Chapter 3: October
Wednesday, October 8.
“Ya gotta do more’n just bench-presses an’ shit,” Madhavi says, adding another weight to her bar. “You’re gonna get too top-heavy an’ have to run around on your hands to get from place to place.”
Gabe rolls his eyes, setting his weights back down. “That’s ridiculous,” he says. “And I don’t just do bench-presses!”
“Yeah, you do arm curls too.” Madhavi doesn’t seem impressed. “Look, just go run on a treadmill or somethin’ for a bit, you’ll feel great. An’ next time ya gotta go chasin’ after your daughter, you won’t get so outta breath.”
“Next time I gotta go get her,” he says, “I’ll take the fucking car.”
She laughs, squatting down to lift the bar onto her shoulders and straightening up. “Whatever ya say. There’s plenty’a other cases where you might need to run, y’know. Now come spot me! I’m tryin’a beat my max today.”
Gabe moves toward her, positioning himself to help her lift the bar off her shoulders if she needs it. “I’m not exactly tryin’ to win a triathlon or anything,” he tells her as she does a few reps. “I just like lifting weights. And it’s more fun to do that in a gym with other people than alone in my house while my daughter sleeps or somethin’.”
“Didn’t ask,” Madhavi says, voice tenser than normal. She straightens back up and shrugs the bar off her shoulders. She takes a few steadying breaths, then walks over to grab a couple more weights. “Just sayin’ you should focus on more than just your arms, beefcake.”
He rolls his eyes again, taking a weight from her and slipping it onto the bar. “Maybe,” he says. “When the leg exercises are half as fun as the arm exercises.”
“You’ve just got fuckin’ weird taste, man.” She moves over to slip the bar onto her shoulders again. “Anyway, how’s Georgie? Lola said she’s doin’ good.”
“Yeah, I think she’s settlin’ in pretty well. She’s got a group of friends she plays with at recess and the park, at least. Doesn’t seem to miss her dad or Jason too much.”
Madhavi grunts, unable to respond until she’s finished with her reps. Dropping the bar afterward, she wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. “Get me my water, yeah?”
Gabe obediently passes her water bottle to her, doing a couple of stretches while he waits for her to finish drinking.
“Damn. One more set to do, gonna beat that fuckin’ max in no time.” Madhavi sets her bottle down and goes over to the weights again. “Anyway,” she calls over her shoulder, “glad the kid’s doin’ okay. Are you doin’ okay?”
He frowns a little at her back. “Of course,” he says. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
She shrugs, a ten-pound weight in each hand. “Ya look kinda tired,” she says. “Been workin’ too hard?”
He shrugs back at her. “I mean, I work, like, fourteen hours a day. And still factor in time for my kid. I’d be surprised if I didn’t look tired.”
Madhavi shoots a look at him, her lips curling up into a snarl, revealing a chipped tooth. “Don’t you have another chef?”
“Sure, Cole. He runs things when I need time off, helps out when I’m workin’.”
She sighs, sliding the weights on. “You work too hard,” she says. “You need to take more breaks.”
He knows she’s right, but it doesn’t really seem possible for him to work less right now. Not when the diner’s still so new, not when he needs to make sure he’ll have enough money to support himself and Georgie in the coming months. Years. “I’ll try,” he says, not sure he’s being truthful or not.
She grunts at him, and gets back into position. “You better,” she says, an undeniable threat in her tone. “I could kick your ass in a second flat, an’ you know it.”
Again, she’s right. He gives her a shaky smile and watches as she completes her reps. There must be some way he can factor in more breaks for himself. Right?
Friday, October 11.
“Now remember, parent-teacher conferences are next week, ” Stef tells the class, trying in vain to keep the kids’ attention from wandering. “I’ve already set up appointments with your parents and guardians, and there’s a reminder slip in your folders, but I’ll also be calling them to remind them of the time and date.”
Half the class is watching them with varying degrees of boredom, and the other half is shifting in their seats, looking at the clock or the door or whispering among themselves in what Stef’s sure the kids think is a sneaky, quiet volume level. The end of the day is just a few short minutes away, but Stef can’t let chaos erupt in their classroom. Not yet.
They have one last hope to regain their attention.
Stef clears their throat. “And,” they begin, “the week after that, on Saturday the 26th, we have a very special event comin’ up. Can anyone tell me what that is?”
No one answers. Those who’d been watching them stare blankly forward, and those who’d been ignoring them continue to do so. Stef stifles a sigh. It’s been a long week.
