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Merry and Bright

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November 1

As soon as he opened the employee side door, Frank could sense it in the air. The boxes were there, pulled out of the back storage room and empty now of their decorations, waiting to be restowed for the season. Snips and tatters of red tinsel were on the floor, even though the last shift should have swept up. Frank distastefully toed away what looked like a fake poinsettia leaf, pushing it behind a stack of boxes on his way to the locker room.

Frank had asked for the day of his birthday off, and he’d gotten it, because he asked forever in advance. Even though they’d had to double staff the evening shift so there were enough people to start putting out the decorations, along with people to hand out candy to the poor kids whose parents were lame enough to make them trick-or-treat in the mall. But with Halloween off, there was no way Frank could avoid working the next day, and no way to escape the onslaught of mall Christmas.

He shoved his coat into his locker and checked his hair in the row of fluorescent-lit mirrors in front of the toilet stalls. He straightened his collar and added the nametag, trying a few times to get it perfectly level. At least he got to wear clothes at the department store. At least there was no uniform, and no apron. He also didn’t come home smelling like fry oil. And if he ever got promoted to personal shopper, it would be a 10% raise and mostly daytime shifts. He ran through the litany of the good things about this job at the beginning of almost every shift he worked.

Carsen’s was . . . a place to work. It had started as a temporary fix for his hemorrhaging bank account because he refused to move back in with his parents, not even when it became clear that the band he and his friend James kept meaning to start was not actually a plan for an adult life. Not an adult life where you didn’t get evicted, at least.

Working at the mall was distinctly un-metal, and Frank knew this, but at this point, on most days, he felt like he’d made his peace with it. In the chaos and adrenaline and long hours of the last holiday season, he’d only had enough energy to keep a smile pasted on his face as he checked out customers, with none left over to spend hating the job. The fall retail season passed in a blur, and when Christmas finally came, he still had his apartment, and enough money to buy Christmas presents and a new shirt to wear when he went to midnight mass with his mother. There was also less time to smoke pot when you were employed. Frank had to admit, this fact had probably helped his bank account, and possibly even his life, about as much as anything. And there were the people he had met at the mall. People he worked with and people in other stores. People who were mostly okay, that he was possibly starting to like a little. Maybe more than a little.

Out on the floor, he found Pete to check in.

“You feeling merry and bright?” Pete asked, with a bounce of his eyebrows and a twinkle in his eye that said he might be kidding. Frank was almost sure he was, but Pete’s façade of enthusiasm never slipped enough for Frank to feel comfortable saying anything more. That was part of being a shift supervisor, Frank supposed. When he tried to copy the attitude of someone who seemed to actually be making things work at Carsen’s, it was Pete he thought of.

“Um?” Frank said, giving him an uncertain smile and declining to comment further. Pete seemed ready for every season of mall life, every bizarre twist throughout the year. And, see, that was the thing. Over time, Frank had realized that if you could do what Pete did, if you could play along and always smile, suddenly working at Carsen’s got a little bit more tolerable. Lucrative, even. You could supervise people. If you were a personal shopper, like Pete was, you could get clients. The whole thing almost had a career path. Almost.

For instance, Pete had volunteered for last night’s shift, so he could hand out candy to the kids. He said he thought they were cute in their little costumes. And, of course, he also did pretty well at flirting with the moms. Frank had no doubt that a decent number of the moms had left with things they hadn’t intended to buy while waiting for their kids. He had seen Pete work an accessories counter.

“So I’m . . . ?” Frank asked.

“You get to work with me this morning,” Pete said ominously, and then winked at him. “We’re going to dress the front display windows. Congratulations.”

“Oh . . . really?” Frank felt a little jump in his chest. This would be his first time dressing a window. If they let you do windows, it meant they thought you had taste. And taste was what personal shoppers needed. The displays they made today would be long gone before the holidays, of course, before Black Friday even, but this was still something. A step up.

“I put in a good word for you when they were making the schedule. I told them you’d been doing a good job with the floor mannequins when you helped me. Which is true,” Pete said. “You’re really getting the hang of it.”

When Pete first asked him to help dress display forms, Frank had been surprised to discover how difficult it was to manage the mannequins’ stiff bodies and limbs. After watching Pete carefully and learning to do things in a backwards order from the way you would, say, put clothes on yourself, Frank still had to admit it seemed to take some special kind of skill that didn’t occur frequently among the Carsen’s staff. He wondered if it had anything to do with him and Pete being short. Tall people, like his coworker Travie, didn’t seem willing to give any ground to the mannequins, as if treating one gently would mean it had bested him somehow. Travie would never asked for help, and Frank had seen him in the back room, wrestling to detach a mannequin’s torso, a man locked in a death match with a pale, featureless ghost whose arms eventually fell off.

The few full-body mannequins Travie had completed looked rumpled and uncomfortable, like they’d woken up in yesterday’s clothes after a night of hard drinking. He somehow didn’t even do a good job with the ass forms that only wore underwear, which ended up bunched and uneven when Travie put it on them. After giving him a few chances, Pete switched him to only doing the hanging head-and-shoulders forms, and mostly in hoodies and t-shirts from the athletic department. And not long after that, Travie had started working primarily in the home department, with kitchen gadgets and comforters, where bunched socks and the drape of a neckline were less of a problem. Pete, on the other hand, could dress a mannequin in nylons. Frank wasn’t there yet, but he was learning.

“Wow, okay. Great.” Frank smiled, a real smile this time. It felt easier and less plastic on his face.

*

Frank and Pete spent a couple hours picking the outfits for the four mannequins that would go in the window. They carried armfuls of clothes to the back room and held them up in various combinations around the naked mannequins, vetoing items and adjusting the looks. By late morning, they were reasonably sure on the outfits and had pressed all the garments and painstakingly moved all the tags inside collars and sleeves.

In the window, the background and the props were already up. Carsen’s hired an actual design company to make them, and the installers had put them in, probably last night. The background was an abstract snowscape in black and white. Toward the front of the window, there were long strands of white puffs of different sizes, hanging from ceiling to floor. The strands hung in sheets, dividing the space, like an artist’s interpretation of gusts of wind on a snowy night. He stepped closer to one of the strands. They looked a little like . . . Frank touched a strand. They were marshmallows. He giggled. They were a little hard, and no doubt sprayed with a plastic fixative or whatever fancy thing the design company did so they could charge so much for their services. But still, marshmallows.

