Fandom/Pairing: American Idol; Kris/Adam
Summary: This is a Kradam AU of You've Got Mail. 22k. Um, forgive the awful title. And the lack of sexytimes.
Kris has a tried and true routine every morning: hit his snooze button five times, stumble into the bathroom for a five minute cold shower (not cold by choice, but because Katy has a habit of using up all the warm water before he can drag himself from bed), go to the kitchen to toast a bagel which he then slathers liberally with cream cheese, pour himself whatever is left from the coffee pot Katy put on earlier, and crawl back into bed, where first thing he does is open his laptop.
This system is carefully timed so that when he slides his laptop out from underneath his bed, Katy is in the bathroom blow-drying her hair, which gives him a solid twenty minutes free of interruption. It’s not that he’s doing anything wrong, but she already razzes him enough for spending too much time glued to the computer.
“We live in Manhattan,” she always reminds him. “There are a million things to do, and you choose to spend it behind a computer screen?”
He doesn’t think he’s really that bad about it—it’s just that Katy never likes to stay in one place for more than five minutes. Keeping up with her can be exhausting at times. Besides, she’s all but permanently attached to her Blackberry, and the difference between texting and email is really splitting hairs if you ask him.
This morning, he only has two new messages sitting in his inbox: one, a stupid chain letter forward from Matt, and then another—the one he’s actually interested in reading. He bypasses Matt’s and instead clicks on the newest.
Subject: re: New music
So I gave that United Fuse album you so heavily touted in your last email a listen… It’s a good record, especially for a debut, a total head-bopper, but I think I would appreciate it more if I’d listened to it three months ago in the summer. Music is very seasonal to me. For example, I can only listen to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust in the depths of winter, and Lady Gaga in spring, once the cold is gone and the sun is back out. Is that weird of me?
Anyway, now that it’s fall, I’ve been revisiting Kings of Leon’s album Aha Shake Heartbreak. Basically this means I put King of the Rodeo on a loop while I strut down the city streets pretending I’m starring in a music video, hoping the assault on my eardrums will distract me from the putrid smell of all the garbage trucks lined up in my neighborhood. Oh, New York, never change.
There really is nothing better though than plugging into my iPod and people-watching from a bench in Washington Square Park, surrounded by trees with changing leaves and kids playing and people jogging and couples strolling through hand-in-hand. It’s all very peaceful. I’d invite you to come with me some time, but that would really screw with this whole anonymity deal we have, wouldn’t it? Oh well. You should still do it on your own though. Just trust me on this one. You won’t regret it.
Kris grins around the last bite of his bagel, rereading the email for a second time. If he had the time, he’d respond right then—but a glance at his alarm clock tells him he’s already running late, so instead he reluctantly closes the laptop.
He knows that he’s lucky—most people don’t have a job doing what they truly love. Kris has no idea what he’d be doing with his life if he wasn’t running The Red Guitar. Probably he’d still be struggling through business school. His uncle, the owner, had offered him a job halfway through Kris’s sophomore year, and Kris had dropped out of college and moved to New York from Arkansas on an impulse. The only thing Kris had ever been passionate about in his life was music, so working for a record store specializing in the same underground indie artists he always obsessed over was a natural fit. And New York was of course the opposite of the small town he’d grown up in, but he’d quickly fallen in love with the city, too, couldn’t imagine living anywhere else at this point.
Two years ago his uncle passed away from a sudden heart attack, willing to Kris both the shop and his rent-controlled apartment in the East Village. Stepping into the role of boss had taken some adjustment, and a lot of work, but it was worth it. He still got to spend every day surrounded by music, and surrounded by people who loved it the same way he did. What more could he ask for?
“You’re going to be late,” Katy calls.
He rolls out of bed quickly as she emerges from the bathroom, her blonde hair sleek and straight, dressed in an immaculate bright red suit and skirt. She has a dozen different versions of the same outfit, all in bold colors.
“Weren’t you supposed to be gone, like, ten minutes ago?” he counters.
She sighs, gathering her purse from the dresser. “Yes, and it’s Bob’s tenth anniversary at the station, so we’re supposed to go out for drinks after work. I don’t know when I’ll be home. You don’t need to wait up for me.”
“I will anyway,” he assures her. He comes over and pecks her on the lips briefly, so as not to ruin any of her makeup. “Or I’ll just see you on the news like everyone else.”
Katy flashes him a smile—the same one that dazzles all of the viewers who watch her anchor the Channel Nine six o’clock news every night—and squeezes his shoulder before tearing out of the room. A minute later the apartment door opens and shuts.
