Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Rivalries: Chapter Five, Part One

Notes: Here we go, more Rivalries at last! Someone's memory is about to get jogged...

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Five, Part One


***


Chapter Five

 

Five hours later, Roland was on his way to a juvenile detention center that Johnny was assured by Roland’s case worker Camille was a temporary stop only. “We’ll get him into a group home as fast as we can, and start looking at new families for fostering, but…” She’d shrugged a little helplessly. “A group home might be his best option while he’s still in the system. After his reaction to the Pattersons, it could be very hard to place him.”

“What happened here today wasn’t the result of some irrational reaction to the Pattersons,” Johnny argued. “It was the very rational reaction of a teenage boy who was being abused in his home.”

“But we can’t prove that the abuse took place,” Camille pointed out. “Most abuse that comes from those with mental knacks doesn’t manifest physically. Subsequently, without a mind healer to verify, any results of the abuse usually get chocked up to the child acting out.” Despite being so tired that Johnny had actually had to invite her to sit down to keep her feet from falling out beneath her, Camille had worked up the energy to sound enraged at that. “And you know how many mind healers are active in the United States? Five. Just five. Two of them work for private companies that primarily employ those with knacks, and three of them work for the government. I’ve made over a dozen requests for a mind healer since I started with the CPS, and I’ve never received a reply. Neither has my supervisor.”

“Shit.” Johnny rubbed the pad of his thumb over the bridge of his nose. “Well, the most important thing is that he’s out of the house. What do the Pattersons have to say about all this?”

“Mrs. Patterson has denied everything, of course. She says she never used her knack on him at all, much less to coerce him to do something he didn’t want to, and that he’d been reluctant to interact with her from the very beginning. Colonel Patterson is out of the country, and we have no guidance for when he’ll be back.”

“Ugh.” It made sense—the colonel was active military and had offensive knack capabilities, so there was no way they were going to leave him puttering around at home when he could be bringing entire towns to their knees somewhere overseas. Fucking military. Not that Johnny had escaped it himself, not entirely, but he at least was only engaged with the research division. His knack was too unpredictable to make him good for anything else.

So many of his classmates had gone into that grinder and never come back. He knew of three who had been killed, and one who had taking her own life after her term of service. Some had come back and adjusted, with varying success, back to civilian life. Most of them were still in. He figured he wouldn’t hear anything from any of them until they’d followed suit, and either died or come back to assimilate.

He’d probably never hear one way or the other about the ones who went into covert ops. Like… Focus, Gibilisco.

“Okay, I’ll help out however I can with school. I can definitely make sure all his assignments are sent along to the facility, or go through you, whatever’s easiest.”

“Thank you,” Camille said earnestly. “If you can email them to me, I’ll make sure he gets them.”

“Sure. Let me know when I can go visit him.”

She smiled. “He might not even be there that long. After all, the damage to the school seems to be mostly cosmetic.”

“Mostly.” Some of it was decidedly not cosmetic, and the last Johnny had seen Principal Cochrane, he’d been in a desperate conversation with the superintendent over the phone. “Hopefully we can all come back to school soon.”

Johnny’s hopes of that outcome were dashed ten minutes later, when he finally caught up with the principal a few yards out from the front of the high school. Principal Cochrane sat on a broken piece of masonry, his rumpled shirtsleeves unrolled and unbuttoned, his tie completely vanished at this point, looking a little like a poorly stuffed scarecrow as he stared at the destruction. Johnny stopped next to him and shoved his hands in his pockets. “What’s next, boss?”

“That’s still being worked out,” the principal said, staring at the shattered welcome sign like it was a loved one’s tombstone. “He’s sending an engineer to evaluate the structure tomorrow, but even if most of the damage is surface only, there’s a lot of it. We’re looking at weeks out of class, possibly more. We can try transitioning to online learning, but with the knacks…” His shoulder slumped further. “This is such a crucial time in the students’ development, in learning to control their abilities,” he muttered, almost like he was talking to himself. “Taking that kind of time off, it’s something they might not recover from. These kids need help learning how to use their knacks, Johnny, and they need it before something like this happens to another school or home.

“I know Roland had a good reason,” he went on, anticipating Johnny’s objection, “but it’s hard to sell a good reason to the superintendent when we’re dealing with potentially millions of dollars in damages here.”

Johnny swallowed. Jesus. “What else can we do?” he asked.

