On the third day of Christmas—and how long does Christmas go on anyway? When does Christmas start in that song? It’s stuck in Jaye’s head, forwards and backwards. Problems of working in the mall: the carols sort of inscribe themselves on you when you're not looking. Backwards, in this case: it’s the third day before Christmas and the mouthbreather’s putting a Santa hat on one of the Maids of the Mist that’s just standing around in one of the store corners. It drapes uncomfortably over the feather in her headband. It is probably roughly as accurate as the feather in her headband. “Cute look,” she says.
Mouthbreather, apparently satisfied with the arrangement, walks over and hands her one. She holds it, like, yes? and he says, “Put it on!” with a selling-point exclamation point. He’s got another, has got a stack stacked in his hands, and puts one on his head with a very clear sense of showmanship. She nods at him: yes, I do know how to put on a hat. When he walks away, she tucks it begrudgingly into her belt.
“Did you know that more people try to kill themselves on major holidays than most other days? This is nothing if not the major-est, and I’m not sure we should be celebrating. Could push our customers over the edge, and they’re precarious on the best days.”
Mouthbreather’s in his own world. The wonderful world of retail, i.e. a fantasy wherein retail is a wonderful world. Doesn’t hear a word she says. “You could help me set up the nativity.”
“I’m on the register.” She blinks. “Nativity, huh? Isn’t that a little O Father, Hallowed Be Thy Name? Pretty sure our halls aren’t hallowed.”
“We sold Wonderfalls dreidels last week. Now we’re selling Wonderfalls messiahs this week. Get your head in the game, Tyler.”
Wonderfalls messiahs, huh? She thinks she’ll have to pick her brother up one of those. Maybe with a little duct tape over its mouth, just for safety's sake. Or would that be weird?
Mouthbreather comes out of the back room, lugging a diorama. She watches him threaten to fold like a skinny adolescent accordion under its weight until he gives her a direct order to help. Even then, she walks over slow enough that he’s just on the brink of collapse. He sets it down on the empty rolling-display table. It’s got the whole Holy Family thing going on inside it, and a bunch of shepherds and kings. And sheep. Fortunately they’re all taped standing upright. Double fortunately, none of them are large enough to wear Santa hats. The box has a Wonderfalls logo on it: she’s totally going to make Aaron come look at it later.
“We’ll put our souvenir animals around it,” he tells her, and she winces, physically. “We’ve got stuffed donkeys, we’ve got the bears—”
“There were bears at the birth of the baby Jesus?”
“Our customers aren’t going to be looking that closely.”
“You take care of that. I’ll be on the register.”
“I’ve never heard you so eager to take on the customers before.” He squints at her and she shoots him an elastic, stressy smirk.
“Yeah. I’ve had a reawakening. I’ll be over there. The animals? Those are your responsibility.”
She’s turning around when she hears a tiny throat-clear. Not of the Mouthbreather variety. Slowly, she swivels back around. A small plastic sheep pokes its head around the manger stall.
“Take the holy road,” says the sheep.
“On second thought,” she says, “I’ll take care of your weird marketing-for-Jesus display.”
“There you go.” Mouthbreather looks smug. “Knew you wouldn’t hold out on your fraudulent offers of customer service.”
“I said I’d do something,” she snaps. “Now scram and let me do it.”
He scrams in the end, and she looks down at the sheep. “Okay. We’re selling bizarre religious iconography. Don’t you already win?”
“Take the holy road,” the sheep says. A horse nods.
At least it’s not the baby Jesus.
Over her lunch break, Jaye tries to call Aaron. When he picks up his phone, he’s going to get more than one message about monograms and messiahs (Message one: “Geez, you’re going to have to get in here and buy one. Who’s gonna buy these?” Message two: “Whoa. Okay, the little guys are going fast, and we're already out of driftwood crosses. Who knew Buffalo was so revivalist?”) and yeah, she’s right, he’s going to appreciate it. (Message one, to Jaye, that evening: “Did you just spoil me for my Christmas gift? Jaye. You shouldn’t have.”) But right then, he can’t.
Reason being, he’s in the Barrel. Not necessarily for the usual reason—which has undergone a definitional switch from eating/drinking/being merry to Mahandra in the past month. That’s a great change. Best definitional switch that’s happened to him all year. Second most significant—second only to “there is a God.” And way better than that one. What’s God ever done for him? Nothing compared to Mahandra. Nothing, period. That’s the whole problem.
Mahandra’s hello-you kiss is tingling on his lips, from just before she shoved him onto a bar stool and told him to wait his turn, that she had to do her job. So she’s off and he’s here, with Eric the bartender the boytoy. Who’s a fine dude, inasmuch as they’ve talked, but that’s not much: Aaron doesn’t make a habit of talking to Jaye’s future poor-bitches at length. Not that this guy looks too hard done by, and Jaye’s been pretty nice about him—pretty uncommonly nice. Still, old habits die hard. Hard to imagine a Jaye with cosmic justification wouldn’t be wreaking way harder havoc than the Jaye without.
Dude is close to that cosmic justification, just by default. Aaron turns in his stool.
“So,” he says. “About my sister.”
It takes a beat, and then Eric’s face clears. “Right,” he says. “Is this going to be the part where you ask me my intentions?”
“Yeah,” Aaron replies, feeling slightly defensive. Something like that. “Yeah it is. I’m her brother. It’s my job to ask that stuff.”
“My intentions are nothing but good, but—” Eric, takes two glasses between two fingers and pours long draws from the bottle he’s holding. Bourbon. Two short fingers. Okay. “It seems necessary.”
