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Early Sunsets

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Frank was walking through the park, late at night. He was smoking a cigarette and casually strolling along, following his usual path. Every night you could find him here. Around 11 pm, Frank would leave his apartment and walk down to the nearby park to take a walk and smoke a couple cigarettes. If it had been an especially good day, he went to the corner store next to his apartment building and visited the cute boy who worked there and got something to eat. It really was like every other night.

Although it was spring in New Jersey, the nights were still chilly. Frank had on his favorite tight, forest green hoodie. The hood was up and his free hand that wasn’t holding the cigarette was shoved into the pocket of his jeans that had both of the knees ripped up. When he came to the bench that was placed in front of a small duck pond, Frank took a seat. He picked at the ripped part of his jeans and shuffled his worn, old Converse against the gravel. This was Frank’s place to think.

Lately, he had a ton to think about. He was 18 and only had a couple months left before he was a high school graduate. That scared the shit out of him. Of course, he applied to colleges and picked one in New York so he wouldn’t be too far from his hometown of Belleville. He decided to study music production. Frank really couldn’t say he was enthused about the whole thing and tried his hardest to not think that far into the future. Belleville was home and he loved living in New Jersey.

He finally finished his cigarette and threw it to the ground, crushing it beneath his foot as he stood up from the bench with a sigh. Everything felt crazy and he was trying his best. Fortunately, spring break had started today and Frank had the next ten days to not worry about school. He planned on using these next ten days wisely. Frank began to make his way back to the street. The street lights cast an almost eerie light on Frank. There was no one else around and very few cars were going by.

To break the seriousness that the night seemed to hold, Frank decided he would spend the night watching some of his favorite movies when he went back up to the apartment. He wanted to really soak in the quiet and peace that he could get tonight. Movies were a way to fight off the stomach-wrenching anxiety that Frank was feeling lately. Frank was finding that he was more and more prone to having an upset stomach lately and a loss of appetite. He knew that it was the changes that he couldn’t stop from happening. The least he could do for himself was try to indulge in the good things that eased away the stomachaches.

18 years of living in the same place allowed Frank to become very skilled at sneaking back into the apartment at unreasonable hours of the night and early morning. It was less about being caught and more about being courteous. He lived with his mom and she knew all about Frank’s late night walks. Frank slipped his Converse off at the door (otherwise he wouldn’t hear the end of how dirty he made the floor) and snuck through the kitchen and down the hall to his room.

His room had looked the same for years; it was littered with dirty clothes, covered in band and movie posters. The walls were a dark blue and the bedding he had matched except it was all plaid. He had gotten the new bedding from his mom for his fifteenth birthday and it replaced the robot print ones he had since he was very little. He still kept them. Frank took off his sweatshirt and slipped off his pants, sliding into bed with nothing but boxers and an old Misfits t-shirt on. Once he was settled beneath the sheets and blankets, he leaned back against the pillows and pulled his laptop up from where it rested on the ground beside his bed. The first movie he began to watch was Scream and somewhere around when Randy was explaining that you can’t have sex in a horror movie or you die, Frank let his eyelids close and fell asleep.

~

“Frank, wake up or you’re going to be late to work!” Frank’s mom yelled outside the teenager’s door. He slowly opened his eyes and rolled over. Then he registered what his mom had said and the panic set in. Frank reached for his phone and saw that it was 11:45. His shift starts at 12. He immediately jumped up, reaching for the nearest pile of clothes in order to find his work shirt. When it wasn’t there, he began kicking the other piles on the floor and looking. It still wasn’t showing up so he tugged on the same pants from last night, hooked his belt together, grabbed his phone and wallet, then ran downstairs to ask his mom.

He found her at the dryer, where she wordlessly turned around and threw him the shirt. Frank gave her a shy smile. “Thanks, Mom!” he yelled, already on his way to the door. He pulled the shirt on, put on his Converse, and was out the door. Frank could manage to make it there if he ran. This wasn’t the first time he was running late to work and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

When Frank made it to the tattoo shop he worked at, it was 12:05. His job there was to clean up for the artists and to stock everything. He loved it there; the guys would teach him different stuff about tattooing and art, they played music that he loved, and the repetition of the stuff that Frank did at the shop made it easy for his mind to relax. Work was a great escape for him. His mom was so happy when he got the job but wasn’t as excited when he started coming home with tattoos on his arms. Plus, he got along with the guys really well. Except for when he was late.

