Her first day at Empire Records, Debra spends most of her time wondering why what looks to be the youngest guy working there is in charge of training the new hires (Deb and a blonde girl named Gina who is wearing a skirt that's too short, even for working in a record store).
"Hey, A.J., how old are you?" Gina asks, right in the middle of the kid's complicated instructions on how to ring in a sale for someone paying by credit card.
"Fifteen," he answers without skipping a beat. "So you have to make sure that you put the signed receipt in the drawer, or else your count will be off, and Mitchell really -"
"Fifteen? You're just a baby!" Gina practically coos at him. Debra figures Gina can't be much more than sixteen, but whatever. "How long you been working here, huh?"
The answer turns out to be nine months, and it doesn't take many shifts for Debra to figure out that A.J. was doing the training because he's far and away the most responsible employee, except for maybe Joe.
"And how about you, Debbie?" Gina asks in her sickly sweet, babydoll voice. "How old are you?"
"Seventeen," Debra deadpans. "And don't call me Debbie."
Gina is a joke, and clearly a slut, and maybe also kind of a bitch, but after her endless stream of personal questions, Deb doesn't feel quite so stupid when she corners A.J. on the stairs later to ask a question of her own.
"Who's that guy?" She points out the tall guy who's been wandering around the store for the past couple of hours with a guitar strapped to his back. He keeps going in and out of the back like he belongs there, so she assumes he's an employee, but she hasn't actually seen him do any work yet.
"Oh, that's Berko," A.J. answers. "He works here sometimes when his band isn't on tour."
"Works here doing what?"
"I haven't figured it out yet." A.J.'s kind of cute when he's perplexed. "I think maybe Joe just hired him for ambiance."
Debra's mother leaves on a Friday, two weeks after Debra's eighteenth birthday. She doesn't leave a note or anything, but Deb imagines her parting words would have been something like, "Don't get knocked up and let a kid ruin your life the way that you ruined mine. Love, mom. P.S. Don't marry a trucker."
A.J.'s room is painted in primary colours. Not like a child's room, but like he'd taken paint and a brush and painted whatever he felt like wherever he felt like; big red spiral on this blue wall, blue sun on that wall painted half yellow, smattering of yellow words that look like lyrics across the red ceiling. It's sort of interesting, mostly ugly, and altogether more punk than she would have expected from a guy like A.J.
It gives her something to look at while A.J. fumbles with the condom, trying to open the packet with trembling fingers. Debra wonders if he's a virgin. He drops the packet twice before she takes it, rips it open and rolls the latex onto him with steady hands before she pushes him down onto his back and takes what she wants from him.
Afterward, A.J. gets this look on his face, like she's the most amazing thing he's ever seen. Under the smell of sex, his sheets smell like teenage boy, with a faint undercurrent of fabric softener. He pushes the hair off her her face like she's something precious, and she resists the urge to roll her eyes. Definitely a virgin.
The next day at work, there's a pencil sketch in her cubby, a close-up portrait of her face. It's a good likeness, except for the sentimental expression he's given her, one she knows she's never worn. There's also a stem of orchid blossoms in a small jar of water, and the drawing is signed at the bottom, "♥ A.J." Debra represses a sigh, even though there's nobody in the room to hear it, and stuffs the drawing back into her cubby. The flowers she puts on the empty workdesk where Donnie used to sit and do the books, before Joe fired him and gave that job to Debra, instead.
When A.J. comes in to start his shift, he gets right up in Debra's personal space with that same stupid, soft look. She ignores him, and when he tries to lean in for a kiss, she puts a hand on his chest and pushes.
"What?" he asks, hurt all over his face.
"That's not what yesterday was about," she tells him, keeping a firm tone that doesn't waver to gentle or to harsh. Matter of fact. "That's not how we're going to be."
She cuts him off. "Look, I needed that to happen, and thanks for being there, but it's not going to be a thing. You're not my boyfriend, and it was one time, and that's all. Okay?"
A.J. stands there for a minute, and she meets his eyes steadily until he mutters, "Fine," and walks away. He avoids her for the rest of the day, and she spends her break over in Eddie's section talking to Berko, who's back in town for a couple of weeks.
The orchids last for weeks in their jam jar, and A.J.'s sketch stays at the bottom of Debra's cubby until the paper is soft like cloth and all of the pencil has rubbed away.
By then, Empire Records has a new employee. Her name is Corey.
