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    RJAdept
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Learning How to Live - 6. Mist

“Woooah!” The crowd of people clustered around the pair men standing before an arcade machine cheered and whooped at each other; the press of hands clapped the back or ribbed either man as the loser vacated his seat and a new challenger cycled into the seat. Roan watched the commotion idly from his perch in the booth on the raised platform of the restaurant overlooking the game room floor.

The developers had picked the place, Game-On!, for their evening outing. The place was a half-bar, half-arcade, and still somehow tavern was an odd fixture of nostalgic escape for gamers and adults; all things competitive seemed to have a spot somewhere in the place. The restaurant was constructed in what had been an old three story office building before the renovation had gutted it; it was arranged into three levels now, the ground floor was a game area containing everything from a sizable arcade, to billiards, to skeeball, to darts and ax throwing; the second floor was built around the perimeter of the structure as a walkway with tiered booths and tables bounded by railing and overlooking the game room as if it were an arena. The top floor was a more traditional sports bar and tavern with transparent floor tiles evenly spaced around the floor; the effect was that you could see that a television displayed a baseball game in the tavern from the floor of the gaming area even if you couldn’t read the score. A wide spiral staircase was set into two corners of the building and a pair of elevators were located in the center of the building to tie it all together.

He thought the overall effect of the place was something between an amusement park and a casino - an interesting place but not exactly his cup of tea. He looked up as Xie walked up to the booth with a pair of comically large martini glasses in her hands.

“The food is on its way. What did I miss?” She slid into the booth on the bench opposite him and lined the first of glasses by the window on the exterior wall; it was filled with a lightly brown clear liquid and had a green sword pinned three cocktail olives that were crowned with olives cut to look like helmets of various styles leaning in it - Martini, clean. Xie lowered her head to sip from the glass she kept in front of her by the edge of the booth; the translucent contents of which had a yellow hue and there was a curl of lemon peel skewered in a helix around an impossibly bright red maraschino cherry resting against the edge. Lemon cosmopolitan, he guessed. Xie looked down at the cluster of men by the arcade game he’d been watching.

“Simon has wiped the floor with half of the development team using what looks like an Asian schoolgirl with pigtails.” He smirked at her.

She rolled her eyes and laughed. “That’s racist!” He chuckled and shrugged.

“I didn’t make the game and I certainly didn’t make Simon choose her.”

“I’m going to have to give him a piece of my mind later.”

“Is it racist since he’s Chinese too?” He raised an eyebrow and looked around the mug of his cider as he took a drink.

“Eh, probably not but I can still give him a hard time for the fun of it.” She brushed her bangs back from her face as she dipped low for another sip of her drink.
He smirked. “Somehow I think you are already having too much fun tonight.” She smiled innocently to herself and shrugged. He laughed and shook his head. “So, should I ask about your friend or, given that her drink is warming, I should just brace myself to jump from this balcony momentarily?”

She kicked his shin under the table playfully. “Oh, don’t be like that; just be yourself! She’s already here but she’s throwing darts with Josh right now.” He nodded and flagged down the waitress as she walked in their direction.

“How can I help you?”

“May I order a specialty drink through you?” He smiled at her sheepishly and put his hands together above the table. The woman grabbed a pad that hung from the back of her apron against her waist and the pen from the collar of her shirt before looking back up at him and nodding: from the corner of his eye he saw Xie subtly raise an eyebrow at him and he heard as she clucked her tongue; the corner of his mouth crept a little higher as he held the waitress’ gaze. “I’d like a Manhattan with Madeira instead of Vermouth and one part Gran Gala.”

“Single or House size?”

“House with the stem on the cherry please.” The woman raised her eyebrows and nodded curtly.

“Anything else?”

“Nope, that’s great, thank you.” She flashed a smile at him and slid her pen back into the neck of her shirt before turning and heading to the staircase behind Xie. He looked back across the table to see the woman was giving him a fully incredulous look now. “What?” She rolled her eyes and chuckled to herself.

“Nothing. How did your meeting with marketing go?” He smirked at her.

“As if you didn’t know even before I got back to our department…” The admins and secretaries of the company were notoriously fast at passing intel about the company among themselves. She shrugged and looked down at the match between Simon and some other patron.

“It’s good to be connected,” She looked back at him from the corner of her eye. “better to be thorough.” He rolled his eyes and smiled.

“I don’t think my report will stop a contract from being signed but Matt will know he has some serious framing and posturing to do - With the client and with our CFO.” He finished his cider off and sighed to himself as he turned to watch the arcade match as well.

“As long as it was worth it…” Her voice trailed off dubiously and he shrugged.

“It’s not about whether or not it is worth it; it’s just about using the knobs I have to make what difference I can.” He rubbed his hands together to warm them up after holding the chilled mug. “When I no longer believe the difference is worth it, I’ll be on my way.” She nodded sagely.

They watched a few of the rounds on the big screen above the arcade station below as the animated characters punched, kicked, and grabbed with bolts of electricity or flashes or flared coursing along their bodies at points; he wasn’t much of a gamer but, as far as he could tell, Simon was some kind of gaming oracle the way that people just kept reserving the seat opposite him to have a chance to be the next challenger. He was just starting against a new patron, his schoolgirl versus a glowing armored ninja of some sort, when he noticed the waitress walking from the staircase. He turned back to the table in his seat and slid his empty mug out of the way as she approached; as he watched, her tray cleared his line of vision, and a woman’s head appeared at the top of the stairs from the lower floor.

Something about the sway of the woman’s body as she climbed the stairs drew his attention. She wore a form fitting dress that appeared to be in some Asian style, simple and clean, yet drawing the eye up from her heels, along the line of her long legs, around her hips, across to the hollow of her throat which was framed by the oval shaped opening carved out by the raised straight collar of the gown. The woman’s Asian features, smooth light tanned skin, and a lithe figure drew the eyes of many of the patrons as the event rhythm of her languid gate carried her across the floor. She walked a good distance behind the waitress, toward where he and Xie were sitting; her hair was pulled back on her head and he could make out a pair of light blue earrings, sparkling snowflakes falling about her ears, that swayed with her every step.

“Here you are.” The waitress smoothly delivered his fluted tumbler to the table before him and cleared his empty mug. “I’ll take that back with me. Can I get you anything else?” She smirked and raised an appreciative eyebrow as she met his gaze.

He grinned at her. “No, thank you for this.” She swept away and passed behind him. He lifted his glance just as the other woman glided to a stop behind Xie’s shoulder; he slid from the booth and smiled as he stood and waved his arm toward Xie. “Hello, I believe the woman you are looking for is here.”

The woman inclined her head and looked at him for a measured moment. He held her gaze and noticed how the couple of inches of her heels raised her a couple of inches such that she was about his height. Her forehead subtly rippled before a small half smile crossed her face. “You must be Roan.” She extended her hand to him, palm faced down; he reached and held it delicately pinched in his hand between his thumb and his fingers curled beneath it.

“That I am. To whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?” She smirked. “Bai Xiaping. Please call me Ping.” He nodded and bowed slightly over her hand before releasing it.

“Ping, then. A pleasure to meet you.” He smirked at Xie who was studiously watching him with her lips perched on the edge of her glass as though to hide the fact. The worst disguise in the history of covert surveillance, he thought as he raised an eyebrow. “I’d happily get you to your drink if a certain lady would make room for such an introduction.”

“Oh!” Xie slipped from the booth to stand. She turned and bent to lightly hug and greet her friend along with some exchange of sounds. “所以?他什么时候注意到你的?” “在我离开楼梯之前.” “我就知道!”

He just stood glancing between the two of them; it was literally Chinese to him. The two of them laughed and looked at him. Then Ping swept her hand down the back of her legs and slid into the booth; even in heels, he thought the movement looked more like the flow of oil than the shifting of a body across a bench. He glanced back at Xie who continued to stand watching him with a smile across her face until he gestured for her to sit and followed suit.

“So I heard you were playing darts, how did the match go?” He settled his new drink off to his left as he looked up at Ping.

“Mmm, I managed to win a few times.” The woman gave a small smile and tilted her head in a way he found curious.

“Oh, what was the score? I may have to give Josh a hard time about it later.”

“Eleven to zero.” Her expression never changed.

He lifted his drink along with his eyebrows in a silent toast before sipping from the glass. “I will definitely have to give him a hard time. You are a professional then?”

She laughed with an expression that seemed to reach all of her being and she touched her finger to the rim of her glass. “I am no professional but I enjoy a good game as much as the next person. Do you play?”

“No, ma’am. Beyond a little pool, chess, and a card game or two, I don’t have a lot of experience with such games.” His shoulders tipped a bit apologetically and her mouth moved into a crooked grin.

“What do you do for fun with your friends then?” Xie coughed and turned pointedly to look down to the arcade floor; they both glanced at her and chuckled.

“I suppose I spend most of my free time relaxing in nature or talking with friends. I am open to a lot but I usually settle back to the things I know.”

“Not a terrible way to be,” She lifted her glass and regarded the liquid in what would make a respectable birdbath as she deftly brought it to her parted lips and allowed a small amount of the cocktail to flow into her mouth before holding it aloft by the window and returning her gaze to meet his own. She was definitely comfortable in her every movement, he thought. “however, it doesn’t give you many ways to enjoy office parties and strangers, no?”

