By Josh Rountree
The dust biker comes into the video store that afternoon looking for slasher flicks. He heads straight to the horror section, not bothering to remove his breathing apparatus, and pulls a couple of classics from the shelf. Friday the 13th Part III and the original Halloween.
“You like this kind of stuff?” I ask when he hands the tapes to me for checkout.
“Yeah, so?” His voice is a mechanical whine and the desert winds have rendered his gray body suit smooth and practically transparent. I can’t see his eyes through the scored surface of his goggles, but I can feel the edge in the way he’s staring at me.
“I like them too,” I say. “I’ve seen hundreds of them. Slasher flicks, I mean.”
“Yeah, so what’s the best one?”
I don’t even have to think about it. “You ever seen Sleepaway Camp?”
His neck makes a stretching, leathery sound as he shakes his head side to side. “No.”
I sprint to the back of the store, pull the sun faded VHS box from the shelf, and add it to his pile. “On the house. Just let me know what you think when you drop it off.”
“You aren’t charging me?”
“No, just a favor from one fan to another.”
He might be smiling but I can’t see through the grill of his mask. He looms there like Jason Voorhees, silent and unreadable. Dust rides the creases of his suit and he reeks of illegal petroleum. He’s s seven-foot shadow come to life, an abstract artist’s rendering of torn metal and melted rubber pooling along an endless broken highway. He exhales heavily and it sounds like the rattle of failing pistons.
“Do you have a bag?”
I bag up his tapes and he grunts his thanks on the way out the door. The front wall of the store is made of glass and I watch as he starts his bike and speeds away toward the shimmering red horizon.
I hope he likes the movie.
Gandy catches me goofing off again.
We have a small television and VCR set up in the store that constantly runs movies, and I’m planted in front of it in one of those old style director’s chairs, watching Raising Arizona for roughly the ten-thousandth time, so I don’t notice his approach from the back office until he’s standing over me, his pen tapping against a clipboard.
“Jeff, what are you doing?” he asks.
“Sorry, just taking a quick break. I straightened all the boxes on the shelves and checked in the returns.”
Gandy heaves a sigh that could reach from one end of the store to the other. He’s a late-middle-aged guy with a thin moustache and not much hair. A Reverb Video nametag is pinned to the chest of his purple oxford, and GANDY is spelled out in big block letters. I don’t know if Gandy is his first name or his last name, but I’ve been working here too long now to ask.
“You’re not getting paid to watch movies,” he says. “The store’s not in good financial shape. We need to be working hard to keep it afloat.”
I think about telling him that we haven’t had a customer all day and nothing I do in the store will help attract them, but I don’t want to lose my job. Gandy likes to fret about the store being in trouble, but he hates when anyone else acknowledges it. This place is his life. Literally. The guy has a cot and a hot plate in the back office and he never leaves. I think he bathes in the sink.
Wind pushes against the front windows and the glass squeals like it wants to break. Gray smoke boils outside like it’s being heated in a pot and it’s so thick you can’t see more than a few inches through it. Silvery shapes dart in and out of the murk, and I’m pretty sure I saw a nest of tentacles lash against the glass a few hours ago but I’m not telling Gandy that. His eyes are fixed on the front windows now and I can smell the sweat coming off him.
“I can run the vacuum again?” I say. “Gandy?”
“Yeah, thanks Jeff. That would be great.”
Gandy returns to the sanctuary of his office and the rattle of an adding machine confirms that he’s back to business. I vacuum the cheery lime green carpet for the second time toady, then drop back into the director’s chair and press play on the remote.
I’ve barely flipped the CLOSED sign to OPEN when the first customer of the day walks in, slips off her protective body sheath and floppy hat, and dumps them in the corner where they sizzle for a few seconds before going quiet. The woman underneath is wrapped in layers of rough leather and her boots leave blackened prints in the carpet as she walks deliberately to the Musicals section.
“Anything I can help you find?” I ask.
“There’s a musical I saw once that I liked but can’t remember what it’s called.” She turns and I see the scar bisecting her face.
“Is it the movie starring that guy who was in that other movie with that one girl?” I ask.
She smiles, and her teeth are crooked in just the right way. “Might be.”
I help her dig through the shelves, rattling off suggestions, but she keeps shaking her head. An oiled machete hangs from her left hip, and a one-handed chainsaw is strapped to her back, bits of unknown viscera still caught in its teeth. She plucks box after box off the shelf with torn and bruised fingers.
“Are you a hunter?” I ask.
“Most days,” she says. “But even the stuff I kill doesn’t like going out in this kind of weather.”
The sky outside is green and twisty, and acid rain falls in sheets.
“What do you hunt?”
“Whatever they pay me to,” she says. “Apelings and the undead mostly. But I’m certified for bigger game if needed.”
