Barrett-as-Legolas danced through a marketplace eerily devoid of people. Robin paused his lizardman by a fountain at the center of the empty square and slowly panned 360 degrees. The sandstone pavers and structures were pleasing in their blandness. The buildings were low-slung with small windows and doorways and slightly rounded corners, as though worn down by time—or the wind, which was the effect he’d been going for when designing the environment. Robin had imagined people would add the necessary color and vibrancy, but now he wondered whether the marketplace, the fountain, or the buildings needed more.
As it had at regular intervals since last Thursday, Robin’s thoughts wandered to the tile Sean had shown him. The textured surface made to resemble wood. The eye at the knothole. How the tile had made him feel.
Though it wasn’t necessary to face Barrett’s character for the purpose of conversation, Robin turned his lizardman around anyway before speaking into his headset, his voice momentarily blotting out the quiet “dah, dah, da-day” of Barrett singing to himself as his wizard twirled.
“What do you think about adding some art? Maybe a motif to the buildings and structures. The fountain, the paving around the plaza.”
“Sure,” Barrett said. “Most cultures have some sort of art. What are you thinking?”
“Mosaic.” Robin blinked at his screen, sure he hadn’t given his mouth permission to say that.
Barrett sucked air through his teeth. “Always got to go with the tricky stuff, eh? The coding is going to suck for individual tiles on this sort of scale. Just the village?”
“We can try to simplify it. We should do the Court of the Laughing Dragon too,” Robin said, referring to the small palace on the island they’d explored last week. “All the buildings in this region. The architecture stands out, but it doesn’t say enough about the culture, except for the fact it’s hot and windy.”
“Do you know much about mosaics?” Robin asked.
“You’ve never seen one that tells a story?”
“A series of tiles, each with a different image, placed in sequence.”
“I thought mosaics were little colored tiles arranged in a pattern.”
“They can be, I guess. And they can be more complicated.”
“Why the sudden interest— Wait. Sean’s a mosaic artist, isn’t he? Have you been next door, Robin? Is there something you need to tell me?”
Robin struggled with the expression on his face, despite the fact Barrett couldn’t see him. His mouth wanted to form a grimace and a smile. His cheeks were hot. And, not to miss out on the fun, his heart had started tattooing the inside of his chest.
“Dude?” Barrett prompted.
“We’ve lived next door to each other for over four years. If he was interested, we’d have gone out by now.”
“First of all, you were living with John for one of those years. Second of all, you can’t wait for everyone to ask you out. Sometimes you have to make the first move.”
“Last time I made the first move, I got dumped.”
“Dan the Tram?”
“He mowed you down.”
Robin sighed. “Can we talk about your love life?”
“Actually, we can. I get downstairs last night and Kim and the kids are basically done with dinner. Scraping the last bits of spaghetti sauce from their plates. There’s one freaking piece of bread left, and the canister of parm is empty. I’m, like, ‘Why didn’t you call me for dinner?’ Know what she said?”
“She called and you didn’t hear her?”
“No! She said ‘Dinner is at six. It’s always at six. Why should I call you when dinner is always at six?’”
“She has a point.”
“Dude, I get distracted. I rely on Kim to tell me when it’s six o’clock.”
“How’d she take that?” Robin bit down on his lower lip as he waited for Barrett’s response.
“Not well, you bastard. The discussion—I don’t know if it was an argument?—devolved into something about me coming down before six to be in the kitchen with her while she’s cooking. Or to play with the kids. But I’m home all day. I play with the kids after I get them from the bus stop. And in the mornings, too, when I’m getting them dressed. I spend time with my kids, man. I do more than most guys.”
“I think Kim wants you to spend time with her.”
Barrett was quiet for a moment. His wizard still. “Huh. Why didn’t she say that?”
“I dunno. Maybe you need to ask her.”
“Maybe you need to get your ass, and I do mean ass quite literally, next door.”
“Can we please not talk about my ass?”
After Barrett had logged off to go spend time with his wife, Robin lingered for a while, using a tablet to sketch some new ideas for decorating the environment. He started with mosaics in the style Barrett had expected. Small tiles in repeating patterns. Quickly, he became bored. He wanted the tiles to tell a story.
No. What he wanted was to know the story behind the tile Sean had shown him—even if it did make him uncomfortable.
Robin rolled his chair along the desk to the neighboring array of monitors, his left hip complaining gently. He’d landed hard when he fell on the patio, and surfing his couch hadn’t done much to rehabilitate it. He grabbed a mouse, clicked to wake the slumbering beast, and waited for the monitor to light up. The irony of his desktop wallpaper plucked a sad chord inside him as he opened a browser window that failed to cover it fully.
Rolling sand dunes, distant mountains, and an azure sky peeked around the edges of the window. The oasis in the center was hidden, though, which conveyed a message of some sort. Robin always thought he’d find a desert soothing. Here, in the northeast suburbs of Philadelphia, he needed to be bound by walls. Needed to feel locked away. But out there, there would be no walls—only endless sand and sky.
Realistically, he knew he’d be locked into the oasis at the center of the image. The one now hidden by his browser window.
With a great sigh, Robin typed, Sean Heffernen, and hit enter.
