Tessellations: Tales from the Miracle Season 1.4

          There were times, as he felt the binding break on yet another of his textbooks as he turned its pages, that Seth Reynolds genuinely regretted choosing computer science as a major.  Well, a co-major.  A double major.  Was it just a few years ago that he came here to San Keros University thinking he was going to become the next Junior Vasquez or Moby?  Somehow those big dreams ended up becoming studying until 1am six nights a week, and two small shifts in the middle of the afternoon twice a week at the college radio station.  This wasn’t the carefree glamorous college experience the rom-coms had promised him.  His grades were excellent, of course, and he’d picked up some work doing data entry and robocalling for the alumni relations office.  He had so much free time, in fact, he sometimes even found time to sleep.

          He’d skipped out on the intramural soccer team his dorm had gathered together this term, determined to make some serious headway in his classes and so far that had paid dividends.  But after drowning in code for the better part of the last 4 hours he needed a break.  He got up, his thin pale arms stretching towards the ceiling as he stretched and rolled his head.  Scanning the room, he spotted a pair of navy basketball shorts that hadn’t yet made their way to the ever-growing laundry pile on the floor of his closet and slipped them on.  He grabbed some headphones and his iPod and was in the process of choosing a playlist when he was almost run down in the hall as he exited his room.  As he smashed himself into the wall for safety, he saw Glen and Jon racing down the hall.  Glen had a hand full of what he hoped was shaving cream.  Seth smiled and headed in the opposite direction.

          He passed some of the neighboring dorms and the dining hall, and found himself in the Square, the park that demarcated the line between the main campus and the city of San Keros proper.  Usually filled with students—or farmer’s markets in the spring and summer—it seemed barren now that he stood alone amidst the hum of street lamps and the cold, fat drops that randomly fell from the sky. He reached into his pocket and grabbed his earbuds, positioning them firmly in place.  As he woke up his iPod, he had to spin the jack of the earbuds into the headphone port until both ears began pouring music into his overwrought brain. 

          Leaving the Square behind, he walked the paths around campus, dreading returning to his room but lacking an excuse to not return.  He envied the casual ease in which guys like Glen and Jon found time for the very ridiculousness that college was supposed to afford.  That sort of friendly jocularity had never come easy to Seth.  He’d always had to work to keep the friendships he’d made, disproportionately so.  Christ, he was in a bleak mood, wasn’t he?

          Lost in his own head, he stumbled when the first few bars of the tune came into his ears. Brought up short, he stopped just shy of tripping over his own feet onto a mound of dead, dry hydrangeas that sprouted out of one of the hillsides.  Odd.  He hadn’t remembered putting that song on his pod.  In fact, he all but guaranteed he hadn’t.  Lucky Love had all sort of memories attached like strings, most of them unpleasant.  Hrothgar Jones.  How was it that the memory of that gaunt face framed by those red glasses still got his heart racing, all these years later?  That image was tainted by how they left things, of course, and the dark shadows that had sagged about Gar’s haunted eyes before Seth had finally forced himself to look away. 

          Determined to shake off his melancholy and his fried nerves, he picked up his pace and turned his walk into a jog.   He had no direction in mind, which was good as he’d left the quad and entered the endlessly winding roads of the Warren.  He let his feet fall on the damp pockmarked cement and let each step ricochet up his legs to guide him forward.  Soon his jog had become a run, and the sweat that had broken out across his mostly exposed torso was met with the collected moisture from the mist that was slowly gathering as a light rain began to fall. 

          Raising the hem off his wifebeater to clear the drops that were falling from his fairly prodigious eyebrows, he slowed down to catch his breath for a moment.  Maybe this was a rom-com—but if it was, he didn’t find it funny.  Seth hadn’t had a date in…well…forever.  Ever?  Not one that meant something.  He’d expected to find this giant new world when he came to college that he might find someone in, but college was just high school on steroids.  He was definitely friendly with lots of people here, and he had more than a few close friends—like Renee and Max—but no one who was worth it.  The it.  Damnit. He stopped, his chest pushing his breath out in gales. 

          Maybe he needed to just get laid.  Then he could focus on something that was actually important.  He could just walk into that bar that opened up on the other side of the Warren and just pick some random person and bring them home and do whatever, kick them out by morning.  Which he’d have to do, since he had an 8am tomorrow.  Everything was complicated, nothing was easy, and he was exhausted. Something had to give. 

