A cold wind bit at Jensen’s ears as he walked up to T Rex Vinyl, keys dangling between his fingers. A cup of coffee from the shop across the street was a necessity, warming his hands and clearing his head, before he opened the store every morning.
And every morning, he took a moment to appreciate his home. The black brick storefront with its three-foot high white block lettering was a simple contrast to the peeling tape and chaotic colors of the concert flyers and promotional posters on the inside of their windows. His uncle’s shop and their sign were iconic in this part of Minneapolis. That didn't stop a graffiti artist last year who wanted to add their own color and personality to the black and white paint. Jensen appreciated all expressions of creativity, just not when it covered the outside of their business and home.
He inserted a brass key in the battered old lock, and was about to turn it when a guy standing on the street corner caught his attention. Tall and slender, wrapped in a blue hoodie covered by an old army surplus jacket hanging long over his hands, the guy was hawking mixtapes out of a crate to the small crowd walking by. It was a ballsy move, considering he was standing right in front of their record store.
“Hey, what do you think you're doing?” Jensen yelled.
Green-brown eyes turned towards him surrounded by a crown of brown hair blowing in the wind. That brief moment hung in the air. Jensen thought the boy, or man - his unlined face and scruff made it impossible to tell his age - was gorgeous. And if he had to bet money, he would have guessed that this guy would have grabbed his stuff and took off down the street.
Instead, the boy blinked his eyes, which now turned blue-green. Jensen stopped and squinted, wondering what trick of the morning light caused that change. Then the guy smiled at him and Jensen forgot about all about it and stared at the dimples and open pink lips underneath that messy mop of hair.
“Hey, yourself!” the boy said. “Are you a fan of heavy electro rock music? You know, like in the game Metal Gear Rising? I love that game. If you like that sound, you are gonna love this band.”
The guy waved a mixtape enthusiastically at Jensen and before he could say no, the disc was shoved into his hand. He then sidled in beside Jensen, close enough that their elbows rubbed together and a grubby woolen glove with cut-off fingers reached out to hold his arm. “Only $5 and you get a ticket to their show tonight over at The End.”
Jensen backed away as if the guy’s touch lit his sleeve on fire. Personal space was always an issue for him. Crowds, uninvited touches, and hugs made his anxiety ratchet up. It was why he loved working behind the counter at the store with a barrier between him and the customers.
“I'm so sorry, man. I didn't mean to freak you out. Everyone says I'm too touchy, but with a face like that, you must be used to people trying to get close to you. Doesn't make it right, I know.”
The kid’s eyes were now wide and blue as cornflowers, and Jensen felt like he had stepped into some claustrophobic vortex that had opened up near this guy. He needed to step back if he wanted to finish what he came over to do.
“C’mon, man, you can't sell those here. You know, in front of our record store?” He waved at the sign above the door, trying for indignant and ended up sounding like he was pleading with this very tall but untidy street urchin.
The guy’s face fell - no, it really collapsed - as he put the discs back into the box. “I'm so, so sorry. It seemed like a good idea, you know, go where the music lovers are to sell music. And I only get paid if I sell all of them.”
Jensen looked down at the box of twenty CDs by some local band who thought they were the second coming of Trent Reznor when really they were going nowhere except to move back to their mother’s basement when the money ran out. He looked back up at the boy.
“How many have you sold?”
“So far? None. To be honest, it's not really my kind of music. I'm more of an Eddie Vedder fan.”
Jensen sighed loudly. “How much are they paying you?”
“Fifteen for all of them.”
Long bangs fell over the guy’s face and he bit his bottom lip. Jensen wasn't sure if he was flirting or embarrassed by the low price he got for standing on a street corner all day. The boy looked like he hadn't had a good meal in days, and he sure wasn't going to get anyone to buy these shitty mixtapes, so Jensen found himself digging out his wallet and three crumpled five dollars from inside, putting them in the kid's palm.
“Why don't you go get lunch? I'll take these off your hands, okay?”
The messy hair flopped over as the guy handed over the box to Jensen, with another bright smile.
“Thanks. I really appreciate it. The band isn't really that bad. You should listen to track four. By the way, my name’s Jared. What's yours?” The boy held out his hand and Jensen shook it.
“Jensen. I work here.”
“Cool.” He still hadn't released Jensen's fingers yet and it was becoming a little uncomfortable. With a quick nod and another dimply smile, Jared finally let go and took off around the corner.
Jensen shook his head, chiding himself for being gullible enough to fall for all that street charm. With the box balanced on his hip, he pulled the key back out of his pocket and opened the front door to the shop.
