Having a new goal didn’t bolster Robin’s spirits as he’d hoped it might. In fact, the failure of his venture next door left him depressed in a way he hadn’t experienced in a long while. Even being dumped (or carefully set aside) by Dan hadn’t left him this low. Learning he and Dan were destined for nothing beyond friendship had been freeing in a way.
Not meeting Sean’s expectations was far, far worse.
For two days, he ignored his phone—a childish maneuver made worse by the fact that if he were a fully functional human being, ignoring his phone would be a lot harder. If he had friends who lived in the real world… Yeah, well.
While his phone languished on its shelf in the kitchen, Robin explored the finished environments of Wyrmkind. He adventured through the desert for hours at a time, letting his consciousness exist in a world where all things were possible. He compiled error reports along the way, translating goof-off time into billable hours. When not gaming, he sketched ideas for new areas of the game. Concepts for whatever game the studio designed next.
He came to—in the manner of someone waking from a coma—on Sunday morning. One moment he was a lizardman standing on a mountain top, surveying the unspoiled terrain of a game yet to be populated by living, breathing players. The next he was staring at his computer monitor. It was as though a switch had been flipped. Gone was the imaginary heat of the sun and the baked-earth scent of the sand. Here, now, was the seeping numbness of legs that hadn’t been moved in too long, the ache across his lower back, and the disconcerting aroma of…
What was that?
Robin peered blearily at his desk and the array of plates abutting his keyboard. Four coffee cups vied for space between the mouse pad and his monitor, a ragged line of impatient sentries. When he rolled his chair back, the tinkle of silverware against china let him know he’d stacked cereal bowls on the floor.
And he felt craptacular.
Had he been twentysomething, he’d still feel craptacular. The human body wasn’t designed to sit in one place for hours and hours and… days.
Robin tugged his glasses off, scrubbed his palms over his eyes, and then rested his face in the safe dark space created by his hands. He was tired, he realized. Hungry. Filthy—the smell was him. His hair stuck out in greasy clumps, and he had the remnants of all he’d eaten and drunk over the past however many hours in his beard.
Had Gimli still been alive…
“Don’t,” he warned himself.
Climbing the stairs hurt. The light in the kitchen was too bright. The very space of the kitchen itself felt unreal, as though this wasn’t his house. He almost expected John to poke his head around the corner of the upper staircase and say, One of these days…
“Don’t go there, either,” Robin muttered as he shoved his first handful of dishes into the sink. He’d get the rest later. Now, he needed a shower and at least eight hours flat on his back. He checked the front window, safely shrouded by the curtains. Or should he grab a lungful of fresh air first?
John would have encouraged him out. Would have walked with him, even at midnight, to see Robin get some air and exercise. He’d been good like that.
Ignoring the ghosts of his past, Robin trudged upstairs. He wallowed in the shower until the water ran nearly cold, washing everything twice. Then he dressed in a clean T-shirt and sweats, and padded back downstairs to finish cleaning up his workstation. Rather than send him straight to bed, the shower had revived him, and he was now beset with the desire to erase all traces of his binge, his slip, his whatever, before he rested.
Also, he could use the exercise.
Later, after he’d eaten, cleaned the kitchen, and started the dishwasher, Robin retired to the couch with his phone. It had died sometime yesterday. He’d plugged it in to charge while he cleaned. Now it was time to see who’d missed him.
He almost didn’t check because there was only one name he wanted to see in his message inbox. Barrett knew he was alive. Barrett had helped him stop the demon war last night. Dan was still waiting for Robin to set a date for coffee.
Robin swiped down the notification pane and sorted through the jumble of items, dismissing note after note from his banking app, Twitter, his email inbox, spam from his cell phone provider, and a coupon from the pizza place around the corner. And there it was, at the bottom of the list, meaning Sean had messaged him… yep, on Thursday night.
Sean: Want to chat on the patio?
That there was nothing after that carved out a new hollow inside him.
“It’s up to you to make the next move,” he said.
