Hi everyone! In celebration of Easter, I’m sharing with you a short from my collection Gifts Not Yet Given, which was included on multiple Best Books of 2013 lists. If you like it, the book is available now in paperback and e-book at Indie Bound (Independent Book Stores), Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or at your favorite book sellers. I hope you enjoy it, and tell your friends!
The Stepping Stone
LOOKING AT HIS PALE, THIN TORSO lit by the unforgiving fluorescent, Gerald frowned. His brittle arms hung limply at his sides and his sharply drawn face seemed composed only of triangles. In all, there was something about his naked physique that reminded him of a plucked turkey. Turning sideways, his gut jutted forth insistently, and it was clear to Gerald that his mother’s plan was succeeding.
Lolly had been clear from the beginning: she saw no career prospects for her son, given his interests in Star Wars, Star Trek, comic books, Japanese anime, and precious little else. She could see no path forward for him, other than one she herself orchestrated. While Gerald generally agreed that he lacked social graces and professional skills, having long been below average in all respects, there was something about his mother’s machinations that reminded him of Jabba the Hut. And when Gerald really thought about it, the similarities didn’t end there.
His mother had always been corpulent, and her lumbering appearance at school events had filled him with shame ever since he could remember. But, while embarrassed by her size, it was her demeanor that irked him most. Lolly lacked faith in him, and in all of humanity, both of which she found continually disappointing.
Still, when she first learned that the mall was hiring, Gerald had been optimistic. It was a stepping stone, she’d said, surely to lead to bigger and better things. And, the first season in the role, he allowed himself to believe it. It would be dealing with the public, challenging and improving his skills, but with a level of remove the costume allowed. And it would be easy, he figured, to simply sit in a chair and wave. But being the Easter Bunny turned out to be more difficult and less entertaining than he’d anticipated.
He was not allowed to hop out to his throne in the photo area; it was mandated that he walk, his hand held firmly by any of one of the part-time girls unattractive enough to have been denied employment by the mall’s hundred or so fashionable retail establishments. Hopping had been deemed an insurance liability as well. There was also an underlying fear that, mid-jump, he might somehow trip, sending his gigantic head rolling off and scaring the waiting line of children, which apparently had happened before.
In truth, there was never much of a line and it was easy for Gerald to see why. The feeble Easter Bunny offerings could in no way match that of Santa Claus. Kids looked forward to seeing Santa, to impart their holiday wishes, ask questions, or simply to get their annual photo taken. With the Easter Bunny, the children generally didn’t have anything to say. They’d sit, dutifully, and smile, but Gerald never received anything like “Hey, Easter Bunny, what are you gonna bring me this year?” as all knew the answer was “Eggs.” Not much mystery or surprise. At most, Gerald would get an “Aww, you’re so cute!,” to which he’d nod or pat the kid’s shoulder.
Not that he could have responded any other way. Unlike Santa, Gerald wasn’t allowed to speak. Whereas the voice of Santa could be replicated, with his bellowing “ho-ho-ho’s,” no one quite knew what the Easter Bunny sounded like, and management was against the idea of Gerald talking, no matter how many different character voices he auditioned for them.
The biggest difference between the roles was that, with Santa Claus, the essence of the person playing the part still came through, despite the beard, padding, and round glasses. Much could be communicated by the way the actor moved, spoke, laughed, raised his eyebrows, or smiled, whereas Gerald was saddled with a wire-framed helmet, through which he could see dimly through the darkened eye screens, the only light coming from its nostril holes. It was easy to get depressed in the suit, which tended to accentuate his ongoing feelings of inadequacy.
After only a few hours on the job, Gerald’s hope that this would become, as Lolly said, a “stepping stone” was pretty much dashed. He’d already been thrown up on—twice—and watched as a young girl ate her own boogers. Still, Lolly was hopeful.
“It’s the first day,” she’d said. “It’ll get better—mark my words. Pretty soon you’ll own that mall.”
While Gerald knew this would not be the case, there was little else he could do but trudge on. He made it through that season, and the next, and the next, until he had three seasons of Easter under his belt, which was beginning to feel increasingly tight. Lolly had begun to fatten him up to better his chances of becoming Santa Claus. Though still too young for the role, Gerald merely shrugged. It did no good to argue with her. Lolly had found him his first and only job thus far, which was much better than his own track record.
