You're so Basic, Chapters 1-3
My safe space has been commandeered by a hungover pirate.
If that sounds overly dramatic, then let me assure you: it’s mostly true.
It’s November first, and my new roommate, Mira, rolled up in her moving truck at around noon, still dressed in her Halloween costume from last night and smelling like the bar she owns. She overslept, and her movers were on a tight schedule, so they couldn’t wait for her to get changed.
I’d told Mira it wasn’t necessary for her to hire movers. I work from home, so I would have helped her. I know my friend Burke offered to help too. He’s marrying Mira’s sister, Delia, which is why she’s joining me in my nepotism apartment. She needed a place to live after breaking up with her ex, and Burke had already decided to move out of the apartment we’d shared for over a decade. He owns it, and he’s been letting me live here rent free for years out of generosity.
Sure, I got groceries and cooked and helped Burke with tech support, but those favors were nothing next to what he was doing for me, and I knew it. So I couldn’t exactly complain when he told me his fiancée’s sister was moving in with me. Instead, I finally put my foot down and insisted that if he wasn’t here to benefit from my cooking and tech expertise, I would be paying him a fair rent or I would be moving out.
He agreed, but he set the rent.
It’s not fair—to him, to be clear. The apartment is a penthouse loft in downtown Asheville, and if he sold it, he’d be able to add more millions to his trust fund.
Then again, I have to live with her.
I haven’t spent much time with Mira, but she’s loud and outspoken and has every mark of someone who’s going to destroy my peace. My life might not be exciting, but it’s comfortable. It follows a familiar rhythm that helps me anticipate what will happen when. I depend on that, but I sense it is about to be pulled out from under my feet.
That’s why my other friend Leonard, Burke’s business partner, put forth a third offer of moving help—he wanted to see the way my face looked when a hurricane of a woman moved into my space.
But Mira turned down all of our offers and hired a couple of guys to do what we would have done for free. She’s “a woman who takes care of her own business,” she insisted. Being as my little sister Ruthie’s the same way, I knew it would do no good to keep arguing.
So I sat at my desk, feeling like one lazy asshole as I watched the movers lug her stuff upstairs and into Burke’s empty room. There wasn’t much of it, thank God, just some boxes and a few suitcases.
It’s funny how a person’s life can be to condensed to so little.
If I had to move out of this apartment tomorrow, and maybe I will, I wouldn’t even have that much. It’s enough to humble a man.
Now, she’s in her room, presumably unpacking, and I’m sitting at my desk in the corner of the living room. Staring at my computer without actually working on anything, my headphones on.
Footsteps pad down the hall. I don’t have a dog, so there’s only one person it could be. A throat clears. I stare at my computer screen for a second, hoping she just has allergies. But it happens again. Sighing, I turn to look at her.
She changed out of her pirate costume and is wearing animal-print leggings and an oversized shirt a shade of pink that makes my eyes want to close. Her hair is black, her eyes the color of a glass of whiskey, and she wears eye makeup that reminds me of a cat. She’s hot, which doesn’t make her presence more welcome. If anything, the opposite is true.
It’s been long enough since I’ve been with a woman that it doesn’t take much to make me feel sexually frustrated, and the way those leggings curve over her thighs and ass is making me…uncomfortable.
“It’s a little dark out here, don’t you think?” she asks, and her voice has the audacity to be sexy too, a little low and throaty. “Can I put my SAD lamp over there?”
She points to the corner where my favorite armchair sits. It doesn’t know what indignities lie in store for it.
What’s a SAD lamp?” More importantly, does this mean she plans on claiming the armchair?
“It’s for Seasonal Affective Disorder.” She strolls over to the corner in question and lowers into my armchair with a loud oomph, as if she can’t even sit quietly. I try not to flinch, but I’m filled with the awareness that my chair’s going to smell like her. “The light’s already starting to change. I can’t take it when it’s only bright for five hours of the day.” She waves at one of the large plate glass windows overlooking Asheville as if it has offended her. “Makes me go nuts.”
“You wake up late,” I tell her, feeling compelled to speak the obvious. “If you want it to stay bright for longer, try getting up in the morning.”
She looks at me like I’m an idiot. “Where’s the fun in that?”
I could tell her it’s plenty fun to bike up to a mountain peak and watch the sun come up in a sea of colors…especially if you can manage it on a day when there isn’t anyone else around. Or to be the first to arrive at a coffee shop and grab a table by the window. But that would lead to a conversation, which is exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I’ve decided the less we have to do with each other, the better. For my own sanity.
“Yeah, the lamp is fine.” I prefer low lighting at home, but I’ll give her the lamp if it’ll make her happy. Especially if it’ll make her step off.
“Thanks for being so cool about everything, Danny,” she says with a broad, red-lipped smile, which immediately makes me feel guilty. She doesn’t know her presence is making my skin itch. It’s also not her fault. Normal people don’t get agitated by the presence of strangers. Especially strangers who are hot women. I could tell her to call me Daniel, but she knows me through a few of the only people who still call me Danny. It would make me seem rude.
I am rude, but I’d prefer to give people time to figure that out.
I nod and slide the earphones back into place.
I lower the earphones, then take my blue-light-filtering glasses off and rub my eyes.
She bounces a little in the chair, and I try not to notice the way it makes her breasts sway under her shirt. “I’m getting a record player stand delivered. It’s this really rad, vintage-looking piece. A little I finally moved out of my ex-boyfriend’s apartment gift to myself. I was thinking I’d put in my room, but if you want it out here…”
I don’t. I listen to podcasts while I work. Then again, I’m probably going to have to move my desk into my bedroom, aren’t? I’m in the second, much smaller bedroom, so I’ll be squeezed up against my bed if I move my two-screen set up in there, but that’s a small price to pay for peace.
“Sure,” I say tightly. “Do whatever you like.”
She tips her head to the side, her dark hair swaying with the movement. My eyes follow it against my will. “Are you one of those people who says things you don’t mean? Because we’ll have to cure you of that. I prefer a more straightforward approach.”
