The Happy Valley Community Theatre Props and Costuming Department was much more impressive than Russell would have ever imagined. When Ainsley said that's where they were going, he pictured a closet stuffed with old and discarded Halloween costumes. Instead he found himself standing in an honest-to-goodness props and costuming department. There were aisles of costumes, neatly organized, categorized, and labeled. Above the racks of costumes were shelves of clearly-labeled prop boxes. It stunk of sweat and shattered dreams, but it was very impressive to look at.
On the far side of the room, music started and Ainsley came bounding down one of the aisles. She was so excited that she couldn't control herself. Her fists were balled up and swirling around her face.
"Where should we begin?"
Russell laughed. "What's the vision?"
"Famous Females." Ainsley said throwing her jazz hands up like fireworks. A little calmer, she amended, "from history or Hollywood."
"Okay," nodded Russell, looking around expansive room, daunted not only by the room's size, but how completely filled it was. "You have any ideas? To start us off with?"
"I'd love to do a Scarlett O'Hara. I was also thinking about Rosie the Riveter and Audrey Hepburn."
Russell unslung his camera and set it on a near-by chair. "Alright. You start down in 1861. I'll begin in 1961 and we'll meet in the middle."
"Ooh, start in 1983!" Ainsley pointed. "Somebody said there's an awesome Princess Leia in here somewhere."
Russell and Ainsley parted ways, going to opposite ends of the same aisle. Hangers clinked as they began rummaging through the costumes. Ainsley would shoot Russell glances every now and again, but Russell never noticed. He was having trouble focusing. His brain was trying to be in six different places at once and since it couldn't physically do that, it ran around in circles inside his head, never staying still for more than a moment.
The funeral's tomorrow. What am I doing here if the funeral's tomorrow? I should be at home. I should be writing Dad's eulogy -- why would they ask me to give the eulogy? What am I supposed to say? What do they want from me? The only thing I know for absolute certain is that Dad would not like all of this attention. He would be so embarrassed . . .
Russell turned away from the Madonna monstrosity in his hand and gave Ainsley a sideways glance. He ran his eyes up and down her.
My goodness. Ainsley is gorgeous. She's always been gorgeous. But my goodness she's gorgeous. Those hips, those lips, those eyes! And that voice! Oh, I forgot how much I loved that Georgia accent. It's like a soft pur, it's like peach fuzz caught in the first rays of sunrise . . .
Ainsley squealed with excitement. "Found Scarlett!" She proudly displayed a big, flowing green dress that looked like it had been stolen off the set of Gone With The Wind. "It even has the crinoline!"
"Great!" He said with no clue what crinoline was, but with the sudden realization that this storage room smelled like his childhood. Specifically, it smelled like every single antique store his mother ever dragged him through. He wasn't bitter, though. It was because of his mother's voracious appetite for Americana that he was introduced to comic books. And if it wasn't for comic books, he'd never have been introduced to the glowing green awesomeness that is Green Lantern.
Then again, he had to admit, it's because of comic books I have to put up with Batman fans.
Then Russell found Princess Leia. She was tucked between a Footloose tuxedo and a slew of various-sized denim jackets. It wasn't the Princess Leia Russell had been hoping for. It wasn't the gold bikini. It was Hoth Leia. It was still very cool and dorktastic, but nothing beats gold bikini Leia.
"Found Leia!" Russell called.
Ainsley came running down with the aisle excitedly, dragging the Scarlett O'Hara dress behind her. "Yay!" Then she saw the outfit. "Oh. That Leia."
"That's just what I said."
"Oh well," she shrugged and snatched the costume away.
"What is this for?"
Ainsley shrugged, "Facebook?"
Belle and Sebastian's "Write About Love" started on the radio and Russell began to wonder how his brother was doing. He must not have been hiding his worry like he thought he was, because Ainsley tilted her head to the side and asked, "you okay?"
"Yeah, I . . ." Russell wanted to lie. He wanted to move away from the topic as quickly as he could, but instead he heard himself admit, "I was just thinking about Sean. This song made me think of him."
"Do all hipster love songs make you think about your brother or is it this one in particular?" Ainsley tried to make him smile.
"Any Belle and Sebastian," he explained, "Sean introduced me to them."
Ainsley tilted her head back, silently saying, "ah."
"I'm worried about him. We haven't talked in over a month. I mean, we're not super close anymore, not like when I still lived at home, but -- you know -- we still talk. But ever since . . . Dad . . . He's not answering his phone, he doesn't respond to my texts or my pokes or my Tweets or . . . anything. I just hope he's alright."