Kris returns to his laptop and unplugs it. There’s no internet connection at The Red Guitar—he can’t afford Wi-Fi for the store, even though Andrew’s been harping him about it nonstop for the past six months—but during his lunch break he can scoot over to the café across the street to respond to the email properly.
The Red Guitar is only three blocks from his apartment, so he straps on his Converse, grabs his coat, stuffs his laptop in his messenger bag and hurries down the three flights of stairs to the street below. He shoves his earbuds in his ears and scrolls through his iPod to find his Kings of Leon songs. No King of the Rodeo on there, so he ends up listening to Revelry on a loop as he winds his way past pedestrians.
He comes up to the shop halfway through another listen, and stands outside the storefront, waiting for the song to end. The Red Guitar is a small store, tucked between a dry cleaners and an Ethiopian eatery; you probably wouldn’t take a second look at it if you weren’t specifically looking. The sign outside is old and faded and in desperate need of a new paint job. Kris mentally adds it to his insanely long list of ways-to-improve-business.
When he pushes open the door and steps inside, the first thing Andrew says is, “You’re late.”
Kris takes out his headphones, tucking them in his pocket, and smiles. “Good morning to you, too.”
“You’re in a good mood today,” Andrew says suspiciously. He’s reorganizing the jazz section in alphabetical order. They didn’t even have a jazz section until Andrew insisted on it. He’s got a total hard-on for Thelonius Monk and Coltrane and Hoagy Carmichael.
“Someone got some last night,” Matt sing-songs. He hops up on the counter and sits there, legs dangling, all the while waggling his eyebrows at Kris.
Cale stops counting the register long enough to shoot Matt a look. “At least one of us is.”
“Speak for yourself,” Matt says. “I get plenty.”
The two of them begin bantering back and forth, and Kris doesn’t even bother to respond with anything more than a half-hearted eye roll as he brushes past them to the cramped, closet-sized back office. He’d rather let them believe his lack of punctuality comes from a long night of sex than have them know the truth—that he was too busy reading an email from a stranger to get here on time.
The whole situation is weird, even to him. A few months ago he was browsing Craigslist, looking at the guitar ads to see if he could afford to replace the Takamine he’d had for years. It was a trusty instrument, and had seen him through a lot, but he’d wanted to upgrade for awhile now, even if all he did was mess around from time to time. Somehow he ended up stumbling upon the personals—not the romantic ones, or the sex-without-strings ones (okay, he gave those a cursory glance, and wow, never again, because people had some seriously out-there kinks). It was the platonic section that caught his eye—specifically the anonymous ad seeking an equally anonymous pen pal.
Responding to it was probably the strangest thing Kris had ever done, and potentially the stupidest, except LA21 turned out to be a pretty cool person to talk to. They didn’t know much about each other aside from the fact that they were both in their twenties, male, and living in New York. And they agreed to keep it that way—no personal details. Not their names, not their careers, nothing to identify them in the real world. It was an odd arrangement, but Kris kind of enjoyed the mystery of it all. It was sort of freeing to have this person as a soundboard to share his more random thoughts with, whether they be on music, books, film, the city, life in general.
He slumps into the wobbly desk chair, powering up the ancient desktop computer, and looks down at the mess of paperwork piled on the desk. Ryland, his books guy, only comes in once a week to help with payroll and vendor records and everything else that is far, far out of Kris’s league. Like, stratospheres out of his league. A year and a half spent half-assing his way through business school and he can barely handle inputting raw data into an Excel spreadsheet, nevermind crunching the numbers.
All of this needs to be sorted through before Ryland comes in tomorrow, but Kris isn’t halfway near awake enough to deal with it yet. He shakes off his coat and wanders back out onto the floor.
“Hey,” he says, “do you guys know if we have any Kings of Leon?”
Andrew abandons the jazz section and searches through the racks on the other side of the room. “Nothing past 2007,” he says. “What’re you looking for?”
“Aha Shake Heartbreak,” Kris says. He can feel Cale staring at him curiously, but he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge him.
After a minute Andrew comes over with the CD in tow. He hands it over and mutters, “Sellouts,” underneath his breath before walking away.
“Why’re you looking for that?” asks Cale.
“No reason,” Kris lies. “I was just thinking about it. It’s good fall weather music, don’t you think?”
Cale lifts an eyebrow. “If you say so.”
Kris takes the CD back with him into the office, studying the cover art for a minute before he tosses it aside. Whatever. He doesn’t have time for this. Too much work to get done and too little time.
He really needs more coffee.
There is not enough coffee in the world, Adam thinks, for him to face the day. Not this early in the morning, anyway.
He takes the mocha latte from the pudgy girl behind the counter and blows steam off the top. God bless whoever created Starbucks. There’s one practically every fifty feet. If anything’s going to get Adam through this day, it’ll be the power of caffeine. Sweet, sweet caffeine.