“I’m trying to be polite,” I say through clenched teeth. The words came out a little sharper than intended. They’re not polite at all, honestly, and Ruthie would be ashamed of me. Hell, her daughter Izzy would probably say she was ashamed of me, too, and she’d do it with a pushed-out lower lip that would definitely make me feel like a dick.
Mira’s eyes light up with something like humor. “Ah-ha, so there’s someone in there after all. I’ve been trying to tease you out.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I grind out.
“That you’re more boarded up than a murder house.”
I can actually feel my jaw ticking. “You don’t know me well enough to make that assessment.”
“And it’s obvious you don’t want me to get to know you,” she accuses, lifting her eyebrows.
There she goes, naming the elephant in the room and inviting it to be her pet.
I have my reasons for not wanting her here. Many of them, in fact. I’d prefer to keep them to myself.
“I seriously doubt we enjoy the same music,” I tell her. It’s a dickish thing to say, but I’m starting to feel like a dick.
Her eyebrows hike up higher, practically meeting her hair line. Her face is expressive in its disdain. “So that’s a no to listening to sweet, sweet tunes in the living room. Gotcha. I can tell you’re going to be a barrel of laughs.”
The buzzer rings, and she jumps up out of my favorite chair. I look away, trying not to give off Gollum vibes, then sigh again and get to my feet. “Let me help—”
A slash of her hand attempts to shut me down. “I’ve got this, Danny. It’s just a box. I’m going to have to build it up here.”
She’ll probably refuse to let me help with that, too.
“I insist,” I say tightly.
“Well, I can’t prevent you from following me,” she says as she makes her way to and then out of the door. I do follow her, because now that I’ve decided I’m helping, I won’t be put off. “Men do like to follow me around.”
“Is that why your boyfriend asked you to move out?” I ask before my mind can catch up with my mouth. Fuck. I don’t usually let that happen anymore. I feel a flash of remorse, but once words are released into the ether, they can’t be reclaimed.
She looks back at me, clearly surprised, and stops walking so abruptly I almost barrel into her. “Is it weird that I like you more when you’re a dick than when you’re being quiet and agreeing to everything?”
“Yes, probably. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. Either thing, actually.”
Her lips curve upward in a smile that’s so bright it feels like it unhinges something inside of me. I want to reach out and touch it.
I can practically hear one of my friends telling me this is what happens when a man lets himself go too long without sex.
“What?” she asks, lifting her fingers to her lips and taking what I wanted for herself. “Did I fuck up my lipstick? I did it without a mirror.”
“No,” I say woodenly, my mind hitched on that image of her painting her lips that bright shade of red without a mirror. “It’s great. Perfect.”
“Ah.” She grins. “We’re back to the monosyllabic words.”
“Perfect has two syllables.” Damn my inability to let a logical fallacy slide.
“And there’s my grump.” Her eyes are dancing with amusement—amusement at me—but for some reason I find myself smiling.
“Maybe I like to keep people guessing.”
“That’s one of us, then,” she says. She gives her lips another tap, then says, “Living with Bryon made me realize that he was a shallow, dumb dick on legs. I’m the one who broke up with him.”
“Oh,” I say, which is as much intelligence as I’m capable of at the moment.
Then she heads toward the stairs. She goes down ahead of me, and it would take the will of a man who’s had sex more recently than a year and nine months ago to avoid watching her swaying ass as she descends the steps.
When we get to the bottom, there’s a gigantic box waiting outside the plate glass door of the building—and no deliveryman in sight.
“Are you kidding me?” Mira mutters as she opens the door and glances left and right. “Someone could have stolen my baby.”
“I thought you said this was a record player stand?” I ask. Because it looks big enough to build a dining room table for the army of men who apparently follow her around.
She shrugs. “I have a lot of records, and I also took a lot of Byron’s.”
“Let’s get it inside,” I say, grabbing one end of the box.
She picks up the other, and we back it through the door.
“Elevator,” I say, nodding to the elevator at the other end of the lobby, past the mailboxes. It’s an old claptrap kind of thing, with a heavy door you need to pull open yourself, and an accordion style door beyond it that opens when you press the button. It’s charming in the way old things are—and every time I see it, I think about the people who lived here forty years ago. Fifty.
“No way.” She shakes her head for emphasis. “That thing wigs me out. Getting stuck on an elevator is my idea of hell.”
“Why don’t you let me take it up, then?” I say. “I like the elevator.”
“Of course you do,” she scoffs, but there’s some merriment in her eyes. “It’s a fossil.”
“I can’t be much older than you,” I comment, hoisting my end of the box a little higher, because dammit if it’s not starting to seem like we’ll be carrying it up a few flights of stairs.
“I may be thirty, but I have the soul of a much younger person. You have the soul of an old guy whose balls are hanging down to his knees.”
Her eyes are glimmering as she says it, and it’s obvious she’s having fun, or near enough.
“I’ll go at the bottom,” I volunteer, because the weight will settle on whoever’s in that position. I’m taller and bigger, and therefore the weight should settle on me.
“No, I will,” she insists. “I don’t like walking backward. That wigs me out too.”
“So no elevators and no moonwalking. Got it.”
“See!” she says, her voice louder than it has any reason to be. “You’re so old.”
In my head I can hear another woman telling me something similar.
We don’t fit together anymore, Danny. You’re too…well…basic. Shit. I didn’t mean that. I guess it’s just that we want different things. You want…this life. I want something more.
It was my ex-girlfriend Daphne who said that, and it still burns. Daphne, who fate is flinging back at me like a boomerang after all these years. She works at Big Bear Games, the company that’s interested in buying the computer game that my buddy Drew and I made over the last several years in our free time. I have a meeting there in a few weeks. I’ll be seeing her again. I’ll finally have a chance to—
“Come on, dude, this is heavy!” Mira says, jostling the box.
“I strongly object to you taking the bottom position.”
She gives me a wicked look with those cat eyes. “That’s what she said.”
Damn. This woman is going to kill me.
“Okay, just remember you’re the one who made the decision.”
We back it up to the staircase, and I start up the steps. I try to take as much of the weight as I can, even though gravity has different ideas.
