Before leaving her in charge for the evening, Felix begged Justine to be more helpful with the customers. He argued that while Justine was knowledgeable vis-à-vis movies and skilled at store upkeep—on her watch, the VHS tapes were always rewound and neatly arranged on the shelves and the windows were streak-free—she wasn’t helpful in that buoyant, manager-material type way when the night owls came in looking for the perfect rental. She knew his lecture went beyond her potential promotion or even the store’s bottom line: “I need you to help these people fill up the time,” Felix said. “All we have are little entertainments until the Millennium falls on our heads.”
Every shift, Felix, who had an orange beard and sleep-deprived eyes, told Justine about how the world’s electronic networks would soon fail. Planes would crash into buildings and fields. Missiles would go off. Unleashed chemicals would defoliate the Amazon.
“We’re not prepared for the turning of the Great Wheel,” he said.
He bought some Jujubes and left Justine alone with this thought.
The shift felt longer than it really was. It was dark, and no one had come in for hours. Justine sprayed the smudges of fingerprint oils off the plastic video cases. She rewound tapes in the speed rewinder. It sounded like an animal screaming.
Her car wasn’t working so she walked to the store from her mother’s house, where she was living while she saved for something future-related: school, an apartment; she didn’t know. It was cold, but she liked to walk, liked hearing boots crunch the snow.
After closing, she walked under traffic lights into the snowy subdivision. No cars were coming. The air was freezing, and the clouds glowed an alien gray.
She scolded herself for not working on her college application. No one had come in tonight; there was time. The due date was approaching as it did every year. What prevented her from doing something with her life? If she knew what it was, she’d tear it out and leave it in the snow.
She was clutching a movie her mother had requested. She didn’t want to watch the movie because it concerned the trials and tribulations of a minor league sports team, but still less did she want to converse with her mother, who filled mealtime silences with remarks about Justine’s career stagnation and waning fertility. “You know we’re running out of babies, don’t you? I had you at just the right time, before there were satellites everywhere. Not to rush you, dear, but you better have some kids while you still have a non-radioactive uterus.”
Justine walked under a large oak tree near the turn onto Palfrey Road, nearly brushing her forehead on a low-hanging branch. Justine was tall. She knew this, had accepted it. Boys had made fun of her height since her first mega growth spurt in fifth grade. She had once dated a boy who only came up to her belly button. Jokes were made about this mismatch, jokes the boy took especially hard. She couldn’t remember anything else about the relationship.
On her mother’s cul-de-sac, she slowed her pace and reflected that Felix and her mother both had disasters to get them through the day, to tend to like needy house plants. She wished she could believe in disaster, in a moment when everything would change. She worried that her disaster would never arrive, and that she would drift indefinitely.
As she stared at the house, she lost her concentration and dropped the rental case. It opened when it hit the ground; she was surprised to find that it was empty. She could have sworn she’d checked out the horrible inspirational sports movie. It was cold but she decided to walk back and unlock the store and look for the tape. When she got back to the store, she searched everywhere but could not find it. She considered spending the night in one of the aisles. It would be time to clock in again soon.
Independence Day with Will Smith, Bill Pullman, et al. had been a new release for a little over two weeks, and there were already many inches of white powder on the ground. Even as far North as the store was, this was extreme, and the customers whispered about an incipient Ice Age. During the lull, Justine was writing her college entrance essay; or, really, psyching herself up to write it. She’d been putting it off for months, but she felt that she might just do it tonight for real. She was 24 years old.
Earlier, the customers had been wretched. Two boys rented a copy of Die Hard and, on their way out the door, screamed “ogress.”
“Thanks for coming,” Justine said as they ran out. She scratched her temple with the pencil eraser and looked at the prompt again. It wanted her to remember “a meaningful life event” or “a formative moment.” She racked her brain to come up something, but, as usual, the results were uninspired. Once she’d written a whole page about how she enjoyed singing in the shower before abandoning the theme.
As she thought of a moment to dazzle the committees, the boys who’d called her names came back to the parking lot, carrying cartons of eggs.
