Excerpt

Some Assembly Required

Chapter One: DEL TORO

BENJI SERIOUSLY considered not answering when his phone rang, but he knew that would just delay the inevitable. He scowled at his mother’s face on the display and swiped to answer.

“Hey, Ma.”

“Is this a good time? I can call back if you’re busy.”

She sounded so hopeful.

Benji sighed. “No, you’re not interrupting anything. I was just cleaning.”

“Benjamin Goss, you’re thirty-two years old! This is the prime of your life. You should not be home cleaning on a Saturday night.” Somehow his mother managed to put the full weight of her disappointment in her voice. It wasn’t a surprise. She’d been long-distance shaming him for years.

Benji shifted the phone, sandwiching it between his ear and his shoulder so he could keep scrubbing at the spot Mr. Whiskers had marked while he’d been out grocery shopping earlier.

“Dating’s a whole new ballgame now, Ma. It’s not just Saturday night anymore. People go out all week long.”

Not that he’d been out on a date lately. But he was well aware that, theoretically, people went out for midweek drinks or dinners to take some of the pressure off. A Saturday-night date came with expectations. That was some serious shit. A low-pressure Tuesday or Wednesday was much more his speed. Not that he was going on any midweek coffee dates, either. But he could, if he were so inclined.

“Benjamin, you have to get out there. Date someone your own age this time. I know you miss Charles, but—”

“Nope,” Benji said, stopping that before it got dangerous.

His mom had never liked his ex, Charles. For starters, Charles was ten years older, and Benji knew his mom blamed the age gap for how set in his ways Charles had been. But Benji knew the truth. It hadn’t been Charles’s age. It had been Benji’s own inability to say no to anything. Benji desperately wanted to please people, and as a result he’d let Charles walk all over him. In the end it had landed him in an apartment he didn’t want with a cat he was allergic to—and who peed on the carpet.

“At least tell me you’re looking. Didn’t Alyssa offer to set you up with one of her friends last week?”

His sister had indeed offered to match him up with a friend of a friend. Benji had even gotten as far as googling the guy, and he’d been pretty hot. Definitely Benji’s type. A little older, strikingly handsome, smart. But they’d never gotten past the texting stage. The guy had suggested a Saturday-morning farmer’s market outing as their first meeting, and that had sent alarm bells ringing like klaxons in Benji’s head.

Saturdays with Charles had always been reserved for farmer’s markets and lazy meals that took hours to cook and almost as long to consume. They’d load up their canvas bags and ride their quaint vintage bicycles down to the market to stock up on all manner of organic vegetables Benji couldn’t afford now that he was living solely on his meager teacher’s salary.

It wasn’t a hardship, though. He didn’t miss kale. Or rutabagas. Or the bitter-hot arugula Charles had always insisted they get, since putting spinach in salad was pedestrian. Benji was a hot dog and potato salad kind of guy. He’d branched out and gotten the Italian meatballs when he’d been furniture shopping at CASA a few weeks ago, and those had been pretty damn tasty too. Nothing free-range or organic about them. He’d savored every last preservative.

“It didn’t work out,” he said diplomatically.

“Oh, Benjamin.”

He rolled his eyes and poured his frustration into scrubbing the carpet. What would Charles say if he could see him now? He’d probably gasp in horror at the sight of Benji using heavy-duty chemicals on their carpet. Charles was a firm believer in natural remedies and nontoxic cleaners, but that wasn’t going to cut it with Mr. Whiskers’s tireless war against the carpet. Benji had tried vinegar and then baking soda up until he realized that Charles wasn’t there anymore, so why the hell should he suffer through that when big agro business made wonderful chemical compounds that would clean the mess much more effectively?

It was a pointless endeavor anyway, since the damn cat would simply circle back and mark the spot again as soon as it was dry, but it had to be done. He’d long since kissed his apartment deposit good-bye, but trying to maintain some general level of cleanliness made him feel like he was at least putting up a valiant fight.

