Falling Leaves Ch 9.2

I turned over and found the other half of the bed empty. For a moment I felt the events of the previous night were part of a dream. A second of panic turned into groans of pain after my aching muscles. If the restricted movement was anything to go by, I slept on my neck wrong, too. Good God was I in poor shape. Mark my words, she’ll get what’s coming to her, and she will fucking love it.

Grumbles of pain streamed from my throat as I hauled myself to a sitting position. The sheets of Jun’s bed nearly came off the mattress thanks to our antics the previous night. When I looked for the boxy plastic clock on the bedside table, I found a sheet of paper nestled on top of it.

Unfolding the sheet, it read:

     “Good morning!

I thought it’d be nice if you got to sleep in for a change. Don’t worry about work today, but if anyone asks, you’re sick. You don’t have to come in unless you want to. You’ve been working hard, so go ahead and relax.

         -Jun

P.S. Check your phone. I sent you something.”

There was a little scratched-out heart next to her name. You can’t hide the heart-shaped dents in the paper from me, you delightful creature. Recalling our antics of the previous evening, I tried not to smile. The sound of her voice repeating my name over and over sped through my head ad infinitum.

Finally checking the time, the clock read 9:12 AM, Friday. My shift started an hour ago at 8:00. No reason not to take the day off when it’s offered by my supervisor. The next step was to find my phone, pants, and a clean pair of boxers.

A small pile of my clothes sat on the couch, minus the squishy underwear. The occasional slosh of water and mechanical whirs of the washing machine let me know where those went. I made a mental note to thank her for the kindness. My phone sat atop the stack, low on battery and probably fished out of my pants pocket. I forgot where I threw those things last night.

Opening the file she sent me, my phone displayed a picture. I laughed through pursed lips at the sight of Jun taking a selfie next to my sleeping face. She covered her chest with the sheets while I lay face-first on the pillows with my mouth half-open. Both of us had messy sex hair, though hers was such all the time regardless. The wide smile she wore mimicked mine as I set the device on the coffee table.

My elusive spare undergarments sat in the corner of her bathroom tiles. In the shower, bottle of Head and Shoulders stood tall next to her flower-scented toiletries for the occasions I spent the night. No toothbrush, though. Yet.

After getting dressed I took a minute to experience the smells and sounds of her apartment. I never quite realized how comfy it felt. Beyond it being much larger than mine, with shinier appliances, working air conditioning, leather couches, and little book shelf in the corner, Jun’s scent was enough to keep me smiling. To think, Just a few months ago I was content with my little one-bedroom apartment bubble.

Our bottles of alcohol on the coffee table needed picking up, and Jun left some mess around her closet for me to tidy. Bending over to pick up Jun’s discarded bras and tops reminded me of the laundry I needed to do for myself when I got home and prompted me to take off. My spare key jingled on my keychain as I locked her door behind me.

I guess my bubble grew a little. At around 10 AM I strolled through the lobby and wondered what I could do to really participate with the fuzzy-tailed addition to my life.

***

After an hour at the gym, my recently acquired freedom from the Friday work day left me to wander downtown. Attractions I never thought to visit caught my attention: an art gallery, a used book store, and a French deli. I went home after eating one of the best sandwiches of my life. A shower cleansed me of sweat and grime, while some music helped with some mental detox. Sleep took me somewhere else for a long time, only letting wake around 4 PM. One hour until work was over.

A surprise home-cooked dinner sounded like a good enough idea. I hauled myself from the couch, got a head rush, and headed for the store.

So maybe I could only make frozen oven-cooked lasagna, but it’s the thought that counts. The food needed more than an hour to cook, anyway. At the same time, the opportunity to use my key to open her door myself felt worth it regardless. Some kind of pride nudged my cheeks into a smile. The draw of cable television proved too much while I waited for the oven to heat up.

