by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
On the morning of his twenty-seventh birthday, Owen’s alarm woke him, as per usual, with the “Ride of the Valkyries” at three-thirty a.m.
Owen struggled out of a dream of being in someone’s hold–an embrace or a threat, he wasn’t sure, and the details were already wisping away–and successfully mashed the snooze button on the third try. What seemed seconds later, the Valkyrie called him to action again. He rolled out of bed and twitched open the living room curtains. The Don Valley Parkway’s eight-lane glow lit the room like a sulphurous sunrise.
He stumbled into the bathroom and then to the kitchen. He’d made mason jars of overnight oats with frozen blueberries on Sunday; now he grabbed one from the fridge and ate standing up. He chased the glop with a caffeine bomb–two spoonfuls of instant coffee, two of sugar, hot water from the tap, and a slug of milk–which he swallowed like a medicinal dose. Lastly, he reached for the notepad.
Stay warm and dry, he wrote. Hump day, right? See you tonight.
He got lucky with the bus, and hit the subway just as the train was arriving. It pulled out of the station and then sat still in a tunnel for ten minutes. Owen stewed in his winter jacket; there was just no winning.
He let himself into the store with his keycard ten minutes behind his usual time. “Hey, Ty,” he called to the other baker on the early shift. “Sorry I’m a little la–” He made sure the door shut behind him and turned around to see not just Tyrese hovering by the empty display case, but a bunch of people occupying three of the two-tops.
“Owen,” Ty said, with the glazed look of something small frozen before a hawk’s beady eyes, “these people…say they’re here…for a TV show?”
Owen blinked at the five strangers as alarm percolated under his breastbone. “That’s…today,” he said, managing to make it not quite a question. Damn Ericks. He’d said he would put a notation in the schedule, but clearly hadn’t. Owen should have known better than to rely on him.
A woman with bright blue hair and many, many earrings smiled at him as though he’d just said something that wasn’t stupid. She extended her hand. “Hi, Owen…Waite, is it? I’m Shelley Bach. We really do appreciate your doing this for us.”
He had a brief moment of weightless panic. “Um, remind me. This is a training thing, right?” He eyed the four others at the tables. A couple of people with the shaggy look of techies, an older executive guy in jeans, and a woman in her thirties dressed in black knits from hair scrunchie to slouchy socks. She was typing on her phone, and looked way too intense for this early in the morning. A few hours at the mixer right next to the ovens would mellow her out.
“That’s right. Meet your new trainee, Grant Ferguson.”
The executive stood, and Owen had just enough time to rearrange his preconceptions before he automatically returned the handshake.
Grant had the kind of good looks only achievable by never smoking, never drinking, hiring a personal trainer, and most of all having lots of money. His salt-and-pepper hair was growing out of an austere but expensive haircut. His jeans and baggy windbreaker looked like a costume on him. What’s he doing here? Owen thought.
But that might be the point. The show, as far as he recalled, was some reality TV thing–a genre he hated and never watched–something about people starting over after an unexpected setback. To be fair, Ericks had explained in more detail, but Owen had been counting cups of flour at the time and anyway it was supposed to be in the schedule. The irony was keen, but he figured Corporate had only asked him because, at five years in, he was the longest surviving employee at this branch and got to train all the newbies.
“Thank you for this opportunity, Owen,” Grant said in a voice that had probably charmed and intimidated boardrooms full of men just like him. “I promise I’ll try not to give you too much trouble.”
Owen dredged up what was probably a weak smile, but he was only one cup of coffee in and his customer service manner wasn’t yet online. He hoped Grant wasn’t one of those dicks who retired at fifty-five with millions and took on a part-time job as some kind of bullshit personal enrichment exercise. He did look the part, with that natural-looking sprinkle of white in his hair and fine lines of the corners of his grey-blue eyes.
The camera operators were Luba and Viet. They all nodded at each other with the mutual respect of the people who actually got the work done. The woman in black was Marilyn, a production assistant, which Owen understood from his friend Samuel was a fancy way of saying gofer.
“Don’t look at the cameras,” Shelley said, as Luba and Viet hoisted theirs to their shoulders. “Don’t try to perform. We just want you to be yourself. Occasionally we may ask you to repeat something, but for the most part we’d like you to just forget that we’re here.”
“Okay.” Owen’s arms hung awkwardly. His body suddenly felt like a collection of coat hangers and hinges. Maybe he should have thought this through more. Training people was fine, he’d done that a million times, but now he was remembering that he didn’t even really like having his picture taken.
“I promise, it won’t take long before you forget that they’re there,” Grant said. “My audition took two hours. I was self-conscious at first too, but it didn’t last.” His voice was assured, but his smile was kind.
Fine for him to say, Owen thought, conscious of his own twelve-dollar haircut and the now-permanent shadows under his eyes. “Uh, should I try not to swear?”
“Just be yourself,” Shelley repeated. “Though please try to keep the obscenities to a minimum. We can bleep them out, but it’s extra work for the production team.”
She had his number, all right. Owen warmed to her a little for that. Don’t make work for other people was a cardinal rule, as far as he was concerned. Some people needed it tattooed on their foreheads.
“Okay,” he said. He looked again at Grant, who gave him an encouraging nod. “So, just show you around like a normal trainee?”
“Please. What’s the first thing you’d do if I weren’t here?”
Grant wanted to know what it was really like to work as a service industry drone? “Well, it’s not even five in the morning, so the first thing I’d do,” he said, “is get myself a massive cup of coffee.”
Once they each had a cup in hand from the coffee station–free unlimited hot and fountain drinks were one of the perks, and this was Ty’s special pre-opening super-strong brew–he said, “Now I’d go change.” The words felt weird. He’d never before been so aware of the way his mouth moved when he talked. If he’d known this was today, he’d have practised talking in front of a mirror or something.
“Sounds good. Do we have a uniform?”
“I do.” He looked at Grant’s flannel shirt. “Did Ericks say he’d get you one?”
Marilyn thumbed her phone with extra vigour and shook her head.
Owen ran his hand through his hair, and immediately thought about continuity and looking like a slob and whether Corporate would think he was a good representative and why he should even care and how he had several hundred cookies to bake starting like fifteen minutes ago. “I’m already behind schedule, and you’re not supposed to wear street clothes in the bakery.”
He felt Grant’s touch on his forearm, a brief moment of contact out of nowhere. It made him take a breath, which for some reason blanked out some of his whirling thoughts. Grant said, “What if I bought one of those to wear?” He pointed at the cubbyholes of Cookie Smile T-shirts on the wall behind the cash, the kind that the front-of-house staff wore.
“I guess you could do that. They’re twenty-five bucks, though.”
Yeah, that was probably Grant’s version of petty cash. Owen gave him a quick once-over and grabbed a size medium. “You can pay after we’ve opened the cash.”
At the men’s change room, Owen turned to put his back against the door and looked at Luba and Viet. “No cameras in the change room, okay?” If anyone wanted to ogle his discount-briefs-clad butt they were going to pay him more than fifteen bucks an hour. Speaking of which—
“Sh–crap, I forgot to sign in.” Usually his routine was to get here a little early, change first, and then sign in, but with this circus to deal with it had slipped his mind and he was already on the clock. God, he was a mess today. “I have to go do that.”
They all trooped over to the cash. “I hope we haven’t caused you a problem already,” Grant said.
“It’s fine.” He hoped. “Ericks might have to fill out a form, but that’s what managers do, right?”
Grant chuckled, a sound that made Owen smile before he realized he was doing it. “That’s certainly my experience.”
Feeling like a mother duck trailing a troupe of large chicks, Owen went back to the change room and left his entourage by the door. Being without cameras in the cramped space felt bizarrely like hiding, and they’d barely gotten started. No wonder celebrities went off the rails, being watched all the time.
He hung up his jacket and changed into his chef’s uniform, which was a pretentious name for fancy scrubs, listening to the cellophane of the T-shirt bag rustle. He locked his locker and turned to find Grant, shirtless and a little flushed, still snapping the clear plastic of the packaging.
“Is there a trick to this?” Grant asked.
“Sealed for your personal protection,” Owen muttered. He held out a hand for the package. Then he took out his keys, stuck the tip of one through one of the round holes in the packaging, and ripped the bag open.
“Knowledgeable and resourceful. Thank you,” Grant said.
The praise gave Owen a glow of warmth, like the first sip of fresh coffee after coming in from the pre-dawn chill. He probably practises that, Owen reminded himself as Grant pulled the T-shirt over his head.
It fit Grant unreasonably well. The grey might have been chosen to complement his colouring, and the anime-inspired logo looked hip rather than childish on him.
“Plus you need an apron,” Owen said, busying himself with taking clean ones from the shelf so he wouldn’t keep staring at Grant like a creep. It would help cover up Grant’s non-regulation jeans. “And a hair net.” Unlike his uniforms, those weren’t personalized. Owen trusted that they had the bejeezus sanitized out of them at the laundry.
Grant snapped the net over his hair and looked at himself in the spotted mirror over the sink. “…Ah.”
Okay, nobody on the planet looked even remotely hot in a hair net.
“You can put this over it,” Owen said, taking pity on him and handing over his own company logo baseball hat, which had been hanging on a hook in his locker since the day he’d been given it. The visor cutting off his vision drove him nuts. “Okay, that’s about it.” He looked at the door indecisively.
