Notes: Written in 2010 and published as an e-novella by Dreamspinner Press in 2011. All rights reverted to me in 2014.
The first time I saw him, I thought he was a stalker. It was the eyes that did it. They glinted eerily as he watched me from behind his matted hair, his vantage point way too close for comfort. He'd slouched up a few feet away from me at first, waiting at the same crosswalk with me, but then he'd slowly shuffled his way a bit closer as the seconds ticked by.
Past experience had given me unusually sharp perception when it came to shady characters, and this guy definitely fit the bill. Yeah, maybe I'd gotten a little paranoid in the last few months, but he was demonstrating some classic stalker behavior. My apartment building was only two blocks away, so I told myself I would be okay as long as I stuck with the crowd and didn't make eye contact until I got home.
Of course, being an idiot, I immediately made eye contact.
I glanced behind me while I waited for the flashing red hand to disappear, thinking he was still to my left. Instead, he was directly behind me, with crazy Charles Manson hair and a thin black cardigan. His eyes pierced mine, and the back of my neck prickled. I quickly looked the other way; even though the weather was hot and muggy, I hugged my arms around myself to fight off a sudden chill.
The red hand gave way to the walk sign and I hurried forward. The can of soup in my plastic bag of groceries banged against my knee with every step but I studiously ignored it. Against my better judgment, I looked behind me again. With a sinking heart, I noticed Charles Manson was still following me.
He'd put on sunglasses—to shield his eyes from the early May sun, I guessed. It made me think of the Unabomber more than Charles Manson, which in turn made me reconsider my initial stalker conclusion. The way things were going, he definitely seemed like more of a serial killer. And for Christ's sake, he had long legs, a thin torso, and a well-fitted sweater, so perhaps he had some Norman Bates in him as well. None of these were great things.
I kept my cool and didn't panic. My feet carried me up the concrete steps to my apartment building, up to the reflective double glass doors that led into the lobby. I was even congratulating myself on not living the stereotype and sprinting down the street to get away until I saw the reflection of Charles Unabomber Bates putting his foot down on the first step of my building. It was at that point I decided panic sounded like an excellent idea.
I was pretty sure I was going to die.
I was even more certain of my imminent death when I boarded the rickety, smoke-smelling elevator and began mashing the "close doors" button with my thumb like my life depended on it—literally. My heart thudded against my ribcage in frightful lurches as I watched him sweep into the lobby. He flipped up his sunglasses, surveyed the room, and looked straight into my eyes.
He called out in an accent I didn't recognize, "Um, excuse me! Could you hold that for me, please?"
It didn't really sound like the voice of a serial killer, but I was too freaked out to care. I most certainly did not hold the elevator. I pounded the button with renewed vigor and the sharp adrenaline rush of self-preservation. Thankfully, through some act of God (or science), the metal doors slid closed. I caught a glimpse of Charles Unabomber Bates giving me a dirty look as he pushed through a side door to the sketchy stairwell.
For a moment I was completely seized by panic. I wondered if he somehow knew where I lived, but real-life experience with stalkers told me that if he'd truly been staking me out I would have received some form of contact before now. Momentarily comforted, I hit the button for the third floor and waited for the doors to ding open.
When they did, I realized I was, indeed, an idiot. Across the hall, Charles Unabomber Bates had beaten me by taking the stairs. He was struggling with the door across from mine—with a key—and he unlocked it within moments of my departure from the elevator. It was with an emotion akin to horror that I realized he wasn't a stalker or a serial killer: he was my neighbor, and I hadn't held the stupid elevator.
"Oh my God," I said aloud before I could stop. I found myself instantly at his side without any sort of consent from the logical half of my brain. I was sure I looked as terrified as I felt. At least this time it was out of embarrassment, not fear. My face felt so hot that I knew I had to be blushing. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know you lived here. I thought you were stalking me or something." I winced as soon as I said it, because it wasn't a very flattering thing to accuse someone of. But there it was, hanging between us, too stupid and too late to take back.
