Tag Archives: Beth

Thanks, Eddy.

Bethany put down the canvas and mutely left the room. She didn’t look back. She didn’t answer Edison. Terry had another, smaller office built into his, attached by two cherry doors; she headed there, and with a tug, slid those doors open. As they shut behind her, she was left inside a darkened space ruled by a darker veneer. A polished table for eight and matching, high-backed chairs sat below the golden chandelier. It nearly seemed too large for the ceiling, but it gracefully sighed under what light slipped in through the three, arched, captivating windows. As a side note she felt deserving of special mention, Beth was ten seconds from puking and passing out in the juice.

This was a looooot of money. Like, a lot of it, and she had to hide here until she got her mind around the three thousand dollars. She’d been holding her breath for five hundred, yet there Terry was, outside and counting it in cold, hard cash – pardon her, counting in American cash, since that was what Edison brought for his trip. Whatever – American, USD, the exchange rate? Those grossly pale green bills may have sworn they were worth three grand, but here, that was closer to infinity billion. She needed to puke, she promised to puke, she absolutely would puke, last night’s bender so was not helping, but holy moly, Terry had earned his commission.

“– might just hold off on that arm-chopping business.” The doors slid open and shut, but this time, in swept the man of her glorious hour. He glided to her side, catching her hands in his, and while he gazed into her eyes, did so sweetly suggest, “When Edison asks, you’re a manic depressive gone into shock from the loss of her unicorns, and the only thing that can pull you off the edge of severing a limb is that therapeutic sound of twenty Mr. Franklins. Clear?”

Beth could have kissed him. She would have kissed him, but with the whole ‘puke’ thing and her hangover, she whispered instead, “You beautiful, British bastard.” While he fluttered his eyes at that, she crunched the rest of his math. “Did you say ‘twenty’?” Times a hundred, so adding two zeroes. “That’s not three thousand.”

“Well. Netted.” Yeeeah, no. She took her hands back. “Oh – come on, Beth! You only had one the job, and that was to hold the bloody things.”

“You told me to!”

For the record, it hadn’t only been holding. She’d lifted the canvases, lowered them, angled them, turned them, found the perfect strike of light, all for those stupid horse paintings, and all without even once complaining about sore forearms. Those lonely years of Bop It! had finally paid off, and if she didn’t have his ‘Second Favourite Artist’ spot already clinched forever – first place was a pipe dream; Terry’s favourite artist was Terry – she knew for a fact he would have stuck it to her head then with a shiny, gold star. This, she distilled into a single frown. Funny how fast his tune changed.

“If it hurries you up, we’ll go two thousand two,” he said. “You aren’t the only one paying bills.”

Awww. Someone dropped their caviar in the Porsche again, and that someone’s brow twitched like he’d heard her mispronouncing it. ‘Por-sha’, not ‘porsh’.

“All right. Two thousand and two.” Porsh. Porsh, porsh. She held out her hand. “And I get your tie clip.”

“Done.” Off it went, quickly replaced by another one. The man kept – like, six in his vest pocket. She used to laugh, but those little things were handy. “Bringing your total to a staggering two thousand two thirty-five. Are we happy?”

Two thousand dollars, and he’d put the money in her hand? This was cloud fifteen, which was exactly what she wasn’t going to say.

“I guess.”

“Ah! The old ‘I guess’. Nothing makes this all so worth it quite like that uninspiring flatness. Thank you. For it. Again.” He smoothed out his tie, ego safely checked and creeping definition of commission rates back in line. “Right – now I’m heading out, and I’ll need you to count to eighty. When you’ve finished, you’ll emerge as a prostrated spirit, wounded by her art’s commodification, but having come to terms with it in time for our next sale.” His grooming paused. “What’s this one again?”

Primed and Tuned? The piece he had to gush about like he’d loved it for years?

“Whatever you think is best, Ter. I trust you.”

“Good answer.” Terry actually sounded impressed. Maybe first place wasn’t such a pipe dream. “No smiling. Prostrated spirit.”

“Sorry.”

“Better.” As his hair commercial’s big finale, he ran his fingers through every tress. His head sparkled more than the light fixtures. “I might just be buying you that brunch, Keeler, if this goes as I expect.”

Was somebody outside?

“You say ‘might’ like it’s a maybe.”

In her same breath, she peeked off to his side. Beth had caught a hint of something; not to wander from the critical discussion of her meals, but there were only three people meant to be here, and they…

Wait.

Four people.

Noooo!

“Well –” That was Alex outside! “– it may be a free dinner –” Alex was outside and walking. “– provided you behave yourself.” Alex was outside, and walking, and leaving! “Damn. Nearly said that with a straight face.”

He didn’t see her. Nobody saw anyone; Alex had his head down and his shoulders hunched, and Terry’s back was slightly angled more towards the windows than away. For her part, Beth put the carefully tie-clipped cash down her overalls, and took her boss-slash-friend-slash-trigger-happy-thumb-on-the-alarm by his elbow. She never felt more Zen than she did leading his ass to the main office’s doors – but like a high-speed version of Zen, where the only thing she could do less than standing up the neighbour she so wanted to believe wasn’t the crazy half was letting Terry sic his cloud of private security on the poor bastard.

“Oh, you,” she chittered, utterly missing the line for ‘too loud’. “You’re funny – and you’re going to be great! Get on out there and make me proud.”

She tipped him a British bum pat and pulled him a couple of steps. By the third, he had morphed into Heels-y McGee.

“What did you do,” Terry drew out.

“Nothing.” Why did he always ask? “I simply think we shouldn’t keep Eddy waiting.” Oof! Too far. His eyebrow twitched. “‘Eddy’. Ol’ Ed. What’s in a name? We just bonded so much over art. All right – go, go!”

The arm she’d been hanging onto swung to spin her in front of him. She took very little solace from how it kept his back still turned to Alex, à la Scooby-Doo, since it also left her with a full view of how fast her sort-of-date was clearing the windows – and they were big windows.

“Beth,” Terry sang, trilling her name through the air, “you wouldn’t be planning anything tricksy?”

She tried not to peek.

“No?”

“And you’re sure?”

Well, gee, Ter. Big thanks for the trust.

Yes,” she answered.

“Good.” He returned the bum pat. “We’re back to two thousand.”

“What?!”

He already had it in his hand! Hers went to her pocket; son of a bitch, Ter! Those bum pats were sacred.

“You’ll get this back –” Terry rolled her two hundred into his vest. “– after you don’t ring every steakhouse asking how many lobsters they’ll pile on filet mignon.” She didn’t have time to flounder over how she had only done that once, since he whisked past and headed for the doors. “Still pick someplace nice.”

“Oh, may I, sir?”

Ha!

“Within the limits of your wardrobe. Lord knows none of this will go towards a decent dress.” He had to turn his head for that foppish snark, but only at last his syllable did she notice his gaze flicking off to the window. It took every tendon in her neck seizing to not check it out, too. “Eighty, Beth.”

He wasn’t screaming about Alex. That was… good? Bad? Bad.

“Hmm – yes. Eighty. Gotcha.” Terry hadn’t moved. She glared at him. “One. Two. Six. Fourteen.”

“That’s charming,” he said, sliding the doors apart. “Arthur! Wonderful news: she’s not chopping off a thing today.”

She waited until the doors shut, and then she whipped around. No Alex. Shit!

Her next move was grabbing an overweight chair, scraping it over to the glass, jumping on, pushing open the panel that topped the arch, and jamming her chin in the mesh that clearly hadn’t been cleaned to yell, “Alex! Alex – wait, please, don’t go!”

Pathetic, Beth. The word had already had a definition, but she just repainted it to this.

So that was that. Here she stood, and then sat, and then sort of fumbled over the windowsill, and then sat for real, stuck in this place with a geezer and an ex, counting until she went home and picked up the dead bird nailed to her welcome mat, the first of many I-hold-a-grudge gifts. It was a little of that column A and a good scoop of column B that she screamed.

Loudly.

“Beth? Beth, are –”

Dammit-Terry-go-away!” She jumped up, hiding Alex’s face, which had freaking reappeared beside her. “Go! Go outside! Go sell things!” Terry switched his look of panic to a withering frown, but left without adding to it. Once again, she waited for the doors to close. “Coast clear.” She climbed the chair to re-reach the mesh. “Alex! There you are.”

It was to judge how he’d been doing with all the signs that affirmed how he did not, in fact, require more caffeine. His face looked red, bringing out his caramel hues – and the hues of all his bruises – while his hand scratched at his arm. Alex seemed anxious, not angry, since for any second of eye contact, he spent five scanning the front parking lot.

“I have to go,” he said.

“Right! With me to Pequods.”

“No, I…” His itching arm jerked. He pinned it with his other hand. “I mean, yes, but I have to go. Can I have your keys?”

Uhhhhhhhh, what?

“As in, ‘will I drive you places’? Like Pequods? Sure!”

“No – I…” Alex stopped and rolled his eyes. He put on the fakest smile this side of pure ham. “Pretty please, might I get the keys?”

All right. Now she was frowning. She worked her ‘staring down at him’ vantage to help get the point across.

“No? Because it’s my car. I’m not going to give you the keys to my – whoa, wait!” He’d started walking. “Wait! You’re leaving?”

“I said I was.”

“Well – yeah, but –” Use words, Beth! “Then what? You’re walking home?”

“I was planning to stick with driving.”

Like he had to spell it out for her.

“But – wait! Seriously!” She needed to mash her face into a lot of dust-laden fibres to ‘go after’ him, but he stopped. “You don’t have keys.”

“Don’t need ‘em. I was being polite.” What?! “Hey, was that dick stain parked out front? Cancer Guy? Is that his car? I’m taking it.”

Terry was going to murder her in a million different pieces, and if this was really happening and not a dream, she had no way to explain why he shouldn’t.

“Let me drive you,” she blurted. “I promise – I’ll drive you, but give me a second to come out. Please.”

He tilted his head. What had looked so much like a puppy-dog last night now more closely resembled the lizard from Jurassic Park, the one that had busted out a fringe and spat up acid in a guy’s mouth.

“Sure.”

“Actually?”