“We’re having the Halloween festival that day!” they exclaim, and instantly gain the undivided attention of seventeen 9-year-olds. “Next week we’ll start getting everything ready for the festival, so be excited about that! And,” they continue, raising their voice to speak over the chorus of cheers, “we need more chaperones! So please remember to give your Friday Folder to your parents, there is a sign-up sheet in there!”
The bell rings then, and the room erupts into a flurry of motion and excited shrieks. Kids rush out of the room to join the flow of students heading out to the bus lanes or the pick-up zone.
Once the room has once again filled with silence, Stef sinks down into their chair, throwing their head back and closing their eyes. They whip their glasses off and pinch the bridge of their nose. Dang was that a tough week. They’re so looking forward to the weekend. Two solid days of sprawling across the couch. Maybe Marco’ll even give them one of his frankly amazing head massages if they ask nicely.
Oh, wait! Three solid days of lounging around doing nothing! Heck yeah! Columbus may not have discovered America, but at least his dumb holiday gives Stef some extra time off from their job.
Ugh. Wait, they still have to make sure everything’s ready for the three days of parent-teacher conferences next week. Stef groans, doesn’t move from their spot. They’ll get to it in a minute, but for now, they’re just gonna take a little break.
Today’s not as busy as usual, and while Gabe’s a little upset that he won’t get quite the same revenue as most Fridays, it also means that he has a little extra time to just hang out with Georgie, and there’s no way he’s gonna look that gift horse in the mouth.
Gabe gets her a snack while she sets up shop in her favorite out-of-the-way booth, and then he sits down across from her.
“Any homework for the weekend?” he asks, taking the Friday folder she slides across the table to him.
Georgie shakes her head. “Not for me! Mx. Campbell gave homework to you, though.” She looks smug as hell, and Gabe snorts, kicking his foot out to gently tap her knee.
“Mean to your poor old dad,” he says. “Alright, I’m guessin’ this ‘homework’ is in here, right?” He opens up the manila envelope and carefully pulls all the papers out. Last week’s spelling test--”Fourteen out of fifteen right, nice job, Georgie!”--and a few other assignments, which he’ll put into the binder he keeps all her school assignments in. That leaves two sheets of paper which must be his “homework:” a pale green slip reminding him that parent-teacher conferences are next week, with the time and date of his appointment handwritten at the bottom (Friday, October 18, 1:15 PM) , and a pumpkin-orange paper with “Halloween Festival: Parent Volunteer Registration Form” in bold font across the top.
Gabe skims over the form, thinking. He’d known about the Halloween festival, of course, and had been planning on taking her to it for a couple of hours, but... well. He’d love to work the event, if he can. He used to work events at Georgie’s old school all the time--was on the PTA, in fact--and loved it.
It’d be taking more time off work, but if Cole’s willing to handle it, well... why not?
He grins at Georgie across the table. “Wanna help your dad find a costume for the Halloween festival?”
Georgie lifts her arms in the air and hoots excitedly. He’ll take that as a resounding yes.
He fills out the form.
Friday, October 18.
“Thanks for coming in,” Stef says as they show Barry and his mom to the door.
His mother hums, a distinctly-disapproving sound. “Of course. Thank you so much for everything you’re doing.” She doesn’t sound very grateful, and had been an absolute pain during the entire meeting. They’re glad to be rid of her.
Stef waves them off, making sure to appear as cheerful as possible, and then ducks back into the classroom with a sigh. They hate parent-teacher conferences. So much complaining and arguing over their teaching method. Ugh. There’s a reason they decided to become an elementary-school teacher: kids are just so much easier to deal with on a regular basis.
Well, at least they only have three more meetings, and then they’re done for a few more months.
Quickly, they neaten up their desk, putting away all of Barry’s things and grabbing the next kid’s. They glance at their schedule and smile. Georgie’s next! That means that not only will they get to see one of their favorite kids (yes, they know they’re not supposed to have favorites, but that’s never stopped them. They just make sure not to make it too obvious), but also they’ll get to see her hot dad!
Or dads? Or dad and mom? Or dads and mom? Stef’s still not sure what’s going on there. Maybe they’ll finally get an answer today.
They’ve just finished straightening up their desk when there’s a knock at their door. They look up to find Georgie barrelling toward them, a wide grin splitting her face, and in the doorway behind her, the gorgeous curly-haired guy from last month, smiling sheepishly at them.
“I hope we’re not late. Or early.” Mr. Martín says as Georgie greets Stef with a hug.
Stef glances up at the clock, which reads exactly 1:15. They smile at Mr. Martin. “No, no, you’re right on time,” they say. “Come on, let’s get started.”
They gently pry Georgie’s arms away from their legs and settle themself into their office chair, picking up a sheaf of papers and then setting it back down, feeling oddly flustered.
