"You seriously need to get out of that dump for a few hours, Brody. It'll be fun, I promise," Ekaterina's voice begged through the tinny speakers of my cell phone. She wanted to get me laid, and I knew it. I just wasn't all that fond of her methods. I also wasn't thrilled at her taste in men.
"I'm working on a scene right now," I said, running my free hand along one edge of my laptop screen. It was only half a lie. I'd been sitting in the minuscule kitchen of my one-bed apartment working on the same scene for the entire day, and I'd gotten myself good and stuck. I always ended up getting my characters stabbed, and it just didn't fit in with the rest of the plot.
"Tell me about it," she demanded. "Maybe I can help."
"In order to explain that one scene, I'd have to explain the entire universe. You'd pretty much have to read the first six chapters of the manuscript before all the elements in the scene made sense." I knew it would throw her off. She hated science fiction, and it was the world I lived in most of the time. I chuckled at the string of swear words echoing around the apartment.
"You and your freaky unreality," she grumbled. "Can't you try writing a freaking romance novel sometime? I'd at least be able to follow that. You can make it star that mystery man you've been dreaming about for years."
"Ekats, I'm not about to write a romance, especially not about a reoccurring dream. The man just stands there."
"Then come up with something for the Harlequin crowd, aka me. You've got the skills." She'd said the H-word. The girl sure knew how to push my buttons.
"I don't want to be detailing something I can barely imagine without wanting to puke. When I write a book, I want to write something with realistic interactions, not a cookie cutter novel with the first sex scene exactly half way through and the second around the eighty-percent mark. You know how many problems I have with the damned things. I don't like my plot to be variations on a theme--"
"Realistic." She snorted. "You just used the word realistic to describe your science fiction novels, hon. Jesus, Joseph and Mary, Brody. Just shut up already. Some of the romances are good. Just because you've always been so fucking jaded about humanity..."
And it was yet another day when we'd managed to completely insult each other's reading preferences in a matter of minutes. I winced.
"Fine, fine, I'll believe it when I read it." I smiled. "And as a make-up present, I'll go with you tonight. I should probably get a little people-watching done. I've got a couple of characters with really obnoxious personalities that aren't meshing the way I want them to. I'd imagine a night at whatever bar you've decided upon will give me plenty of fodder."
"Excellent!" She'd gone from angry to chirpy so quickly I felt obligated to massage my own neck. The girl could give anyone whiplash with her moods. "I'll pick you up at nine. Some of my friends are celebrating the end of the semester at Mulligan's. We'll head there, so dress casual."
"I'm not going to hang out at the straightest Irish bar in the city with the college crowd, Ekats. There is 'out of my comfort zone' and there's 'hell,' and your suggestion has me leaning a little more toward the fiery pits."
"Relax," She giggled. "It's Wednesday, it won't be busy. The undergrads have all left. The crowd we're meeting are all law students. Most of them are somewhere around your age. You aren't going to be the big bad twenty-six-year-old, looking to cradle-rob the innocent little freshmen. Not like you'd ever look like it. You'll get carded until you're forty. Besides, most of them are girls."
I wanted to complain about her assessment, but it was probably true. I was 5'8" and had some pretty impressive romanesque bone structure, but even with all the angles and planes that gave me, I had the most ridiculous lips that made the entire face look soft. I'd never look like a girl, but I'd forever look like I'd just finished with pimples. I was crossing my fingers and hoping the wrinkles started early, just so I wouldn't get the third degree every time I tried to buy alcohol.
"Girls?" I shuddered. "You'll protect me, right?"
"Of course, nerd," she cooed affectionately.
"Fine." I sighed heavily and hung up before she could poke and prod at me more. "But if I somehow end up in a fight, you're claiming responsibility."
I fell asleep after pounding out another thousand words. Not that they were good, not by any stretch of the imagination, but at least I'd managed to spit out something before my body decided to shut down and catch sleep when it could. I rarely slept well. I had a bad habit of trying for bed, letting my mind wander just enough to come up with a new idea, and then I'd have to drag myself out of bed and write for another few hours. Stop. Repeat. Then the dream man would appear.