One of the boys opened a carton and the other grabbed an egg, tossing it into the air. They ran from the falling egg and laughed as it cracked on the asphalt. They tossed another egg, and another, and Justine had a strong feeling of déjà vu. The boys often tossed eggs in the parking lot—usually one egg in the dozen found its way to one of the boys’ heads. But this wasn’t a similar event; this was a scene that she had viewed before. These exact eggs, these particular laughs rewound and played again. The feeling reinforced Justine’s secret belief that some shifts never ended; that even after she went home, put on her PJ’s, fell asleep, and woke up the next morning to her mother’s harangue, some version of herself was still on the clock watching eggs rise and fall.
She tried to be helpful. Most of the customers treated her with professional courtesy, but some of the men made sexual remarks or said insensitive things about her height. One customer, Ron, professed his love. He thought her height made her look “regal.”
But not all the customers were like Ron. A customer with a severe widow’s peak and a sweatshirt approached the counter as Justine was looking at the meager application sentences in her notebook. The man’s eyes were conspiratorial; his sweatshirt read “Juice Please.”
“I’ll be honest, Miss,” the man said, in a hoarse drawl that was barely audible under the hum of a fluorescent bulb. “I’m looking for movies with pussies that you can really see. You got anything like that?”
“We don’t carry those movies here.”
“How about tits?”
She scratched her nose and put down her pen.
“A lot of Rated-R movies have those. You could check one out. And then leave.”
The man smiled and clapped his hands together.
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Do you have any recommendations?”
“How about this: I’ll go over there and pick up a movie and you tell me if, when I pop it into my VCR at home, I’ll see some tits.”
He went over to Action and pulled a few titles of the shelves.
“I’ll just hold up the case like this,” he shouted, holding one up. “A nod means ‘tits,’ no response at all means ‘no tits.’”
“Okay,” she said.
“It’ll be our little code.”
“How about this one?”
He held up a cartridge proudly. She couldn’t see it, but she nodded anyway. He grinned and capered over with his membership card.
Felix was part time at the Worthington store now, a probationary thing for his promotion to district manager. As assistant manager, Justine was his number one candidate for manager, and that was forward-life movement, was it not? Her mom thought so and begged her to not screw it up. But was that what she wanted? She wanted to go to college like Tasha and her other friends had, but vaguely, distantly, as if it was someone else doing the wanting.
She had almost applied last year and the year before but was discouraged by the idea of being a late arrival. Tonight, she vowed to work on her draft. She put her notebook on the counter next to the cash register. She’d written the prompt at the top of the page: “Have you ever been in a crisis or an emergency? How did you respond and how does your response illuminate something about your character?” She looked at the cardboard cut-out of a tentacular alien and wrote: “A lot of attention is paid to the big disasters of our era: Y2K, the hole in the ozone, nuclear waste. But daily life seems like the real emergency, one so quiet it can go on for years without anyone noticing….”
Ron was blond and mustached and in love with Justine. He wasn’t bad looking but he was twenty years older and seemed to be married.
“You’re a tall drink of beautiful water this evening,” he said, as she was writing.
“Ron, don’t start.”
“You remind me of someone in a movie I saw on TV the other day. It was just about the best movie I’d ever seen, and you look like the lead actress. You could be her twin sister.”
He related the plot of Sands of Vengeance, which came out sometime in the eighties. It concerned a post-apocalyptic world where a girl spent her days feeding camels and raking sand. One day, her family is killed by bandits, and she barely escapes with her life. She is chased by the bandits into the wastes and hides under a rocky outcropping. She is left for dead in the hot sun but is soon discovered by an old hermit who lashed his flesh and starved himself to honor the gods, and who ate only by feeding vampirically on his pet camel, drinking two ounces of her blood each day through a length of garden hose attached to a permanent wound in the camel’s side. This hermit was once a great warrior and, after she tells him her sad story, agrees to train her for revenge. Ron described a training montage of sword fights on rocks and slicing rattlers in two. By the end, she is ready and just cuts one by one through the bandit gang. She takes no shit, she is active. She gets precisely what she wants.
“When I saw the actress fighting for her life in that barren landscape, I was pinched in the scorpion pincer of total desire.”
“I don’t think we stock that film.”
