The first time Andrew Minyard saw his new neighbor, the guy had two black eyes and a split lip overtop a face riddled with scars. He was carrying a cardboard box up the stairs of their apartment building with another he left unattended in the landing. It was heavily and unnecessarily taped, and Andrew had stopped on his way to his apartment to look down at the box that screamed “do not open.” He noted the owner’s name, Neil Josten, written sloppily and jaggedly across the piles of tape up, over, and around the box that was hardly big enough to hold a sewing machine.
When Neil Josten came back downstairs and saw Andrew standing over his box with a knife in his hand, Neil immediately glared. Andrew held Neil’s gaze as he flicked his knife open, the quiet snick the first sound shared between them.
Neil, scowling harder, splitting the cut on his lip and crinkling the bruises around his eyes, walked toward the box without a second look at Andrew and picked it up before turning and moving back up the stairs.
Andrew waited, but Neil didn’t come back down that night.
The second time Andrew saw Neil Josten, Neil had fading black eyes and a healing cut on his lip and he was stomping up the stairs to his apartment, dropping a waiter’s apron at his feet. This time, Andrew noticed the garish scars on Neil’s arms and hands before he disappeared up the stairs.
Andrew went to the apron and found a soggy notepad, a broken pen, and a check for thirteen dollars.
Andrew left the apron and the pen and the notepad on the stairs and put the check on his nightstand.
Neil never came looking for it.
The last time Andrew saw Neil Josten, he had a boxed ear and bleeding knuckles. He was sitting on the steps outside the apartment building and holding a cigarette in limp, shaking fingers. Blood was on the filter and dripping on the steps he sat on. When he saw Andrew approach, he lifted his hand and saluted, two fingers to his temple, and Andrew stared at the two dots of red he left behind.
The last time Andrew willingly saw Neil Josten, he noticed that Neil had blue eyes, his roots were growing in an auburn red, and between the scars were splashes of dark freckles. Neil didn’t blink when Andrew returned the salute before stepping past him and through the front door.
Andrew decided he didn’t need to see Neil Josten anymore.
Andrew’s cat came home smelling like smoke again.
The beast crept and curled around Andrew’s feet after hopping off the balcony and into the room, soft gray fur snagging on the exposed hair of Andrew’s shin, before she slinked to her food bowl and started to feast on the food that had been waiting for her for the past hour while she had been cavorting with the neighbor.
“We don’t like him,” Andrew reminded her.
The beast settled on her paws, quietly munching, her tail curling around her body.
The beast had been calmly napping and quietly purring on Andrew’s lap when they heard someone limping down the hall. Suddenly, the beast let out a little chirp and then bolted to the open balcony door too fast for Andrew to think to stop her.
Andrew went to his front door and looked out the peep hole and watched as Neil Josten knocked on Andrew’s across-the-hall neighbor’s door.
An old black woman answered, smiling sweetly and patting Neil softly on the cheek to whatever he said. They spoke some more, his neighbor frowning at Neil’s leg, Neil brushing off her hug, and then he was limping away and Andrew was back to settling on the couch.
His cat came home thirty minutes later smelling like smoke.
“We don’t like him,” Andrew reminded her.
The beast purred.
When Andrew had to inevitably bring one of his problem clients home, he accidentally ran into Neil in the hallway.
Neil didn’t balk at the baby behemoth beside Andrew, though he did give it a second look before he returned to sorting his mail on his way to his apartment. Andrew now knew Neil lived five doors down.
Andrew looked down at Caroline beside him. The frantic German Shepard, three months old and excited for everything, looked up at Andrew and gave a small yip before pouncing on him. Her paws dug into his arm. Andrew gently shoved her off, and Caroline yipped at him again.
When his across-the-hall neighbor opened the door to see the fuss, Andrew slipped inside his apartment and closed the door on her face, but not before Caroline saw his neighbor and barked, and the old woman smiled.
Neil had closed his door a while ago.
Andrew’s cat had a new toy in her mouth. She strutted around the apartment with it, dropped it on Andrew’s lap, moved it to Andrew’s pillow, cuddled with it on Andrew’s chair.
It was a small stuffed dog, modeled after a German Shepard, with a mocking grin and a chewed off tail.
Andrew threw the toy away, but the beast knocked the trash over and pulled it out again.
“He’s a bad influence,” Andrew told the beast as she made biscuits on the stuffed dog’s face.
The beast left the toy in the bathroom sink the next morning.
There was a knock on Andrew’s door.
Andrew didn’t acknowledge it until it came again a minute later, accompanied with a soft yowl and a muttered curse. Andrew realized he hadn’t seen his cat for a while.
Andrew went to answer the door.
Neil Josten was wrestling the beast in his arms, trying to keep her claws out of his cheeks with absolutely no success. He had a vicious cut on one of his eyebrows that bled onto his eyelid before drying and cracking.
“What the fuck is that,” Andrew said, staring at the scratch.
Neil, still struggling with the beast, said, “Your cat, I think.”
Andrew said, “Your face.”
Neil finally turned his full attention to Andrew, giving up on the cat, who promptly patted and swiped at the burn marks on one of Neil’s cheeks. Neil didn’t flinch.
He said, a bit dry, “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“You shouldn’t let strange beasts into your apartment,” Andrew said instead. He didn’t reach for his cat, and Neil wouldn’t put the beast down.
“So I can’t come in?” Neil, still wry, quipped.
Andrew was not amused. “No,” he said.
Neil just snorted and shook his head before maneuvering to put the cat on the ground. The beast immediately sprinted into Andrew’s apartment without a second look back.
Neil straightened and looked at Andrew. He said, “You should keep your cat on a leash.”
Andrew looked at the fresh bruise on Neil’s cheek, too big to have come from his cat, and said, “Seems like you need one, too.”
Andrew closed the door to whatever Neil would have said and turned to the beast waiting for him on the couch. She was purring.
It had been three months since Andrew had properly seen Neil Josten. All of Neil’s poorly dyed brown hair was gone. His eyes weren’t black and bruised. His ears weren’t swollen.