This evening, there was no mystery man. He usually invaded my dreams between two and four in the morning. I only knew this because I'd be so keyed up I'd wake when the dream ended. More restless nights. He would show up, a little fuzzy around the edges, and we'd just look at each other from across whatever dream-scape my brain had created. Sometimes we were in my apartment. Sometimes we were surrounded by lumber and I wondered if my psyche needed a good shakedown. Sometimes we were in one of my alien worlds, where the vines were alive and everyone lived above the tree canopy. Sometimes I'd be in jeans and a button-up, with sleeves rolled to my elbows. Sometimes he'd be in jeans and a brightly colored t-shirt. Sometimes we'd both be in clothes from my novels, but this usually happened when I'd been doing heavy research into futuristic fashion. Most often, we'd both be naked, and I'd wake up intolerably hard and aching for him. I'd kept to myself for so long, I had started wondering if my dream man was my mind's way of informing me that I was bat-shit crazy.
I'd managed a full hour of sleep before beautiful, blonde Ekats showed up, letting herself into my cozy little apartment and wandering up to my bedroom without any sort of audible knock. Luckily, I was wearing the nice jeans she'd made me buy months ago. Since I typically went naked for any intentional sleep, I was pretty thankful I'd been contemplating clothing for the evening when I crashed.
"Christ, Brody. You aren't getting enough sleep lately, are you? It's your stupid dream again, right?" She felt my forehead and cheek before inspecting my dark eyes intently.
"I'm fine, Ekats. It's the novel, not the dream. I keep on changing major plot points and having to re-write enormous sections, and now I'm stuck."
"Take care of yourself, Brody."
"I am," I reassured her and began the long, arduous journey out of bed.
She took no pity on me, pulling me up from that comfortable haven and pushing me toward the open closet filled with t-shirts in every color under the sun. I loved t-shirts. I wore nothing else.
"Oh, honey, you need to walk around shirtless more often," she said with a happy little sigh. "I need to do another nude painting of you. You have just enough muscle definition to make the frat boys cry, and that scar just makes you hotter."
I covered my side and jumped out of the way before she took a swat at my ass. Typical Ekats.
"I want to be compared to frat boys about as much as you want to be compared to your ex-coworkers."
That got me a proper smack. Lucky for me, she'd aimed for the shoulder this time. Ekats had been an exotic dancer during our college years, since she'd gotten no financial help from her parents and she had the all-natural body that could really work it. Not to mention she had a passion for dance of all types. She always complained that most of the other girls at work considered shifting from leg to leg in an exaggerated movement to be dancing. When not removing articles of clothing for money, she was a fine arts student that had no shame. Freshman year, she'd practically tackled me in an attempt to get my attention. She wanted to draw me nude, she'd said, and she wanted to do it there and then. Since there and then was in the middle of the campus commons at nine in the morning and I was petrified of two X chromosomes, I'd politely declined. She didn't know the meaning of no, so she chased me around from class to class all day until I gave in.
I'd lasted exactly eleven hours before I finally broke and let her sketch me, and Ekats said it was a record for her. We'd been best friends ever since. I still claimed Stockholm syndrome.
"Okay," she said, settling down in the center of my still-warm bed. "You really don't own anything but t-shirts, do you?"
"So what feature do you want to highlight?" She asked, giving me an assessing glance. "Eyes. Definitely your eyes. Do we want to go with dark and soulless, or do we want to emphasize that they really are brown?"
The girl was obsessed with my eyes, lord only knew why. She did a new sketch of them every month and was never happy about the result. I kept my mouth shut as she rifled through the colorful cotton forest and picked out a few colors, holding them up to my chest and radiating disapproval at each one.
"Just give me the gray jersey," I sighed after she'd picked my closet apart. She obviously wasn't making a decision any faster than I was. "Why the gray jersey? It's not going to do anything for your eyes," she said, startled out of her little dress-the-boy fantasy with a forest-green shirt in one hand and a maroon shirt in the other. Just the thought of her considering a maroon shirt made me want to shiver a little. It had been a freebie, and I was cheap enough to keep everything I was given until it had holes.
"It's comfortable," I said, and I plucked it from the pile. I threw it on and pulled my hair from the collar. As an afterthought, I grabbed a hair tie and shoved it all back from my face.