“You doing okay down there?” I ask, because the box has hidden most of Mira from me. I can just see a flash of her black hair, her whiskey eyes.
“Never better,” she says. Then she starts humming some infernal pop song under her breath as if to prove she’s comfortable with the situation.
But we’re still on the first set of stairs.
I make her pause when we get to the second floor landing. She rolls her eyes and calls me a grandfather, but I can tell she’s feeling it. It’s there in the bead of sweat falling down her hairline.
“I can probably carry this up by myself,” I offer.
What I’d really do is carry it over to the elevator opening on the second floor, but if I get her to agree, I figure I can lug it up any way I choose.
“No way. I need to get some exercise.”
So we start up the next set of stairs.
That’s when it happens. A tiny furry creature that looks like a mouse comes scurrying down the side of the steps. It runs over my foot. I flinch but keep hold of the box.
“Pumpkin,” shouts a mournful voice from the next landing, and I get a glimpse of a small round face and curly hair before I hear a screech from down below.
I grab the end of the box for all I’m worth, because I can feel Mira losing her grip on it. Her side falls with a bang, a slew of swearing that probably educated that child more than any fifth grader could, and then she falls down the four or five steps to the landing below.
Shit, shit, shit. I still have the enormous box on the steps, and I can’t let it slide down, because it’d slide right into her.
“What have you done to Pumpkin?!” the little girl on the landing screams, as if her rodent didn’t cause this mess to begin with.
Without knowing what else to do, I start lugging the box up as fast as I can, knowing the faster I’m done, the faster I
can get back to Mira. The kid sees me coming and screams again, slamming the door as if she thinks I’m some kind of weirdo. I finally get to the top and set the box down, then practically vault down the steps to get to Mira. She’s not screaming now, but her face is pale.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
I’m scared to touch her, to hurt her, but I reach out and tuck her hair behind her ear, then cup her cheek. “Where does it hurt?”
She gives a pained laugh. “Fucking everywhere. I think I broke my left foot when I dropped the box on it, and then I definitely broke my ankle when I fell. But on the plus side…” She lifts up her hand, showing me the furry little rodent. It’s orange with spots. “I’m kind of a hero, you know.”
“The city will hold a parade in your honor.” I realize I’m still touching her, like an asshole, so I take my hand away and pull out my phone.
“What are you doing?” she hisses.
“Calling an ambulance.”
“No way. I have really shitty insurance. I can’t pay for an ambulance. Can you drive me to the emergency room?”
I eye her ankle, which is twisted at an abnormal angle.
“It’s not a good idea.”
“Please, Danny.” I’m taken aback by the way she’s looking at me. I may be good at the mechanics of poker, but I can’t usually detect the feelings that are running beneath someone’s face like currents in a river. Still, even I can see vulnerability in her face. The need. This is a woman who won’t ask anyone for anything—even moving help that’s freely offered. So I can only say yes. I think I’d probably do anything she asked me to at that moment.
I nod. “What do you want to do about your baby?”
She curses again, then asks, “Do you have a pen?”
“Ask Pumpkin’s people for a pen after the kid gets done screaming bloody murder, then this is what I want you to write on it.”
She tells me, then hands over the little creature, which promptly bites me. The door to the landing swings open again, and a big guy is standing in it. He’s wide and beefy with a buzzed head and a face that’s probably red no matter what he does with it.
“You the folks who are terrorizing children?”
I stand up, my back straightening, and lift up the squirming rodent. “This yours? It ran down the stairs and made my friend drop her box and fall. Looks like she broke her ankle.”
He loses some of his swagger. “Yes, that’s Pumpkin.” He lifts a hand to his stubbled jaw. “Your friend okay?”
“No,” I say slowly, then repeat, “She broke her ankle. You have a pen we can borrow?”
I could ask him to keep the box for us, of course, or bring it upstairs. But this is what Mira asked me to do, and I really would give her anything right now.
“Uh, sure,” he says.
“Stay put,” I tell Mira, mostly because I want to amuse her.
“Asshole,” she says with a small smile.
Then I head upstairs. By the time I get to the landing, the big guy’s back. I exchange Pumpkin for the pen.
“My name’s Big Mike.”
Well, that’s accurate, anyway.
“When you’re ready to give the pen back—”
I interrupt him. “I’m not going to pay you a visit to give it back, buddy. She has a broken ankle. That your pet caused. You’re lucky I don’t call my lawyer friend.”
Not that Shane would bother with such a small case, even though he’s my best friend. Even so, the threat’s always a good one to keep in your back pocket.
“Right, right,” he says, but he gives the pen a longing look before he backs through the door, Pumpkin hanging on to his hand with her teeth, the little devil. I’m not sure what he likes about the pen so much, it looks like a promotional giveaway from someplace called The Treasure Club.
“Danny?” Mira calls. “Can we hurry this up?”
I scrawl the message as quickly as I can onto the surface of the box, then push it up against the wall by the door so it’s out of the way.
If you steal this box, you’ll be cursed to have seven years of bad sex. So don’t steal it.
Then I hurry back down the stairs, nearly tripping in my haste.
“This might hurt,” I say, worry twining through me. I don’t want to hurt her. I might not want her to live in my apartment or sit in my chair, but suddenly it seems very important for nothing else to hurt her.
“I’m sure it absolutely will,” she says.
Then I scoop her up, taking care not to touch her ankle.
I know she’s in pain. I know it from the way she buries her head into my shirt, her head tucked beneath mine, and wraps her arms around my neck, her fingers brushing the hair the hair in a way that sends pleasant sensations through me. But she doesn’t cry out or make any kind of sound at all.
Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable to touch people I don’t know. The awkwardness of it. Their skin might feel strange against mine, their scent unwelcome. But I don’t feel that way with her. Her body seems to fit against mine, and her scent is fits her in a way that meets my sense of order—spicy and confident, cloves with a hint of vanilla. A feeling of protectiveness fills me, demanding that I make it all right, even though I know it’s impossible to rewind time. Cradling her against my chest, I start down the stairs.
“I guess we should have taken the elevator,” she says in a small voice, her voice muffled by my shirt.