Sometime around 5:30, some fussing with the doorknob broke my TV-induced trance. Right on cue. She’d probably ask if I watched TV all day before smelling dinner. Hugs incoming.

A shallow gasp followed the opening of the door. “M-Mr. Cash.” Sylvia’s voice.

I turned around on the couch to see the alter ego standing in the doorway. Behind her stood a familiar Hawaiian and harpy.

The color in my face depleted in an instant. I had to cough out the first words. “Uh. Hi, guys.”

Scott walked in after Sylvia. “Lennard? Weren’t you sick today?” Just let yourself in, why don’t you?

Sylvia turned to them with a practiced smile. “H-he was, ahem, he spent the night here.”

Oh God, what are you doing, Jun?

Angela blinked and pointed one wing at each of us. “Are you two, uh-?”

The businesswoman laughed with a hand over her mouth. “Oh dear, no. You know that tanuki girl he said he’s been dating?” The pair nodded, driving home their suspicion with stares. “She’s my roommate.”

The brown man crossed his arms. “Didn’t know you had a roommate.”

“Well, have you ever asked?”

He opened his mouth to make a point, stopped, and looked at the ceiling in thought. “Huh.”

“She’s a recent addition in the first place. So, Mr. Cash?”

“Uh, yeah! Yes?”

“I did not expect to see you today. She told me you felt sick this morning before she left. Did you stay here all day?”

Such an improv was a million times harder than I thought it would be. Thankfully she gave me base material for it. “I-I felt kinda shitty this morning, yeah. Uh, I went home and slept, so I feel a lot better now. I thought she’d like some dinner when she got back. Did she, uh, did she not tell you I have a spare key now?”

“Ah, of course. Jun mentioned that.”

Angela shook her head. “Well this is all kindsa awkward.”

Tell me about it. “Do you know when Jun’s supposed to get back?” I asked Sylvia. But was that the right question to ask? Did she have a good excuse? I certainly didn’t. I made my way to the kitchen, partaking in intense nonchalance as I checked the oven. Pin-pricks of nervous sweat along my back gave me the chills.

She took her phone from her dainty purse and flipped through it. “Actually, she texted me earlier. She won’t be home tonight. Something about helping at that soup kitchen she frequents. It was a group text, so I assumed you received it, too.”

Fishing my own phone out of my pocket, I pressed the power button. It slapped me in the face with a blank screen. “Aaaaand, my phone’s out of battery.”

“Ha.”

Fuck you, Scott.

Sylvia sighed and set her things down on the couch. “Oh, Mr. Cash. One day off and you’re already falling apart.”

“Oh yeah, rub it in. Please.”

“You so dumb you didn’t even know your battery ran out,” said Scott.

“You’re a rude dude who swears too much,” said Angela.

“You people are the best people.” I needed a new topic. “Anyway, I guess you guys have plans for tonight?”

Angela hopped over to the couch and put her bag next to Sylvia’s. “I wanted to show them a diner I go to all the time, and we came here ‘cause Sylvie wanted to change, but,” she sniffed the air, “it smells good in here.”

Perfect. “Uh. You guys want lasagna instead?”

Scott’s eyes transfixed onto mine. “That depends. You got garlic bread?”

Sylvia smiled. “I think I have some buried in the freezer somewhere.”

We pulled some paper plates out of the cabinet and sat around the small square table in the living room. The piece of furniture stood unused against the wall with its chairs lined up under it for the longest time before that. It was my first time seeing them being used. Together we dug cubes of steaming lasagna and melting cheese from the foil container and sat down.

“I’ve been coming by here a lot,” I said, “but Jun and I never used this table.”

Sylvia grimaced. “We do not usually have guests. She’s a rather private person.”

I wondered what it was like to talk about yourself like that.