“You need a partner?” I ask.
“I work alone,” she says.
“No, I was just kidding. I like it here. Hey, you know this one, right?” I put Singing in the Rain in her hand.
“I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it.”
“Well, since we can’t find what you came in for, this would make a good alternative. Classic Hollywood. Hard to beat Debbie Reynolds.”
“Hey, so…if you want you can just watch this here? We have a TV. We can watch it together. Maybe the rain will pass by the time it’s over.”
The rain roars against the roof, and the stench of it sneaks in through the building’s crevices, making the place smell like a high school chemistry class. The hunter’s fingers tap against her machete blade and she studies my face with cold, unreadable eyes.
“I’m not looking for a date,” she says.
“I wasn’t asking for one. Just saying you could watch it here. Sometimes it gets old watching movies by myself.”
“Okay, well that’s not the worst idea then.”
I offer her the director’s chair and sit beside her, cross-legged on the floor. We consume the rest of the day with a procession of musicals and while she loves Singing in the Rain, we get lucky and realize that The Music Man is the movie she’d originally been hunting. She hasn’t seen it in years but remembers the words to some of the songs and we sing together about River City and pool and brass band parades. Gandy pokes his head out from the back office a couple of times but he either no longer cares that I’m goofing off or doesn’t want to come down on me in front of a customer.
When night arrives, it chases away the rain. The hunter, who by now I’ve learned is named Cutter, and who once upon a time wanted to be either a veterinarian or a social worker, stands up and checks her weapons. She studies the empty sky, and then dons her protective sheath and hat just in case. The smile she’s worn for hours flattens and her face hardens like clay in a kiln.
“Thanks, Jeff,” she says. “That was fun.”
“Come back sometime. We’ll watch Paint Your Wagon.”
Cutter nods, pauses for a few seconds with her hand on the door. It’s past closing time, but I don’t mind.
She can stand there as long as she needs.
Bryce comes into the store to show off his latest exoskeleton. “So what do you think?”
I’m sure it’s the newest and coolest and most amazing exoskeleton that money can buy but it’s still just a shiny metal suit that makes him walk like he can’t quite bend his legs in the right places, and if I told him he reminded me of Robocop he’d probably start to sulk so instead I just say, ”It’s pretty cool,” and try to sound like I mean it.
“Bro, pretty cool?” he says. “It’s better than that. Check this out.”
He holds up what looks like an unlabeled soda can, gives it a gentle squeeze, and his suit deconstructs into a swarm of nanomites. They make a few laps around the store, knocking a couple of VHS boxes off the shelf and then squash their way into Bryce’s tin can which seals itself with a satisfying click.
I have to admit, that part was more than pretty cool.
“It’s a Trimm-Henderson 42LX Klingwrap. You can’t even buy one of these babies yet. Company has me testing it out. Nothing gets through this thing. Dino claws, bullets. A trash scavenger took a pot shot at me yesterday and it didn’t event tickle. Supposedly it will stand up to gamma cannons too, which I guess I’ll get to test out soon enough because the extraterrestrials are forming up on the south side of the vapor waste again and the company can’t sit by and let them get a foothold. Bad for business, you know? Why don’t you come with me? The company pays way better than this dump and you know you want one of these suits.”
I’m running a pair of tape rewinders that hum pleasantly, thinking that maybe we need to get more of those stickers that read BE KIND, REWIND and wondering what the dirt biker thought of Sleepaway Camp.
“I like working here.”
“What for? Jeff, bro, we’ve been friends since we were kids, but the difference is I grew up. Hey, I like movies too. I’ve seen Armageddon like five times. But you need to start living in the real world.”
“I met a girl,” I say.
“You went on a date?”
“Not really a date. We just watched some movies together.”
“What’s her name?” he asks.
“Cutter,” I say.
“That her first name or last name?”
“I forgot to ask.”
“Well I guess it’s a start,” he says, “but working here is still a dead end, Jeff.”
Bryce’s tin can makes a clattering noise. The lid pops open and within seconds the nanomites form an exoskeleton around him again. He snaps his head to the side and watches a blue shaft of light tear though the gloom, coming to ground somewhere in the distance, beyond the hills. “Green freaks are beaming down a team already. Look, Jeff, I have to go. To be continued, yeah? Time to seize the day buddy.”
“Hey, can you put back a copy of Red Dawn for me? I’ll swing by later and pick it up.”
“And pack a coat this weekend. The company scientists are predicting ice. No telling what that means.”
Bryce lumbers though the exit and is lifted up by a squadron of hovering drones that carry him away, presumably to defend the profits of innocent shareholders.
I finish rewinding the tapes and then settle into the director’s chair for a screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’ve seen it a bunch of times, but it’s still a really good movie.