Debra arrives at Empire Records to complete and total chaos. There are three police cars out front, the security alarm is wailing, Mark is standing in the middle of the store clutching his hair with both hands while Joe yells at him, and Gina is sobbing on the main staircase, mascara making thick trails down her face. Deb considers turning around and leaving, hesitates just long enough for Joe to see her and call, "Debra! Work!"
She ducks into the back long enough to grab her till, then joins A.J. at the register, where he is calmly checking a customer through like nothing weird or distracting is going on.
"So what's the deal?" she asks - shouts, really - when the customer is gone.
A.J. makes a swirling motion with his finger to encompass the still screaming alarm, the police cars, and Joe. "Mark's an idiot," he yells, then points at Gina. "Dumped," is all he says about her. Debra nods, then digs through the junk drawer behind the cash for the earplugs she keeps there for emergencies.
Later, after Lucas figures out how to shut off the alarm and Corey has arrived and calmed Gina down, Debra takes a minute between customers to watch A.J. and Gina talking in the aisle between Alternative and Metal. A.J.'s talking, anyway. Gina is doing everything she can to make A.J. want to sleep with her. A.J. isn't biting, though, no matter how many times Gina strokes his arm or giggles or leans forward to give him a clear view down the front of her top. That might have something to do with the way his eyes keep drifting over to where Corey is smiling and chatting with a middle-aged lady who she's helping over in Pop, but that's not all of it.
It's maybe one of the things Debra appreciates most about A.J., that he has never once looked at Gina like she's sexy. He's friendly to her, laughs at all her jokes, but he just lets her come-ons slide off his back like water off a duck. Debra thinks maybe that makes A.J. a good person.
Or maybe just a responsible one, like usual.
Debra avoids drama wherever possible. She has no time for anyone else's inflated bullshit, and parading her own around makes her feel stupid and pathetic and exposed, none of which are high on her list of things to feel and be. So it figures that the day she finally loses it and starts puking little bits of her poor, damaged soul all over Empire Records and everyone in it, she still manages to be out-dramaed by basically every other person in the store. Even Joe's hissy fits cause bigger waves than a shaved head and a bandaged wrist.
Still, if it wasn't for Lucas's intervention, it could have been a whole lot worse. Leave it to A.J. to see past the hair to what was really going on. And of course he would ask about it straight out, and of course he wouldn't just let it go. Eighteen years old and he still hadn't learned any subtlety at all.
The worst thing was, if Lucas hadn't stepped in, it might have worked. She might have spilled her guts and told him everything, and then where would she be?
A.J. and Corey have a massive, screaming fight three months after they start their respective schools, and A.J. drives his crappy car all the way from Boston to sulk on Debra's uncomfortable couch for two days. Berko stays at her place more often than not these days, but he's gone to Buffalo for a gig, so it's all on Debra to cheer A.J. up.
The first night, she buys him a bottle of Jack Daniels and listens to him bitch about Corey, and then wax poetic about how perfect Corey is, and then use bad song lyrics to describe how perfect Corey is for him, and then use worse song lyrics to explain how he isn't good enough for Corey. The alcohol was maybe not a good idea, or maybe she just needed to drink more of it herself. Either way, she pretends not to notice when A.J. cries a little bit, and she covers him up with a blanket when he passes out on the couch.
The second night, Debra works the closing shift, and A.J. drags his hungover self in to help out. Everyone is glad to see him, and they mostly mind Debra's admonishments not to mention the C-word. Warren - whose real name turned out to be Steve, but nobody calls him that - follows him around the store all night, catching him up on all the disgusting jokes he's learned since A.J. moved away. A.J. kisses Deb on the cheek when they get back to her apartment, then wraps himself up in the blanket and goes to sleep.
When Debra gets home from work on the third day, Berko is there, and A.J. is gone, but she doesn't think the two are related. Stuck to the fridge with a magnet is another drawing, a doodle this time, drawn in red ink. It's a cartoon Debra, complete with twenty-hole Docs and the mohawk she - briefly - sported after her hair started to grow back. Cartoon Debra is throwing bull's horns with one hand, and has a thought bubble coming out of her head that reads, "I ROCK!"
It stays on her fridge until she moves, and on every fridge after that, even when the ink has faded to rusty brown, and the "Thanks! ♥ A.J." is obliterated by mustard. It's okay, she knows who drew it, even gets others now and then to go along with it.