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Keep your Enemy close

By Cleo Wodehouse

Published by Cleo Wodehouse at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Cleo Wodehouse

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

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Table of contents

Chapter 1: A Fair chance

Chapter 2: Who are you?

Chapter 3: Settling in

Chapter 4: Attention

Chapter 5: Busted

Chapter 6: The Deal

Chapter 7: Listening and getting wet

Chapter 8: Eating out and playing games

Chapter 9: Dancing

Chapter 10: Room to breathe and to share feelings

Chapter 11: Evil cuddling

Chapter 12: Mime dancing and doing favors

Chapter 13: Real-life test

Chapter 14: People and party skills

Chapter 15: Shifting dynamics

Chapter 16: Feeling sexy

Chapter 17: Just do it

Chapter 18: Boyfriend and girlfriend things

Chapter 19: Class dismissed

Chapter 20: The real deal

About Cleo Wodehouse

Chapter 1: A Fair chance

# Jonas #

The last float of the small Fair parade disappeared out of view from my home-office window, and with it the many spectators that had gathered on this baking-hot Saturday in July to celebrate that Hitler wasn't the only thing that had happened in Germany in the 1930s. The early part of that century had actually shaped my family's and this entire neighborhood's history in a pretty special way: when the Great Depression had hit Europe in 1930/31, urban-housing programs were put into effect all over the country so that people would be able to farm their own land and support themselves. My great-granddad was one of those people. In this neighborhood, the plan had been to build 77 uniform houses with a basement, a first and a second floor, only 800 square feet in total. Each house sat on a beach-towel shaped property of around 12,100 square feet, together with a stable for small livestock that every two houses shared.

300 families had applied for such a house back then and mostly those with a hoard of kids – we were talking seven and even ten here – and a father working in construction were chosen. Why? Because the future owners had to build the houses together themselves. To make sure that everyone would work on each house as if it were their own, no one had known which one they would get until lots had been drawn at the end of construction in 1933. Who could claim their house had such a cool history? Every year, we of the UDS, the Urban Dwellers’ Society that had been founded after WWII, commemorated that history with dozens of events, most importantly a Fair for which the neighborhood always reserved the first Saturday through Monday of July each year.

Over the past one and a half years "we" had become "they", all due to a little sucker just shy of a half inch in diameter. The odds were 5-10 to one million but lucky me had hit the tumor jackpot. I would never have let anyone talk me into showing my bloated face at last year’s Fair but this year my brother Julian had wheedled the promise out of me that I’d watch the parade and come by after. I would have preferred Monday, always a slow and mostly child-free day, to spare myself their stares and comments. Then again I wasn’t exactly keen on the decrepit hordes that showed up on Fair Mondays while everyone else had to work. Everyone that I’d missed was there today, so I had no choice but to brave the crowd today. It took me a few deep breaths but at last I opened the front door and stepped into the blazing sun.

“Hey, Jonas!”

Ugh. The day had started so well. Out of all people, Bella, the nineteen-year-old daughter of our neighbors in house number 21 was the first to notice me trudge down our front steps. She’d been part of the parade, a part you couldn’t miss or ignore if you wanted to. Now she waved a pudgy hand and smiled her silly smile before she waddled on towards to her house, probably to stuff her pockets with some more snacks before she headed back to the Fair ground.

I swear that girl got fatter every year. The normally shapeless red UDS T-shirt she was wearing couldn’t help but take on her disgusting shape. Thank God she’d chosen long jeans despite the baking heat and was covering up the undoubtedly cellulite riddled-tree trunks she called legs. Her long, slightly curly hair a bit lighter than my own jet black one would have been nice to look at it if wasn't sitting on top of a head that came with a Ms.-Piggy-like nose and an extra chin. Her pale skin might have been pimple-free but there was just way too much of it to be an attraction factor.

I’d come to know what it was like to be judged and labeled as lazy but I knew for a fact that she was lazy as hell. Unlike me, she didn’t even have the tumor excuse. Yeah, I had a problem with fat people and would never have dated a fat chick, so what? I couldn’t help it if they grossed me out. I know, pretty rich for someone with a gut and an ass that had eventually busted even his baggiest pair of sweats.

I’d always loved food myself, around the holidays or on stressful work days a bit too much, actually, but I’d always dropped most of the weight after. I would just skip dinner and snacks for a while. OK, admittedly that had gotten harder over the years, I guess I got old like everyone else. Still, even though I’d always kept one or two of those excess pounds, it hadn’t been that bad. I hadn’t been the best-looking guy out there but I’d never had any trouble hooking up.

Well, that time was certainly over. Now I lugged myself around like one of those overstuffed lap dogs. How ironic. Or was it karma? I could have dealt with scars or baldness but of all diseases I had to get the one that blew you up. Still, at least I'd never let things get as out of hand as that girl. She really should be named “Belly” instead of “Bella”. Hers was like a car accident, you couldn’t help but stare. She was all belly. And ass. Normally you’d push the underwear aside go find the ass, whereas with her you had to push the ass aside to find the underwear. Gross.

Oh, whatever, she was none of my concern, I decided as I lumbered along the street towards the more than 37,000 square feet of our Society’s property that was located across the perpendicular street at the end. A good third of the Society’s property was leased to a pizzeria that provided a steady stream of income whereas similar societies in Germany were struggling with their finances.

The once-white banner announcing the traditional Fair that spanned the width of five concrete steps had to be more than twenty years old now. Some things never changed, just like the Fair itself, at least as long as I could remember. The tiny merry-go-round, the candy wagon and the balloon game were in the same spots on the patchy, heat-scorched lawn as they’d always been, only the kids’ Ferris wheel was new.