“Are you ready?” Grant asked.
“This is…weirder than I thought it was going to be,” Owen admitted.
“You’re doing very well. They wouldn’t have chosen you if they’d thought you couldn’t do it.”
“I guess.” Even Ericks had told him he was a good trainer. It was more discomfiting than flattering, because he was never sure why. He just showed people what to do, watched them until they got it right, and answered their questions. That wasn’t so special.
He took a breath and let it out. “Okay. Let’s go bake some cookies.”
It occurred to him, as he led them all down the hallway, that Shelley and the rest were in street clothes too. At least they wouldn’t have anything to do with the food. Anyway, Ericks had approved this. “Maybe don’t touch anything,” he suggested, and then he opened the door and entered his domain.
His cramped, cluttered, overheated domain. That he shared with a bunch of other people. Who were constantly moving his stuff. But still.
The two baking stations mirrored one another: mixers, stainless steel tables, racks, stacked industrial ovens. Shelves of ingredients and packing materials lined the edges, larger bins and bags of flour and sugar underneath them. The large refrigerators took up almost one full wall, beside a deep sink.
“Do you have any baking experience?” Owen asked.
“I used to help my mom make Christmas cookies,” Grant said.
“Yeah, this isn’t anything like that.”
Ty was already at one of the tables, rolling out dough. He gave Owen a quick glance and otherwise kept his eyes on his work. The air was rich with the buttery sweetness of the rolled sugar cookies already in the oven.
“So here’s our game plan,” Owen said, taking his clipboard from where it hung on the end of the table. “We’re the drop cookie station. These are today’s specials. S’mores cookies, okay, those are tricky because of the marshmallows, but you get to use a blowtorch, which is pretty awesome. And lemon shortbread, those have these tart little granules that get mixed in, but they melt in the oven so you have to be really careful when you’re greasing the sheets or they’ll stick. This other list is our regulars. No catering orders today, you get off easy.”
“How many types do you make in a day?”
“Five basic cookies, plus the specials, plus the decorated sugar cookies in whatever the seasonal shape is. Those are Ty’s thing. First we go wash our hands, and on the way back we’ll get the flour and sugar. Here’s the chocolate chip cookie recipe. How many cups of flour do we need?”
Over the next several hours Owen began to suspect that Grant hadn’t been entirely honest when he’d implied he had no commercial baking experience. He didn’t goggle at the twenty cups of flour per batch. He grabbed a towel from the shelf and kept his station tidy with the absent-mindedness of someone to whom it was second nature. Mind you, he did get a faceful of flour by turning the industrial mixer up to high right away. Comedy gold, probably, Owen thought as Grant blinked at him through snowy eyelashes. And he scooped dough as if it were breakable.
“How do you do that so fast?” Grant asked, as Owen whacked out a double sheet pan of twenty-four in the time it took Grant to place one row.
“One at a time, same as you. Except I’ve been doing this every day for five years.”
Grant gently nudged the back of his scoop into the top of each dome of dough, flattening them as Owen had shown him. “How many cookies do you think you’ve made?”
“Probably…” Millions? That seemed a little high. “Hundreds of thousands?”
“What’s your favourite?”
At that moment one of the timers went off and Owen had to take a batch out of the oven, saving him from having to answer more difficult questions under pressure.
By nine, he hadn’t exactly forgotten about the cameras, but he was at least getting used to them, and they took up less of his attention because he had things to get on with. Ericks came by when he got in and took up some screen time, allowing Owen to relax for a few minutes.
“I usually eat lunch around now,” Owen said, sliding the last of a batch on a rack to cool.
“Wonderful,” Shelley said fervently. “Is there somewhere to eat around here you recommend?”
“The twenty-four hour Chinese place isn’t bad.”
“Do they do vegan?” Viet asked.
“Yeah, there’s a bunch of tofu things on the menu. So I guess I’ll meet you back here at ten?”
Shelley gave him the kind of look he remembered from the type of people who joined clubs in high school. “Why don’t you come along with us?”
“I brought my lunch. And, no offense, but I kind of need a little alone time right now, if that’s okay.”
“That’s completely fine,” Grant said firmly. “We’ll see you in an hour.”
Owen got his coat and his lunch and went out the back of the building, where the cold air was as invigorating as another shot of caffeine. There were a couple of picnic tables on the pathetic strip of grass between the parking lot and the next parking lot. It was chilly, but bearable for the time it would take him to eat his peanut-butter-and-jelly on whole grain, carrot sticks, and an apple.
He checked his phone. No messages. That was good, he told himself, quashing a sense of disappointment. No messages meant no crises. Anyway, it was still first thing in the morning for most of the people he knew.
The afternoon went much as the morning had. Grant was quick on the uptake and only asked the really stupid questions when prompted by Shelley. They filmed Ty making sugar cookies into chocolate tabby cats and vanilla bunnies, though he flatly refused to say anything on camera–he was shy anyway, and the slur in his speech he’d gotten from a stroke a few years ago got worse when he was stressed–and Owen demonstrated how to do marbled icing, which was dead easy but looked impressive. He didn’t quite get his usual production run done, but there was enough to keep things going until the afternoon shift got underway.
“Before you leave for the day, could we get a short interview with you?” Shelley asked, as Owen wiped down his station.
“Just for context. What brought you here, your background, that sort of thing.”
Owen refolded his damp cloth. He knew how reality shows worked. They were looking for a sob story, some kind of human pathos, and they’d eat up his story like a salted caramel chocolate chunk cookie if he let his guard down. “I’m pretty boring,” he said, knowing he’d give in and irritated with himself already.
“Not at all,” Grant said, with that smile that felt like having a warm afghan thrown over him in a chilly room. Owen only wished that he could tell whether it was genuine. “Only tell us what you’re comfortable with. I won’t pry.”
So Owen found himself sitting across from Grant at the one table in the employee lunch room, Luba’s lens feeling a little more like a sharp skewer pointed at him than it had since the beginning of the day. Name, rank, and serial number, he thought, a little lightheaded.
“So, Owen, did you always want to be a baker?”
“No, I was in school to be a registered dietician. I had to put that on hiatus because of family stuff” —which I do not want to talk about— “but I’ll be going back.”
“A registered dietician? Tell me about that.”
“It, um–” Owen flicked a glance at the camera. “It doesn’t have anything to do with my job. I mean, they have dieticians at Corporate, I guess, but that’s nothing like what I do.”
“That’s fine. I’d like to hear what made you decide to pursue that, unless you’d rather not say.”
It was better than talking about his mom and his dad and Ellie, which wasn’t a story so much as a runaway train of stupid, painful facts. “I was always interested in food, but not exactly in normal cooking. I liked unusual cookbooks, about backpacking food or three-ingredient dishes or ten-minute meals. And I liked the idea of meal planning. When I was a kid, my mom had this cookbook with colour-coded charts of foods that went together that I was kind of obsessed with. And it turns out that helping people plan fast, easy, healthy meals is a thing. So that’s what I went to school for.”
“You were studying healthy food. Does it bother you to bake cookies all day?” Grant wasn’t issuing a challenge; he sounded truly curious.
“Hey, food is more than just fuel. Sometimes you just need to eat a cookie. And I like the company’s philosophy. They use organic flour without amylase in it, and the chocolate and sugar are fair trade. And the cookies are all made without animal products, though they don’t advertise that too much because people get weird about it.”
“So you find it a good place to work?”
“Well…I could do with not getting up at three-thirty in the morning.” Grant laughed. “And, okay, I’m not going to lie, they could pay more, because Toronto rents are ridiculous. But it’s not bad. They don’t jerk you around with the scheduling, and the benefits are good.” His health package even paid for Ellie’s hormones, and he got two weeks of paid vacation every year.
“Do you think you’ll stay with the company, then?”
“For now.” There’d been rumours lately about Cookie Smile maybe going to be bought out, and that was never good news. “Until I go back to school,” he repeated, and his mind shied away as it always did from how many years that was going to be.
They wrapped up with a few more general questions. Then Luba and Viet packed up their cameras. Owen took off his apron, feeling dismissed and a little let down.
“Bye, then,” he said.
“Thank you for today. You’re a good teacher,” Grant said, leaving Owen flustered enough that he was glad Grant had waited until the cameras weren’t on him.
Mid-afternoon was the hardest time to stay awake. Owen usually juiced himself up on the way home by playing some bright, fast game on his phone. He checked his messages and email again too. There were still no birthday greetings. Not from any of his friends, none of whom he’d seen in a while; nothing, of course, from his dad.
When he got home he dropped his bag at the door, grabbed a clean change of clothes from his dresser, and had a quick shower. Walking into the kitchen to prep for dinner, he found a cardboard box from the liquor store on the counter–or more precisely, upturned over something on the counter. A piece of paper torn from a lined notebook had been tucked into one flap to hang over the side where he could see it. Do NOT look, Ellie had written on the side, a message that bloomed to fill the page with sparkly gel pen curlicues and spirals. Beside the box was an origami bird with Happy Birthday repeated in many colours to form a pattern on its wings.
Ridiculously, tears pricked his eyes. He must be pretty damn tired.
