My alarm clock rings promptly at 4:15 am, earning a pillow carelessly aimed at it that sends the lamp next to it crashing off my bedside table. 4:15 am is an atrocious time. The worst hour of the day. Why, you ask? Let’s create scenarios, shall we?
One: You’re up to catch an early flight that should have been scheduled for a later time, but you didn’t want to wait, and now you’re suffering the consequences that will undoubtedly lead to a cricked neck from falling asleep in those uncomfortable airplane chairs. Atrocious.
Two: You’re somewhat hungover and somewhat sober because you realize that it’s not a weekend and you’ve got work to do that involves interacting with other people who will look down on you for partying even though it’s your way of living life to the fullest. Atrocious.
Three: You love waking up at the ungodly hour of 4:15 am because you want to hit the gym to get those endorphins for the day because ‘your body is a temple’ and all that bull, and then you want to spend a good day working at the office before coming home to your lonely apartment only to do it over and over again until you die. Again, atrocious.
But I’m getting a teensy bit ahead of myself, so I’ll back down and do a little explaining. You see, I, Nicola Fletcher, am unfortunately awake at 4:15 am, and I’m…somewhat excited for it? I know, I know, atrocious. Even though, a couple months ago I’d have bet you my newest pair of Jimmy Choo’s that I would never, ever, have been excited to wake up at the deplorable hour of 4:15 am, these days it was different.
Exactly three months ago, I moved to Chicago, fresh out of college, and ready for a new start in the Windy City. I know, I know, super cliché, but I was certain that my life was going to start turning around for the better. I moved into an apartment on Michigan Avenue almost immediately after I graduated. Yes, my parents were rich, but that was the only thing I’d let them pay for. After graduating from Stanford, no they didn’t pay for me to go there, I’d done that with a full-ride scholarship, my parents insisted on buying an apartment for me in the city of my choice. So I’d agreed and moved in by the end of the week.
And that’s where I come full circle to my atrocious 4:15 am wake-up. See, the day I’d moved into my apartment, I’d made sure that I was the only one moving in because I did have a lot of stuff, and being on the higher end of the paycheck, I’d given in to the temptation. Yet, there was a mix-up, and the building had apparently made the same promise to another person, Zachary Walters, Ph.D. Yep, you heard me right. Down to the fancy-schmancy title. He walked right up to me the moment we realized there had been a mix-up and he’d handed me a business card. Fancy, too. It was thick and…I don’t know how to describe paper well, but it felt like it meant…business. I looked at it wordlessly, then back up at him. He had a small smirk on his face, like he was used to speechless women at his feet, then promptly turned around and went back to shepherding the movers through his apartment. Which was next to mine. Which meant we were neighbors. Which meant I had to survive living next to Zachary Walters, Ph.D. Oh, the horror. And yes, if you haven’t realized it yet, he was the person who fit solidly in Scenario Three.
But the thing was, he wasn’t even bad to look at. I mean, yes, he was my arch-nemesis, obviously, but damn, that man was fine. He always had his black to-go mug that probably was filled with some healthy gunk, his black gym bag over his shoulder, and his suit in its bag in his other hand. And then, his perfectly styled copper hair. All the time. I mean, whose hair is that perfect? I kept wishing for that one curl to spring free. You know, the one that resists all attempts to be flattened. The one that no gel product known to mankind can tame. Yeah, that’s the sucker. And because it probably annoys the Heck, and that’s heck with a capital ‘H’, out of Zachary, it and I are automatically best friends. Back to his looks. I’m digressing again. It’s a problem I have. He’s got a hard, clean-shaven jawline, that is always clenched in annoyance or disgust when we run into each other in the elevator or hallway. Ice blue eyes, cold and flat, and always piercing.
But back to the ACTUAL reason, I’m telling you this. I’ve wasted about ten minutes sitting in bed, trying to remember what in hell provoked this daily wake-up call at the atrocious hour of 4:15 am. Oh yes. The annoyance of Zachary Walters, Ph.D. I shoot out of bed like there’s a rocket under me, and fly into the bathroom, flinging off my clothes as I zoom into the shower. I’ve wasted too much time. I might not make it. After my less-than-five-minute shower that was so cold, it made me shriek, I flew into my huge expanse of a closet. Grabbing clothes at random, something that would have normally prompted the fashionista voice of my mother to nag at me, I throw on some cute jeans and a nice shirt, before grabbing my purse and sailing out my front door.