Andrew thought of dark red hair and bright blue eyes and said, “Fuck.”
When Neil ran into Andrew at the mail boxes a few days later, Neil said, “Hi.”
Andrew said nothing.
Neil, undeterred, asked, “What’s with the dog?” Andrew had to bring home Caroline again after her owner complained about her chasing the mailman and not listening when they called her back.
Andrew turned his back to Neil and went up the stairs, refusing to engage. He thought he heard Neil chuckle, but he couldn't understand why Neil would think to laugh at him when Andrew had a German Shepard who he would eventually train to attack on command in his apartment.
Perhaps Neil really was as dumb as he looked.
Neil really was as dumb as he looked.
Andrew had to take Caroline for a walk at five in the morning because young German Shepards never sleep and he was tired of rolling over to the dog panting in his face and hoping to go outside every two seconds.
They ran into Neil in the hallway. He was straightening from a squat when Andrew saw him, and they both froze. Caroline barked at Neil, and Andrew didn’t try to quiet her, though her bark was loud enough to rouse everyone in the building and, technically, he was supposed to be training her to behave.
Neil, first looking at Caroline, and then to Andrew, and then to Caroline, fell into another perfect squat on his welcome mat, staring unblinking at Andrew while he did it. He held it for three seconds, five, ten, without a shake in his muscles, and then, quite randomly, he winked at Andrew.
Andrew let go of Caroline’s leash, and she sprinted to Neil, who immediately straightened and held out his arms to her.
“Yes, yes,” Neil was saying, trying to push the large dog off his chest. His expression was fond, his tone soft. “I believe he sent you over here to hurt me, not kiss me.”
Caroline was whining and nipping at Neil’s face.
“She’ll kill you one day,” Andrew said. He didn’t move to grab Caroline’s leash, instead waiting for her to come back.
Neil started in Andrew’s direction, Caroline yipping happily at his feet. Neil was stretching his arm muscles across his chest as he walked. Andrew noted the running shoes, the tied bandana, the underarmor shirt showing off the hard panes of his chest.
Neil turned to look at Andrew again as soon as they were beside each other. Andrew stepped on Caroline’s leash. Neil twisted his other arm across his body.
“Death by puppy doesn’t seem so bad,” Neil said.
“Only because you don’t know any better.”
“Don’t I?” Neil said, and then he continued down the hall, away from Andrew and the dog, who was struggling to get out of her harness. Andrew gave her a look, and Caroline, finally reading the room, stopped struggling and reluctantly sat down. She looked at Andrew in anticipation. Andrew thought of the scars on Neil’s face.
“This is why we can’t have nice things,” Andrew told her, and Caroline started wagging her tail.
A gunshot went off at four in the morning. Andrew was already awake, sitting on his couch and watching YouTube videos about speedrun tactics when he heard from the floor above him (or maybe the one above that) the unmistakable sound of a gunshot.
The beast, who had been curled in the cross of his legs, bolted and scampered away. Andrew’s shins were now bleeding. Andrew walked to his door and opened it to a few of his curious neighbors, excitedly whispering that someone just got shot and should someone call the police and what if they came down here and, um, should we close our doors?
A door five apartments down from Andrew opened, and Andrew turned to watch as Neil Josten emerged in the hallway, frantic eyed and sweating and not wearing any pants. He only had a sweatshirt on with the hood pulled up, and he wore white tube socks slinking down over his shins, soft and rumpled, and he looked scared, and then he looked at Andrew.
Andrew panned his gaze down Neil’s jittery and twitchy body, lingering on the legs, before meeting Neil’s eyes again. Andrew saluted, two fingers to his temple, and then stepped back into his apartment and closed the door.
His neighbors were still out in their hallway wondering what they should do and who they should call. Andrew didn’t know what Neil did, if he did anything at all.
After a scintillating news article about a mistress and a man and a gratuitous and apologetic email from the building management about “taking the safety of their residents seriously” and “background screening each resident before moving in” and “this was unprecedented and won’t happen again,” life in Andrew’s apartment building returned to normal.
Well, except for when Andrew ran into Neil in the hallway sometimes, and Neil would say, “Hey,” and Andrew would nod back, and then they wouldn’t see each other for the rest of the day, but Andrew’s cat kept coming home smelling like smoke and purring about nothing and Andrew kept thinking about Neil with no pants.
When Neil stomped down the hall holding a sock to a bleeding nose and scowling at anyone who looked at him too long, Andrew had been stepping out into the hallway, intending to go to the store to buy, well, something. As soon as Neil was close enough to glare at him, Andrew grabbed Neil by the crook of his elbow and tugged him back in the direction of the stairwell.
“Excuse the fuck,” Neil said, his voice nasally and harsh, and he yanked his arm out of Andrew’s grasp before turning around again. They hadn’t even reached the stairs yet.
Andrew stuck out a foot to trip him and watched piteously as Neil fell to the ground and muffled a groan.
“Are you fucking me?” Neil said, voice more nasally and more harsh, and he rolled over so he could glare at Andrew from his pitious position at Andrew’s feet, blood soaked into his sock.
“I could be,” Andrew said. He nudged at Neil’s limp leg. “Let’s go.”
Neil, after a moment’s hesitation and another heated glare, sighed, defeated, and said, “Fine.”
“What are we doing here?”
“Wandering around Walmart.”
“It’s fucking stupid.”
“This is what teenagers do for fun.”
“I’m twenty-three years old.”
“You don’t act like it.”
“Do you want me to punch you in the face?”
“I’d like to see you try.”
Andrew took them to a Denny’s at midnight.
“Let me guess,” Neil said, dried blood caked on his upper lip and down his chin and under his jaw and Andrew had walked around with him for two hours at Walmart, not caring that he hadn’t washed his face or set his nose. Neil was looking at his menu and breathing through his mouth. “This is what teenagers do for fun.”
Andrew picked out an ice cube from his complimentary glass of water and flung it at Neil’s face.
