The technician is not overweight at all, if anything he is rather on the skinny side. He has jet black hair that could maybe use a haircut and wears a simple black jacket to blue jeans and sneakers. He is not looking up at me, I do not even think he has noticed me yet because he is focused on the steps in front of him. As I watch, he takes one at a time, clutching the handrail with his right hand. From his flexed left arm dangles a cane but he is not using it, merely pressing it against his body with his left hand curled into a fist. His left foot bumps into almost every step, dragging it up seems to require an immense amount of effort, while the leg remains slightly bent at the knee even when he pauses shortly on top of a step before continuing. My eyes seem glued to it, I just cannot look away.
I am disgusting.
My heart is racing when I finally manage to silently retreat into my apartment. So okay, he is not overweight, he is disabled. Cool it, girl. I listen through the open door as he tackles the last steps, his breathing heavy. Did I really say that there were only a few steps to my apartment?
A part of me screams to shut the door and pretend to be dead. Another part of me, the one that I despise, causes heat pooling in my stomach.
Oh my god, this is not real…
He comes into view and releases the handrail to switch his cane to his right hand. His head lifts, locking eyes with me and I cannot help but stare. His eyes are a piercing blue I have never seen before and light up when a small smile replaces the tense expression on his face. They practically glow in contrast to his black hair. His skin is a few degrees darker than my ghostly white one. He turns awkwardly, shuffling his feet, and takes two steps towards me, his right leg moving forward fast and his left following slower with a swing from his hip.
He stops in front of me and his smile falters before I can get a grip on myself and look away. Which probably just made it worse.
"I'm Jacob Barnett from TalcTech. And you are… Miss Guo?" His voice is slightly tight again but it still makes me hold my breath.
I try to get air as any normal person would and look him in the eyes again. "I’m Cait." I hope my smile is genuine enough. My cheeks are burning.
Kill me. Now.
"Hi Cait." He shifts his weight, tucks his cane back under his left arm to offer me a handshake. I take his hand, and try not to focus on the calluses on his palm while I shake it. I hope I released it within an appropriate timeframe, too.
"Hi! Um... come inside?"
He pauses then jerks his head at my feet. "Should I take my shoes off first?"
I look down at my own feet, clad in woolen socks. If there is any reason I pay the horrendous rent of this small, dark and cold apartment it is because of the beautiful parquet. "Uh... yeah? If it's not too much of an inconvenience?" As soon as I say it I know it came out all wrong. I say that to everyone and it always translates to: I leave it up to you but honestly it would be totally rude not to. But I see in his eyes that he understood something else.
I managed to insult him after only two minutes. That surely sets a record.
He turns slightly, leaning on his cane and my gaze follows his to the bench in the hallway. I hurry to pick up the hats and jackets, the sunglasses and the umbrella that occupy the surface and stand on tiptoes to squeeze the stuff in the topmost compartment of my shoe cupboard next to the bench.
Jacob lowers himself down on it and places the cane against the wall. He loosens the Velcro on his sneakers and removes the shoes with his right hand. His left leg jumps slightly when he takes the shoe off his foot. My stomach flips a little, too.
There is a strange plastic plate running along the underside of his left foot. He removes it by pulling up his trousers’ leg and loosening a Velcro strap around his calf. He struggles a little with getting up after he has placed the shoes neatly to the side of the bench and leaned the brace-thing against them. I feel an itch to surge forward and help but I force myself not to move.
He follows me down the narrow hall, his cane thumping on the wooden floor every second step. I wince every time. Not because of the parquet. But because I have to physically restrain myself not to turn around and look.
"Well...uh... there it is."
"The offending piece of machine?" I am glad he seems ready to ignore my awkwardness, especially since I walked too fast, he is still several steps behind me. He approaches slowly, having obvious difficulties with the confined space around him, trying not to bump into another shoe shelf to his left and a bench to his right. My eyes are inevitably drawn to his foot, the left one, which tends to point down and turn outwards whenever he lifts it. His socks scrape the floor. He takes careful steps, making sure that his foot is placed correctly before he quickly steps forward with his right, relying on his cane for balance.
