This is more of a revamp of a story I’ve been working on. I got stuck at a certain point, and couldn’t resolve it without turning it into a novel, but at the same time I couldn’t get any further with it.
I first noticed the bookstore on one of my trips to see Dr. Vanmar, my psychiatrist. Unburied Secrets. It sounded interesting, rather than clichéd. But it took me a month to work up the energy and courage to go inside one day when I was early for my appointment. And it was perfect. No huge displays of the latest bestseller by those sell out mystery authors who churn out the same book over and over again. Instead, there was a huge section of British mysteries, with everyone from Dame Agatha Christie (although only her best novels and short story collections) to my beloved Dorothy L. Sayers and P. G. Wodehouse. In the basic (re: American) section, there was a huge display of P. J. Tracy’s books, one of the best writers out there, even though “she” is actually a mother/daughter team. There was a paranormal mystery section, and a rather large gay/lesbian section. I promptly picked up six new books, on the theory that anyone who had so many of my favorites had to have good taste. The checkout counter was a long slab of actual wood, not just a shoddy veneer over plywood, and as a matter of fact, the whole store was lavishly ornate. Bookshelves made out of that deep black wood were set into the walls, from floor to ceiling, with one of those fabulous rolling ladders, and smaller bookshelves lined up the floor space of about half of the rest of the shop. The other half was taken up by big leather chairs and loveseats for patrons to sit and read in, and the business part of the store, such as the checkout counter took up the rest of the space.
The man who checked me out was British, but that was all I was able to notice before I had to bolt out of the store. As soon as I managed to grab one out of my purse, I took an anti-anxiety pill with a big swallow of water from my bottle, and booked it up the street to my shrink’s office. A week later, after I finished the six books I bought there, I went back. Before I walked in, I did the deep breathing exercises my shrink prescribed and took a pill, too. Breathing exercises are nice, but right now chemicals are my sole friends. My ‘assignment’ from my shrink for the week was to talk to the person behind the counter for five minutes. She had been overly excited that I had found a place I liked to shop that wasn’t online, but actually out in the real world. I had a stopwatch and a list of items to ask for, in the hopes of dragging the conversation out five minutes solely based on obtaining reading material for the week. Luckily, it was the same British man as before, and the store was practically empty. I had chosen the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday, hoping that most people would be at work, or otherwise occupied.
“Um…Excuse me? I was wondering if you had these precise books? All in hardback please.” I quickly passed over my list. I managed to get those sentences out without sounding like too much of an asshat, I think. I chanced a look up at him, and then looked up again. Wow, he was really quite tall once he unfolded himself from that stool behind the register. “Hmm. Let me see.” He eyed the list, then eyed me, looking me up and down thoroughly, but in such an impersonal, nonsexual way that I felt more like a horse being judged than a woman being ogled. I bristled a little inside, knowing exactly what he saw and guessing what he thought. A girl, in her mid-twenties, short, and on the plumpish, very curvy side. Dressed all in black; black fitted long-sleeved t-shirt, black mini-skirt with silver buckles, black tights, and black sneakers. Pale, pale skin and long brown hair with several silvery white streaks in a braid down to the middle of her back. Black cat’s-eye glasses over green eyes. Nine mismatched silver hoop earrings in her ears, three in the left and six in the right. Obviously this must be some sort of weird Goth girl, dying her hair and dressing all in black.
“Hmm…I think we have all of these. Follow me. There are quite a few books on this list, is someone special birthday’s coming up?” I was too busy cataloging him myself for a moment to respond. Very, very tall. I would guess at least 6’5”, and lanky with it as well. But it was a well lived in lanky, with graying black hair and gold-rimmed glasses that seemed to constantly slide down on his nose. Actually pretty hot in an older librarian guy type way, like Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But my gaydar is never wrong, and this man definitely liked guys as much as I did. With that British accent, he probably got a lot more action too, the bastard. Shit, what did he say? I know he just asked me a question, and I’m supposed to be having a conversation. My shrink will want details to prove I’m not lying.
“What? A birthday? No, these are for me. I checked my collection and I don’t have all these books in hardback, only some in paperback.” Great, he obviously thinks I’m a moron who can’t actually read myself. My shrink would say that I’m imagining that, but his next few sentences prove my point as he tries to catch me out in this big lie about enjoying books. “You read Dorothy L. Sayers? I’m a big fan of hers as well. What’s your favorite book of hers? I like Ten Little Indians myself, but I can’t wait for her newest.” And then he eyed me narrowly, waiting for me to mess up. All right, that just pissed me off completely. “Okay, buddy. Don’t try to fuck around with me just because of the way I look. I did a complete semester of independent study on Sayers when I got my English B.A. She died in 1957, and Dame Agatha died in 1976. Agatha Christie wrote Ten Little Indians published in 1939. That’s what it was retitled in America as, at least. Alternate titles were And Then There Were None and Ten Little Niggers. Not exactly politically correct, nowadays. My favorite Dorothy L. Sayers book is Gaudy Night published in 1935, but that’s not on the list since I already own both a paperback and a hardback edition. Will you show me where these books are or should I go to one of the fucking chain bookstores?”