"I've lived here since September," my neighbor—God, my neighbor, I was such an idiot—said with a sour expression. He opened his door and gave me a look that clearly meant he wanted me to leave. But I didn't want to leave. I wanted my neighbor to like me, or at least not to hate me. Hateful neighbors tended to lead to keyed cars and stolen mail and noise-violation reports on weeknights when I talked to my aquarium too loudly at three in the morning because I couldn't sleep. Not that I did that. Often.
"I don't get out much," I explained, a touch desperately. I refrained from adding that I stayed inside because I was technically unemployed, unless you counted selling melted wine bottle paraphernalia on . Most of my nights were spent drinking the wine to make the cheese boards and wind chimes I sold, while watching ridiculous shows like Toddlers & Tiaras.
My neighbor looked spectacularly unimpressed. "Forget it," he said, stepping inside. He raised his eyebrows, evidently expecting me to back off.
"I'll make it up to you," I blurted before I could think about it too much. "I'll buy you coffee."
"I'm in a hurry," he said with a glare. His sunglasses were perched on top of his head now and I could finally see his eyes were dark brown.
I sighed, rubbing the back of my neck. I would have assured him that I normally wasn't such a neurotic freak show, but it would have been a lie.
I bit my lip and said, "Okay. Some other time, I guess?"
He closed the door without commenting.
Later, while trying to steal free Internet, I saw a wireless network called "David's Apartment" pop up. I knew with a twisting, embarrassing certainty that Charles Unabomber Bates's real name was actually David. At that point, I had resigned myself to the idea of him hating me for the rest of our time living next to each other. I was determined not to dwell on it, despite the fact that "not dwelling" never went well for me.
In an attempt to distract myself, I was using my oven as a kiln with mixed results: the Sculpey beads I'd made were perfect, but the green wine bottle I planned on turning into a decorative cheese board sat unchanged on the cookie tray, round and peaceful, taunting me. I was stealing free Internet to track down a real kiln to use so I didn't end up with more too-hot-to-pick-up-but-not-hot-enough-to-melt bottles.
I got sidetracked when my cell phone rang.
I flipped it open without checking the name and said, "Hello?"
"Randy!" I cringed as an overly excited and high-pitched voice greeted me. I couldn't have regretted my decision more.
"Hi, Lilah," I said, suddenly feeling tired. Lilah could be a bit much at times, but she was my closest and only friend since moving here. I was mostly accustomed to her supersonic squealing, but it was still painful to listen to.
"You sound chipper," she mused.
"Bad day," I hedged, giving up on my search for a kiln and climbing to my feet instead. I walked over to my fish tank and leaned forward, watching the neon tetras flash around between the fake plants. Smiling, I tapped on the glass and waved to them. They vanished behind the pink-and-yellow castle.
"Then I've got just the thing for you," Lilah said, oblivious to my fish snubbing me. "There's a party tonight. Can I count you in?"
"Partying is for college students and high schoolers," I recited like a long-learned lesson, even though I knew I'd end up going. I was already shaking food flakes into the top of the tank. I didn't want to forget to feed the fish later when I inevitably staggered home drunk.
Lilah made a pleased noise and said, "Great, I'll see you there. It's by your place, so I'll just meet up with you and we'll go together. I'll see you at like nine, okay?"
I nodded despite the fact that Lilah couldn't see it and said, "Yeah, sure. How should I dress?"
"Hot," she replied without missing a beat. "It's a drinking party."
I rolled my eyes. "Like there's any other kind." I couldn't wait to be an old man and have bridge parties with cucumber sandwiches and tea, because part of me thought that sounded totally badass. A drinking party wasn't bad either, though, because it at least gave me an excuse to empty another bottle of wine to melt. If I ever found a kiln.
"Great. See you then," Lilah chirped and hung up.
"Great," I echoed without feeling and shut my phone. Sighing, I tossed it at the couch, where it bounced off a cushion and landed on the floor. Nobody else was going to call me, so I left it there and went to shower.