The problem was, there wasn’t much he liked to do. Add that to his few admirable qualities and even fewer skills, and about the only work for which he qualified was janitorial in nature, which simply would not do for Lolly. She did, as she liked to say, “have standards.” And so she continued to support her son, from one spring to the next, plying him with rich, fatty foods, in preparation for phase two of her plan.
While Gerald didn’t especially want to be fat, he didn’t feel as if he had much choice. After all, becoming Santa as well would mean that instead of being employed for only three weeks a year, he could add on an additional six. To keep both jobs, though, the trick would be to become large enough for Santa, but still thin enough to be the Easter Bunny. It was odd, really, because when Gerald thought about bunnies, they all came with a full, rounded silhouette. The costume, however, was very trim, as if all rabbits were emaciated like Bugs Bunny.
And so he began his fourth spring season, thirty pounds heavier than his first, and found himself in the bleakly lit break room with its fidgety vending machine when Amy walked in. She eyed him suspiciously, standing there in his rabbit suit, holding his head with one hand and a Snickers bar in the other.
“Nice,” she pronounced, but there was something about the way she stretched out the word, her voice arching high on the “I,” that made Gerald certain she hadn’t meant it as friendly. Still, he couldn’t help but notice how smooth her skin looked, or the bewitching green of her eyes, or the wink she gave him as she headed into the women’s locker room. Smiling to himself, he put his bunny head back on and hopped out to the photo area, management be damned.
It was a week before he next saw her, heading for the food court in her red, blue and yellow Hot Dog on a Stick uniform. At least we have that in common, he thought. Ugly costumes.
From talking to Jose, the counter help at Sbarro, he quickly learned her name—Amy, that she was five years younger—a senior in high school, and that she only worked weekends. Which meant, as Easter was quickly approaching, Gerald had only one more weekend to make an impact—or at least a more positive impression than his first.
Gerald knew better than to share anything about Amy with Lolly, as she would poo-poo any prospect of love. From his earliest years, he could remember her words and sayings hanging over him, slightly dampening his heart. Yet she always delivered them as if she were being helpful, with the two of them co-conspirators of some sort.
“You know, love, that math isn’t your best subject! Or science. Or—. Hmm… Well, gee! Guess you can’t have everything!”
“It’s you and me, kid, til the day we die,” she’d grin. “Who else would have us, right?”
“Lord knows you didn’t inherit my smarts, but I’m sure God gave you something! It’s our job to figure out what.”
“It’s terrible, really, the way your face turned out, but you’ll grow into your looks, some day,” she’d chuckle. “That’s what prayer is for!”
It was as if, with every remark, she was giving both smile and slap. It was odd, really, to live with someone, to have been born of them, to have someone so close, and yet feel as if they hated you. Lolly was never out rightly mean; instead, she coated each bullet with a titter, as if she didn’t mean it. Still, Gerald felt certain that she did.
Before meeting Amy, he thought this was to be his destiny: Lolly, the occasional job, and his bedroom, where he ate, read, slept, and stayed. Stepping out from his room was reserved only for bathroom breaks or a quick dart to the kitchen or front door. He rarely engaged Lolly, though she would go to great lengths to zero in on him. She was constantly offering food, or a bit of news, or the offer of a backrub. But as time went on, Gerald, who had once acquiesced to her every request, found himself saying no much more often.
And Lolly noticed.
The next Saturday, Gerald arrived at the mall at 8:00 A.M., though Amy didn’t usually get there until 9:30. He wanted to ensure that there was no possibility of missing her, and so he sat in his car, near the entrance, binoculars at his side.
Conscious of his previous attire, Gerald had taken great pains in his appearance. He’d woken, in the middle of the night, to clandestinely iron one of his few clean button-down shirts. After returning to a fitful sleep, he envisioned several different scenarios in which he’d best connect with Amy, but none felt exactly right. Finally, at 7:00 A.M., he showered, shaved, put on after-shave, and even did 10 push-ups, which felt a little bit like victory. He did all of this quietly, in order not to wake his mother. He had no idea that Lolly had lain rigid, eyes open, staring at the ceiling, listening to every creak and moan the old house made. He couldn’t fool her, for Lolly was a sly one.