“Yes,” I say, “I thought that was obvious.”
“Eight weeks?” I sputter, repeating the words the doctor just said to me. Wasn’t hearing about the surgery bad enough?
I mean, seriously, why should an ankle injury require surgery and two months to recuperate? If a guy falls down on the football field, they give him a few minutes to shake it off and then send him back in with a probable concussion.
Okay, probably not the best example.
Still. This news is unacceptable.
I can’t be off my feet for that long. I run a bar, for God’s sake, and I run it well.
Besides, there’s the cost to think of. My deductible is ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand dollars. The bar is doing great, but it’s not doing the kind of great where I can fork over ten grand without it feeling like someone shivved me.
For a fleeting second, I wish Danny were here, and not in the waiting room, so I could give him a can you believe this guy? look. Then again, he’d probably side with the doctor.
“Can’t you just, I don’t know, prescribe me crutches? I can hobble around and keep the cast off the ground. I’ll be golden.”
The doctor frowns at me, his face creasing handsomely. He’s attractive in a completely generic way—the kind of person my mother would rave about, ending her tirade of praise with and he’s a doctor. But I could care less about snagging a man, much less a man in scrubs. The only man I’m thinking about at the moment is my new roommate.
Danny surprised me today. First, by having a personality. Second, by being surprisingly good looking after he took off those ugly glasses, like in one of those movies where the girl removes the glasses that took up half her face and reveals she’s been a stone-cold fox all along. Or maybe I didn’t notice the stealthy fox thing he had going on because the other couple of times I’ve briefly interacted with him he’s shown no glimmer of personality whatsoever. But he’s got these intense dark brown eyes, surrounded by eyelashes I’d need to use Black as Night mascara to achieve, and thick, wavy dark hair that’s just asking to get tousled.
Oh, and he also surprised me by saving my ass.
As a rule, I’d rather not be saved, but I couldn’t think of any smarter way to get to the hospital without the use of one leg. So I let him scoop me up into his arms. He’s surprisingly sturdy for such a tall, lanky guy, and it felt…nice, being held against his chest. Like maybe I could rest for a moment.
And I can’t deny it was pretty sweet, the way he didn’t try to mansplain the need for an ambulance me—or convince me that I should let Lucas Burke, my sister’s fiancé, cover the bill, which he’s definitely going to try to do. Hell, Danny even took the trouble to leave that stupid note on the record table box, just like I asked him to. Earlier, in the apartment, he’d obviously been trying to appease me by saying yes to everything I asked, but he wasn’t doing that in the stairwell. And when we got to the ER, he kept up a steady stream of conversation, even though he looked worn out. He also refrained from asking me five hundred times if I was all right. Maybe that’s because I obviously wasn’t, but I was grateful. It felt like he was being good to me because he genuinely cared, like a prince in one of those dumb movies my little sister loved as a kid…
If the prince were a grumpy computer programmer with a stick up his ass and staggeringly ugly reading glasses. I mean, seriously, those things are—
“Of course you’ll have crutches,” Hot Doc says, giving me a mental shake. “But you told me you’re on your feet for most of your shift. You’re not going to heal like that.”
“Are you going to run my bar?” I ask pointedly. “Because I worked way too hard to let that shit slide.”
“You don’t have employees?”
I do. My co-bartender Azalea is fan-fucking-tastic, and we just hired a fill-in bartender so we can have actual lives, but we’ll need someone else to cover for me. The bar’s successful enough, so I could hire someone. It’s just…
It’s my bar.
Glitterati is my brainchild. Someone once wrote in a review that walking inside immediately gave him a headache, which I took as a compliment. It’s not easy to give a person an immediate headache. But apparently two parts glitter, thirty parts color, and four parts Britney Spears will do the job. Every piece of that bar carries something of me inside of it, from the resin bar top that I poured myself to the ever-changing drink list. I don’t know what Glitterati would be without me.
Maybe you don’t know what you’d be without Glitterati.
The voice in my head is clearly stupid, though. So I ignore it and tell the doctor with a straight face that I’m indispensable.
The doctor gives me a look that I’m familiar with, one that has nothing to do with busted ankles and sprained feet.
“I can see that,” he says, a corner of his mouth hitching up, his blue-gray eyes sparkling.
It does less than nothing for me. I might as well be watching a commercial for foot fungus cream. What this charmer doesn’t know is that I’m charmed out. I’m not going to fall for any B.S. from another man who knows how to talk the talk, no thank you. My ex Byron wasn’t my first mistake, but moving in with him after two weeks of dating was a piece of idiocy I won’t be repeating—and living with him for two months after we broke up was a hell I’ll never live in again.
I’d much rather interfere with other people’s romantic lives than bother with my own. My sister and my friend Shauna are taken and my co-bartender, Azalea, has no interest in humans with penises, otherwise I might try to hurl the hot doc at one of them.
“So you can understand the problem,” I tell him, using the clicker attached to the bed to raise it up higher. My ankle is a constant throbbing pain, and I’m about five seconds away from begging him for some sweet, sweet drugs.
“Can’t I get, like, a steroid shot or something?”
“At least a month and a half off your feet,” he says sternly. “You don’t want to walk with a limp for the rest of your life.”
“Shit, I guess I don’t,” I admit.
My last thought before tuning out is that Danny isn’t going to like this news one bit. I think both of us were banking on the fact that our schedules don’t align, but now we’re going to be seeing a lot more of each other than either of us bargained for. He wanted to come back here with me after the triage team finally decided a very clearly broken ankle was worthy of medical attention, but I wouldn’t let him. I told him it was because the nurse might want to disrobe me, and he gave me a scandalized look that reminded me of the way my grandfather used to heave a sigh whenever a “heavy petting” scene came on TV. Then he clenched his jaw and said he’d stay in the waiting room if it made me more comfortable.
Teasing him might become a new hobby.
“Well, I’ll need new hobbies,” I muse aloud.
“Or you can find a boyfriend.” The doctor’s so sure of himself he doesn’t even seem to realize he’s breaking rules. I’m pretty sure it’s frowned upon to try to pick up patients high on pain meds. Not that I’ve had anything but some expired Tylenol Danny had in his car.
