Thursday afternoons were devoted to meetings with the development team. Because Robin worked in visual media, they usually conferenced online with one team member or another sharing a video of their virtual selves running around a half-finished world. Barrett called his “the highlight reel” and it often included at least ten minutes of Legolas dancing somewhere improbable or inappropriate.
After two hours of trouble shooting and scheduling, the meeting broke apart. Robin eased his headset away from the near permanent grooves over and under his ears and hung it from the hook jutting out from this particular desk. He rolled back his chair and studied the array of monitors before him. Two on this desk, another two on the desk to his right, and two more on the desk around the corner.
It was ridiculous, he thought. He didn’t own a television (he used a laptop to watch movies), but he had screens galore in his basement. Some days, multiple screens were necessary, though. Well, not entirely necessary. He could flip windows, but…
With a sigh, he leaned forward out of his chair and performed a series of stretches designed to untie the knots in his shoulders and back. His neck cracked when he tipped his head to the left. It creaked like old wood when he tipped his head the other way. He’d been sitting for far too long—which happened on a daily basis.
His ex had jokingly complained about it, making the comment, “That’s why you have no ass. You’re always sitting on it.”
Back then, he and John had ended most days by walking Gimli, Robin’s energetic and fun-loving boxer. Some nights, they’d walk the streets of their neighborhood. Others, they’d load Gimli into the car and go to Pennypack Park.
Twin losses—one major, the other shifting toward minor—pulled at Robin’s mood. He missed his dog more than he missed his ex, but that was due to the circumstance surrounding the… Would calling it the End of All Things be too dramatic?
He checked his watch. A little after six. Too late to head out this evening. The sun was probably already cruising the horizon. It was still March. Just barely. It’d be cold outside. Not that Robin harbored any delusion he might make it as far as Pennypack or the grocery store past the corner. He did have a sudden and urgent need to go out, though.
He wasn’t going to examine the root cause.
The sound of drums pushed through the wall he shared with the house next-door, and Robin smiled. The basement belonged to Sean, so Kaleb had probably set the drums up in the living room. An amp reverberated and squawked, and an electric guitar joined the fray. Robin tucked his hands into his pockets and ascended the stairs. The “music” grew louder.
Robin grabbed a jacket, hat, and gloves from the hooks by the front door, pulled it all on, and then stared at the door.
Sweat gathered along the wool hugging his forehead, between his shoulder blades, and at the small of his back. His palms itched. His heart beat double time. He was hot. He should have waited until he got outside to pull his coat on.
Robin stood his ground, chewing on his lower lip, until his stomach began to cramp. Fatigue started creeping in around the edges, and he mentally batted it away, knowing the incessant need for a nap wasn’t born out of tiredness. It was avoidance. If his body sensed he was about to ignore the sweat and the cramps, it would suggest he take a nap instead.
He couldn’t open the front door, which annoyed him enough to shake the tiredness from the corners of his thoughts. It was stupid. It was a door. He opened it all the time to admit Kaleb and various delivery persons.
Not today, Robin.
Rather than return his gear to the hooks, Robin jogged back down the stairs to the basement, the movement highlighting the fact he had a sweaty back. He shifted his shoulders inside his coat but did not take it off. Did not slow down. He let his momentum carry him into the garage, where the scent of dust and old oil assailed his nostrils, past his car, and out the rarely used side door into the rear yard.
The back patio.
Robin had the second-to-last house in the row, meaning he shared a wall and a fence with two neighbors. Jai lived on one side, Sean and Kaleb on the other, occupying the house on the corner. Robin formed the buffer of quiet between the two houses that enabled all three of them to be good neighbors.
From the front, their houses were somewhat indistinguishable, but their backyards and patios were as diverse as they were. Jai was a keen gardener. She’d torn up the concrete drive, converted the garage into a canning workshop, and planted every available square inch of ground with vegetables. One half of the yard was given over to a massive greenhouse. She sold produce, preserves, and pickled everything at the farmers’ market on Oxford Avenue.
Robin mostly bought his share via text and Kaleb.
