I bought 100 stamps the other day for $58. In my head, I understand that stamps are over 50 cents and that the math jives, but in my heart, I find this appalling. Nowadays, everyone’s all ‘material shortages!’ and ‘hyperinflation!’, and I’m like, “I just wanna buy a double cheeseburger at McDonald’s for a buck.” That’s the thing about money, though, and value. It’s perceived, and its constantly in flux. Take our local movie theater for example, renowned for its dereliction. It closed down years ago, sadly, and yet for good reason. Sure, it was a dump, but it showed cheap movies and offered free popcorn – a real value when you're young and broke. On the heels of its closure, I wrote this story; a bizarre, twisted eulogy that I hope takes you back to better days, when beef was cheap, labor was in full supply, and you could get four stamps for a dollar. After all, (and to borrow the words from a Nova 6 staffer), “What can you get for a buck these days?”
A note on all issues prior to 2023
In 2023, we switched email sending services. Converting entire issues into our new sender and their formatting is a fair bit of work, and with our limited resources, we've decided to expedite the process by focusing on converting only the story and intro. Perhaps some day we'll get around to the rest of it, but for now, enjoy the story.
They feed us popcorn and play us movies. Some of the movies are black and whites, others are from the 90's, a few are from last year. The sound is choppy and the popcorn stale, the seats are moldy and liquid drips from the ceiling. But they feed us popcorn and play us movies, and tell us not to leave.
"Predictable. No plot. Wooden dialogue," says Beej as the credits roll. Beej has been here longer than any of us. A few scattered lights wink on. A group of teens in the front row chuck their popcorn at the screen. The couple next to us is passed out.
"I'm hungry," says Codes. He and Rachel crawl out of their seats and head to the lobby. I follow them down the dimly lit hallway, past abandoned popcorn boxes and empty sodas. In the darker corners, people sleep with ripped out seat cushions for pillows.
Neon flashes in the front lobby; Codes looks gaunt under their changing lights. He places his pale hands on the glass countertop smeared with fingerprints. "Two nutty bars," he says, and digs some change out of his pocket.
On the far end of the counter, a young dandelion with frizzy hair and smeared makeup pleads her case. "Please!" she insists. "You can't do this! I have a paper due!"
One of the staffers hands her a cup. "100 ounces," he says, "And only a buck. What can you get for a buck these days?" Eventually she takes the cup and a complimentary bag of popcorn, and retreats into the darkness.
Codes breaks off a piece of his nutty bar and hands it to me. I gobble it down before I can offer my thanks. "I'm running out of money," he says. He already knows my situation, and Rachel's. "What happens then?" I look to the frizzy haired girl, but she's gone. None of us answer, none of us know. I walk to what I remember is the front door and push the metal bars, but they won't budge. I press my face against the glass. Outside, I see parking lot lights--or are they stars, or just another dimly lit hallway?
I rattle the handles. "Let us out!"
"Pipe down!" shouts one of the staffers, but I don't listen. I kick, and scream, and pound on the doors until something hard slams against my skull, and I drop.
I wake up in what Rachel calls The Janky Bathrooms. We stay away from the bathrooms. Bad things happen in The Janky Bathrooms--there's even a Janky Bathroom Gang. Sometimes people walk in, and don't come back. Sometimes, people get hurt. The staffers don't enter them, the staffers don't clean them. Beej claims he's found turds in all the wrong places.
I look around but don't see any turds. There's a communal shower just past the stalls that we refer to as Auschwitz. The ceiling above Auschwitz is falling apart. People hide things in the ceiling--I know this because I once saw someone sneak a Slim Jim up there when I was taking a dump. I climb to my feet, stagger to the sink and wash my face.
"Hey neighbor," says a voice behind me. It's Todd Scott, or Scott Todd--either way he has two first names. He's standing next to the urinal, bubbling out of his spandex. Usually, Todd Scott is standing outside The Janky Bathrooms, bubbling out of his spandex and staring at women through the reflection of the movie posters.
"Did you see Lemony Snicket?" he asks. "I love Lemony Snicket."
"No," I say, and air dry my hands.
"Well, it's playing until tomorrow. I'll save you a seat if I go again."
"Thanks," I say, and get the hell out.