Neil glared at him before moving the menu higher and blocking Andrew from his entire face. Andrew stared at the burn scars on Neil’s knuckles as he hummed over the menu.
“How are the pancakes?” Neil asked.
Andrew threw another piece of ice, hitting Neil’s menu. “Disgusting.”
Neil dropped the menu. He was now looking at Andrew. He was grinning, blood on his lips, blood on his shirt. “Perfect,” Neil said.
Neil was pretending to be drunk off hot chocolate on their walk home, balancing on the ledge of a concrete slab and stumbling over his own feet, though he never tumbled over.
“I hope you fall,” Andrew said, stepping out of Neil’s grabbing range.
“That’s kind of the point,” Neil said, pretending to sway his way off concrete, almost landing on Andrew, except he didn’t fall off the ledge, and he didn’t touch Andrew.
“You’re so stupid,” Andrew said.
“I thought this is what the teenagers did at two in the morning?”
Neil side-eyed Andrew and said, “Why don’t you prove it.”
Andrew unlocked his door as the sun was rising and Neil said on his way to his own apartment, “Tell Purrinnial I said hi.”
“She doesn’t have a name.”
Neil stopped. Andrew propped a hip on his open doorframe. The beast did not emerge to greet him. Neil looked at Andrew with a raised brow.
“She doesn’t?” Neil asked.
“She’s a cat.”
“She has feelings.”
“Wow. What do you call her, then?”
Andrew stayed silent, and Neil hummed before acquiescing with a shrug and continuing to his apartment. He started to unlock his door. “Whatever. When she’s with me, her name is Purrinnial.”
Andrew said, “And when you’re with me, your name is Idiot.”
Neil flipped him off as soon as his door was open, and then Neil’s door was closed and the hall was empty and Andrew was alone.
The beast, emerging, curled around Andrew’s ankles. He looked down at her and said, “We need to talk about how much time you spend with the neighbor. It isn’t healthy.”
The beast bit Andrew’s calf.
Andrew was smoking on his balcony and watching the ash from his cigarette flutter to the ground under the twilight moon when he heard Neil shout from five balconies over, “Hey, have you ever worked with kids?”
Andrew slipped the cigarette into the corner of his mouth and turned to look at Neil, who was leaning his hip against his railing and holding his own cigarette by his face.
Andrew silently took a drag and stared at Neil.
“Are they always so weird?” Neil went on, his voice loud and unapologetic.
Andrew exhaled smoke and stared at Neil.
“And what the fuck is Roblox?” Neil asked, incredulous.
Andrew stubbed out his filter and stared at Neil.
“Hey, man, shut up!” someone yelled from down on the street. Neil turned to look at them and flicked an ember from his cigarette in their direction.
Andrew went inside.
The beast was gallivanting on the kitchen counter and Andrew went to scoop her up and place her on the floor. “This is your fault,” he said.
The beast went to sleep.
Andrew was stepping out of his apartment with his current dog of the week, a six-month-old German Shepard named Bill, when he found Neil sitting on the welcome mat outside his own door.
Bill barked at Neil.
Neil looked up, but his eyes were vacant and his expression was void and he looked exhausted.
Andrew said, “Let’s go.”
Neil stood up.
Andrew was meeting Bill’s owner at the dog park to acclimate the dog to social situations and teach the owner basic commands. Bill had been too excited in his play, so Andrew took him for the night to see if he could get him to learn basic commands outside a stressful situation. Now it was time to put Bill in one.
When they got to the park, Andrew had left Neil as soon as they passed the second gate and Neil was swarmed by dogs of various sizes. Neil had left the car with an apprehensive look on his face, but he had also still looked tired.
As Andrew went to meet Bill’s owner, he thought he heard Neil laugh, but when he looked back, Neil was only smiling as he held a tentative hand out for a dog to sniff.
“You’re done already?”
“We’ve been here an hour.”
“I’ve made and lost so many friends.”
“How many peed on you.”
“Just one. What the fuck is up with huskies?”
Andrew brought Neil inside his apartment when they made it back to their building, and Neil kicked off his shoes and moved to the cat tree harboring the beast.
“There’s my precious bean,” Neil said.
“Get the fuck out of my house,” Andrew said.
Neil snorted and held a finger out for the beast to sniff. She bit him.
“What’s for dinner?” Neil asked.
Andrew watched as Neil sucked his bleeding finger into his mouth. “Pizza,” Andrew told him.
“Nice. Can we get one with olives?”
Neil came over to his house at odd hours. One time he came over at ten in the morning. One time he came over at two in the afternoon. One time he came over at eleven at night.
“Where are you between the hours of five p.m. and seven p.m. on Thursday nights?” Neil asked on Thursday night at eight p.m. He was lying on the floor beside Andrew’s couch after he tried to get the beast’s attention and she fled from him.
“Your mom’s,” Andrew said. He was browsing through Doordash on his phone. Neil didn’t have a phone compatible with apps.
“I came over earlier and you were gone. I came over last week and you were gone.”
“Stop coming over, then.”
“No,” Neil said.
“Where are you on Mondays between the hours of twelve p.m. and six p.m.?” Andrew asked, finally settling on a diner. He ordered Neil an omelet with everything on it and in it. He ordered himself two slices of pie and a side of hashbrowns.
“Your mom’s,” Neil said.
Neil only paused for a second before saying, “Mine, too.”
Neil came over at nine the next night with a split lip and a black eye and he smelled like apple cinnamon.
“What the fuck,” Andrew said when Neil came up beside him and stared down at the puzzle Andrew was working on.
“I let out my aggression at a boxing club three nights a week.”
“It looks like you mostly lose.”
Neil sat down at the kitchen table and perused the pieces. Andrew noticed the bruise on his neck.
“I mostly do,” Neil said.
Andrew didn’t ask about the smell.
Neil came over smelling like lavender.
Neil came over smelling like eucalyptus.
Neil came over smelling like someone else’s cologne.