She felt immediately apprehensive. Alex had gone from carjacker to model citizen in less than a second.

“Sure,” he said again, shrugging. “But if I were you, I’d hurry. I gotta get my Pequods on, and you people have got to stop getting in the way of that.”

Off he marched, growing her urge to vomit beyond a simple night of binge drinking. Also: craaaap.

She ran. Terry’s voice hit as soon as she opened the doors. The man didn’t even blink, only casually beckoned to her during his speech.

“It isn’t simply the brashness of the skeins. It’s their urgency. That the piece is unique amongst its series as the only canvas gone unprimed speaks to a thirst for the subjects’ misfortune. By endorsing it as art, we’ve lauded its brutality, and yet in that lies our truest nature: for so long as we’re allowed the fruits of our neighbours’ pain, we are content to let them endure in silence.”

All of which was Standard Terry Bullshit, and kept them distracted enough for her to sneak to the exit.

“Amazing.” Applause. “Here I thought it was all splattered crap.”

Thanks, Eddy. Enjoy the dumb horse.

“When we refuse what’s beneath the surface, we… Beth.” No, no – shit. Terry spotted her. She froze, less than three feet from escaping. “Are you planning to join us?”

Please, brain, work.

“Bathroom.”

Yes! Good excuse. At least she thought so until Terry’s back gently straightened.

“What about the bathroom, my dear?”

“Have to use it.” She felt for the hallway door. “To – ah… wash the tears I shed for this tragedy.” A billion pieces. A billion and one murdered shards. “Bye!”

“Beth –”

Nope, bye! She flew out and down the hall, forever grateful she had the floorplan burned into her mind – except for those pallets that rammed her hip since this place was as dark as a butthole. The rush of golden light flowing from the lobby’s round expanse served as her hope that she may have made it in time, and the relief she felt as her hand knocked against the main entrance also very nearly won out over her need to kill the next person who spoke.

“Keeler?”

Not fucking now,” she screeched at… whoever – some old guy dressed as a painter, an interior painter, a different kind of painter, who she doubted should even be here, but oh sweet mercy, not now. She ripped the entrance doors open and leapt outside, calling, “Alex! Alex, if you even touched his car…!”

But Alex wasn’t listening. Alex was busy cutting his arms through somebody’s neck.

“‘Cause ohhh, no. You can’t stay dead. You have to go and make some friends – who usually explode by now, so boy-oh-boy, you sure do look like our fucking source. I’m gonna break your favourite throat today. You deserve this.”

“Looooo,” the other person was wheezing. His eyes bulged from his sockets. “Looooo.”

“Just make a noise if you want it counter-clockwise. I know it’s a little rougher, but you get a better sound out of it. Regular-wise? Hey, it’s messy, but this is your execution, and I’ll be damned if I don’t grant a bitch their last request.”

Beth… backed away…

“Looooo!”

“Counter-clock? You got it, bud!”

The sound that followed was not a neck.

To be perfectly honest, she didn’t know how a breaking neck would sound, but her confidence in stating it wasn’t that came from a bare awareness of the sweet burning fire hose of piss, someone shot her.

Her hands patted at her belly. Feeling nothing but speed, she craned to look back inside the lobby. There, holding a gun – a red gun, like a toy – and running in sluggish strides towards her, was the old painter. His eyes went wide and rolled in on themselves, and she watched as he slowly started to fall. Her blink took hours to pass, dryly scraping her cornea. They shut to the wet echoes of a sharp crack and a long, “Looookrrhhhk.”

There was one last voice as the ground sailed to greet her.

“Dude, shut up about the latté. Get her keys.”

[E] “Welcome to Lemonlight Fine Arts.”

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?”

Technically.

“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.

They waited.

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.”

Yeah, hilarious.

“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.

“Terry!”

“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.”

“‘Scuse me?”

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.

Okay.

Um.

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.”

“There’s two?”

“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?

“Beth!”

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 –”

Whoooooooa.

“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.

“Ter?”

“Mm-hmm?”

“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.

“No.”

“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?”

“Huh?”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“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.

“We’re clear.”

“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.

“You know who else painted?”

It was the longest walk he’d had down five flights of stairs.

‘Hop in the car,’ she told him. So he did. The smack of the door shut the world off to him while she stood outside, merrily shoving crap in her trunk, oblivious to everything headed her way.

“We are the worst people.”

He would’ve liked some silence to let it sink in. Instead he had Xander.

You countin’ Adolph? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure that guy was vegetarian.

“We’re leaving her to die.” Before the psycho got too giddy, Alex tacked on a flat, “Not literally.” But yes, literally, if they caught her. They would. The Agents were already this far. “Your suit said it was hunting a painter. This girl is one.” The dots weren’t hard to connect. It fit Xander’s theory, too: Agents didn’t breathe so much life into cover stories. She cared about her pictures. Someone lying couldn’t fake that. “I can’t help her, even if she is innocent. They sent sixty guys.”

Could whittle it to forty.

Alex shook his head.

“It’s not a physical ‘can’t’. We’re not getting involved.”

He ordered, riding shotgun.

“Just stay out of it,” he said. “Do what you’re here to do. If shit hits a fan, we’re gone and she’s on her own.”

Beth. The girl’s name was Beth. He rubbed a hand across his face, trying to stay awake long enough to remember. So maybe coffee wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t make going outside any less suicidal. The sidewalks looked empty, but only as far as he could tell, and not two seconds later came a thud that shot off behind him.

He nearly broke his neck whipping around to see. It sounded like something had hurled through the trunk, but the lid was still propped. Alex saw her puttering over it from the side-view mirror. False alarm.

Cut her brakes, crack her ankle. Gotcha.

“No, don’t –” Again, he rubbed his face. The little adrenaline spikes always left him worse off. “Don’t let it seem like we’re here to save her. That’s all. Throw her a few tips, point her in the right direction, but you already risked my life for someone once.” Peter. “Next time, it might be us smashed with a rock.”

As is, of course, the natural rock smashing cycle. Another thud. He caught a glimpse of the trunk bouncing back up. So it had been slammed. What was going on out there? I’m surprised you’re not swinging the other way on this. The chick has two separate teams allegedly juggling her case. It’s no nine year manhunt, but her powers aren’t active. That doesn’t interest you?

“Nope.”

You fuckin’ suck, Alex.

“Stay out of it, I said.” He hadn’t noticed he’d switched to chewing his fingers until he bit too hard on the skin. So much for kicking his habit. “Take the hint from the Agents. They’re not recruiting her, just running her down.” Screw it. He kept chewing. “They think she’s dangerous.”

They think you’re dangerous.

“I have a voice in my brain telling me to kill people, who then gets bored and kills them for me anyway – a lot. Yes, I’m dangerous.” Third thud. Seriously. “They probably know something’s wrong about her, too.”

Like?

“I don’t know! But for starters, she lied about having a dog, because that’s the cleanest smelling apartment I’ve ever been to. And she lied about her ‘noisy showers’.” The look of panic when he asked if she heard the suit tipped him off. That bastard screamed the whole way down. Unless she’d had something blasting in her room since sunrise, the girl would’ve caught it. “I can’t tell what her game is, but if it’s worth two teams, she has to be incredibly…” More Xander-like than Xander. Alex shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe she can wipe out cities and they want to get to her before she holds one hostage.”

She is an artist. They’re usually a pack’f dicks that way. He said it like a fact. It is fact. You know who else painted? Hitler. Total crate of cocks. Also only had one nut, so his wurst-to-spatzle ratio skewed way towards pork.

“Well, that’s nice for Hitler.”

You think? The dude was literally mostly penis. Other than fucking with France through occupations and bike tours, what’s a uniball ever notably accomplished? Xander sighed. All that wasted potential. It’s like naming your kid ‘Roland’ – once you’re saddled with certain woeful marks, your life can only be a tale of douchebaggery.

Alex frowned at himself. His reflection didn’t look impressed.

“Done?”

Not really. You kinda got me all worked up about a Fourth Reich. Ask her how she feels about trout.

“You’re done.”

He tuned out. There’d been movement outside. The trunk had shut and the girl headed back. Alex snapped to sit less like he’d crawled inside to shank her, relieved that Nazi Bingo hadn’t distracted him enough to miss his cue. For her part, she didn’t look like she noticed. She just opened her door, sat, chucked a jacket at the back seat and flashed him a sheepish smile.

“Sorry. I know that took a while,” she said. “Usually I pile my art where you’re sitting, so it only hit me now how undersized my car is.”

Translation: I may’ve lied about the dog, but I’ve got – like, fifty sad cats at home.

Shut up, Xander.

You laughed. I heard it.

Which was why he had to shut up. Alex forced himself to ignore the bastard. He questioned her instead.

“Did it fit?”

“Ahhhh… I’m going to go with ‘eventually’?” She shrugged. “They’re in one piece and that’s what counts. The rest, I can describe as ‘flair’.”

“You can just do that?”

“Mm-hmm. The jerk buying ‘Pink Beauty’ doesn’t have a choice. As long as it seems like my real work, I can do anything.” The girl jingled her keys into the ignition. This was an old car, but she seemed to be jabbing harder than she had to. She only eased off when it finally speared in. “There we go.” Then she looked at him. “How much time do you have today?”

His rash burned.

“Why?”

“I was thinking outside about my schedule and wanted to run a plan by you.” Oh. “I know the idea was Pequods and that’s why I’m simply spit-balling, but there’s this little café beside the gallery – a gorgeous one – with hundreds of exotic, fair trade beans. It’s called ‘Roasters’.” The girl beamed. “The other artists go every week, and there are a dozen blogs screaming about how good it is: quiet, fantastic service…”

She stopped like it was just those two things.

Alex cleared his throat.

“You want to go there now?”

“After. And I’m spit-balling – spit-balling! It’s nothing against you – ah, Pequods,” the girl replied, “but – and bear with me – but… maybe we could try somewhere more local. Someplace I already know and… where I already know people if I need them – and who can totally make recommendations for you. Maybe… we could try Roasters.”

Something flashed in her eyes. Alex wasn’t sure on how to interpret it.

Xander?

