Read an Excerpt
Never a Hero
A Tucker Springs Novel
By Marie Sexton, Sarah Frantz
Riptide PublishingCopyright © 2013 Marie Sexton
All rights reserved.
It took three years for me to convince myself I was in love with my downstairs neighbor. It only took one day for her to move out of my life.
It wasn't her fault. Not really. It wasn't as if I'd ever told her how I felt. In truth, I'd barely spoken to her at all, outside of the general pleasantries between neighbors when we passed on the walk or ran into each other in our shared backyard. But I'd watched her. Not in a stalker kind of way. But some days, when she was out in the garden, I'd sit on my porch and read so I could catch glimpses of her through the flowers as she knelt in the dirt, her fingers sunk into the cold Colorado soil.
But what had really made me love her was listening to her.
Her name was Regina, and she was a pianist. Not a concert pianist, or even an aspiring one. She had a day job somewhere in town, doing what, I didn't know, but for three years, I'd seen her leave at 7:45 and come home at 5:20. For an hour or so, she'd be out of my sight, in her own apartment below mine. But sometime around 6:30 or 7:00, she'd always start to play, and I'd lie on the couch in my living room, directly above her piano, and think about how I could learn to love a woman like her.
But now here she was, moving out.
I watched out my window as she loaded boxes into a truck. She had help. Two men and one woman. I barely noticed the woman, but I studied the men. One was smaller, studious looking, glasses perched on his nose. A bit twitchy about touching the boxes or going in the house. I dubbed him The Academic. The other was bigger. Huge, in fact. Clearly one of those men who spent hours in the gym. He lugged boxes out to the truck two and three at a time.
Not that he was Regina's hero, though. The men were obviously a couple, although I tried not to notice how happy they looked together. The lingering glances and the secret smiles. For three years, I'd lived only a few blocks from the Light District in Tucker Springs, and for three years, I'd told myself it wasn't the place for me. That all I needed was to meet the right woman, and maybe all those other thoughts that snuck into my head late at night would disappear. That she could help me erase the embarrassed regret of my high school years, and the loneliness that had haunted me since college. If Regina and I were a couple, I'd told myself, her playing would get me through the tough times. Whenever I'd start to wonder how it felt to be on my knees in front of another man, whenever I'd start to think about what I really wanted, I could turn to her and say, "Play something for me." And she'd smile at me, pleased that I wanted to hear her latest piece, and as her fingers would dance over the keys, teasing Bach or Beethoven or Mozart from that big square box, I'd fall in love with her again and forget about the fact that it was men who turned my head, time and again.
Except now she was moving.
I pulled the shade down and turned away. I didn't want to watch her leave.
I also didn't want to watch two men who could openly admit they were in love.
"Owen, you're an idiot," I told myself. After all, a braver man would have offered to help. A more confident man would have taken this last opportunity to talk to her. Maybe get her phone number. A forwarding address, in case there was mail or a package. In case she wanted to have dinner some night. A whole man would have offered to help her move. An undamaged man wouldn't have been afraid to walk out and say, "Hey, let me lend you a hand."
I laughed suddenly at my own thoughts. How ironic that I'd think of one of my least-favorite phrases in the English language. I didn't exactly have an extra hand to spare.
I looked down at my left arm, where it ended in a smooth tapered stump just below my elbow.
"Let me lend you a hand," I said out loud. "But only if you give it back when you're done."
It wasn't as absurd as it sounded. I could have helped. It wasn't like I was incapable of carrying a damn box. Not two or three at a time, like The Hero, but that didn't make me worthless.
No, it wasn't my missing arm that stopped me from helping Regina move. It was the way they'd all react, sorting carefully through the boxes, deciding which ones I could carry. Nothing too heavy. Nothing breakable. Certainly not the glassware, or the boxes of books. Linens, though. Linens they might let me carry.
Or pillows. Even a one-armed man could carry pillows.
I'd never be anybody's hero.
"Stop feeling sorry for yourself," I muttered.
I was startled by a knock on the door. I was even more surprised to open it and find Regina on the other side. I stood as I always did, with the left half of my body hidden behind the door. Certainly she knew by now about my missing arm, but I'd learned people didn't like to see it.
"Hi, Erwin!" she said. It was an indicator of how little we'd actually talked. She didn't even know my name.
I was slow to answer, making sure my tongue was ready to move. I'd beaten my stutter years ago, but it still appeared sometimes. Usually at the least-opportune moments. "Ready to go?" I asked her, gesturing toward the truck.
"Yep, this is it!" She held a set of keys out for me. "I told the landlord I'd leave the spares with you."