Robin didn’t have to say the words out loud. He knew what he had to do. Hearing his voice—hearing the words—made it real, though.
He was still holding his phone when a text from Dan came through, the sound alert bright and sharp in the otherwise quiet evening. Robin opened the message.
Dan: Saw this and thought of you.
The next text took a moment to load. It as an image of a monk in full habit standing next to an industrial machine. A coffee bean grinder or roaster.
Another text followed the image. It’s a legit photo. Monks who make coffee!
Robin’s thumbs were on the little keyboard before he gave it much thought.
Robin: Told you.
Dan: Hey, you’re there. Hi.
The three dots wavered beneath Robin’s reply for a while, appearing and disappearing. Robin was about to put his phone aside in favor of staring at his curtained window when Dan’s next text appeared.
Dan: Full disclosure, sending you a picture of a monk making coffee was my way of checking in. You didn’t get back to me about getting together and that’s cool. Maybe you don’t drink coffee.
Robin read the message over twice before sending back: I do drink coffee. I used to love drinking coffee in coffee shops because of the smell. It’s never quite the same at home, you know?
Dan: Used to?
Dan: You still there?
Where else would he be? Really? In Alaska? Up on Castor Avenue savoring the aroma of freshly roasted beans? Next door, acting on fantasies he wasn’t brave enough to think about?
Fueled by a sick sense of anger, Robin watched as his fingers caressed the keyboard.
Choose your own adventure. A) I was poisoned in a coffee shop and haven’t been able to visit one since. B) I was dumped in a coffee shop and haven’t been able to visit one since. C) I’m eternally disappointed by the lack of monks in suburban coffee shops. D) I haven’t left my house in three years, so I’m probably never going to meet you for coffee.
As soon as he hit send, Robin wanted to throw up.
What the actual…
His phone made a new noise. Not the friendly text chime. It rang.
Surprised as he was, Robin answered it. “Hello?”
“Robin? Hey, it’s Dan.”
“Sorry if calling you is breaking some kind of rule, but… that last message. The last option. I wanted to talk about it and texting wasn’t going to cut it.”
Dan’s voice wasn’t at all the way Robin had imagined it. He sounded older, softer. Less manic.
“You still there?” Dan asked. “I’ve freaked you out, haven’t I?”
“There’s no rule,” Robin managed. Though, maybe there should be?
Was that why Sean invited him to text rather than talk sometimes? Because he thought there were rules?
“I’m not always the best listener,” Dan said. “I’m too self-absorbed. Trevor pointed it out to me when we were figuring things out, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. About the cues I might have missed, about not being present enough in some aspects of my life. When I read your text, I was, for a change, thinking out rather than in, and it felt like… I felt like…”
Dan trailed off, and Robin breathed into the space he left behind. Tried to think of a response.
Then Dan spoke again. “I wanted to offer to listen. Maybe you didn’t mean to send that text, but then again, maybe you did because you needed to talk about it. So… here I am.”
Robin still didn’t know what to say.
After a while, Dan, in his soft, quiet voice, said, “Three years?”
“Nearly.” Robin’s voice almost cracked on the single word.
“You mentioned a relationship when we were chatting.”
“Did he… or she… sorry, we never established…” Dan sighed. “Did they, um, pass away?”
Despite the question, and the uncomfortable swirl in Robin’s gut, a smile plucked at one corner of his mouth. “You really aren’t much of a listener, are you?”
Dan chuckled. “I guess not.”
“Then again, I wasn’t giving you a lot to listen to, was I?”
“Am I supposed to answer that?”
“I don’t know.”
Seconds ticked by, then, with neither of them talking. Curiously, Robin didn’t get a sense of impatience from Dan’s side of the call, though. So, he started talking.
“It was a he. John. And he didn’t die. He moved away. We were together for about six years, I guess, all told. We were a boring couple, but I think we both liked it that way. John didn’t do drama and neither did I, and that was why we worked. But when I think back, I do wonder if some drama would have been better.”