The smell of patchouli in T Rex Vinyl wasn't overwhelming, unlike some of their competitors, and the chaos of posters and tables and displays was well managed by Jensen’s compulsive need to clean and organize. Jeff had a soft spot for classic rock and hair bands, having been a bass player for one when he met Jensen's aunt at age 19. They played all kinds of music in the store, but Jeff loved to give Jensen grief over his love for Lyle Lovett and Wilco.
While love of music was one of his favorite things about working with his uncle, it was the act of flipping on the shop lights that put a smile on Jensen’s face every morning when he walked in, reminding him so fiercely of his childhood.
He grew up in this store, and some of his first memories were of his aunt’s strings of white Christmas lights which reminded him of the magical stories that his mother used to read him every night. When he would visit T Rex as a kid, before his mom died, his aunt and uncle would seat him on the bar stool behind the counter to do homework or put him to work on inventory. She criss-crossed the ceiling with the strings of “fairy” lights, so that when they were turned on, they looked liked stars in the sky. They trailed over everything, including the mannequins displaying the latest concert t-shirts, and even wound through to the back office.
It cost a fair bit each month in the electrical bill to keep them on, but Jensen didn't have the heart to take them down after his aunt died. It was as if a little bit of her spirit was still in the store. Thinking about his Uncle Jeff in the apartment they shared above the store, he wondered if keeping her spirit alive was such a good thing after all.
Jeff never emerged from his stupor until after lunch time. Jensen didn’t know whether that was from habit and his old days touring with a glam rock band or the all-encompassing apathy that enveloped him after his wife died. Which was why Jensen jumped when Jeff pushed through the curtain that covered up the entrance to the office, coffee cup in hand and clear look in his eyes.
“God, don't scare me like that,” Jensen said. “What are you doing up? I told you that I'd open the shop today.”
He looked for any signs that Jeff was still dragging from a round with Tito’s Vodka last night, but he found none. This was shaping up to be a good morning.
Jeff dragged a hand through his stubble and pulled his readers off the top of his head, leaning in and squinting at the box in Jensen's arms.
“What the hell is that? It's not your Mumford and Sons collection, is it?” Jeff said, trying to hide his affectionate smile behind a sip of coffee. “You know how I feel about the indie crap.”
Jensen held back his typical snarky comment because he didn't know if he could explain to his uncle exactly how he got sucked into taking them off some cute Artful Dodger out on the sidewalk, so he didn’t even try. “Just a box I’m taking out back to the garbage.”
Jeff reached into the box and pulled out one of the CDs, black Sharpie handwriting scrawled on the front. “Wait, I think I saw these guys the other night. They're not half bad. Let's give it a listen.”
He walked behind the tall oak counter, reaching underneath to open one of the CD players. Most music was digital these days, but T Rex Vinyl dealt in all media - vInyl LPs, CDs, or even the odd eight-tracks for collectors - and there was a big array of audio players under the register.
As the CD started up, Jensen covered his ears as he headed back to the office. “Try track four. The kid out front said that's the best one.”
He walked to the coffee pot in the back and poured himself a cup, black no sugar, as the brass bell out front rang, alerting them to their first customer of the day. Jensen’s attention was drawn to an empty 750ml of Smirnoff and a half-eaten bag of salt and vinegar chips, sitting on the desk alongside the books for the store. He tossed the bottle in the trash and reminded himself to go grocery shopping for some real food for his uncle, something more than the crap junk food that Jeff liked to eat.
A little smile crept back on Jensen’s face as he scanned the most recent entries in the ledger, which were progressively becoming more black than red, before he shut the pages and placed it up on the shelf.
Business at T Rex Vinyl was picking up this year. It was amazing what people who wanted to wallow in nostalgia would spend to regain that feeling again. While the store revenues were steady, they wouldn’t have been so successful without the eBay shop Jensen set up, selling classic rock albums displayed in custom frames.
When Jensen walked back out, Jeff was listening to the new track with a customer who was checking out the band posters and bar gigs posted along the front of the counter.
“Hey, who is this?” the customer paused to look up at Jeff, who pulled one of the mix tapes from the box Jensen had set down. He handed the CD over the counter to the guy.
“How much?” the guy asked, flipping over the case to read the back.
Jeff looked over at Jensen with a smile - one that hadn’t shown up a lot recently. “Five bucks.”
The transaction was rung up and Jensen shook his head. A shit band with a shit demo, and they still sold one. That kid Jared must have the golden touch, because they sold ten that day, something Jensen never would have guessed.
It was quiet enough for a Wednesday that Jensen was able to get more albums framed and up on the display wall. Every time Jeff walked by it, he would shake his head, refusing to even look up. Jensen haunted a lot of garage sales, estate sales, or on Craig's List looking for pristine copies, and then found someone who did a nice job on the custom frames with a glass door on the front, like a museum box for artwork.