“What the fuck,” Andrew said when Neil slid back into their booth at the buffet they were at. He was supposed to be sitting on the other side of the table, but Neil perched himself on the edge of Andrew’s booth and pulled his drink closer to him and took an innocent sip from his soda and Andrew tried to pinpoint if he recognized the cologne.
“I want to sit by you.”
“I work at Bath and Body Works.”
Andrew stopped trying to investigate the smell. “Why.”
“Because I don’t have enough to occupy my time at the children's place.”
“Who allows you around children.”
Neil shoveled a bite of chow mein in his mouth and said, voice muffled, “I wouldn’t. I’ve killed a man.”
Andrew watched as Neil picked carrots out of his fried rice. “Me, too,” he said.
Andrew was on the phone with Aaron and Neil was puffing a feather in and out of the beast’s face.
Andrew hung up his phone five minutes later without having said more than two words.
Neil, still playing with his cat, said innocuously, “You could come with me to boxing.”
Andrew, annoyed, said, “No.”
“I bet punching someone in the face will make you feel better.”
“I don’t need to go to a club to do that.”
“You want to right now?” Neil finally turned to look at Andrew. It was dusk, and Andrew hadn’t turned on a light, and the illumination from the balcony cast Neil’s face in dark shadows and strange light. He looked predatory. They stared at each other. The beast fiddled with the feather hanging limp from Neil’s hand.
Andrew reached up and flicked Neil’s forehead.
Andrew was up at two a.m. to take his current dog out to the bathroom. Neil was sprinting up the stairs and acting as if someone was hot on his heels.
“Murderer?” Andrew asked as soon as he realized Neil was so jittery he hadn’t noticed Andrew.
Neil jumped. And then slowed down. And placed a steadying hand on his chest. “Me?” Neil joked, though his smile was strained. “Not lately.”
Andrew gestured down the stairs. Neil shook his head.
“Who are you running from?” Andrew asked.
Andrew gave him a cool once over. The dog at his feet squirmed, antsy.
Neil sighed. He said, “Sometimes I forget what it’s like.”
“To act like a normal human being?”
Neil nodded, suddenly tired, and then continued to his room. Andrew tugged his dog down the stairs. He walked around outside for a long time.
“Not to sound like a customer service rep, but your hands are abhorrent.”
“Your knuckles are literally staining my kitchen table.”
“You should see the other guy.”
“I don’t need to. I can see your face.”
Neil huffed, amused, twisting his hand currently being cradled by Andrew as Andrew dabbed at the blood spotting Neil’s skin. Neil left a smear of blood that soaked into the cracks of Andrew’s dry skin as he brushed his fingers across the back of Andrew’s hand.
“Hold on,” Neil said, and then he stood up and left Andrew’s apartment, only to return a few minutes later with a vibrant pink bottle of aromatherapy lotion.
Andrew watched in silence as Neil sat back down, hands still wet from when he apparently washed them himself and poorly patted them dry on his shirt and pumped a dollop of lotion into the palm of his hand before holding it out for Andrew.
When Andrew didn’t move right away, Neil moved his hand closer to Andrew, patient and waiting. The scent of something sweet and flowery hit Andrew’s nose.
Andrew made Neil wait one solid minute before he gently settled his right hand in the palm of Neil’s warm one. Neil, intently focused, started rubbing the lotion over Andrew’s hand, cosmetically at first before eventually his left hand joined and he was massaging Andrew’s pressure points and lathering the lotion so deep into Andrew’s pores that he couldn’t feel anything anymore, just the hot press of Neil’s fingers as they caressed his hand, the warm puff of Neil’s breath, the heavy beat of his own heart.
Andrew didn’t say anything when Neil let go; just silently held up his left hand and didn’t flinch when Neil looked up at him and smiled.
When Andrew came home from work Tuesday night, he found Neil curled up on the foot of his bed catnapping with the beast.
Andrew picked up one of his flat pillows and smacked Neil in the head with it. The beast fled, and Neil grumped and rolled over, but Andrew wasn’t fooled. He smacked Neil again.
“Did you break in?” he asked.
“Did you steal my check?”
Andrew looked to his nightstand, where Neil’s check from the restaurant he had been fired from when he had first moved in still rested.
“It’s void now,” Andrew said. The beast crept out from under the bed and danced around Andrew’s ankles. Andrew considered his bed and the man facing away from him before he sat beside him. The beast jumped up on his lap, and Andrew buried his fingers in her soft gray fur.
Neil raised his head so he could look at Andrew and said, “So is any right you have to me not picking your lock.”
Andrew continued to pet the beast, her purrs loud in the still silence of the room, until Neil suddenly said, “Okay, my turn now.”
“You’ve been with the cat all day.”
“I meant you,” Neil said, and then shifted slowly, gently nudged the cat away, and laid his head on Andrew’s lap and closed his eyes.
“You’re not a cat,” Andrew said. He tangled his fingers in Neil’s hair.
“I can purr, if you want,” Neil said, his voice low and soft. His body was warm and curled tight on itself. Andrew looked down and saw the back of Neil’s shirt riding up, saw the beginnings of another scar. He looked back down at Neil’s relaxed face, pillowed on Andrew’s thighs, his breath evening out. Andrew kept the fingers of his right hand in Neil’s hair, but reached down to trace the burn on Neil’s cheek with his left.
“I don’t like you,” Andrew said, his finger memorizing the ridges of Neil’s face.
Neil hummed, a poor imitation of the beast’s purr, and smiled.
“I don’t get why you watch other people play video games.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
“Why don’t you just play?”
“I don’t have anything to play on.”
Neil came over the next day with a large, shiny, magenta pink gift bag and held it out to Andrew.
“I don’t want anything from you,” Andrew said. Neil dropped the bag at Andrew’s feet anyways before disappearing to the kitchen, on the prowl for food Andrew didn’t have.
“I didn’t know what games to buy so I just bought whatever the guy said was most popular. Who the fuck is Zelda?”