No. He was twenty-seven fucking years old, old enough to be honest with himself: he was misting up over a birthday card his little sister had made for him out of cheap notebook paper and crappy dollar store pens.
He moved the bird to the top of the fridge where it would not be in danger from water splashes, and took a quick look at the calendar stuck to the front with fruit-shaped magnets. It was the second Wednesday on his two-week schedule, which made it vegetable bean soup day. He pulled a bag of mixed vegetables from the freezer and poured some into a saucepan, then opened and rinsed a can of beans and added that as well. Because of his schedule, they ate dinner early. Technically he had time to chop and sauté onions and all that jazz, but after being on his feet all day his body felt like he was wearing a lead-lined wetsuit, so there was no way that was happening.
He added some water and put the pot on the back burner of the stove, ready to be fired up when Ellie walked in the door. Then he went to collapse on the couch and listen to a podcast while he pretended not to have a nap.
Ellie crept in at quarter after four. He heard her kick off her shoes and go into the bedroom.
“I’m awake,” he called.
After a moment she appeared in the living room. “Happy birthday!”
He sat up, and she flung her arms around him. “Thanks.”
“You didn’t look, did you?”
“I didn’t look. I loved the bird.”
“I got you something else, but you have to wait until after dinner. Don’t come in the kitchen, okay?”
“I won’t. Heat up the soup while you’re in there.”
After a period of mysterious clinking of plates and cutlery, she let him back into the kitchen to check the soup and make toast. The cardboard box was in a slightly different place. He stirred miso into the soup to make a broth, and they sat down at the table in the little open space at the end of the galley kitchen.
Owen had never thought much about parenting until it had been thrust upon him with no warning and no chance for any research or trial runs. One of the compensations for all the worry and the constant revelation that he had no idea what he was doing was that Ellie could be a total hoot. She noticed everything, and had thoughts and opinions on it all: teacher behavior, sports team theatrics, student politics. Listening to her was like catching up on a long-running soap opera.
He did wonder if her volubility with him meant that she needed more friends, or different friends, or some kind of social outlet other than her grumpy older brother. Last year had been a bit rocky, what with them being evicted for what their landlord claimed were necessary renovations and Ellie transitioning; a few kids had been cruel, most just confused and thus avoiding her altogether. This year she had found the school’s gay-straight alliance, but he gathered that that shared demographic only went so far when you were looking for someone with the same taste in J-pop and live-streaming comics artists.
“So Todor and Chandra are definitely flirting but want plausible deniability, Mrs. Wilfert is definitely going through a thing, and our basketball team are all a bunch of drama queens,” she concluded. She popped the last quarter of her toast into her mouth. “Anything good happen at work today?”
He made a split-second decision to omit most of the particulars. She’d want to know what the show was and have a lot of questions he either didn’t know the answers to or wasn’t supposed to tell anybody about. “New trainee.”
“Are they nice?”
“He is, yeah.”
“Did people do anything for your birthday?”
“I didn’t mention it. People are busy, Ellie.”
“Did you at least get lots of messages? From, you know…anyone?”
“Nah. It’s no big deal,” he lied, at her sympathetic pout. “I’m too old for all that.”
“People are jerks,” she pronounced darkly. “Anyway, I remembered. Close your eyes.”
Obediently, he did, and sensed the overhead light being switched off. There was clatter on the table, and then Ellie began humming the first bars of Happy Birthday in the kitchen. The sound became louder as she neared him. Golden light dawned through his closed eyelids.
“You can open them,” she said, and he did, to a small, brightly wrapped present and a one-layer cake enthusiastically iced and adorned with rainbow-coloured, tulip-shaped sprinkles. Little blue candles formed a pair and a little ring of seven.
“Make a wish,” she commanded.
He closed his eyes again, as much against another moist prickle as to fulfill the tradition. Make a wish? Where would he start?
Just make it better, he thought vaguely, and blew out all the candles together on a long, slightly dizzy breath.
“Big piece? Little piece?”
“Just an inch,” he said, lacking the heart to tell her how much working at Cookie Smile had tanked his appetite for cheap chocolate. “You should have told me to save some room! I’ll enjoy some more tomorrow.”
She carved out a slice and handed it to him on a plate. He took the point of it onto his fork. It was soft and gritty, with a minor suggestion of chocolate flavor.
“Is it okay?” she asked with a hint of anxiety. “It’s only from a mix.”
He washed it down with a mouthful of water. “It’s an excellent birthday cake.” It left an artificial aftertaste. Probably from the dollar store too, along with the canned frosting and twisty candles.
She scraped a tablespoon of frosting off her slice and licked it off the fork. “Open your present.”
He looked at the tag. No to and from; she’d only written It’s the little things.
“Remember how Mom used to say that?” Ellie asked.
“I remember.” It had been a joke then, something she’d said as a mock threat when their dad had forgotten to put the milk jug in the fridge or move the car seat back up on the few occasions he’d been the driver. Of course, that was when they’d all been living inside their fictional, protective family bubble.
He picked up the present and peeled back the tape.
The worried crease was back between Ellie’s eyebrows. “I can take them back if you think they’re stupid.”
Owen unfolded the two pairs of socks. “Ellie, these are awesome.” Expensive socks, designed for hikers, with extra padding where it counted, flat seams, and ribbing around the arch of the foot so they hugged and didn’t sag.
“I heard you say to Ron that one time how cheap socks were giving you blisters.”
“Honestly, Ellie, these are amazing. They’re just what I needed. Thank you.” He was completely sincere. If anyone had told his sixteen-year-old self how grateful he’d be for good socks….
He thought about what all this must have cost her, several hours’ salary from her mall retail job. “This has been a great birthday. I didn’t expect anything like this. You are the best sister.”
Her face went pink. “I just thought your birthday shouldn’t suck.” She looked down and began to pick the sprinkles off her slice of cake with the tines of her fork.
They played a board game for a while after dinner, a battered copy of Candyland that had survived from their mother’s childhood. Owen crashed shortly after seven. Look at the old guy, he thought, with arid humour. He pulled the living room curtains across the windows and fell asleep to the sounds of an ambient playlist and Ellie muttering over her homework at the kitchen table.
The next morning, miracle of miracles, he actually woke naturally before his alarm wrenched him out of sleep. That meant he had time to make and drink a pseudo-latte–still from instant coffee, but with warmed milk and sugar–and sit down with his oatmeal. He walked out into the frigid pre-dawn in an oddly good mood.
He understood why when he got to work. Grant gave him a good-morning and a sheepish yawn, and Owen suddenly felt as though he’d opened the door to the ovens on the hottest afternoon of the summer.
Oh, come ON. He gave Grant and the camera crew a wordless wave and continued on into the change room, appalled. Was he that starved for affection that any good-looking, kind, charming older guy who gave him a smile–
Fine. Owen wearily stuffed his coat into his locker. He was, and it wasn’t even all that surprising. God knew that, for one thing, he was in a dry spell of Saharan proportions, even for him. And for another, he was probably loaded with daddy issues he’d never even had time to notice.
Grant came into the change room and took a fresh apron and hair net off the shelf. “How was your evening?”
“The usual. You?”
Grant laughed at little and shook his head. “I fell asleep on the couch at three o’clock and didn’t wake up until seven. Do you ever get used to the hours?”
“I never have.” Owen’s fingers felt thick on the buttons of his uniform.
“Yet you keep coming in every day.”
“I need the job.” Then, because that sounded churlish, “It’s not so bad.” Owen busied himself with the strings of his apron, not looking up, until Grant was dressed. “Ready? Let’s go see what today’s specials are.”
The specials were sugar cinnamon and cherry chocolate chip. Either Grant had secretly practised last night or he picked things up fast; today he was defter with the scoop, and didn’t have to be reminded where the flour and shortening were kept. He remained gently self-deprecating, while complimenting Ty on his tidy paisley icing designs and Reema, one of the counter staff, on her ability to stack the cookies so uniformly on the display trays.
“You make mine look good,” he said. “I can’t even see the lumps.” Reema smiled her sideways smile at him and took the trays away into the front of the store.
After their lunch break, there was a staged thing where Owen and Grant sat at one of the cafe tables and tasted the cookies Grant had made. Owen, tongue-tied, nibbled a soft cinnamon-sugar round and listened to Grant talk about how valuable an experience it had been. Although it hadn’t been a particularly leisurely few days, what with doing all his regular work and looking after Grant besides, he felt a little like a holiday was ending.
Grant followed him into the change room at the end of the shift. He threw his apron and hairnet into the bin, and pulled his down jacket over his T-shirt. Owen, changing out of his uniform, felt Grant’s presence like a hum at the edge of his awareness. When he shrugged on his own coat and turned, Grant was holding out his baseball cap.
“I wanted to thank you,” he said. “For real, without the cameras. You’re a very good teacher, Owen. You have a great deal of patience, and you never made me feel foolish for asking questions or making mistakes. You made me feel comfortable learning something new. That’s rare.”
Owen nearly blurted out I’m not naturally chill, I’m just really tired, but managed to bite it back and accept the compliment with a little grace. “Thanks. I’m glad to help. Uh, good luck with whatever you do next.”
“I hope we’ll cross paths again.”
