Lessons in Timing

Lessons in Timing

Author: Sylvia Barry

Sometimes opposites attract so hard they miss.

Lucas Barclay—charismatic Californian and fastidious photographer—is impatiently waiting for his commitment-phobic boyfriend to . . . well, commit. In the meantime, he rents a shared apartment, which is fine, except for the nocturnal cryptid also living there. Lucas spends his days working at his family’s horse sanctuary, contemplating the unexplained doodles left on his bathroom mirror, and dodging inkwells. Left on carpet

Armand Demetrio’s grim-dark comic Surrogate Goose has catapulted him to unexpected fame, and the British artiste finds himself abroad, teaching a workshop in California. He spends his nights dreading the international convention at the end of the summer (and the celebrity it entails), tarnishing his hard-won sobriety, and wallowing in the mystery of his elusive flatmate. Why would anyone need so much kale? And why does everything smell of lilac? 

Though conflicting schedules keep Lucas and Armand from meeting in person, tentative communication begins through text, Post-it notes, and muffins. But Armand will return to London soon, and he and Lucas might get clock-blocked. Can you fall in love with someone you’ve never met?

Price: $4.99

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Emotional Abuse

Self-Harm (alcoholism)

1: Armand Attempts to Leave an Airport

July 15th - One month until the convention

I think it was Douglas Adams who once wrote something along the lines of how it was no coincidence that not a single language on earth had produced the saying “as pretty as an airport.”

This is because an airport is a bloody miserable place to be, no matter what language you speak or whatever your culture’s concept of pretty entails. Airports are designed to suck the life force right out through the pores of your skin and use it to fuel the neon and fluorescents, not to say the automatons known as airline employees.

The flight from Heathrow to New York had been downright awful, but somehow the flight from New York to LAX had been just as ambitiously unpleasant. The plane was smaller, which meant the turbulence had been worse, as had the food, the service, and the quality of people. The middle-aged man sitting next to me, whose muscular bulk all but obscured the aisle beyond, appeared to have eaten something pickled prior to boarding, which had turned on him, and he’d shared his misfortune with the rest of the passengers in a variety of ways. I had tried to disappear into my corner, staring out the window, then had remembered in the nick of time my lack of fondness for heights and small spaces.

But that business had been over and done with for some time now, and I was once more standing on solid ground. Armand Demetrio, intrepid cartoonist stepping boldly into the land of the free and home of the brave.

That was, of course, assuming I’d clear customs.

After explaining to the severe, steel-jawed men in uniform that despite my complexion and accent I was not, in fact, a terrorist, but, as previously mentioned, an intrepid cartoonist, I was unceremoniously tossed back into the passenger hall, having been searched, interrogated, and implicitly admonished for not having the decency to be a god-honest terrorist. I could only imagine that the good bruising of a man’s dignity was a cherished and prestigious art form in this country.

Eventually, I managed to locate the carousel which (so promised an assortment of lighted dots) would soon furnish me with my luggage. I found a place to stand, maneuvered my muscles into an autopilot arrangement designed to instantly wake me if and when I began to tip over, but otherwise was left free to lose a degree of consciousness.

I was quite happy to hold this position for as long as it would take for my luggage to appear, but I soon became aware of some sort of . . . humming nearby. Far from an electronic or mechanical hum, this was the sound of a happily atonal Homo sapien unintentionally sharing their self-satisfaction with the rest of the world.

I couldn’t help myself; I glanced over.

He was a radiant specimen of as-seen-on-TV America: the delicately sun-bleached hair, the taut and lightly flushed skin over a sharp jaw and respectable cheekbones, straight nose, perfectly white teeth, and eyes that were so full of joy they might as well have been shooting laser beams of glee.

He was texting, shoulders hunched and chin buried in the folds of an expensive-looking scarf; he grinned down at the phone as if it held all the wonders of the universe and had promised to share. His thumbs fluttered rhythmically. He then waited a moment, giggled to himself upon receiving a reply, and once again clickity-clacked and beepity-booped away as he all but wriggled with the pleasure of communication with some other, obviously beloved, entity.

At one point, while presumably awaiting a reply, he glanced over and flashed a blindingly joyful grin in my direction. “Morning!” he chirped.

Unprepared as I was to be addressed by such a young American Adonis in my present condition, I managed a grunt and a bit of a half shrug. He did not seem to mind or even process this response and turned back to his bliss-giving sliver of shiny machinery.

That seemed like it was going to be the extent of our interaction, but a few moments later he stepped forward to pull a powder blue case off the carousel, turned to me again, and said, “Have a great day!” With that, he floated toward the exits, all but dancing along and whistling as his body language proclaimed in thundering overtones: I am young, I am in love. The world runs deeper than its crust and its filling is a sugary goodness of affection and mutual respect. Watch me take a big bite.

I watched him as the happy squeak of his trolley wheels propelled him through the lobby and out into the world, where he would undoubtedly go on to live a charmed and cherry-flavored life, and I would never lay eyes on him again.

An eternity of ten minutes later, with my luggage safe and finally in hand, I bade a relieved farewell to the carousel and turned toward the arrivals hall. I vaguely remembered that I was to be met or collected by someone from the university, so I made the effort and raised my head a little, just enough to take in the crowd waiting at the edge of the hall. Then I froze, riveted to the spot in disbelief.

My name, written in sparkly gelled ink and surrounded by stickers and stars, was on a piece of cardboard. This was held in a delicate right hand, the counterpart of which was holding and waving a tiny honest-to-god Union Jack.

I blinked, but it was still there.

A slight body, by all appearances connected to the hands that held the sign and the flag, wiggled and shoved its way through the crowd, and turned out to be topped by a grinning ginger head replete with freckles and gleaming green eyes.

“Armand!” it squeaked as it pushed toward me. “Mr. Demetrio, I’m Robin Finch!” It was strange to hear an American accent emanating from such an uncannily Irish face.

