All of the Above
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Brendon isn’t in a rut, per se—he just always seems to be in-between things. Jobs. Degrees. Boyfriends. He never finishes what he starts. The perfect path is out there somewhere, and if he can just figure out what it is, he’s certain everything else will fall into place.
The last thing he expects is to meet his soul mate in the pages of a magazine quiz. “Who Is Your Perfect Man?” by Matthew Kingston seems like a road map to his future husband: the author himself. Brendon may not have his life figured out, but if Matt is as romantic as his quiz, Brendon can check “true love” off his to-do list.
When Brendon fakes a meet-cute between them, Matt proves to be as wonderful as he hoped. The more Brendon gets to know him, the harder he falls. But Brendon has a confession to make: how can he explain to Matt that he arranged their “fated” meeting? Brendon can’t tell if he’s found his soul mate, heartache, or all of the above.
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“Hey, Soul Sister” came over the ceiling speakers for the thirteenth time that day. Brendon contemplated exiting the mall simply so he could go out to the parking lot and hurl himself in front of an SUV.
He didn’t want to die, per se. Just get maimed enough so that he could leave work and go home. It was either that or allow the constant barrage of mild, inoffensive adult alternative music to eat away at him until he snapped. If he walked out the door right now, he’d be doing the general public a favor.
But he didn’t. Sigh. He had bills to pay, same as everyone else. He needed this job. Although, if the SUV broke his legs, he could sue the driver . . .
Oblivious to his grisly thoughts, a steady stream of shoppers sailed placidly past him. Most of them avoided looking at Brendon. One of the few benefits of working at a mall kiosk: no one wanted to make eye contact, lest he take that as an invitation to pounce. But a few sets of eyes lingered on the flat stomach his ice-blue crop top bared. Predominantly male eyes, he noted.
Sometimes, their gazes would trail up to his face. What happened next never failed to make Brendon smile. Upon realizing he was a guy, they jerked their heads away, looking inexplicably furious. Brendon liked to think he was doing his little part for feminism. Served dudes right for ogling every inch of skin they saw like the world was their personal meat market.
His phone rested on the glass display case he was currently leaning against. He touched the home button, and the screen lit up. It was 7:17 p.m. Shit. Still two more hours to go.
He stood up and stretched to his full height of five foot ten. A head rush hit him, and the polished tile beneath his sequined sneakers swam. Tilting his chin back, he focused on the pink sign above his kiosk, which read Hairway to Heaven in white letters. His opinion of the pun changed daily, depending on what sort of mood he was in.
A second later, his vision cleared. He should really stop draping himself over things. Or maybe see a doctor. Good one. With what money?
He glanced around and immediately wished he hadn’t. The mall’s sameness was oppressive: off-white storefronts, gray ceiling tiles, beige floors, and frosted white lights humming overhead. It all blended together into a lackluster sea. Even the people walking past him were just a trickle of blank faces, their features melding together until he swore the same twenty people passed him in a never-ending loop.
It was the lights that did it for him, interspersed at intervals like symmetric, unnerving stars. And the lack of windows. It couldn’t be healthy to not know what time of day it was at any given moment. And then of course, there was the music.
Brendon really hated the mall.
Just as he was reconsidering getting maimed, a girl broke away from the throng and approached. There was a wariness to her expression that made him want to roll his eyes. He had no idea why customers thought he was going to bite. If anything, he’d charge extra for that.
“Hi,” he greeted her when she was close enough. He flashed what he hoped was a winning smile. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” She flicked beautiful, curly hair over her shoulder. Brendon went into salesman mood and assessed it without thinking: good shine, healthy chestnut color, and minimal split ends for that length. But her curls were perfect, which meant she probably wasn’t interested in the free flat-ironing they offered.
“What can I help you with, honey?”
“Which way is Starbucks?”
Ugh. Brendon hated when people used him as a living directory. But cute girls were what made his job tolerable, so she got a pass. He flashed another thousand-watt smile and pointed her in the right direction. She thanked him and wobbled off on ankle-breaking spiked heels. More power to her. Brendon knew as well as anyone that beauty was pain.