He felt his ears twitch a bit as he smirked and tipped his head to the side a bit in agreement. “I certainly won’t argue with you there.” Xie tried to stifle some dramatic response and choked. He touched his finger to the rim of his drink. “So how do you two know each other?” Xie glared at him as she tried to recover; Ping’s face danced as she suppressed a laugh.

“We met in university. We started in computer science courses together.” He raised his eyebrows; he had no idea that Xie had a background in computer science.

“What university did you attend? I apologize though in advance as I am not very familiar with international schools.” She smiled and nodded her head a bit.

“It is called Tsinghua University. It is a very well respected institution in China and the world I think.” He nodded as she continued, “After our first year, my classes took me into engineering for computers and Xie stayed in computer science - I think she just liked the math, maybe; she would always complain about the programming assignments.” He smirked as Xie made to look away pointedly.

“And is that what you do now? Are you a computer engineer?” She nodded. “What does that really look like? What is your work really like?” He glanced up to see the waitress approaching with their order. “Ah, hold that thought.” He said.

The pacing of the conversation was broken quite a bit as they each dug into their meals. The women took turns offering bits of their dishes to one another while he laughed with or teased them. At least he’d gotten fish and chips so the conversation didn’t completely stop. Over the course of their meal, the two women grilled him on his hobbies, his family, and even a few forays into his past relationships. For his part, he kept up with the banter and jokes along with learning a little more about both women and how they’d come to live in the states.

“I’m going to go check on the boys. Can I get either of you anything?” Xie stood at the edge of their booth. He looked over at Ping.

“No, thank you. I think we will manage.” Xie flashed him a smile and gifted a conspiratorial smirk to Ping. He looked at his fingers for a moment as the woman beat a hasty retreat. “Can I interest you in a friendly game of pool?” He smiled at Ping.

“Mmm, it’s not really my game but it sounds like it could be fun.” He smirked.

“I’m happy to teach you whatever I can; I’m no pro at it myself.” She smiled as he slid from the booth and offered her his hand. She accepted it and slid free from her side.

“I’ll remember to take you up on that.” He cocked his head to the side and gestured for her to lead the way back to the staircase to the gaming floor.

It was their third round when he watched as the two drifted across the corner and banked itself a few inches behind the eight ball by the far corner pocket on the side he was standing on, midway down the rail. He felt a little flush of guilt; that was a tough shot to land; she’d have to bank the two with only a millimeter or three for play into the corner farthest from him and she’d have to manage it without bumping the eight ball all the while keeping the cue in position to make the eight. If he was honest, he thought he might be able to make that sequence with some luck but it wasn’t a sure thing. Now he was leaving Ping to make an impossible shot but he wanted her to enjoy herself.

He looked up at her as she rounded the corner of the table and approached where he was standing; He shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “Err...sorry about that; it’s a lousy leave.” He held up his hands. “Tell you what, what if we give you a one shot handicap since I touched your ball.” The woman stopped a few steps from him and appraised him for a moment. She pursed her lips.

“I have a different thought.” She planted the heel of her cue on the floor between her feet and squared her hips. “Let’s make a little wager.” She let her subtle smile mask whatever her reaction to his look of surprise.

He chuckled. “What? I don’t understand. I don’t think you want to wager on that shot; it’s a really tough one.”

She regarded the table from the corner of her eye for a moment before looking back at him. “The winner gets to break for the rest of the night and the loser has to buy drinks.” She leaned on the cue; her smile just to the left of the tip as she looked at him evenly. “Oh, and the loser has to walk the winner to their car.”

He smiled at her, confused. “Are you sure you want to do this?” He wasn’t too worried; drinks in this place were anything but cheap but it wasn’t like he was going to drink a hole in the woman’s wallet. She shifted her hips and rested her butt against the edge of the table before she extended her hand to him.

“Deal?” He cocked his head to the side before reaching out to take her hand lightly in a shake.
“Deal.” Her eyebrow raised ever so slightly as her smile deepened and she nodded. She released his hand and lifted his cue from him by the tip. He looked askance of her as she handed him hers.

“I need a little heft for this one.” She planted his cue on the floor beside her and lifted her butt onto the edge of the table. She glanced over her shoulder at the position of the balls. Her back was square to the table surface and the balls were located a bit to her left, behind and under her buttocks. She turned back to meet his gaze as she crossed her legs and lifted the cue in her right hand, twirling it to pass it underhand behind her back; she caught the tip in her left without breaking his gaze. He raised his eyebrows as she leaned back slowly until her left hand met the cloth of the table. He really wanted to move to have a better view of her shot but he waited to see how this performance would end.

She rolled her head back and glanced down at the table as her arm took a couple of small measuring strokes behind her back. Her shoulder tensed and he heard the clack of a ball before he saw the two bounce up onto the rim of the felt. He watched, stunned as the two rolled its way down the edge of the rim only brushing the eight ever so gently away from the wall as it passed. A few inches shy of the pocket, the ball dropped back onto the table and it rolled into the pocket with a quiet click against the other balls present in the net. He swallowed as he looked back up at her; she was watching him again. Her shoulder tensed more gently this time and he saw the eight ball roll slowly along the wall until it fell into the same pocket, couched atop the two.

She slid from the table and pursed her lips into a smile as she released the cue back to her right and twirled it vertical again. “I’ll take a martini, very dirty, with a twist of lemon.” She walked past him, brushing his shoulder on the way to the end of the table. “Oh, and I’m keeping this.” He felt the end of his forfeited cue touch his butt as he stood there.

Roan looked at the empty table and hugged his sides as he looked up to the ceiling and laughed so hard he couldn’t breathe. It took him several moments to recover from his laughing; when he turned to face her where she stood at the head of the table his sides hurt. Her smile was wide and her eyes danced as she winked at him. “Rack ‘em.” He nodded and obliged, waving down a waitress as she passed to place their order.

It was probably an hour and a half later as they stood on opposite sides of the table. He was leaned over lining up his next shot; she was leaning on his former cue, watching him with an amused smile. “You know you’re going to miss this one right?” He glanced up.

“Oh? Why is that?” He lined up the nine through the cue ball and pictured the line from the wall to the corner pocket.

“You’re playing with the stem.” He frowned and stopped pushing the candied cherry stem around with his tongue in his mouth; he bit down on it to hold it still as he looked up at her in earnest interest now.

“Huh?”

“You play with the stems when you’re thinking.” She stood a step back from the table with the cue on the floor and leaned out to her left; she smiled at him patiently. “It stops you from focusing on the table.”

“Oh, really?” She shrugged simply.

“Would you like me to prove it to you?” He smiled and laughed; this woman loved to show off.

“Sure, why not.” He moved to stand.

“No-no, stay in position.” She walked over and drew a pair of brackets around first the cue ball and then the nine in chalk before standing back. “Go ahead and shoot like you were going to.”

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath to clear his mind. He opened them and let his tongue resume twirling the stem in his mouth as he pictured how the ball would roll. He let his arm swing forward and follow through as the cue kissed the nine sending it into the wall and back across the table toward the corner pocket. ...only to skim the edge of the pocket and rest just to the left of the opening. He dropped his head on the table.

“See?” He stood up, passed the pool cue between his elbows and stretched backwards, curling his spine against and around the rod resting just above his hips. He let out his breath as he eased back into a standing position and looked at her. She had one eye squeezed shut and the other eyebrow raised as far up as it would go. “Which one of us is flirting here?”

He laughed. “Sorry, force of habit. I don’t understand what you mean about the stem.”

“Force of habit? You are a go-go dancer?” She laughed and held her stomach with one hand. He shrugged. “You pay too much attention to your mouth when you do that. You can see your eyes aren’t focused; it’s like you are putting the game into your mind rather than bringing your mind to the table.” He frowned and she walked over to the table. He watched as she re-positioned the nine and the cue to where her marks were, brushing them clear as she did so. She stood and held out her hand, palm up to him. “Give it to me.” He blushed.

“What? No, I can put it in-” He backed away with his hands up.

“Come on, give it here.” She curled her fingers at him impatiently. He looked off to the left at the floor and reached into his mouth to remove the well chewed stem and hold it out before him; he felt her lift it from his fingers. He rubbed the back of his neck to quell the heat he could feel there. After a moment of silence, he looked back up at her. She was still standing there, looking over the chewed stem she was still holding in her fingers, a playful, incredulous look plastered across her features. She shifted her weight to her other foot and cocked her head to the side as she turned the stem to display the pair of knots he’d left it tied in.

“What?? Don’t judge me.” She laughed and dropped the thing into her empty glass on the side table behind her. She raised an eyebrow and looked down her nose at him with her half-smile on her lips again.

“I don’t know what to make of your habits…”

He chuckled. “My mother doesn’t either.”

“Aaanyway, back to the table. Take the exact same shot you were just making. Let me know before you actually hit the cue ball.” He bent back over the table and lined up to take the shot again. He closed his eyes and tried to picture the table in his mind. “No, stop.” He looked up with his eyes. She placed a pearl lacquered, ever so slightly pointed fingernail on the felt next to the nine ball. “Focus your eyes on the table. It’s hard to make the image in your head stay exactly like the real table. Just let your eyes focus along the path each of the balls need to take.”

