This is not a good idea, I can feel it.
Though I’ve got plenty to say right now, I remain silent for argument’s sake. I stick the key into the truck’s ignition and put it in drive.
Beside me in the passenger’s seat, Scout flings his seatbelt across his chest and jabs it into the buckle, then crosses his arms and leans his forehead against the window.
I stifle a sigh as I drive through the gates of the base. I love this man dearly, but I don’t love it when he gets pissy like this. He’s got an idea in his head and he won’t rest till he’s acted on it, which means I won’t rest till he’s acted on it, which is precisely why I’m leaving the base at 5:30 in the afternoon to go to a truck stop payphone thirty miles away.
I didn’t even change clothes after work, we were in such a hurry to leave. Thankfully I don’t have any gore smeared on me, but I’m still grimy and somewhat damp. There wasn’t any time to change out of our work clothes—not if we want to account for the time change. Scout has a small window of time to make this call, and we’ve got even less time to spare because Scout’s insisting on using a phone far, far away from the base. He doesn’t want his nosy father to listen in on the conversation he’s about to have.
“If it’s got you this worked up, maybe you shouldn’t do it,” I say carefully, looking at his somber face out of the corner of my eye.
“I don’t wanna do it,” he grumbles, “but I have to. Everything’ll be a lot better if I just get this over with.”
There’s no talking him out of this. When he makes up his mind about something, he’s dead-set on it. I just hope it doesn’t blow up in his face, like I think it will.
Then again, I’m always a Negative Nancy about things. Maybe I’m overreacting again. Maybe I’m wrong about this.
For Scout’s sake, I hope I am wrong.
Thirty miles away from base, we spot a phone booth outside Threepoint city limits. I pull the truck onto the shoulder and put it in park.
Scout unbuckles his seat belt and opens the passenger door. As he’s climbing out, I give it one more go.
“Really, Jer,” I say. “It’s fine if you don’t call her. I don’t wanna ruin—“
“You’re not ruining anything,” Scout interjects, his tone kinder than I anticipated. “I need to do this, I—I just gotta go get this over with. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Before I get the chance to say anything else, Scout shuts the truck door and starts marching toward the phone booth. Through the windshield, I watch him open the little door, shoulder his way inside, and close it behind him.
Then he puts the phone to his ear.
“It ain’t too late to change your mind,” Scout says, his hand hovering above the car’s door handle. “I won’t be mad.”
“‘M fine,” I say, but I am clearly not fine. In the reflection of the rearview mirror, I see my face, damp with sweat and more than a little terrified.
Scout pops open the glovebox and procures a wrinkled brown napkin, left over from one of our many fast food jaunts. He dabs at my forehead with it, trying in vain to dry me off.
“Listen,” he says, “I want you to meet everybody, but if it’s making ya this nervous—“
“I’m good,” I interject. I try my best to smile. “Let’s, er, rip off the bandaid, shall we?”
Functioning on pure adrenaline, I open the car door and step out.
It’s a lovely neighborhood. The streets are lined with townhouses of various sizes and colors. Kids dressed in puffy coats and snow boots run up and down the sidewalk, flinging snowballs at one another. An older-model pickup truck trundles by, the driver waving at me as he passes. I hold my hand up in halfhearted acknowledgement.
Once Scout bails out of the car, we walk side-by-side, heading toward a porch stoop crowded with people. As we approach, a brunette woman stands up from her perch and starts walking toward us, a cigarette pinched between her fingers.
“Don’t freak out,” Scout says under his breath. “It’s just my cousin.”
“Jeremy,” the woman says. She’s either smiling or smirking, I can’t tell.
“Hey, Gina,” Scout says.
“I heard something interesting about you, my sweet dear cousin,” she says. She cuts her eyes over to me, peering into my very soul. “You must be the boyfriend.”
“Me?” I say, stupidly pointing to my chest. I could lie and say I’m just Scout’s friend from work, but at this point, that would only complicate things even further. “Er, yeah. I’m the—I’m his—we’re in a romantic relationship, yes.”
Fuck me, “romantic relationship”? Who talks like that?
“Ma freakin’ told ya already?” Scout says incredulously. “I told her not—“ He sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose. “So I guess everybody knows?”
