“Thanks a lot! You’re the best, big brother!” hollered Jackson, waving wildly as his older brother drove away. At twenty-four, he was finally moved into his first apartment. Well, calling himself moved in was an exaggeration. His stuff was piled in haphazardly-labeled boxes scattered throughout his small little two-bedroom space. When Jason’s taillights disappeared into the darkness, Jackson headed upstairs to decide what he wanted to do. The eternal question of any independent young man: start unpacking or order a pizza and invite some friends over for video games—which he’d still have to find, unpack, and then set up?
As he approached his door, his neighbor opened her’s and nearly knocked him down in her rush to leave her apartment. “Oh hey! You must be the new guy! I’m Elyse Michaels. And you are…?” She was cute, in a fresh-face, brunette, sans war paint. He rather liked the lack of make-up on her. Heaven help him, but he was a sucker for green eyes. Hers rivaled the hills after a rain.
“I’m Jackson Whitaker. Have you been living here long?” What he really wanted to know was if she could recommend any good pizza places around here. And if she played video games.
She didn’t skimp out on the conversation. “Nearly a year. There’s a courtyard out back where a lot of us get together for a community cookout and unwind the first Friday night of the month. Picture Melrose Place, but instead of trendy professionals in the thirties, many of us are scraping by at entry-level jobs in our twenties. Our coming together happens to be today. You should come!”
“Would you be my personal guide to meeting the neighbors?” At that moment, he wanted nothing more than to stay by her side for the evening. Other than college dorms, this was his first real time away from home, away from family. Even in college he still lived close enough to come home on weekends for laundry services and fresh food. He was still able to catch a game with Jason and Marianne to watch his nephew play T-Ball.
Elyse, with her soft hands holding his, couldn’t have been much older than he was, but she oozed mature confidence in a free-spirited sort of way. “Let’s go! Just follow my lead. Most of them are pretty cool as far as neighbors go.”
Jackson was happy just to have her hand in his as she dragged him down the hall, down the stairs, and outside where he could hear some music playing and smell of a grill going. It was summer in California. Even in the evening, it only cooled down to a chilly 85°F. He couldn’t help but notice Elyse’s perfectly polished pink toenails in her sandals, her long legs leading straight to her white cut-off shorts. Damn, if only his new building had a pool, he might see more of her.
“Oh wait! I forgot the drinks. I usually bring two twelve-packs of soda. The new guy never needs to bring anything on his first night at one of these, but if you continue to join us, you should bring, oh I don’t know. Chips? There’s usually a sign-up posted the week before where the mailboxes are.” She stayed holding his hand going back down the hall back to her place. “Here we are. Come on in, I’ll just be a second.”
“Sure, no problem. Do you have a roommate?” He stayed in the living room while she headed into the kitchen. Jackson could see just how meticulously her place was organized and he was happy to note not only a PlayStation, but also a Nintendo Switch.
She was carrying two boxes. Jackson, having been raised by a hardworking mother and a very influential big brother offered to help immediately and took both boxes of caffeinated refreshments.
“No, well, I did. Sarah moved out a few months ago. She fell in love with, get this! One of our neighbors! She’ll be there tonight with him since they live upstairs. It’s funny, you know. It seems every few months, another one of us falls in love with another. Maybe there’s something in the water, running through these old pipes.”
He was curious both about the frequent love connections in the building, but also about her. She intrigued him. She was friendly, cute, and easy-going. We also can’t discount the gaming consoles in her living room. “So Elyse, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a phlebotomist.” She then changed into her Dracula impression, adding “I vant to take your blood!” He couldn’t help but laugh at her sense of humor. Leading him back down the hallway, she asked him the same question. “Sorry, I can’t help myself. I know it’s so cheesy.”
“I loved it!” Jackson was hesitant. He had one of those jobs where you thought it was cool, or you didn’t get it at all. “I work on government contracts with my engineering background. I’m part of a team that put together the proposals and logistics.”
She let out an impressive whistle. “Impressive.”
“It’s nothing, really. I’m just a really big geek who likes looking at data charts and numbers.” Jackson was wondering why he shared what he’d shared with her. Normally, he told people he worked with numbers and that was it. Most people aren’t interested in government contract work, data analysis, and data crunching. But Elyse was different. She seemed to genuinely care and take an interest. He took a chance with his next question. “Is your boyfriend coming too?”