“—so the contractor’s all set, they’re installing the shelves tomorrow. The electrician says the wiring will be finished by next week, tops, and—” Beside him, Anoop halts mid-sentence. “You’re not even listening to me, are you?”
“Blah blah contractor, blah blah wiring.” Adam rolls his eyes, all the while knowing the effect is lost on Anoop since they’re hidden behind his dark sunglasses. “Give me the Cliff’s Notes. Construction’s on schedule, then?”
“Yes,” Anoop says, “and you have a meeting with your father in half an hour.”
“Lovely,” Adam says, taking a sip of his latte.
Bad idea. It nearly scalds his tongue. He starts coughing, and Anoop, always at the ready, hands him a napkin.
Adam mops off his mouth, trying not to wheeze. “So I guess this means we’ll be making the announcement soon.”
“Probably,” agrees Anoop. “You worried?”
“Why would I be worried?”
“I don’t know, maybe because neighborhood response to large commercial chain stores cropping up and contributing to ever-increasing gentrification is not generally favorable?”
Adam waves him off with one hand. “Please,” he snorts. “They always say that. But only at first. Hasn’t ever stopped Wal-Mart or—” He turns and gestures to the counter behind them, “Starbucks, has it? People will hate us for maybe two seconds. And then they’ll see our prices, our amazing selection, our beautiful interior design, and the mom-and-pop shop loyalty will disappear. It’s unstoppable. It’s capitalism, baby. And Starlight Records is American capitalism at its finest.”
“Uh-huh,” Anoop says, only half-listening because he started texting halfway into Adam’s diatribe. He tucks the phone back into his pocket and jerks his head toward the door. “Let’s get you to that meeting.”
The thing is, Adam was never supposed to be heir to Starlight Records. Even though technically he’s first in line of succession, his younger brother Neil was always the star student, the one who seemed to be primed to take the reins when the time came. However, Neil had eschewed any inherited responsibility to the family business and instead gone in the opposite direction— working for Rave, a music magazine with a political bent that covers the underground music scene. It’s the opposite of the very commercial, very slick Starlight Records empire.
Music is in the Lambert blood, though; no one in the family escaped it. Adam didn’t plan on being his father’s successor, but it actually worked out pretty well. He was savvy and a quick learner, he’d always loved music, and he knew what appealed to the masses more than anything. It’s a job he’s good at—and one where no one will bat an eye at his dyed hair and eyeliner and peculiar fashion choices. After managing the L.A. store for three years, he felt more than ready to oversee the newest New York one. Especially when the offer was so well-timed—coming on the heels of a nasty breakup with his long-term boyfriend Brad, a time when Adam jumped at the chance to put a couple thousand miles between the two of them.
Staring out at the gray Manhattan skyline from his father’s office on the Upper West Side is a stark reminder that yes, New York is definitely not L.A.
“So, Anoop,” Eber says, “what’s the latest?”
Anoop stands up from the expensive leather couch and pulls out a notepad. “Well, apparently Mason Music on Bleecker Street has gone under.”
“What a shame,” Eber says, grinning from behind his massive mahogany desk. He twirls a pen between his fingers. “What other competition do we have left, then?”
“Not much in the neighborhood,” Anoop says. “Looks like there’s a Christian music store called Gokey’s, but that’s nothing, really. And…” He flips through a few note pages. “Oh, here it is. The Red Guitar.”
Eber tilts his head. “Never heard of it.”
“I did some research, but I couldn’t turn up much info,” Anoop reports. “All I know is that it used to be owned by a guy of the name Fisher Allen, but looks like he died a few years ago. His nephew, Kris Allen, runs the place now.”
“Hmm,” Eber says. “Okay, where are we at with construction?”
As Anoop launches into the same spiel Adam already heard earlier, Adam looks out the window again. He misses L.A. sometimes, but he does appreciate how New York has, like, actual seasons. The thought reminds him of the email he sent out late last night, and he smiles a little to himself.
It was so ridiculous—his first birthday post-Brad, still new to New York and surrounded by cardboard boxes he was too depressed to unpack, drunk off too much vodka and so lonely it hurt, he’d made that stupid post on Craigslist on a whim. The next morning he’d forgotten about it completely until he checked his inbox and saw a slew of messages replying. He almost deleted them without looking, but curiosity had gotten the better of him, and even through the haze of a hangover, Guitarguy’s had stuck out to him—somehow sweet, earnest, and intriguing all at the same time.
From that random, drunken night had blossomed a surprising—well, it seemed weird to call it a friendship, since Adam doesn’t know if you can consider someone whose name you don’t even know to be a friend, but that’s what it is. Kind of. In any case, it’d been the last thing Adam ever expected. Funny how things work out sometimes.