“First of all, let me clarify that Aunt Linda didn’t tell me anything,” Gina says, a strange sort of smile playing at her lips. “I was sitting in the living room when you called her last week. You are very loud when you talk to people on the phone.”
“So you told everybody,” Scout amends.
“Who says I told anybody?” Gina says. “Frankly, I’m insulted you think I would do such a thing, Jeremy.”
Scout’s expression softens a bit. “You really didn’t—“
The three of us turn toward the voice. One of the townhouse’s windows are open, revealing a broad-shouldered man with a jet-black pompadour. “Gina told me you were bringing your man to Christmas, but I didn’t believe her.”
Scout gives cousin Gina a withering look. “You didn’t tell anybody, huh?”
Gina flicks the ash from her cigarette. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
(Scout warned me about cousin Gina before we got here, of course. Said she was nosy and liked to cause drama. Apparently he’s right about that—we haven’t even made it through the damn door yet, and she’s already wrapping us up in her shenanigans.)
The broad-shouldered, black-haired man climbs out of the window and lowers himself to the ground with practiced grace. He strides toward us, hands jammed in the pockets of his jeans. Vaguely, I can feel Scout’s hand closing around mine.
“This your boyfriend?” the man asks. Not in a rude way—merely a question.
“Anthony, this is Mickey,” Scout says. He holds up our clasped hands. “Yeah, he’s—he’s my boyfriend, yep.” Scout nods nervously. “Uh, we’ve been together for like a year and a half now, so I thought it’d, y’know, be a good time to, uh, introduce him to everybody.”
Anthony, Anthony. I rack my brain, trying to remember the names of all Scout’s brothers. I’m pretty sure Anthony’s the oldest, which means he’s fourteen years older than Scout. Scout just turned twenty-eight, which would make this bloke somewhere in his early forties. Judging by the fine, barely noticeable lines around his eyes and mouth, he could be in that age range.
“And this is Anthony,” Scout says to me, giving my hand a bit of a squeeze. “He’s my oldest brother.”
I force a smile. “Good to meet you, mate,” I say, extending my free hand to him.
“Oh, an accent.” As he shakes my hand, he tilts his head to the side and raises his brows in surprise. When he smiles, I notice he has a familiar set of buck teeth. “Where ya from, handsome?”
Scout’s oldest brother just called me handsome. I’m in hell.
“Australia,” I manage to choke out.
Anthony releases my hand and gives me an approving nod. “Oh, nice. Hey, do the toilets really flush backwards in Australia?”
“That’s a myth, actually,” I say.
He shakes his head, almost like he’s in disbelief. “Huh. Learn sum’n new every day.”
He gives Scout a good-natured clap on the shoulder. “Nice catch, bud.”
Scout squeezes my hand so hard, I think he might’ve dislocated a few of my fingers. “Thanks, man,” he says in relief.
“No prob.” Anthony reaches up and ruffles Scout’s hair. Scout slaps his brother’s hand away, but I can tell he’s secretly chuffed about it.
Scout looks up at me. “Well, we got one person in our corner, anyway,” he says.
“I think Ma’s gonna like him,” Anthony says. It’s obvious he’s lying, but I appreciate the lie nonetheless.
“I dunno,” Scout says. “I mean, she’s not gonna hate him or anything, but she thinks I’m just going through a phase right now.” He puts air quotes around the word phase. “She’s probably gonna do that thing where she insults you, but like in a nice way.”
Anthony sucks in a breath through his teeth. “Yeah, she does love being passive-aggressive, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Scout grumbles. He kicks at the snow with the tip of his shoe. “Well, whaddya think, Snipes? Ready to get this over with?” he asks, keeping his eyes glued to the ground.
This time, it’s my turn to squeeze his hand. “Ready when you are, love.”
Taking the hint, Anthony strikes up a conversation with cousin Gina, giving Scout and me an opening to sneak away. On the porch stoop, some folks are standing up, cigs dangling from their hands, and others are splayed out on the stairs, holding red plastic cups. As Scout and I walk up, hand-in-hand, a collective hush settles over the group. All conversations cease. All eyes fall on us.
This is one of my nightmare scenarios coming to life. In this moment, I’m grateful I had the foresight to skip breakfast—had there been anything in my stomach, it wouldn’t have stayed there for long.
“Hey, Jeremy,” says a woman with bleach-blonde curls.
