WHEN Charlie spared a moment to think about the lights going on and off in the second-floor corner apartment, and whoever was there, he pictured someone young and likely to fall for Grayson’s somewhat superficial charm, not that it was any of his business.
It didn’t matter to him who was living there to watch the place while Grayson was off on another trip or job to take pictures or whatever it was this time. Grayson was a tenant, a quiet one who paid his rent regularly each month, and Charlie had other things to worry about than whoever he glimpsed moving around up there early in the morning and late at night. There were the usual messages on his phone from his sisters: Ann and Katia calling to discuss their relationship problems, Missy concerned with her husband’s job and possible layoffs, all of them wondering if they ought to come over and talk in person.
The last thing he needed right now was his sisters in his apartment. Charlie had checks to deposit, a few nagging items on his to-do list for the complex, and all the work from his classes. There were heavy, marked exam booklets in his bag along with annotated books he’d promised another professor to read and add his own notes to. The bag itself swung around him as he put it on, hitting him hard in his hip and making him move even more slowly as he slipped out his front door.
The courtyard of the complex was as quiet as his apartment as he headed out, giving him more than enough time to contemplate his routine as he checked to make sure his door was locked and started to walk. Get up, go teach his Criminal Justice classes during the week, come home, talk to his family, then visit with them on weekends. He knew exactly what this week would be like, and the week after that, and frowned at the realization, though he had no time to really stop and think about it, not with the crazy Bay Area morning rush-hour commute in front of him and his stomach already tight with coffee and nerves.
He stuck his phone in his pocket without looking up, though he heard the vague echoes of exhalations and motion coming from not too far away, and he thought, again, of Grayson’s apartment-sitter. Whoever it was seemed to be an early riser, since Charlie had often glimpsed movement through the large sliding-glass doors leading to the balcony as he was leaving for work last week.
Grayson’s going-away party had been the same weekend that Charlie had last watched his niece Alicia, and even more than a week later, he could still see doll shoes and brushes in the dirt and flowers where he’d played dolls with her. He’d get them later—after work, maybe, if he could even bend down by then. He hadn’t worked out or stretched properly in days, and that along with the early morning hour was making his walk stiff, though he ignored the pain and hurried as best as he could.
He moved his shoulder bag to his other shoulder, where it wouldn’t smack into his hip, and then came to a sudden stop, his heart pounding at the rush of color and mess exploding at his feet.
He registered the noise a second later, a heavy crash of smashing pottery, loud enough to make him flinch and stumble. He blamed the anxiety that never really went away despite how the doctors had said it eventually would.
It wasn’t enough to make him panic. He was already noticing that it was just a fallen planter, not anything worse, probably just an accident. But he’d wrenched his hip with his awkward step back, and then throbbing heat where there hadn’t been pain a moment ago made him glare upward, following the path the planter must have taken up to the balcony, to the man standing on the balcony with one hand still out, either in warning or from where it had just been resting on a flower pot.
Grayson, Charlie thought distantly, didn’t keep plants on the ledge of his balcony.
With effort he moved his gaze from the man to the watering can in the man’s other hand.
“Watch what you’re doing!” he snapped without thinking, because in a few more moments all that unnecessary adrenaline would have him shaking. Then he focused on the man staring at him with a strange, transfixed expression on his face.
The man—the kid, because he was in his late twenties at most—suddenly moved, dropping the watering can to lean over the balcony ledge. His eyes sparkled down at Charlie, somehow not looking the least bit apologetic about knocking over the planter, which could have killed Charlie if Charlie had been a few moments faster.
“Oh my God! Are you all right?” Full lips formed the question, curving up in a smile that said clearly that he knew Charlie was fine, that he was overreacting to a narrow miss with a potted plant. Or maybe the man saw the look Charlie quickly swept over what else he could see of that face, that body. Grayson’s guest was lightly tan and fit, shirtless at that hour of the morning for reasons Charlie wasn’t going to let himself think about for long.
Charlie let a second go by, thoughts about how delayed that reaction had been, why the kid would be shirtless, why he’d lift the planter up to water the plant in it when it had to be heavy, all running through his mind before he shook his head.
“I’m fine.” He contradicted the action and instantly felt foolish. He’d jumped—probably looked stupid doing it too—and had managed to hurt himself. Embarrassment made his face heat, and he looked up, feeling more ridiculous by the minute with that staring back at him. A gorgeous little twinky kid who was starting to smile at him.