Aaron doesn’t get to play the big-brother role that often. It’s kinda fun. And it’s kinda gonna fall apart in T-2 minutes, so he’d best maximize the moment. “I’ve got some questions, buddy.”
Eric the bartender raises his eyebrows, along with his glass.
“I need to know if anything strange has been happening when you’re around Jaye.”
“Strange how, exactly?” Eric puts down the glass, doesn’t bother to drink yet. Prolonged exposure to the Tyler family has honed his instincts for drinking alcohol on the distress cue. “On our first date, we broke into the zoo. She threw a portable TV at my wife and then bore witness at our wedding. Since I came back for good, things have been pretty stable, but there’s a pretty big margin for weird.”
“Yeah, I want to talk to you about that margin.” Aaron sighs and takes a sip of bourbon, which it’s definitely too early in the day for, but it’s also too early in the day to try to have a Talk with a capital T with a guy his sister’s fucking. Or, like, dating. “You didn’t know her before.”
“Before—well, you.” The animals and the Eric of it all happened at the same time: Jaye’s been pretty clear about that. Aaron squints at him. Is this guy a part of the whole prophecy game? He’s giving him a confused, affable smile; he doesn’t look like an act of providence. A disciple, maybe. They’ve all seen the way he looks at her. “Are you religious, by any chance?”
“Not enough to compare with a Ph.D in it.” He laughs. “Not really, no. How come?”
“For a while, my family thought my sister had found God. They were very concerned.”
“Thought it might have been the wrong God.”
“I wouldn’t have thought there was such a thing. Don’t you study—”
“See, here’s the thing,” Aaron cuts him off. “One, you don’t talk to Protestants about talking to nuns—”
“Oh, the nun was an isolated incident.” Eric blinks. “The margin of weird really is broad, isn’t it.”
No kidding. “Two, I wouldn’t trust Jaye with a religious awakening as far as I can throw her. And that’s not far. She’s small but she’s lead weight when you try to move her against her will. Any God Jaye found would freak me out by virtue of being Jaye’s God, and any God that found Jaye?” God picked his sister, Aaron thinks—call it God for now, whatever it is. That means they’re not working with a God that respects any of God’s laws. That means his research is worth exactly zero in the grand scheme of things—now that there is a grand scheme. One that involves his sister. And maybe, probably, this guy, directly or not. “That’s a force beyond anyone’s reckoning, my friend. That’s an Old Testament retail reboot. That is not a God that cares.”
“Jaye cares about things.”
“Yes. Thank you. I know that.” He’s discovered that. Recently, sure, but still. “She’s my sister, and I love her, but she’s the least likely prophet in the greater Niagara region, even you have to have picked up on that.”
“See, here’s the problem.” Eric leans in. He wears Bartender Demeanor pretty well. The other night Mahandra told him he talked a guy around who was threatening to off himself, which Aaron figures for an alcoholic exaggeration, but he can still imagine it: if you want to drunkenly, melodramatically threaten to off yourself, here’s the guy to talk you off the ledge. The stool, as it were. He’s only a little awkward as a booze-sage; he just plain seems nice—the type that’d be death-marked in a Jaye affair to the point where he’d already be sailing a Styx canoe, except for Jaye’s recent conscience/heart hints. “I don’t think you trust her.”
Aaron scoffs. “That ship has so sailed.” He does trust Jaye—or, he believes her when she talks, doesn’t really have a choice in that these says. Thinks she can pick herself up when she falls, yeah, gives her leeway to make her personal stupid decisions accordingly, yeah. But ‘trust’ stopped being a word that got thrown around in casual Tyler conversation once Jaye learned to hot-wire a car. It’s a different vocabulary. He looks at Eric with a certain measure of pity: he’s new in town, he can’t be expected to know these things.
“She’s opening herself up. You have to trust her, or she’ll shut herself back down.” There: now Eric takes a drink. “It’s a process.”
“Yeah, I noticed the opening. It’s not just you she’s talking to. She talks to cow creamers.” And they talk back.
“Your whole family is big on animal metaphors, aren’t they?”
“It’s not a metaphor, it’s a miracle.”
“You’re going to have to help me out here a little—”
“Ask her about it. If she’s so opened up to you.” Aaron considers the thought and, hey, it’s a fair thought. Laying aside the unlikelihood of Jaye’s having serious feelings for the guy, taking that unlikelihood as a matter of course (he had a really weird talk with Sharon a few weeks back, not least weird because it was with Sharon), he’s got access that the family doesn’t. To Jaye, and therefore to the weird, animate-the-inanimate miraculous that follows Jaye around.
“Okay.” Eric’s forehead wrinkles slightly. “About the—cow creamer, you said?”
“Yeah. Start there.”
“Is this guy talk?” Mahandra comes up behind him, knocks at the small of his back with her hip. Puts an empty tray of cocktail glasses down on the bar and runs a free hand through his hair, natural as can be. “It’s weird if you’re having guy talk. Don’t be those guys having guy talk about Jaye, I haven’t had to break one of those up in years.”
He leans back into her hand, contented as a pet. There’s a fifty-fifty chance, when it comes to kissing her in public—she’s still tentative about that—but once she figured out that she was off the hook, she grew a kind of second-nature tactility. It’s ridiculously natural, the way she touches him, like her hand on his neck’s an extension of their whole life. And vice versa. The first time he put his hands under her shirt and felt the warm curve of her stomach, he thought, Oh. Right. Here I am. “Here you are,” he says to her now. “Not guy talk. Just plain talk.”