Three minutes of walking in the searing heat and my shorts and shirt were already clinging to me. I plucked at it a few times to make sure it wasn’t clinging to my front as I crossed the lawn. My shape would just be one more thing for them to stare at, one more thing for them to talk about. At least there were some shady spots where I could cool off. A cold drink would help, too, so I headed towards our small assembly building whose first floor housed a kitchen and the beer counter. The parade and the rest of the spectators would arrive any second and it would be impossible to get something to drink then. That’s where my brother came in: the lucky dog had gotten assigned to the beer counter.

“Hey, Joe,” Julian grinned at me as he filled a tall glass, clearly happy I’d kept my promise to come by today, and in that moment I was, too. It was good to be back. The beer stand was a great spot because you had a decent view of the band in the open hall. I’d put in quite a few shifts there myself in the past. J was working two shifts tonight, the idiot. He always pitched in where he was needed, even when we were kids. I both loved and hated him for that. Nobody should be such a good guy, he only made everyone else look bad. He and his pesky friend Amy had even sacrificed one of their few weekends they didn’t have to work so they could help out.

I’d barely ordered a beer and begun to chat with J and Arthur from house 17 when the brass music began blaring. The band from the neighboring town who always led the parade had gathered on the lawn and launched into a brass-and-drums version of ‘Walking on Sunshine’. My conversation with Arthur and J shut down before it began, so I nodded at them and made my way to the building’s extension of 7 by 10 feet that was the grill stand before everyone decided at the same time that they needed something to eat. Like every year, Mike and Almond, a couple in their sixties, took care of the fryer and the two grills but the unfamiliar person taking orders and handling the money caused me to stop in my tracks.

Great. I could have handled a guy or one of the UDS grannies but not a girl my age who was that confident, tall and toned. Not that those bag-like red work T-shirts had ever done anything for the highlights of the female anatomy but her arms and cheekbones showed she was fit. Already my good mood went out the window. Freezing up and stuttering my way through my order was not how I’d imagined my first day back here.

Now the girl with her black hair in two short braids stretched over the counter, leaned on her elbows and angled her head so her left ear was turned towards the tiny old-timer in front of her. Even from my perspective there was no mistaking that smitten smile displaying ill-fitting dentures. Easy, old man, I grinned to myself despite my anxiety, you’re gonna give yourself a heart attack. The girl did that leaning thing with every customer, sometimes shouting at them two or three times to repeat their order. If I didn’t have to look into her eyes but would only have to deal with her ear when I ordered, maybe I would be able to get actual words out after all.

The thought calmed me enough to study her long, angular face. It wasn’t really pretty but definitely interesting and somehow she rocked that school-girl look I usually didn’t care for. She was amazingly fast and it didn’t just seem that way because we’d had some pretty dumb alternatives at the cash register over the years. Mike and Almond had always been a well-oiled machine but the way the three of them worked together would have made Henry Ford proud.

Oh, only one more person in front of me now. Already my palms felt moist and it wasn’t just from the heat. I just couldn’t screw this up. The day had started out so well.

This was it, my turn with her. Her back was to me when the previous customer stepped aside, and when the girl turned, she seemed startled at the sight of me. Not that I wasn’t used to such reactions but they never hurt any less. As she straightened hastily, though, the look on her face made me change my mind: maybe she was just surprised because I was her first customer on eye level. She didn’t look much shorter than my 6’4” frame. Now the corners of her mouth lifted, the polite kind of smile one would expect from a person behind a counter taking an order, but it still felt personal somehow. The music was thankfully still blaring behind me, so she bent forward. Her eyes were light brown, homogenous without any flecks. Not that I had any business thinking about chocolate but they looked as addictive as sweet, gooey caramel.

“Hi, what can I get you?”

Now she turned her head so her ear was in my face, a surprisingly small one. Even over the din of the brass her voice carried. It was deep, not surprising for a tall girl. Maybe it really was the fact that I had a cute ear in front of me instead of a pair of judgmental eyes that put me at ease and kept my voice steady.

“I’ll have a meat patty in a roll.”

“That’ll be two euros, please.”

I gave her a ten and she swiftly handed over my change, turned to pick up a roll from a red plastic basket and expertly transferred a patty onto it before she picked up the wooden spoon by the onion pan. She looked the image of concentration and professionalism, even at a greasy grill counter.

“Onions?” her lips formed the word I couldn’t hear, their movement making me wonder how soft they might feel. Once again I found my voice without any trouble.


I hated onions. Now she picked up a napkin and was just about to hand over my booty when something inside me reared its head that I thought had long begun to rot.

“Actually… yes,” I yelled at the same time she held out the roll to me. I nodded at the onion pan behind her. I really didn’t want any of those soggy onions touching my meat but she was just so perfect and composed that she was practically begging to be messed with.

“No, wait, I’ve changed my mind,” I shouted at her with a grin just as the brown mass was about to make contact with my meat patty. She rolled her eyes.

“What will it be, diva?” She looked behind me and jutted out her chin. “That's not exactly a captive audience gathered behind you, you know.”

Diva? No one had dared to dish me sass since I was diagnosed and only now I realized how much I’d missed this.

“Yes to the onions,” I nodded at her and watched her turns towards the pan again. Her back to me, I checked out her ass, trying to make out her shape underneath her baggy UDS work T-shirt, then leaned forward to catch a glimpse of her legs but the counter was too high for even me to see down that far. But things could go two ways: that counter also kept her from seeing all of me.

“Wait, no!” She had picked up the spoon again.