“Hi, Aunt Barb,” Scout drones.
“Heard you got a new boyfriend.” She inclines her head in my direction.
“Yup, this is Mickey,” Scout says. Short and simple, just like we practiced.
“So which one of you’s the girl in the relationship?” snickers the man standing beside Aunt Barb.
(As we were preparing for today, Scout told me at least one of his family members would ask this question. I didn’t believe him, thinking no one could possibly be that intrusive into other peoples’ relationships. Evidently, I was mistaken.)
Aunt Barb shoots the man a venomous look, effectively silencing his laughter. “Oh, grow up.”
While the man is still floundering for something to say, Scout tugs me along, up the rest of the flight of stairs. Scout brings his fist up to the door, but the door swings open before he has the chance to knock.
In the doorway stands an elegant woman in a blood-red sweater dress and matching lipstick, with a mass of jet-black hair fashioned into a carefully-styled bouffant. She has a button nose, just like Scout’s.
I don’t have to be introduced to this woman to know who she is.
Her eyes fall on Scout first (thank God) and her entire expression changes into one of pure joy.
“Jeremy!” the woman exclaims. She opens her arms for a hug and Scout dutifully falls into them.
“My baby boy,” she says, wrapping her arms around her son. “I missed you sososo much, I can’t believe you’re here.”
She peers at me over Scout’s shoulder and gives me a slight smile. I’m not sure what to make of that, but at least she’s not completely disgusted by my presence. I’ll take that as a point in my favor.
“Missed you, too, Ma,” Scout says, pulling away from his mother’s embrace. He loops an arm around my waist. “This is Mickey, by the way.” He laughs uncomfortably.
Her eyes meet mine again. “Figured that’s who you were.”
I clear my throat. “Good to meet y—“
She takes a step forward, and for one weird moment I think she’s going to shove me off the porch stoop, but she flings her arms around me instead, squeezing me tight. Her cheek presses against my chest, which would be very awkward if it weren’t for the three layers of clothing between her and myself.
“I’m so glad to finally meet you, sweetie,” she says, once she’s let loose of me. “I’m Linda, I’m Jeremy’s dear, sweet mother.” She grins. “But I’m sure ya figured that out already.”
I nod numbly. “Good to meet you,” I say again.
When Linda smiles at me, I sense nothing malicious in the gesture. Somehow she seems genuinely pleased to see me, and that puts me at ease a bit.
“I can tell you’re nervous,” Linda points out, her expression that of a concerned mother. “Listen. Anybody here gives you any trouble, Mick, you just tell me.” She smirks. “I’ll take care of it.”
“That’s kind of you,” I manage, because that’s the only option my brain could conjure. This is not a conversation we practiced for. “Thanks. For not hating me.” As soon as I say it, I wince. Stupid, stupid—
“You’re welcome,” she laughs. “If my Jeremy says he loves you, that’s all that matters. Now get in here, you two, you’re letting all the heat out.”
She turns around and heads back into the house. I give Scout a confused sort of look and he responds with a shrug. He takes my hand, and we cross the threshold together.
I walk through the door of our hotel room, kick off my shoes, and collapse facedown into the mattress. I expected the bed to be hard and uncomfortable, as most hotel beds are, but this one’s actually quite soft. Or maybe I’m so exhausted that my standards of comfort have been significantly lowered.
I let out a long, low groan. Hearing my wordless complaint, Scout joins me on the bed, sitting on the edge of it. He runs a soothing hand up and down my back.
“Ya did it,” he says proudly. “Ya met my family and survived.”
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” I grumble. It isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done, of course, but it’s easily in my top ten. I feel like I could sleep for a year.
“I know,” he says sympathetically. “It’s just such a huge relief, y’know? Not having to keep it a secret anymore.”
“It is a huge relief,” I agree. “Most of your family likes me, I think.”
“Don’t even worry ‘bout Aunt Stella,” Scout says, referring to his 84-year-old great aunt who lectured us about sullying the good name of Christmas with our sinful fornications. “She hates everybody, trust me.”
He has a point. After lecturing Scout and me on Sodom and Gomorrah, Aunt Stella told Linda that her red lipstick and excessive jewelry made her look like the whore of Babylon. Needless to say, this caused a bit of a kerfuffle at the dinner table.