Mr. Martín sits down in one of the plastic chairs on the opposite side of the desk, and Georgie immediately climbs into his lap, rather than sitting in one of the other chairs. He doesn’t seem to mind, just wrapping an arm around her middle to keep her steady and turning his attention to Stef, his expression morphing into something serious, mouth a solid line and eyebrows drawn together.
Stef swallows. The sudden shift is disconcerting; they look down at the papers in front of them, and shuffle them around for a moment before selecting Georgie’s report card.
“Well,” they say, clearing their throat. “Um, well, Georgie is...” They pause. Professional. Professional, Stef! “Georgie is doing very well in school. She applies herself well, participates in class, and even goes out of her way to help other students.”
Mr. Martín’s expression changes again, eyes lighting up and mouth widening into a grin.“Good, that’s great!” He holds up the hand not around his daughter’s waist, and she slaps her own against it in an ecstatic high-five. “Told ya everything would be okay,” he says to her.
Georgie beams at him, leaning back against him more fully, and this is all honestly adorable. If Stef’s not careful they’re gonna get all misty-eyed.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but only a little bit. It’s just nice to see the way parents interact with their kids, and it’s good to know that Georgie’s got a good, supportive parent at home.
They wait for the two of them to settle down, and then they continue, “She gets a little distracted in class sometimes, but it’s not too hard to get ‘er back on track.”
“Talking with Sarah?” Mr. Martín asks, an amused tilt to his eyebrow.
Stef laughs a little, lowering their gaze to the papers on their desk. They slip their glasses on, nodding. “Usually.”
“Class gets boring ,” Georgie says defensively, and Stef glances up again, looking at her over the tops of their lenses.
“You can talk to Sarah at recess,” Mr. Martín gently scolds. “When Mx. Campbell is teaching, you need to pay attention. And not distract your friends.”
She rolls her eyes, but she doesn’t argue.
“To be fair, it’s not usually when I’m actively teaching, ” Stef says. “It’s mostly during silent reading time and that sort of thing. And like I said, it doesn’t take much convincin’ to get her back on task.”
“That’s good, at least.” He bounces his leg a little, still keeping hold of Georgie. “I... she’s been settling in well, then?”
Stef nods. “As well as any of the other students,” they say, a bit confused. Then they remember-- “Oh! Right, this is her first year in the school district. Yeah, no, she’s doin’ great! Friendly, generally happy. Nothin’ to worry about.”
“See, Daddy. I said everything’s good.”
“Yeah. Good to know, kiddo.” Mr Martín squeezes her a little, and turns back to Stef. “I get a little worried,” he explains, a bit hesitant. “I mean, there’s an adjustment, y’know? Goin’ from a big family to just me an’ her, and a whole new state- -California’s pretty different from Oregon, or at least the part we lived in--so I just wanna make sure she’s doin’ okay.”
They very carefully don’t think of the implications of “just me and her,” and nod emphatically. “I totally get that,” they say. “But no, no--she’s doin’ great!”
He breathes out a little sigh. “Okay. Perfect! Then, um... is there anything else we need to talk about?”
“Ooh!” Georgie brightens, sitting forward. “Can I show him the collage we made yesterday?”
“Yes, absolutely, you can show him anything you like. But first I gotta talk about one more thing with him.” Stef pulls out a copy of the Halloween festival agenda and hands it to Mr. Martín. “You signed up to be a parent volunteer, right?”
He nods, eyes skimming over the paper. “Yeah.”
“Do you have any experience with this sorta thing?”
He nods again, setting the paper down. “Yeah, I used to volunteer for all sorts of things at Georgie’s old school. So I just show up, what, an hour early to help set up?”
“Yeah, perfect! There’ll be people around to direct ya, so hopefully you won’t get lost.”
“Think I can handle that,” Mr. Martín says, and smiles again.
Stef smiles back, taking their glasses off and folding them on top of their papers. “Then I think we’re done here.” They look at Georgie, who seems restless in her dad’s lap. “Go ahead an’ show ‘im around, kiddo,” they say, and she’s off before they’ve even finished the sentence, jumping off his leg and grabbing him by the hand, yanking him across the room to the art gallery Stef’s set up.
Stef takes their time gathering up papers and setting up for the next meeting while surreptitiously keeping an eye on the two of them.
Mx. Campbell is actually pretty easy to talk to, when they aren’t glaring at him for being late to pick up his daughter. Most of Gabe’s attention is on Georgie, but he can’t help but admire the way their glasses sit perched on their nose as they look through papers, how they smile when Georgie asks questions or responds to Gabe.
