A little while later, I was sitting at my drawing table, trying to get a head start on the following week. The table wasn’t necessary anymore, thanks to technology. Computers and tablets had replaced the use of traditional mediums for my art. Almost everything was digital, from my comic to the occasional freelance work. But the desk had been my grandfather’s. It was one of the few pieces of furniture of his that I kept. He’d encouraged my interest as a child because he had been an artist himself. It was something we shared, and I clung to it even more after he was gone. I hadn’t bothered decorating the rest of the house, but the walls in this room, where I spent most of my time, were covered in his paintings. They were deep sunsets and dark landscapes. Nothing bright or upbeat, but I loved the calm serenity of them.
I was hard at work spinning around in my chair, balancing a stylus on the bridge of my nose, when my cell started to vibrate on the table.
“Hey,” I answered.
“I got your submission. I cleaned up the margin, but I thought it was good. A little more lighthearted than your usual fare, and I thought you were going to drop the arc this week, but it works.” Vincent’s usually gentle voice sounded a little strained.
“What are you doing?”
“Setting up a new sensor for my game system.” From the breathy response, I deduced he must be talking into a headset while he worked.
“Multi-tasking as usual. I love how efficient you are. Do you really think it was okay? I know I left the last one on a cliffhanger…” I trailed off.
“Yup. It’s already up, if you want to go see.” Vincent was my digital hero. He maintained the website, social media, and the advertising negotiations for my primary source of income, a webcomic. He was also responsible for any and all licensed swag. His term, not mine. He took care of all the stuff I didn’t like so I could do what I wanted, but he also forced me to stay on task. Everyone should have a Vincent in their life.
“I’ll have it up in a minute.” I pushed my chair over to the desk with the laptop on it and signed in. “So, how are you?” I asked, while clicking around to pull up the site.
“Still living my best life. Did you catch the last stream?” Vincent also ran his own streaming and video game channels. Where I preferred to hide behind my genderless pseudonym, he was recording and sharing his every experience, and somehow making an existence out of it. Not that it was that surprising. In high school, I used to have to listen to girls in the bathroom rattle on about how he was the epitome of “tall, dark, and handsome.” As much as that used to make me gag, it wasn’t due to a lack of it being true. He had thick black hair, deep copper skin, and a perfect jawline. To top it off, he walked around with a perpetual smirk that gave the impression he was always getting away with something. Which, he usually was. Vincent was a very attractive and charismatic genius, who had no fear of being on camera. The digital world was made for him.
I sucked air through my teeth. “No, I haven’t, but I will,” I rushed the last part out as he groaned on the other end.
“You’re killing me, Sen. I thought we were friends?”
I laughed. “You know you’re by far my favorite person. I’ve just had a weird couple of days.”
“I’ll accept that this time, but you only get so many passes.”
“I promise to use each of them for good,” I pledged into the phone. My computer finally up, I scrolled over the colorful strip titled “Neighbors” and smiled. “You do beautiful work, Vincent.”
“Hey, could you do me one more favor though?”
With a joking sigh he asked, “What it is?”
“Small ask, I swear, but can you tag a dedication in one of the panels?”
“You want it visible all the time or only when someone scrolls over it?” I could hear him fiddling in the background.
“Hidden, definitely hidden. Make it pop up when you hover over the large plate in the corner.”
“And what should it say?” he asked in a singsong voice.
There was a quick pause. “And here I thought the first time you dedicated work it would be to the glory that is me.” His voice held a joking, indignant tone.
“No need. You know I worship you, and you glorify yourself plenty,” I said playfully.
Laughter spilled out of the speaker. “You know this is going to make the kids go wild, right?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s your problem though.”
I could hear him continue to chuckle quietly over the sound of his keys clicking in the background. “Alright, it will refresh soon. One last question?”
“What’s a Katie?” he whispered it, as if to extract top-secret information.
“Just a girl. She helped me with the content.”
“Is she single?” he asked. I could see his eyebrow wiggle clearly in my mind.
“Probably.” Then offered, with a smile, “She’s also a minor.”