Unfortunately, I’ve timed my exit too late and crash into the deceptively hard-looking, yet soft body of a certain Zachary Walters. My purse goes flying. His to-go coffee mug goes flying, spilling the disgusting goop all over me. I knew it was a healthy smoothie goop. I’d had him categorized even before I knew him. I skidded on his suit bag, and his gym bag falls on my back, making me fall onto Zachary’s chest. The final stand-off comes down to Zachary on the ground, on top of his suit bag. Me on Zachary, his healthy gunk splattered over my shirt and hair. His gym back on me, which weighs a literal ton, and my purse, which is thrown halfway across the hallway. I find myself staring into his ice-blue eyes. Eyes that are currently narrowed with what looks like amusement, exasperation, pity, annoyance, and…oh dear. Anger.
“One person can’t feel all that. They’d explode.” I say out loud, then mortified, clap my hands over my mouth. I didn’t mean to trigger a world-wide nerd alert. Yes, I was a Harry Potter fan, and yes, sometimes it came out in the weirdest situations. Such as this one. Zachary cocked an eyebrow.
“Well, to quote Hermione Granger, just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon, doesn’t mean we all do.” I didn’t think it was possible that Zachary Walters had read, let alone read Harry Potter. I was pleasantly surprised. But then, something wet and gooey slid down my forehead and landed on his exercise shirt with a ‘plop’. I grimaced. It was his stupid health goo. “Would you mind getting off me, Nicola?”
“Nicky. And no, I can’t. Not for lack of trying, though. Your stupid gym back weighs as much as my car.” He sighed, which meant I rose two inches and fell two inches because I was still. On. His. Stupid. Yet. Soft. Chest. His arm snaked around my body and lifted the heavy bag off my back. I sighed in relief as the weight was lifted off my back, but immediately held my breath because I realized that it pushed me onto him. I rolled off of him and turned to see him getting up. I surveyed the battlefield of our hallway. Green goop slid down the white walls, most of it on the floor where it had dripped off of me, a crumpled suit bag lay in the midst of it all, and oh. There was a 150ish pound man who was glowering at me. I slowly backed away at the annoyance and exasperation in his eyes.
“You ruined my brand-new suit. I had an interview scheduled for another doctor to join my practice, and now I’ll have to bore him with my other suit, Nicola.” I didn’t try to correct him on my name, I was too afraid he’d go off like a rocket and I didn’t want that to happen.
“Um, well, I’m sorry.” And with that cowardly exit, I whipped open the door to my apartment and ran inside, closed the door, and ran to my room. I know, I know. Not the best way to go about that…er…exchange. I looked at the clock. Only 4:47 am. Ugh. Time for another shower. And then, bed.
My alarm clock rang shrilly at 4:15 am. Honestly, I needed to find a better place for that stupid thing, as once more I threw a pillow at it and missed, knocking my poor lamp off the table. I sit up, rubbing my eyes, then throw off the covers, because today was the next day, and I’d woken up with a purpose. I got ready in a hurry and ran out the door, but thankfully didn’t run into Zachary. He’d cleaned off his smoothie gunk because the walls were once again white, yet there was a mysterious green stain on the nice carpet that I made sure to avoid eye contact with. I got in the elevator, jamming the down button.
Once I reached the lobby, I walked over to the front desk, where my favorite concierge man, George, was finishing up his night shift.
“Good morning George,” I called, covertly looking at the clock behind him. 4:30 am. Just in time.
“Good morning, Ms. Fletcher.” He replied, polite as always. I pulled out a small box from my purse and laid it in front of him. He eyed it curiously.
“Cupcakes from my mother that I couldn’t finish.” His eyes lit up and he reached for the box eagerly.
“You’re going to make me have to exercise, Ms. Fletcher.” He said. I rolled my eyes. He insisted on calling me Ms. Fletcher, even though I tried to make him call me Nicky. It had been three months of this, and yet, he hadn’t budged.
I made some more small talk with George but kept glancing at the clock. 4:43 am. 4:56 am. Something was wrong. Zachary was never late. And I mean never. That man would marry a watch if it meant he wouldn’t be late for his morning routine. And how did I know this? Come on, a little stalking here and there never hurt anyone, now did it? Finally, I plastered a smile on my face and started walking back to the elevator.