I figured he would toss me out of the store for that, but he threw back his head and laughed, instead. He had a great laugh, deep and infectious and without any self-consciousness, almost a deep giggle. “Finally, a customer who knows almost as much as me! Come on, let’s find all your books.” He strode off down the aisles, plucking books off the shelves for me, chuckling the whole time. His name turned out to be Neil, and he was the owner of the store. At the end, I had twice the number of books that were on my list, because Neil kept telling me that if I liked this author, than I would also like this other author. Every time that I was able to tell him I already owned the second author, I could swear I saw pride flash through his eyes. It was so strange. But sort of nice. Maybe this was what a normal parent was like, what with the pride and the actually giving a damn. He even seemed concerned when he totaled up the price and it was over $300. At this point, I decided to leave any sort of pretense behind, and looked straight at him, saying, “Neil, don’t worry. My parents died in a car crash a few years back and they were incredibly fucking wealthy. I was the sole heir. I might not look like it, but I could buy and sell your store ten times over and not go over what I set as my weekly book allowance.” I saw the shock cross his face, then he shrugged, and ran my debit card through the machine and helped me pack the books into my big leather satchel.
It got to the point that I started stopping by after every session with my shrink to buy a book or just to talk to Neil. Who would have thought that my first real friend in the four years since the accident would be a middle-aged gay bookstore owner? Of course when you really thought about it, it made complete sense. It got to the point that I was telling him more than I told my shrink, and when I laughingly confessed that to him one day, he proposed a deal. “Ash, you told me that your personal physician could prescribe the anti-anxiety meds for you, right? How about you just keep talking to me about everything important that bothers you, and you just do something for me in return?” I eyed him warily. “Neil, I pay Dr. Vanmar $400 an hour to listen to me and analyze me. What the hell could I do for you that would be worth that much? I know you won’t let me give you money for anything but books.” He smiled a sad little smile, then touched my hand lightly. Amazingly, I had gotten to the point where I could tolerate Neil touching me, when a casual touch from a stranger still made me feel like vomiting or running away in fear.
“Ash. First off, I’m your friend. I’ve been listening to you for free for weeks now, and I will gladly listen to you for free in the future. What I want is for you to help me in the bookstore. Not with the patrons, don’t worry about that. I want them to come back, not have them scared away by your surly misanthropic attitude that you put on for strangers. I want you to help me pick out what books we order, help after hours straightening up the mess the patrons have made, all the back room type of stuff that I’ve been trying to deal with by myself since Alex’s death.” Alex was his partner who had died four years ago. They had started the bookstore together twelve years before. Neil had told me the good and the bad of their relationship, which had lasted twenty years. Alex had been bisexual, and had a son, Patrick, from a previous relationship, whom Neil was apparently still incredibly close with, to the point that they called each other father and son.
“Crap, Neil. When you put it like that, you make it sound almost fun. You also made yourself sound so pathetic that there’s no way I can refuse. Besides, now I won’t have to do those horrible assignments that Dr. Vanmar kept giving me.” We agreed that I would start that Friday, and Neil gave me an extra key to the back door.
I showed up a little early my first night, and got the surprise of my life. I heard two deep male voices arguing in the front room. “Why don’t you need my help tonight? Every other night, you’ve begged me to come help clean up the patron mess, and do the books. Of course, you spend the whole time bugging me about not having any social life, but still, why do I have to leave?” Shit, was I putting someone out of a job here? I knocked on the door between the back room and the actual bookstore, and heard Neil curse. “Shit. She’s early. Be on your best behavior, boy, and leave as soon as possible. Why don’t you ever check your fucking voicemails?” What the hell was going on here?
“Ash! You’re early! How wonderful!” Neil looked frantic, and kept dashing glances at the other man behind the counter. He was medium height to shortish for a guy, which is to say just a little taller than me, blondish with blue eyes and resembled nothing so much as a blandly Aryan CPA. I later came to find out that he was taking night classes to become a CPA, but was currently a file clerk at huge company downtown, so I was pretty much on the money there. Pretty average really, nothing to freak Neil out so much, I thought until he opened his mouth. “Ash, this is my son, Patrick. I had called and told him he didn’t need to come tonight, but apparently he didn’t bother to listen to his voicemail. Patrick, this is Ash, the mystery aficionado that I told you about.”