“Uh... yeah. The machine from hell." I force myself to turn to the router.
He stops at my side, breath still slightly exhilarated. We stare down at the router together while I feverishly think about a solution to the obvious problem that presents itself. The cable leading to the telephone connection is not short but it leads in the opposite direction as the cable for electricity and both are spanned tight. The router sits on the floor in between and it is impossible to pick it up without disconnecting it from either electricity or phone connection. That is why I always had to crouch down to as much as check which light is blinking.
Before I can come up with anything, before I can even apologize, he leans the cane against the shelf and with his right hand on the wall behind him he slides down to the floor. I blink surprised and a little awed because this went so fast. He seems unfazed, tugs at the trouser of his left leg that has fallen to the side to bring it into a more comfortable position and shrugs his backpack off. He opens the zipper with his right hand, his bent left arm fixing the bag against his body. He pulls out a laptop, opening it on his knees and adds some cables and a black box. I hear him huff angrily at the mess of twisted cables, trying in vain to unknot them with one hand.
"Do you mind... uh..."
I stare down at him and feel heat creeping into my cheeks again. There I had been standing by without moving a muscle, watching. I plop down next to him at once and dare not to look at him while I fumble with the cable until it unwinds.
"Thanks." He smiles at me as he takes the cable out of my hands and my heart flutters. I only realize now how close we are sitting, cramped in the space between router and shelf. I could count every one of his unbelievably long eyelashes.
"Seems my co-worker used the equipment before me."
I blink and clear my throat. "Oh..."
Jacob waves his hand towards the chaos surrounding him on the floor. "This is normally plugged in and not everything is such a.... mess."
He sounds resigned and somehow I feel responsible for it. I pick up one of the cables, dangling it in front of us. "Where does that go?"
He guides me to set up the measuring device (I think at least that this is what it is) that has been hidden in the black box. A monitor, some.... thing with a thing attached and lots of cables, some leading to his laptop. Then I have to remove the telephone cable from the router. I remember which one it is.
"I am now checking if there is anything wrong with the router." He attaches one of the cables to the router, unceremoniously laying the white machine flat on the ground to insert the plug. His left arm remains bent and useless at his side, his fingers curled into a loose fist.
Columns of letters and numbers dance over his laptop's screen. I latch onto it to distract myself. This is familiar to me now. "Could you rebuild the system like this?"
The corners of his lips twitch happily surprised. While the program is running he explains to me what it does, and shows me the numbers that in the end seem to confirm that yes, my router is indeed not the problem.
"Leaves only one thing… but I need to check nevertheless." His eyes move to the telephone socket a few steps down the hallway and he seems to deflate.
I react faster this time. "Should I....?"
He hands me a plug of sorts and explains how to put it between the socket and the cable from the router. When I get up to walk over, he scoots backwards until he leans with his back against the wall, a small sigh escaping his lips. I watch out of the corners of my eyes as he rubs his left thigh with his functioning hand.
Five minutes later we have clarity. "There is definitely something wrong with the connection of your apartment to the telephone network," Jacob states, tapping his finger on the laptop screen.
"Oh... and what now? Can you fix it?" I remove the small plug again how he has asked me to and carry it over to him, sitting down with some space next to him against the wall.
Jacob chuckles adorably. "No, that I can't do. I'm sorry. I will contact the cable company and they will take care of it."
I must have looked devastated because he smiles again and then moves away from the wall, carrying his laptop on his lap with him. He pushes himself forward with his right arm and right leg, his left leg stubbornly refusing to follow. He tucks it in with his hand and again connects the laptop to the router.
"You had telephone connection for a while longer, right?" He looks back at me. I nod. "How is it now?"
His expression tells me I have been staring again. "The telephone. Is it working?"