Lilah showed up at around eight thirty and predictably tore my outfit apart. Pants too loose, flip-flops too casual, hair not styled. I suffered through the critique and made the appropriate changes, including putting on a belt she "just happened" to have in her purse. It even matched the shoes she made me wear.
It was pointless to argue with her. At least she had a good eye for fashion—as always, she looked her absolute best. Her long hair was swept up into a messy bun, her bangs falling in a strategic swoop over her eyes. The sequins on her tank top were going to give me a headache by the end of the night, but she looked hot regardless. Well, as hot as a gay man could honestly designate her.
She grinned at me as though she knew what I was thinking and said, "Ready to go?"
I nodded. "Ready."
After checking on the fish and taking my failed wine bottle out of the oven (because I didn't want to burn the apartment down), we went outside and I locked my door. I hooked my key ring onto my belt loop and tried not to look nervous, the way I knew I always did whenever I ventured out of my hermit cave.
"So where are we going?" I asked.
"Right there." She pointed to David's apartment and I paled.
"No," I said, shaking my head, and backed up against my door, shoes planted stubbornly on the crummy gray hallway carpet. "I can't. You don't get it. I thought he was a serial killer this morning and now he hates me."
She tilted her head sideways. "I don't quite follow that logic."
"I'm an idiot," I said mournfully.
"Clearly." Rolling her eyes, Lilah grabbed my elbow and frog-marched me to David's door. She knocked before I had the chance to escape.
"What are you doing?" I hissed.
"Fixing your mistakes." Her judgmental expression transformed into something welcoming and affectionate as the door swung inward. It was David, blinking owlishly into the light of the hallway. He was wearing another cardigan, navy this time, and he smiled widely at us despite the fact that he'd just been giving me death glares a few hours ago. His hair was still vaguely Charles Manson-esque, although it had clearly been brushed for the party.
"Hullo, come on in," he said with that hard-to-place accent, stepping aside so we could walk in. He kissed Lilah's cheek and waved at me with the beer in his hand.
"You're David, right?" I asked just to ensure I wouldn't make even more of an ass out of myself tonight.
"Yeah, and you're Randy." It seemed he was so toasted already that he couldn't be bothered to remember or care about my infractions earlier.
I blinked rapidly, the old fear that he was a creep returning full force.
"Yeah, um, how did you know my name?"
David gestured vaguely with his beer. "Read it off the buzzer downstairs."
"Oh right," I said, blushing. "That was smart. I guessed off your wireless."
I flushed darker when he didn't reply. My turn to be creepy, apparently. I cleared my throat, looking around for something to distract myself with, and started picking tortilla chips out of a plastic bowl on the counter. Standing in his apartment felt bizarre. It was a mirror image of mine, so it felt familiar, but with a saggy blue couch and a chipped coffee table and no wine bottles in sight, melted or otherwise. Well, except for the bottle of velvet red I'd brought with me, which I set on the counter. It was eerie.
David eventually ambled off to greet other guests, and Lilah turned to me with an amused expression.
"That could have gone worse," she said, stealing one of my chips and crunching it noisily between her teeth. I ignored her.
I ended up doing two shots of something putrid within a few minutes of being at the drink table, which was enough to make me nice and tingly. It was also enough to convince me that it was a really, really good idea to try to make full amends and possibly become besties with David.
It really, really wasn't.
"It's your fault if I never get laid," David reported as I approached.
I was appropriately confused. "What?"
Scowling, he motioned at the back of a retreating woman in a skanky tank top and short shorts.
"I don't get it," I said, blinking.
"We were having a nice conversation that could have possibly led to sex, but then you walked up and she left."
I frowned. "How is that my fault?"
"Oh, you know," he said, pointing at me.
Still perplexed, I followed his gaze and looked down at myself. My shoes were maybe a little too "fabulous," as was my shirt… and my pants.
Amused, I looked back up and said, "Do they think I'm staking a claim?"
