“You could stay an extra hour tonight if you want.”
I glanced at the register’s clock as I loaded up my tray with table nineteen’s coffees, muffins, and someone’s omelet, and realized I was only halfway through my shift. My eyes strayed to Betty’s carefully neutral face, but her façade cracked under my raised eyebrow. She knew the you-have-got-to-be-kidding look. She invented it.
“And how much will you pay me to want to stay?” I asked sarcastically before strolling through the restaurant to my table. Plastering on my fake smile, I passed out the patrons’ food, politely asked if they needed anything else, and bit back a groan as someone complained about needing a new fork because theirs had a spot on it. I mentioned that I would be more than happy to get them a clean fork and spun on my heel to return to the hostess’s podium and the kitchen beyond.
“Josh, a customer said you didn’t clean the forks,” I said as I tossed the offending utensil into the sink. The dishwasher glared at it before scrubbing the little spot off and handing it back to me.
“There’s a certain place you could tell her to shove–”
“Before you say anything else, remember that you would have to clean it,” I said before escaping back onto the restaurant floor and nearly running into Betty.
“So, is that a no?” she asked in regards to her earlier question. I returned the fork to the old lady, whom deemed it acceptable before using it on her muffin, and went back to Betty.
“Although I would love to volunteer more of my life to Rise and Shine,” I said, “I actually have plans tonight.”
“What, you close to the boss on one of those games you always play?”
I rolled my eyes before smiling at a young family that entered the restaurant. Betty greeted them and led them to table twelve while I went to the kitchen to see if table seventeen’s orders were ready. It took about fifteen minutes before Betty and I could exchange sentences again.
“I meant I actually have plans with other human beings,” I said. It was her turn to raise an eyebrow and I frowned. “I don’t spend every night on my computer!”
“I’m surprised,” she said dryly. Then she grinned. “Our little Sierra has a date?”
“No,” I said. I grabbed the pitcher of fresh coffee that one of the cooks put on the table by the kitchen entrance and stuffed a fistful of cups of cream into my apron pocket. I took my time going around my tables and making small talk with the customers while I freshened up coffees.
“Then what are your plans?” Betty asked when I returned from cleaning up a table. I glanced at her while pooling the tips that were left behind in the jar hidden in the hostess’s podium.
“Why are you so nosy?” I asked in return.
“Not nosy,” she said, “just curious.”
“I’m going to a friend’s place for dinner,” I said. “That’s all.”
“Dinner?” Betty’s eyes widened and she wore a grin that would have made a fox proud. “What kind of dinner?”
“Not breakfast food,” I muttered, taking the tray of cinnamon rolls that a cook handed me at the kitchen’s threshold. I delivered the rolls to table twenty, and Betty followed me.
“What is wrong with breakfast food?” she asked. With her hands on her hips and a twinkle in her eyes, she was the image of an aunt who appeared stern in front of your parents but gave you candy behind their backs.
Directing my smile at the customers while I handed out their rolls, I said, “Absolutely nothing. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. Is there anything else I can get you folks?” After the customers assured Betty and me that they were fine, we returned to the front of the restaurant.
“I think we’re having vegetable lasagna,” I said. “His housemate is rumored to be a good cook.”
“Maybe I’ll hire him,” Betty said. “Wait a minute, you’re going to have dinner with a boy at his place, and this isn’t a date?”
“I assure you it is not a date,” I said, “just a gathering between friends.”
“You don’t sound as if you believe me.”
“You know me too well.”
I huffed and startled one of the cooks when I snatched a plate of hash browns from her for table eighteen. Betty didn’t try to ask me any other questions (not that I stuck around her enough to let her), but her eyes still held that annoying twinkle. The end of my shift could not have come soon enough, and by the time my relief came, I was ready to grab my share of the tips and run out of there.
The clock read quarter-to-three when I walked into my apartment. I contemplated collapsing on my couch for a bit, but I dragged myself into the shower to get a head-start on getting ready for the dinner. It was discouraging how long it took me to pick out an outfit. Really, it was a casual dinner between friends – I shouldn’t have worried so much about how I looked. I knew it wasn’t a date (honestly, how many people invited their housemates to stick around for a date?), but a dinner at Alex’s place seemed like something of a special occasion.
On the other hand, they’re men. I was probably over thinking the situation.
With a sigh, and a chime of the clock that indicated it was three-thirty, I threw on a pair of my favorite jeans and a blouse. After giving myself one last look-over in the mirror, I grabbed my keys and headed back out of my apartment. I wondered what Alex could have created that was too big for his precious duffel bag. My inner geek started getting excited at the possibilities. Maybe he built a replica of the Batmobile!
It was about five minutes to four when I found the house. It was a modest ranch house, the kind that would be thought of whenever one talked about the perfect life with the perfect significant other and the perfect two-point-five kids. Although it looked nice, it didn’t seem like Alex’s kind of place and I double-checked the address just to be sure. I think I was expecting an automated gate or a robot to greet me.