Through the marshmallows drifts, he looked out onto the street. Across the street was a strip mall of smaller specialty stores, including Mayhem Comics, which he’d been in a couple times, but less so recently—he’d allowed his comics habit to fall off, even though a decent store was so close.

Alone in the window, Frank let himself tip through the marshmallow strands face first, feeling them pull across his cheeks and pile up against his shoulders. He looked down to see a little kid below on the sidewalk below, straining at his mom’s arm so he could turn to stare up at Frank as they walked. Frank gave the kid a grimacing smile and shook his face in the marshmallows, hoping he looked like the Abominable Snowman or something. He wished fervently for a mannequin’s arm he could use to attack his own face.

But even without the mannequin arm, the boy’s eyes got bigger as he watched Frank. He stumbled and almost fell as his mother, oblivious to Frank’s tableau, dragged him away by his arm.

*

During his lunch, Frank walked through the mall and upstairs to Icing. They had their decorations up too, and a lot of Christmasy-type jewelry out. On a shelf against the back wall there was an accessories display, including a sparkly white tiara, a feathered hairpiece, and black fingerless gloves with sequins, that looked designed to outfit a goth ice princess. Frank smiled. Lindsey must have done that one.

He could see her moving through the racks of cheap earrings and necklaces, straightening things here and there. He caught her eye. Time for a break, right? he asked by looking at his wrist and then holding it up for her, as if showing her the time on his nonexistent watch.

Yup, in just one minute, she gestured back, holding up a single finger and nodding. She grinned at him and ducked behind the counter to let someone in the back know she was stepping out.

They walked toward the food court, and he told her about his little victory—the window displays with Pete—and the marshmallow curtains.

“Marshmallows? Ugh, that’s amazing! I could SO do that job!” she squealed. “But seriously, Frank, that’s a big deal that you’re doing the displays. Are they turning out? Is it going okay?”

“I think so,” Frank said. “I’m going for classic and tailored, like, wool coats, you know, because of the snow, like they’re actually outside, but then each mannequin has just a piece of something in red, a really strong red. Like a coat, or a scarf, or their boots. I don’t know. Whatever I can find in the new outerwear collections.”

“Red, perfect,” Lindsey said with a firm little nod. Today, like most days, her lips were done in a bright, true red, a stark contrast against her pale skin and black hair. She would have fit right in with the Carsen’s window display. “You can’t go wrong with red at Christmas,” she continued.

Frank was quiet for a few steps as they walked. He felt the excitement he had manufactured to get through the morning faltering. “It’s not Christmas, though,” he finally said, a little sullenly. “It’s November first.”

“Frankie,” Lindsey turned to him. “You can’t start complaining about this, I’m serious. We have to live in this for months, and I can’t start hating it this soon.” She punched his arm. “It’s Christmas for you and me, and it’s time to get happy about it.”

Frank sighed and didn’t reply. A guy cut in front of them across the hallway. Frank could only see his profile, but he had dyed hair and pierced ears. He jerked his eyes away as soon as he realized he was looking, hoping it was quick enough that Lindsey hadn’t seen. She laughed softly.

“Maybe you’d be less of Grinch if you were dating someone. Did you ever think of that?” she asked him brightly.

Frank snorted. “Easy for you to say.” Linsey had been together with Jamia for as long as he had known her. They were living together—that’s how together they were. Frank knew there was some kind of drama with Lindsey’s mother over it. Lindsey alluded to it on occasion, never saying anything direct, but Frank gathered that they hadn’t spoken in a while because of Lindsey’s living situation. Not since Lindsey had moved in, in fact—which had been, well, kind of a long time.

Frank, on the other hand, hadn’t dated anyone in over a year. And since he’d gotten this job, he and his mom didn’t even have any regular topics to argue about anymore. He would have been willing to take the chance, was all he was saying.

They turned the corner to the food court. The open space magnified the carol starting up over the sound system, an orchestral arrangement of “O Holy Night.” Easily the most bombastic carol there was, in Frank’s opinion. The blast of syrupy strings washed over him with such force that he felt himself lean out of its way.

“Jesus Christ,” he muttered.

“There you go,” Lindsey laughed. “That’s getting into the spirit.” She took his arm in hers.

Frank snorted despite himself. They walked through the echoing food court, and the carol swelled to its trilling finale.

 

November 19

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the schedule went up. Everyone who checked it frowned and shook their heads, or breathed a resigned sigh. Even so, people kept crowding into the break room to check. Frank understood. No matter how bad it was—and it would be bad, he knew—it was better just to know.

For weeks, Black Friday dread had been building. Even Pete had started to betray little signs of anxiety—a frown or a sigh when he thought no one was looking. No one knew exactly what store management would do this year to make it more taxing and unbearable, but consensus was it would be something. Last year, they had introduced the policy that if you called in for any shifts between Wednesday and Sunday you would automatically lose your job.

“My grandma died that weekend and I couldn’t take off,” Travie said softly as they leaned against the wall in the breakroom, waiting their turn to check the schedule. “I’m not lying, man.”

Frank made a sympathetic sound in his throat. He knew Travie wasn’t lying, because Travie had been telling the story since the holidays last year. When Frank heard it first, he pressed for more details. It turned out that the death of Travie’s grandma, while certainly sad, had been mostly expected, and Travie had gotten to say goodbye earlier.

“But ask me how many holiday pattern casserole dishes I sold to white couples on Black Friday, just ask me,” Travie continued. “People are insane, man.”

Travie was black, and, Frank figured, about as qualified as anyone to comment on what white people did. “Not everyone’s like that, though,” Frank said. “I hate that holidays shit.”

“Wait til you got a girlfriend and you’re in your thirties, though. See what happens then. You’ll probably get one with, like, a Santa on it. The Santas are the worst.” Travie shook his head sadly.

Frank said a silent prayer—not his first—that he would never be scheduled to work in the home department. He understood people’s need to purchase clothes, but the need for seasonal dishes and kitchen towels was something he believed would be beyond his grasp forever.

When he finally got to the wall where the schedule was posted, he breathed his own resentful sigh.

