tagGay MaleNeutral Territory Ch. 13

Neutral Territory Ch. 13




I tried the direct approach first. That morning and Friday, I knocked on Geoffrey's door at a quarter to nine. Then I paced, waiting and knocking a couple more times, seeing if he'd answer. I suspected he saw me outside his door and decided that he wouldn't answer. If he'd decided that I was better off without him, he probably didn't see a reason why I'd be up knocking on his door.

Each morning, after that attempt, I went down to sit in our usual spot. I did consider that he perhaps had morning shifts, but I didn't count on that happening two days in a row. His bosses were pretty good about keeping schedules shuffled, so I guessed there was at least one morning when he was home when I knocked on his door.

Saturday morning, his grandmother answered.

I'd met the woman a couple times and she'd seemed nice enough. When she opened the door in response to my knock, she looked troubled.

"Come in. I've been expecting you."

I entered without protest, unwilling to upset her any more than she already probably was. She had to be worried about Geoffrey, and I didn't blame her. She invited me to the kitchen and I entered, stopping just within the doorway. The place looked like a business kitchen--a bakery's kitchen. Cookies, muffins, cupcakes.

"Geoffrey bakes a lot when he's upset," his grandmother said.

I glanced to find her looking over my shoulder. The woman was tall; she could have put her chin on my shoulder without trouble.

"Go ahead and sit down."

I obeyed her invitation. "Is he okay otherwise?"

"As well as can be expected." She went to the coffeemaker. "How do you like your coffee?"

"I'll take it black, thanks." I wasn't sure I could handle any more sugar than I already saw arrayed around the kitchen.

"Have a muffin."

I looked at the muffins arranged on the table. Giant muffins. About two dozen. Banana nut, chocolate, cranberry. I chose a cranberry muffin and Geoffrey's grandmother brought a plate over with my coffee. I peeled the paper away and folded it after setting my muffin on the plate.

"Is he home right now?"

"He's gone to work. He had to be in at six, will probably be home within the next hour or so."

I nodded. I couldn't stick around. It was my turn to do the grocery shopping this week, and I had to do my laundry; Sabriana refused to do it now that we had our own washer and dryer.

"He won't tell me what's wrong."

I sighed and tore a bite off the bottom of my muffin. "Well, I took him to meet someone, and they said something to make him think I'm better off without him. I've tried visiting him the past couple days, but he wouldn't answer the door."

Geoffrey's grandmother stirred her coffee idly. "How do you feel about him?"

I sighed, chewing the bit I'd torn off, and swallowed. "I need him in my life, Mrs. Oxton. He's as important to me as my sister is. I-I don't know how to explain it. It's like there's a piece of me missing now. I don't think he broke up with me with the intent to date anybody else. Not with the way he worded the little letter he taped to my door."

"Do you still have it?"

Did I still have it? I'd spent the past couple nights staring at the letter, trying to decipher what Drew had told him. Of course I still had it. It was my last connection to Geoffrey.

"Yeah. In it he told me to date the man I introduced him to." I didn't want to get into details. I assumed two things: one, that Geoffrey had told his grandmother everything; or, two, that he hadn't said a damn thing about what was going on.

"I really don't know what to say."

I ate a little more, letting thoughts circle around my mind. "Could you help me some?"

"Depends on what you want me to do."

I frowned. "What days is Geoffrey off next week?"

"Monday and Thursday."

I frowned. I was off Tuesday and Wednesday. "How about the week after?"

"Tuesday and Saturday."

For a moment, I felt discouraged, then I took out my phone. I checked the schedule for week after next and saw only one appointment for a showing. Well, that could be rescheduled to my current planned day off.

I gazed at the Tuesday appointment for a moment as a plan came to mind, then looked up at Mrs. Oxton. "Can I ask you a favor?"

"Depends on what it is."

"I'd like to come up early that Tuesday morning to talk to Geoffrey, but I know he won't let me in. Could you?"

She held my gaze for at least half a minute, then nodded. "I can do that. I leave for work at eight thirty. He hasn't been coming out until after I go to work unless he has work early as well."

I nodded. "Thanks."