“Can I comment, or would you rather I listened to the end?” Dan asked.
“You can comment.”
“When I was married to Chris, there was no drama. I can’t compare the relationships, because I never saw you and John together. But now, I realize that for a lot of the time we were together, after we were married, anyway, I was mostly existing in the relationship because it was easy.”
“Yeah,” Robin breathed. “Yep.”
“I used to wonder whether there were other couples like that. People who weren’t… passionate. Whether that’s how love is supposed to work. You meet with this almighty sort of crash of feelings and then you meld and everything becomes blended or muted.”
Leaning back into the couch, Robin stretched his legs out in front of him. “I sometimes wondered that too, and then I’d be, like, ‘But I’m happy in this relationship. John makes no demands and neither do I. We’re in a place of harmony.’ Now, of course, I look back and the first word that comes to mind is ‘complacency.’”
“I’m sure it works for some.”
Robin shrugged, and they indulged in another half minute of quiet.
Dan broke the silence to ask, “Is that why he moved away?”
“No, he had a job offer. His company is based in London, and they had an opening in the head office. He wanted to go. I wanted to stay.”
“That sounds fair.”
The old, familiar fatigue edged in around the sides of Robin’s consciousness. “It wasn’t. It really, really wasn’t. I wanted to stay. I’ve always been a hermit. I don’t go out much. I’m shy and awkward. I suffer from social anxiety and panic attacks. But I loved John. His staidness and even the way he invited me to go with him, with the expectation that I might not. I could see it in his face. Hear it in his voice. He expected me to say no. But I said yes. And it was terrifying, but also exhilarating. I was… excited.”
Dan said nothing. He was listening.
Robin continued. “He went on ahead. I stayed to sell the house. We kept in touch over voice chat and text, but I hated it. It wasn’t the same as being in the same room. The distance… It sucked. At the same time, my anxiety regarding the whole move was in pretty high gear. I felt sick most of the time, and there would be whole days where I’d look out my front window at the For-Sale sign on the lawn and think about pulling it up and hiding it in the garage.
“John was having a great time in London. Living alone was good for him, I think, in a way it wasn’t good for me. He didn’t have to make a choice about whether to stay home because his introverted partner was having a difficult day. He could just up and go, you know? He wasn’t my complete opposite or anything. He was… normal.”
“Don’t do that,” Dan broke in.
“We all move at our own speed.”
Robin’s breath caught somewhere in the middle of his throat. He swallowed. “Yeah, well, anyway.”
“You didn’t go to London.”
“I didn’t go to London.”
“And you’ve not gone out since?”
It didn’t connect. Robin hadn’t yet told the part of the story that pieced the two halves together. He wasn’t sure if he could. “It’s not… I didn’t…” Robin squeezed his eyes shut. “I had a dog. Gimli.”
“I remember!” The brightness of Dan’s voice dipped sharply when he continued. “Oh. Oh.”
“He was the sweetest dog. A boxer. They’re eternal puppies. Super affectionate. Gimli was always extra, though. Not in the way you’d imagine. He was the runt of his litter and had one weird leg that never worked properly. But, God, was he a sweetheart. It was like he knew we could be awkward together. That he could be himself and I’d love him always.
“Anyway, I had an offer on the house. I was packed. I had one of those pod things in the driveway out back, and I was moving my stuff into it. The front door was open, and I guess the screen wasn’t latched. He got out. I was in the backyard packing, and a car…”
Robin squeezed his eyes shut and willed away every recollection of the moment when the understanding of what had happened had hit him.
“I’m so sorry, Robin.”
Robin couldn’t reply.
“That’s rough,” Dan said.
“I gave up on my relationship because my dog died,” Robin spat out. “I gave up on life.”
“No. No, you didn’t. You lost someone very dear to you at a time when you were… vulnerable.”
Throat closed, Robin could only nod. Then, after another practiced silence, he said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this.”
“Because I asked?”
“I’m tired of being stuck inside this house.”
“Is it a nice house?” Dan asked.