“Oh, so you’re the girl that’s almost as smart as Pop here about mysteries.” My brain was going haywire trying to figure out just how much Neil had told Patrick about me. He reached out a hand to shake mine, so obviously Neil hadn’t told him about my phobia of being touched. “Umm…I don’t like to touch people. It’s sort of a phobia. Neil, how much did you tell Patrick about me?” Neil looked at me with a pleading look on his face. “I only told him about the sort of books you like and that you were going to start helping me order books and straighten up the store at nights. Everything else is your business.” Patrick was starting to look totally confused.
“Since you’re Neil’s son, I’ll probably see you again. Let me make it easy and tell you all my problems up front.” Neil looked a little worried, but I wasn’t sure whether it was because of the load I was about to spill on his (step)son, or the increasingly bitter tone in my voice. I had found that people generally had two responses when I told them my story; horror and/or pity, neither one of which I looked forward to. “If you have any questions, Patrick, just save them till the end. I graduated college four years ago, summa cum laude, with a B.A. in English. On our way out to a celebratory dinner, the car containing my parents and me was struck by a drunk driver and pinned against a lamppost for an hour while the police and the paramedics had to use chains and the jaws of life to pry the other car off ours and the doors off of our car. The other driver wasn’t wearing a seat belt and went through the windshield of his car into the backseat of our car where I was sitting. Everyone but me died on impact.”
“I have fourteen large scars on my body from flying glass and metal, innumerable smaller ones, and it took me a full year to properly relearn how to walk, since my legs both fractured. My legs still ache when the weather changes or if I spend too much time on them in a day, and I have physical therapy once a week. The streaks in my hair started turning silver that night from where the glass penetrated my skull, although no one realized until we could wash all the blood out. My parents were fairly wealthy with large life insurance policies, so I have a great deal of money and property. I don’t mourn their deaths because they were horrible parents and complete bastards as people. I don’t like to be touched by many people, especially people I don’t know. My former shrink says it’s due to having the dead body that changed the course of my life rest in my lap for a full hour, but I think that experience just opened me up to the truth about what bastards most people are. If you have any pity for me that you would like to express, just hold on until I can get a broom to beat the crap out of you.”
“Wow. I was wondering how you got your hair that color. So do you know how to do the books for the store, you know, the accounting?” Patrick seemed pretty pale, but he was handling it better than anyone else ever had, even Neil. “Umm…no.” Still no horror or pity. “How about I go do those while you and Pop straighten up the mess the evil patrons have made? I’ll make us some tea later. Or do you want hot chocolate or coffee?” So accommodating. I wondered if all CPA’s were like this. “I like cocoa. Particularly with marshmallows.” And that was that for meeting Patrick. Neil looked pleased, and I spent the night in a daze.
Originally, I was only supposed to be working Friday nights. But I really grew to enjoy it. So, I started coming on Mondays, then on Wednesdays, too. After a while, we settled into a nightly pattern. Patrick only came in on Fridays, and would stay behind the desk to do the accounting, then help Neil move any really heavy boxes that came in stuffed full of new books. Neil and I straightened up the store, putting books back where they were supposed to go and picking up all the debris that people would leave, such as coffee cups, soda bottles, and gum wrappers. Then we’d take a break, with tea for Neil, coffee for Patrick, and cocoa or a cappuccino for me. During the break we would divvy up any advance copies of books that had been sent to the store between us, and assign ratings to the ones that we had taken previously based on our opinions of the books. This was one of the ways that Neil and I decided on which books to stock and which not to stock.
We all had our own preferences of which mystery genres we liked, so we divided the books up that way. Neil got all GBLT, “Cozies”, Ethnic mysteries (which are centered directly around some specific culture, such as Tony Hillerman’s Native American mysteries), all forms of PI or sleuth books, all set in the legal, medical or scientific communities, those dealing with government agencies/political intrigue/espionage, and any otherwise unclassifiable under any of the other categories. I got contemporary American mysteries, contemporary British mysteries, paranormal, romantic suspense, psychological suspense, futuristic mysteries as well as historical, humorous/comedic ones, inverted mysteries where the reader knows who did it and gets to see how the protagonist figures it out, and both YA and children’s mysteries. Patrick got the least since he was holding down a full-time job and taking classes. He ended up with his two favorites, the police procedurals and the serial killer mysteries. Sometimes that boy just made no sense to me. We all had our favorite authors that we knew we would stock, so when we got advance copies of their books, if more than one of us was a fan, we worked out elaborate trades. Or, I just got the book first if I wasn’t in the middle of another, since I didn’t have another job besides coming in three nights a week. I would generally read the book that night and bring it back to the store at some point during the next day.