She reached over and patted my arm. "I think you're good for him, Silas. I think he would have tried going back to dating women if you hadn't met him. I know this thing with you has been a struggle for him, but I think it's been good for him. He needs someone like you in his life."

I looked at my overturned muffin and tore another bite free. "Thanks."

"Why not just stay now?"

"I can't stay for long. And I have a feeling that it'll take me a while to convince him to let me back in. I want at least a whole day so that I can do that."

She nodded. "I see what you mean. That's probably a good idea."

I finished eating my muffin, drank my coffee, and rose. Geoffrey's grandmother rose with me. She placed her hand on my back as we walked to the door.

"I'm glad you haven't given up on him," she said.

"I can't. If I thought he'd broken up with me for any other than a shallow reason, I wouldn't be here, but I can't let him dump me just because he thinks I'm better off with someone else. That's not a good enough reason."

She opened her door. "I agree." She raised her free hand. "Wait here a moment."

I nodded. Mrs. Oxton crossed to where her purse hung on a coat tree and dug a little notebook and pen out. She opened the notebook on her way back over.

"What's your number? I'll give you mine, too," she said. "That way if something comes up for either of us, we'll be able to give updates."

I nodded and told her my number while I took out my phone. She shook her head, wrote her number down, and held it out. "There. He'll be here soon, so you'd better go."

I accepted her number and put it in my pocket with my phone. "Thanks." I didn't want to argue with her. I could understand her reasoning. If Geoffrey saw me here now, it might make things more difficult later.

I stepped out and we bid each other farewell. Since it was only a couple floors, I took the stairs. It also kept me from the possibility of running into Geoffrey at the elevators, in case he should already be home. Really, I thought that Mrs. Oxton had the right idea. Give Geoffrey some time by himself, let him get used to my absence, then surprise him in a week.

Unfortunately, I didn't get that chance.



The knock on the front door made me go still, and I dropped my sleep clothes. I didn't have my watch on, so I didn't know precisely what time it was, but it had to be sometime around nine thirty because I'd taken off my watch at a quarter after for my shower, and I didn't take long ones.

I felt tight inside, but I obeyed my curiosity and crept to the front door. My bare feet didn't make a sound and I stood to the side of the creak near the door frame. Stupid condo builders, putting in wood floors. I had to lean a little from the left to peek through the peephole and I saw Silas pass. He was pacing. I leaned against the door, my hand on the knob to keep myself from falling, and watched him pass back and forth.

A part of me wanted to open the door. The secret place that had been holding all that negative shit from Dad now held a desire to open the door and speak to Silas. From what I could see, he wasn't happy. I didn't think he was angry, but his head was bowed as he paced, his hair more unruly than usual. Once when he passed, he shoved his hand through his hair.

He stopped and knocked again. I imagined I could feel it hitting the door, though that wasn't likely. One of of the reasons why Grandma had gotten a condo here instead of somewhere else was because the doors were solid wood. It would take a nuclear explosion to make the door vibrate, so a mere number of raps wasn't going to shake a single grain.

I gazed at his face. He stood right before the peephole, expression downcast, features worn with weariness. I knew he was here to try and convince me to give it another try. That was why I couldn't open the door, much as I wanted to. This was the proof that I just dragged him down, not that I'd really needed any. He should have been out doing something else.

I'd seen him yesterday. The back of his head. I'd come out of the elevator on my way to work and seen him sitting in the loveseat. He'd had his elbow on the armrest, his head propped on his hand. He should have been on his walk, and that had just been more proof. If not for me, he would have performed his usual habits, but instead he'd been hanging around apparently waiting for me.

He paced some more, head bowed lower than before. This time he glanced at the door as he passed. Well, watched it. I didn't think he turned his head unless he was turning around. He stopped again. This time the bell rang, and that startled me enough that I yelped a little. He didn't appear to notice. He gazed directly at the peephole as if he knew I stood on the other side, sighed, and left, heading toward the elevator.

I turned around and put my back against the hinge side of the frame and hugged myself. Perhaps I should have explained my reasoning in more detail in the letter, but it was too late now.

One plus was that I no longer felt conflicted. I had no idea where the conflict had gone. It just wasn't there any more. Even when I fell into thinking about Silas, the negativity didn't rise. I could only attribute it to the fact that I'd decided to push him out of my life. If he was no longer around, there was no reason to feel conflicted.

