Chapter 1

IT WAS seven in the morning when the alarm clock belonging to Gustavo Tiberius rang and he opened his eyes. He looked up at the ceiling and thought, Today is going to be an okay day.

He rolled out of bed and onto the floor and began the set of one hundred push-ups. Pastor Tommy had told him that a body was a temple and should be treated as such. Granted, Pastor Tommy wasn’t really a pastor and he’d been stoned out of his mind when he’d said it, but the point remained the same. “God gave you that body, boy,” Pastor Tommy said. “Make sure you take care of it. Now, it seems as if I have the munchies. Please bring me the coffee cake and the liter of orange Slice from the pantry. I’m completely ripped and feel the need to disparage Hemingway as a pretentious hack.”

Gustavo’s arms burned in a good way by the time he’d finished. He stood and looked down at the small chest of drawers next to his bed. On top of the drawers was a calendar advertised as having 365 DAYS OF INSPIRATIONAL QUOTES! EVERY DAY IS A NEW MESSAGE OF HOPE! It’d been given to him by the We Three Queens, the trio of elderly lesbians who were either sisters or in a polyamorous relationship. He hadn’t worked up the courage yet to ask. He didn’t know the proper way to broach the subject of either being related or in a threesome. But that wasn’t anything new; he didn’t know how to broach many subjects at all.

Gustavo (or Gus, as he preferred to be called because what the hell had Pastor Tommy been smoking the day he’d named his only child?) tore off the previous day’s meandering and read the 135th inspirational message of the year.

There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.

“That is probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever read,” Gus muttered.

Gus hated inspirational messages, but the We Three Queens felt he tended to be a bit dour and needed daily affirmations. Gus had learned early on that when lesbians gave you presents, you accepted them with a smile on your face. If you didn’t, there was the potential that the lesbians (who were either sisters or lovers and he really needed to find a way to ask) would come to your house with tuna or beef casseroles every day for a week and make you eat it in front of them all the while telling you that you deserved nice things and honestly, Gus, stop making that face, it’ll freeze that way and where will you be then?

So Gus had promised to try, but the We Three Queens were not in his room this morning and therefore he didn’t need to hide that he was not inspired, and in fact, he was pretty much the opposite of inspired because of the inspirational message.

But that was okay. He only had two hundred and thirty more to go. The joy he felt at such a thought knew no bounds.

And they’d better not give him another one next year.

He would simply lock his door to avoid further casseroles.

Before he could ruminate on the further shortcomings of being inspired so early in the morning, Harry S. Truman chittered behind him from somewhere out in the hall.

Not the Harry S. Truman, mind you. No, that Harry S. Truman had died of multiple organ failure in December of 1972, so it would be quite startling to have him in Gustavo’s house, demanding to be fed. Gus wouldn’t know what to do if he’d been haunted by the ghost of a former president. Just his luck, President Truman would probably have a million more inspirational quotes and Gus would have to find an exorcist or something to get the president to rest in peace and leave Gus alone. He’d feel bad about that, at least for a little bit. And he didn’t know how to go about finding presidential exorcists. It seemed like a lot of work.

No, this Harry S. Truman was a three-year-old albino ferret that Pastor Tommy had adopted before he’d died. On his deathbed, body riddled with cancer, Pastor Tommy had made Gus promise that he’d care for Harry S. Truman for the rest of his days.

“He’s my spirit animal,” Pastor Tommy had said. “Like, guides me and shit. Shows me the great secrets of the universe. He can be yours, you know? If you want.”

“Sure,” Gus had said, eyes burning ever so lightly. “Yeah. Okay.”

“You’re a good son,” Pastor Tommy said with a smile. “Now, bring me my bong and let’s watch House Hunters International and make fun of the people when they pick the worst fucking house because they always do, oh my god.”

