Bethany loved this place. She felt more at home within these walls than the ones she paid rent for. If she hadn’t already tried and been found and kicked out, she would live here instead.
The mood was a stoic peace wrapped in white and gold, gently settled by polished floors of crisp pearl. Dust waltzed through the skylight’s round and filtered glow. She watched it spin under the porcelain masks hanging at the highest corners. The masks were hand-carved by their featured artists, and although they hid behind blushing shadows, she sensed their fashioned smiles upon her. A gilded embossment tied the whole effect together, reaching up from behind the curved reception desk to the ceiling as an intricate tree. Its branches arched over the three halls and dark entryways.
Beautiful. Romantic. Sullen. Suave. Resolute. Exquisite. A hundred words and more. She clutched Primed and Tuned, letting its frame steady her. The foyer’s openness and classical design left her free to sail across the room as much as sit and drink this quiet atmosphere. Nowhere else offered that emotion. She sighed, dreamy and full of glee, then turned to face her guest.
“Welcome to Lemonlight Fine Arts,” she declared, “your gateway to the nation’s most inspired collection of homegrown talent. Since 1993, these halls have paid tribute to our unsung masters of style, who challenged the norms of their day to shape a new trend. From painters to sculptors, photographers and models, these artists have thrown caution to the wind and dare you to flourish in their world.”
Alex looked confused.
“Did you practise that?”
“I work the front desk most weeks,” she said. “I know that blurb better than I know my name.”
“Which is why it’s such a marvel she never remembers it.” Terry! The man of the hour, always prepped to lend his sardonic tenor to a chat. Today, he wafted in from the East Wing, clipping along the floor with shoes shined to a mirror finish, ironed slacks, a tidy vest – charcoal and pinstriped – and his famous, royal yellow shirt and tie. When he stopped, it was at a respectable two and a half feet. “I see we’ve brought a pack mule.”
“Good morning to you, too,” she greeted. “Where’s my breakfast?”
“Where indeed? I didn’t honestly expect you to arrive on time. Colour me shocked.” Terry tipped his whip-straight nose to Alex. “You have a new friend.”
“So that’s a no on breakfast? Do you want to move it to brunch? Lunch? One of your fifty teatimes?”
“Bethany,” he sang, looking good and uncomfortable under his stylized face scruff. “I can’t introduce myself.”
It was ‘unseemly’.
“I know. I like making you wait.” He gave her a tch. In his native land, which here meant Brighton instead of Jordan where he’d actually been born, the noise meant ‘You utter bitch’. Point: Beth. “Terry, this is Alex. He’s from my building. Alex, this is Terry. He’s the –”
“Stop. Stop.” Now the man looked pained. The left of his raised-in-perma-sarcasm brows twitched, but he composed himself and extended a hand – not to shake, but merely gesture. With it, he gathered a breath and leaned into a glorious exhalation. “Alex.” The room savoured the sound, balancing the syllables hovered over them. “Terrance Sheridan. Director of Lemonlight Fine Arts. Co-owner of the estate to which you’ve journeyed this morn. It is a pleasure to meet you, I’m sure.”
“Hey,” Alex said.
And they waited.
So it turned out silence hovered, too.
“We’re going to Roasters,” she blabbed, “after this thing with Edison’s done. I brought the stuff!” Beth lifted her canvas. “Fresh off the brush, all for him.” Terry hadn’t shifted his eyes from Alex yet. Alex, who she’d been trying to unwind from the ball of nerves he’d been since she opened her door. He started to freeze at the hawkish attention. Beth to the rescue. “Ter? Money?”
That caught his interest. Terry swiveled to find Primed and Tuned waiting.
“Well, this is manic.” He ran a thumb down its length. Yes, the acrylic was dry, and what he was checking for happened once. “Fresh off the brush, you say. Not ‘tube’?”
There came a faint heat to her cheeks.
“I… may have had to manually adjust some places…”
He recoiled, gasping, “Beth.”
“I’m not proud,” she said, “but it’s not like Edison’s going to care. It counts as a part of RAR, and I was showing Alex this morning that if you look at the right angle –”
Once again, Terry cut through, having waved a palm and gone, “Up-up – no. You’ve done your eighth of the work. The rest, you leave to me.” Somehow, Alex got roped back into his line of fire. “So. She showed you this morning. And what did you think?”
