liked to pretend his bed was Queen-sized). There was a yearbook on the pillow, open to five or six rows of freshman-year photographs, and one particular photo was circled several times with a black Sharpie. It was a girl. Her name...was Lindsay Myers.

“Hi, honey, how’d you sleep?” asked Mikey, like he was a husband talking to a wife.

The yearbook photo, of course, did not give him any kind of response. But Mikey imagined it saying, “I’m good Mikey and, oh, I love you so much!”

"I love you, too," he whispered.

Mikey leaned over and gave Lindsay a (close-mouthed) kiss. It was very romantic and classy with no tongue whatsoever...not even the tip. The kiss sent a rush of energy through his body. Since he was still a little too young to drink coffee without stunting his growth, the morning kiss was essentially Mikey’s caffeine, the umph he needed to get his little bony bottom out of his bed and begin the day.



TWO

Brian’s bedroom certainly had a different 'look' going on. Where Mikey’s identity was still in question, Brian was pretty sure he had his sense of self already well-established - basically, it was that of a “Horn-dog”. Yes, there were hot Kathy Ireland posters and cut-outs from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit centerfolds. He also had some cool Grateful Dead posters - not because he was into the band or a stoner in any sense of the word - but mainly because they looked cool with the black-light he had recently purchased at a store in the mall called “Spencer Gifts”. There was also a lava-lamp on his nightstand and on his desk there was one of those Tesla Coil balls...you know, that thing with the electric currents that zap your fingers when you touch the glass.

Brian's bedroom was also noticeably messier than Mikey's. There were empty Pepsi cans and Slurpee cups and candy wrappers all over the place. There was also a greasy bag of Burger King with a half-eaten Whopper still inside it. Then there were dust bunnies on the carpet, dirty socks hanging over the desk chair and soiled Kleenex overflowing from the wastebasket (and let's just say he wasn't suffering from a cold or allergies).

The only thing that Brian and Mikey's bedroom DID have in common was - yes, that’s right - an entire wall dedicated to the great Johnny Cruise. Brian had apparently saved every single movie ticket from every single Johnny Cruise movie and taped it to his wall. He also had a couple head-shots from Johnny signed “Thanks for everything!”. (Deep down, Brian knew that the autograph was likely fake, but there was no need to face that reality.) And, yes, of course, he also had a whole collection of movie posters, many of which were the same as Mikey’s but some were different.

One of the posters Mikey didn’t have was DRIVING MR. BERNIE, where Johnny plays a chauffeur hired to drive a corporate bigwig around New York City. One morning Bernie dies in his backseat and Johnny’s afraid that he’s going to be accused of murdering him. With the help of a mustache, Johnny takes on the dead man's identity, which is also helped by the fact that Bernie is about the same height and weight as Johnny.

Another poster Mikey didn’t have was for THE MIGHTY RUDY in which Johnny plays the coach for a football team of teenage misfits. He’s forced by a judge to coach the team when his Wall Street firm is indicted with fraud. He has a choice between two years in prison or community service in the form of coaching the football team. So he chooses to be a coach, but, of course, all the kids on the team stink and he has to take them from the worst team in the league to the best in a matter of a few weeks.

Brian even had an original movie poster for the notorious STOP! OR THE NUN WILL SHOOT! Even though the movie was the worst of all time, Brian still felt the need to complete the Johnny Cruise collection. The wall wouldn't be the same without it.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

Brian popped his rusty hair out from under his sheets. He was wearing a retainer (in the form a of a headpiece) and his face was covered with dried zit cream.

He shut off the alarm and was about to roll out from under the sheets when he noticed - much to his frustration - that there was a teepee making its presence known down at his six o'clock. He lifted his sheets up from his chest and peered down to his crotch area to see what he was dealing with. Indeed, there was a massive (massive, in his case meaning about four or five inch) man-flag flying at full mast.

“Oh, for Christ sakes. Do you ever rest? I’m not getting outta this bed until you settle down.”

He gave his man-flag a few seconds to lower itself, hoping to at least get it down to half-mast. But the flag was being stubborn. Of course, he could have always done the "up & tuck" move - essentially hiding his thingy by tucking it up into the elastic waist of his sweatpants - but he had heard rumors of men damaging their thingys this way and that wasn't a risk he was willing to take.

“Look, I KNOW you want some action. I want some action, too. But I’m never gonna get laid lying in this bed all day, ya know?”

The flag seemed to be listening to Brian’s reasoning, because it suddenly began to show signs of lowering itself to a more manageable level.

“Little more,” Brian said with an encouraging tone.

The flag lowered about a quarter of the way down, now looking something like the Iwo Jima monument.

“Liiiiiiitle more.”

Finally, after what seemed to be at least a minute, Brian felt it was safe for him to get out of his bed.

“Thank you.”



THREE

George Washington High School (GWHS for short) was about as old as it was ever going to get. The town selectmen had recently voted in favor of a multi-million dollar renovation that was due to start as soon as school ended that upcoming June. The renovation was needed in order for the school to keep its State “accreditation”. None of the parents really understood the meaning of this whole “accreditation” thing, but they all feared their kids wouldn’t get into decent colleges if the renovation didn’t take place. Of course, there were a lot of old stinkers in the town (with no kids) who were against having their taxes raised yet again, but - after several Town meetings and debates - the voting majority came to realize that supporting the renovation was the right thing to do, even if they didn’t have any kids to benefit from it.

To Brian and Mikey’s misfortune, the renovation was going to take at least a few years and they would be long out of high school before they’d be in any position to benefit from any of it. But on the other hand, they felt special to be among one of the last classes to ever be part of old George Washington High School - the classrooms, the hallways, the gymnasium, the cafeteria, the lockers and, of course, the locker room with all its sketchy showers, door-less bathroom stalls and athlete foot fungus. Yes, the school was essentially retiring as soon as Brian and Mikey left, like a stellar basketball player retires his number, or something like that...

Brriiiiiiiing.

