It may have been the ‘Hey, bitch’ that passed so sweetly through her walls, or the palpable silence shattered by a bang from the sixth floor’s stairwell. Potentially, it was realizing she hadn’t covered her tracks before sprinting home. Or maybe – although this was a longshot – Beth’s sheer panic was owed to the half-beaten face tucked slightly near the left of her peephole, which happened to match a male’s she needed hours to work up the nerve to talk to. She wrote a will! All right, not a will exactly. It was more of a plea to check his closet if they couldn’t find her body after a week. She sort of glued it to the fridge with a tacky glob of lavender scraped off her palette, since paper and paint she owned aplenty but not a single strip of tape.
Maybe that was it. Perhaps because her note still hung there like a grim oracle, she’d simply scared herself. Sure, she bought that. On a normal day, she may not have been half as creeped out by the gentleman who knew where she lived despite never exchanging names, or that because he didn’t have hers and couldn’t scroll through the building’s directory like a regular stalker, he must’ve watched her leave to follow later and steal her hair, then wear her skin if he found time. No big deal.
Even with those comforting thoughts, for some reason Beth did not feel okay undoing the teeny, tiny chain that latched her room shut. All her ‘He needs help’ stuff? None of it applied when he popped up outside – ooh, that was a knock. He knocked. Psycho-killer was knocking.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
“I can see your shadow,” she heard, as if he was amused, as if he found her amusing. “You okay in there?”
Sound brave, Bethany. Try to sound like she had a gun.
“Yep.” Squeak. Great job, Beth! “Yep, yep – all good. All good here with my…” Gun! “… dog.”
She couldn’t just say ‘gun’. What if it provoked him?
“This place is pet-friendly?”
Oh God, he didn’t believe her. Think fast!
“It’s a tiny dog.” Dammit, Beth! “But it – um… bites. So, how are you good?” She started with ‘how are you doing’, slapped it to ‘are you well’ and added a light twist of hurr-durr for personal misery. This might be time to sigh ‘kill me now’, but for once, it was a legitimate possibility. “Still renovating?” And while he mulled his answer over, she would go ahead and lean her body weight against the entrance.
“I came to talk about that,” he said, his voice piercing the thin wood. “I wanted to apologize.”
“Oh, no need! It’s history. But – you know…” How about leave, like he’d been so eager for her to do upstairs? “I was being nosy. I’m sure you had it under control and I shouldn’t have butt in.” Now she heard muttering. To whom? “Ah… Are you here with someone?”
She should’ve said she had a cat. As in, a really angry one. Tired of ducking from the peephole, however, Beth stood and peered back outside. She didn’t see him. No, wait! There he was. He was leaning on the side of her doorway with his shoulders turned away, further from her view. He must have figured she wasn’t inviting him to tea. Good boy.
“I appreciated the social call,” he told her, dodging the question. “Not a lot of people bother, so I start to forget I live near anyone. I lose track of the noise I make.” Her kitchenette was close. She could have a knife in seconds. “I forget my manners too, so… sorry for being an ass. You didn’t deserve it. My roommate’s…” He trailed off. Her heart banged in the silence. “Anyway, thanks and I’m sorry. I’ll try to keep the volume down. Don’t be afraid to knock on the ceiling when you have to, either. Or don’t, ‘cause I’m betting a good sneeze’ll send this dump the rest of the way to hell.”
“I think that’s just how they built it,” her mouth replied.
Beth wanted to kick herself for failing a brain-dead-easy job – saying nothing – before she caught his chuckle. It… surprised her. She hadn’t expected him to laugh.
“Yeah, well… maybe one day, they’ll finish building it.” His voice was different. She carefully noted the change. “I’ll give them this: if I’m planning a heist, Poverty Palace is at the bottom of my list.”
‘I feel safer already,’ she thought. What she did say was, “Uh-huh.”
“Yup.” A moment fluttered between them. “Anyway.” Beth watched him push off, ready to leave. “See you around.”
Odd. Something had changed. This person seemed normal and almost nice. The cadence of his voice lacked its earlier twitchiness. He sounded polished. Sane, even. Maybe a little ear-catching.
She glanced through to the hall. He’d left. True stalkers didn’t leave, but here was the sound of footsteps strolling away…
“Hold on a minute,” Beth yelled. Did her kitchenette still have those knives? Perfect. She fiddled with the chain, pretending it helped since ‘sane’ hadn’t yet returned from being out to the jury. “Hi! Sorry – I… my dog.” He could fill in the blanks to that lie himself. “Sorry. It’s late, and you coming by after our first meeting went so…” Memorably. “Plus – and no offence – your bruises look terrifying. That’s really from fighting over renovations?”
He grinned, a gesture she softly returned, feeling better about the comfort their ten steps of distance afforded. It offered her an instant to dash inside dare anything go wrong, like him bridging their gap, but he wasn’t budging for now. She chanced a smile.
“Two parts renovations,” he said. “Three parts dickhead roommate.”
“Mr. Coffee,” Beth murmured.
“Ah – nothing.” She suddenly felt underdressed. “So you two… um… fight a lot? I’m not in on the full story, but if it’s this bad, why put up with it?”
Sidebar: please continue putting up with this, because that was how she managed rent.
“It sounds worse than it is.” Cute eyes. Big and brown. Tanned skin; she wondered about his background. “I’m not excusing it, but if you’re worried, don’t be.”