“Your mom,” Andrew said. He tilted the edge of the pink bag in his direction to peek and asked, “Why are there two in here?”
Neil turned around, holding a bag of cat treats that he seriously, literally, honest to god looked like he was about to eat from. “I was told something about an island getaway package?”
“Why do you always get the cute ones, like a fuckin’ Egyptian cat, and all I get is this motherfucking stupid ugly bitch-ass hamster?” Neil asked, incensed after screen-peeking at Andrew’s Switch.
Andrew drawled, “Did someone learn their adjectives today?”
“Shut up. I’m serious. Why does he look like this, Andrew. Why is he like this.” Neil shoved his Switch overtop of Andrew’s so Andrew could see the hamster in question: blue and pink and bored.
Andrew shoved Neil’s game out of his face. “Leave me alone.”
“I won’t rest until he’s dead.”
A minute passed in silence, soft music coming from only Andrew’s game as he fished and caught and fished and walked.
“Hey, do you have any pink flowers?” Neil asked. “I want to have a pink garden for Flora.”
“I don’t have anything for you.”
“So ungrateful,” Neil sighed, and then he wiggled underneath Andrew. Andrew immediately tensed his weight so Neil wouldn’t move out from under him. “Sorry,” Neil said. “I need to shift, and then you can lie back down.”
But Neil was nestled into the corner of the couch and Andrew was resting on his arm and sprawled on the rest of the cushions, and he hadn’t moved for the past two hours and he wasn’t about to lose his warmth now.
“Andrew, I can’t feel my arm anymore.”
“Not my problem.”
Neil sighed again, but he stopped trying to get up. Andrew remained warm.
Andrew had a police dog training conference he needed to go to. He would be gone for four days, two states away, and he was going to drive himself and have his work pay for gas.
Neil was sitting on the stairs outside the apartment as Andrew loaded his bags in his trunk.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving me,” Neil said.
“Feed my cat.”
“Are you kidding? I’m living in your apartment while you’re gone.”
Andrew slammed his trunk closed. Neil was still hunched over on the stairs, rubbing warmth into his shins and looking up at Andrew.
“Why don’t you take the beast to yours?” Andrew asked.
“Are you kidding?” Neil said again. “I can barely live there. I don’t even have a place to sit.”
Andrew shook out a cigarette as he leaned against the side of his car. It was sleek and shiny and he’d had it for seven years. There was a sticker on the bumper from when Aaron took a graphic design class in high school and screen-printed a vinyl Umbrella Corporation logo that he had immediately slapped on Andrew’s car. Andrew hated that sticker.
Neil watched as Andrew smoked and Andrew watched Neil watch him before Neil said, “Would you kiss me before you go?”
Andrew exhaled, smoke thick in the air between them. “What?” he asked.
“I want you to kiss me before you leave.”
Neil shrugged, and then he stood up and brushed the dirt off his pants and took two steps forward. He stole the cigarette from Andrew’s fingers and took a small drag, squinting at Andrew around the smoke he breathed out.
“Why,” Andrew asked again.
“Aren’t we in love?” Neil said, head cocked.
Andrew smacked the cigarette out of Neil’s hand. Ash fluttered between his fingers. He didn’t feel the burn from the embers. “No,” Andrew said. “I hate you.”
Neil was grinning when Andrew reached for his face and pulled him in.
Andrew came home four days later to Neil playing music from Andrew’s tiny Bluetooth speaker and washing dishes that Andrew definitely didn’t have four days ago. The beast was out on the balcony and Andrew didn’t move from his spot by the door as he watched Neil at the sink.
“Hey, so,” Neil said when he finally turned and faced Andrew and turned off the faucet. “I bought you some food and some dishes to cook that food so we don’t always have to eat out and waste your money. I just made some biscuits and gravy and they didn’t turn out horrible, though I definitely need to be better at mixing flour. Anyways, I have to go to work for a few hours, but when I come back, we can make out, okay?”
Andrew looked toward the trash, which had two giant empty boxes next to it that had pots and pans and forks and spoons advertised. They were a horrid shade of pale pink. The room smelled like burnt biscuits and cooked sausage.
Andrew turned back to Neil. “Okay,” he said.
Neil’s lips were soft on Andrew’s neck.
“How many,” Andrew grit out, his hands fisted in the front of Neil’s shirt. Neil had him pushed up against the hall wall beside the bathroom door. Andrew had just wanted to go to the bathroom. Neil had just wanted something else.
“How many what?” Neil murmured.
“Who taught you to do this,” Andrew snapped, hissing as Neil nipped at the skin below his ear, his hands teasing the bottom of Andrew’s shirt.
“I think,” Neil said, lips sliding from one side of Andrew’s neck to the other, “I’ve kissed maybe two people in my whole life? What’s the point of lip gloss, anyway.” Neil’s hands were still touching just Andrew’s shirt. Neil was studiously working a bruise into Andrew’s skin. Andrew felt suffocated.
“How,” Andrew demanded. He felt Neil’s lips curl into a smile, and, furious, Andrew used his fisted hands to push Neil away.
Neil finally detached from Andrew’s neck, but only so he could pepper soft kisses on his lips. Andrew was still flush against the wall. He couldn’t breathe. Neil said, in-between pecks, “Maybe I just know what to do because I love you so much?”
Andrew punched Neil in the stomach. Neil wheezed, doubling over, and Andrew left him in the hallway as he went to his bedroom. He locked the door behind him and snicked open a knife in warning in case Neil tried to come in. But Neil just said, “Bye, Andrew,” before leaving out the front door.
Andrew touched his swollen lips.
The beast emerged from underneath Andrew’s covers. “I fucking hate Neil Josten,” Andrew told her. The beast yawned.
Andrew had Neil barricaded against the front door.
“Is this revenge?” Neil asked, breathless, hands tucked deep into his jean’s pockets. Andrew was too busy to respond.
His hands were sliding up and down Neil’s torso over his shirt, mapping out all he could of Neil Josten, leaving long, lazy kisses on Neil’s lips. Neil had wanted to leave twenty minutes ago. Andrew had wanted something else.
