Neutral Territory Ch. 01byPS_Lopez©
Three commuters stood under the shelter, angling their umbrellas against the windblown rain while I contemplated the "ALL MATTRESSES $199!" sign on the window of the store across the street. "Chaperoning" my sister didn't usually send me out in the rain, but I'd gotten tired of listening to my sister and her current boyfriend coo to one another, and it hadn't been raining when I reached this bus stop, my favorite destination for my daily walks. Now, my coat was nice and damp, and I expected my clothes to be a little wet when I reached home if I started back now.
So I headed back. It was a rather long walk, and I walked it slowly. By the time I reached the building where our condo was, I was indeed soaked to the skin. I squelched across the lobby, smiling a little at the attention the noise garnered from those present. In addition to mailboxes and a security station, the lobby had a couple arrangements of furniture and different tenants, myself included, came down to sit and read or watch traffic passing by outside the windows. I'd met no few of our neighbors this way and waved at one I recognized. She smiled and waved back, went still a moment, then beckoned me over.
I wasn't really curious, but I went over anyway. I had nothing to do, so stopping to chat with her couldn't interrupt anything. Besides, she was looking out for me. She'd indicated more than one tenant who wouldn't be too friendly to me already, and I expected her to have more such information, and I did hold that in high value. If I knew who to expect to be hateful, I wouldn't be surprised.
"Hello, Tina," I said as I came to stand beside the chair she sat in.
She flipped the magazine she'd been reading over so it lay open face down on her left thigh. "You are soaking."
I raised one hand to waist level and looked at the palm side. "I don't think so." I smiled a little. "My fingers aren't wrinkled yet. I think I should go back out there."
Tina laughed. She tugged on my sleeve, so I knelt beside the chair. Once I had, she leaned over.
"See the guy in the green tee with the Green Lantern insignia on it?"
I gave a brief glance around the lobby and spotted the guy she'd indicated sitting at one end of the sofa closest to the windows. He appeared to be looking out the window, people-watching. Or daydreaming. I couldn't tell which.
"Yeah." I averted my gaze quickly once I'd identified him.
"He moved in last week." Tina grinned and added, "And he's gay."
I eyed her. "You trying to set me up?"
"No, not really. But he's two floors up from you in a nineteen."
I sighed. "Why do you care?" I was only mildly exasperated. I didn't need help finding a sex life. I did quite well enough on my own.
"Just thought you might be interested." She adopted an expression of innocence.
I looked at the man she'd indicated again, this time giving him a better examination. He'd shifted a little on the sofa and now read a book, giving me a better view of himself. Neatly-trimmed blond hair. Not chiseled features, from what I could see, but not so weak he lacked a chin. He looked about average in body, could have been fit under that tee; his upper arms certainly didn't look weak, though they weren't totally buffed out, either.
I affected disinterest without considering too deeply why I thought I had to. "Passable." I returned my gaze to Tina.
"Aw," she said, disappointed that her interest in seeing me coupled with this newcomer wasn't shared by myself. She sighed. "Oh, well, it was worth a try."
I chuckled. "I don't blame you for trying." I rose. "I'm going home to try and scare off my sister's boyfriend."
She laughed at that. I smiled at her and noticed the man she'd pointed out to me looking in our direction when I raised my head. For a moment, I couldn't look away from him, then he bowed his head. I sighed and headed over to the elevator. Maybe some other time.
Too much baking. It was my one downfall. I maneuvered half the apple cobbler I'd made into a plastic container. Tina wouldn't be able to eat it, but she'd know someone who could, and if I kept it all here, I'd gain another five pounds. I'd already eaten my way through four dozen cookies and about thirty chocolate-chocolate chip cupcakes with icing so fattening I was still surprised that I didn't have saddlebags.
Oddly, my baking spree--just the baking part--didn't make me feel guilty at all. It was one of the things on my dad's list of things that he thought should have told him I was gay. Instead, the act of making all these sweet things had just comforted me, but I figured it was just because it reminded me of Grandma. She was the one who'd taught me to bake, and she was actually quite pissed at Dad for kicking me out. She was also the only reason why I had a place to live now.