Once she’d noticed the change in his demeanor, she immediately took to root out its cause. It bothered her to no end that Gerald had changed—or rather—that something out of her control was changing him, leaving her in the cold. She had a right to know what was happening, she reasoned, and one morning waited, until he’d left for work, to strike.
Peering out the window, she watched as his taillights disappeared, then quickly headed into the kitchen. Pulling open the door to the laundry room, she rummaged about, reemerging with a pair of rubber cleaning gloves. Slipping them on, she tiptoed to Gerald’s door, though there was no reason to do so.
Inside, the air of the room was sour, and the scent of something strong—was it pizza?—filled the air. Resisting the urge to open the window, Lolly surveyed Gerald’s room. It was just as she’d expected: clothes, shoes, and silly comic books strewn about the floor, his trashcan overflowing with crumpled papers and soda cans, and a thin layer of dust coating the dresser and TV set. Again resisting the urge, this time to clean, Lolly skillfully stepped through the mess, careful not to disturb a thing.
Quietly, she opened each dresser drawer, lifting the clothes and searching with her fingers, like a sieve combing through sand. Aside from some loose change and three dog-eared Playboy magazines, the dresser had been a bust.
Crossing to the closet, Lolly slowly pulled out the hinged shutters, fearing God-knows-what could suddenly come tumbling forth. But the closet was relatively bare. It seemed that most everything previously contained within currently blanketed the carpet, creating a patchwork quilt of clothing. Rifling through the few shoe boxes on the top shelves, Lolly was disappointed to find nothing but shoes. She felt through pants and jacket pockets, picked up and examined every t-shirt, sniffing each, hoping to detect a lingering scent, until she picked up a hand-towel which she was fairly certain had been abused.
Her hunt seemed to be in vain until, underneath the bed, Lolly finally struck gold. She discovered several spiral notebooks, bound together with thick rubber bands. Gerald had never been a particularly good student, so it wasn’t likely that he’d saved homework.
Pulling out one from the bottom, she opened it, and was astonished to find herself facing one of the most beautiful pencil drawings she’d ever seen. She wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, but it looked quite futuristic in nature. Some kind of unique creature; half-animal, half-human. But what really took her breath away was how life-like it was. Staring into its eyes, Lolly almost felt threatened, as if this beast could leap from the page, taking her down in one swoop.
Flipping through the binders, she found more and more images. Some were just quick sketches, but others were so detailed they could have been hung in a museum. Certain pages, Lolly averted her eyes, as there were drawings of enlarged genitalia, of both genders, with people and creatures involved in all manner of unspeakable activity. And yet, mixed between the filth were pages of unfathomable beauty: lush gardens, with flowers, and magnificent structures. Imperial kings and monsters of every kind. One sketch, of an old and large woman, staring directly at the viewer, giving them the finger, even looked suspiciously like Lolly.
She pored through each, mystified that these had been crafted by her son. How could Gerald be the source for both such splendor and depravity? He’d never shown the slightest proclivity toward art, nor any other form of creativity for that matter. And, even if these were his creations, why had he kept them hidden? It would have saved me years of worrying, Lolly admitted to herself. He actually has a marketable skill, after all. Just think of the money we could make!
Lolly put such thoughts aside, as tailoring a career plan for Gerald would have to wait. Knowing now just how much he had kept hidden, Lolly was determined to discover the source of his sudden and unwelcome happiness. It wasn’t that she didn’t want him to be happy, exactly, but she wanted to be the inspiration for such happiness. It was disquieting to think that someone or something had found a way to intervene, allowing a sinister cloud to hover above their previously happy existence.
Picking up the final spiral, Lolly immediately soured. Drawn on the front was an elaborate heart, out of which poured music notes, hot dogs—even a bunny. She was very confused, for Gerald had never been the sentimental type. The matter became clear when she saw what was inside. Page after page of a woman—the same woman. Or girl. Lolly wasn’t quite sure. The image was youthful, but there was something stylized about the way she’d been drawn that made her feel a little too coquettish; indeed, she looked more than a bit slutty. While some poses were simple and casual, in others she was dressed in what looked like leather, or with devil ears, or bearing a whip. In one, she was doing something awful with a corndog.