“Too bad, now you're getting some.” She turned and snuck a peek at me over her shoulder, then shot me a sly smile before she positively buried my meat under a heap of sticky onions. She held out the dripping roll to me.

“Enjoy.” Then she redirected her attention at a lanky teenager behind me.

I wanted more. Not food, although who was I kidding, I always wanted more of that, too. No, I wanted more of her. I needed to find out her name, where she was from and how she’d come to volunteer here at the Fair. For some reason I was feeling unusually optimistic about this, whatever ‘this’ was.

For now, though, I withdrew onto a sturdy log bench under one of the many landmarked oaks. Even if the foldable beer benches had supported my weight, I just didn’t feel ready to dive into the sea of people there. Still, some of them noticed me. There were those that only nodded at me awkwardly but others stopped by for a brief chat, and with each more I knew I’d made the right decision in coming here. I’d really missed being part of this community.

Knowing everyone was aware of the shit I’d been through wasn’t always easy but at least I never had to explain myself. Our street was like a tight-knit village in a city of a hundred thousand people. Nosing into everyone else’s business was just their way of showing that they cared. An outsider would never understand. I only wished they’d shut up about when I was coming back to the UDS for good. I knew they meant well but they hadn’t got a clue of what I was still dealing with. I’d made my peace with them knowing my medical history but my present and future were mine alone.

Finally the brass band exchanged their instruments for food, too, and most spectators moved into the big hall. Over the next few minutes the line at the grill broke up bit by bit. By now, Mike would be out of the small heap of French fries he pre-fried so that each batch would just take 30 seconds to finish. Likewise, Almond would be opening a fresh bag of steaks, sausages and patties. At ten minutes, the steaks took the longest. There was my perfect order then: fries and steak. It’d buy me at least ten minutes with that girl if no one got in line behind me.

My plan paid off. I was the only one at the grill counter and I was also the only one being treated to an eye roll of recognition once she looked up from the cash she’d been rearranging in the strongbox.

“Oh look, it’s the onion guy.”

“Well, I like to make myself memorable,” I grinned at her. I’d much rather be the annoying onion guy greeted with an eye roll instead of the forever-damaged tumor guy treated with kid gloves.

You certainly were memorable,” the girl drawled in that deep voice of hers, crossing a pair of thin but toned arms. “I hope your food was, too.”


It had been terrible but thinking about its creator at every bite had made it almost tasty again. Her irritated expression smoothed into cool professionalism again and she nodded at the two grills behind her.

“In case you want steak and/or fries, you’re in for a ten-minute wait at least.”

“I do want that, actually, and I don’t mind waiting,” I told her, taking pleasure in the fact that she had no idea how much I didn’t mind waiting. Poker face. Came in very handy.

“How about a bowl of onions to tide you over?”

“Nah, that’s OK.”

Mike now winked at me before he left the grill, for a nicotine break no doubt, and Almond had made herself scarce a minute ago, too, probably hightailing it for the bathroom. Resolved to make the most of my moment of semi-privacy, I focused on the girl, who had begun to shift on her feet. She didn’t look nervous, though, just restless, as if she needed something to keep her busy. Well, I could provide that.

"Are you a new member of the UDS?” I asked, causing her to stop shuffling her feet. Instead, she turned to face me fully and placed two long-fingered hands on the granite counter whose inner half had darkened from years of greasy fumes and splatter.

“No, but my friend Amy is.”

Could that be Ingrid, the college friend Amy had mentioned would move here for a new job? Amy had brought her over to our house to introduce her but I’d stayed on my floor upstairs, waiting for them to go away. I must have been in the bathroom when they’d finally left, so I hadn’t even gotten a glimpse of her friend through the windows. If that was her, what was she doing at the grill? I thought Julian had said she was due to help out at the cocktail bar with Amy, which I didn’t get in the first place. Why would she help out at some Society that had nothing to do with her?

The girl’s eyes were still on mine, her face unreadable. Well, unreadable was better than judgmental or uncomfortable. Then again, she hadn’t seen all of me yet since I was standing so close. She probably hadn’t caught a glimpse of me walking away earlier either, not with the next customer already literally in her ear.

“Is your name Ingrid?” I blurted, longing to learn more about her.

“Yes,” she answered after a moment, her eyebrows rising. “Is yours Jonas?”

What the…? “Uh, yes,” I somehow managed to reply.

How had she known? Julian and I had never looked much alike, even before I’d blown up. We sounded exactly alike but hardly anyone noticed that unless they knew us well or heard us both talk one after the other. Ingrid wouldn't have seen any recent photos of me either because I’d made sure none were taken of me. Then again, Amy might have described me to her, and knowing her the way I did, she had probably told her friend the gist of my medical history, too. Great. My first chance to make a good impression on a hot girl and Amy had already ruined it for me. I could barely concentrate on the feel of Ingrid’s long, slender hand that met my pudgy one across the counter.

“So you’re Julian’s older brother. I suspected as much earlier.”

“Uh, you did?”

“Yes,” Ingrid answered my question with a nod, “you two don’t look much alike but you have exactly the same voice. When you were here the first time, it was too loud and we spoke too briefly to tell but now it’s obvious.”

“Well, God was lazy the day he had to make J,” I shrugged, “which becomes obvious when you get to know the rest of him. My voice is definitely his best feature.”

Holy shit, where had that come from? I hadn’t let anything loose like that since the diagnosis. Ingrid, unaware of my surprise, burst into laughter, and damn if it wasn’t the best feeling ever, especially since any sign of discomfort on her face had been blasted away.