“Yeah, that’s a no from me,” I say with a laugh. “I want to be entertained, not bored.”
The crease between his eyes suggests I’m the only person who’s turned him down recently. Or maybe ever. He opens his pretty mouth to say something, but a knock lands on the door. The way he jolts away suggests he does know he was doing something wrong.
Busted, Hot Doc.
“Can I come in?” I hear my sister saying. “They said she was allowed visitors.”
Damn Danny and his big mouth. He must have called her as soon as they took me back, even though I very clearly told him not to contact anyone until I’d spoken to a doctor.
“Certainly,” the doctor says, and then my sister opens the door, revealing herself in all of her vava-voom hot redhead splendor. I can tell from the way Hot Doc lets his gaze linger on her curvy figure that he’s immediately switched camps, the traitor. But when his gaze dips to the huge-ass engagement ring on her ring finger, he droops like a daisy left out of the water. “You must be…”
Engaged to a hot millionaire, is what she is.
“Her sister,” Delia say, hurrying to my bedside.
“Oh, I’m fine.” I wave a hand at her. “Nothing a little surgery and four weeks off my feet won’t cure.”
“Eight,” Hot Doc interjects. “Six at the bare minimum.” I’m starting to think he just likes the sound of his own voice.
I glower at him, but he ignores me, making his way toward the door and muttering something about admissions paperwork and stubborn women.
I’m about to say something to Delia, but when Hot Doc leaves, I catch a glimpse of Danny leaning against the opposite wall of the hallway, poring over his phone. He’s holding it close to his face, most likely because he took off those hideous glasses earlier. I’ll bet the Judas is busy texting everyone else I know. Hell, maybe he even made a Facebook post.
“What the fuck?” I say to Delia in a furious undertone the second before the door swings shut. “Why’d you let Danny come back here?”
She glances around the small but serviceable room and pulls up one of the two visitor chairs. “Mira,” she says as she sits, looking wildly out of place in her bright blue and yellow dress in this room of muted whites and blues. “The poor man was beside himself. He was acting like this was all his fault.”
“Oh, he knows it was entirely my fault.”
She gives me a stern look no one should ever have to get from their little sister. “You really should have taken the elevator.”
Seriously? Did he have to tell her everything? For someone who’s so closed-lipped half the time, he can certainly be chatty.
“Danny,” I call out. There are probably rules about shouting in a hospital, but I’m realistic enough to know I can’t hop over to the door on my one good leg and then miraculously kick him in the ass with it.
The door cracks open, and his face appears in the narrow space. He’s back to that neutral expression of earlier, before he revealed his surly personality.
“Yes, you,” I say, because he’s paused mid-opening of the door. “I don’t know multiple grown men who go by the name of Danny.”
“I don’t go by it either,” he says, annoyance flashing in his eyes as he pushes the door the rest of the way open and steps in. The feeling of victory that flushes through me from getting a reaction, even a bad one, probably says something about my emotional health.
“No?” I ask as the door closes behind him. “That’s not what I’ve heard.”
“Me either,” Delia says, sounding concerned. “Is there something else you’d like us to call you?”
“Yeah,” I add. “How about narc? I thought you and I had an understanding.”
“Calling her was the right thing to do,” he says, running his fingers across the top of the pocket of his jeans. Shit, I probably shouldn’t be looking in the vicinity of his pockets. He might get the wrong idea. But the thought makes my gaze wander to the place between his pockets. I abruptly look up to meet his eyes, but he looks away. A guilty conscience at work, clearly. But he sighs and says, “You and I barely know each other, and you had a medical emergency. If something happened to me at the apartment, I wouldn’t be pissed off if you called my sister.”
So he has a sister, huh?
I’m suddenly deeply curious about her. “What’s her name? I need to know who to look for after I push you out of the window. We both know it’s going to happen.”
He gives me a half smile, one corner of his mouth lifting above the other, and I can’t help but marvel, again, about how smiling—really smiling—changes his face. “Ruthie. But I don’t think she’d take kindly to you pushing me out the window. She likes me most of the time.”
I want to ask more questions, but my own sister is staring at me, worried, and I can’t have that.
“I wouldn’t call it an emergency,” I say, but the words lack conviction, because my leg is propped up, and I was just told I need surgery. I keep trying to sugarcoat the whole thing in my mind, but it’s not making the medicine go down easier.
“You just told me you need surgery, Mira,” Delia says, her expression worried as she leans forward in her chair to check out my fucked-up foot. They took off my shoe and wrapped it up.
“Surgery?” Danny asks, looking a little pale.
“They said it was no big deal,” I insist. “A little chop-chop, thirty minutes at the most. They’re doing it tomorrow, and they said I’d only be in here for a couple of days afterward.”
Delia puts a hand on my shoulder. “Please come and stay with us when you get out, Mira. I don’t like the thought of you being alone.”
Laughter snorts out of me. “That’s not much of a compliment to Danny, or whatever-his-name-is over there.” I wave in his direction.
“Oh, that’s okay,” he says awkwardly, shifting on his feet. “I know she didn’t mean it like that. But you don’t have to go anywhere.” He swallows, as if it’s incredibly difficult for him to say all of this out loud and with anything resembling conviction. My eyes follow the motion. “I’ll help you.”
“As you just said, we barely know each other,” I feel the need to point out, even though I am absolutely not going to move in with Delia and Lucas. They’re in the phase of being in love that is sickening to outside people. I’m happy for them, obviously, but I’d prefer to be happy for them from a distance. Shaking off the thought, I add, “I don’t even know what your preferred name is.”
“I shouldn’t have said that. Danny’s fine,” he says, his gaze darting to the door like he’s considering a sudden and abrupt escape. “My friends call me Danny.”
“So we’re friends now?”
He grins at me then, and to my shock, I feel…something. It’s the way it makes his whole face brightens up. His eyes gleam behind those glasses, creasing at the corners in a way that tells me that when he laughs, he gives it his everything, and his whole body seems to hum. Without knowing how I know, I’m certain this is a man who smiles when he means to and only then. “You know what? All things considered, I guess we’d better be friends.”
