Copyright © 2013 Kaje Harper
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The kitchen clock ticked in muted rhythm. Somewhere outside, a car door slammed, and then engine noise receded in the distance. Mike looked down at the bowl of soggy cereal in front of him and pushed it to one side. Molly, the arthritic Golden Retriever, had some kind of food ESP, because she appeared at the table as if out of nowhere. Gaze fixed on the bowl, she wagged her moth-eaten tail slowly. He rubbed her head, and she leaned into his hand. That was about all the affectionate touching he’d managed to do for anyone lately. At least she was appreciative. He scratched her ear until she groaned in pleasure.
He was pathetic. He didn’t need his sister pointing that out to him. Thirty-seven years old, and no, he’d never had a boyfriend. Never done a whole lot of anything much. When he was in school, he’d been short and geeky, with glasses and bad acne. Not to mention his tendency to vary between inarticulate silence and running off at the mouth, especially in the face of any kind of stress. The thought of asking a guy on a date had made him break out in a sweat so bad he’d practically left a puddle on the floor. Sometimes just sitting behind Drew Anderson in algebra had meant a quick run to the bathroom to change his T-shirt after class.
Not a lot had changed since then. He was still short. Still a major geek. His skin had cleared up a bit, his perspiration had stopped its Niagara Falls imitation around the time he hit thirty. He’d bought better-looking glasses. He’d even learned to stick to being silent in groups, and his tendency to blurt the wrong things out only occasionally reappeared. But he was still little Mikey Gilliam, who’d spent his whole life looking on from the outside.
Corinne was right, damn her. He should get out more, go someplace other than work. The closest he had to relationships were the two-dimensional ones of the Net, where the person on the other end felt like an intimate friend and yet could be some lying creep. He was usually smart enough to guard himself there and keep things superficial. Except with Kellen, who’d somehow moved into real-friend territory.
He took his bowl to the sink and rinsed the beige glop down the disposal. Molly sat watching, her ears drooping in disappointment. He hardened his heart, aware that she was already fatter than was good for her. “Sorry, girl. You’ll have to wait till breakfast.” She sighed in almost human resignation, hefted her butt up off the floor and ambled to her bed beside the back door. Mike paused there to rub her silky ears in apology, before heading up the two flights of stairs to his room.
His computer sat open on his desk. When he signed back in, the little flag in the corner of the screen showed that he had a message. He took a long sip of coffee and clicked on the icon.
Hi. You up tonight? The IM time was listed as half an hour ago. Kellen might have given up.
He typed: Sure. You know me. Hit Enter.
It was only a few seconds before the answer came up on his screen:I was beginning to wonder. So, have you read the new Plakcy mystery yet?
Not yet. He paused. They’d talked about gay mysteries before, but only in very distant terms. But if Mike was going to quit being pathetic, here was a chance to start. He made himself add: I do love Kimo, though. What a great character. He waited, finger hovering over the keyboard. Because that was more blatant than he’d ever been, putting his admiration for an out-and-gay character down in words. But finally he sent the comment. He knew Kellen was gay. Kellen would be okay with this, even if Mike was sort of coming out to him.
It was surely his imagination that made it look like there was hesitation, as the little note said kellen is typing and then stopped, and then kellen is typing and then stopped.
It finally popped up: Yeah, me too. Although I like Mike even more. Wouldn’t mind seeing more about the two of them mixed in with the mysteries.
Mike blew out a long slow breath. Okay. Okay! Before he could lose his nerve he wrote: That’s even gayer than what I said.
A freaking smiley. He put it on the line and got a freaking smiley back. Although in a way, he was glad Kellen wasn’t making a big thing out of it. He hesitated and then wrote: I kind of like it that the focus is on the mystery. Like Kimo is just another guy, you know?
Yeah. Except Kimo+Mike=hot.
Oh God. He put his head down on his hands and breathed shallowly for a bit. Kellen knew now, for sure, and was telling Mike he knew. In a friendly way, not a get-away-from-me-you-stalker way. When Mike looked up, there was a string of messages from Kellen.
Don’t u think?
Like the scene where they’re in the bathroom.
He quickly typed: No. Not TMI. I agree, very hot scene.
So any other good reads lately?
A few. Time to get things back into the comfort zone. Found this author Clinton McKinsey, wrote a series of thriller mysteries with mountain climbing in them and then stopped. Nothing for 5+ years. A pity.
No, straight. Cool guy tho.
There was a pause and then kellen is typing, followed by such a long pause Mike wondered if Kellen had wandered off into some other realm of the Internet. They were both comfortable enough by now to do that, heading off to look at reviews or news, and then picking things back up when a new message pinged them. He was about to do the same himself when the next one appeared.
Any interest in getting together to discuss it in person?
Mike’s heart leaped into his throat, and he could feel sweat break out under his arms. It was fatal and stupid and suicidal to risk this friendship on a face-to-face meeting. He knew so little about Kellen. And Kellen knew even less about him. They were both close to forty, both loved books with a big nod to mysteries, and enjoyed classic black-and-white films, and were obviously both gay. He had no clue what Kellen did for a living or what he looked like. The same went double for Mike. Kellen might be picturing Mike to be tall and self-assured with craggy good looks and a confident smile. Not that he’d ever claimed that, but he also hadn’t admitted to being five foot six and looking like Woody Allen on the actor’s worst day.
Apparently he’d hesitated too long, because another IM appeared. Never mind. Just a thought.
No, that’s okay. I was off the page, he lied. Sure. I guess, maybe. What were you thinking of?
He stared at his own words, treacherously dumped onto the Net before he’d had time to think about it. His own index finger was apparently channeling Corinne.
Coffee and a donut? And books. Do you know The Pastry Shack?
On Lake Street off Lyndale?
That’s the one. Friday evening?
It was happening too fast, but he couldn’t seem to slow it down. Wasn’t sure he wanted to. What time? I don’t care.
A quick correction. I mean, I’m flexible.
Or not. Damn it. I mean, pick a time. He hid his face in his hands. He was so bad at this. Kellen must be laughing at him.
It seemed as though he hadn’t scared Kellen off. Sure. Seven thirty Friday. He had a sudden thought. How will I know you? The classic rose in your lapel? God, that was corny.He was so stupid.
How about a copy of Mahu on the table. Look for the guy who reminds you of Edward R. Murrow, but with less eyebrows and no cigarette. I’ll try to send you an actual picture later.
Murrow is cool. He’s a good guy. Mike flipped screens rapidly, Googling the famous broadcaster. There were a lot of images. He wasn’t bad looking, in a world-weary, receding-hairline way.
You’re checking him out, aren’t you?
That’s okay. So how will I know you?
Mike panicked. It was the only explanation for the fact that he typed: I’ll wear the rose. And then logged out in a total collapse of sanity.
What had he done? What the fucking hell had he just done?He’d agreed to meet the one person he seemed to have a viable friendly relationship with, in the real world, without promising a picture first, without any warning to Kellen about what a geek he was and how keeping a safe distance of a thousand pixels or more was a good idea. And he’d said he’d be wearing a rose. In the middle of summer, in a cafe where a T-shirt and jeans were standard. He wouldn’t even have a lapel. What was he going to do, hold it in his teeth?
Why not? Give the guy a chance to run screaming before you get too close.