Harry S. Truman was waiting for Gus in the hall, red eyes watching, whiskers twitching. When he saw he had Gus’s attention, Harry S. Truman chittered again and ran toward him, little legs sinking into the carpet. As soon as he reached Gus, he lay flat on his stomach, blocking Gus from taking any further steps. He knew it was the easiest way to get Gus’s attention.

“You’re a jerk,” Gus told him, but he reached down and picked up Harry S. Truman, who proceeded to climb on his shoulder and lick his hair.

Gus walked to the kitchen as Harry S. Truman bathed him and snuffled his ear wetly. Gus tried not to grimace, but it was a close thing. He was used to ferret baths by now, but it didn’t mean he appreciated whiskers in his ears. But, like the president, the ferret Harry S. Truman didn’t give a shit about what whiskers went where, so Gus dealt with it.

Harry S. Truman jumped off his shoulder and onto the counter when Gus bent down to the cabinet near the sink, chatting away with his little clicks and squeaks. Gus rattled his pellets in their rubber container, and Harry S. Truman spun in a circle.

Gus filled his bowl, made sure he had fresh water, then sat on the floor next to Harry S. Truman while he dug through the pellets, eating an apple and thinking.

“I’m not going to take the elevator,” Gus said, finally deciding. “Or even the stairs. I’m fine just the way I am.”

Harry S. Truman ignored him completely, but that was okay.

 

 

GUSTAVO TIBERIUS (no middle name because Pastor Tommy didn’t think they were necessary. Come on, Gus, why do you need three names when your two are already brilliant? Gus didn’t know if he quite agreed with Pastor Tommy on that last) was twenty-nine years old on this 135th day. He was alive, had no zits on his face this morning, and had good gums. His skin was pale, and his dark hair needed a cut, curling down around his forehead and neck. He’d tried to shave his head once, but found out only after he’d done so that his head was disproportionately big compared to the rest of his body and he looked odd. Pastor Tommy had said he absolutely did not look like a penis, for which Gus was grateful, but then Pastor Tommy had apologized for lying and said he absolutely did look like a penis. Gus never shaved his head again.

He had blue eyes that Pastor Tommy had described as Eurotrash pleasant (what the hell?) and had spent a year when he was six convinced they were too close together and taped the edges back every morning in an attempt to stretch them out. It hadn’t worked, but by the time he’d turned seven, he’d discovered poker and forgot all about being beady-eyed because he was too busy owning Pastor Tommy and winning hundreds of dollars in Monopoly money.

He had a nose and ears too, but he didn’t have problems with those, so….

Gus looked at himself in the mirror and flexed his arms. It lasted only momentarily because Gustavo Tiberius was not a douchebag. At least not a complete douchebag. His arms had bumps on them that could be construed as muscles, so he thought flexing maybe every once in a while was okay. Not all the time, though. He had some dignity, after all.

The We Three Queens said he was too skinny, but he thought it was the duty of elderly ladies everywhere to say that about young people, so he didn’t think much about it.

He showered and shaved and brushed his teeth. He grinned at his reflection, but it was awkward so he stopped. Smiling was always awkward for him. He knew very well that he had resting bitch face, but there was nothing he could do about that. So he didn’t. People said he should smile more. He generally avoided those people.

He dressed in his work uniform, put on his name tag (though, really, Abby, Oregon, only had six hundred and fifty-seven people in it and everyone knew who he was, much to his dismay), and mentally prepared himself to walk out the door and interact with the human race.

Today was going to be an okay day.

He secured Harry S. Truman in the pet carrier, the ferret grumbling at him, opened the front door to the house, and began to face his day.

 

 

TO START, he only had to walk across the street to Lottie’s Lattes, a coffee shop with the most ridiculous name. He’d told Lottie as such, and she’d grinned at him and made him drink a fruit smoothie instead of his usual black coffee. It was sweet and creamy and everything about it had been terrible, so he kept his opinions on alliteration to himself (it was an awful thing and anyone who thought otherwise should be punished accordingly).