He checked his reflection in one of the lightbulb-lined mirrors on either side of the kiosk. Tired green eyes looked back at him, set between pale, plucked eyebrows and high cheekbones. He’d always thought there was a feline quality to his sleek features, but right now, he looked more like a droopy basset hound.
His hair was holding up well, though, as it should, considering how much effort he put into it. Every shoulder-length blond strand was as straight as when he’d blown them out this morning. The royal-blue ends were striking against his pastel clothes. And the dull mall backdrop, for that matter. He was like a sparkly little hummingbird in a drab haystack.
He snapped a quick selfie and uploaded it to Instagram. God bless filters. Making him look less like a zombie since 2010.
Someone walked up behind him in the mirror. He spun around on autopilot. “How can I help you?” He blinked. “Oh. Hey, Areesh.”
“Try not to sound so disappointed.” Areesh held his muscular arms out as if to invite a hug. “Happy to see me?”
Areesh was the tall, dark, and handsome to Brendon’s pale and pastel. Brendon spent a good portion of every workday trying to convince Areesh to let him play with his silky black hair, but Areesh never allowed it, the tease. He owned an endless supply of V-neck shirts that he used to display his broad shoulders and thick chest hair. It was a look that would make most of the bears Brendon knew chuck in the flannel towel.
But even with all that going on, Areesh was somehow straight as a wicket. It was a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.
Brendon put his phone down. “What can I do for you?”
Areesh gave him a sour look. “Don’t use your retail voice on me. It’s creepy.”
“Sorry.” Brendon cleared his throat. “I’ve been working for too long. It crawls under your skin.”
“Don’t I know it. But I brought you something that should brighten up your day.” Areesh had a canvas tote bag slung over one shoulder. He held it out to Brendon.
Brendon took it, wobbling beneath the weight, and set it on the ground. “What’s this?”
“Open it and see.”
Brendon reached in and pulled out a handful of magazines. Their glossy covers gleamed. “Oh, Cosmo! Where did you get these?”
“Sasha cleaned out our closet yesterday and found them. She wanted them to go to someone who would appreciate them. Naturally I thought of you.”
“Tell wifey I said merci.” Brendon rifled through the bag. “Vogue. People. All the greatest hits. I am definitely ready to read a hundred tips on how to have my best sex yet.”
Areesh shook his head. “Shameless. Anyway, you can thank her yourself. You work tomorrow, right?”
“Yup. And the day after that, and the day after that. And every day until my cute butt is outta cosmetology school and set up in some fab salon somewhere.”
“It’s nice to have goals.” Areesh looked past him. “And customers. Show time, tiger.”
Brendon dutifully turned away, but he whispered, “You sound like a fifties stage manager,” before greeting the two women who had approached his kiosk. They were his usual fare: early twenties, giggly, with Frappuccinos in their hands and their hair in messy buns. Brendon made best friends with a dozen of them a day, and he honestly loved it. They always preened over his hair and complimented his shoes. And they told the best stories while he was fixing them up. Nothing like a little gossip to help the long hours pass.
He gave both of them the complimentary flat-ironing, talking up their hair the whole time. He never lied to his customers. They all had something that set them apart, be it beautiful natural waves, thickness, color, whatever.
In this case, one of them had some serious bleach damage but shine that just wouldn’t stop. He recommended a ceramic-plated iron to her, and to his delight, she bought one. Her friend went with a leave-in conditioner and a calming serum he swore by. A hundred and eighty dollars later, they waltzed off a bit more glamorous, and Brendon packed an extra nine dollars onto his paycheck. It wasn’t much, but bonuses were bonuses.
After they left, he sank back into beige-tinged boredom. He wasn’t a pushy salesperson—he’d sooner wear Crocs than hound people to let him do their hair—which meant he ended up having a lot of downtime. If he were smart, he’d pull out one of his textbooks and study for his esthiology class. But even skin care couldn’t rouse his interest this close to the end of the work day.