“Are you going to tell me you weren’t talking about Jaye?”
“I’m not going to tell you anything.” He puckers his lips. Fifty-fifty?
She rolls her eyes and puts a hand over his mouth, but her fingers linger like a promise on his lips—later—and Eric turns around back to the drinks. Aaron lets him off the hook. For now. Mahandra is, again, way more reassuring stimulus than God.
“My brother’s been ignoring my calls,” Jaye tells Eric when he comes by at the end of the day. That’s a thing he does now. In the back of her mind, she’s been waiting to get sick of it: she’s never had patience for routines. Only it’s not a routine. It’s not every day, just most days. He comes and goes, and thing is, she misses him when he’s not around. In a dull, back-of-the-mind way that she doesn’t usually think about until she sees him next—but here he is, and she feels an intense wash of gravity, of something like relief. He’s still here. She’s not sick of him yet. There’s snow on the ground. He’s kicking it off his boots. “Mahandra, too, though I only called her once. Did I do something alienating in my sleep?”
“I wouldn’t get too cocky just yet. He was at the bar.”
“I’ve been replaced.” She pouts. “My best friend’s replaced me with my brother. My brother’s replaced me with my best friend.”
“That would be weird, given the nature of their relationship.”
“Valid point. Come on in.” Mouthbreather left her to lock up the store. That’s not a responsibility she protests these days: she has a really good way to abuse said responsibility. She switches the Open sign to Closed and pulls Eric inside, hand in his cold gloved hand.
He stops the second he sees the nativity. “What is that?”
It’s grown. There were now definitively bears at the birth of Jesus—as well as fish, lizards, the odd lobster, and birds the size of the baby himself. They have a lot of animals in the shop, you know, not that she’d noticed. It’s a ticking freaking talking time bomb. A ticking Jesus time bomb. ‘Tis the season for people to get really weird about that kind of thing. She was kind of sad there was no major customer objection today, but there’s always tomorrow. “Think this is tacky enough to make churchgoers cry?” she asks with a little bit of glee in spite of the whole inanimate-animal trepidation.
“Not sure. Definitely alarming, but the religious angle’s out of my depth. I’m a Santa-and-presents kind of Christmas guy myself.”
She grins and takes the hat from her belt, puts it on her head. The minute she puts it on, she senses her irony’s been compromised, but also he’s looking at her, and that tends to compromise her irony to begin with. “Santa,” she says, “and presents?”
He raises an eyebrow and she reaches up, tucking her hand under his scarf. He bends his head down and she kisses him, feels the cold of his lips and the heat of his mouth. Her hands burrow under his scarf, against skin, and she lets herself shiver a borrowed shiver, half winter and half pleasure, smiling against him. His hands are on her waist, solid on her hips. They settle in at the edge of her jeans, under the loose edge of her vest and below the hem of her shirt, and okay, that shiver’s in earnest. “Take off your gloves,” she yelps into his mouth.
He laughs and draws a line in cold snow-dampened leather over the bare slice of her hipbone under his hand, lingering for just a second before he pulls back. “Sorry,” he says, tucking his gloves into his pocket and bringing his hands back to where they left. His hands are still kind of cold, but she feels them getting warmer where they rest on her, and his thumbs make friction-tracks on her hips, right along the previous snowy strokes of his fingertips. “Better?”
She grins, warming, warmer, warmest. “Much.”
“You guys didn’t do anything like this for Hanukkah,” he muses, kissing her temple, and she shrugs.
“Not as many animals in the Hanukkah tableau,” she says with a wince. “It always comes down to the animals somehow.”
“No kidding—is that a Tyler feature?” he says, and she cocks her head.
“What other Tylers have you been talking to, exactly?”
“Your brother told me to ask you about a cow creamer.” He ducks in his head, ostensibly to get a better look at the nativity. In actual fact, he ends up in her neck. “Are there cows in the manger?” he asks with his lips on her throat like the happiest accident ever, and she swallows against it.
“No?” They shouldn’t be talking about cow creamers—and she’s got nothing but no to say to that, she’s going to kill Aaron dead next time he picks up his phone—but also, why are they saying words right now at all? “Also why are we talking?” She slides a hand into his hair, digging her fingers deep in against his scalp, and he answers it—good point—with his mouth back on hers, opening, all-the-way warm now.
She slides into his arms and he presses her back against the table which rolls back until it hits the wall, the curve of her hip knocking a few of the animals around the diorama’s edge to the floor. She flinches and he takes his mouth back, if at least not the rest of him. “Sorry,” he says, arms still wrapped around her back, “did you stack those? We can—”
“Let’s not,” she says and shuts him back up with an openmouthed fuck-it of a kiss. The table digs into her back, and she presses her hands into his shoulders and hops up onto the now-bared space behind her. If he pins her into place, then the table won’t move, and she thinks, sliding her hands down his arms to wrap her fingers around his wrist, that he’s up to the challenge. Her knees part and press up against the sides of his waist, pulling him in closer, and his hands slide hard down her back to the curve of her spine, to her hips. She was right. He’s really good at gravity. He’s warm and fantastically solid, a long leaning mass of wool-and-denim friction between her legs. Her teeth graze the edge of his upper lip and she feels him sigh, feels him move in another increment. Kissing him is good for that: just when she thinks they’re as close as humanly possible, he moves and they’re that much closer. He’s an excellent puzzle piece. An excellent puzzle piece with excellent hands, which are starting to unzip her vest.
The December cold he brought in is a retreating memory when a voice behind her snaps, “Take the holy road.”