She stopped just before they reached the door leading to the courtyard. “Jackson, is that your not-so-subtle way of asking if I’m single?”
He’d have rubbed his hand over his face if he weren’t carrying soda in them. “Yeah, corny, I know.”
“I’m flattered. Most guys who hit on me wouldn’t care if I was already attached to someone. And no, I don’t have a boyfriend. Are you seeing anyone?”
The new guy was incredibly hot. She wanted to just steal glances at his big brown eyes all evening. She noticed him when he first walked through the apartment hoping he’d take it the previous month. Tall, lean but not skinny, dark brown hair and innocence she didn't often see captivated her. She was hoping even more that he was single. As luck was finally going her way, he was. Elyse took a chance holding his hand down the hall and to her surprise and amazement, he let her hold his hand. She liked it, a lot.
“Jackson, I’ll introduce you then we can hang by the gazebo to eat. Gary, he’s in 1C, he’s a whiz on the grill. It looks like his wife, Jessica is busting out the hot dogs. We don’t go fancy here, as you can tell. I don’t have a ‘regular’ crowd and we can leave whenever you want.”
He looked at her and she noticed he was checking her out. Jackson looked as undecided as she felt on what to do. “You don’t want to stay?”
Elyse thought about it. Socially, she could hang out with him and get to know him better before she invited him to her apartment. Correction, before she invited him again into her apartment. “Let me pitch this idea to you before I answer your question. You’re the new guy around here. Do you want to stay and mingle, or would you like to go play some video games upstairs? We can also...”
She never finished. Jackson interrupted her. “Let’s go. I’d like to get to know you better. After all, I’m the new guy and you’re my neighbor.”
“You’re the boss, Jackson.” They scarfed down two hot dogs each and left the group. There were probably fifteen or so neighbors, most of which Jackson was introduced to. “Don’t worry, you’ll remember them all after a while. Ready to leave?”
He took her paper plate and napkin from her and tossed it in the trash with his. “Let’s go.” Elyse was giddy with excitement. In her twenty-three years, granted, she hasn’t dated all that long, she’d never met someone so sweet and considerate. Bonus points for him having a brain with his engineering background. Even nicer, but not surprising, was him wanting to play video games with her. None of her friends like to play. She really only plays with her younger brother, but with him away at college, he’s inconsistently online with work, school, and homework. Jackson followed her back upstairs to her apartment, as she mentally took stock in what snacks and drinks she could offer him. Not much. She was already planning on going to the market tomorrow.
Midway up the stairs, she stopped and looked back at Jackson. She smiled when she caught him staring at her ass. “I don’t have much to offer you.”
Jackson snapped his head up to face her, a sheepish smile on his face. He was caught but not embarrassed enough to play it off. “Sorry, you have a nice backside.” She could only smile at him and his honesty. Another point in his favor. “My brother helped me move in today but before he left for the day, he took me to the market. I have some food if you’re still hungry. For the record, I can make a mean turkey sandwich.”
Elyse thought he was adorable. She herself was a whiz in the kitchen with her dad being a chef and her mom being a part-time culinary instructor at a local college. “I’m sure we can make do with whatever provisions you have. Let’s stop at your place first.”
“I have unpacked absolutely nothing.”
“I can help with some of your boxes if you want. We can put on a playlist and I can be nosy.” She winked at him. In all honesty, she would prefer to help him unpack, at least some of his things to help him settle. There was always time for video games later.
Jackson held her gaze. With him watching her intently, she saw his engineering mind working hard. He was attracted to her. She knew it. And he knew she knew it. “Yeah, okay. We’ll hang out in my place.”
When Jackson invited Elyse to his place, he was going through a swirl of emotions. He wanted to impress her, but with everything in boxes, it was hard to even sit next to her on the couch with a movie on Netflix or a taking on a boss on his PlayStation together. He’d had pretty girls in his high school, dated a few in college even, but to have the lovely Elyse flirt with him, he was more than elated.
He unlocked his door and led her in. He moved his hand behind his neck, in a nervous attempt to make conversation. “I guess we can start in the living room. Or the kitchen.” He certainly didn’t want her unpacking his clothes in the bedroom. “I think those would be more important to create some space to move around in.”
“Do you have any preference with how to organize the kitchen? If not, I’ll just start there so you can make me your amazing turkey sandwich tomorrow. By the way, I’ll come back tomorrow to continue helping you unpack. I mean, if that’s okay.” Elyse was suddenly shy and he didn’t understand why when she’d been confident and forthcoming with information earlier. Could she be as nervous as he was?