A tendril of panic wormed through him as the search results displayed. He scanned the listings, from an obituary to various LinkedIn profiles, and frowned. None of the small pictures showed his Sean. Or the Sean who lived next door.
He scrolled farther down the screen until the search results ended with a prompt to load more, then scrolled back up and saw his mistake. He’d spelled Heffernan with an e rather than an a. He changed the letter and then had to deal with another case of sweaty palms as Sean’s face popped up next to the first new result. Robin enlarged the image.
In contrast to his uniformly brown skin, Sean’s eyes were hazel—a feature Robin often forgot about until he met Sean face-to-face those few times a year. And then he’d wonder how he’d forgotten. Sean had a wide nose and serious brows. His short hair carved a precise line around the shape of his face. He was an extremely handsome man—to Robin’s way of thinking. Both Robin and his ex had noticed. John had teased Robin about how long he sometimes stared.
John hadn’t taken it beyond that, though, because he and Robin hadn’t had that sort of relationship. They didn’t do jealousy or conduct messy scenes. They’d had an agreement that for as long as it worked between them, it worked. And when it had been done…
Leaning away from the computer monitor, Robin closed his eyes and rubbed his palms over his face. His fingers caught the lower edge of his glasses, and he removed them, placing them on the desk before continuing in his effort to scrub away thought via application of palm to face.
He failed. He usually did. Behind his hands, behind his closed eyes, Robin could still picture the mixture of confusion and hurt on John’s face during that last call. In retrospect, not using FaceTime to break up would have been kinder. Then again, being able to see each other’s faces had added a level of finality to the proceedings.
Robin dropped his hands to look at the screen. At Sean. Then he clicked the website link and frowned at the dreary gray background that loaded with two misaligned images and several broken links.
Oh, no. This would not do.
Where was his phone?
Robin found it on the desk where he’d been working and scooped it up. He located Sean in his list of contacts and frowned again at a message he’d missed.
Sean: Links for post-apoc wastelands?
Above was a text from last year. Late November. Kaleb still not celebrating trad T-day. Bringing german green bean thing. U like cabbage?
Robin had replied with a simple Yes.
A backward scroll revealed a brief history of similar messages until three years before, shortly after John had departed for London.
Sean: U ok over there? Haven’t seen u out and about in a while.
Sean: I’m always around if u need a human 2 talk 2.
Sean: Teaching Kaleb 2 drive. Turn in ur license now! 😀
Sean: Can we use ur car? Kaleb not doing ok with the van. It’s a stick.
Robin had responded to that one with Sure.
The messages from Sean had withered about then, falling back to arrangements for Thanksgiving, and while scanning their conversational history and prickling with the uncomfortable acknowledgment that Thanksgiving with him must be painful in the extreme, Robin had to wonder why Sean still bothered.
And why he kept pushing Sean away.
“Because to start something with Sean would mean you’d have to leave the house. Duh.”
How had he ever thought he might pursue anything with Dan?
Defeated, Robin put his hands to the edge of the desk, preparing to roll his chair back. Then he stopped. A nap wasn’t going to alter the reality staring him in the face—and when he considered Sean’s woeful website, his truth was there. Uneven images and broken links.
Robin picked up his phone and ran a couple of quick searches, obtaining links to his favorite postapocalyptic worlds (because there was such a thing—and would Sean ever want to talk about them?), before adding: Your website needs work. Who takes care of it for you?
He sat there holding the phone for a few minutes, waiting for a reply.
Next door, the drums started up.
Robin smiled. Then he wondered whether Sean might not be hiding in his shed out back. Curiously, the thought of heading out there to start a conversation with his neighbor didn’t make him feel tired. His stomach did manage a queasy roll, though.
Because he was hungry.
Robin carried his phone upstairs, where he perused the contents of his refrigerator. It was close to shopping day—or the day Kaleb shopped for him—meaning his options were limited. Robin checked the freezer and selected a plastic container from one of the two columns nestled inside the frosty box.
He read the label. Dan’s curry. A sigh deflated him as he recalled their virtual date. Dan at Dan’s place, Robin at his, Robin following Dan’s curry recipe, Dan cheating and ordering takeout. Watching the same movie.
After cracking the lid, Robin slid the container into the microwave. Today was a day for reminiscence, apparently. For thinking about where he’d gone wrong. He knew what had killed his relationship with John. Speculating on whether or not they’d have lasted longer if he’d followed John to London was useless.
Losing Gimli… Well.
Connecting with Dan had been his first attempt at anything in three years. The microwave dinged before Robin could fully assemble his thoughts on that. He missed chatting with Dan, but wasn’t necessarily sad about the outcome. Dan had found happiness, and Robin was happy for him.
Which left Sean.
Robin retrieved his dinner and took it to the table. He left his phone on the counter. Thinking about Sean would inevitably mean another scroll through their text exchange, and it was awful. Sean had tried to be a friend to him, might still be trying, and Robin had…
There it was: The heaviness across his shoulders and down his back. The feeling his arms were lumps of lead. The irrepressible need to suddenly get horizontal. To lie down and close his eyes.
Robin ate his dinner instead.