He frowned for a moment trying to picture what she was saying. He shrugged and focused on the cue ball and let his vision relax until her nail was what was in focus. She traced her finger around the front of the nine and then let it drift back until it touched the wall of the table behind it. “Good, take the shot.” She lifted her finger from the table and he stroked the cue until it made contact with the cue ball. He stood up to watch as the nine landed home cleanly in the pocket. “And to think, I was so fooled I thought I would be teaching you something.” He smirked.

“Oh, I’ve learned a lot." She walked around to the head of the table, smiling in profile. "What do you say we play a last set, best three out of five, loser gets to tell Xie we’re leaving?” He smiled and nodded as she waved down the waitress he’d been giving their orders to all night. “Hey, can we get another round and the tab. Oh, and can you see if we can get a bunch of cherries with the stem in the faux-hattan?” He laughed as much from the moniker his drink selection had earned him as from her blatantly handicapping him like she needed an advantage.


---
Jared crouched in the aisle along the back of the little stationery store. It was after his shift and he was still wearing a pair of coveralls from the shop. Thankfully they are clean tonight. He took in the wall of notebooks and writing books before him. There seemed to be a couple for just about every fad, fashion, or even color, far more than he’d expected there to be when he came in here. He picked up a heavy leather bound book with wrought iron framing and clasp. He twisted his mouth incredulously - Who the hell wanted to carry around something this heavy?? He slid it back to its niche and slid his hands across the suede buckskin leather of the adjacent journal. How does one go about picking out a journal? Still uncomfortable with the idea, he was hoping that something would just stand out to him as though ‘this is it’. He let his fingers trail across the different styles and textures on display and contemplated how to make this work.

“Of course, there are evil people in the world. There are people out there that have or will try to hurt me - They have done it before.” He’d raised his voice to make a point of how true this was. Tim had watched him and nodded that he’d heard as his hand continued to take notes while they had talked in his office the evening before he’d come in to find a journal.

“How can you tell the people who hurt you by accident or without knowing from the ones who mean you harm?” The man hadn’t laughed or given any indication of how he’d felt about Jared’s conviction and he’d looked at the floor to temper the urgency he’d felt to prove or defend his point. He had to protect himself from people; he couldn’t just let them hurt or take from him.

“I’m not going to just let them steal from me! What am I supposed to do, just let it happen? Fuck that! It isn’t right.” He gripped his hands together and set his jaw as he looked back up at the man’s glasses. Tim set his pen down on his pad and moved his hand to the armrest of the canvas upholstery of the chair he occupied; he cocked his head a little.

“I understand and you are right. You have every right to protect yourself; to stand up for yourself. Could you tell me about how people have stolen from you?” Jared looked at his hands and rubbed his fist in his other hand; he could hear the rush of blood in his ears and he swallowed against the feeling of tightness in his throat. He shook his head slowly. “Jared?” He didn’t look up. “What do you feel right now? Tell me about it.” He closed his eyes and shook his head.

He held his mind as still as he could to stop the images that came unbidden to his mind. It was like the more he tried to shut it out, the more images seemed to try to crowd into the darkness behind his eyes. He opened his eyes as the feeling of tightness in his chest reached a point where he was struggling to pull in enough air. He gasped as he forced himself to breath in as deeply as he could.

“Jared? It’s OK. You don’t have to; you don’t have to talk about it if it is too much.” He swallowed audibly and winced at the sounds of it in his ears.

“I,” He looked up at the man but found his gaze glanced off to the floor to his right; he frowned at himself but couldn’t do more than return his eyes to between his feet. “I-I can’t. I’m sorry, I just can’t.” He cracked his knuckles and stared hard at the floor, wishing he could retreat to the darkness behind his eyes but knowing what was waiting there for him if he tried.
“It’s alright. Just take a moment and breath.” As if in demonstration, Tim took a noisy, long, deep breath in through his nose and held it for a moment before blowing it out through his mouth; he repeated this until Jared began to imitate his depth and timing. After a few cycles of his, he heard Tim shift his clipboard to the end table next to his chair and sit back. Eventually, Jared tried to look up and managed to stare at the cleft in Tim’s chin without looking back down to the floor. “Don’t rush yourself. Take some time and collect yourself; there’s no hurry.”

He heard the gentleness in the man’s voice and felt his neck flush with heat. He hated the sound of pity almost as much as he felt shamed for eliciting it; he frowned and ground his teeth together to find something to focus on that he could control. This time when he looked up he glared into the man’s glasses and let his hands settle into fists across his lap. Tim’s face had been pulled into a look of concern but Jared had just glared through the bits of glass on his face without commenting. There was no way this man was going to shame him into crying; fuck him - He didn’t need this man’s pity. He didn’t ask for it and he didn’t want it.

Tim’s face seemed to shift through a couple of emotions before settling back to a neutral half-smile. “What are you feeling right now?”

“Pissed.” He gave a curt frown and stared the man down.

“Alright. What are you pissed about? What made you angry?” Tim’s body language was totally neutral; it was almost as if he were a part of the chair. Jared wasn’t fooled; he wasn’t about to let anyone put him down and he was paying for this shit!

“You know why I’m pissed! You can’t just belittle me and put me down; you made me feel,” he squeezed his thumb and forefinger together before his face, between the two of them, “that big!” He let his voice get louder. “I don’t fucking deserve that! I didn’t do anything to deserve that!”

Tim moved his hands to his lap. “I certainly didn’t mean to belittle you or make you feel small.”

“But you did! You meant to show me how small I am to make yourself look better!” He clenched his jeans.

Tim regarded him for a few moments; he didn’t look away. “I’m not here to belittle you. It is unfortunate that you feel I have something to gain from doing so. Can you explain to me how I did that?”

“You talked down to me like I am stupid, like I am an idiot.”

“I don’t believe you are stupid nor an idiot.” Tim looked him in the eye and waited.

“Yeah, well it felt like you do.” His jaw worked.

“I am sorry if I made you feel as though I believed that. I can say that I have never thought that and I do not believe it now.” Jared nodded and sat back in his chair opposite the man. “As we are coming up on time, may I make a request of you for our next session?” He frowned but nodded. “I’d like for you to keep a journal.”

“You mean a diary?” He shifted in his seat uncomfortably.

“Of a sort. I’d like for you to keep a day to day record of the things you are grateful for, like what people do for you or things that really feel good in your life. Is that something you’d be willing to do?” He frowned.

“I don’t understand. Why do I need to do that?” Tim rubbed his thumbs together in his lap.

“I’d like for us to discuss how people treat you and who the people in your life are for you. The hope is that having something written down will give some insight into what people are doing in your life and, perhaps, how they might be contributing to your need to stay alert to chances they might hurt you.”

“Uh, sure, I guess I can do that. Like how should I write it?” He rubbed his hands together.

“How about you write something like the name of the person, the day, and a short sentence or two about what they did and what it meant for you.” Tim stood and Jared followed his motion.

“Um, OK. I will try to do that, “ he’d said as he was passing through the office doorway that Tim had opened. He’d sat in his truck in the parking deck by Tim’s office and tried to sort out what he was supposed to do. He’d never kept a diary-journal before; that was something that ...English majors did, right? He wasn’t at all sure that he could keep such a thing: What would the guys think? What if the maids found it? That had been yesterday and now, here he was running his hands over the display. He glanced up as a shiny looking little box caught his eye from the far side of the display. He frowned and walked over to it.

He picked up the little tin; the label declared it as made from steel. It was a tall rectangle with rounded corners and a bit thicker than his thumb; it had a rubber gasket to keep out dust or water and a compression clasp gave it a really nice solid closing feeling. He flipped it over in his palm; it was small and could easily fit in the shirt pocket of his coveralls; there was a metal plate that folded over all of the paper when the binder was first opened, it slid over on a spring-form wire to give access pages beneath it.

There was a kind of bearing mechanism that allowed the sheets of paper inside to be a touch wider than the palm of his hand when the case was opened. He tried opening and closing the mechanism a few times to get a feel for how it managed to tuck the pages inside without creasing them; once opened, the pages flipped up on a pair of spiraled wires. He flipped open the little booklet attached to the device, and raised his eyebrows; with the metal insert in place the binder could hold a regular, though thin, pad inside. He’d be able to have a work pad and keep the journal out of prying eyes at the same time. He pulled his mouth down and nodded his head as he brandished the device in his hand. All in all, he thought it was a pretty ingenious contraption.

He grabbed a small lined pocket pad from a nearby shelf to his side and made his way to the counter to make his purchase. Thankfully, it was the end of the business day for the shop and most of the employees were handling the stocking of shelves or inventory and when he approached the counter there was only a woman off to the far end punching away at a keyboard. He placed his items by the only register that was logged in and looked at the woman hoping she would see him standing there but not wanting to interrupt her train of thought as she worked.

“Oh, I’m sorry! Did you find everything you need?” A man approached Jared from the other side of the store and quickly made his way behind the counter. Jared looked up at the ceiling and shifted on his feet.

“Uh, yeah; yeah, I did.” He tried to find a place to focus on as he felt the heat rise in his cheeks.

“Are you interested in our stamps? Would you like to see some of them?” The man’s voice inflected a little as if he were curious or surprised and Jared realized as he focused his eyes that he was staring down at a display case with stamps in it. He glanced up at the man nervously before opening his wallet and staring down at his debit card waiting for the man to get on with it.