And now he and Georgie are on the other side of the room, admiring the art created by the fourth-grade class.
“See? This is the one I made,” Georgie says, pointing out a poster covered in bits of orange and blue paper. In the center of the page are four spoons, clearly cut from different pages in a magazine.
Gabe doesn’t understand it. He supposes that’s what makes it good art.
He squeezes Geogie’s shoulder. “It looks great, sweetheart,” he says. “Did you have fun making it?”
“Yeah! When I get to take it home I wanna put it in the living room.”
“Absolutely. Only the finest of art gets to hang in the living room, and this definitely counts.”
“It better! Ooh, there’s Sarah’s!”
Gabe follows her gesture to a pink-purple-and-blue collage featuring a lot of smiley faces and butterflies. “Oh, that’s nice too,” he says. “Did you work on yours together?”
“Yeah!” Georgie grins up at him. “Mx. Campbell always lets us work on art projects together. I helped her cut out the pictures!” She beams proudly at him, and he runs his hand over her curls, pulling her in for a quick hug. Georgie is so sweet, he can’t help but feel so happy whenever he sees her so happy. Moving here was definitely the right call, he thinks.
“Is this the Campbell classroom?”
Gabe looks over to see a man standing in the doorway with a little girl peeking around his legs. Gabe hurriedly glances up at the clock and sees that it’s 1:32, which means he’s been hanging around too long and now he has to leave before he ends up making things worse.
“Yes! Come sit down, hi!” Mx. Campbell appears in Gabe’s peripheral, looking frazzled. “Um, sorry, Mr. Martín, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Gabe feels his face heat up, and hopes no one can tell. “Right, right. Sorry for stayin’ so long. Thanks for everything. C’mon, Georgie, let’s get home.”
“Bye, Mx. Campbell!” she calls, slipping her hand into Gabe’s and tugging him toward the door. “Hi, Ava, bye, Ava!”
“Bye, Georgie,” the little girl says as they leave. “See you Monday.”
“See you Monday!” Georgie pauses at the end of the hallway, looking up at him. “Can we go to the park before we go home?”
And, well. How can Gabe say no to that?
Saturday, October 26.
“Marco,” Stef hisses under their breath, leaning off to the side and holding the box of prizes up to cover both their faces, “I really appreciate you comin’ to help out, but you can’t bring a freaking snake onto school grounds!”
“Why not?” Marco asks, lifting his hand to put Angel directly in Stef’s face. “She’s a corn snake. ‘S not like I brought a rattlesnake or somethin’ in.”
Stef leans away so Angel can’t lick their nose with her little forked tongue. “‘Cause she’s a dang snake, Marco! And she’s not even in a cage or anythin’, she’s just on your hand!”
“She wanted to come.”
“Marco…” Stef sighs. They should really enforce the rules, but, well. They know Angel’s not dangerous or anything--she’s pretty docile, and even if Marco set her down somewhere (which he wouldn’t) , she’d probably just climb up Marco’s leg and into his pocket or something--and they’re loathe to deny their brother anything that makes him happy. Not after such a short time.
“Just keep ‘er outta sight,” they say. “Don’t let anyone see ‘er, okay?”
Marco nods, clearly pleased, and gently tucks Angel into the pocket of his hoodie. “It’ll be our secret,” he says.
“Right.” Stef lowers the box and continues with what they’d been doing, taking the prizes over to one of the game booths. There’s still a couple hours ‘til the festival starts and kids start arriving, but there’s still a lot to get set up.
Marco follows them, looking around at the half-finished booths. “Can I run the cotton candy thing?” he asks.
“‘Cause Mrs. Pearson’s runnin’ it and if you run it you’ll eat all the cotton candy. Also there’s a freaking snake in your pocket and I don’t wanna hear about some 6-year-old gettin’ traumatized when they find a snake in their cotton candy.”
“I wouldn’t let ‘er get in the cotton candy,” Marco says, offended. “But otherwise, yeah. Fair.” He’s quiet for a bit while Stef hands the box over to the parent volunteer set to run the balloon-pop booth, and when they turn and walk back to get another prize box, Marco asks, “so what can I do?”
Stef thinks while they walk. Marco’s never helped out with anything like this before, having had no opportunity to in high school and then having no desire to even consider it the last few years they’ve been working here. They try to think of things Marco’s good at, things he likes. Things that will be fun for him and still easy enough that he won’t have to worry about it.
“How about givin’ out stickers?” they suggest. They dart forward and open up a box, rummaging through it until they find a spool of Halloween-themed stickers. “Ya just tear one off an’ give it to every kid who’s wearin’ a costume!”
