See How She Socializes

Part 1            

            Stupid death.  Stupid clothes.  Stupid lack of a social life.  I stood staring into my closet pondering what I could possibly wear.  This was my first outing since Grams died.  It had been about two weeks and all I had done was work and come home.  Work did not really count as socializing though.  I spent my days peddling around Chicago on a bike delivering packages.  Not exactly a social career.
                I took in my wardrobe and realized it was either a work shirt and some jeans or the outfit I wore to Grams’ funeral.  The whole purpose of this venture was a distraction from my dour life and the void her death had created.  I decided on a work shirt and jeans.  I yanked my jeans from the hanger and pulled them up.  I walked over to the mirror to assess the damage.
                Still fair skinned, still auburn, still had the dark purplish circles under my eyes.  Awesome.  Oh well, the goal of this exercise was not to pick up men.  It was to get out in public and at least feign friendliness.  I had been living the life of a hermit for far too long.  I had not realized until Grams up and died on me that I had absolutely no friends.  Sure, I had work acquaintances and Mike my surrogate dad/boss.  They weren’t really people I wanted to hang out with.
                I looked myself over one more time.  Nothing could be done about any of it.  I supposed a good bit of sleep would have gotten rid of the dark circles.  That did not seem forthcoming.  Ever since Grams decided to abandon me on this mortal plane I have been having dreams.  I would not exactly call them nightmares but they did all feature a woman long dead.  My mother came to me each night.  She kept warning me about something or asking me to find something.  I could not ever really hear her.  Alas, I woke up screaming every time.  The dreams left me bereft and unable to go back to sleep. 
                “As good as it is going to get tonight.”  I said to my reflection.
                I sighed and headed down the stairs toward the door.  I tried not to notice the emptiness of the old house as I made my escape.  Everywhere I looked lately there were a thousand reminders that I was well and truly alone.  I tried to brush it off.  There was no way I would be able to meet anyone if I was a big weepy mess.  I tried to remember what my mom told me when I was younger.
                “You always have a choice.  You can choose to be sad or happy.  You can choose to stay angry or forgive.”  That lesson was a hard one to remember right after her and my dad died.
                I resolved myself to be happy.   Well, I would at least attempt not to turn into a giant ball of blubbery snotty mess.  I could just see it in my head.   Some unsuspecting stranger would walk up to me and be all ‘Hey how’s it going?’  Then I would just start bawling and they would immediately wonder why they didn’t have to good sense to notice the puffy eyes before.  So happy, yeah, that was what I would go for.
                I locked up the door and headed down the street.  There was a pub about two blocks from my Grams’ house.  I meant my house.  It was mine now.  I needed to remember that.  That big old empty house was mine.  Hooray.  Ugh, okay this happiness business was going to be a lot harder than mom had made it seem.
                I brushed the thoughts off and made my way down the street to the pub I passed every day.  They always seemed to have a steady business throughout the week.  The weekends were a mad house. I had thought about stopping in several times.  Something always seemed to beckon me toward the doors.  I had been able to fight off the call until tonight. 
                I was tired of being sad and quite frankly I was sick of my own company.  I was almost to the point of answering my own questions.  I just knew that if I stayed home one more night in that empty house I would end up spending the rest of my nights in a padded cell.  So operation socialize Izzy was born and out I went. 
                I got to the bar and approached the beckoning doors.  Tonight I would say yes to their call.  Tonight I would go in and I would sit at the bar.  I would get a drink and think about something other than how much my life sucked at the moment.  Perhaps I should have named my outing operation distract Izzy.  It seemed a more apt name. 
                I reached for the door handle and the minute my fingers connected I felt I was exactly where I belonged.  Tingly warmth spread throughout my extremities.  The whole thing seemed utterly bizarre.  Ultimately, I brushed it off as the endorphins created by my change in regularly scheduled programming.  I opened the door and stepped inside. 
                The pub was unassuming.  There were several booths along the far wall by the door.  Down toward the end of the building was a stage where live bands played on weekends.  Then there were a smattering of tables and the bar.  There weren’t very many patrons sitting around but I had not expected there to be many on a Wednesday night.  I started to move toward the bar and felt as if I were being watched.
                I looked up to find a pair of brilliant blue eyes trained in my direction.  I felt a sudden wave of déjà vu as I took in the man belonging to the eyes.  He was unreasonably tall and broad.  He was built like an old timey Irish boxer with a barrel chest and narrow waist.  I took him all in and I knew that I had never seen him before.  A man that imposing would have stuck.  However, he did leave a strange tickly sensation in the back of my brain.
                I brushed it off as a reaction to the man’s undeniable hotness.  I broke eye contact and made my way to a bar stool just to have him come back into view.  He walked up and stood in front of me and I realized he was the bartender.  I supposed if I had not been gawking I would have noticed him behind the bar.  Operation socialize Izzy was going spectacularly.  Sheesh, I needed to pull it together.
                “What can I get for you there Red?”  He asked with a hint of laughter in his voice.  I looked up into his eyes and was astonished with what I found.  The man was just inhumanly gorgeous.  So not what I needed right now, I was here for friends. 
                “Can I have a Malibu and Coke?  Lots of limes please?”  I asked sounding far shyer than I thought myself capable.  He nodded and set about making my drink before putting it in front of me.
                “So, what brings you in tonight?”  He asked.