She starts bodily in his arms. The bad thing about getting that close: there’s no physical space to hide. He can feel it, the anxious marionette-tug of her spine, the sudden slackjawed stillness of her mouth.
He asks, “Yes?”
“I was gonna cover this up,” she says, embarrassed. “I need help covering this up.”
He blinks like he’s wiping away fog from a window. “Right. This. Cover. Your work. There are windows, aren’t there?”
“It’s dark. But there are streetlights. It’s not that I don’t think having sex with you right here right now wouldn’t be a gift to the population at large, but maybe let’s save our gifts until Christmas proper?” The fluffy tip of the Santa hat bobs against her shoulder and she whips it off with instant, unironic horror. Why does she do these things? Her horror’s caught between don’t kiss me again, it’s clearly heat death of the brain incarnate and shut me up right now for the good of humanity, shut me up, use your mouth.
He says, “We were talking about sex?”
She says, a little higher, “We were talking about sex?”
“Apparently. I’m listening to you.”
“You’re always listening to me,” she says, which is one of those nice things that comes out sad when she says it. He’s listening to her too closely. It’s a fantastic quality that she wishes he had slightly less of. “I would absolutely fuck you on Christmas Eve, and also Christmas Day. Unfortunately—”
“TAKE THE HOLY ROAD.”
“I have family to deal with that is maximally familyish then and can we please cover this, and maybe Baby Jesus will make like a bird and think it’s night and fall the hell to sleep already?”
He nods. “Jaye?”
“Yes? Now, though?”
“I can’t move.”
Her legs are still wrapped around his waist. “Oh,” she says. “Right.” This definitely comes out sad. “I was comfortable,” she says, “I got distracted,” and she sees his eyes go slightly wider. He’s a gentleman, though, still. He helps her up, lets her legs stay braided with his until the last minute. “Standing alone is overrated,” she grumbles, leaning into him, cheek to the slightly wet wool of his coat. She feels him nod.
“I’ve always thought so.”
The table rolls away behind them. “Crap!” She disengages and pulls it back before there can be any more stuffed-animal carnage. The plastic manger-cast glares up at her unappreciatively.
“Take the holy road,” says a plastic cow. And a sheep. She accepts with a kind of low-level relief. She doesn’t know why it’d be weirder if the actual icons were talking, but it totally would be. This way, God-or-whatever’s still pretty much nondenominational, other than having a preteen girl’s taste in room decor.
“Take the holy road.”
“Which ONE?” she whisper-snaps as she’s pulling a cotton curtain over her side of the table. “The Christmas stuff here is for sales. You’re for sales!”
“This is for sale?” Eric asks and she rolls her eyes.
“Oh my God. The stuff we have marked down, you wouldn’t believe. The holiday rush is so weird.”
“I’d show you, but—” She casts a glance at the hulking sheet-shrouded shape of the Nativity of Sales. “I don’t want to. Come on. Your place of work has drinks.”
“Your brother thinks you’re in a religious crisis,” he tells her two shots in. Hers, not his. He’s mostly being professional. It’s nice to watch: he’s all wrists and booze, and these are a few of her favorite things. His wrists. (All booze.)
“Why is my brother talking to you about my spiritual life? My family’d be the first person to tell you I don’t have a spiritual life.”
“I told you he was at the bar.”
“You lied by omission.”
“Am I supposed to not talk to your brother when he’s here?”
“Yes,” she says. “All Tylers but me are off-limits. No Tylers but me exist. Repeat after me: There are no Tylers. There is only Jaye.”
He laughs and she drops the hypnotism voice. “Come on, though. What gives?”
“Just that. Asked me about my religious leanings, said the family was worried about yours.”
“My family is not worried,” she scoffs. “My family worries about my manners, my sister worries about herself, my father worries about my politics, my mother worries about my hair—and,” she grins, leaning in against the bar and pitching her voice Karen Tyler low, “she worries about that less now that I’ve made a handsome special friend.”
“Your mother thinks I’m handsome?”
“No Tylers but me,” she says, and he leans in and kisses her, quick and easy, his hand brushing her cheek.
“Your brother came to me,” he says once he’s drawn back and gone back to shaking the cocktail of the moment. “Thought he was going to have the Godfather talk with me.”
“Godfather? That’s a little too Jersey for Niagara.”
“I just thought he was going to threaten fisticuffs if I hurt you. Which I would have accepted, but no fisticuffs came.”
“From Aaron? God, no. If anyone was going to fisticuff you, it’d be Sharon.”
“That is the sense I get.”
“She won’t do that,” she says quickly. “If she can get away with it, she won’t talk to you for, oh, six months. Until I’ve proven I can keep you alive.”
“You should tell your family I’m more resilient than they think.”
“I’ve brought down larger prey than you, I’m afraid.”
“But none you liked this much.” He smiles at her, appallingly assured. She’d break his heart right here on principle if she didn’t like it so much. Like him so much. His grin deepens before he straightens back up and she thinks, she has got to renew her poker face. Just because she isn’t planning to eat his heart (she has gotten upsettingly invested in the sanctity of that heart) doesn’t mean he shouldn’t live with a dose of healthy fear, for self-preservation reasons. And there are bigger things to hide, on top of that.
“So what’d he want? Aaron?”
“He told me to ask you about—”
“If you say a cow creamer, I’m gonna steal that drink you just made.”
“It was a cow creamer.”
She steals the drink. It’s a fuzzy navel. It goes down easy, peachy. “Why does such a delicious cocktail have such an unfortunate name?”
“That’s not the worst one.”
“True. It could have been a screaming orgasm.”