When I rang the doorbell, I knew it was the right place. The buzzer sounded exactly like the first few notes of the original X-Men cartoon theme song.
I stood on the front steps and, after a few minutes of silence, doubt soon started to creep in again and my anxiety rose. Like déjà vu of our first meeting, I started wondering if I had the right date, time, house—
A slam of a car door made me jump, and I whirled around toward the driveway. A man that was definitely not Alex was gazing at me curiously while taking a few grocery bags out of the passenger seat. He was taller and darker than Alex, with evident muscles along his bare arms. He looked the opposite of the guy I was expecting to see.
“I hope you’re Sierra,” he said when he caught up to me at the front door, “otherwise I’ll have to chase you off.”
A voice in the back of my head reminded me that Alex had a housemate, and I found my voice. “Yeah, I’m Sierra Parker. Uh, can I help you with the bags–”
He actually dropped the bags on the steps, not worried about anything being ruined, as he fished his keys out of his pocket. “I’m experienced enough in carrying them myself,” he said while opening the front door. “Darrien Lukas. C’mon in.”
“Thanks…” The door led to a small mudroom, and I copied Darrien when he kicked off his sneakers before following him down the hallway. We emerged in a small living room with a television, a couch, a bookshelf, and a punching bag in the corner. The bag was patched with duct tape, and the books’ spines were creased and worn from being read so often. I smiled at how comfortable the place seemed. It was homier than my parents’ pristine house.
Darrien had gone to the right to the kitchen and was simultaneously putting groceries away and preparing dinner. “Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked.
He gave me a crooked smile, but shook his head. “Thanks, but no. After Alex burned down half of our last stove, I don’t trust anyone else in here.” His smile widened at my horrified expression before he said, “Speaking of Alex, let me find him. I thought he would have appeared by now.”
I followed Darrien across the living room to a closed door next to the last hallway. “Wait up here,” he said. “There’s no telling what he’s up to down there.”
I smiled at Darrien’s smirk and he went down to the basement. Out of curiosity, I glanced further down the hallway. A washer and dryer were settled in a nook at the very end while a door on either side of the hallway led to what I assumed to be the guys’ bedrooms. Closer to me was the bathroom and I was startled and amused to see duct tape decorating the door around the handle.
Maybe the “Pen o’ Doom” existed after all.
The floor suddenly shook, and I braced myself against the wall to keep from falling. It only lasted for a couple of seconds, causing me to wonder if the tiny earthquake even happened. Darrien returned from the basement, his head shaking. “Sorry about that,” he said, his tone so casual it made me believe the house shook on a regular basis. “Alex will be up in a bit. Make yourself at home.”
I nodded and followed Darrien back through the house and took a seat on the couch while he went back to the kitchen. Instead of staying quiet, he asked me random questions about myself (“So, are you as big a geek as Alex?”) while also telling me little tidbits about his life.
“How did Alex and you become housemates?” I asked.
“We’ve known each other since we were kids.” Darrien glared at a zucchini that didn’t want to be cut up. “We were both the weird ones out, I suppose.”
I frowned. “I’m sorry. Kids can be mean.”
He shrugged, unperturbed, and got a very large knife out of a drawer and killed the stubborn vegetable. “We were fine. He pulled pranks on those that bothered me, and I beat up anyone who bothered him.”
“Sounds like a good system,” I said dryly. He gave me another smirk. “Okay, now I have the ultimate question.”
“The ‘ultimate,’ huh?” Darrien didn’t look up at me as he placed zucchini slices on the bed of noodles.
“Batman or Superman?”
He actually chuckled. “Superman. Alex has yet to convince me otherwise.”
“Why Superman?” I asked.
“He doesn’t appreciate all of Batman’s technology.” Alex finally emerged from his dungeon and gave me a sheepish grin. “Sorry I took so long, Sierra. I was doing some last-minute adjustments on my virtual reality system.”
I sat up straighter and looked at Alex in wonder. “Virtual reality?”
He beamed and his eyes shone with excitement. “Yeah! It’s–”
“You have soot in your hair,” Darrien interrupted. “Go clean yourself up. You can gush about your child during dinner.”
Alex ran a hand through his hair and sneezed when a touch of ash fell onto his nose. “Uh, right. I’ll be back then. Not that either of you may care since you’re getting along so well.”
We shared a grin, it being obvious that Alex was pleased with the development. Darrien’s monotonous tone said, “That’s right, so go away.”
“Okay, okay…!” Within a few minutes, the shower was running and Darrien had joined me on the couch.
“Do you know about his virtual reality system?” I asked excitedly.
“I make it a point to know all about his creations in the event that something knocks the house to the ground,” Darrien said. “I actually tried it out. It’s pretty cool, but I’m sure Alex will want to tell you all about it.”
I conceded to his point, but it was painful to make small talk when the idea of virtual reality was in the front of my mind. No, it wasn’t a new concept, but if Alex could make a laser pen…