                “I just decided to stop being a hermit and reenter society.  Seemed as good a night as any.”  I said wondering why in the world I was talking to this stranger.
                “Well I am glad you came in.  You can entertain me.”  He said with a wink.
                “I am afraid you might ask for a refund.”  I replied with the sudden urge to stick out my tongue.  I really did not know how to interact with other people anymore.  I needed a guide book or something.  Sweet Lord in heaven help me. 
                “Nah, I have seen worse.  The names Kennan O’Malley, but most people call me K.O.”  He said with a smirk.
                “Nice to meet you Kennan.” 
                “Ah, so no K.O. for you then.  Don’t you even want to know what it stands for?”  He asked with a broad smile that could probably light an entire city block.
                “Well, if you want to tell me, I have no objections to hearing it.  I am sure it is a fascinating story.”  I said sarcastically as I leaned in and propped my chin on my hand.
                “You see, it is because I am just so stunning.  The ladies gave me the nick name knock out.  It works with the initials too.  From the look on your face I can tell you are not impressed.”  He snickered.  I wondered if anything ever got this man down.
                “Oh yes, let me just bust out my chisel.” 
                “What do you need a chisel for?”  He asked completely confused.
                “To carve an idol of you.  You know, so that I can worship your hotness.”  I said.  I really did not know who had taken over operation of my mouth but I wished she would shut up.  I was trying to make friends but all I was doing was insulting the poor friendly bartender.
                He started laughing.  His laugh was a deep rumble that moved through me and lightened my spirit.  I found myself laughing along with him and I realized it had been far too long since I had smiled let alone laughed. 
                “I am sorry.  I should not be so blatantly rude to someone I just met.  I am Izzy by the way.”  I said feeling a bit guilty for being such a brat.  I stuck my hand out hoping to make peace.
                “It is nice to meet you Izzy.”  He said and shook my hand sending an electric shock up my arm.
                “Same goes.”  I said taking a sip of the most perfectly mixed drink ever.
                “So what really brings you in tonight?  I see you go by some afternoons when we are getting a shipment but you never come in.  It was starting to give me a complex.”  He said with so much swagger I wondered how I remained unaffected.
                “It is really depressing.  I came here tonight to escape my house.”  I sighed.
                “Why, pray tell, are you trying to escape your house?  Is it haunted?  Oooh, are there robbers currently ransacking the place and you are just waiting here until the cops come?”  He asked and I could see a thousand different scenarios pass behind his eyes.
                “Nothing so glamorous.  It is just empty.” 
                “Empty?  Most people would like the solitude after working in the city all day.”  He said and I wondered when one of the other three patrons would need something.  He was starting to get too close to things better left forgotten.   That is why I came out, to forget. 
                “I wasn’t lying.  It really is a depressing story.  I am sure you don’t want to be brought down with my drama.  I know bartenders are supposed to be better than therapists and all of that but I really did just come out for a drink.”  I really hoped he would take the hint and move on to harassing someone else. 
                “Well, I want to know.  You come in here all woman of mystery and won’t even give me a hint.  If you don’t tell me I will just have to make up ridiculous stories.  I will have you as part of witness protection running from the mob.  Or perhaps you could be an escaped felon.  Oh the possibilities, they are endless.”  He said with a smirk.
                “Hey man, who’s your chick?”  I heard another man ask.  I looked over and saw another handsome guy move behind the bar.  Did they just hire hot guys to work here? 
                “Hey Marky, this here is Izzy.  She is a woman of many secrets and unwilling to share any of them.  Are you here to take over man?  Let me tell you, business is scintillating this evening.”  Kennan said looking at the other guy.
                “Dude, use words I understand.  And yeah, I am here for my shift so you can get out of here.  Leave me to harass the woman of mystery.”  He said with a leer that immediately knocked him from hot to obnoxious. 
                “Nah, I am gonna clock out and peel apart the mystery.”  He said before coming around the bar and parking himself next to me.  He was like a stray dog.  You fed him a little bit of information and he just kept coming back for more. 
                I said a silent prayer that I could maybe finish the drink and sneak out.  I had socialized enough for one evening right?  I mean, I talked to two whole people.  Well I had nodded at Marky and talked to Kennan.  That was two whole people I had not interacted with before tonight.  I looked down at my phone and saw that it was only seven.  So if I did head back to the house I would be trapped in its vast emptiness.
                I sucked it up and stared into my glass.  Perhaps if I did not seem engaged he would take the hint.  I immediately rejected the idea in favor of a whole new approach.  I decided I would dissuade his advances.  I was not in the market for a man right now.  I needed to get myself put back together.
                “You know this is not going anywhere, right?  I mean, I would hate for you to waste your time on me when there is an entire city of girls out there willing to call you K.O.  They are right within reach.  So maybe you should head out and start reaching?”   I asked hopefully.
                He threw his hands over his heart and acted as though I had mortally wounded him.  Count that plan as failed.  Cheese on a cracker, I just wanted to avoid my life and have a peaceful evening.  But no, mister hot pants would have none of that. 
                “You wound me.  I have no plans for the evening.  Wednesdays happen to be my day off.  I have to give myself time to recharge you know?”  He asked with a knowing smile.  Barf.
                “Really, you are going to regret sitting there and listening to my pathetic sob story.  I bet you a drink.  When I am done regaling you with my tales of woe you will regret asking.”  I said and stuck out my hand.