Sean had converted his garage too—or not so much converted as co-opted. He still used the roller door, and he’d built an extra structure on the concrete slab of his driveway to house the kiln and various other artist-related tools and things Robin couldn’t identify. Then again, his best view of Sean’s yard was through a knothole in the wooden fence. He could also see the yard from a window upstairs, the one in the spare bedroom. Robin tried not to linger there, though, afraid Sean might notice the curtains twitching. Or see the pale reflection of a face that didn’t get enough sun.
Robin’s yard was… a yard. He used his garage for garage-type things, such as storing the car he never drove and all the tools required for upkeep of the car he never drove. His concrete slab of a driveway was pleasingly stained with oil and the refuse of last year’s leaves—though where they’d come from, he had no idea. The closest tree large enough to shed and spread was six houses away.
He had a vegetable patch, started under Jai’s direction, and in the summer, he did grow things. Lurking under a tarp wrapped with a series of mismatched octopus straps were the table and two chairs he used in the warmer months. A rusty bicycle rested against the back fence, near the gate leading to the shared lane.
And that was it. His yard. Boring… but safe. With a fence on three sides and the wall of the house behind, the yard was an enclosed space of outdoors Robin could tolerate—sometimes. When the need to be outside was greater than his fear of…
He hadn’t defined exactly what it was he was afraid of. Nor had he spent a lot of time examining why he preferred to stay in the house, which might or might not be a different issue. Either would entail thinking about precipitous events (the End of All Things).
Stuff had happened and he’d been sad. Now he was…
He was outside and it was fucking cold.
Hunching his shoulders inside his coat, Robin moved away from the door, pacing through the dim night until he was in the center of the yard. He wrapped his arms around himself and gazed up at the misty gray sky. Outside of the city, the sky would form a dark blanket over the earth, one poked through with a million dots of light. Here, northeast of Philly, the night sky was nearly always a shade of gray.
So, too, night in the city was never silent. The sound of Kaleb’s uneven drumbeats persisted, joined by a chorus of voices from cracked-open windows and evening walkers. Traffic hummed along the streets at either end of the lane. The city belched and whined below them and around them. A siren wail, the boom of a car stereo.
A creak from the yard next-door caught Robin’s attention. A canvas chair giving way, feet scraping against concrete, the quiet clatter of tools. Robin advanced toward the knothole, angled his face appropriately, and peered through.
It was Sean.
Sweat reformed along Robin’s brow and crept down his back. He leaned away from the hole and composed himself. Turned his thoughts toward… toward Dan and disappointment. Why? That’d be the notebook on the shelf next to the theory of why Robin was stuck inside his house, which resided next to the volume on why he’d downloaded Let’s Connect. Why he’d uploaded a photo.
Why he hadn’t answered any of the new connection requests.
He leaned forward to peek through the hole again.
Sean stood beside a metal armature that could have been rescued from the bottom of the ocean. Twisted loops of rusted wire and clusters of tight mesh. Sean poked at it with a pair of pliers, then moved sideways a step to poke again. There were lights mounted on the side of the shed and the garage, and when Sean took another step to the side, his face became visible.
Robin couldn’t say he knew Sean well. They spoke maybe four times a year—one of those occasions being Thanksgiving when Kaleb did most of the talking. He did know that Sean had two distinct faces, though. His work face and his parent face. Tonight, he had his work face on; an expression of quiet concentration as he did whatever he was doing with his twisted metal sculpture.
“It’s going to be a tumbleweed.”
Robin drew back from the hole, heart pounding so hard he couldn’t hear Kaleb’s drums. When his pulse slowed, he leaned in again, curious as to why no one had answered Sean—or asked the question Sean had answered.
“I’m not sure about the mesh, though; it’s making the center complicated. I want cleaner lines. Think—” Sean’s shoulders shrugged up and down. “—a big ball of shredded wheat.” He stepped back from the structure and hummed. Then he shook his head. “What do you think?”
Again, Robin moved away from the hole. In the quiet dark, he listened for Sean’s companion and heard nothing.
“No opinion?” Sean said. “You can tell me it sucks. That it’s either too big or too weird or…” He sighed. “Does it look anything at all like a collection of nature set to roll across a prairie?”
“A postapocalyptic prairie, maybe,” Robin said.