“Never mind that, then. Not a problem I need.” He audibly shuddered.
Shaking my head at him I thanked him for the quick work and hung up the phone. I needed some caffeine. Grabbing my purse and slipping on some flats, I headed out for a pick-me-up.
My little brick bungalow was nestled on a quiet street in an older neighborhood in town. Most of the houses were clean and well kept, but the age and lack of resources was still visible in the wear of the structures. On my particular street, the majority of the neighbors were elderly, many of them spending their free time gardening. It meant the yards were beautiful this time of year. It also made it worth at least one walk per day, if I could manage it.
Up the hill there was a set of train tracks, and if you followed them about five minutes past the water tower, you came to an old Mill. Out front, visitors are greeted by a big white sign with gold letters, welcoming you to “Olde Town.” This was the start of a pedestrian friendly strip of small shops and restaurants. The street was originally the main road through the area, back when it was dirt, and horses still pulled carriages. I crossed the street and made my way past the shop windows. My destination was on the far end of the three-block strip. The sign outside displayed the coffee shop name “Not Right Now” in large block letters. It was local, which meant they had some unique drink offerings and a cozy atmosphere. Unfortunately, that also made it very popular, especially during the summer months. I could already see people gathering at the tables and nearby benches, which meant it was packed inside.
I wiggled my way past some teenagers as they converged through the door, completely unaware that I was passing through when they descended upon me. I surveyed the crowd, looking for the easiest path to the counter. The décor was eclectic, with mismatched chairs and cushioned sofas. The setting felt more like a tea house than a coffee shop, which was right up my alley and one of the main reasons I was willing to deal with all the interaction, just for some caffeine. There were tables nestled in each of the corners, and stools along a bar that stretched in front of the tall windows. Everything was full, causing people to fill-in all the open spaces and walkways.
I spotted a pair of buns and purple bangs sitting on one of the barstools.
“Katie?” I yelled at her over the music spilling out of a speaker system in the ceiling. They always played songs that were a more fringe pop, lots of piano and acoustic guitar solos. Usually, that was a nice touch, but it was a little overwhelming with the number of people hiding inside from the heat. Katie turned toward the sound of me calling, waving when she caught sight of me.
Making my way over to her, I could feel the corners of my mouth tugging into a smile. “Did you honestly ditch me, and my brilliant food, for overpriced coffee?”
“No!” She looked horrified at my accusation.
“I’m teasing. I’m going to grab a drink, you want something?”
She hesitated for a minute.
I nodded toward the register “Come up to the counter and order, it’s on me.”
She hopped off the seat and gushed. “Are you sure?”
I nodded as I turned toward the counter.
“Why are you so nice to me?” she asked, as she skipped to catch up.
“I could stop if you want?” I side eyed her as I asked.
“No, I mean, this is nice. Thank you,” she rattled on, nervously, “Just, don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t look like the kind of person who likes people.”
I snorted. “I’m generally not, but what’s that supposed to mean? How do I look?”
“I don’t know…just, usually, you completely ignore people around you. It’s kind of unapproachable.”
She looked down at her feet. “I come here a lot. There isn’t really a lot else to do during the summer. I’ve seen you come in almost every day the past two weeks. You’re always alone, and pretty much dodge everyone in here.” She looked back up at me. “I think the longest conversation I’ve seen you hold is with the barista.”
I had a little twinge of guilt at her admission. For some reason, having not noticed her made me feel bad. I did try to keep to myself, and away from people, but with good reason. If I didn’t shield well enough around someone, I could take too much energy from them. In a large group, keeping a barrier up was extremely difficult. The result of absorbing too many people at once was akin to having a panic attack. As delightful as that was, I tried to avoid it if I could.
Instead of vocalizing that, I waved off her information and said, “One should always be kind to the bringers of caffeine.”
Katie nodded in agreement.
As I am a creature of habit, Carol, the barista, raised a cup to show me she was already starting one of their signature London Fog lattes. Tea was my vice of choice. While I like the smell of coffee, I have no idea how anyone actually consumes it. It tastes like burnt cardboard. I smiled and nodded approvingly at her, while Katie quietly chatted with the other girl ringing us up.