          The lights in the shop to his left went out, and two guys exited the thick oak door.  He couldn’t make out their features, the faux gas lamps that lit the street corners of the Warren didn’t really illuminate as much as create ambiance, but he smiled as they both stopped and looked at him standing there virtually shirtless in the rain, the oversized wifebeater exposing most of his chest and all of his soaked sides.  He raised his hand and waved, and the taller of the two shook his head and started to walk down Lark Street.  The shorter, more burly of the two approached him, however.

          “Hello, it’s raining” said the guy who seemed to grow taller, and whose shoulders seemed to grow wider, with his approach.  When they were finally face to face, Seth admired the crazy wavy bronze mop of hair that covered the guy’s head before it spilled into an equally thick beard.  He couldn’t be more than a few years older, Seth reasoned.  Light green eyes peered out of the thatch of amber hair, not any green he would mistake with brown as he had with Glen.  Not that he routinely stared at the eyes of his buddies.  Realizing the stranger was waiting for some sort of response other than Seth staring at his stupid face, Seth rejoined, “Yep.  Went for a run and the drizzle decided to turn into a downpour.”

          “I’m Mason,” said the gentle giant, “and you, sir, are soaked.  Here, take this.  I just live a few streets over.”  The man waved in some vague general direction deeper in the Warren as he handed Seth the umbrella he’d been leaning on during their conversation. 

          “I couldn’t,” Seth demurred, despite taking the offered umbrella.  What was happening here?  Why was he saying no, but doing it the opposite?  Unsure of what to do, or how to stand, he found himself leaning on it much the same way Mason had been.  “You’ll be drenched.  The damage is already done, as far as I’m concerned.”

          “Don’t be ridiculous,” Mason scoffed, “you’ll have some ridiculous cold that will turn your nose into a strawberry by the time you get home.  What ever possessed you to go for a run on tonight of all nights?”

          Seth found he couldn’t find an answer immediately, largely because the man had used the word ridiculous twice in as many sentences and it seemed rude to point that out to someone who was only offering a helping hand.

          “Let’s make it simpler: Running to, or running from?”

          Seth felt his face begin to burn a bit.  Looking down, he saw that the guy wasn’t nearly as burly as he’d thought; much of his frame was made up of a padded Asian style coat that finished at his mid-thigh.  He glanced back up to Mason’s eyes, which seemed to search his face for a moment before a small smile played on his lips.

          “Well, enigmatic stranger, you can return it tomorrow at the bookstore.”

          “What bo-?”

          “The Green Man,” Mason said, as he gestured towards the building he and his friend had recently disembarked.  “It’s my shop, so I’m there pretty much all the time.  It’s supposed to be nice tomorrow, so you shouldn’t need it.”

          “Need what?” Seth wondered how his brain and mouth could get so tongue-tied so quickly.

          “Um…the umbrella?” Mason’s visage turned to one of concern.  “Are you sure you’re ok?”

          “Yeah, sure, thanks, I mean.  I’ll drop by after lunch.  And thanks!”

          “You already said that,” Mason murmured, bemused.  They stood there for a moment, Seth unsure what to say and Mason getting wetter by the second.  “I’ve had my fill of the wet, I’m afraid, so I’m off to home.  I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow, or I’ll be out an umbrella.” His voice went up like it was a question, but the man turned from Seth and headed down Baudwin at a stiff pace before Seth inhaled to respond.  The electric gas lamp at the corner flickered deeply as Mason walked by it, and the man was gone from view. 

          As he deployed the umbrella, it dawned on Seth that he hadn’t even given the good Samaritan his name.  He took his time walking home, wondering what the hell was wrong with him.  That wasn’t a new train of thought, of course.  What had just happened, precisely?  Had he been flirting, and with a guy at that? A guy he hadn’t known?  That was entirely unlike him.  Mason wasn’t even his type, assuming he even had a type when it came to maybe being attracted to dudes.  Which he wasn’t.  Except.

          The next day, far from well-rested but certainly drier, Seth found himself outside the Green Man munching on a tuna sandwich he’d grabbed from the cafeteria.  He felt jittery, like he’d downed far too much Mountain Dew and his stomach was a swarm of bees.  Maybe locusts, because he was also famished.  He was just returning an umbrella.  It wasn’t a big deal.  Calm yourself, Reynolds. 

          Seth approached the door, unsure whether to grasp the brass knocker that spilled out of the vaguely masculine head that decorated the door’s center or just enter.  It was a store, wasn’t it?  It’s not like he was randomly dropping by Mason’s apartment.  Though that image made his mouth dry.  Holy hell, he had to get his nerves under control.  He pressed down on the hammered door latch and entered. 