When the lizard man comes into the store the air turns as hot as a tropical jungle. Squat leafy trees erupt from the carpet behind him and slinky vines drop from the ceiling like streamers at a middle school dance. Fireballs fall in lazy arcs outside, like rocks hurled by angry volcano gods. The lizard man’s tongue licks in and out, tasting the stale air-conditioned air and turning up the heat even more in protest.
I know better than to offer my assistance. Lizard men are singled-minded, and he wouldn’t have come if he didn’t know what he wanted already.
Turns out his movie of choice is The Great Escape. He places it on the counter and pushes a pile of gemstones toward me with a three fingered claw.
“This is one of the best movies ever made,” I say.
The Lizard man presses his thoughts into my mind and makes me aware that he’s a huge Steve McQueen fan and that he’s pleased that I agree the car chase in Bullitt is the best ever filmed otherwise he would be forced to take exception with me, and that would lead to the likelihood of a gruesome death by beheading or vivisection. He also makes me aware than his name is Alvarado, and that is neither his first name nor his last name, but simply his name.
Gandy comes to the front of the store with his clipboard, notices the vines dangling from the ceiling and casts a nervous look around the store like he’s expecting Tarzan to come swinging in. Alvarado looks at him and Gandy freezes like he’s been spotted by Medusa. Something passes between the two of them. One tear streaks down Gandy’s face and lingers on his chin. A lot of people have problems with the fact that lizard men can project their thoughts, read minds, and alter the surface of reality, but I can take it in stride. Gandy isn’t as easy going as I am. He makes a military about face and hustles back into the office, slamming the door in his wake. A worn poster for Lethal Weapon 2 hangs on our side of the door, one corner unpinned and drooping forward.
“You’ve seen The Getaway, right?” I’m digging though his pile of gemstones, trying to find one that I can accept to cover the rental fee.
Alvarado makes certain that I’m flooded with embarrassment because of course he’s seen The Getaway. How could he call himself a Steve McQueen fan if hadn’t seen that one? My fingers clench around a handful of jewels and I lean forward on the counter to support myself against the onslaught of emotion that he forces at me. Eventually he senses my regret and he relents.
“Hey, so these jewels are probably worth millions and your rental fee is $4.32. I can’t make change for that.”
He gives me another mental push and makes it known that he doesn’t require any change, that material things have no value to lizard men and these are only baubles to dangle in front of humans so they will dance and caper like the uplifted monkeys that they are. I may keep the entire stash and what’s more, if the fear radiating off of my master is any indication they are sorely needed because Rewind Video has a limited life span, like a wolfman with its head caught tight in the maw of a hungry pterosaur. Furthermore, he informs me that his videocassette player is on the fritz and he will require one of those as well, if we have them for rental.
“Sure, VHS or BETA?”
Instead of invading my mind, he gives me an exhausted look and flicks his tongue.
“Kidding,” I say. “We don’t rent too many BETA tapes.”
Our transaction concluded, Alvarado leaves clutching the VCR and his copy of The Great Escape. The temperature begins to cool and the vegetation becomes momentarily spectral before disappearing altogether. As sometimes happens, the lizard man left some of himself in my thoughts, and for the rest of the day I have the power to turn the lights on and off without touching the switch, and to float VHS boxes from one side of the store to the other like a flock of birds. I’m not sure if it’s really happening or if my brain just tells me it is, but it’s a lot of fun either way.
Bryce was right about the weather. The ice comes in the afternoon, dropping in huge chunks so that it feels like being in an air raid, and within minutes the parking lot is a solid shimmering mass. I remember the jacket I left at home as I turn the thermostat from AC to heat.
The stuff is two feet deep in some places by the time the woman and her children arrive, and I have to chip away at the frozen bits around the door in order for them to make it inside.
“We have five minutes,” she says, “so pick something quick. We still have to go to the grocery store and get Lydia’s chamber recalibrated before we go home. Don’t dawdle Junie.”
Junie is a hyperactive little girl who runs for the Children’s section like goblins are at her heels. There she commences to yank down box after box and toss them to the floor, screaming that all she wants to see is The Little Mermaid and how this is a terrible place because we never have a copy. The woman’s second child, presumably Lydia, is encased in an iron chamber shaped like an egg. The chamber skitters around maniacally on spider-like legs, knocking over the director’s chair and nearly toppling the TV along with it. When it approaches I can see the baby inside. A hairless kid with too many eyes and not enough noses. I’m stuck wondering what’s worse, sheets of ice or the mutative effects of radiation when Gandy walks up and puts the store keys in my hand.
“I’m leaving,” he says. “Lock up or don’t.”
“Where are you going?”
“Do you have a copy of The Little Mermaid?” The mother sidesteps Lydia’s chamber as it attempts to climb the check out counter. “We can’t find it on the shelf.”