After we placed our order and had moved down the line to wait for drinks, I saw Jessie beckoning at Katie to join her and three male companions. The one standing closest to Jessie was in a black button up dress shirt and gray slacks. He had a tight wave haircut, dyed a bright crayon red on top. The cut and color complimented his high cheekbones and brought out the amber hue in his skin.
The next guy was tall, with long blond hair, and was sporting a camouflage hoodie that was only partially covering the tattoos on his neck. They looked like something he had picked off the wall of a tattoo parlor, just designs with no meaning. His thin lips were pressed in a smirk, and his arms crossed in a threatening posture as he engaged with his friend. Both men looked a little too old to be hovering around a high schooler. I supposed they could be seniors, but that would be pushing it. The last member of the group had soft features and messy hair, which made him appear to be the only one close to Jessie’s age. He stood back with his hands resting casually in his pockets, staring at his feet as he tapped one of his neon green sneakers against the ground. Clearly disinterested in whatever the conversation topic. I looked over to Katie to see her gazing intently at him, her cheeks flushed.
“Why don’t I wait for the drinks while you go see what the princess wants?” I offered.
Katie looked at me with horror. “I can’t go over there.”
“Look at me!” She made a downward motion with her hands, waving at her cropped t-shirt and destroyed jeans.
I did and let the look on my face show how confused I was about the question. Other than an affinity for black clothing, she seemed to look perfectly normal. Considering the object of her attention was also in black, his shoes the only exception, I didn’t see the issue. “Staring right at you and not seeing anything of concern,” I said.
“Really?” She bit her bottom lip and pulled on her shirt. “I should have worn something better. I don’t want to stand next to Jessie.”
I cringed. “Jessie looks…” I waved my hand in the other girl’s direction. “Fine. For her. You look great though. You know, be yourself and all that.” Ugh, I sounded like someone’s mother.
“Yeah? Where are your socks, then?” she asked, implying I had removed them as a result of Jessie’s earlier comment.
Frowning, I tilted my head impatiently at her. “I wear socks inside the house to keep my feet warm. I didn’t need help keeping warm on the way here.” I also wanted to point out the boy she was eying didn’t seem at all moved by Jessie’s appearance or behavior. However, making her aware of how obvious her interest was to an outsider seemed like it would backfire.
“Yeah, sure.” She wrinkled her nose in response. “Alright. It is what it is. Wish me luck?”
I laughed and patted her on the shoulder before she headed toward them. Waiting for the barista to finish, I kept an eye on Katie from across the room. She stood back shyly, still tugging at her shirt hem. Jessie continue to flirt, putting her hand on the redhead’s shoulder. He looked down at her hand and then gave her a provocative smile. The lust coming off him made me swallow even from a distance, but Jessie seemed to be enjoying his reaction. She leaned into him and he wrapped his arm around her waist, whispering something in her ear.
The one in the camo hoodie turned to Katie, asking her something that made her cheeks turn pink. Whatever he said, I could barely breath around the amount of anxiety coming off of her. Jessie and her companions laughed, making Katie’s shoulders pull-in. I took a step toward them, getting ready to intervene, when the younger boy reached for Katie’s hand. Pausing, I watched as he said something quietly to her. He then glared past her at the other two, who laughed again. She stared down at his hand as he continued to speak quietly to her, leaning over and peering up into her downturned face with a smile. She smiled back and her other hand went to cover her mouth as she giggled.
“Sin?” A low voice came from behind me, breaking my concentration. Following the sound, I spun quickly, bumping into two to-go cups.
“Oh, excuse me!” Reaching out to try to steady the cups, I accidentally grabbed the hand of the person holding them. A ring of warm electricity went through my fingertips and up my arm at the touch of his skin. I peered up to find two beautiful sky-blue eyes with thick, dark lashes. The rest of him wasn’t painful to look at either. His brown hair was just long enough to have a messy curl to it, which went well with the light stubble on his face. The scruffy look was a nice offset to his softly curved lips and those eyelashes that mascara companies lie about their ability to reproduce.
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