When Neil exhaled dreamily into Andrew’s mouth, Andrew slowly unfurled Neil’s clenched fists from his pockets and placed them on Andrew’s head. The kisses were still long and lingering, despite Andrew’s tense posture slowly relaxing the longer they stood against each other. Neil’s hold was desperate but not tight, and when Neil pulled back to catch his breath, Andrew’s body slipped forward, further into Neil’s space, his cheek resting against Neil’s, their chests heaving in tandem.
“Get out,” Andrew said.
“No,” Neil said. He uncurled his fingers from Andrew’s hair.
“Think of the children.”
“Every day I think of those god forsaken children. Everett dropped his fucking tooth in my hand the other day.”
“You must have a lot in common.”
“Excuse the mother fuck. I still have all my teeth.”
“Get out,” Andrew said again, pushing away from Neil.
“No,” Neil said again, and then he straightened himself out and didn’t bother fixing his haphazard sex hair, and when Andrew opened the door he shoved Neil out and slammed the door immediately behind him.
He heard Neil say, “People in love don’t treat each other this way!”
And then Andrew heard his cousin Nicky say in a voice five octaves higher than it normally was, “I’m sorry, whomst’d’ve?”
“Who is he?”
“What is he?”
“Why was he here?”
“Are you in love?”
“Losers say ‘no.’”
“People in love say ‘no.’”
“Get out of my house.”
Andrew was at a restaurant on Thursday at five p.m. because he was always at a restaurant on Thursday at five p.m.
Nicky was at the table with him because he was always at the table with him on Thursdays at five p.m.
Aaron was at the table with them because he always had to be with them on Thursdays at five p.m.
Neil was at the table this Thursday at five p.m. because Nicky made him show up and wouldn’t let him leave.
“Now, tell me again why you’ve joined us today looking like you got trampled at the derby?” Nicky asked, taking a large sip from his sweet tea and staring unabashedly at the bruises lining Neil’s nose and darkening his eyes and the weird scab he had etched in his jaw.
“Boxing,” Neil said right as Andrew said, “He works with kids.”
Nicky laughed. Aaron was on his phone. Andrew was folding the wrapper of his straw into smaller and smaller squares.
Neil patted the top of Andrew’s shoe with the bottom of his own. He said to Nicky, “I do work with kids, but I box a lot. Have you heard of Matty B’s?”
Nicky shook his head. Neil explained that he got into the club when he first moved to town and the owner, Matt Boyd, had seen the sorry sight of Neil losing an abysmal scuffle he had gotten into with one of his former customers at a gas station.
“They let you around kids looking like that?” Aaron asked, looking up from his phone and scowling at Neil’s face. Neil’s eyes had popped blood vessels from a choice punch to his face.
Neil, unconcerned, shrugged and said, “They need me. It’s a new business, and there aren’t a lot of people who aren’t afraid to keep kids in line.”
“I’m sure it’s really easy to scare them, looking the way you do.” Aaron’s tone was not kind.
“I’m sure it is,” Neil agreed in the same tone. Andrew tapped the top of Neil’s shoe with the bottom of his own. He ignored Aaron.
Nicky said, “And what do you do? Babysit them?”
Neil shook his head. “I teach them coding and robotics.”
“You know how to code?” Nicky asked just as Aaron asked, “What the fuck?”
Neil said, “No, but I think I might take some classes. All I have is a high school degree and I’m tired of being fired.”
“How many times have you been fired?” Aaron asked just as Andrew asked, “How many times have you been fired?” The twins glared at each other before they returned to ignoring each other. Neil’s gaze lingered between the both of them for a second before he took a sip of his drink and stopped answering questions. Nicky started talking about his life. Aaron was back on his phone. Andrew was folding Neil’s straw wrapper. It was a long thirty minutes until their food showed up.
When they got home after dinner, Andrew hadn’t said a word for a long time and Neil had left his shoes in the middle of the room on his way to the balcony. He lit a cigarette and picked at the dead foliage of the plant he had bought Andrew and put on the edge of the balcony.
“Do you say kind words to it every day?” Neil asked, poking his finger into the dry soil. Andrew was still closer to the front door than Neil, but the room was so quiet he could hear every breath between them.
“No,” Andrew said.
Neil stroked a dying leaf with the tip of a scabbed finger, looking down at the plant with hooded eyes. He said, “I wish I knew a classic song. Don’t they like when you play classic music?”
Andrew took slow steps closer to Neil. He inhaled the fumes of Neil’s cigarette, like Neil normally did when they stood outside together and watched the night turn.
“No,” Andrew said. “They don’t like anything.”
Neil was still petting the leaves. Andrew didn’t even know what kind of plant it was. Neil crooned to the plant, “Don’t listen to him. He’s a grumpy old man who won’t even name his cat. I know you like kind words and old music. What’s your favorite song?”
Neil waited a moment, nodding and listening, before he started humming random notes that didn’t go together at all, didn’t sound kind, didn’t sound classic.
Andrew stole the cigarette from Neil. Neil leaned his back against the railing and looked at Andrew.
“What’s up with you and Aaron?” Neil asked.
Andrew flicked the built up ash off the filter. “Nothing,” he said.
Andrew had a dog that didn’t like the beast. Most of the time the beast hid in his room and Andrew closed the door when she didn’t get along with a dog, but the beast was normally undeterred by bullies and could hold her own against hyperactive puppies, so Andrew never had to worry about it.
But the dog he was training now would not focus on anything that wasn’t where the beast was, and when the cat swiped at the puppy’s face, the puppy went in for a real attack, and Andrew needed the energy in the room to go down so he could get this night over with.
Andrew left the savage puppy in his living room and carried the beast down the hall to Neil’s apartment. He knocked on the door.
Neil opened the door. He looked tired, but his eyes sparkled with mischief when he asked, “What the fuck is that?”
