“Your cousin Ray?” I repeated, watching him skeptically.
He nodded slowly, as if in a trance. “The spitting image of him, in fact. You’re a good artist.”
The whole déjà vu thing was over, and I was starting to seriously doubt that this was anything more than some stupid coincidence. I mean, it was weird enough that I was drawing Jack, but to somehow be acquainted with another branch of his family tree?
I cleared my throat. “Let me get this straight. So you actually believe I just drew a picture of a guy I have never before seen in my entire life, and you just happen to notice he’s your cousin Ray? This isn’t a family reunion, Miller! There’s no way this is your cousin!”
Jack seemed to be elsewhere. He began to pace the room. “You’re sure you don’t remember meeting him? Ray Miller,” he added, as if I had momentarily forgotten his name. “He used to live around here, if that helps.”
“Why on Earth would that help?” I demanded, raising my eyebrows. “Can we just let this go?”
“No, we can’t,” Jack growled. He put his hands on my desk and leaned forward so his blue-gray eyes bored into mine. “Try to remember, Essie. Please.” His tone was surprisingly gentle. It made something sour rise in my throat.
I locked eyes with him for a minute, holding my breath, then shrunk away. “You’re an idiot.”
Jack seemed confused for a moment. Then he glared at me. “How can you just sit there? Don’t you want to know the reason—”
“No,” I snapped. “No, Newspaper Guy, I do not want to know the reason. In fact, that’s the last thing I want to know. Right now, all I want to do is get through today. And the next day. And the next month, and the next year, because let’s face it, I’m not going anywhere, and it doesn’t look like you are either!” I was standing now, the drawing tightly clenched in my hand. I was squeezing it harder and harder, and I could feel something welling up in my eyes, something I knew I had to keep down. I drew in breath and bit my lip, waiting for the flames to cease.
Jack was staring at me, the smile completely wiped off his face. I guess my little freak out had made an impact on him, because when he looked at me right then, it was like he was seeing me for the first time.
“Well then,” he said quietly, his lips barely moving. He was still perched on my desk, his face still so close I could feel his soft breathing. And his eyes were…transfixing. There was a certain depth to them, like they were dark tunnels, leading into oblivion. “We should get back to work.”
I swallowed and pulled away from him, snapping out of my momentary bewilderment. “But…” I cleared my throat, hoping the shakiness in my voice would go away. To my great relief, it did. “You told me the call was cancelled.” I scooped up the paper where my “masterpiece” was drawn, tore it down the middle, crumpled it up, and tossed it in the trash.
I missed, but this time I bent over to pick it up.
“And it is,” he said. “But this is an office, for God’s sake. Isn’t there something useful for us to do?”
I bit my lip, searching the room.
And that was how I ended up sitting at my desk across from Newspaper at eleven o’clock A.M., sharpening pencils.
After we had gone through about fifty, I remarked, “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
He paused for a moment, regarding me, then smiled. “Then you’re missing out,” he said, smiling.
And for the first time that day, I smiled back.
When I arrived home that evening, Sylvia was waiting for me.
Like, seriously, she had been sitting in an armchair, with her freckled bare feet on the newly polished table, staring at the door for hours before I came in.
“You’re late,” she noted.
Her voice made me jump. Sometimes I forgot Sylvia lived in the apartment, too. And although her statement was only two, normal words, it was enough to make me fling my shoes across the room and hit my head against the door, eventually slipping and falling sideways onto the carpet.
Sylvia furrowed her brow. “Wow,” she reflected. “A terrible fall, mediocre at best. Honestly, I could have done better.”
There she was, positive, happy-go-lucky Sylvia. And there I was, squirming on the floor, wondering if it was possible that I had just fractured every single bone in my body. “I’m sorry that my agonizing pain wasn’t up to par,” I grunted, finally finding my footing and sitting up straight. I was pretty sure I had just reopened the cut on my head. “Is there something you want?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Sylvia said. Then, after hesitating for a dramatic silence, she asked, “Can you do the laundry tonight?”
I didn’t say anything for a second, letting the complete stupidity of the entire situation sink in. “Are you kidding me?” I said slowly, through my teeth.
“Can you or can you not?” she repeated.
I sighed. “Yes, Sylvia, I can.”
“Good,” she said to no one in particular. Then she rose from her chair like some sort of queen, turned, and left the room, the door swinging shut behind her.
God, Sylvia was like a sister to me, but she was a bloody annoying sister. I felt bad for being that rude to her, but excruciating agony tended to bring out the worst in me. I rubbed my sore limbs, wondering what on Earth my roommate could be up to.
Ever since I had turned twenty-one (the official drinking age, a.k.a the start of adulthood in Sylvia’s book), she had been distant towards me. I mean, I didn’t blame her for giving me some space. After all, I wasn’t some kid she had to take care of anymore. Still, it would have been nice to have one of our advice sessions again.
Advice sessions were one of Sylvia’s traditions when I was younger. We would sit at the kitchen table with a peanut butter and jelly smoothie, her own recipe, and she would teach me everything I needed to know. That included how to deal with men, how to punch men in the face and make it look like an accident, how to suck up to your boss, how to trick people into doing whatever you ask them to, and how to flirt. That last one didn’t work out too well for either of us, but hey, at least she tried.
As for the other things, I did know how to pack a punch, a skill I had a feeling would come in handy one day, especially working in such close quarters with a highly annoying male with a tendency to smile when there was nothing worth smiling at.
Now, things were mostly lonely in the apartment. Sylvia was more invested in her yoga now, and my work hours had increased drastically in the past few years, so time was limited. Even so, our weekends were usually spent in our own rooms, with an occasional knock, asking for toilet paper, or an extra bar of soap.
That was why having Sylvia up and about for once was pretty exciting news. Clearly I wasn’t coming with her that particular time, but maybe this was the start of something good, like a new and improved, cheerful, fun-loving Sylvia.
I shivered at the idea. Now that I thought about it, she was fine as she was.
“I’m going out,” Sylvia announced from her room. “Don’t wait up.”
“Have fun,” I said for good measure.
“I most certainly won’t,” she admitted as the door burst open.
I had to clutch onto the refrigerator to keep myself from slipping again. Sylvia was wearing a dress. And not an ironic one, either. A long, slinky black dress with frills at the edges. “What are you wearing?” I choked, surprised I still had a voice.
She glared at me. “A dress, obviously. Are you blind?”
“I meant…why. Why are you wearing a…you know?”
“I’m meeting someone,” she answered, glancing out the window. Knowing Sylvia, that was all of the information I was getting. “Are you going to be okay without me?”
Someone who hadn’t spent half their life with Sylvia would think this might be a joke. I, however, knew that Sylvia Bauer never joked. “I’ll be fine,” I replied, confused. Why should she be worried about me?
“I won’t be back for a while,” she said. “But don’t forget about the laundry.”
Before I could say anything else, the door had closed and I found myself alone.
“Great,” I murmured to myself. “Another hot date with Sylvia’s laundry.”
That night I went to bed thinking about that dress, and who the mysterious stranger that Sylvia was meeting could possibly be.