“You’re late, Iero.” sighed Frank’s manager, Evan, when he walked into the shop. Evan really liked Frank and had learned to be very patient with the 18 year old. The only thing that bothered him was that Frank had a real knack for never being on time.

“I know, I’m really sorry.” Frank said as he started walking to the back of the shop to clock in.

“Sorry doesn’t cut it, be on time.” Evan yelled to him. Frank knew that it was just Evan playing the boss role. In reality, he had a real soft spot for Frank. There was many afternoons that he spent with Frank and just showed him art techniques or he let him sit in on certain tattoos so he could learn about different styles.

Frank clocked in and then went to the front desk to find out his schedule for the day. It was the usual stuff that Frank was used to. When a customer was scheduled to come in, Frank was responsible for setting up the artists’ stations. He also restocked the back room where they kept the needles, ink, and other supplies. In between all of that, he would stock the food and soda machines in the front waiting room, clean the bathrooms, and take smoke breaks. His first task of the day was to stock the back room. Frank headed that way, pulling his headphones out of the pocket of his jeans. This was always his favorite because he was alone and could listen to music while he mindlessly put away ink cartridges and placed needles in the storage boxes.

About fifteen minutes before one o'clock, Brian came in to tell Frank that one of the artists, Bob, had a customer coming in soon. Frank tugged out his headphones and started gathering supplies. He didn’t mind setting up stations, it made him feel as though he was the tattoo artist. When he was all done, Bob came in to check over everything.

“Hey, do you want to sit in on this one? The guy coming in is a friend of mine, his name is Mikey. I think you’d really like him. He’s into some pretty good music and stuff.” Bob asked Frank. Frank would never pass up an opportunity to sit in on a tattoo.

“Yeah, absolutely! Let me go let Evan know!” Frank said, excited. He quickly ran to the back of the shop to where Evan’s office was. He told his manager, who just mumbled something and continued working on the paperwork in front of him. That was enough confirmation for Frank. He went back to the front and sat with Bob while they waited for his friend to show up.

They talked about the tattoo and what the style of it was. The tattoo itself was already designed, which made it a lot easier for the artist. Bob explained to Frank that the tattoo was colorless and was going to be completely filled with black, along with some thick line work. As he was explaining the ease of this sort of tattoo, a lanky boy with straightened hair and glasses pushed low onto his nose along with another boy in all black walked into the shop.

“Mikey, how’s it going? It’s been awhile, buddy.” Bob said, standing to go to his friend. Frank followed shyly behind and stood off a little bit. Bob and Mikey talked while Frank looked over the other man. He was taller and older than Frank, probably closer to thirty than twenty. The guy was in all black. Black, tight jeans, a black t-shirt, and a black zip up, windbreaker type jacket with zippers all over it. He was also in some scuffed up white Converse low-tops. His hair was black and longer, more scruffy. The guy was pretty cute and Frank continued to look at him while the guys eyes wandered around the shop and he held a travel coffee mug.

“This is my brother, Gerard. I don’t think you’ve ever met before.” Mikey said to Bob, pointing at the older man. Frank liked the name. He tried to stare less once Gerard’s attention was on Bob, not wanting to look creepy. Once Bob got introduced and said his hellos, he turned towards Frank.

“I hope you don’t mind, Mikey, but this is Frank. He works here but doesn’t tattoo so sometimes we let him sit in on tattoos and I was thinking he could watch me do yours today. Is that alright?” Bob explained and asked to Mikey. Now that both brothers were looking at him, he felt a lot more shy. But Mikey had no issue with it, he nodded and smiled at Frank. After that was taken care of, Bob led Mikey over to a chair and they began discussing the tattoo. Frank followed but noticed that Gerard hadn’t.

He stood awkwardly at the front of the shop, rocking on his heels. Bob left to go outline the design that Mikey had brought in and Gerard spoke. “Hey Mikey, I’m going to go wait outside. You know how I get.” he said quietly, moving towards his brother. Frank moved his eyes to the floor and pretended he wasn’t there while the two talked. Mikey told his brother that it was fine, no problem. Just as Bob came back into the front, Gerard turned and slipped out the front door to wait for his younger brother.

“He okay?” Bob asked, sitting down in his chair. Mikey nodded and shrugged. He didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that Gerard was going to wait outside.

“Yeah, he’s fine. He has a fear of needles, that’s all.” Mikey told Bob. Frank watched Bob nod his head and continue on, focusing on the task at hand. He laid the outline down on Mikey’s right wrist. The tattoo was a spider with an almost lightning bolt shape at the base of the spider’s abdomen. It’s legs were jagged and long in the front, normal towards the back. Frank thought it was awesome, despite his fear of spiders.

