The House Next Door

Previous Chapter

Increasingly, Robin found reasons to walk to toward Castor Avenue and the promise of commerce.

On Tuesday, he decided he’d collect a pint of red pea soup from the Jamaican bakery. He could surprise Kaleb with it when Kaleb arrived that afternoon, arms laden with grocery bags.

Robin made it halfway down the street.

On Wednesday, he planned to get donuts. Gallia’s cat poked its head out from behind the terrace of the second-to-last yard.

Robin turned back.

On Thursday, he stood six feet shy of the corner and engaged in an imaginary conversation with the travel agent on the other side of Castor and two blocks down. Robin didn’t wonder whether the place was still in business. He booked a trip around the world and then argued with himself (while his mental reconstruction of the travel agent watched) over whether or not traveling by ship would count as keeping himself shut in while he viewed the world.

“Robin?”

Robin blinked back to reality to find Gallia standing in front of him wearing a slight frown. “Hi,” he said.

“You were somewhere else entirely,” she said.

He chuckled. “I was traveling the world.”

“All while never leaving Oxford Circle!”

“Do you know if the travel agent off Unruh is still in business?”

The frown revisited Gallia’s brow. “Ah, I don’t know. I’d think most people would use the internet to book. Why, are you thinking of going away?”

“No. Maybe? I don’t know.”

“Well, good luck with it!”

“Thanks.”

Gallia continued around the corner, and Robin turned back toward the destination that was, ironically, much harder to reach than Castor Avenue (or six feet shy). The house next-door. He’d reached the point where he was planning trips around the world rather than visit Sean in person.

But if he wanted to see the story tiles before Sean packed them for the show, he had to get next door.

There was a bookstore on Castor Avenue, wasn’t there? How much would the main avenue have changed over the past three years?

Focus.

So, Sean’s house. Yesterday, Robin had managed one step in the right direction before thinking about donuts. Should he go for two today? He could jump over the line in the sidewalk, effectively taking three steps with a single movement. He could also stand on his head and pretend he’d lost his marbles somewhere on Kerper Street.

Why was this so hard?

You’re not sweating. You’re not queasy. You’re not tired.

He hadn’t had anything close to an actual panic attack for a while. Probably because he’d been too focused on torturing himself in other ways.

Robin blew out a breath, returned along Kerper Street, back to his front steps, and took three steps past, toward Sean’s house. Then, before he could think about the fact he’d outpaced his goal, he took another three steps. More uncounted steps drove him forward. Then he was standing in front of the steps up to Sean’s front walk.

Deliberately, Robin didn’t think about what his neighbors might imagine he was doing. If someone was watching him, they’d note that he spent time on the sidewalk in front of his house. Daily. That he never went anywhere, but just stood there. Except this week. He’d made it nearly to the corner a few times. Then he’d come back to his house and stood there again. Like an old person. Should he get a cane he could wave at the kids and a sign warning everyone off his lawn?

Focus!

Robin considered Sean’s front door, which seemed to be receding into an ever-increasing distance. Maybe this was enough for one day?

Fuck it. Let’s do this.

Robin climbed the steps and strode along Sean’s walkway with all the confidence he did not feel. With a finger that did not shake, he prodded the doorbell.

And then he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Robin had come all this way and Sean wasn’t home? Or maybe he was in the yard and couldn’t hear the bell.

Oh, dear God. Robin should have been practicing in the lane out back. He could be knocking on Sean’s gate now. Standing on Sean’s patio. Be already examining the tiles—commenting on them, and about the fact he’d made it next door—not with anything weird, or congratulatory, or significant—an offhand remark, maybe, something casual—

The front door opened a crack and Kaleb peered out.

His eyes widened at the sight of Robin.

Robin’s eyes widened right back.

“Holy crap,” Kaleb said.

“Is Sean home?” Robin asked, thinking, Oh my freaking God, I’m going to throw up on Sean’s doorstep and why didn’t I text first?

Because a text would lead to an expectation that might not be reasonable.

“Dad’s not home.” Kaleb’s tone was apologetic.

“Oh.”

“He’s at the gallery setting up for the show next week.”

“Next week. Yes. May first. He’s… It’s… They’re already gone?”

“Do you want to come in?” Kaleb opened the door wider. In his other hand, a half-eaten banana threatened to spill out of its peel.

It was such a normal thing—Kaleb snacking on the only fruit he ever seemed to eat—that Robin felt momentarily as though everything would be okay. He looked away from the banana to study the floor beyond the door, and tried to remember whether or not Sean and Kaleb had always had army-green carpet.

Kaleb followed his gaze and smiled. “You’d think with a tile artist in residence, we’d have a better floor.”

Robin looked up. “I…”

“You should come in.”

“I wanted to see the tiles. The story.”

Kaleb’s brow creased. “What story?”

“The tile with the wood grain and the knothole and eye.”