“Your cat, I think,” Andrew said. Neil held out grabby hands for the beast, and Andrew set her in his arms. The beast was still too tense to purr, but she gladly leapt out of Neil’s arms to explore once they stepped inside. Andrew followed.
The apartment was empty. The space where there was supposed to be a living room held one folded up lawn chair discarded on its side. The space where there was supposed to be dishes held one spoon and one bowl on the counter. There was a bag of cat food and three bags of cat treats in one of the cupboards, the door not closed all the way. There was a single cat toy out on the balcony. There was soap and a rag beside the kitchen sink. Through the bedroom door Andrew could see a cot and a duffel bag, contents spilled on the floor. There was a sleeping bag on top of the cot, folded and zipped up. There wasn’t a pillow.
Andrew thought of the two Switch docks on his entertainment center, the dishes in his cupboard, the food in his fridge, the plants on his balcony, the blanket on his couch, the toys for his cat, the lanyard hanging from his rearview mirror, the pins on his lanyard, the drawing on the whiteboard on his fridge, the stickers on his new water bottle.
“What’s up?” Neil was saying. “Dog not a fan of my precious little bean?”
Andrew stared at Neil. Neil hadn’t been to boxing in a few days and he’d just gotten fired from his job at the caption call center and he hadn’t been able to see Andrew for a few days while he searched for more work and still worked at the children’s coding place. He had texted Andrew that he’d try to come over when he got home at seven, but Andrew was teaching night classes this week so hadn’t been able to meet. Neil had also texted that they’d reward themselves with a road trip once Neil found a new job or got accepted into college, whichever came first.
“Andrew?” Neil asked when Andrew hadn’t said anything for too long. “What’s wrong?”
They both heard, from five walls away, the dog bark in Andrew’s apartment.
Andrew turned around and left, Neil frowning in confusion and the beast scratching at the lawn chair’s burlap bag and trilling for attention.
When Andrew got back to his apartment, he found the dog was chewing on the arm of his couch. Andrew’s hands were shaking. He called the owner of the dog and said they’d better meet at a dog park so the puppy could get used to other animals and creatures, and then when Andrew came home two hours later he went to his balcony to smoke and punched the glass door instead, shredding his hand and bleeding on shards of glass.
“Um, what the fuck?” he heard Neil shout from his own balcony, and then the beast was hopping across the railings and Andrew was opening the door to clean up the glass before she stepped on it.
“Why did you do that, Andrew?”
“Okay, fine, whatever. You’re lucky I know what I’m doing.”
“Um, yeah? What’s wrong with you? Anyways, did you want to go to the hospital?”
“Good. I fucking hate that place.”
That night, Andrew sat at the edge of his bed and stared at his doctored hand, gauze wrapped from the first aid kit Neil had put in his bathroom, cuts stinging from the antiseptic and the Neosporin. He didn’t need stitches, or so Neil said. He had wrapped and cleaned Andrew with scarred and mottled fingers.
Andrew started scheduling more classes. He was with dogs in the mornings, the evenings, the nights, the weekend. He needed more experience for the police training he wanted to do, but he’d had fingers in pies since college, and he was starting to use his connections.
He had places he needed to travel and people he needed to meet, and he wasn’t home much that week, and he kept his door locked, and he smoked out his bedroom window or at two in the morning, wandering the streets with a groggy German Shepard, and he broke his phone and didn’t replace it and didn’t see Neil for seven days.
And then he came home at eleven at night on Sunday and Neil was sitting in front of Andrew’s front door, hugging his knees and playing with the beast through the crack under the door.
Andrew watched them play for a while, until Neil sucked in a breath when the beast nicked the pads of four of his fingers. He lifted his hand and watched as the blood welled before he looked up at Andrew.
“Let’s have a talk,” Neil said.
“No,” Andrew said, and then turned around.
“Why are you doing this, Andrew?” Neil called after him. “When was the last time you ate? Why are you out walking dogs at three in the morning? When do you sleep?”
Andrew stopped just before the stairs. His hands were shaking again.
“Let’s have a talk,” Neil said again. Andrew heard him stand up and pick the lock on his door. Neil hadn’t tried to break in all week—or maybe he had. Andrew didn’t know. He hadn’t been home.
The beast yowled.
“I got your mail. Did you see this cute picture from that family?”
“I didn’t know you trained a former police dog to be around normal people. They say she’s doing a lot better and they want to thank you for all you did.”
“Stop what? I think it’s really great that you train dogs, but I’m starting to wonder why you do it and if it’s healthy.”
Neil was leaning on the kitchen counter, tapping his finger beside the empty takeout boxes and pursing his lips. His shoes were still on. He had a bandage on the bridge of his nose and wrapped, swollen knuckles.
Andrew went to the couch as if to sit down, but he just stood beside it. He was looking at Neil.
“Why don’t you live with Nicky and Aaron?” Neil started, which hadn’t been what Andrew thought they were going to talk about but actually was what he knew they were going to talk about. Andrew said nothing.
“While you were spacing out at dinner last week, Nicky gave himself my phone number. And then he texted me. And then this week I went to your family dinner that you avoided, the first time you haven’t gone to one since you guys started.” Neil cocked his head, as if musing on why. “Now, I know that Aaron hates you because of some weird deal y’all had in high school and college that he broke. But then they told me it was basically your idea to have the dinners, when I thought it was Nicky’s.”
Andrew was no longer staring at Neil. He wanted to say something about the “y’all.” He did not.
“If you want them in your life so bad, why do you push them away? They live in a house two blocks away—another shock—but you live here, alone? They still have a fucking room for you, Andrew.”
Neil paused, but Andrew had nothing to say.
“I honestly don’t know why you’re doing this to yourself. I don’t know how they haven’t noticed, how nobody has noticed how self-destructive you are. It’s the same with your job. Why would you put yourself in a position to bond with these animals, just to send them away? To sell them? Andrew, wait,” Neil said, moving away from the counter when Andrew had started toward his bedroom. He closed the door behind him and locked it, waiting for Neil to leave, but Neil just kept talking, saying, “They told me you were afraid of dogs, that one attacked you when you were sixteen and you had to fight to get free, and how they’re so proud of you for overcoming your fear and training dogs now. But I don’t think you did get over your fear.”