“There's time to make another,” he says, looking at her with contagious lightheadedness. She breathes in a half-laugh into her empty cocktail glass.
“Baileys doesn’t go that well with peach. I’m gonna let this settle.”
“Well, we’ve got all night.” He turns back, semiprofessional again, his voice reshuffling octaves in search of the normal one. “Your family’s inside jokes are really complicated.”
“Are you in religious crisis?”
“No!” she splutters. “No.” She blows into the glass, listens to her breath whoosh around inside like a mock winter wind. “That would require a dialogue with the universe. I get a monologue.”
“I think that’s everyone,” he says gently. “We talk and talk and keep talking, audience feedback regardless.”
“No.” God, if only. Her resolve to wait at least five minutes between drinks wanes. “It talks. I don’t get to say a thing.”
“What do you want to say?”
“Stop?” she suggests. That’s not even quite right, though. The air goes out of her, back into the glass. Whoooooosh. “I don’t know. I just want someone to respond when I reply, instead of just talking over me.”
“Nobody gets a response. That is the main problem with the whole religious thing—everyone says so. We just go forward and hope we’re doing the right thing. Right?”
“I know I’m doing the right thing,” she says. “Or in theory I do. Once I’ve done the thing, I know it’s right.”
“You do have an uncanny doing-good streak—”
“You’ve noticed?” she asks, horrified, and he looks at her, just looks, for a pregnant second.
“Jaye. Of course I’ve noticed. You’d have to be blind to overlook it.”
“Oh, God.” She buries her head in her hands, feels her hair fall in front of her face like curtains. Good. Play over. Play over and people think she’s good. She’s never going to get used to that. “Can you be blind for me, occasionally?”
“Depends. Do I get to use Braille?”
She raises her head, smiles very slowly. “Yeah, you do. Keep your fingertips ready."
“I have no objections, then,” he says like he's maybe being strangled and definitely doesn’t mind. He makes his next drink very slowly, very carefully, with his back turned. “But you can talk to me, you know. I confessed to Father Cash back in the day."
"Did you have some Folsom prison blues to confess?"
"I thought it helped," he says with dogged clarity. "Made me feel lighter.”
“Aw.” She frowns. “That sounds so nice. I got stuck with the nun, and she just tied me to my bed.”
“That could be therapeutic.”
She doesn’t begrudge him that one. He hasn’t fully deglazed from the last...moment. Nor has she. She’s got a nice, peach-flavored flush that’s been riding high in her cheeks all night and she’s not doing much to cool it. For example, she could go home. Or she could go track down Aaron and give him a holiday strangling. But on the other hand:
“It could,” she nods. “But not with a nun with a knife.”
“Definitely not. You’d have to find the help of someone who was not a nun and did not bring a knife.”
“I’ll work on that.”
She grins. The crowd’s thinning. Last call ticks closer, closer.
When it comes, she stays on her stool, watches him shoo the last stragglers out. They move like emotionally strained molasses—the holidays, he explains to her, are a bad time for the bar. Good time for tips, terrible time for the tippers. “Nobody’s in a bar this close to Christmas this late in the night unless something is very wrong. Did Mahandra tell you about the guy?”
“Didn’t you tell me about the guy?”
“I don’t know. It was a lot.”
“There’s no guy now.” The door’s closed, locked. The lights are off, the room lit only by the vague red glow of beer signs and Christmas lights. She goes to him, to stand by the bar door where the key’s just out of the lock, to touch him easily on the wrist, the first piece of him in touching range. “You’re it. You’re all the guy in the room.”
“Yep,” he grins. “Just me. Did you want to do the confessional thing? I mean—”
“Are you asking me to confess to you?”
“Only in a priest kind of way. Not in a cop kind of way.” He takes a full step back from himself. “Okay, so, that doesn’t get any less weird. I take that back, I take all of that back. I only mean, if you wanted somebody to—to listen and respond—”
“You’re really good.” In the low light of the bar, she takes him by the lapels, thinks not for the first time I can do this all the time and grins. That’s a palliative. It’s the one thing that’s gotten less chaotic, instead of more, as time passes. “You can respond to me in a priest kind of way,” she says and leans in to kiss him, pressing him flush up against the bar door.
“Uh,” he says, a good few minutes later. “That’s one of the less Catholic things I’ve experienced.”
“Okay.” Take the holy road buzzes around the back of her head, like Heretofore Presumed Nondenominational God-Mind’s own-sent mosquito. She scrunches her face, the tip of her nose against his. “I know some things. Small spaces, for one. We need a small space.”
The smallest space in the bar is his bedroom, especially with the door closed. No, really: even the liquor closet is measurably larger. He takes the headboard, she takes the foot-boardless. The lights stay off: there are Christmas lights in here, too. Not to mention the plastic reindeer that made their way in here from the bar’s concession to holiday cute, lining the headboard. Under the reindeer’s merry eye, on the short span of the bed, they’re not touching, meaning there’s, what, a nice foot of space between them? She’s not trying to seduce him—okay, that’s a lie. Half-flagrant lie, the half being that trying was never in the occasion. He just kind of fell into her lap, smiling and contagiously starry-eyed and surprisingly surehanded. Hey: “Do you have a special relationship with the universe?” she asks him suspiciously.
He looks confused. “Do you and your brother talk about me?” he asks.
“No.” She shifts on the bed. “What does my brother have to do with this? I don’t talk to my family about things.”
“I thought he was trying to suss out something to do with religion and you, earlier, but he was also asking me about—me. I figured it was a theology student thing. Like that was his small talk.”