Yeah, fat chance of that. Like Grant was ever getting this close to a mandatory-hairnet kind of job again, at least without being joined at the hip to a TV show. Owen managed not to say that, either. “Yeah, me too. You can keep the hat if you want.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t.”
“No, go ahead. I never wear it.”
Grant folded it and put it carefully into his jacket pocket. “Thank you. It will remind me of some things I learned.”
When he came out of the change room, Ericks bustled up to him. “Owen, can I have a moment to debrief?”
Owen was off the clock, but it was more trouble than it was worth to argue. They went into Ericks’s cluttered little broom closet of an office. When Owen came out again ten minutes later, Grant and the camera crew had vanished and the midday rush was thinning. Just the end of another unremarkable day.
Zipping up his jacket, Owen walked out into the overcast grey chill and down the sidewalk.
He recognized the voice while he was still turning. Grant was waving to him from the parking lot, and, as Owen slowed, Grant jogged over to him from between the cars.
“Do you have anything planned right now?” he asked.
“Why, what’s wrong?” He glanced around for the camera crew, but only Grant stood there.
“Nothing’s wrong. It occurred to me that it’s your dinner time. Would you allow me to take you out for a meal, to thank you for your help?”
“Oh. Uh, you don’t have to,” Owen said automatically, even as something in him leapt at the thought.
“I’d like to. Unless you have plans.”
Owen looked down at his wrinkled chinos and his not-too-clean winter coat. “I’m not exactly dressed for going out.”
“Neither am I,” said Grant, who probably could have worn his jeans and cheap jacket into some Bay Street expense account cocktail bar and set a new trend. “Don’t worry. I know a good casual place.”
Owen calculated the hours until Ellie would get home from school. “Okay. Yeah, thanks.”
They got into Grant’s ordinary compact car and drove into what Owen thought of as the city proper, where everything wasn’t made of shopping centres and industrial malls and the peeling fences of suburban houses with their backs turned to the road. They parked on a side street and walked back up to the main street and into a warm, cluttered restaurant panelled in dark wood.
The host seated them in a two-person booth, near an honest-to-god real fireplace. Grant opened one of the menus. “They have some interesting pub food here,” he said. “I can recommend the mixed root vegetable fries.”
The server showed up quickly. Grant ordered a fancy water, and Owen, knowing that a beer at this time of day would put him under the table, got a ginger ale.
Owen studied the menu until Grant slid his aside. “So, what do you do when you’re not baking cookies?” he asked.
Owen tried to think of the last time he’d spent a weekend doing something interesting rather than listening to podcasts and prepping the next week’s meals so he and Ellie wouldn’t try to survive on tortilla chips and salsa. “Not all that much.”
“Nah, work takes up most of my time right now. I’m pretty boring, actually. How about you?”
Grant’s smile was a little twisted. “Work takes up a lot of my time, too. Too much, I suspect.”
Their drinks arrived. “I’ll have the veggie burger and the mixed fries,” Grant told the server.
“Sounds good. Same here,” Owen said.
“It won’t upset me if you have a meat burger.”
“I don’t eat meat all that often. Beans are cheaper, and better for you.”
Grant nodded at the server, who gathered the menus and left. “Is that part of your meal planning strategy?”
“Yeah. Canned beans have probably saved my life.”
“I never know what to do with them. Not that I’m that experienced as a cook. I always liked baking better. Do you have a good recipe for a beginner to try?”
When the food arrived, Owen realized that he’d been talking for probably fifteen minutes straight, with only a few prompting questions from Grant. He felt his face go hot. “Sorry, I kind of got going. I’ll stop now.”
Grant shook his head and unfolded a paper napkin. “You said you’re not interested in cooking, but you clearly are.”
“I guess so. It’s more like…” He ate a carrot fry while thinking. “I like knowing I can take a cheap can of beans or a bag of frozen peas and make something good out of it. Things are kind of hard right now for my sister and me, but I can make a satisfying dinner for super cheap, and it makes me feel like I’m saying, Screw you, cruel world, we’re surviving. You know?”
“I didn’t want to ask about your family situation,” Grant said, taking the ruffled toothpicks out of his burger and laying them parallel to one another on the edge of his plate. “But I’ll listen if you’d like to talk about it.”
“There’s not much to say.” Owen poked a slice of red onion back under the upper bun of his burger. “My mom died, my dad bailed. Everybody copes with loss differently. Or, you know, doesn’t. Ellie’s great. I’m her legal guardian, but it’s more like we look after each other. As soon as she’s out of university, I’m going back, and things will get easier.”
“What’s her major?”
“Grade eleven.” He took a bite of the burger and made an exaggerated groan of approval, to derail that line of conversation. After he swallowed, he said, “What about you? What business are you in?”
“That’s to be determined.” Grant put his burger down. “What would you do if you had the money to do anything?”
“You mean like if I won the lottery?”
“Yes, that, say.”
He considered, taking a sip of ginger ale. “Get a two-bedroom apartment. Or maybe buy a condo. Go back to school, obviously.” He ate another mouthful of burger. “I wouldn’t mind a wide-screen TV. Our old one was crap, and it imploded last year. And maybe a dog?”
“No mansion or Ferrari?”
“I’m not that fancy.” Having more meant more to watch slipping out of your hands when things went to hell. “What about you?”
“To tell the truth, that’s similar to the position I’m in. I didn’t win the lottery,” he added quickly. “But I have the opportunity to make a fair amount of money. A lot of people are telling me I’d be an idiot to pass it up. I’m trying to decide if it’s worth giving up something I find I’m unexpectedly proud of.”
“Exactly how much money?”
“Enough that I’d never have to work again.” Grant picked up a toothpick and stabbed a fry with it. “I’ve done well for myself already. But I feel as though I’m in unfamiliar territory. I don’t know whether I should trust my very experienced advisers or my gut feeling.”
“Gut,” Owen said immediately. “I mean, you have to live with yourself. Right?”
“Of course. I just don’t know which choice will lead to that.” He wiped his fingers on his napkin. “I find myself wishing I had a crystal ball.”
“Nah. More trouble than it’d be worth. You could see all the shit coming and probably not be able to prevent most of it. Plus, it’d ruin the good surprises.”
Grant smiled. “I’m sure you’re right.” He took a sip of his drink and looked at Owen. “I want to say that I’ve found you inspiring, these past two days.”
Owen let out what wasn’t quite a laugh. “You’re pretty desperate for inspiration, then.”
“I mean it. You know what you want, and you’re working towards it. I’m not romanticising your situation, and I’m sure it’s difficult, but I do wish for your clarity.”
More like he didn’t have the time or energy to look anywhere other than straight in front of him. Owen shook off the sense of being a fraud. “Do you ever listen to podcasts? There’s some great ones on food and travel.”
Grant turned out to be familiar with a few of Owen’s favourites, and they finished their lunch talking about podcasts and places they’d like to visit, laughing about home cooking disasters and ridiculous YouTube videos. When they left the restaurant, the thin winter sun had appeared between bands of grey. Owen felt mellow and warm and well-fed, and also noticed in a way that had nothing to do with being a patient co-worker. Maybe he was so out of practice that he was imagining it, but Grant’s looks were lingering a little intently, even as he laughed at Owen’s description of the time he’d misread the yeast amount in an overnight bread recipe and woken up to find a lava flow of bubbling dough oozing across the kitchen counter.
Grant stopped on the corner. “May I drive you somewhere?”
“I can take the subway.” Owen curled his hands in his pockets for courage. It wasn’t like he’d ever see Grant again. If he belly-flopped with this, he could just casually say goodbye and walk in the opposite direction until he stopped feeling like he was going to self-immolate. He stepped a little closer than was casual. “Or not. If there’s somewhere else you’d like to go.”
Grant’s lips parted. His expression was a mixture of surprise and–Owen wasn’t so out of practice that he couldn’t see it–temptation.
“Or not, then,” Owen said, as moments went by and Grant said nothing. His stomach began to sink. That’s what you get for being spontaneous. “That’s fine. Thank you for lunch.”
“Wait.” Grant’s exhalation misted in the cool air. He reached out to grasp Owen’s elbow. “My condo isn’t far. Would you like to come back for coffee?”
Owen studied Grant’s face. Whatever reluctance had been there had vanished, replaced by honest invitation. “That sounds good.”
They got into the car, the silence charged this time. They followed the main street for a few minutes, stopping and starting, and then turned a corner and drove into the parking garage of a high-rise. They parked and walked to the elevator and rode it upwards, not speaking, although Grant brushed Owen’s upper arm while reaching for the floor button, and all of Owen’s hair stood on end. Damn, it had been a long time.
At Grant’s door, Grant waved Owen in. Owen toed off his running shoes and slipped off his coat for the offered hanger. He followed Grant out of the vestibule, and his attention was caught by the expanse of pearly light running across the width of the main room.
Owen’s eighth-floor apartment had a view, but it was of other apartment buildings and a strip mall and a slice of the highway. Grant’s condo looked out over High Park, a thousand shades of winter grey and white and brown, with a few spots of colourless gleam burnished by the lowering sun. Beyond it was the silver line of the lake, and above that, bands of charcoal cloud and ashy sky.
The sense of space was like taking a long-denied full breath. Owen didn’t realize he’d walked across the room until Grant came to stand behind him.