“Well…” Principal Cochrane blew out a steadying breath and put his hands on his hips. “There are a couple other options. There aren’t any other really convenient locations we could use as a school in this area—all the actual schools are at capacity, and none of them are rated to handle kids with knacks. There’s a rec center on the other side of town that’s being renovated that we might be able to move into, but it’s being renovated because of a nasty roach infestation coupled with lead paint, both of which are still problems. Option three…” He glanced at Johnny. “We could combine with Euryale for however long the repairs take.”

Wait, what? Johnny actually laughed. “You think they’d tolerate us inside their ‘academy?’ They don’t even tolerate us bringing our dueling club to their meets.”

“The superintendent is confident that he can override any concerns from the principal and PTA over there by citing dire circumstances, which really isn’t a stretch at the moment.” Principal Cochrane shrugged again. “I don’t like it, but in some ways it might be good for our kids. We’d bring our own teachers, of course, but we’d get access to some pretty sweet equipment. And I hear they’re getting a little less snooty of late—they’ve actually got one of our graduates teaching their knack class.”

“Really?” Johnny hadn’t heard anything about this.

“Oh, yeah. Apparently he’s only in to cover for the regular instructor’s maternity leave, but still, I wouldn’t have expected them to go for an ex-army ranger with a history of attitude problems.” He smiled nostalgically. “I don’t remember him really well, but it seems like he did pretty well for himself.”

“Who are we talking about, exactly?” Johnny asked.

“Oh, did I not say?” Principal Cochrane shook his head. “It’s Charlie Verlaine.”

Charlie Verlaine. Johnny blinked. Oh. My. God. Charlie VERLAINE?

What the hell was he about to get into?

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Excerpt: In Memoriam

Hey darlins!

I'm deep in my MFA residency right now and have about, oh, zero time to work on things other than getting to workshops/lectures and helping my honey run after the kidlet. So, today I'm posting an excerpt--a nice, long excerpt--from yesterday's release, In Memoriam. Thanks for hanging out with me, and I'll have new work for you next week :)

***




Chapter One

 

The last farmers’ markets of the year are always the best, in my opinion.

Autumn is the season of harvest, the gasping end of summer’s time of plenty, when everything living in the ground exerts itself with one final burst of fecundity before going gently into that dark, wintery sleep. The stalls of the local farmer’s market are filled with produce, fruits that are smaller than their early counterparts but all the sweeter for it and greens that have just barely avoided being touched with frost. It’s the season of preserves, jams and jellies, pickles and sauerkraut stacked in bright clean jars on orange and red tablecloths. It’s the season of keeping and consideration.

Even though I know I can get almost anything I want from the local supermarket, even though I could certainly grow it myself if I took the time to build a proper greenhouse here, I like the sense of scarcity. The culinary specificity, as it were.

One of the booths has bottles of last year’s ice wine on display. To make ice wine the grapes have to freeze on the vine, literally perish of the cold, before they’re harvested and pressed. It makes the wine uniquely sweet. I don’t normally drink, but something about the metaphor moves me. I buy a bottle and continue my ramble, enjoying the sights and scents of people and dogs—so many dogs, it seems like everyone in this town has one—pushed together in such a small space.

Boulder’s farmers’ market is hosted on a small stretch of street between a park and an art museum. Next to the art museum is an ornamental teahouse, and I’m tempted by it, a chance to escape the chill, but it’s not so bad out that I can’t browse a little longer.

There are stalls making artisanal pizzas baked on the spot, or empanadas, kebabs, or gyros, each one with vegetarian options. Children run from the bakeries to the florists to the puppy tied up in the shadow of a tree behind one of the vendors. People jostle for space in front of the booths, hands reaching for samples, voices raised in conversation, debate, and laughter. It’s nice. Lively. I like the energy of it, being in such a crowd.

Sometimes I feel like a battery, that I need to be part of a group to recharge properly. Being in a greenhouse gives me the same buzz, and without the headaches that can come when I linger with noisy people a little too long, but I haven’t put down roots here. I won’t. This is a break from my regular life, a stutter in the breath of responsibility that normally fills me and gives me purpose. I like it here, but I can’t maintain it. Have to enjoy it while I can.

I buy a kebab from one of the food vendors, meat so tender the first bite literally melts in my mouth, breaking to pieces under the gentle pressure of my tongue. It’s blissful, and I shut my eyes to savor the flavors more fully. Lamb with a Moroccan flair: I taste coriander and cumin, the heat of ginger and the sweet bite of cinnamon. I finish my bite and reach for another.