Nonchalant, her neighbour answered, “Good.”
“Mm.” To Beth: “Doesn’t talk much, does he?”
“He’s new to this,” she told him. “When we’re done at Roasters, we’re going to wander around here and flesh out his experience. It’ll be an official Lemonlight sightseeing tour.”
“What a treat.” Terry beamed, though his mouth looked a touch too wide and his stare a tad narrow. He’d – for the third time – turned his focus onto her date, who at least seemed more comfortable with it since he pleasantly wide-smiled-narrow-stared right back. Eventually, however, Terry loosed a second ‘Mm’, then motioned to the paintings Alex had tucked underneath his arm. “What are those?”
She braced. Here went nothing.
“My new series! I call it: Pink Beauty, and it requires a very open mind –”
“It’s shit, isn’t it?”
“Wh– no.” Stay positive. “It’s your boulder!” Stay positive, Beth. After all, this was Terry. Ter-bear! Also Terrynx-larynx, for when he needed to fall down a peg. She glued on her ray of sunshine and barrelled through. “You always say you can squeeze pennies from a rock, so… surprise! Here’s your ultimate challenge.”
“Funny,” Terry said. “I can’t recall asking for a challenge.”
Okay, screw positive.
“No, you asked for nine pieces of RAR, and then bumped me to five to fit Jess in since your professional loyalty’s no contest to Edison’s wallet. You completely reneged on your duty to the actual artists slaving to fill this place, so you’re going to take Pink Beauty and cram it down his neck until Edison spits up cash, and you’re going to drop your precious commission because this is your fault to begin with.”
“She’s a bit of a firecracker,” he chirped at Alex.
“All right, all right – I’ll sell the bloody thing. Inside voices,” he scolded. “Show me already.”
Beth made sure he wasn’t going to change his mind, which he promised via frustrated hand flap at the unicorn trio. Fine. She was holding him to it. Retrieving her latest creation, she arranged the frames in a proper display on the floor.
Terry studied these for the longest time, pressing his fingers into a steeple against his lips. More silence. When she couldn’t keep taking it, she blurted, “Well?”
“Ms. Keeler.” Ugh – he took forever to say her name. Stupid pauses for dramatic effect… “I stand corrected. That.” He pointed by tilting his steeple forward. “That is divine.”
“Aw, shut up.”
“I’m being a thousand times serious. Look at the pony!” Beth would slap him. “It’s fighting a lizard monster! Is this its tongue, by the way?”
“A horn,” Alex popped in, obviously not too unsociable that he would miss a chance to ladle on crap with this jerk. But he grinned at her, coming dangerously close to yesterday’s adorable smirk. “I still like it.”
Then he was still wrong, since Pink Beauty – not lacking a better word – sucked. But… she appreciated the sentiment. She thought he’d been joking before, as expected from everyone else. His sincerity gave her a warm flutter of gratitude.
“Thank you,” she told him.
He did seriously need to learn about art, though. She was not having him compliment the horse if he still couldn’t ‘get’ RAR.
From out of her peripherals, Beth caught Terry’s brow twitching again.
“Good to know she’ll listen to someone,” he noted breezily. “Alex.” Hands clasped, and stepping to the side of her grounded paintings, he wandered closer. “Any last names, or do you only have the one?”
Alex moved his head, dutifully following Terry’s approach.
“It’s just that.”
Did she detect a hint of something? Hostility?
“Ah! Much like Bono. Another man of small mystery.” Terry’s lips quirked. “Cancer.”
Definite hostility. She jumped to explain, but not before Terry rammed ahead with, “The crab!” Of course the crab. This was his icebreaker. “Your sign. Astrology. I’ve a talent for reading postures, and yours holds a distinct guardedness across the chest.”
Alex continued staring.
Don’t mind her or anything. She was simply going to tip-toe back on over to the spotlight and ask, “Where’s Edison?”
“Office.” Bethany had had the oddest sensation, as though dear Terry forgot she was here and him saying ‘Office’ marked more of a coincidence than a reply. “Are you?”
To which Alex – not her, since ha, ha, Beth who – said, “Are I what?”
The left brow gave its third twitch, and a lithe wince alighted on Terry’s smile. Never one to let grammar interrupt the theatrics, however, he composed himself and gently prodded, “A Cancer.”