Marco takes the spool of stickers, looking dubiously at it. “What about kids who don’t have costumes?” he asks. “Don’t they get stickers?”
“I mean, it’s supposed to be a prize for comin’ in costume, like it says to on the flyer,” Stef says, grabbing up the prize box they’d come in for. “And, like, it’s a kids’ event, y’know? I kinda doubt there’s gonna be many kids without costumes.”
Marco grunts out some sort of response and gingerly places the stickers in the same pocket as his snake.
“And you did bring a costume, right?” Stef asks, nudging a box toward him with their foot until he takes the hint and picks it up. “I mean, it’s a Halloween festival, ya gotta wear a costume.”
“No,” Marco says. “But Dante’s bringin’ me one later.”
“Ah.” Stef grits their teeth. Now’s not the time to lecture Marco; they’re in public, for one thing, and they don’t wanna discourage him from working, for another. “Right, okay. So when’s your boyfriend comin’?”
“Fiance,” Marco corrects, an edge to his tone. “Don’t worry, he’ll be here before we open.”
“Right,” Stef says again. They don’t say anything more after that, just taking the boxes to the booths that need them, Marco following behind just as silently.
And they know it’s a bad idea to go silent around Marco in situations like this, they know it upsets him, and they hate upsetting him, but Stef wasn’t expecting to have to deal with Dante tonight. Crap. Are they gonna have to figure out a job for him, too? Ugh. Maybe there’s some faraway corner of the gym they can send him off to, somewhere Stef won’t have to look at him and somewhere he can’t bother Marco.
Crap! How can they do that without making Marco mad or otherwise emotionally bad? They frickin’ can’t! Darn it. Stef’s just gonna have to put on a brave face and act like an adult for a couple hours.
Easier said than done.
Gabe shows up about half an hour before the festival starts up, as he was instructed. When the president of the PTA had called, she’d told him that he’d just be acting as a chaperone, keeping kids from doing anything dangerous or wandering out of the gym without an adult to accompany them. Pretty simple stuff.
He’s got Georgie with him, of course. He’d been hoping to come alone and have Kai or Lola bring her in when it opened, but apparently tonight was their date night so they hadn’t been able to. No problem; he’ll just keep Georgie by his side so she doesn’t try and start the festival early.
Inside the gym, he looks around, unsure where to go. There’s plenty of people here, most of them in costume, putting up decorations or standing around talking in small groups. He’s sure he could just go up and ask someone who to report to, but he feels frozen, out of his depth.
And he shouldn’t feel that way, because this is hardly the first time he’s worked at a school event! This is hardly the first time he’s had to work within a group! What’s going on with him?
“Ooh, do you wanna see the decorations we made in class?” Georgie asks, breaking him out of his thoughts.
He takes a breath and looks down at her, beaming back up at him. He smiles and nods, most of the anxiety in his chest melting away like it was nothing.
“Definitely,” he says. “Let me just find out what I’m s’posed to be doing, okay Georgia Peach?”
She makes an over-exaggeratedly disgusted face at him, pretending she hates the nickname (but he knows she actually loves it, so it’s okay), and he ruffles her hair, takes her hand, and walks toward the nearest person who looks like they have any sort of authority.
“Excuse me,” he says politely to the woman with chin-length red hair and warm brown skin. She turns to him, arching an eyebrow. “Sorry, but I’m one of the parent volunteers? I’m, uh, supposed to chaperone? Uh, I was just wondering where I should be going?”
She looks him over, eyes trailing down, and he suddenly feels slobbish in his department store Dracula costume with his creased polyester cape and too-thin fake blood sloppily applied to the corners of his mouth. Compared with her elegant vampiress costume, complete with floor-length black gown and perfectly-pointed fangs standing out in sharp contrast with the bright red of her lips, he looks like something that just crawled out of a trash can. The fangs that came with his costume were too small to fit comfortably in his mouth, so he doesn’t even have that.
He thinks she must be thinking all of these things in the short span between her once-over and her lips parting to reply, but she only says, “Chaperones report to Mr. Moore. Do you know who that is?”
He shakes his head, cheeks hot, but before he can say anything, Georgie tugs on his hand. “I know him!” she says. “He’s Mx. Campbell’s friend, he comes to our class sometimes to borrow pens.”
“Do you think you can point him out to me?” he asks, and Georgie nods frantically, pulling him away from the woman. He barely gets the chance to call “thank you” to the woman before she’s out of sight.