Only my wooden skewer is empty. I stare at it for a moment, then down at the dog sitting at my feet, its jaws wide open in a grin. It’s a pit bull, I think, or maybe a pit bull cross of some kind, charcoal gray with two white spots on either side of its muzzle. It looks very pleased with itself, and so it should, I reflect as I shake my head and throw my skewer in the nearby trash can.

“Well played.”

A tall man in black jeans and a dark brown Henley is striding toward us, his expression on the grim side. “I’m so sorry,” he says once he’s close enough to be heard over the crowd. His voice is a pleasant baritone, with the slightest hint of an accent I can’t quite place. “Bear got away from me. Please tell me he didn’t knock you down searching for a treat.”

“Nothing so dire.” I pat the dog—Bear—on the head, and his owner sighs.

“That’s a polite way of saying he did get something from you. If my dog ate your lunch, the least I can do is replace it.”

“It’s fine, really.”

“Please, I insist.”

I look at the man, look a little deeper for the first time. There’s a veneer of irritation over his face, but beneath that I get a sense of depth, of layers. Irritation, affection for the dog, pleasure at a new, impromptu meeting, and… I pull back. It’s none of my business.

“Well, if you insist.”

“I do.” He glances behind me at the kebab shop. “Although the line here has grown very long. We may as well sit down if we’re going to eat properly.”

I’d been thinking of stopping at the teahouse anyway, but… “Will they let you in with Bear?”

“Possibly. If not, then we’ll sit outside. There are heaters set up beside the tables.”

He holds his hand out to me, palm facing more up than sideways. When I take it I almost expect him to raise my knuckles to his lips. The thought makes me blush a little, and I hope he doesn’t see it.

“Felix Clymenus.”

“Lee Summers.”

We shake, and his lip curls slightly.

“A pleasure, Mr. Summers, despite our unorthodox meeting.”

It turns out the teahouse doesn’t let dogs inside, but there are plenty of places beneath the awnings outside. It’s about sixty degrees, really too warm for me to be wearing my long coat and scarf, but I get cold easily. I order chai, he gets a silver needle blend, and Bear gets a bowl of water, courtesy of the friendly waitress.

“And that will be all for you until we get home,” Felix tells Bear sternly. “Impudent beast.” The dog grins at him.

I laugh. “I don’t think he cares.”

“Oh, he doesn’t. He’s always hungry. It’s like I’m feeding a whole pack of dogs instead of one, but I’ve tried to teach him better manners than that. Unfortunately, his original owners spoiled him.”

“Did you get him from the Humane Society?”

Felix shakes his head. “No, he was a gift. He’s good company, even if he does try to eat me into the poor house.”

I look my companion over discreetly. He’s dressed casually, but the clothes are clearly high quality. His nails are manicured, his golden brown hair is cut fashionably long on top, short on the sides, and his dark eyes never glanced at price when he was picking what to eat. This, I think, is not someone who’s anywhere close to poverty. He catches my gaze, and I feel myself start to blush. After clearing my throat, I ask, “What do you do for work, Felix?”

“I’m a speleologist.”

I almost want to say “gesundheit.” “I’m not sure what that means,” I confess.

“You’re not alone. Speleology is the scientific study of caves.”

A word surfaces in my mind. “Like… spelunking.”

Felix nods appreciatively. “That sort of exploration is part of it. I personally am interested in the geology of caves, their morphology, if you will. There are others who specialize in the chemistry, the biology… all of it’s fascinating. The creatures you find in the deep places of the earth are utterly unique, and some are very beautiful.” He smiles and looks down into his plain white china cup for a moment. “I tend to ramble about my passions. Please stop me if you’re getting bored.”

“Not at all, I know how you feel.”

He tilts his head expectantly, and I go on.

“I’m a gardener, professionally. It’s the only work I could ever imagine doing.”

“Ah.” His smile is faint now, more self-deprecating. “I’m afraid I know nothing of gardening. I can’t even keep a cactus alive.”

“Cacti can be a challenge sometimes.” I know full well that not everyone senses plants the way I do, not everyone can work with them and always get good results. “And I know nothing about caving, obviously, so we’re even. I didn’t even know there were any caves in Colorado.”

“You’re not from here, then?” Felix asks, graciously ignoring the part about my ignorance.

“No. I’m originally from Los Angeles, but I spend most of my time abroad these days.”

“Your skills are in high demand, then.”

It isn’t a question, but I treat it like one anyway. “Mine and my mother’s. We run a company together. She taught me everything I know.”

