For five days, Robin ventured out onto the sidewalk. He sat on the steps leading down from his front path and planted the soles of his boots firmly on the cracked concrete below. Each day, he dressed as though he’d get to the grocery store on the corner, making sure he pocketed his wallet, keys, and phone. Each day he sat on the steps for about half an hour or until his butt got cold, and then he’d head back inside the house, telling himself that after three years, sitting with his feet on the sidewalk was progress.
And yet, it didn’t feel like enough.
What made it worthwhile were the progress reports he texted to Sean. Robin wasn’t sure why he’d decided to report in, or whether Sean appreciated the texts or found them annoying. But being accountable, even only to one person other than himself, got him out to the steps every day… and eliminated the need to check over his shoulder to see a curtain twitch next-door.
Robin told himself Sean wasn’t watching.
His texts meant Sean didn’t need to watch.
Sean always texted back. Sometimes they’d chat for a while. Sometimes not.
On Saturday night, Sean invited him out to the back patio again. Yours or mine.
Robin spent half an hour trying to figure out how to respond before plugging his phone into the charger in the kitchen and descending to the basement—not to head outside, but to catch up on the work he hadn’t missed while sitting out on the street. Then he gamed with Barrett until the wee hours and slept late on Sunday morning, waking to dark skies and rain.
Feeling bad about blowing Sean off the night before without acknowledging the invitation, Robin spent what was left of the morning mapping Sean’s website, and then hunting around the internet for other references to his work.
A random click brought up an article called “Out of the Woods” and the header image had Robin rocking back in his chair. It was The Tile. The one carved to resemble wood with the knot near the middle, the suggestion of an eye at the center.
Two more images from the same collection, or “story,” appeared alongside the text, but the article didn’t give up the meaning. It was a teaser for the project, which Sean planned to unveil at a local gallery in May. Robin blinked at the date, leaned toward his monitor, as though the pixels might somehow make more sense when blurry, and leaned back again. The showing was set for May first. This year. As in three weeks away.
Breath quickening, Robin leaped up from his chair and paced the basement, from corner to corner, past arrays of humming computers and blank monitors. Then he sat down, right-clicked on the image of the first tile, searched the web for other references to it, and found none.
If he wanted the story behind those tiles, he’d have to venture next door before the show opened. Or he could ask Sean about them again.
Either option frightened the stuffing out of him.
What if the tiles weren’t about Robin? What if he got there and the tiles were about someone else who spent the bulk of their life spying through a knothole in the fence on the neighbor they wanted to get to know better?
“You’re his only neighbor.”
Acknowledging that fact didn’t help.
Robin spun his chair away from the screen and rolled to the next workstation to wake a different bank of monitors, intending to start outlining a new website design. He’d make a page for the tiles, ask Sean for the images and story behind them.
He wouldn’t have to go out at all.
Not that he didn’t want to, but putting a purpose to it all added needless pressure.
Something rumbled faintly in the distance. At first, Robin thought it was Kaleb on the drums. Then thunder shook the foundation of the house, and the lights in the basement blinked and failed. His computers continued to hum merrily away, the UPS he had everything connected to giving him nearly twenty minutes to save his work and power down, which Robin proceeded to do. Then he went back upstairs to check on the rest of the house and watch the storm through the front window.
His phone trilled with a text.
Sean: All ok over there?
Robin: Yes. You?
Sean: I was born for dark ages.
While trying to think of a reply other than What the fuck?, Robin fell asleep on his couch. He woke to a world washed clean. Sunlight lanced through the window and outside the street sparkled in the way it only ever did after a storm. Standing there, Robin could imagine the scent of wet concrete and dirt. Hear the swish of car tires from the avenue. And he wanted to go outside… to smell it and hear it and feel the spring sunshine on his skin. To glory in the perfection of the suddenly blue sky. To chat as neighbors sometimes did when the power was out and the TV was off.
Shoes, sweater, wallet, keys, phone. Robin brushed a hand over his jaw, checking the condition of his beard. Ran his fingers through his short hair. It was nearly time for a trim. Could he add going for a cut rather than running his trimmer over his head to the list of things he’d do once he got out?
But first, he had to get out.
The air outside was crisp and new, the sun faintly warm. Robin gloried in it for a moment before conquering the path and stepping down onto the sidewalk. He barely had time to acknowledge the fact he was standing on Kerper Street rather than sitting with his feet planted in enemy territory, when Gallia strode up to him, her figure draped in a long cardigan she kept closed with folded arms.