He hasn’t been in the gym before now, but it looks just the same as any other gym he’s been in, with stacks of bleachers pushed against the walls and a shiny wood floor. There’s a path winding through the gym, created with rugs and thick paper to keep people from scuffing the floors, and lining the path are several booths with games and food items set up at each. Everything’s covered with thick black fabric or long strands of spiderwebbing, with bats and skeletons and pumpkins and all sorts of Halloween imagery.
“Mr. Moore!” Georgie calls, and Gabe glances up.
A tall man in a spiky leather jacket and a high, meticulously-spiked green mohawk grins. “Hey, kiddo!” he says. “Wow, lookit you! A bat, huh? Very cool.”
“Thanks!” Georgie says proudly, letting go of Gabe’s hand to shake her arms and make her bat wings flutter. Damien and Jason had made it for her when she’d told them she wanted to be a vampire bat for Halloween, stitching felt wings onto the sleeves of a black sweater and big felt ears onto a headband. She looks adorable, but Gabe would never tell her that. He’d told her she looked badass before they’d left the house, and she’d beamed at him. It was adorable.
“Didja need somethin’, kiddo?” Mr. Moore asks, and Georgie nods.
“My daddy’s a chaperone!” she says, taking his hand again and holding it up so Mr. Moore can see.
“Oh!” Mr. Moore turns his attention to Gabe, eyes lighting up. “Perfect, lemme take ya to the other parents! There’s not a ton for you to do ‘til the festival officially starts, but hopefully you can keep yourself amused ‘til then.”
Gabe and Georgie follow him.
Once the festival starts, Gabe loses track of Georgie pretty quick. That’s fine; he knows she won’t leave the gym without him, and there’s enough teachers and parents here that he trusts she can’t get into too much trouble by herself. She’s got a roll of quarters (snagged from the cash register before they’d left) for some food and those few games that cost money, and she’s got her clunky little phone if she really needs him and can’t find him in the crowd.
Keeping kids in line is pretty easy, even when they aren’t his kid. Plus, most of them are with their parents or older siblings, anyway, so he really doesn’t have to do much other than watch the doors and answer a couple of questions about where particular booths are.
It’s almost boring, honestly, but all the people rushing around in costumes and playing games is still enough to keep him entertained.
“Hey,” someone nearby says in a monotone, and Gabe looks up to find someone a little taller than him, wearing a white toga-dress-thing with a bunch of rubber snakes on their head. He blinks.
“Uh, hi?” he says. “I mean, can I help you?”
“Here.” The person--dressed as Medusa, Gabe thinks--extends their hand, a little slip of paper pinched between their thumb and forefinger.
Gabe takes it, feeling more than a little confused, and looks down at it. There’s a glow-in-the-dark ghost sticker on it. He blinks again. “Uh.”
“I’m s’posed to give stickers to all the kids in costumes,” Medusa says. “Your Dracula costume’s pretty cool.”
“I’m 27,” Gabe says, at a loss for anything else.
Medusa shrugs. “Free sticker,” they say, and turn and walk away.
“Thanks?” Gabe says uncertainly, but he’s not sure if Medusa hears him or not. He looks down at the sticker and laughs a little under his breath, pocketing it. Georgie’ll like it. Maybe she’ll stick it on one of her school notebooks or something.
The festival’s been open for over an hour by the time Stef actually gets a chance to sit down for a minute.
They’ve been rushing around for hours now, and it’s definitely nice to see all the happy kids laughing and playing games, and all the parents who seem to be having a pretty good time too, despite the lack of entertainment aimed at adults.
They’d lost track of their brother and his... boyfriend shortly after Dante’d arrived, and with all their running around making sure everyone’s got what they need and everyone’s having fun, they’ve barely managed to even say hi to Simon and their other friends.
They really only get to sit down when Manami asks them to take over her pumpkin-painting booth for a bit while she and her wife run a quick errand. They don’t mind; guiding kids through arts and crafts is one of their favorite things to do, even if most of the kids are outside of their rather narrow age range.
Still, it’s a little bit of a relief when two more kids sit down to paint and Stef looks up to find two familiar faces, Sarah and Georgie. dressed as a witch and a bat respectively, grinning at them.
“Hey, kids!” they say, eagerly handing over paints and brushes. “Havin’ fun?”
“Yeah!” Georgie exclaims. “Look at all our candy!” She holds up one of the little plastic treat bags they’d been giving away at the door, and, yeah. It looks pretty heavy.
“Georgie gave me some of hers,” Sarah says proudly, holding up a bag even more stuffed.
“Dang,” Stef says reverently. “You two better not eat all that at once, or you’ll get sick!”
“We won’t,” they chime, setting their bags down and picking up paintbrushes.