                My hand was engulfed by his rough calloused mitt.  I looked down and knew that it somehow felt familiar.  I shook my head and looked up into his eyes.  There was something unsaid there.  The moment quickly passed as he shook my hand leaving me to think it had all been imagined.
                “You are on.  Now spill.  I want it all, the sadder the better.  You seem to be forgetting one thing though, Red.”
                I cringed, I hated that nickname.  My hair was not even that red.  Sheesh. 
                “And what is that?”
                “I am a bartender.  I spend all of my slow nights listening to sad tales.”  He seemed awfully sure of himself.  So I decided to really let him have it.
                “Well do you want the short or the long of it?”  I was hoping he would say long.  I really wanted to win this bet. 
                “I don’t have anywhere else to be.  Hit me with it.”  He said as Marky set a beer down in front of him and lingered.
                “Is she gonna spill all of her secrets?”  Marky asked.  I really hoped he would not stick around for it, but I would not let his presence deter me from my goal.  I was going to win this drink.
                “Yep, I am going to make him cry.”  I challenged.
                “Bring it.”  Kennan said. 
                “Alright, you asked for it.  It all started fifteen years ago.”  I began.
                “Wait, you are sad because of something that happened fifteen years ago?”  Marky interrupted.
                “Do you people want my sob story or not?”  I asked with a raised brow.
                “Keep going, we won’t interrupt again.”  Kennan said giving Marky a pointed look.
                “Fifteen years ago.  That is when my sad, sad life got bumpy.  I was at home with a babysitter one night when my parents were out on a date.  On their way home they flipped their car several times killing them both instantly.  I don’t know if they had swerved to avoid a deer or what.  All I know is that I was suddenly orphaned and had no idea where I would end up.  Luckily a grandmother I never knew existed piped up to claim me.  I was shipped up here to Chicago to live with a veritable stranger.  I adapted. I even grew to love my Grams.  Wouldn’t you know it? She decided to up and die on me two weeks ago.  Once again I have no one left in this world to call my own.”  I sighed and took a big gulp of my drink finishing it off.
                “That is really depressing.”  Kennan said with seriousness I thought rare on such a man.
                “That is not even the worst part.  They all died right before my birthday.  My parents died just days before I turned eight.  Grams, well she died two weeks ago.  We had her memorial service last week.  You know what that makes today?  That’s right.  It is my birthday.  Woohoo.”  I guiltily felt as though my family had all planned to leave me right before my birthday.  Somehow, confessing the notion to Kennan made me feel lighter.
                “Get the girl a drink Marky.  That is one of the most depressing stories I have ever heard.”  Kennan said as he threw his giant arm around my shoulder.
                He acted as though we had been the best of friends for years as opposed to only having just met that night.  I looked up at his face and saw sadness pass behind his normally jovial eyes.  I could not stand the thought of doing that to him so I decided to change the subject.  The only problem was, I had no idea what to talk about.  I was spared by an entirely new embarrassment.
                Kennan shot up to stand in his chair as Marky set my new drink in front of me. 
                “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very important person here tonight celebrating her birthday.  Would you all please join me in singing her happy birthday?”  Then Kennan began belting the happy birthday song with an off key accompaniment of drunken people. 
                I was sure I was turning eight shades of crimson.  I grabbed a hold of his jeans leg and tried to pull him down from where he stood.  It was like trying to move one of the pyramids in Egypt.  The man was made of stone.  His leg did not even give a centimeter.  I looked up at him and scowled which only caused him to sing louder.
                By the time he finished I wanted to crawl under the bar and hide.  I was utterly mortified as he lowered himself back down into his chair.  I decided to take my embarrassment out on the coaster and ripped it to shreds. 
                “So, this birthday is not so bad.  You had the most handsome man in the bar serenade you.  You have to admit, it was quite charming.”  Kennan preened.  I wanted to punch him in the throat.
                “Yep, awesome.  I think I am going to go and bury my head in some sand now.”  I said as I tried to get up and make my way to the door.  My progress was halted by a very large arm coming to rest over my shoulder once more.  The man did not understand the concept of personal space.  He was seriously invading my bubble.
                “Where are you going?  We have a birthday to celebrate.  This is serious business.”  He looked at me with a jovial expression that caused me to snicker.
                Somehow he had managed to distract me from my black thoughts.  He had brought me closer to myself than I had been in days.  I sighed and accepted my fate.  If I were to be trapped in a man cage, at least it was a handsome man cage.  Ridiculous, but handsome.  I settled in to my seat abandoning hope of escape.
                “Well, what is your big celebratory plan there buddy?”  I asked.
                “For starters, you need to finish that drink.  Then we can do whatever you would like.”  Kennan said with a raised brow.  Somehow I knew he was just trying to make me uncomfortable and had no intention of following through on the implied threat. 
                “I would like to go home and fall into bed after this drink.”  I said.  I paused and turned the darkest red I have ever turned.  I had not meant for it to sound the way it came out.  I hurried to add, “Alone.” 
                I buried my face in my hands as both Kennan and Marky burst into raucous laughter.  Kennan brought his arm down and patted my back.  I was sure it would leave a bruise.  I shook my head and unburied my face.
                “I think this social experiment has come to a close.  I need to go home and die of mortification now if you don’t mind.”  I said attempting to once again leave.
                “Well at least let me walk you home birthday girl.”  Kennan said.