“Who drew the design?” Frank asked quietly, speaking up for the first time while Bob was putting on his black gloves and opening the ink. Mikey looked at him with a smile.

“My brother, actually. He’s an incredible artist.” Mikey told Frank. Frank nodded and then the buzz of the tattoo gun started. Bob began to talk about how to approach a totally black tattoo and Frank listened intently. Whenever he was allowed to sit in, he tried to soak up every piece of information that the guys would give him. Like Bob said, it was a rather easy tattoo. There wasn’t much to it and after he finished explaining it all to Frank, he continued to fill in the outline of the spider with black ink.

They ended up talking about movies and music while Mikey got his tattoo done. Bob had been right, Mikey liked a lot of the same stuff. All three of them discussed classic horror movies and bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Misfits, who were Jersey’s own. Frank found himself laughing and relaxing. It felt good, it had been awhile since he really hung out with people like this. Eventually, he needed a cigarette break.

He excused himself and stood up to go outside, to the front of the shop. When he opened the door, he realized that he forgotten that Gerard was out there. Gerard was sitting on the pavement, on the left side of the door with a cigarette in one hand and his phone in the other. When Frank opened the door and stepped out, Gerard looked up at him.

“Hey.” he said simply, taking a drag from his cigarette. He now had sunglasses on so Frank couldn’t see his eyes but he knew he was talking to him.

“Hey.” Frank responded back. Gerard turned away from him and focused his attention back to his phone screen. Frank leaned against the front of the shop and took out his pack of cigarettes. He had forgotten that the last time he came out to smoke, he had emptied the pack. Frustrated, he threw the empty carton in a trash bin nearby and started to head back into the shop.

“Do you want to bum one from me?” Gerard asked just as Frank was reaching for the door handle. A little taken aback that Gerard had offered, Frank just dumbly nodded his head and waited as Gerard searched his pockets for his cigarettes. After finding them and passing one to Frank, he also lit his lighter and held it out for the younger boy. Frank had to bend down to reach it, but he managed to light his cigarette. It felt good to suck the smoke and nicotine into his lungs. After he blew it all out he thanked Gerard.

About halfway through the cigarette, Gerard finally broke the silence. He pushed his sunglasses to the top of his head and revealed pretty hazel eyes that Frank hadn’t noticed before. “Take a seat next to me, I’m bored.” he told Frank. When Frank hesitated, Gerard patted the ground next to him. He shuffled his feet a little then shrugged, moving to the other side of Gerard to sit next to him. Frank tried to be careful about sitting too close to Gerard. They sat there quietly for a minute.

“I, uh, I really like the design you did for Mikey’s tattoo. It’s neat.” Frank said to break up the weird silence between them.

“Thank you. I didn’t mean to seem rude earlier in the shop. I would've stayed inside to wait and hang out but I have a fear of needles.” Gerard said, smiling shyly and laughing a little.

“No, it’s alright. I have a fear of spiders.” Frank responded, laughing with Gerard. He was finishing up his cigarette and thinking about how he would need to stop on his way home to get more.

“So, are you a tattoo artist? You seem a bit young.” Gerard asked Frank. Frank blew out the last of the smoke he could get and began grinding his cigarette into the ground next to him. His age was something that bothered him, he didn’t like feeling hindered by it. Especially when people around Gerard’s age felt he was too young for things.

“Yeah, I kinda am. I’m eighteen so I haven’t really had time to go through all the training and certifications. I basically just clean up the shop and stock stuff.” Frank explained. He decided to leave out that there was little point in him actually going through and getting all that done because he was just going to leave at the end of August anyway. It was his first day of break and he had promised himself that he wouldn’t let himself worry about all of that.

“Ah, well. That doesn’t sound too bad. This must be a pretty cool place to work at for an eighteen year old. I worked at a comic book store when I was your age.” Gerard replied. That caught Frank’s attention. Comics were another love of his.

“Really? That’s awesome.” Frank said, looking at Gerard who smiled at him. Gerard nodded in agreeance.

“Yeah, it was. I loved working there.” Gerard told Frank. Before they could continue their conversation, the door to the shop opened and Mikey walked out.

