“And… check out the bathroom,” the guy says, and winks. “You’ll love this.”
“Why are you winking at me?” I fold my arms over my chest. “Throughout the whole apartment tour, you didn’t wink at me once.”
He blinks at me. “Uh, what? Look, Merc…”
“Mercury for you, buddy.” I lean sideways until I can see inside the bathroom without actually stepping inside, because this guy—by the name of JC, apparently—is acting weird about it. Then I straighten again, and it’s my turn to blink at him. “You serious?”
“What, man? It’s a bathtub. And it’s awesome. Ever tried tub sex?”
I roll my eyes and ignore the question, because yeah… no, I haven’t, and the images that spring to my mind...
“It’s not just a bathtub. It’s a clawfoot tub. And this whole apartment…” I glare at him, then across the hallway at the huge living room. “Check the rent you quoted to me, man. I bet you made a mistake, and I can’t afford it.”
“The rent is right, Merc…” He starts after me when I stride down the hallway, ready to get out of this high-end apartment before the guy tries to draw me into an agreement with fine print for a place I can’t pay for. “Mercury, wait!”
I need to find an affordable place. As in cheap. Sleeping in my car ain’t my style.
My car being a second-hand, beaten-up Mazda I spent every penny I had on and every spare minute fixing its misfiring engine.
Maybe I could live in it, anyway, for a while?
“Hey.” He comes after me as I yank the apartment door open. “Just wait a second. Jesus fucking Christ.”
“I’m a student, dude. Got a part-time job, and that’s it. No money to spend on… on walnut floors or whatever that wood is, and marble countertops.”
“The rent,” JC says patiently in the face of my little freak out, “is low because the apartment belongs to my family. It’s furnished, bills are included in the price. All you need to do is bring your clothes, and you’re set.” He chews on the inside of his cheek. “You came recommended from my buddy Simon. Not a troublemaker, he said. I just want a roommate I can…” He thrusts a hand through his dark hair, and a frustrated look crosses his face. “Shit.”
“You can… what?” I prompt, curious despite myself, and roll my stiff shoulders. Apartment-hunting is fucking exhausting. I’ve lost count of the number of places I visited this past week, and I’m still going to classes and working part-time in the afternoons. But he shakes his head and grunts under his breath. “The room is yours if you want it, at the price quoted. No hidden clauses, I swear.”
I lean against the door frame and cock my head at him. “I won’t have to do the dishes and mop the floors?”
He chuckles and ducks his head. “Nope.”
Simon is a customer at the garage I work part-time, and he did say that JC is a good guy.
But I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. I mean, look, the guy is tall, almost as tall as me, and obviously a gym rat, all bulging muscles. With his pretty face and the money backing him up, I bet he’s a hit with the chicks. He can’t be short on friends, either, friends with pockets as deep as his.
And I don’t trust rich kids. I see them walking around at college sometimes, bullying some girl or boy for shits and laughs, and it gets my hackles up. That they feel so entitled. So worthy of the world when the rest of us scrape at the bottom, hoping for a chance to breathe.
So I have a few hang-ups, growing up poor. So sue me.
He lifts his head and looks right back at me. We stare at each other, both of us waiting for something. I’m waiting for him to tell me what the catch is. He’s waiting… fuck knows for what.
Why does he want me as a roommate? Can’t be my sparkling personality. I’m not normally this short and grumpy with people, but I’m tired and suspicious of unexpectedly good deals. They usually come with a fucking nuclear payload that’ll blow in your face.
“Dude,” he finally says, “just take the fucking room.”
“You know nothing about me.”
He rocks back on his heels, jams his hands into his pockets. “Is that a yes?”
I draw a deep breath. After all, this is a great deal, and I need a place to crash ASAP, before my sister Gigi kicks me out of her apartment, the one she shares with her boyfriend, Jarett. If this rich kid wants me moving in with him for whatever mysterious reason, who am I to kick a gift horse in the mouth?
Can you kick a gift apartment in the mouth?
“Sure.” I nod, open the door. “Yes.”
Fingers crossed I haven’t made a big mistake. I hope he won’t turn out to be a douchebag, that he won’t throw me out when he realizes I’m not one of his asshole buddies, or when he finds out about my habit of playing my music loud, or even worse, the nightmares…
Let’s just say I hope he’s a damn heavy sleeper.
* * *
I’m kneeling on the carpet and stuffing books into my duffel bag when Gigi unlocks the door and walks into the apartment later that evening. Jarett is right behind her, and he’s whispering something in her ear as I look up, something that makes her blush and giggle prettily.
Hiding a smile, I push my Bose earphones back to hang around my neck and think how happy I am for her. For them both. Jarett’s a great guy, almost worthy of my sister. I mean, nobody’s fucking worthy of her, but Jarett might just prove to be, if he continues loving her the way he seems to be. It’s the way he looks at her, the way he looks after her, like he can’t breathe when she’s not around.