"Oh..." I scramble to my feet and pick up the telephone from the cabinet down the hall. "Uh... I think it's working." I can hear the soft toot from the phone.
He grins triumphantly and starts hacking into the keyboard one handed.
"Your connection is not fully broken, I guess. It's just failing sometimes or weak most of the time and the router realizes that and tries to reboot every time the signal is bad. I'm going to actually rebuild the system and try to disable the reboot automatic."
"Wow, huh... so I might have internet again?" I try to catch a look on his screen upside down.
"Maybe. Sometimes. It won't be perfect but it will work from time to time, hopefully. I have to ask you not to fiddle with the router, don't press any buttons or disconnect it. It might shut down at that and not reboot again."
"Okay, I will keep that in mind."
"It's not really standard procedure," he adds, mumbling.
I grin feebly. "Yeah? How did I deserve the special procedure?" Oh my god, stop flirting.
"Oh, I think I might have hopes on a cup from this baby," Jacob says, nodding towards the kitchen. Marcus’ precious espresso machine is visible through the open door.
My grin falters. "Um... " Hardware again. I never was allowed to get close to the machine and although I absolutely love the coffee it makes, I honestly do not know how to work it.
Jacob shakes his head, guessing my thoughts, laughing. "Really?"
I shrug, helplessly.
"Okay, come on. Let's see what this thing is capable of, won't we?" He finishes the process, closes the laptop and crams it together with his equipment, cables and all, in his backpack. Then he scoots back again against the wall, grabs his cane and places the tip on the floor. He looks around and sighs after some time, not making any effort to get up. "I think I need your help here," he finally says in a low voice. He does not look at me.
I step closer and he nods with his head towards his left arm. I hesitantly stick my arm under his armpit, the curled up limb stiff between us.
"You don't need to be careful, I won't break." He laughs but it sounds hollow and he still won’t meet my eyes.
I enforce my grip on him and he tightens his around the handle of the cane and pushes himself up. Together we manage to bring him into a standing position. I let go as soon as he seems to stand stable but at that moment he staggers against me and I reflexively wrap my arms around his waist to prevent him from falling. I feel his left leg trembling against mine.
"Shit." His face is screwed up in a mask of pain as he tries to shift his balance to his right leg again. I steady him until the tremor in his left leg subsides, worriedly watching the muscles in his beautiful face twitch. "Sorry," he murmurs and frees himself of me, hobbling towards the kitchen.
I close my eyes for a second to breathe, trying to clear my head that is suddenly swamped with tons of unbidden fantasies. This is so wrong…
His cane leans against the kitchen counter when I enter and his right hand roams over the machine as if looking is not enough. There is still a hint of a blush on his cheeks. I quickly glance at his left leg but it seems still for now. I can still feel the warmth of his body against mine. His leg twitching against my leg.
"Really a nice lady you got there."
"Uh... she is from my ex." I say. I realize shortly after that what I have said and bite on my lip. I do not correct myself, however.
"Hm..." I cannot say what the expression in his face means. He opens a lid on top of a small black machine next to the espresso machine and peers inside. "Did your ex leave some roasted beans, by any chance?"
I randomly open a few cupboards and find indeed a battered package in the back of the ones higher up. I remove the rubber band around it, open it and offer it to Jacob. He sticks his nose inside the package and makes an approving sound. He works a few buttons on the espresso machine, resulting in gurgling and swishing noises from it.
“It takes a few minutes to heat up,” he explains.
He fills the beans into the smaller, black machine, turns a wheel and pushes a button and it springs to life with a small hum. After a few seconds he pushes yet another button and removes the lever that now holds the ground coffee powder, experimentally weighing it in his hand before nodding.
“Should be enough. Could you hold the portafilter?”
I blink when his blue eyes shoot up to mine. “The… what?”
He waves the lever at me and I could smack myself. I carefully take the… portafilter-thing from him and he picks up a small device that has been lying on top of the espresso machine.