“It’s something, isn’t it,” Grant said softly. He rested a hand on Owen’s shoulder.
“It’s…” Beautiful seemed trite. It was like balm on city-roughened nerves.
Grant’s thumbs swept a small fan against Owen’s shoulder blades. The pressure was slight but warm. “I knew I wanted this place as soon as I saw the view.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“Four years. My relationship ended, and I knew I didn’t have time to look after a house by myself.” His thumbs pressed more firmly into the soreness on either side of Owen’s spine. Owen let out a sigh.
“Bend your head forward.” Grant’s hands, strong and precise, moved across Owen’s shoulders. “The view helped fill the emptiness, I think. You don’t realize how much psychic space another person takes up in your life until they’re no longer there.”
“That’s sure true,” Owen muttered. The blare of a horn came from below, hooking his attention. Cars crawled along the street, a bumper-to-bumper river of exhaust even in mid-afternoon.
“Relax,” Grant said softly, one finger circling over a knot of ache.
“I’m not who you think I am. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Owen said abruptly. He closed his eyes. “Everything changed so fast. I don’t even know who I am any more.”
“The only reason I keep going is because if I stop I’ll fall over.”
Grant’s hands continued their movement, kneading at Owen as if shaping him. “Life is a long slog. It’s all right to put the burden down sometimes.” His hands slid firmly up to the base of Owen’s skull, thumbs circling in the hollows there. “Let me help.”
Wherever Owen’s little spasm of honesty had come from, it had taken all his energy away with it like water running downhill, and he had no effort left in him right now to push Grant away, even if he’d wanted to. He stood there and let Grant’s touch soothe him. Under those insistently gentle hands, his mind slowly wiped blank, as if Grant were erasing his thoughts. Tension gradually seeped out of him. He swayed, and put a hand out to the cold glass to steady himself.
The force of Grant’s hands lessened and turned to friction, smoothing the sensation down into warmth again. Then he let his hands fall. Owen leaned back a little, wanting more touch, and rested his back against Grant’s solid chest.
“Should I get us that coffee?” Grant asked, breath stirring the hair at Owen’s temple.
Owen turned around and rose on his toes a little, just enough to reach Grant’s mouth. He kissed him, light and lingering.
Grant brushed Owen’s hair back from his temple. Owen put his hands on Grant’s forearms and kissed him again. Their mouths opened, slow and easy, nothing heated or frantic. Grant’s arms came up to shelter Owen, and Owen slid his arms up to Grant’s shoulders.
When they parted, Grant murmured, “I am old-fashioned in some things. Shall we go into the bedroom?”
“Beds are old-fashioned?”
“As opposed to falling passionately onto the couch, yes. I don’t think my back could take that.”
Owen stepped back. “Bedroom sounds good to me.”
Grant put his hand on Owen’s elbow and guided him through the living room, which was decorated with the kind of simplicity that only a fair amount of money could buy, and down a short hallway into a bedroom. It, too, had a floor-to-ceiling window, blackout curtains pulled to either side. The bed was covered with a duvet printed with large bands of charcoal and brown that dissolved into each other. There was a small bookshelf almost full of paperbacks, the top serving as a bedside table, and an empty ladderback chair in one corner. It was spare, but simple and comfortable, not the kind of white-and-silver minimalism that Owen had half expected.
Grant pulled him close and kissed him again. “May I take your shirt off?”
“Sure.” Owen shrugged out of his unzipped fleece jacket and, after a quick look behind him, just let it drop. Grant worked his way down the buttons on Owen’s plaid shirt, kissing him all the while. He slid the shirt off Owen’s shoulders and lofted it towards the chair; it sank to the floor a good two feet short of its target. Owen felt Grant chuckle against his mouth, and tugged at the hem of Grant’s sweatshirt. Grant pulled it off over his head and sent it after the shirt.
“May I…?” Grant slid arms around him again and held him quietly for a few moments. Owen could feel the warmth of his body through their T-shirts. He buried his face in the crook of Grant’s shoulder. How long had it been since he’d had even this much skin on his?
Grant cradled Owen’s face in his hands and dropped a kiss on his mouth. “What do you like?”
“Nothing wild.” At this point, someone other than himself jerking him off would be an alluring novelty, let alone anything else. “You?”
Grant’s expression was a little wry. “I like taking things slow. It’s been a while for me. Do you mind?”
“No, that’s fine. Uh, let me know if anything I do is too fast for you, okay?”
Necking was nice and all, Owen was a fan, but they had both been standing all day. “Is it okay if we lie down?”
“Of course.” Grant released him and lay down on the bed, moving over to the far side. Owen lay down too. The mattress was heavenly, soft and supportive at the same time. He sighed and closed his eyes.
He felt the mattress move as Grant rolled towards him. “I have never appreciated lying down so much as I have the past two evenings,” Grant said. “I find–” His next words were lost in a yawn.
Owen opened his eyes and turned his head towards Grant. He rolled onto his side and slid his hand up Grant’s arm, over his shoulder. Grant shifted, hips closer, then shoulders, until he was holding Owen again. Owen ran his hand over Grant’s stomach and up his chest. He bent his leg and nudged it over Grant’s thigh, until they were as close as they could get, and kissed the side of Grant’s neck. He pulled down the neck of his T-shirt and planted another kiss on Grant’s collarbone.
Grant’s hands rested on the waistband of Owen’s pants. “I’m a little cold. Shall we get under the covers?”
“Yeah. Okay if I take these off?”
They detached from one another and peeled off another layer. Owen became acutely aware that his underwear was saggy and a little grey. He slid under the duvet quickly and stripped off his socks. Grant wore boxers, striped like a dress shirt. In those and his white T-shirt he looked as self-possessed as Owen imagined he would be in a suit.
They nestled together again under the duvet, as close as they’d been before, hands roaming. Grant rubbed a finger at the hem of Owen’s T-shirt and made an inquisitive noise; Owen nodded, and Grant’s palms flattened against him, smoothing up his chest, fingertips circling his nipples. Owen hooked his leg over Grant’s hip again. One of Grant’s hands moved down, paused for permission on his lower back before they moved down to cup Owen’s ass and draw him closer. Owen made a noise in his throat. God, he was tired, but this slow care felt better than any heavy-breathing hookup he’d ever had.
“Is it going too fast if we get rid of these?” Owen tucked a finger under the elastic of Grant’s waistband.
“Not at all.” Grant sat up and skimmed out of them. “And you?” Grant gently jerked the bottom of one of the legs of Owen’s underpants. Owen wriggled out of them and dropped them over the edge of the bed, and got out of his T-shirt while he was at it. Grant followed suit.
They came back together one more time, nothing between them now, and it was like a circuit had been completed, like Owen had been stripped down to bare wire. He shivered and pressed against Grant’s hot skin, the small hairs on his own skin standing on end, everything tingling with sudden arousal. Grant’s mouth came down firmly on his, and Owen kissed back urgently, clutching at Grant’s back, too overwhelmed for a moment to ask permission for anything more intimate.
“What do you want?” Grant said, his voice rasping low as he broke away from the kiss.
“Touch me.” Owen’s hips moved, seeking friction, and Grant’s large, sure hand closed over his cock. His thumb slid over the head, gathering moisture, circling. Owen panted, and Grant’s hand dragged down his cock and up again, steady and deliberate.
“Uh-huh.” Grant’s collarbone was right there in front of his mouth, so Owen licked it, tested it with the slightest pressure of his teeth, and felt Grant shudder. He reached between them, clumsy with his left hand, and found Grant’s cock, half-hard but responding to his touch. “Yeah?”
Grant gave a small thrust, as much as he could at this angle. “I have lubrication, if you’d like some.”
“I’m good.” He’d always enjoyed the resistance of skin, the tantalizing tension that a light touch created. “You?”
“I’m fine. Just be gentle.”
Owen hummed an agreement and squirmed down a little. The edge of the duvet darkened his view. He flicked the tip of his tongue against one of Grant’s nipples, and felt him jerk.
“No biting there,” Grant said on a gasp. Owen sucked instead, and was rewarded with a groan.
“Oh man stop,” Owen said in a rush, as sparks fizzed up his spine. Grant’s stroking halted. Owen took a deep breath, holding himself still. It wasn’t that he was into waiting, but he wanted just a little more of this cocooned pleasure before it all had to end.
He bent the arm he was lying on, his hand free enough to play with Grant’s other nipple. Grant was fully hard now. Owen would have liked to have watched his face, but he had enough to do now, mouth and hands moving as he savoured the little shudders running through Grant’s body.
“I won’t tell you to stop,” Grant said, sounding strained. “No, don’t speed up. Just…like that. Ah. Owen.” His breathing was harsh. “Owen.“
Grant’s head was arched back, the tendons cording beneath his skin. Owen tightened his grip the tiniest bit, not changing his rhythm. Grant trembled for a long moment, and then made a sound like he was making a last desperate effort. He came, spilling hotly over the hand that Owen kept moving until Grant gasped out, “No more.” Owen let his hand loosen, still encircling Grant’s cock as it softened and Grant slumped against him.
“My goodness,” Grant said, muffled against Owen’s hair. He pressed his lips against Owen’s forehead. “May I do the same for you? Or something else?”