He managed to extract himself from the crowd and stood, bent double for a second, catching his breath. Swallowing my dread, I took the opportunity to search the crowd for the chaperone I hoped would be there.

This was a child; perhaps his chronological age would contest that, but it was a fact nonetheless. Anyone who believed gel pens and stickers to be a valid form of communication should not have been allowed out sans their name and address pinned to their coat lapel.

Robin Finch, Boy Wonder, had apparently regained his wind and composure, seeing as he was now both walking and babbling. Once it became clear that the noises emitted by him were intended to convey information, I took care to listen for a few moments, was reaffirmed in my assumption that it wasn’t worth the effort, and tuned him out again. I nodded a few times and even grunted once but, most importantly, followed him out of the airport and into the car lot.

Well, I say “out of the airport,” but the car lot was, of course, part of the airport. This might seem a mite nitpicky to some, but as anyone who has ever attempted to leave an airport knows, the car lot is naught but a false hope—you think it means you’re almost out, but the truth is that there are long tunnels, endless spiral ramps, and incomprehensible, asinine road directions still ahead. In fact, you will not have left the airport until you have returned all the liquids in your possession to their natural state within bottles and tubes larger than the miniscule amount allotted to air travelers. Or perhaps, the official moment is when you see a small shop and do not instinctively want to burn it to the ground.

Robin Finch had led me to what was definitely a car of some sort, though arguments to the contrary were probably a regular occurrence. It was a yellow, old-fashioned Volkswagen, rusted and scratched but also polished to within an inch of its life, and it looked more like a child’s toy than a vehicle. Robin patted her bonnet fondly before tossing my luggage in the boot and opening the passenger-side door for me. “This is Camille,” he said proprietarily.

Hunching myself as much as possible, I managed to cram myself into “Camille.” The driver’s side was not only placed in a disorienting manner on the left but also disturbingly flush with the steering wheel and piled high with no less than three cushions.

I was going to die in a tiny yellow car in America.

Robin bustled into the driver’s seat, still prattling as he shifted the car into gear. I waited for a rare pause in the torrent of blather, then said, “Camille? The Greta Garbo movie?”

Robin beamed at me. “You are an artist, aren’t you?” he squeaked happily.

I tried to smile and managed a grimace as he administered a punch of camaraderie to my arm.

“I’m going to be an actor,” he informed me. “I love comics and storytelling and that’s why I’m excited about your workshop and all, but I really think I’m destined for the stage, you know? I’m actually the lead in this season’s production. There’s so much more complexity in theater, you know? It’s so physically and mentally engaging, so I feel like I can really—”

I gently tuned him out again and tried in vain to see if I could spot the thoroughfare or any other indication of the real world past the cement spaghetti which was the airport parking complex.

I did not care to listen to Robin, and I did not care to think about the workshop I would be teaching. Norsemen University had hired me to teach a month-long summer workshop on . . . well, the proper name of it was along the lines of “Deconstructionist Themes as Expressed in Use of Monochrome and Non-Linear Narrative.” My agent, Lakshmi Ranjit, had likely come up with that name; what I would actually be teaching these young people, if anyone showed up, could be summed up as, “How to Draw Broody Fucking Comics.”

Lakshmi had been forced to practically knock me unconscious to get me onto the plane. And yet here I was, in a tiny yellow car in America, being told I was an artist and expected to actually teach others whatever it was they thought I could do.

The car puttered to a stop at some sort of toll booth, and then merged onto the thoroughfare.

Despite my obvious impending death, I closed my eyes and leaned back against the threadbare headrest, as we finally, officially, truly left the airport.

2: Robin Meets His Hero

July 15th

Armand Demetrio smelled like someone who’d just come off a nine-hour flight. He seemed a bit crumpled too, as if he’d been used to mop up a spill and then tossed in a corner.

Despite all this, it was clear to anyone with eyes that this right here? This was one smoking-hot section of buttocks. He was very, very pretty. There was a lot of hair trying to hide it, but underneath the scruff and lack-of-sleep was a man almost too handsome to be British—all due respect to Messrs. Darcy and Bond.

It was a good thing I knew the way back by heart.

He was younger than I’d expected. From the amount of tech-splaining I’d been prepped for and his absence from social media, I’d assumed I would be dealing with a cute little grandpa. This guy was probably just kissing thirty.

The job, which was part of my Norsemen University work-study—count my blessings, I could be in a hairnet right now—was as follows: basically, be the personal assistant, gofer, and overall brain of the venerable Armand Demetrio, the oh-so-famous and oh-so-absent-minded artist who was teaching a comic workshop offered by Norse-U this summer. The workshop had been hyped up like a new hard seltzer flavor, and there was a deal with the DQ Comic Convention later in August, where Mr. Demetrio was an invited speaker. Which was amazing because a year ago no one had even heard of Surrogate Goose—his wonderfully weird comic.

My job, as savvy college sophomore-elect, was to assume that he knew nothing about the United States. He was, after all, British, and therefore incapable of comprehending our sophisticated, tea-dumping, colonial ways.

That was why the housing official had explained everything about the rent-by-the-month Briars complex to me rather than to him, even though he was the one who was going to be living there. I was meant to pass the information on to him in a more digestible form, possibly involving puppet shows and a sing-along. Again, still better than working in the cafeteria.

I’d been nervously babbling at him for a while, going full stream-of-consciousness, so I was relieved when soft snores started emanating from his corner of the car. I could finally stop talking.

Once we reached the apartment complex, I parked in front of the office, ran in to tell them Mr. Demetrio had arrived, then re-parked Camille nearer to the apartment building. I turned toward the snoozing Englishman and tapped him gently on the shoulder.

No dice.

“Mr. Demetrio?”

Nothing but a growly little sigh.

I poked his side, then tried to look innocent as he jerked awake, bumping his head on the roof. After a few milliseconds of panic, he glanced over at me and coughed. “I’m in California.”

It wasn’t a question and yet somehow demanded an answer.