But even though he likes his odd kinship with Guitarguy, he still made a vow to himself to never drink and net surf again. Next time he’ll probably accidentally put himself up on Ebay as a sex slave or something.
Subject: Quarter well spent
There’s this homeless guy who sits outside of the café I eat lunch at, and every day I give him a quarter, and then later on my way out, I give him a bread roll. When I first moved here, I had a really hard time learning not to give something to every person on the street who asks for it. There aren’t any homeless people where I grew up. It was so weird to me how easily everyone could just ignore them here, act like they don’t even exist. But I guess you get used to it—I’m sort of used to it now. I don’t know how to feel about that.
I don’t mind giving things to Gus, though. Gus is the name of the guy outside the café every day. We have the same exchange every afternoon. I walk up to him and say, “Hey Gus.”
Gus says, “Hey.”
I say, “How’s it going?”
He says, “Right as rain.”
I say, “Good to hear,” and hand him a quarter.
In five minutes—after I send this email and eat the rest of my eggplant sandwich—I’ll wrap up my roll in a napkin and give it to him as I leave, and Gus will tell me to have a good day. And hey, that’s always nice to hear. I think it’s worth a quarter, anyway.
“Adam. Adam. Adam!”
Adam looks up at Anoop standing in the doorway. “What?” he snaps.
“I just said your name like eight times, man.” Anoop takes a step into the office, a half smile flitting over his face. “What are you looking at?”
“Nothing,” Adam says quickly, slamming the laptop shut. “Seriously, this is my lunch hour. What do you want now?”
“The sign guy’s here. You asked me to come get you.”
“Right, right.” Adam sets aside the laptop and his open carton of kung pao chicken.
He follows Anoop through the back exit, walking around the building. As they turn the corner, he almost bumps into a woman dressed in rags pushing a shopping cart full of garbage bags. Anoop brushes by heedlessly, but Adam pauses, taking in the woman. She’s old with leathery skin and matted gray hair and wearing nothing but sandals, even though it’s already starting to get cold.
He fumbles for his rhinestone-studded wallet and slides out a five dollar bill.
“Here you go,” he says, smiling as he extends it to her.
The woman narrows her eyes for a moment, mouth pulled down, but then she snatches it from his hand and rushes away, muttering to herself as she pushes the cart. Well. That was less satisfying than he thought it’d be.
When he turns back around, Anoop is standing there, staring at him.
He feels a flush creep up his neck. “What?”
“You’re acting weird today,” Anoop says, falling in step beside him as Adam catches up.
Adam shrugs. “What, I’m not allowed to be nice sometimes?” he says defensively. Yeah, okay, so giving handouts to the homeless isn’t exactly his modus operandi, but it shouldn’t be that shocking. He’s not a heartless bastard or anything.
“Okay, buddy, let’s just go look at the sign.”
They walk around to the side of the building facing the street, where the painter is on a ladder, coloring in the letters with dark shimmery silver. It spells out COMING SOON: STARLIGHT RECORDS.
“What do you think?” Anoop asks.
Adam surveys it and nods. “I like it. I’m glad we went with glittery over plain red. Red’s threatening. Glittery is inviting. Glitter says, ‘Come check us out. We’re big, we’re fun, we have exactly what you want and what you never realized you can’t live without.’”
“Really? Glitter says all of that?”
“And more. Just wait and see.” He claps Anoop on the shoulder heartily and smiles. “We’re going to be one big, sparkly Mecca for music lovers.”
“We’ve got a problem.”
That’s the last thing Kris needs to hear right now. Ryland’s due in an hour, and he still has to enter this week’s time cards into the system. He hates being stuck behind a computer like this. He’s not meant for it. It’s one thing to rattle off stupid emails into the void, and it’s another to stare at spreadsheets until his eyes cross. Numbers make his head hurt.
Kris rubs his forehead with one hand. “Don’t tell me you plugged up the toilet again.” Cale’s the only one good with a plunger, but he’ll bitch up a storm if he has to do it, and Kris isn’t in the mood to plea with him right now.
“No, not that,” Matt says. “This is bigger than that. Just—come out here.”
Kris realizes he’ll probably regret this, but he’s willing to take any excuse to get out of this tiny excuse for an office, so he pushes back from the desk and follows Matt out onto the floor. He’s gathered everyone around the counter, and they’re all huddled around Matt’s cell phone.
“What is it?” he asks tiredly, coming up between Cale and Andrew.
Matt shows him his phone, where there’s a somewhat blurry camera picture of the side of a building where the words COMING SOON: STARLIGHT RECORDS are spelled out in giant, glittery letters.