                “No funny business?” 
                “No funny business.  I swear to you an oath on my honor.”  He said regally.  I wondered what kind of man said things like that.
                We got up to leave and Marky rushed around the bar to envelope me in an uncomfortable hug.  I hugged lightly back but pulled away as soon as possible.  Somehow, when Kennan touched me it did not feel foreign.  In fact it felt safe.  When Marky touched me I wanted to run away.  I smiled and walked away as he shouted Happy Birthday to my back.
                “That man is smitten.  It is a shame really. You will break his poor heart.  I wonder if I should tell him.”  Kennan sighed, acting as though I had intentionally wounded his friend.
                “I did not even do anything.  Don’t you try and guilt trip me.  I don’t even know you people for crying out loud.”  I huffed as I made my way out of the bar’s comfort.
                “You and me, we are going to be the best of friends.  You wait and see.”  Kennan said as he once again threw his arm over my shoulder.
                Somehow I knew he was right.  I resolved myself to go down to the pub more often.  If I could get myself out of the house then I might be able to make more friends.  I would overcome my need to stay walled off from the rest of the world.  It was not that I did not like people.  There was just some sort of mechanism inside of me that kept people at arm’s length.  I decided that I would let Kennan in, just to see how the whole friendship thing could work.
                “I feel like I need to forewarn you, I am not so good at the friend thing.”  Once again I had put my foot in my mouth.  It sounded as though I was asking him for more.  “Ugh, I meant to say that I don’t have many friends.  I am sort of out of practice in that department.”  There that was better.
                Kennan shook with laughter next to me and just kept trudging along.  Before I knew it we were standing in front of my building. 
                “Well goodnight.  Thanks for the birthday serenade.  All that it lacked was a chorus of howling dogs.”  I said as I stuck my key in the door.  “I will see you around K.O.”  I smiled as he pulled me into a strong hug.
                “You come by and see me more often, don’t stay cooped up in this empty house.”  He leaned down and planted a kiss on the top of my head. 
                “Alright, I will see you later then.”  I said as I scurried inside. 
                Well, the night had turned out better than I had hoped. I kicked my shoes off at the door and moved toward the kitchen.  The guys at work had gotten me a cake for my birthday and I decided to go indulge.  As I moved that way I started thinking of how empty my house was.  I needed to figure out something soon.  Maybe I could advertise for a roommate.  Nah, then any manner of person could show up.  I was too reclusive to share my space with anyone.   I was destined to turn into an old maid recluse.


part 2

                The next day I went into work and tried to forget the previous evening.  Although I considered it an overall success, I was concerned about the attachment I felt forming for Kennan.  I thought it reckless to latch on to someone I did not really know.  So I tossed thoughts of him aside and spent my day peddling around the city. 
                Being a bike messenger had its perks.  I could not allow myself to focus on anything other than the traffic and arriving at my destination promptly.  So, in a way, I used my job as a distraction from my distraction.  I should probably seek out help.  I was beginning to wonder if my mental faculties were all still intact.  There was a very real chance I was full on insane and no one had bothered to tell me. 
                The day passed with little to no excitement.  Mike harassed me about being an old fart but that was the extent of my day’s amusement.  I made my way home, once again feeling the pull toward the pub.  Kennan was standing outside in a t-shirt and jeans, checking off inventory as it was unloaded.  He was incredibly handsome.  I wondered why I had immediately put him in the friend column.  Perhaps when I got my head checked I could have them assess my libido as well.  It was probably malfunctioning. 
                I tried to move unnoticed. I conjured up my inner ninja and did my best to sneak on past without notice.  I was one with my surroundings. 
                “Hey Izzy!”  Kennan shouted.  Durn it, my ninja skills needed some serious work.
                “Hey.”  I waved feebly in his direction hoping it would suffice as enough communication for the evening.
                “Don’t you try and sneak past here.  I see what you are doing.  How am I going to con you into being my very best friend if you won’t even stop and talk?  My heart is breaking into a thousand tiny pieces you cruel woman.”  Kennan did his very best impression of a heart broken man.  I was not buying it.     
                “Shouldn’t you be, oh I don’t know, working?  It seems you have your hands full.”  I shouted from across the street.  I was still moving toward my house.
                “Don’t move another step. I am coming to harass you.”  I stopped and wondered how the man had this effect on me.  I waited as he said something to the delivery guy and then made his way across the street.
                “So, what are you up to tonight?”  He asked as if I always had glamorous and exciting plans.
                “I was thinking of working on my ninja skills.  They seem to be a bit rusty.”  I said with a wide smile.  Something about being around Kennan made me feel lighter.
                “Well, you want to go grab some dinner?  You can try and blend into the scenery and see if anyone notices you.”  Kennan snickered at my expression.
                “I did mention the whole not interested in dating thing right?  Besides, it is a Thursday night.  You are back on rotation aren’t you?  Or do you really need two days to recuperate?” 
                “You wound my poor heart, Red.  You just keep shooting me down.  For your information I have no hot dates planned for this evening.  I was just going to go and grab some pizza.  If you want to come you can.  If not that is cool.  I’m gonna eat the pizza either way.” 
                “What do you get on your pizza?”  I asked skeptically.  I was kind of hungry.  In fact, I had not eaten all day.  Maybe I should have the head shrinkers check that out as well.  I seemed to be missing the hunger trigger. 
