Product Placement

Chapter 15 - Traditions


Christmas wasn't the Hustler's favorite time of year. It wasn't his most dreaded or hated, but it certainly wasn't his favorite. Not like all the other kids, overjoyed for family and present and holiday cheer. Everyplace was decorated, people were hounding him for gift ideas and purchases, and absolutely everyone was chattering endlessly about their plans. Even Butch, the most antisocial person HK knew, was ecstatic.

"I'm goin' to Montana this year!" He exclaimed in the cafeteria, nearly bouncing in his seat "Everyone's gonna be there. I've got, like, a million people in my family so we all pitched in and basically rented out a while lodge. It's gonna be a fuckin' blast seeing everyone again."

Butch had, of course, asked what his plans were. Francis had, of course, lied. He told him there was going to be a small get together and assured Butch that, though his parents were absentee, he wasn't going to be alone. Oh no – he wouldn't dream of such a thing! Who would willingly let themselves be alone during the holidays?

Francis, that's who.

Truth was, Francis would be alone this year, like very other year, probably working until mid-Christmas day, and then take a day or so off to count and restock and prepare for the flood of trade ins. He couldn't have told Butch the truth. He would have gotten all upset or, worse, invited him along. He didn't need a pity invite or pity at all or to see that half enraged, half horrified sad look on his face. Besides, he was too busy to take a vacation. People begged and pleaded with him to sell things right up until Christmas Eve – and even a few in the wee hours of Christmas morning. Great for him – more profit. He already doubled his earnings from last year thanks to a few good steals. He was trying for the triple now. Then he'd have something to brag about when they all got back from break.

Still though, Butch being gone and all bothered him. He had kind of hoped to drop by a few days before or after, see how he was doing. But that seemed all shot to hell. No matter. It would be easier to put up with the charade of the holiday cheer if Butch wasn't there to question him every few minutes.

This being said, Francis still had his seasonal ticks and worries.

Desperate to make the house look at least a little livable, Francis took to hooking up some icicle lights to the front trim of the house some years ago. He got a couple of wooden reindeer cheap, fixed them up, put a new bows around their necks, and put them on the front lawn. He didn't have to worry about them being put in lewd positions because of his neighborhood. The few complements he received on his meager display he shrugged off as an attempt to be neighborly. He knew what they said behind his back. Hustling was just as much wheeling and dealing as it was information gathering, after all. But it made him feel a little better to think he curbed some suspicion.

He also made some pretense of going out to get groceries. A good deal of stuff to make it look like there was a feast going on. He knew how to cook (you get tired of Peanut Butter and Jelly after about a year and tend to experiment for more edible things), and he often did make a pretty big spread – but that didn't change the fact here was only one person to eat it. He always ended up grumbling about how much food he made, practically giving it away to whoever asked with naught more than a shrug. But he knew deep down it was that 'just in case' that kept him working from early morning until early evening in the kitchen, and then later wrapping everything up carefully into plates to stock his fridge.

After that debacle, or perhaps before he sat down to eat alone in the dining room, he broke into the liquor cabinet and stared hard at the wines and brandy and vodka, thinking maybe it wouldn't be so bad if he blacked out and slept through Christmas this year. He never did, though. Ultimately he'd shut the door and replace the lock, settle on a cup of tea or, if he felt particularly daring, a glass of sparkling cider. He watched the clock tick away until Christmas came and went so many times before it hardly bothered him now how slowly it went.

He never expected presents. The tree was up and lit, dutifully put together and maintained by the two or three cleaners who thought their remaining benefactor deserved at least some seasonal spirit. There hadn't been any presents under it since he was six. He'd stopped believing in Santa the next year, after he'd been good and had nothing to show for it.

Mostly, Francis just sat back in one place and counted his Christmas profits and waited for the day to end. It dragged, always dragged, but it ended eventually, and then he could breathe again. At the very least he could count the days to the Hustler New Years Party. He didn't drink as a general rule, but it was sure fun to brag about his profits and watch most everyone else get smashed out of their minds and stumble all over words and legs. He actually caught himself laughing at the memory – a Christmas miracle.

Right about now, Francis was in the living room, picking at a platter and ruining his appetite. It was too early to eat dinner food and too late to subside on coffee alone, so he'd retired here and left everything warming until he felt like eating. He'd collapsed on the couch and was wholeheartedly prepared to stay there until it was dark or until his stomach nagged him for something other than cheese and crackers. The remote was a few feet away and the television still off. He'd turn it on soon – the silence was getting to him.

His phone rang. Legitimately rang. And it continued to. He didn't want to answer it, because he already knew who he was hoping it was and it was going to be a wrong number or a recording. He stared at the phone and waited until it quieted. He hadn't bothered to replace the answering machine since Butch smashed it. Convinced that was over and done with; he drew his legs up on the couch and sprawled out, groping for the remote. He wasn't too fond of holiday movies or the Yule Log, so he would just have to make due with the movies on demand channel.

But then his cell phone started ringing. He eyed it a few moments and sat up, letting whatever program play while he wondered who it could be and what he would feel like if he answered. He could have just let it go, and he probably should have. But he didn't. The phone was in his hand and flipped open before he could rethink it.