The first bell of the morning echoed throughout the halls. The sound of the bell broke up all the various cliques: the Football Players, Goths, Cheerleaders, Field Hockey Players, Geeks, Dweebs, Smokers, Druggies, Dickheads, Skaters and Haters. The first bell meant all the students had exactly five minutes to get to their first classes before another bell would sound. Any student who didn’t have their bum in their seats by the second bell would be written up as tardy and they would end up on "call list". "Call list" meant you would get called down to the assistant principal's office and have to explain the reason for your tardiness. If you didn't produce a note from your parents or a doctor explaining why you were late, you would get a one-way ticket to detention.

But while the school's bell system was meant to create order, it paradoxically made things much more chaotic than necessary: that is, if the current scene in GWHS' hallways was any indication. Yes, the students were scurrying all over the place like a bunch of cockroaches suddenly exposed to an intense light source. They had less than five minutes to grab books at their lockers, kiss their girlfriends goodbye, get a drink of water, make one last bathroom trip, pick their noses etc.

Like most mornings, Mikey found himself knee-deep in the middle of all the hallway chaos. He was weaving his way in and out of the football players and dodging the paper airplanes that would inevitably fly his way.

“Mikey, wait up!” yelled a familiar voice from not far down the hallway.

Brian pushed his way through a clot of wrestlers who were spitting into paper cups (they were concerned about ‘making weight’, trying ever-so-desperately to lose that one extra pound they needed in order to wrestle in their desired weight class).

“Mikey, wait, hold on!”

“I don’t wanna be late, Brian!” yelled Mikey without turning around.

“Yeah, that would be the end of the world!” his friend shouted back sarcastically.

Brian dodged a skateboarder and two Druggies who reeked like cigarettes and then caught up with his best friend in the whole wide world. “Did it come in yet?”

“What, SPEED HARD 2?”

“No, The Little Mermaid. What do you think?”

“Yeah, a whole shipment came in last night. We can watch it at the store tonight.”

“Awesome!”

A paper airplane whizzed into Mikey’s cheekbone - missing his eye by only centimeters - but he took the blow like a champ and kept moving forward. It was absolutely imperative that he make it to his class before the second bell. He never had to stay after school before (at least not for disciplinary reasons) and he wasn’t about to ruin his spotless conduct record now. No way. No-how.



FOUR

Mr. Chadwick had been collecting chalk-dust inside the walls of George Washington High for almost 35 years. He received his doctorate from Yale in 1960, accepted a position as “head of the English department” at GWHS the following fall, set up shop behind his favorite wooden podium in room 305 and basically hadn’t left since.

Pretentious in appearance, Mr. Chadwick never went one day without wearing his signature red, polka-dotted bow-tie and a navy-blue suit that usually had a good deal of chalk stains on it. As far as his hair went, he didn’t have much of it, save for some white wisps growing out the sides. He also had a big pair of red-framed eyeglasses that - along with his chapped lips - stood out like a sore thumb over his chalky-white skin. Basically, if you were to look up ‘intellectual’ in the American Heritage Dictionary, there was a pretty good chance that you would find a photograph of Mr. Chadwick next to it.

Although he was usually perched behind his favorite podium, at this particular moment Chadwick was pacing the width of the long blackboard that ran along the front of the room. He had a beat-up paperback in his hand that was tattered in places and marked up with all sorts of notes. It was a work of literature written in the 1800s by somebody British that only Chadwick seemed to give two darns about.

“And thus we arrive at one of the most brilliantly written passages in the history of literature,” he said to the class. “Let’s turn our focus to...”

He grabbed a piece of chalk from off his podium and wrote the words “red” and “sweater” on the blackboard.

“...the red sweater. One of the most brilliant figurative devices ever to be written onto a blank page.”

Meanwhile...in the waaaaaaaaaaay back of the classroom...Brian and Mikey sat at their respective desks. Neither of them were paying attention to a word Chadwick was saying...but for somewhat different reasons.

In Brian’s case, he basically wasn’t paying attention because...well, because he didn’t really care what the heck Mr. Chadwick had to say about any red sweater. Besides, there were more important things to pay his attention to: mainly, the extremely hot, curly-blonde girl sitting at the desk in front of him. Yes, Brian was currently thanking the God that made him because this girl (he believed Donna to be her name) was wearing a very short pink sweater that rode significantly high up her spine and revealed her white thong, which rode significantly low down her backside. In other words, there was, indeed, some 'crack' showing and Brian couldn’t help but allow his flag to raise itself up to a half-mast position.

In Mikey’s case, it wasn’t out of personal choice to ignore Mr. Chadwick’s lecture. In fact, he WANTED to pay attention because his grade depended on it. But he couldn’t help but be distracted by the presence of a little somebody called...yes, that’s right: Lindsay Myers. Lindsay was sitting at his eleven o’clock, just one row in front of him, and boy did she look amazing. She had curly, dark-brown hair that somehow always seemed to look like she just stepped foot outside of the shower. Her skin was milky-white and her green eyes reminded Mikey of a bar of Irish Spring Soap, which he realized was kind of weird, but, hey, he couldn’t deny that’s what he thought of. And then there were her eyelashes which were carefully layered with mascara, but not too much...just the right amount.

For clothing, Lindsay wore tight denim jeans and a white tank top that hugged her bosoms tightly, revealing just the right amount of cleavage. Mikey couldn’t help but be pulled into her magnetic aura, like he was Odysseus and she was a Siren. It wasn’t long before he was transported out of Chadwick’s classroom and to a reception hall, feeding Lindsay a wedge of chocolate...no, vanilla...wedding cake. Lindsay took a bite of the cake and they both giggled as she wiped some frosting off the side of her mouth and rubbed it on Mikey’s nose. There were more than a hundred guests in attendance and they roared in laughter upon seeing the crazy shenanigans that the newlyweds were up to. Mikey blushed and took a look at his guests. All his relatives were there and they all loved him and he felt like the people in his family actually respected him for once in his lifetime. However, there was one particular guest who he knew didn’t belong. Was it a wedding crasher? No, it was Mr. Chadwick.

“Class, I want you to tell me what this red sweater is a symbol of,” said the pasty Mr. Chadwick.

