“The Coffee Curse”
Few things in life are better than a hot shower at the end of a long day. Especially a day involving manual labor. All that water – just this side of scalding – beating merciful relief into sore, tired muscles while I scrubbed away sweat and grime. Replaced the stench of effort with good, clean soap and the vaguely citrus scent of my shampoo.
I think that shower had felt especially good because manual labor wasn’t my thing. If I got my skin covered in sweat and my muscles sore from lactic acids, nineteen times out of twenty I’d been down the street playing basketball.
And why not? I’d loved playing it in high school and college, and it was still fun four years out of college. Did great things for keeping me in shape, too.
Alas, though, this day’s efforts weren’t basketball related. Nor any other fun activity I could name that might leave me sweaty, sore, or both, and I could think of a few.
No. My mom had asked me to come over for lunch. And, like a fool, I’d gone.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my mom. And lunch was great. My mom could grill cheese like nobody else I knew. But that lunch had been followed by four solid hours of lugging furniture around.
Most people clean in the springtime. My mom redecorates.
Scott, my older and wiser brother, hadn’t been able to make it. Even my dad had a golfing date he couldn’t break – club tournament time. So it was just me doing all the heavy lifting.
Mind you, I was in pretty good shape. But I was in basketball shape. Not furniture-lugging shape. Very different muscle work involved, and about two thirds of my body had been complaining before I’d popped a few ibuprofen and hopped into the much-needed shower.
I’d just gotten to my favorite part of the shower – when I’d finished cleaning myself and could just power-wash hot relief into my tired muscles, one group at a time – when I heard a voice calling me.
“Hello? Hello! Reuben?”
I gritted my teeth and killed the shower. The squeak of the handles seemed to echo my own internal complaint at being interrupted by some stranger.
And where the hell were they calling me from? Sounded practically inside … my … apartment.
No. Had to be a trick. Echoes of the shower stall, maybe. I was surrounded on two sides by translucent Plexiglas and four (including the ceiling and the stall floor) by yellowish tile.
I stood there, shivering and dripping and hoping I’d been very wrong to think that the voice I’d heard had been coming from inside my—
A chill washed over me that had nothing to do with the sudden loss of all that hot water.
That voice had come from just on the other side of my bathroom’s sliding door. A male voice. A little high-pitched, but I couldn’t tell yet if it was because the person was young, or just had a high-pitched voice. Some guys did.
I tried to tell myself that the voice sounded worried. Not threatening. But that didn’t change the fact that there was still a stranger in my apartment.
Yeah, my heart was pounding again. Hard as it had been going when I finally got Mom’s piano all the way from the living room in the front of the house to the back of the family room, at the back of the house.
Naturally, it had been the last piece to be moved.
I didn’t know if I should answer the voice. Whoever was there had to have heard the water running, and me shutting off the shower.
What was worse, I wasn’t exactly in the best position to receive an intruder. I was naked, wet, and shivering. And nothing I had near me was of immediate use.
I lived alone. So I didn’t keep a bathrobe in my bathroom. I just dried off in the shower, and if I still wanted to wear a robe, I just waited until I reached my bedroom. My clothes were already in the hamper in my closet. Even my cell phone was charging on my nightstand.
Hell, I only closed the bathroom door when I showered, and even then, only to keep the heat in.
No, I didn’t habitually leave the toilet seat up. My college girlfriend Anne had broken me of the habit.
“Reuben?” the voice called again.
I frowned then, realizing that if this person had come to rob me, they could have done it and gone. No reason to call my name. If they’d been interested in hurting me, well, the bathroom door wasn’t locked. Just closed. They could be in here with me right now, if they wanted.
So maybe this was something else?
“Just a damn minute,” I called out. “At least let me dry off.”
“Please hurry? Liz needs your help.”
The only Liz I could think of was my neighbor, next door. She lived in the upstairs end unit, furthest from the stairs, and I lived in the next unit in. Didn’t know her well, though. Only to say hi to. Maybe talk about the weather. That kind of thing. She’d always seemed nice enough, though. Pretty, too, and just about my age. In fact, if I hadn’t known she had a boyfriend, I’d probably have asked her out months ago, when I first moved into the building. Not even necessarily on a date date, just to get to know her better.
But she had a boyfriend. And I didn’t want to risk a misunderstanding.
Still. If she was in trouble, I’d definitely help her out.
I just hoped it didn’t involve more heavy lifting. I wasn’t sure how much more of that my muscles could take.
Drying off only took a moment. I didn’t even take the extra few seconds I’d need to comb out my short, blonde hair.
Liz was in trouble. I could live with messy hair.
I tied the wet towel around my waist and opened the bathroom door, expecting to meet her little brother or cousin or something.
I didn’t expect her little tuxedo cat to be in my bedroom. Looking up at me.