Lolly put down the books with a sigh. She’d known that this day would come, eventually, but that didn’t mean she liked it. After all, most girls were irritating and Lolly knew Gerald wasn’t bright or interesting enough to keep their focus for long. But this one—Gerald was clearly transfixed and it would have to be dealt with.
Restacking the notebooks in the order in which they’d been found, Lolly bound them. Surveying the room, which looked just as it had when she’d entered, Lolly felt confident her intrusion would not be noticed and quickly scurried out to begin crafting a plan of her own.
As he sat in his car, waiting for Amy, Gerald knew none of this. He was so focused on the employee entrance, not wanting to miss his beloved, that he never saw his mother’s battered Oldsmobile enter the lot and park on the periphery, some distance away.
It was nearing 9:30 A.M., when both he and Amy were expected, but she still hadn’t shown. Gerald felt a growing sense that something was wrong, that she wasn’t coming. And so it was with relief that he suddenly spotted her, pulling her silver Hyundai into a shaded spot and installing her car sunblock above the dash. He noticed her checking her makeup, and as she pulled out lipstick, carefully applying it to her puckered mouth, Gerald couldn’t help but wish that the tube were him. As she stepped from her car, Gerald did the same. He was hoping to make their meeting look casual, sauntering toward the entrance as nonchalantly as he could. As they got closer, someone behind called out “McAllister!” and Gerald felt a firm hand clamp down upon his shoulder.
“Saw you coming in—cutting it a bit late, are we?” Tony grinned as Gerald turned toward him. While irritated at having his plan interrupted, he was also nervous to see his boss as the cause. They rarely spoke and when they did it was usually because Gerald had done something wrong.
“Aww—I still have plenty of time,” Gerald whined. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Amy enter the break room and tried to steer Tony toward it. “The costume doesn’t take that long.”
“I’m just joshin’ you, McAllister,” snorted Tony. “Relax!”
“Yeah,” attempted Gerald, “I knew that.” He stared toward the break room, knowing it held both Amy and the entrances to the locker rooms. In one, Amy would be changing, and he should be in the other. He glanced at the clock behind Tony, wishing he’d get to the point.
Seeing his eyes dart to the time, Tony turned to him. “Forget about the kids, McAllister. Who cares if the Easter Bunny is a little late? It gives their folks more time to shop!” he laughed, though he wasn’t remotely funny.
Gerald smiled, because he knew he should, and waited.
“What I’m thinking, kid, what I wanted to talk to you about, is Christmas.” Gerald stood, nodding, as he counted the minutes ticking by. Amy needed to be at the food court soon, leaving him little time to act. “I know you wanna be Santa,” Tony continued. “You’ve made that clear from day one. And I gotta admit, I thought it would be years before you’d be ready. But you’ve impressed me, truly. The skills you’ve brought to the Easter Bunny…” Gerald had no idea what Tony was talking about. Skill? He sat there, dead as a doornail, and sometimes waved. “And all of those funny voices you’ve done for us—Wow.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ferraro,” Gerald said, nonetheless. “I’m glad you’re pleased.”
“And skinny! Boy, when you first walked through the door, I thought, no way! Unh huh—No Santa for McAllister. But today…” With a smile, Tony gestured, as if Gerald’s belly had won an award. “Just look at you!”
Gerald tried to smile. This was what he’d wanted, after all. What he’d worked for. And here it was, being offered to him on a silver platter. Lolly would be so pleased. Then it hit him. None of this had been what he wanted. This dream had been Lolly’s, right from the start. Even as he shook Tony’s hand and headed toward the break room, he felt his stomach turn. While Gerald had no grand vision for himself, nor any idea of what he wanted to be doing, fattening himself up just to be Santa Claus was not it.
Amy stepped from the women’s locker room, bobby-pinning her hat, and almost collided with him.
“Sorry!” she squeaked. “My bad!”
Gerald stopped her. “Wait!”
She looked at him square on, expectantly. While Gerald may not have known what he wanted to do with his life, it was clear, as he looked at her, that he wanted Amy.
