A brief reminder of where we left off:
When my flaming cheeks cooled at last, I frowned, puzzled. “What the hell was I supposed to learn from that?”
Grumpy smirked. “Nothing. I just thought that shit was funny.”
In a flash, the scene shifted and I found myself in an old-fashioned theatre. The kind with an ornate red curtain and upholstered seats. Grumpy sat beside me, a large tub of popcorn in his lap.
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
He groaned at me and pulled out an extra large remote control. “It’s time to look at your Christmas present. This is where your real problems begin.”
I scratched my head. “I don’t mean to be rude—but shouldn’t I get a different ghost for this part?”
“I’m it.” He shrugged. “Blame it on the economy.”
With that, he flicked a button on the remote and the curtains pulled back with a soft rustle. An image filled the screen, out of focus at first, but quickly sharpening into a clear picture.
A lone man sat at a desk, a small lamp creating a circle of light around him. Long past regular work hours, he had loosened his tie and rolled up his sleeves to expose muscular forearms. Numerous piles of paper cluttered the desk and he rifled through them quickly, making notations on several pages before moving on to the next stack.
I frowned, surprised to see Drew working so late on Christmas Eve.
There were circles under his eyes and his dark hair stood up at odd angles. As if on cue, he rifled a hand through the strands, muttering something under his breath in the process.
Grumpy leaned forward. “What’d he say?”
My heart thudded against my chest. “My name.”
Grumpy turned up the volume and sat back. “This should be good.”
Drew threw his pen down on the desk and eyed his phone, indecision clear on his features. I suspected he had been doing this for some time now. He picked up the handset, but replaced it without dialing. This process repeated several times, and finally he managed to punch in a number.
Grumpy switched the channel and now the picture changed to a split-screen—Drew, and me, asleep on my couch. The phone rang in the background, but I simply mumbled something in my sleep and turned over onto my stomach.
“Idiot,” Grumpy said.
“You said it,” I agreed, willing myself to wake up. I didn’t and Drew hung-up, flicking off his light to sit in the dark.
I watched his silhouette, my heart inching into my throat. If only I had picked up. What would he have said? What would I have said? I turned away. “I don’t want to watch him anymore.”
Grumpy flipped to another channel and I forced myself to look up.
Gabe was alone in his house. Dressed in running clothes, his forehead still bore a sheen of sweat from a recent workout. Feet propped up on the coffee table, he flipped on his TV and searched for something to watch. After surfing for a couple of minutes, he turned it off and tossed the remote onto the table.
He stood suddenly and roamed his house—first picking up a book, then another, then discarding them both with disinterest. Next he rifled through his fridge looking for something to eat. Nothing seemed to catch his eye and he left the kitchen empty-handed.
He was agitated, restless. I knew the feeling well, and my heart ached to know that I might have played even the smallest part in putting him in such a state. I hadn’t called him as I had intended. I hadn’t been able to make myself do it. Not after everything that had happened between us, and not with Drew’s face looming in the back of my mind. Instead of choosing between them, I had bowed out and hidden myself away in my apartment. Avoidance played a big part in my psyche.
Gabe moved into his living room and turned on the Christmas tree he had set up in one corner. The soft lights began to twinkle on and off, throwing patches of color across his face as he stood watching it. His face was unguarded in the quiet, and I could sense a deep sense of loneliness coming off him in waves. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“I’ve seen enough,” I said.
Grumpy flicked another switch and the lights came up in the theatre. He munched on his popcorn, leaving me to my thoughts for a few minutes.
“Okay, so I get it already. I’m making all of our lives miserable.”
“Yaph,” he mumbled around a mouthful of corn. He swallowed and coughed up a couple of unpopped kernels. “Nothing gets past you, does it?”
I threw him a dirty look. “You’re a disgusting pig.”
“You’d fit in my oven – I’d be careful what you ask for if I was you.”
He rolled his eyes and tossed his bucket onto the seat beside him. “Come on. We’ve got one more stop.”
This time when the mist cleared, we were in front of a colonial style building. It had two stories and sat in the middle of a packed parking lot. I had a very bad feeling and reluctantly trailed behind the elf as he passed through the front glass doors.
It opened into a lobby, all brass fixtures and wood paneling. Not a hotel from the looks of it, but what it was exactly, I had no idea. There were several bulletin boards lining the walls, and I chanced a peek at them as we passed. There were event sign-up sheets. Notices of various types. Was it a dorm of some sort?
“Where are we?”
As soon as I said it, my eyes landed on an elderly gentleman scuttling past the front desk with his walker.
“Oh hell,” I said. “Is this a retirement home?”
“Assisted living,” Grumpy said, following the man down a long corridor.
I let out a disgusted sound and reluctantly kept pace. “Say it ain’t so.”
Just then I heard the sound of a familiar voice—my own. It was slightly distorted—aged, but it was me.
We turned the corner and entered a large recreational room. I didn’t want to look, but like a person drawn to a train wreck, I couldn’t help myself.
I sat in the middle of a mosh pit of walkers and wheelchairs, my frizzed hair streaked with grey and pulled up behind a green poker visor. I was dealing cards, egging the other residents into a game of Texas Hold ‘em.
I had thought my Barbie outfit bad, but this one took the cake. I wore over-sized polyester stretch pants, with a t-shirt with a large Poinsetta design, complete with glitter and sequins. I groaned and covered my face with my hands. “Make it go away!”
Grumpy chuckled, and I peeked through my fingers at my older self. I looked ridiculous—all red lipstick and tacky clothing.
“What the hell am I doing in this place? I’m not even that old!”
And I wasn’t. I couldn’t have been more than fifty, much too young for this joint.
“I’m guessing you wanted company that couldn’t run away. Look at that hair! Scary.”
I flipped him off at that and booked it out of the room. “Take me back!”
Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion of this riveting tale. (snrk) :)