Brian rang the doorbell. He waited for a minute hearing nothing from within.
"I told you we should have called," Bree said to her father.
"He probably wouldn't let us in if he knew we were coming."
"Looks like he won't let us in anyway," Bree said with a shrug.
Brian rang the bell again. When nothing happened, he leaned on the bell making it ring continuously.
"Maybe he isn't even home," Bree said.
"He's not at the store. JR says he hasn't been there for days." Brian continued to lean on the bell.
"We should go," Bree informed her father. "He obviously doesn't want to talk to anybody."
"When have you ever known me to give up?"
Bree giggled. "Never," she said.
Brian continued to press on the bell. Suddenly he drew his hand away and the ringing stopped.
Bree looked up at her father. "What's wrong?"
Brian felt the first grains of worry forming in his head. "Um, nothing. Maybe we should go."
"That's what I've been saying."
Brian hesitated. He remembered what Emmett had told him. What if Michael was lying dead on the floor or hanging from a rafter or... He didn't want to contemplate anything else about what they might find if they did get into the house. And he certainly didn't want Bree to be exposed to any of those things. He turned around taking Bree's hand and stepping down off the porch.
"What the fuck do you want?" Michael asked as he pulled open the door to his house.
Brian let out a hitching breath. Michael was alive. "We came to see you," Brian said.
"And to break my fucking doorbell."
"Could you watch the language in front of my daughter."
"Look who's talking about language," Michael scoffed.
"Okay, okay, I get that you're ticked. Can we come in?" Brian asked.
"To fu... to talk to you."
"I told you I'm done with talking."
Brian opened his mouth to contradict his old friend, but Bree got in first.
"Uncle Michael," she said. "I need to interview you for a school project."
"What? Me? Why? Isn't school finished already?"
"How many days have you been stuck in there?" Brian asked with a frown. "There's several days left of Bree's school year."
"Who asked you?" Michael demanded.
"Dada, maybe you could go to Kinnetik while I talk with Uncle Michael," Bree suggested giving her father a warning look. "Would that be okay, Uncle Michael?"
Michael looked like he was going to refuse, but then he said, "Yeah, I guess so."
Brian wondered at how easily he had been cut out of this scenario, but he believed he could trust his wonderful daughter. "Okay, call when you're done," he said before heading back to his car.
"Can we go inside?" Bree asked.
"Um," Michael said hesitantly. "It's a bit of a mess."
"I'm sure it will be okay," Bree tried to reassure him.
"Okay, come in, I guess."
Bree was shocked at the state of her Uncle Michael's home. It looked like he hadn't cleaned or dusted in weeks. Empty or partially empty dishes of food littered the living room. Rumpled clothes were draped everywhere.
"I haven't felt much like cleaning," Michael admitted sheepishly.
"Want me to help you clean up?" Bree asked.
"I'm sure that's not what you intended to do when you came here."
"I wanted to talk to you, but we can talk and clean at the same time. Dada and I do it all the time," Bree said with a smile.
Michael looked around his home, ashamed at what he had let it become. "Okay, let's start with the dirty dishes."
"I think a load of laundry should be started first," Bree informed him. "We can do dishes while the washing machine is on."
"Good idea," Michael agreed. He actually felt a little smile start to crease his face.
They began gathering up clothes from around the room.
"Do you do this at home?" Michael asked.
Bree nodded. "It's usually Dada and me. My Daddy isn't the neatest person."
"And your Dada is a neat freak."
"Little bit," Bree said with a giggle.
They spent the next couple of hours cleaning and talking. Bree gradually brought up the topic of Zephyr and promptly heard from her uncle how mistreated he believed that Zephyr had been in the Rage comic. Zephyr deserved better according to Michael.
Bree didn't say too much. She didn't want to offend or get her uncle mad. They seemed to be getting along pretty well together and she didn't want to ruin that.
As they put the load of laundry into the dryer, Michael asked Bree if she would like a sandwich.
"Do you have bread?" Bree asked. She doubted that she would want to eat what Michael had in the house. It looked like he hadn't shopped in ages.
"I have some bread in the freezer," Michael said. "We can toast it, and I think there's some peanut butter in the fridge."
That didn't sound too dangerous. "Sounds good," Bree said. "I don't suppose you have any avocado to put on the peanut butter?"