“I’m fine,” Charlie said again, the kind of statement that used to annoy his old therapist, and he narrowed his eyes when that made the kid beam at him. “No thanks to you,” he added, startled at the rough note in his voice. His heart was still racing. It had probably, truly been an accident, but he couldn’t quite make himself apologize for overreacting yet.
It took his breath away for a moment as he realized he was being rude. His grandmother would have smacked his hand. He didn’t get angry like this, yet he was standing here, shaking with a lingering echo of shock and feeling stupid, and there the man—the kid—was, beautiful and laughing down at him.
There were specks of dirt on his shoes. Charlie didn’t care about that, but he frowned and raised his head to consider the kid again. His new, temporary neighbor gestured carelessly—at what Charlie had no idea—and glowed in the sunlight. He was too handsome to be delicate, but he was hot and he knew it, and if Charlie had needed any explanation for why Grayson was letting the little twink stay in his place, probably rent-free, that would have been it right there.
“I don’t know what I was thinking.” The kid’s voice was smooth now that he was calmer—rich. But his not-quite apology only made Charlie wet his mouth and snap again.
“Not much, I’m sure.” Charlie scowled, pausing for a moment in amazement at himself, at his tone, then waving at the mess on the ground instead of staring at the line forming between the kid’s eyes. They were nice eyes, light in color. Charlie noticed himself looking and felt his anger slide into more embarrassment.
“Just….” He almost took the words back, but one more glance upward convinced him the kid wasn’t really worried about Charlie’s opinion of him. He was staring, his mouth finally closed. Charlie’s voice dropped in response, de-escalating the situation that his anxiety had escalated in the first place. “Just clean this up. There are a few elderly residents here, and I don’t want any of them to trip or get hurt.”
Not to mention Mrs. Brown’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who were always visiting. He tore his eyes away from the golden twink on Grayson’s balcony and started to move, painfully, around the mess of dirt and the sad-looking plant. He’d have to check to make sure all the pottery shards were swept up, too, when he got home tonight. It was one more thing on his to-do list, and he could already feel a twinge from the way he’d wrenched his hip just now.
“But that was…. You’re supposed to look up and….” For a moment that voice didn’t seem so smooth, and Charlie almost turned back around to see what was wrong. Then his phone buzzed in his pocket, and he knew without looking that it was one of his sisters. He really didn’t have time for this.
“But!” The kid called out again as Charlie walked through the gate and toward the street. “I knew I should have gone with the tomato plant!” The yell was punctuated with a forlorn sigh.
Whatever that meant, Charlie didn’t stay to find out or embarrass himself any further. He could still faintly hear the melodramatic complaints for another few steps. He walked through the black wrought iron gate that was part of the fence that surrounded the complex and noted that the wisteria tree at the front was getting overgrown. Then he deliberately turned his mind to work to calm himself before the drive.
The drive was distracting enough that Charlie forgot all about Grayson’s twink until he finally got home that night and saw that every single shard and speck and dirt from the fallen planter had been cleaned up. He stopped anyway, but when he looked up, the balcony was empty.
He felt his face heat to realize that he’d been expecting someone to be there, but then his phone rang, and he turned away to limp to his door to collapse inside his apartment. It wasn’t as though he’d been going to ask what the man had meant by “tomato plant.” The man probably wouldn’t even remember the encounter. Charlie knew he wasn’t very memorable, especially not to someone like that.
Charlie was boring and had a limp and no life to speak of, which he couldn’t help but think about as he sat down in his kitchen and rubbed at his hip while Katia went off in his ear about the budget cuts at Alicia’s school in San Francisco. Unlike Grayson, Charlie didn’t have a stream of somewhat shame-faced college students sneaking out of his apartment and across the courtyard in the mornings.
He frowned, because he didn’t actually want that. But it wasn’t as if what Charlie wanted had ever mattered, so he sighed.
It made Katia stop mid rant.
“Lito, are you okay?” There was real, deep concern in her voice, and Charlie sat up and took his hand off his hip, though she couldn’t see him. He made himself smile.
“I’m fine.” Her relief at that almost made his smile genuine. Charlie took a long breath and pushed away all thoughts of Grayson and his apartment and whoever was in it. “Now start over from the beginning.”