“Still haven’t met her,” Angela said. She fiddled with a fork and knife in the thumbs jutting from her wings, sticking out her tongue in the effort. “I still don’t know a lot of people outside-a work yet. Might be cool to meet someone a bit more like me.” When she looked up to see we three human(-looking) people staring at her, the harpy’s lips flattened. “I mean, you guys are great, don’t get me wrong here. I just don’t know a lot of other extra-species in Phoenix.”

“We not good enough?” Scott said with a mouth full of Italian food.

“No, it’s not that.” With a piece of lasagna finally cut up, she set her utensils down for a moment. “Compared to other places I might’ve worked at, I’m real lucky to’ve gotten hired at Falling Leaves with all you guys there.”

It took some effort to hide the twinge of happiness I felt at her words. “I’ll ask if she’d like to meet you sometime,” I said, trying not to look at Sylvia.

Angela smiled and grabbed her silverware. “That’d be nice, yeah.”

Scott finished his bite of food. “You got any pictures of ‘er?”

Uh oh. “I do, but my phone’s still dead.”

“I got my charger in my bag if you want it.”

“Uh. Yeah, sure. Might take a few minutes.” I couldn’t make eye contact with Sylvia. We both knew exactly which picture I had of her. My only hope remaining involved Scott and Angela forgetting about the topic entirely. “The pic might not be, uh, appropriate, though.”

“Why? She naked?”

“Oh, Scott,” Sylvia exclaimed before popping another bite of food between her red lips.

“What? People send dick pics and stuff to each other all the time.”

Making sure not to say a word, I plugged my phone into the wall and got back to the table.

“So hey Lenny,” Angela said, her mouth also filled with food, “how long’ve you and your tanuki been going out?”

“Uh. More than one month, less than two, I think.” Sylvia’s gaze left the side of my head simmering. “I haven’t really been keeping track. Things were a bit weird starting out.”

“Weird how?”

Sylvia cut in. “She just moved in a few months ago, so she was still getting her bearings here.”

“Then our boy Lennard came and swept her off her feet?” Scott said, pointing his fork at me.

She laughed through her hand. “Oh, not at all.” I didn’t know how she wanted to play this out, so I let her continue. “After Mr. Cash’s first month, he and I went to have some dinner, much like we are right now.”

So she wanted to tell her own version. “Oh. I remember this now.”

“Uh oh,” Angela said, “come on, what happened?”

She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Well, we went to a bar I frequent.”

“You frequent bars? God help the people dealing with you.”

“Scott, please. In any case, Mr. Cash challenged my ability to hold my liquor.” Both of our coworkers burst out laughing, while Sylvia put on a dejected pout. “I’m sure you know what happened next. I was too inebriated to tell him my address, so he took me to his apartment.”

“Sounds like a scandal in the making,” Angela said, leaning onto the table with attention.

“Fortunately, Mr. Cash took good care of me, even taking the floor for the night. In the morning, I called Jun and she came to pick me up.” She chuckled. “I do believe she was smitten with him after that first meeting.”

It became difficult to hide my embarrassment at the story regardless of who told it. Whether I looked away or covered half my face with a hand, it didn’t help as Scott smacked my shoulder in congratulations.

“I’m sure Mr. Cash could tell you the rest, for it seems they prefer to keep things behind closed doors.” Despite being the subject of the story, she did not show a shade of red in her cheeks.

“’Smitten,’ huh?” Angela said with a smirk.

“Well, I’m not gonna say she wasn’t,” I said. “She was, uh, persistent.” My coworkers gave me motions to continue, as did Sylvia. “Well, the first time we met up for dinner, she had this whole ‘plan’ set up. She thought through everything she wanted us to do.”

“Like what?” Angela rocked her chair back and forth.

“No idea. Absolutely nothing went her way that night.”

“Pff, poor kid,” Scott said through a glass of water. Meanwhile, Sylvia ate with nonchalance.