“Err, no, thanks. That is all I need to get.” The cashier took his card and slid a receipt into view across the counter and he scribbled a line across it and took his bag when it was placed on the counter. He glanced up at the man and smiled nervously as he held the bag to his body. “...Thanks.” The man just nodded and headed back around the counter to finish whatever he’d been doing. Jared swallowed and walked quickly out of the glass doors of the little store. He shook his head as he turned to head in the direction of the parking. He looked down at the ground a few feet in front of himself as he walked down the sidewalk considering why he felt so off about even buying the little binder in the bag. He was holding the bag between his hands and it was against his coveralls as if to obscure the outline of the contents. He frowned at himself. What was the big deal that he was so nervous? So he’d bought a notepad...so what? He shook his head. No, the issue was that it was a journal. “As if there’s a difference?” he muttered as he squeezed the metal box through the plastic as it grew cold, chilling his hands, in the winter air.

He lifted his head at the sound of footsteps coming from the cross street he was approaching. There was a couple walking together slowly in the evening; he could hear the sounds of low conversation and a few laughs as they strolled fully into view around the buildings of the street. The pair seemed a little mismatched; the man wore casual sneakers, nice slacks, and a casual jack against the chill air while the click of the woman’s heels against the pavement echoed down the street; she was in a long jacket that obscured most of her attire but the glint of accents in her hair and silvered flashes of her dress as her legs swept the coat made it obvious she was dressed for a much fancier night on the town. Jared smiled as he watched the two of them. The man’s hand was behind the woman’s back as they walked but his hand barely moved the fabric of the coat as the woman flowed from one foot to the next; it was clear that’s what she was doing as they got closer - That woman knew how to work a pair of heels! He chuckled softly to himself and slowed so as not to disturb the pair. Cheryl looked incredible walking in heels and she’d loved to do it whenever they went out on the town in college.

The first time they’d gone to a symphony performance, she’d been dressed in high heels that brought her even taller than him; she’d worn a white gown that had set off her brown skin as though it glowed; her hair had been pulled up into a roll of a bun behind her head and she’d had some sort of silver lace that wound around it, a trail of little silver leaves and flowers with flecks of gold on the insides of the blooms. He’d been completely dumbstruck when she’d opened the door of her apartment. She’d stood and looked at him, a silent half-smile on her face while she’d waited for him to recover enough to stammer a greeting and present her with the orchid corsage he’d brought with him. She’d carefully taken the clear plastic jewel box from him and stepped back into the foyer of the place to put the flower on across the front of her dress on her right. When he’d offered to pin it onto her, she’d teased him about bleeding to death before they made it to the show; he smiled at the memory of his sweaty-palmed nervousness - She’d made the right choice.

After the performance, they’d had to walk around the outside of the building to reach his truck as he’d led them out of the exit on the wrong side. He watched the man’s hand on the woman; he’d looked just like that as they’d walked - He’d been so...unsure or afraid of breaking her as she’d swayed beside him - She was a Greek statue of mahogany and alabaster flowing impossibly from foot to foot, step to step and he’d been a soldier dolled up to not ruin her grace by his presence but entirely out of his element. He frowned and sighed. He’d placed his hand on her back just firmly enough for her to know he was touching her but so lightly that each step she’d taken left his hand to catch up with the contact. She’d stopped him under a light in the parking lot, slipping a gloved hand along the back of his head, her finger tracing across the edge of his ear before pulling his jaw up as she’d touched her lips to his and kissed him in front of anyone who was present - He, to this day, had no idea if there were any people present...any people in the entire world at that moment, a priceless reward for her stalwart guard.

His lips pressed together in a sad smile remembering how eagerly he’d broken the spell of the dress when she’d invited him into her room that night; it had been all his heart could do to possess the unreal woman who’d stood beside him that evening - He’d needed to belong, to know that he was allowed if not worthy to her grace; it hadn’t been the overzealous race of hormones but, rather, the rough demanding campaign of unvarnished need, the desperate claim to a star's unreachable light. She’d been uncharacteristically patient with him that night; she hadn’t led nor resisted; she’d simply embraced and caressed him until he’d quieted, sated. That night remained one of the most precious and...painful memories of his life.

He sighed heavily and stepped into the shadow of a storefront, leaning against the pillar framing the door. He nodded as he watched them, silently hoping the man, a compatriot soldier, would find the solution to the puzzle he had failed. His brown tightened as they passed under a street lamp, the man’s red hair glistened next to the jet black bun of the woman beside him. His shoulders slumped a little as he swallowed from the shadows; Roan was, at least, living the life he’d somehow managed to cheat himself of. His head thumped lightly against the pillar as he looked up at the overcast purple of night sky.

---
It was after eleven as Jared stared out the window across the coffee table from his motel room. He was sitting on the ottoman with his new journal spread before him on the table as his weight rested on his elbows and he scratched the hairline of his forehead with the corner of the pocket clip of the pen he held. He tossed the pen onto the table and grabbed the plain tumbler from beside him as he sat back to balance the glass on the bare skin of his knee.

He’d been trying to come up with something to write onto the nearly blank page before him for...forever as far as he was concerned. At the top of the page, he’d written Greg’s name and the date; after that, he’d written about his lunch date from yesterday, how Greg was so gentle and good to him, openly believing in him; even the boy’s inevitable meltdowns and tantrums never felt like more than moments when his little self couldn’t manage to express or fill his needs rather than some personal accusation. Below that, he’d written a line with Cheryl’s name and one with Roan’s; he wasn’t sure why he’d written them since he’d not interacted with either of them in weeks. He rolled his head back on his shoulders and lifted the neat whiskey to his lips. He’d kept it to two or three fingers since things had blown up with his family; there wasn’t any particular rhyme or reason to it but it felt unsavory or riskier to drink in moments of loss or estrangement; still, this was normalcy wasn’t it?

He closed his eyes and remembered the image of Roan and his date under the streetlamp a few hours earlier. The man’s posture, the sound of his quiet laughter carrying just the slightest tinge of anxiety, his smile as he gave his full attention to the woman beside him...Jared pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t know what to call the feeling in his chest. He had to write something though, those were the rules weren’t they?

He exhaled noisily and slid the glass back onto the table as he unfolded himself from the ottoman and stood into a stretch. He perched his feet on the cushions and his hands on the floor and lowered himself into a slow push-up. He wore only a gray pair of boxer briefs and he let himself focus on the feeling of the skin pinching between his shoulders and his chest as he cycled through the motion. Should he be grateful that Roan didn’t hate him? He pictured the look on Roan’s face when he’d turned to walk into the house. Did Roan hate him? He frowned and pressed hard against the floor. It was hard to imagine the man hating anyone but...that wasn’t the same as someone not earning it. He breathed in until his lungs hurt at the strain of it as he lowered himself back down.

He deserved it; he pressed his lips into a line and pushed hard against the trembling burn that spread through his arms. It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t see how doubting the people in his life would upset them but, rather, what choice did he have?? Was he supposed to just stand by like a fool while something happened under his nose? He snorted and shook his head as he paused at the top of his reach. It didn’t mean that he didn’t care about them...he cared about them a lot. Now they were apart and things were a mess and everyone made it out to be his fault. “...I mean, fine, it’s all my fault,” he said flatly as his face hovered just over the carpet. What the hell choice did he have? It wasn’t like there’d been any options. He rolled his eyes - After Mitsy that is. He gave a mirthless laugh at his own expense; that, he could say was all him and feeling sorry for himself. He sighed. Still, he’d ended that - all on his own; and no one had been hurt by it; there’d been no scandal, no bodies buried in the desert, no police sirens in the middle of the night, no house fires. He rolled his head back. Just the trash fire that was his life.

Now, he was supposed to come up with something to be grateful for with people who’d sent him away. He let his body settle on the floor, his feet still hanging from the cushion. He tried to focus on the feeling of seeing Roan; he knew it wasn’t a pleasant sense. Was he angry? Jealous? Was he jealous of Roan and his date? He pictured that woman walking beside the man for a moment. No, that didn’t feel true. It felt… “...Wistful?” he tasted the word trying to place exactly what it implied. Sad and longing, left out - He felt left out of the moments of the people he’d managed to get close to him. How did he make that into gratitude? He folded his arms under him; he wiped the sweat from his brow on his arm and rested his chin on his forearm as he stared unfocused at the wall. What about Cheryl?

He rolled onto his back with his hands behind his head and his legs still elevated; he wriggled a bit as the carpet was scratchy against his back - He didn’t even want to think about the carpet and the things it had seen; he grimaced...a shower was in order. It could wait though. He thought of her when she’d left the house...Grace. That woman was capable of so many things; she was just too competent at anything she did. He winced; she could have made things so ugly if she wanted to. She’s a lawyer for christsake; he supposed he should be counting his lucky stars that he still had a job and a pot to piss in. Still, he couldn’t really imagine her doing any of that, even if she probably was perfectly able to do it.

What he really felt was how...gentle? Delicate? He shook his head; this wasn’t delicate but gentle in a way that didn’t force him to move in any particular way. He frowned. He could almost picture a concept in his mind of some kind of angry benevolence...a nun of retribution, a goddess of remorse. He let the exercise go; she was packing Greg’s lunch and his son never looked anything less than ecstatic to see him...he could be grateful about her quiet support in such things. He grimaced as he curled up to his feet to add a few lines next to her name.

He frowned as he continued to stare down at the page and the tip of the pen hovering next to Roan’s name. He tossed the pen down on the table; with a heavy sigh, he wiped a hand over his face before padding off to shower.