"No I don't. Do you really like that?"
"Yep," Bree said with a grin.
They made their sandwiches and went to sit at the kitchen table. Bree took a bite and said the sandwich was good. It really wasn't half bad, but it would have been better with avocado. Michael didn't have milk, but he made tea for them and had an old lemon that didn't look too wrinkled. They could squeeze some lemon juice into their tea.
"The house looks a lot better," Michael said as he looked around.
"It didn't take too much work, and I enjoyed doing it ... with you," Bree said with a sunny smile.
"Surprisingly I enjoyed cleaning it with you too," Michael admitted.
"Sometimes it's good to work with your hands," Bree said knowingly.
"I would never have thought that Brian and Justin's little princess would be doing any manual labor," Michael stated. He couldn't keep the snark out of his voice.
"I have chores to do," Bree said with a frown.
"Chores? Every day?"
Bree nodded. "And weekly ones too."
"Really? Like what?"
"Setting the table for meals, making my bed, cleaning my room, helping when I'm needed."
"And Brian doesn't pay someone to do that?"
"Have you seen anyone else cleaning our house?" Bree asked pointedly.
"No, I guess I haven't."
"It can be satisfying when everything is spic and span."
Michael looked around. "I have a ways to go before this place reaches spic and span."
"Yeah, but it's a lot better than it was."
"Yes, it is. Thanks, Bree."
"Now what are you going to write about Zephyr?" Michael asked as he sipped his tea.
"I think Zephyr and I are kind of alike. Zephyr gets pushed aside by Rage sometimes. I've been pushed out of the way by cars."
"Patrick and I used to do a lot of things together, and we talked all the time. But then he got his driver's license and he hardly has any time for me at all."
"Kind of like Ben and that book," Michael sneered.
"Did you know that he's going to put my rainbow on the cover of his book?"
"He is? Why?"
"He changed the title of the book."
"Hm," Michael said.
"Anyway, it's not fun being second best to something or someone else."
"Tell me about it."
"But then I realized that I'm the only one who can fix how that feels."
"And how did you do that?"
"It took quite a while to figure it out, but I started doing more things for myself. I'm playing the piano more, and my teacher asked if I could help a girl in another class who was having trouble with her reading. She's really improved over the last month. That made me feel really good."
"Really, really good. I think helping someone else makes us feel great." Bree thought for a moment. "Just like helping you get your house in order made me feel really good."
Michael stared at the lovely young girl sitting at his table. What had he been doing these last weeks? Cutting himself off from everyone and everything was really only hurting himself. Everyone else had gone on with their lives. Maybe he was the one who needed to make some changes.
"Thanks for coming today, Bree. You've helped a lot," Michael said.
"That's good if I have. I should call Dada now."
Michael handed her his phone.
A couple of hours later Michael entered Hunter's office.
"Michael, what can I do for you?" Hunter asked, wondering what his father wanted or what kind of fight they might get into this time.
"It's not about what you can do for me, it's what I might be able to do for you."
"What do you mean?"
"I wondered if you might need a volunteer here at the center. If so, I'm your man."
Ted approached Emm’s apartment door with an apprehensive Gui in tow. Ted rang the bell. He knew someone was home, the ever efficient Ted had called ahead. Emmett threw open the door with enthusiasm then remembered to turn down his flames just a touch.
“Hi, Teddy and guest, please come in,” Emmett greeted his guests then showed them into the kitchen. “Please have a seat.” Emmett indicated the chairs at the counter. “Coffee? Tea?” Emm asked with a toothy grin.
“No thanks, Emm. I have to head right back to the office,” Ted explained.
“Ooo, is our lord and master being masterful?” Emm gushed.
“Actually, it’s our queen. We’re working on a new campaign trying for a new twist on an old theme. Cynthia’s cracking the whip.”
“Oooo!” Emm squeed.
“Down boy,” Drew gently commanded as he came in from the bedroom. Ted made a hasty introduction since it was obvious that Drew was headed to the airport. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mr. Cloutier. Welcome to the building,” Drew said in his most polite drawl as he extended his hand to give Gui a firm handshake. “Babe, I’ll call you when we land.” He gave Emmett a chaste kiss then called out a goodbye to Richie who was also about to leave. Richie was currently dressed in his “Nina” persona.
