Neville Kolinsky stood in the Action & Adventure section of the South End Video Store, listening as his world fell apart.
"We're not doing this," Vanessa said, shoving videotapes back onto their shelves with more force than necessary. "Not now."
"Why?" he asked, leaning forward and grabbing her arm. His dog tags jangled musically beneath his shirt. "That's all I want to know, Vanessa.
Jerking her arm away, she turned on him, suddenly furious. Her lips drew back in a snarl, revealing a neat row of teeth shiny with spit. "Because I'm working now. I don't appreciate you storming in here, making a scene. Do
you want to get me fired?"
Crossing his arms defensively, Neville blocked her way to the shelves.
"And I don't appreciate being stood up, either. I waited three hours at that fucking movie theater."
Vanessa turned on one heel, pushing the tiny cart stacked with tapes around him.
He still loved her. That was the problem. She was blowing him off in front of customers, two of his GI buddies and the other clerks, and goddammit he still loved her.
A wave of helplessness swept over him. For a moment, he stood frozen-a soldier stripped of his will to fight-watching her walk right out of his life.
It's happening again.
The thought was souring; the idea-the solidity of it-made him simultaneously sick and furious at the same time. He wanted to throw up.
He wanted to knock every movie off the shelf.
Neville found himself moving towards her instead, trailing her like a lovesick puppy. One of his friends-a little guy named Raker from West
Virginia-tried to grab him but Neville shrugged him off.
All eyes were on him as he stepped in front of her cart, stopping it with both hands. The patrons were watching a real live drama unfold before them; what did they need movies for?
"Just tell me.why," he said, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible.
Outside, the sun shone brilliantly through the store windows. Neville had time to realize how much he missed the warmth of the sun; summers in Fairbanks were a rare commodity. They were gone in the blink of an eye.
The metaphor hit home. Was he destined to remain cold?
"Brad came back from Anchorage," Vanessa said. "We're getting back together."
The words cut like knives, but what seemed worse was the horrible, detached look in her eyes as she said them. It negated their relationship worse than any words could have. Neville no longer felt the video cart beneath his hands.
He stared at her, at the woman who'd kissed him with such fervid passion.
He looked deep into her dark brown eyes, smelled her perfume and watched her chest rise and fall. He remembered feeding her fried wantons at a Chinese restaurant, making love in front of a fire. Once, she had picked him up from the base in the middle of January during a snowstorm. She drove down a series of twists and turns, finding the roads with a practiced grace that left him awestruck. When they parked near the ski slopes, looking down on the city lights, she removed a picnic basket from under a blanket in the back seat of her van. They had feasted on wine and cheese; the only two people in a dazzling confectionery landscape as the Northern Lights danced across the star-littered sky.
"So that's it then?" he heard himself ask.
Vanessa removed several videos from the cart. She looked at him with a mixture of pity and anger. "Yes. That's it."
His hands clenched into fists. He still couldn't believe this was happening; the urge to go berserk and trash the place fed off his mounting fury.
Raker caught his eye. "C'mon, man. We're due back. Formation."
His other friend-Mullins-kept looking at his watch.
Vanessa continued to place the boxes calmly on the shelf.
If Neville had seen tears in her eyes; if he'd at least caught her fingers trembling even the slightest bit, he would have argued with her more. He saw none of those things. There was only a cool displacement between them.
Raker tugged at his arm. Neville shrugged him off again.
"Yeah," he said. "Let's get out of here."
He brushed passed Vanessa, who seemed frozen like an automaton. A customer stepped up to her, inquiring about the Science Fiction section.
"What a cold fish huh, Kolinsky?" Mullins said under his breath. "Christ, man. She did you a favor back there."
Raker elbowed Mullins in the ribs. "Will you shut the fuck up? You hick, what do you know about it?"
"I may be a hick, Raker, but at least I got me a dick."
"Quit babbling, you ignorant hillbilly. You sound like Hank Williams Jr."
"Piss up a rope!"
"Yeah? Graduate from the seventh grade first, then talk. Sheesh. Can you believe this guy?"
They rounded the aisle. Mullins's cell phone beeped shrilly.
While Mullins answered it, Neville turned back towards the aisle where he'd had his confrontation with Vanessa. He couldn't see her from his current position; he was about to go back when Mullins's voice stopped cold.
"What?" Raker said.
Neville turned back towards his friends. Mullins was pale; the skin under his eyes was an unhealthy, ashen gray.
"We have to get back to the barracks, ASAP."
"Who was it?" Neville asked.
"Sarne. He's pulling CQ."
"What'd he say, numbnuts?" Raker prodded.
Mullins scrunched up his face; he looked like a man with a bad case of gas pains. "What he said doesn't make sense. Something about an invasion."
Neville and Raker glared at each other. At that moment, the sirens on post whooped and wailed, cutting through the air like a hot knife.
"Holy shit," Mullins said.
It was the last two words he ever spoke.
A thin, prehensile tentacle burst through the shelf of videos next to them.