---
Roan chuckled, pleased with himself, as he killed the engine and sat back in his seat. He was parked in a muddy lot just off of the tractor road between a pair of farms; he could see there was a path between the fence line that led to a line of trees a quarter mile or so away where he guessed they would be heading. He’d managed to get here little early after not getting a lot of sleep the night before; he’d just gotten up when the exercise of brooding about the exchange with Ping had gotten old enough to drive him from bed. He frowned and shook off the thought.

It was still mostly dark outside but he could see there were a few lights on in the buildings at the far edge of farmland where people were starting their day. He’d never been to this part of the area and he was pleased that he beat Nathan up here with only his GPS to get him to such a place. He reached over the console to re-check his pack; Nathan’s text had said he only needed to bring water but he’d brought a thermos of chai, a few containers of water, a change of socks, and some trail mix with candy and jerky in it.

He frowned when looked out of the windshield and saw Nathan strolling down the path from the tree line towards him. He gathered his pack and opened the car door. “Good morning neighbor,” he’d half-whispered and half-called through the morning twilight; it just felt wrong to break the tranquil silence of the early morning.

Nathan clapped him on the shoulder as he reached his parking spot. “Good morning. Got everything? You ready for a light hike and a bit of a climb?” Roan frowned a little.

“Climb?” Nathan smiled.

“Yeah, don’t sweat it, it’s only a couple of stories up; I’ve got you. The trails are dry and in good condition.” He locked his car and adjusted his pack as they started back up the path between the farms.

“Just how long have you been here??” Nathan didn’t turn around but he could hear the laughter in his response.

“I’ve been here for a couple of hours.”

“Why?” He could see the man’s shoulders as he shrugged.

“Just wanted to check things out and make sure everything was good to go.” Roan frowned behind him. So much for getting an early start.

They spent the twilight of the morning trekking along leaves and sand, occasionally climbing small hills or root buttresses, as the trail wound its way deeper into the forest. The rustle of the tree branches and leaves was both gentle and all encompassing by the time Roan could make out a few streams of sunlight through the dense canopy. The woods echoed with the calls of birds and the odd rustle amongst the leaf litter. Their footsteps were the only constant besides the leaves in the wind.

It was probably close to noon when the finally came upon a steep incline of rock and bare roots. He thought he could see a ledge where the trees the roots belonged to stood. Nathan turned around on the path in front of him and took a pair of carabiners from his pack and waved for Roan to join him at the foot of the earthen wall.

“Alright, so we’re going to be climbing up this face.” He reached and grabbed a bundle of rope that was tied off in a root that was just above them; he knelt and wrapped his arms around Roan’s hips to slide the rope along the small of his back and began to tie a kind of harness about his waist. “OK, so the way this is going to work is every few feet, you’re going to tighten this end of the rope, by pulling it through first this hook and then out this loop; that way, if you slip or fall, you’ll only be able to fall a few feet at worst.” Roan nodded and reached to test the motions for tightening the harness. “Don’t worry, the rope is anchored against the wall, so it isn’t like if you fall, you’ll be dangling; it will just drop you against the face. Got it?”

“I think so.” He shifted his pack and pulled his sweater off before resettling and cracking his knuckles.

“I’ll go first; just follow where I put my hands and feet. I’ll pick holds that are close enough for you.” Nathan grabbed him by his upper arms and squared off facing him. “You ready?!” All the excitement of a fanatic was loaded into just those words. This. This was how perfectly reasonable people are found dead years later. Roan smiled and set his jaw.

“As I’ll ever be.” Nathan ruffled his hair and turned to start climbing. He started slow, calling out each location of the footholds he chose and warning him of what not to try to use but after a short while, when he saw that Roan was able to follow him confidently and manage the rope, they moved faster. The rock face was only about thirty or forty feet up; close enough to look manageable from the ground but more than enough to be daunting once he got a bit over twice his height or so.

“So, how did you get into this?” He called ahead to keep his mind off of looking down and focused on pacing himself so that his arms and legs took an even workload that he could sustain.

“Uh, I don’t know. I’ve always liked hiking and at some point climbing to reach places just seemed like a thing to do.”

“Did you have an instructor or help?” He shifted his weight and braced against a root while he adjusted the harness taut again.

“Mmm Not really. I had a friend who was really good but he was totally self-taught too so we were really just winging it.”

“Sounds dumb. Please tell me you were like seventeen.” He heard Nathan chuckle.

“Have you ever considered the merits of heckling your guide?” Roan smirked and reached to slap Nathan’s foot as he switched to the next level.

“If I had any common sense or drive to survive, I wouldn’t be hanging from a damned cliff, now would I.”

“Oh, c’mon, this isn’t so bad. Look, we’re almost up.” Roan emphatically did not look up but kept the surge of anxious energy that made him want to scurry up the rest of the way in check.

“Slow and steady,” he breathed to himself. A few minutes later he reached over the edge of the face to grab the base of a thin sapling that was just close enough for him to get his fingers around and he pulled himself up.

“Not too bad, right?” Nathan bent over him with his hands on his knees and gave him a dopey smile.

“Not dead yet, check.” He gave a thumbs up but sprawled out on the ground until his heart felt sure the ground was real. He took the proffered hand to get up when the stream of consciousness in his mind’s eye that had been playing a bloopers reel of all the ways he could have ended came to a close.

“What’s next? Cliff diving?” He crouched a little when Nathan slugged him in the shoulder.

“No, it’s all smooth sailing from here. I promise.” Nathan slipped a hand behind his back, under his pack, and he undid the harness. Roan looked up at the sky and stood a little uncomfortably as hands slid over his thighs, butt, and waist. From up here, he could actually see the sky; the canopy was sparse up on the ledge where they were. It was mostly rocks and grasses from what he could see. Nathan passed around him, still tying the rope into a bundle as he led the way farther on.

“So, are you seeing anyone?” He looked forward at Nathan’s pack as they stepped over rocks and wound their way up to the local peak which he could make out now.

“What? You mean like a girlfriend?”

“...or a boyfriend.”

“No, I’m not much for dating.”

“Just sex? Wow, you don’t strike me as the type.”

“That would be because I am not. I’m even less for just sex situations than dating.”

“Alright, I’ll bite; I don’t get it. So no dating and no hooking up...what do you do?”

“Honestly, not a damned thing.”

“Why not?” He shrugged and looked up at the sky.

“I dunno. It just never works out for me. I’ve been around and I’ve seen enough to know that I’m just not relationship material and I’m not looking to be sex material either.”

“So, what do you want?” He returned to watching Nathan as he walked ahead.

Jared’s face popped into his head for a moment and he shook his head. “I can barely manage to keep close friends at this point in my life. I’m really just trying to find a way to live a life I can be happy in, ya know?”

He could see a frown on Nathan’s face when he glanced around for a moment before turning back and scratched his head; it looked a lot like him tousling his hair even further...as if that were possible. “No, I am not sure that I do. What would this happy situation look like?”

“Probably something like a group of close friends and, maybe, their close friends, where we hang out, travel, talk, get together; maybe something like a group of adoptive siblings or something.”

Nathan looked back at him, confused. “Fine, friends and socialites, what about romance? Intimacy? Sex?”

He just raised his hands and shrugged deeply. “Right now, I can’t even imagine finding friends and socialites that would work for me. Romance feels impossible and sex feels nearly irrelevant...like a bad distraction, a mirage to pull me farther into the desert.”

They’d reached the peak and Roan could see the vista of trees and low mountains across the valley from them. Nathan threw his legs over a rock near the edge of the cliff face and slipped his pack to the ground as he sat. “And intimacy?” He frowned and sighed, taking up a spot next to Nathan and sliding his pack from his back and onto the rock beside him.

“What about it? Like having people to confide in? That would be cool. Or having people I could be myself around without having to fend off their ridiculous intentions would be awesome. I start to think we are getting dangerously close to discussing the summer hobbies of the Easter Bunny though.” He had allowed a little more bitterness to creep into his voice than he’d intended and when he turned back from settling his pack Nathan was sitting with his hands in his lap, watching him closely.

“Are you OK?” He felt his face pull tight as his ears moved back on his head and he swallowed.

“Yeah, sorry. I’m just tired and a little raw right now.” He pulled out his bottle of water and fiddled with it. Nathan turned and laid out a sheet on which he started placing a few plastic containers with food items. He could make out sliced salami, some assorted sliced cheeses, olives, lettuce and tomato slices, and a couple of other items he wasn’t sure about.

“So, lunch is kind of a sandwich buffet affair if that’s OK.” He leaned back on one arm.

“Yeah, yeah, this looks great! I didn’t mean to be a downer; it’s just...a sore subject. I’m not mad or anything; it just feels like something I can’t escape or change.” Nathan reached over and rubbed his arm; he grinned and nodded as though understanding.

“S’OK, but take a minute and let’s enjoy a little lunch.” Roan took the lid of one of the plastic bins and poured some trail mix into it and set it between the two of them.