“Ah.” He takes a sip of tea. “Is your mother here with you? Should I be buying lunch for three?”

His tone is playful, but his eyes aren’t. I can understand why. It’s probably a little off-putting to sit down with a grown man and wonder if his mother is going to come waltzing up at any moment.

“No,” I say with a chuckle. “She’s working in the Seychelles right now.” It isn’t my imagination when his shoulders relax ever so minutely.

Our food arrives a moment later, sparing us a potentially awkward moment. I ordered a green curry, not wanting to try and recreate the flavor of the lamb. It smells sweet and hot, and the pieces of braised beef are delicious. Felix eats pork bulgogi with a rich, smoky scent, and Bear is staring at both of us with pure avarice on his face. Felix notices.

“Keep an eye on your plate,” he advises me. “He moves softly for such a big dog.”

“Oh, I know.” I won’t be underestimating Bear again.

We dine and linger for another hour. The food and tea warm me up, and the conversation invigorates me. Felix is easy to talk to, charming without being obsequious and obviously passionate about his work. He tells me about the places he’s traveled to: New Zealand, Slovenia, France and Iceland, Scotland and China. I tell him about Barbados, Venezuela, Oman, and Dubai, a list of hot spots to follow his chillier locales.

“Colorado’s caves aren’t as spectacular as some,” he tells me as we wait for the check to come back. I volunteered to pay for myself, since this was way more expensive than the kebab Bear devoured, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “But a friend offered me his house for the winter, and I had to take him up on it. I’ve got articles to write anyhow, and the skiing here is excellent.”

“That’s something I’ve never done.” I can count the number of times I’ve been in snow on one hand.

“You should try it, if you’re going to be here once the season starts,” Felix encourages. “It’s a wonderful way to experience the mountains.”

“I’d be such a rank beginner, no one would have the patience to deal with me.” This is supposed to extinguish the alluring light in his eye, the welcoming curve of his mouth. Felix is good company, easy to talk to, and that’s rare. I like being part of a crowd, but I only like it when I can go unnoticed. I’m not the best at talking to people. Things always seem to get awkward so quickly. Animals are better. Plants are the best, but Felix is pleasant and interested, and I haven’t been uncomfortable with him even once, and that’s disconcerting. Maybe it’s because his dog introduced us.

“I’d be happy to teach you, in that case. I assure you, my patience knows no bounds.”

Somehow, I believe him. I can feel the truth of it, even if I refuse to sound out his depths. “Thank you,” I say, as genuinely as I know how. “But I don’t think I’ll stay much longer.”

“Ah.”

There’s disappointment in the sigh of his breath, which surprises me. How can he be disappointed when we barely know each other?

“Well, that’s unfortunate. But you’ll be in town for a few more days, surely?”

“Probably another week.”

“Good.” Felix pulls out his phone and swipes the screen a few times, then turns it over so I can see the number on it. “Please, feel free to contact me while you’re here. Even if you won’t be skiing, there are plenty of other things to do apart from farmers’ markets.”

“And this is the last one of them anyway,” I add as I input his number into my phone. I don’t offer mine back. Habit, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it.

He tilts his head slightly. “How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“That this is the last one.”

“Oh.” I knew it the way I knew when there was going to be an early frost, how the pine beetles had reached Boulder even though the pines themselves weren’t brown tipped and dying yet. But that sort of thing couldn’t be explained, not without making me sound crazy. “One of the vendors mentioned it.”

“Right, of course.”

He takes his phone back and slips it into his pocket, smiles at me as he stands up. The check is lying on the table, already signed. How did I miss that? Too busy staring at him, perhaps. He’s hard to look away from. His fingers are long and elegant, not like mine, rough from working in the dirt. I wonder briefly how our hands would feel joined, if his were as smooth as I thought, if they would grate in each other’s grasp or if they would complement each other. I’ve shaken his hand once. I should know this already. No, I need to stop thinking about it.

I stand, and he offers me his hand again, and when I take it this time I can’t help but consider the feel of it. Not as smooth as I’d imagined, sharp along the top of his palm but warm and dry. Welcoming. It’s hard to let go.

“Thank you for lunch.”

“Thank you for your company and for not holding Bear’s behavior against him.”

“He’s a sweet dog.”

“Yes.” Felix ruffles Bear’s ears, and I feel momentarily, unexpectedly jealous. “Have a good afternoon, Lee.”

“You too. You both.”