I pressed the lid down onto the container, then did the same with the lid to the glass baking pan the remainder of the cobbler was in. I put the lot still in the pan in my fridge and sighed as I picked up the plastic container. If nothing else, this would do two things for me: get me out of the apartment and perhaps force me into associating with somebody else. I couldn't be depressed forever.
After locking up my place, I took the cobbler with me down to Tina's. She didn't make me wait long, and looked down at the container I held.
"What's that?" she asked.
"Cobbler made with sugar."
"Oh, too bad." She looked up at me, clearly disappointed. "Next time you decide to make some, come get some sweetener from me."
"Give some to me now and I'll make you whatever you want. I still have plenty of apples."
She left me at the door to fetch her artificial sweetener of choice and returned with a new bag of it. "Here you go." She set it on top of the container.
"Thanks. You have any idea of anybody who'd appreciate half a pan of cobbler?"
Tina smiled. "I might have a couple ideas."
I chuckled at her teasing. "Who?"
"Well," she said slowly, smiling and tilting her head to the side. It made her look mischievous. "There's somebody in apartment eight sixteen who just might gobble it all up."
"Do I get a name?"
She chuckled. "That would be giving you an unfair advantage. You go now."
"What if this person doesn't accept it?"
"Oh, I'm sure they will." She grinned and wiggled her fingers. "Bye."
I stared at the numbers on her door for a few seconds after she shut it, then sighed and headed back to the elevator. Eight sixteen, she'd said. That was two floors up.
I felt too glum to be nervous. Besides, I was sure Tina wouldn't send me to somebody who'd denounce me. And anyway, I didn't need to say anything about myself. Handing over the cobbler would be enough. I thought my Dad was right about one thing. How many average straight men baked for fun?
When I reached eight sixteen, I knocked. Knowing my luck, the condo's occupant wouldn't be home and I'd be stuck asking Tina for another person to give away my cobbler to. But the door opened, and the man who had answered was the same guy I'd seen her talking to yesterday. I swallowed.
"Um, hi," I said. "This is going to sound really stupid, but I made some apple cobbler, and Tina said you might like it since she can't eat it."
He looked down at the items I held. The bag of sweetener rocked on top of the plastic container as I shifted my arms a little. When I raised my gaze again, I found him looking at me.
"I'm Silas. Want to come in?"
I blinked, surprised by the invitation. "Uh, yeah." Why not? I had nothing to lose and might possibly gain a friend out of this. "I'm Geoffrey, but call me Geoff."
Silas smiled. "Okay, Geoff." He opened the door wider.
I stepped in with more spirit than I felt and watched him shut the door in my wake. When he turned to face me, he smiled again, and this time I felt a little like the worm in the bird's beak. What had I gotten myself into?
"The kitchen's over here." He made a beckoning motion then headed for the kitchen.
I followed, unable to find a way to make a hasty departure. Actually, I felt torn between the desire to run away and an odd compulsion to stick around. I felt I could be certain that Tina wouldn't have sent me to someone who'd mistreat me, but I wasn't certain I wanted to trust this man. There was something about him that made me just a little edgy, something about him that spooked me.
Maybe it was the way he moved, smoothly, with a kind of grace that didn't seem to allow for uncertain or halting motions. Or that second smile; it hadn't looked particularly predatory, more . . . unnaturally steady. As if he held the key to a secret I should know.
I shivered a little as I entered the kitchen. Not that the place was cold. It was actually quite warm. No, I had the feeling that I'd stepped into a viper's den and I looked around.
I wasn't sure what I expected to find, but the pure mundanity of the wooden table and chairs and common kitchen appliances both surprised me and made me even warier. Someone like Silas didn't belong in such mundane surroundings.
The kitchen should have been an ode to steel, with sharp corners and a complete dearth of things like plastic. There should have been appliances as close to industrial as possible--the kinds found in high-end restaurant kitchens, things meant to withstand a lot of use or being thrown around. Things that had real weight to them and could cause injury without sustaining damage to themselves.
"Have a seat." Silas indicated the table. "Would you like some coffee?"
I sat. Well, I rather dropped into the nearest chair, but made sure to do so in a chair that at least somewhat faced the kitchen so I could keep an eye on Silas. He continued on his way to a bland looking coffee maker and poured some of the carafe's contents into a mug already on the counter. I licked my lips.