Dept

Thurs

Fri

Sat

Frnk Lero

men’s

4pm-10pm

4am-6pm

12pm-9pm

A double shift on Black Friday. And when had shopping actually on Thanksgiving become a thing? he wondered. Wasn’t it supposed to be a holiday? Who would anyone choose to spend Thanksgiving in a mall? It made as much sense as having different towels for different holidays. And did they have to screw up his name on literally every schedule?

He turned away from the bulletin board.

“Aw, man,” he heard Travie say from behind him. “Black Friday in the damn home department again.”

 

November 24

It was 3 p.m. Frank’s feet were killing him and the dressing rooms were a war zone. His hands were black from clothes hangers and he had been yelled at by four ladies, two men, and a teenaged girl. He hadn’t yelled back at anyone, of course, although the teenaged girl was a close call. In the early morning, he thought he saw one woman lunge at another near two racks of the doorbuster sale items. But by the time he had hurried over to—what? break it up? declare a winner? he didn’t know—both of them had disappeared into the crowds that kept spilling and spilling in between the security guards on either side of the doors. The security guards hadn’t moved, so Frank wondered if, with only six hours off between Thanksgiving night and Black Friday morning, he was starting to see things.

Now, despite the fact that he’d done nothing for five hours but put clothes back on hangers, and the hangers on racks, and then wheel the racks out to be taken back to the floor, there were still clothes everywhere. Draped over the tops of stall doors. Piled on any free counter space. Heaped like a burial mound for a minor king, in the space vacated recently by the last clothing racks Frank had seen in some time.

Over the sound system, a piercing melody of bells started up, the beginning of Mariah Carey telling the world what she wanted for Christmas. For at least the fourth time that day. Frank sighed and set his teeth.

But the crowds were dying down. There was no one in the men’s dressing rooms right now, and Frank felt safe to leave for a moment—long enough to hunt down an empty rack and begin the whole process over again. He sailed past the heaped clothes, even as his brain served up the enticing picture of himself lying down, snuggling into them, and dozing off.

As he returned out to the floor, he passed a guy with a hefty armful of clothes heading for the dressing rooms. Mostly black clothes, Frank noticed with a small, appreciative smile.

He turned away to stifle a yawn and then turned back quickly. “Are you finding everything you need?” he asked. He guided the guy back to the dressing rooms and listened to him explain about the outfit he was looking for. Something nicer, a work event.

“And, well, the signing is tomorrow, so I kind of . . . need something now,” he finished.

“Signing?” Frank inquired. He could tell he sounded kind of impressed. He usually made it a point not to ask customers any questions that weren’t about their clothes or the weather. He must be really tired right now.

“Yeah, for Grant Morrison, down at the convention center, part of the Comic Expo. I work at Mayhem.” The guy made a vague gesture indicating the strip mall across the street. “We’re one of the hosting stores.”

Frank blinked. “Grant Morrison, like Doom Patrol Grant Morrison?” He remembered those.

“Yeah,” the guy smiled. He seemed pleased that Frank recognized the name.

“Wow. Well. That’s cool.” Frank looked at the guy with a new sense of respect. He had messy black hair and these great eyebrows. But underneath how his face had brightened up when Frank recognized Grant Morrison’s name, he seemed fidgety and anxious. Frank gave his head a little shake. He must be loopy from the day. The guy was fine. “Well, um,” he said, gesturing at the armful of clothing. “Let me know if you need anything, okay?”

The guy nodded and squeezed into a dressing room with his bundle of clothes.

Frank puttered at the counter, rearranging piles of clothes into other, slightly more stable piles, connecting garments with hangers where he could. It wasn’t much good without a rack to hang them on. He collected as many of the dressing room number tags as he could—the tags and number limits hadn’t even begun to control the flood of people today—and started to replenish the empty tag hooks.

“Can you help me?” A small, worried voice floated out from the dressing rooms.

Frank looked down the row of doors and saw the guy had peeked his head awkwardly out of the last door and was looking at Frank. Frank hurried down to him.

“What can I do for you?”

“Well, I . . .” The guy’s voice trailed off and he edged open the door, which he had been using to shield his body from the view of Frank or anyone else who might have been in the hallway. “I’m kind of . . . not sure about these pants.”

He was wearing a pair of pants that was, Frank estimated conservatively, about three sizes too large. They hung with reasonable security off his waist, but the front pleats drooped sadly and the cuffs creased and bunched around his feet. Frank frowned in concentration as he took this in. The guy was anxious, and this was why. He didn’t know how to shop. Frank felt a smile pricking behind his cheekbones and the beginnings of a laugh at the back of his throat, so he frowned harder.

“I. . . haven’t had to buy dress pants in a really long time,” the guy offered by way of explanation.

“Well, okay,” Frank began carefully, fighting the prickly feeling in his cheeks. “I think these might be a little big for you.” That was the least of the pants’ problems, really. Frank flashed back to the day he’d come to work in an old pair of pants he’d pulled out of the back of his closet. They had pleats at the front and cuffs that just barely brushed the tops of his shoes. Pete had sent him home to change, with orders not to come back until he was in different clothes, had disposed of the pleated pants permanently, and could explain the difference between a half-break and full-break hem. And now the fit of men’s pants had turned into something Frank could evaluate quickly, thoroughly, without thinking. Something he knew an embarrassing amount about.

“So, the fit,” Frank said to the guy, “The fit is the first thing. I can get you some different sizes.” His exhaustion was making him chatter, but the guy was looking at him so earnestly. And those eyebrows.

“Honestly, though,” Frank continued, “You probably also want a different cut. Pleats are . . . just trust me, they’re not the way to go. And the cuffs aren’t what you want either. Especially now—like, it’s different than it used to be. With pants. The way they’re cutting dress pants, you can find something that’s slim cut, but still formal. Like, even suits can be like that now. It’s just a more modern look. And I think that’s what you want.”

Frank finished abruptly, and immediately wished he could take it back. Another thing he didn’t do was give customers fashion advice. That was more in Pete’s paygrade.

The guy frowned at him for a moment, but then turned his concerned gaze back to the fitting room mirror and his own reflection.

“So . . . like . . . skinny jeans? But pants?” he said uncertainly.

Frank smiled, relieved. “Yeah, like skinny jeans. You stay here. Let me get you some more choices.”

