Ride:A Bad Boy Romance

By: Roxie Noir

1





Mae





The toddler stares at me, his tiny face surly. I stare back, praying for the right moment.

“Smile!” calls his mother, standing off to the side.

She’s probably wearing a thousand dollars worth of clothing right now, her hair, makeup, and nails all done to perfection.

He does not smile.

To my right, my co-worker Edwin shakes a teddy bear that jingles, grinning like an idiot.

“Hey, buddy!” he says in the high-pitched voice that he uses when he pretends he’s the stuffed animals. “Can you smile for me?”

I’m watching through the viewfinder. No smile.

Throughout this ordeal, Santa has remained perfectly neutral, his cheery, red-cheeked smile precisely in place, his hat and beard and uniform just so.

“Xander, come on,” Xander’s mother says. “Can’t you smile for Santa?”

I’d be cranky too, I think. If I were two years old and had to get dressed up, then got dragged to a fancy department store on the Upper East Side and was forced to sit on some stranger’s lap.

Edwin shakes the bear again.

“Come on, Xander,” he says, in his bear-voice.

Xander stares at Edwin like Edwin just casually suggested genocide.

Then, almost in slow motion, Xander’s face crumples. His forehead scrunches. His mouth opens wide.

I know what’s coming, and I brace myself for about the twentieth time that day.

There’s a moment of silence before he screams, but it’s a doozy. It takes everything I’ve got not to roll my eyes and cover my ears, but working in Santa’s Fun Factory for two weeks has pretty much given me nerves of steel, and I don’t even flinch.

Xander takes a deep breath between screams, and in that split second, Santa takes action. He bends down, puts his kindly face next to Xander’s, and says something I can’t hear.

He looks at Xander. Xander looks at him, like he’s suddenly uncertain, his enormous eyes taking in this red-hatted, white-bearded stranger.

Santa says something else, and Xander closes his mouth. Now he’s staring at Santa in awe, like he can’t believe the amazing thing he just heard.

Still talking just to Xander, Santa points at the camera, and Xander looks at me. He’s still not sure about this whole thing, but he seems at least willing to entertain the notion. His mom hands Santa a tissue, and Santa quickly wipes the tears from Xander’s face, then nods at Edwin.

Santa smiles again, exactly the same way he did before.

“Hey, Xander!” Edwin says in bear-voice.

Xander grins. I hit the shutter several times in a row, just in case, and then Xander is bounding off of Santa’s lap, Melissa hands him a candy cane, and he and his mom are off.

“Thank God for Gary,” Edwin whispers to me, as Gary — Santa — opens his arms and welcomes the next child in his perfectly jolly voice.

“He’s magic,” I whisper back.

“Of course he’s magic. He’s Santa,” says Edwin as a small dark-haired child climbs onto Santa’s lap.

“I’m a believer again,” I say. “Maybe I should go ask for a real job for Christmas.”

Edwin snorts, and then it’s time for the kid to get her picture taken.

This happens roughly a hundred times a day, and it’s only November third.

It’s about to be a very long holiday season.



Hours later, I open a locker and throw my hat in. The jingle bell on it sounds a single tinny, echoing ring as it hits the metal. I feel like everything hurts: my feet, from standing all day; my neck, from bending over a camera; even my eyes, from looking at that tiny screen for eight hours.

Edwin walks in again as I’m grabbing my street clothes out of the locker, a black t-shirt and jeans.

“If I hear ‘Jingle Bells’ one more time, I might commit homicide,” he says.

“Have you heard the version with all barking dogs?” I ask. “It’s even worse.”

“That’s not real,” he says. “Is that real?”

“It’s really real,” I say.

He shakes his head, making his own jingle bell hat tinkle softly.

“Me and Melissa are gonna get a drink somewhere in a few,” he says. “You want to join? You look like you could use one.”

I sigh and lean against the lockers. Even though I don’t really drink, I could go and hang out with them for a bit.

On the other hand, I’ve got a lot of work I need to do retouching the stills I took last week out on Coney Island, especially if I’m putting them in my portfolio. If I stay out too late, I won’t get any of that done tonight.

If I never get that done, I’ll be photographing kids on Santa’s lap for the rest of my natural life.