She lost me at ‘fair trade’. And, y’know, by not being Pequods.

The chill down his spine gave him other doubts. That suit said ‘latent abilities’ made the extra forces worth it. So, what? Activated, she destroyed cities, but from reflex, she smashed a couple blocks? He might survive, and he’d have a night of peace within his head if he followed his instinct to do the thing Xander had raged about for eight days. Blowing that kind of vacation to go somewhere the suit said was probably crawling with Agents, just to keep her happy on the off chance she might be a threat… It was a hard sell.

Still. Two teams. For a girl who drew magic ponies. Who wore overalls. Who had freckles. Whose wide-mouthed grin crinkled under a ridged nose.

She looked about as harmless as he did.

“Okay.”

‘Scuse me?

The relief on her face was instant. She – Beth – lit up and breathed, “Really?”

You’re kidding right now. You have to be.

“Roasters could be better.” Shit. He’d tried phrasing that as something to answer the girl and Xander, but the spike of fury at his neck said he missed the mark on one of them. Alex kept trying, really weighting it towards his imaginary friend. “I know so little about you, Beth. I’d really hate to bring you somewhere you’d feel uncomfortable.”

And then be trapped as she killed him and everybody else around.

“That’s specific,” she uttered, “but… okay! I’m happy.” The car’s engine caught and shuddered to life. “After I’m done at the gallery, we can run over there and come back. I’ll give you a peek at the exhibits.”

She kept sitting there and talking, but Alex didn’t hear. His ears were tuned to a different conversation.

You taint spice. That one was new. An hour ago, you were pissing yourself over whether the bitch was an Agent. Now you clear her on that and decide she’s a warhead? He felt his hand lock to his right knee. His nails dug into the meat. Get. Me. My. Latté. Not from fucking ‘Roasters’. Like Xander’d stuck a set of fangs in there. As I’ve emphatically requested, do it.

“– and sorry about the seatbelt on your side,” Beth finished.

“What seatbelt?”

“Mm-hmm.” She clicked hers together. “Remember to duck if a cop drives by.”

The car yanked from the curb, adding a full-body rub to each of the potholes it rammed its busted shocks across. Beth took them through a street off to the side of Friday’s early gridlock. The drive itself only took five minutes, but he counted them through rising shots of pain. They lurched into a parking lot sprawled at the foot of a gray manor. Except for a white coupe she pulled beside, he didn’t see any cars. Then again, the feeling of his leg as it tore apart might’ve been affecting his damn concentration.

“This is the gallery?”

“Uh-huh. It’s nice, isn’t it? You should come by at night,” she said.

He felt like he already had in his nightmares. The house almost resembled a church, what with the steeple over the entrance, but nothing gave him the sense that any less than eight people died here and got stuffed inside the walls.

Spooky.

His point exactly.

Its windows were covered by black roof-to-floor curtains. A yellowed clock stroked the wrong hour from its place above the peeling doors. Latched to them was a brown web of vines sagging under their own, moist weight. Worst was the heads hacked from a grinning, cold brick. Their dead eyes watched him through the windshield, following along as he moved.

“What do you think?”

You have ten minutes to put a latté in my hand ‘fore I rip one of those down and shove it up your ass.

“Love you, too,” Alex muttered.

“What was that?”

“My leg,” he explained, louder. Sure, Xander was gnawing at his limb and damn near scraping bone with his own thumb, but she didn’t know that. She wasn’t going to because he more evenly replied, “It’s cramping.” Slow and smooth. “I’m going to need a second, so… why don’t you go ahead…?”

With how hard he trailed off, a corpse would get the hint: get out. To her credit, she mumbled a ready, “Sure.” It didn’t sound sure, but whatever. It worked. “I’ll start unloading the canvasses.” She immediately did the opposite and stayed where she was. “Does your leg cramp a lot? Are you alright?”

“Fine.” He forced a smile. “I can handle a cramp. It’s the pain in my ass I get every hour that’s tough. Ha.” Based on how her eyebrows twitched – down – he guessed that didn’t sound as friendly as he’d had it in his mind. But if Xander said the same thing… “Yes. I’m alright. I do need a second, though.”

This time, she gave a long “Oookay” but hopped onto the asphalt. Alex waited until she’d gone to the trunk and flipped it back up. As soon as she had, he whipped his head to the mirror, ready to snarl at the glass.

Xander beat him to it.

You’ll kick her out’f her own car, but you can’t manage a simple, ‘Hey, let’s leave Roasters for the next adventure and go to Pequods the fuck today like we agreed’? Unbelievably, his grip tightened. Eight days.

“Keep this up, and it’ll be nine.” Alex scratched at his wrist, fuming, trying to peel the hand away. Xander didn’t budge. “I’m not going to die ‘cause you couldn’t wait and pissed her off.”

‘Pissed her off’? The guy howled with laughter. What do you think she’s gonna do that I can’t take care of? At best, she’s got no powers. At worst, they’re inactive.

“Mostly inactive,” he snapped. “The suit said –”

The suit is rotting in a dumpster where he belongs. Fucker couldn’t read an address. That’s the word you wanna pit against mine?

Yes. And at that, he felt Xander curdle in a mix of scorn and offence. It didn’t loosen the vise crushing his sinews, but the pressure quit where it was. Progress.

“The suit,” Alex pitted away, “said to manage my distance. If her powers trigger through physical contact, I can’t touch her.”

He’d shaken her hand but she might not have been… ‘triggered’ enough to do whatever it was she did. She had to have a way to get through life with some contact.

You’re a death ray. You don’t have to touch her.

“And what if she grabs me?”

Xander sneered, which was always impressive given his present lack of a mouth.

Use your imagination.

Alex returned with his traditional scowl of, ‘Much obliged, dick’, before cutting to the chase and spelling out, “No physical contact. My ‘death ray’ requires me to physically make eye contact or else I can’t stun, can’t cause seizures, can’t put anyone in a coma and you can’t kill. Do you understand the problem yet?”

In the side-view mirror, he watched himself curl his lip at the dumbest asshole to walk the planet. Screw you, Xander. He knew what the guy was going to say: You’ve made me retarded. It didn’t change Alex’s mind.

“You can’t promise it’s not a risk.”

Uh, yes, I fucking can, ‘cause it isn’t. Sure as shit not by that logic.

“I’m not taking the chance.”

There is no chance to take. You don’t have a physically-based power, shithead, Xander spat. Fuck it – just get out’f the car. I don’t even have breath and I’m wasting it. Feeling came back to his right hand, along with free arthritis in every joint. Ten minutes. I want my goddamn drinks.

That left him nine minutes, because one went to detaching the Jaws of Life. Two knuckles cracked like they’d been drying in cement. As for his foot, the pain of blood re-flooding his toes made it pretty clear he’d be limping for a week. It was his survival instinct mostly, more hyperactive than most days, that pushed him to ask anything else.

“You okay?”

Fucking dandy. Get out.

No ‘It’s fine’. He wasn’t even pretending now, and they were in enemy territory. Alex couldn’t wade through it alone. Any silent treatment might as well be an execution order.

“If you want,” he carefully ventured, “before I head home, I can go by that pond and throw rocks at the geese.”

Half an hour of harassing birds was a small price to know Xander wouldn’t screw him over because he was pissy.

Depends. The guy considered his bait. Alex could hear the gears grinding in there. Are you gonna act like you’re there to feed them but then drop the rocks on their stupid heads?

One time, four years ago, a goose hissed and chased him a little.

“Sure.”

Then whatever. Sure.

Great. Now everyone was happy so long as they weren’t geese.

Alex opened the door, just to flinch when it swung out and nearly knocked over Beth on her walk back. She jumped away faster than he could, even while holding one of the unicorns.

“Whooooa – careful there! I haven’t sold this yet,” she said.

“Sorry.”

Beth grinned, tickled by something, and told him, “No, it’s alright. That hinge is a little wonky. I take it you’re feeling better?”

“Better enough.” There’d been five chips clawed out of his leg. At least if he had to run, they were Xander’s problem. “Thanks for waiting.”

“Oh, it was nothing. I had to do some last-second repairs. Here –” She lifted the picture higher. “Tell me what you think. In your professional opinion as an outside observer, does this seem intentional?”

It was the picture she’d shown him in her room, now with a massive tear under the dragon’s head and across the pony’s torso. She must’ve had a stapler ‘cause it looked like Frankenstein. The ‘stitches’ didn’t match up, either. They left a warped, open gap between the sides.

“Is it supposed to?”

“Yes! Sort of.” She shrugged. “It’s supposed to be a painting that I didn’t rip on a sharp bit of the trunk after I wedged it in, slammed the lid on its frame repeatedly and then yanked out. Which is what happened, obviously, but again, it shouldn’t seem like it.”

It did. The way she stared at him, though, painted it just as obvious that she had a very right answer in mind and a very wrong one. He played safe.

“I… guess?”

“I’ll take it.” And so she blossomed into a grin. “Whew! That is a relief. I was worried there. Here’s hoping Terry feels as open-minded.” The girl strode towards a pile of her other pictures leaning on the back bumper. “You’re still okay to carry stuff, right?”

“Yeah –”

“Awesome! You grab ‘Pink Beauty’ and I’ll bring this.” Beth swapped for the splattered paint thing. “So long as you don’t drop them into a million, splintered pieces, you can stack those however you want. They’re bulky, not heavy.”

Finished, apparently, she turned and headed to the manor’s pale stairs. Alex took longer, easing his weight onto his sore leg, but eventually he made the trip, grabbed the pile and followed after her.

“Tough morning?”

At a quarter past seven, Beth heard a knock. Score one for Mr. Coffee and his fashionable sense of time. She meant to do it back at him when she tip-toed to the door and stylishly delayed answering, but after a pause, she remembered he’d seen her shadow last night. This more than likely looked as though she was waiting there with her finger rammed up a nostril. New plan: open the door, which she did with a flourish of her arm and brilliant smile that only strained when she saw how tight and nervous his smile seemed. It was uncomfortably similar to the one he used when they’d first talked.