"Yes, please. Thanks." I wasn't sure I should drink his coffee, but I wanted to be polite. It would look pretty odd to act rude after accepting enough hospitality to get into his kitchen.
He pulled a mug out of the cupboard above the coffee maker. "How do you like it?"
I considered lying for a moment, but really couldn't stand unadulterated coffee. "Half milk or cream and four sugars, thanks."
Silas made no comment, and I realized I still held the cobbler and set it on the table. The bag of sweetener rocked, and I pushed the container halfway across the table, then retrieved the bag of sweetener. Not knowing where else to put it, I set it to my left and gazed at the table's surface.
A green mug settled within my view, the handle of a spoon protruding from the liquid within. I swallowed, unable to appreciate the familiar rich scent, and set my forearms on the table before wrapping my hands loosely around the mug.
My unnerving host sat across from me, and I glanced up at him. He set his coffee down and stirred it a little, gaze apparently on the liquid in the mug. He said nothing and raised his gaze.
I looked down and swallowed, seeking something to say. "Um." I shifted a little and glanced up at Silas. "How long have you known Tina?" That seemed like a safe enough question.
"Since about last November. You?"
I shrugged, unable to keep from fidgeting. "Just a couple weeks. I, uh, met her through my grandmother."
God, that sounded so pathetic. I lived with my grandmother, like some juvenile delinquent whose antics his parents had grown weary of. And there was no point in trying to prevaricate or withdraw my reply. That would just emphasize my uncertainty.
"I live here with my sister Sabriana," Silas said.
I glanced up at him. He met my gaze, and I stared like I had yesterday. He was actually quite attractive, and he had a solemnity about him that just added to the unnerving quality of his presence.
"Uh." I jerked my gaze away from his.
"Are you nervous?" He spoke a little softly, as if afraid of frightening me.
I swallowed, staring into the coffee in my mug as if it could tell me what to say. "Um."
"You shouldn't be nervous." These words came with care at the same volume he'd asked his question.
I tittered a laugh. I shouldn't be nervous? Why not? Since when had it become wise for the prey to listen to the predator? The worst part about it was that I really didn't want to be afraid. I felt attracted to Silas, much as I wished I didn't, and I wanted him to like me. I wanted to be confident. I wanted to impress him, and here I was unable to even look up at him.
"What can I do to make you feel more comfortable?" He sounded patient and concerned.
I blinked at my coffee. Be someone else? I didn't suggest it. God, I felt like I was twelve, not twenty. But then, I'd always been more than a little chicken shit. I really shouldn't have been surprised at myself.
"I don't know." I was unable to make my voice function beyond a murmur. I glanced up at Silas again; this time he was looking at something else. The lid on the plastic container holding the cobbler, perhaps. I didn't know and wasn't sure I wanted to and lowered my gaze again before he could catch me looking at him.
He didn't say anything else, and I knocked my heels together, shifted in my chair, and sighed into my untasted coffee. I felt like I should leave, but I couldn't make myself do so. A quick glance at my host told me Silas apparently didn't feel the tension I did. His expression looked calm, impassive.
I licked my lips and forced myself to sip my coffee. It did nothing to calm me, but it did taste good. Strong, but sweet.
"How's your coffee?" Silas asked.
"You're welcome. Are you afraid of me?" He sounded like he couldn't quite believe the conclusion he'd come to.
I sipped more coffee. "Yeah." I couldn't find a lie that could adequately explain my reaction to him. "A little."
"I don't mean to frighten you."
I nodded. "I know." I glanced up at him. He looked vaguely disappointed now and I returned my gaze to my coffee before he saw me looking. I released the mug of coffee and pushed back from the table, not looking at Silas now. "I-I have to go."
I rose and hurried from the kitchen. A glance over my shoulder told me he hadn't followed, and I escaped his condo feeling like a monster was chasing me. I didn't relax until I reached home, and there I dropped onto the sofa and curled up, wishing I could be somebody braver.
I couldn't have explained how I felt as I watched Geoffrey scramble out of my home. I knew I could be intimidating if I tried, but I hadn't been trying. I'd been doing my best to be friendly, nonthreatening, and approachable. When the door slammed, I flinched and looked at the barely-touched coffee he'd left behind.