“We should paint pumpkins for each other,” Sarah gasps, and Georgie nods her head enthusiastically.
Stef absolutely loves the generosity and enthusiasm so many kids have. It’s definitely one of the main reasons they decided to become a teacher. Happily, they guide the girls through the painting process, helping Georgie to paint a cat face and Sarah to paint a bat.
The girls giggle a lot, and get almost as much paint on themselves as on the pumpkins, but by the end of it they’ve each got a pumpkin they’re proud of.
Stef waves them away and moves on to help the next couple of kids, but they see the girls trade pumpkins out of the corner of their eye, and they smile. Yeah, kids are pretty great.
The Halloween festival is only three hours long, ending at 6 PM, and it’s only a few minutes to the end when Stef comes across not only their brother and his awful boyfriend, but also Georgie and her dad.
The party’s dying down, with most of the attendees having headed home once they’d done the full circuit of activities, so some of the volunteers are starting to clean up the less prominent areas. Stef’s carrying a life-size skeleton to the storage room just off to one side of the gym when they see all four of them and stop in their tracks.
Marco’s got his frickin’ snake out!
He’s got Angel on his hand, twined around his fingers, held out and showing her off to Georgie, who’s grinning. Stef feels like their heart’s gonna beat out of their chest, because he can’t have a snake out on school grounds! And in front of a parent?! What the hell is he thinking?
Stef hefts the skeleton up onto their shoulder and freaking books it over to the group.
“What the heck are you doing?!” they hiss when they get close enough.
Georgie looks up. “Hi, Mx. Campbell!” she says excitedly. “You have a skeleton on your shoulder!”
“Hi, Georgie, yes I do,” Stef says distractedly. “Marco, put her away! You said you’d keep her hidden!”
“Was an accident,” Marco says with a shrug, not moving to put Angel away.
“What was an accident?” Stef asks, aware that their voice is sounding more and more shrill but not quite able to stop it.
“Sorry,” Mr. Martín says, and Stef looks up sharply to see him smiling sheepishly at them, the flaky and faded remains of what must be fake blood painting the corners of his mouth and his chin. He’s wearing a white dress shirt tucked into black slacks, with a black-and-red high-collared cape draped over his shoulders. His long hair is sweat-dampened and pulled back from his face with a red ribbon, save a few escaped curls framing his face.
Once again, Stef’s faced with how utterly gorgeous this guy is, and they fall just short of having to physically shake themself as they force themself to pay attention to the conversation.
“...went to hand her a sticker, but when he reached into his, er, toga, he pulled out a snake instead,” Mr. Martín’s saying. “And, well, Georgie was interested, so I asked if she could see it up close, and, well…” He shrugs, reaching up to fiddle with one of his curls in what’s obviously a nervous gesture.
Well. At least the parent Marco slipped up around isn’t a snitch.
“Daddy, can we get a snake?” Georgie asks, watching intently as Angel lazily slithers around Marco’s fingers.
“Uh,” says Mr. Martín, “well. Probably not. Not right now, anyway, I don’t think we have space to give a snake everything it needs to be happy.”
“Aw, but please? I bet a little one like this doesn’t need a lotta space!” Georgie begs, looking pleadingly up at her father, who looks a little like a deer stuck in headlights, and Stef’s about to step in when their least favorite person speaks up.
“Even little bitty snakes like this precious girl take up a lotta space,” Dante says, leaning out from the other side of Marco and sticking out a finger to pet the top of Angel’s head. “Get ‘em a too-small tank an’ they won’t be happy.”
Georgie sighs a little, but nods. “Well, I don’t want a sad snake,” she says. Mr. Martín’s shoulders sag in what Stef can only assume is relief. “Can I see your snake sometimes though? Can you bring ‘er to school? So I can play with ‘er sometimes?”
“Well,” says Marco, straightening up and handing Angel to his stupid boyfriend, “I don’t work here, but if Stef--I mean, Mx. Campbell--wants to borrow ‘er when you start learnin’ about reptiles, think you could see ‘er then.”
That’s actually something Stef was already planning on doing, but they don’t say that. Instead, they just nod and make a little shooing motion at their brother with their free hand.“Okay, okay, good plan. Now take the snake and put her away! It’s time to clean up. Marco, you want a ride back home?”
“Nah,” Marco says, and Stef feels themself tense up, knowing what he’s going to say next. “Me an’ Dante’re goin’ on a date.”
“Okay,” Stef says as easily as they can. It must not come out exactly how they want it to, though, because they can see Mr. Martín shooting them a curious look, and Dante frowns at them, his hand moving to grip their brother’s arm.