“Heeeey,” she welcomed, ramping down her giddiness. The arm she flourished tucked behind her head as if she’d been stretching all along. “You made it.” This earned a half-hearted nod. “Tough morning?”

“Why? Did you hear something?”

“No,” she said quickly, flicking her damp ponytail. “I was in the shower. Showering. Noisily, and for hours.”

Beth dubbed this her Plausible Deniability. She considered adding that fake dog to the story – for consistency’s sake, of course – but eeeeee. Creepy. She had an aunt who showered with her dog. It was an image no one should feel too keen on adopting.

He gave her a second nod, this time with an equally passive, “Oh. Good.”

Kind of an awkward silence there, buddy.

“So – um…” She guessed it was up to her to stir things. “Do you –”

“I’m Alex.”

Whoa. Alex was intense. She took it that that was his name, but he said it so seriously, as if he’d expected more of reaction than, ‘Cool. I’ll stop calling you Mr. Coffee’.

She wouldn’t, by the way. Mmm, Coffee.

“It’s nice to meet you, Alex. I’m Beth.” Soon to be known as tomorrow’s local kidnapping headline. “You look good!”

He did look good. Alex had a whole I’m Too Cool to Iron ensemble. Plain, faded jeans slung around his waist. His white-ish shirt went ever so slightly taut against his chest. A pale red, checked button-down layered over that, and it almost seemed like he’d taken a brush to tease his cocoa black hair into careless bedhead. Hot. This was ignoring the bluish-black and green bruises surrounding his jaw. Other than those, the eye-witnesses sketches were going to look amazing.

Yeah, she still wasn’t ‘sure’ about this. Carpe diem only brought her so far before hitting YOLO territory.

“Thanks. You, too.”

Ha! Liar. She was wearing almost exactly the same as yesterday: overalls and a teeny pair of black booty shorts for the ass she didn’t have, except she’d swapped her crappy top for a stretchy, long-sleeved one. On second thought, she shouldn’t have picked a hue of fabric that clashed as badly with her vampire skin as dark purple did. On third thought, that was every hue but orchid, and laundry day had dictated no dice there.

“Thank you.”

That floated between them fairly listlessly. Beth curled her hair around her hand and tugged it, trying to rattle out a plan for her next move. Should she let him in…?

“Is that a horse licking a dragon?”

“What?” She jerked her head over her shoulder, towards the garish display of yellow-trimmed wings and soaring hooves stacked up against her kitchen bar. The colours were hard to miss. They practically leered at her and him. “Ah! No. That’s Pink Beauty. The tongue is…” Beth was a professional artist. “The tongue is his horn. He’s a unicorn.” To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there lay her dying reputation. “It’s a commissioned series. I don’t… I mean – this isn’t really my thing, the whole fantasy element, but when a client says jump, am I right?”

He appeared to be thinking awfully hard about the three-legged, magical pony. It was like he didn’t trust her, or thought the joke was on him somehow.

“What do you usually paint?”

Alex asked as though he wasn’t sure he could handle the answer. To be fair, drip painting was a violent cascade of emotions. She could rein them in long enough to title their blazing moods, but otherwise, she fell as lost to them as any person before a wonder. Beth wasn’t the only person saying so, either. Her work didn’t stand for simple explanations; it elucidated through a subconscious interpretation. That’s what the critics wrote anyway, and so as long as they kept awarding her cash, she would let them pile on whatever smarmy narrative they wanted.

Under these casual settings, however…

“I’ll show you.” Her heart began to race. She barely knew this person, and already her palms had sweat from the pressure of living up to his standards. While she rushed inside and leafed through the throwaway series, she eased her mind towards him hating it. Her style didn’t always top a guy’s list. Beth tried not to blame anyone for their opinions, but when they couldn’t see the canvases come alive, there was a certain sadness she had to bury. “Here.”

Oh God, his thumbs went straight onto the paint when he grabbed the frame. From the record scratch that went off in her head, Beth winced. He, more focused on studying the piece, missed this look of pain and lifted her portrait higher in the far window’s daylight.

This was the one ‘real’ entry from RAR she would sell to Edison. Its blues flashed out to the sides, taunted by reds calling from the edges. Sprays of black shattered the contrast to ebb below a muted green. This was an experiment in primary tones, and as she recalled, it was from the last night her neighbours owned a TV before Screamy flipped and smashed the damn thing. Primed and Tuned, she’d named this. The dark streak across its middle was from their screen crashing to the floor.

He took his time to gather his thoughts. She didn’t wholly mind the wait. The way he had to hold the bulky shape made his biceps flex. At last, he did utter, albeit more to himself than her, and staying in low in his throat, “This looks angry.”

Eureka.

“Angry,” she squealed. “Exactly! It’s supposed to be. Here – see this?” Her fingers waved over a top corner. “This is its defining madness. It snapped out on when the scene hit its high notes. The natural serenity of the blue got completely destroyed when it started chewing away at the red, and the bottom layer was shredded by how harshly the droplets cut in. You’ll notice the light – tilt it this way –” There was a perfect angle she’d found that, if Edison hadn’t screwed her out of wall space, she would’ve pointed a small lamp to catch. “The shadows. Recognize anything?”

Was that a smile? Beneath his furrowed brow of mild concern, did she spy enjoyment?

“Uh…” He cleared his throat. “Scary face.”

Right. Objectively! I hate calling my work objective, but the snarl that this black line ripped up left me a hellish glare from one damning eye. You become the subject of its rage.” She put her hands on his wrists, guiding him along the vision. “It’s powerful, isn’t it? Yet it’s so shy. The glare disappears the instant you turn your head the wrong way. It’s a thin glimpse into the fury it’s trying to hide from the world.”

His glance was more sidelong than she expected, but attentive.

“Your painting is passive-aggressive?”

“Unbearably,” she delighted. “My teeth hurt from clenching at it, but unless I twist to understand the deeper pain, I’ll miss the hidden beauty of its wrath.”

She could’ve stood and marvelled for hours. Beth took a raw pride in her art – in any art that forced her spirit to the surface. Had Jessica slipped even a single emotion into her dumb islands, Beth wouldn’t have complained so much about sharing a space.

Alex stared at her sidelong, having reservedly watched her while she talked. His stance softened a little, and as he lowered the frame, she noticed a light appreciation and intrigue.

“You’re really into this.”

As if until now, he hadn’t believed her.

“Well, yeah. Everybody is, deep down. It’s the same as music,” she told him. “Human nature can’t help forging connections, and with art, it’s to suites of work that can cross generations. We end up connecting to each other. At this very moment, you might feel the same as a stranger will in forty years, but your cousin could walk up tomorrow and have the total opposite experience. It blows my mind.” She quietly nudged the canvas closer. “So… what about you?” Beth leaned in, studying his eyes as they swept across the glossed fabric. “Are you feeling anything?”

Alex looked to be considering it. Then he said, “I think I liked the unicorn.”

“Oh my God.” He was grinning, in that cautiously warm way she’d started growing used to. When she whacked his shoulder, she did it with high spirits. “Come on, neighbour. Let’s get going.”

He didn’t at first. After she’d bent to grab half of the stack by their feet, she saw his head still turned towards Primed and Tuned. He held it firmly, his tentative smile clouding in concentration. Beth delayed bothering him until he came to whatever decision he’d been trying to make and fluttered to reality on his own.

“Sorry. Just…” Another grin. This one was more pensive than earlier. He twitched his arms as though he meant to hand the canvas back, but figured out what was happening and simply added it to his half to carry. “It’s good. I think I’d need a day to get it, but…”

“You’re new to the art world,” she assured him. “Don’t rush it! Let the meanings come to you. That’s the most satisfying way.”

“Yeah.” He apparently glazed over at those words, floating off again to wherever his mind went to think. When he returned this time, he maneuvered in front of her with two deliberate steps. “I’m Alex.”

Ooookay.

He was exactly as intense about it as before. Beth blinked, sort of stuck on what to do. He hadn’t seen the napkin she’d left on her counter, which was good, since she’d scribbled a few things on it – height, build, other identifying features – that might be cause for offence. She got so caught up wondering what she’d left out, she nearly missed the offered hand waiting for her.

“Oh.” Then they truly were doing this twice. All right. She shuffled, freeing one of her own. “Hi. I’m still Beth.”

Her hand found his.

… Something happened. Stopped happening, rather.

“I’m not great at first impressions.” Alex smiled. Actually smiled. Sheepish, but real. “Or second. Or – uh – third.”

“No, your…” She swallowed. “Your second one was good. Impression, I mean. Last night. When you apologized. That was sweet of you.”

His eyes. Beth hadn’t realized how deeply they’d pierced her. They brimmed with such a wild energy… No wonder she’d been avoiding them. She never noticed she was avoiding them until now, when his gaze touched hers and she held it. The comfort of the gesture threw her off.

Alex pulled away. Bethany’s hand felt empty from it.

“I’ll try not to need a fourth.”

“Hmm? Oh.” Oh! “Um – sure, no, yeah, you’re fine,” she said. “All is forgotten. Water and bridges.”

She was talking too fast. This marked her other type of nervousness, the one that had her girlishly agree to get coffee with his cheekiness and cocky attitude. But he wasn’t acting like that today. If she had to label him, she would have picked meek. But nice. Beth could live with nice.

“So,” he said, hoisting the last of her wares onto his unignorably toned shoulder, regardless of how many shirts he wanted to wear, “where are we walking?”

“Well…” Weird. Was it a good weird though, to suddenly feel this at ease? “I figured we could drive. My car’s parked out on the street.” She should warn him now: “It’s a screaming, metal death trap, but it has tires and it usually stops before I hit a dog.”

“Great.” Really? He elaborated with, “My old car’s method for braking was exclusively trees. I’m used to tucking and rolling.”

Unlike yesterday, where every word from his mouth apparently won either high-pitched giggles or a snort she continued to smack herself over, Beth found her current crack of amusement relaxing onto her lips. She enjoyed it.

“Let’s just say I’ll drive,” she said. The paintings in her hands tut-tutted. Dammit – yes, Terry, she hadn’t forgotten about him. “I just have to send my buddy a text when we’re downstairs. He told me to be early, but since it is me, he probably hasn’t even bothered waking up yet.”