I held out my right hand and let the keys fall into my palm. I thought about the one thing I hadn't seen The Hero carry out her door. "What about your piano?"
She shrugged and ran a hand through her short hair. There was more gray in it than I'd realized. When I'd imagined a life with her, I'd made her my age, but I was reminded now of the fact that she was actually more than ten years my senior, although she looked damn good for her age. "I'm leaving it. It wasn't mine to begin with. It belonged to whoever lived here before me, and anyway, it'd be a pain in the ass to move."
"Will you buy a new one?"
"I don't know. Maybe eventually. But mostly it takes up space and gathers dust, you know?"
She'd played almost every night. Certainly she loved it. I'd made myself believe she loved it. How else could I possibly love her?
"Anyway," she said, suddenly awkward. "Take care."
Then she turned around and walked away. Down the sidewalk to the truck. Away from the imaginary life she'd unknowingly starred in.
Away from me.
* * *
Two days later, the scene was repeated in reverse. A Tahoe and a pickup truck filled with furniture and boxes parked in front of the house. A total of four men got out and walked through the bright autumn leaves littering the lawn to the side of the house, out of my line of sight.
I should introduce myself. Find out who exactly was moving in and give him the spare key.
That's what I told myself, but I knew I wouldn't do it. Not until I was forced to.
I heard laughter downstairs, then piano notes. Not a real song like Regina had played. Not the practiced music of a pianist, but the inexpert jangle of random tones as somebody tested the instrument. I pictured one of the men leaning against Regina's piano, hitting the keys, laughing with his friends at his own lack of skill.
"Don't quit your day job!" one of them said.
The house I lived in had been built as a split-level in the seventies, but had been broken up into two separate apartments. Mine consisted of what had once been the main floor, which meant my door opened onto the front porch. The lower apartment was reached via a stairway at the side of the house. The setup was unusual in that the house was built on a hill and had a walk-out basement, making the downstairs living space far more tolerable than most basement apartments. I listened to the men below as they wandered through the apartment, looking in closets and kitchen cabinets, opening the sliding glass door to look at our shared backyard. Most times, their words were indistinguishable, but I could hear their laughter clearly through the vents. It had been a long time since I'd shared that kind of easy laughter with anybody.
For the first time, I regretted having an apartment below me.
Luckily, the torture didn't last long. Soon enough, the laughter stopped and the moving began. I watched for a few minutes through my window. Like before, two of the men were clearly a couple. They were happy and stupidly in love, one of them tall and thin and dark, the other shorter and blond. I immediately hated them for their easy, open affection. I hoped they weren't the ones moving in.
I turned my attention to the other two. Neither was a big as The Hero had been, although one of them in particular was obviously well acquainted with the gym. His arms bulged under the short sleeves of his shirt. Dark blond hair and bright, laughing eyes. I couldn't decide if he and the fourth man, whose arms were covered with tattoos, were lovers or not. Friends certainly, but if they were more, they at least didn't glow with the bright, electric giddiness of the other two.
Four able-bodied men. Not a missing limb among them.
I didn't even think about offering to help.
Instead, I went to my computer and worked. After all, there were bills to pay. A teacher in high school had shown me how to type one-handed, using home row as my base, keeping my index finger on the F and my pinky on the J. I'd always been a stellar student, and typing was no different. I'd practiced with relentless determination and could now type one-handed as well as many people could with two, and missing my left hand didn't diminish my ability to use a mouse. I put on my headphones and lost the afternoon to work, designing newsletters and brochures for a local marketing company. It wasn't necessarily a job I loved, but it was one I was good at and it allowed me the luxury of working from home. My music drowned out the sound of the men bumping down the outside steps with boxes and furniture.
It wasn't until long after I'd quit working for the day that the knock came, not from the front door where one might expect it, but from the sliding glass door in the dining room, which meant whoever was knocking must have come through the shared backyard and up the stairs to my elevated porch. I rounded the corner from my hallway and saw the blond with the big arms waving at me through the glass.
Too late to pretend I wasn't home.
I slid the door aside, painfully aware of the fact that I couldn't hide the left half of my body from his view. "Yes?"
"Hey!" he said, holding his right hand out to me. "I'm Nick Reynolds. I just moved in downstairs. I thought I should introduce myself since we're neighbors now."
He was cute. That was the first thought that came into my mind. Really goddamn cute, like boy-next-door cute, but with attitude. The smart-assed altar boy. The kid who always made wisecracks in class, yet managed to charm the teachers into not caring. The kind of guy every girl wanted to date. The kind of guy who radiated confidence.