I nodded helpfully. “Yes, and we’ve just arrived at your new apartment. Do you need help getting out of the car, Big Guy?”

He shook his head, blinked hard in an apparent attempt to wake up, and tried to extricate his enormous body from Camille. Once he was vertical, Armand shook slightly, then hugged himself, squinting up at the apartment building. I yanked his suitcase out of the trunk and set it down next to him.

“So, anyway, the office finally got back to me,” I said airily. “You’re paid up until the end of next month. Your roommate’s moving in later today, and there’s no smoking in the apartment,” I added as he fished a crumpled packet out of his back pocket and stuck a bent and crinkly cigarette into his mouth. He glanced at me sideways before lighting it and taking a deep pull. I coughed politely and started lugging the suitcase toward the stairwell.

“Hand that over, Titch.” Armand took the suitcase from me and started up the stairs, trailing a cloud of noxious smoke. I hurried ahead of him so I wouldn’t be caught downwind.

“You’re in 221B,” I said, “and the apartment complex is called Bakers.”

He froze on the second-to-last step and stared at me, cigarette dangling from his lips.

I grinned. “Heh, just my little joke.”


“It’s number 203 and the complex is called Briars,” I told him, “and your roommate’s named Lucas Barclay.” The roommate I had mentioned several times, but who he had not yet reacted to.

Now, however—

“A roommate,” he said incredulously, scowling.

I gave him an apologetic shrug. Personally, I would have expected the school to shill out for a one bedroom, but those decisions were made about a mile above my pay grade.

He nodded in resignation and resumed climbing the steps. I fished the keys out of my pocket and unlocked the door, then stood in the doorway until he had stamped out his cigarette, after which I let him in and gave him his keys. The apartment was lovely, with a big bay window to the east, a high ceiling, and a spacious kitchen.

My dorm-residing-self seethed delicately.

There was a welcome basket on the table; Armand brushed past me without looking around, grabbed it, then made for one of the bedrooms.

“So I’ll be back tomorrow to check on you? There’s a luncheon you’re supposed to be at. I’ll just—”

The door to the bedroom slammed.

“—let myself out.”

Well. It wasn’t like I didn’t have more important things to do. The life of a leading man ingénue was full of adventure and challenge. Today, adventure was likely to be found at the gymnastics studio, where I had several routines to practice, and the challenge would be the emotional work—I really had to internalize the fact that I was no longer just a sad, bullied, theater kid. Or a disposable extra.

Oh no, I was a lead. A protagonist. The hero, who does not stand around waiting for temperamental artists to acknowledge his existence, but who sallies forth.

I sallied forth in the direction of a boba tea.

3: Lucas in Love

July 15th

Serotonin slammed back into my system bite by bite as I munched away on the world’s most breathtaking slice of avocado toast. It was gourmet: focaccia bread with a playful drizzle of balsamic vinegar and crumbled goat cheese—the kind I could only get here at Casa Maison Domo, or Triple House as it was known by us locals. I was soaking in the much-needed California sunshine on the patio seating as my two best friends not-so-patiently waited for me to regale them about my trip.

“You know,” Andie pointed out from where she and Rick had arranged themselves across the table from me, in classic new-couple behavior, “I feel pretty confident that they had avocado toast in Canada.”

“You sure?” I responded through my blissful haze. “Because I thought all they had was dismal weather and an excess of cousins.”

Rick snorted into his fluffy stack of honey and cinnamon French toast that I was definitely not coveting.

I had suggested to Marla, as had Mom and other choice members of the family, that we would be more than happy to host her wedding here in California, at home, at the Barclay homestead, where there would be perfect weather. But for whatever reason, she had insisted that she and Steven had found a lovely bed and breakfast not far from where they would be moving. In rainy Vancouver.

Well. One’s cousin presumably only gets married once, so alas, sacrifices must be made.

I tried, as discreetly as possible, to check my phone under the table—Darren had finally texted back after more than an hour of radio silence: When are you headed over? I’m still trapped in this meeting

I responded with one hand, relishing the final bites of avocado heaven with the other. Ok, don’t be trapped too long, I’m gonna finish this brunch and then smooch the life out of you

Ideally, Darren would’ve met me at the airport, and we could’ve had one of those deeply romantic reunions that make everyone else uncomfortable. But my boyfriend was two-hours deep in what sounded like the meeting from hell, and it was a pleasant surprise that he’d been able to discreetly text me anyway.

It’s the little things.

As it was, Rick and Andie had ended up on Lucas Pick-Up Duty, and as expected, they’d waited for me amongst the crowd in Arrivals, arms around each other as if I might already have forgotten that they had recently decided You know what our trio of friends needs? For two of us to start dating and then kick the third-wheel friend out of our shared apartment.

Which was fine. Really. Because I was happy for them, and yes, I had always kind of expected this to happen, and yes, they had assured me that this didn’t mean they were kicking me out of our friend group, but still.

It was the principle of the matter.

I took a deep, cleansing breath, having left nothing but focaccia crumbs on my plate (which was a problem for future me and my personal trainer). “You may engage now,” I announced with a satisfied grin.

“You already know what we’re gonna ask,” said Rick eagerly—we always did this when someone returned from traveling. “Weird airplane stories. Go.”

Over the years we’d collected several memorable Incidents, and for a horrifying moment, I couldn’t think of anything that had marred an ideal two and a half hours of international travel.

Well. Except.

“Okay, so this wasn’t technically from the plane,” I began, “but you’re going to let me count it on the grounds that I generously lent you my car while I was gone.”

“That’s fair,” Andie agreed. “Hit us.”

“Picture, if you will, a hulky, shaggy-haired werewolf still enamored of his goth-punk phase, who sleepwalked into an airport and has no idea how he got there and has even less idea how to leave.”

Rick and Andie dissolved into identical wheezy giggles, which was new. “Okay, but did he howl at the fluorescent lights?” Andie managed, asking the real question.