“I walked by it this morning,” Matt explains. “Dude, it’s literally up the street. Like, less than two blocks away.”
“This is not good,” Andrew grumbles.
Kris shakes his head. “No, it has nothing to do with us,” he says. “I mean, it’s Starlight Records. They only sell what’s popular. They’re not gonna have what we have. It’s totally different, you know?”
Andrew and Matt shoot him skeptical looks, but Cale slings an arm over Kris’s shoulder.
“Kris is right,” he says encouragingly. “Starlight Records isn’t like us. They don’t have any charm.”
“You think The Red Guitar has charm?” Matt laughs, sweeping an arm around the room. “Come on, just look at this place.”
Okay, so maybe the store could use some work. The carpet hasn’t been vacuumed in months, the sign outside needs to be repainted, the door sticks when you push it, there’s still a hole from that one time a band came for a show and the lead singer got into a drunken brawl with his drummer and punched the wall. Kris doesn’t even want to look in the stock room—it’s a mountain of useless crap and stinks like mold.
Cale rolls his eyes. “Whatever. Starlight is corporate and impersonal. And there’s no way they’re going to carry Subway Sect or Os Mutantes or Don Cherry.”
“Yeah,” Kris says, nodding, trying to convince himself of it. He tries to ignore the fact that not many people these days come here in search of those bands. In fact, he was forced to start stocking some shitty popular music awhile ago to keep the inventory moving. That’s the majority of what’s sold recently. “We’ll be fine.”
Unfortunately, the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach tells him otherwise.
Sometimes I wish I was a girl. I mean, not really—don’t worry, this isn’t some sexual identity crisis I’m dumping on you or anything. I just really love shoes, and women always have the best shoe selections. I was walking down 5th Avenue today and went right by Bergdorf Goodman, and I swear, I had to stop and stare at the store front for ten minutes. There was this pair of gorgeous black six inch stilettos. Those trademark red soles are to die for. If I were a woman, I would wear nothing but Louboutins all the time.
I’m almost tempted to buy myself a pair and wear them anyway. They’d have to be custom made, though, my feet aren’t that narrow. But it could work. Maybe. Wouldn’t be the strangest thing to grace the Meatpacking District by a long shot, would it?
After a few years in the city, the closest person Kris has to a best friend is Cale. Cale had been working for Kris’s uncle for two years before Kris even showed up at all. He was the first one to take Kris under his wing, introduce him to life in the city. If it weren’t for Cale, Kris wouldn’t have known to buy a humidifier for the winter that was so dry it could’ve wrecked the wood of his guitar, that there are separate entrances for the downtown and uptown trains that somehow become apparent only after you’ve swiped your Metrocard, jaywalking is not only allowed but encouraged, never eat curry from that one place on Canal, and that if you offer the hobo on the subway your leftover sandwich instead of money, he’ll probably just spit on you for your trouble.
Cale was even there when Kris met Katy in that bar in Chelsea. If it weren’t for Cale, he never would’ve ordered her that dirty martini from across the room and ended up with her phone number.
Cale is the one person he can tell pretty much anything.
“Do you think you can cheat on someone over the internet?” Kris blurts out, playing with the frayed ends of his shoelaces.
“Depends,” Cale says, pushing a rag around on the counter to dust it off. “If you’re cyber sexing, yeah. Or sending someone naked web cam photos.” He pauses to look up at Kris. “Are you cheating on Katy with someone from the internet?”
“No!” Kris says hastily. “No, I mean, I haven’t—no. There’s just… there’s this guy I’ve been talking to for awhile.” It’s no secret to either Cale or Katy that Kris’s sexuality is… open. Before he met Katy, he’d hooked up with a few guys—he can count them on one hand easily—but the furthest he ever got was being on the receiving end of a sloppy blowjob in a bar bathroom. “We just email. It’s nothing, you know. Bad. But sometimes I think it’s… I don’t know. Inappropriate?”
“Hmm. Is he cute?”
“I don’t know what he looks like.”
“Hmm,” Cale says again. “How did you meet this guy?”
“It’s…complicated.” Yes, Kris can tell Cale pretty much anything, but the Craigslist ad is just a little too embarrassing to share. “All we do is email. I know he’s in his twenties and lives in the city. We have, like, this rule. We don’t talk about anything that could give away who we are.”
Kris braces himself for a “you’re failing at being a cynical New Yorker” speech, but Cale just hmms again and goes back to swiping down the counter.
“How’d it go with Ryland?” he asks.
Ryland left along with Andrew and Matt half an hour ago, leaving Kris and Cale to close up. Just in case some impulse music buyer decides to burst through the door at the last minute. With ten minutes before they officially close and the store having been completely dead for the past hour, it’s not looking likely.