                “If you come with me you can decide.” 
                “Just as friends?”  I was wary of this situation.
                “Just as friends, scouts honor.  I should be finished up at the bar in about an hour.  I will come by and grab you.  Then we can go catch the El and get our grub on.” 
                “Alright, but the first sign of funny business and I am out.”  I said with squinted eyes.  I was sure I looked more ridiculous than frightening. 
                “See you in an hour, Red.”  He hollered as he sprinted back across the street.
                “Stop calling me that.”  I shouted at his back.  He just waved a hand in my direction.
                I made it home and immediately wondered how the man had wormed his way into my life so easily.  Two days ago I had not even met him and now he seemed determined to be my best friend.  On top of that, he seemed to just ram his way through all of my internal walls.  He blatantly disregarded all of my attempts to refute him.  It was frustrating. 
                I headed in and went upstairs to change out of my sweaty work clothes.  I hopped in the shower and washed off the city stink.  I went back into my room wrapped in a towel and wondered what to wear.  I wanted to make sure he understood that I meant it when I said I was not interested.  So, I dug in the back of my closet and pulled out my favorite sweater.  It was a green sweater with elbow patches.  I adored it.  I layered it on top of a plain t-shirt and my jeans.  There would be no mixed signals where this outfit was concerned.
                He arrived an hour later still looking incredibly handsome, still not doing anything for me.  I needed an exam.  The minute I opened the door he gasped.  His expression looked as though I had slapped him with a wet fish.  I wondered what his problem was.  I didn’t look that bad.
                “What in the heavens are you wearing?  You look like a grandma.  That thing is hideous.”  Kennan said as he poked my sweater.
                “Easy, I love this sweater.  It keeps me warm.  And look,” I said as I lifted my arm, “it has elbow patches.  What’s not to love?”
                “It should be burned.  Save the rest of society from having to see it.”
                “We are going to get pizza.  I doubt any of the other patrons will care what I am wearing.”   I evil eyed him as I locked up the house.
                The whole walk to the El he kept up a constant barrage of insults toward my poor sweater.  Finally I just turned and stuck my tongue out at him.  Real mature, I know.
                “Is that an offer?”  He asked dropping his voice until it sounded gravelly.
                “Um, no.  Not even remotely.  You are just being mean to my poor sweater.  It is really starting to hurt my delicate sensibilities.”  I said as I widened my already huge eyes to puppy dog status.
                “Your puppy dog eyes could use some serious work.  It is more like this.”  He said and tried to demonstrate his sad eye skills.
                “I don’t think they work as well on dudes.  You don’t look nearly fragile enough to pull off that look.” 
                “Whatever, I am the master of the puppy eye.”  He said as we made our way onto the El and headed toward heaven.  I meant pizza, not heaven.  Sorry, I got the two confused.
                We spent the entire ride on the El making fun of one another.  It felt like I had known the guy for years not days.  I was concerned that the easy banter would pass into awkward territory soon.  I was starting to see how easily I could be friends with Kennan.  Aside from his hotness, he was just a great guy.  He was a ton of fun to be around.  My soul felt far less burdened in his company.
                We made it to the pizza place and he opened the door for me.  I was greeted by the most amazing smell.  I walked in and basked in the aroma of warm dough, melted cheese, and tomato goodness.  My stomach decided to announce its anger.
                “Was that your stomach?”  Kennan asked in shock.
                “Yeah, I forgot to eat today.”  I said as we slid into a booth.
                “You forgot to eat.  How is that even possible?”
                “I am missing a trigger.”  I said as I eyed the menu.  I was really craving a pepperoni and mushroom deep dish.  Yum.
                “A trigger?  Is that the medical term?”  Kennan asked with a snicker.
                “No, just what I decided today when I realized I had forgotten to eat again.  It is a serious problem.  I forget to eat and then when I do remember I end up stuffing my face until I am miserable.  So you are in for a treat.”
                “Do you think we should organize a 5k?” 
                “What? Why would we organize a 5k?”  I asked.
                “You know, to raise awareness.  People of the world, we need to fix this problem.  Food Forgetfulness is a serious issue and something must be done.”  Kennan deadpanned.  I kicked him under the table.  Not that it did much good.  The man was built like a brick wall.
                “Hardy har har.  You are so funny.  Now, about this pizza, I am thinking pepperoni and mushroom.”  I wiggled my eyebrows. 
                “Ugh, mushrooms, really?  Maybe we could just do pepperoni?”  Kennan asked hopefully.
                “Um, no, you said I could choose!”
                “Fine, but if I throw up on you in the middle of dinner, don’t act surprised.”
                “Maybe we could do half with mushrooms and half without?”
                “I am thinking that we should just order two pizzas.  I am starving.”  He thought for a moment before adding, “Yeah, two pizzas.”
                “I am not that hungry, but I am willing to give it a go.  If nothing else, I will have leftovers.  Woohoo!”
                The server came over and took our order.  As predicted, she gave Kennan a strange look when he ordered two large deep dish pizzas.  I just sat there minding my own business.  I was excited about the prospect of food.  No dirty looks could keep me down.
                “So, what is your big life plan, Red?”  Kennan asked with a hint of seriousness.