          Walking in, Seth was surprised by how shiny everything was.  The entire store was covered in glazed hardwood, from the floors to the bookcases to the stairway that unfolded like a serif into a mezzanine that seemed to stretch farther back than the ground floor would’ve supported.  To his right, before the stairwell, stood a counter of the same immaculately shellacked wood, but in a darker tone.  At first glance, the Green Man looked more like the law library at SKU than some start-up bookstore.  Seth gulped a bit, as he tried to imagine how much real estate like this—especially in the Warren, which seemed to be at a premium these days—was probably worth. 

          There were, of course, books everywhere—piled on top of bookcases against walls, perched precariously on freestanding runs that flowed to the back of the shop, and sitting in brown paper bags on the cushioned window seat that looked out into the Warren.  More bookshelves were inset into the left wall all the way to the ceiling, and a rolling ladder rested in its track in the middle of the wall.  People actually had those? He’d only seen them in movies, or the ‘70s tv shows his dad had forced him to watch on rainy Saturday afternoons. 

          Thoughts of Perry Mason and the Paper Chase fled quickly, however, as a few steps further into the store found him mere feet from Mason—or to be more precise, the back of Mason, who was bent over opening up some boxes that rest on the floor on the outside of the counter.  Seth just stared at the view, his mouth going completely dry as he struggled for words.  He was just as tongue-tied as he was the night before, and damn, but that coat had really hid some of Mason’s virtues, hadn’t it?  Not the shoulders, obviously, but…wow.  And now he’d stood there too long staring.  How did he make this not creepy?

          Someone unseen cleared their throat from the mezzanine above.  Tearing his eyes away reluctantly, Seth spotted  a tall (Do only giants visit this bookstore? Is this a giant bookstore?), spindle-thin guy moving to the top of the stairs giving him a look that in any language meant death.  He’d never met this guy before, but judging by his profile Seth wagered he was the other figure he’d seen with Mason before they’d parted ways last night.

          Pulling copies of what seemed to be an endless supply of identical thin books from the box—and entirely unawares of Seth’s presence behind him, Mason called out to the other fellow, “Oh man, is Colin’s head going to explode.  Did you see this?  Looks like Hendricks let Alex pick the elective readings this semester.  Dude isn’t even back yet, and she’s already trying to put him in the back of the bus.  He’d better have that dissertation all but done, because she isn’t going to let Hendricks give him an inch.  Only person I ever met more competitive is her sister.  Well, maybe you.  In the right circumstances.”

          Mason stood up with both arms ladened with two towers of books that balanced upon his chin and dropped them on the counter with a thud.  “Hey, did you hear the door…oh.”

          Seth’s eyes met the bookman’s and he waved his right hand in greeting, causing the umbrella within its grasp to knock down two paperbacks that had been resting atop a nearby display.  Mason seemed to enjoy the unconfined groan of embarrassment that came unbidden out of Seth’s mouth.

          “If it isn’t my enigmatic stranger,” Mason clucked.  “I see you remembered to bring the umbrella, in addition to yourself, so you seem to be on better footing than yesterday.”

          The gangly stranger on the floor above closed his book loudly and slowly, with languid intention, slowly walked down each step.  Seth was riveted.  His mouth was stoic, Seth noticed, but the cheeks that surrounded those dark lips were misplaced.  Rather than cheekbones designed to cut glass, Seth followed the lines of what appeared to be just a normal face, though drawn tight.  Those eyes, however, were storm clouds.  Absently, he reached out the hand holding the partially devoured tuna sandwich towards Mason.

          “I’m not normally a big fan of tuna, thanks.” 

          As the stranger finally reached the bottom step, Seth’s eyes finally aligned with what his hand was proferring to the bookseller.  His face decided at that point that beet red would make an excellent camouflage.  He brought his left hand down and raised the other, holding Mason’s umbrella, upwards like some sort of automaton. Say something, you idiot!

          Seth was still held captive by the cold gaze of the newcomer, watching his hands curl and disappear inside the oversized sleeves of his electric blue, inside-out sweater.  That gaze broke, however, as Mason took the umbrella out of Seth’s hand and leaned over the counter to place it out of sight.  Seth remembered to breathe, then, but it came out haggard.  Whoever this other guy was, the entirety of his attention was now focused on Mason’s bent over form, now on its tiptoes as he tried to stow the returned gift.  Seth could hardly blame him, having been caught moments earlier doing precisely the same.  While he was unobserved, he studied the interloper.  The grey, threadbare jeans he wore were no fashion statement, but his sneakers looked rich by comparison.  His hands seemed to twist inside the confines of the cuff of his sweater as the moment dragged on.