The only thing remaining on the shelves in the Children’s section is Junie, who hangs from the highest one like she’s trying to rip it off the wall.
“It’s checked out,” I say. “I can put you on the waiting list.”
“Are you serious?” She looks mildly terrified.
“Yeah, sorry,” I say.
“Store is going to have to close,” says Gandy. “You were a pretty good employee, all things considered. You’ll be fine. Me, I don’t have any other options, so I guess that’s that.” He slips a tan windbreaker over his shoulders and tosses his GANDY nametag on the counter. I don’t understand at first what’s happening as he heads toward the front door. The prospect of Gandy leaving the building is something I’ve never considered. Junie finally breaks the shelf and tumbles to the ground screaming. A red light starts flashing on Lydia’s chamber and it’s accompanied by a siren that’s just a few decibels shy of a departing jumbo jet. The mother and her children spin around me in a vortex of chaos, and I stand frozen in the middle as Gandy climbs out onto the ice and begins walking in no particular direction. I realize that for Gandy, this is a form of suicide. He might have hung himself in the office with his bed sheet or guzzled down a gallon of the cheap blue toilet cleaner we keep in the back, but instead he’s chosen life beyond these walls, whatever that might be.
The woman and her children leave without a movie, and I trace their progress along with Gandy’s as they navigate the surface of the ice. A wall of sleet pushes in and clatters against the windows, causing me to lose sight of them all. It’s only then that my brain settles down and I remember a couple of things.
We have two copies of The Little Mermaid.
Also, Alvarado’s pile of jewels, which I estimate to be worth about eight million dollars, is still piled neatly on the counter by the cash register.
The ice has melted, and the trees are on fire again.
Customers rarely enter the store on Sundays. Instead they drop their tapes in the return slot like spies on a secret mission, eager not to get caught. I hear the clatter of tapes as they come into the receptacle, but when I look up to see who’s dropping off, they’re gone like ghosts.
In the morning’s returns I find our other copy of The Little Mermaid, and all of the slasher movies the dust biker checked out. He’s scribbled something in magic marker on the cover of Sleepaway Camp.
THIS WAS PRUTY GOOD. THK YOU.
I spend most of the afternoon in the director’s chair watching Groundhog Day on repeat. I slip in and out of sleep, wondering if I have enough of the lizard man’s mojo still inside me that I can warp reality. Maybe I could rewind to Monday, start the week again. Do it over and over and over, not so that I can get it right but so I can just keep living. I’m happy in this place. I’m not ready for it to end. I’ve always loved Groundhog Day and the quiet happy way it manages to be relentlessly melancholy.
I don’t hear Cutter enter the store until she shakes my shoulder and says, “Hey, wake up.”
“Cutter? You dropping off your movie?”
“I didn’t rent a movie. Remember?”
“Oh yeah, right.” I stand up, flatten my hair down with my hand and generally try to look like I wasn’t asleep on a Sunday afternoon at work.
“So, Jeff. I came in to ask if you want to go do something. After you get off work.”
“Like go on a date? You said you weren’t looking for a date.”
She’s swapped her chainsaw for a sawed-off shotgun, and a leather strap loaded with shells crosses her chest like she just stepped out of a spaghetti western. She shakes her head and gives me a grin that seems to ask just how big of an idiot I can be. “All I’m saying is we could go to do something fun. Together. At the same time.”
“I’d like that,” I say.
“Great,” she says. “So what do you want to do?”
“We could go to a movie,” I say. “In a theater.”
“Okay,” she says. “It’s a plan. What time do you get off?”
“I don’t really have a boss anymore, so I guess now?”
“Then lock up,” she says. “We can get something to eat first. My treat.”
“I wanted to ask you something. Is Cutter your first name or your last name?”
“It’s my last name,” she says. “I just go by Cutter at work. My first name is Stephanie.”
“Nice to meet you, Stephanie.”
I eject Groundhog Day and put it back on the shelf without rewinding it. I can pick up where I left off tomorrow.
Right now I’m looking forward to a movie I haven’t seen before.
About the Author
Josh Rountree’s short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Realms of Fantasy, Daily Science Fiction, and A Punk Rock Future. In addition to his previous story at PodCastle, his audio fiction has appeared in PseudoPod and Escape Pod.
Photo credit ©Leah Muse Photography
About the Narrator
Peter Adrian Behravesh writes flintlock space fantasy stories inspired by eighteenth-century Iran and songs about the technoapocalypse. By day, he edits manga for Seven Seas Entertainment. When he isn’t writing or editing, you’ll most likely find Peter hurtling down a mountain, sipping English Breakfast, and brushing up on his Farsi (though usually not all at once). You can read his sporadic ramblings on Twitter @pabehravesh or at peteradrianbehravesh.com.