I grunt in agreement. “She drew attention away from us, I’ll give her that.”
After the rude comments, Aunt Stella took things further by insulting Linda’s cooking. This caused several angry heads to swivel in Aunt Stella’s direction, all of them glaring icily at the old woman. In response, Aunt Stella clutched at her chest and started wailing that she was having a heart attack. After the paramedics showed up and whisked malingering Aunt Stella off to the nearest hospital, no one really cared about the gay folks at the table anymore.
Scout scoffs. “She does sum’n like that every year.”
“Nuh-uh. And it’s not always Christmas, neither. Last year at the Fourth of July barbecue, she called an ambulance ‘cause she said Ma’s potato salad gave her food poisoning.”
“She’s pretty bananas,” Scout agrees. “Toldja we’d fit right in.”
I have to smile at that.
My eyes drift open and I’m staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling. I shoot up in bed, eyes darting wildly around the room, trying to locate something familiar.
When I spot Scout’s yellow suitcase over in the corner, I’m instantly calmed. Right, right. We’re in a hotel.
Neither of us wanted to stay at Linda’s house for the night. Linda’s place is huge, but it’s only got two bathrooms, and one of those two bathrooms is attached to Linda’s bedroom. Linda’s bedroom, for reasons I really don’t want to know, is locked from the outside and inaccessible to anybody but herself. That leaves one bathroom for thirty-plus people to share. I could endure it for a few hours, but there’s no way I’d be able to stand it overnight.
After I get my wits about me, I notice something sitting in my lap—a thick piece of bristol paper pulled from Scout’s drawing pad. There’s a piece of scotch tape at the top of it, which makes me think it was probably taped to my chest while I was napping.
Back soon!! it says in Scout’s handwriting, written in thick red marker. Beside this, he’s drawn a little heart. Getting food, the next line reads, followed by a smiley face.
Ah, bless this man, he’s gone to find food. I’ll kiss his whole face when he gets back, I’m absolutely fucking starving. When the paramedics came for Aunt Stella, everyone abandoned the dinner table mid-meal, and by the time everything settled back down, the majority of the food was cold and inedible. So far today, I’ve eaten a dinner roll and a bag of gummy bears I bought off of Scout’s niece for three bucks. Anything that Scout picks out to eat will be a godsend.
I toss the note aside and stand up from the bed. The TV looks so tempting, but I walk right past it, barely resisting the urge to flick it on. Instead, I go to my suitcase and pull out a thick manila folder held together with a thick rubber band. I take the folder over to the little table near the window, undo the rubber band, and flip the cover open.
On the very top is a map of the state of Florida. (The only reason I know that is because it says FLORIDA in big print right in the middle of it.) There’s a big red circle drawn around a clump of cities, probably the county of the place we’re to call home for the next year.
So our next mission’s in Florida, then. Never been to Florida before. Could be interesting.
I sit the map aside. Next in the folder is a photo of a house, which is paper-clipped to yet another map, a fold-out one. There’s a sticky note tacked to the map written in Miss Pauling’s hurried handwriting: 4315 Deanstone Avenue, Merfield. Maybe this is where we’re staying.
I scrutinize the photo of the house, looking for anything of note. It seems to be nothing spectacular, just a single-story brick house with overgrown shrubs out front. Perfectly normal-looking, which is exactly what you want when you’re on a mission—you want a place that doesn’t draw attention, but isn’t too out of the ordinary. Judging by the outside of the place, this’ll be a good fit for Scout and me.
Once I’ve gleaned all the information I can from the photo, I clip it back to the fold-out map and put it next to the big Florida map. Next in the pile is a glossy brochure-looking thing. The front of it reads “EMPLOYEE GUIDEBOOK” in golden embossed letters.
A strange feeling settles over me as I crack the booklet open. On the first page, there’s a collage of carnival games, a ferris wheel lit up with lights, a carousel, a wooden roller coaster, and several other contraptions that look like amusement park rides—
I slap the employee guidebook closed and take another look at its front cover. Down at the bottom, in a tiny silver-colored font I missed the first time, are the words “Your home away from home at LUNA LAND awaits you!”
Never heard of Luna Land before. I’ve heard of the big amusement park in Florida, the one with the mouse, but not this one. All I know is, if Miss Pauling went through the trouble of putting an employee handbook in here, that must be where we’re stationed.