“I’m Gerald,” he managed.
“Yeah, I know.” she said, smiling. “The Easter Bunny, right?” Amy laughed, connecting the dots.
“Yes,” Gerald said, ducking his head. He wasn’t certain if her laugh was playful or mocking, but either way, he liked the sound of it.
“Wow—that means you only have one more week’s worth of work, huh?”
“Yep,” he nodded. “And you only work weekends?”
“If it were up to me, I’d work every day. I love it,” she smiled. “But my parents—well, they’re strict about a work/life balance and homework and shit.” Even the way she said “shit” Gerald found appealing.
“Could—um?” Gerald stuttered, trying to find the words to ask her out.
Amy glanced at the clock and Gerald knew his moment was passing. “Would you like to go out with me?” he asked.
She looked at him, surprised, and was about to respond when a call rang out.
“Yoo-hoo, hon!” Gerald spun about, to see Lolly standing behind, bagged lunch held high. “You forgot something!”
Incensed, Gerald stepped toward Lolly, only to see Amy shrug and grin, darting off toward her job with a wave. Lolly had ruined his moment.
“What are you doing here, Mom?” he mumbled crossly, attempting to remain calm.
“I just thought you’d be hungry,” she smiled sweetly, swinging the bag in front of him.
“You know I don’t bring my lunch!” He could feel heat rising from his skin, his face flushing in anger.
“That was before your big promotion,” Lolly laughed, gaily. “Only a few more months before your debut!”
“How—?” Gerald’s confusion quickly cleared as he put the pieces together. Lolly had engineered his first job and would engineer his last.
Abruptly turning on his heels, Gerald walked away, slamming the men’s door behind him.
For a moment, Gerald waited, half expecting his mother to follow. Catching his breath, he could not believe what a dunce he’d been. All these years, he’d followed his mother’s orders, her every wish, simply to make her happy. What about his own happiness? Had he ever had it? Or had Lolly snuffed it out, like a candle flame between two fingers?
Gathering himself, he quickly dressed, determined to be the best damn Bunny imaginable. Lolly may have gotten him the job, and even orchestrated the promotion, but Gerald alone could create success or failure. He had that in his power, and he knew he had something to prove: to Lolly, to Amy, and, most of all, to himself.
Later that night, Gerald opened the front door as quietly as he could. Peering into the living room, he saw that all lights were on, which was odd, but the house felt quiet. Seeing lights on in the kitchen as well, Gerald silently crossed toward it. Stepping in, he found Lolly, dressed nicely, sitting at a set table. She’d used the nice silver and even opened a bottle of wine, though she never drank. She hadn’t heard him come in, but looked up, noticing him, and smiled.
“There you are!” she tottered, as if they hadn’t experienced anything out of the norm.
Gerald stood, staring at her. This is the woman who has made my life miserable, he thought. My mother. My only living relative. And all she wants is for me to be unhappy.
Something on his face must have registered with Lolly, as she immediately changed tact.
“I was only trying to help, dear,” she admitted. “You would’ve never gotten that job without a little nudging. I was hoping we could celebrate!”
He stood, stalk-still, and his silence—his strength—scared her.
“Was I wrong to do that?” Lolly asked, confused that her efforts had not been inspiring. He should be grateful, she figured.
Gerald simply turned, leaving his mother alone at her table, and went into his room, closing the door firmly behind.
Lolly sat, her blood beginning to boil. She’d been directly and resolutely shut out by her child, for whom she’d done everything. Who was this harlot who had him so smitten? How could she have so quickly enraptured him, leading him to rebuke his own mother? She must be dealt with—that much seemed clear. The question was, how?
Gerald was up half the night, determining how best to proceed, and had come up with a plan. It was simple, clean, and seemed foolproof. He packed up some clothes, toiletries, and the money he’d hoarded from his annual job, which turned out to be quite a lot, as Lolly had always paid for everything. But he knew he couldn’t count on that anymore, and wouldn’t have wanted to anyway.
Creeping outside at 3:00 A.M., he put the things into his trunk, closing it as quietly as he could. Looking up toward the house, he saw a curtain shift, ever so slightly, and knew he was being watched.
More determined than ever, he walked back inside, calmly turned off his light, and went to bed.