"We need to get you a hair cut," she said as she picked at my sandy brown ponytail. "Do you have any scissors?"
"Nope. One of these days, I'll just shave it off again." She gave a cry of alarm until she saw my grin. I'd been tempted to take it all off lately, but Ekats had threatened me with a torturous death the last time I'd taken a razor to my skull.
"I don't know why you don't own your own pair of scissors," she grumbled. "I even bought you a pack for Christmas last year, remember? Where did they all go?"
Straight into the trash can, but she didn't need to know that.
"We can worry about my beauty later," I evaded, pushing her out of the bedroom door. "Now, you have a bar to enrapture with your dance moves and I have people to document. Let me find my notebook and I'll be ready."
The first thing I noticed when we got into the bar was the crowd of a dozen or so drunk girls. Ekats led us straight through them, throwing introductions here and there for the ones she knew. They were so loud I couldn't hear the names she shouted, and that didn't bother me at all. I was too busy cowering and hadn't planned on doing much interacting. She led me straight to a series of little round tables covered in drinks, dropped me off at the one closest to the wall with a kiss on the cheek, and went off to the bar.
I scanned the crowd, wondering if I'd actually get the interactions I was hoping for. I needed a man and a woman to have some sort of awkward social confrontation, and I needed to see the facial expressions and emotions involved. The serious lack of men in this joint was going to be detrimental to my research. It was also a bit detrimental to my desire to be here at all. Women were scary, scary beasts.
Ekats set a drink down in front of me and wiggled the straw at my face.
"It's called an Angry Hornet," she giggled. "Bar specialty. Six kinds of alcohol and a shot of lemonade, and you'll never even taste the liquor."
I bent forward, peeling my back from the cool wall, and captured the straw in my mouth. It was good. I was going to have to watch it.
"All right, all right," I said as she glanced toward the dance floor. "I have my wall, I have my drink. Go. Do your thing. Show them what your education got you," I said with a grin.
She blew a raspberry before disappearing into the middle of the moving, shaking cloud of estrogen.
I pulled out my notebook and began to describe everything I saw in the bar. The people, the decor, the drinks, the barman, the music, the lighting-- I took in every detail I could, just in case I needed to use a place like this in a future story. Ekats thought it was beyond nerdy. I considered it good preparation.
After half an hour of bad hip-hop, two Angry Hornets, and a desire to run frantically toward the cowboy bar across the street for a little testosterone break, the man of my dreams deemed Mulligans worthy of a visit.
Literally, the man of my dreams. He was the one I'd been seeing at least seven times a week for years. I knew it had to be him, here in crystal clear high def instead of the fuzzy, warped images my brain could conjure.
He was taller than me by almost half a foot, had the body of a greek god, and wore a serious scowl on his face as soon as he spotted the mass of wiggling, shrieking, screaming girls. A large hand ran through short black hair more in frustration than in primping, and I watched avidly as the movement created more artistic chaos than most of the frat boys could get with a can of hair gel and two hours in front of a mirror.
"Levi!" one of the shorter girls squealed, and I watched as the little wisp of a woman bolted from the crowd and threw herself at the big man. His scowl turned into an indulgent smile, and I couldn't help but groan out loud.
"Relax, he's her brother," Ekats whispered in my ear. I hadn't realized how close she was. Granted, my observation skills were becoming a bit more limited as the alcohol seeped into my system. "Bethany is the one who organized this little get-together. I haven't introduced you to her yet for good reason-- you are exactly her type--though now, perhaps I should." We both watched as Levi picked up Bethany and twirled her around before setting her carefully on the nearest bar stool.
"So, have you met Levi before?" I asked, glancing back toward Ekats.
"Nope, though in Bethany's eyes, he's the sun and moon. I've heard far too many good things about him to believe a single one." She chuckled. "No, I don't know if he likes men. No, I don't know if he's single."
"For future reference, you should probably turn those two statements around," I chuckled. "Either way, I don't need a one night stand. Don't go working on anything for my benefit. He just looks... like a dream." I'd gone serious too quickly, and my eyes were skating over in his direction too often for Ekats not to notice.