“I need you to understand that he did absolutely nothing. There I was, having a delightful text chat with Darren that I will not be sharing with you, and he’s just hunched up next to me and fully ignores me when I say hi. I think he may have grunted, but that’s it.”

“Yep,” Rick said, “that’s a werewolf.”

Andie perched her elbows on the table and grinned. “But, like, a hot werewolf?”

I raised an eyebrow at her. “So . . . a werewolf?”

“Oh my god, Lucas, stop encouraging her,” Rick complained. We all laughed, and it was like our old vibe, before the two of them became a closed unit.

We ended our brunch after Rick and Andie had told me all about their week in a series of anecdotes that they tried to keep from seeming romantic.

The three of us chatted all the way back to our—their—apartment, where we staged a car-hostage exchange situation. “Thanks for hanging onto my stuff for me,” I said as we added a few more moving boxes to my already packed little car. “I would’ve left the fish with you guys too, but I’d prefer them to live.”

Andie gasped in mock offense. “That was one time!”

Rick touched her shoulder. “It was multiple times. Lucas, you were right to leave them with Darren. He’s many things, but I trust that he’s not a fish-killer.”

There was an awkward breath between them at the mention of my boyfriend. However, I wasn’t particularly in the mood to hear another round of them not-so-subtly voicing their dislike of Darren McKinley, a dislike that had been going strong since we were all in high school together nearly ten years ago.

“I think I’m going to check out the new place,” I said brightly, because they were not going to bring their conspiracy theories into my perfectly nice day. “I’ll swing by for the rest of my things tomorrow, if that’s okay.”

Rick and Andie agreed, and after a three-way hug and me thanking them for the pick-up, I slid back into my car, adjusted the seat, and left them waving from their front porch.

My new apartment, the one I’d had to sign a monthly lease for at the very last minute after Rick and Andie had decided that they just couldn’t embark on a romantic relationship with another person living with them, was all the way across town. I had, in passing, brought up the possibility to Darren of us moving in together, but he had reasoned that it felt too early in our relationship for that.

Which made sense. A decade of friendship and an on-again-off-again situation notwithstanding, four months of a solid relationship might seem a bit soon to move in.

Rick and Andie would never need to know that I had no intention of heading to my new alone-person apartment until absolutely necessary. Darren should be out of his meeting at this point, and I was itching to see him.

I pulled up to the McKinley estate and shot Darren a text, lamenting yet again that I didn’t have a spare key. It had been on his to-do list for a couple of weeks, but the case he was working on kept him busy more hours than was remotely preferable.

My phone buzzed a minute later.

Darren: so sorry, held up with work

Darren: I want to see you but if I don’t finish this, they’ll kill me :(

Disappointment lodged in my throat the longer I stared at the message. Deeply suspicious that somehow, cosmically, Rick and Andie had something to do with this particular planet misalignment, I now had no course of action except to drive to the Briars apartment complex and try my best to settle in.

After a quick stop at the housing office to pick up my keys and sign the remaining paperwork, I made my way to apartment 203.

It was . . . well, the only word I could find to describe it was quaint. Less LA and more cottage-core chic than I’d been expecting. Nothing that some nice accoutrements wouldn’t fix though. Luckily it was fully furnished with a lovely island in the center of the modest kitchen.

My roommate (“Armand Demetrio,” according to the lease) must’ve moved in already—there was a faint but lingering stench of cigarette smoke, and a light trail of dust and dirt that ran directly from the front door to the first bedroom on the right.

A roommate who isn’t my best friends or my boyfriend. This is fine—better than fine. It’s ideal, even.

I dragged my suitcase to the other bedroom, reminding myself with every step that this was only temporary. On my way back into the living room with a handful of personal effects, my eyes returned to the trail of dirt in the hallway.

My fingers twitched. Quickly, I grabbed the provided cleaning supplies from the hall closet.

What about the counters? Were they sanitized before we got here? I made a beeline to the sink and got to work wiping off all the counters and anything that could possibly be mistaken for an eating surface.

There. I’d done the bare minimum.

After ordering a grocery delivery from the vegan market on 7th, I spent the next few hours unpacking and immaculately arranging the living room into a habitable area. I still needed to get the rest of my things from Rick and Andie’s, but the essentials had made it in on the first try. I was going to turn this house (well, apartment) into a home (well, acceptable living space) through the sheer force of my will.

Fleetingly, I considered leaving a note for my mysterious roommate, but resisted the impulse. If I had the choice, I would much rather greet Mr. Demetrio in person tomorrow.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t do some internet stalking.

4: Skyler Might (Possibly) Have Made a Mistake

July 15th

I knew the second I stumbled off the Greyhound bus that my knees would never be the same again. They creaked and cracked as I tried to stretch, like I was forty instead of eighteen, and my stomach immediately took care to remind me that in the last thirty hours I had eaten nothing that resembled A Food—only mediocre peanuts, gummy worms, and some stale Doritos.

This was my own fault.

Some others that had been traveling on this same bus as long as I had—since Seattle—shuffled around me to grab their bags, while a bunch more remained in their cramped seats, continuing their journeys to who-knows-where. The Norsemen campus bus stop where they unceremoniously dumped us wasn’t as busy as I’d expected, but then it was almost 7 p.m. and everyone else had probably moved into their dorms by now.

Sure enough, I lugged my rolling suitcase and my overstuffed backpack toward what I was informed was the registration office and saw a steady swarm of parents puttering away from their kids’ dorms after what had likely been a nice afternoon of helping them move. There were some tearful goodbyes, and parents asking if their kid wanted to join them for dinner; that could’ve been my family. Could have been me getting taken out to some local restaurant by my parents. They had been so excited to drive me down to California—even if they would have preferred me to stay local, like I’d initially planned. We were going to have a leisurely drive and make frequent stops and they would have brought the rest of my belongings during that one trip instead of needing to mail them to me now . . .

I could’ve eaten food and showered. I could’ve hugged them goodbye properly. I could’ve—

“Hiya! Welcome to campus!” The lanyard-wearing RA with an oversized Norsemen hoodie greeted me in the lobby with more energy than I was prepared for. “You Skyler Evans? I only have a couple students left to check in, so you gotta be one of them.”