For all the books that we didn’t get advance copies, Neil and I would start by reading the blurbs in the publisher catalogs. Then, we would check to see if we carried any of the author’s past books and how we had flagged them in our personal computer list or in the past advance copy list: excellent, shows promise, decent and will sell, blockbuster crap, badly written, completely horrible dreck. Anything from the first three categories we went on to research further online, on our favorite bookseller blogs and websites, and in print journals and other review sources that Neil had learned to trust. It took a lot of time, but it was actually quite fun.
As the weeks went on, I gradually grew used to being touched by Patrick. I knew he was deliberately working on it, trying to get me more used to him. I wasn’t stupid, after all. He started by touching my shoulder to get my attention, then he moved up to touching my hand as he passed me my advance copy books for the week. I felt a little like a wild horse that he was trying to gentle, and was wondering when he was going to try to give me sugar cubes. Then the boy took his life into his own hands and touched my hand while handing me my hot chocolate. I was still jumping every time he touched me, even though I was at the point where Neil could give me short hugs. Luckily, I saw Patrick coming with the hot chocolate and braced myself, so there were no third degree burns in the store that night. I even managed to avoid jumping, although I think I was about as rigid as a piece of wood.
I couldn’t figure out why I was still so jumpy around Patrick, when he was such a good guy (albeit with a truly bizarre sense of humor) until late one Friday night. Neil was off making our hot drinks for break, and I was trying my best to get an empty Styrofoam coffee cup off the top of a tall display case, and struggling mightily. I should have just pulled over one of the stools, and I was about to, when Patrick came up behind me. I knew he was there, he was wearing shoes that squeaked, but I thought he would go to the side of me to get it down. “Let me help you.” Then, to my surprise, he came up straight behind me as I was still on tiptoe reaching for the cup, and cupped a hand around my waist to steady me. I sucked in a deep breath of surprise, suddenly aware that Patrick was in fact a man my own age, and not just a sexless CPA. His few inches on me, and longer arms allowed him the extra reach to grab the cup and hand it to me. “Here you go, Ash.”
I could feel his breath against my neck, and I shivered involuntarily. I was hyper-aware of the fact that he had an erection and that it was pressed firmly against my back, and I was bewildered by the fact that my treacherous body seemed to be reacting to him. I wanted nothing more at that moment than to feel his mouth against my neck. So, being the contrary creature that I am, I promptly twisted out of his arms and mumbled that Neil must have our drinks ready by now. I had dated in high school and college, and fooled around, of course. But being the daughter of incredibly rich (and snobby) parents is no walk in the park for a plus size girl who knows that the hot tennis player is only taking you to the junior prom because his parents don’t want your parents to crush their business beneath their boot heels. So I got picky and suspicious early on.
I know Neil was bewildered by the way Patrick and I sped through our reviews, and how quickly we divvied up the copies that had come in this week. Patrick left immediately afterwards, pleading loads of homework. I waited a suitable amount of time, helping Neil to finish cleaning up, then pleaded a headache and left as well. Neil looked suspicious, but he let me leave, and that was what mattered.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, when Patrick wasn’t there, Neil and I talked about any problems that I was having in my life, whether it was things as simple as whether or not I should donate a big wad of money for a full-ride scholarship to my alma mater for an incoming English major that I would chose based on an essay they submitted, or more serious matters like whether or not I had had a hard time coming outside that day to deal with other people and had had to take more than one anti-anxiety pill to function. Needless to say, we never discussed Patrick’s attempts to get me used to his touch, or why we both happened to need to leave early on the same night. Neil and I were close, but there are just some things you don’t discuss with the man who is slowly growing to be a father figure to you, particularly when they discuss his actual stepson.
One Monday, Neil told me how he found it incredibly strange that I would rather walk than take a bus or ride a car or bike, since being accidentally touched made me so twitchy, and that seemed more likely to happen on the street. I snorted and reminded him about my accident. Then he conceded that he might be a little wary himself of traveling in vehicles. When he asked me if I wasn’t worried about getting robbed or worse, I just pulled out my little mini-Taser that fits in the palm of my hand. “It’s strong enough to down a 300 lb man for 15 minutes, and I carry a little can of mace in the other hand. 911 is number 1 on my speed dial on my cell phone that I carry in my pocket. I don’t walk through anything but the best neighborhoods on the way home, Neil, but I believe in being prepared to the nth degree.”
That’s when he told me that the entire building aside from the floor the bookstore was on was currently unoccupied and that he would feel safer if I lived there. “Most of it has been divvied up for rental flats or stores, but I suppose you could rent a whole floor.” “Neil, I always just sort of imagined that you lived above the store.” “No. Alex and I bought a quaint little house just barely out in the suburbs. I could never leave it. I really wish the two of you had known each other. He would have loved you.” The sad, but loving tone in his voice when he talked about his dead partner always made me wish that I had someone that cared that much for me. “Neil, how many other levels are there in this building?” There ended up being a sub-basement and a basement below the store, and two floors above it.