It was cool outside, but the sky was blue and the sun was bright. Birds were chirping and people said hello as they walked down the street. Gus did his best not to scowl, because apparently it was unbecoming of him (Gus, oh my god stop with that face, as said by Pastor Tommy, may he rest in peace). He even managed to grunt a hello back once and congratulated himself silently for doing so well.

The bell rang overhead chipper and welcoming, and Gus rolled his eyes.

Lottie stood behind the counter, all four foot three of her, big frizzy hair dyed an alarming shade of red. (“I was a drag queen in a past life,” she’d confided in him once.) She was in her fifties and honestly took no shit from anyone. He’d seen her take down a man twice her size with a swift kick to the nuts when he’d drunkenly made an aggressive pass at her. She was calm and peaceful, but she believed that sometimes violence was the only answer. “With great power comes great responsibility,” she’d told him solemnly, and he had to remind her that was Spider-Man and she had drag queen hair. Lottie also had a shotgun she kept hidden underneath the counter. She had named it LeVar Burton, but kept the reason why to herself. Gus thought it was because Lottie got a lady boner over Kunta/La Forge/Reading Rainbow.

“Your aura is brown today,” Lottie said in lieu of a greeting.

Gus frowned. He didn’t believe in auras or crystals or whatever hippie-dippie bullshit Lottie subscribed to, but why was it brown? “What does that mean?” he asked, trying to sound like he didn’t care at all. He thought he succeeded admirably.

She shrugged. “I have no idea. I can see them. I don’t research them. I don’t have time. No one else is going to make these banana-nut muffins.” Then she narrowed her eyes and said, “Best supporting actor category and winner 1957.”

“Anthony Quinn, Don Murray, Anthony Perkins, Mickey Rooney, and Robert Stack,” Gus recited automatically. “Anthony Quinn won for Lust for Life.”

She sighed. “One day, I’ll get you,” she said. “I still don’t know how you know every single Academy Award category and winner ever.”

“It’s a gift,” Gus said.

“Like the auras,” she said, nodding sagely.

No. Not like the auras. Because those were bullshit. “Exactly,” he said because he didn’t want a goddamn fruit smoothie this morning. Or a muffin.

She began to pour his coffee. “How is the president today?”

Harry S. Truman squeaked.

“Good,” she said. “His aura is red. Like his eyes. It mixes strangely with your brown.”

“That’s super,” Gus said and realized he was not a sixteen-year-old girl and immediately struck the word super from his vocabulary. He should have said stupendous. It sounded much more age-appropriate. And sarcastic.

“Robert Stack is handsome,” she said, putting a lid on his coffee. “I wouldn’t shove that out of my bed in the morning.”

“He’s dead,” Gus said. “I hope he wouldn’t be in your bed. You don’t strike me as a necrophiliac.” But then, what did he know? She saw auras. Maybe the simple fact of Robert Stack being deceased wouldn’t stop her carnal lust.

“My mother was a hemophiliac,” she offered.

He stared at her.

“What did you learn today?” she asked, ignoring the look on his face, as she was prone to do. It was annoying that she had somehow become impervious to his facial expressions. He told himself he’d just have to try harder next time.

“Don’t take elevators for success because the cables could snap and you would plummet to your death. Take the stairs but watch your back because someone could push you down and you could break your neck.”

She wrinkled her nose. “That doesn’t sound very inspirational.”

“Lesbians,” he said, because that explained everything. And if not, then it should. He thought more of the world’s problems could be solved that way.

“Or Gus,” Lottie said, that knowing glint in her eyes.

He scowled.

“Muffin?” she asked sweetly. “They’re banana nut. I made them, in case you didn’t know.”

He scowled harder.

She gave him a muffin anyway.

He scowled the hardest of all.

“And your coffee,” she said, handing him the cup, having drawn a heart on it around his name. “As black as your soul.”