“You’re a night owl?”

“Ah…” She imagined her ideal day. Four AM, no work the next morning, not sober but texting everybody. “Sure.”

Alex seemed okay with this, in a way that vaguely suggested he was on her wavelength.

Interesting.

“Okay.” He adjusted the canvases. “I’m ready.”

Pink Beauty awaited its maiden voyage. Beth shooed Alex out and locked the room behind her. She got a feeling the counter-napkin of Cop Cliff Notes blew off from the breeze of door swinging shut.

She doubted she needed it.

Everything had chilled.

Beth planned to be asked one day about what drove the iron-like focus in her art. She’d already memorized her coy response of a wink at tonight’s events and a life lesson: that her inspiration didn’t strike so much as steep. The real answer, for which she had Mom to thank, was delicately becoming shitfaced on tea-quila.

The family recipe made four cups a pot. She brewed her first at midnight: a crisp hot toddy, honeyed and spiced. The night had been a wash. Once Mr. Coffee left, she spent about an hour fretting over tomorrow, as if tomorrow needed more than five minutes to fret about. She picked through her closet for an outfit, arranged her cosmetics in order of classiness – ranging French Escort to Bag-a-Chips, as was natural – and then hemmed and hawed over whether it was worth painting her toenails. From a psychologist’s point of view, it could only help her confidence, but it was also October. Everything had chilled. She didn’t plan on walking out there wearing sandals, and in the list of things that got her shoes off during a first date, there wasn’t a lot of room for foot varnish admiration. Well, unless she took them off more casually, like if she wore her UGGs and they got warm. But then if she did lose them, wouldn’t she be wearing socks? Her socks should be the issue here. She spent another hour picking socks.

By the second brew, more of a ginger-lemon mix, Beth had finished painting pumpkins on her foot-thumbs that were sure to shine through the thin, white stockings she’d presciently selected for such toe-thumb shining purposes. If he cared, which he might not so this wasn’t a huge deal, but if he did and she shook out of her boots, he’d be able to notice the festive designs on her toes. Since it’d be gross pulling off socks in the middle of a restaurant – she figured she could ask him to lunch, too – she came up with the idea of painting her fingernails. Now she could whip them out as a sample. There was a little DIY Halloween pattern she’d found online and brought alive by glossing her base coat with a spookcular – ‘spook’ and ‘spectacular’, thank you – charcoal. Beth’s pinkies had bats, her rings had witch hats, her middles had hissing felines, her indexes had witch faces since on second thought those hats seemed mottled, and then her hand-thumbs had pumpkins and hats and bats because they were a great look and she wanted them. A quick top coat and… done!

By her third brew, Beth started to panic. The plain taste of green tea and its burning -quila hadn’t dulled the fact that three empty canvasses were staring at her from the floor, accusing, scowling, leering. The half-finished fourth leaned on the wall, giving her the stink-eye. She begged for their patience. Rage Against the Room was her most precious work. Whenever she reached for a brush knowing what she was meant to do, a sliver of her integrity died that much more coldly. She couldn’t make herself stain the innocence of these blank three simply to take Edison’s money, not for beauty he didn’t appreciate or to save face in front of Terry. No, there were lines she wouldn’t cross. She – just… No.

Arrrgghh – how did Jess do it? How did she take lifeless paint crusts and sell them as if angels sneezed on the scenes? What fuelled her strength to smile at buyers and coo, “That’s all right! If it won’t suit your den, how about your kids’ rooms? Little girls like ponies,” then offer to slap on a free unicorn for every purchase?

“People like unicorns,” Beth imagined Jessica’s reply. It was easy, because it mirrored a similar night that ended with Jess counting flaccid stacks of consumerist cash. “It’s about the demand. Sell them what they want!”

“It’s not about what they want,” Beth would have cried were Jess actually here. “It’s about feeling passion and hate! It’s what I invoke from their very souls!”

“I don’t know about souls,” tea-Jessica said, “but I think I invoked their money.”

After her fourth brew, Beth switched to a cranberry and citrus twist tea-whiskey. That sting of desperation nearly shot her stress levels through the roof, and so she took it upon herself to tap into her stash of Calm Down Herb.

Things began feeling very, very calmed down.

Her night flushed with new inspiration. Armed with tea-whiskey that had grown sweeter with every sip, Beth found herself on her knees, willing to work and throw a small care to the wind. Purely to say she had something in the half-finished piece’s white space, she curled a single line. The relief of that progress hit her harder than expected, and by the time she finished her third tea-less cup, she was herself cramming in an entire unicorn. Its peridot horn pierced the left corner with a vengeance. Its sketchy mouth curled from a burgundy whinny. Its pink eyes gleamed lavender-hot with wrath. Oddly, her ethics felt satisfied.

She was headlong into a dragon five seconds later. The damn thing’s wings spread like a cyan fire along the length of a dark sky, cutting past loose clouds of a copper she’d found at the bottom of a drawer. The look came fast and easy. She refused to dwell on the awkward bend of its chest or varying tally of claws from foot to foot.

Edison was going to pay her for this, the whiskey murmured. She giggled. Then hiccupped.

Her next canvas told the tale of that unicorn landing on the dragon’s head, clobbering it to the ground as they streaked across the night. Or something. Her unicorn had wings now. She also turned its little taupe hooves into bricks which, judging by the dragon’s ticked frown, had really pissed it off. Her brushes smeared a soft hint at an ocean in the background. That – great, since she couldn’t be assed to draw actual ground. This, then, was a black sky with no stars, straddling a sort of water body formation featuring a red unicorn as it kicked the crap out of a purple lizard. Nothing wrong there.

The first touches of daylight swelled under Beth’s window as she finished her last, sobering, no-tea-yes-olives-Caesar. She wasn’t horribly clear at this point where the line sat between a safe outlet and fire, but she plugged in her eleventh fan blissfully assuming she was on the right side. Nothing exploded. She took that as a fantastic sign and carefully kneed away, worried a sharp movement might upset the balance.

Done.

Done! She laughed and stretched in the sweet breeze of paint fumes and wet success. She did it! Before her lay the drying saga called Pink Beauty, wraith of the ocean sky, devourer of dragons, miss-er of legs. The whole thing was hideous.

She freaking loved it.

Sell out? No, no. Bethany was so much better than that. She had seized this moment and expertly unveiled its purpose. Edison meant to buy her work and burn it. Pink Beauty relished the chance.

Pink Beauty. Oh, Pink Beauty, the magnificent lovechild of satire and deadlines. It was her littlest cancer patient against Edison’s tit-sagging Tyson. Even if he won, he lost, because that rich skeleton couldn’t insult intentionally worthless art. He’d failed to rob her of anything, and without a martyring speckle on RAR’s gorgeous face. The tea-quila had shown her how.

Take that, liver. She dabbed a point on the board for budding alcoholism.

The buzzer rang.

Ah, crap. Her mind shot to Mr. Coffee. He’d said seven! This wasn’t seven. Plus he lived here, so buzzing from the lobby looked… All right, it probably wasn’t him. Panic averted, only to revive as her tea haze pulled back and bared the types of news people rang with at 6:15 AM. She spun to her feet – ooh, that made her have to pee – and ignored the thousand pins sizzling down her legs after hours kneeling, and gave a clumsy jog towards the intercom: a sticky, beige speaker hooked to a stickier, beiger, corded phone by the door.

Please don’t be bad.

“Hello?”

Good morning,” the other end of the line told her. “I’m calling for Bethany Keeler. Is she available?

Ooh. A Quebecer. Breakfast was served, and it was a clash of ‘d’s replacing every soft ‘th’, and a steamy love affair with ‘e’s. Her name had never sounded so interesting.

“This is Beth,” she said. “Who am I speaking to?”

In the breaks between anyone talking, a fine crackle of static met the void.

I apologize if I disturbed you, Madame. This shouldn’t take much of your time.” The man seemed polite enough. “Regarding my business here, can you confirm you lived in room #516 since July 8th?

“Um…” Had she? Beth didn’t keep those dates memorized, but it felt right. She still had to pee. “Sure.”

And before then, you had room #616? Upstairs?

He knew his stuff.

“Sure,” she confirmed again, slower.

For my record, may I ask why you moved?

No way. The landlord sent somebody who gave a damn?

“The stairwell sticks.” Holy crap! For once when she uttered those words, they’d reached an ear. Her story melted out of her: “I can’t remember how many times I said it. I sent emails, I left messages – I even wrote a letter once. I bought stamps. I didn’t know they still made those! Something on the lock is gumming the door up there, and I’ll live with everything else, but that pushed me to my breaking point. Maybe I’m paranoid, but it’s like this stairwell is sticking, too. Are you fixing it?”

Today, I’m here only to investigate. Did you have other reasons for leaving?

“Not really.” Once she stuffed her standards down a hole, there was little else in particular to chase her away. “Sorry, what are you investigating?”

The tenant upstairs,” he explained, “who moved in – I believe – the day you moved out.

Quite the sucker punch, mister. Her tea stopped sitting so well.

“Ah…” Beth’s mouth had dried. “What about him? Anything serious?”

I’m not in a position to say.” Naturally. But he did offer, “I imagine that by now you noticed the noise.

Oh.

“You’re here about those complaints,” she muttered. “Not mine.”

Unfortunately, no. Doors aren’t within my jurisdiction,” the man said, forming every patient syllable as the French were wont to do. “I’m surprised you haven’t moved twice, Ms. Keeler. Me, I’ve been here ten minutes and already want to douse myself with bleach.

“You can use the can on the bench.” The community can: always an option. “It’s sanitizer. It’s free.”

The pause following this implied a good deal of thought, neatly ending in, “I wasn’t aware sanitizer came in open cans.

“Yeah, it’s sort of on a potluck system. Mostly it’s Purell, sometimes it’s rubbing alcohol, occasionally it’s beer but…” Ohhh, it just hit her now how that sounded. “Maybe wear gloves next time. And – um… don’t go easy on the bleach.”

I like this place.

Yes. For all its passionate aromas of garbage and farts sweeping through the vents, it was indeed a place. The very definition of a place, she might add.

