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Deck the Halls: A Stonewall Investigations Story by Max Walker (1)

1 Andrew

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving, and I was already, unabashedly, playing Christmas music through the speakers that flanked my computer. As if all I needed was a basted and stuffed turkey to stuff me with tryptophan so that I could wake up and welcome the new holiday season. This time of year was my absolute favorite, and I wasn’t shy about it. Nope. I’d grown up pretty shy and then grew out of it when I came out in high school and found an awesomely supportive group of friends. Since then, I’d pretty much owned my sometimes awkward, sometimes charming, always cheery sense of life.

“Wow, you don’t waste a day, huh?” Mark Masters asked as he came over to my desk, leaning on it and smiling. I was by the couch, where a few hefty cardboard boxes were sitting, their flaps open and sparkly green garland spilling out like I’d just pulled a holiday-themed Amityville Horror inside Stonewall Investigations’ waiting room.

“Nope. Been waiting for an entire year for this moment! I can finally play these songs without getting ribbed by you Grinches.”

“Grinches?”

“Yes, look at you,” I said, motioning him up and down with a thick red ribbon in my hand. “I can see it in the way you look at me. You wish these were Halloween decorations, don’t you? No, no, let me guess… Valentine’s day?”

“Wrong on both guesses,” Mark said, crossing his arms and smirking. He was wearing a black button-up and dark jeans, the opposite of what I had on: an evergreen silk button-up with abstract Christmas trees painted on in big black brushstrokes, and white pants.

I liked to experiment with clothes, and thankfully Stonewall didn’t have any uniform policy to hinder those experiments. “I wish they were Groundhog Day decorations.”

“Groundhog Day? Really?”

“It’s a crucial day; we find out how long our seasons are. I think it should be celebrated more.”

I arched a brow, and we both broke out into laughter. “Here, let me help.” Mark came over and dug into the box closet him. The Stonewall offices weren’t huge, but we did have a good amount of space, which was rare for a place that was only a short walk away from the West Village. I had already strung up garland around the border of the room and hung a wreath on the door. I set the tree up in the morning, with Zane and Alex’s help. Currently, though, Mark was the only detective left in the offices. Everyone else was out working a case or taking some time off. Wanda was off with her husband on their first trip to Disney World, and Leo said he was getting a much-needed vacation, going off the grid and resetting his mind with his family over in Scotland.

I was staying put with my husband, Barry, who was at home on his last few days off before he headed back to work. Our relationship hadn’t exactly been the best over the past few months, but things were slowly getting better and that was what mattered. I wasn’t easy to deal with anyway. Not after the loss that had shaken not only me, but everyone at Stonewall. Losing one of our own had been unimaginable, and then it happened, and suddenly the foggy nightmare had turned into crystal-clear reality.

“Do you just want the snowflakes anywhere?” Mark’s question brought me back to focus.

“I mean, don’t just close your eyes and throw them, but yeah, put them wherever you think they’d look good.”

Mark laughed and went to hang up the oversized snowflakes, big and white and catching the light with its glitter coating. Over the speakers, one of my favorite Christmas songs started playing, and I couldn’t help but start singing along. It was one of those songs that just hit all the feels toward the end, getting me right in the chest and reminding me of the Christmases back when I was a kid, with my mom and dad again. A swell of happiness rose through me. I grabbed a handful of fake snow and threw it up in the air, totally okay with the mess I was about to make. I was just living in the moment, something I hadn’t done in a while, and nothing really felt better.

Except, just as the fake (and probably COPD-inducing) snow was falling, someone decided they needed our investigative help and opened the door, walking right into the impromptu snowfall. My eyes went wide, and I covered my mouth. I heard Mark go, “Oh,” behind me but didn’t offer much else after that.

Welp, I guess I had to take the sleigh reins on this one. “Jesus, I’m so, so sorry. Here, let me get that off you.”

I reached and rubbed some of the dusty snow off the man’s sleek leather jacket. I looked up and saw a face covered in snow, a set of piercing green eyes looking back at me, lips curling into a smile and instantly diffusing the sense of dread I was being filled with. “That’s okay,” he said in a tone I felt down in my gut.

It was weird. Not something that really happened, well, ever. But I felt it, and the longer I stood there, the more the feeling morphed into something else—something that tingled at the base of my spine and made my cheeks feel warm and my head feel lighter.