"Oh!" she said, looking at me in a mixture of dismay and fascination at putting two and two together. The girl was smart, though she rarely exercised her incredible intellect around me. She patted my hand and took my empty glass from where I'd pushed it. "I'll work on things for your benefit."
She disappeared back toward the bar before I could tell her exactly how un-appreciative I was in her meddling. Ekats was Ekats. She'd do whatever she damned well pleased, and I knew it.
The little cocoon around Levi and Bethany had disappeared. He stood, shook hands with a few of the others, and immediately found a seat at the bar. Ekats appeared next to him to place her order and began to chat him up.
Go figure. I turned my attention back to the little notebook and began to make notes.
I could feel the eyes on me before I glanced up. Ekats was coming straight toward me with our drinks, and I caught a glimpse of him, staring at me in what I could only guess was confusion. I looked back to Ekats, but my eyes couldn't stay on her. They slipped back to the man of my dreams, the traitorous bastards.
Levi had moved from confused to thoughtful. He was looking me over pretty thoroughly from his seat at the bar. It was an all-encompasing look, a down-and-up, the kind of look that could be sizing me up for a fight or as potential eye candy. He had intense eyes in some pale color, though in the dimness of the bar, I wasn't able to decipher that detail. His pint hung in the air in front of him, and when his gaze ended up back at my eyes, he paled and moved the glass between. The next time I looked at him, he was looking very pointedly in the other direction.
"So, he's here at the request of his darling sister and hasn't seen her very often since she went off to undergrad six years ago," Ekats said as she placed my second drink in front of me. It was a snakebite this time.
"He's a local, but he didn't do the college scene."
"Six years? I thought he was her fucking hero or something," I said before I sipped the shandy appreciatively. This sucker was going to have to last me the rest of the night.
"He was Bethany's guardian for the last few years of high school, and she got a scholarship to a west-coast school for undergrad. She decided to go to law school back here instead of out on the west coast to be closer to him. That info was from Bethany, not from Levi. The girl knows how to spill her life's story over a few shots of tequila. She also loses articles of clothing at the same time. It was gorgeous to see." Ekats grinned at the memory as I twirled my pen between fingers in impatience. I might not have wanted her to get the information, but now that she'd done so, I wanted it all. "Anyway, Levi said he hadn't seen her enough this year because she was so busy with classes and decided to come to the party because she begged. He seems very put out by all the crazy going on."
At the moment, the girls were all singing at the top of their lungs. Crazy was definitely the right word.
"Final decision?" I asked.
"Straight, from what I can tell, but you know exactly how broken my gaydar can be. I didn't get an obligatory ass glance while reaching over for the drinks, but I wouldn't hold your breath."
"Can I have a last name to go with the first?"
"Davidson. Don't ask me about the middle name, you'll have to go hunting for that yourself. You should go talk to the dream man. Show a little male moral support in this place." She nudged me and winked.
"Thanks for the report," I said, nudging her back and nodding toward the noise. "I know you want to be in the middle of the crazy. I sure would, if I were bi." I gave her an overly exaggerated wink and she threw me the dirtiest look she could conjure. The girl liked girls, but she had such high standards for the female gender that she almost always ended up with guys. At least she took my opinion seriously on the men she dated, even if I hated most of them.
I was making a personality sketch of the bartender and catching quick peeks at Levi Donaldson, my dream man, when the waif with the black pixie cut broke from the madhouse and wandered over to the tables. Bethany was wearing the quintessential black dress, but she'd paired it with colorful sneakers instead of heels. It was a strange combination of cute and sexy, and I could kind of see what Ekats had been saying earlier. They'd make a fun pair.
Bethany was drunk enough to be completely fearless, and in this case, fearless meant making a pass at me. She made a flying leap for the barstool next to me and settled down to scan me, top to bottom.
"You're Brody, right?" she asked, leaning over so she could be heard. Not like it was difficult; her voice was as sharp as they come.
"Yeah," I answered. "And you're Bethany. Ekats pointed you out earlier." She smiled at me with hazy eyes, and I knew that whatever was happening wasn't going to be pleasant.
"Brody. You should come dance with me." She scooted closer and laid her hand on my knee. "You're the cutest guy here."