*

After checking a few size tags in the fitting room, Frank went out to the floor to gather his own armful of clothes. He brought them back, tucked them into the guy’s room, and left again to scour the floor for an empty rack.

Returning to the fitting rooms, he found the guy standing in front of the three-way mirrors in a complete outfit and stocking feet.

“Hey, that’s all right.” Frank said from behind him. Breaking one more customer interaction rule. Offering opinions. But the guy looked sharp, he really did. He had picked out black pants, a good slim cut and the right length. The skinny jeans analogy had worked, apparently, and the guy’s own fashion sense seemed to have rallied. He had on a black vest and a soft grey shirt with good lines. And a skinny tie that was bright blue, done in a fairly skillful knot.

The guy caught his eye in the mirror. He smiled, then shrugged. “I just . . . wish the whole thing was bright blue, or orange, like something David Bowie would wear,” he said.

“Yeah.” Frank grinned appreciatively, nodding like a goon, like he was drunk. What was his problem? “Bowie. That would be great.” He heard himself give a dorky laugh. Jesus.

Mercifully, the guy padded back to his fitting room after that. Frank had the counter to himself to let the violent blush die down in his face, to put himself back together enough so the when the guy came back out with his clothes, Frank could finish up the sale and let the guy disappear forever.

When the guy came back out, Frank made inane holiday chatter about Christmas shopping as he scanned the guy’s stuff and folded it. That was easy enough to do, anyway. At this point, the chatter and the scanning were practically autonomic functions; he could keep up from now until December 25th.

Frank handed the guy his bag.

“I’m Gerard, by the way.” The guy stuck out his hand. Frank shook the guy’s—Gerard’s—hand. Another thing he absolutely, resolutely never did with customers was touch them. Ever.

“You should come by the comic store sometime,” Gerard said. “I could help you pick something out. I kind of owe you one.”

Gerard met his eyes with a quick, shy smile and then quickly looked down. Frank was tired, yes. He had said some things he shouldn’t have said that day, and had maybe seen some things today that weren’t exactly there. But that smile—Gerard’s smile—that was real. He had seen that.

Gerard was walking away toward the exterior doors, picking his way through the Black Friday detritus that cluttered the aisles. Frank leaned against the counter and followed him with his eyes. The realization broke over him that he needed to buy a million comic books. Immediately. More urgently than he had in years.

 

December 4

If Frank had learned anything from working at the mall through last holiday season, it was that December was a confusing and irrational time. People did things that couldn’t be explained. They bought things that couldn’t be explained. Like an entire dinnerware set with reindeer on them, for instance. Or a whole sheaf of comic books they weren’t particularly interested in, as Frank had done when he stopped by Mayhem in the hopes of seeing Gerard again.

Gerard was there, and Frank had been ecstatic. Gerard’s smile was huge, and it warmed Frank to the tips of his fingers. But he had a hard time thinking of the right thing to say, so he ended up letting Gerard walk him around the shop, listening to him chatter about the action figures and memorabilia and the front case full of signed Morrison works from Comic Expo. In the end, Frank had gotten so tongue-tied that he resorted to acting like he really was interested in the comics, and he’d bought six Doom Patrol back issues, none by Grant Morrison, a handful of Daredevil comics, and the hardcover of Ghost World. He left feeling confused and unsatisfied.

 

December 7

The next time Frank stopped by Mayhem, he avoided buying any more comic books, and he summoned the courage to ask Gerard when his break was. They went several doors down and grabbed coffees and stood in the parking lot in the weak winter sun, smoking cigarettes and laughing. Frank relaxed enough to crack a few jokes of his own, but mostly he just enjoyed the sound of Gerard’s voice, nasally and kind of deadpan, especially when he was trying to be funny. In the background was the sound of traffic, car wheels crunching over the icy, slushy mess that covered the ground, and no Christmas music, anywhere. It was wonderful.

Gerard’s break ended too soon, but Frank managed to work in the suggestion that they go see the latest Saw movie sometime at the mall, because it had nothing to do with Christmas and because Gerard had been talking about Rachel Rising, and Frank got the sense he liked creepy things. And then, they’d exchanged numbers. Success.

 

December 12

Frank’s third visit to Mayhem was mostly a disaster. Frank had resolved to do something decisive, or at least a teensy bit decisive—something that would get the whole question of dating, or potentially dating at some point in the future, or even the issue of who might or might not like dudes out on the table.

He would offer to buy Gerard’s coffee—a tiny gesture, but chivalrous nonetheless, with obvious ‘date’ overtones. Or he would slip in a mention of a past boyfriend and hope for some kind of reciprocal self-disclosure. A subtle way of saying, Hi, guess who likes boys? Me! Sooooo, how about you? He would say they should get dinner after they saw the movie, the movie that Frank had not yet successfully invited Gerard to. Something.

As he crossed the street, he recognized Gerard’s figure in the parking lot, leaning against a parked car. But there was someone else with him. They were talking animatedly, and the other guy reached out and patted Gerard’s cheek. Gerard swatted his hand away. Frank could hear them laughing. The guy leaned against the car next to Gerard, bumping their shoulders together. It was playful, but even from this distance, the vibe of intimacy was clear.

Frank froze, his heart stuck in midleap in his chest. It was what he wanted, a clear indication that Gerard seemed to like guys. But Frank hadn’t wanted it like this, not seeing Gerard with a person, this stranger that Gerard clearly liked in a special way.

Maybe he would bolt, Frank thought, he’d turn and run back toward the mall across the two lanes of traffic he’d just crossed. Maybe he’d never go to Mayhem, ever again. The crosswalk light flicked to the red hand. Around him, cars inched forward and Frank scrambled back a few steps to the median, where dozens of feet had stamped down the snow to create a little clearing.

Hadn’t it been clear that they were flirting? God, Frank had tried to be clear. How was coming to visit someone at their work multiple times not clear? Shouldn’t Gerard have known enough to say something if he was, like, completely unavailable? Frank felt himself frowning now, glaring over the tops of cars at Gerard and the guy in the parking lot.

Gerard turned toward the street. He saw Frank stranded on the median and waved hugely.

Frank pulled his face into a smile that he hoped looked more convincing from 100 feet away, and gave a noncommittal wave. So much for escaping.