And that was that. The fantasy was over. Mikey was back in reality.

Mr. Chadwick searched the classroom for a raised hand. “Anyone? Class?”

Mikey slowly sunk low into his chair and buried his face in his open book, pretending to be busy studying the ‘red sweater’ passage. “Pleeeeeeeze don’t pick me,” he thought to himself. He figured that maybe he wouldn't be called on if he looked like he was busy thinking hard about the sweater and maybe had a puzzled or confused look on his face.

Chadwick resumed scanning the room for any raised hands but didn’t see any. He was about to resort to grabbing his seating chart and calling on a random person, but then there was finally a hand that darted up in the middle of the classroom...an all-too-familiar hand. Mr. Chadwick’s eyes twinkled at the sight of it.

“Yes, Greg!”

Indeed, it was Gregory Stern, or ‘The Machine’ as all the football players referred to him as. He was a tall, 250-pound star quarterback with a chin that looked like a bum and a unibrow that looked like a strip of Velcro. What attracted girls to this boy mystified both Brian and Mikey.

Half-jock, half teacher’s pet, Greg aspired to play football after high school, but he wanted to do it at a good school (either Harvard or the Naval Academy - he wasn’t sure yet). The problem was that he didn’t really have the brain to get into any of these schools, so he tried to make up for his stupidity by boosting his class participation points. Yes, Greg had the tendency to participate in class at an almost annoying rate, and also had the tendency to use really big, pretentious words that he knew would drive Chadwick wild with intellectual stimulation. Of course, everybody knew that it was all horse manure; it was widely known that Greg carried around a large stack of index cards with the vocabulary words written on them.

“I feel that the sweater is...

Greg kept the index cards nestled in his crotch, hidden from Chadwick’s view, but easy enough to glance down to.

“...ostensibly a good example of the writer’s use of...”

He shuffled the cards around.

“...semiotics. But, then again, I’d also have to say that the...”

Shuffle shuffle. Glance to the crotch.

“...connotations of the passage seem to indicate a...”

Shuffle.

“...paradox.”

Standing behind his podium, a flush of rosy redness surged into Mr. Chadwick’s chalky-white cheeks. He clasped the podium’s wood and slowly thrust his crotch into the hollowed compartments inside, almost like he were humping the podium in intellectual excitement.

“That’s a VEEEEERY interesting observation, Greg!”

Greg curled the right part of his lip into a smug smirk, knowing that he successfully managed to fool the old teacher once again.

“Who else wants to make a comment?” asked Mr. Chadwick, again scanning the classroom for any hands.

Mikey buried his face back in his book and prayed to God that he wasn’t going to be called on. Even though he was pretty sure he knew what the stupid red sweater symbolized he still didn’t want to participate. Whenever he was called on, everybody would turn around and stare at him. And what if his voice cracked and everybody knew he was nervous? Or what if he had a bat in a cave (booger in nostril)? Or if he started shaking from the nerves and everybody could tell he was freaking out and then they would wonder what his deal was and ‘oh, is he having an anxiety attack?’ and oh my, oh God!

As for Brian, he was still staring at the white thong in front of him, completely oblivious to anything else that was going on in the classroom. Mikey never understood how Brian could just go through life, totally relaxed, not being frazzled by anything at all. How was that possible? How could somebody not take life so seriously? It simply wasn’t within Mikey’s biology to do that sort of a thing.

As for Chadwick, he was displeased to see that there weren’t any raised hands to be seen. He knew he’d have to resort to calling on somebody.

“Let’s see here...” he said, taking a peek at his seating chart.

For some reason, Mikey knew he was doomed. He could intuitively sense it. He just knew it was coming.

“Michael!” yelled Mr. Chadwick.

“Oh shit,” Mikey muttered under his breath.

Mr. Chadwick spotted Mikey in the way back of the classroom. “Michael, how about you?”

Mikey slowly lifted his face out of his book. To no surprise, every head in the classroom was turning in his direction. Yes, all eyes were on him. This wasn't a good feeling for a boy who could easily be written into the Guinness Book of World records as “most self-conscious person in the world”.

He gave his throat a quick clear so as to prevent any frogs or prepubescent cracks in the voice.

“Um...well...I think it’s a symbol of...um...hope???”

Mr. Chadwick’s face immediately returned to its chalky-white state and also drooped into a look of complete disappointment.

“Hope???”

Mikey’s heart rapped loudly against his chest, a delayed response to having been called on in class. The heads were still turned in his direction and he didn’t know how to react. Should he smile? Wink? Where should his eyes be???

As for Mr. Chadwick, he looked like he just received news his mother had died. All interest in humping the podium was gone.

“Hope...um OK...nooooo.... Boys and girls! Boys and girls! Up here, please!”

The students gradually turned their heads away from Mikey and back towards the direction of Chadwick. Phew. Mikey was safe again.

“Class, please make a note of Michael’s comment, because that’s the kind of thing I’d prefer not to hear. We only have a limited time to discuss these brilliant passages and we can’t waste it with comments like Michael’s.”

Needless to say, Mikey felt like pigeon droppings and was sure that he now had another chapter to write in his “When I felt like a jackass” memoir (currently a work in progress).

He was pretty sure he could hear sporadic giggles coming from various students...maybe even Lindsay. Oh! And he was also pretty sure he heard a sneer coming from the vicinity of Greg Stern, that little pompous jock.

“Nice goin’, Mikey,” said Brian kiddingly out the corner of his mouth. Of course, he was still looking at the thong and he didn’t have any plans of taking his eyes off of it, even for a single second.

“Oh shut up,” Mikey whispered back to his friend.


FIVE

The George Washington High School cafeteria was in rough shape, but, then again, so wasn’t everything else in the school. Everybody knew the renovation was on its way, so nobody made a very big stink about all the exposed piping on the ceiling that may or may not have been insulated with asbestos. The cafeteria floor was made out of a gray, vinyl tile, kind of like what you would find in the sterile hallways of a mental hospital. It certainly didn’t have much eye-appeal to it, but any other material would have been difficult for the custodian to clean at the end of the day. Then there were the cafeteria walls, which were peeling in parts and stained with Sloppy Joe sauce. At least there were some student council campaign posters that did a pretty good job hiding the walls’ blemishes, but, then again, these posters were also stained to a degree and also covered with inappropriate graffiti like boobies, pee-pees, wee-wees and bummies.