Instead, he dug into Areesh’s tote bag and grabbed a magazine at random. Extra. He’d never heard of it before. He flipped it open and shuffled through the pages. The first few columns featured the usual: fashion, healthy living, and what famous face was wearing what unpronounceable brand. There was even an article about the latest trends that he perused with a grain of salt. Whoever thought pigtails were coming back was dead wrong. It had taken Britney Spears herself to make him like them once.
About a quarter of the way in, it occurred to him that the magazine was a little . . . off. The articles were all what he expected, and the layout looked typical, but something was missing. The pages weren’t as glossy, and the color quality was low. He didn’t think much of it until he glanced at the advertisements: they were for local companies. Hell, he’d been to a few of these bars.
Curious, he flipped to the back cover and read the label. Sure enough, Extra was local. Weird. He couldn’t imagine why someone would try to launch a fashion magazine out of this little swath of Nowheresville, Ohio. They’d have an easier time selling tractors and corn products.
They were doing a decent job of it, though. Extra’s content was solid. Brendon read an article about boyfriend jeans that made him seriously reconsider his marriage to high-waisted. He found himself flipping page after page and even taking snapshots to post on Facebook.
By the time he reached the last few pages, there was only half an hour left until the mall closed. That was the kind of time-wasting magic he needed in his life. Normally, he would start counting the register around now, but instead he turned to the very last page, looking for subscription options.
Instead, he found a quiz.
Who Is Your Perfect Man? the title asked in bold, black letters. Brendon groaned aloud. He used to be addicted to online quizzes. They were all over social media, and . . . well, he had a lot of downtime. But one day he’d caught himself trying to figure out what flavor of pie he was, and he’d quit cold turkey.
He was about to close the back cover when the first question caught his eye.
If forced to choose between sex and food, which would you pick?
Brendon huffed a laugh. He wasn’t ashamed to admit he’d put real thought into that one before. He liked sex plenty, but food was a special pleasure for him. He was known for saving up for weeks so he could treat himself to nice dinners. Cheesecake and sex were basically the same thing, as far as he was concerned.
He scanned the answers, just for fun.
A) Food! Can’t survive without it.
B) Sex. I might only live for three months, but I’ll be smiling in the end.
C) Sex, but it would have to be really good sex.
Pretty standard stuff. Brendon’s fingers were already poised to flip the page. When he got to the last option, however, his heart stopped.
D) Definitely food. Cheesecake is just as good as sex.
Huh. That was almost exactly how he felt. Most people he knew would choose food, but not for the same reason.
The coincidence was odd enough to bring him back to reality. He scanned his surroundings. The crowd was thinning by the second as the mall got ready to close for the night. If he were smart, he would get ready too, so he could book it as soon as the doors shut.
He debated with himself. It was unlikely he’d get another customer now, but not impossible. Every once in a while, he got a last-minute request for a free hair straightening, usually from someone who was about to hit the clubs for the night. Even if they didn’t seem like they were going to buy, he’d have to help them. Surely he couldn’t cash out and lock up until he was certain no one else needed him?
Brendon had never felt quite so dedicated to his job. He folded the magazine open to the quiz and settled on the kiosk’s stool.
He selected a pink pen from the assortment of cheap ones they kept scattered in the supply drawer, circled D beneath the first question, and moved on to the next one.
Where would your perfect man take you on your first date?
Well, so far the questions weren’t scoring any originality points. He knew how most people answered this: dinner and a movie. But in Brendon’s opinion, neither was an option. First dates were supposed to be memorable. A good story to tell the kids one day. He’d die if he had to sit his adopted children down and say, Kids, on our first date, your father took me to Red Lobster, and then we saw the latest movie adaptation of whatever YA novel was big at the time! No, thank you.
Leary, he scanned his options.