“Awesome.” She held up a binder stuffed to the brim with paperwork. “Anyone helping you move in today?”

I shook my head. It was just me, alone, by choice. I had decided to be independent and impulsive for the first time in my life, and now I was standing on a campus I’d never stepped foot on before, in a state I’d never stepped foot in before, overwhelmed with anxiety.

I deserved it.

The RA talked at me for a bit about dorm regulations and stuff as we toured the hall, but I was distracted by thoughts of my mom. She would’ve listened eagerly to every rule and explanation, ready to break them down for me. She would’ve loved that. She and Dad could’ve walked me to my room and helped me set things up, and I wouldn’t have felt so desperately alone.

We arrived at my dorm room, which was a single and the most depressing shade of off-white I’d ever seen.

“I know everything kind of looks like prison,” the RA continued, shrugging apologetically. “But it spruces right up once you throw some posters on the wall and, like, string fairy lights or whatever.”

“Right,” I agreed. “To hide the escape route I carve into the wall with a spoon.”

“That’s the spirit,” she said, stepping back into the hall and leaving me alone. Well, alone-er.

I considered sinking onto the bare mattress, but my legs were still stiff from the bus. So instead I dug out my phone and stared at all the missed texts in the family group chat after I’d let Mom and Dad know I was alive and that I made it to campus.

Mom: Hi sweetie! I’m glad you got there okay! Did you find your dorm? Are the people nice? Have you eaten yet?

Dad: Simone stop bombarding the boy

Dad: but actually are you good? We love you honey

Howard and Simone Prescott were nothing if not endlessly supportive. I responded, assuring them that I was good and was sorry I’d left so abruptly, and no, the ride hadn’t been too bad, and yes, I definitely ate food.

The group chat texts from Matt and Delia, however, were a bit more mixed.

Delia: HI SKYLER I miss you! You left in such a hurry, you okay?

Delia: pls stop taking so long to respond, Matt’s been moping for the last two days, it’s very sad


Matt: hi skyler im here too, unlike you

Matt: bon voyage and sayonara I guess

And then there were my brother’s private texts, sent from earlier today when I’d been deep in crappy wi-fi land. Each one sent an all-too-familiar roll of nausea through me.

Matt: text me when you get there so I know you’re alive

Matt: You really didn’t need to go out of state if you didn’t want to hang out with me for college ok

Matt: just say you hate me, rip it off like a band-aid

My stomach clenched, and I struggled for a reply. Finally, like a coward, I sent a GIF to the group chat to let them know I was alive, but that was it.

The sun had set, and what little of my remaining energy had sunk with it. I decided to pass on a shower and simply lose consciousness. Maybe when I woke up, all my decisions would make sense.

5: Lucas Meets a Handsome Stranger

July 16th

The mystery roommate was nowhere to be seen in the morning. It would likely be too presumptuous to text him using the number the leasing office had provided me in our paperwork, so I scribbled a note on a piece of stationery and stuck it to the fridge.

Since this Armand Demetrio person was still asleep—at seven o’clock, what, was he going to just waste the day away?—or out of the house, I figured I might as well drive over to work and see Mom. She’d insisted I could take the day off on account of the jetlag—I’d reminded her that Vancouver and California were in the same time zone, but this hadn’t seemed to deter her—but Darren hadn’t texted back yet, so it was far preferable to keep busy.

And I missed the horses.

The End is Neigh Senior Horse Sanctuary was a sight for sore eyes as I pulled up to the ranch at the edge of my mother’s property. Truly amazing how the smell of hay and horse poop took me back to childhood in a hot second. I headed toward the stables, carefully avoiding a fresh pile of said poop. Several of the horses were out and about, likely providing a gentle petting session for a group of summer-camp children, but there was one horse in particular who I wanted to see.

In the stall at the end was Milkshake, the old geezer himself. We had started calling our favorite French Trotter Grandpa Milkshake when he turned thirty, and the name had stuck. He was resting, unnervingly still, his sickly body hunched in on itself in the corner. His once vibrant black coat had long since faded into a softer gray and had thinned considerably: a far cry from the thick gloss of his racing days.

“Hey, buddy,” I said, unlatching the stall door and gently stroking his side. “How you holding up? Did they take you for a walk yet?”

It wouldn’t hurt for him to take another one—one of the most important things we liked to tell our ranch hands was that for older horses, daily exercise was an essential element of care. I led Grandpa Milkshake at his slow pace outside to a corner of the arena not occupied by the gaggle of visiting children.

We’d just done some longeing when—

“I thought I told you to take the day off.”

Cheyenne Barclay, founder of The End is Neigh herself, had made her way down from the family estate in a full face of makeup in order to welcome me home. Her blonde hair glinted in the afternoon sun.

“Yes, and I ignored you,” I said with a grin, letting Grandpa Milkshake rest as I pulled her into a hug.

She squeezed me tight around the middle. “How was the wedding? I wish I could’ve made it. I hope everyone wasn’t too disappointed.”

“Mother dear, they were positively bereft. You should be ashamed of yourself,” I joked. “No, it was gorgeous—Marla looked amazing, Uncle Peter says hi, Sofi and Stefi made a scene at the reception, but what else is new.”

Mom cackled. “I hope you got pictures.”

“Oh, I certainly did. I’ll send them to you. After I put them up on FotoBom.”

She patted Grandpa Milkshake’s nose, surreptitiously checking his breathing. “And you’re all set up in your new place? I really hope you’re not living with an axe murderer.”

It wasn’t like I could dispute the idea. The day was still young. “I haven’t met him yet—the housing office gave me his name and, like, the bare minimum of info. Here—” I pulled out my phone, where the webpage I had found earlier was still open. A quick google search of Armand Demetrio had brought up a link to the Drawn & Quartered Comic Convention happening in August. The only photo they’d provided was a low-res, blurry piece of business that told me practically nothing about this guy. There was a mop of dark hair and a vaguely spooked expression, but the rest was pixels. “Look at this.” I handed her my phone. “Look at the state of this photo—what did they even shoot this with, a potato? None of the other photos are like this. Can he not be captured on camera or something?”