“He got this weird look on his face when I mentioned Starlight opening up,” Kris says. “Like, he didn’t say anything, but I could tell… I don’t know. We’re barely treading water as it is. I’m kind of freaked out.”
“Don’t worry,” Cale assures him. “The Red Guitar is practically a neighborhood institution. It’s been around forever.”
“Yeah, that didn’t save CBGB’s.” And The Red Guitar is no CBGB’s.
“Look, if you’re worried, we can try to do some stuff to drum up business. Get the sign redone, spruce the place up a bit, see if we can book some more shows.”
It has been awhile since they got any bands to play. It probably won’t do much for business, but at least it’s something. And Kris can drag his vacuum cleaner from home, since the one here has a broken belt. Yeah, maybe all the place needs is some spit and elbow grease.
On the way out, Cale throws a friendly arm around Kris’s shoulders. “Starlight can’t compete with us, all right? Yeah, okay, they may have discounts, but they don’t have the same service. Andrew’s a fucking encyclopedia of musical knowledge, Ryland knows the numbers, Matt can sell ice to an Eskimo, and you’re like window dressing. Drawing them in with the pretty.”
“Shut up,” Kris laughs, shoving Cale off and turning up the collar on his coat. “So what purpose do you serve, then?”
“I’m the middle man. I keep you from going insane and killing us all,” Cale teases, grinning wide.
Kris punches him in the shoulder and laughs again. The sad thing is, it’s not far from the truth.
Subject: re: Hello
Sometimes I wonder about my life. I feel like I fall into everything I have. It’s not that I’m unhappy—I’m not at all. But sometimes I think maybe I’m just... content. Like maybe I should push for something more. I think I worry that if I do, I’ll lose what I already have, the things I know are at the very least comfortable and familiar. I guess the real question here is: Is it better to be unfulfilled but content, or unhappy with your decisions but knowing that at least you were brave in making them?
I’m not great at it, but every once in awhile I try and write songs on my guitar. They all feel so empty. Something’s missing, but I don’t know what. I wish I knew.
“I didn’t expect you to be here already.”
Neil sets his copy of the Village Voice down on the table and grins up at Adam. It’s been a few weeks since Adam last saw him, but Neil looks exactly the same—unkempt hair, the scrape of stubble on his cheeks, wearing some tight ironic tee and a worn leather jacket. Neil isn’t big on shopping; Adam definitely inherited all of those family genes.
“Timeliness. It’s this new thing I’m trying,” Neil replies. He gestures to the seat across from him. “Sit down. I ordered you a Coke already.”
Adam drops into the chair across from him and looks around. This café isn’t one he’s been to before; it’s close to Starlight, though, and Neil was the one who suggested it. The inside was crowded due to the lunch hour, so they’re seated in a corner outside, next to the sidewalk.
“How’ve you been, kid?” Neil says, like he’s the older one here. Condescending prick.
“Fine,” Adam says breezily, flipping through the menu. “What about you, Mr. Rolling Stone?”
“Rolling Stone? You’re grouping me in with those hacks? Oh, you wound me.” Neil chuckles. “It’s good, it’s good. And you? How’s the business of destroying the American Dream going?”
“Ah, yes, chain stores that allow people to buy what they want within their means. How evil.”
Neil just laughs again. It’s kind of completely irritating. Their waitress comes over and sets a frosted glass of Coke in front of Adam and a decaf chai tea for Neil.
“You ready to order?” she asks brightly, whipping out her notepad.
“I’ll take the humus plate,” Neil tells her, and then looks at Adam.
Adam scans the menu again and smiles a little. “I’ll have the eggplant sandwich, thank you.”
After the waitress has walked away, Neil raises his eyebrows. “Since when do you eat eggplant?”
“Since when do you drink chai tea?” Adam shoots back.
The deflection works, thank God. “I’m cutting down on caffeine,” Neil explains. He pulls a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket and lights one, blowing smoke from the side of his mouth.
“Yeah,” Adam deadpans, “because caffeine is such a nasty habit.”
Even with the bickering, it is nice to see Neil. He is family, after all, and it’s not like Adam has an abundance of friends here in New York—plenty of friendly acquaintances, yes, but Anoop is the only one he talks to on a regular basis. Well, aside from Guitarguy, but that doesn’t really count, does it? And if Anoop wasn’t on the payroll, he doubts they’d spend time together at all. Anoop is pretty much paid to like Adam.
“You busy tomorrow night?” Neil asks.
