Roommate Wars: Chapter 18

Elise

I lifted my socked feet onto the coffee table the next morning, wearing Jack’s boxers and T-shirt—he bought the extra-soft kind—and watched him putter around the kitchen. I’d taken off to run errands after Jack’s dad left yesterday, and when I returned, Jack had holed up in his room for the rest of the night. But I had a lot of questions. I suspected something wasn’t right with his dad, and I wasted no time in getting to the point.

“What’s going on with your dad?”

He looked up from the giant bowl of cereal he was pouring. “You didn’t like my dad? That’s a first.” He shifted to the side as though he was avoiding something.

“He’s sweet,” I said. “I liked him a lot. I’m talking about his health.”

Jack froze as he reached to put away the cereal in the cupboard. That pause was quick, but I’d caught it. “He’s doing well.”

“Has he been ill?”

Jack’s chest rose and fell on what looked like a sigh, and he finally turned to me. “He was sick, but he’s recovering now.”

The words seemed to be pulled from somewhere deep, and I did not have a good feeling about this. “How sick?”

He crossed the kitchen and set the cereal bowl on the counter a little too loudly, then pulled out a barstool. “Don’t worry about it, Elise.”

I stood, walked over, and plopped onto the stool beside him, accidentally bumping his arm while he shoveled food in his mouth. He growled in annoyance. “I will worry about it, Jackson. I liked your dad, and he looked frail. What illness did he have?”

He set his spoon down and glared at me. “Will you back off, please?”

I considered it. But Jack was the bottle-it-up-and-suffer-in-silence type. I figured he could stand to unload. And if I was right about this, I didn’t think he’d even shared his dad’s illness with his best friend. Which seemed off. “No, I won’t back off.” I stole one of the strawberries he’d added to the top of his cereal.

His eyes delivered an absolute death glare.

I chewed the strawberry and waited.

He picked up his spoon and said, “He had cancer. But it’s gone now, and he’s getting his energy back.”

That was—well, yeah, as bad as I’d suspected. Tom hadn’t lost all his hair, but it was thinning in a way that didn’t seem natural. “I’m sorry, Jack. Does your dad need anything?”

He mumbled a thank you, then said, “He’s fine. I’m taking him out to dinner tonight.”

I nodded. “I’ll be out tonight too, but I’m serious: let me know if I can do anything. Drop off groceries—whatever. He’s not far from where I work.”

He glanced at me. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, I can drop off stuff on my way home from work.”

“No, about tonight. Where are you going?”

“Oh, that,” I said and brightened. “I have another date with the deliveryman.”

Jack’s mouth compressed. “Waste of your time.” He dug back into his cereal.

I rested my chin on my hand. “This one isn’t pressuring me, and I like that.”

He studied my face. “He’s not good enough for you, Elise.”

That was an odd statement, coming from Jackson. “You don’t know that. We could be soul mates.”

He turned his attention back to his cereal. “He’s not your soul mate,” he said around a mouthful of food.

I stole another one of his strawberries and stood. “I guess I’ll find out.”

His devilish green eyes flared. “Dammit, Elise, get your own food.”

I hurried away before my grumpy roommate could catch me.


Jack

After Elise strong-armed me into sharing my dad’s health situation, a weight lifted. All this time, I’d been keeping what was going on close to my chest, not wanting to make the unimaginable a reality. But now that Elise knew, I felt relieved. And maybe I didn’t need to keep it so secret anymore.

I jogged down the stairs of the Victorian and stepped onto the sidewalk. The sidewalks in this part of Russian Hill were steep, so it was either a hike uphill one way or a shuffle downhill the other. But before I could scramble down to my car on the lower end of the block, a movement caught my attention from across the street. My eyebrows rose.

A man was passionately kissing April, the attractive fifty-something wife of a bank executive, in the shadow of her Edwardian row house. And he wasn’t her husband.

But the potential infidelity wasn’t what had my hackles rising.

I didn’t know April or her husband that well. Maybe they were taking a break. He wasn’t around nearly as often as April, coming and going in her yoga gear from their four-story home. I could be wrong about the cheating scenario. My blood was boiling for another reason. Because the ass April was gripping belonged to the deliveryman Elise had plans with tonight. He was even wearing the Luscious Stems polo shirt.

“Motherfucker.” I stormed up the stairs and into the apartment to Elise’s bedroom door, where I knocked a little too hard, feeling my heart pounding from running up three flights. There was no way I’d let Elise date this guy. He was trash.

Only she didn’t answer.

I pulled out my phone and hit call on her contact.

Straight to voicemail. And what was worse? I could hear her phone ringing in her bedroom. “Elise?”

I knocked twice, and when she didn’t answer, I opened the door.

This was the first time I’d stepped inside the second bedroom since Elise had moved in. Her bed was made, and other than a few pieces of clothing neatly draped over the back of a chair, the room was clean and tidy. The bathroom, on the other hand, was another thing.

Elise’s bathroom door hung open, and cosmetics were strewn across the counter. And there was her phone. She must have forgotten it when she went out.

I wouldn’t be home until later. What if she went out with this guy before I could reach her?

She’d likely return for her phone before going on the date. I left her a message to call me. There was still time to let her know what I’d discovered.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled into my reserved parking spot in Japantown a block from my dad’s place, with still no word from Elise. She hadn’t answered my text message or returned my call. Most people had their phones attached to them, but not Elise. She was the only human on the planet who could go without it.