“Seriously,” Ingrid finally grinned at me, “it’s surreal.”

“Yeah, many people have blabbed to me about my brother’s deepest, darkest secrets over the phone because they thought I was him. I’ve heard things I can never unhear.”

Damn, I was on a roll now, and I was treated to another laugh from Ingrid. She looked like a child when she laughed, all cheeks and teeth, very straight ones. Add to that the two braids and I found myself grinning along with her. Oh yeah, today was definitely a good day.

“So, how come you’re volunteering for a Society you’re not a member of? Shouldn’t you be unpacking boxes and hanging curtains or something?”

“And painting my nails after, right? How convenient that all women are the same,” Ingrid drawled with another eye roll. I perked up. Sarcasm, how refreshing. Still, that girl was going to sprain her eye balls if she kept this up. “Anyway, I was done unpacking,” she added with a shrug.

“You moved this weekend and you’re done already?”

Clearly the girl was a workaholic. Probably she’d worked late into the night and now she was working her most likely cute ass off on her first weekend here for people she didn't even know. Was that impressive or just deranged? Definitely impressive was the fact that there was not a hair out of place and that her T-shirt was still spot-free, which was almost impossible at the grill.

“It's just a one-room apartment and I don't own much. I like to keep things simple,” she answered on another shrug.

I liked that. I couldn’t stand the way chicks overstuffed their closets.

“Still, why did you volunteer?”

I couldn’t help myself, I had to keep asking her questions. Aside from the fact that I’d been holed up too long lately and felt like company for a change, she was the first female stranger my age that didn’t give me social jitters.

“Well, I had to move this weekend,” Ingrid answered after she’d checked on the steaks, “since the lease of my old apartment was up and my new one wasn’t free sooner. Amy had warned me ahead of time that this fair was a long-standing engagement for her and that she wouldn’t have much time for me, so I asked her to sign me up along with her. I was supposed to be at the wine bar with her but apparently they needed someone at the grill more urgently.”

An uncomfortable expression seemed to flicker across her face but it was gone so quickly that I wasn’t sure if it was there at all. Still, I felt bad for her being separated from the only person she knew at the Fair and I itched to slap whatever moron was responsible for the last-minute change. Of the 160 registered members, only about twenty showed up to volunteer for UDS events and it got less every year. I knew I shouldn’t talk but at least I had a reason. Well, kind of.

“So now you’re spending the weekend separated from your friend after all, huh?”

“True,” Ingrid agreed with another shrug and a small smile, “but everyone is being amazingly friendly, and Mike and Almond are a terrific team.”

“Good for you.”

Crap, someone had just gotten in line behind me and Mike and Almond had reported back for duty.

“I’ll let you know when your order’s ready,” Ingrid turned back to me after she’d exchanged a few words with the two.

“OK.” People sucked. I knew that before but those behind me truly sucked ass.

“Hey, maybe I’ll see you later when I have a break,” Ingrid added with another smile. It looked genuine and I drew hope. I hated I had to draw hope these days.

“Yeah, maybe,” I nodded at her, determined to look unfazed.

Five minutes later, Ingrid’s and my fingers touched again when she handed over my plate but that was all the contact we had. Firmly shoving her to the back of my head – I wasn’t waiting for her to go on break or anything – I looked up some old friends, had a few beers and began to relax. And yeah, I checked on the line at the grill a few times but that didn’t mean anything.

An hour or so had passed when I suddenly spotted Ingrid heading towards me. Well, not me but in my general direction since that bench by oak no. 40 was close to the restrooms. Damn. Although I’d taken a guess at her figure, now I knew I should have bet a thousand euros on it. The pair of legs shown off by her mini shorts were made to be stared at, which meant I did, as did Carsten, who was sitting next to me. At 26, four years younger than me, we’d never had much to do with each other growing up, but in my last years here at the UDS he had become a good friend. Well, a friend I currently had the urge to kick in the nuts for gawking at the girl I suddenly felt I had the only right to gawk at.

“Who was that?” I heard Carsten next to me and I fully expected a thread of drool dangling from the scruff in his face that might eventually become a beard. Yep, he definitely deserved a kick in the crown jewels.

“Ingrid. She’s a friend of Amy’s who’s just moved here. And she’s too tall for you,” I added for good measure. Carsten was a measly 5’8”.

“But not for you, huh?” he grinned back at me. “Oh, she’s back,” he jerked his chin in the direction of the restrooms and my head snapped up. Just when she made a move to turn back towards the grill, she caught sight of us and stopped in her tracks. Only now I noticed that she was wearing flat-soled sneakers, which meant that she was definitely not adding to her height. She seemed to hesitate briefly but then drew towards us.

“Hey,” she smiled and I hastily straightened so I wasn’t leaning backwards. I always made sure these days but I couldn’t let myself slip up – not ever and especially not in front of her. Huh, even after several hours at the grill she still looked neat. Almost too neat, as if she always assigned each hair their spot in the morning and forbade them to move by threat of scissors.

“Hey Ingrid,” I greeted her, hoping Carsten could take a hint. To his credit, he got up, introduced himself but added he’d just spotted some friends and would catch up with us later. Narrowing her eyes for a moment as if debating if she should take his spot, Ingrid finally did and turned to face me. Next, her eyes flickered over to the grill again and her long-fingered hands began to fidget. Now that she had a full view of me, apparently she didn’t seem to feel as comfortable in her skin anymore. Or was she always this restless?

“Are you on break now?” Lame, yeah, but I’d been out of the game for a while. God only knew how I’d managed to make her laugh earlier.