“C’mon, Marco, we got stars an’ sh--uh, stuff to look at,” he says.
“Okay,” Marco agrees. He smiles at Georgie, and then makes a little oh sound, rummaging around in his toga’s pocket for a moment. He pulls out his nearly-depleted spool of stickers and hands it to her. “You can have the rest,” he says.
Georgie’s eyes widen. “Thanks!” she exclaims. “Daddy! Daddy, look at all these stickers!”
Stef turns back to Marco and his awful boyfriend. “Comin’ home tonight?” they ask, keeping their eyes only on Marco.
Marco shrugs. “We’ll see where the night takes us,” he says. In a softer, gentler tone, he adds, “I’ll text if I’m stayin’ out, okay? Don’t worry.”
Stef relaxes slightly. They can’t be mad at Marco, even if they’re worried about him. He’s an adult. He’s doing better. He’ll be okay.
“Yeah, I’ll take care of ‘im,” Dante laughs, and Stef feels themself tense back up, sucking in a deep breath. They shoot a glare at him, but Dante’s not even looking at them; he’s just looking at their brother, with a glint of something in his eye, something possessive, something that scares Stef right to their core.
They don’t say anything. They can’t say anything.
Marco and Dante leave a few minutes later.
“C’mon, my little Georgia Peach, it’s time for us to get home.” Gabe puts his hand on the small of Georgie’s back, turning to guide her toward the door.
“Oh, hold on,” Mx. Campbell, who had just been talking to their brother and his boyfriend, turns back to him. He pauses, looking over at them.
They’re dressed in all black, slacks and a form-fitting button-up showing off their slender figure. Two pointy cat ears poke out of their firetruck-red hair, and they’ve got whiskers drawn on their cheeks. It’s a simple costume, but it suits them well, and once again Gabe feels a little underdressed.
“You need to sign out before you go,” Mx. Campbell says, setting aside the plastic skeleton they’d been carrying and reaching into their pants pocket for a folded piece of paper. They unfold it and hold it out to him, producing a pen from somewhere else. “Just write the time and sign here, Mr. Martín.”
“Gabe,” he says, laying the paper down on a nearby table and smoothing it out.
“Excuse me?” Mx. Campbell asks. Gabe looks up to find them blinking at him.
He smiles, feeling a little embarrassed. “Sorry,” he says. “My name’s Gabriel. Gabe. People older than, like, teenagers calling me ‘Mr. Martín’ makes me feel old.” He signs the paper and hands it back to Mx. Campbell.
“I see.” They take it almost absently, folding it back up and putting it in their pocket without taking their eyes off of him.
He swallows, the feeling of awkwardness building up inside of him, and he’s just about to open his mouth and tell them that it’s okay to call him Mr. Martín if using his first name makes them uncomfortable when they smile, and nod, and say, “Gabe. Then, you can call me Stef.”
And now it’s his turn to stare. Somehow, he wasn’t really expecting to be on a first-name basis with them, but, well. Stef is a nice name. It suits them. “Stef,” he says, smiling widely at them.
For a brief moment, the world’s narrowed down to just the two of them, smiling at each other from just a foot away, and there’s something about this that makes Gabe’s chest ache, but he can’t quite put his finger on why that is.
“Can I call you Stef, too?” Georgie asks, breaking the moment.
“No, they’re your teacher, so you still have to call them Mx. Campbell,” Gabe tells her. “It’s respectful.”
Mx. Campbell--Stef--laughs a little. “You can call me Stef if you see me off school grounds!” they say. “But I’ve gotta at least pretend to be professional around here.”
And Gabe can’t help but chuckle a little at that, too, because he can’t really imagine the person standing in front of him as anything but professional. After a moment, he puts his hand on Georgie’s shoulder. “We really do have to get going,” he says to Stef, surprised to find that he feels a bit sorry about it. “I’ve gotta get some actual food in my kid before she turns into a sugar gremlin.”
“I’m already a sugar gremlin!” Georgie exclaims, and makes a weird little noise halfway between a growl and an impish giggle. Gabe laughs.
“Okay, I’ve gotta get some actual food in you before you’re permanently a sugar gremlin,” he amends, and Georgie nods, satisfied.
“Well, I’ll get outta your way, then,” Stef says, hefting the skeleton back onto their shoulder. “Bye, you two! See you on Monday, Georgie!”
“See you Monday!” she replies, hopping in place.
“And Gabe,” they say, smiling in this way that makes their eyes crinkle up at the corners, “thanks for all your help today! You’re welcome to help out with any future events!”
Gabe leaves the school feeling oddly high, replaying that smile over and over in his mind’s eye.