“I thought I was brown,” he said, grimacing at the heart. It was cute. God, he hated fucking cute. It went the way of super.

She grinned. “I’ll bring you lunch at noon.”

“No tuna salad,” he warned her before he turned to walk away. “May god have mercy on you if there is tuna salad.”

“Thanks for coming to Lottie’s Lattes!” she shouted after him. “Where we like you a lottie!”

“For fuck’s sake,” he muttered as the bell rang overhead.

 

 

HE WALKED down Main Street, away from his house and Lottie’s Lattes, before crossing to the other side of the road. Harry S. Truman chittered at him as he walked, juggling the cage, the coffee, and the goddamn muffin. He thought about dropping the muffin in the street, but Lottie would find out somehow and he would get tuna salad for sure.

He stopped in front of his store a block farther down and set down Harry S. Truman’s carrier before pulling the keys from his pocket and unlocking the door. He reminded himself he needed to fix the lock later, as it stuck every now and then.

He picked up Harry S. Truman and stepped inside the store, flipping on the lights. They flickered on overhead and he moved toward the center of the floor where his counter stood. He set Harry S. Truman on the counter and leaned down to turn on the Gateway 2000 computer and monitor.

While it booted up, he opened the large pet cage that sat on the counter. He cleaned the litter box inside and poured fresh water in a bowl from the bottles he kept under the counter in a small refrigerator. Once these tasks were complete, he opened the carrier. Harry S. Truman squirmed playfully in his hands and squeaked when he saw his cage and the tiny toys inside. Gus left the cage door open for now. Like the president he was named for, Harry S. Truman wouldn’t stray too far.

He took the feather duster from underneath the counter and went up and down each aisle, dusting the merchandise and fixing any box that looked slightly out of place. There were thousands of such boxes, but Gus was nothing if not efficient. It helped that he did the same thing every night before he left too, so dust had little chance to accumulate.

It gave him plenty of time to think, and today, he thought about the documentary he’d watched on television the night before on the breeding season of mountain goats. Mature male goats, or billies as they’re called, will stare at the females, the nannies, for long periods of time. They’ll then proceed to dig ruts and fight the other males to impress the nannies. Once a mate is chosen, the breeding is quick and chaotic, and nannies may choose multiple partners while the male chooses only one. Gus had been slightly horrified at the fact that there were promiscuous female goats. He decided he was glad he was human. Most of the time.

He finished dusting thirty minutes later. He went back to the counter. Harry S. Truman was blinking sleepily from his blanket. Gus put the feather duster back in its place, entered his password into the computer (WiTcHITA123KANSas because he’d never been there and nobody would ever guess), and straightened his name tag.

He looked at the clock and counted down the last minute in his head.

“Okay,” he said out loud when the second hand crossed the twelve. “Today is going to be an okay day.”

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

Gustavo Tiberius, named by his father who was three years dead and a mother who took off when he was three years old never to be seen again, moved to the front of the store. He unlocked the door, turned the plastic sign hanging on it to Open, and flipped the switch to light up the neon letters hanging in the front store window.

It was the 135th day of the year, May 15th, 2014. It was a Thursday in the spring with the sun shining and the smell of pine trees in the cool, mountain air. It was going to be an okay day, because Gus had said so. He didn’t need inspirational messages given by polyamorous lesbians (who could actually just be sisters). He didn’t need banana-nut muffins made by alliterative short women with drag queen hair. He had his father’s ferret, his father’s ancient computer, and Pastor Tommy’s Video Rental Emporium (all seventeen hundred square feet of it) was now officially open, serving the people of Abby, Oregon, and the surrounding areas, Monday through Saturday, opening daily at nine and closing at five. Gift cards were available upon request. Tuesdays were ninety-nine cent rental day, up to three rentals.

God, how Gus hated Tuesdays. At least four people came in on Tuesdays.

But it was Thursday, now.

And it was going to be an okay day.