"I don't know," said David, looking very much like he did know, and yes, he thought that was exactly it.
"Sorry," I said without the slightest trace of remorse.
David shrugged, wandering over to the kitchen counter, which was strewn with various bottles of alcohol: a case of beer, some vodka in plastic bottles, my lone bottle of red wine, and other, fancier stuff, one bottle of which David hefted up and gazed at appreciatively.
"I don't know who brought this, but I think it's mine now," he said. He turned toward a doorway and then hesitated, looking back at me. His eyes swept up and down my frame, contemplating, and added, "You coming, then?"
Thinking over the two shots I'd had and the pleasant fizzle in my belly, I decided that I was slightly tipsy but not drunk. I cracked a smile.
"Sure, why not?" I said.
The "why not" became swiftly apparent as he led me to his bedroom and I was momentarily seized by the fear that this was going to end tragically. Maybe he was going to get me drunk and take advantage of me. And then kill me, if he really was a serial killer.
Then reality kicked in and I remembered that he'd lived here for eight months. If he'd wanted to do something sinister he'd already had plenty of opportunity.
It wasn't a lot in the way of reassurances, but it got me in his room. He left the door cracked and that was enough to let me breathe again. I rolled my shoulders and looked around his room, noting with surprise that it was fairly clean: a futon to sleep on, a pressboard desk, and a dresser with only one drawer pulled out. The desk was cluttered with books and papers, but the floor was clean and all his laundry was put away. I might have been a little impressed. Maybe.
David flopped on his mattress with whatever blue-ish alcohol he'd swiped and twisted the cap off. He took a generous swig and wiped his mouth.
"Tastes tropical," he announced, holding out the bottle. "Try it, yeah?"
"Uh, okay," I said. I sat uneasily on the edge of his bed and took the bottle. Our fingers brushed, but David either didn't notice or didn't care, which I thought was odd for a guy who'd just been trying to score with some woman in the living room. Then again, he'd also invited me alone into his bedroom with a bottle of booze, so maybe it wasn't that weird after all. I had to remind myself that there were still bisexuals in the world.
So I drank. I didn't know what David's definition of "tropical" was, but it was nowhere near mine. It tasted like unmixed alcohol that could be really delicious if it was combined with something less alcoholic. There must have been some serious face-making on my part, because I heard David laughing at me. I took three or four small, wimpy sips before I remembered this was David's party and it would be rude to hog the bottle. I coughed after an unfortunately large gulp and passed it back.
David immediately started drinking again, his head tilted back and the bottle raised up like in a television commercial. I could see his Adam's apple bobbing up and down, and I watched it long enough that I turned pink and looked away to study the bedspread. It was reversible: blue on one side, red on the other.
God. I could still hear him slurping. Subject change time.
"We need drinking food," I declared.
"Cake!" David said immediately.
Mmm. Cake. Not necessarily drinking food, but tasty nonetheless.
"Cake would be good," I conceded dreamily.
"No, no, I made a nice cake for the party. Wait a tic, hold this." He pushed the bottle into my hands and clambered off the futon. "It's a delicious cake. I'll be right back."
He took off out the door and then poked his head back in a few seconds later.
"Don't go through any of my stuff," he warned before he disappeared again. That, of course, only made me want to go through his stuff really badly.
It took all of my self-control and sitting on my hands to keep me from rifling through his desk drawers. My attention waned the longer he took, and I ended up lying down across the sheets, the bottle of booze on the floor and my head on David's pillow. In retrospect, that was probably weird, a little too prematurely intimate. The shots and blue tropical stuff must have been stronger than I realized, because I wasn't at all bothered by it. I was even half-dozing by the time David burst back into the room, toting a giant slice of chocolate cake on a white plate.
"Oh my God, cake!" I sat up dizzyingly fast and held out my hands to accept the plate. My face-splitting grin was one hundred percent about the chocolate frosting, which I began devouring by hand since David had forgotten to bring a fork.