Even so, I wished it hadn't gone. It would have been something different to feel. Something that wasn't depression and loneliness. I would have felt much more like myself, the me I'd become since Dad threw me out.

I sighed and went back to the hall and collected my clothes from the floor. My underwear fell out of my grasp so I kicked them into my bedroom and dropped my things on the pile next to my bed, where I sat. I grabbed my watch off the nightstand and looked at it as I put it on. Almost ten. I couldn't waste time; I was due to start my shift at eleven.

I stared at the face of my watch, frowning. Screw it. I'd just drive to work. That gave me some time to flop back on my bed, pull the covers over myself, cover my head, and miss Silas without interruption. Maybe he wouldn't be downstairs when I left, but I rather hoped he would be. It would be nice to at least see him, even if I was determined to stick to my decision not to talk to him.



Who can tell what the signs are when they see them? None of us did. Lara's vacation started Saturday and all went fine through Sunday. Granted, Shanika seemed a little more stressed out than usual, but she'd been through hell the past ten months. Not only had she been in the middle of an acrimonious divorce when I started, but her only child had attempted suicide and was still in the hospital, and she'd lost both her main supports when her mother and her eldest brother died within weeks of each other. She hadn't had a good year.

So none of us thought anything of it when we could hear Shanika muttering during her time in the office. She was the unofficial assistant manager and took over Lara's duties, which meant she'd be working close to eighty hour weeks for the next couple weeks so she could keep up with her own duties while keeping the office from imploding.

Then, on Monday, it happened. I was at my desk--had just sat down to make a few calls and arrange a few showing appointments--when I heard Shanika's phone ring. And ring. And ring.

My desk was right outside the management offices, closer to Shanika's, so I could really hear her phone. When the ringing stopped and started again, and she still didn't answer, I got up to investigate.

Shanika stood with her back to the door. She had cubicle walls and a corner desk, and she stood at the extension along the back wall. Her desk chair lay on the floor and a foot high stack of half sheets stood on her messy desk. More half sheets lay scattered all over the floor.

"Shan?" I asked, a bit too softly. Either that, or she was too focused on her making of half sheets because she didn't stop what she was doing. I heard a tear. She threw a small collection of half pages, connected by a paper clip, over her shoulder, and I began to worry.

"All done!" she announced, tossing a folder over her shoulder as well.

Then she crossed to a cabinet of active files, opened a drawer at apparent random, and pulled another file out. She was ripping active files in half.

I crossed the room as she set the file down and clamped her arms down. "No."

The contents of the folder she'd grabbed scattered. "I need scrap paper!" She tried to jerk free.

I tightened my embrace, pulling her back. We slipped on the papers on the floor and I managed to get her away from the desk and folder she'd gotten out.

"Luis! Francine!" I fought to hold Shanika as she kept attempting to free herself, and she had a lot of strength.

"What, Silas? Oh, my God," Francine said.

"Ay Dios . . . What do you need?" Luis asked.

"Call an ambulance," I said. "And find me a chair."

"I'll get the chair," Francine said.

"I'll call the ambulance," Luis said.

I nodded, putting my back against the wall next to the doorway. Shanika had devolved to growling for more scrap paper, and I regarded the mess with a faint heart. How were we going to deal with this? It would take days to sort this out, and none of us had that time. We had our jobs to attend to, showings to perform. We couldn't have our receptionist do it, either.

Francine returned with the chair and I had her put it next to me, back right against the wall. It had apparently come from our break room because it wasn't a wheeled one. I edged around it and sat down, and Shanika ended up on my lap perforce. She tried to writhe free, tugging on her arms. I cooed at her, made soothing noises, tried to calm her down, and eventually she broke down in tears. About that time, the ambulance arrived.

Thankfully, one of the paramedics was a man who looked like he worked out. I warned him that she might try to escape and handed Shanika over, then told the other paramedic to take her to Catholic Hope hospital, where her son was in the mental ward. At least they could be together. I didn't know what this mess would do to the custody battle, but I didn't see any harm in having her sent to a place where there was someone she loved. That would be a comfort, and it might be a nice kick in the metaphorical ass for her son and make him straighten up a bit and make some progress instead of continuing to mope about in self-pity.