“Oh yeah. She got drunk, cried, threw up, and carried on. I thought she was this just some clumsy, kinda dumb girl. Sylvia had to come pick her up from my place the next morning.” That elicited some laughs, plus a sigh of regret from Sylvia, at the pattern that emerged. “Anyway, apparently she noticed that, at the time, I didn’t have a lot of food in my fridge. After Sylvia picked her up, I did my usual Saturday thing. Went to the gym, walked around downtown, whatever. I forget. But when I got home, I saw that she left some groceries on my doorstep.”

“Aw, that’s sweet,” Angela said. “And real sad. You had no food?”

“Shh. Anyway, she left a note apologizing like her life depended on it, and asked me to give her second chance.” My coworkers were on the edges of their respective seats. “And, uh, I gave her that chance. Turns out she’s,” I trailed off, unsure how to describe her. “I don’t know. She’s actually really smart and cute. Just awkward. All the time.”

That got Scott’s attention. “Cute, huh? How ‘bout we get a look at that picture?”

After taking a glance at Sylvia, I realized how obvious it might have been and looked at Angela and Scott in turn as well. “Okay.” My phone sat with a green battery symbol pulsing on its screen as I picked it up from the floor. I remained silently awestruck at Jun’s poker face while I opened my photo gallery.

My coworkers’ faces lit up with smiles at the picture Jun took of us. “Yeah, that’s our boy,” said the bird, who slapped my shoulder with a wing.

“Gotcherself some o’ that ‘coon poon, huh?” said the bald one. “Very nice.”

Pride layered onto the secondhand embarrassment for Jun as our coworkers messed around with the photo. Sylvia stood from her chair and headed for the pantry. She came back to the table with a mostly full bottle of brandy. Though I was probably too out of it to notice last night, it was a big bottle— almost the size of my head. How the hell did my drunken self let her buy that?

“Uh oh, you busting out the good stuff?” Scott said on his way back to his own seat.

Angela and I sat down, as well. “Isn’t that, uh, Jun’s?”

Sylvia shot me a smile, not breaking eye contact as she untwisted the cap. “Jun let me know that I could have as much as I pleased.” She turned to the other two. “And so can you.” Our coworkers cheered and grabbed some glasses. Scott got ice, Sylvia poured, and one glass got forced onto me.

The other three clinked their glasses and took their first chilled sips. “You’re alright, Sylvia.”

“You’re too kind, Scott.” She turned to me, perfect lips smiling her practiced smile. “Mr. Cash?” With a jingle of the ice in her glass, she waited for me to say cheers. “I believe you once asked me not to ‘leave you hanging’ like this, correct?”

The harpy struggled with putting down her glass gently, but made time to admonish me as she did. “Don’t be a party pooper, Lenny.”

Collapsing under the peer pressure, I lifted my glass and clinked it with theirs. That got me a couple cheers.

Though not for lack of trying, I was the only one not drunk by the time we finished eating.

* * *

“The curb by the lobby is fine,” I said into my recharged phone. “Yeah, that’s the right building. Thank you.” I turned toward the three drunks sitting at the TV. “A taxi should be here for you two in a few minutes.”

“Heh heh heh. Thanks, Lenny,” Angela said with a wave of her wing. The rest of her sat sprawled across one of the couches, keeping it for herself.

“Appreciate it,” said Scott. He still had a half-full glass in his hand. “And thanks for dinner, man.”

Well, it wasn’t meant for you. “No problem.”

Meanwhile, Sylvia sat in the corner of the far couch nursing her own glass. “Hm. Mr. Cash?”

“What’s up?”

“Would you mind escorting them out? I believe I am becoming quite inebriated.”

I wanted to ask why she wasn’t being the worst drunk on the planet, but decided against it. “Sure. You guys ready to go?”

Scott put up a finger to shush me while he chugged the rest of his glass. He picked up Angela around the waist and slung her over his shoulder like a feathered ragdoll. “Ready.”

Thanks to some great taxi service, the car showed up only  minutes after we reached the lobby.

