Email from Greg Moore:
The fact that you have not responded to my message about Christmas does not mean the subject has been dropped. I will be picking Henry up at nine in the morning on Christmas Day. I expect him to be ready.
I look up from the invoices I took home from work and pull off my reading glasses. Yes, I need reading glasses. I’m not even forty yet, but somehow my eyes are old beyond their years. Also, I have short arms, so I couldn’t hold things far enough away for me to see them anymore. Therefore, reading glasses.
I look at Henry’s face and my stomach sinks. I know that look.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Well,” he says. “I’ve got good news and bad news.”
This is Henry’s new game. When he’s got something bad to tell me, he precedes it by some marginally good news. I flossed tonight, and also, I burned down the kitchen.
“What’s the bad news?” I ask.
He ignores me. “The good news is that I finally cleaned Edgar’s cage.”
“Oh.” That’s actually very good news. Edgar is Henry’s pet mouse, who I am honestly slightly terrified of since he bit me the first week we brought him home. He’s adorable and white-pink, but his bites hurt. In any case, when I bought the mouse for Henry, he promised he’d take on the responsibility of cleaning Edgar’s cage, but he’s been reticent in his duties. That cage was starting to smell pretty ripe. “What’s the bad news?”
“Edgar got away while I was cleaning his cage.”
I jump up from the table, frantically scanning the room. “Got away? What do you mean ‘got away’?”
Henry hangs his head. “I can’t find him anywhere. I searched my whole room.”
“Oh God…” That crazy mouse is loose in our apartment. I’ll never be able to sleep now. He’ll bite off my nose while I’m unconscious. “Are you sure he’s still in your room?”
He lifts his skinny shoulders. “I don’t know!”
And then his face crumbles. This has been a rough year for Henry, what with his dad leaving and then moving out of the apartment where he’d lived his whole life. He puts up a brave front, but I know this has got to be hard for him.
And even though I hate Edgar with a passion, Henry loves him. Anytime Edgar does anything, Henry gets so excited. Look, Mom, he’s pooping at the same time he’s drinking from his water bottle! Isn’t that funny? When we first got Edgar, Henry brought presents home for him from school nearly every day (usually bits of an eraser). At one point, I’m fairly sure he decided he loved Edgar more than his own grandmother.
I wrap my arms around him. “Don’t worry, Hen. We’ll find him. I promise.”
Henry sniffles into my blouse. “What if he gets eaten by a cat?”
“Well, how could he?” I say. “We don’t have a cat.”
He concedes this point, although I’m a little worried Edgar could get out of our apartment through a crack in the wall. Even though I wasn’t a fan of Edgar’s, it would be devastating for Henry if we never find him again.
“Maybe we should put up posters in the lobby,” I say. “In case anyone finds him.”
“Okay!” Henry perks up. “Can you print up a photo of him?”
Sadly, I do have multiple photos of Henry’s mouse in my phone, although I can’t imagine it will help that much in identifying him. I mean, he’s a white mouse. There’s nothing else remarkable about him.
Henry and I spend the next half hour designing an elaborate MISSING poster for Edgar with a photo that’s probably about twice as large as Edgar’s actual size. Henry wanted to offer a monetary reward for his safe return, but I pointed out we got Edgar for only five dollars at the pet store. So.
I mean, I’m not saying I would lie to my son, but I will say there’s a chance Edgar might magically reappear in the next few days, looking more or less the same as in the photo.
There’s a bulletin board in the mailroom where tenants can put up various notices. I’d been planning on posting it up there, but once I’m sticking the thumbtack through it, I start to question the wisdom of telling the whole building that I let a mouse loose on them. It feels like something people won’t appreciate.
“Oh no, did you lose your mouse, Henry?”
I turn around to find Fanny standing behind us, her brow creased even more than usual. I applaud myself for remembering her name this time.
“It’s okay,” Henry tells Fanny. “We’re going to find him. Mom’s going to give a reward.”
“We’re not doing the reward,” I hiss.
Fanny smiles at him. “Well, I promise I’ll keep my eyes peeled. And maybe if you leave out some of his favorite treats, he’ll come back to you.”
Yeah. Or we’ll get cockroaches.
But Henry smiles at that, showing off the gap in his teeth from the incisor he lost a few days ago.
“By the way,” I say to Fanny, “did you have a chance to speak with Mr. Grieder in 5B?”
Her eyes brighten immediately. Wow, she’s got it bad for this old guy. “I did, as a matter of fact.”
“Well, he has no objection to any Christmas tree.” She pats her poof of white hair. “As I thought, it was all just a misunderstanding.”
“Oh, is that what he said?”
She nods eagerly. “I didn’t want to say this earlier, but…” She lowers her voice a few notches. “The reason he didn’t want the tree was because he tripped over the cord. He doesn’t walk so well since his stroke.”
Mr. Grinch had a stroke? Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s elderly, and Henry already told me he had a cane.
Fanny frowns at me. “That wouldn’t be a deal breaker for you, would it, Noelle? A man who has had a stroke? He’s otherwise in very good health!”