“It’s cheap at least,” Beth told him.

I’ve seen your lease, Ms. Keeler. It isn’t.”

“But that doesn’t show the discount.” Which management tried to screw her on every month. She got a hundred off this room’s sticker price. That was the deal to shut her up from reporting them, and it was not being questioned again. “It’s a loyalty rate for people who’ve lived here long enough to know the rooms aren’t what’s advertised.”

Discounts are standard fare, then?

“No, it’s hush-hush, like phone companies,” she explained. “You only get the good price after you say you’re cancelling.”

The previous occupant of #516, he cancelled?

“I never met him, but he dumped half his things in the closet.” Whatever remained couldn’t be sold, like greasy foot massagers and back scrubs and other violations of personal space. “It’s past the thirty days. If he wants his stuff, it’s too late.”

Hmm.” The conversation hovered there. Beth waited, longer than she typically liked, but only readied herself to break the silence after it dragged for a full minute. “Thank you, Ms. Keeler.” His voice had returned from nowhere. “You’ve been very helpful.

“You’re –” Click. “… welcome.” Okay then. She hung up too, partly annoyed he hadn’t fixed either door and slightly concerned that Screamy’s case called for its own investigation. “You know how to pick ‘em, girl.”

Her canvasses glimmered at her.

“Carry us, Beth,” they sang. “We’re ready!”

As much as it mattered, she figured.

The clock flashed enough time for a shower and a bathroom break. Assuming Mr. Coffee didn’t plan on being an early bird, she could slide this home right on schedule.

Okay, but after one more drink.


A friendly chat with Tartra. Click the line below to expand!

The Friendly Chat - Welcome to TOKoR!

Hey, how’s it going – Tartra here! I figure now’s a good time to butt in. Thank you for reading, first off, but secondly – and more important – I’m here to bring you on board.

You’ve got a role in this adventure: comments!

I picked out three reasons why anyone gets into this writing madness during my humble experience as a for-free serialist: fame, money, and pleasure. There’s also something-something-art, but let’s be honest, TOKoR does not exactly smack of that noble refinement. It is fun as all hell to write, which puts pleasure up as my all-guiding motive. It’s also why you should read this straight through to the sequel I have planned and also maybe a Part Three, but it’s triply why you should comment.

‘Cause I am going to read the shit out of ’em.

Your likes, your dislikes, your theories and headcanons, your favourite ships, your face claims, your musical accompaniments, my typos (this story’s the poster child for Pobody’s Nerfect), and all the parts you didn’t get – all of it. Whatever little thing pops into your mind, I’m not only going to read, but I so very want to. And then I’m gonna reply, ’cause there’s nothing so fun as chatting with you folks.

So that’s it! Comment. It’s a fair trade: I blind with you a literary coffee-rush, so you get to hit me with what you’re packing. Besides that, don’t forget to subscribe. TOKoR’s update schedule is… I think I settled on the word ‘wacky’.

Cool! Glad we had this talk.

You’re the best, and keep enjoying the story.

Sound brave, Bethany.

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…

Carpe diem?

“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.

“Excuse me?”

“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?”

“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.”

Oh.

“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.”

Rough day.

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.”

“You paint?”

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.”

Okay!

Ahem.

“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.”

Oh God.

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.

No movement, no noise…

Greaaaat. Nicely done, Bethany. Now she and the crazy-after-all guy were best friends. Some of that old blind luck had stuck around, however: he knew what she looked like, but he didn’t know Beth’s name. Fat chance finding her without it. She could be very sneaky.

“Dumb. Door. Open.” This floor had the worst stairwell. A thick pelt of goop was soaked into the push-bar, gluing it closed until she paid the greasy price and launched herself at it. Three times out of ten, the door peeled free, but unfailingly smeared its gummy mucus on her arm. Centuries ago, someone spilled a stew or something else sticky. Nobody acted surprised that management still hadn’t scraped it up. “Open!”

It did after a long slurp. Beth’s shoulder throbbed. She irritably massaged it and padded down the gray stairs. Thank you, couch, for being home to collapse on face-first. Her lungs burned, her eyes stung, her heart hammered and her stomach slowly hemmed and hawed about uncurling from a knot. She essentially spent that conversation holding her breath, but hooray, she talked to him. She checked it off the mental list. She would’ve liked to have done the same with her art, but she appreciated progress nonetheless.

All right, a tiny bit less.

Beth rolled over on her blanketed couch. She studied the tubes taped to her ceiling. No movement, no noise… She guessed it meant he was resting.

Strange person. She felt bad for him. He might’ve been crazy, but that didn’t stop his wonky relationship – the one she’d effectively ignored for as long as he’d lived here – from flecking her paintings with multi-coloured, acrylic drops of moral guilt. He needed help, probably. He didn’t want help, but that went hand-in-hand with these situations. Yet here she lay, hungry and alert for the first twitch of more, selfishly praying they picked up the pace if she planned on delivering nine finished canvasses.

It hurt. Having his bruises and stammered panic to put to the fights she heard upstairs made Beth feel dirty and exploitative. She never expected to be a creep, building her work on the backs of the less fortunate. Technically, she was the less fortunate. Her creditors thought so. Her parents said so. Jessica plainly danced around the subject but gave Beth a delicate smile and paid for lunch. Rage Against the Rooms didn’t finance gold cars or silver toilets. RAR covered bills: her food, utilities, supplies, taxes – real things. It was called ‘life’, but when someone offered their assistance in surviving it, the right answer was a grateful acceptance. Beggars couldn’t afford to slam doors.

Still… she did feel bad. He’d been so jumpy and off-guard. He didn’t know her; she shouldn’t take the rejection this personally when he had no reason to trust that she’d help. After all, why the sudden interest? Couldn’t she have called the cops months ago? Or now? Had he asked her to in his own stupid joke of a way?

Her phone rang. Perfect timing! Leave it to technology to take her mind off social responsibility.

“Hello?”

Beth? It’s Terry. Do you have a minute?

Beth sat up fast enough to pull something in her lower back.

“Terry! I – sure! Absolutely,” she sang. “Anything for my favourite curator!” But, she reminded herself, he shouldn’t want anything except her art and they’d already set an implicit deadline. Two days left. “Ah… everything okay?”

There’s been a bit of an awkward turn, actually.” If memory served, that was British for ‘brace yourself, Beth’. “The exhibition’s fine – no trouble with the venue and the plans are all on schedule.” That translated to ‘I’m about to be your second-favourite curator’. “The artists, meanwhile…” And that was ‘Somebody’s ruining everything, especially RAR’.

Beth swallowed the bile rising against her tongue. It slowed her down in asking him too readily, “Can I help?”

I’m not sure. I hate to cause an inconvenience and I wouldn’t dream of putting you out, but it’s rather pressing.” So began the long-form British for ‘I know damn well how you’re pitching in and your exhibit’s cut unless you do’. “I have to accommodate everyone to the best of what’s available and very little is.

“Terry,” she said, “spill it.”

It’s Edison.” The old man with the moustache made of money. “My great supporter, and the wallet behind the gallery’s bank account.” Terry often also mused ‘a self-stylized eccentric’ when he felt too proper to call the guy ‘a twat’. “He’s done it. He’s bloody gone and done it – that… twat brought in his submission.” Terry did not, apparently, feel too proper right now. “It’s big. Massive! I can’t fit it where I expressly said it had to fit. And I can’t chop the vile thing from the show! Edison will take offence.

“Hobbyists,” she sympathized. “They’re worse when they’re snotty and rich.”

He’s imposing. Even a saint can be a bastard when they’ve got their hands on your crap.” She heard him rub his forehead and groan a mild note of despair. “It’s like you and that neighbour of yours, isn’t it? Beautiful leaves may flow downstream, but so will a torrent of piss.

Sure! Something like that.

“What are you going to do?”

What I am forced to do is clear the area for this alleged model of sexual spirituality,” he explained. “Pop Passion’s been axed. Edison already bought the space from Devan.

Beth choked when Terry gave her the price tag. Devan’s glittery scribbles scored that much? Real estate was a serious market in this industry…

“He wants to buy my spot next,” she realized. “My centre stage.” After she’d starved for it!

No, no. I wouldn’t put the eyesore anywhere near the front. It has its place of glory in the west room. That’s as far as it’ll go.” Oh. Good. Although if Edison paid so much to steal Devan’s cramped corner… “It’s Elated Islands.” Oh God. “Jessica has to go somewhere! She’s said to ring you in case you’re willing to –” Don’t say it, you limey jerk. “– share.

“Ooh. Ah… I dunno.” Beth tsk-tsked. “I’d love to – you know, for Jessica – but I’ve got nine canvasses. They’re a tight fit.” They would be, shortly after she got past the little snag of only having almost seven. “You understand, right?”

Beth, she leapt to help you last summer when Edison trotted up then,” he wheedled. “You said you would pay her back. I heard you. And it would really save my ass, which I might have mentioned is on the line with playing host to a crippled human-half bug statue.” The rest sounded like Terry ranting to himself: “What is he thinking? Why use paper-mâché? The left tit sags!

“I don’t know…”

Bethany,” he wailed, “I’m begging you! Elated Islands is on the bloody pamphlet. I can’t reprint them on this short of notice. You’ll still have the majority wall!

“Nine paintings’ worth?”

Six. Six if the sixth is a small one. Five.

Unbelievable!

“Why,” she demanded, “can’t Edison buy her out?”

Obviously I tried arranging that.” British for ‘I totally didn’t even think of it’. “We both know Jess isn’t in this for the money.

“I am,” Beth seethed.

Yes,” Terry said, “and it’s why she’s suggested compensation for the trouble. Supposedly, I’m off to charm the old fart into buying whichever pieces this shuffle would displace. That’s the shortest end of the stick in this. You’re welcome, not that I’ve been thanked.” Speaking over her huffs, he tacked on, “It’s a fair deal from your side. I’ll add it to your placard: ‘Has already sold to inspired collectors’.

It must have been the accent, since she actually considered this.

“How much?”