All the students sat along the benches of long, rectangular tables that were painted yellow. The tables and benches were all one piece and could be easily folded up at the end of the day when the custodian needed to clean the floors. Like with most school cafeterias, there was an unwritten social hierarchy when it came to where the students sat. In the way back of the cafeteria (where the windows were) was the ‘upper class’, where all the cool kids were. These students could be anybody from football players to key student council members or good-looking field hockey players, cheerleaders, aspiring prom queens or shopping enthusiasts etc. Not only did they have a nice view of the athletic fields outside the windows, but they also had easy access to the juice machines, which were to the right of the windows, and the snack bar, which was to the left.

The middle of the cafeteria was where the “middle class” sat - that is, the so-so popular kids, mainly the track and cross country runners and maybe the stoners, overachievers, band and chorus people etc. And then behind the middle-class was everybody else: the Goths, the nerds, the dweebs, the idiots, the kids who still wore sweatpants to school, the kids with poor hygiene, the girls who drooled and the other socially-challenged students who basically had no concept of what it took to be the least bit cool.

On this particular day, Brian and Mikey found themselves kind of closer to the “lower class” end of the cafeteria than they would have liked to be. They sat by themselves (per usual), mainly because they didn’t really have any group to identify with. They didn’t play sports or play musical instruments, they weren’t into Nine Inch Nails or The Cure, they didn’t enjoy wearing sweatpants or drooling involuntarily...so basically it was just them in their own little clique with no label or category to pin on themselves.

Brian plucked a Tater Tot off of his plastic lunch tray, dipped it into a puddle of ketchup and then tossed it into his mouth. The soft tot tasted good with the chicken nuggets, green string beans, chilled fruit and chocolate milk.

As he munched on the tot, he couldn't help but look longingly over to the far side of the cafeteria, where all the cool kids were sitting.

“One of these days, Mikey. One of these days we’re gonna be popular. I can feel it.”

Mikey was busy filling the lid of his thermos with some hot chicken soup. Like usual, he had brought his lunch from home, mainly because his mother thought the school lunches were tainted with unhealthy artificial ingredients. She packed his lunch every day and was sure that all the essential food groups were present, including a ham 'n cheese sandwich (with lettuce, tomato and mustard) and a plastic cup of Motts applesauce.

“Face it Brian," he said, blowing on the soup to cool it down. “We don’t have a chance. Nobody likes us.”

“No, it’s gonna happen, Mikey. I can feel it in my bones.”

“Come on, Brian. High school just isn’t our time to shine. Our day’s gonna come later.”

Brian looked at his friend and shook his head in disgust. “Everything’s always later to you, Mikey. You can’t think like that.” He looked back over to the ‘cool kid’ tables and gazed dreamily. “Yep, we’re gonna be popular and you know what? We’re gonna get laid. L...A...I...D...laid!”

Mikey giggled. “OK, Brian. Whatever you say.”

Suddenly, a breeze of wind blew past the table. Mikey looked to his left and saw Lindsay Myers walking by, obviously heading towards the ‘upper class’ section of the cafeteria. She moved with beauty...and style...and grace, maybe not much different than a perfect-ten model on a runway (but not as thin and emaciated).

“Oh my gosh...there she is.”

Brian turned to see what Mikey was gawking at.

“Oooo, Lindsay Myers. She’s got the cutest butt I’ve ever seen.”

Mikey was genuinely offended by his friend’s comment.

“Hey, watch your mouth. Don’t talk that way about my girl.”

“Your girl?! Ha! OK, well, go ask her out, then!”

“Sssssssh, shut up.” As usual, Brian was talking louder than necessary.

“Go ask her out, then,” Brian repeated at a softer volume.

“What? No way.”

“Seriously, Mikey...Lindsay Myers throws the coolest parties in the entire school. Anybody who’s anybody gets invited to those parties. We gotta get invited to those parties. That’s our ticket to popularity! So go talk to her.”

“I’m not asking her out, Brian. No way. Not...not now.”

“Oh, that’s right. Maybe when you shine in college...or after college you’ll get a good job and make a million bucks...or maybe after you die...maybe you’ll be cooler in the afterlife. Sounds like a good plan.”

Mikey gave his friend the hairy eyeball, but Brian refused to shut up.

“It’s now or never, Mikey.”

Mikey looked towards the ‘upper class’ section of the cafeteria, and - for a moment - Brian thought his best friend was actually going to grow a pair and ask Lindsay out. But, no, he was wrong.

“No..." said Mikey. "I’m not gonna do it.”

“Fine...I will, then. And I’ll tell her how much you love her.”

Brian stood from the bench and showed every indication that he was, indeed, going to go through with his word.

“Wa-wait!” shouted Mikey. “Fine...I’ll go.”

“Really? I don’t see you moving.”

“I’m moving, I’m moving," said Mikey and he slowly stood from the table.

Brian smiled as he planted his fanny back down on the bench. He watched as Mikey slowly climbed his way out of the table's bench, left the slums of the “lower class” section and started weaving his way through the rows of the so-so popular tables.

Mikey was amazed by how different he felt in these more aristocratic sections of the cafeteria. Part of him felt kind of cooler, but then another part of him felt very out-of-place. The latter feeling mainly arose because he could feel some heads turning as he made his way closer to the upper-class sections. The kids were probably wondering what the heck he was doing in their territory. If anybody asked any questions, he would just say that he was going to fetch a Veryfine from the juice machines. Yes, he would make it look like he was getting a juice.

As he made his way closer to the Veryfine machine, every voice of reason in his mind was telling him that this was a terribly bad idea and he should turn back or he would be sorry. But it also occurred to him that these so-called “voices of reason” simply could have been fear in disguise and that he would be nothing but a coward if he turned around. No, he had to keep moving forward. His days of being a giant wuss were over.