Outside the bathrooms, the staffers pay no attention to me. I wonder briefly which one of them knocked me over the head, but they're all the same. They wear paper hats--the kind you'd see a deli worker sporting--and white shirts with red suspenders, and operate in a constant state of annoyance, except when they change the reels. After they do that, they return with mild manners and bloodshot eyes, and you can usually score a free Juji fruit out of them.
I search a few of the theaters until I spy Beej mowing down on popcorn and watching Forest Gump. The seat screeches when I slide in next to him.
"Epic scene," he hums through a mouthful. "Forest starts running and just doesn't stop. It's a microcosm, you know, a reflection of our own existence." On the screen, Forest bounds along the pavement with a trailing pack of joggers, cut through the middle by a large gash on the wall. Beej hands me the popcorn.
"Yeah," I say, and rub the welt on my head. "A real microcosm."
The Nova 6 is a movie cinema with more hallways than theaters. Some are tiled, some are carpeted, all smell of urine. They weave in and out and through the complex; most poorly lighted, a few pitch black. The lighted hallways I have memorized, but the others I've never been down. They don't sell flashlights at the concession stand, and our cell phones died long ago.
"Where do you think it goes?" asks Rachel. "You think there's a way out?"
Codes cups his hands to his mouth. "HELLLO!" The echoes bounce back.
"It's a hallway to nowhere," I say. Sometimes, when the others are asleep, I linger here, at the edge of darkness, and squint, hoping that if I stare long enough I'll spot the dim red glow of an exit sign. Rachel takes a few steps into the black and squats. "Don't watch."
"We can't see you," assures Codes, but we turn around anyway.
Down the hall, several figures walk into The Janky Bathrooms. Moments later we hear screams. Godzilla is playing.
At least, that's what we tell Rachel.
Beej wants to watch What About Bob, but it's playing in theater four, and theater four has a rat infestation, and Beej hates rats. He claims that he's seen them dragging bodies behind the stairs, and that he's not up to date on his rabies shot. So instead we retreat to theater two, which is airing one of The Fast and the Furious byproducts. We take a seat in the back as the previews start.
Codes pokes me in the elbow. "There's a group up front," he whispers. "I've never seen them before."
"They must be new."
The silence lingers like the absence of Vin Diesel. I scan the theater--The Janky Bathroom Gang is jostling with each other near the stairwell, two women we call The Bettys are fixated with the screen, the rest are just faces hidden in shadows.
"Do we tell them?" asks Rachel.
Beej places his fingers to his lips and shushes us, but I'm not sure if that's a warning or if he just wants to better hear the roar of hungry engines. He opens a bag of popcorn and we all dig in. He doesn't tell us how he acquired it, and we don't ask.
Todd Scott is lingering outside the bathrooms, staring at women through the posters while bubbling out of his spandex. Beej claims that Todd Scott has been here longer than anyone. It's a wonder how he's managed to stay so lardaceous. He spies me through the poster and decides to float my way.
"Hey neighbor," he says in his soft speech. "They're playing Gone with the Wind tomorrow in theater one. Can you believe it? What a classic."
I lay my head against the bench.
Todd Scott folds his arms. "Don't tell me you're going to sit this one out?"
"I'm broke," I say. Theater one is the only theater you have to pay to get in. Rumor has it that it's almost respectable.
Todd Scott looks me up and down like a piece of meat. "Well, nobody likes a mooch," he says, and floats off.
I smack Codes, who's lying next to me, across the chest. "You awake?"
"Yeah," he says. "That was creepy."
"We need to get out of here."
"I'd sell the shirt off my back for a ticket out of here," says Codes.
I sit up and snap my fingers. "Now there's an idea."
"What idea? We've tried everything."
A smile forms on my face--an eerie, desperate smile, a smile I imagine Todd Scott would practice in front of the mirror. "Not everything."
Outside theater four, where the supposed rat infestation occurs, sits a man we call Beardy Weirdy. He sleeps in trash bags and peddles oddities plucked from the staffer's carts when they're not looking, such as bleach. Beej claims he's feeding off the rats, but as I approach him I see no rat blood or rat guts.
