“Gina is Simon’s favorite. After he hears her upstairs thanking baby Jesus over and over, she comes down to the kitchen and bakes several dozen chocolate chip cookies. Last time I was there, she promised to make them dairy and gluten-free in the future so I can have some too.”
Twelve is the new twenty. I didn’t have these conversations with my parents when I was twelve. We discussed football and whose turn it was to mow the lawn. I think there may have been a few conversations about drugs and getting in cars with strangers, but that was it.
“I think you should take a break from hanging out at Simon’s house.”
“Whatever,” says the kid who doesn’t have any true close friends.
Then again, according to him, I only have one friend, and he’s moving halfway across the country.
“Get me your lunch bag to clean out then go do your homework while I make dinner.”
He mumbles something under his breath. I’m sure it has to do with how we never go out to eat. As I unzip his lunch bag, a rodent runs across the counter.
“What the hell?” I grab a pan from the hanging rack above the island and cock my arm back to kill it.
“Stop!” Harrison dives for the rat.
There’s a rat in my house. How the hell did it get in here? “Don’t touch—” Before I can stop him, Harrison picks it up. I cringe, still fisting the handle to the pan.
“Drop it before it bites you!” I warn.
He hugs it to his chest, stroking its head. “What the heck? You almost killed Mozart.”
“Mozart?” I toss the pan on the counter with a clang. “Explain. Now!”
Harrison scowls at me for the loud noise.
“Where the hell did you get that thing?”
“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a Dumbo rat not a thing. See his ears are bigger and round? Like Dumbo. I really like his gray head and white body. Elle says he’s very kind and has a great personality.”
I’ve had saintly patience with him. I love him. I listen to all of his in-depth descriptions of his latest obsessions. Thanks to him, I’m an expert in areas I never wanted to gain any sort of expertise. But this is not happening. I said no to a fish. There’s no fucking way I’m letting him have a rat.
I rescind my earlier statement to Ellen; she is the bane of my existence.
“You can have a meltdown right here and now, but the answer is no. You are not keeping it.”
“Him.” There’s the eye roll. “And I never said I was keeping him. Elle had him with her today and said maybe sometime I could bring him home for a night.”
“Maybe? Sometime?” With my hands on my hips, I lean forward until we’re at eye level. “Did she say you could bring him home tonight?”
He shrugs, petting the squirmy little critter.
“It’s a simple question.”
“I don’t know. She said maybe sometime I could bring him home for the night, and I said I’d like that, so I put him in my guitar case and then you showed up. I played with him in the car while waiting on you, then I put him in my backpack when you came outside.”
“Does she know you have him?”
I yank my tie several times to loosen it. My fingers jerk open the top button of my shirt. I’m not in the mood for this shit tonight. “Put it in a bag. I’ll return it to Ms. Rodgers while you do your homework.”
“It will die in a plastic bag.”
I retrieve a paper grocery sack from the pantry and hold it open. Harrison stares at it a few seconds before meeting my impatient expression. He eases it into the sack, and I roll the top down.
“What if there’s not enough air? I kept the zipper to my backpack cracked a bit.”
With a fork from his lunch bag, I stab the top of the sack several times.
“Jeez! You could kill it.”
“I’m not having that kind of luck today, Harrison. Now … don’t answer the door. Stay in your room, and get your homework done. I’ll be back in a bit.”
After we have our customary stare off, he pivots and drags his feet to his room.
I contemplate shaking the sack until the spastic scratching at the bottom ceases, but I’m not a total monster—at least not anymore.
Stay calm. He’s here somewhere. It doesn’t matter that I’ve spent the past hour searching the building for Mozart. It doesn’t matter that there are a gazillion places he could have squeezed his tiny body into. Don’t think about mouse traps or poison. He will show up.
“Mozart?” I call again in the lobby after the last person leaves the building while giving me a final cringe of disgust and a less-than-sincere “good luck.” People are so weird about pet rats—such misunderstood creatures.