Jeff could be a bit of a dramatic grouch, saying that this new trend of hanging music on the wall was killing his soul, that no one listened to albums anymore, or appreciated the craftsmanship and the storytelling behind them. Every time someone bought one of these things, Jeff had to leave and go back to the office and Jensen would just smile. He was always the practical one in their little family, understanding that it was the kind of thing that kept this place afloat.
As he stepped outside the store that night to grab Chinese food for dinner, Jensen couldn't help but glance at the empty corner and hope that Jared found a warm meal and a safe spot to sleep for the night.
When Jensen came back to the shop on Thursday morning, he had two cups of coffee in his hands and fifty dollars in his pocket. He hoped that he would see Jared again on the street, and smiled as he saw the guy’s ill-fitting army jacket up ahead, with the arms hanging loose on his slender shoulders and his hair tucked under a white beanie.
“Hey, Jared---” When the kid turned around, his face was more on display with all that hair pulled back under a cap. Jensen took in the upturned nose, the tilted eyes, and the natural blush across his high cheekbones. Happiness at seeing the kid darkened at the blue-grey smudge of a bruise across Jared’s right cheek.
Jensen pointed to it with one of the paper cups, extending his finger as if to touch. “What happened?”
Jared ducked his head and tried to distract him with a dimpled smile again. “Is that coffee for me? Good looking and an angel. It must be my lucky day.”
Their fingertips touched when Jared grabbed the warm cup, and Jensen wanted to pull back and at the same time to grab hold of the kid’s slender wrist sticking out of the sleeve of his baggy coat.
“Seriously, who did that to you?”
Jared flapped his hand good-naturedly. “Oh, it was just a misunderstanding with one of the guys from the band yesterday. They're not bad guys - they just get a little pumped up after shows. Besides they wanted the rest of the CDs back.”
Jensen’s stomach dropped as he realized that some asshole did this to Jared because of him. He pulled out fifty bucks and pushed it into Jared’s hands. “Shit, Jared. Here, Jeff sold some of them, so give them this and I’ll get the leftover discs for you.”
The roll of bills was pushed back at him. “No, man, I can't take that. I never would have been able to sell them anyway. Besides, I got a new gig this morning.” Jared waved his hand dramatically over a box of logo’d band t shirts, black with the requisite skull and roses on the front. Typical beginner band nonsense.
Jensen’s anger at the thought that this kid with the sunshine smile and too-big coat was being abused swelled up in his chest. He shook his head. “And how did you get hooked up with these ‘great’ guys, the ones who smack you around and make you pimp their stuff?”
“Oh, I met them at one of their gigs. Didn't have a place to stay so they offered me a spot on their floor.”
Or in their bed. A glance at that bruise, and Jensen was sure their hospitality had a price tag. Some people had no problem taking everything they thought they could from a guy with no options.
“Really, It's the least I could do to help pay them back. Hey, thanks for the hot coffee.” Jared took another sip from the cup and started to pull out a few shirts, piling them up on top of the box.
“Okay, well, if you get too cold out here, come inside for a while.”
Once he turned on all the lights and the register, put on a little Old Crow Medicine Show on the speakers, Jensen set himself up on a stool behind the counter, pulling out an ‘Accounting for Dummies’ book. He hated business stuff like this, but it was the best way for him to help out his uncle, who had zero proclivity for the business side. But the reference book laid out in front of him on the counter couldn't hold a candle to watching Jared work the street in front of the store.
This guy could get anyone to stop and talk, to return his smile, with his head thrown back in laughter or a friendly hand clapped on their shoulder. God, the kid was such a flirt, batting those long eyelashes and leaning in to talk. Jensen never got the hang of flirting. People told him that he was good looking, but his natural shyness was usually mistaken as being standoffish or cold. And touching people like Jared did, with that casual intimacy? He couldn't imagine that.
An hour later, Jeff wandered in and huffed that if he wasn't careful his nephew would be playing Mumford & Sons next. He carefully put his favorite Led Zeppelin album, Physical Graffiti, on the Technics turntable, turning up the volume on Houses Of The Holy and heading off to chat with one of his regular customers at the far side of the store.
As the afternoon wore on, Jared even managed to sell a few shirts, mostly to teenage girls and boys who stared more at his face than the t-shirts in his hand. Just as Jensen was thinking about grabbing the remains of the pizza from last night sitting in Jeff’s refrigerator and taking it out to Jared, he saw the boy go down.