“Frank, hey.” Gerard called across the parking lot. He was grinning widely and looked like he might reach out for Frank’s shoulder. Frank stopped carefully just beyond his reach. If Gerard noticed, his face didn’t show it.

“Mikey, this is the—you know, this is Frank.” Gerard propelled the guy forward toward Frank. “Frank, this is my brother, Mikey.”

Frank blinked at Gerard, and then slowly turned toward the other guy. Brother, he thought numbly. Closer now, he could see it, he supposed—their similar brow and features. He shook hands with Mikey, trying to calm the crazy seesawing of his heart.

Frank was so flustered that he agreed to accompany Gerard and Mikey to Jamba Juice. Then Frank had to buy something, partly not to look weird, and partly to give himself something to do with his hands and cover the fact that he was still stunned from what had just happened. Or not happened. Had something happened? Frank couldn’t tell yet. Then, mercifully, he had to get back to Carsen’s for the start of his shift. He threw away five bucks of untouched mango orange wheatgrass smoothie in the can outside the mall door. Pete would kill him if he saw him with a Jamba Juice cup.

At his lunch break, Frank walked around in the mall by himself. There was a new kiosk on the first floor that had just been set up at the beginning of the month. It sold remote control helicopters, and the guy who worked it had this huge mop of curly hair. He seemed chill but kind of geekily intense about the helicopters. Frank had seen him explaining the details to customers with lots of hand gestures. There was a red helicopter that he piloted around when no customers were at the kiosk. The little, buzzing craft rose impressively, past the balconies of the second floor, toward the ceiling skylights. Frank could see the way it caught people’s eyes as they walked around. It was pretty brilliant marketing, actually.

Frank sat on a bench that looked down the hallway and watched the red helicopter rise and swoop. He still felt confused and shaken from the morning. On top of that, he felt guilty for feeling hurt and angry when technically nothing bad had happened. Maybe it was his fault, and he hadn’t been clear. Maybe he had been clear, and Gerard just didn’t pick up on any of it because he didn’t care. Maybe Frank was misreading everything.

The helicopter made its way back down the hallway, over the head of the guy as he leaned against the kiosk counter, holding the controller and making minute adjustments with his thumbs. The kiosk guy piloted the little craft toward Frank, making it dip and nod when it reached his bench. Frank smiled. The guy gave him a nod, and then pulled the little copter up and back down the hallway. Frank raised his hand in return. The guy already had it—he could pick out the mall employee amidst a holiday crowd of mall customers. Frank wondered if Lindsey had met him yet, or if they should stop by during a break sometime and introduce themselves. Maybe he’d let them fly the helicopter.

To make himself feel better, Frank stopped by Orange Julius and got himself an original Julius, large, no stupid wheatgrass. He picked up an extra one for Pete.

Pete was the one responsible for him having any feelings at all about the difference between Jamba Juice and Orange Julius. When Frank was new, Pete had showed him everything about the mall, all the good places to eat and smoke and buy cigarettes, which places had discounts. They ended their little tour at the Orange Julius counter. While they stood in line, Pete explained the merits of Orange Julius. It had been around since the 1920s, did Frank know that? Not like these smoothie stories that were popping up everywhere now, putting acai berries in everything and trying to jump on all the latest health food fads. Not like Jamba Juice.

“I kind of consider this our store, you know?” Pete said.

It was true, the store was right by Carsen’s main floor entrance, and they did offer a discount to any mall employees—a miniscule discount, but still a discount. It was another one of those things where Frank couldn’t figure out if Pete was serious or kidding, but kind of followed his lead anyway. And now, a year in, Frank felt a wave of annoyance whenever he saw a mall customer carrying a Jamba Juice cup. It was all the way across the street in the strip mall, for Christ’s sake. What circumstances would cause you to need to bring in a drink from across the street? And it was always these yoga pants moms carrying the Jamba Juice cups while they mall-walked, pretending like it was health food and not basically a milkshake. Orange Julius had none of these snobby pretentions, and plus, it tasted way better.

The guy at the counter was the same surly guy that seemed to be working whenever Frank tagged along with Pete. Pete always ended up bickering with him about something or other. Frank eyed his nametag as the guy fitted the cups carefully into a paper carrier. Patrick, it said.

“Thank you,” Frank said, a little aggressively.

“Yup,” said the guy, as though Frank and Frank’s drinks were the least interesting thing to him in the entire universe. Frank couldn’t understand how he and Pete even managed to get into arguments.

“Oh, hey, thanks,” Pete said, when Frank ran into him in the break room and gave him his Julius. “I was just gonna go over there, actually.” Pete took the cup with a little frown. He looked oddly crestfallen.

Frank tried to put Jamba Juice and the whole stupid strip mall out of his mind.

 

December 18

Several days later, Gerard actually texted him and brought up the movie they’d talked about seeing. They made plans to get together on a day when they both got off work at a reasonable hour, early enough to catch a matinee—at Frank’s request. He had spent more on his month of inconclusive hanging out with Gerard than he had planned to spend on Christmas presents total. He wondered briefly if his mom could ever come to appreciate Ghost World.

When he saw Gerard standing, waiting for him in front of the Orange Julius, Frank’s heart did a subdued little flip. It was hard to know how to let himself feel at this point.

Frank had been right about one thing, though, a horror movie was right up Gerard’s alley. Gerard chatted amiably about survival games as a horror subgenre, and they walked across the mall to the theater. Apparently he had seen all the previous Saw movies. Frank hadn’t, and it didn’t take him very long in the theater to realize that the choice of movie had been a serious miscalculation. He spent most of it with his eyes squeezed shut, listening to the slashing and squishing sounds and trying not to imagine what pictures they might correlate to.

Afterwards, as they walked out of the theater, Gerard seemed exhilarated. “Did you like it?” he asked brightly. “I liked it. Do you want to get something to eat?”

Frank smiled weakly. “What if we walk around a little first?”

They walked. Frank had to admit, that was one thing the mall was good for. Over the sound system, he heard a distant and echoey Christmas song, something terrible, probably Michael Bublé, but Frank found it almost refreshing after the THX-quality sounds of movie violence.

On the first floor, Gerard caught sight of the red helicopter and made a beeline for the kiosk.

Ray was there. Frank had introduced himself the other day, and found him to be as chill and friendly as he looked, and every bit as much a geek about the remote control helicopters as Frank expected. Unfortunately, Frank had also learned that customers were absolutely not allowed to fly the helicopters unless they had purchased one.