I rub a hand over my chest, not sure what the sting deep inside means. It’s bittersweet, and it confuses the hell out of me.
“Hey, little brother.” Gigi finally notices me and flashes me a bright smile, her cheeks reddening more. “Didn’t see you there. Whatcha doing on the floor?”
“Just hanging out with the carpet mites.” I lift an old and battered copy of The Man in the High Castle and put it inside the duffel, on top of the socks. “The mites say hi, by the way.”
Jarett snorts and helps Gigi out of her coat, then hangs it beside his on the hook by the door. “Gonna nuke some dinner. Unless you wanna order pizza?”
“I vote for pizza!” Gigi blows him a kiss and catches me shaking my head as I zip my duffel closed. “What?”
“Get a room, you two.”
“We got an apartment, dumbass.” She sticks her tongue out at me, though her gaze keeps returning to Jarett who’s scrolling through his phone contacts for the pizza place. “Suck it up, Mercurius.”
Grinning, I get to my feet and glance around at the place I’ve called home ever since Mom moved in with her new man, and I had to find my own place to live. It was supposed to be a temporary stay, but I ended up hogging Gigi’s living room for two months.
Yeah, it’s time to go. I haul the duffel onto the couch and drag my suitcase right beside it.
“Hey…” Gigi tears her gaze off her boyfriend and comes to stand beside me, her eyes wide. “You’re moving out? Really?”
“Yeah. I’ll gather all my stuff by tomorrow and be out of your hair.”
“Aw, Mercky. You know you can stay with us for as long as you like.”
I tug on a strand of her hair that’s come loose from her ponytail, then tuck it behind her ear. “Thanks, Ginger. I appreciate it. But it’s time I left you two in your love nest and went my own way.”
She sighs. “Found a good place?”
“Looks okay. The guy who owns it seems decent.”
“One day,” she pokes at my chest with her finger, “you’ll build your own love nest and stop making fun of me. One day a girl will come along and steal your heart, turn you into a love-struck fool.”
“Is this a prophecy?” I widen my eyes dramatically down at her. It’s always funny to find out how much taller than her I’ve grown over the years. She’s barely up to my chin these days. “Otherwise, I doubt that.”
“So, no girlfriend? Not even a love interest? Come on, Merc, you can tell your sister.”
“Nobody, I swear to God. I’m celibate as a monk.”
Right now, anyway. I’ve been with chicks. I’m not a fucking monk. But it never lasts. I don’t want it to. No girl has ever drawn me enough to wanna stick around.
Well, except for psycho girl. This girl I keep seeing on the college campus, who’s in my Calculus class, the one I can’t stop thinking about… Though nothing has happened with her, and nothing is likely to.
Girl just isn’t interested, Merc. Get a fucking clue.
“Merc.” She puts a hand on my arm, her expression turning concerned. “You’ll be okay? In that new place?”
“I’m not three. Don’t you worry about me, sis.”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
Yeah, I do. Not something I wanna discuss in front of Jarett. Something I don’t wanna discuss at all, period.
But Gigi isn’t one to easily give up. “When will you talk to me about it? Or if not to me, then to a psychologist, someone who can help—”
“Forget it, Gigi.” I grab my duffel, swing it over my shoulder. “I’m fine.”
I ignore her puppy eyes and turn toward Jarett. “Gotta go. Thank you both for putting me up for so long.”
“Not staying for pizza?” He frowns at me. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I just wanna settle in the new place, get a lay of the land, and talk to my new roommate, make sure he’s not a serial killer or something.”
“Merc!” Gigi looks horrified.
“Relax, sprout. Just kidding.”
“Did you just call her a sprout?” Jarett shakes his head and snickers.
Sometimes I think he’s still shocked at the level of trust and affection between Tati, our older sister, Gigi and me. His own brother was a selfish prick who only talked to him when he needed something, and otherwise stole his money and beat him up on a regular basis.
He was killed in a gang shoot-out. The brother, I mean. Jarett is still mourning him. I shouldn’t speak bad of the dead, but hey, he was an asshole. The shit he pulled on Jarett…
But what do I know about grief, right? About losing your family? I’ve been so damn lucky to have such a great mom and sisters, even if it turned out that my absent dad had been around all along, and that he’s a total asshole.
“Text me when you get there, okay?” Gigi follows me through the room and out to the elevator as I carry my luggage there. “Let me know everything’s all right?”
“I was joking about the serial killer bit, you know that, right?”
“Don’t be a smartass.” She slaps my arm. “Just do it.”
The elevator doors open, and I step inside, put my suitcase down. “I will. Stop worrying. Go jump your man’s bones and have fun. You can finally let go and make some noise.”
She laughs. “Get out.”
“Going. Night, sis.”
The doors close, and I’m off. New place, new roommate. A new chapter of my life. Hopefully it will turn out to be a good one.