“Does this mean you won’t make a Facebook post about my ankle?”
His brow furrows in that familiar frown. “I don’t use Facebook. Everyone knows their security is a joke. You probably shouldn’t use it either.”
Honestly, it was a rookie mistake for me to think otherwise. The man’s a Boomer trapped in the body of a surprisingly attractive thirty-something.
“It’s like I always say.” I point a finger at him. “I don’t have any secrets.”
From the look on his face—his intensely dark eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed—the same can’t be said for Danny.
Ruthie: So, she was there for less than a day before she broke her ankle? That’s one way to get rid of an unwanted roommate. Maybe you’ve been listening to too many of those true crime podcasts.
Me: No such thing. And I didn’t push her.
Ruthie: That’s your story, and you’re sticking to it. ;-) ;-) ;-)
Me: Very funny. One winky face would have done the job. Why haven’t I seen you in a week? What are you plotting?
Me: It doesn’t have the same effect when you actually send the ellipsis.
Ruthie: It shall all be revealed in good time. Try not to kill your roommate.
Me: I’ll take that into consideration. If she doesn’t kill me first.
“Ruthie’s up to something,” I comment.
My buddies Leonard and Shane came over to help me out with a special project. We’re all sitting on the floor of my apartment, circled around the bright pink contents of the box that still says If you steal this box, you’ll be cursed to have seven years of bad sex. So don’t steal it.
Well, shit. I guess I cursed myself, because I’m the one who brought it up here. Then again, I’m already almost two years in, since jacking off isn’t exactly good sex.
Shane laughs, grounding me back in the moment. “When isn’t your sister up to something?”
Ruthie would say he’s being condescending. She’d be right. There’s always been this push-pull between them, like they knew they needed to share me and didn’t care to.
At the same time, he does have a point. My sister’s twenty-eight years old, and she’s always trying to reach up and grab a star—to find the one business idea that’ll be lucrative enough that she can quit her waitressing job. It hasn’t happened yet, but I believe in her. Always have.
So I shrug. “Maybe this is the one.”
“And maybe it’s another waste of money.”
“Sick burn,” Leonard comments.
Leonard and I are dressed casually, like usual. Shane’s wearing a suit, but he’s done us the favor of taking off his tie. When we were kids, Shane used to make fun of suits, and now he’s become one. If only he’d been a shark back when I got into legal trouble ten years ago. But he wasn’t, and I was a kid who couldn’t afford anything but a public defender, and the rest is history.
Anyway, suits and swagger aside, Shane’s the same kid who used to wear pocket protectors and insisted on being the Bard in our Dungeons and Dragons games because he liked playing the recorder. He’s been my best friend since the second grade, years before we met Burke and Drew, and well over a decade before we met Leonard, so I guess we’re stuck with each other. It seems like all five of us are, actually, even though Drew surprised us all by moving to Puerto Rico with his girlfriend and her grandmother. Temporarily, he said, but it’s already been months.
He could be gone a decade, and we’d still consider him family. That’s how it’s always been with Shane, Burke, Drew, Leonard, and me.
Mira and I are kind of stuck together too.
I keep thinking about that moment when she fell—the sinking panic that filled my gut. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do to stop it from happening. Other than convincing her not to take the bottom position in the first place. I should have, obviously. If I had even a fourth of Leonard’s swagger and Burke’s charm, maybe I could have.
I didn’t like seeing that powerhouse of a woman brought down by the heavy box of poorly labelled parts that are now spread out in front of us.
While we were waiting in the emergency room, Mira was quiet and almost contrite, probably because the expired Tylenol in my car wouldn’t dull a toothache, let alone a broken ankle. I tried to distract her by talking. I’m not supposed to tell anyone the details of my actual job, the one I’m shackled to by the private legal agreement I made with my boss, so I told her about the game instead.
My buddy Drew and I made True Colors together—I did the coding, and he handled the design. It took us years to finish it. For me, it started as a distraction, something I did to take the bad taste of work out of my mouth. For him, as a full-time game designer who spent most of his days designing zombie clowns, it was a chance to design a game he actually liked. Only later did it occur to me that it could give both of us an escape from our shitty jobs.
It’s a survival game, of which there are plenty, but ours is special. My friends and I have always loved hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We go for a two-week camping trip every year, and our game is an offshoot of that. But we’re also kids who grew up on Dungeons and Dragons, so it’s set in a fantasy world, the elements of which slowly unfold during gameplay.
When I told Mira about that part in the ER, she asked, “If I play it, will I get to ride a dragon?”
“What’s fantasy without dragons?” she asked.
Her pout was pretty, and I had to dig my nails into my palm to distract myself from it. It’s not cool to want to fuck a woman who has a broken ankle, but my libido has taken a liking to Mira. Maybe it would take a liking to any sexy woman who gets close right now. Or maybe—
“Hey, you’re a lawyer,” Leonard says, snapping his fingers and pointing at Shane, as if there might be any disagreement about which of us is the lawyer.
“When’d you notice I was a lawyer?” Shane asks him with a smirk, tugging me back to the moment. To the guys sitting next to me and the box on the floor in front of us. To the smell of chemicals and the uncomfortable squeak of Styrofoam as Shane shifts the pieces around. I itch for my earphones. But it’s a familiar itch, and I’m used to ignoring it. With them, it doesn’t really cost me. “Was it when I bailed you out of jail?” Shane continues.
Leonard snaps his fingers, grinning. “That must’ve been it. Now, whaddya say? Will you bail me out again if I kill whoever wrote these instructions? They must’ve done it just to fuck with us. None of the parts match.” He folds the inadequate directions into a paper airplane and sails it at my head before grabbing his beer up off the floor.
I catch the airplane before it hits my nose, then examine it.
“Nicely done.” A half-second later, I shake my head in disgust. “One page. One page for all of this.” I wave at the mess of wood and screws and other parts from the box. “That’s not efficient, it’s just stupid.”
“Beer me,” Leonard says.