The very next day, I had my man of business arrange to buy the building, at the best possible price of course, but with money being no real obstacle. I just like to strike a good bargain. The deal was done by Tuesday, and I came in Wednesday to find Neil a wreck, and Patrick there for a change. “Neil, what’s wrong?” “The building has been sold! The new landlord hasn’t been by, but what if they want to raise rents? I didn’t want to tell you, but we just won’t be able to afford to pay much more every month. The old landlord was a friend of Alex’s who had cut us a bit of a deal.” I hung my head. “Shit, Neil. I didn’t think. I bought the building. You said you would feel safer if I lived here and I refuse to pay rent. I own where I live. After I get my quarters all arranged here, I’ll simply sell my old house for a huge profit. It’s the townhouse that my parents bought for me to live in while I attended school.” “Damn, you really are rich.” This came from Patrick. I don’t think he had actually realized the bulk of my wealth before.
Neil recovered quickly. “How much do you want in rent, Ash?” I shook my head. “No way. You are not paying me one red cent. Neil, you were my first real friend since the accident. Besides, I deeded this floor over to you. It’s only fair, because…” here was the hard part…“I need you to close the store for two weeks so the builders and movers can start by fixing up my floors and putting in an elevator for my knee. Please don’t be mad.” I ducked my head at that, waiting for an angry outburst. Instead, I felt cool fingers under my chin, tipping my face up to meet Neil’s eyes. “Darling Ash. How could I be mad? You just saved me $16,000 a year in rent and gave me a store. I think I can now afford to close for a couple of weeks.”
His eyes were shining and he crushed me close against his chest. I took a second to think that this was what a father’s hug might feel like before he spoke. “Silly woman. I warn you, I’m never letting such a generous heart escape my friendship.” I squirmed in my seat and muttered, “I’m not generous. I’m selfish. I’m doing it to keep you from leaving me.” Neil’s eyes softened even more with understanding. “Don’t worry, you’re never getting rid of me.” Lord, I was going to be mortified if this got much sappier. Thankfully, Patrick seemed to understand. He batted his eyes at me and said; “Hell, Ash, if I promise not to leave, can I live here in the basement and have a tub made of solid gold?” The mood was broken and we all laughed. I told him that all my tubs were made of titanium, not commonplace gold, and furthermore the basement was reserved for my library.
I bypassed the issue of him living there though. For the last couple of weeks, I had been thinking that maybe he was flirting with me. Neil had told me that Patrick didn’t have a girlfriend. But, honestly, why would he flirt with me? I was prickly, semi-crazy, and covered in scars. Just the other day I had lost it and shrieked at him for fifteen minutes for no good reason; or rather for not stacking the coffee filters somewhere I could reach them, when I don’t even drink coffee. Of course I was starting to like him, though. He (seemingly) flirted with me, rather than feeling sorry for me, or being freaked out if he caught a glimpse of one of my many scars. He was smart and funny, he liked to read, and he was even straight. At first glance there might seem to be nothing particularly special about his looks, just the sort of average every-guy, but when you looked closer you could see some truly unique features. And I was looking closer, when I knew he wasn’t looking at me.
His eyes weren’t just blue, they were this great deep blue that made me think of a pictures of the sea, handily inside instead of outside in yucky Nature. And his eyes were surrounded by those great long lashes that only boys and supermodels seem to be gifted with, but since they were blond like his hair, you had to be close by to notice them. He had nice full lips that were a soft pink, and a dimple in his right cheek when he smiled. I liked the asymmetry of that one dimple. The boy was turning me into a huge sap. And his casual flirting and random compliments didn’t help. I made up my mind that once I had moved in, I would screw my courage to the sticking point and tell him to stop it.
It took a few weeks to get together a crew to do the construction and repairs on the building. Ted, my man of business, took care of finding the very best people in the city, since I could easily afford them, but we had to get them all willing to work solely on my project in these two weeks, and that took a little extra cash splashed about. After two weeks, I would need different workers at different times, so that would make the rest of my renovation easier. I hired the best contractors in the business, with promises to double their fees if they got the most important bits down in two weeks so Neil could open the store up again. That of course, was mainly the elevator I ended up putting in to connect all the floors. When you have five floors (including the store) that you will be using in your house, and a semi-bum leg, stairs are out of the question. I made it nice and big, since the semi basement was going to be used for storage for both the store and myself as well as housing a few spare rooms. I had to end up putting the elevator through what used to be the storage room in the store, and I didn’t have enough junk of my own to fill up the storage floor all on my own, so after talking to Neil we figured it was an even tradeoff. The top two floors would be my living floors, and the very basement floor the library. The workers also had to tear down almost all the walls on all four floors, and fix the floors. They could rebuild the walls to fit my specifications once the shop reopened, but tearing them down was unbelievably noisy.