It struck out-lightning quick-and slithered around Mullins's neck. Lifting him several inches off the ground, it flexed, tightening its hold.
Mullins was turning an alarming shade of purple.
Neville grabbed the tentacle as Raker made a break for the door.
"Raker! Get the fuck back here and help me!"
Everything seemed to be happening too quickly, as though they were part of a film someone was fast-forwarding.
Raker made it to the door. Another tentacle wormed around his ankle and jerked back with sudden force, yanking the small soldier off his feet. It wrapped around him like a python, smothering him. A woman ran past him in a
flurry of arms and frizzy hair, knocking tapes off the shelves. Another tentacle slithered after her.
There was a sound, like a loud cough and blood was suddenly everywhere.
Neville was peppered with it; his eyes were stung shut. He fell, hitting his head against the wall while simultaneously knuckling the blood from his eyes.
When his vision cleared, the tentacle still had Mullins, only his head was gone. The pressure had popped his skull like a pimple. Blood and slick gray brain matter dribbled from the shelves.
Another tentacle burst forward, raining tapes on top of Neville. He log rolled to his right to escape its deadly grasp, and froze in shock.
The tentacles were coming from the video store clerks.
Patti the cashier stood next to the register, her hands planted squarely on the counter. Her mouth was opened wider than normal; her jaw dangling uselessly between her breasts. Three tentacles ran from the gaping hole in her face. Her eyes glinted with knowing malevolence.
Neville tried to scream, but nothing came out except a whoosh of air.
Joey K.-the stockboy whom Vanessa always complained about-was next to Patti, crouching on the counter with his drooping jaw banging against his Dixie Chicks tee shirt. Two tentacles from his maw barred the exit; one of them was crushing Raker.
Neville noticed several white rocks on the floor in front of the counter.
Those aren't rocks.they're.oh my God.they're teeth!
His gorge rose. He was only able to keep from throwing up by searching for Vanessa. Neville couldn't find her anywhere.
He heard a gurgling scream from the last aisle, the only one he couldn't see from where he stood. Hunching low, he ran quickly to it and peered cautiously around the shelves.
A tentacle had crushed a woman to the point of bursting. Blood spilled across the faded linoleum in a seeping flood.
Neville heard horrible low sucking noises and turned to see the first tentacle slurping up the pool of gore.
Wavering, the tentacle holding the dead woman spotted him and darted forward. Neville grunted, eyes wide and nostrils flaring as he backpedaled clumsily down the aisle. Videotape boxes fell off the shelves as the
tentacle thrashed about after him.
Neville remembered when he had first begun dating Vanessa, how she had given him the grand tour of the store. There was a door near the back that led down to the storage room. It was really a converted basement; the manager had installed a dehumidifier to keep the tapes cool and dry.
The tentacle smashed against the shelf to his right, knocking it over. Neville rolled out of the way just in time. He sprinted for the storage room door, expecting to feel the thick caress of the tentacle as it fastened around his waist.
He slammed into the door; it was locked. Pounding on it, he shouted as loud as he could. "Vanessa? Open the door! Jesus Christ open the door now!"
The tentacle twined around his ankle. Its grip was like an iron manacle.
The door flew open. Vanessa was there, reaching for him. She gave a yank, jerking him off his feet. Neville felt the tentacle slip.
"Let go of him!" She yanked harder.
The tentacle lost its hold. They both fell backward on top of one another; Neville managed to kick the door shut.
The tentacle slammed against the door, beating on it. Vanessa shot the deadbolt home.
They leaned against each other for support. He was panting, trying to control his breathing.
Vanessa held him.
She turned away, her face partially illuminated by the storeroom's only source of light: a naked 60-watt bulb.
"This doesn't change anything between us," she said, but her eyes held that sparkle he remembered so well when they were together.
"Don't worry," he countered sullenly. "I wouldn't dream of getting between you and Brad."
"You can be such an asshole, Neville."
"Why? Because I'm pissed? I think I have every right to be pissed."
"I don't want to fight. We need to get to the base.tell them what's happened."
Neville glared at her. "Your co-workers are fucking aliens, Vanessa!
Their objective is probably the base. I'm not going there.screw that!"
He realized he was panicking; he hated how he sounded in front of her but couldn't help himself. Too much had happened.
She came to him then, held him. "Sshh.It's okay. It'll be okay."
Neville gazed at her, wanting to believe. Vanessa never looked more beautiful than at that moment.
"We have to get out of here. That door won't hold them for long."
"It's okay, Neville. Really." She licked her lips.
Neville leaned forward. Their lips met. Her tongue darted into his mouth, probing. Oh, how he had missed her!
Moaning, Neville slid his hand up to squeeze Vanessa's breast through her South End Video tee shirt.
His hand brushed against something; it dangled wet and warm between them.
Wide-eyed, Neville jerked his hand away from the hanging pouch of flesh that was once Vanessa's jaw.
She chuckled, clutching him as she forced her tentacle down his throat.
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