“Yes,” Ingrid nodded, looking grateful for me taking the initiative, “Mike and Almond all but forced me to take one but now I’m glad they did.”

She let her head fall back, leaned back on her palms and stretched out those impossibly long legs. Her eyes closed and her face smoothed as a wave of bliss seemed to roll over her. “Oh Lord…”

‘Oh Lord’ indeed. Images of the same words and pose in a quite different setting were pouring in, and it was taking all of my willpower to hold it together. She looked almost beautiful when she wasn’t so focused.

“Sounds like you were overdue for a break.”

Her eyes opened, still full of a look that wouldn’t have looked out of place in that setting I’d just imagined. “You’re right, I was.” The right corner of her mouth lifted.

“You handled the customers like a pro,” I continued, hoping to keep her talking. I was still jitter-free and I wanted more of that. The other corner of her mouth lifted and I was treated to that kid-like grin again.

“I’m used to the rush and to handling money because I worked as a cashier during college,” Ingrid smiled up at me, straightening again, “which means I cheated.”

Her phrasing made me smile. Not many things did these days. “Cheater or not, they sure can use someone with decent math skills around here. I’m glad you’re pitching in. So, I heard you moved here for a new job?”

“Yes, I work for a company that sells bathroom lines. I used to work there as an assistant store manager but then a job in quality assurance opened up at headquarters, so I took it because I wanted a new challenge and a change of scenery.” Was I over-imagining things or did she look as if she’d just stepped into some dog shit on memory lane? “But enough about me.” Uh-oh, not words I liked to hear. “How many members does this Society have?”

OK, that one I could answer. “Almost 160 but only about twenty or thirty active ones. J and I were practically born into it. We grew up here,” I added for good measure, hoping she wouldn’t ask about any active participation on my part. The UDS ran a small bar on the second floor of the assembly building, open on every Tuesday and Friday night, where I used to volunteer regularly. I would have long have taken over a few shifts again if that hadn’t meant exposing myself to hours of teasing and unsolicited advice. I just wasn’t ready.

“And both of you still live here,” Ingrid nodded now with a wistful expression. “Your brother mentioned that your parents had a new, age-friendly house built for them and signed over the old one to you two. You can count yourself extremely lucky to have parents like yours and to be living in a place like this. I love these simplistic houses and the history of this area.”


Although many people told us that, they didn’t do it the way she just had, with almost palpable longing and genuine warmth. It was the exact same way I felt about our neighborhood, and without knowing it, she’d just risen another notch in my opinion of her. At the same time, though, by mentioning my parents she’d woken up the old guilt again that I thought I’d punched to a pulp and buried in a deep hole. My parents were the best but I’d never let them know, especially not in the past one and a half years.

They’d moved back in to take care of me when I was released from the hospital but I’d kicked them out as soon as I was strong enough to do so. Our relationship was still strained and I knew I should do something about it while they were still alive – they’d had us late and were in their seventies now – but which grown man could take their constant babying and worrying? Was it any wonder I only talked to them on the phone every two months or so?

I threw another mental punch and that old guilt keeled over. Now I could concentrate on Ingrid again, whose face had meanwhile changed into a teasing grin.

“I just realized what an ingenious strategy that is, having your parents move out so you wouldn’t have to admit that you’re still living with them at age 30.”

“And who might have thought of that strategy, huh?” I grinned back at her, more intrigued by her now than ever. Even though she could see all of me now, plus knew about my illness, she not only refused to wear kid gloves but actually continued slapping them in my face like she had earlier. Well, I was definitely up for some verbal dueling, it had been way too long since I’d had any.

I told her I worked from home, doing energy-saving calculations for photovoltaic and solar thermal systems for private homes. Although my family thought I should be grateful my company gave me that home-office job when I’d discovered I couldn’t deal with people anymore, it was a definite step down, not just money-wise, and my fingers still itched to punch my boss for that look of pity when he’d invited me over for that meeting. Before I got sick, I’d visited the sites, checked for the best spot to place the panels and advised customers on other measures to exploit their full energy-saving potential. I’d also attended tech fairs and trainings on a regular basis to keep myself updated. I still did that with articles from branch magazines and the internet but that only got you so far.

But I didn’t tell Ingrid any of that, I was lucky she didn’t ask any questions I wasn’t ready to answer. She seemed genuinely interested in learning more about the UDS, although every now and then her eyes flickered over to the grill. At some point we started squabbling again, this time about women in management. She was feisty, competitive, stubborn and couldn’t stand being wrong. I would have loved to keep poking her, in more than one way, since it had been way too long since I’d had any of that, too. It felt so good to talk to her that I didn’t notice the time pass. Only when I saw Mike waving his hands from the grill frantically and we caught sight of the growing line of people, Ingrid turned and jumped to her feet.

“Oh crap, I’ve been gone way too long! Sorry, Jonas, I need to get back.”

“It’s OK,” I shrugged, hoping I looked like I couldn’t care less, “maybe we can catch up after your shift.”

Yeah, see you later,” she threw over her shoulder before she took off running. Actually running. That girl seriously needed to chill. We Germans might be famous for our work ethic but she was taking things too far.

What she was also taking too far was drinking, as I discovered with some surprise later that evening. When her shift had ended at seven, that pain in the ass Amy had immediately stuck to her like a burr and the two of them had sat down with some people I was in no mood to meet. Our street and Society were awesome but that didn’t mean that we didn’t have our share of dipshits. At last, sometime around ten, Amy and Ingrid made their way over to Julian and me at the beer stand. Actually, Amy was making Ingrid’s way for her since Ingrid seemed pretty shaky on her feet. The two were quite a sight, with Amy being more than an entire head shorter and a lot fuller, especially in the front.