My two top floors were totally redone. They were in what I considered pitiful condition. Thin carpeting, lots of doors…utterly unsuitable. The first thing I had done after the walls were demolished, was to remove all previous fixtures, cabinets, etcetera. Next, I had the contractors lay down a heavy layer of insulation between the store and my floors to prevent noise from drifting up during business hours. Then bamboo flooring was laid down over that. I always prefer wood floors whenever possible, and it is always possible, even in bathrooms if the wood is properly treated beforehand. The bamboo flooring was continued on the top floor. Both floors had small foyers where the elevator disembarked, with doors that led into the various parts of the two floors. The top floor was my personal floor, and the floor above the store was the more public of floors.
On top, I had my bedroom, my bathroom, an elaborate closet and changing room, and my reading room, all equally comfortable and the same size. The foyer on this floor had two doors, one leading to the bathroom and one to my reading room. The closet/changing room had no windows, and the ones in the bathroom were frosted. The other two rooms had windows, but they also had thick velvet drapes that I kept pulled most of the time. I’ve never been a big fan of sunbathing, and after my accident and subsequent scarring, I became even less of a fan. Even though I would have the entire basement as the library, I planned to use my reading room for the books I either was currently reading or planning to currently read, so I had a bookshelf built into one of the walls. My big secret that I was keeping from Neil and Patrick was that I was trying my hand at writing, so as well as being my reading room, this was going to be my writing room as well, so there was a comfortable desk and chair with a laptop and printer.
On the first floor, I had my kitchen, the dining room, a living room that was really more of a television room, and a very proper office in which to do business. All the rooms except for the office were the same size, and it was smaller, allowing for room for a full bathroom with a shower. The two doors off the foyer here led to the office and the television room. Except for the office and the bathroom, there were no real walls between the rest of the rooms, only waist-high dividers delineating the change in space between ‘rooms’. Once it was all accomplished to my satisfaction, I had professional movers haul over everything I wanted from the town house and everything new that I had bought and arrange it all in my new house. I also had them move everything from the storage room down into our new ‘storage floor’ below the shop. That floor was split into two main halves, one of course for storage (half for the store, and half for my things that I hadn’t found a place for yet). The other part of that floor was taken up by two rather sterile spare rooms with an adjoining bathroom, just in case either Neil or Patrick needed to stay the night, or even possibly one of my employees.
My big plan to tell Patrick to stop with the flirting took a nosedive however. I invited Neil and him over the night before we reopened the shop for a celebratory dinner in my new home of Chinese food that I ordered in from my favorite restaurant. Then I took them down to the floor I hoped would interest them the most, the new storage floor, already well-lighted and containing the boxes and supplies from the storage closet upstairs. They were all neatly arranged on heavy-duty metal shelves, with the same number of empty shelves waiting in the back to be filled. Neil was ecstatic and started rummaging around and mumbling, but Patrick said he wanted to see my personal library. I couldn’t think of a good way to say no without explaining that having him alone with me would give me weeks of new fantasy material, so I just said yes and decided that it was a sign that tonight was the night for me to tell him no more flirting.
Of course this plan required him to flirt with me first, something that he seemed to show no real interest in at first. Of course, the one time I did want him to flirt with me, he didn’t. The elevator opened onto a small foyer, as it did on all my personal floors. “Um, this is my library.” I opened the door, and waited to hear what he would say. The movers had made it clear that they thought it freakish that a girl my age, however rich, had as many books as I have, and so had most of the people I knew in college when my collection was much smaller. The floor was filled with tall bookshelves, which I had had the builders securely fasten to the ceiling, and each bookshelf was equipped with a rolling ladder too. My library filled roughly three-fourths of the floor, and was arranged precisely by category, then author, then title. I even had an old library card catalog set up at the front with cards made up for every book.
Patrick walked around the room, smiling as he recognized the wood I had chosen for the shelves from upstairs in the shop. “This is fantastic. Forget the titanium bathtubs. I’d rather have this library any day of the week. How many volumes do you have now, if you know? And what are you going to do when you fill up all the shelves?” Dammit. Now I liked him even more. This was going to be hard. “I’ll put shelves all around the walls of my reading room upstairs, and once that fills up, I’ll empty out my storage space in the floor above us and turn it into a mini library, maybe for non-fiction. At the moment, I own 14,723 books.”