Mom studied the photo thoughtfully. “Maybe you’re rooming with Mothman.”

“I wish I didn’t have to room with Mothman.” I sighed. “I’m glad I found a place at the last minute, but . . .”

“But you wanted to move in with Darren,” she finished with a tight smile—the kind that, much like Rick and Andie did, she always wore when talking and Having Opinions about my relationship. “Sweetie, listen, you know how I feel about Darren. I’m happy you’re happy, but—”

“It’s too fast, I know. But he’s getting there.” It was a good thing my new lease was month-to-month, because the second Darren came to his senses, I was gone. “He’s got a lot on his mind right now.”

“Mm,” said my mother, and didn’t elaborate. “When I was your age, I wasn’t thinking about settling down with anyone; I was wining and dining my way across Europe. I still think a proper vacation would do you some good.”

“Darren wouldn’t be able to take the time off work,” I reminded her.

She held up her hands in temporary surrender.

We guided Grandpa Milkshake back to the stable to rest. My body was tense from the weight of Mom’s quiet judgment, which was rolling off her in waves.

“I’m going to take Dakota for a ride,” I said, crossing to the other side of the stable where my own horse, Dakota—younger than her retired elders but old enough to have been with me through my entire adolescence of equestrian lessons—nickered excitedly as I approached. Mom and I covered safer topics as I groomed and tacked Dakota, luring me into a false sense of security.

“You know,” Mom said as I started leading Dakota out of the stable, “we still need new photos for the website, new models . . .” She flashed me a pointed smile. “If you don’t think your pretty face expertly grooming a pretty horse will attract exponential amounts of site traffic and encourage people to donate—”

“What? Sorry, can’t hear you, you’re breaking up,” I called back as I rushed to step into Dakota’s saddle and trotted her to the arena.

It wasn’t Mom’s first attempt to convince me to pose for pictures for the sake of our fundraising website, and it wouldn’t be her last. I’d given up explaining to her that I wasn’t about to plaster my face all over the internet for people to pick apart my numerous flaws: my shirt wasn’t even fitted, I was still bloated from a week of vacation, and cameras added ten pounds—

No, thank you.

I urged Dakota into a canter, focusing instead on the burst of adrenaline from the running high.

I stayed at the sanctuary until lunch and helped around the ranch. Mom was clearly thinking about catching her second wind by then, either about Darren or about modeling, so I made my goodbye quick as I hopped in my car smelling decidedly of horse.

I should’ve gone straight home—or rather, to my temporary apartment—but I really wanted to swing by my usual café-bakery to pick up my custom coffee blend for tomorrow morning. Vegan bakeries were a dime a dozen for miles in any direction, but Latte for Work was always open, mostly for the college crowd.

As expected, the place was packed with students spending their afternoon engulfed in the delicious aroma of French roast and baked goods. That wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was a young man in the corner.

He looked about the age of the average patron, maybe just out of high school or early college. He was holed up in the corner booth—a coveted position especially during the busy hours—a laptop open in front of him that he very much wasn’t using. I paid for my coffee beans and turned back to the booth, and the boy hadn’t moved a single inch. His eyes were unfocused, staring off into the middle distance. Was he even breathing?

I was familiar enough with silent panic attacks that I had to check.

“Hey,” I said, as gently as I could, stepping next to the booth. “Are you okay?”

For a split second the boy didn’t react, which was concerning. But then he seemed to snap out of his reverie, his eyes—wide and blue but bloodshot, had he been crying?—focused up at me.

“What?” he asked, in a voice that suggested he’d temporarily forgotten where he was.

I gestured to his neglected computer and the untouched drink beside him. “I didn’t mean to bother you, but I saw you sitting over here looking a little out of it, and I wanted to see if you’re okay?”

“Oh, um.” He glanced down at the computer. “Yeah, I’m fine, I’m good. I was . . . you know, having an existential crisis. Figured I may as well eat a donut while I’m at it.”

There was only a drink on the table, not even a plate or napkin to suggest there’d been any food present. “You . . . don’t have a donut?”

He stared at the table and sighed, his head falling to his chest. “Knew I forgot something.”

I didn’t normally sit with strangers at a cafe, especially when I needed to get home and shower, but I couldn’t leave this poor kid—up close it was clear that he was pale, probably sleep-deprived, and judging from the intended donut, maybe starving?

“I know all about the good ol’ existential crisis,” I said cheerfully as I sank down across from him. “The good news is you’re still young—once you’re over here at the ripe old age of twenty-five, you start feeling like maybe life is getting away from you a bit.”

He blinked. “The getting-away-from-me part worked well enough,” he said, rolling his neck and resting his head against the back of the booth. “Thought I could do the whole adulting thing, and yet. Here we are.”

“Here we are. So you’re, what, going to school around here?” I nearly slapped myself. “Sorry, I’m Lucas, by the way; should’ve led with that.”

He gave me a serious little nod, shocks of wavy black hair cresting his forehead. “Skyler. Evans. Yeah, I signed up for summer classes at Norsemen.”

Ah, the old alma mater. “Okay, moved to California for school, classic.” I shot him another friendly grin. “You have family here?”

Skyler shook his head slowly, giving me a thin, close-lipped smile. “Nope. My family’s back in Washington. Where I could be right now instead of sitting in the corner of a vegan bakery in California wondering if I’ve completely lost my mind.”

Intuition sparked in my brain. College wasn’t so long ago that I couldn’t remember how hard it had been at that age. How overwhelming everything was. “Family can be complicated.”

He gave a soft but slightly edged laugh. “Yeah, my brother’s really mad at me for leaving.” He shrugged helplessly. “And now I’m here, oversharing, and I’m kinda freaking out—”

No friends, no family around . . . and he just looked so sad.

