“What kind of old lady watches horror movies on Valentine’s Day?” Barry whirls a finger near his ear, rustling the gray thatch growing out of it. “But Mrs. Drake’s a good customer, Lizzie, and that’s what counts. Returns the videos on time. Always rewinds.”
I’m alone in the store when she stomps in, flapping her plastic rain bonnet hard and fast. Raindrops splatter themselves against the giant cutout of Arnold Schwarzenegger as if he can save them. Mrs. Drake glares at him, and I swear he shudders.
I’m just happy for someone different than the usual Valentine’s Day crowd. I’m sick of the couples holding hands, choosing movies they won’t finish watching or, if they do, it’ll be after the champagne is gone and the clothes picked up off the floor. The only clothes strewn around my rat-hole apartment are mine.
But even worse are the groups of giggling girls only a few years younger than myself. They debate which romantic comedy stars the hottest guys, in which ones do their shirts – or more – come off. They plan prank calls. They wonder if the boy down the block will try to crash the sleepover. I’ve never been to a real slumber party, but I imagine these girls sprawled on sleeping bags, munching chocolate candies plucked from heart-shaped boxes bought by someone’s father, waiting on popcorn being popped by someone’s mother. They dream about their first kisses. My first kiss and my first time were the same, and neither was memorable for any of the right reasons.
“Where’s Barry tonight?” Mrs. Drake asks.
“Out. On a blind date.”
“Lord, she better be blind.”
I pull out the stack of videos Barry set aside for her earlier. “Can I ask you something?”
She sighs, exasperation shooting from her like flames from a dragon. “I watch these movies on Valentine’s Day because I’m an old woman, and I can do what I want.”
I put the videos in a bag but don’t hand it over. I search her face as if the ravines carved into her skin are like the lines in a person’s palm, offering up answers to anyone who takes the time to read them. But I don’t have the time. I need to know now how to deal with the pain of loneliness. “Is that… is that the only reason?”
“What would you have me do? Watch classic love stories and weep until I’m dehydrated because everyone I love is dead?”
“No, I didn’t mean….” Shame grips me. Am I really interrogating an old woman into telling a truth she doesn’t want to tell?
“You come talk to me when you’re old and alone.” She rips the bag from my hands then heads for the door, giving Arnold a shove on her way out.
“You don’t have to be old to be alone, to be lonely.” But the only one who hears me is the toppled cardboard Arnold.
Later, after I close up, I grab my jacket from under the counter. A video falls to the floor. Psycho.
Rain streams down the darkened windows. I don’t have to go. The worst thing that happens is she’ll complain to Barry, who might fire me for messing up. But I can get another crappy job. I look down at the movie. What if she’s looking forward to this one? What if it’s her favorite?
I don’t have to go. But I will.
I check her address, tuck the movie inside my jacket then jump on my bike. I pedal hard. Cars hurtle past, spraying me with dirty water. By the time I get to Mrs. Drake’s, I’m more wet rat than girl.
She cracks open the door. “What?”
I hold out the bag. “Psycho.”
She snorts. “I’m not the one standing in the rain with some old lady’s movie, one she’s seen a hundred times.”
“Do you want it or not?”
She takes it, wary, as if she’ll owe me if she does. “You ever see it?”
She walks away, leaving the door half open. It’s the best invitation I’ll get tonight.
The narrow hall is covered in photos. Posed black and white wedding pictures. Vacation shots of tanned, happy people holding colorful drinks. A boy with a buzz cut and a girl missing her front teeth hug a puppy outside a backyard playhouse. Birthdays. Barbecues. Graduations. What’s it like to have had so many people to love, to have had so many people love you? My fingers graze the frames, the glass. I leave my prints, pieces of myself, pretending I was there, and there, even if it’s only on the outside, always on the outside.
In the small, dark living room, Mrs. Drake squints at two remote controls, one in each hand. She gestures to one end of the couch with her elbow. “Sit there. Use the towel first.”
She sits at the other end, a quilt over her knees, a bowl in her lap.
“It doesn’t scare you? Watching these movies by yourself?” I ask.
Mrs. Drake stares straight ahead as she pushes the bowl over to me. “Some nights, I wake up and hear breathing. I used to think it was my husband next to me, or my children down the hall, but then I’d remember I was alone. Now I imagine it’s a monster breathing under the bed. It’s easier.”
I take a handful of the chocolate chips and popcorn mix. “How is that easier?” I slide the bowl back. She leaves it between us.
“I can fight a monster. I can beat a monster.” She nods at the TV. “Now shush. It’s starting.”
Madeline Mora-Summonte reads, writes and breathes fiction in all its forms.