Her bags were sitting on her bed, half-emptied as she picked through them and started her laundry. The conference swag bag was lying, forgotten, in the floor–a mix of thumb-drives and insulated travel mugs, miscellaneous advertising junk she’d hand out to her colleagues when she got back to the office in the morning.
Right now, however, the fridge was a study in last month’s calendar, she was hungry, and driving anywhere seemed to take more willpower than she had to offer. Instead, she ordered a pizza online, haunting the front door when the tracker told her it was on the way.
She answered the bell before the tones died in the hallway.
She saw the pizza box first, then the red hat and smiling face. He was youngish and lean, with only the barest hint of adolescent softness in his cheeks.
“That’s me.” She smiled.
“If you could just sign here, please.” He passed her the receipt and a pen, and she fumbled for a moment with where to lay it. He held out the box, and she dropped the slip onto the lid, scribbling her signature and a tip amount while he held it steady.
She flashed another quick smile as she took her pizza. “Thanks.”
He jerked his chin in a nod and vanished into the dark.
She dragged her laptop across the couch, bringing up her order and submitting it. She didn’t move until the doorbell rang, and shuffled down the hall to answer.
It was the same young man. No hat, this time, and she could see unkempt brown hair sticking up on the crown of his head. She smiled.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
He glanced at her, taking in the lavender robe and bare feet. He grinned. “Day off?”
“I wish.” She reached for the receipt. “I feel like I’ve got the plague.” She held out his pen. “Might want to sanitize that when you can.”
He exchanged it for the pizza, making a face. “Thanks for the warning.”
She watched him clean his hands in the car before backing out of her drive.
She called, this time, on her way home from work. He was waiting when she arrived.
“I am so sorry–I got caught at the corner of Clark and Collins when some idiot hit a woman in the back.” She fished out her keys. “I can’t believe you waited.”
He shrugged. “Had a couple of stops nearby. I came back.”
“Oh.” She pushed the door open. “Thank you.” She dropped her bag and shoved it aside with her foot. “Let me grab some cash–hang on just a second.”
He was leaning against the wall when she returned. She passed him a twenty and waved off the change. “Keep it. It’s the least I can do.”
He hesitated, as though he wanted to speak and stopped himself. “Thanks.”
She turned to go back inside and paused. “What’s your name?”
“Thanks, Daniel. See you next time.”
“Twice in one month.”
She looked up from the receipt. “Sorry?”
Daniel grinned at her. “I was here a couple of weeks ago.”
She smiled. “Yeah, well–I’m not in the mood to do dishes.”
He took the receipt. “Thanks–have a good night, Mrs. Jensen.”
“I’m not–it’s Nicole. Just me.” She blushed as the words left her mouth.
His smile hitched a little higher. “‘Bye, Nicole.”
She closed her door and leaned against it until her heart stopped hammering.
“It’s your birthday?”
She nodded, counting out the bills in her wallet.
She looked at him, brows furrowed. “What?”
He held out the pizza box. “Happy birthday.”
She laughed. “Are you serious?”
He nodded. “Absolutely. My treat.”
Nicole smiled. “Well, I guess I’ll have to tell the girls at work about the nice man who bought me dinner on my birthday.” She held out a few bills. “At least take the tip?”
She tilted her head, looking at him. After a moment, “You sure?”
He smiled, again. “Completely. Happy birthday!” He was still smiling as he walked backwards down the porch steps.
“We have to stop meeting like this.”
“I know. My neighbors will start to talk.”
“Got any plans for the Fourth?”
“Not really. I’ll probably go to the park and see the fireworks–that’s about it.” She handed him a twenty. “You?”
“I have to work.”
She frowned. “You have to work on a holiday?”
He opened his arms wide. “The masses demand pizza regardless of season or celebration!”
She giggled. “You’re an idiot.”
He leaned close. “You like it.”
Her cheeks were burning. “Go away, you. The masses are waiting.”
He waved when he drove away.
He answered when she called in her order. She didn’t catch his voice, and he didn’t recognize her until she gave her address.
She paused. “Yes?”
“It’s me, Daniel.”
“Oh, god–Daniel, I didn’t even realize.” They both laughed. “I’m not used to you answering.”
“My manager had to leave, so I’m filling in.”