Andrew was going to kill his family, and then he was going to kill Neil.
“I hate you,” Andrew said.
“Why are you doing this to yourself, Andrew?”
“I’ll kill you.”
“I can, if you want. It wouldn’t be that hard for me to leave. I don’t have much. You can keep the Switch. I just bought it to play with you.”
Andrew wanted to punch a window again, but his hand was still healing. Not that that had ever stopped him before, but his hand hurt so much because he had immediately unwrapped the gauze and let the cuts get infected and he wouldn’t stop picking at the puss scabs.
“Why,” Andrew said. Why was Neil still here, why was Neil saying these things, why did Neil buy all these things for Andrew when clearly he needed them more for himself. Why was Neil covered in scars. Why was Neil still here.
Why was Neil still here.
Andrew didn’t say anything. After a minute, Neil sighed. “I…did not have a good home life. Or a good outside life. My dad was not a good man, as in ‘my dad was a serial killer’ not-a-good-man. I ran away with my mom when I was thirteen, after we stole five million dollars from him, and we lived on the streets for a long time, hiding from my dad’s people and just trying to make it. We were even overseas at one point. When I was seventeen, my mom died. And I was alone. I was alone for a long time, and then my father was dead and everything was over and I was still alone. And then I moved here, and it was nice, for a while, to pretend like I had a normal life. To be with you. To have things to do and something to look forward to. But if you want…if you tell me to go, I will.”
Andrew didn’t know. It all sounded so unbelievable, unreal, too much—five million dollars? serial killer? how did a teenage boy graduate high school if he was alone and homeless when he was seventeen? how had Andrew never heard of this serial killer before, this violent torture of a man who was still a child?—but Andrew did believe in the scars on Neil’s face, on his arms, his hands; the dead look in Neil’s eyes sometimes, the all-consuming abyss that Andrew knew too well, that no one ever really left once they saw it, not really.
Neil still hadn’t allowed Andrew to take off his shirt. Andrew still hadn’t taken off his armbands.
Neil was still on the other side of his door, waiting for Andrew to tell him to leave. Andrew thought about it. He’d only have to say nothing at all, and Neil would leave, and the last time Andrew would ever willingly see Neil Josten would be him leaning against his kitchen counter, shoes on like he knew Andrew would make him leave, nose bruised because he went to a boxing club to cope with something, fingers wrapped because even though he was scary he still worked with kids and he had to do something to alleviate all that he was.
Andrew opened his door. Neil was standing in front of it, broken and bleeding, and Andrew said, “How is the job with kids the only one you’ve kept?”
Neil was smiling, and then he was grinning, and then he was reaching for Andrew’s face and pulling him in, nuzzling his bruised nose on Andrew’s lips before tilting up, just a little, and kissing him like he hadn’t ever done it before.
“I don’t know why,” Neil said after a while, breathless, Andrew’s hands brushing the bare skin of Neil’s stomach under his shirt, smoothing over the scars, remembering where they were, “but the kids love me.”
Andrew needed to see a man about a litter of puppies.
“I want to go,” Neil said.
“Can you behave?”
Andrew and Neil drove to see a litter of puppies.
“Look, I’m not saying you can’t not train all these dogs into well-behaved and beautiful police dogs, but I am saying there’s not enough room in our apartment for three German Shepard puppies, a cat, and two wild and crazy guys.”
“Stop watching old SNL.”
“I cannot believe this is your solution.”
“I’m just happy to have my baby boy back home. And with these cute pink dishes, like what the fuck, Andrew? This colander has a kissy fish face as a handle and it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Shut the fuck up, Nicky. He’s literally coming home with five fucking stray animals.”
“Um, hello, Aaron, I’m standing right here. And he’s going to sell the trained puppies to the police for, like, ten thousand dollars each.”
“Yes, Neil, but I still stand by what I said.”
“Fuck you, too.”
After Andrew had their bags unpacked and the furniture situated, Andrew star-fished in the middle of the bare mattress and closed his eyes. He heard Neil say something to Nicky downstairs before he made his way up to their room.
“Where am I supposed to lie down?” Neil asked.
Andrew didn’t open his eyes. “Your mom’s,” he said.
Neil scoffed, and then there was a sudden weight across Andrew’s stomach, and he lifted his head to see Neil lying perpendicular across his body, his face squished into the bare mattress.
“Aaron called the cat ‘the beast,’” Neil said.
“Unacceptable.” Only Andrew could call her that.
“She needs a name,” Neil went on, reaching for Andrew’s hand, so far away. Andrew watched him struggle for a while before slowly sliding his arm down. He let Neil tangle their fingers together. Neil laid his forehead on their joined hands. Andrew closed his eyes again.
“Hmmm,” Neil mused. “I’m thinking…Purrinnial.”
“I’m thinking fuck you.”
“Nicky’s thinking King Fluffkins.”
“I’m thinking about murdering Nicky.”
Neil huffed, and then softly kissed the back of Andrew’s hand.
From downstairs, they heard the sound of Aaron curse the cat, and then curse Nicky, and then curse some man named Kevin who wasn’t even in the house and Andrew had never heard of before.
“Hmmm,” Neil hummed again. “I’m thinking…Banana-fanna-fo-Fandrew.”
“I’m thinking you need to stop being around kids.”
“I’m thinking fuck you.”
Downstairs, Nicky exclaimed about the pink afghan Andrew had thrown on the couch.
Neil kissed Andrew’s hand again. “Hmmm…I’m thinking…Bradford.”
“No, that name’s taken.”
“That one’s taken, too.”
“I should have left you behind.”
“Yes,” Neil agreed, nipping at one of Andrew’s fingers. Andrew could feel Neil’s smile on the back of his hand as he hummed again. “Hmmm...I’m thinking…”