“That’s a tamper,” he says. I nod, trying to pull myself together and concentrate. “It’s used to compact the coffee powder.”
He directs me with his eyes and, finally understanding, I hold the portafilter down on the countertop while he presses the tamper in the powder.
He reclaims the portafilter from me. “There are a few magic numbers involved with good espresso. The right amount of compacting, the right amount of coffee powder, the right amount of pressure in the machine and if the coffee beans have been grinded correctly, then you will get a tiny little cup of espresso within exactly the right amount of time. It’s easy, actually.”
Yeah sure. Just a hundred buttons and wheels in between. “Okay…”
He puts the lever into another slot at the machine with a flick of his wrist. I place two cups under the nozzles where I at least know the espresso will come out. He pushes yet another row of buttons and the machine hums. Espresso starts gushing out, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee filling the room.
It is indeed working.
Jacob grins and leans his hip against the counter. “Voilà.”
"Do you take sugar?" I place the sugar bowl next to him.
The cups are filled and we both stir sugar in the espresso and take a small nip. He smacks his lips and shifts a little, grimacing before smiling again. "Good stuff."
I sense his discomfort. After all he has had most of his weight on one leg during the whole procedure. I propose we go into the living room to enjoy the rest of the espresso. "It's across from here."
Our fingers meet when I take the tiny cup from his offering hand. He has long fingers, callused but tender and I probably stare at them a second too long. He grabs his cane and I follow him out of the kitchen. My eyes guiltily take in his way of walking. He is throwing his left leg forward mostly through the movement of his hip, leaning on the cane to step forward with his good right while the left one barely seems to take his weight now. I might imagine it, but I think his left leg is still shaking a little.
We sit on the couch and sip our espresso. I hope he will leave soon. I wish he would stay.
"Thanks for fixing the internet. At least, temporarily."
"No problem. I'm happy I could help."
I have already emptied most of my tiny cup and place it on the table in front of me. I search for something to fill the silence. "It must be nice to get out of your office from time to time." I think about my office that I barely leave during work.
Jacob nods and takes another sip, humming. "I don't do field work regularly. I stepped in for a co-worker who is sick."
He laughs, rough and loud. "Don’t say you haven’t noticed."
I turn to him, genuinely confused. "No... you were being very professional in my opinion. Why?"
He huffs and places his cup on the table with a clatter. When I continue to stare his eyes grow hard. "Well, it's obvious, isn't it? I can't even plug two cables together."
"That wasn't a problem-"
"It wasn't a problem for you. You were really nice... I guess I have to thank you." Jacob is not looking at me, as he says that, his voice quiet. He is staring ahead, his right hand kneading his left, extending the bent fingers. "Not everyone appreciates having to help the cripple fix the internet, though."
I am taken aback and lost for words at that. Do people honestly think that? Well, I am a freak and maybe a bad judge in this case but why would anyone not want to have him as a technician? He has been sweet and oh so helpful…
When I do not speak for a few seconds he clears his throat and picks up his cane. "Anyway, I'd better be going now. I don't want to keep you. You surely want to test your internet connection." His words are clipped and his voice gains a strained edge when he struggles to get up from the low seating.
I follow him to the door, still trying to find words.
You are perfect.
He quickly picks up his backpack from the telephone cabinet and throws it over his right shoulder. I do not want him to leave but as I watch his dark expression when he straps on his brace and slips in his shoes sitting on the bench outside I do not dare to say a single word. I fear I have ruined everything.
He formally shakes my hand as he says goodbye and then tackles the stairs down. The handrail is at the wrong side for him now and he uses his cane for balance, wobbling precariously when his left leg gets stuck on a step before getting control again. I silently watch from my door, biting my lips and feeling awful. When he follows the curve of the stairs he looks up and scowls as he sees me staring. My eyes averted I retreat and close the door, listening from behind it to the shuffling of his feet and thudding of his cane until he reaches the ground floor safely and the entrance door falls shut behind him.
--> Chapter 3
--> Chapter 3