Benji could see Mr. Whiskers out of the corner of his eye. He was sitting on the couch, grooming himself and watching Benji clean with a judgmental look.

“It’s not a big deal, Ma. I’m fine.”

She sighed heavily, and Benji sat back on his heels and braced for the big guns.

“I’m not getting any younger, Benjamin, and neither are you. You need to be settling down and thinking about having children. I want my grandchildren to know me and your father before we die.”

Benji looked over at the newest addition to the apartment. He’d put the DEL TORO bookcases together last weekend, and they took up the entire wall. He’d filled them with the book collection he’d kept in storage for the last two years because Charles had thought paperbacks were tacky, interspersed with knickknacks and his absolute favorite part—almost a dozen frames that held pieces of art his students had given him. It was chaotic and mismatched and 100 percent him, and he loved it.

“I spend my entire day with twenty-three six-year-olds. Trust me when I say my biological clock isn’t ticking.”

That wasn’t entirely true. He’d love to have kids someday. It was a huge part of the reason he and Charles had broken up—Benji wanted kids and Charles adamantly said he didn’t. But right now the thought of taking care of anyone other than himself and the cantankerous Mr. Whiskers was overwhelming. He’d never lived on his own before, thanks to roommates and then moving in with Charles, and it took some getting used to. He was a full-fledged adult now. He deserved some time to enjoy that before complicating his life again with a boyfriend, let alone a child.

He’d even splurged a bit and recklessly spent his meager savings on a living room suite that didn’t look like it came straight out of a frat house or college dorm when he’d replaced all the furniture Charles had taken with him when he moved out. His CASA SICILY sofa wasn’t as nice as Charles’s hand-upholstered settee, but it was more comfortable. And he didn’t have to feel bad about eating pizza on it, which was another plus.

His mother clucked her tongue, and Benji could picture her shaking her head as she leaned against the counter in the kitchen he’d eaten countless meals in back home. He knew she’d be there because she had a phone with an actual cord. She was convinced that cordless phones caused cancer, so she had to be leaning up against the avocado-green countertop right now.

“Well, you still need to put yourself out there. I don’t like the thought of you all alone,” his mother said with a sniff.

Benji stashed the cleaner under the sink and washed his hands, then dried them on his pants because he never remembered to buy paper towels. Maybe he needed to go back to CASA and get some dish towels. It would give him an excuse to have the meatballs again.

“I’m not alone, Ma. I have dinner with Alyssa once a month, and I talk to Mrs. Jiminez in 3A every day when I take her the newspaper and her mail. And I have colleagues at school. The other kindergarten teachers and I go out for dinner at least once a week. I have people. You don’t have to worry about me.”

He was careful not to say friends because those were in short supply these days. He and Charles had been dating exclusively for a while when Charles had been offered an assistant professorship in Atlanta. They’d seen it as a sign that it was time to take their relationship to the next level and start over in a new city together. Getting a place with Charles had been fabulous. They’d been wrapped up in each other, ridiculously in love… or at least Benji had thought they were. Life had been great. They’d made friends and settled in comfortably. But after their split a few years later, he’d realized that all the friends he’d made had been Charles’s coworkers. Not surprisingly, they’d stopped calling and coming by after Charles left him, probably for some PhD candidate he’d been seeing on the side who could promise him that he would never want kids.

So yes, Benji could use some more friends. But he was getting there. And in the meantime, he had Mrs. Jiminez and Mr. Whiskers.

“You could move back to Boston,” his mother said, and Benji grimaced at the hope in her voice.

He had four brothers who still lived within a mile radius of their childhood home, and Benji had no desire to join them. His sister Alyssa had escaped a few years ago and now lived only an hour away from Benji, and their mother was constantly begging them to move back east.

“I have a job here, Ma. I’m settled.”

It wasn’t strictly true, but it didn’t matter. He liked it where he was well enough, but there wasn’t much keeping him here. He could teach kindergarten anywhere. But leaving felt like letting Charles win, and Benji wasn’t going to do that. For once in his life he was going to take a stand, even if it meant living in a place he didn’t love with a cat he frankly hated.