So this was happening? The train had boarded and the ball had already started to roll? Her last attempt at changing the subject involved a cough for their attention and the novel suggestion of, “Maybe we should go to the office.”
“Is that the dragon?”
Alex, according to these four words, hadn’t heard Beth at all, and thus resumed the two men totally ignoring her.
“The dragon is from the Chinese zodiac. We’re focused on the Western set.”
“Two –” Terry practically choked. “There’s more than one, as the common knowledge goes.”
She got nothing from either of them.
“Common knowledge. ‘Cause it’s not real knowledge, I guess.”
“Spoken like a Taurus.”
“Is that the dragon?”
Fine! Beth started gathering the canvases her own damn self.
“Let’s go slow,” Terry said, pushing on, “as I do for all the kiddies who don’t quite have it. Taurus is the bull, assigned to late April and May. Not a dragon. Cancer is the crab for late June and July. Not a dragon. I am a Libra. The balanced scales. A refined advocate. Romantic. Not, despite what one might assume, a dragon. Clearer?”
It seemed like Alex was enjoying things after all. Good for him.
“Oh. Those. The goat and the cat and the – right, sure.” He nodded. “I’m in the middle of March. What sign’s that again: the little boy Zeus kidnapped to fetch him booze and bend over, or the half-horse too busy reading to rape as much as the other centaurs? I’m always confused.”
Terry hummed a grim chuckle.
“Pisces. March is a Pisces, with the middle of the month forming an Aries cusp.” His sardonicism cranked to eleven. “Yes, that’d be right.”
“And so relieving! I was worried we weren’t gonna solve this.”
To twelve for Alex.
“It’s the magic of teamwork.” Call the press: Terry’d hit thirteen, and his happy expression pulled tight enough to nearly crack his face in two. “As I said, I’m sure it’s been a pleasure.”
That was her cue. With both series piled snugly atop her wrists, Beth took the chance to get a word in.
“I don’t know about you,” she announced, “but too much male bonding makes my head spin. What do you say we put a pin in this and let Terry get on to bringing my art over for Edison?”
His brow shot so far up his forehead, it was all it could do to not pop off.
“You can’t seriously think you’re not helping me with this,” he barked. Then since everyone waited for his instruction, Terry spun on his heel and glided into the dark hall from whence he came. “Keep up, you.” Snap, snap. “Bring the wares.”
She decided not to move until he vanished. As soon as he had, she was all over apologizing to Alex.
“I am so, so sorry. He’s normally a nice guy –” Well, in public. “– but he’s also sort of my boss and I can’t do as much to help as I want when he’s – ah… less nice.”
Or whatever they wanted to call this tiff. Oh. A tiff! Perfect.
“It’s fine,” Alex assured, casually shifting his weight. That shirt was the best mix of tight and modest. “But for the record, if anything says I’m not paying today, that was it.”
“Right – you’ve got it. For enduring him, the first coffee’s on me.” The wind flew out from her lungs. She hadn’t even noticed she’d been holding it there. “Feel free to wander until I’m done. I’ll come find you.”
She left him and jogged into the shadows alone, following after Terry’s wake, but it wasn’t until she arrived surrounded by a cloak of shade that she realized describing this as such felt entirely too generous. The hall was pitch black, save for white outlines glowing around the curtains at the far end. She walked by squeaking her foot forward and touched for paths with the edges of her outstretched paintings.
Where was he?
“Jesus, Ter –”
Two hands took her by the waist and steered her down the long way to the office. Every time – every time Bethany went somewhere dark and hadn’t adjusted yet, Terry, half-bat, frigging appeared and freaked her ass out.
“What an absolute wanker,” he fumed, doing an excellent job of not walking her into a wall. He did a poorer job of speaking with the inside voice he’d mentioned. It ran straight through her ear while his fancy beard tickled her lobe. “I had him pegged right for it as he walked in. I let him talk, of course, for your sake, before casting my judgement, but now it has been cast. Wanker.”
“Easy, Ter,” she said. “He’s not that bad.”
Too little, too late. Terry started mocking Alex through his teeth.