“No, of course not!” God, at her age, who hasn’t had a stroke? “Not that. But… it seems like this Mr. Grieder isn’t very… well, he’s not very nice. He yelled at Henry again the other day.”
“He did!” Henry cries, his little face bright pink. “He said he was going to call the police on me!”
The police? Really? Maybe it’s time to march over to 5B and tell this man to stop threatening my son.
“No.” Fanny lips form a straight line. “Believe me, you’re wrong about him. I’ve known him for three years and he’s a good soul. I can tell.”
“He’s a grumpy old Grinch!” Henry yelps.
I smile apologetically. “You have to admit, he could be a little kinder to my son.”
Fanny lets out a sigh, but doesn’t say anything more. I have to admit, I’m a little curious now about J. Grieder. She sure seems to like him a lot.
Back before my stroke, I used to like to run in the morning when the weather was nice. I’d throw on a T-shirt and shorts and sneakers, which took about two minutes to do back then, and I’d jog over to the park near our apartment, then run two or three miles. I liked the sunshine. I liked the fresh air, even laced with smoke and the vague scent of urine.
Engaging in any sort of athletic activity is tricky when the right half of your body doesn’t work. I can’t run. Sports are hard when my dominant arm is completely useless. My balance is awful—I’m lucky to even stay on my feet these days.
But I’m not a homebody by nature. I’m in my apartment so much these days, sometimes I feel like I’m suffocating, even when I open up all the windows. I could deal with not being able to run if it weren’t so challenging to walk. I miss wandering around the most interesting city I’ve ever lived in.
And as soon as the first snow of the season comes, my chances of falling will increase exponentially.
The forecast is calling for snow next week, meaning we’re going to have a white Christmas. That means soon it’s going to get a lot harder to venture outside. For that reason, I decide to go to the grocery store today to pick up some items that are harder to get delivered.
Also, I want to enjoy the fresh air one last time because soon I’ll be trapped. Trapped for the whole goddamn winter.
Today is a good day, actually. I had a long, hot shower this morning that seems to have loosened up all my muscles, and I’m able to walk with less difficulty than usual. Even my right arm feels looser today. I get some stares on the street, but fewer than I usually get.
Before I left my apartment, I called in an order for a cheeseburger at Moonlight Diner. I wanted a cheeseburger, but that’s not the real reason I ordered from them. The real reason is because I’m hoping to see Noelle.
I just want to see her. We don’t even need to talk. But maybe I’ll catch a glimpse of her across the room, and she’ll smile at me. That would be nice. It would be a bright spot in my day. Maybe that sounds dumb, but I don’t care. I want to see her.
When I get to the entrance of Moonlight Diner, I grab the handle to the door, remembering at the last second how heavy the damn thing is. Why are all doors so heavy in this city? Or maybe they’re not so heavy. Maybe I just suck at opening them. I struggle with it for several seconds before a couple leaving the restaurant holds it open for me.
My breath catches in my throat when I see Noelle is right at the cash register. Half of me had been expecting she wouldn’t even be here, but here she is. Right in front of me. Not even across the room. She’s talking to a customer who’s paying, and I get in line behind him. I rest my crutch against the wall for a moment while I yank off my hat. I rake my hand through my hair quickly, knowing that it’s so short, my attempts to smooth it out won’t do much. Then I grab my crutch again, before I fall on my ass.
Noelle looks really sexy today. She’s worn her hair loose, and it’s falling around her face in waves. Her pink lips are pressed together in a straight line—it looks like the guy at the front of the line is trying her patience. He’s about ten years older than me, with hair slicked back and about two day’s growth of a beard on his chin (not that I can throw stones about that one). His cheap cologne tickles my nose.
“Give me one good reason why you can’t give me your number,” the guy is saying to Noelle, sticking his face as close as he can get to hers given that there’s a counter between them.
She takes a step back, her nose crinkling. “I’m not permitted to date customers.”
“Bullshit.” The guy gestures at her left hand. “You ain’t got no ring. Why won’t you give me your number?”
“I’m sorry,” is all Noelle says. She doesn’t sound sorry at all though.
The guy glances back at me and rolls his eyes in my direction. “Can you believe this stuck-up bitch?”
My jaw tightens.
He turns back to Noelle, his eyes darkening. “What? You think you’re too good for me? You think you can get someone better at your age? What are you—like, forty?”
She flinches. Even though she’s keeping her composure, it’s obvious the guy is getting to her. And now I feel my good hand tightening into a fist. Not that I could actually hit this asshole with any accuracy or power, but I want to. I really, really want to. I want to do something.
He can’t talk to her that way. I’m not going to let him.
What’s the worst that could happen?
The worst thing is when I let some random douchebag customer get to me.
I knew this guy was trouble when I got called over to his table mid-meal because “the pickles don’t taste right.” The pickles were from a big jar and we’d been serving them to people all day, so there was no chance his pickles tasted different than anyone else’s pickles. But whatever. I arranged for him to get a new burger with pickles that were more acceptable. Even though they were the exact same pickles.
And then he thanked my breasts for the new burger.
Well, technically he was thanking me. But based on where his eyes were directed, I’m fairly sure he was giving most of the credit to my tits.