A sharp bark of laughter forced its way out of Robin’s throat. He put the phone away from his ear, folded forward and laughed again. Thinly, from the phone still gripped in his hand, he heard Dan doing the same.
When some semblance of control returned, Robin lifted the phone again and said, “It is.” Then he was laughing again. Through chuckles and odd bursts of sound that could almost be sobs, but weren’t—not even close—he managed, “I just did the floors in the living room and dining room. Pulled up the carpet and put down laminate in this light wood that really brightens the place. It’s a town house, so my windows are all front and back, which means it can get dark in here in the afternoons.”
“My place is the same. I live over my shop. Or I did. I’m sort of half living at Trevor’s now.”
“Is that too much? Would you rather not hear about Trevor?”
“I actually like hearing about Trevor. I’m glad you two figured things out.”
“What about you?” Dan asked.
Tired now, but in a good way, Robin thought about the question for a moment before answering. “There’s someone. My next-door neighbor. I’m not sure if he’s being a good guy, a good friend, or whether there’s something there.”
“Tell me about him.”
Robin did. He told Dan about what Sean did for a living and how he’d adopted an amazing kid. How Sean and Kaleb seemed to get him and how kind they were about giving him space. Kaleb doing the fetching Robin couldn’t do for himself. Sean’s patience when it came to their, until recently, infrequent conversations. Sean’s own romantic history. The mystery of his new exhibit.
Robin moved off the couch as he talked. Paced into the kitchen and around the dining room. Counted the stairs up to the second floor and back down again. Arrived at his front door. Through the wall separating Robin’s house from Sean’s came the sound of Kaleb at his drums.
He was getting better. Less chaotic. Whoever was on guitar needed more practice, though.
Twitching a curtain aside, Robin peered out into the night. The street was still.
“I never remember the exact spot where Gimli was hit,” he said into the phone. “Where on the street. You’d think it’d be indelibly etched into my mind, or I’d know that piece of pavement intimately. Every crack and shadow. But I don’t. I think it’s because I never go out there. I never wanted to go out there onto the street.”
Dan maintained his listening quiet.
Robin spoke again. “The first time I went out, a few weeks ago, onto the front path, a dog knocked me down. A black cat walked across my path and a dog came out of nowhere and knocked me flat. And even then, I didn’t think about Gimli, or look for the spot on the street. Instead, I was wondering whether Sean had seen me laid out like a gasping fish on my own lawn.”
“Nope. He saw me later, when I was sitting on the steps.”
Dan drew in a breath that was barely audible through the phone. “I think you need to get to this gallery. He’d forgive you if you didn’t make it, but I’m not sure if you’d forgive yourself for not trying.”
Robin was nodding before Dan finished speaking. “Yes. That.”
“I’d offer to come over and walk the street with you, but I’m not sure that would help.”
“Yeah, no. I can embarrass myself on my own. Did I mention I have a neighbor who thinks I just moved here? She never met the previous owner, she told me. Heard he never left his house.”
“That’s got to be weird.”
“It kind of is.” Real tiredness was now prodding at Robin’s thoughts. Not the exhausted fatigue of a mind that had too much to contemplate, set over a body that went nowhere. Actual physical and mental tiredness. “It’s getting late.”
“Yeah. Naps to do. The all-night kind. Listen…”
“Wait. Dan…” Robin sucked in air. “This has been…”
“Do you want me to lose your number?” Dan asked.
“God, no. I was going to say thank you. I wasn’t near a ledge, but you were right, I needed to talk. I had no idea how much I needed to talk. I have a close friend that I work with every day and he knows most of what I’ve told you and we talk, but—”
“Different people listen differently, and sometimes you need different? Or maybe my imperfect listening is what did the trick.”
“Or maybe I do need other people. More than I thought.”
“We all need other people. I sometimes forget that too.”
“So, um… Good night?”
“Good night, Robin. Get some sleep. You’ve got a big week ahead of you.”
“Yeah, I do.”