"I'm sure he is." Ainsley soothed, rubbing Russell's arm. "Sean's a lot of things: Stupid, irresponsible, unreliable, selfish, uh . . ."
"Charming, concerned, worried, funny . . . impulsive . . ."
"Impulsive." Ainsley agreed. "But not stupid."
"You just said he was stupid."
"Yeah, but not stupid-stupid. He's not going to . . . you know . . . do something."
If Ainsley meant what Russell thought she meant, he agreed with her.
"He's just, you know, ex-boyfriend stupid."
It was Russell's turn to go, "ah." Which he followed with a small laugh. "I've missed you."
"Missed me?" Ainsley laughed. "We've never hung out before. Only via Sean."
"Yeah, I know." Russell admitted. "But we've become friends since then. It might only be through Facebook and various instant messaging programs but . . . have you ever been homesick for a place you've never been to before?"
Ainsley thought about it for a moment and then nodded. "Ireland."
"I've been to Ireland." Russell bragged. "I've lived in Ireland."
"Yeah, and I still hate you for that." Ainsley shot back playfully. "But, yeah. I don't know what it is. I can't really explain it, but, yeah. Homesick is a good word for it."
"That's how I feel about you."
It was such blunt honesty that neither of them really knew how to react to this knowledge. Questions began swirling in Ainsley's mind and Russell started trying to figure out ways to explain himself.
"I feel like you're the friend I never had. I always liked you. I thought you were cool. I mean, you clearly have horrible taste in men, but I was thankful for that because if you hadn't been dating my brother, then I never would have met you. And I enjoyed hanging out with you -- with him. And I love the photo shoot we did. It's some of my best work because you made it so easy -- which is kind of frustrating because sometimes I look at those pictures and I think anyone could have taken them. They're beautiful because they're of you. Then I left Happy Valley for stupid California and that's when we become friends -- which I'm thankful for, don't get me wrong. I'll take you however I can get you. But I wish you were out there with me."
"Or you were here with me?"
Russell smiled. He didn't notice if she had stepped closer to him or if he had stepped closer to her, but he did know they were much closer than they were when this conversation began.
"I don't want to leave. The funeral's tomorrow and I'm supposed to be wingin' it back west the next day. If I leave, then I only get to see your status updates. I don't want to leave. Not ever. Never-ever."
It felt like the right moment to kiss her. Russell wanted to kiss her. He wanted to feel the small of her back in one hand, cradle her head in the other, and plant a kiss on her lips that would rival The Princess Bride's kiss. But what would come of such a kiss? What could come of such a declaration of love? In two days' time, he would still have to leave her. Ainsley could feel it too and she was not surprised.
After a year of casual online flirting, she knew that if they were to ever meet in person again, a moment like this was bound to happen. The future of their relationship hinged on this moment. If they didn't kiss, then the flirting would stop. They would comment on each other's updates less and less. Then, one day, she would see pictures of him with some other girl and she would know that she missed her opportunity. She would undoubtedly spend the rest of her life wondering "what if?" But if they did kiss then . . . then what?
The palpable silence had gone on just a second too long. Ainsley opened her mouth to say something, to address the situation, but before she could say anything, Russell swooped in and mashed his lips against hers. The force of the kiss startled both of them and Russell jerks back reflexively.
"You don't ever apologize for first kisses." Ainsley smiled and tip-toed up for their second kiss.
Russell looked into her eyes and watched as she slowly closed them. He kissed her again. Softly this time. He just brushed her lips with his. He cradled her head with one hand and placed his other at the small of her back. He didn't know how Guinness (or William Goldman for that matter) would rate this kiss, but in Russell Iles' Book of Fantastic Kisses, it was Number One.
Leona Lewis moaned "Bleeding Love" as Russell pressed Ainsley against the Dickensian costumes. They buckled and swayed, and Ainsley gasped. But when the costumes supported their weight, they laughed and went right back at it.
"Mmm." Ainsley grunted dissatisfactorily as she ruffled Russell's beard with her fingertips. "Not a fan of this. If we're going to keep doing this, you're going to have to shave."
"What?" Russell cocked a questioning eyebrow. "Now?"
"No," Ainsley conceded. "But soon. If we're going to keep snogging."
"Oh, I love it that you use the word snog."
And for fifteen minutes, as Russell and Ainsley made out in the Happy Valley Community Theatre Props and Costuming Department, everything in the world seemed right. Everything seemed to happen for a reason. Everything was going to be alright.