The next morning, Gerald awoke with a start to realize he’d overslept. After a speed shower, he was off, leaving Lolly and house receding in his rearview mirror. Just a few minutes later, however, Lolly herself emerged from the house, and the look on her face was one that would’ve scared a cat. Checking her rather large bag, which matched her outfit perfectly, she patted something within with what looked almost like affection.
Pulling into the mall lot, Gerald saw that Amy’s car was already parked, sunblock up as usual, and knew he wouldn’t have much time before her shift began. Running inside, he took great care with the wrapped package tucked under arm, as if it were fragile as glass. But Amy was already at work, leaving Gerald’s only option to intersect her on break. He placed the package carefully in his locker, dressed, and began his trek out to the photo area. He didn’t see Lolly, sitting some distance away, obscured by a rather large sunhat and dark glasses. But she saw him.
The line that day seemed endless; partly due to the encroaching holiday and partly as Gerald’s thoughts never really left Amy. While in his mind he saw them together forever, what he really wanted, more than anything, was a date. A simple meal or coffee at which they could talk, shedding ridiculous costumes, work, and problems far behind. After all, he wasn’t even sure if they were, in fact, like-minded. For example, what kind of music did she listen to? While he had a hard time envisioning her singing along to pop, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility either. She could be into rock, or emo, or even blues, for all he knew. There was an element of retro about her, which led him to believe her musical tastes would somehow surprise, but until they talked, face-to-face, he couldn’t know for sure.
Gerald had never experienced the slightest discomfort wearing the bunny suit, but today he did. It was itching and constricting, and he couldn’t wait to get out of it. He realized that was the same feeling that he’d felt that morning, just before leaving Lolly’s. He’d been trapped, all these years, lulled into obedience, but the simple idea that something more was possible gave him hope, fueling his desire to smash the chains and, once and for all, set himself free.
At break time, Gerald quickly shed his skin, neglecting his meal, and ran to the food court, package carefully tucked under arm. It was peak time for lunch, but Gerald knew this was his only chance. It was now or never.
Lolly was there as well, eyeing him over a magazine, from which her dark round sunglasses protruded, accentuating her mammalian features. She watched as he approached Hot Dog on a Stick and noted how nervous he was. Gerald eyed the long line, then tried to catch Amy’s eye, but she and her co-worker were oblivious. Lolly saw him circle about the stand, trying to find a way to make contact, before glancing to the clock hanging inside. He had little time to make his move and Lolly noted confidently that he would likely choke, simple as that, relieving her of the need to intervene.
Knowing his time was limited, Gerald was undeterred, and shoved his way past the line of people.
“Hey!” someone shouted. “We’ve been waiting!”
Gerald ignored the man, instead calling out, “Amy!” Startled, she turned, almost spilling the lemonade she’d been filling.
“What are you doing here?” she hissed. “I could get fired!”
He shook his head, as if he knew better. “I just need a minute. Please!”
Amy exchanged glances and shrugs with the other counter girl, then motioned. “Go down the hall. First door on your left.” He virtually ran to it, waiting for her to unlock it from within. The minute she opened it, he stepped in, shutting it behind.
They stood for a moment, neither quite sure where this was going. The kitchen area was warm, and the din of the crowd just on the other side could still be heard, making their already urgent moment even more urgent.
“Yes…?” she led. “What was so important?”
“I—You’re only here today. Then you’re not back until next weekend, and I’ll be gone,” he noted insistently.
He sighed. She wasn’t making this easy. But then he realized his conversations with her had always been, until now, in his head. She wasn’t privy to his thoughts and how most revolved around her. She didn’t know that he had his car packed up—ready to go where, he wasn’t quite clear. But he knew he had to tell her.
“I—I think I’m—” he stuttered.
“I have to get back to work,” she urged.
Gerald couldn’t think of the right words to say. It seemed a lifetime with Lolly had drained his every ounce of courage. Instead of talking, he thrust the package he’d been holding awkwardly into her hands.
“A present?” she managed. “Whatever for?”
“Just open it,” Gerald managed, conscious that time was ticking quickly past.