The kind of guy I'd never be.
"Nice to meet you," he said. His hand was still out in front of him, and I realized with a start that I'd been staring stupidly at him since I'd opened the door. I reached out and let him shake my hand. He was taller than me, but not by much, with a firm grip.
"Owen Meade," I managed to say.
"Owen." His smile grew bigger. "Listen, I wondered if you'd like to come down and meet the girls. It's a mess down there, 'cause I haven't had a chance to unpack anything, and there are boxes everywhere and no place to sit except the floor, but you'll have to meet them eventually, and probably sooner's better than later since we'll be sharing a backyard, don't you think?"
I suddenly wished I'd paid a bit more attention when he was moving in. Girls had moved in with him? Not just one, either. Girls, plural. Either he was the luckiest SOB in town, or he was a single father. "Girls?"
"Yeah. Well, two girls, technically. One boy."
"Unless you're allergic to dogs or something."
His smile disappeared and was replaced by sudden concern. "You're not, are you? Allergic, I mean? Or scared of them? 'Cause they're great dogs, really. Although Bonny will get into your trash every chance she gets, so you'll want to keep it in the garage. Do you keep it in the garage? Not on the back porch, right?" He looked around the porch, which did not in fact contain any garbage. "Good. That's good. Other than that, I promise they won't cause you a bit of trouble. And don't worry about the yard, either. I'll keep it clean, so you don't have to worry about landmines or anything."
"Landmines?" It was a stupid word to latch onto, but he was talking so fast, and I wasn't used to talking to people in person. Email was more my speed.
He laughed, as if I'd made a joke. "Right. So how about it?"
I blinked at him, trying to figure out what he'd asked me. Several questions, and now I wasn't sure which one to answer.
"I'm sorry," I said, feeling like a fool. "What exactly are you asking me?"
He smiled at me, and I began to blush for no good reason whatsoever. To my surprise, he began to blush too. "I'm talking really fast, aren't I?"
I laughed, feeling relieved it wasn't just me. "You really are."
"I do that sometimes. Especially when I'm tired." He reached up to touch his hair, a gesture that spoke more of nervous habit than vanity. "Anyway. The real question is, do you want to come down and meet the dogs? Maybe hang out and have a beer?"
Hang out and have a beer. Such a simple concept, and yet it caused my heart to swell.
"I'd love to," I said, and I was surprised at how much I meant it.
* * *
The dogs were named Betty, Bert, and Bonny. Betty was a shaggy white dog, about the size of a cocker spaniel. She ran in circles around my ankles. Bert was a heavy-bodied yellow lab mix. He sat stoically in front of me, his thick tail thumping against the floor. Bonny was about knee-height, colored like a Doberman, but built like a pony keg on popsicle sticks.
"Humane Society guesses she's half-shepherd, half-beagle. Can you believe that?" Nick smiled and shook his head, looking down at her. She was the only one who wasn't interested in me. She seemed far more interested in sniffing every inch of the kitchen. "She can jump five-foot fences without missing a beat and she's smarter than any dog has a right to be, I'll tell you that. Makes me appreciate the dumb ones a bit more, you know?" He moved a box off a kitchen chair and motioned me toward it. "Sit down."
I did, and immediately had Bert's head in my lap and Betty scrambling on her back paws, standing at attention near my knees. I put my right hand out and let them both sniff and nuzzle me. I stroked Bert's head, then reached for Betty. As I did, Bert nudged his head against my left arm. He didn't care there wasn't a hand there, so I rubbed his neck with the rounded end of my arm while petting Betty.
"You'll be their new best friend," Nick said.
I suddenly became aware of his eyes on me. Of the fact that I was sitting in front of him with my greatest insecurity exposed. Usually I didn't leave the house without a long sleeve covering my stump and now here I was, not only with it uncovered, but using it as if it were a whole, useful limb. It was something that often made people uncomfortable, but when I looked up at him, he wasn't looking at my ruined arm. He also wasn't doing what most people did, straining so hard to not look at it that I could almost taste their discomfort. Instead, he was shaking his head at his dogs.
"Go lie down, guys!"
He laughed. "You say that now, but they'll have you petting them all night." He turned and pulled a beer out of the fridge, twisted the top off, and handed me the bottle. "Here. Drink this. Please. The guys brought them for moving day, but didn't finish them. Somebody should drink them."
"What about you?"
"I don't drink."
Excerpted from Never a Hero by Marie Sexton, Sarah Frantz. Copyright © 2013 Marie Sexton. Excerpted by permission of Riptide Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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