From Edison’s hammy fists?” He gave a sour snort. “I didn’t lead with cash for a reason. He’s stingy. Lucky you, because his definition of a pittance is still well above ours. Interested?

She didn’t want to be. Did he ask anyone else? Terry had thirty artists coming, but naturally Beth was the first to get called. For Jessica. Of freaking course.

“I…”

Rrrrrrrrrrr.

What was that?

I don’t mean to hurry you,” her phone crackled, “and while I’d love to listen to silence all evening –

“Terry, no – shh.” Not fighting. Something new. It sounded like… “I have to put you on speaker.” … inspiration. “One second. I need my hands.”

Beth kicked the corner of a half-completed canvas, slamming it away to slap a fresh stretch of fabric into the speckled crime scene’s outline. There it was again, the low rrrrrrrrr! The tubes shuddered in concert from the ceiling. Paint! She had to refill the paint. Where was her chair? Which colours?

Cocoa! A delicately creamy frappe to pair with it. A full-flavoured tate olive because this didn’t call for the harsh shades of anger like before. That noise had to be furniture deliberately organizing. Ooh – ‘organize’! Were they cleaning? She never heard them clean. Tethered Scars? She liked it. Where was her chair?!

I’m not getting in the way, am I? Not bothering you with this trying-to-save-your-exhibit tosh?

“You want me to sell out,” she yelled back. Her phone sat lonely on the couch. “Tell Jess if she’s butting into my space, I decide what she shows. I don’t need her frilly oceans clogging up my desperate wars. I slaved for my series.”

She works hard, too.

“She sells hard,” Beth vented. “She doesn’t create, she doesn’t imagine, and she doesn’t convey. Her paintings might as well be windows for all the point they have in staring at them.”

I like windows! Lots of people do. Ever seen a house go up without them? It’s weird. You get chills.

“Terry,” she warned.

I’ll tell her,” he finally relented. “She’ll be over the moon you said yes to some degree.

Uh-huh.

“How many does she have room on the wall for?”

Nine minus five.

“Three,” Beth decided, setting the pump. It whirred to life and heartily burped its first tan droplets. Rrrrrrrrrr. A drop landed left of the middle. “Stormy, lighthouse, and the gray fog. Nothing other than them. Terry, be implicit.”

Explicit, I think.

“Well, don’t swear at her,” Beth said. “Not if you don’t have to.”

You’re such an artist, love.” That was British for something she divinely chose not to understand. “Then it’s settled. Three of her paintings, five of yours. It’s manageable. You’d like that cheque, would you? From Edison? I’ll have to ring him, too. Bring the rest of your work to the gallery tomorrow – I need this sorted soon.

She choked again.

“Tomorrow?!”

Yes, tomorrow morning. We’d all like to sleep in, but chop, chop.

Her heart threw a fit.

“Um… yeah, but… why tomorrow?”

Because he won’t buy a damn thing unless it’s in front of him,” Terry said. “I’d do it tonight, but he doesn’t know yet that he wants to buy whatever you’re around to pawn off. He’s gone until the exhibition after midday, too.

“Okay! Okay. I’ll come in.” Tomorrow. With four pieces ready for sale. “He’s not the sort of guy who displays everything for millionaire parties, is he?”

Please give her the good news that the final paintings she now had to crappily rush would be buried in the garden.

You might explain the paint fades if it’s not left in shade or a dark hall,” Terry wisely advised. “He must be near-blind anyway. Neon orange, Beth! And spots! See it before you go.

“How can I turn that down?” She returned to her seat and scooped the phone to her ear. “Thanks for the warning. Thanks for the cheque too, Ter.”

Thank him. I wouldn’t pay a dime for your drippy, manic messes. You know me.” Beth always could count on him for that. She smiled anyway, especially as Terry went on. “I’m sorry for this. Plans were unfolding too well, I suppose. Be here early and I’ll buy breakfast. We’ll chortle over the odds of a critic knocking Ashley Brendan’s sculpture to rubble again.

“You’re on,” she told him. Free breakfast! They swapped their goodbyes and hung up for the night. Back alone, Beth’s lip found itself between her teeth. She nibbled. “Damn.”

Four by tomorrow, and the rumbling had stopped. Moving her phone from couch to chair, she hiked her overalls to her knees, then gingerly sat and shook the tubes herself. These were finishing one way or the other, but other took a gamble she didn’t have a night to bet. She’d better get started.

 

“The fuck do you want?”

Alex regretted opening the door before he’d thought up an excuse about the noise. This slid under ‘spectacularly stupid’, seeing how his life depended on those lies. Neighbours were the second greatest threat he faced: crotchety, nosy, dickish, ‘I have work in the morning’, ‘I’ll get the landlord’ types who went out of their way to plan legal surprise parties. The right line got them to leave. Agents never left. It was his best trick for telling the two apart. Now he’d screwed himself, because instead of saying something convincing, he stared at her. Then he kept staring, waiting for his mouth to move.

“The fuck do you want?”

Thanks, Xander.

“Uh – hello, I mean,” Alex said. Sincere. He wanted sincere. “Can I help you?”

“… Yeah…” This was new. The girl looked more uncomfortable than he did. She stood with her hand holding her other shoulder like she was her own security blanket. Maybe it had to do with the staring. “I wanted to…”

Take your time. I could use the rest.

Alex’s hands twitched. Xander, don’t start.

“… visit.”

Oh. Uh… Okay. He waited, but she didn’t elaborate. The normal written complaints and petitions weren’t anywhere he saw, either. This fell far from his element. Alex continued Operation: Cold, Dead Eyes until he clued in to echo her nervous, “‘Visit’?”

That broke the dam: “Ah – sure! You know, because – ah… you live here, and I live here – only I don’t – like – um… live here so… don’t try to come and find me or anything! You won’t! Ha-ha!”

Alex noted the forced giggle.

D’aww, she thinks you’re a mental patient, Xander cooed.

He probably was. He’d wandered in a walking coma for a month after their big Agent-land escape. Six years really flew by since then. And where he used ‘flew’, Alex meant ‘dragged with the agony of carrying an extra voice inside his head’.

“But yes, I –” Right. Her. “I came to visit. I – ah… wanted to say ‘hi’.” She paused. “So… hi, and I will simply be leaving now so – see ya later, gator!”

“Much later,” he swore the girl muttered.

That was weird. That handled itself. Were they done? Where’s my fucking latté?

“Hey, is that it?” She’d already started leaving. Fast. “You’re not here about the fight?”

“Oh, I – oh my God,” she shrieked. Alex leapt back. “Your face!”

That’s what I always tell him!

“You – you look…”

She’d been ten steps away when she turned to reply. From there, she freaked and waved her hands at his head, talking very loudly. Sure – his face, the mirror, the bruises… He figured she was saying he looked bad. She noticed, by the way, ‘cause he’d even more stupidly stepped out there to call to her. He got behind the door and shut it to a crack. Alex didn’t need her glancing inside if that’s how she felt over a swollen cheek. With his track record in catching breaks, the girl worked as a room inspector. Paying extra on his rent only bought so much ‘understanding’, and his deposit had long gone. Thanks, Xander.

This place sucks anyway.

“I’m alright,” Alex promised. “This is nothing.”

“That was your fight?” The girl squinted at him. She didn’t move closer. Neither of those made for good signs. “That was from today?”

“Uh…” What should he tell her? “Yes?”

“Oh my God. Oh my God – I had no idea! Who were you fighting?”

“My…” If he pulled himself together, Alex could spin this to get rid of her. “… roommate?” Yes, that sounded confident.

“What is he, a bear? Is he the one who throws everything? Do you need the hospital? Is he still there?” Suddenly she shot towards him and whispered, “Should I call the cops?” And bring more people? “My phone’s right here. I already had it set to dial 9-1-1.”

“No, it’s…” Wait. “You did? Why?”

“No reason!” She whipped the phone away. “Are you dying? How badly dying? Are you dizzy? You need a doctor. Is this what’s always happening?”

Ignoring the theft of his personal space, he tried to keep track of her questions. Dizzy? Yeah. Now.

“Could you excuse me?” He took the quarter-second silence as an answer. Alex closed his door, slamming the brakes on her interrogation. He flattened his shoulders against it to hold it shut in case… well, in case. “Great. What’s the plan?” Something better than ‘Nice job, genius’, please.

Alex. We have to kill her.

The sweat along his neck turned to ice. A vice caught within his throat.

“We have to kill her,” he croaked, “because she’s an Agent?”

Nah, she’s just gabby. ‘Sides, those shoes with those overalls? Guuurl…

Thanks, Xander. I almost had a fucking heart attack.”

I know. It was funny. What do you want me to do?

“Get rid of her! Non-lethally,” he added. “I don’t want her here. She’s an Agent or she’ll get hurt by the actual Agents chasing me.”

All four of them.

“There’s been more than four,” Alex said.

Not that you’d know since I do all the damn work. And – oh look, guess who’s crawling to me again. He – Save it, Pop-Tart. Next time think before you shout ‘Is That It’. What do I say about gifts and horse mouths?

Nothing?

Yeah, but trust me, it would’ve been extremely relevant.

“Will you just –”

Sorry I can’t hear you I didn’t fucking go to Pequods.

Alex glared at the air.

“You’re the worst split-personality in the world.”

That’s uncalled for. Then from his mouth came a violent shriek of, “He’s eating me!There you go. Now I’m the worst.

This type of crap was so typical, he nearly forgot other ears heard it, too. Xander’s voice had cut past the door. The walls of this building were like paper and – shit, she was gonna call the cops. He grabbed the door and ripped it back open.

“It was a joke,” he swore. “A really, really, really bad joke.”

If I knew ventriloquism, this’d be even funnier.

Shut up, Xander.

The girl gave him a stare similar to the one he’d launched at her first. She lowered her thumb from the green ‘Send’ button and tucked the phone into her pocket. With a weight attached to her tone somewhere between disturbed and personally slighted, she told him, “You said you’re alright.”

“Yes. But,” he answered, “thank you for the visit.” Don’t ever do it again. “So… uh… I have to get back to…”

Renovating.

“Yeah. I mean – renovating. I’ve gotta get to that… fun… stuff.”