Amy unwrapped it, revealing a beautiful portfolio. “But—”
He motioned for her to continue. Unlatching the clasp, she began looking through the pages, at the pictures of her, each more unique than the last.
“I—Is this me?” Amy was in awe. No one had ever done anything like it. There were drawings of her on horseback, as a warrior, fairy, dancer, and more, all in fantastically ornate settings. She motioned to one. “Is that me as Princess Naboo?”
Gerald was amazed that she knew his favorite Star Wars character. “Yes,” he smiled. “Do—do you like it?”
She couldn’t even respond. It seemed overwhelming. Here he’d been, in the same mall, watching her, and yet she had barely noticed him. It was a lovely gesture and there was something about his timidity and artistry that made her want to know him better. She looked up into his eyes and what she saw there startled her: if you could envision him without the extra weight, he was actually quite handsome.
Reaching up, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Can we meet for dinner tomorrow? My treat!”
Gerald could barely believe his good fortune. “I—uh—Sure!” he smiled.
She turned, stashing the portfolio on the supply rack. “Sorry to art and run, but I need to get back!”
He nodded, realizing that he was already late for his post. Turning, he left, back out the hallway to the food court. Both he and Amy emerged, only to face Lolly, hat and glasses off. She stood next to the waiting line of customers, and spoke, addressing both them and the line.
“Here they are!” she bellowed. “My son—and his harlot…”
No one knew just quite to make of her, but Gerald felt himself sinking within. He had no idea what she was up to, but he knew Amy would likely not be interested in someone with a mother such as his. He tried to stop her.
“Mother…” he hissed.
Lolly ignored him, instead approaching the counter and leaning in toward Amy, who was trying her best to ignore her and focus on her waiting customer.
“Sweet talk you, did he?” Lolly grinned. “Show you his drawings?” Though talking amiably and quietly, there was nothing remotely charming about Lolly. “Pretty, aren’t they? You probably felt all special, knowing of his little crush on you.”
Amy turned to her customer. “Just the lemonade?” Instead of answering, the customer took a good look at Lolly and backed quickly away. Amy turned, to see what had repelled her customer, only to find herself staring at a large drawing of herself, doing intimate things with a corndog.
“Oh my God—”
Lolly laughed, turning about so that everyone around her could see the picture, which she’d had enlarged. She nodded toward Gerald, “He seems so innocent, doesn’t he? All doe-eyed and sad. Pathetic really. Still, I could see how you might feel sorry for him. Bet you’d even date him, huh? Except for this.”
She continued to display the image and was gathering quite a crowd. Amy whispered to her co-worker, “Get security.”
Gerald stood, somewhat helpless. His every hope, his window of freedom, seemed to be closing. And it was all his doing. He’d allowed his desire for Amy to morph into a weapon, designed solely for him.
“You’re crazy, Mother.” The words came so quietly, they were almost inaudible. But Lolly heard them. She turned, quite quickly.
“Come with me. We’re going home.”
“No, we’re not,” he replied, as calmly as he could. “I’m not going with you. I am not coming home. Ever again.”
The words were like shrapnel and the cry Lolly uttered as she sunk to her knees filled the food court, echoing out in ripples. Falling down, sobs wracked her large frame, but no one made a move to help her.
Gerald looked to his mother, then to Amy. Amy’s eyes were on his, locked, and he nodded to her. “How about we make that date right now instead?”
Nodding, Amy backed into the kitchen area, reemerging from the hallway with the portfolio in hand. Lolly had repulsed her, but there was something about the way Gerald responded that made Amy think there might be more to him than she’d imagined. He’d been chivalrous and kind, and that strength needed to be rewarded. Besides, even if Lolly had meant to scare her with that erotic drawing, it only served to make Gerald infinitely more intriguing.
Lolly looked up, her face streaked with tears and makeup, just as Amy reached out, taking Gerald’s hand. They walked away, never looking back. The job she’d envisioned as a stepping stone had indeed been just that, but instead of bringing her and Gerald even closer, it had proven a toe-hold to a path that would only take him further and further away.
Pulling herself up from the ground, she glanced around at all of the people staring. She had no idea what to do or where to go.
With a resigned sigh, she turned back to the abandoned counter girl. “Gimme a corndog.” And she was given one, immediately. On the house.