“Does everyone get that kind of welcome?” the man with the snow on his face asked.

“Only the special ones.” Mark laughed. “Looking for help?”

“Yeah, actually.”

“Come, the bathroom’s on the way to my office. You can clean up, and then we can talk about what you need.”

“Perfect,” the man said, his emerald eyes turning toward me. I realized, too late most likely, that I was still standing awkwardly close to him.

I took a step back. He put a hand out, surprising me. “Declan Rose.”

“Andrew Barker.” We shook, even though I had thought our interaction was pretty much over.

“Thanks for the dose of holiday cheer,” he said, smiling a genuine smile. “I’m usually not a fan, but I gotta say, a snow-filled entrance is pretty fancy.”

“You’re welcome,” I said. “Now go wash it off before your skin starts falling off.”

That got a laugh out of him. He turned and started walking with Mark down the hall. Before they disappeared, I called after them.

“Hey, Mark, I’m gonna shut down the front when I’m done decorating, if that’s okay! Since we don’t have any more detectives, we’re pretty much closed.”

“You got it,” he said.

I got back to work decorating with Mariah Carey hitting her notes and singing exactly what she wants for Christmas, my mind only occasionally drifting to Declan Rose and those emerald-green eyes of his.

Barry and I had an apartment on the outskirts of the West Village, close enough to the detective agency where I could walk to work, and also right on the border of the city’s “gayborhood.” It was a nice place and was beginning to finally feel like a home after we’d been living in there for half the year. Just last week, we had gone shopping for decorations to put up for the holidays. It was a fun little outing, which was something that had honestly been rare lately. Not that our relationship was on the rocks or anything, but it just didn’t feel the same way it had when before we got married.

Granted, I’d only known Barry for about a couple of weeks by the time we said our “I dos” in Palm Springs, but still, I wasn’t expecting the bonfire to simmer down to an oven fire so soon.

It was a big part of the reason why I asked to leave early today. I wanted to get home and surprise him. Shower him in kisses and spend the rest of the afternoon tied up together in bed, like we had been those first few days we met. And then I’d take him out to a nice dinner, and we could come back home and watch a warmhearted Christmas movie to cap off the night. It sounded like the perfect way to kick off the holidays, and I figured it could up the heat level on that oven fire of ours.

Even though the walk was short, my ears and nose still felt like they had gotten first-degree frostbite on the way. I entered the lobby of our apartment building and instantly felt a blast of heat, defrosting my extremities almost a little too quickly. I didn’t even bother checking the mail; I just wanted to get upstairs, so I went straight for the staircase, ignoring the elevators that crawled up and down the building like elderly caterpillars.

I climbed the four flights of stairs, taking two at a time, and went out into the hallway. It was a dimly lit space that smelled strongly of bleach and Febreze. Our landlord was obsessed with cleaning and constantly wiped down the halls and door handles. It was a nice gesture, but the smell of clean sometimes got a little too overwhelming.

Today was one of those days. I pinched my nose and walked down to the end of the hall. I reached our place and unlocked the door. I hadn’t given Barry any kind of hint toward my plan, so I wasn’t sure what I was about to walk into. For a second, I wondered if I’d find him working on some super high-tech, holographic computer and he’d be forced to tell me he was an insanely high-level government operative working to save the world against a biochemical terrorist plot.

My imagination sometimes got the best of me.

I didn’t find Barry in some Mr. and Mrs. Smith situation when I walked in. In fact, I didn’t find him at all. I was expecting him to be in the living room, watching TV or playing a new game he’d just bought himself. He was on vacation still, so I knew he didn’t have any work to do. But he wasn’t there—all that was in the living room was a pair of discarded shorts and socks. I cocked my head, recognizing them as Barry’s sleeping shorts.

Hmm… if he’s naked, then I guess that’s a bonus for me.

“Barry!” I called out, figuring out that he’d still be surprised whether he heard me or saw me first. In my best Ricky Ricardo impression, I shouted again when he didn’t answer, “Oh Barrrry, I’m home!”