Adam pauses from chewing his sandwich. He’s never actually had eggplant before; he’s not crazy about it, but it would look stupid to not finish what he ordered. “I don’t think so,” he says. Like he even needs to think about it. He doesn’t do anything more than work these days. “Why?”
“I have to cover this concert Friday night,” he explains. “Cassidy Haley and the Comets. Ever heard of them?”
“Are they on the Billboard charts?”
“Then they’re not relevant enough for me to care.”
“Come on, you should go with me,” Neil wheedles. It surprises Adam, because Neil isn’t the type to ask for much. Especially not from him. “I have an extra ticket, and I think you’d actually like them.” He pauses, and then pulls the card he must know Adam can’t turn down: “Plus— and I make this observation from a completely objective heterosexual perspective— the lead singer is very hot. And gay.”
Adam can’t deny the fact that this is the most appealing part of the offer. “Oh?”
“You barely go out anymore,” Neil points out. “Have you even dated anyone since Brad?”
Is that what this is about? Is Neil actually… concerned?
Okay, so maybe Adam hasn’t dated lately. But he’s just been… busy. He doesn’t have time to go out and meet people. Even if he did, he’s not really looking to jump into a relationship right now. Sure, he could go and hook up with random guys if he wanted, but really, what’s the point? It feels like a waste of time, and he’s getting too old for that.
Still, maybe it would be a good idea to get out. Take a break from all this business crap. And for some reason it seems to be important to Neil that he does this.
“Fine,” he relents, “I’ll go.”
After they eat, they wander out to the street, and it’s while Neil’s stubbing out a cigarette that Adam looks across the street and notices the store there. The Red Guitar. The outside is so non-descript he’s a little surprised he notices it at all.
“Hey.” He tugs on Neil’s sleeve. “Have you heard about that place?”
Neil squints across the street. “The Red Guitar? Yeah, I know of it. It’s a niche store. Underground stuff, mostly. Pretty cool.”
“I want to check it out,” Adam says. He’s curious—the shop looks like nothing on the outside. It couldn’t possibly be any competition for Starlight. No way. It’s maybe a sixth of the size. Still, it’s worth a look. Might as well see what he’s up against. Besides, it’s not often he gets to one-up Anoop, the guy who knows everything about everything.
The bell chimes merrily when Adam pushes through the door. He blinks a few times, adjusting to the dimmer lights, and slowly looks around the shop. It’s not much more on the inside than it was on the outside. There are shelves and carts full of CDs, shelves packed with vinyl records, and a few dollar bins stuffed with a random assortment of albums.
As he’s sifting through one of the bins, some guy sporting a black fedora saunters over.
“Hey!” he says enthusiastically. “Can I help you?”
“I’m just looking,” he says. He pulls out an old Soundgarden album and looks down at it. He used to listen to this CD in high school. “Interesting selection you guys have here.”
“We specialize in finding what most stores don’t bother to look for,” the fedora guy says. He’s a little like an over eager puppy, rocking back and forth on his heels. “You’re sure you’re not looking for anything in particular? Because if you are—”
“Matt, calm down. You’re gonna scare off the customers.”
Adam looks over to see a shorter guy walking up to them. He’s cute, his rumpled brown hair sculpted into a faux hawk, except it looks like it was on accident and without the aid of any product, and he has on a too-big dusty green army jacket and tight black jeans. His smile is easygoing, reaching all the way to his eyes. Something about it makes Adam smile back automatically.
“Andrew needs you to help him sort through the new shipment,” the cute guy says to the one with the fedora—Matt. “I’ve got this, okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, all right,” Matt says reluctantly, like it hurts his soul to be torn away from customers.
Once he’s gone, the cute guy turns back to Adam with another grin.
“Sorry. I know he can be a little much sometimes,” he says.
Adam drops the Soundgarden CD back into the bin and shakes his head. “Oh, no, it’s totally fine.”
“You need any help?” he asks, and Adam’s a little shocked that he’s getting this much attention, considering all he’s done is rifle through the dollar bin. Not exactly the markings of a customer who’s going to drop much money in one place.
“Actually,” he says, sneaking a look over at Neil, who’s busy studying the fliers pinned to the bulletin board near the door, “can I ask—do you have anything a little more… mainstream?”
The guy leads Adam over to a rack of CDs full of current Top 40 artists. It’s the only one of its kind.
“I know it’s not much,” he admits, “but we’ve tried to expand a little.”
“No, no, this is good.” Adam surveys the albums and bites back a grin. One rack? One measly rack dedicated to what’s actually selling these days? Oh, this place is so doomed.
“Whatcha looking at?”
Neil’s voice from behind makes him jump, and Adam whirls around, glaring.
“Hey,” Neil says, “you wouldn’t happen to carry the latest Cassidy Haley and the Comets EP, would you? I’m trying to convert my brother here.”