A) He’d take me to a bookstore! We’d buy each other copies of our favorite books. Then we could talk about them on our next date. The Dragonscale bookstore on Eighth and Manor Drive is perfect for first dates.
Brendon’s eyebrows shot up. That was actually a damn cute idea. And he knew that bookstore. He got his textbooks there. The in-line advertisement was a little weird, but the magazine probably needed all the revenue it could get.
B) We’d hit up a farmers’ market, buy the ingredients for a recipe neither of us have tried before, and then cook it together. If it goes well, we’ll both have learned something. If it doesn’t, we can laugh about it as we break out the delivery menus.
That was also a cute idea. He devoured the last two options:
C) Buy some disposable cameras and take a stroll downtown. Take photos of everything: the people, the stores, the lights, and of course, each other. Maybe our first kiss could get caught on film!
D) Pick something off your bucket list and do it together. It can be something as small as taking a pottery class or as big as sky diving! When we look back, we’ll always remember that we took that step together.
Brendon stared into space, mind whirring. He would happily go on all four of those dates. In fact, he wanted to. None of the men he’d gone out with in the past had displayed the creativity that this magazine had in just one question. Whoever had written this was very, very good.
He dithered between options A and C before finally choosing C. The concept of immortalizing his first kiss with his future husband was too cute to resist.
Brendon moved to the next question, now fully invested in this quiz.
What’s your favorite movie?
He wondered how the author would handle this one. Usually the answers were a collection of blockbuster hits, vague genres, and “anything starring insert popular celebrity here.” Option one seemed to confirm his theory:
A) Anything directed by J.J. Abrams! Am I blinded by love or lens flares? Don’t know, but there’s a Star War going on for my heart, and he Treked right into it.
Wow. Brendon pursed his lips. That was terrible. But funny in a corny way, he supposed. And hey, he worked at Hairway to Heaven, so he couldn’t judge.
He read the next option and nearly choked on the breath he’d just taken.
B) The Ramen Girl starring Brittany Murphy. “Stop thinking about words! Use your heart!”
Brendon blinked three times in rapid succession. What the fuck? He didn’t know anyone else who’d even seen that film, let alone would dub it their all-time favorite. Quizzes like this usually listed popular movies to appeal to a wide audience. It was shocking to see an Indie film mentioned by name, let alone Brendon’s favorite film.
Goose bumps crawled up his arm. He didn’t even read the rest of the options. He circled B and jumped to the next question.
How do you want to be proposed to?
A) At a family gathering. Mom and I can start making wedding plans right away, and I can show off my bling to my unmarried cousins.
Well, that one definitely wasn’t Brendon’s choice. He didn’t have any close family, let alone cousins to be passive-aggressive toward. His parents had moved to Florida after he’d turned eighteen, and hadn’t taken him with them. He was pretty sure they’d sent him a birthday card back in May. Too bad he’d been born in April.
B) Somewhere public, like at a baseball stadium or at a concert. I want all eyes on me when he gets down on one knee!
Anyone who’d met Brendon’s manicured self would assume he’d pick that, but surprisingly, Brendon hated public proposals. Way too much pressure. And instead of thinking about what was happening, he’d probably panic and forget to answer. Plus, it was kind of shitty to spring a question that important on someone in front of an audience.
C) I’m a traditionalist. I want a ring at the bottom of a champagne glass.
Blah. Definite pass. Way too cliché, and knowing Brendon’s luck, he’d swallow it. So far this round had left him underwhelmed. Maybe he’d given this quiz too much credit. He glanced at the last possibility, not expecting much.
D) Wine. Soft music. Candles everywhere. No one around but me and my perfect man. He cooks dinner, and after reminiscing about all the good times we’ve had, he’ll ask the big question. But wait. He doesn’t have a ring! Is the proposal ruined? No, because he hands me a blank check and drops me off at Tiffany’s.
Brendon snorted. Okay, that was hilarious, and the best proposal idea he’d ever heard. He circled it.