“No thanks,” I say. “I gotta do some work.”

“You do too much work,” he says, seriously. “Have some fun once in a while, Mae.”

“I’ll have fun when I’m dead,” I say, laughing as I walk past him toward the bathroom.

“The phrase is I’ll sleep when I’m dead, weirdo,” he calls after me, teasing.

“That too,” I say, and the bathroom door shuts behind me.

I get out of my red-and-green ensemble quickly, heaving a sigh of relief when I pull on my jeans, t-shirt, and comfy shoes. My hair goes back in a ponytail, and I finally feel normal again.

“Next,” I say to Edwin when I step out of the bathroom, and he steps in.

I give my elf outfit a good, hard sniff, and decide I can wait one more day to wash it, stuffing it back into the locker. I put on my coat, grab my purse, and head out the break room door and back into Kensington’s.

I pull out my phone as I walk past the makeup counters, nodding at the girls standing behind them, like we’ve all been to war together or something.

Then I frown, because I’ve got about a million notifications: voicemails, emails, texts. Usually I’ve got one or two, maybe, at the end of a day.

Before I can even look through them, my phone starts buzzing again.

JANICE PENN, the caller ID says, and my heart leaps.

Janice is my agent.

I clear my throat, hit the button, and answer.

“Hello?”

“You’re from Texas, right?” she asks, skipping a greeting.

I blink at a rack of thousand-dollar designer coats.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Perfect,” she says. “I got you a gig. Shooting a rodeo for Sports Weekly. You fly out of La Guardia tomorrow morning at six.”

I stop short, my brain swirling.

Sports Weekly?

“Did you say Sports Weekly?” I ask. I’m staring at a mannequin wearing a very sparkly dress, pretty certain that I misheard what she said, because Sports Weekly is a very, very big deal, and they’re not about to hire me.

“I did,” she says. “They’re doing a big story about some hot young rodeo star who they think might turn the corner and be a real celebrity. Jackson Cody.”

The name nudges at something in my brain, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Did I go to high school with him?

I did go to high school with more than one guy who wound up on the rodeo circuit, though I’m sure if someone local had hit it big, I’d have heard about it from my parents.

Did my brothers know him somehow? Was he a friend of a friend or something?

I can tell it’s going to drive me crazy.

“They hired someone else, but the poor bastard’s appendix burst and they need someone tomorrow,” Janice goes on. “I sent them your photos of Texas high school football, and voila. They’re offering nine hundred a day.”

“I’ll do it,” I say quickly. “Yes. Definitely. I’ll definitely do it. Absolutely.”

I press my lips together, forcing myself to stop telling her yes.

“Great,” she says. “I’ll email you the plane ticket and everything. Glad you could take the job.”

“Me too,” I say, but she’s already hung up on her end.

New Yorkers, I think. Even after two years here, sometimes I still feel like an alien in this city.

Still standing in front of the sparkly mannequin, I look up Jackson Cody on my phone. Most of the pictures are of a guy on a bull, standard plaid-jeans-and-cowboy-hat ensemble, and I scroll through his Wikipedia page, wait for anything that might trigger my memory.

Born in Wyoming on a cattle ranch, graduated high school, started winning rodeos. Seems to party a lot and sleep around more, which isn’t exactly a surprise.

I flick my thumb over my screen one more time, annoyed that I can’t figure out why this guy’s name sounds so familiar, and I finally get to a closeup.

I freeze like a deer in the headlights, my stomach twisting, Jackson Cody’s ruggedly handsome face grinning at me from my phone.

You have to be kidding me, I think. There’s no way that’s him.

I look up at the mannequin, but she’s no help at all. I close my eyes, like maybe if I give them a break I’ll look back and there will be someone else’s picture there.

I open them. Still the same guy.

Unbelievable.

I put my phone in my pocket, straighten my spine, and walk for the exit of Kensington’s.

It’s fine, I tell myself. I’m sure he doesn’t remember, and even if he does, it doesn’t matter.

You were kids. Now you’re adults, and you can both act like it.

I swallow and head for the subway, but I’m feeling strangely unconvinced. Maybe because the last time I saw Jackson Cody, I acted like anything but an adult.

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