“Two zodiacs? Where’s the dragon? Aren’t the centaurs sexual deviants? Didn’t Zeus bugger Aquarius?” Which sounded like Zeus, but she chose not to point it out. Mandela’s Peace Prize awaited her claim. “Honestly, Bethany. Your heart cannot have been so dashed by our uncoupling that this is what attracts you now. He might look like me –”
“Down, boy,” she told him. “You two do not look alike.”
He squeezed her sides and led her through another blind corridor. Ah, the scenic route, the favoured path of people who weren’t carrying four big, flat pieces on their arms.
“Beth,” the people in question assured her. “I’m flattered. Truly, I am. But I’m not stupid. He’s taller than you, I’m taller than you. He’s well-built, and so am I. He has a bronze complexion…”
“You think you’re bronze now?”
Because outside of his amber, Arabic flush, Terry was as fair-skinned as they came. At her best pre-third degree tan, she managed a shade beiger. Alex’s ‘complexion’, on the other hand, embodied deliciousness, like a medium double-double.
Secondly, well-built? Terry was ten percent body-fat! The skinny ten percent, not the toned fifteen Alex clearly worked with. His admittedly impressive sense of style may have allowed Ter to moonlight as someone svelte-esque, but be serious.
“Same diamond-shaped head, same dazzling smile for occasions like being a prick, and he has the same ebony hair as I. Except I’ve cut mine whilst giving a shit –” He grew it past his chin, oiled it, then tucked the locks behind his ears. “– and he’s used a hacksaw.”
Was he going to mention the long schnoz, down-turned eyes, plucked caterpillars who’d given their lives to emote his pouts, or – again – the tickly jaw fur obsessively trimmed to a fade Alex didn’t have?
“You don’t look alike,” she repeated. “You’re taller by a breathtaking inch.”
“Inch and a half. Please,” he said, before she could call him on using colonial measurements, “let me believe this is your quarter-life crisis, and you’ll run its course without begging to move in with me once the thrill of your fling has lifted and you’ve realized the shame of floorcest.”
“He doesn’t live on my floor. That’s how much you know.”
“Oh! Well. Pardon me, then.” Beth could hear him shaking his head behind her, still simmering from Alex. “I suppose whether he is or isn’t a wanker – although he is, it’s not my place to comment on your affairs.”
“In writing, please,” she crooned.
“And I suppose,” he talked over her, “it could be worse. You haven’t shacked up with your other neighbours yet.”
It took eight steps for the ‘yet’ to register. She’d furrowed her brow by the ninth. On the tenth, a thought occurred to her.
“Terry,” she began. “Are you…?”
He tittered. Nothing good ever came of those.
“I’m simply playing the house,” he swore. “Everyone else bet on how long it’ll be. Big money’s on the New Year, so just keep these –” He tapped her thighs. “– closed until January, yes? Or forever. Amuse yourself with sodding Alex.”
She must have been really drunk still, to misunderstand the situation as obviously as she was. Surely a cluster of assholes wasn’t actually gambling on her sex life, when that was the one thing they agreed was off-limits.
“Who’s ‘everyone else’ that’s betting, exactly?”
After drumming on her overalls, Terry replied, “You remember the group we had over Gina’s pregnancy test.” She remembered losing fifty bucks on a barely there pink line. “Us again! Only it’s about you now.”
“About me shacking up with –”
“No, being murdered by, when you’ve let your guard down after a night of fresh starts and rigorous toi-et-deux-rois. Really, Beth,” he said. “This isn’t my first pari-mutuel. As if I’d allow wagers on something someone could influence.” Oh dear God. “Your private life is your own, unless it makes an airtight case for how the main event unfolds.”
To clarify, she echoed, “The main event being that my neighbours will inevitably kill me.”
“You’ve been on about it since they moved in. At this point, we’ve assumed it’s happening.” Terry was taking extra turns on purpose. The office was not this far away. “We gathered the theory during our creative thinking exercise last week. Missed you at that. Next one’s early November.”
“Don’t hold your breath for my R.S.V.P,” she bit off at him. “I might be inevitably dead by then.”
“Oof. Hard luck on that payout. But I wouldn’t worry; if they left you alone for this long, there’s a good chance they’ve up and killed each other,” he spectacularly failed to allay. “Unless, perhaps, your building hid its drugs long enough to learn English and call the police?”
Her building had called somebody, Beth knew from today, but not a cop.