“Hey Jonas,” Amy smiled as she never would have if she’d been sober. She was a bundle of energy and had that touchy-feely thing going on that I’d never cared for even before I’d gotten sick, but I’d quickly made her learn no keep her hands to herself. Now, however, stoked up by a few drinks, she might just have forgotten everything I’ve taught her. That girl was a barnacle. It wasn’t that she didn’t have a life, she just lived it at our place. Right now, though, I was grateful she was there because she was keeping Ingrid steady.

“Hey Amy.” I even mustered what passed for a smile but my eyes shifted back to Ingrid immediately. “How much did you let her have?”

“Only four measly glasses of Ramazotti, someone was buying rounds,” Amy protested, “she just can’t handle her liquor.”

“If you knew that, why did you let her drink?”

“Relax, Joe,” my brother put in, “I think Ingrid’s having fun.”

“I am,” Ingrid grinned at both of us and damn if it wasn’t even hotter than the one she’d given me earlier. Loose and relaxed suited her to perfection.

“Fun enough to dance with me?” J grinned at her, but Ingrid shook her head so vehemently that it took all of Amy’s pathetic strength to keep her swaying friend on her feet.

“I don’t dance but I’m tired anyway, I think I’ll go home.”

Since she didn’t slur her words yet, I was positive she’d just said ‘I don’t dance’. Why the hell not?

“I don’t think you’ll be doing much ‘going’,” Julian laughed and I agreed with him.

“I’ll walk you,” I offered before anyone else pounced.

“It’s not exactly far,” Ingrid chuckled with another of those funny-as-shit kid grins, “I can manage.”

“I was planning to go home anyway.”

She was my only jitter-free person, so she was mine. Eventually, I always got what I wanted. Obviously, I also got what I didn’t want but that was beside the point. If this non-jitter thing with her lasted, I had to get to know her better. It might be worth a shot even though she seemed a little too uptight for my taste. A big, quiet breakfast would help me get a good start tomorrow – surely the girls would want to enjoy their first morning here by themselves rather than at our place – and if all went well, I’d get to spend some time with Ingrid tomorrow night after her shift.

“See her home safely then, Casanova, OK?” Amy grinned at me, throwing in a wink, something she would never have dared in a sober state. I fought the urge to throw something back at her Julian would give me shit about for a week and simply took my place by Ingrid’s side. Damn, I’d been right about what she was hiding under that T-shirt. Nothing but perfect, toned curves. Painfully aware of how long it had been since I’d had an arm around a girl, I nodded at my brother and Amy and slowly set off.

Chapter 2: Who are you?

# Ingrid #

Those eaves above me were practically crooking a finger at me and smiling in sly anticipation of me hitting my head against them with a resounding bang. Who would place a bed here of all places? Oh, that’s right, a short person would. This was Amy’s house, which explained why the unfamiliar furniture silhouettes I could just make without my glasses didn’t exactly aid me in my quest for orientation. This was the second strange room in which I was waking up in a row, yesterday’s being my own new apartment. How had I ended up at Amy’s when the last thing I remembered was a bear-like sexagenarian hugging me at the wine stand? I was even dressed in my sleep shorts and T-shirt, and for a panicky moment I debated on the likelihood of another person having taken care of the sartorial logistics. Hopefully Amy would know.

Slowly I sat up in bed, careful to avoid hitting my head, and welcomed the absence of any physical traces of yesterday’s drunken dissipation. I hardly ever drank and when I did, it didn’t take much to rob me of my faculties, in particular on an almost empty stomach.

Empty stomach, oh crap. Since I had successfully put another Starve Day behind me, I had theoretically earned myself a Stuff Day today, but since I was having breakfast with a witness today, I could hardly indulge. I could already hear that witness up and running downstairs, and although I should have been grateful for her protective company, all I felt towards her was resentment. I had worked hard for the roaring hunger that felt as if some alien creature was clawing to get out of me. An apple for breakfast, watermelon for lunch and a herring sandwich we also sold at the grill (80 + 150 + 300 kcal) had been all I’d eaten the day before.

‘We’ sold at the grill? Funny how one night already made you feel like part of the community. Me, a welcome part of a group, who would have thought? Holding on to that positive thought and turning it over and over until I actually started to believe it, I was already feeling better about this new day. Brushing my palms across my ribs and protruding hip bones brought an even wider smile to my face. As challenging as it was to subside on only a few hundred calories every other day, few things compared to this feeling of triumph. Still woozy with hunger, pride and some residual intoxication, I peeled myself out of bed and pulled up the roll shutter, taking in the row of uniform facades with a smile. I hoped Amy would preserve the heritage for a while and not have an extension built like the other owners. Her house was located twelve houses down from JJ’s – my nickname for the two brothers – but on the other side of the street.

A glance at my phone informed me it was after 8:30 already. Hastily I grabbed my jean shorts, top and sweat jacket and padded down the wooden stairs to the stamp-sized bathroom, grinning at the thought that each house featured the exact same layout. At the Fair, they had showcased old newspaper prints, photos and also some old building plans. Aside from my guest room, there was another bedroom with a closet-like niche on the second floor and the basement housed the bathroom:

Amy came from a little village about half an hour from here, so she had been familiar with the city’s history and had had an eye on one of those tiny houses for a long time. She could count herself lucky that one of them had been put on the market last year in its original tiny state, and having loaded parents who had helped out with the finances and renovations hadn’t hurt either. Usually Amy and I took turns visiting each other at least once a year, but given all the renovations in her new home, she had been visiting me two years in a row. Despite my preference for right angles, low maintenance and energy efficiency, I had fallen in immediate like with her house and street from her photos, but now that I’d seen it and experienced what it was like to live in such a community, I was head over heels.