“Do you know where she lives?” I asked Scott as the man helped the girl into the car.

“Yeah, I’ve been there, don’t worry.” He busily buckled a comatose Angela’s seat belt.

“Alright, then. Have a good night.”

When I turned to go back upstairs and check on Jun, Scott stepped out of the car. “Hey, hold up.” I turned back to the car to see his hand extended to me. “It was a fun night, man. Thanks.”

I was almost unsure of what to do. Luckily, my arm stretched toward his and grabbed his hand. We both gave a solid squeeze until he yanked me to him and patted me back in a stereotypical man-hug. Sharing a nod, he ducked into the taxi and closed the door while I jogged through the lobby.

The elevator seemed to take longer than usual to reach the ninth floor. When I did, I sped to apartment 923. Sylvia was right where I left her, alone in a corner with her glass of brandy. From where I stood, it looked like she got a refill it since I left.

“Are they on their way home?” she asked.

“Yeah, they are.”

Once I closed the door and made for the couch, a plume of mist smothered the corner. In its wake sat Jun, hugging her legs to her chest with one arm and sipping her drink with the other. Her tail wrapped around her ankles, a fluffy buffer against the rest of the world. I slumped into the cushions next to her.

My lungs deflated and the rest of me fell limp. “Jeez. That was nerve-wracking”

“Mhm.”

“Sorry about the picture. Didn’t mean to show it to them.”

“It’s fine.” She took another sip and set the glass onto the coffee table. Her arm released her legs and she leaned against my arm. I jumped when she pinched the skin on my wrist. “So I’m ‘awkward,’ huh?”

I had a sneaking suspicion she would call me out on that. “Sorry.” Then I remembered something. “It’s probably fine, though. I mean, you’re ‘smitten’ by me, you know”

The tanuki buried her face into her knees and cried out, “No, don’t bring that up, that was the worst thing!”

Adorable. “Don’t know about you, but I thought we worked well under pressure. You really are good at acting.”

“Pff, shut up.” She paused. “I really wanted to show us off, though.” With drunken dexterity Jun grabbed for my hand and laced her glass-chilled fingers between mine, pressing herself against my side.

I lazily stroked her knuckles with my thumb. “Yeah. That does suck.”

“I came close a couple times.”

“To what?”

“Just, I don’t know, shouting that we’re going out.”

I thought for a moment about what might have happened if she did. “Not sure how they’d take that.”

“I know.”

I imagined what it would be like to act like a couple in front of our friends, and my stomach squirmed with excitement and anxiety. We sank deeper into the couch together, entwining our legs and sharing our warmth.

“If you want me to introduce you to them or whatever, Sylvia would have to be gone at the time,” I said. “But, I don’t know, might be cool.”

She huddled closer to me. “Yeah?”

I rustled her hair. “Yeah. They’d like you as much as they like Sylvia.”

Some time passed. Her feet shuffled on the couch while I adjusted myself to get comfortable on the cushions. Jun stared at the space in front of us, her ears twitching when grazed by my breath.

With a start, she planted her face into my chest and took a deep breath. “I don’t want to be Sylvia anymore.”

My core trembled with a shot of adrenaline at her words. “Seriously?”

She nuzzled into the folds of my shirt. “Yeah.”

The implications of her words washed over me. My mind rushed through all the possible outcomes before working through the ways she would go about the change. How would it affect her job? Or my job?

“Uh. Okay.” A deep breath, and I pulled her from my front to get a better look at her.  Instead of an alcohol-addled stare, Jun’s eyes looked steadily into mine. “Uh. Wow, that’s– are you sure?”

She nodded without breaking her gaze. “I can’t live like this anymore, Lennard. I don’t think I can go another day as someone else.” Small as she was, she nestled herself onto my lap and up my front, as if seeking the most comfortable position possible. “I’ll call Tia tomorrow morning.”

I slumped back into the couch. She had her head on much straighter than I thought.

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