He spies me and opens wide his dirty trench coat, showcasing an assortment of plastic wear, hand towels, half eaten candy bars and used razor blades. "Here to buy?" he asks through candy rotted teeth.
I glance over my shoulder and respond in a hushed whisper. "Light," I say. "I need a flashlight."
Beardy Weirdy inhales deeply and mulls it over. "Ah, cash or trade?"
"What do you want?"
He mouths the words as if they were a delicate morsel. "Cell phone please."
I came prepared for this, and pull the only remaining valuable item out of my pocket and offer it to him. Beardy Weirdy snatches it up and inspects it under the light. "Great find, pony." Then he scurries into the dark, rummages, and returns empty handed.
"Sorry, fresh out."
"Then I'll take my phone back."
"Ahuh, deals a deal. You'll get your light. Patience." The last word flies out of his mouth with an escort of spittle, and with that Beardy Weirdy curls up into his trash bags and bids me good night.
Beej has begun to jot reviews on used napkins. Terrible directing. Fire Kevin Costner. Hire Nicholas Cage. He's become so absorbed with these reviews that when the movies aren’t showing, he writes them about the Nova. Theater six has the atmosphere of an abandoned warehouse. The popcorn tastes like a turtle smells.
The theater darkens, the music plays, and a wave of excitement rolls over the crowd as the words scroll on the screen:
A LONG TIME AGO, IN A GALAXY FAR FAR AWAY…
I rest my feet against the seat in front and open up my bag of popcorn--Star Wars movies are always accompanied with free popcorn. Codes and Rachel have already begun digging into theirs, but Beej is too excited to even notice his. Pen and stack of napkins in hand, he's sitting with posture that would shame a Nazi chiropractor.
I reach into my bag and feel the slip of paper immediately. Not that we've never encountered foreign materials with our popcorn--but this is different, this is intentional. I slip the note out of the bag and read it when the screen flashes white.
Meet me in the bathrooms after Luke Skywalker cuts off the hand of Darth Vader.
I nudge Codes in the side. "Look," I whisper. "This is it!"
He grabs the paper, scans it, and hands it to Rachel. "Beardy came through," he says.
Rachel furrows her brow. "What if it's The Janky Bathroom Gang? What if this is how they get you?"
I look to Beej for moral support. "What do you think?"
"Oh George Lucas, how I love and hate thee!"
I draw in close to the others. "This is our best shot. If we don't go tonight, we may not get another chance." On the screen, Jabba the Hutt slurps down a little frogish creature, and Beej cackles and claps in delight.
Halfway through the movie the screen blacks out. There's an uproar, most notably from Beej, and all my hopes of escaping are dashed away, replaced by images of my body being carried away by rats. But the screen soon flickers back to life, and I breathe a sigh of relief. When the battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader begins, I know it's time to move.
"Come on," I whisper to the others. We ease out of our seats and exit the row, but when I look back, Beej hasn't budged.
"Beej!" I snap. "Come on!"
"Dazzling choreography," he mutters. "A dance, a dance to the death."
Luke's light saber rips through flesh, and Vader screams.
Codes places his hand on my arm. "He's too far gone. There's nothing we can do for him."
I take one last look at our friend, and exit the theater.
We walk briskly down empty hallways--everyone's at the movies, everyone loves Star Wars. I pause before The Janky Bathrooms, suck in a breath, and head in.
I expected to find Beardy Weirdy, perhaps laying on the sink or leaning against a urinal. I thought there was a chance that The Janky Bathroom Gang would be lying in ambush behind the stalls. I even considered the possibility that it was just a sick joke from the staffers, and that we'd walk right into a turd on the floor.
What I didn't expect to find was Todd Scott bubbling out of his spandex. "You neighbors have been here a while now."
"What's this about?" I say, taking quick glances under the stalls. Nobody is there--or if they are, they're hiding on the toilets.
"Not everyone makes it out, you know. We try, heavens yes, we want everyone to have a grand ol' time and leave, but it doesn't always work out that way."
"Is that a threat?"
Todd Scott laughs. "Goodness no. Do you wish to leave?"
"Yes!" shouts Rachel.
Todd Scott narrows his eyes. "Your belts," he says. "And your jewelry. Toss them in the sink."
Codes tries to retreat out the bathroom door, but it's locked, it's locked!