Ow. Said heels still hurt and they were in for another five-hour shift tonight, so I’d better start the new day with as big a breakfast as I could get away with. Who knew when I’d have time to eat again? Since I would be treating my hair and pores to the greasy fumes of the grill again tonight, I had already decided the night before to skip a shower and simply gathered my hair up in a ponytail. Then I washed my face and returned my glasses to their accustomed perch. Due to the grease and heat at the grill I would switch to contacts later.

I’d liked those red nerd frames from the moment I’d chosen them and they were the best part of my face. As many issues with myself as I may have had, I had long ago made peace with the fact that my face was interesting rather than beautiful, meaning I actually felt more comfortable with my glasses on than without them. This way, people knew what they saw was what they got, whereas when I wore my contact lenses they tended to credit me with the party and relaxation skills I simply did not possess.

A minute later I joined Amy in the kitchen. She and I had never been BFFs. In fact, the last time I’d had a best friend was in seventh grade before puberty had wreaked havoc with our group dynamic and appearances, bestowing its best attributes like curves and pheromones on a select few, leaving others like me with acne, greasy hair and gangly limbs. Since then, friendships had never come easy to me, but for some reason, Amy had seen something in me when we had met at college and we had remained close.

She was already dressed in her usual jeans and tank top and her enviably long blond hair was secured on top of her head with clamps. Her face and posture bore the marks of alcohol and lack of sleep like war scars as she smiled up at me over the rim of her omnipresent accessory, a coffee mug.

“Hey boozehound.”


She knew better than to offer me coffee since I’d never developed a taste for it but she had set out a glass of orange juice for me which I gulped down gratefully.

“What, that’s all I’m getting for breakfast?” I asked with a dramatic pout after I had drained the glass. It was Stuff Day, not that she knew, but the absence of any breakfast paraphernalia was surprisingly inhospitable. Amy laughed at my expression and I tucked my lips back in.

"We’re having breakfast at JJ’s. You don't remember?”

“Uh, I assume that plan was made after nine o’ clock?”

“Yeah,” Amy grinned before something caused her to lose her humor. “Uh, speaking of which, do you recall Jonas walking you home?”

“Oh.” True, I’d met Julian’s brother yesterday. “Uh, no, I don’t. I was actually wondering about how I made it back in one piece.”

Now that Amy had mentioned his name, the significance of our meeting set back in. From what she had told me about him when she’d met the two brothers last September, I knew the two were not exactly friends, and yesterday I’d been anticipating our encounter with more dread than anything. However, from what I recalled from last night, I was actually looking forward to seeing Jonas again. He had been friendly and inclusive, even flirty, but not in an off-putting way.

Meanwhile, Amy was still staring at me. “Uh, do you remember talking to Jonas during your break? I saw you two sitting on that bench by the old oak.”

“Of course I do, only the events after 9 or so are a bit hazy to nonexistent.”

She laughed at that but again, her expression sobered quickly. “So, what did you think of him?”

I reflected back on the man with the nondescript face and odd weight distribution, the ‘onion guy’. The mere thought of our first encounter at the grill made me smile.

“From what you told me about him,” I told her at last, “I didn't expect him to be so... normal. He was easy to talk to and argue with and not at all the mope or snarling beast I had expected after your stories.”

Amy’s mien clouded over. “Trust me, he can be both. Julian told me he's always had a temper but apparently his mood swings have gotten worse with all he's been through. Apparently he was having a good day yesterday but I wouldn’t count on him having another today. I mean, I hope he does but I doubt it.”

“You care about him, don't you?” I probed at last, drawing closer to her. I wasn’t a spontaneous hugger like her but just in case she needed it, I wanted to be there for her.

“I do in theory because he’s J’s brother,” she grumbled, “but the truth is that I’m always glad when he stays upstairs. He’s never liked me and at some point the feeling became mutual. Of course, his health issues could be responsible for his animosity but I have no way of knowing since I met him shortly after his surgery. It’s gotten a lot better since then but all in all I still don’t know him much.”

Since Amy still didn’t reach out for me, all I did was settle one arm around her briefly as her eyes clouded over, her mind evidently wandering back to last fall when she had taken the job at a high-end hotel and met Julian, her soul mate, for lack of a less corny term. Jonas had been released from the hospital three months before and his care had been taking his toll on Julian. Amy had tried to be there for him as much as she could but there was nothing she’d been able to do for Jonas since he couldn’t stand anyone close except for his brother. Although some parts were still incomprehensible to me, I was familiar with most of their tragic story since Amy had unburdened to me on the phone often enough:

In October two years ago, Jonas had started to gain weight in his face as well as on his neck and belly even though his diet hadn’t changed. Never the type to seek a doctor’s advice or at least Google his symptoms, at first he had blamed his stress and holiday eating. Julian had worried about him, of course, but only after he had returned from his four-week trip to Peru and saw how many more pounds his brother had piled on during his absence, had he finally convinced Jonas to consult a doctor. The first one only told him to change to a healthier lifestyle. Jonas had, of course, tried that before but had soon fallen into depression, one of his condition’s further symptoms, and added to his continuous weight gain through comfort eating.