“So I guess this means it won’t be your smiling face at my door.”
“Well–next time, then?”
He didn’t answer, and he didn’t come.
She skipped pizza for a while.
She was on the phone when she opened her door. “No, Mom–”
He was waiting, hair cropped short, shirtsleeves tight across his arms.
“Mom–let me call you back. The pizza just got here…okay–love you, too.” She hung up and looked at him. “Long time no see.”
“Sorry…it’s been crazy.”
She reached for her wallet. “Well, it’s good to see you.” She passed him a twenty.
When he offered her change, she took it.
It was an uncommonly warm evening, and she was stretched across the couch in front of her open windows, a book on her stomach, enjoying the occasional breeze and the sounds of the families living around her.
Something tapped on the glass above her head, and she opened her eyes. “Daniel?”
He was wet–hair plastered to his forehead, shirt clinging–and smiled weakly. “The house two doors down has a hell of a sprinkler system.”
She jumped up, opening the door and letting him in before hurrying to the bathroom and getting some towels. She tossed one on the floor and he stepped onto it, taking another and scrubbing his head. He looked at her, tufts of hair sticking up all over, and sighed. “Thanks.”
“They turned the sprinklers on?”
He cut his eyes at her. “Their kids did.”
She grinned. “And suddenly, not being a mother doesn’t seem so bad.” She exchanged the damp towel for a dry one. “I hope they tipped you well, at least.”
He snorted, rubbing at his shirt. “They gave me exact change.”
She stopped at the bathroom door. “You’re kidding!”
“Nope.” He tossed her the last towel. “Can I use your phone? I left my cell in the car.”
“Certainly.” She handed it over, waiting at the kitchen door and watching.
“Mike? It’s Daniel…you mind if I swing by my house and change clothes? Some kids got me with the sprinklers…I’m at a friend’s house a couple of doors down…no…okay…really?…thanks, man. See you tomorrow.” He put the phone on her couch. “He told me to cut my shift early. I can go home.”
“What about the money from your deliveries?”
He shrugged. “He knows I’m good for it. I stepped in for him when his wife had their baby early–I guess he figures he can trust me with sixty bucks.”
She smiled, a little confused. “How old are you?”
“Oh, I thought you were–”
He raised his eyebrows in question. “What?”
“I thought you were still in school.”
He grinned. “I am. Well, until December.” He shifted in his shoes, making a face. “I got hit by a car my sophomore year. I’m still catching up.”
She didn’t bother to hide her surprise. “Oh, my god! How bad were you hurt?”
He shrugged, reciting like it was an all-too-familiar list. “Tibia, fibula fractures in both legs; femur fracture in my right leg; fractured pelvis, fractured ribs–a concussion–road rash like you wouldn’t believe…” He looked at her face. “I was on a bike. The cops said I’d have gone under his car if I’d have been walking.”
“Well…then, good for you. On not giving up, I mean. That’s a lot of hurt and recovery.”
He went back to the door and stepped outside. “My mom and dad made sure I kept my focus. I wouldn’t be graduating without them.”
She followed. “What are you studying?”
He looked down for a moment, then into her eyes. “Can we talk about it over dinner?”
“Daniel, that’s…” She shook her head. “We shouldn’t.”
“Right.” He backed away. “Okay. See you.”
He didn’t avert his eyes, he watched her more intently than ever. It felt like she couldn’t sign the receipt fast enough.
“Daniel, no. Don’t–please.”
“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
She winced. “Okay, fine. What?”
He smiled. “Go out with me.”
He turned serious. “Why not?”
“I’m older than you.”
“And–” she looked around, voice dropping to a whisper, “and I’m not some cougar!”
He laughed. “You think that’s what this is?” He pocketed the receipt. “You’re not old enough to be a cougar. You can’t be more than thirty-five.”
She frowned. “A little high on the guess, big boy, but still a cougar.”
He rested a hand on the doorframe and leaned in. “You’re overlooking one important thing: cougars chase boys. Are you chasing me?”
He leaned back. “I rest my case.”
He sighed. “Go out with me. Please.”
She looked at him–his tousled hair, growing back to its pre-summer lengths; his broad shoulders and long legs; his dancing, knowing eyes–and nodded. “Fine. But the first time someone asks me if I’m your mother, it’s on your head.”