There was plenty of food for a couple of sandwiches each, finger foods, and a few assorted side dishes; it was surprising how much Nathan had been able to fit into the reasonable looking pack he carried. They ate their lunch in companionable silence; the only sounds were requests to pass one item or another or to clarify what something was or the like. When he’d had his fill Roan grabbed his thermos and filled the cup-cap of the thing with chai before restoring the inner lid. He pulled his knees to his chest on the rock and sat with the lid perched before his nose on them. He closed his eyes and breathed in over the hot liquid; he tried to separate the sounds of the forest behind and below them. He could make out the calls of a few birds, the scuffle of squirrels and small mammals through the branches of the trees, and even the hum of the few hardier insects that managed to tough out the cold up here. He opened his eyes and drank in the greens and reds of the scene before them. It really was a beautiful view up here.

“What is that?” He didn’t look over as Nathan spoke.

“What is what?” He sipped from the cup.

“That. What is it that you’re drinking?” He frowned a bit and smiled.

“It’s chai...well, masala chai or spiced tea. Have you never had it?” He inhaled over the cup again.

“No, where would I have?”

“Your local Tacoma’s Best TimBucks’ Boulangerie, I would guess. Most of the chains carry something like it.”

“Is that where you got that from?”

He shook his head. “No, I kind of like making my own. I like being able to play with the flavors to make them suit my interest of the day…” He smiled. “Well, week.”

“Week?” Nathan sounded confused.

“Yeah, I make it in batches that I can keep around throughout the week. It makes it take up a lot less time than making it every day and handling all of the dishes that would go along with it. Plus, it lets me use more expensive ingredients since they go farther in big batches.”

“Can I try it?” Roan looked over at him and handed him the cup. “Thanks!” Nathan looked a little too excited to be drinking a cup of tea; he was downright giddy as he brought the cup to his face to look at the surface of the liquid, turning the cup a little, and then bringing it to his lips - He even closed his eyes as he opened his mouth to take a slow, intentional sip.

“You make it look like it’s fine wine or something.” Nathan’s neck and face flushed red as he opened his eyes.

“Uh, well, it’s interesting; it’s good, not what I was expecting though. It isn’t as sweet as I would have thought and,” He smacked his lips and rolled his tongue, “it’s spicy? I mean like peppery.”

Roan chuckled and looked back over the vista. “Yeah, I don’t like it too sweet. I figure I can always add sugar or honey if I want to. And, there is actual pepper in it, so, yep on the spicy.” Nathan took another sip and handed him the cup back. There was only a swallow of liquid left in the cap so he downed it and held the edge of the cup in his teeth as he reached for the thermos to refill it; he licked at some cool dampness on his bottom lip as he poured more into the cup. Nathan was watching him and beaming when he looked back up. “What?”

“Nothing.” Nathan pressed his lips into a smile. “So when was the last time you were out on a date?” Roan let his face fall, nonplussed. Nathan was unfazed. “C’mon. It’s just a question.” Roan rolled his eyes.

“Last night.”

“What?” He thought the man sounded more displeased than surprised.

“Last night. I was on a date last night after work.”

“With whom?” Nathan’s tone had returned to light-hearted.

“A woman I was introduced to, Ping.”

“What kind of name is that?” He looked over at Nathan’s scowl.

“Chinese, I believe.”

“She’s Chinese? You were on a date with a Chinese woman?” Roan shrugged and nodded.

“Yeah, so what of it?” Nathan held up his hands and looked out over the valley.

“Just surprised is all; again, you didn’t seem the type.” He sighed loudly.

“Again, I’m not so sure that type is accurate. She was introduced to me and she happened to be Chinese...maybe Cantonese; to be honest, I am not sure about the details.” He looked out to the treetops.

“OK, how’d it go? Did you have fun?”

“Yeah, I had a great time.” He draped his forearm over his knee and rested his chin on it.

“So that explains the tired. Why are you raw then? Did she leave you without a note or something?”

“Seriously, I have no idea where your head is but cut it out.” He frowned out at the sky. “Nothing happened.”

They’d been walking across the landing in the four story parking deck where Ping had parked. The joking and ribbing from their game had kept up non-stop from the moment he’d met her by the coat check until they’d left the stairs a few steps earlier. Ping really was a fun person to be around; she hadn’t quite wiped the floor with him; he’d managed to win one of the games and given her a good run in the final match...that or maybe she was going easy on him, no telling with her.

“So what do you drive?” His arm was getting tired from holding against her back but not being pressed hard enough to get any support; not that he minded, it was just an awkward and unfamiliar pose for him to hold. She’d nodded to the corner of the platform where a black Mercedes suv was parked all by itself. He smiled: affluence, elegance, and power...it fit. As they’d approached the vehicle things felt a little more stifled as if she were debating something. “What, did you remember another way you could have beaten me more soundly before we left?” She chuckled.

When they reached the front of her car she’d spun to face him, the distance now uncomfortably close for him; he rubbed his neck rather than step away as he felt tempted to do. “It’s been a lovely evening, Roan. I had a lot of fun.”

He smiled at her gratefully. “Me as well, Ping; I had a great time. It was a million times better than what I expected when Xie proposed me coming out tonight.” She extended her hand to him and he’d bent over it as he grasped it in his own.

“Perhaps we could do it again some time?”

“I’d like that.” She nodded and turned to step to the driver’s door. He’d raced to open the door for her as she’d smiled and slipped into the driver’s seat and he’d closed the door and stepped back from the vehicle. She had nodded to him as she started the car and smoothly pulled away, leaving him to stand there rubbing his neck again in the chill night’s air.

Roan grimaced. “But...I’m pretty sure she wanted something to happen. I ended up staying up all night thinking about it - How I’m not supposed to have a good time with people because they just get bent when it doesn’t go the way they expect.”

“So, why not just let it go the way they expected? What’s the big deal?” He looked over at Nathan’s curious expression. He frowned and rubbed his forehead.

“...because eventually they will just be more upset when they figure out that it is just what they expected, not what I want.” He stood and finished his cup of chai. “Shall we get started back?” Nathan regarded him quietly for a moment. He seemed to decide something and turned to gather up their containers while Roan folded the sheet and cleared the rest of the wrappings into his pack.


--
“Oh my gawd! Greg is sooo handsome!” The woman sloshed her glass around as she gestured to the sandbox where Greg was bent over and filling a small green plastic pail with sand. Her gushing continued, “And he’s gotten sooo big!” Cheryl pulled her face into a polite smile and tilted her head in thanks. Melissa, the woman, was a clerk for the city but she acted as a secretary for the community center in her sister’s neighborhood where they were attending a late season picnic; the woman loved to gush over the children and, generally, give the appearance of being family with everyone.

It was a potluck affair of sorts where the various families or neighbors showed up to contribute to the spread of hot dogs, buns, and economy sized bags of generic chips. She had been over here for the better part of her Sunday and it was late afternoon. It had become a bit of a ritual for she and her sister to get together a couple of times a week ever since she and Jared had moved into town. Her sister lived in an older development in the more urban side of town; it was a neighborhood that struggled to define itself as a particular destination; however, the thing she liked about the area was how much effort the developer and city went through to create such an old-timey community. To that end, the neighborhood association held events like these every few weeks when the weather was nice. The complex was a mix of townhomes, condos, and apartments arranged in such a way as to keep a surprising amount of closeness in such a diverse set of neighbors. In spite of the chill in the air, there were a good number of people in attendance today; across from her a couple of the husbands were grilling buns, vegetables, and mushrooms on one grill and the meats on the other. A steady flow of people shuffled by the tables laden with disposable aluminum trays and a couple of chafing dishes to fix plates or grab the odd bite from the spread.

“Do we have any more cups?” A woman called from the table with coolers of tea and lemon water.

“I’ll go check.” Cheryl waved at the woman and stood from the bench where she’d been watching Greg and excused herself from Melissa with a tight smile to head into the building. She rubbed her forehead as she passed through the storm doors of the community center and headed for the kitchens in the basement. It was like the woman hadn’t just seen Greg two weeks ago...she had; worse, she’d said the same thing then. Even accounting for the vodka she was sure was in the tea the woman was drinking, it was grating. A heavy sigh accompanied her entrance into the kitchens where a couple of people were shifting various baking dishes into and out of the ovens for reheating before being brought up. She headed to the back where the stockroom and pantries were.

She pushed to clear her head as she rummaged the aging aluminum shelves that lined the walls for some disposable cups; she wasn’t in a hurry. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy these events; they gave her a chance to spend time with her sister and let Greg get out of the house to play with kids of various ages without her being pulled into scheduling a play date. The people were all welcoming and treated them like one of the community. That said, some days all of their good intentions sometimes just came across as nosy; the number of times she’d had to excuse Jared’s absence was getting to her.

“Oh! Who brought these deviled eggs??” Julie called out from the corner of the kitchen. Cheryl waved across the room as she carried the bag of cups.

“That’d be me, Julie.” The woman waved her hands in front of her mouth as she took another bite of the one she had in her hand.

“They are excellent! Did you make these yourself?” Cheryl grinned and nodded.

“I’m glad you think so! Sure, it’s my mother’s recipe. They aren’t hard to make at all.” She sighed around her smile. “Is there anything I can help with? Does anything else need to come upstairs while I deliver these cups?”

“I’ve got to get the recipe for these; I’d have come to this just to get these!” Julie smiled and looked around the rows of stainless steel prep tables. “Um, yes, actually. Can you carry the baked beans up? It’s a small pan and I think there’s a chafing dish free up there for them.” She wound her way to where the woman pointed to the dish and used a towel to seat the pan on a tray before picking up the bag of cups in her fingers.

“I can take them up if someone would grab the door for me.” With a little noise of acknowledgement, the other woman skipped over to the door and held it open as she slipped by.