“Just that would be good.” Owen titled his face up as Grant wrapped his hand around Owen’s cock again. He worked his unsticky hand upwards until he could curl it around Grant’s neck, and closed his eyes as they kissed. Their legs tangled together. Everything was soft, warm, lazy; Owen was, even if for just this moment, cherished and tended to; and when he came it was in slow waves of sensation that unwound him down to his toes.
Grant rolled over onto his back, separating them. Owen would have liked to have pulled him back, but he was still too hazy with pleasure to be really upset.
He woke to the sound of a message arriving on his phone. He flinched and opened his eyes to an unfamiliar, twilight-dim room. Beside him, Grant made an incoherent noise.
“What time is it?” Owen’s phone was in his pants, which were somewhere on the floor.
“Five?” guessed Grant. He sat up. “Would you hand me the box of kleenex?”
Owen snagged it from the beside table, plucking a few to clean himself up before he handed it over. He had that thick, unreal feeling of being awakened in the middle of a dream. His phone chimed again. “I’m usually home way before this. I should go.”
“Would you like a shower?”
He probably didn’t have time, but he felt gummy all over and undoubtedly reeked of sex in a way he didn’t feel like inflicting upon his fellow commuters. “Is that okay?”
“Of course. The ensuite’s through there.”
On his way into the bathroom, Owen scooped up his phone and read the series of bubbles. You OK? Where RU? RU working OT? Srsly where RU??
Recrimination rushed through him. He should have let her know where he was, but he hadn’t meant to be so late. He mashed at the keyboard. Sorry!!! Out with guy from work lost track of time
Her reply came instantly. OK np its cool
Theres chili in the fridge. Don’t just eat cake
Owen showered quickly, wishing he had more time to appreciate the handmade soap and the blanket-sized towels. When he came back into the bedroom, Grant wasn’t there. Owen went out into the main room, where scent of coffee hovered in the air. Grant was at the marble kitchen island, beside a stainless steel coffee apparatus the size of Owen’s stove. He was wearing sweatpants and a fresh, heathered T-shirt that brought out the grey at his temples as if it had been bought to match them.
“Can you drink coffee this late in the day?” he asked.
“Yeah, but I really have to get home,” Owen said, eyeing the machine regretfully. It was smack dab in the middle of rush hour, and he’d probably have to stand all the way home.
“Let me give you a travel mug. No, it’s fine, I have half a dozen of them. Is coconut creamer okay?”
Owen watched while Grant took an insulated mug down from an upper cupboard and fixed him a coffee just the way he liked it, with tons of cream and lots of sugar. Grant handed the mug to him. It had a logo on the side that seemed vaguely familiar.
Grant rubbed Owen’s shoulder and leaned down to kiss him quickly. “I hope your trip home isn’t too long.”
“At least it’s pretty direct. The subway and then a bus.” This was probably where he should ask for Grant’s phone number.
“I hope you don’t run into delays, then.” Or Grant should ask for his number.
“Uh, my coat…”
“Of course.” Owen followed Grant down the hallway into the entry vestibule, where Grant took his coat out of the closet. Owen put it on.
It looked like nobody was asking for anybody’s number.
“So, uh, I hope things work out for you. I mean, the show and your big decision and, and everything.”
“Thank you.” Grant’s hand twitched, but stayed by his side. “I very much enjoyed spending time with you, Owen.”
“Yeah, you too.”
Then he was walking down the corridor to the elevator, and Grant’s door closed softly behind him.
As walks of shame went, he could think of worse. It wasn’t even past his bedtime. There was no reason for him to feel like this, like a vital part of him was plunging down the elevator shaft while his husk stood motionless and waiting for something that was never going to arrive.
The next day at work was flat. No one mentioned the camera crew, as if the last two days hadn’t happened. Owen made himself into a machine, mixing and cutting and laying dough out on trays until the familiar routine made him stop expecting someone beside him asking questions and admiring his patience with every little stupid, annoying, pointless, aggravating detail of his stupid, annoying, pointless, tedious job.
Over the following few weeks, the universe reset to its normal parameters: work, sleep, work, sleep, a little tiff with Ellie over her C on a geography paper she’d left until the last minute to write. There was a thaw and then more snow, falling prettily for a few hours in the cadmium glow of the highway lights, and a pain in the neck the following morning when everybody had to go out into it.
He put the travel mug with its naggingly familiar logo up into the cupboard above the fridge, and tried to put the memory of Grant’s attentive hands out of his mind. Except that now there was a little fold in the monotonous fabric of his life, a place that kept drawing his memory: the day he’d gotten something he’d realized he wanted, and chickened out when he’d had the chance to ask for more.
One Tuesday a couple of weeks later, Ericks called him into his office. “Don’t come in here tomorrow. Corporate wants you at some focus group thing,” he added before Owen could protest. “It starts at nine, and you’ll be there for the day. Don’t worry,” he said, with a weirdly suppressed smile.
Owen wasn’t worried, exactly, though he was a little nervous about having drawn the attention of someone for something. First the thing with Grant, and now this. It felt as though his baker’s jacket had a target embroidered over his heart instead of the company logo.
Corporate was in an old converted warehouse in a newly hip area downtown, the kind of place with exposed brick and wooden beams the size of coffins. Owen arrived early and walked around the block with all the arty types wearing skinny jeans and carrying five-dollar artisanal coffees. It was like being in an alternate universe.
He went in at ten to nine and gave the receptionist with the sky-high bleached-and-black hair his name. The receptionist rattled some computer keys. “You’re in the fourth floor boardroom. Straight up the stairs and turn right, or if you want the elevator, it’s around the corner there.”
Owen walked up the wide floating staircase that dominated the entranceway, passing desks reassuringly piled with post-it-marked stacks of paper and coffee mugs. On the third floor there was a white-tiled kitchen, and he enviously watched someone in a jacket much like his own pouring something into a standing mixer.
The boardroom was easy to identify, because it had double doors that looked like something out of Game of Thrones, and also because sitting in a chair beside them was blue-haired Shelley.
“Owen,” she said, standing up and holding out her hand to him. “How have you been?”
“Good,” he said cautiously, shaking it.
“Excellent. I’ll just let them know you’re here.” She opened one of the doors and said something, then reemerged. “Why don’t you just leave your winter coat on one of the chairs.” She looked at him critically, and briskly finger-combed his hair. “Good? Let’s go.”
She ushered him through one of the doors into a boardroom made of brick and glass, dominated by an enormous table that looked like it had been built out of an old barn. He had just enough time to register the black lens of the camera pointed at him before his attention was riveted by the sight of Grant, in a tailored charcoal suit that fulfilled every expectation Owen had had about seeing him in one, rising from one of the deep executive chairs.
“Owen,” Grant said, and smiled. “It’s good to see you again.”
“You too.” Owen felt himself flush. Damn, Grant looked good. He’d gotten a haircut, and his tie sparked the steel grey of his eyes. Owen wished he himself had put on something better than a waffle henley with fraying cuffs. He hadn’t dressed up for Corporate, and he wouldn’t have even if he’d known he’d be in front of the cameras again today, but he would have for Grant.
“Please, sit down.” Grant waved him to a seat. Owen did, and was hit by a sense memory of hot skin and the taste of salt. He shifted in the deeply padded chair.
“I should start,” Grant said, “by saying that the name I usually go by is G. Henry Matthews. I’m the founder and CEO of Cook–“
Owen drew a quick breath at the name, and all the little details, the niggling inconsistencies, the logo on that travel mug–the logo, he realized with a flash of incredulity, that was also on the industrial mixer he spent hours every day staring at–everything he’d seen but not seen in the two days he’d been with Grant blazed into appalled comprehension.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” he said flatly.
Grant’s smile flickered for an instant. “When I said I was in business–“
Owen narrowed his eyes at Viet. “Turn off the cameras.” He swiveled and glared at Luba, who was filming him from the opposite side of the table. “Turn off the fucking cameras.”
Shelley cleared her throat. “Owen, we understand that you’re surprised. If you could just–“
“Surprised, yeah, I’m surprised. What a dummy, right?”
“No one thinks that,” Grant said quickly.
“I should have known this had to be some kind of bullshit. I should have known you weren’t real.” The skin around Grant’s eyes tightened, not quite a flinch. Bitterness flooded Owen. “Mister CEO slumming with the hairnet brigade.”
“That’s not what I was doing,” Grant said persuasively, putting out his hand as if to stroke Owen’s rising anger down.
The memory of Grant’s touches on his back, his elbow, his forearm, cascaded through Owen’s mind. He pushed himself up. The chair wheeled away from him and banged into the wall. “Yeah? What were you doing, then? Testing us to see which good little worker deserved a boost? Coming down from your executive perch to throw some money around? Now you’re going to offer me, what, some job at Corporate? A scholarship fund?”
“I was thinking–“
Owen rode over him, cutting him off before he heard what he was throwing away with both hands, in case it haunted him forever afterwards or, worse, or in case he wouldn’t be able to resist it. “And I’m supposed to feel grateful and special, like you’re the prince who chose me to dance with at the fucking ball or something? Do you have any idea who works for you? Ty–remember Ty, the decorator?–he had a stroke a couple of years back, but he’s still coming in to work. Reema is a refugee from Syria. She was a lawyer there, but here she’s pouring coffee. Brittany–do you even remember who she is?–she had a kid when she was sixteen and now she’s a single mom living in a basement apartment. Noah’s putting himself through school, and he works his ass off. You think giving one of us some, I don’t know, some lottery prize compensates for your fancy condo and your, your fucking expensive suit?”