He arrived at the juice machines and then took a second or two to gather his druthers. He pretended to eyeball the Veryfine machine - as though trying to decide on what flavor of juice to go with - but he also took a few glances over to the table where he suspected Lindsay was sitting. Indeed, he was right on the money. Third table to the left, right in front of the window with the best view in the house. This girl was more than just “upper class”. This girl was GWHS royalty.

Mikey took a quick whiff of his breath (it smelled like chicken soup, which wasn’t a bad thing) and put Lindsay in his crosshairs. Then he slowly made his way over to her table.

He had to pass two other tables before he got to Lindsay’s and the first one wasn’t going to be easy, because it was filled with football players who enjoyed pounding on “lower-class” boys like Mikey. Mikey tried to sneak his way past the table as inconspicuously as possible, trying desperately to avoid any and all eye contact. Lucky for Mikey, the football players seemed to be more concerned about eating their large stacks of Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate-chip cookies than anything else. The cookies were gooey and smooshy and fresh out of the oven, or at least fresh out of the microwave. Some of the football players would eat pounds of these things, sometimes nearly nine at a time!

The second table Mikey had to pass was filled with George Washington High's finest female specimens. Some were cheerleaders, others were field hockey players and there was even an ex-homecoming queen. Instead of eating any actual food, they were all consuming plastic baggies filled with carrots, apple slices, celery sticks, ice cubes and other anorexic favorites. How they could survive off such diets was beyond anybody's comprehension. It was a miracle that they hadn't dropped dead yet.

Mikey was now only about a few feet away from the girl of his dreams and he could feel his heart starting to beat faster and faster. He prayed to God that he could keep it together and that he wouldn’t break out into any awkward sweat, especially in a visible area of his body. Usually with sweat came a foul odor and that was the last thing Mikey needed right now. He needed to be as attractive as possible, but that wasn't going to happen if he was as nervous and stressed as he was right now. He had to calm down, but how?!

For a moment, Mikey thought he should just bail, thinking that this was the safest thing he could probably do. He didn’t even know what to say to the girl. Heck, what was he supposed to say? “Hi, Lindsay...can I buy you a milk?” But if he bailed he knew he’d never hear the end of it from Brian. He had to go through with this thing. There was no way around it now.

He finally came within a foot of Lindsay’s table and stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to do. Nobody had yet acknowledged his presence and he felt like a royal hediot times a thousand.

“Um...Lindsay...” he said, apparently not loud enough. Because nobody heard him.

“Can I...can I buy you a milk?” he asked, but again not loud enough. Because nobody had yet acknowledged him.

“Lindsay...” he said a tad louder. This time, Lindsay didn’t hear him, but one of her friends did and she looked up from the table. It was a field hockey player with dirty-blonde hair named Maura.

“Um Lindsay...” she said, twirling her hair with her finger.

But before Lindsay was even able to turn to her friend, somebody came out of nowhere and sat on the bench beside her. It was Greg! That athletic pest!

“Hey babe,” Greg said to Lindsay and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.

Apparently the news that Lindsay and Greg were now an item had not reached Mikey’s ears...that is, not until now! If Mikey had known this, he never would have attempted to ask her out. Crap! This is the kind of price he paid for being ‘out of the loop’ and for disassociating himself from the masses. But it was too late to bail. He couldn't just run away, not after he had gone this far.

“Lindsay,” her friend Maura repeated. “Somebody's asking for you.”

“What, who?”

Maura’s eyes rolled over to Mikey. Lindsay peered around Greg’s big, broad shoulders and saw Mikey standing by the table, feeling like a royal you-know-what.

Greg turned his head and saw Mikey as well. So didn’t most everybody else at the table.

Mikey was paralyzed with shock. The words “Can I buy you a milk?’ were on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t get them any further out of his mouth. Fear was choking him to death, rendering him completely speechless.

“Well, what are YOU lookin’ at?” asked Greg with a sneer.

“Um...uh...um...” Mikey couldn’t do anything except stare at the girl of his dreams like a dumb deer. Last time he was this scared he had accidentally trickled some pee into his pants and he was hoping like heck that it wouldn't happen right now.

“Take a picture why don’t ya,” the quarterback said with a Pee-wee Herman-like voice. “It’ll last longer.”

The table of girls erupted into a giggle and Mikey was - at that point - pretty sure that he had never been so humiliated. He finally managed to shake the paralysis out of his bones and his motor skills returned to him. Without saying one word to Lindsay, he got the hell out of there.

Meanwhile, Brian couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He had been watching the whole thing the entire time from only a few rows of tables away.

“Chicken-shit," he said under his breath. "I don't know what I'm gonna do with that boy."



SIX

“Video Palace” hadn’t changed much since the Mr. Craven days. The red rugs were still the same, except a little more faded and stained. The popcorn smells were still the same, except maybe a little more stale. And the marquis lights were still in full effect, although there was often a bulb or two that needed to be changed. The only main difference about the store was the employee (Mikey) and the ownership of the place, which had since been taken over by the “Ross family”. The Ross' owned a bunch of franchises around the town - including a McDonald's and a Dunkin' Donuts - and they eventually intended to franchise Video Palace itself. Yes, they didn’t exactly purchase the place because they loved movies. It was more of just a wise business decision on their part and it showed in the way they ran the place (Craven, for example, never would have left a light-bulb unchanged).

As for the former owner of the video store, nobody ever knew what happened to the eccentric Mr. Craven; he seemed to have just disappeared into thin air. There were a lot of rumors of spontaneous combustion and even alien abduction, but those were dismissed by the police as horseradish. Detectives launched a semi-thorough investigation, although no definitive conclusions were ever made regarding the wacky video store owner’s disappearance. They assumed that he was either kidnapped or that he just got the hell out of Dodge for whatever reason, although they knew how much he loved the video store and they couldn’t understand how he would just up and leave the place. It’s not like he was having any financial problems (at least none that the investigators could uncover) and they were pretty sure nobody was out to kill him. Several years went by and they never found one lead that could shed any light on the disappearance. Eventually, the detectives moved onto some more pressing investigations and they deemed the Craven disappearance a “cold case”.