“Oh! No – I wasn’t. I mean, I was, which is why I came over, but I’m not…” She cleared her throat. “I know bad roommates. A quirk can start a war when you’re trapped in such cramped places, especially if it rubs one person’s style the wrong way against another.” Those words seemed to resonate. Okay, she was getting somewhere. Her old, mellow vibe returned, newly dusted, and to complete the picture, she nonchalantly rested on the side of her door. Ideally, her hair would be down, but lemons and lemonade. “Before I moved to this complex, where I lived was lace. It went everywhere: pillows, windows, chairs, my stuff. She used to wrap her socks in ribbon so she’d have a present every morning, until the day she opened my sock drawer and found –” A colourful set of toys, which were completely wrong to mention, Bethany. “… these – um, statues. She tied pink lace dresses on them and made the knots so tight, it actually cut into the silicone. I had to throw all my statues out.”
“Sister,” she admitted. “You too?”
“Brothers. Lots.” Ah, that other ‘joy’. Beth nodded in condolence, while he resumed with, “Can’t say we ever had a statue problem.” Her neighbour took a wise step around the term ‘vibrators’. “I had a bike once, though. Had.”
“Message received.” Siblings were trouble. She spared him from picking at that memory – and anyway, she spied with her little eye a fresher scab to scratch. “Is that who’s upstairs? Your brother?”
“Who, the closet case?” Her question didn’t faze him, and he hadn’t jumped to explain the noise the building endured from them for months. Somebody hiding trauma would have an excuse prepared, wouldn’t they? Someone in danger couldn’t act this self-assured. “He’s just a guy obsessing over privacy. He’s fine. You’d like him, unless he’s in his The Walls are Watching Me mood.”
Ooh, nice title. She took it. Only after did she hear a small alarm at its implication.
“Is he…” She tried to be delicate. “… safe?”
“Like a neutered panda.”
“And you’re looking after him,” she ventured.
He shrugged, humble. No details, but no denials. The rest wrote itself: her neighbour was the second guy’s caretaker, and whatever he had going on, it cut the list of apartments willing to lease to them. Then… the end, in its plain and boring glory. She didn’t notice she was shaking her head in gentle disappointment until he asked, “Is that a problem?”
“No! No, it’s sweet,” she said. “I was only thinking how it’s funny you two made this big impression on everyone and nobody knows anything about you.”
“You know I like ducks.”
Shit, she snorted.
“Yes – um… Yeah. Ducks,” she said. His expression the first time that word popped from his mouth had been, while mildly frightening back then, priceless in hindsight. “But honestly. You aren’t even acting the way you were upstairs, and that happened an hour ago.”
Her neighbour shrugged again, a placid lake touched by indifference, except now he added, “I’m less stressed when I’m out.”
“I like you better when you’re less stressed.” Stupid, Beth. So dumb. She immediately felt her cheeks heat and sputtered, “I’m not judging how you were before! Or him – or either of you.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” he assured her, toying with a larger smile. “It’s a rough day for everyone.”
Her paintings. The rush jobs for Edison. She was wasting time!
“I have to go.” Oof. That was blunt, given the puppy dog frown in his eyes. “I mean… I need to turn in for the night. I have to drop my acrylics off at an art gallery tomorrow.”
Oh, did she? What a completely organic question she hadn’t hinted towards at all. Her inner freak-out clock continued ticking down the remaining hours of productivity, but her bolder side danced through unimpeded. She brightened, striking an expert pose like no big deal, she was only an award-winning artist set to win further critical acclaim.
“Yeah. Professionally. I’ve got a show in a few days, but I have to be there early in the morning for an advance sale to my collector.” And to stop anyone from ruining her exhibit. Jessica. “You should come for a viewing.”
“How’s seven?” How what now? “You’re gone tomorrow morning and now you’re headed to bed. That leaves a small window to see professional art.” She loved his genuineness. Beth changed her mind: this guy was great! “Hell, if you’re walking, I’ll help you carry it.”
“Cool.” Coooool. “Seven. That fits – for me. If it’s too early for you…”
“I’ll be dozy, but nothing a latté won’t fix.” Hmm? “There’s a Pequods everywhere.” Hmmmm?! “It’s why I agreed to live in this town.”
“You’re the coffee…” Addict? Psychopath? “… connoisseur?”
“That’s a neat word for it,” he said, ignoring that it wasn’t, it was nondescript, since based on what she heard, Mr. Coffee was who – “You, too?”
And there it came: the most unfairly, inappropriately adorable and innocent response from anyone who thrashed an apartment weekly. Her neighbour made a slight tilt of his head and awaited her fair approval. Pure puppy dog. Orphaned puppy, missing a widdle puppy paw but still excited to play. Without trying, he wiped away the worst of her slaughtered-at-a-warehouse fears.
She’d been single too long.
“Do I enjoy a latté? Sure! Coffee – I love it!” Which led to… “Will your roommate be all right?”
“Don’t care.” Oookay then. “I’ll see you at seven.”
“Seven,” she agreed, while her date parted for the stairs.
Beth stepped inside and closed the door. She had a date with Mr. Coffee: nervous, jittery, big eyed, bruise-faced, smooth voiced, softly caramel Mr. Coffee. It wasn’t so bad if she put it like that, and he seemed to be the better of the pair; he apologized and didn’t do any screaming à la his friend. More than that, she eavesdropped through a freaking ceiling. How could she be sure she didn’t have her facts backwards? Until real proof proved differently, Coffee got a pass as the dangerous one and Screamy was the half to avoid.
As for tomorrow, she could survive a trip to Pequods. Easy. Easy-peasy.