“Are you at least checking the online dating site Alyssa set up for you?”

Benji rubbed at his temples, wondering how soon he could get away with ushering his mother off the phone. These weekly calls were killing him.

“I wish she hadn’t told you about that,” he muttered. “Yes, I still get the e-mails. No, there hasn’t been anyone worth following up with.”

Mostly it had been spam and inquiries about the size of his penis. He didn’t think of himself as a very private person, but some things just weren’t necessary to talk about before the third or fourth date, if ever.

“You’re too young to live like an old man,” his mother said. “You need to live a little. Go out with someone even if they don’t look like the perfect match. You don’t have to approach every man like he’s the One, Benjamin. There’s something to be said for having a little fun. God knows, before I met your father, I—”

And there it was: his limit.

“Ma, I’ve gotta go. I forgot I promised I’d take 2B’s dog for a walk tonight. I’ll talk to you next week, okay?”

“Ben—”

He hung up before she could protest. He knew from experience that once his mother started down the nostalgia road, there was no getting her back, and he did not need to hear about her sowing her wild oats again. Once had been traumatic enough.

Besides, he really did need to take 2B’s dog out. They were out of town for the weekend, and even though he didn’t know them well, he’d volunteered when they’d mentioned needing to find a pet-sitter.

Good Deed Goss strikes again, he thought as he grabbed his keys. That had been his high school nickname. There had even been a pretty well-done caricature on one of the bathroom stalls of him wearing a Canadian Mountie uniform à la Dudley Do-Right.

Mr. Whiskers hopped off the couch and stalked over to the spot Benji had just cleaned, full of swagger and ill intent.

“I could always take you to the pound, you know. I’ll do it, if you keep peeing on the carpet.” Benji pointed his keys at him, but Mr. Whiskers didn’t even blink. Benji sighed. “Sure, call my bluff. It’s not like I’m allergic to you or anything, right? Because it would be crazy to keep a cat I don’t even like around, especially if he made me sneeze uncontrollably and ruined my carpet.”

Benji sneezed right on cue. “You’ll be the death of me, Mr. W,” he muttered as he rubbed his nose against his sleeve. He’d started taking heavy-duty antihistamines when Charles had adopted the cat three years ago, but they weren’t cutting it anymore.

He could take Mr. Whiskers to the animal shelter. True, he was technically Charles’s cat, but Charles was gone. He hadn’t taken Mr. Whiskers with him when he’d moved out six months ago because his new place didn’t allow pets. Benji was under no obligation to keep the damn cat.

But Mr. Whiskers was old, which meant he’d be euthanized instead of put up for adoption if Benji surrendered him. And as much as he hated the cat, he couldn’t do that to another living creature.

“If you pee on that while I’m gone, you’ll regret it,” he said menacingly, giving the cat one last glare before letting himself out.

 

THE LANCASTERS in 2B were pretty new to the building. The bonus was they didn’t know Charles, so Benji’s interactions with them never included stilted inquiries about how his ex was doing or pep talks like the ones he got from 4C about how he was better off without “the old guy with the hipster glasses.”

The downside was that they weren’t in the building directory, which meant when Benji managed to lock himself and Patches out of their apartment, he didn’t have a way to call them. He could kick himself for not getting their numbers before they left. What kind of pet-sitter was he, anyway? Way to be responsible. Maybe this becoming a full-fledged independent adult thing wasn’t as far along as he’d thought.

Not that it would have mattered—they were visiting Betta’s sister in Florida until tomorrow night, so it wasn’t like they could just pop back by. Benji didn’t even know the husband’s name, but he’d heard all about his difficulty keeping a job and a laundry list of his other faults from Betta. Not that he enjoyed the gossip. He frankly didn’t care, but it was impossible to shake Betta once she’d sunk her claws in. Plus, it would be rude not to take her up on her offer to come in for a cup of tea when she saw him in the hallway, right?