His eyes shone with greed. “Ash, if I promise to be your boy-toy and personal CPA, can I live in your library?” Shit, but that was a tempting offer. The boy-toy part of course, I have dozens of people that handle my financial affairs. I had to bring it up now. Just do it quick and brisk. “Patrick. I need you to stop flirting with me.” Startled, he looked over at me. I looked down at the floor, and scuffed a shoe against the floor. “Do I creep you out, or scare you? Ash, you know I would never hurt you.” Now he had sad puppy dog eyes pinned on me. “No, Patrick, and no. I…it’s just…well…” Great, I had totally lost it here. Good thing he hadn’t pouted with those gorgeous lips, or I might have spilled the truth.
“Ash, is this like your touch-phobia? Are you uncomfortable with me flirting with you because it suggests physical closeness?” I grabbed at this suggestion like a drowning man grabbing at a life preserver, unaware that it was going to blow up in my face so soon. “Yes, Patrick, that’s it exactly. You’ve hit the nail on the head.” I had backed myself up against one of the bookshelves during this conversation, and when I started to nod my head like an idiot, I smacked it into a shelf and let out a whimper. While I was rubbing my head, Patrick caged me against the wall of shelves and leaned in close. “But Ash, you’ve started to get used to me touching you.” Crap, but his voice was right in my ear. It was starting to drive me crazy. “I’m sure that if you just give it time, you’ll get used to the flirting, too.” And then before he pulled away completely, he slid a hand down my cheek and rubbed his thumb over my lips. “And once you’re used to the flirting, then I can make my move.” And with that statement, he walked out and took the elevator back up to the storage floor. Holy crap. What was I supposed to do now?
Patrick stuck with the casual touches and flirting after that night. Meanwhile, I was becoming a wreck. Every time he brushed my shoulder, I would imagine him sliding his hand from my shoulder to my collarbone, then down further. Every time he touched my waist and murmured a polite “excuse me” as he slid past me with only inches to spare, I had to resist the urge to lean into him. And the flirting! He would say something completely acceptable like “is that skirt new, Ash? It looks really good on you” but at the same time he would be looking at me like he wanted to lick me all over. Then I would end up flushing in desire and mumbling something dumb like “I don’t know”, and Neil would look at the two of us like we were mental patients. I have no idea what Neil thought was going on, but as long as we were both able to do our jobs, he left it alone. Until his great idea, that is.
Neil’s “great idea” came three months after I started working nights at the store. One Wednesday, he told me that he wanted to take out for a long-overdue festive dinner to celebrate my move and my starting work at the store. I told him no at first, that I didn’t want to go out, and we could just order in. Then he made a sad, sad face and said in a woebegone voice that he had chosen a special restaurant that was classy, yet small and not crowded on a Thursday night and had even arranged for a special booth back in a draped corner. “Fine, Neil. You look so very pitiful. We’ll go out to dinner. Did you make the reservation for tomorrow?” He nodded eagerly, beaming now that I had agreed. “Ash, you’re going to love this place! I’m going bring in a nice suit and take you out in style tomorrow after the store closes. We’ll leave here around 9, okay? Are you fine riding in my car?” I reassured him that I would be, resolving to take another anxiety pill before dinner.
I have to admit, I was a little excited the next night. I came down to the store at 9, and was confronted by both Neil and Patrick in suits. I glared at Neil, who smiled back like he had no clue what he had done wrong. “Well, don’t you look lovely, Ash. Let’s get in the car and head on over to the restaurant.” After that comment, Neil swept on ahead and out the back door. “You do look beautiful. But then, I think you always do.” I could see the appreciation in Patrick’s eyes, and nervously smoothed my skirt and top. Both were black, of course, but the ankle-length skirt was satin with an embroidered appliqués of blood red spirals trailing down one thigh. The shirt was a stretchy black scoop neck, long-sleeved to cover my scars. I had felt dumb putting it on earlier, dressing up just to go out to dinner with Neil, but now I was glad that I looked better than usual. Enough with Patrick making me rattled. “Shut up and let’s go.”
As we got closer to the restaurant, I started getting a little nervous. I thought I recognized the area. But I knew I didn’t come down here to the Square, at least not now. For a moment, my vision seemed to be red, like I was looking through blood, but it disappeared when I blinked. Everything started looking even more familiar the closer Neil said we were. I had a horrible sense of foreboding. “Neil, what’s the name of the place we’re going tonight?” I waited in dread. “It’s called Simone’s Bistro.” Okay. I could do this. It was just close, that was all. Very close. This was the street. “It’s right up here on the left, kids. I’m going to park here where there’s a spot, and then we can walk down to it, okay?” Patrick eagerly agreed and I mumbled something. We got out of the car and started walking down the sidewalk. The bistro wasn’t before IT, which meant I was going to have to walk past IT. Could I do that? I looked at Neil’s smiling face, the man who had quickly become more of a father to me than my own had ever been, and saw how happy the prospect of this dinner made him. I gritted my teeth and I was determined to try.