His initial spark of curiosity about the author had grown to a roaring flame. He checked beneath the title of the quiz. With any luck, it wasn’t an uncredited intern or a pseudonym. In a tiny font, he located the words written by Matthew Kingston.
A guy wrote this? Brendon hated to stereotype, but he’d been expecting a woman. Was this Kingston guy gay or just really devoted to his work? Brendon supposed he could be a romantic. Those still existed in this modern age.
The next question piqued Brendon’s interest if only because this was a local magazine.
Where in the city would you most like to spend your time?
If Kingston was smart, he’d keep the answers general, so they could apply to wherever the reader was. But as Brendon had learned from the movie question, this quiz wasn’t afraid to get specific.
He read the options quickly, and the very first one both solved the mystery and made his heart thud in his chest.
A) A little Spanish restaurant in the heart of the city. It has a second-floor balcony most people don’t know about. The regulars are allowed to slip out the window and enjoy their wine on the private terrace, which is draped in string lights and boasts a beautiful view of the city. And the food is just as amazing.
Though no name was mentioned, Brendon was certain he knew exactly which restaurant Matthew Kingston was talking about. It was Brendon’s favorite: Café Luis. It had fandango lessons on Thursdays, and their house wine was imported from their winery in Spain. And just like the quiz had said, they had a little balcony that was reserved for special occasions.
Brendon had been out there a handful of times. It wasn’t big enough for more than two people at once, so he’d never spent long out there, but it was easily his favorite place. Once, he’d sat on the ledge and swung a leg over, drinking wine while he watched the stars poke through the darkening sky. Up there, his uncertainties melted away, and life slotted into place.
Whenever he had extra money lying around, he went straight for Café Luis, and right now, he would bet his paycheck that was the restaurant the author had described. It was too much of a coincidence.
Actually, a lot of the answers had been huge coincidence. What were the odds that they both loved the same mom-and-pop Spanish food? And The Ramen Girl? And the Dragonscale bookstore? And everything else?
Who was this guy?
Brendon hurried through the rest of the quiz, which went on to list his favorite band, concert venue, and describe his ideal lazy Sunday morning right down to how he liked his eggs.
By the end of it, conspiracy theories were germinating in his head. Did the author know him? Had Matthew Kingston—whom he was now calling Matt in his head, as if they were old friends—written this quiz for him?
But that was ridiculous. How could anyone predict he’d read this magazine? That Areesh would clean out Sasha’s closet and give this to him? There was no way, but it was hard to believe it was a fluke too.
Brendon shook his head and checked the time just to have something to distract himself with: 8:51 p.m. He had some wiggle room, but he should really start packing up if he wanted to get home and cook dinner before it got too late.
He was burning with curiosity, though. Maybe the quiz results could tell him something. If there was a sliver of a chance, he had to take it.
He tallied up his points and found a key that directed him to the different types of perfect men. The results were silly: the Hopeless Romantic, the Bad Boy, the Sensitive Soul, and so on. Their descriptions weren’t much better. Your perfect man is sweet and caring and probably has a dog. He could be a teacher or a sexy firefighter! Brendon prayed his perfect man was a little more original.
His points took him to the Artistic Amor: Your perfect man is creative and fun-loving. Forget about typical dates and traditional romance. He’s got a head full of ways to woo, and he wants to use them on you! If you’re up for a little adventure, you and your Perfect Man will paint the town, sometimes literally. He probably works in a field that requires thinking outside the box, like advertising, graphic design, or even acting. Or maybe he writes romantic quizzes for a small, local magazine! Who knows? Whatever he does, his most important job is loving you, or it will be, when you two finally meet.
A new possibility occurred to Brendon. It was true that there was no way Matt could have written this quiz for him, but that didn’t mean fate wasn’t still at work. After reading that description, he was convinced Matt had put a lot of himself into this quiz, and since his choices lined up with Brendon’s, there was only one explanation.
He and Matthew Kingston were soul mates.
The tear-jerking conclusion puts the final finishing flourish on a witty, well-paced, and very appealing story.