Patches jumped up on Benji’s leg, spreading mud from outside all over his pant leg. At least, Benji hoped it was mud. Was it even raining? He looked outside, grimacing when he saw it was bone dry. So probably not mud. Perfect.

Benji crouched down and scratched behind the border collie’s ears. “Hey, bud, I don’t suppose you know where your owners hide a spare key, do you?”

The dog stared back, its tongue lolling out for a second before swiping across Benji’s cheek. Ugh.

Benji wiped his sleeve against his face and stood up. He doubted the Lancasters would hide a key outside their door, and he knew from Betta’s bitchfests that she hated her neighbors in 2A and 2C, so there wasn’t much chance she’d have given one of them a key for safekeeping. The guy in 2D was a possibility, but he worked third shift so he wouldn’t be home till the morning.

“Guess you’re coming for a sleepover, Patches.”

Luckily he’d already fed the dog earlier, so he wouldn’t have to worry about going out to get him food tonight. He could figure that out in the morning after he had a chat with 2D to make sure he didn’t have a key. The Lancasters would be back tomorrow night anyway, so it wasn’t a huge deal.

The dog trotted along behind him, following the leash without a moment’s hesitation as Benji ran up a flight of stairs to his own apartment. If only Mr. Whiskers could be half this obedient, Benji thought as he opened his door.

“Sit,” he said firmly to Patches.

The dog plopped down on the new TUSCANY area rug Benji had brought home from his last pilgrimage to CASA. It looked perfect under the new TRENTO coffee table, and so far Mr. Whiskers had left it alone. Maybe he found the vibrant red pattern as offensive as his previous owner would have.

Patches bolted as soon as Benji unhooked his leash from the collar, which left Benji muttering about the utter uselessness of all pets. At least this confirmed he didn’t want a dog. He just wasn’t much of an animal person. When Mr. Whiskers went to the big scratching post in the sky, there was no way Benji would be replacing him with another pet.

That might be sooner than anticipated, given the way the dog went straight for him. Mr. Whiskers let out a howl the likes of which Benji had never heard before and lunged toward the bookcases, which were full of fragile glass knickknacks and irreplaceable art.

“Dammit, Patches,” Benji growled as the dog tried to scale the bookshelves as well in pursuit of the cat. He dove forward and managed to get a good hold on Patches’s collar, pulling him back.

“We don’t eat the cat,” he said sternly. He’s old. That means he’s probably too stringy to taste good, even if you could catch him.”

He didn’t let Mr. Whiskers in his bedroom, which was one huge improvement he’d made after Charles moved out. It was a cat-free zone, which meant he no longer woke up with his eyes half-swollen shut thanks to his allergies.

Patches could stay in there with him until he figured out what to do with him in the morning. The dog seemed a bit ashamed of himself, since he didn’t fight Benji as he dragged him over to the closed door.

“Don’t get on the bed,” he said as he pushed Patches inside and shut him in.

Mr. Whiskers had knocked over a vase and a picture frame in his frantic ascent, but other than that, the bookcase looked relatively unharmed. Benji could leave him there, but Mr. Whiskers wasn’t declawed, and he’d probably scratch up the finish if left to his own devices to get down.

“You’re a royal pain in my ass, you know that?” Benji said as he tried to grab him.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Whiskers wasn’t in the mood to come sedately. A whip of his tail sent Benji’s collection of Avengers figurines spiraling to the floor before the cat scurried to the far end of the shelf, just out of Benji’s reach.

Benji stood on his toes and managed to grab a bit of Mr. Whiskers’s fur before all hell broke loose. Patches ran into the room, probably thanks to the loose bedroom door latch that Benji hadn’t wanted to bother the building super about, and jumped up, nipping at Benji’s elbow.

Instead of climbing up higher, Mr. Whiskers apparently decided his best hope of survival was on Benji’s head. He made a flying leap and connected with a painful scrabbling of claws against Benji’s scalp.

It was enough of a surprise to send Benji stumbling into the bookcase. He heard the sound of shattering glass as something hit the floor, and his stomach swooped with the familiar sensation of falling as he started to go down.