Stay calm. Don’t cry.
My phone rings.
“This is Ellen.” I feign happiness despite the tears burning my eyes.
I hold out my phone and stare at the unknown number before returning it to my ear. “Yes.”
“Where are you?”
Now it’s just creepy. The voice is familiar—but creepy. “Who is this?”
I sigh in spite of the chill I get from his voice, in spite of the way it makes me smile when he refers to himself as Mr. Hopkins, and in spite of the fact that I’m seconds from having a complete breakdown because my baby has disappeared.
“Flint, can I call you back? I’m … in the middle of something important.”
“By all means, Ms. Rodgers, you finish up with your important stuff and I’ll just drive around babysitting your rat since I have nothing of importance of my own to do.”
“Mozart! You have Mozart?” My cover is blown. A big fat F for staying calm. Closing my eyes, I shake my head.
“Let’s try this again because I don’t have all night. Where are you?”
“My building … uh … your building,” I say.
“I’ll be there in five. I’m not getting out. I’m not even pulling my vehicle to a complete stop. Hope you have quick hands, Ms. Rodgers.”
“Don’t you dare—”
I look at the phone screen. He hung up. The bastard hung up on me after threatening to toss Mozart out the window of his car.
I sprint up the stairs, grab my bag and Mozart’s travel carrier, lock up, and fly back down the stairwell. The cool evening air steals my breath as I push through the front door of the building, desperate to catch Flint the second he pulls into the parking lot. Within seconds, his fancy black SUV makes the corner. I sprint toward him because, true to his word, he rolls down his window and holds out a brown paper sack.
No way! He does not have my baby in a sack. As any good mom would do, I run in front of his vehicle, arms flailing. “STOP!”
He stops, an inch at best from running me over.
“Are you crazy?” He jumps out, inspecting the less-than-an-inch space between my legs and his bumper.
I snatch the brown sack from his hand and rescue Mozart, nuzzling my nose into his soft fur.
Flint shakes his head. “Never mind. I already know the answer.” He makes his way back to the driver’s side.
“Harry took him?”
Flint turns, shooting me a “duh” look.
“Don’t be mad at him. I said he could. We just didn’t discuss when he could take him.”
“When? You think you needed to discuss with my son when would be a good time to send a rat to my house?”
Gah! This tall, dark-haired man is so sexy when he’s ruffled up like this. “You’re mad at me. That’s fine. I’ll take the blame as long as you don’t get mad at Harry.”
After a few indiscernible blinks, he shakes his head. “He took it and he shouldn’t have. He and I will have words about this, but truthfully he didn’t mean to steal him. He’s mildly autistic. In his mind—”
“He didn’t steal Mozart. I understand.” I grin because I adore Harry. He may struggle with the finer details of social interaction, but he’s my musical soulmate.
“You do?” Flint narrows his eyes.
I nod. “I work with a lot of autistic children. I get it. Really. I’m good. Mozart is good. You’re a little miffed, but hey, two out of three ain’t bad.”
“I’m not miffed.” His jaw works side to side, the opposite of not miffed. “I’m elated. Read your rental contract. The only animals allowed in the building are service animals. You broke your contract. Grounds for eviction. It’s official. Your two weeks start tomorrow. Hope you and your rat have a lovely evening, Ms. Rodgers.”
I return Mozart to his carrier and set it and my purse on the SUV. My disheveled landlord frowns as I scuff my shoes along the blacktop toward him. “Thank you …” I tug at the collar to his shirt.
He grunts or groans. I can’t tell which. He stiffens when I get close to him, because I have to get close to him. I button the top button and fix his tie, eliciting another grunt when I get it nice and tight around his neck. “I appreciate you calling me and taking such good care of Mozart.” Mr. Hopkins emanates warmth and spice, maybe a high-end aftershave. I like it a little too much.