* * *
‘Still alive,’ I text Gigi later, lying on top of my bed in a huge bedroom with a plush carpet and a big window with blue curtains. My huge-ass speakers are strategically placed by my bed, and I’m all set. ‘I locked my door, just in case.’
I get her reply seconds later. ‘Not funny, Merc. Good night.’
Smiling fondly, I throw the cell phone on the nightstand and roll onto my back, folding my arms behind my head. I think about putting on some music, but I don’t have the energy to find my latest playlist.
Also, I lied about locking my door. I only saw JC in passing when I got inside, but if he’s a murderer, he’s hiding it well.
So when the knock comes on my door, I merely turn my head and call out, “Come in.”
JC turns the handle and steps inside. “All settled in? Need help with anything?”
“Nah, I’m good.” A yawn catches me off-guard. “Sorry. Tired. It’s been a long-ass day.”
He nods, leans on the doorframe. “You said you’re studying and working, too?”
“That’s right. Part-time in a car workshop.”
He arches a brow. “A mechanic, huh?”
I sit up, suddenly wary all over again. “Look, if you’ve changed your mind about having me here—”
“No. Dude, I haven’t.” He grimaces, then scrubs a hand over his face. “Look, what I wanted to say earlier, when I showed you the place is that… it’s not easy to find someone you can trust to live with.”
“You barely know me. How can you trust me?” I frown at him.
“It’s a gut feeling. Don’t you trust your instincts about people?”
I think about psycho girl again and shake my head. “Not really.”
He looks down at his hands, clenches and unclenches them, turns them palms up as if trying to read something written there, something I can’t see. “I just think we’ll be okay living side by side, Mercury Watson. That’s all.”
Yeah, well, let’s hope he’s right on that account.
* * *
My new roomie and I rarely cross paths in the next few days. He’s already out when I get up—and I’m an early riser—then when I come home after classes and work, ready to faceplant into bed, he’s either out, or in his room, doing some thing or other.
Kind of a mystery. He’s a mystery, choosing me as his roommate, but as long as he keeps his end of the deal—low rent, no problems—then I’ve got nothing to complain about.
Today I’m running late for my afternoon Introduction to Statistics class, so I race through campus, my backpack thumping on my back. Truth is, I don’t even know why I’m taking these classes. What they are for. Haven’t settled on a career yet.
Matt, my brother-in-law and owner of Mancave, the garage I work part-time at, was asking me again yesterday if I decided what I wanna major in.
I have no clue. Maybe engineering?
No big deal, right? Not everyone can know their future from the start, even though my sisters seem to. Still, it fucks with my head. Here I am, sleepwalking through life, obsessing over a girl who’s always hot and cold with me, sleeping in an apartment with a guy I barely know, wondering if I’m a sum of nightmares and song lyrics, a sum of fears and doubts that I never dare show, and…
…come face to face with the object of my obsession.
She’s walking toward me, down the hallway leading to the classrooms, doing something on her phone.
Like always, my heart does a weird backflip at the sight of her, and despite my resolution to stop talking to her, thinking about her, I raise my hand in greeting and yank the headphones off, letting them hang around my neck. The music continues, tinny and distant.
“Hey… Sophie. What’s up?”
Like an idiot, goddammit. And it gets worse when she glances up and frowns, as if trying to place me, or remember if she’s ever met me before.
But then she says, “You’re Marty, right?”
“Merc.” My teeth clench. “We’re in Calculus together.”
“Oh right, right.” She waves a hand in the air, like it doesn’t matter—and it obviously doesn’t to her, get a fucking clue, Merc—but all I do is stare at her pretty face, all pale skin and long dark hair, those big hazel eyes, those soft, lush lips.
The fine curves of her body, barely hidden under her light blue dress and gray coat that’s cinched at the waist with a black belt.
She’s so sexy. Like always.
“Did you… want something?” She glances back at her phone, then back at me, a hint of impatience in her gaze. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have Calculus today.”
“You’re right. We don’t.” I lower my hand and give her a half-smile, trying to hide my disappointment.
What did I expect, huh? Looks like it’s an ‘Ignore Merc’ day. That’s most days with her, truth be told, and fuck if it doesn’t twist me up inside.
A girl who barely knows I exist.
A girl who isn’t attracted to me and won’t even talk to me.
On most days. That’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? Because sometimes she does notice me, and seems glad to see me, and all it does is breathe new life into my dying hope, just when I thought it was over.
Dangerous game. Playing with fire.
She walks by me, gaze glued to the damn phone, and I sigh and tell myself to stop. To fucking stop wanting her. That’s all this is. Lust. It’s time to move on. Plenty of girls around. Matt already told me that’s what I should do. He’s the only person I’ve told about Sophie. It’s been over a year now. The girl doesn’t see me, simple as that.
And if I see her way too much—in my good dreams, in my daytime fantasies—well, tough.
Time to let go.