“Hey, Paul. I have a pan of baked beans for serving. Do you have room for them? Julie said they need to be kept hot.” She handed the tray over to him as he ran over to take it.

“Thanks for grabbing these Cheryl.” He carried them over to a table. “I’m trying to keep an eye on the grills to keep the food moving; I didn’t have a chance to run down.” He set about swapping the pan into the heated water where he could find space.

“If you need me to check down there, just holler.” She headed over to the drink station. “Was someone looking for more cups?” she called to the people nearby and set a few stacks out on the table before setting the rest under the skirt, out of the wind.

“Oh, thanks! I did.” She smiled at the woman and walked over to check on Greg.

“Hey, Cheryl.” She looked over to where Sandra was waving her over to a cluster of a few women by the play area. “This is Lisa, she’s the mom of Annie, that cute little thing over there,” she gestured to a little girl scratching in the sand with a stick. “She needs to head in for her shift, so I am going to watch her for a bit. Do you mind?” Cheryl shook her head.

“Of course not.” She shook the woman’s hand. “We’ll watch her. She and Greg can keep each other company.”

It was late evening when they’d left the yard of the community center to walk back to Sandra’s place. It had been a nice day and the picnic was pretty well cleaned up by the time they’d headed out.

“Girl, I don’t know where your head is at. You gotta man with a job - his own business mind you - He’s not doing drugs, stealing, hitting you, touching your child, or some other mess.” She canted her head off to the side on her neck and pursed her lips together for emphasis of what Cheryl knew would be the central point of her argument. “No, what you have is a man who hand delivers you flowers and a card three times a week. A man who leaves his job, drives across town, half the time goes grocery shopping, and all the time looks a mess, just to take your son on a lunch date...four times a week.” She raised her eyebrows. “Who does that? What man do you know around here does that for his family? Sure, I get it; he’s a White man but don’t tell me they are over there doing this kind of craziness over some crap like ‘my dick slipped out’.” Her sister crossed her arms and sat back on her stool, content with her opening arguments. Cheryl furrowed her brow and looked off across the lawn of Sandra’s back yard to where Greg was playing with a pair of children from the neighborhood.

She tapped her finger on the glass of the table between them; they were sitting on the back patio of Sandra’s town home. The two story, two bedroom home was a modest affair and her sister only found the place because it was minutes to her job at the hospital from here; still, it was comfortable and convenient and fit her sister after a fashion. As an intake medical assistant, she made a fair living for herself but, to Cheryl’s mind, she could so easily have finished a little more school and become much more comfortable. She glanced over at Sandra.

“First, the issue isn’t if he deserves a medal for Father of the Year. Second, that half the men out here are children is hardly how I want to frame my marriage. And, third, he hid that his ‘dick slipped out’.” Her nose wrinkled at the phrase and the rankle of the issue. “And, goddammit, do we have to talk about this every time we get together? Can’t we discuss world affairs, or politics - Hell, the weather??” Sandra scowled.

“Don’t nobody care about that shit. We’re talking about you and your man because somebody needs to be talking some sense into you.” Sandra stood and grabbed the empty glasses from the table. “Now, do you want something else to drink before we continue?” Cheryl looked up at the sky and shook her head.

“Sure, Sandra. The iced-tea you made is wonderful.” She looked over as her sister shifted the glasses to the palm of one hand and turned to reach for the door.

“Damned right it is, and a whole lot better than the mess at that picnic,” the woman called over her shoulder. Cheryl laughed and resumed watching Greg as he rolled the fire truck he was straddling across the uneven grass and made what she guessed were supposed to be engine noises. If she was being honest with herself, she mostly felt a sense of weightlessness at the present phase of her life. She was a cloud adrift in the sky waiting to be carried to wherever needed rain or shade or just a little accent or two against the great blue around her. Jared’s absence was a sore spot, a shadow over the sunny plain, but there was something about her time alone that left her feeling...well, free to feel. At some moment, being a person had given way to being a woman, then being a wife, then a lawyer, then a mother, then a mom...when the hell was it time to be herself, just Cheryl?

She chuckled to herself; she was no wall flower and she was certainly capable of demonstratively carving out space for herself in a crowd. ...but this was different; she looked over as Ann - She’d been corrected by the little girl as soon as her mother had been nowhere in sight - presented Greg with a shiny rock she was holding; he frowned at her, his head at a ridiculously sharp angle in thought, before he took the plastic keyring of the firetruck and handed it to her in exchange; the girl smiled and held the keys to her chest as she ran off; the boy slipped the stone into the pocket of his overalls and resumed shuffling the truck across the lawn. As opposed to them having spa days or shopping, more of her visits recently had turned into play dates for Greg where Sandra and she watched him play with a few of the children from other families they knew around; it felt like a comfortable ritual...but for being grilled about her life choices. She was happy with her little family, even including Roan had felt like a natural enough extension; he was easy to see as a little brother of sorts. She smiled; he was easy going, thoughtful, entertained himself, unassuming, and, yet, always easily excitable and ready to join in when the opportunity arose. She tossed her head back and laughed.

“What’s so funny?” She turned as Sandra reappeared through the back door with a couple of glasses in her hand.

“Nothing, I was just thinking of Roan.”

“The redhead?” Sandra cocked her head curiously and she nodded. “What about him?”

“I was thinking about how much like a puppy he is.” The woman’s brow raised quizzically as she handed her a glass across the table and sat. She was wearing an orange turtleneck sweater with a pair of dark blue form fitting jeans.

“Is that some kind of thing to say about the man when he’s not here?” They both sipped from their tea. The bangles of Sandra’s anklet made a damped clinking noise against the leg of the wooden stool as she shifted the sole of her casual shoe up to a crossbar. In a sense, they looked nothing alike and yet, to her, it couldn’t have been more obvious that they were sisters. At three years her senior Cheryl had always tried to look out for Sandra but, in truth, her sister had rarely needed anyone to watch over her. They were both headstrong and capable but they chose different stages on which to show it. “You can’t just go calling people a dog.” Cheryl smirked.

“But it’s true!”

“That is beside the point.” She waved her hand dismissively. “And what does this have to do with you and yours?” Cheryl’s smirk deepened into a crooked smile.

“Well, some families get a lab or a golden...we got a redhead.” Sandra scowled at her again and shook her head.

“You’re going straight to hell.” Sandra rolled her eyes and took a drink from her glass and Cheryl laughed.

“Oh, c’mon. I don’t mean it in a bad way!”

“There ain’t no good way! You can’t just go around calling a grown man a pet...I mean unless you’re playing with it.” Cheryl pushed her lips together and rolled her eyes.

“Oh lord, don’t start. There is never going to be anything with me and that one.” Sandra shrugged.

“I’m not saying different. I’m just saying we can call ‘em dogs when they act like it or we are,” she chuckled, “using ‘em like they are.” Cheryl raised an eyebrow.

“You want a piece of that one?” Her sister scrunched up her face in recoil.

“Uh, no. I mean, he was nice and all but not my type.” Her type would be tall, burly, worn, and out of place anywhere outside of a rock quarry; she nodded. “But anyway, if we ain’t talking about making your next kid have really red hair, I don’t understand why we are talking about him. Jus’ don’t be calling the man a puppy - it ain’t right.”

“No chance of that.”

“So, back to your man-”

Must we?” Sandra crossed her arms.

“You still going to bed alone? And, no, don’t even; Greg does not even count.” Sandra waited.

“What if I want to go to bed alone?” Her sister snorted and set her glass down on the table.

“Then we really have a lot of ground to cover.” Cheryl sighed.

“Sandra, what do you want? I don’t hate him; hell, I do miss him but I am not dying or anything and neither is he.” Her sister folded her arms across her chest. “It’s not a great situation but we don’t need to act like it’s the end of the world. I have a life, work, my son, you, mom - This thing with Jared will sort itself out when it does but, in the meantime, I don’t see why we have to treat it like I am some desperate case of a lonely woman.”

“Do I look stupid? I'm not blind - This isn't even about Jared. Listen, you’re my sister; I have watched you my entire life. I was there when you beat the hell out of Billy what’s-his-name in elementary school. I was there to help when his girlfriend cornered you at the bus stop the next week. I was there when you brought a White boy home to your mama and I was there when she stopped speaking to you after.” She turned to face Cheryl and put her hand on the table. “You like to make trouble for yourself. You like to make yourself stand alone.” Cheryl frowned and stared at her tea. “But, I’m here to say no one should be left alone. No one should be an island.” Her tone had gotten progressively softer as she spoke and that last was almost a question.

“Mebbin. I beat Billy Mebbin’s ass because he and his coward friends pulled your hair at recess.” She set her glass down and met her sister’s gaze.

“I didn’t ask you for that.” She smiled. ”I knew how to stand up to him; I was giving his friend Ronnie a hard time ‘cause I thought he was cute.”

“That didn’t matter. You don’t mess with my sister, for any reason. If he’d tried to get back at you again, I’d still be beating his ass.” Sandra laughed and smiled at her almost apologetically.

“I know. ...and he knows it too.” She put her hand over Cheryl’s. “You protect me from the world, even when I don’t need you to. I’m here to protect you and your world from you when you do.” Cheryl pulled her hand back and rubbed her arm as she looked back to the yard.

“I am not sure that I want to be protected, let alone need to be.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re my sister, no matter the reason.”