“Bye, Dad,” Nina replied with a smile. “Have a good trip.” Drew smiled fondly at his son.
“Take care of your Mom,” Drew teased then he was out the door. Nina and Emmett laughed.
“Mr. Cloutier, this is my son, Richie. However, right now she’s Nina and apparently deep within the creative process?” Nina nodded. Emmett then extolled his son’s fashion creativity and that he and his girlfriend live on the third floor. “I’ll see you later, sweetie. I’ll cook dinner, all right?”
“Of course, Mom,” Nina giggled as she glided out the door.
“These kids today,” Emmett commented with a sigh.
“Focus, Emm,” Ted asked. “I have to go back to the office.”
“No problem, Teddy, I’ll give Mr. Cloutier the fifty cent tour of the building and answer any questions or concerns,” Emmett replied succinctly.
“Thank you, Emm. Gui, if you have any problems, please feel free to call me, and welcome to the building,” Ted said before leaving.
“I have your set of keys; if you’re anxious to see the apartment now, we can go in. If not, we can leave your things here while I show you around.”
“There’s really no need to show me the whole building. I’m not planning to be here long,” Gui stated blandly.
“I’ve been instructed to show you around and that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Emmett stated with authority as he straightened to his full height. Gui nodded as he followed Emmett out into the main hall.
“Your new home next door has two cozy bedrooms, or one room can be used as an office. There’s minimal furniture in there now but feel free to order whatever you need. We can discuss furniture and things like sheets and towels later. Across the hall is the building manager office-apartment. Actually, Teddy is the official building manager, the doormen use the office for breaks. We’ve hired retired policemen plus we have the latest security system, so this is a very safe building.”
They took the elevator up to the second floor and Emmett continued the tour.
“Miss Melanie Marcus lives here,” Emmett stated as he pointed to one door on the second floor. “And our lovely girls, Lacy and Katerina live here.” Emmett pointed to the other door.
“I was unaware that Ms. Marcus lived here,” said Gui.
“She’s very quiet, you won’t hear a peep from her. Lacy is the proprietress of the Liberty Diner. She tends to work all hours; the food there is excellent. Her partner is a nurse at Allegheny General. Katerina usually works nights and she sleeps during the day. This floor is very quiet,” Emmett said sotto voce.
They rode in quiet to the third floor.
“Over here we have Hunter Montgomery and his partner Dr. Nick Shaw.”
“Yes, Nick does research but he also works in the Emergency Department at Allegheny. Hunter is, well, it’s hard to pinpoint all that Hunter does. He’s a social worker but so much more. He created the Jason Kemp Drop In Center along with our Mr. Kinney.” Emmett got a faraway look in his eyes for a moment then came back to the here and now. He knocked on the other apartment door.
“Hi, Auntie Emm,” Candy greeted Emmett with a kiss to his cheek.
“Hi, Sweetie. Candy, this is Mr. Cloutier, he’ll be staying in the little apartment on the first floor for a while. Is that all right with you? He’s part of the Kinnetik exchange program.”
“It’s fine, Auntie Emm,” Candy sincerely replied. It was a little difficult at first for Candy coming back to the Tremont building but eventually she was able to get past the sadness of losing her mother and she now concentrated on her new life.
Gui was curious about the dynamics of the building but was hesitant to ask. He really didn’t care all that much, just relieved to be out of the hotel and away from all the noise. Emmett was right about the building being quiet. Gui looked around the spacious apartment and noted the manikins with various fabrics draped on them and easels holding sketch pads and canvases.
“Nina is a fashion designer and Miss Candy is the latest artist behind Rage,” Emmett explained.
“With Lacy’s help,” Candy added.
“Rage, the gay superhero? I thought Justin Taylor was the artist,” Gui questioned.
“Justin and Michael Novotny created Rage years ago, and yes, Justin is the original artist. They both still have creative control. Lacy took over from Justin when Justin’s career took off, and then Lacy asked me to join her when she bought the diner.”
“Interesting,” Gui commented.
“We have one more floor to go. Toodles!” Emm called out as he ushered Gui out the door. “Now on the top floor,” Emm began with a wink, “resides my good friend Teddy and his partner, Allen.”