Once the case became cold, ownership of Video Palace got handed over to Craven's bank and the bank subsequently auctioned the store off to the highest bidder. The prominent Ross family ended up getting Video Palace for a price that was a steal for them but too expensive for anybody else who was interested.

Flash-forward a few years later and Mikey became old enough to get himself a part-time job. Seeing that he loved movies, it only made sense that he would try to gain employment at his favorite video store. Mr. Ross (the patriarch of the Ross family) hired Mikey on the spot because the boy seemed uptight and ‘anal’ and, overall, looked like he'd be a loyal employee. Ross also thought he could trust Mikey to close the place himself on various nights during the week when it wasn’t worth paying two employees at a time.

Tonight was one of those nights.

Yes, Mikey was alone behind the store's front counter watching a Johnny Cruise “Rom-Com” called TWIN FLAMES. Johnny plays an idiot savant who takes a road trip across America to find his long-lost high school crush. Mikey was near the end of the movie where Johnny finally finds his crush and is on the verge of making love to her on a bed. What bugged Mikey was how there was hardly anything awkward about the verbal exchange leading up to the lovemaking, even though Johnny was an idiot savant with the social skills of a five-year-old.

“If only it were that easy,” muttered Mikey under his breath. Everything in the movies was ALWAYS so easy. Heck, if Johnny Cruise as an idiot savant could get the girl of his dreams, then why couldn’t HE get the girl of his dreams? What was wrong with him? If he were in a movie, he would undoubtedly get Lindsay Myers - there was no doubt about that. But, alas, he wasn’t in a movie. He was in reality. And reality friggin’ stunk!

“Excuse me,” said a customer who had suddenly made his presence known. He looked like a plumber who had just recently fixed his last toilet of the day. “Do you guys have the new Johnny Cruise movie? I heard it came out today and I better not have heard wrong.”

“Um, yes, right this way, Sir.”

Mikey led the customer to the waaaaay back of the store where the “Johnny Cruise section” was still in full effect from the days of Mr. Craven. It hadn’t moved, not even an inch. Actually, the only difference was that it was a tad bigger. Johnny, of course, had done several more movies since the days of Mr. Craven. In fact, he was bigger than ever, probably the most A-list of all A-list movie stars. The highest paid actor in Hollywood. Internationally recognized. Super-famous. The biggest of Big-cheeses.

“Here it is,” said Mikey, grabbing a copy of SPEED HARD 2 from off the shelf and handing it to the plumber.

“Thanks,” said the customer. He was about to head back to the front when something caught his eye. “Whoa, you guys actually carry STOP! OR THE NUN WILL SHOOT!?”

“Yep. You want that too?” asked Mikey, half-joking.

“Ha! No way! I saw that movie when it came out in theaters and I barfed up the tuna fish I had for lunch. By far Johnny Cruise’s worst movie!”

“Yeah, well, nobody’s rented it for as long as I’ve been here.”

“That a fact?”

Suddenly, there was a noise coming from the Adult Closet followed by a whispered “shit”. It sounded like some videotapes had fallen onto the floor.

The plumber heard the noise and a grin curled up the right side of his face.

“Somebody’s gonna have a good night later tonight...” said the plumber, giving Mikey a little nudge and a wink.

“Um, yeah...” said Mikey with a nervous giggle. Of course, he knew full-well who this ‘somebody' was, but he surely didn’t want his customer to find out. All he needed was the plumber to alert the owner Mr. Ross that there were underage teenagers perusing through the adult videos at his store. This would certainly result in his prompt termination as Video Palace employee, never mind ruin his chances of getting employee of the month.

He escorted the plumber back to the front of the store and checked out his movie as quickly as possible. Then he watched the customer off and marched back to the area of the adult video closet.

“Come on, Brian!” he shouted. “You gotta get out of there. Time’s up. You’re gonna get me in trouble!”

There was some noise inside the closet. It sounded like Brian was re-shelving several of the videos that he was perusing. Then the door to the closet opened and Brian emerged looking a little flushed, frazzled and sweaty.

“I don’t get it, Mikey. There’s so much sex going on out there. And we’re missing out on all of it.”

“Come on, Brian,” said Mikey as he shooed Brian all the way out of the closet. “You’re not eighteen yet. Get out.”

“How many people are in this world, Mikey?”

“Huh? What kind of question is that?”

“What’s the population? How many people?”

“I dunno...there’s billions. Possibly trillions.”

“And how’d they all get here?”

“What do you mean how’d they all get here? They...they...”

“Sex, Mikey. They all got here because some lucky guy out there got laid. Everybody’s getting laid, like, every second of the day. Right now - as I speak - there’s at least a couple thousand people getting action. Now, that’s a FACT, Mikey.”

Brian drooped his head down to the red carpet and looked like the personification of despair. Mikey knew his best friend in the whole wide world needed some cheering up.

“Hey, Brian...you’re only sixteen years old. You’ll have lots of sex some day.”

“You think so?”

“I know so.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

“Come on, let’s go pop in SPEED HARD 2.”

Mikey ran over to the Johnny Cruise shelf and grabbed a copy of the SPEED HARD 2 VHS. But before he could even get it off the shelf, Brian grabbed his friend’s hand and pulled it away.

“Ouch. What are you doing?” asked Mikey.

“I dunno...I’m not really in the mood for SPEED HARD 2.”

“What are you talking about? You’ve been waiting months for this movie to come out on video.”

“I know, but I’m not in the mood for an actiony movie. I’m too depressed. I need a good laugh.”

“Well, what then?”

Mikey scanned the various titles of Johnny Cruise movies.

“DRIVING MR. BERNIE?”

“Nah.”

“How about EXTERMINATOR COP?”

“No, that’s the one where he plays the bad guy.”

Indeed it was true. EXTERMINATOR COP was the one movie where Johnny Cruise DID play a bad guy. The movie was made relatively early in his career before Hollywood knew exactly how to market and package him. It was a science-fiction flick about a cop sent back in time to stop the man responsible for creating a HAL-like computer that would eventually become more intelligent than man itself and ultimately destroy the majority of humanity. Johnny plays a bad exterminator cop who works for the computer corporation and is sent back in time to stop the good exterminator cop from destroying the computer’s inventor.