“Honestly, they’re pretty easy to crash,” Ray had told him apologetically. “And in here, with the tile floor?” He pantomimed pieces exploding outward with his hands.

Ray was explaining the same thing to Gerard now.

Frank leaned on the kiosk counter as Gerard and Ray talked. He was staring at Gerard, he could tell. Maybe he cared, or maybe he didn’t. Maybe if Gerard noticed, he would do something that would tell Frank where he stood.

Frank looked at his receipts that night when he got home. The confusion was getting expensive, and he needed help. Tomorrow, he would talk to Lindsey.

 

December 19

He walked purposefully up to Icing during his lunch the next day. Lindsey was busy with a customer, a dissatisfied-looking girl who, Frank guessed, was about fourteen. The girl had her hands on her thin hips. Frank sidled into the store, and began examining a tableful of bracelets, wanting to eavesdrop but not wanting to look like it.

“Sweetie,” Lindsey was saying gently to her, “I know this doesn’t mean anything to you, but I will get fired if I pierce your ears and your mom or dad’s not here.”

The girl didn’t say anything, but her mouth softened in a way that said she might be ready to start crying.

“Take this paper to your mom, okay?” Lindsey fumbled with a large pad and tore off the top sheet. “This is what she has to sign, and she has to bring you when you do it.”

The girl hesitated for a second, but then put her hand out and took the paper, folding it angrily in half, and then in half again, and finally wedging it in her jeans pocket.

“Wait, though,” Lindsey said to her. “ I want to show you something else.” She led the girl to a small square rack of earrings. “These ones are special, just the ones right here. Watch this.”

Lindsey took an earring off of one of the cards. It was a long wire curved in half like an upside-down letter U, with little rhinestones running down one side. She turned the U-shape upright and slid it carefully over the girl’s earlobe, adjusting it so it stayed secure and the rhinestones ran up edge of the girl’s ear in a pretty curve.

“You don’t have to have your ears pierced?” the girl asked, frowning at her reflection in the wall mirror.

“Nope,” Lindsey said. “What do you think?”

“It’s okay,” the girl said and sighed dramatically. But she put her hand up to the square rack, looking at the cards of ear pins.

After a moment of watching her look, Lindsey stepped away quietly and approached Frank.

“You’re subtle,” she told him. “You shopping for your girlfriend or yourself?”

Normally, Frank would have answered in kind, but today he didn’t have the energy for it. “I need to talk. When are you on break?”

He stood around outside the store, kicking his feet against the tiles, waiting for her to make arrangements to take her lunch. When she came out, she put her arms around him, enveloping him in a sympathetic hug, and then leaned next to him on the railing.

“You’re sad. I can tell. What’s going on?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Frank said slowly, gathering himself. “I think I’m seeing someone.”

“Frank, you’ve been holding out on me,” she said happily, and punched his arm. “Wait, you think you are?” She frowned. “That doesn’t sound so good.”

“Well, it’s confusing, because…” Frank stalled. Linsey waited. “I think we’re both trying to figure out if the other one likes dudes.”

Lindsey nodded thoughtfully. “It can be rough. I dated someone like that … I mean, obviously, I thought we were dating. We kept hanging out all the time, I thought she was great, and I couldn’t figure out why things weren’t moving faster.” She gave a short, bitter laugh. “But then, once you start to worry, like, you’re maybe misreading everything—then you’re like, Do I want to ruin what would otherwise be a perfectly good friendship by leaning in and trying to kiss them? And then they freak out on me, and probably end up hating me?”

“Yes,” Frank said miserably, looking at his feet.

“So, what is it for you?” she asked. “Do you want it to be more than just friends?”

Frank sighed and let his head hang. Finally, he said softly, “I want it to be, I guess.”

They stood, leaning against the railing. Frank let himself mope, giving in to his sadness and confusion briefly, in a way he hadn’t let himself do on his own. Beside him, he could tell that Lindsey was thinking.

“Okay,” she said lightly, after a few moments of silence. “I have your solution. Invite him to our Christmas.”

Lindsey and Jamia had invited people, Frank among them, to come to their house on Christmas morning and … Do what? Frank had asked her. I dunno, Lindsey shrugged. Hang out. Eat brunch. Whatever we feel like. Every time they talked about it, the guest list seemed larger. Aren’t you worried about having something on Christmas? Frank had asked. What? she said. It’s not a big deal. If you have somewhere to go, you go do that. If you don’t, you come hang out with us.

“Really?” Frank asked, suddenly feeling oddly protective of Lindsey’s little Christmas. “Are you sure he can come?”

“Oh yeah, I’m sure.” She smiled, a little ominously. Frank could see a protective streak in her eyes as well. “I can’t wait to meet him. And if you don’t know by then, I’ll make sure we figure it out.”

 

December 21

Frank texted Gerard and asked him about Christmas, trying to hold the event with the same lightness that Lindsey seemed to. If he had something to do, he would do that, Frank thought. If he didn’t, he would come with Frank.

After a couple hours, Gerard texted back.

     yeah, in the morning, I can do that. family later though, but morning is great

Frank nodded to himself, a little sadly, looking at his phone. He and Lindsey would figure it out. He knew he could trust her for that, even if nothing else was going to turn out right.

Then the next text came.

     what about sooner, though, what about Christmas eve

Frank stared at his phone. Instantly, his insides were a swimming mess. This had to mean something, didn’t it? It must. His phone chimed again with another text.

     I just want to see you

Frank could feel his fingers tingling. He took several shallow breaths and texted clumsily back.

     I want to see you too, Christmas eve is good. I’m off at 6. meet me at orange j?

The final text came.

     yes

 

December 24

Frank saw him standing outside Carsen’s on Christmas eve, next to Orange Julius, which was closed now and waiting for another day. Under his puffy jacket, Gerard was wearing the soft gray shirt he had picked out that day in the store. Good lines. He looked good. More than good.

Frank’s heart felt a little repaired now. It didn’t jump or quail at seeing Gerard. It just felt warm. Frank walked toward him and smiled. Gerard smiled back. Frank’s walk toward him seemed to last forever. He felt like he was moving in slow motion, a pool ball in a straight, easy shot. They would collide like colored balls, Frank was beginning to be sure of that. It was a sure shot. The game was almost over.