As Emmett raised the gate on the elevator, the men were assaulted by the thunder of Allen’s drums.
“Oops, did I forget to mention, Allen is with the symphony. He practices during the day. Most of us work during the day so we never hear him. Plus when the building was upgraded, the owner made sure there was extra insulation, if you know what I mean.” Emmett smiled knowingly.
The loft door was open, so the full effect of the drums was evident. Fortunately, Allen was facing the door, noticed he had visitors and interrupted his concert.
“Hi, Emmett, is this our new neighbor?”
“Yes, he is. Allen Long, may I introduce Gui Cloutier.”
“Very nice to meet you. And you shouldn’t be able to hear my drums on the first floor; however, I make it a rule not to practice after dinner. Besides, I’m on the road a lot so it’s quiet,” Allen further explained.
“I generally work at Kinnetik during the day, so I don’t foresee any trouble,” Gui said bluntly. Allen nodded.
“Um, we’ll get out of your way,” Emmett said as they left. Allen resumed his practice session.
“This apartment belongs to Brian; he and his family use it when they have work to do in the city. Currently our friend Ben is staying here.” Emmett pointed to the last apartment then walked to the elevator for the short trip down to the first floor.
“Yes, Brian’s owned that loft for as long as I’ve known him. At one point, the loft had a colorful reputation, almost as colorful as Brian, but as I said, he and his family use it when they come to Pittsburgh.”
“He must have an interesting arrangement with the owner.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I guess no one explained. Brian is the owner. He bought the building years ago,” Emmett said with a grin.
When they got off the elevator, Emmett quickly opened his door, retrieved Gui’s bags then quickly unlocked the door to the apartment that would be Gui’s temporary home for the next several months. Emmett handed the keys over to Gui.
“This one is to the main door of the building and this one is to your door. We do have an intercom-alarm system that allows you to buzz in guests. I can set you up with a password if you’d like,” Emm offered.
“No thank you. I have no friends here.”
“Well, just let me know if things change or if you have questions. A doorman is always here to help if you need it.”
“Thank you, Emmett, you’ve been most helpful. I’ll unpack my things now. It’s still early, I may go back to the office. I have much to learn.”
“Well, all right. Y’all have a good day,” Emmett said with a grin as he quickly backed out of the apartment and shut the door. He immediately called Teddy when he was safe within his own walls.
“Problems, Emm?” Ted asked.
“No, but is Gui always so cold? Brrr, I need a sweater,” Emmett remarked.
“He is a little aloof.”
“Aloof? That man makes Mr. Darcy look like a social butterfly!”
“Mr. Darcy? Emmett have you been watching Pride and Prejudice again?”
“You know how I adore all those period costumes,” Emm said with a giggle.
“Yes, I know. Has Gui settled in?”
“He said he was going to unpack then head back to the office.”
“Cynthia gave him the afternoon off.”
“Well, maybe he’ll explore Liberty Avenue on his way and get caught up in the ambiance.”
“I’m not sure there’s much ambiance on Liberty Avenure.”
“Sure there is, Teddy. You just have to find it! Toodles!”
Emmett was just about to fix himself a snack when his phone rang.
“Helloooo, the Honeycutt-Boyd residence, the lady of the house speaking,” Emmett gushed when he saw the caller ID. Emmett heard a loud put upon sigh before the dulcet tones of his landlord and friend.
“What the fuck was that? Can’t you answer the phone like a normal person?”
“And why would I do that when it’s so much more fun my way?” Emmett asked logically. He laughed when the silence grew deafening. “Hi, Brian, how are you? Is that better?”
“Much. I’m fine, thank you. Has Gui moved in yet?”
“Yes, I just finished the tour of the building. He’s unpacking. Brian, pardon me for ever interfering or judging your business acumen but what’s up with this guy? Does he always have that stick up his ass or what?”
“I honestly don’t know, Emm. I’m hoping he’ll loosen up a little to show us what he can really do. So far, I don’t see what he has to offer.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him.”
“Not at all. When’s our next soiree?”
“Probably the Fourth.”
“Maybe you should invite him,” Emmett suggested.
“In any case I’ll get with Debbie and Justin to discuss the menu.”
“You do that, Honeycutt.”
“And don’t call me Honeycutt!” The boys laughed as they cut the connection.
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