“Well, then how about a feel-good movie. Like THE MIGHTY RUDY or something along those lines?”

“No, no, no. You’re way off.”

Brian perused the other titles of movies. For some reason, he was drawn to one particular video and he didn’t know why. It seemed to be emitting some sort of seductive frequency that was calling for his attention. But it didn’t make any sense.

“STOP! OR THE NUN WILL SHOOT!” he shouted, almost involuntarily.

Needless to say, Mikey thought he had wax build-up in his ears and didn’t hear his friend correctly.

“What? Have you lost your mind, Brian? I’d rather watch a pile of dog crap steam for ninety minutes.”

“STOP! OR THE NUN WILL SHOOT!” Brian repeated.

“You’ve lost it. You’ve really lost it, Brian.”

“Come on, Mikey, it’ll be fun. We can make fun of it while we watch. You know, like they do on Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Brian grabbed the tape from the rack and - whooooa - did a double-take when he saw what was behind it. Yes, it was the old red lever that said, “Pull me".

“What the???”

Mikey also did a double-take.

“Huh...that’s weird.”

“You never knew this was here?”

“Um, no, don’t think so. That tape hasn’t been moved in years.”

“What is it?”

“Maybe it’s the fire alarm or something.”

“Yeah, OK, they’re gonna put the fire alarm behind STOP! OR THE NUN WILL SHOOT! I’m pretty sure that’s the first place somebody’s gonna be looking for a fire alarm.”

“Well, then, I don’t know what it’s for.”

“Only one way to find out.”

Brian reached for the lever, but Mikey panicked and grabbed his arm.

“Wait, Brian, we don’t know what it does. Maybe I should call my supervisor.”

“Maybe we could do that...or maybe I could just...”

Before Mikey had any time to react, Brian took his free hand and - quick as lightning - pulled the lever. There was a loud CLANG, like something had been snapped out of place. Then the ground rumbled a bit and the wall of videos started rotating ninety degrees. Whatever axis the wall was moving along must have needed some oil because it squeaked like a banshee. Then again, what could be expected of a secret passage that hadn’t been used in several years?

Needless to say, both Brian and Mikey were completely shocked by what they saw taking place before their eyes. Their jaws were dropping so low to the red carpet that they looked like pelicans.

“Holy shit,” Mikey gasped, immediately covering his mouth because of the cuss.

“You don’t know anything about this?” asked Brian.

“No. No way.”

Brian peered inside the passage, but he couldn’t really see anything other than darkness. Then he gave Mikey a look. There was an adventurous gleam in his eyes.

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Shall we?”

“I don’t think we should be going in there, Brian.”

“Oh, come on, Mikey, stop being such a wet blanket. Let’s check it out!”

Brian took a step inside the passage and Mikey reluctantly followed.

“Maybe it’s just an old storage room or something,” said Mikey, trying to quell his worries. “Or a break room I never knew about.”

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s what it is,” Brian said sarcastically.

They moved further into the passage and found themselves in what-appeared-to-be a cave-like tunnel, although it was difficult to know for sure what it was. They could hear watery echo drips and there were even visible stalactites - you know, those icicle thingys you would find on the roof of a cave.

“This is incredible!!!” yelled Brian, his voice reverberating off the cave’s walls.

Mikey, however, was less enthusiastic. He was slipping all over the place and concerned that he might twist an ankle. Also, he was hearing some shuffling under his feet, along with a squeaky noise here and there. He knew what this meant. Mice! Or, even worse...RATS!!!

“Brian, where are you?! I can’t see!”

“Just follow my voice! I’m starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel here.”

Indeed, it was true. There was an orangey glow and it wasn’t very far from where they were right now. Brian kept forging closer to it, even though he was starting to hear new noises now - flapping wings, along with some squeaks. They were above his head.

“Bats! Lookout!"

And that’s all Mikey had to hear. “I’m turning around, Brian! Bats carry rabies!”

“Come on, we’re almost there, Mikey. It would be stupid to turn around now!”

The warm, orangey light grew closer and closer to them and they gradually realized that they were, indeed, in some weird tunnel that must have been underground, maybe even several feet below the video store. The light was actually coming from an entrance to a room. Brian crept up to the entrance, clawed his hand through a thin sheet of cobwebs and poked his head inside.

“Holy shit!”

If things weren’t already weird enough - the weirdness had just gotten weirder. There Brian was standing at the entrance to Mr. Craven’s secret laboratory, which was exactly how the wacky video store owner left it before he met his fateful demise. The test-tubes and beakers were a tad more dusty but still steaming with potions and liquid compounds. Even the candles - for some mysterious reason - were still lit. It was like the ghost of Mr. Craven was still in there doing his thing.

Mikey’s head appeared above Brian’s in totem-pole-like fashion.

“Oh...my...God.”

“Mikey, it’s a secret laboratory!”

Mikey was just as impressed as Brian, but his attention was immediately drawn to a little something on the floor.

“Oh, God! Look, Brian! On the floor!”

It was a corpse! Well, more like a skeleton.

“Holy shit!” Brian shouted as he saw what his buddy was looking at.

“All right, Brian, that’s all I had to see. I’m calling the police.”

Mikey started to head back in the direction of the video store, but Brian grabbed him by the arm and refused to let him go.

“Wait, Mikey! Calm down. It’s all right.”

“What do you mean it’s all right? There’s a dead guy in here!”

“Exactly, he’s dead. He’s not gonna hurt us. Come on, let’s check this place out.”

Brian coaxed his buddy into the room and they crept their way closer to the skeleton. Mikey was hesitant, but he didn’t resist Brian. Before he knew it, he was hovering right above the dead-man’s skeleton and he had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming any of this up.

“Look, Mikey!”

Brian had just noticed that there was another (smaller) skeleton right next to the big one. Indeed, it was the bones of a bird.

“Sick, Brian. This is so sick.”