Shrugging, Kaleb opened the door fully and retreated into the living room. “I dunno. I thought he was working on some wire thing. Oh! Wait, you mean Out of the Woods. I know what you’re talking about. Yeah, no, that’s all at the gallery. Did Dad know you were coming over?”

Robin was on the threshold. Both feet in the space between worlds, his heels dangling over the sill to the front step, his toes touching the green carpet. “No,” he said, backing up to the front step. “I think I’m going to go home.”

The tiredness was poking holes in the edges of his mood. His shoulders would start to feel heavy soon.

Kaleb licked his lips and fussed with his hair. Seemed to remember his banana and looked at it, puzzled, for a few seconds. Attention back on Robin, he asked, “Do you want me to acknowledge the fact you made it next door?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you… want me to tell Dad you were here?”

I don’t know the answer to that, either.

The air outside Sean’s house had started to thin, and the world in general was threatening to tilt. Backing up another step, Robin lifted a hand in farewell. “If you want. I’ll, ah, text him later. Maybe.” He stumbled, but when he checked behind him, nothing was there.

Kaleb was back in the doorway, standing close, but not too close. “Are you going to be okay?”

Robin nodded with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, because no, he wasn’t going to be okay. He was going to spin out, go home, and collapse. And then, tomorrow, he’d have to do this all over again—except he’d have no concrete goal because the art he wanted to see was gone.

You could visit Sean.

He could.

Somehow, Robin made it home. He didn’t walk across the newly green yard and hop the low hedge between the houses. He retreated along the path, retraced his steps along the sidewalk, climbed his own path, and pushed through his front door.

Then he sat on the couch and waited for the shakes. For his palms to sweat, for his neck to burn, his stomach to turn over and spin around, for the world to close in on him. For the welcome wave of fatigue that would follow.

When the panic attack didn’t arrive, he stared around the living room confused. Was it hiding behind the curtains? Nope. Over in the dining nook? On the pass-through to the kitchen where he kept his essentials?

Under the couch?

Robin bent forward to study the floor between his feet and the shadow of the couch. His head spun when he straightened, but the world settled quickly.

“I’m okay.”

He’d thought, when faced with the fact his goal had been thwarted, that he might not be. Maybe the furious nod he’d given Kaleb had shaken something loose or set it tighter.

“I’m okay.”

He was—

In his jacket pocket—he’d forgotten to take off his jacket—his phone trilled. Robin fished it out and woke the screen.

It was a text from Sean. Kaleb said u stopped by. Sorry I wasn’t there.

Robin: Sorry.

Sean: What for?

Robin: Not sure. Today is weird.

Sean: U did good, man.

Robin: I wanted to see the rest of the tiles. Your story. Out of the Woods. For the website.

Sean: Uh-huh.

Robin: It’s nearly done. I can send you a link. Maybe you could send over some photos. Does the show have a catalog or whatever?

Sean: U want to see tiles, u can come to the show.

Robin:

Sean: Don’t three dot me. U can do it. Know u can. Gallery is local. U can walk here.

Robin put his phone on the coffee table and leaned his forehead into his hands. Not feeling sick or tired was confusing. He figured he’d have to make up for this odd interlude later, but now, his clarity of mind lent a restless energy to his limbs. He could make it to the gallery now, in advance of the show. To see the tiles. And Sean.

Or he could simply invite Sean to his house.

It’s not Thanksgiving.

“Stop being so fucking ornery!”

Great, now he was talking to himself.

“You were doing it on the street too, but I didn’t want to interrupt you.”

And having full conversations.

“I could really use some dizziness and nausea about now.”

His phone trilled.

Sean: Here’s the address. Chat later?

Robin put his phone aside again, unsure about whether or not he and Sean would chat later. Maybe this would be a patio evening, he and Sean chatting through the fence. Or maybe it’d be a second bedroom evening, he and Sean chatting via text. Both had become regular occurrences. But while Robin enjoyed spending an evening in idle chatter, he knew whatever he and Sean were building wouldn’t last if he couldn’t physically get himself there.

Robin was reasonably sure Sean didn’t have a best friend tucked away somewhere that he was secretly in love with. This wasn’t the same situation as Robin’s connection with Dan. But Sean did have a life outside of their current connection, and if Robin wasn’t able to insert himself into that life, in person, what they shared now would lapse back into what they’d maintained over the past few years. Or revert further.

Sean wasn’t a pen pal.

And Robin wasn’t a little red-breasted bird who observed life from the safety of his tree limb. He was a man and next door lived a man he wanted to touch. And get to know.

He wanted to watch Sean’s expression change as he spoke. Witness his full lips curving into and out of smiles. Breathe the same air. Feel a closeness he’d been without for far, far too long.

He wanted…

Another sigh, another resolution.

Robin checked his phone. Clicked on the gallery address and mapped it. Next destination: Castor Avenue.

Next Chapter

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