“Hey, I’m all done. Frank, Bob wants you back inside to help him clean up. It was really nice talking to you, man.” Mikey said to Frank. Frank stood and smiled Mikey. They shook hands and said their goodbyes. Frank went back into the shop but watched out the window as Gerard stood up and examined Mikey’s tattoo. He watched until they walked away, down the street.

Bob was nowhere to be found. Frank decided to just start on the clean up of the used ink and paper towels. As he worked and moved around the shop, he thought about Gerard. He was incredibly handsome and pretty. Frank had no clue how old he actually was or really anything about him. There was just something that really drew Frank in and interested him.

The rest of Frank’s day was full of catching up on the work that he was supposed to be doing while Mikey was getting his tattoo. It was all easy stuff and Frank did it all while listening to music and feeling relaxed. There were a few more customers who came in and Frank helped set up for those, he restocked the soda, met with Evan for a while to discuss his shifts for the next ten days, and did some cleaning up. On the outside, it seemed like a normal day for Frank. But Frank spent the rest of the day thinking about the pretty man with the pinched nose and small teeth who had given Frank a cigarette. When he finished his shift at 5:30, he left with a smile on his face.

~

It was late afternoon and Frank’s mom was still at work. It was a Saturday, which meant that she wouldn’t be home until 10:30 at the latest. With the house to himself, Frank walked around in boxers and a t-shirt. He was in a great mood, better than he had felt in about a week. Using his good mood, he decided to finally clean his room. It was something he hadn’t done in a long time but today had been good and he had the motivation for it. He moved around his room, picking up clothes and tossing them into his laundry bin, straightened out things on his shelves, took care of dishes, and threw out any trash.

When he finally finished, it was about 7. Outside, it was getting dark and people were settled in at home. Frank realized that he was starving and so he made the choice to make himself an actual dinner tonight. He put a veggie burger in a frying pan and opened up a bag of his favorite chips, dancing around the kitchen and enjoying his good day. After the burger was heated up, he put it on some bread and went to the living room to eat.

His feet were up on the coffee table and he was relaxing on the couch. It felt good to not feel so panicked or sick. For the past couple weeks, Frank had been struggling to really eat anything and keep it down. The feeling of his stomach being full was nice. He finished the food and laid back with his eyes closed, ready for a calm night. Suddenly, his eyes opened and he jumped up. The English paper.

Frank had totally forgotten up until now that he had to write an English paper this week. That would’ve been fine but he had no plan for it, no idea where to even start. Just like that, the panic began to rise in him. He tried his best to take deep breaths and stay calm. Frank told himself that he still had plenty of time and he could do it. Once he was sure that he was going to be okay, he sighed and placed his hands on his hips.

There was a bookstore a coupled blocks away that he could walk to and find something. From what he remembered in class, he knew that the book had to somehow relate to him and the essay had to be a sort of self-discovery thing where he had to reveal all the reasons why he related to the book. The catch was that it had to be a book he hadn’t read already. Deciding to do something about it while he was feeling okay, Frank went to his room to get dressed.

He managed to find clean black jeans and his green hoodie and pulled those on to walk down to the bookstore. As he left his building and saw the corner store, he realized that he had forgotten to pick up cigarettes on his way home. He knew the book store didn’t close until late so he stopped in to pick up a carton. The boy that Frank usually flirted with was working. Only this time, Frank had no interest.

“Hey, Frank. How’s it going?” said the boy, Adam. He was a couple years older than Frank and always seemed to be working the cash register. Adam was leaning his arms against the countertop and smiling at Frank, expecting the usual chatter that happened whenever he came in. Tonight, Frank wasn’t up for it. He sighed, barely looking at Adam.

“I’m alright. Can I get my usual?” Frank said, already pulling out the money. Adam was stunned for a second at Frank’s disinterest but turned around and then put the pack of cigarettes on the counter for Frank to grab. Silently, Frank gave him the money and took his change. He could feel Adam’s eyes on him as he left the store.

Tonight just wasn’t the night. This English essay meant that Frank couldn’t run from his problems and fears as much as he wanted to. He tried to ignore the pit growing in his stomach and he took out a cigarette to smoke while he walked casually to the bookstore. He swore to himself that he would make this work and he meant it. He’d get the fucking book and then deal with this essay as fast as he could. He was a good writer, bullshitting is easy.

Frank tried his hardest to make himself feel better about all this and not let his mind wander to all his other fears and stresses. This was going to be a good day and he wasn’t going to let this night stop that. Belleville at night was peaceful and Frank let the town that he had grown up in calm him. Very few other people were out and Frank was comfortable in being all alone on the street. Eventually he made it to the bookstore.