Now I felt like a bastard for accepting the cobbler. I gazed at the lid and wondered if I'd be able to eat it. It didn't seem right that I should now, not after frightening Geoffrey.
I rose and got a container out. The least I could do was move it to my own plastic ware and wash his container. I'd have to send Sabriana with it to return it--along with the sweetener. He'd apparently received an injunction to make something for Tina, and I couldn't let him have to try and explain things to her. That would just humiliate him, and the last thing I wanted was for him to find more reasons to dislike me.
I transferred the cobbler to my container and put it in the fridge, then washed Geoffrey's container by hand. That done, I left it in the draining rack and set the sweetener next to it, retrieving his coffee at the same time. That I just dumped before setting the mug in the sink.
Then I went into the living room and dropped onto the sofa. I reviewed everything I'd done and said since opening the door to find Geoffrey on the other side, looking for things I could have said or done differently. Maybe I shouldn't have waited for the conversation to flow naturally. It never really had, and what conversation we had exchanged had been stilted. Then again, maybe I should have just turned him away at the door.
But at the time, he'd seemed confident enough, unafraid. Apparently, inviting him in had changed that. I sighed and fetched the remote from the TV stand, then just spent the next while flipping through the channels. When the door opened at noon, I looked up.
"Hey," my sister said.
"He had to go to work." Sabriana shut the door, gazing at me. "What's wrong?"
I looked at the TV. "I wish I was someone else." I wasn't serious, but Sabriana would understand I was using the phrase as an expression of my frustration with things.
"What happened?" Now she sounded worried.
I inhaled a deep breath and told her about what had happened this morning. At one point, I got up and paced, gesticulating as I spoke. Sabriana caught one of my arms and I halted, finishing my tale with my head bowed.
"Bria, he practically ran away. As if he thought I was on his heels, ready to take him down like some wolf on the hunt!" I waved in the direction of the front door, then turned away from her and walked to the other side of the room. Little could get to me, but this had. I hugged myself, gazing out the window upon the street below. "I don't know what to do to make things better."
"Let me ask you something, Si."
I flinched at the tone of my sister's voice. It had gone hard, her no-nonsense voice. The one that meant that if I wasn't honest in my reply, she'd find some way to make me regret the lie.
"What?" I couldn't muster the fear necessary to speak warily, and I still sounded frustrated as a result.
"How interested are you?"
I blinked, gazing at the traffic. How interested was I? I didn't know. All I did know was that I didn't want to leave things as they were with Geoffrey.
"I don't know. I want to be his friend at least."
Behind me, Sabriana sighed. "Okay, then I'll help you. You go get ready for work. I'll think something up."
I nodded and turned around. "Thanks."
Sabriana caught me again as I passed and I looked at her. She smiled up at me. "What are sisters for?"
I smiled a little. "Thanks."
I hugged her and went to my bedroom to change into work clothes. When I came out, I found my sister on the sofa. She'd pulled her feet up under her knees and was reading one of her textbooks. I patted the crown of her head.
"I'll see you in the morning," I said.
"All right. Drive careful, try to have a good time."
I snorted. "Will do."
I didn't tell Grandma what had happened. She knew something had, because I couldn't get comfortable, but she didn't ask. She just let me mope around the condo and hide in my room like some angsty fifteen year old.
Really, living with Grandma was like living at home in some ways. Nobody asked anything of me. I was left alone to do what I wanted, not that I got rowdy or anything. After Grandma left, I ventured out into the living room.
I thought about Silas. I'd spent last night laying in bed going over every moment I'd spent in his company and chided myself for being afraid. But I couldn't help it. Maybe I was out of Dad's influence, but I still felt like I had to be careful of doing things wrong. It was a kind of guilt, this fear, and it colored everything I did even now. Silas had had a personal bearing that intimidated me not because I expected him to denounce me, but because I envied his confidence.
Not that Dad had been physically abusive. More very strict. How he'd reached the conclusion that I was gay, I didn't know. I hadn't been able to lie about it, either, when confronted. Mom had just clucked her tongue, tsking at me like she did whenever I made a minor transgression, then left Dad to rant at me about being ungrateful for all the things he'd provided me, as if I'd deliberately chosen to be gay just to piss him off. About the best thing about that whole situation had been the fact that my younger siblings had all been at school, so they hadn't been direct witnesses to my humiliation.