“You’re not all wrong.”
Looking him over, she runs over the things the animals have said about him and the moments they’ve chosen to be silent. She knows better than to be religiously suspicious of him: he’s been as much a secondhand fate-pawn as anyone else whose life she’s had to stick her hand into. He’s Fate’s bitch, too. By extension, her bitch. Also by choice, her bitch. She knows way better than to side-eye the cosmos over his motivations: she’s got eyes. Eyes on his eyes, which practically have hearts in them at any given moment. Calm down, Tyler, she tells her suspicion. Calm down, Tyler, she tells the rest of her.
She runs the idea of confession over and over in her head. Made him feel lighter, he said. Well, he makes her feel lighter. And there’s a difference between loving a crazy person at first sight and loving a crazy person once you realize they’re crazy for real. She moves into the space between them. “I like this confessional,” she says and kisses him, sliding up his lap.
So maybe this was never going to be an unburdening, not tonight. So maybe this was the pretext-iest of pretexts. She kisses him and her burdensome thoughts white pleasantly out.
She slides her hands up under his sweater. He’s wearing a Christmas sweater—a dyslexic one, green background, red tree. Definitely needs to go. She helps him pull it over his head. When that last sad scrap of holiday cheer is in a puddle on the floor, she runs her fingertips lightly over his ribcage, listening to the catch of his breath. She likes this: the imperfections, the softness and boniness of him in equal parts, the total unfettered reactivity of him to her all the time. There’s nothing hidden. That openness is at least a little bit contagious.
The room isn’t warm, strictly speaking. Only they are: her mouth lazy on his throat, his hands warm and searching under her shirt, up her back. She’s got her hands on his belt when her sense of fair play kicks in, and she leaves that to him as she pulls off her own shirt and leaves her unclasped bra on the floor. When she sits back up, twisting back up between his legs, her skin flush against his, she feels the breath shudder out of his body, and she kisses him hard, pressing as much of her bare skin to his as she can. His hips cant up and she writhes, slowly, against them, feels the ridge in his jeans pressing between her legs. She wraps a leg over his, knee to his hip, and rolls her hips slowly against his, and it’s her turn, okay, yes, yesyesyes thatthatthat, to fill up the room with the serrated hitching of her breath, the private smallness of the room constricting around them. She forgets, openmouthed, to kiss him, but she’s smiling against the uneven crook of his mouth.
They can go like this for hours if (big if) uninterrupted—kissing ostentatiously, luxuriously. For a while that was all they did. For, okay, maybe a day, after he came back. And then they got the elephant out of the room—there was also a literal elephant that day, but she doesn’t need to revisit that—and fucked, the first time ecstatically-clumsily in her trailer, since here and there and once in the Wonderfalls stockroom after hours on a day when all the goods were blessedly still in boxes. They haven’t had the time to make it regular. She’s still waiting, in the back of her mind, for the point where she gets bored with him. Which has really, really not arrived.
He has a hand on her breast, thumb grazing over a nipple, the other hard on the back of her head, fingers stroking in possessive spirals through her hair. He lays her on her back and she pulls him over her. There’s a brief moment where her arms wrap around his shoulders and she finds herself pressing her cheek to the bare crook of neck and shoulder, sated in the half-hug like she was sated in the kiss like she is sated as his hands slip down her belly and tug at the waistband of her jeans. A constant circuit of satisfaction and hunger: is that what okay no she’s going to head that line of thought off at the pass, she has a deal with herself and with him to not bring up the L word in bed. Too easy.
She unwraps her arms, lies back, and tilts up her hips, lets him pull her jeans down to her knees and her underwear somewhat after. He kisses her under her navel, runs his mouth half-forcefully down the jut of her hipbone. She feels the scratch of his stubble; she’ll be able to run her fingers over the reddish memory of the path his mouth made later tonight. He kisses one of her thighs and wraps an arm under it, bending in and positioning himself between her legs.
He licks, once, and her breath catches in her throat like a laugh, once, and a voice comes from above them, reedy and plasticky and pissed-off: “Take the holy road.”
She jerks. Her eyes snap open and she finds herself looking, from the opposite end of the bed at the reindeer on the headboard. It tips its antlers at her impatiently. Eric’s hands are on her hips, fingers spread calm and anchoring on the edges of her stomach, and she shuts her eyes and digs her fingers into the blanket in lieu of clapping them over her ears. Not now, God, don’t you have a sense of privacy? Of course not. Privacy’s moot. But the boy she loves has his mouth on her clit and the universe can’t hold itself in abeyance for a single pretend-impartial second?
What makes you think I’m not? she thinks as grumpily and as hard as she can.
“Take the holy road,” the reindeer says. “Take a DRIVE.”
“Oh my God I am so mad at you,” she whispers furiously, and Eric raises his head, openmouthed and confused.
“Not you.” She runs a hand through his hair—he’s descending again, she catches him midway, knuckles bunched in his short hair. “Not here, not right now, I’m sorry, I—”
“Not you. So not you.” She sits up, pulls her jeans and underwear back up, wraps an arm around his waist. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
His eyes are foggy, sexually discombobulated. Part of her, the dominant part, is really unhappy about this; the other part is endlessly, out-of-context delighted at his bafflement, his drunker-than-off-liquor confusion. That’s her. He’s drunk off her. The lingering predator in her thinks that’s awesome. So does the nonpredator, the one that’s all hopped up on the L word. They’re in agreement on that one. “I was going to ask what’s wrong with here,” he says, parceling his words out in slow syllables as though he’s relearning speech as he goes. That little, wry grin of his, he doesn’t have to relearn, though. “And then I looked around.”