It was one of those places that he had seen a million times but had never gone inside. Frank always thought it looked very nice and comfy. The store was exactly the kind of place you would expect to find old, worn books. From the street, you could see the tall, wooden bookshelves that wrapped around the entire back and right side of the store. On the left, the shelves were only interrupted by the cashier counter. All throughout the center of the store were lower shelves that had flameless candles and string lights along the top, creating a soft glow along with the dim lighting of the hanging lights on the ceiling.

Frank admired the pleasant view of the bookstore and then went in, pulling open the door covered in posters for bands and a ton of other events that happened in Belleville. No bell rang or anything and when Frank entered the store, there was no one around. Quickly, he checked the time on his phone and saw that it was 7:45. The hours posted outside said that they closed at 9 so Frank decided to walk around and hope that maybe someone was in the back room of the shop. He didn’t mind being alone here. He walked amongst the books and reached out to run his fingers over the spines.

Looking at all the books, he realized he had no idea where to start. It was a daunting task to find a book that he felt he could relate to. He frowned and decided to start picking books at random to maybe get some ideas. Frank was finding that a lot of the books were very old and none of them were really interesting him. He got lost in his search. The aroma from the candles was sweet and nice, the soft lighting creating a fantasy. Frank looked at book after book until he found himself starting to grow an interest in the old covers and worn pages.

“Can I help you, stranger?” Frank heard a familiar voice say. He looked up from the book he was holding and met the same hazel eyes from earlier. Gerard was standing behind the counter with his arms crossed and a lazy smile on his face, looking at Frank. He fit right in here, his delicate and dark features matched the tone and feel of the place. After recognizing the pretty face from outside the tattoo shop, Frank put the book back and crossed the store to lean against the counter and look at Gerard.

“Of course you work here.” he said, flashing Gerard a smile. Frank found that he was feeling good again and was beyond excited to be seeing Gerard.

“I guess I matured from comic books to books so old they’re donated by seventy-five year olds. Although, comic books would be more fun.” Gerard said, smiling back and leaning his hands against the countertop. “So why are you here? Isn’t it past your bedtime or something?” Gerard joked.

That made Frank snort. “No, smartass. I have to write a book report and don’t have a book.” he said and shrugged. Even if he didn’t have a book, he was just glad to see Gerard.

“What’s the paper supposed to be about?” Gerard asked, moving to come around the counter to stand with Frank.

“I’m supposed to find a book that I’m able to relate to and then basically write out why. I have the next nine days of my vacation to write it. Oh, and it can’t be a book I’ve read already.” Frank explained. Saying it all out loud was even more stressful. Gerard looked Frank over, his tongue poking out and pressing against his upper lip while he thought. He turned towards the shelves and tilted his head.

“Follow me.” he said and started to move towards the back right corner of the store. Frank followed behind him but was cautious to stay a couple feet behind the older man. Gerard ran his finger over the books, just like how Frank had, as he looked for a certain book. Finally he stopped and Frank halted next to him. He pulled out a book that had an orange horse on the cover.

“This book is one of my favorites. It’s called The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I think you’d really like it.” Gerard said, holding the book out to Frank. Frank took it in his hands and ran his fingers over the front cover. The orange horse looked cool. He turned it over in his hands and read about Holden Caulfield, a kid from New York City who had no idea what he was doing. Perfect.

“I like it, thank you.” Frank said quietly to Gerard. The older man was standing in front of him, arms crossed, with a small smile. He nodded to Frank and started to walk back to the counter. Frank followed, reaching for his wallet.

“No need to pay, you can have it. The guy that owns the place won’t even notice.” Gerard said, leaning back against the front of the counter.

“Are you sure?” Frank replied, not wanting Gerard to get fired. Gerard nodded and then they were both silent, Frank still admiring the book in his hands.

“If you need any help with the essay, feel free to stop by. We’re rarely busy and I’m here every night.” Gerard said. Frank looked up and had to stop himself from smiling like an idiot at the idea of Gerard inviting him back.

“Uh, yeah. Of course. Thank you.” he said. Gerard was definitely going to see him again. Frank gave him a small smile as he turned to go out the door. Gerard followed him close behind.

“Have a good night, Frankie. I’ll see you soon.” he said as Frank stepped back out to the street. Frank nodded and gave Gerard a little wave before he turned around and headed home, his head full of books, the smell of candles, and the beautiful older boy.