Owen made fists until his fingernails bit into the skin of his hands. The pressure of his anger was being fed rather than being bled off by his words. And what about our afternoon at your place, he wanted to say, what was that, except he didn’t want to expose that in front of Shelley and the rest, because either it had been real or it hadn’t, and he wasn’t sure which would be worse.
He didn’t even know whether the cameras were still on. The room felt as though everyone were holding their breath. Owen was shaking, and he had a feeling he was going to devolve into incoherence soon.
There was one thing he could do, though. “I’m not interested in being part of your PR campaign,” he said. He had no real idea what legal leg he had to stand on, since he’d signed that form, but his words were really for Grant anyway. “I withdraw my consent.”
He turned and left, scooping up his winter coat from the chair outside the boardroom. He somehow managed to make it down the stairs without tripping and breaking his neck, passing the test kitchen he’d never be allowed into and the computer-lit desks he’d never sit at. He burst out into the frail winter sunlight feeling as brittle as a sheet of ice.
He walked until the adrenaline dissolved and he felt as though his knees were going to give out, then caught a streetcar that took him to the subway. His heartbeat throbbed painfully in his temple. When he got home, he stripped for his shower as usual before remembering that he wasn’t at the end of his day; it wasn’t even ten-thirty. He swallowed a capsule of ibuprofen and then pulled the drapes over the living room windows, got into bed, and flung the duvet over his head until he was cocooned away from all light and sound.
His mind churned for a bit, but after a while, his brain seemed to short out, and he sank away from his thoughts and feelings like silt drifting to the bottom of a still pond. He figured he had just finally reached the end of his rope. It was kind of nice, actually. Peaceful. Nothing to do, nothing to plan. Maybe he’d lie here for a week or so. He could use a vacation.
Of course, it didn’t last. He dozed for a while, then had to get up to go to the bathroom. Afterwards, he splashed water on his face and had a long drink from the tap. He stared at his blotchy and possibly-now-unemployed face in the mirror over the sink, and felt the familiar lick of exhausted anxiety start to kindle in his chest.
That was when someone knocked on the door.
Owen hesitated in the hallway. Door-to-door solicitation wasn’t allowed in the building, and there had been a rash of break-ins lately, because some idiots insisted on propping the main doors open even in the middle of winter. He never put the security chain on until Ellie was home from school. He cast uselessly about him for something heavy he could wield if necessary, and tensed in anticipation of someone testing the doorknob.
The knock came again. “Owen?” Grant said.
Fury shot down his nerves and turned the remaining wisps of his peace to char. The fuck?
“Owen, if you’re there–“
“Are you serious?” he yelled, loud enough that the dog three doors down started yapping.
A pause. “I know that–“
“I’m not really interested in talking to you, Mr. Matthews, so do me a favour and fuck right off.” His voice broke on the last word.
There were no more knocks and no more words. Owen watched the door as though Grant were going to pick the locks or kick it down. After a while he moved softly to the peephole and peered out. The hallway was empty.
Was that all it took? Well, good, he supposed, smothering a sense of disappointment. If only the rest of the world did what he told it with as much haste as G. Fucking Henry Matthews.
He was making an emergency batch of comfort food mac and cheese when he heard someone else at the door. He practically ran out of the kitchen. Ellie bolted the locks behind her and held out a folded piece of paper to him. “Someone stuck this under the door.” She frowned. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” She raised one eyebrow and gave him her unimpressed-teenager stare. “I just had a shitty day at work.”
“That sucks. Oh my god, you didn’t get fired, did you?”
“No, I didn’t get fired.” Maybe.
“Did you get in a fight with someone? You kind of look like you did.”
“Can we please not have the third degree?” he demanded, and sent her muttering into the bedroom to change out of her school clothes.
He stood there holding the sheet of paper. It had been torn from a notebook. The writing on the hidden side made dull, barely visible traceries on the outside. Part of Owen wanted to rip it up and flush the shreds, and part of him knew that if he did that the regret, not to mention the curiosity, would end up being more painful than just reading the damn thing.
He ended up secreting it under his pillow just to get it out of sight. He didn’t read it until hours later, when Ellie was occupied with her homework. He was dead on his feet and didn’t really have the energy to face it, but there was no way he was going to get to sleep with it unread.
I am truly sorry for the distress I caused you. It was the last thing I wanted to do, and it was entirely my fault.
Please understand that I don’t regret one moment of our time together. Every word I said to you was genuine. I like and admire you, and I hope very much that my thoughtlessness has not made you doubt that.
If you ever wish to give me a chance to apologize in person, I would be happy to see you. If you would prefer never to have contact with me again, I understand.
Owen stared at the phone number and email address at the bottom of the sheet. He could hear Grant’s voice in his head, gentle with that persistent, perceptive care.
Then the memory of the morning rolled back over him, bringing with it indignation and anger and a weird humiliation that he didn’t think he deserved to feel but felt anyway.
“Oh, just fuck right off,” he muttered, without force, to himself or Grant or the entire universe. He folded the note back up and shoved it back under his pillow. He was so done with this day. He’d deal with this later. Or not, if that’s what he felt like.
In truth, he did half expect to be fired, but the next day at work everything went as usual. As usual, except that when Ericks asked him cheerfully how his meeting at Corporate had gone, Owen felt a look come over his face that made the entire room go quiet. Ericks didn’t mention it again.
His life continued to unspool, now with two creases in it: pleasure with Grant, anger with Grant, and when he thought of the man–which he was apparently incapable of preventing himself from doing–his emotions seesawed like a perpetual motion machine. He continued to keep the note under his pillow, not exactly hiding it but keeping it safe; it felt like something with potential, like a savings account he hadn’t known he had containing money he couldn’t decide how to spend.
One day Ellie came home, stomped into the bedroom and slammed the door behind her.
“Ellie?” He sat up on his bed, turned off his podcast and went into the hallway. There was some muffled banging from the bedroom, as if she were unpacking schoolbooks with extra force. He tapped on the door. “Ellie? Are you okay?”
“I hate everything!” she shouted.
“Any particular reason?”
A sound of frustration and rage accompanied a particularly loud thump.
“Ellie? Can I come in?” She didn’t answer. “I’m coming in. Don’t throw anything at the door, okay?”
She was sitting slumped on the edge of her bed, face red, lips trembling.
“Aw, Ellie. What happened?”
“Jayden fucking Zavanella happened.”
Shit. “What did he do to you?”
Her eyes filled. “We started talking about manga in math class last month, and he bought me a cupcake at lunch this one time, and he told Amyali that he liked me, but it turns out he doesn’t like me like me. He likes Diona Wilson instead, because of course everybody has to like Diona Wilson.” She sniffed noisily.
Relief blossomed; he’d been expecting something a lot worse. “Aw, I’m sorry,” he said, sitting next to her.
“And I saw him at the bus stop and I just…” Her voice thinned. “I just want somebody to like me.” She let out a half-breath, half-sob.
He rubbed her back. “Someone will, I promise. Some boy will see how smart and cute and creative you are, and you’ll forget all about Jordan Whoever.”
She wiped her eyes with the cuff of her hoodie, smearing her purple eyeliner. “I’m not cute. You just have to say that because you’re, like, related to me.”
“You are cute. You’re cute and funny and special in a way that most high school boys are too moronic to appreciate. It’ll happen, Ellie.”
“I want it to happen now.” Her face wrinkled up. “I’m a weirdo nerd and I’m going to be alone forever.“
He hugged her with one arm and let her cry messily for a few minutes. When she sniffed and sighed, he brushed a damp lock hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ear. “No way will you be alone forever. I bet you a quarter.”
She blew her nose and shoved at him with a weak, mucousy laugh. “Doofus.”
“That’s me. Hey, do you want me to make chocolate brownie pudding cake for dessert tonight? We could start a movie while we eat dinner.” It was a fast recipe, a cake that made its own sauce as it baked. They’d eaten it a lot after Dad had fucked off, sometimes skipping the real food part of dinner entirely.
“I have homework,” she said hopefully.
“I’ll write you a note.” What was the use of being in loco parentis if you didn’t use your powers for good?
They ate their dinner in front of their shared laptop. He let Ellie have way fewer vegetables and way more chocolate cake than was good for her. When he went to bed, he also let her take the laptop into her room to watch a few episodes of some anime thing before she went to sleep. “Lights off at ten-thirty. Promise.”
“Okay,” she said. She picked the laptop up, then put it back down on the table and surprised him with a long, hard hug before she grabbed it again and went into the bedroom.
Owen changed into his pyjamas and brushed his teeth and closed the living room curtains against the city’s nighttime glow. In bed, he turned onto his side and slid his hand under the pillow to feel the crackle of the folded piece of paper.
What was Grant doing now? Surely not sleeping at eight p.m. in his wide, comfortable bed. Sitting in his living room reading a book or looking across the park to the few stars visible over the lake? Working late, hunched over a laptop in his corner office with his tie loosened and his sleeves rolled up? With someone else? Alone?