"Now, now," soothes Todd Scott. "Just do as you're told. You can keep your pants, you know, those aren't worth anything."
"What's this all about?" I snarl.
Rachel retreats into Codes's arms.
Todd Scott answers by brandishing a can of mace, and we comply, tossing our belongings into the sink.
"They're just trying to run a business here," he says, as if this explains everything. Once we finish dropping our items, Todd Scott's gaze lifts to the ceiling. "You'll want to head that way."
"What's up there?" I ask.
Todd Scott smiles, then pulls something out of his spandex and tosses it to me. "I believe this is yours," he says, then gathers our belongings and exits out the somehow unlocked bathroom door. The weight of the flashlight is heavy in my hands.
"What are we waiting for?" asks Codes.
I click the flash on.
The climb from the urinal, through the ceiling track, to the bathroom wall is nothing short of precarious. It’s like scaling one of those rock walls--if the rock wall had been soaked in urine and pooped on several times. Eventually we make it. Atop the wall and opposite the bathrooms is uncharted darkness. Even with the flashlight, we plunge blindly into the unknown. I expect metal shrapnel or wild cinema yetis to devour us, but it’s just another hallway; no lights, bare walls, concrete floor. We wind our way through the darkness, listening as the sounds of Jedi fighters grow softer and softer. The maze seems to never end. My feet begin to hurt. We don’t talk. Maybe it’s shock, or fright, or perhaps we’re all just wondering the same thing: is this the end, or a trap?
"There," I say.
Codes and Rachel come to a halt. "What is it?"
I click off the flashlight. Far in the distance, if you squint just right, the red glow of an exit sign.
We walk, then hurry, then run, and finally burst out the old metal door.
For a second I expect to be slammed with the sudden daze of white hot afternoon sun--the kind you recall as a child, after watching a Sunday matinee, then stepping out into the daylight and being so completely blanketed in light that you have to shut your eyes or peer through a crack in your hand just to make your way home.
But it's dark outside. The sky is ripe with stars, the lot filled with cars, and yet I feel utterly alone. We all feel it; instead of bolting to the car, we halt. Rachel places a hand on her chest, Codes sinks to his knees.
The parking lot is an endless desert of machines and pavement. Dull orange light winks on and off as we search for Codes's Altima. I’m conflicted by the longing for release and, strangely, the dull throb of melancholy regret, and I wonder if this is a feeling similar to what combat veterans share upon their return home.
We find the car parked in a dark corner. A faint glimmer of frost covers the windshield; the handles squeak a complaint. We slide into the leather seats. Before starting the engine, Codes turns to us, his breath frosting, trying to ask a question but unable to summon the words.
"They suck you in with cheap movies and free popcorn," I say; for him, for myself, for all those left behind.
Codes cranks the key and the engine grinds to life. We drive slowly down the row, and as the moonlight plays off the vehicles, I can’t help but feel we’re making a mistake; so many films left unwatched, so many stories untold.
The light changes and I catch my reflection; I see that even in my youth cracks are forming, tracing inexorable paths out of the eyes. Someday, those lines will reach my jaw, and all of this will become a forgotten nightmare. In that time, the thirst for youth will flare--it will come on a night like tonight, when the moon is full and the weather just so and the lure of adventure catches hold. In that moment of weakness, I’ll pick up the phone, and cave; someone will suggest a show, and the unshakable magnetism of fate will draw us back in. We’ll return to the theater with choppy sound and stale snacks, with moldy seats and liquid dripping from the ceiling.
We’ll return to the theater of our youth - to The Nova 6 - where they'll feed us popcorn and play us movies, and tell us not to leave.
About the Author Danny Hankner began penning stories about himself and his idiot friends as a teenager. Now, masquerading as an adult, he lives in Davenport, Iowa with his wife and three children, working as a master electrician for his own company. In his spare time, Dan rides and builds mountain bike trails, scrapes infinitely spawning cat hurl off the basement floor, and runs Story Unlikely, an award-winning literary magazine where he floats around self-important titles like 'Editor-in-chief'. His work has besmirched the good reputations of Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Tenth Muse, and many more unfortunate publishers, as well as being awarded semi-finalist in Writers of the Future.
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