They exchanged hellos quietly, a little breathlessly. Frank started sentences that kept trailing off. Gerard seemed to be doing the same thing, but none of it made Frank nervous the way it had before. He just kept looking at Gerard, catching his eye as they talked, looking away and looking back. Still smiling, both of them.

“What do you want to do?” Frank asked finally. As if it mattered.

“I don’t know. Let’s walk around, watch the people.” Gerard cast his eyes over the wide hallways and storefronts. His eyes shone, like he was seeing something beautiful. “Everyone’s so crazy, you know? Trying to get their shopping done.”

“Okay,” Frank said. In Gerard’s eyes, it was beautiful. That was good enough. “Lead the way.”

They walked past the GameStop, where teenaged clerks were explaining game systems and controllers to confused, intent parents. Past Icing where mothers were purchasing gift certificates, blissfully unaware that Lindsey would be there the day after Christmas, supplying their defiant teenage daughters with fashion advice. Past another Carsen’s entrance, where couples were handling the baking dishes. Ray’s kiosk had a crowd of three or four people around it, grandparents, it looked like, who had succumbed to the gadgetry of the helicopters in a last ditch attempt to find something their grandsons would like. Ray saw them and gave them a nod.

They rode the main escalators up to the next floor. At the top, the walkway turned, rounding back to face the mall’s main atrium. The atrium was the home of the mall’s most terribly impressive piece of Christmas décor: an unnaturally large Christmas tree, over three stories high—fake, of course. Frank had watched when the fire fighters came in November and assembled the enormous interlocking circles of its metal frame. Now, it was dressed in artificial greenery and lights and colored globes.

They were at its top, level with the large, spiky, glittery star at its crown. As they rounded the corner from the escalators, Gerard pulled up short and clutched Frank’s arm.

“Look,” he said breathlessly. He seemed overtaken by the scene before them. “Frankie, look! It’s snowing!”

Frank’s eyes went to the expanse of large windows that stretched behind the tree and above them. He could see flecks of white banking and swirling in the darkness, visible at the dark edges of the Christmas tree’s reflection.

Gerard was still holding his arm. “I mean, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“The tree, ” Frank said. “The mall.” He shrugged. “It’s a little weird for me, I guess.”

“Yeah, okay,” Gerard laughed and pushed his arm under Frank’s, hooking their elbows. “Maybe it is weird. But it’s beautiful too. Let’s stand here for a while.” He stepped to the railing, pulling Frank with him at their linked arms.

Frank let himself be pulled. He stood with Gerard, sneaking a glance at him now and again, watching him watch the lights and the falling snow, feeling their arms linked together, feeling a tiny star of something glowing in his chest.

After watching the snow for a while, they pulled away from the rail. Everything seemed quieter, like the snow had magically dampened the mall’s garish seasonal soundtrack. People’s voices were echoing, but they sounded far away. Frank reached down and took Gerard’s hand. Gerard grasped his hand back, warm and sure, and Frank risked a glance at him. Gerard had the same small smile on his face, the one Frank had glimpsed for just an instant that first day at Carsen’s.

They walked for a while in silence, holding hands, and Frank not paying attention to anything but the feeling of Gerard’s hand in his. Then he realized they were near an exit, the exit that led to the employee parking area where Frank’s car was. Frank slowed a little, and Gerard did too.

“So, um, this?” Gerard lifted their hands, with a little bit of question on his face.

“Yeah, I …” Frank shrugged. He squeezed Gerard’s hand, trying to put everything he couldn’t say into the squeeze. “Do you want to come over? I mean, there’s snow at my place too.”

*

There was a flurry of logistics—Frank would get his car and then drive Gerard to his car, and then Gerard would follow Frank to his apartment, no, Gerard couldn’t leave his car, the parking garage would be closed all tomorrow—and then Frank opened the employee entrance and pulled Gerard with him out into the snowy night air. Frank drove home, wide-eyed and breathless, hardly noticing the slick roads except to keep glancing up at the two points of Gerard’s headlights in his rearview mirror, tethered behind him, following him like stars.

They hurried up to Frank’s walkway on the second floor. Frank pulled Gerard by the hand, and they slipped in the packed snow. They bumped into each other, first by accident, and then more and more on purpose as they climbed. Gerard slipped a little on the stairs, and Frank leaned into him, catching him clumsily around the waist, feeling his closeness.

They paused at the apartment door, and Frank dug for his keys in his pockets. Gerard leaned out, looking down at the courtyard area where several pieces of abandoned lawn furniture were coated in soft white.

He turned back to Frank, snowflakes melting in his eyelashes and against his cheeks. “Frank, it’s so cold. Hurry!”

Frank laughed and lunged at him, letting his cold nose connect solidly with Gerard’s warm cheek. Gerard yelped and grabbed the front of Frank’s coat, making as though to push him away. Then he stopped, with his hands on Frank’s chest. In the silence, Frank heard their quickened breathing, saw the fog of their breath intertwining in the frosty air. He could hear the soft, fluttering sounds of falling snow.

Frank leaned forward just a bit and kissed him. Gerard’s lips were cold. Frank could feel himself relaxing against him, even through the bulk of their winter coats. His apartment keys were burning cold in his gloveless hand.

Gerard pulled away, laughing. “Frank, seriously, get the door open. It’s freezing out here!”

Frank straightened the keys in his clumsy hands, and they tumbled into the dark apartment, shedding coats and wet shoes. Frank turned up the baseboard heat in the living room, but didn’t turn on any lights.

“Open the curtains.” He pointed Gerard toward the curtain pull for the wide living room window. Frank brought out blankets from his bedroom and heaped them on the couch.

Gerard was standing in the middle of the room, bathed in the soft brightness reflected by the snow that came in through the window, despite the dark.

Frank caught one of Gerard’s belt loops and pulled him gently forward. They stood, facing each other in dark, hips almost touching, shoulders aligned. Frank put his stockinged toes on top of Gerard’s damp chilly ones, and felt the movement of Gerard’s chest as he laughed softly.

They kissed again, deeper and longer. With no snowflakes down the back of his neck, and both his hands free, Frank wrapped his arms around Gerard. Gerard reciprocated, pushing his hands into Frank’s hair.