My walking sped up as we neared IT, and I decided to just go past as quickly as possible, with my head down. “Ash, what’s your hurry? You’ve almost walked past the restaurant.” Neil had grabbed my arm, bringing me to a halt right in front of IT. No. Fate couldn’t be that cruel. I looked up. A neon sign reading Simone’s Bistro hung above the steps. Neil nattered on. “It’s fairly new, but my friend Kate says the cook is fantastic, especially with the specialized sandwiches.” A kind of hysterical laugh burst out of me, along with a sob. “New! I’ll bet! Less than four years at least.” I plopped down on the curb next to the (new) lamppost, disregarding all the dirt and leftover gum adorning the sidewalk, and started rocking back and forth. Now Neil and Patrick were looking at me with the kind of look you reserve for the institutionalized, while darting their heads around in consternation at the curious onlookers who were trying to figure out just what was happening.
It was Patrick who figured it out first, surprisingly. “Holy shit, Ash. This is where the wreck was, isn’t it? Pop, help me get her up. We have to get her back to the car and out of here.” They hauled me to my feet, and started dragging me back to the car. I think Neil was apologizing, but by this time I was nearly catatonic, so I can only remember the odd phrase. “you poor girl…so pale…had no clue…please forgive me…can you hear me…almost there” When we got back to Neil’s car, they must have just shoved me in the back with Patrick, and then sped off, because all I remember from the trip back to my place was Patrick rubbing my back and arms and saying that he and Neil were there with me and everything was going to be okay now. We pulled into the back lot, and the two of them managed to manhandle me into the elevator and up to the top floor. Luckily, Neil was the one who undressed me and put me in jammies, then took off my carefully applied makeup. Patrick was down one floor in the kitchen trying to find something for us to eat.
One night after we finished work, I showed Neil the wooden box in my bedroom that contained my really strong anti-anxiety medicine, the kind that came in a syringe. I told him what my severe freak-outs were like (basically catatonic), and that if I had one, I needed him to give me this injection if I didn’t respond to him proffering it. He pulled out the box, got out the syringe and showed it to me. When I still had no response, he stuck me and about 20 minutes later, I was back to normal. Well, as normal as I get, anyway.
When we got down to the kitchen, Patrick had made omelets with cheese and peppers, and we all dug in hungrily. As we ate, I started to remember how close Patrick had been to me in the car on the way back. I could almost feel his hands rubbing soothing circles over my back, smoothing down my arms, and holding me close to his chest. I didn’t remember everything he had said, but I knew that he had reassured me that he was there for me and wasn’t leaving. All of this served as a harsh comparison to the way that my (former) friends had acted when I had had a similar breakdown a few months after the accident. I was still extremely fragile at that point, and simply seeing an ambulance go by with sirens screaming and lights flashing had been enough to set me off. Everyone had drawn back from me like I had the plague, while I screamed and cried and beat my hands bloody against a wall. They had actually all run into another room, where, true, they could see me, but still they had run away from me. They also called 911, who came up in another ambulance and who had to heavily sedate me just to get me inside the vehicle.
After the three of us finished eating, Patrick started gathering up all the plates and such from the table. When he got to mine, I took what was for me a chance. I reached out my hand and placed it over his on the plate. “Thanks for dinner. Thanks for helping me. Thanks for realizing where we were. And thanks for putting up with all the shit I’ve given you for the last few months.” His mouth had dropped open the second I voluntarily touched him, and by the end of my little impromptu speech he was blushing a little. But he still looked me straight in the eyes and smiled. “Anything for my lady of the titanium bathtubs and fantastic libraries.” At that, I blushed a little.
I darted a glance at Neil, who had a stunned look on his face. It seemed that he had finally clued into the flirting running between Patrick and me. But then a pleased smile came over his narrow face, and he started to help Patrick clear the table. I was deemed too weak to help, and I gladly just sat there while they straightened up enough that my daily maid wouldn’t run away in shock. Then the two of them helped me up to my bedroom, and would have tucked me in if I hadn’t raised enough of a fuss to convince them I wasn’t a complete invalid. Neil hugged me goodnight and kissed my cheek. Patrick simply kissed my hand, but the look he gave me was enough to render me a little light-headed. I lay in bed, pondering the boy for an hour after they left. My last thought before falling asleep was that it might finally be time to move on to the next step in life as long as Patrick and Neil were there to help me.
©2012 Erin Sharp