The guy’s eyes go wide. “Are you kidding? You mean House of Cards? Of course. I love it.” He practically runs over to another cart, digs around or a minute and comes back with the disc. “Cassidy actually comes here a lot. He used to do some of his earlier shows here, back when he had only, like, five fans. His music keeps getting better and better. My favorite track off this one is Rundown. The first fifteen seconds—”
“—are phenomenal,” Neil finishes, more animated than he’s been all afternoon. “I know, right? The way it starts with the minor key guitar strum, and then the slightly dissonant second guitar line kicks in—“
“—and it’s, like, kind of harsh and crunchy and distant—”
“And then boom, out of left field you get hit with this horn motif that’s reminiscent of Burt Bacharach.”
“Yeah, exactly!” The guy’s whole face lights up. It’s sort of adorable. “I don’t know if the horns are a keyboard effect or not, but still, I love it. It’s such an awesome hook.”
“It is,” agrees Neil, grinning back.
Adam looks back and forth between them. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but what was your name?”
“Kris Allen. I’m the owner.” Kris sticks out a hand, and Adam shakes it. So this is the guy. He’s shorter than what Adam had envisioned. Also cuter. “And what was yours?”
“I’m Adam,” he says quickly. “You can just call me Adam.”
“Yes, he only goes by one name. Like Madonna,” snarks Neil, and Adam turns to shoot him a pointed look. For fuck’s sake, can’t he just keep his mouth shut for once?
“Okay then. Just Adam.” Kris’s grin stretches even wider.
“You know, you’ve convinced me,” Adam says, holding up the CD. “I think I need to hear this epic song for myself.”
Kris leads them up to the counter, where a taller bearded guy is standing at the register. The bearded guy chats up Neil as he scans the CD and makes change from Adam’s twenty dollar bill.
“Damn,” Neil says, picking up a copy of Rave off the counter. “You guys carry this?”
“Of course,” the bearded guy says, like it’d be stupid if they didn’t. Adam leans over to peer at the cover. He’s never actually seen Rave for sale anywhere; if it wasn’t for his subscription, he’d almost believe Neil made the whole thing up.
Neil puts the magazine back down on the pile. “I think I’m going to have to come back here.”
“See?” The bearded guy nudges Kris with one elbow. “We’re not going under. We have customer loyalty.”
“Cale,” Kris says warningly, and then turns to Adam and adds by way of explanation, “There’s a Starlight Records opening right up the street from us.”
Adam’s throat goes tight. He tries to school his face into an expression of nothing more than mild interest. “Oh?”
“Obviously we’re not as flashy, or big, and we can’t slash prices like they can,” Kris says, “but it’s not about that. It’s about—” He pauses, searching for the word.
“Integrity,” Cale supplies helpfully.
“Yes!” Kris snaps his fingers. “Integrity. My uncle ran this place for fifteen years. It’s not just about selling records, you know? He believed in connecting people to music they wouldn’t normally get a chance to hear. And giving people a place to meet people like them, who felt the same way about music as they did. That’s what The Red Guitar stands for.” He stops, face going a little red. “Sorry, I’m rambling here.”
Adam shifts his gaze to over Kris’s shoulder, where a black and white photo is framed on the wall. It’s of a stocky balding man standing outside of what is obviously The Red Guitar, arms crossed over his chest and a prideful smile on his face.
“Is that your uncle?” he asks, nodding toward the picture.
Kris turns around to glance at it, and then back at Adam. “It is. He left the store to me. And I’m not gonna let it go anywhere.”
“So Starlight Records…” Adam says.
“Is the devil,” Cale says cheerfully, popping the CD in a little brown paper bag and passing it to him.
“They really are,” Neil agrees with a smirk. Adam bites down on the inside of his cheek to refrain from smacking him on the back of the head.
“We should get going,” he says to Cale and Kris. “It was nice meeting you.”
“You too,” Cale says.
As they walk out the door, Kris calls, “Come back soon!”
Once they’re on the street, Neil shoves his hands in his pockets and shakes his head. “You know, a place like that’s already been almost destroyed by illegal downloading. When you guys open—” he starts, but Adam cuts him off, hitting him on the shoulder.
“Shut up,” he says, “just—shut up and let it go.”
“All right, all right.” Neil puts his hands up in a defensive gesture. “I’ll drop it.”
Adam rakes a hand through his black hair with a sigh. He thought it would be fun to scope out the competition, but now he just feels sort of weird about it. Damn Kris Allen for being all cute and likeable and shit. Hurting his business feels like kicking a harmless puppy.
But whatever. This is just the way the world works. It’s not Adam’s problem.