                “Well, I am pretty happy doing what I do.  I like being a bike messenger.  It pays enough.  Grams’ house is all paid for other than the taxes, so I am set there.  So, for now this is it.  Maybe someday it will all change, but for now this is where I want to be.”  I knew I did not lead an exciting life, but it was a life that made me happy.
                “Change, yeah, someday it might all change.”  Kennan mumbled, barely audible.  “What do you do when you aren’t biking around the city?  What do you do for fun?”
                “I go to the Field Museum.  I am always happy there.  Or I go and take walks down by the lake.  It makes me feel less like I am in the city.  Sometimes I miss the openness of where I grew up.”  I said thinking back to southern Alabama. 
                “Where did you grow up?” 
                “What is this, twenty questions?  It's your turn.  Where did you grow up?”  I asked with a raised brow.
                “I grew up all over the place.  I have spent the last few years here in Chicago though.”  That was more of a non-answer. 
                “I grew up in southern Alabama until I was eight.  I miss the open fields and the hot humid summers.  It gets hot here, which I love, but the humidity isn’t the same.  I do love Chicago.  I just miss my parents this time of the year, which in turn makes me miss home.  But don’t worry; I am not moving any time soon.”
                “If you did, it would throw a huge wrench in my ‘Make Izzy my best friend’ plan.”
                “You are ridiculous, you do know that right?  Besides, can’t you just make friends with any other number of girls?  I am sure there is a flock of chicks out there waiting for you.”  I said with a smile.
                “Yeah, but what fun would that be.  Tormenting you is far more exciting.  I like a challenge.”  Kennan said with a smile. 
                Our server arrived with our food and we dug in.  Kennan easily finished off his entire pizza in one sitting.  I was pretty proud that I was able to eat half of my pizza.  We really did look like a couple of gluttons.  I sighed and leaned back in the booth.  My stomach was pooched out and I rubbed it. 
                “What are you doing?”  Kennan asked as his brows furrowed.
                “Rubbing my food baby.”  I snickered at the absurdity of it all.  There really could be no future for us.  I was far too relaxed around him.
                “Well, you ready to get out of here?”  Kennan asked as he paid the bill.  I tried to argue and he said he had invited me, so it was his treat.  Free food, he was already winning me over.
                “Yep, let me just grab my leftovers.”
                “You will remember to eat them right?”  Kennan joked.
                “You are such a comedian.  Yes, I will remember to eat the pizza.”
                “Alright, well let’s get you home before you turn into a pumpkin.”
                We made our way out the door, me carrying my pizza and Kennan tossing his arm over my shoulder.  He seemed to like doing that.  It made me feel like a teacup version of a real person.  I imagined myself zipped up in one of those little doggy purses.  It made me snicker, which in turn made Kennan ask what I was laughing at.
                “I just keep thinking that you make me feel like a miniature version of a real person and that led me to think of those little purse dogs.  I pictured you carrying me in a little bag.”  I smiled as Kennan shook slightly with his laughter.
                “You are a strange bird.  So, are you going to promise to stop ignoring me on your way home?  You have to at least stop by once a week and visit.”  Kennan said as he eyed me steadily.
                “Yes, I promise to stop testing out my excellent, if slightly rusty, ninja skills on you.  I will come by and see you later this week.”  I promised as we climbed back onto the El and headed toward my house.  I realized I had no idea where Kennan lived, but he seemed intent on seeing me home.
                We walked from the El back toward my house easily chattering about random things.  Mostly, Kennan regaled me with stories of bar patrons.  I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes by the time we made it home.  I looked up at him and smiled broadly.  I would go to sleep tonight thanking God for bringing this man into my life.  He brought me joy and laughter, both of which had been strangers for longer than I cared to admit. 
                “Well, thanks for the non-date pizza date.  I had a really good time.”  I smiled before launching myself at him and wrapping my arms as far as I could around his body.
                He folded his arms around me after a moment of surprise.  His arms enveloped me in their warm embrace and I allowed myself to melt into him for a moment.  He felt safe.  He felt like home.  I could not understand why I did not see him as anything more than a friend.  If I were smart I would have been trying to lure him in to have my wicked way.  As it was, I just really wanted him in my life as a friend. 
                “Good night, Iz.”  He said as he placed a kiss on the top of my head.  “Don’t be a stranger.” 
                He pulled away and waited for me to get inside.  I knew then and there that I would be visiting the pub far more often.  He was like a balm to my exposed soul.  He soothed my pain and brought me back to the present.  Having him in my life was not just important, it was necessary.  

Prequel Part 3

                The next few days passed uneventfully.  I went to work and came home, normal hermit type things.  Nothing in my life had changed but somehow I felt lighter.  I was staring into oblivion in my living room and decided that it would be a good night to keep my promise to Kennan. It was a Tuesday and I knew the pub would not be that busy. 
                I left my house feeling better than I had in months, maybe even years.  I walked with an extra bounce in my step.  I had to be careful not to trip though.  With all of the extra bounce, there was a very real chance my face might become intimately acquainted with the sidewalk.  I neared the pub and began feeling the pull once more.  I wondered if the doors were magically enchanted.  I seriously needed a brain scan.       
                I entered the bar thinking of how ridiculous it was to think the door was enchanted. Like Kennan was some sort of sorcerer.  I giggled thinking about him in a pointy hat with stars all over.  I needed to stop reading so many books.  They were starting to affect my perception of reality.  I sat down on a barstool and noticed there were two men behind the bar tonight.  One was Marky and the other Kennan.  Unfortunately, Marky was the first to spot me.
