I’d never been good with anything out of the ordinary.
Unexplained happenings, mysteries, Twilight Zone stuff—I didn’t understand them, and I didn’t believe in them. That was the kind of man I was. “Sensible,” my mother described me with a certain pursing of her lips. “Pragmatic” had been the report from my glazed-eyed college tutor. “Boring,” snapped my last boyfriend Shawn, along with a few other choice phrases as, just two months ago, he swept melodramatically out of the apartment with my decent cashmere scarf and a half-dozen borrowed CDs he’d never bothered to return.
Today I found myself more thoughtful than usual. I balanced my briefcase on the kitchen table as I carefully packed it with the notes I needed for the emergency early morning meeting at work. The memory of Shawn was disconcerting. He hadn’t welcomed my attempt to talk through and maybe address what he found so lacking in our relationship that he had to go out and pick up one of the dancers at the local bar. Well, three actually. And that was just that month. Needless to say, he’d done the sweeping out before I’d done the talking through. I’d never liked scenes at the best of times, but when emotions were involved…well, I reckoned it was best to keep them in check in future. At least for me. Like I always said, I’d never managed the out-of-the-ordinary stuff with particular success. Stuff like jealousy and hurt and disloyalty and… passion.
I leaned over one of the chairs to pick up my scarf—a new one, bought in resignation when Shawn never came back, let alone the old scarf—but when I turned back, the papers were out of the briefcase. After I’d put them in. I was sure I had! How could I forget having creased the memo to Head Office in my eagerness to make up the time I’d already lost when the alarm didn’t go off? Which it had never done before; it was the most reliable model on the market. Neither had the kettle ever leaked like that, flooding the whole kitchen counter when I tried to make my usual morning coffee. It had taken me a precious half hour to mop it all up. Nor had my car keys ever gotten lost before, this time somehow slipping off the hook in the lobby and getting lost under the stove, where I eventually found them. Two rooms away.
Things were rather odd this morning.
It was stress because of the meeting, I was sure. I glanced at my watch. I was going to have to hurry to the station; I couldn’t remember ever being this late. How could so many things go wrong on the very morning it was all meant to go right? Mr. Evans had more or less promised me I could assist on this project. And then he’d hinted at much more, like promotion beyond junior clerk and a pay raise and access to the third-floor Payables tea trolley. I’d heard there were chocolate biscuits on Tuesdays.
But whatever the oddness, there was no reason to be thinking of things “out of the ordinary.” No reason at all. Things were tricky today, indeed, but for perfectly natural reasons. I’d slept badly because of that strange whistle in the boiler pipes I’d never heard before. Plus I was always slightly tense before my first caffeine of the morning and the reminder of Shawn’s infidelity hadn’t helped to calm my mood. I jammed the briefcase under my arm, walked briskly down the hallway, and opened my front door.
Well, tried to.
I had to put down the briefcase again and use both hands on the latch. It’d never stuck before. The weather hadn’t been particularly humid, and the door had opened and shut perfectly normally the previous night when I came home after another long day at the office. I muttered something that would have been a loud curse if my mother hadn’t taught me to keep such things always under my breath, and shoved extra hard.
It burst open, springing outward, my body following its trajectory and my foot catching the edge of my briefcase, tilting me off balance. I was vaguely aware of someone passing in the corridor, a blur of long legs, brightly colored clothing, and something furry at the heels. I exclaimed aloud and flung my hand out instinctively, afraid of falling. I still fell. And not only that, I crashed straight into the tall, brightly colored someone and brought him down with me. A very startled young man and I tumbled together, limbs flailing, something hot and wet spilling down the front of my shirt and probably his as well, my mouth open in horror, my left foot wrenching out of my shoe and my shoulder twisting painfully as I tried to minimize the collision.
And then we both landed on the hallway floor with a heavy thud and matching groans.
The vague thoughts I’d had this morning about unusual and unfamiliar events happening to me resurfaced with a rather smug “told you so.” I’d never known feelings like it.
But then, sitting on my ass on the hallway mat and staring into the wet brown eyes of one of the most disheveled terriers I’d ever seen, I had to admit I’d never heard a dog chuckle, either.
The young man followed me into the kitchen, dabbing ineffectually at his orange T-shirt. The least I could do was to offer to help him clean up after spilling his tall, hot, extra-sugared coffee all over the front of our clothes. I peered at the T-shirt, trying to make out the coffee stains in between the swirls of neon and graffiti-style lettering. “I have a clean shirt you can borrow if you’re on your way to work.” I wasn’t sure if I had anything that’d fit him. On so many levels.
His head jerked up. “Huh?” I realized I’d seen him before, outside the building, laughing with friends who all had bright-colored shirts and caps and ill-cut hair. Not that it mattered, of course—the hairstyles, the clothing. In fact, I admired their carefree attitude. He’d looked outgoing, fun-loving… Shawn would have said “cute” but the casual word always made me wince.
“A shirt,” I repeated. And just stared.
He had quite astonishing blue eyes, even though his nose looked a little bent and his skin very freckled, obviously from potentially unhealthy exposure to the sun. His mouth was wide for his thin face, but the lips were full and moistened, maybe from the spilled coffee, maybe from the way his tongue flickered out and ran itself along the lower rim….
“No problem.” When his mouth smiled, his eyes crinkled up at the corners. “I’m only up the corridor on the north side of the building. I’ll get this off and go change in a minute.” In one smooth, swift movement, he peeled the damp T-shirt up and over his head. There was a flash of strong, fluid muscle, dark hair under his armpits. Bare torso. It seemed the potentially unhealthy sun exposure had lightly tanned all his skin except for a slim band of whiter skin just hinted at around the waist of his jeans. I found I suddenly needed to cough.
“Flynn,” he said. He stuck out his hand. “That’s me. Sorry for the crash, you know?”
What did I know? I continued to stare at him, though my mother would have rolled her eyes at my rudeness. My hand returned the shake instinctively. His palm was warm and firm. The coffee seemed to have made my face and neck hot as well as my chest. “I think I’m the one should be apologizing.”
He shook his head. His hair was quite long, the curls bouncing on his shoulders when he moved like that. “Nah. Damned pooch got under my feet. He’s been doing that all morning.” He looked down at the hairy bundle that also seemed to have made its way into my kitchen. “Charles? What’s up with you, buddy?”