You know what helps sad people? Petting horses. And you know what helps me get my mother off my back?

I slid my phone over to him, displaying our website. “My mom and I run a sanctuary for old and retired horses. We do tours, educational visits. Kids come to pet horses who won’t snap at them . . .”

Skyler’s eyebrows shot up as he scrolled. “The End is Neigh?”

“Yeah, it’s morbid, but that’s Mom for you. But my point is that I have access to very cute animals who like being petted if you wanted to pet some cute animals. Unrelated, but we’ve been needing to update the website with shots of people working with the horses. I took the photos you see there, which turned out great, but we need someone to be the go-to model. Everyone wants to give good-looking people money. And I’m not especially photogenic.”

Skyler’s perfectly symmetrical face furrowed in confusion. “Sorry, what does this have to do with me?”

“It has to do with you because you said you were sad and freaking out about being lonely, and horses help people not be sad. And honestly I need someone with a pretty face who can pose with horses.” I grinned at him. “Tell me you wouldn’t love to hang around with old horses.”

“Oh, absolutely, it’s the dream,” Skyler said in a perfect deadpan.

“How about you think it over?” I handed him my business card. “Have a sleep on it, and let me know. I’m in here all the time, but I’m also embarrassingly accessible on my phone, so. Options.”

Skyler was still staring down at the card. “So, just making sure this conversation is actually happening and that you exist and you’re here and offering me a horse-related modeling job? Because I’m working on maybe three hours of sleep and I may have started stress-hallucinating about an hour ago.”

“I mean, who’s to say if any of us really exist?” I joked. “But yes, I’m extremely serious.” I reclaimed my phone and stood up. “You’d be saving my ass from a well-meaning but slightly misguided maternal figure here.”

Skyler nodded, then as I turned to leave— “Lucas?”


He swallowed. He was still pale, but some color had returned to his cheeks, making those cheekbones pop. “Thank you. For offering me horses, and for . . . checking in on me.”

“I couldn’t very well not. Your entire vibe is extremely concerning, I could sense it a mile away.”

His shoulders slumped in despair. “That’s not good.”

“Hey”—I pointed down at him playfully—“horses. But even if you decide not to, no worries. Though I wouldn’t be mad if you, like, wanted to text tomorrow to reassure me that you’re alive and that the void hasn’t swallowed you.”

And Skyler smiled—still soft but more open and unguarded this time. “If the void has cell service, I’ll let you know. Thanks.”

There was something so achingly genuine about Skyler Evans that, as I left him in the café to return to my car, it made me feel like a mama bird who had abandoned her child. Right as I fought the urge to go back and check on him one more time, my phone buzzed in my pocket. Had Skyler texted me already?

Darren: hey you, come over, I have a surprise ;)

I couldn’t help a grin, my stomach erupting with butterflies. Maybe Darren was coming to his senses after all.

6: Armand Notices His Surroundings

July 16th - Thirty days until the convention

I woke slowly, my eyelids unsticking in sections and my body lying numb and inaccessible. Eventually, feeling returned to my extremities, beginning, unfortunately, with a cramp in my left calf. I surged to my feet and tried walking it out, cursing and whimpering under my breath.

The muscles finally eased into a nonexcruciating position, and I stood leaning against the door of the cupboard and shaking my leg angrily. I’d kicked off my shoes and jeans the night before. Or, come to think of it, the early afternoon before . . .

I glanced hazily at my watch: only 2 p.m.—that was quite early for me, most days. I dug the heels of my hands into my eye sockets in an attempt to force my brain to wake up. There was work to be done. Pages that needed to be penciled cried out from the depth of my carry-on. After all, Deconstructionist Monochrome Blah Blah Something Comics didn’t draw themselves.

I was meant to have sent in these pages before fleeing the commonwealth, but I wasn’t yet used to deadlines being handed down from on-high.

Surrogate Goose had been a passion project for so long that the idea that an international publisher like Drake House had picked up the bloody mindless drivel that was my brainchild felt like an elaborate prank. There were times, usually between two and six in the morning, when I convinced myself that I had fabricated the entire success of my comic. That I was still working my old soul-sucking dancing job to finance the self-publishing, and this was all a sad, drug-fueled dream.

As if she could sense the aquifers of my self-pity threatening to swell, Lakshmi chose that moment to send me a series of vaguely threatening emojis: an airplane, a small fire, and a question mark.

I answered with a voice message: “I live. Unfortunately.”

Lakshmi: Yes you do

This was immediately followed by a sleepy voice message, the murmur of late-night television in the background. “Are you ready to take America by storm, pet?”

That was an easy question. “No.”

Her response was just as fast: “Do it anyway, you wonk. Night.”

That was her answer to everything: Do it anyway. And the worst part was that it often worked. Lakshmi was the one who’d somehow reorganized the known universe into a place where Surrogate Goose was something I could live on. She’d sent me to indie publishers at first, then booked me for conventions and comic shop signings. I’d even appeared briefly on a morning program and been recognized in a pub once. It had been three grueling years before Drake House noticed us, and like the anonymous, newly vehicular gourd plucked from obscurity that I was, Lakshmi had every intention of riding me to the ball.

This was our chance. My chance.

I was already hobbling myself by refusing to sell the rights to Surrogate Goose, to let some team of wankers turn it into a film or breakfast cereal or whatever.

“We’ve got to prove you’re worth the investment,” Lakshmi’d told me. “Not me, not the comic, you.”

“But Lakshmi, what if this goes the way of Leeds?”

Early during our Drake House run, I’d been interviewed for some nerdy radio segment. I’d been my terrified, monosyllabic self and had spent the whole time fighting the urge to hang up or pretend I was going through a tunnel.

“It won’t,” she’d said with entirely unearned confidence.