Owen rolled over, a little turned on and more than a little lonely. I just want somebody to like me.
Sometimes looking after Ellie brought back to him how awful high school had been. All that grinding work and delayed gratification, all that frustrated yearning to finally stop practising for the future and just get there.
And now he was there. It wasn’t the future he’d planned for, but no one was going to hand him a different one. When, he asked himself, was he going to stop waiting?
The coffee shop wasn’t huge, but the post-lunch lull had taken hold, and Owen had managed to snag a table far enough from the door that no one could notice him staring at them as they came in. When Grant finally arrived, Owen let himself look for a few moments.
Grant was wearing a dark grey peacoat over an azure crewneck sweater that, Owen expected, made his eyes look blue rather than grey. Damn, he was unfairly attractive. Owen himself was wearing his best button-down shirt and a like-new argyle sweater he’d scored at Value Village. Whatever came out of this, he was going into it with his best foot forward.
Grant’s gaze landed on him. Grant gave him a hesitant half-smile. Owen nodded back, and Grant wove between the tables to him.
“May I get you something to drink?” he asked. Owen shook his head and indicated his almost-full cup. Grant draped his coat over the back of the spare chair. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
He returned with a large mug of coffee and sat down, wrapping both hands around it. “Thank you for your message.”
Owen nodded. Over the past couple of weeks he’d thought of a lot of things he might say, but now they all buzzed in his brain like annoying insects, whiny and demanding the wrong kind of attention.
“So. Those apologies.” Grant looked into his cup and then up at Owen. “I’m sorry I deceived you. I’m sorry if I made you feel foolish. I’m sorry if you thought I was using the idea of a reward to manipulate you. I’m sorry if I did anything that made you even suspect I betrayed your confidence. I’m sorry if you thought that any praise I gave you was false. I regret the entire business.” He gave a wry grimace. “They tell me that the episode won’t be airing.”
“Really?” Owen took a sip of coffee to mask his relief.
“Apparently your reaction has happened once or twice before. It doesn’t flatter the show to disembowel its entire premise.”
“Yeah, I guess not. Why did you even want to be on that stupid show?”
Grant rotated his coffee cup between his palms. Seeing him like this, soothing himself with a nervous gesture, made Owen want to reach out and still his hands. “I was offered a buyout for Cookie Smile.”
“That’s the large amount of money you were talking about.”
“Yes. It was a good offer, and my team negotiated it into something even better. I should have wanted to take it.” His thumb rubbed at a flaw in the mug’s glaze.
“But you didn’t.”
“No. I felt very reluctant. I thought I should do it, mind you. Create a business, grow it, sell it, go on to something new. That’s what my father taught me.”
Owen remembered hearing something about that during his orientation. “Cookie Smile isn’t your first business.”
“That’s right. I had the compostable food packaging. The clothing industry waste recycling. The bicycle delivery business, though that didn’t do as well. I got into it too late.” He shrugged. “You lose some… Anyhow, I realized I wanted to keep this one. I found that somewhat confusing. I theorized that if I gathered more data on what the business was like on the ground, I would have more insight. A colleague I used to work with had been on the show, and I thought, why not?”
“Did you get your insight?” Owen asked, with maybe a little more sarcasm than he’d intended.
“I did. In the end, analysis…” He picked up his mug with a bit of a flourish. “I just like it.”
Owen had revised his estimate of Grant’s net worth considerably upwards. “You could do anything, and you just like selling cookies?”
“So are you keeping it?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.” Grant’s expression brightened. “I’m proud of what it’s become so far, but I hope to make it even more sustainable. I’d had many ideas, but I didn’t think I’d have the time to implement them all. I’d like to go zero-waste and fully fair trade, develop more local and organic suppliers. I’m toying with the idea of starting a non-profit building co-op for employees–a pilot in Toronto, expanding to Vancouver and Calgary depending on how it goes–and some kind of scholarship program. We need to work on our internal promotions path, make sure people can build a career with the company if they want to. I’m starting with overhauling the training program. Oh, speaking of which, there should be a couple of full-time training positions being posted later this year. I think you’d be a very good fit, if that interests you. I have nothing to do with hiring,” he said, as Owen, groping towards outrage, opened his mouth. “HR takes care of all of that. I just thought you might want to keep an eye out.”
Owen shut his mouth again. He’d have to think that one over a little when he had time.
“And how are you?” Grant asked.
Owen cast his mind back over the last few weeks. His thoughts slid over the pattern of work and sleep, punctuated by hurried visits to the basement laundry room and the grocery store. Nothing there to interest a man who essentially headed a successful nation-wide business as a hobby. “The same, I guess.”
“Have you listened to any new podcasts lately?”
“Oh, yeah, there’s this documentary about this nineteenth-century scientist solving a murder that’s pretty good. And there’s a new season of that vegetable gardening one I told you about.”
“I’ve been meaning to give that one a listen, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.”
“Yeah, you must be pretty busy.” Owen finished his coffee, which was bitter and lukewarm at the bottom.
“That’s nothing new. I’ve been rereading some favourite books lately. These days I find it easier to focus on paper at the end of a long day. Podcasts, much as I like them, don’t give me the same distraction.”
“I play them a lot while I’m doing food prep.” Owen took a breath. “If you wanted, I could come over to your place sometime and we could listen to one while I cook you dinner.”
Honest surprise broke over Grant’s face, followed by a smile–a little more lopsided than his usual one, a little more unguarded. “I would very much enjoy that. I would enjoy spending time with you whatever we chose to do.”
Owen had to look away from the glacier blue of his eyes. “Yeah, well, me too. Why do you think I texted you?”
Grant propped his weight on his elbows and leaned closer to Owen over the tiny table. “The only reason I didn’t ask to see you again that afternoon was that I thought it might have been inappropriate once you knew who I was. I do realize how ridiculous that sounds,” he added dryly, as Owen made an indelicate noise.
“Who are you, though? I mean, what should I call you? Do you use Henry?”
“Oh, no, please, Grant is my preference. It’s what I go by in my family. I began to use my middle name professionally when I struck out on my own, separate from my father.”
His quick look away indicated that there was a story there, but Owen wasn’t going to pursue it here. “Where’s the Ferguson from?”
“It was my mother’s maiden name.”
Owen shook his head. “You would make a lousy secret agent.”
Owen had kind of gotten what he wanted, but his stupid brain was kicking him to get this hammered down. “I do want to, uh, spend time with you, but just so you know, my schedule is weird for regular humans, and Ellie always comes first.”
“I do understand. I work long hours myself.”
Of course he did. “So do you want to keep this casual, or, like, are you interested in more than that?”
Grant tilted his head noncommittally. “Serious dating does demand time.”
Owen stifled a sense of disappointment. “I get it. We’re both busy.”
“There will always be work to do. I do miss having someone in my life.”
“I’ve never really had that.” Owen let out a sigh before he could stop it. “I was hanging out with someone when Ellie showed up, but things got a little too real for him, and he took off.”
“Would a more serious relationship appeal to you?”
“God, I don’t know. Is that what you want?”
“I’m not saying that I wouldn’t want it. I don’t know that I’m any good at it, to be honest.”
Owen ran a hand through his hair. “I’d be really happy just hooking up. I mean, if that’s what you want.”
Grant opened his mouth, shut it again, and shook his head. He smiled suddenly. “Owen, I am going to suggest something that I suspect is profoundly out of character for both of us.”
“What’s that?” Owen said warily.
“That we don’t try to decide everything now. Let’s schedule that dinner. After that, we’ll see what happens. No planning, no pressure. Just taking things one step at a time.”
Owen let out a long breath as he felt the weight of expectation lift from him. “That sounds…really good, actually.”
“I’m glad. I–” Grant broke off. He took his phone out of his pocket and glanced at it. “I’m sorry, I have to go. I have a meeting.”
“Yeah, I should get home.”
They shrugged on their coats. Grant carried their mugs to the counter while Owen fished in his pocket for his gloves. It had started to snow again, thick flakes that looked as though they meant to stay.
Out on the sidewalk, they paused in the clear space under the coffee shop’s awning.
“I’m going that way,” Owen said, pointing in the direction of the subway station.
“I’m taking the streetcar south.”
Owen stuck his hands in his pockets. “I guess you can text me about what Saturday works for you?”
“How about two weeks after this one?”
“Sounds good.” It wasn’t like Owen’s social calendar was crammed.
Grant hooked his finger into the gap at the top of Owen’s zipper. “May I suggest an item for the agenda?” Owen let himself be pulled, and Grant dropped a kiss on his mouth, soft and warm.
“I can, uh, pencil that in,” Owen murmured, still close enough that he could feel the heat of Grant’s breath.
Grant released him. “I’ll be in touch.”
So he didn’t have to watch Grant walk away, Owen nodded and turned. The wind picked up as he left the shelter of the building and crossed the road. Snowflakes brushed his cheeks. As he walked a soft layer was already gathering, white as confectioner’s sugar, blurring the hard edges of the newspaper boxes, softening the trash cans and curbs.
He heard his phone chime, and couldn’t resist pulling it out to see. Stay warm, Grant had written.
You too, Owen sent back, and continued walking to the station through a changing world, all the mundane architecture of the city turning fresh and unfamiliar around him.