“Then dead it is. Such a shame – RAR was growing on me.” The fingers on her sides tightened for a moment. “What’s your problem?”
“You’re not as bouncy all of the sudden, which means you have a problem.” He tried actually bouncing her to prove it. “Like a wet sack of cats.” Thank you. “So what’s wrong? Bedded them already? Both? Only one, but twice? As I mentioned, it’s not my place to comment. Though I’ll judge. And tut. Might even wag my finger.”
If anything would be the death of her, it was his sense of humour. She’d worked too hard convincing herself that she didn’t need to spit a trail of forensic DNA to let Terry stick her with another dose of worry. Calmly, collectedly, she said with high hopes that he couldn’t notice the slight wobble in her voice from last-second doubt, “It’s nothing.”
He noticed. He so noticed, in fact, he stopped his blind-sighted power strut and brought her to a halt.
“Bethany,” Terry warned. “What’s happened?”
“Nothing!” For her next trick, she added, “As far as dropping my guard is concerned. I can’t really be caught off of it in a vibrant, bustling, noisy, public place like Roasters, right?”
She literally, figuratively, heard him putting the pieces together. The very instant he had, he whirled her to face him – presumably to stare into her eyes, but hello, still dark – and grabbed her by the shoulders.
“You didn’t.” He rumbled the words. “Beth. You didn’t.”
Her neighbours were the only stories she never had to fluff. Following that novelty, Terry – and tons of others, like regular visitors, fellow artists, maintenance workers, check-out clerks, raccoons, birds, and Jessica, but especially Terry – knew every detail.
“It’s a cup of coffee,” she said, “and a quick tour. I mean, I don’t know… Is it so dangerous?”
“That you’ve just asked whether it was dangerous rather than any other adjective in your vocabulary says more than you most days,” he spelled out at her. “Yes! The answer is yes! It is really fucking dangerous.”
“But,” she shushed, because oh God, be quiet, “he is really cute. And – and – stop it – of the two of them, he’s not crazy. It’s his brother-roommate-friend person. Alex apologized for the noise.” After he stalked her back home, she omitted. “By the way, I have a wonderful vocabulary, you…”
What a lovely time to draw a blank.
Terry’s fingers retightened and relaxed. Then they tightened, relaxed, and held.
“Alex,” he began. “No last name of which we can speak. Allegedly sane – brother indeed – and is aware of where you live.”
“He has bruises on his jaw. You’re not aware if he’s given as good as he gets. And you have no way of telling if whatever is his problem can become your problem next.”
Those were good points.
“But he’s so cute.”
“Not happening.” Terry whirled her back and marched her on towards the office. “It’s not happening. I’ll not allow it. Let him wait for a while, and then we say there’s been a painting emergency and he’ll have to go home.”
“Um…” Now she was second guessing the second guesses. Alex seemed so nice… and more scared of her than vice versa. “I drove him here –”
“Bus. Cab. Couldn’t care less. Fly, for God’s sake, but he’s leaving.”
Once or twice, she’d fluffed the story for him a bit.
“Maybe you’re overreacting,” she said. “He seems normal.”
This time when he spun her, a muted shine from underneath the nearby at last office door helped her to pick the disappointed frown across his features. Terry looked annoyed by what she’d suggested, and the expression of ‘How have you lived this long without choking to death on your tongue when you sleep’ reminded her how nice it was not to still be dating that.
“We’ll get your things when he’s gone. You’ll stay with me for now. The single ‘probably’ I want to hear is you’ll probably look for a new flat while you’re at it.”
Alex seemed normal.
“Whatever,” she mumbled.
“Not whatever. Yes. I’ve had a trying enough time with you in that hovel,” he shot back. “Now’s an even better occasion to leave it behind. Clear?”
Practised, Beth glued on her frilly sunshine ray again.
“Good.” He released her arms to go into preening mode, straightening his vest. “Right – you know the rules with him. Old Man Misogyny: play dumb, look pleasant, let me be the son he never had, and I’ll have you set for rent at wherever you live next.” Gently, he chuckled to her. “I was largely kidding about the pool. Had I honestly thought you would talk to one of them, I would have placed my bet first.”
She chuckled too, so sweetly, readjusting the canvases as she agreed, “Let’s get this over with.”
Then she was going to Pequods.