“Have a great day, George!” I waved, before getting into the elevator. I pressed my floor’s button. I walked out and passed my apartment. I took a deep breath and knocked on Zachary’s door. A minute passed. He didn’t answer. I knocked again. Another minute passed. He didn’t open the door. Finally, I yelled through the door.
“Zachary, it’s Nicola. Open up.” The door swung open as if he was waiting to open the door. I opened my mouth to berate him for making me wait, but then I took him in. Sheesh, the guy was either very sick, or hungover. His copper hair was sticking out all over the place. Ah-hah. I knew it wasn’t perfect all the time. He was wearing a rumpled college sweatshirt and sweatpants, and even from a few feet away, I leaned back slightly because boy did it smell. His eyes were red and were fever-bright, and his nose was crusty. God. He had definitely seen better days. I smiled brightly, and I swear he recoiled at the sight of me. Well, too bad. I breezed into his apartment, taking the open door as an invitation, and ducking under his arm.
“Why are you here?” He said, wearily.
“Because for the first day in three months, you weren’t down in the lobby at precisely 4:45 am. And so, naturally, that raised red flags, so I decided to see what the hold-up was.” It was disconcerting to see that his apartment was the mirror image of mine. And he kept his cups in the same cabinet as mine and his silverware in the same drawer as mine. Yes, I was rummaging through his drawers, because even I could tell that he was sick and hadn’t eaten anything for at least a couple of hours.
“Have you been stalking me?” He said, but with a hint of his old annoyance in his voice. Ah, there he was. The old Zachary. I put my purse down on his kitchen chair and turned to him, my hands on my hips.
“I’m going to make you breakfast because you look like death incarnate and it’s making me feel guilty.” He stared at me, dumbfounded, so I took that as a yes. He slowly sat on his other chair as I pulled out a pot and put it on the stove, cranking on the gas. I went to his fridge and pulled out a few necessary items. It took about 20ish minutes, during which I chattered aimlessly about random nonsense and he gave noncommittal grunts, but I finally pulled the pot off the stove and set it down in front of him. I grabbed two bowls and two spoons and began to spoon some of the apple cinnamon-spiced oatmeal I’d made into our bowls. “Bon appetite,” I said, before digging in. I nearly moaned. I’d outdid myself. It was scrumptious. I snuck a glance at Zachary who was slowly eating his oatmeal, an expression of bliss on his face. I smiled.
“You’re an amazing cook,” he said softly, eating more heartily now that he’d gotten some food into his system.
“Why, is that a compliment I hear, Dr. Walters?” He grunted, and I suppressed a smile. We spent the next hour or so chatting, which was my way of getting to know my neighbor. I’d severely misunderstood him. He was honestly a good person, he just didn’t show it to me. He’d been top of his class and put into advanced classes, graduated medical school in only three years, and started his firm in Chicago. He was going well. In his spare time, he worked out, no surprise there, volunteered at an animal shelter, I honestly thought I was going to start shooting hearts from my eyes, and visited his sister and nephews, which I found the thought of him with little kids hilarious. He was much more than I’d first thought of him. It was a scary thought. But one that I mused over, a small kernel of warmth growing in me.
Finally, he stood up, carrying our empty bowls to his sink.
“Thank you, Nicola. I…really appreciate this.” I smiled and stood up.
“It was no trouble, Zach,” I said, and he glowered.
“Zachary. Not Zach. Zach is for my nephews.” I laughed.
“Then you have to call me Nicky. Otherwise, I’ll keep calling you Zach.” He rolled his eyes. I followed him into his bedroom, marveling at the differences between our tastes. While my walls were white and dove gray, his were dark brown and a russet red. I had a bunch of pictures of my friends and family all over my room, while he only had one picture of what appeared to be his medical school degree. I snorted at that. So typical. He started to get into bed, and I rushed over. “As your current nurse, I have to do this.” And I did, tucking him in bed, smiling at the enormous eye roll he gave me. I was turning to leave when his hand grabbed my wrist.
“Nicola, stay with me?” He whispered, hopefully looking at me with those bloodshot eyes and imperfect hair. And my heart lept with the huge realization that I was falling irrevocably for Zachary Walters, Ph.D., and victim of the atrocious scenario three.