“It’s really not the space. Or you. It’s so much more not you than you can imagine. I like small spaces. I live in a trailer. And you. You, I like. This, I like.” She bends down and pulls on her bra, her sweater. The tag scratches her neck—the front of her neck. Whatever. “In all conceivable spaces.”
“So.” Exhaling, she hands him his terrible sweater, a re-gift if ever there was one. The mattress squeaks with exhausted condemnation. “Come with me. Let’s go for a ride.”
“Where are we going?”
She watches the Christmas tree pull itself back into shape along his torso. “I’m not actually sure. A drive?”
They go out the back door, which locks and unlocks with less fanfare than the front. “The lights are good along Orchard,” he says to her in the parking lot, almost no longer strangled, and she she feels like she could crack. Not that she’s of sound body right now. Mind, maybe, as much as ever, but frustration’s coiled up all the way to the pit of her stomach like—well, to borrow an old metaphor, like bad fish.
She drags her feet through the half-slushed snow around the cars. “I hate the holidays,” she says, and he says, “No you don’t.”
“How d’you know what I hate?” she asks, petulant, reaching the driver’s side of the car, and he raises his eyebrows, waiting for her to unlock the passenger’s seat.
“You were wearing a Santa hat earlier.”
“It was witty and ironic at the time. God, nothing I hate has structural integrity any more.” Nothing she feels has structural integrity whatsoever, really. Half the time, she’s Jell-O in a vest. Cranky Jell-O in a vest.
Car on and pulling out of the parking lot, she does turn near-blindly toward Orchard. The lights are nice. They don’t talk. She keeps going.
“I’m glad,” he says, a mile in.
She glances over at him. He looks sincere, in his default kind of way, but the deadpan runs deep behind that, when he chooses. “Is that a joke?”
“You ran away. Okay. That's not the first time you've done that since I met you.” He shrugs. “You brought me with you on the run this time.”
A smile tugs at the edge of her mouth. It’s not the full picture, but it’s a pretty corner. “Christmas decorations make me kind of nauseous, but if you squint at a lit-up yard it’s like getting drunk without putting any of the work in.”
“Don’t do that. You’re driving.”
He touches the side of her neck, where her hair’s pushed back over her shoulder. Amused, she repeats him: “I’m driving.”
He takes his hand back. And she misses it when it’s gone.
“Look,” he says at the next light, pointing up to the billboard overhead. “There’s the animals missing in the Hanukkah tableau. Wait,” he frowns. “That’s awful.”
The billboard’s selling vodka at a Christmas discount with the help of a pair of curly-eared dogs in yarmulkes. “That’s awful,” she agrees cheerfully. “Are you gonna take advantage for the bar? It won’t taste like—”
“Take the holy road,” one of the dogs says to her in a voice neither yappy nor rabbinical.
Ridiculously, there’s room in her for a kind of relief—that it’s not actually backed by Christmas spirit. “The plastic sheep started it” is weird when the plastic sheep’s next to a plastic manger, okay. The Judeo-Christian God seems specifically upsetting. Then again, this would be a nexus of Judaism and Christianity and, Jesus-Christ-pardon-the-phrase, all this was much less complicated when it wasn’t happening on religious holidays. She has too much vocabulary for theological self-examination: Aaron’s kind of contagious.
The light turns green and she slams down her foot so hard the car screeches, peeling ahead into the road. Most of her, the comparatively saner part, is hacked off.
“I noticed.” Eric’s voice is mild-mannered, even though his knuckles are white on the braced hard against the back of his seat. If the road wasn't this empty, they'd be in worse trouble. Thankfully, Niagara has a pretty set bedtime.
Beyond the junction, the road is long and dark, leading toward a fork that used to be woods and still retains something of the English-class metaphor-forest quality. One away from the falls, one toward. She wasn’t planning to visit the falls, not tonight, but Eric sits back up when she flips on her turn signal. “You’re gonna want to go left,” he says, as she begins to turn. “They’re filling the potholes on the right. They’ve been running cement trucks in and out on the hour.”
“How do you know these things?”
“Concerned citizen. Also, bartender. I know more or less everything that happens in Niagara past midnight and before dawn.”
That’s plausible. There isn’t much to know. She swaps signals and looks over, sees construction lights blinking through the dimness like more holiday decor down a few yards. Yep, that one’s out of commission. Only—
Her sense of the stupid obvious kicks in and she yanks hard on the steering wheel. “Jaye, what are you doing?” Eric yells, and she yells back, ridiculously, she can hear herself—
“I’m taking the holey road!”
The car turns in a hard, harsh L on the road. If she dies for an omnipresent pun, she’s going to be really mad. But she’s not going to die—right, rabbinical weimaraner, right, seasonally jolly reindeer, right, Nondenominational Something Behind The Curtain?
She doesn’t die. The car jams into the grassy V between the roads and rolls—“Brake!” Eric is calling, “please, please brake,” saying his pleases like a normal person would be swearing, the same level of violence, maybe just as cathartic, and she brakes because she remembers the rules of universal preservation don’t necessarily apply to him, too. The car nudges up against the rightmost fork. She wonders if that counts.
Then she sees the face shining in the headlights, from a body standing in the middle of the road.
A live body. So she’s not screaming. What she’s doing is yelling, again, in merited shock.
Next to her, Eric says, “That’s the guy.”
“See,” she says later. “It’s not a good time of the year. It’s laced with latent evil.”