“How are you now? Are you warmer?” Frank finally asked softly.

“A little,” Gerard said. Frank could hear the smile in his voice.

“Here.” Frank pulled one of the blankets from the couch and draped it over his shoulders, and wrapped himself in another. “We can sit here. And watch the snow.” He heaped the remaining blankets on either side of them and reached to pull one across them both.

Gerard snuggled closer under his arm and sighed. The snow kept falling outside. There was more kissing. Soon Gerard reached his arms out of the blanket he was wrapped in to pull Frank closer, letting the warmth between them grow.

*

Frank woke up in the night. It was still dark, with the soft, reflected half-light coming in from the window. The sky outside was bright with it. He and Gerard were lying together on the couch, under mounds of blankets. Frank felt toasty now. Next to him, Gerard’s body radiated warmth in his sleep. The cuffs of their jeans were dry. Gerard had taken off the gray shirt and draped it on the back of a chair. In the nest of blankets, even in undershirts and bare feet, it was completely warm.

Frank squinted at the window. As far as he could tell, the snow had stopped. Everything was quiet.

Beside him, Gerard sighed and shifted a little, opening his eyes. He looked around peacefully and when his eyes settled on Frank’s, he smiled sleepily. He moved inside their cocoon of blankets and reached a hand up to touch Frank’s face. His eyebrows knit with a slight frown.

“Frank, you know, you can be a little hard to read sometimes,” he said.

Frank thought of the past two months. “Yeah. I didn’t know if you liked me,” he said softly.

Frank felt Gerard’s chest move as he laughed, a small laugh that Frank almost couldn’t hear.

“Well,” Gerard said, “Do you know now?”

He pulled his arm back inside their blankets and wrapped Frank in a hug. It went from the tops of their heads, to where their cheeks and chests touched, from where their legs tangled sleepily, heavily together, down to the tips of their warm, bare toes.

 

December 25

In the morning, diffuse white light was everywhere, inside and out. The streets and alleys that had been wet black or dusted with grey the night before were white and broad, their rough edges smoothed and repaired. Frank and Gerard politely took turns in Frank’s bathroom. Gerard emerged with his hair combed and wet and put on the gray shirt again. Frank hoped they would be doing this again, would do it often enough to let the awkwardness and politeness slip away after a while.

They drove to Lindsey’s, and the main roads were plowed, with the snow cleared and packed down. On a turn, Frank’s shitty car drifted in a wide, smooth arc. Gerard laughed, and his coffee, in the mug he had stolen from Frank's kitchen, didn’t even spill.

On the tiny porch of Lindsey and Jamia’s little house, Frank felt a rush of nerves. Seeing them walk in the door together, Lindsey would know. Jamia opened the door and they were pulled into the warm, noisy entryway. Frank made introductions and they took off their coats.

Finally he saw Lindsey coming out of the kitchen. He willed her to look at him, so they could communicate before she came over and he had to say something with Gerard standing right there. She looked up, across the room, caught his eye and smiled.

He smiled back. She looked happy this morning, maybe about as happy as he felt. He cast his eyes toward Gerard, who was being enthusiastically greeted by Ray. Ray had brought one of the helicopters. They would fly it outside later, and crash it into something—probably a lot of things.

Him , Frank said to her with his glance toward Gerard’s back.

Lindsay raised her eyebrows high. She looked back and forth between them—taking in the fact that they both still held their coats, that they had both just arrived, together—and her smile, impossibly, got bigger. Her mouth came open just a little and she covered it with her hand. Look at you two!

I know. Frank scrunched up his nose in embarrassment and felt a hot flush rising in his face. Maybe his eyes watered a little. But underneath all of it, he still smiled.

Lindsey made her way across the room. “Hello, Gerard,” she said as she took his coat. “I’m so glad to finally meet you.” She gave him a quick, friendly hug.

She took Frank’s coat too, and, when Gerard looked away to keep talking to Ray, she briefly put her hand on top of Frank’s head. She tousled his hair almost like she was telling him he was a good dog. What it said, Frank thought, was I’m proud of you. He leaned into her huge hug.

On the table, a huge jumbled and mismatched plate of Christmas cookies was already unwrapped.

“My parents,” Jamia said, as she gestured Frank and Gerard toward the table. “We were there last night, and every single person they knew must have given them cookies. They wouldn’t let us leave without taking like half of them.”

“You don’t have to,” Lindsey said, reappearing from the bedroom where she had put their coats. “I mean, it’s early and we’ll have real food soon. But, you know—” She interrupted herself to take several from the plate. She shrugged at them and popped one in her mouth.

After they’d each picked out a generous napkinful of spritz cookies, Russian tea cakes, and fudge, Frank and Gerard made their way from the kitchen to the living room. The television was on, showing A Christmas Story. The Bumpus hounds were running past.

The little living room was filling up, mostly with people Frank knew or felt he’d seen somewhere before, one or two that must be from Jamia’s job. A real island of misfit toys. Frank smiled. Ray had made his way over to stand by the window and talk with Travie. Pete and some guy were sitting on the couch. Frank blinked, realizing it was the guy from Orange Julius, the one Pete was always bickering with, who looked really, significantly different without the Orange Julius hat on.

Frank and Gerard settled onto the loveseat, and Frank let himself lean up against Gerard just a little bit as they ate their cookies and watched the movie.

Pete kept turning from the TV to smile and say something to the guy. Inane chatter about the movie, no doubt, but it seemed like Pete was talking him up, like he would with a customer, like he was trying to sell something.

Or flirt, Frank thought. Maybe that was it. For Pete, flirting and selling something were pretty similar.

Frank could feel the sugar hitting his system. It would make him sleepy soon, and he’d miss the ending scene at the Chinese restaurant because he’d be dozing against Gerard’s shoulder, while Gerard talked to Pete and got introduced to the Orange Julius guy.

Later, there would be hot chocolate, and they’d play cards and eat some real food. Jamia would turn the TV to the Doctor Who special, and Ray and Travie and Gerard would go outside to crash the helicopter into trees and fences in Lindsey and Jamia’s backyard.

In just a minute, Frank thought, he would get up and offer to help Lindsey in the kitchen. He intertwined his fingers with Gerard’s and tucked their hands into the space where his leg rested against Gerard’s. All of it soon, in just a little bit.