Then I took the chair back to the break room and considered what to do. I knew Luis and Francine wouldn't do anything. They liked being agents too much to take on the responsibility left behind by Shanika's impromptu departure. That left it to me. I didn't really want it, either, especially not like this, but there was no other way.

When I went back to the office, I found Francine and Luis gone. For a moment, I felt bitter. Just like them to leave. Still, they had houses to show. I'd have to do some rescheduling to make sure at least one person was in the office at all times so we could continue to take new clients.

I went to Shanika's office and picked up the papers on the floor, then got her client cards and the box of copies Lara kept and took them both to my desk. Client cards were five by eight index cards on which we kept the most pertinent client information--names, contact info, buy/sell, status of their goal. Lara had us keep these so that clients could be reassigned in case of emergency or illness. I shuffled Shanika's cards once then sorted them into three equal stacks, adding the last four or five to my stack. I was the one who worked the latest, so I had more time to show homes. I put the other two stacks on my coworkers' desks. There, that was done.

I then wrote Post-Its with the excuse that I wanted us to use when explaining the sudden change to Shanika's clients--"emergency medical leave"--and stuck them on my coworkers' computer screens. I didn't want Shanika to be ashamed or embarrassed about her breakdown. We might know the truth, but her clients didn't need to.

After that, I called a temp agency to send a temp worker to sort out the mess in Shanika's office. I didn't have access to company funds--Shanika did, but she was on her way to the hospital--but I'd find some other way to pay the temp. Maybe from those funds that I'd saved up when Dad was still sending me an allowance for my portion of the condo and things. I could ask Lara to reimburse me later. But that would be only if I couldn't get Shanika to approve things some other way from the hospital.

Then I went through Shanika's client cards I'd assigned to myself and found all the files I could to transfer them to my own file drawer. A couple were missing, and I called those clients first to give the "emergency medical leave" excuse and explain that I couldn't find their files. I made it sound like it was my fault, too. No point in blaming Shanika. I probably sounded like the most inept real estate agent they'd ever heard of.

I spent the next hour cramming in meetings and showings up from noon until my usual showing time of three--for every remaining day of the week, including my scheduled days off. I was going to have to get Luis and Francine to pull overtime, and they weren't going to like it, but we were skeleton crew now, and we didn't have much to begin with.

I had to call and reschedule showings with my own clients as well, because I wouldn't be able to get out of the office until six tonight. As many as possible went on this Tuesday, the rest Wednesday of next week. Then I left new schedules on Luis's and Francine's desks, detailing when they were supposed to be in the office. They wouldn't like it, but if this office was going to be here when Lara got back, they had to pull their own weight here, too.

I didn't intend to let this place fall apart while Lara was gone if I could help it, and if that meant I'd have to be in at eight so I could do as much of Lara's and Shanika's jobs as possible and didn't get off until ten at night so I could keep up with my own job, then that was what I'd do.

It just could have happened at a better time.



I wasn't sure what to think. Maybe Silas had given up. If so, he'd done so sooner than I'd thought he would. He didn't come up to knock on my door, and I didn't see him downstairs on the mornings that I should have.

He should certainly have made attempts on Wednesday and Tuesday or Thursday. He didn't.

That secret place that longed for him was troubled by this lack of interest. It made me wonder how interested he really could have been if he'd given up so easily. And it disappointed me. I'd thought he'd keep trying. That he didn't saddened me more than I thought it would.

The days didn't get better, either. The longer he was gone, the less I felt like doing. I eventually stopped baking and just curled up in bed whenever I didn't have to be at work. Grandma asked about it, but I refused to talk to her about it. I just wanted to mope in peace, and my mood dropped to about the level it had been the first few days after Dad threw me out. I stopped wanting to try.

On Saturday, I just dropped into bed in my work clothes, not even bothering to change when I got home. I hadn't seen Silas downstairs this morning when I'd gone out, and I'd actually started considering maybe talking to him. I wanted to hope for something and hoping that we might be friends was what had kept me from calling in sick.

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