It was shocking how, even in the age of Google, it had taken three more months until a competent physician finally diagnosed him with Cushing’s Disease. This was an extremely rare condition involving an excess of a hormone called cortisol in the blood level caused by a pituitary tumor. Luckily, it had still been small enough so it could be removed through his nose, after which he had had to undergo treatment for the depression caused by the hormonal imbalance. Since then he had pretty much isolated himself from everyone.

When the big, easygoing man had revealed himself to be Jonas yesterday, I’d struggled to reconcile that story with his flirtatious demeanor. In fact, the longer we had talked, the more I’d been able to concentrate on what was in front of my eyes, not the back of my head.

“Well, I’m glad that he came to the Fair yesterday. Like I said, he was easy to talk to, just like your Julian, and pretty entertaining, too. I’m actually looking forward to squabbling with him again. I’m glad we’re seeing both of them for breakfast.”

He’s not my Julian,” Amy rolled her eyes, “and just as a heads-up: Jonas won’t be glad to see us for breakfast, even if he’s having another good day today, because he’s extremely particular about his privacy.” Then she brightened. “Or maybe it’ll be different today. He seemed to like you.”

“At least yesterday.”

I may have been friendly, smart and interesting to talk to initially but I wasn’t someone to forge long-term friendships. People just didn’t take to me. Yet for some reason Amy had proved to be the exception when she had sat down next to me in a lecture and struck up a conversation. Julian, in turn, seemed like the kind of person who could be friends with anyone, so I already had two people in my corner in this new phase of my life, more than I had anticipated. The likelihood that Jonas would become a third, however, was minute after Amy's warning just now, and suddenly I wasn’t looking forward to breakfast as much anymore. Now I was treated to another eye roll.

“As always the optimist. Come on, let’s go, we’re due at JJ’s at nine.”

The sun, which had been smiling broadly over the whole street yesterday, didn’t seem to have bothered cracking an eye yet despite the advanced hour. I pulled up the zipper of my thin sweat jacket and once again realized how much more you felt the cold when you had nothing inside you to warm you up. Baggier clothes might have kept me warmer than my figure-hugging ones but I worked hard enough to keep this one of my few assets, so show it off I would.

Two elderly neighbors waved to us as we drew closer to JJ’s house and Amy gave them a wide smile back. Apparently she was already an accepted part of this community. When we arrived at JJ’s, Julian greeted us with a hug and a sparkle in his blue-gray eyes. His tanned, sinewy body clad in faded shorts and a ratty T-shirt didn’t look as if it was at all familiar with the concept of tiredness.

“Hey, nice glasses,” he grinned at me in the neither-high-nor-low voice I recalled from the day before. From two people, actually.

“Thanks,” I grinned back at him. It was practically impossible not to like a man whose mouth always seemed to curve up at the corners. At 28, he was the same age as Amy and I and looked like the type of person who would never age much despite his predilection for voluntary exposure to the elements while traveling exotic places each January. Julian waved us inside and, just like the day before, it felt eerily like stepping into Amy’s house.

“I would never have guessed that you work in a hotel,” I teased Julian as I surveyed the round wooden table with the mismatched china and cheese and cold cuts still in their plastic packaging, “I was expecting elaborately decorated silver platters.”

“Just because my job is to fulfill our particular guests’ even more particular wishes doesn’t mean I let them rub off on me,” he grinned back at me. “I like to keep things simple.”

“Just like me,” I nodded with rising appreciation for Amy’s friend, “everything I own fits into a one-room apartment and for every new item I add to my earthly possessions something else needs to go.”

“I’ll never get people like you,” Amy put in with a shake of her head, “I need stuff.”

“And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Julian smiled at her and hugged her with one arm, the look they exchanged one of easy camaraderie without a trace of flirtation. I failed to suppress a stab of ungracious, unwarranted jealousy. Amy was my friend and I should have been happy she could be friends with a man, especially in a job as demanding as hers. When they had met, they had attracted each other like magnets. A veritable dream team, not only on a personal but also on a professional level, the two had even been able to convince the hotel management to always assign them the same shift.

“Can’t you even give me crap once in a while for being so girly?” Amy now sighed up at Julian with an eye roll.

“Why should I? It doesn’t bother me,” Julian shrugged.

“Nothing bothers you,” Amy shot back, but with a fond smile before she turned to me. “Honestly, I’ve never seen him get annoyed over anything or anyone.”

Suddenly something stole into her face that I had witnessed several times before. Uh-uh, not a chance, there would be no match-making just because she thought she had just found a second commonality between Julian and me. That called for an immediate change of subject. I turned to Julian.

“Do you think your brother will join us for breakfast?”

Although I still felt somewhat daunted by Amy’s warning, I drew courage from the fact that the man I’d met at the Fair yesterday couldn’t have surprised me more pleasantly. His face had lit up when he had talked about the community in the street and his—oh, those heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs could only mean that Julian could save himself the trouble of answering because the object of my thoughts was about to make an appearance.

When he did, I was hit by the same impression I’d had when I’d met the two brothers for the first time: both of them possessed different facial features but both sets were arranged in such a nondescript way that it would have been impossible to pick them out of a lineup by a facial composite. Still, both were pleasant to look at.

Jonas’s face was oblong like his brother’s but paler and rounder, obviously, and his hair straight and black instead of brown and slightly curly. Still, the way he was wearing it shaven at the sides and on top about an inch long complimented his features well. His eyes were a clear blue and… currently shooting daggers at Amy. Had I thought I was looking forward to seeing his face again? I was, but I meant the face I remembered from the day before, not that scowling mask of unveiled resentment. Apparently Amy’s heads-up had been well warranted, and I quickly tried to catch her eye in order to signal to her whether we shouldn’t opt for a change in location for breakfast after all.

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