One more smile and then he turns, Bear trotting obediently next to him. My hands twitch, and I stuff them into my jacket pockets. I turn quickly to leave, forgetting my bottle of wine. Our waitress runs after me and gives it back before I’m out of sight.


Chapter Two

 

That should be the end of it. It was an interlude, something to sweeten a fading fall afternoon, but I’m still thinking about Felix that evening when I settle into the tiny cottage I’m renting for the week. There’s a park not two blocks from here, right along the creek, and I wonder if Felix and Bear ever go there, if they play fetch together, if they go running. Felix is fit, lean; he could be a runner.

God, I’m distracted. I pull out a set of plans and try to devote myself to root and leaf, to foundations and runoff and an ornamental fountain. It’s going to be a beautiful garden, belonging to a beautiful home. It should be enough to distract me, but tonight my mind won’t focus on anything else. It hurts, knowing how affected I am. It’s not a situation I’m really familiar with.

I’m the definition of introverted, and probably several more clinical things that my mother wouldn’t hear of me being called when I was younger. I’ve never pursued anyone romantically. I never had to. Physical urges don’t hit me very often, and while there’ve been the occasional lovers who had the fortitude to withstand my awkwardness long enough to become intimate with me, they never lasted.

Seasons turned, and my social life turned with them, flowering and wilting, tilled over and over again into my substrate until I lost the desire to keep planting seeds in that particular soil. I’m almost thirty, old enough to know my own mind. Being alone is easier. It lets me focus on my craft, focus on growing things and creating beauty in a world that suffers, at times, from a distinct lack of it. I can’t devote myself to a person. I’m not about people. The only one who understands is my mother, because she’s so similar. I can’t expect anyone else to make do with me.

But Felix didn’t seem like he was making do. He seemed… like he wanted to know me. Like he was disappointed at the prospect of our acquaintance ending with lunch. We hadn’t even done anything, just sat and talked, which in retrospect I never did. Perhaps… perhaps I’d call him after all.

I wait two days, because I’m nervous and because for the first day I waited for him to call me, before smacking my head as I lay down disappointed that night when I remembered I hadn’t given him my number. “Idiot,” I berate myself, turning my face into the pillow. It’s soft like down but hypoallergenic and completely cruelty free, the landlady assured me. Cruelty free. People can be cruel, but I don’t think Felix is.

I call him the next day after I’ve drunk three cups of coffee and am practically humming with energy. It’s nearly noon—not too early, but not so late I would be interrupting his lunch. Or maybe I will be. Maybe he’s working, writing away at an article, and I’m about to throw his flow completely off. My thumb hovers over the send button until another person in the crowded coffee shop bumps into me and the call is made inadvertently. I push my way outside, wanting some space if I’m going to talk to him. The phone rings. Again. Again. I’m going to be shifted to voice mail any moment. I just know it….

“This is Felix.”

I clear my throat. “Felix, hi, it’s me. Lee, I mean. Lee Summers.”

“Lee!”

He sounds delighted, and like a flash all the tension flows out of me and I feel a smile spring to my face.

“It’s good to hear from you,” Felix continues. “I wasn’t sure whether you’d call or not, but I’m glad you did.”

“So am I.” That much is true.

“Do you have any time to get together today?”

“I’d like that.” It’s disconcerting to me how much I’d like that.

“So would I. I’ve got a few errands to run downtown, but I’d be happy to meet you this afternoon. At the walking mall, perhaps? Do you need a ride, or have you rented a car?”

“I’m staying close to there. I can walk,” I tell him. “Just say when.”

“One thirty, then, in front of the courthouse. I’d be happy to buy you lunch again.”

I’ve already had a surprisingly good Cobb salad that the coffee house stocked. “I just ate.”

“Then I’ll have to find some other way of keeping your attention.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage it,” I say, and only after he chuckles do I realize that I’m probably coming off as flirty. I’m not entirely sure I intend to, but I don’t mind if he takes it that way.

“One-thirty. I’ll see you there.”

“With Bear?”

“With Bear,” he confirms.

We hang up, and I realize I’m still wearing a stupid smile on my face, but I can’t quite get rid of it either.

My coffee shop is at the far west end of the walking mall, so all I have to do is loiter my way down the street for another four blocks to get there. I stop in the bookstore, check out their wildlife and botany section—it’s a little surprising to see a botany section in a bookstore, but then this is a university town—and eventually end up in front of the courthouse at one fifteen. I’m surprised to see Felix and Bear already there, sitting on a low stone wall in front of the courthouse. Bear sees me first, and his tail starts wagging, which is gratifying since we’ve only met once.