“I’m guessing we’re all going to need one,” Shane agrees.
I nod and head into the kitchen to get us some cold ones.
It’s Wednesday night. Mira’s not coming home until tomorrow, but I figured it would be a nice gesture if I put the record table together for her.
Okay, maybe I figured she’s stubborn enough to try building it herself with her cast propped up on a pile of my books. I’d prefer not to have to stand by like an asshole and watch her do that. And if the finished record table is sitting in the living room with a conciliatory bow on top of it when she gets home, I won’t have to.
I don’t have any bows, obviously, but Delia probably has a collection of them.
She and Burke are at the hospital visiting Mira. The surgery went well yesterday, I guess. When Mira comes home, she’ll be on pain meds and crutches, and she’ll have to spend a lot of time on the couch. Delia told me, again, that Mira should come stay with her, but I get the feeling her sister won’t go for it. I may not have known Mira long, but it’s obvious she’s the kind of woman who doesn’t like to be told what to do. Or to rely on other people. I’ve never found that easy myself, so I can’t hold it against her.
I’m going to make sure she’s okay. I feel a bone-deep need to, because she got hurt on my watch. It may not have been my fault, per se. But it is my responsibility. I asked Delia what would make her comfortable, and she helped me unpack a few of Mira’s personal things. There are now throw pillows on my couch and a print of a squirrel smoking a pipe on the wall. I don’t hate them.
Then there’s the record table. I do hate that. The color reminds me of the Pepto my mother always forced on me when I made the mistake of admitting to a stomach ache. Still, Mira broke her ankle for it—the least I can do is build it.
When I come back with the beers, Leonard’s laughing and waving a stick around like it’s a sword. “This one’s labeled Z. It jumps from G to fucking Z. You think the person who put this together was high? One time when I was high, I thought I’d solved all the mysteries of the universe, but then I couldn’t remember any of the brilliant shit after I woke up.”
I hand over the beers. Leonard takes his with his free hand, still gripping that random thin rod.
I have no idea how that stick could possibly be part of a record table.
“This is going to be a long night, isn’t it?” I ask with a sigh.
“Don’t underestimate the power of beer,” Leonard says, waving his bottle at me.
“Or overestimate it,” Shane puts in.
“I can rebuild houses, I’ll figure this shit out, no problem,” Leonard says. It’s true enough—he and Burke run a house flipping business, L&L Restoration, that they started a few months back, after Burke left his family’s empire. Lucky for him, he still has plenty to fall back on, from this apartment to his trust fund. I don’t say this with any bitterness. If there’s anyone who deserves such a gift, it’s him.
“And you’re supposed to be brilliant,” Leonard adds, pointing to me. “Didn’t you get into MENSA?”
“I only applied because you dared me. Those people are fucking weird, and coming from me, that’s saying something. Besides, putting together poorly labelled furniture isn’t one of my few talents,” I say. I could add that if I were really brilliant, I would have figured out a way to get out of my agreement with my boss that didn’t entail spending years making a complicated computer game. But even though my friends know the basic story about how I came to work at a company I hate for a man I abhor, I haven’t shared all of the shitty details.
“Lucky for you, the word impossible doesn’t exist in my vocabulary,” Leonard continues. “I’m a god of small things.”
Shane gives him an incredulous look. “Buddy, you walked right into this, so I’ve got to do it. That’s what your girlfriend told me last week.”
Leonard laughs the loudest of any of us.
We work on the record table for a while, shooting the shit while Leonard tells us what goes where. He’s surprisingly good at figuring out the for-shit directions. He claims it’s because his mind works in mysterious ways too. We’re toward then end when he looks me in the eye and asks, “You give any more thought to what Josie said?”
“No,” I bluster.
I’m lying though, and from the expression on his face, he knows it. Josie the Great is a psychic who Leonard and Burke know. Don’t ask me how. I’m sure they’ve explained at some point, but that’s the kind of don’t-need-to-know information that goes in one ear and out the other.
I’ve only met her once. She took one look at me and told me that I’ve already met my soulmate and made a bad impression on her…the same day I found out my ex-girlfriend works for the company that’s interested in buying the game that may very well save my life.
I’m not kind of guy who believes in that sort of thing.
Computers make sense. They operate according to logic. People do not. They say one thing and mean another. They ask to be left alone and then expect you to show up with flowers. They tell you they like you just as you are, and the next minute they get upset because you haven’t changed. Some people, like Josie, claim they can communicate with the other side when by its very nature, death is unknowable. Any sort of greater power would also, per force, be unknowable and beyond understanding.
So I don’t really believe Josie the Great is either great or psychic, but…
There’s no denying that what she said, foolish and vapid or not, has been on my mind.
“My boy’s much too logical to believe in that bullshit,” Shane says. “Right, buddy?”
Leonard laughs. “Right. You’re just saying that because after he falls, you’re gonna be next on the chopping block.”
“So you feel like something got chopped off, huh, Leonard?” Shane says with a grin.
“Laugh all you want, brother,” he says with a know-it-all smile, “you’ll see what it’s like on the other side soon enough.”
Leonard’s in a relationship with Shauna, one of Mira and Delia’s friends. She’s a sarcastic potter with purple hair, and I honestly couldn’t think of anyone better equipped to keep up with him.
“When’s the meeting?” Shane asks, watching me.
“A little over two weeks from now,” I say, trying to sound off-handed, like I haven’t been thinking of it steadily. I haven’t seen Daphne in years, but her words stuck with me long after I stopped thinking about our failed relationship.
Basic means boring—any fool knows that.
It shouldn’t bother me, being boring, and in some ways it’s an aspiration of mine. The world can be too much for me—too loud, too bright, too demanding—so I like taking in little pieces of it at a time. Picking up a latte and sitting in the park. Working on the balcony in the afternoon or evening, when the sun’s not too bright. Drinking a beer with my buddies at one of their houses, or in a bar that’s so bad it’s not flocked with tourists. Spending quality time with my sister and my niece. Biking in the mountains and watching the sun rise above them and wrap them up with gold. Those little pleasures might sound small, but sew them together, and you get something good.