“You’re probably a badass just like her.”
“I’m nothing like that person,” Justine sighed.
“Maybe you could learn how to be. I taped it if you wanna come back to my place and watch it. It’s regaining relevance now, due to the state of the world. It’s gonna be a cult classic. I think they are showing it at that repertory drive-in theater next week.”
“I don’t like disaster movies.”
“Please watch the movie with me.”
“Aren’t you married, Ron?”
“Not when I come in here,” he said.
Tasha was studying feminist poetics at the graduate level. The last time Justine and Tasha had talked on the phone—this was five months ago, maybe longer—Tasha said that she needed to assert herself.
“They are going to offer me the manager job.”
“Is that what you want?”
“I think I want to go to school, but it seems too late to start.”
“Is that what you really want?”
“It’s more that I want to want something.”
“You have a psychological block, Justine: internalized sexist conditioning that has left you without agency. Next time I’m in town we can work on it. I have a photocopy of an essay you need to read.”
Justine wanted very much to do this. Tasha was her best friend. But it hadn’t happened yet. Tasha had come back home recently but was too busy to hang out. “Next time,” she said.
As Justine was pondering the shape of her block, a group of high school girls came in. Their pajamas and hairstyles seemed coordinated. They were carrying pillows and searching for a romantic comedy.
Justine remembered when she and Tasha used sneak out of their parents’ houses during sleepovers and walk on the dam, where the moonlight broke into pieces in the water. They smoked cigarettes and looked over the edge. Tasha had a rust-orange bowl cut, and was very small, and smoked and gestured with intensity as she spoke. Justine had a hard time remembering what they talked about in those days, but it was the forward movement of the conversations that she missed.
She looked up from her notebook and noticed that the sleepover girls’ attitudes had curdled. Emma had been checked out earlier that day.
“How can you be out of Emma in a time like this?” one of the girls said.
“We were all broken up with this week: two breakups on Wednesday afternoon alone. We needed this movie as balm. All week we’ve been talking about it at school, dreaming about it. And you failed to deliver.”
“I’m sorry,” Justine said. “It’s due back tomorrow if you want to try then.”
“The sleepover will be over by then, genius,” their leader said. “It won’t do us any good tomorrow.”
One of the girls screamed and knocked over the display of Jujubes and microwave popcorn. Another girl cried when the food hit the ground. The girls circled around her to comfort her broken heart. Justine cleaned the mess, dutifully.
Ron was saying: “Does my wide knowledge of cinematic history appeal to you? Like romantically?”
“I don’t watch a lot of movies,” she said.
“And yet you work at a video rental place. Do you ever reflect on that choice?”
“Everyone knows that the shark in Jaws was animatronic. But did you know that there was a real Great White heart inside there? Spielberg insisted on putting a secret in the movie. He bought a Great White heart on the black market and put it inside. Built a little chamber for it in there. I know many facts just like this and I can share them with you if you want to spend more time together.”
“You possess vast knowledge, Ron.”
She couldn’t help sounding bored. She hated how bored she always sounded. Ron sighed and ran his hand through his coiffed hair.
“I wish you’d take a chance on me, Justine.”
Sometimes she thought about doing something romantic with Ron, if only because he was neither of the main choices the universe was presenting to her—go to college, become a manager at a video store—as things she was supposed to agonize over. He was a third option, seeming to have very little to do with her life’s apparent plotline, which gave him some allure.
She rubbed his shoulder in way that meant “there, there.”
“You are kind,” he said. She smiled at him or tried to. If she could make a life out of only third options, she would.
There was Justine in Comedy stocking the shelves. There she was in Action taking down the poster of the dark tornado in a sickly yellow sky. In Romance, someone had left a single rose on the white metal shelving, and she had a pretty good idea of who it was. She smelled the flower and wandered over to War and Westerns, the section that she didn’t like to spend time in. It gave her an eerie feeling. Only very elderly men went to War and Westerns. Earlier that night—or was it during a different shift? —a man with a VFW hat and an eyepatch came up to her holding a copy of a movie with John Wayne and a battleship on the cover.
“I served in this war.”
“Thank you for your service,” Justine said, confident she was supposed to say it.