I headed up to my dad’s apartment. He owned a two-bedroom, one-bath unit he’d bought with my mom thirty years ago. It was in the heart of this part of the city, and the usual suspects were about: people getting in late afternoon grocery runs at the Friendly Liquor & Market, a new Indian restaurant with a line out the door, and a group of teenagers heading to the movie theater that sprouted up when I was their age.

This part of San Francisco was active without the crazy bustle of Broadway or Lombard. It had been enough activity to keep me entertained when I looked out my bedroom window as a kid, minus the noise to keep me up all night. And yet I’d been begging my dad for years to let me buy him something new.

I wouldn’t mind holding on to this place if he moved somewhere I could keep a closer eye on him. I was thinking a building where we could both live that had accessibility features for when he got older. He wasn’t geriatric, but there’d come a day when he was, and seeing him sick these last several months had me stressing about the future.

I unlocked the door and let myself in. “Dad?”

“In the mancave,” he called.

A few years ago, my dad had converted my bedroom into a room with a couch and TV. Not a big couch and not a big TV, since the room was small, but it had been a luxury for him.

I unloaded a few groceries he liked that I’d picked up on my way here, then headed toward the back of the house.

“Have a seat,” he said and patted the cushion beside him, his attention on the TV. “The shit’s about to hit the fan.”

The couch was a cross between blue and gray, and overly firm. Then again, Max and the ten grand he’d dropped on the seemingly small, simple one in my apartment had spoiled me in that department.

This was how they got you. You fly coach all your life, but once you travel first class, you’re hooked. Anything less feels like torture. But I was determined to remember my roots. Not as though I could easily forget them. My dad clung to this apartment like it was his lifeline.

“How are you feeling?” I asked. “Still up for Italian?” Our favorite Italian hole-in-the-wall was just down the street. They made the best pasta sauce, and if I could bottle it, I’d make a fortune. But the owner refused to give up the recipe. It was that kind of place—super old-school and proud. I made do with delivery once a week instead. Though I hadn’t ordered from them since Elise moved in. Had to make her work for her living, after all.

“Whoa!” my dad said and laughed at the people on the screen.

A woman in a bright pink summer dress had just slapped someone I assumed was her fiancé.

“I knew that was coming.” My dad shook his head. “Complete dummy, that one. Didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.”

“Dad, aren’t all these shows predictable? The people are forced into close proximity and break up.”

Come to think of it, not much different from my forced situation with Elise.

“Or hook up,” my dad said and winked.

I groaned. “We need to get you off reality shows. You’re becoming addicted. Your new vernacular is like nails on a chalkboard.”

He didn’t deny it. “Speaking of close proximity, how’s Elise?”

I reached for popcorn from the bowl my dad passed me. I might also have a tendency to eat popcorn and watch trashy television. “Elise is fine.”

My dad stared at the side of my face, but I refused to look up and make a bigger deal out of it. “And?”

“And nothing. She’s fine.”

He moved the bowl out of reach, and I frowned. “I like her, Jack.”

“You said that already.” I eyeballed the popcorn. Probably shouldn’t eat too much before dinner.

“No, Jack, I really like her.”

I’d never introduced my father to the people I dated. So of course he would be excited to officially meet one.

“The women you go out with don’t care about you, and that breaks my heart,” he said, surprising me with his words.

Shit, was that a quiver in his voice? “I’ve never been interested in anything serious.” Maybe he’d get off the subject if he understood how little I was invested in relationships right now.

“But that’s the thing; there’s something different about Elise. The way you look at her is new. And don’t think I missed her pinching your butt.”

My arms are long, so I extended one beyond my average-height dad and stole a handful of popcorn. “She’s different because she’s a pain in the ass.” If only my dad knew what she was up to tonight.

He smiled. “Is she a pain? Tell me about it.”

I didn’t like the look in his eye. “No, I don’t think I will. You’ve got to get off these shows. You’re becoming addicted to drama.”

He frowned. “Fine, keep it to yourself for now. Just don’t hurt my Elise.”

I swiveled my head to him. “What the fuck, Dad?”

“Language, Jack.”

My Elise? I’m your son!”

“You tend to throw out the good ones,” he continued, ignoring the slight he’d delivered with a deft hand to his one and only child. “Like that sweet girl you dated for a couple of months in high school. What was her name?”

“Katrina.”

“That’s right!”

My high school ex had married a pro football player. Last I heard, she had one kid. Katrina had been too nice, so I’d broken up with her. And okay, my dad had a point. “As I said, I’m not interested in anything serious. Stop pressuring me.”

He held up his hands. “No pressure. Just asking you to give Elise a chance. She’s the only person you’ve spent time with who didn’t look at you like a meal ticket. I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished, but it’s not good for your love life.”

The popcorn turned sour in my stomach. Elise and dating were the last things I wanted to discuss, but it reminded me I had something to do. “Hang on, Dad. I need to send a text.”

I pulled out my phone and followed up my last unanswered text message to Elise with another, this one more urgent. Maybe if I stressed the importance, she’d get back to me.

Jack: Abort mission! Do not go on your date tonight. Caught him making out with the neighbor across the street on my way out this afternoon.

I hit send and stared at my phone to see if she’d message back.

“Who’s Hot Stuff?” my dad said, making me jump.

“Dad!” He was leaning over, staring at my phone.

He didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed by his blatant eavesdropping. It reminded me why I’d moved out years ago.

Thank goodness I had Elise listed on my phone as her favorite apron and not her name. “Just a friend.”

His eyes narrowed. “Female friend? You’re not cheating on Elise, are you?”

I leaned my head against the back of the couch and covered my eyes. This was going to be a long night.

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