The House had signed us for a year, and it was nearly up. Contract renegotiations and all manner of things which I would not, could not understand, were making Lakshmi nervous. As she’d explained it to me, Drake House was ready to make a larger commitment to the comic and myself. But they needed me to prove I was worth it. The big test was going to be the Drawn & Quartered Comic Convention at the end of the summer. They wanted me to speak, show my face, be . . . marketable on a global scale. I needed to be a brand: not just the creator of Surrogate Goose, but its avatar.

Being somewhat known in Great Britain or even Europe was uncomfortable and I was wholly unsuited to it.

The concept of American Celebrity all but caused me to lose control of my bowels.

But if I didn’t show Drake House that I was capable of human interaction, of being a personality, they’d drop us. They wouldn’t renew my contract, Lakshmi would lose the biggest deal of her career, and for me it would be back to the indie cons, soul-sucking day jobs, and life as a pumpkin.

A shower would help. A shower was necessary and probably mandatory for inclusion in the species at this point.

I yanked my shirt over my head, remembering to check the coast for flatmates before wandering out in my pants. Confident that I was indeed alone, I padded down the hall and into the toilet, and only once I was standing under the warm torrent of water did I realize that I’d forgotten the tiny bottle of shampoo in my travel bag.

Across from me, however, appeared to be an impressive selection of hair products, all nestled in a wire holder that adhered to the shower wall through the ingenious use of suction cups. There were three shampoos, two conditioners, and a variety of other things far surpassing my comprehension.

I wrestled with my conscience for a moment, then stole a small dollop of the most generic shampoo I could identify. As I kneaded it into my scalp, my brain informed me that the bathroom products were not the only additions to the décor I had missed. I tried to visualize the walk from my bedroom, and sure enough, the memory was suffused with a sense of . . . pink. Nothing had actually been pink, I was quite certain, but there had been enough pink-like things to produce the effect. And a smell . . . lilac?

I rinsed the soap out of my hair and off my body with the intent to dry off and investigate, when it turned out that along with my shampoo, I’d forgotten to grab a towel. I stifled a groan and then checked to see if the disturbingly well-prepared flatmate had provided, which indeed they had. There were two hand towels hanging in their little plastic rings by the sink.

With some difficulty, I dried myself off and even managed to wrap the larger of the two slightly more than three quarters of the way around my waist. Clutching it in place with one hand, hair still dripping, I set out to explore the transformation the flat had undergone while I slept.

There were pictures on the walls and flowers in the windows. Surfaces gleamed, and there was a small tree growing out of a wicker basket by the door. The pictures were mainly of horses: grazing, rearing, leaping, or simply posing in the sunlight.

Waking up inside a House & Garden was doing a number on my head. I was troubled by the terrible accoutrements of bourgeoisie that surrounded me, but I was more troubled by their source. Although the temperature was quite comfortable, I shivered, trying to imagine the sort of person who would be quite so fond of horses and feel the need for this many flower vases.

I made my way over to the fridge—it was already adorned with a whiteboard, what appeared to be several postcards from Paris, and three different magnets in the shapes of, yes, horses. One of them was a unicorn. I shook my head to try to clear it and opened the fridge.

It was even scarier in there.

Nothing but green leaves, fruit, and what I could only call ingredients. As opposed to food.

Whoever they were, they didn’t just clean—they cooked as well. I was rooming with the ghost of Martha Stewart. A health-conscious Martha Stewart. A terrifyingly domestic creature of unknown origin. My mind was immediately filled with the image of a large white rabbit in an apron. Without being fully aware of what I was doing, I began sketching that image onto the whiteboard.

Somewhere in the kilo or so of paperwork I’d been handed there was surely information to be had regarding this person, but I’d barely reconciled with the idea of having a flatmate, let alone allowing them to transcend the abstract and become an individual.

It had been one thing to travel. One thing to carry my personal bubble of solitude across an ocean, brushing up with the personal bulles de solitude of others in a public space. However, it had been some time since I’d had to share a living space with anyone. There’d been a period when circumstances had me sleeping on my mates’ couch, but then Lakshmi and success had happened, and with the exception of events, I’d spent the past couple of years holed up in my little burrow of a flat, allowing the refuse of my own existence to slowly pile around me—like the low, mysterious, and load-bearing walls of an ancient civilization—in a warm, inevitable smother of an embrace.

I was in no state to be living in close proximity with another human being.

Especially one so invested in an intentional living space.

There wasn’t a single thing about me that was intentional. There was never a more passive bit of flotsam in the grand river of fate than Yours Truly. The thought of meeting this conscientious person thrummed across my shoulders as a swath of gooseflesh and rose in my throat as a burgeoning lump.

An unfavorable chemical reaction would likely take place should our intensely different lifestyles collide. I wasn’t fit for human consumption and I hadn’t been for nearly a year now, since my newfound teetotaling existence. I’d set some specific sobriety-related lines for myself, at the start of my torrid romance with Drake House, and so far had managed to abide by them. I was much healthier now, allegedly, but also much less pleasant to be around.

Participating in the outside world without a hearty dose of social lubricant was not exactly my forte. A few get-togethers a month with my couch-owning mates Sam and Craig, and the occasional check-in from my agent Lakshmi, my sponsor Karim, or my father The Arsehole—this had been the extent of my human interaction over the past year. The world had been nicely split in two: inside my bubble of solitude and outside of it. How was I supposed to adapt to an entire person inside my—

“Knock knock!”

I jumped. “What!”

“It’s me, Robin, out on the porch! Luncheon, remember?”

What sort of person said knock knock instead of knocking? I smoothed damp strands of hair back and out of my face, then barked at the door, “A mo, Titch!”

“A what, who?”

I ignored him and hurried into the other room to dress. Potentially judgmental flatmate or no, there was still outside to worry about.

General Details

Word Count: 98,200

Page Count: 350

Cover By: L.C. Chase

eBook Details

ISBN: 978-1-62649-993-5

Release Date: 04/22/2024

Price: $4.99

Physical Editions

ISBN: 978-1-62649-994-2

Price: $19.99


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