                “Hey there mystery woman, what can I get for ya?”  Marky asked as he leaned over the bar.
                “Can I get a Malibu and Coke?”  I left out the limes.  The less I talked to Marky, the better.  I had no intention of encouraging him.
                “So, are you still as sad as ya were there other night?”
                “Nope, doing much better thanks.”  Politely disengaged, that was my plan.
                “Well, if you ever need cheering up, I could always take you out.”  Marky said as he leaned over the bar once more.  Personal space was a foreign concept to the man. 
                “Thanks, but…”  Before I could finish my sentence, Kennan interrupted me.
                “She is off the market man.  Didn’t she tell you?  She has taken a vow of celibacy.”  Kennan laughed as he elbowed an incredulous Marky in the ribs.
                “Really, I am just not looking to date anyone right now.  But I appreciate the offer.”  I said giving a glare to Kennan.  Kennan won my forgiveness with a proffered cup of limes.  With that Marky walked away shaking his head. Kennan decided to linger.
                “So, you kept your promise.  I didn’t expect to see you back for a while.  Couldn’t resist me though, could you?”  He asked. I replied by throwing a lime at him.
                “Yes, I kept my promise.  I always do.  As for the whole resisting you thing, it is pretty easy to do.”  I smiled a big cheesy grin as he glowered.
                “This is a safe space Izzy.  You can tell me how you really feel.  Confess all of that love you have buried deep down.  I hear holding things in is not healthy.”  He said solemnly.
                “Yep, you caught me.  I came in here wondering if you would marry me.  I mean, I know we only just met about a week ago, but I think it is time.  Why waste another second?”  I looked at him seriously for a beat before I started laughing.  He had a shell shocked look. 
                “Ha, let’s not talk about marriage.  Stupid weddings are about to make me homeless.” 
                “Homeless, how is a wedding making you homeless?”  I wondered.
                “My roommate is getting married in a couple of weeks and his dear sweet old lady will be moving in.  I don’t want to be there to witness all of the newlywed bliss.  I have to make my escape before it is too late.” 
                “Did he tell you that you had to move?” 
                “Nah, he said I could stay, but I really don’t want to.  Plus it is a hike from work.  I am looking to find something a little closer.  Give me a second, I’ll be right back.”  He said as he moved to help a patron.
                The bar was far busier than I thought it would be.  I looked around and noticed about half of the tables were full.  I sat there thinking about what Kennan had just said.  He needed a new place to live.  I had just been thinking I needed a roommate.  True, I did not know him all that well, but he did not seem the stabby serial killer sort. 
I pondered the pros and cons of Kennan as a roommate.  One of the major pros for me was the company.  That and it would keep him safely ensconced in the friend category.  That was worth it in and of itself.  I did not need the complication of a romantic entanglement when I was still trying to sort my own self out.  Kennan seemed to be a great candidate for spare room occupation.
                He made his way back toward me and I knew that it was the right decision.  He stopped in front of me tilting his head.  I wondered if I was wearing my deep thought face.  The guys at work made fun of me for it all of the time.
                “What are you thinking about so hard?”
                “I have a proposition for you.  I know I don’t know you well, and you don’t know me, but I have a huge empty house and a bedroom that is just collecting dust.  If you want to come take a look, you can.”  I hoped that I had made sense.
                “A marriage proposal and a move in request all in one night, slow down.  I think we should decide how many kids we want first.  Oh, and maybe we should discuss the toilet seat situation.  I vote in favor of up.”  He said jokingly.
                “Shut up, I am being serious.  I have been thinking about getting a roommate since Grams died, and well you don’t seem horrible.  I think I could live with you.” 
                “Alright, I will come and check the place out tomorrow if that is cool.  Say around five?” 
                “Sounds good.  Don’t you want to know the cost of rent and everything first?”  I had not even thought about how much I should charge.
                “Nope, I am good.  I pay an arm and a leg now, so it can’t be that much more.”  He smiled and went back to taking orders.
                I sat there giddy.  He had not exactly said yes, but he had not said no either.  My big lonely house might not be lonely for much longer.  I sat there and watched as Kennan and Marky mixed drinks and poured beer for the locals.  There was a group of hipsters off in one of the corner booths and some older working class folks scattered about in groups.  I listened in on their conversations as I finished my drink.  I put down a tip and got up to leave as Kennan walked back my way.
                “Where are you going?  You just got here.”  He said as he leaned back against the liquor rack.
                “Ya’ll are kind of busy tonight so I don’t want to distract you.  Plus, one is my limit tonight.  I have to work tomorrow.  Trust me a hungover Izzy on a bike is not a pretty sight.”  I said as I tried to get up.   He leveled me with a stare that effectively kept me glued to the seat.
                “Nope, you are staying.  Besides it is starting to slow down a bit.  I need more information about the place I will be moving into.  I ‘ll get you a coke while you tell me all about it.”  He smiled as he filled a tall glass full of soda.  I would not be sleeping anytime soon.
                “Well, it is a two bedroom, one and a half bath house.  The bedrooms and full bathroom are upstairs.  Downstairs there is a living room, kitchen, dining room, and half bathroom.  I use the dining room to store my bike.  The bedrooms are pretty spacious though.”
                “But we would be sharing a bathroom?”  Kennan asked skeptically.