Brian knelt beside the skeleton and carefully removed some of the dusty lab coat from the ribs.

“Look! He’s wearing the same uniform you are!”

Indeed, it was true: the Video Palace usher uniform was the same - black pants, bowtie, cummerbund et al. There was also a plastic nametag on the skeleton's white shirt. Brian rubbed the dirt and grime off it and read the name:

“Mr. Craven?”

Mikey's eyes lit up and bulged out of their sockets. "What did you say?"

"Mr. Craven," Brian repeated.

“Oh, Jesus! I know who this guy is!”

“Who?”

“Mr. Craven! The guy who opened this place! He mysteriously disappeared many, many years ago. Nobody ever knew what happened to him. They figured he was dead.”

“Well, looks like they figured right.”

Mikey took a look around the laboratory.

“What the heck was he doing back here?”

Brian focused his attention on the rectangular observation table smack-dab in the middle of the laboratory. It was dusty and cob-webby like everything else, but he would have been blind if he didn’t see the mysterious machine on top of the table.

“Hey, look, Mikey!”

“What IS that?”

There were two things that Brian and Mikey immediately noticed about the machine: that there was a clear, see-through window on its surface that looked like the lid to some sort of tape deck. And then on the front there were some dials, knobs, and buttons that said ‘Play’, ‘Stop’, ‘Fast Forward’ and 'Rewind'. In fact, it looked a lot like the early 1980s models of VCRs, when the decks were on top and they popped out like a cassette player. But there was a futuristic-looking upgrade to it.

“It appears to be a VCR,” Brian concluded.

“A strange-looking VCR,” added Mikey. “What the heck was he doing with it?”

“Beats me.”

Brian began searching around the laboratory for clues. He mainly focused his attention on the bookshelves, hoping to find some literature that may shed some light on the situation. He ran his finger along the row of books and noticed that there was one leather-bound book that was pushed out from the shelf a bit, making it stand out from the others. Brian immediately felt drawn to this book - like there was an invisible energy pulling him in its direction - and then he read what was written on its spine:

“'My journal'...hey, look, Mikey!”

Brian took the fat, dusty book off the shelf and showed it to his best friend.

“What is it?” asked Mikey.

“I guess it's a journal.”

Brian started flipping through the pages, coughing from all the dust that was getting into his lungs. He figured the wisest thing would be to find the most recent entry, which would perhaps provide the most clues.

He turned the pages, but - before he knew it - he suddenly stumbled upon what-appeared-to-be a blueprint-like sketch, and the sketch looked a whole lot like the strange VCR machine that was sitting atop the observation table. He turned to the next page and he found exactly what he was looking for. There was a journal entry hand-written in scribbly cursive with black ink. And it was this journal-entry that possessed all the answers:

“Ever since I was a young boy...” Brian read from the journal, “I fantasized about being friends with my favorite movie characters. Imagine what it would be like hanging out with William Powell as The Thin Man, or Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine or Lon Chaney, Robert Mitchum, Vincent Price or John Wayne. I wanted to somehow pull these movie stars out of the movies and into my real life...”

Brian licked his finger, turned the page and continued reading.

“...and now I have finally...finally found a way. While I was washing my hair in the shower today, I had a vision. Of a machine. But not just any machine. A VCR. A...”

Brian looked up from the journal and peered deep into Mikey’s eyes. For a brief moment, there was a look in his face that was strikingly reminiscent of the late Mr. Craven. It was almost as though he were momentarily possessed by the ghost of the wacky video store owner, or at least channeling the man’s spirit.

“...a MAGIC VCR.”

Brian slammed the journal shut. “Mikey! Do you realize what we’ve found?!”

“A Magic VCR?”

“Yeah, that’s what it looks like.”

“Come on, Brian, that’s a lotta hooey. Are we really supposed to believe this VCR has the power to pull movie stars out of the movies?”

“That’s what it says here.”

“I don’t believe it. This is rubbish.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out.”

Mikey saw the look in Brian’s eyes and knew exactly what his best friend was thinking.

“No, Brian. No-no, Brian. We’re leaving everything here just as we found it.” He started to make a beeline out of the laboratory. “I’m calling my supervisor.”

But before Mikey could leave the room, Brian darted over to the exit and blocked his friend’s way out.

Mikey stopped dead in his tracks. “Outta my way, Brian.”

“Come on, Mikey...think about this for a minute.” He slithered his arm around Mikey’s shoulders and started walking him slowly around the lab, sweet-talking him like a used car-salesman. “If this thing does what it’s supposed to do...think about what could happen. How many kids in our school would die to be friends with a movie star?”

“Um...probably everyone, I guess.”

“Exactly. So what do you think’s gonna happen if we’re friends with a movie star?”

“Um...I guess we’d be pretty cool.”

“Instant popularity, Mikey. Like...” he snapped his fingers in the air. "THAT!”

“Yeah, but...”

“Mikey, my pal, if we’re friends with a movie star, everyone’s gonna love us. Girls, Mikey. All the girls in the world will love us. Especially girls by the name of..."

He leaned his lips into his best friend's ear and whispered the name...

“Lindsay Myers.”

All Brian had to say was the name Lindsay Myers and Mikey was instantly under Brian's spell. The little schoolboy in love started fantasizing about all the wonderful possibilities that this alleged magic VCR had to offer. He saw himself back in the wedding reception hall, only this time he was slow-dancing with Lindsay to the song "Don't know much, but I know I love you". All the guests were circled around him, gawking at the cute couple with adoration. Yes, maybe Brian was onto something here. Maybe this machine COULD do wonderful things for them.

“But who would we...”

Brian’s eyebrows started wiggling up and down. He already knew exactly what his friend was going to ask.

“...pull out?”

“Come on, Mikey. Do you REALLY have to ask that question???”

 


About Matt Burns
Films and Videos
Filmography
Wedding/Event Videography
Paranormal Writing (NEW!)
Novels
Short Scripts/Stories
Essays/Blogs Archive
Fun Writing
Poetry
Blogs
YouTube
Facebook
Fan Mail
Contacting Matt Burns
e-mail me