“Robin! Hey! Some storm, heh? They say the power’s going to be out until tonight. Lightning hit a transformer or something. It’s the whole neighborhood, north of Castor.”
“Everything all right over at your place?” Robin asked, internally marveling at the complete normalcy of this conversation he was having in the street.
“I had a cake in the oven.” She shrugged. “It probably wouldn’t have turned out anyway. I’m a terrible cook.”
Robin offered the sort of smile one did when faced with such a pronouncement. “How’s your cat? You found him okay?”
“Her. Yep. She’s currently buried in the basket of laundry I’m not folding. Do you have pets?”
“I… had a dog.”
Gallia unfolded her arms to touch his elbow. “I’m sorry. It’s hard, isn’t it?”
Throat dry, Robin nodded. “It is.”
After delivering a gentle pat, Gallia resumed her cardigan hugging and turned toward the end of the street. “I’m going to head down to Castor Avenue. I had my heart set on cake. Catch you later, Robin.”
“You too.” He saw her off and then stood there, on the sidewalk, his hands in his pockets, thinking about cake.
Of course, his legs weren’t interested in moving toward Castor. Robin lingered a while longer, enjoying the warming sunlight and fresh air, the sounds he’d anticipated, the scent of early spring. And it wasn’t as awkward as he’d imaged it might be, standing out in the street. No sense of panic loomed from the sky, or from the horizon in his mind.
Behind him, a door opened and closed, and Robin swiveled to see Kaleb trotting down his front walk. Kaleb glanced up, saw Robin, and stopped on the sidewalk, mouth open, eyes very round. Then he approached, slowly, as though encountering a wild animal, and paused a foot in front of Robin.
“You’re out,” Kaleb said.
Robin’s stomach turned over. Not willing to let the sweetness of doing something so normal end so soon, he commanded his interior to settle. His brain not to go anywhere. His mouth to form words, preferably directed toward Kaleb.
“You’re standing on the street.”
“The sidewalk, actually.”
“Have you been anywhere else?”
Robin frowned at the question. “Do you mean, have I left this spot? No.”
Kaleb grinned. “Small steps, man. Small steps.”
Robin returned the smile. “You sounded just like your father, then.”
Rolling his eyes, Kaleb shrugged. But Robin thought he looked secretly pleased.
“So, are you going to hang here for a while, or were you planning on conquering Kerper Street?”
“The plan was to conquer Kerper, but my legs are rebelling.”
Kaleb offered a sage nod. “Would it help if I walked with you?”
A sensation other than panic or nausea shifted Robin’s middle. He swallowed and discovered a lump in his throat. “You and your father are very kind.”
Kaleb answered with another shrug. “We like your Thanksgiving dinners. What with Dad basically having no family and him being all of mine, it’s good to have somewhere to go.” The grin returned. “And not many folks would cook what their guests want. I mean, not doing the whole turkey bit or whatever. You’re good people, Robin.”
“As are you. Not many people would shop three separate grocery stores for a sad old shut-in when they want to make curry.”
A laugh bubbled out of Kaleb, making him seem younger than his seventeen years. “It was an adventure, and I got to use the car.” He sobered. “You don’t look sad right now.”
“I’m trying, Kaleb.”
Kaleb let out a quiet breath. “My dad would like it if you came over sometime.”
Blushing was a new experience and quite distinct from the flush of embarrassment or panic Robin usually practiced. Would it be weird to answer with the same words he’d used before?
Instead, Robin gave a short nod. A grimace of a smile. Kaleb seemed to get it. He reached out and touched the same spot on Robin’s arm that Gallia had half an hour before. Patted Robin’s sweater. Then Kaleb shoved his hands into his pockets and headed off up Kerper Street. To get cake, maybe. Or coffee, or any one of the thousand delights that awaited Robin past the corner.
Robin stared after him, wistfully at first, then admiringly. His thoughts weren’t all on Kaleb, though, or the fact that Sean would like it if he visited. More, he thought about what a good father Sean was. How he’d raised such a great kid. And he’d done it alone, while working in an uncertain field. All while still finding time to check in on his neighbor.
Turning, Robin gazed at the house next-door.
He wouldn’t get there today, he knew that. But he’d try tomorrow, and the day after that. And the day after that. He’d try every day until his feet took him to the house at the end of the block, the one with the man he wanted to see.
Then, satisfied with this day’s progress, Robin retreated to the comfort of his couch. For the first time in a long time, he had an achievable, realistic goal.