It was just as well, because from the moment I got my first mouthful, I was reduced to a kindergartener. It was probably an alarming sight for David, but I was too cozy and fabulously tipsy to care.
"What's in this?" I asked between bites, wiping frosting from my lips. "Crack?"
"Cinnamon," he boasted proudly, unfazed by my disturbing eating habits. He climbed onto the futon and settled down next to me on his back.
"That's it?" I probed, disbelieving. "That's the secret?" It sounded so simple, and yet the best answers usually were.
"There are lots of secrets." David's grin was kind of goofy as he turned onto his side, cheek smashed against the pillow. I wondered if he'd sneaked another drink while he was out getting cake.
"What are the other secrets?" I had to know.
"Can't tell you," he said, shaking his head. "Mum would kill me."
"Mum," I echoed, brow furrowing. There was that accent again. It wasn't British, but it wasn't Australian, either. What the hell was it? "Where are you from?"
"That's incredibly hot," I said, and then flushed as soon as I realized what I'd said.
"Only in the summer," David mumbled into his pillow. I couldn't tell if he was joking.
Despite my reddening cheeks, I decided to clarify. I could always blame it on the alcohol. "No, I meant that your accent is attractive."
"Oh." David raised his head, blinking, and suddenly looked pinker than he had before. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," I said. I murmured my thanks as David drunkenly took my now-empty plate and set it on the dresser. Since I was done eating, I decided to join him in flopping on the futon, and I lay on my side to study him. He looked exceptionally mellow, relaxing into a pile of pillows in mismatched cases. He was actually fairly attractive if I overlooked his hair. "How come you don't have a girlfriend?"
"Why don't you tell me?" he asked, oddly serious.
That was like an invitation to stare at him some more, right? I took the opportunity to squint at him, taking in his wide, feminine mouth, straight nose, and eyes so brown they were almost black. It had probably only been his uncombed hair and my own neuroses that had made me mistake him for Charles Unabomber Bates upon our first meeting.
"You could use a haircut," I decided after a long silence.
"I'll keep that in mind." He yawned suddenly, rolling onto his side away from me, and burrowed his face against his pillow.
His actions struck me like a lightning bolt.
"Uh," I said, stiffening. "Was that my sign to leave?"
David shrugged, waving an uncoordinated hand in the air.
"I think I'll have a nap," he said. "You can do whatever."
"Oh." Frowning, I noticed that his bed was set up in the corner of the room with the foot bumping up against his desk. Since I was on the inside toward the wall, I would either have to climb over David or crawl on his desk to get out. I decided to settle down on top of the covers, my arm pressed against the coldness of the wall, and closed my eyes. "I'm tired too," I said. "I guess I'll just stay here."
David grunted in response. I bit my lip.
"Um, if you get weird or anything," because I'm clearly gay and you're sending mixed signals, "you can just push me on the floor or something. I won't be offended."
"You're fine," David mumbled sleepily. "The drinks hit me a bit all at once and I need to have a quick nap. That's all."
"Okay." Even though David couldn't see me, or perhaps because of it, I smiled and folded my arms on top of my chest with a deep, contented sigh. Sharing a bed with him wasn't as uncomfortable as I would have expected, especially considering I'd thought he was a serial killer only a few hours ago. It was a double mattress and I was pretty thin, so we weren't touching but we weren't curled up in little balls on opposite sides of the bed, either. It was a nice state of no contact without extreme effort, and I easily fell asleep with my head lolling to the side and my bangs tickling my forehead.
Hours later, I woke up feeling like someone had taken an entire roll of paper towels and stuffed it in my head through my nose. The pressure behind my eyes was overwhelming, and I rolled over, rubbing my temples. According to the clock on David's desk, it was only one o'clock. At some point someone had shut his bedroom door, so the sounds of people talking and drinking and listening to music in the living room were muted. Next to me, David was still asleep, dead to the world. I poked his shoulder experimentally and wasn't surprised when he didn't stir.