He held her hand and pulled her further into his kitchen. “Elyse, you can come over every day if you want.” Jackson thought the blush creeping up her neck was adorable. “Tonight, you take on parts of the kitchen, I’ll set up part of the living room. What do you want to listen to? I have a wide variety of music to choose from.” He didn’t care what she chose. He just wanted to listen to her talk. The way she brushed back the loose hair behind her ears had his fingers itching to do it for her. She held him in her gaze, but he wasn’t sure she realized it. “Music?”
“Oh, right, sorry. I was,” she looked away toward the kitchen.
“You were distracted, weren’t you?” Jackson never liked the non-direct route. If she liked him, she should just say so. Hell, he’d already admitted to liking her backside. “I know I was earlier.” He offered her his dimpled smile. His dimples seemed to attract the girls before they realized how smart he was and shied away, thinking him a nerd. But honestly, what was wrong with being smart? Being upfront with Elyse, with her still wanting to spend time with him encouraged him to proceed.
She faced him, stood up straighter, and pulled her hair again away from her face. Her very pretty face. “Yes, I was distracted.”
He stepped closer to her and she didn’t back away. “By what, Elyse?” He was so enthralled by her honesty. Her innocence was a huge aphrodisiac.
“Jackson, I’m sure you heard how cute your dimples are, but to actually have someone as smart as you are admiring my, um...backside, is…well, it’s refreshing. I want to get to know you more…as my neighbor.” She looked down at the floor.
He pressed on. “As only your neighbor?”
“Well, no. Let’s hang out and see where this goes. Like I said, I think there’s something in the water in this building.” She lifted her face and through her long lashes, she saw the interest in her eyes.
“I’m game. Would you like some water?” At the mention of the love-tainted water in the building and him offering some to her, left nothing to the imagination. He full-on hit on her. No denying his interest in one Elyse Michaels. Jackson had never felt this at ease with a woman before. She was funny, sweet, and played video games. Those emerald eyes drew him in and he just wanted to cradle her face and kiss her. He was raised to respect women, however, so he didn’t press his luck. Tonight, he’d settle for fun conversation with the occasional flirty undertone with his sexy neighbor.
“Yes, please. After this conversation, I do believe I’m quite parched, Jackson. I’d love some water. Thank you.”
“Coming right up! You know, come to think of it, I’m thirsty too.” He winked at her and grabbed some cups out of one of the open boxes. Together, they drank their water, both finding it difficult to keep their eyes off each other. “Elyse, how about we unpack just a few boxes, together. We can take on more tomorrow.”
Elyse put her empty cup, twice over, down on the counter and declared him brilliant. Working together, they can spend more direct time with one another, something both of them wanted were both hesitant to admit it out loud. Was this what love-at-first-sight meant? He’d have to ask Jason about that later since he claims that’s exactly how he fell for Marianne.
Jackson let out a yawn and stretched his arms. Had they been watching Netflix, she would’ve probably thought it was a cliché way to put his arm around her. Come to think of it, maybe tomorrow, they’d hit the living room and set up his entertainment center so he could try that. Knowing she wasn’t above doing her vampire impression when they first met, she’d probably get a kick out of his cheesy moves. “I’m tired too. I just didn’t want to leave just yet.” Her declaration filtered through his thoughts.
Although he hated having to call it a night, even he had to admit to being exhausted after moving in today. “Let’s call it a night then. Bright and early tomorrow?”
“Come to my place for breakfast first. I’m sure I can whip up something decent for us to get us started. When we’re done, we’ll come back and keep getting you moved in. And Jackson? Can I have another glass of water before I leave?”
He gave her the biggest smile and reached for her glass, still sitting on the counter. He refilled both of their cups with the water from the building pipes. “Cheers! To a beautiful neighbor, willing to help me move in,” he said as he lifted his glass.
“Cheers to a cute engineer, who I’m sure will offer me more water tomorrow.” Her genuine smile warmed his heart and at that moment, he knew the water in the building really was special.
When Jackson saw her out and safely back to her apartment right across the hall, he headed back to his bedroom and unpacked another two boxes. He settled into bed making a mental note to thank Jason in the morning for finding this apartment for him. For helping him move in. And for reminding him to be open to meeting new people.
Jackson took one more sip of water, then fell asleep with thoughts of what the new day would bring tomorrow.