Still nothing. Hmm. That was odd. I walked through the living room, taking a quick second to admire the Christmas tree we had assembled and decorated over the weekend. It was cute, although not exactly my style. Barry insisted on making it one singular color: white. I enjoyed a blast of colors for my Christmas trees, even if some people considered it tacky. Hell, I would have been fine with two colors, at the very least. But he really wanted all white, so I decided to relent and make him promise that next year it was up to me how the tree was decorated.

I walked past the tree and into the small hallway that separated the bedroom from the guest room/office space we had. Barry pretty much demanded we get a two-bedroom place even though it was stretching both our budgets, but since he worked from home on a few different occasions, he felt like he needed to have it. Plus, we did sometimes have friends and some family stay over, and so the second bed did come in handy.

The hall was dark as I went through, reaching the bedroom. I realized why Barry hadn’t heard me. He was in the shower; I could hear it running from the hall. There was also music playing from the waterproof speaker we had stuck up on the wall. He liked to shower with the door wide open, while I liked to keep everything shut and locked. That way no one could sneak in (kinda like what I was doing) and pull a Psycho on me and stab me to death in the shower (not at all like what I was doing).

The bedroom was dark, too. The curtains were drawn, keeping the late-afternoon sun from shining in. We were pretty high up in the building, so we got a decent amount of sunlight that wasn’t blocked by our next-door neighbor. I walked over and pulled the curtains open, bathing the small room in sun. There were more clothes on the bed. A T-shirt and a pair of shorts, although the T-shirt seemed weird to me… I couldn’t remember Barry ever owning a Cardinals baseball T-shirt.

“Barry!”

“Huh? What, who’s there!”

I looked into the bathroom, the steam from his scalding hot shower blocking most of my eyeline.

“Andrew?” he asked, sliding the glass door open and peeking out, his dark hair wet and dripping down his forehead, some shampoo suds sliding down his face. “Whoa, hey, this is a surprise.”

“It is, huh?” I said, feeling my awkward levels rising. I went forward, swimming through the steam. I got into kissing range and moved in, smiling and tasting some of the soap. When the kiss ended, I noticed Barry had his eyes open. He was looking past me now, then back to me.

“Everything okay?” I asked, sensing something.

“Yeah, yeah, everything’s great now that you’re home.”

“Perfect,” I said, starting to unzip my pants. But then Barry surprised me and turned off the shower. “Wait, wait, I was going to hop in.” I was protesting, but Barry was already stepping out, wrapping a towel around his waist. “You’ve still got soap on you,” I noted, my brows knitting together.

“Sorry, sorry, jump in,” he said. “I’ve just got to send off a quick email. I totally forgot, but Angela’s almost out of the office, and she needs to handle it.” He was shouting over his shoulder, already out of the bedroom. I was left in the bathroom, hand on my crotch, steam in the air, and wondering what the hell just happened. Barry never had urgent emails to send. Why did he seem so panicked all of a sudden?

Something was off. This didn’t feel right. I found my way through the mist and back out of the bedroom. On my way out, I didn’t see the Cardinals T-shirt lying around anymore. I kept my footsteps quiet as I went out into the hallway, some of the sunlight from the bedroom window spilling out into the hall. The office door was shut, but at this point, I didn’t really care. I turned the knob and pushed open.

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was seeing. Barry was working hard and fast, trying to dissemble something, his towel having fallen to the ground and leaving him naked.

“What the…”

“Andrew!” He shot up from what he was doing… It was a tripod. He was taking down a tripod, and there was a camera sitting on his desk. One I’d never seen before, a sleek red Nikon that had to have been expensive.

“What is that?” I said, pointing to the camera. “What were you doing in here?”

“I… um, nothing. It was for a live presentation. We were doing a training. I was leading it.” His face was bright red. It was obvious he was lying. The tripod was clearly set up so that the camera was aimed toward the bed and nowhere else.

“So was this training on how to make a bed? Which isn’t even made. It looks like a disaster.”

“It, um, no, I was giving a room tour.”

“What the hell’s on the camera,” I said, holding my hand open. “Let me see.”

“It’s nothing. It’s stupid.”

“Good. I want a good laugh.”

“You won’t laugh,” he said, almost ominously.

“Then I could use a good cry. Just hand me the damn camera.”

He turned and grabbed the camera off the desk. I thought he was going to do the honorable thing and hand it over to me, but his fingers started flying across the touch screen, clearly in an attempt to delete whatever was on there.