Alex tacked on a tight smile. Please go?

“I suppose.” A glint lined her eyes. So her suspicion hadn’t left, and neither had she. The nosy type, he decided. “Renovating, huh? That’s what this was about?”

“We’ve got stylistic differences. I’m more into –” He drew a blank. “…ducks.”

Hahahaha!

“He’s more of a red guy,” Alex tried to finish.

“You can’t settle on red ducks?”

Red ducks? Ha-ha! Ha-ha… Wow, uh…” Please leave. “I’ll run that by him. Thanks. Thank you.”

God, it’s like watching cows fall off a cliff with you.

“You’re welcome.” She inched farther away, teasing the intent to leave but not quite going because that would’ve been too easy. This leaned dangerously close to ‘Agent’ territory. In his mind, he felt a muted rush of excitement from Xander over the thought. “You’re alone here, aren’t you?” His fear deepened. “It’s only the two of you?” Oh. Oh man. Whew. “You should come out sometime. Things might be easier if you had nearby friends to offer support.”

Okay? She’d loaded ‘support’ with a creepy emphasis.

“Thank you.”

“I’m serious. Everyone deserves a caring place to live, no matter who you’re living with.” She seemed closer. “Friends put things into perspective or help you move on, even if you truly feel like you have to stay here for a reason.” Definitely closer. “People can be reasons. Sometimes, a certain person can be the wrong reason.”

… Agent…?

I think she thinks you’re gay. What?! You shouldn’t’ve said you were renovating. What kind of a straight guy fights over that? No, because Xander said – Forget what I said. Red dicks it is. Dicks of every shade!

Ducks.

Gay ducks, too!

Alex ran a hand through his hair, pulling on the messy strands like that was going to yank him into sanity. With a second smile, tighter than the first – you know how I like itshut the fuck up, Xander!

“Look – thanks for coming by to double-check I wasn’t dead,” Alex said. She blushed. “I’m fine. Sorry about the noise, sorry about the yelling, sorry about my roommate who I have nothing to do with past sharing this crappy apartment, but I have to finish renovating and that means I need to close the door. So for the last time I’m gonna ask: is that it?”

“Yes, but I –”

Thank you.” Slam. “For shit’s sake…”

Amazing. Xander applauded. Like watching gay cows fall off a rainbow. Alex ignored him in favour of sliding to the floor. He stabbed his butt on the morning’s shrapnel but he wanted to sit. Neighbours were awful. You know what I’d’ve done five minutes ago?

“No, but you’re going to tell –”

Not talked to her. There, problem solved. What’s for supper?

Alex tensed as the shock wore off. Who was that? Why did she jump from prepping 9-1-1 to dishing domestic battery advice? It didn’t feel normal. But she left like an Agent wouldn’t, and what did he know about basic interaction anymore? Unless this formed a new angle… Get to him by pretending to not want to? Stupid. The question was whether it seemed stupid enough.

Hey. Pay attention to me. The guy slapped him. I want food.

Alex did, too. More than that though, he wanted this place clean.

Please. Please.

Please. Please. Please. Please fight. Please scream. Do something. Bang on the walls or throw a chair. Beth had four paintings. She needed nine in two days, excluding the blank trio on her floor. For the last months, that wasn’t a problem. The howling and the crashing of tables always eventually rewarded her with art. Now, she had a deadline. For the one time since they moved upstairs, Bethany Keeler’s neighbours were quiet.

Two days. The blank trio of canvases glared across their whitespace. ‘By Sunday,’ they said. The clock ticked! Her clock didn’t actually tick, but it would have, and it would again. This could not be the night they discovered healthy communication. Please.

Nothing. Damn.

Lesson learned, she told herself: don’t bet on blind luck when she’d already kicked its limit weeks ago. How about blind promises instead? This was the last show for Rage Against the Room – even though the series’ passion was immense and she could tasted the fury wafting along its acrylics – if only the universe aligned and simply squeezed out the rest of Beth’s quota. Terry’s gallery counted on it. She was counting on it.

Everything she had went into RAR. Beth even staged her living space around it. Her mother’s floral couch huddled under a pink blanket and against the wall, safer from errant splatters. She’d cleared her table away to lend her canvases the room. Hanging above them, hooked to the ceiling, dangled a system of tubes dripping stuttered lines of colour. It was impressive, if she said so herself. She built it with a fish tank pump and lots of tape.

When her neighbours flipped out, the machine would rattle and draw jagged streaks of flair. RAR’s intensity changed as quickly as the pointless crap they clashed over. Allusions of Crime, for instance, spread lazily due to the breaks they had taken, allowing her liquid hues to stretch across the fibres, but mostly plop at the centre in fat tears. Clearly, those two had less of a problem losing wallets than a sweatshirt. Torn Sleeves bore almost no drops on its belly since the tubes shook so constantly. It must’ve been a nice shirt! But probably not. They lived here; how expensive could something they owned be?

Still, nothing bared teeth as vicious as her Feed the Need collection. For ages, ‘coffee’ sounded to Beth like crack’s newest slang. No, one neighbour just seriously enjoyed Pequods. A hundred fights peppered the story through her depictions and reeked of agony, usually down the vein of the first neighbour screaming at the other to not destroy things, followed by things being destroyed. These creations’ paint ran to her floor in raw excess, devoid of drops anywhere but their brutal edges. Feed the Need exploded, unleashed, and rebelled, and notwithstanding oh God, please don’t let her be in a dark alley with them, the coffee fights were her neighbours’ most vivid inspirations. They won Beth her biggest award to date. Soon-to-be awards, plural, if they frigging returned to it.

Her machine coughed. The already slightly dry paint she’d scraped from a cluster of empty tins was going stale. She clicked off everything. There would be no choosing between supplies and sleeping on the street today. Besides, if the bills crammed under her table’s leg could gossip, the big problem wasn’t the rent but her phone. The forty dollars she saved stretching her paint barely covered her international texts.

Jessica never had those problems. Jessica painted for fun, and she leased a condo with a doorman and a foyer. Her building’s exercise room was a fitness centre, offering more than a broken treadmill and shady weights missing half of every pair. In fact, were Jessica to have muses that went quiet at the foot of her looming deadline, she wouldn’t need to tell Terry sorry, bad news, the neighbours weren’t feeling productively bananas, but instead skip on up there and knock on their door, and that – sounded…

Beth had two options left: a) abandon the designs painstakingly conceived for this exhibition, or b) sprint to a messy, open-and-shut, tag-team murder from above. Option A could work! Doing nothing welcomed every excuse she thought of to not go to their floor, which included selling Terry on the unfinished pieces if she retitled them: The Meek Forgiveness or Interrupted Wounds – crap like that to explain the whitespace. It could resonate! Well, it would bring the total to seven.

Dammit, Bethany… She’d laughed and promised to deliver these early. Now she was stuck for two, exactly as Jessica, with that whole year of experience, had cautioned her.

Between both those pains in Beth’s ass, at least the ones upstairs contributed sometimes. Jessica’s sole talent was shovelling fuel for Pity Petty Rival Parties. Last week, it was over furniture: Beth’s came castoff from family. Jessica ‘discovered’ stuff through feng shui hunts. Normal folk called it antiquing, and if Beth said that, maybe everyone would’ve marvelled as she too surrounded herself with rosy carpets, rosy curtains, and rosy doilies atop a faux-rosewood desk. Instead Beth earned eyes of sympathy, not applause, since rather than renting in a famous city where cheap furnishings begged stylish irony, she lived at a building that let Screamy and Coffee have a key.

She didn’t understand why they stayed. Why share a room? Her neighbours weren’t friends; she knew nothing about them except for that, and she was counting all the time spent capturing their emotions. Were they brothers, possibly? Special needs? She’d only heard the one guy talk. Beth absently paced as she weighed the notion. Yeah. Okay. Special needs. It turned her mind’s eye farther to the side of doubt. The duo probably did what they could to keep the noise down.

Of course, that let a few new implications parade in: neglect, battery, full-on abuse – no. Stop. Don’t. She’d agreed to cross this bridge when she started RAR, and today wasn’t any more the day she started morally crashing. To note, even less proof existed that they weren’t transatlantic crime lords. Whatever their deal, they’d obviously it survived this long. Except…

Oh shit. What if they had died? Oh shit! What if the cops thought she drove them to it? She had the perfect motive to push them! Shit – what if they took her series as evidence? She’d be hysterical! Her art was her life!

Don’t panic! Jam those fears in a corner, Beth! Beyond silence, nothing pointed to foul play. But she had to knock. She didn’t dare still kid herself when the stakes were this high. Fortunately, she didn’t forget to test the waters first. Beth swept the scene, listening and inching her head towards the ceiling. When this failed to provide results, she got a boost from climbing on her couch and doing the ear version of a squint.

Her broom rested on the pantry by the kitchen. She shuffled back with it, and – bracing herself – gave a committed whack to the stucco.

Freeze! Every muscle in her body seized. Oh God. She listened again. Damn, nothing. Never mind. It was probably for the best, anyway. Her first impression shouldn’t be an angry shit she knocked again why?

… Anything? No? Damn.

She moved to part two: room service. Guessing their nightly trigger seemed impossible, and since friendly-coloured clothes might not wash over well, she wanted a neutral palate. Check it off the list: she wore a white shirt and faded overalls, both stiff from paint. Her hair was in a brown ponytail. She couldn’t be more harmless if she tried, so the spattering of freckles on her untanned, easily burned face fit more like a sad bonus than a clever detail.

There. Good luck finding a reason to stab her now. So long as she spoke softly, didn’t make fast movements, left her hands in plain sight, and covered her tracks with an extra lap before home, she should theoretically survive. Unless she became a witness. ‘Loose end’, ‘narc’, ‘rat’, ‘snitch’… God, she hoped ‘coffee’ didn’t secretly mean that.

Two minutes later, she found herself a storey higher and on their free Welcome mat. No one else was around, which she didn’t blame them for. It simply meant she should’ve really left a letter. Too late; pushing forward. The near featureless, Amazon green door was watching her.

Okay. Do it.

Do it.

Knock, Bethany.