In the first few seconds, it looked like Jared had tripped because the fall was so uncoordinated, a slo-mo drop to the sidewalk, dragging the mess of t-shirts along with him to the ground. But the wary looks on people's faces as they walked around the boy told Jensen that something was really wrong.
Jensen yelled for Jeff and then banged his way through the front door. Jared was lying down on his side, legs at an odd angle, the beanie next to him on the cracked concrete, pulled off in the fall. From the back, it almost looked like he was laughing, the way his shoulders moved up and down. As Jensen ran up to the corner, it was apparent that Jared was having some kind of fit, or maybe an overdose. Jensen thought back to the boy’s clear eyes and easy chatter earlier and couldn't imagine that drugs were a problem for Jared, but some people hid it well.
Jensen knelt next to him and rolled Jared on his side, to make sure his airways were open or if he got sick. The shaking continued and Jared’s eyes were open and unseeing. And green, so very green, and Jensen could have sworn that they were glowing.
“Jared!” He shook one of the slender shoulders and when that didn't work to rouse him, Jensen ran his fingers gently through Jared’s hair, which despite the cold weather was damp and sweaty, clinging to his forehead. “C’mon, buddy, you need to snap out of this, okay? You need to talk to me.”
Finally, one of the passerbys stopped and Jensen asked them to go get Jeff from inside the store. Seconds that felt like hours went by and then Jared’s shaking seemed to calm down, just as Jeff ran up.
“OD?” Jeff's gravelly voice was tinged with resignation. It wouldn't be the first time they had to call an ambulance on this street.
“No, I don't think so. I know him. This is the guy with the mixtapes from yesterday. I think he's having some kind of fit.”
Jared seemed to be coming out of it but when he tried to speak to Jensen, the sounds came out as gibberish.
“It's okay, Jared, we’re gonna move you inside now.” Jensen wedged his shoulder under Jared’s arm and moved him so he was sitting up. While the guy wasn't bulky, he was tall and tough to pull up.
Mimicking Jensen’s position on the other side, Jeff jumped in with his arm around Jared's waist. The young man glanced up groggily at Jeff’s face and smiled. “Who are you? I like your glasses.”
Jeff looked over at Jensen with a quirk of his lips and the two struggled to walk Jared through the shop entrance. As they leaned him against the counter, the Christmas lights flickered on and off for a full minute. The randomness of the blinking distracted Jensen, reminding him of Morse Code, before Jeff’s voice got his attention.
“Should we call 911?”
Jared, who was pale and sweaty, shook his head and reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a prescription bottle and setting it on the top of the counter. Jensen whisked it off and looked at the label. It was from the free clinic about seven blocks away, and it was for Clonazepam. The drug didn't ring a bell, so he handed it to Jeff.
“So, you have epilepsy?” Jeff asked, handing the bottle back to Jared who pocketed it with a tired smile.
“I guess so?”
“What does that mean - you guess so? You don't know?” Jeff placed his big palm on Jared's back, and looked across at his nephew. “We should take him to the hospital.”
“No ER, please, no more doctors. This just started happening a few months ago. Spent a lot of hours at the free clinic since then and all they gave me were different pills to try, hoping to prevent the seizures.”
Jensen snorted. “Yeah, they're doing a bang-up job for you, aren't they? Why don't we get you to lie down in the back for a while?”
They walked into the back office, and Jared dropped on Jeff's plaid couch against the wall. He kicked off his dirty Converses, and tucked his legs up and laid down, head against a small pillow in the corner. His eyes were closed by the time Jensen pulled the afghan off the back of the couch, tucking him in with care. He stopped to study Jared's face in sleep, touching the bruise on his cheek before stepping out quietly.
Jeff was leaning back against one of the record bins, arms crossed. “Is there someone we should call, let them know what happened?”
“No, nobody.” Jensen paused, wanting to ask Jeff if he saw the light show, when he looked through the front window and saw a skinny tweaker trying to sneak away with an armful of Jared’s black band t-shirts.
“Hey, put those back!”
The look on Jensen’s face as he walked out the door freaked out the guy, who threw the shirts to the ground before running away. Jensen gathered them up, and went back to where the rest were scattered on the sidewalk. He stuffed them back into Jared’s cardboard box and noticed a shipping label on it with an address a few blocks away. Jeff watched him as Jensen brought it inside and dropped it on the floor in the storeroom.
“He needs a place to stay tonight. I'm not sending him back to the people he was with.”
“Okay.” Jeff said.
“I'll close up and keep an eye on him.”
“Okay.” Jeff's lips curled up at the end. He reached behind the counter and grabbed his black leather jacket. “Why don't I go pick up some food for us and your little orphan back there?”