“What in the actual the hell,” I said, snatching the camera out of his hand. I turned it over and pressed Play on the screen, playing back the last recorded film.

At first, once again, I didn’t really register what I was seeing. It was just pink and white and black, and then the camera focused and the colors morphed into shapes which changed into limbs which all added up to Barry fucking a moaning twink on the guest bed.

I could feel the blood drain from my body. The camera fell from my hand, falling hard but being cushioned by the dirty rug, bouncing before landing at Barry’s feet. My throat felt tight. I could feel the tips of my fingers tingling, but I wasn’t sure exactly why. There was a sensation of floating, like I was above it all, watching the scene play out like the end to a tragic play from back in the Shakespeare days.

Swallow poison—that was basically all I wanted to do.

“Asshole,” I said, the only word that was forming through the fried circuitry in my brain. Was I crying? My cheeks were definitely wet, but I wasn’t entirely sure I was crying…

“Asshole,” I repeated. “Asshole.”

“I’m… so sorry. I… don’t know what happened. I think I have a problem.”

And then I snapped. Words flew from my mouth before I could think about them. “The only problem you have is figuring out where you’re sleeping tonight,” I said. He looked even more shocked than I felt in that moment.

“No, no, no, listen.” He was shaking his head, crocodile tears already escaping those reptilian eyes. I used to think Barry’s big brown eyes were beautiful, and now I thought they were garbage. Trash. “Please, Andrew, it won’t happen again. I fucked up.”

“You’re damn right it won’t happen again.” The anger in me was taking over. I felt sad. Really, really damn sad. But I’d deal with that later. Now, I needed to use my anger like a knife, cutting this toxic tie between us. “Here,” I said, tugging the ring off my finger, scratching up my knuckle in the process. “Take this shit, take your camera, and get the hell out.” I threw the ring at him, the metallic circle symbolizing a life together smacking him square in the chest. He was saying some other crap, but I couldn't hear him. All I heard was the sound of my heart pumping, as if it had taken up residence in the space between my ears. I couldn’t think, so I figured my brain must have moved out.

In the living room I stood, looking around. Everywhere my gaze fell, something triggered a memory of me and Barry. The couch we’d had a bitch of time getting inside the apartment but managed after two days of struggle. The surrealistic paintings of a sunset and a sunrise we had picked up on a trip to Houston from an artist we both fangirled over. The Christmas tree that was a blast of white and an offense to all of my Christmas sensibilities.

This entire situation was an affront to the spirit of Christmas. This wasn’t supposed to happen during the happiest time of the goddamn year. I wasn’t supposed to find out my husband was cheating on me while an animatronic Santa doll was shaking his hips at me and singing some dumbass holiday song I could care less about right now. You know what I needed to hear?

I needed some damn Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, hell, even Korn at this point.

“What the hell? What in the absolute hell?” I was shaking. My fists balled up, nails digging into my palms. I could hear Barry moving to the bedroom, most likely packing his stuff.

Packing…

It was hitting me harder and harder. Tears were coming down my face, and I could guarantee no crocodiles were harmed in the making of these. My vision was blurred. Betrayal bloomed through me, spreading like a virus.

And all I could see through my wet eyes was that dumb, ugly, stupid, idiotic, and absolutely. fucking. ridiculous. all-white Christmas tree.

Before I even knew what I was doing, I reached and grabbed the first synthetic white branches I could. I pulled and yanked and the tree came toppling down with a shout and a crash. It wasn’t a big one, only a five-footer, and still, the sound it made when it hit the ground surprised me.

Barry came running out. As if he actually cared if I had gotten hurt. As if he was actually going to comfort me in that moment.

Pfft. I’d rather be buried alive under that hideous holiday abomination.

I already had my keys in hand and was standing by the door. I was surprised by how steady my voice was. “I’m leaving. If you’re not gone by the time I’m back, I’m calling the police.”

He was midprotest when I slammed the door shut and started walking down the hall, every step taking me farther from what I used to know and deeper into an entirely new era in my life.

And that terrified me. I hated the unknown, and now I was facing a bottomless pit of it.

Well, I do know one thing for sure.

I reached the street and walked out into a blast of fresh, cold air.

I fucking hate Christmas.

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