"Franny?" He vaguely recognized Butch's voice, thankfully, among the din of whoever else was there with him "You there?"
"Good! Why didn't you pick up?"
"I'm… busy."
"Oh well uh, I'll make this quick then – Shut up Martha! No! No it's not my girlfriend DAVID LET GO OF MY LEG. Sorry I swear to God my family-"
"It's alright. Really. And you don't have to rush I'm okay now. I… I'm glad you called, actually."
"Hold on."

The line was muffled, but Francis still heard. Wherever he was (somewhere in Montana), there were a lot of people making a lot of noise. The ones nearby were teasing him or screaming or both. He was vaguely sure he heard kissy noises and wistful sighs, but Butch yelling something unintelligible soon drowned them out. And then it stopped. The muffled became inaudible, and Butch returned, panting into the receiver.

"Sorry about that – Jesus they're all over me the second I try to sneak away to a minute to myself."
"Where are you hiding now?"
"Outside. Cold as fuck, by the way. Snow's pretty though." He inhaled sharply and laughed on the exhale. "So what's up?"
"Nothing really." He answered honestly, watching stop-motion Rudolph prance about with an elf friend "Just relaxing for a change."
"Good. You needed a vacation to get that huge stick out of your ass."
"Any special reason you called?"
"Francis! I'm hurt! A friend can't call another friend on the eve of the birth of the Lord?"
"I'm hanging up."
"Geeze man, lighten up." Butch muttered. "Seriously? I wanted to wish you a merry Christmas. Or happy Yule. Or joyous Festivus. Whatever you celebrate."
"Oh uh… M-Merry Christmas to you too, Butch. Thanks."

The conversation seemed to leap over the initial awkwardness, instead defaulting to mundane topics like the weather differences (fucking cold versus eh, not too bad) and assignments neither one of them was going to finish. Francis peppered Butch with questions about his family, who was there with him, and how much stuff he got. It worked, for the most part. Butch kept feeding him answers and the more he kept talking, breathless and excited, the more Francis felt less alone. It was kind of like Butch was here with him, or he was there, leaning against a tree, listening to him talk and watching him gesture wildly with a big ol' grin on his face. It was kind of nice to forget where he was for a while.

"Francis?" Butch asked suddenly, quietly and more personal than before, and Francis knew something was about to go wrong.
"You aren't alone, are you?"
"No. No I've got company." He lied perfectly "A few other Hustlers with… less than great home lives."
"Oh. Well yeah I guess that's cool. I mean it'd really suck if you were alone." Butch swallowed audibly "I uh… you know. Would have stuck around town to keep you company if you were gonna be flying solo. Just wanted to make sure you were at least having a little bit of fun."

Francis swallowed and let it go quiet for a minute. He was touched. Really. He hadn't thought Butch would bother to do something like that for him. He had expected a halfhearted invite, maybe, but to give up on the rest of his family, the family he was moments before rambling about so happily, the family Francis could never relate to – that was something he couldn't understand. He didn't get how someone would be willing to be with him when they could be doing anything else. It came with the territory, he supposed, but it shouldn't have hit him this hard. Sure he missed Butch to some extent, and sure he wished that his holidays could be a little more normal and like everyone else's. But he knew they couldn't. They never could be, they never had been.

It shouldn't have hurt like this.

He hadn't been this close to crying on Christmas since he was seven, and that year he bawled his little eyes out. Like hell he was going to let it out now. He was too old to believe in this bullshit. But, like when he was seven, he wouldn't tell anyone the awful truth. Just like he made sure to never tell anyone that Santa was made up so they could have a good Christmas, he would make sure to tell Butch what he wanted to hear so he wouldn't have to worry and ruin his own vacation. So like always, he steeled himself up and rubbed his eye, wiping away the backed up tears before they could fall, and evened his voice with practiced ease before responding.

"Thanks Butch, but you have a good time, okay? Don't worry about me." He forced himself to smile and chuckle a little bit "If it makes you feel any better about missing the chance to see me, I'll save you some mistletoe. Sound like a deal?"
"Only if you promise to use it inappropriately."
"Sweet." Butch chuckled and shivered loudly "Alright. I'm freezing my nuts off and I'm gonna loose you inside. I'll be home before New Years. We can hang out then?"
"Great. Merry Christmas Francis."
"Merry Christmas, Butch."

The line went dead after a moment's hesitation and Francis suspected Butch dashed inside, rubbing his arms and fighting off any suggestive comments, forgetting about everything and being absorbed back into the warmth and festivities. Francis, by contrast, shivered in the mostly empty room, watching the old cartoon, alone. A rather large part of him screamed and wailed and threatened to make him sob, reminding him how unfair it was that he was stuck with a whole lot of nothing and nobody cared. But he didn't dwell. It never did any good.

So he took a deep breath and then a few more, slowly moving back onto the couch until he was nearly trapped in his, spread out on his back, looking mostly at the TV. It probably wouldn't hit him until later how horrible everything was, and by then he would be knee deep in transactions with no time to think on it. Delayed reactions benefitted him in the end.

But this time it happened much more swiftly, slamming into his chest like a wayward maul ball. His breathing tightened and his throat closed up a little bit. His eyes stung and burned, and everything went blurry. Francis couldn't recall it being this bad, the remembrance and realization of how utterly alone he was, in years. But here it was, ready to rip out of him and break him up just in time for Santa. He lifted his hands and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, forcing them into his skull until they hurt. He grit his teeth and refused to give into it, going so far as to arch off the couch. Try as he might, however, one shuddering breath escaped, and echoed around the quite room, mocking him.




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