“Best years of my life. When I got back home, I couldn’t find myself again. I’d left myself on that ship, on the high seas. I might still be out there for all I know.”
She brought the rose to her nose again. She tore off a few petals and opened a case of a movie no one would ever watch. While she was working on her essay, she was thinking about the petals safely hidden, rotting in the dark case on top of a documentary about mustard-making in rural France.
Justine was about to start the second paragraph of her essay on “a historical figure she’d like to meet and why” when she crumbled up the page, tossed it in the trashcan, and briefly considered suicide. Why couldn’t she think or remember? Why couldn’t she know what she wanted like Tasha, or Felix, or the customers who browsed for a few minutes and left satisfied? There was drain cleaner underneath the sink in the bathroom. She’d only have to make one more choice.
She heard a noise in the parking lot and turned toward the window. It was the boys who tossed the eggs the other day. They were pointing fingers at each other and shouting. Justine couldn’t make out what they were arguing about as they were getting closer in the cold darkness. They grappled and fell to the ground punching, biting, kicking.
Startled, she wondered what she should do. Call Felix? Call the cops? No, this was her store now. Managerial words gathered in her mind, and she made her way outside. Lights from the store illuminated the grunting forms on the ground. She told them to stop, but they didn’t hear her. She had a hard time projecting. She felt that if she screamed at the volume required for them to hear and take her seriously, she would become sick to her stomach. The boys were bleeding and bruised.
She ran toward the boys and placed her long right leg on a patch of ice. She slid and slipped, and the back of her head must have struck the asphalt, since she was very dizzy, looking up at the glowing sky.
A car drove into the lot, squealing. She got up on her elbows and saw Ron getting out of his car and shouting at the boys. At this distance, he looked good in his puffy brown jacket. The boys stopped fighting, but it wasn’t what he said that made them stop. It was what he was pointing at. The boys followed his finger toward the sky. Justine thought the disasters had finally arrived. She thought of running back inside and calling Tasha, saying goodbye.
“Are you seeing this!?” Ron said. “What did I tell you?”
Ron helped her up and pointed at what the boys were looking at in the sky. At first, she was sure the fall had given her brain damage. What she was seeing wasn’t possible. At the drive-in theater Ron had invited Justine to the week before, the projectionist had suffered what the newspapers would call a “mental collapse” and barricaded himself into the booth, pointing his projector toward the clouds in the winter sky and saying menacing things into the intercom system. The projected light was amplified by a weather anomaly and seen all over the county. Justine saw the woman who, it had to be admitted, looked a lot like her, tall and strong and fierce, engaging her foes in soundless desert combat. The face of the actress was cruel and joyful and focused as she sliced into her sky assailants with swords, leaped from ledges, moved with speed and urgency. Yes, Ron was right, she could have been her long-lost twin. But was it fair, she wondered, that her twin was living a life like that, up there, and she was not? She concluded that it was not fair and started to cry.
The boys watched, bloody and bruised, and seemed reconciled.
Ron put his arm around her shoulders as best he could. They watched together, as the woman in the sky slew her enemies, as the snowflakes landed and melted on the warm wetness of their eyeballs.
They were parked outside her mom’s house. Ron knew the status of her Honda’s alternator and offered her a ride. They made out a little in his car. It felt okay, though she wasn’t looking forward to reflecting on the experience later. Ron seemed grateful; he kept saying “wow” the whole time. The top of her head touched the roof of the car.
“My wife is out of town,” he said. “I have that tape.”
“I don’t think so.”
He grabbed her hand and examined it closely in the dash light.
“You’re a special young woman, Justine. I see it in you. You will do great things. You’re going to be a big part of the new era.”
She looked at him gazing at her hand and could not begin to understand what he was talking about.
Ron drove off, back to his normal situation. At the front door, Justine was having trouble with the lock. It was frozen and the key wouldn’t turn. She could feel the metal through the wool mitten as she struggled. She was at it a long time. She worried she’d have to return to the store before she had a chance to go home.
NICK STORY is a writer from Ohio. His fiction has appeared in The Normal School, Indiana Review, and Monkey Bicycle. He can be found at nick-story.com