So it didn’t surprise me in the slightest when he asked for my phone number. I can handle customers asking for my number, although it’s frustrating that in my entire time working in customer service, I’ve never been asked for my number by a man I’d actually want to give it to. This guy smells like a combination of sweat and cheap cologne, and his hair looks like an oil slick. Not interested.
I could have even dealt with him insulting me, but then Jeremy came into the restaurant. Jeremy—the guy who I would happily hand my digits to. His cheeks were pink from the cold, and then when he yanked off his hat, his ears were pink too. He flashed me this tiny smile, and it was just so sweet.
And then the asshole starts laying into me right in front of Jeremy. He calls me the F word. Forty. Bastard.
“You just blew it, honey,” the man says to me. “You missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime because you’re a stuck-up bitch.”
Somehow I don’t think I did.
“Hey,” Jeremy speaks up.
The man blinks a few times, as if trying to figure out where the voice is coming from. Then he turns around and sees Jeremy’s hard gaze.
“You shouldn’t talk to her like that,” Jeremy says. “She doesn’t deserve that. You need to apologize.”
The guy’s mouth falls open, and quite honestly, so does mine. I don’t think any guy has ever stuck up for me like that before. And Jeremy—let’s face it—isn’t going to be able to fight this guy. Not that the smarmy bastard is any muscleman, but he’s got the benefit of two working arms and doesn’t need a crutch to help him balance.
But when I look at Jeremy’s face, it’s obvious he means business. His blue-green eyes are steely, and he’s glaring at the man with such venom, it’s almost scary. He’s really pissed off at that guy.
For half a second, the man looks taken aback. That half a second is the amount of time it takes him to notice Jeremy is balancing his weight on a crutch laced over his forearm.
“Why don’t you mind your own goddamn business?” the man snarls.
Jeremy doesn’t even flinch. “I’ll mind my own business when you apologize to the lady you just insulted.”
The man bares his teeth. “You think I won’t hit a cripple?”
Jeremy flinches at the remark, but he holds his ground. Honestly, if I were him, I’d be terrified. I’m me and I’m terrified for him. What’s more, we’re starting to attract the attention of customers in the restaurant. Everyone is staring at the two of them. Including me. I mean, I’m the manager and I should be attempting to break up this fight before it begins, but somehow, I’m frozen in place, gawking at the events unfolding before me.
“Why don’t you tell the whole room what you said to her?” Jeremy nods at the dining area. “I’m sure everyone wants to know what kind of great guy you are.”
The man’s hand is balled into a fist, and for a moment, I’m absolutely sure he’s going to slug Jeremy. But then he snorts and shakes his head. “Fuck all of you,” he snaps.
The man pushes past Jeremy, sending him slightly off balance, but he manages to catch himself. The door jingles as the man makes his dramatic exit, and I let out the breath I’d been holding for the last two minutes. There’s about five seconds of absolute silence before the buzz of conversation in the dining hall resumes.
“Wow,” I breathe. “That was… intense.”
Jeremy grins at me. “Yeah, it was.”
“Thanks for sticking up for me,” I murmur. “But… you didn’t have to.”
His eyes meet mine behind his lenses. God, he’s sexy. “Yes, I did.”
“But… what if he punched you?”
“I didn’t think he would. But if he had, well… I would have gone down, that’s for sure.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “Have you ever been punched before?”
“I’m a computer programmer,” he laughs. “What do you think?”
I allow myself a smile. “So that’s a no?”
“That’s a no. But I’ve always wanted to experience it.”
He chuckles. “No, I definitely didn’t want him to hit me. But… it was a calculated risk.”
“Well…” He adjusts his grip on his crutch. “If he had punched me, it would have hurt, but you probably would have felt bad for me and given me your phone number.”
My phone number.
Does that mean… he wants it?
I lower my voice a few notches, in case anyone is still listening in to our conversation. “Is that something you’d like? My phone number?”
His ears turn adorably pink. “Uh, yeah. Of course I do. I’ve been trying to get it for the last two weeks.” He says it like I’d be insane for thinking otherwise. “But… you know, you don’t have to…”
Before he can say another word, I pull out one of the blue checks from the pad, flip it over, and scribble my digits as legibly as I can manage, considering my hands are shaking. I slide it across the counter, in his direction. He looks down at what I’ve written, blinking a few times like he can’t believe it.
“I have to warn you,” he says, “if you give me this, I’m going to actually call you.”
“You better.” I give him a hard look. “And don’t be one of those guys who waits three days to call. That is not cool.”
“Don’t worry. I wait a minimum of six to eight weeks. I like to call at the point where the woman has completely forgotten who I am. I think that’s my best strategy.”
“Or,” I murmur, “you can call me tonight.”
His smile falters. “Yeah. I can do that.”
We stare at each other across the counter. My stomach is doing excited flips. Not only did I give the guy I’ve been lusting after my digits, but he seems as thrilled to get them as I am to give them. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever find happiness with a man again after Greg broke my heart. But now it’s only a year later, and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite this infatuated before in my whole life.
To be continued.....
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