          “So this is the ragamuffin runner?” he asked  as Seth stood transfixed.  The light caught three small nickel hoops that hugged the stranger’s right earlobe.  He might’ve just as easily been talking about the weather, or a hangnail from the amount of attention he was actually lavishing on Seth.  His voice was higher than Seth had expected, but just like his cheeks, it was surprisingly ordinary.  He wasn’t sure whether or not he was disappointed.  Hell, he wasn’t sure what he expected.  He felt like he’d stepped out of his life and into this strange new land where he knew few of the customs and the language was foreign.

          “Ugh, your alliteration is killing me today, Evan.” Mason teetered on the edge of falling over but pulled it together in an awkward stretch as he stood up and looked at Seth.  “Yes, our overly talkative guest is in fact the same overly talkative gentleman I encountered last night.”

          Evan raised an eyebrow, rejoining with a low voice, “Encountered?”

          Seth was torn.  On the one hand, he wished someday that someone would look at him like Evan had looked at Mason when his back was turned.  On the other, Mason had just repeated the same adjective again and Seth was annoyed to find it adorable rather than annoying.  He gaped as he realized he’d followed suit, albeit in his own internal monologue.  He really needed to say something.  Out loud.

          “Evan is late for dance class,” Mason announced.

          “I am not.  I have at least 10 min-”

          “Evan has a shift at Cafe Olive tonight,” Mason continued in a professorial tone that sounded quite practiced, “during which he will have to try his best to not break the hearts and dreams of the hopefuls who show up for Open Mic night.”

          The look Evan gave Mason wasn’t even close to friendly, now.  He could imagine growing in those eyes, even when they were flashing this dangerously.  It might be worth the risk, Seth thought.  He shivered at that, shaking himself out of whatever fugue he’d been in.  Damnit, Gar.

          “You should go, ragamuffin running enigmatic stranger,” Mason laughed, doing a passable impression of Evan’s voice but a full octave lower.

          Seth honestly didn’t know where to look, or what to say.  He was always the quick-witted one, the guy who always threw in a comment to keep the conversation going.  But since the moment Mason had appeared out of the rain Seth had found himself at a perpetual and singular loss for words, and it seemed to only be getting worse.

          “I’m Seth,” he said nodding his head like he was agreeing to a question that hadn’t really been asked.  “I’m Seth, and I’m an ass,” he thought.

          “He has a name!” Mason exulted, and clapped Seth on the shoulder.

          Evan muttered, “Congratulations,” and rolled his sleeves up, exposing fingers that, like the rest of him, were slender and long.  “And perfect,” Seth thought, ‘Graceful and perfect.”

          “Evan, enough.  What’s gotten under you today?”

          “Nothing,” the giant mumbled, his lashes sweeping his eyes closed and open again, “I’m late for class, apparently.”  Evan picked up a messenger bag that Seth hadn’t notice on the floor by the staircase and walked right towards him.

          Seth did his best to step out of the other’s way, but it evidently wasn’t far enough because rather than go around, Evan’s tall—and surprisingly firm—form slammed into Seth’s shoulder as he exited the shop.  When their shoulders touched, he and Evan locked eyes for a moment, and time slowed as Seth felt a familiar lurch somewhere between his hips but not below them. It rose across his stomach like breath, causing each hair to shift against the shirt resting upon them, until he found it rattling about his throat.  Then the moment was gone.  Seth found he had turned to watch Evan leave, the tall boy’s blue sweater and dark skin merging with the multihued crowd of students hustling from their cramped apartments in the Warren to their classes at the university.

          “His name is Evan?” Seth croaked, as the door slammed with just enough force for both Mason and Seth to know the initial force with which it had closed was not natural.

          “Oh yes,” Mason said, smiling.”That was Hurricane Evan.”

          Seth let out a breath and turned to face Mason as he sagged to the floor, his back resting against a freestanding bookcase.

          “Dude.”

          “Dude,” Mason nodded.

          As Seth looked up at him, his smile sheepish, he felt that rattle he swore he’d never feel again settle lower than his voice box, deeper somehow, and sighed.

          Mason looked on in sympathy, and gestured to Seth’s right hand. 

          “On second thought…are you going to eat that?”

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