Except for Safe-T Net. I’d give my day job away in a fucking heartbeat, if I could afford to.
That’s where my long game with the computer game comes in. If we make good money off it, and I’ve convinced myself it’s worth good money, I might finally be able to quit.
Drew had some money saved up, so he’s already quit his job. Of course, he didn’t have the same shitty reasons to stay. I don’t blame him for moving, but I wish he’d come back to take this meeting with me. I’m going into the unknown alone, and that’s never been something I’m good at in real life. Online, it’s different.
“You determined to remind her there’s nothing basic about your schlong?” Leonard asks with a grin, lifting his beer as if to…I don’t know, salute my dick. I lift my beer to salute back.
“I don’t know, man,” I say. “Maybe.” But my mind summons up an image of Mira after that box dropped on her foot, cuddled in a ball at the junction in the middle of the stairs. I feel a hollowness in my chest. Maybe I can’t shake that memory because I feel like a dick for not doing more to prevent her accident. I guess I also admire her for being brave and tough and—
I’m supposed to be thinking about Daphne.
I shrug self-consciously, trying to scrub my mind. But it’s not so easily scrubbed. Sometimes when images come into my head, they stick as surely as if they were covered in glue. “She’s the one who got away, I guess,” I say mechanically. “I was in love with her.”
“She didn’t get away so much as she stepped out on you,” Leonard says, giving me a pointed look.
“Yes, Leonard,” I say flatly. “You’ve made it very clear how you feel about Daphne.”
He shrugs. “I’m not going to get in the way of you getting your freak on, brother, but I think she did you dirty. We all did.”
I glance at Shane, who inclines his head in agreement.
“She got a job in Paris,” I tell them, a little annoyed. “Who wouldn’t have taken it?”
“You,” Shane says. “You wouldn’t have left her.”
He’s right, but for some reason I say, “I could have gone with her. She asked me.”
I couldn’t have gone, actually. My agreement with Safe-T Net stipulates that I can’t take any international trips longer than two weeks. She didn’t know about that, though, because I never told her about the agreement.
I’d thought about it.
I’d danced around it.
But for some reason I’d never shared that part of my life with her. My sister would probably say it was because I subconsciously didn’t trust her, but I saw it as simple compartmentalization. The Safe-T Net situation happened before Daphne and I met, therefore it was unnecessary to tell her about it. And, indeed, I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.
My friends knew, and so did Ruthie, who’d been at the middle of the whole thing in some ways, but that’s because they’d all been there while it was going down.
“No doubt,” Leonard says, but it lacks conviction. “Well, I’m sure y’all will have a lot to talk about.”
She will, anyway. Daphne lived in Paris for a few years, and now she’s back in Asheville. I’m still where I was eight years ago, back when she called me basic. Living in an apartment I don’t own. Working at a job that I hate but can’t yet quit.
If my life seemed boring to her back then, it sure as shit won’t be interesting now. I’m still not the kind of guy who enjoys networking events and cocktail hours with strangers who’d like to be impressed. I’ll never be.
When I first found out about her connection to Big Bear Games, in a scheduling email sent by an assistant, I promised myself I would change her impression of me. It had seemed important, because it had been years since I’d met a woman who’d made me feel anything but the most…well, basic sort of interest. Maybe there was a reason for that, I’d speculated, and Daphne could be that reason. I’ve thought about emailing her directly, asking her to get a drink to ‘clear the air,’ but every time I sit down to write the message, I seem to find something else to do. And she hasn’t reached out to contact me either. In the chaos of the last few days, I haven’t really thought about it.
“Didn’t Mira say she wanted to give you a makeover?” Leonard asks offhandedly, his lips twitching like they want to smile.
My friends being the loudmouths they are, Mira has heard all about Daphne and our past. Before she moved in she offered, with an enthusiasm that made me want to lock myself in my room, to give me a makeover like in some eighties movie I’ve heretofore avoided watching. I’d like to keep up that trend.
It was embarrassing for obvious reasons, and also because I, like most people, would prefer for the people I find attractive not to think I’m unattractive.
“She’s got the use of one leg,” I tell him. “I don’t think she’ll be keen on the idea anymore.”
He snorts and runs a hand back through his hair. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that, brother. She seems like the kind of woman who gets something into her mind and won’t let go. Like a pitbull.”
“I wouldn’t call her that to her face,” Shane says with a whistle. “I once called Ruthie that to her face, and she tried to hit me in the balls.”
“She was ten,” I say with a smirk.
“I took the threat seriously,” he says, straightening up as best as he can seeing as we’re sitting on the floor around the half-built record table, which looks more like a tank, if you ask me.
Leonard scoffs. “Do I look stupid to you? I’d never say that to a woman. Ten years old or a hundred and ten.”
They get into a discussion of whether Leonard does, in fact, look stupid, but my mind isn’t anchored in this room anymore. It’s moved on to thinking about Mira coming back.
Here’s an unexpected truth: I actually want her to. She was only here for a matter of hours on Monday, and I spent most of that time wanting her gone, but the apartment feels strangely empty without her. She has a certain frankness about her that I find appealing—a talent for cutting through the bullshit most people layer on like it’s whipped cream.
After the guys leave, I stay up late poking at the code for a local bank. There are so many ins getting inside would be as easy as pushing a pin into a cushion. I send them an email with the details from my one of my junk accounts. If they try to figure out who I am, they’ll run up against a wall. I can’t help them, not right now, but someone else can.
Then an email comes in from Daphne:
I couldn’t believe it when they told me who was behind True Colors. It’s brilliant, Daniel. Everything we’re looking for in a survival game.
I very much look forward to seeing you again and catching up. There’s so much for us to discuss. Actually, I was wondering if you’d be willing to meet up outside of the office before the meeting. I’m traveling for the next two weeks, but what do you say we meet at Glitterati at 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 17?
My first thought isn’t excitement, even though she just reached out to me directly for the first time in eight years and sent me the same invitation I’d thought about making to her.
It’s that she’s asking me to meet at Mira’s bar.
Still, I reply to the email and tell her yes.
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