Merry Christmas, That Guy had said, when they’d got out of the car. There were so very many things Jaye wanted to say to that, chief among which was “Are you kidding?” Which he was, in an unfunny manner of speaking. Gallows humor. Or its updated, clumsier friend: attempting to get run over by large construction vehicles humor. Also “It’s three days before Christmas,” but she’d caught Eric’s eye and bitten the tip of her tongue before she’d let that one out. The whole holiday’s a state of mind, not so much a chronology on the calendar, whatever that stupid carol says.
Okay. So he wasn’t trying. Or he’d planned to have been trying, he said, only he got there and maybe, probably thought better of it. Thought better of it with his feet in wet cement.
“Then I wanted to go back,” he said, looking rueful. He really looked like a That-Guy, Jaye thought. Midheight, midweight, midhair, midlevel. “I didn’t have anything or anyone to go back to, but I sure as hell wanted to go.”
“You weren’t from around here?” she asked, and he’d shook his head.
New York City, he’d said. “Sure is bright there,” he said. “Especially these days. I wanted to go someplace darker and a little more private.”
Like a road in the middle of Niagara? She bites her tongue again. Sounds like a brothel, frankly. But she’s not going to get into a vocabulary spat with a man wearing cement socks. They don’t drive away until the next cement truck arrives—and stops. There’s a fair chance that one of those construction workers has saws.
They drive away without him, but with an approximately man-shaped dent in the air in the back seat, cold and heavy and question-marked. No friends, no family, post-breakup and on the lam—“Jeez,” she says. “It’s like a Hallmark cautionary tale.”
Eric looks over at her. “You might have saved him.”
She shakes her head, an uncomfortable twitch of hair, and looks hard ahead, eyes on the road. Not on the light-spangled houses blurring by them on either side, and definitely not at him. “He was kind of conspicuous when you got close.”
“Close is measured differently with a cement truck.”
“I feel like they have precautions for that.”
“Is it weird to say—” He stops and now she looks over.
“I really, really would not worry about weird.”
“Is it weird to say I feel like, odds are you saved him—because it was you? Because this happened to you?”
Nope. Not looking at him any more. Eyes on the road.
“Because you dragged me out here on a spooked whim and just happened to drive the car off the right road for no apparent reason, and there he was. He was stuck, you got him unstuck—”
“Manner of speaking. The saws are going to do the real work on that.”
“He’s not dead. You were there. It feels like they’re related. It feels like that happens a lot.”
The responsibility of his life—of more than one life—lies on her shoulders, gathering weight, gathering dust. She shakes herself off. “I can’t take credit,” she says. “I do what I’m told. And sometimes it ends up okay, but sometimes there are consequences for me along the way. Sacrifices.” They’ve reached the Barrel parking lot. It feels like a really long time since they were in the Barrel back-room bedroom. Speaking of sacrifices. “I wouldn’t do that on my own.”
“But whatever it is, you’re doing it. And whatever it is, it’s good.”
He’s looking at her. He believes it. She stalls the car by the entrance and leans over the armrest between them.
Her mouth opens under his. When he takes a breath and pulls back, it lingers open.
“See you soon?” he asks.
“You know you’re not going to be alone on the holidays,” she says, “right?”
He looks at her with surprise. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like. One way or the other.”
She’s about to reassure him—oh, she’ll need a drink midway through the day, maybe earlier than you think—only then she’s thinking of the actual fact of her house at Christmas, the group of them, too small for a crowd and too forceful to be anything else. Mom and Dad’s celebratory inappropriate streak, Sharon running around criticizing everyone else’s gifts with her lipstick matching the ornaments, Aaron making even less than the usual effort to get out of his pajamas, Mahandra next to her on the couch and laughing behind a glass of heavily bourboned eggnog, only maybe this year she’ll be next to Aaron and almost-unnoticeably less funny, if only by virtue of being less Jaye’s. A lot of Tylers in one room.
She does like having something to balance that.
She bites her tongue. Best not to commit one way or the other now. Instead, she runs a hand over the knitted tree on his chest, still hideous, and thinks she’ll sleep on it. If it still seems like a good idea when she wakes up, she’ll call him tomorrow. If not, she might call him anyway.
Aaron answers his phone, too, about damn time. If she’s up at three, someone else might as well be.
She tells him. What needs to be told of the story, at least.
“Are you telling me you saved a pilgrim on Christmas?” he asks her with way too much weight on his words. Anything sounds impressive if you put it like that, she thinks.
“It’s not Thanksgiving, dumbass,” she says. “And it’s three days before Christmas, anyway.”
Aaron laughs a short, unfunny laugh. “Two, now.” Long past midnight. He’s got pedantry on his side, if not God. “For the record, if you get mystically pregnant tomorrow or the day after—”
“I’m going to kick your ass.” She blows a tired raspberry into the phone.
“Nobody died, at least,” he says, not the first person to say that tonight. Statistically, she suspects he’s incorrect, but she doesn’t interrupt him. “That’s something. Something bigger than you: you know that, right?”
She buries her face in her hands. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m talked out tonight. I didn’t call for revelations.”
“I think you’re more Apostles, personally.”
“Go to bed.”
When they’ve hung up, she considers whether or not any part of this evening since she shut Eric’s bedroom door behind her has counted as a confessional. Whether it does or not, she does—she can evaluate privately, admit privately—feel some weight shifted. If not gone, then lifting. Even through the cracks in her fingers and even through the cracks in her screen, the park outside and the lawns, the world beyond it, is still lit up with too many brightly coloured lights. She raises her hand, squints until it blurs, then opens her eyes in full. Okay, so either way it's pretty beautiful.