"David?" I asked. My voice was surprisingly loud in his empty room, and I cringed. David, however, didn't even bat an eye.
There was still a pile of books and papers on David's desk. It was either knock over all his stuff or climb over him.
Oh, what the hell, I thought, and inelegantly swung my leg over him. I had a moment of sheer terror where I thought David was waking up and he was going to open his eyes to find me half on top of him, but luckily he just snorted and scratched his cheek. I stayed there for a moment, frozen in place, before I finally coaxed my muscles into gear and rolled onto the floor with a thud. Gauging by my clumsy dismount, I was still tipsy, but nothing terribly debilitating.
I waddled outside and shut the door softly behind me. I was ready to slink back across the hall to my apartment and pass out when Lilah ambushed me. She looked like she'd been camped out there waiting for me the entire time. And heck, for all I knew, she could have been.
"Oh my God," she gasped, latching onto my arm with wide eyes. She searched my face, taking in my disheveled hair and sleepy, sated expression, and dug in her red-lacquered nails. "You guys totally did it, didn't you?"
"What? No. God, no. What?" I stuttered, looking behind me at David's closed door, and blushed straight to the tips of my ears, which didn't really help the situation. I hustled Lilah somewhere David couldn't hear, or at least where we wouldn't wake him up.
We ended up in the miraculously empty kitchen. I guided her to a chair, one hand on her elbow, and sat next to her with a very serious expression.
"I can't even tell you how important it is for you to understand I did not just have sex with my neighbor," I said.
"You did, you totally did," Lilah said, her mouth curving in a way that was mildly disarming. "Oh my God, I can't believe it. I was wondering where you went, and I asked someone and they said you were in Dave's bedroom, and I thought, 'No way did Randy agree to that,' but you did. Alone. And now you look all flustered and rumpled. What else am I supposed to think?"
My face was hot. I let go of Lilah's elbow and ran both hands through my hair, rearranging the fluffy blond tufts into something that hopefully resembled style. There wasn't a mirror around, so I couldn't be sure, but it felt okay when I smoothed my hand through my bangs.
"We didn't do anything, okay? We hid in there because we stole someone's booze. We were just drinking, and we were alone because—well, I don't know, because he was paranoid someone would see he stole it, I guess." And then I creeped on him while he drank and got all hot and bothered, I thought. But no way in hell was I telling Lilah that. "Then I had some cake and we fell asleep. For God's sake, the door was open, what kind of a slut do you think I am?"
"You were drinking?" she pressed, clinging to the worst possible detail. Judging by the mischievous twinkle in her eye, she seemed inordinately pleased by this turn of events. I groaned and rubbed my forehead.
My brain was way too muddy for this. Actually, I was surprised I was even attempting this conversation while I still had to blink more than once to focus on anything. It was a story best saved for another day, so I pushed my chair back and stood.
"Forget it," I told her. "It's not important. I'm going home now."
"No way, you have to tell me all the juicy details," Lilah demanded. She leapt to her feet with a wobble and clutched my forearm, looking petulant. I decided right then and there that she was drunker than I was and therefore probably wouldn't remember this in the morning. It was undoubtedly for the best.
I shook her off as well as I could. "I will, I promise, but later. Right now I've gotta go pass out. At home."
She pouted and pointed drunkenly at me with two fingers as I grabbed my wine from the counter and edged toward the door.
"I'm holding you to that. Don't think I won't remember. If I don't get it out of you, I'll get it out of Dave."
I rolled my eyes and waved her off. It took some swaying and a few too many tries with the lock, but I eventually got my door open. When I made it inside, my neon tetras were swimming in energetic blue laps around the aquarium, illuminated by the lamp I'd left on for them. They were impossible to tell apart, so I had a single name for the entire school of them: Gus. I opened the tank, dipped my fingers in to say goodnight, and switched off the light.
Things were good. Life was normal. I liked it that way, I decided, and put my wine in the fridge and stumbled off to bed.