A busy weekend as our characters swirl around.

Copyright © 2021 RJAdept; All Rights Reserved.
If you enjoyed what you have read, please leave a reaction and/or comment for the author!

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Chapter Comments

An interesting, thoughtful chapter that did little to change my mind, Can this odd triangle of friendship be saved...is it worth saving?

Jared is a ticking timebomb,  unable to fully grasp the consequences of his actions and is wallowing in self-pity

He deserved it; he pressed his lips into a line and pushed hard against the trembling burn that spread through his arms. It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t see how doubting the people in his life would upset them but, rather, what choice did he have?? Was he supposed to just stand by like a fool while something happened under his nose? He snorted and shook his head as he paused at the top of his reach. It didn’t mean that he didn’t care about them...he cared about them a lot. Now they were apart and things were a mess and everyone made it out to be his fault. “...I mean, fine, it’s all my fault,” he said flatly as his face hovered just over the carpet. What the hell choice did he have? It wasn’t like there’d been any options. He rolled his eyes - After Mitsy that is. He gave a mirthless laugh at his own expense; that, he could say was all him and feeling sorry for himself. He sighed. Still, he’d ended that - all on his own; and no one had been hurt by it; there’d been no scandal, no bodies buried in the desert, no police sirens in the middle of the night, no house fires. He rolled his head back. Just the trash fire that was his life.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Not sure this is the same Roan we saw in the previous chapter, Nathan is overstepping the bounds of a new friendship

“Yeah, so what of it?” Nathan held up his hands and looked out over the valley.

“Just surprised is all; again, you didn’t seem the type.” He sighed loudly.

“Again, I’m not so sure that type is accurate. She was introduced to me and she happened to be Chinese...maybe Cantonese; to be honest, I am not sure about the details.” He looked out to the treetops.

“OK, how’d it go? Did you have fun?”

“Yeah, I had a great time.” He draped his forearm over his knee and rested his chin on it.

“So that explains the tired. Why are you raw then? Did she leave you without a note or something?”

“Seriously, I have no idea where your head is but cut it out.” He frowned out at the sky. “Nothing happened.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

I stand by my comments about Cheryl and my observation in the first chapter. I would add the following to buttress my point. In and as much Jared hasn't a clue as to how is wandering member instigated this imbroglio, Cheryl hasn't a clue as to her behaviors, for all her education and success, that in many respects, she's very much like her husband, not fully cognizant as to the impacts they have on others. At some point one has to ask, and this may be the root of their problems, when and why did they become like ships that pass in the night?

“Do I look stupid? I'm not blind - This isn't even about Jared. Listen, you’re my sister; I have watched you my entire life. I was there when you beat the hell out of Billy what’s-his-name in elementary school. I was there to help when his girlfriend cornered you at the bus stop the next week. I was there when you brought a White boy home to your mama and I was there when she stopped speaking to you after.” She turned to face Cheryl and put her hand on the table. “You like to make trouble for yourself. You like to make yourself stand alone.” Cheryl frowned and stared at her tea. “But, I’m here to say no one should be left alone. No one should be an island.” Her tone had gotten progressively softer as she spoke and that last was almost a question.

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40 minutes ago, drsawzall said:

An interesting, thoughtful chapter that did little to change my mind, Can this odd triangle of friendship be saved...is it worth saving?

Jared is a ticking timebomb,  unable to fully grasp the consequences of his actions and is wallowing in self-pity

He deserved it; he pressed his lips into a line and pushed hard against the trembling burn that spread through his arms. It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t see how doubting the people in his life would upset them but, rather, what choice did he have?? Was he supposed to just stand by like a fool while something happened under his nose? He snorted and shook his head as he paused at the top of his reach. It didn’t mean that he didn’t care about them...he cared about them a lot. Now they were apart and things were a mess and everyone made it out to be his fault. “...I mean, fine, it’s all my fault,” he said flatly as his face hovered just over the carpet. What the hell choice did he have? It wasn’t like there’d been any options. He rolled his eyes - After Mitsy that is. He gave a mirthless laugh at his own expense; that, he could say was all him and feeling sorry for himself. He sighed. Still, he’d ended that - all on his own; and no one had been hurt by it; there’d been no scandal, no bodies buried in the desert, no police sirens in the middle of the night, no house fires. He rolled his head back. Just the trash fire that was his life.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Not sure this is the same Roan we saw in the previous chapter, Nathan is overstepping the bounds of a new friendship

“Yeah, so what of it?” Nathan held up his hands and looked out over the valley.

“Just surprised is all; again, you didn’t seem the type.” He sighed loudly.

“Again, I’m not so sure that type is accurate. She was introduced to me and she happened to be Chinese...maybe Cantonese; to be honest, I am not sure about the details.” He looked out to the treetops.

“OK, how’d it go? Did you have fun?”

“Yeah, I had a great time.” He draped his forearm over his knee and rested his chin on it.

“So that explains the tired. Why are you raw then? Did she leave you without a note or something?”

“Seriously, I have no idea where your head is but cut it out.” He frowned out at the sky. “Nothing happened.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

I stand by my comments about Cheryl and my observation in the first chapter. I would add the following to buttress my point. In and as much Jared hasn't a clue as to how is wandering member instigated this imbroglio, Cheryl hasn't a clue as to her behaviors, for all her education and success, that in many respects, she's very much like her husband, not fully cognizant as to the impacts they have on others. At some point one has to ask, and this may be the root of their problems, when and why did they become like ships that pass in the night?

“Do I look stupid? I'm not blind - This isn't even about Jared. Listen, you’re my sister; I have watched you my entire life. I was there when you beat the hell out of Billy what’s-his-name in elementary school. I was there to help when his girlfriend cornered you at the bus stop the next week. I was there when you brought a White boy home to your mama and I was there when she stopped speaking to you after.” She turned to face Cheryl and put her hand on the table. “You like to make trouble for yourself. You like to make yourself stand alone.” Cheryl frowned and stared at her tea. “But, I’m here to say no one should be left alone. No one should be an island.” Her tone had gotten progressively softer as she spoke and that last was almost a question.

:) I don't think anyone will argue with the overarching questions you pose. I am curious what you feel has shifted between Roan before and now?

 

As always, thanks for following along and sharing your thoughts!

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35 minutes ago, RJAdept said:

:) I don't think anyone will argue with the overarching questions you pose. I am curious what you feel has shifted between Roan before and now?

 

As always, thanks for following along and sharing your thoughts!

I am trying to understand the shift in Roan between this and the previous chapter, for one...where does Nathan get off in the manner in which he quieries his new friend, I strongly suspect Nathan is looking at a love angle but still Nathan is coming across as presumptuous. Where did the "in control" Roan go?

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44 minutes ago, drsawzall said:

I am trying to understand the shift in Roan between this and the previous chapter, for one...where does Nathan get off in the manner in which he quieries his new friend, I strongly suspect Nathan is looking at a love angle but still Nathan is coming across as presumptuous. Where did the "in control" Roan go?

I'm not sure if spelling it out is more helpful or undermines the experience of the story but it is a matter of context; Roan's character is (as are the rest of them) overdeveloped in a particular dimension, work; where the stakes are higher for him, he struggles to weigh the options and see the choices. He's the 'nice guy' of the lot but that is hardly all roses or without costs; at work, he can play safely as the option to find another job makes it game, a place to be confident and take measured risks; at home...

Quote

He just raised his hands and shrugged deeply. “Right now, I can’t even imagine finding friends and socialites that would work for me. Romance feels impossible and sex feels nearly irrelevant...like a bad distraction, a mirage to pull me farther into the desert.”

They’d reached the peak and Roan could see the vista of trees and low mountains across the valley from them. Nathan threw his legs over a rock near the edge of the cliff face and slipped his pack to the ground as he sat. “And intimacy?” He frowned and sighed, taking up a spot next to Nathan and sliding his pack from his back and onto the rock beside him.

What about it? Like having people to confide in? That would be cool. Or having people I could be myself around without having to fend off their ridiculous intentions would be awesome. I start to think we are getting dangerously close to discussing the summer hobbies of the Easter Bunny though.” He had allowed a little more bitterness to creep into his voice than he’d intended and when he turned back from settling his pack Nathan was sitting with his hands in his lap, watching him closely.

@@@@@@@

“Yeah, yeah, this looks great! I didn’t mean to be a downer; it’s just...a sore subject. I’m not mad or anything; it just feels like something I can’t escape or change.” Nathan reached over and rubbed his arm; he grinned and nodded as though understanding.

@@@@@@@

Roan grimaced. “But...I’m pretty sure she wanted something to happen. I ended up staying up all night thinking about it - How I’m not supposed to have a good time with people because they just get bent when it doesn’t go the way they expect.

“So, why not just let it go the way they expected? What’s the big deal?” He looked over at Nathan’s curious expression. He frowned and rubbed his forehead.

“...because eventually they will just be more upset when they figure out that it is just what they expected, not what I want.” He stood and finished his cup of chai. “Shall we get started back?” Nathan regarded him quietly for a moment. He seemed to decide something and turned to gather up their containers while Roan folded the sheet and cleared the rest of the wrappings into his pack.

He's compromising because he's compromised - We take risks when we believe in the reward: Our friend doesn't have high hopes for a reward.

I hope that helps or, at least, doesn't reach or detract from the story.

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