As though he’d expected the fence to talk, Sean nodded. Kept nodding. Hummed again. “You could have something there.” He disappeared out of the light, into the shed, and reemerged with a sketchbook. “Postapocalyptic prairie. Yeah. In fact…”
The chair creaked as Sean sat, sketchbook balanced across one knee.
He looked up suddenly. At the fence. “You’ve played Resident Evil, right?”
“Me?” Robin all but squeaked, meaning: Are you talking to me?
“I’m sure Kaleb’s mentioned playing it.”
“Are you talking to me?”
“Anyone else lurking on the other side of the fence with you?”
How did you know I was here?
“I’m not lurking.”
“Sure you are.”
“I wanted some fresh air. It’s… fresh out here.”
Robin studied the wrapped table and chairs on his side of the fence, wondering whether or not unwrapping them would be noisy or in some way obvious or weird. His legs were sending warnings, though. He’d need to sit down soon.
Take a nap.
Not a nap!
He wanted to sit. No, he wanted to disappear back inside his house and pretend Sean had never spoken to him.
He also wanted to stay and talk because outside of the fact he spoke to Kaleb quite regularly—or grunted in response to the nonstop stream of consciousness Kaleb emitted whenever he opened his mouth—talking to someone in person, and not through a headset, was a rare pleasure.
Or maybe it was because this was Sean.
“Yes, I’ve played Resident Evil. Why do you ask?”
“Do you think a metal tumbleweed is a thing? Could it occur naturally? Who decides that sort of stuff in the games you do?”
“Design, play, whatever.”
“Ah…” Robin smacked his gloved palms together. “Me, I guess.”
He was better over text. Much wittier.
“Could you send me some links? I need inspiration for this project. It’s metal. I’m used to working with ceramics, with tile. Mosaics. Putting a skin on things, you know?”
No, I don’t, but keep talking.
“But this wire is speaking to me. I don’t want to cover it up. I want it to curve and bend and catch the sun, but also to hide, conceal. Outer facets and hidden depths.”
Robin was squinting through the hole again, and Sean was hunched forward, scribbling on his sketch pad. He was a sculpture. Man scribbling. Man concentrating. Beautiful man doing beautiful things.
“How did you know I was here?” Robin asked.
“Heard the door.”
“How did you know I was wondering what it was?”
Sean glanced up from his sketch pad. “Because you were peeking through that hole, like you are now. I can see the shadow move there.” He got up, leaving the pad on the chair, and disappeared back inside his shed. When he emerged, he held a large glazed tile, and he had to angle it a few different ways before the light showed the image worked into the surface. At first glance, it was a knotty section of wood. But upon closer examination, one of the knots hid an eye. It was creepy.
Robin moved away from the fence. “What is that?”
“Part of a series. It’s a story mosaic.”
Sean was quiet for a moment, and Robin nearly put his eye back to the hole. He didn’t but suspected Sean was looking directly at him when he said, “Isolation. Separation. Loneliness.”
The sweat returned. His pulse screamed. His heart beat fast enough to knock him over. Robin stumbled back a step, tripped, caught himself on air, meaning he didn’t catch himself at all. The smack of concrete against his side knocked the rest of the air from his lungs.
Robin crawled to his hands and knees, staggered upright, and spread his hand over a solid surface. The door. He wrenched it open and ran inside, the darkness of the garage swallowing him whole. Then he stood there, back to the door, and breathed. Fought to breathe. To fill his lungs while simultaneously concentrating on the swirling sensation in his intestines.
“I will not throw up.”
He didn’t throw up. He didn’t collapse to the floor, though his legs threatened to give way at any moment. His heartbeat slowed; his pulse calmed. The sound of Kaleb’s drumming resumed, almost regular, almost steady, a soothing backdrop to the quiet atmosphere of the garage.
Shame wanted to invade next—that he’d run. That he’d been seen. But something else waited beneath. Not a sense of peace. A knowing. Sean had seen him. Not the man lurking behind the fence, but the man waiting inside Robin’s skin.
It was sad and frightening. But also…
Robin didn’t have the words. Not yet. He’d have to see the rest of the tiles. The whole story.
And to do that, he’d have to go next door.
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