Felix stands up to greet me. “I finished early,” he explains. “And possibly I was hurrying things along a bit.”

“Me too,” I say, and it doesn’t feel strange to confess my eagerness to him. It’s a shared weakness, and he said it first.

“Have you walked the mall before?” he asks as we start east, past T-shirt stores and art galleries.

“No, this is my first time down here.”

“Hopefully there will be some good performers out today. It’s a bit late in the year for many of them.”

I don’t quite understand what he means until we reach the next intersection, where a young man has attracted a crowd by juggling flaming torches while keeping up a running patter of jokes. We stop, and I stare, transfixed. I’ve never been to a circus, and while this might only be one man, it still makes me think this must be something like what you’d see there. He throws knives while riding a unicycle, then finishes the performance with the torches again, also while on the unicycle. It’s a good show, and we both give him a dollar before we move on.

It turns out to be a good day for buskers. The weather is still mild for November, and there are musicians, hula hoopers, living statues, and a woman in a Victorian costume who will come up with a poem for you on the spot for a few bucks. Felix declines the offer, but I decide to take her up on it, and after she asks me a few questions, she leaps in.

It’s not the best poem I’ve ever heard, but it’s the only one that’s ever been about me, so I don’t mind when she tries to rhyme gardener and farmer or uses growing and knowing twice.

“Gaia’s child, sweet and mild, may your flowers keep you wild,” she finishes with a little bow, and we both clap for her.

“It wasn’t bad,” Felix says as we walk away, “but someone like you deserves a sonnet at the very least, not simple free verses.”

“She was working under pressure,” I say, but I can feel myself blush a bit. “I liked it. And I don’t really think I’m a sonnet kind of person.”

“I don’t think it’s the role of the person who is the object of great poetry to decide whether or not they’re worthy.”

I don’t say anything. What can you say to something like that, ridiculous and breathtaking all at once? After a moment Felix speaks up.

“I’ve embarrassed you. I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you with dinner.”

“Dinner?” I frown faintly. “It’s too early for dinner.”

“It’s almost five,” he points out gently, and I’m astonished to realize that the sun has already disappeared over the mountains and my jacket actually feels necessary now.

Felix has deigned to add a padded vest to his ensemble today, but apart from that he’s wearing the same sort of thing as he had at our first meeting, a simple long-sleeved shirt and jeans. His hands are bare and must be cold, and I almost itch to take them between my own and warm them. It’s a strange feeling, and I refuse to give in to it.

“I should get back,” I say regretfully. “I’ve got some contracts to go through.”

“Then perhaps tomorrow night?” Felix suggests easily. “I’d love to cook for you.”

Say no, part of my mind says, the part that’s preoccupied with the future. You’re not staying here, this isn’t part of the plan, say no! But the rest of my mind, the part I’m used to neglecting, that longs for spontaneity and thoughtlessness and excitement, says, Say yes! Oh my God, he’s smart, he’s handsome, he cooks, and he wants to write poetry about you. And his ass in those jeans, are you kidding me? Say yes!

“All right.” My momentary uncertainty is completely vanquished by the grin on Felix’s face.

“Wonderful. I live a little ways up the canyon, a bit too far for walking. It would be best if I could pick you up. When will you be free?”

I think about everything I have to do tomorrow, which actually isn’t all that much, and say, “By six?”

“Perfect.”

When he takes my hand this time it isn’t in a handshake, and I shiver at how tender his touch is. Somehow his hand is warm.

“Thank you.”

“No, thank… I mean, the pleasure’s all mine.”

“I’m sure it won’t be,” Felix almost purrs. “May I take you home?”

I shake my head. I need some space. “I can walk. It’s fine. I’ll text you my address tomorrow.”

“Good.” We just stand there and look at each other for a long moment, unwilling to go. His thumb strokes absently over the backs of my knuckles, like he’s held my hand a thousand times before. There’s something soothing about the gentle motion, and I find myself longing to return it in some way, but then Bear is nosing between us, his head coming up under our hands so he can get some of the love. I laugh, a little disappointed but also decidedly relieved, and scratch behind his ears for a moment.

“He’s probably getting hungry too,” Felix says. “I should go. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, Lee.”

“So do I,” I breathe.

We part ways, finally, and as I walk away I tuck my hand into my pocket and rub the knuckles against the soft velvet liner of my jacket, almost as soft as his hand. It’s not as nice, though.