                “Hey, I am not a bathroom hog.  I get ready really quickly.  Cross my heart.”  I was really trying to sell this.  But, sharing a bathroom, I would have to get over the thought of him hearing me go.  It kind of made me cringe.
                “Hmm, we will see.  You sure you want me as a roommate.  It might become impossible for you to resist all of this.”  He said moving his hands down his body.
                “Yeah, I am sure I will be able to resist all of that, especially when you do things like that.”  I said as I shook my head at him.
                We spent the rest of the night going over logistics about rent and what not.  I told him what I paid in property taxes at the end of the year and what the utilities cost.  He busted out a calculator and divided it up evenly between the two of us.  I told him that I did not mind paying more.  After all, it was my house.  He would not hear of it.  I left shortly after we had all of the details sorted.  I promised to try and be home by five the next day.
                I lay down to sleep that night excited for the next day.  I dreaded the nightly appearance of my mother, but that was nothing new.  I closed my eyes and allowed myself to drift off into the oblivion.
                “It is coming Izzy.  It is coming and there is nothing I can do to stop it.  I am so sorry.”  My mother said from somewhere in the fog.
                I knew I was dreaming but I was confused.  I had never heard her before.  Not really.  She had always been more of a mumbled voice off in the distance.
                “Who’s coming mom?  Why do you keep haunting my dreams?”  I asked.
                “Stay safe.  It is coming.  Stay safe.”  She said.
                I moved through the fog looking for her.  If I found her perhaps I would be able to find out what she wanted.  Why did she keep coming to me night after night?  I looked and looked and suddenly from somewhere in the fog I heard it.  The same sound that woke me every evening began once more.  A wail of rage ripped through the fog causing it to swirl around my legs.  I looked out and I saw my mother’s face contorted in agony.  I screamed out.
                I woke drenched in a cold sweat.  I was not sure how many more dreams like that I could take.  I was really worried I would make Kennan immediately regret moving in with me.  Maybe I could just tell him I had night terrors.  It was not exactly a lie.  The dreams were terrifying.  I looked over at the clock and it blinked five a.m. back in my face. 
                Might as well get up, I had to be at work in two hours.  I got up and stretched.  I decided I would do a yoga video and try and calm my nerves down.  I would try and center myself.  Well, I would do it after coffee.  Coffee first, then yoga.  Yep, that was a much better order.  I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and made my way down to the kitchen. 
                I flipped on my coffee pot and stood staring at it trying to telepathically make it brew faster.  One of these days I would have awesome jedi mind skills.  When there was enough coffee to passably fill a cup I pulled the pot out.  Thank God it stopped spewing coffee once the pot was moved.  I sipped the liquid perfection as I thought back on my dream.  It was the first time I had really heard her.  I wondered what that meant.
                I shook it off as I finished up my coffee.  I headed into the living room to do my a.m. yoga video.  It was nice and slow and was supposed to ‘slowly awaken my awareness.’  I was not sure I bought into the whole spiritual aspect, but I could get behind the results.  I was always in far better shape when I did yoga consistently.  My problem was the consistency bit.  I stretched and breathed hoping to brush away the last remnants of my dream.
                By the time I finished I rushed upstairs to change into work clothes and headed out the door to work.  I spent the whole day wondering if Kennan would actually move in, or if I had gotten my hopes up for nothing.  When my shift ended, I was a tightly wound ball of nerves.  I could not handle it.  Luckily, I got home just before five.  So I did not have to wait long.  In fact, Kennan was waiting when I got there.
                I was covered in sweat from the unseasonably warm day and hoped that he would not get all bubble invader on me.  I walked up out of breath and stuck my key in the door.
                “So, this is it.  Sorry I am running a little late.”  I said as we moved inside.
                “I’ll take it.”  Kennan said as he stepped in the front door towering over me. 
                “You have not even seen it yet.  At least let me give you a tour.  For all you know, I could be a terrible housekeeper.  There might be rats.” 
                “I’m confused.  Are you trying to get me to stay or leave?”  Kennan asked with a hint of humor.
                “Stay, definitely stay.  I just want to make sure you really know what you are signing on for.  Oh, and before I forget.  I have night terrors.  So there is that.”  I said in a rush.  I hoped we could just gloss over that one.  I knew I would not be able to hide the night screaming, but at least this would explain it.
                “Night terrors?”  He asked with a raised brow.
                “Yep.  I wake up screaming sometimes.  But I will try and keep it down.  Maybe I can soundproof my walls or something?”  It probably was not a bad idea. 
                “I am a heavy sleeper so it shouldn’t bother me.”  He said eyeing me steadily.  It was as if he knew what I was hiding. 
                “Well, let me give you the grand tour then.”  I said as I took him through the house. 
                By the time he had seen everything he seemed determined to move in.  I wanted to make sure that it was what he really wanted so I kept bringing up all of my flaws.  He was not even slightly deterred.
                “I’ll take it.  When can I start moving my stuff in?”  Kennan asked.
                “Anytime works for me.  I have a spare key here somewhere for you.  Ah, there it is.”  I said as I picked up the key and handed it to him.
In that moment I knew everything was about to change.
                When I look back on it all now, I should have seen things shifting.  I should have seen the clues from the beginning and trusted my gut.  But that was back then.  That was before it all changed, before the visions began, and before everything I thought I knew crumbled into dust.  

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