Scout’s shrill voice breaks me out of my momentary stupor. I jerk my head up and there stands Scout, holding two brown paper sacks in the crook of each arm, an irritated scowl on his face. He’s probably been knocking at the door for ages, but I was so caught up in our new mission packet, I hadn’t heard anything.
“Sorry, love,” I say, shoving the papers back into the folder. I motion for him to sit his bags down onto the now-empty tabletop, which he does. “Didn’t hear you knock, or I’d’ve let you in.“
“I had to pick the lock to get in,” he says grumpily. He takes a seat across from me at the table. “That’s how come I asked you not to look at that”—he points to the mission packet—“till after we eat, at least, ‘cause every time we get a new job, it’s all ya can think about for the next—“
“It’s an amusement park, Jer,” I say, brandishing the employee handbook for him to see. “In Florida.” It sounds so much worse when I say it aloud.
Scout’s eyes light up. “For real?”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” I deadpan. I give him the handbook.
He scans the front of it and frowns. “Luna Land?” he says, almost like he’s disgusted. “What the hell is that?”
“Rinky-dink tourist trap, if I had to guess,” I sigh. “Whatever it is, looks like we’re gonna be working there.”
Scout absently flips through the handbook for a few seconds, then hands it back to me. “Maybe Miss P got us really easy jobs,” he says, though he sounds anything but hopeful. “Maybe we won’t have to stand outside in hundred-degree heat wearing some kinda costume.”
Something tells me that’s precisely what we’ll both be doing. What better way to hide in plain sight?
“Maybe,” I say, sounding about as hopeful as Scout. I open the folder and retrieve the photo of the house. “Least the place we’ll be living in looks pretty good.”
I hold out the photo for him to take. He scoots the food bags over to the edge of the table, then plucks the picture from my hand.
“Yeah,” he agrees, “that’s a hell of a lot better than what we lived in last year.”
“True,” I agree. Even just by looking at the outside of the house, I can already tell it’ll be eons better than the bugbed-infested apartment we were living in.
I close up the folder and hand it to him across the table. “Think I’ll take your advice and look at the rest of this after supper.”
He crams the brochure back into the folder and tosses the whole thing onto the bed. “Yeah, me too, I don’t wanna ruin my appetite.”
Scout starts unpacking the paper bags, which are filled with enough Chinese food to feed a small army. “I dunno what all this is, I just ordered a buncha stuff that looked good.” He thumbs open one of the white cardboard boxes and peers inside. “This one’s lo mein.”
“That’s the one I want, then.” I slide the box towards me. Scout hands me a set of individually-wrapped chopsticks and I tear them open.
Instead of getting a box for himself, Scout puts an elbow on the table and props his head up in his palm. “Today’s been extremely stressful,” he says, his eyes tired and half-lidded.
I nod in agreement. “Definitely.” I take a bite, chew, swallow. “Glad we did it, though.”
“Mm-hmm,” Scout hums. “You’re part of the family now, Mickey Mundy.”
It was an offhanded comment, I know, but something about it makes my stomach turn. Not in a bad way, just…different.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been part of a family.
“Well, I don’t think they like me that much,” I say, “but I’ll take it.”
“They like you,” Scout replies, resting his free hand atop my knee. “Trust me.”
I smile stupidly, which always seems to happen when I’m around this man. I place my hand atop his, and suddenly, that yearlong venture in Florida doesn’t sound so bad, after all.
“I trust you,” I say. Those words carry a lot of weight in the mercenary world, and they’re not to be said lightly. Genuine trust for another person is a rare occurrence in our line of business.
Scout knows the real worth of the phrase, though, I can tell. He nods thoughtfully.
“Y’know what?” he says. “I trust you, too.”
Now I get to feel what he’s feeling. It’s a wonderful thing, almost as good as the first time he said ‘I love you’ to me. Trust is implied when someone says they love you, but it’s something else to hear it out loud.
“We make a good team, you and me,” I say.
He grins at me, a perfectly buck-toothed smile. “Hell yeah, we do.”
“You’re a pretty good gentleman caller, too,” I say, smiling a smile that I know looks stupid, but I couldn’t care less at this point.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” he says.
It sounds believable when he says it.