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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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13 across

What's the answer, if it's so easy?

Her arms are lost under clothing, and her vision's blurring to close-ups (hair, eyes, a shoulder, a nose), and then someone shouts, Get a room, and they aren't as invisible as they'd thought.

He jumps backwards, and she laughs, looking around. Nobody. Cars drive past the end of the alleyway.

"We could, if you like," she says. "Get a room. I've got an hour left. There's a hotel round the corner."

"Yeah, go on then," he says after a moment.

She leans back a bit and looks at him. "We don't have to."

"No," he says, "that sounds okay."

He's looking over her shoulder, and she leans back further, into his field of vision.

"Sorry, not okay," he says, refocusing on her. "It sounds nice."

Check-in isn't till noon, but the attendant lets them up anyway. In the lift, she takes sidelong glances at the mirror and their meshed limbs, disentangling slowly when they reach the second floor. They hold hands along the corridor, then she squeezes and lets go so she can work the access card. The room's smaller than she expected, and brighter (sunlight through the window), and the bedspread's pink and orange.

She hears him shut the door.

They stand where they are, and look around.

"That's a spectacularly horrible quilt," she says.

"Mm. It matches the curtains though." He walks over to the window and touches them, and then looks out. From where she's standing she can only see blue sky.

She watches as he twists the curtain ties around his hand, and then untwists them, then she looks away when he turns around. "Not much here," she says, sitting down on the single chair to open drawers. "Bible." She stands up to try the wardrobe. "Spare pillows." The fridge has a jug of water and a carton of UHT milk, and the counter has teabags and instant coffee. "There's drinks."

"I'm okay," he says. "You go ahead though."

"Mm, I'm not really thirsty. And the coffee looks like it's up to the same standards as the bedspread," she adds, but she turns the kettle on anyway.

They haven't moved by the time it boils. She can't tell what he's thinking.

"So there are spare pillows," he says.

"Two of them."

"We could," he says, then stops and starts again. "We could build a fort."

"Yes," she says, quickly, and she grabs the extra pillows while he pulls the quilt off the bed, and then a sheet.

They skirt around furniture, staying on opposite sides, sidestepping when their paths cross, and she tries not to react when their hands touch. They tuck a sheet behind the bedhead, then drape it over a chair that they've lifted onto the mattress. The curtains aren't long enough to be useful, not unless they're unhooked from the rod, but the quilt makes a tunnel between the fridge and the chest of drawers, with pillows upended as support beams, and then he suggests a trapdoor, and she suggests a turret, but they've run out of materials. It's not a very good fort.

They climb in over opposite drawbridging towels. He lies down on his side, curled around the chair to fit his whole body in; she sits up on hers, legs crossed, her head giving the tented sheet a second peak.

"There, it's better from inside," he says, sheet-filtered sunlight fuzzing over his skin. She almost reaches out.

"I don't remember what you're supposed to do once you've built these," she says. "Maybe you read comics."

"Nobody reads comics," he says. "Don't be ridiculous. "

"I used to read comics," she says, raising her eyebrows.

"Weirdo," he says. "I thought everyone just watched cartoons."

"We didn't even have a television till I was fifteen, actually."

"You must have," he says.

"We didn't."

"That must have got you teased at school."

"As it happens," she says, "I was home-schooled."

"You weren't."

"I was too."

"Nobody's home-schooled."

"Well, I was."

They look at each other, then she laughs. "Weirdo," he says again.

"Show me what you normal people do with your forts, then," she says, wrinkling her nose.

"We check whether Transformers is on TV, and wait for somebody's mum to make pancakes."

"I don't think anyone's mum can get in here," she says. "We've got both the access cards."

"Okay then," he says, rolling onto his back, and the sunlight shifts, "we play games. I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with B."

She burrs air through her lips. "Come on," she says. "Give me a challenge."

"What's the answer, if it's so easy?"

She reaches through the chair to prod him in the side, and he arches his back to dodge, setting the chair wobbling. "Okay," he says. "I hear, with my little ear, something beginning with P."

She listens. An air conditioner; someone in the hallway. "People?"

"No."

Cars. Voices outside, chanting. "Protest?"

He looks theatrically downcast. "Yes." Then he perks up. "Okay, this one's good. I feel, with my little heel, something beginning with S."

She looks at his feet. He's still got his shoes on. "Sock."

"Oh. How'd you guess?"

She laughs and leans down a bit, resting on her elbow, enough to let the sheet stretch directly from the chair to the bedhead.

"Okay," he says, "now we do something else. Your turn to choose."

"We could have a drink."

"Didn't you say they looked horrible?"

"Yeah," she says, "but they're free. See how many cups we can drink in half an hour? Or you take the coffee and I'll take the tea. Race you to six."

"I think I like the Transformers plan more."

"We'd have to get out to find the remote control."

In the end they lie on their backs and look up at the sheet, hands not quite touching through the legs of the chair. "This still doesn't seem very structurally sound," she says. He shrugs, and the chair wobbles again.

The sunlight moves slowly, and they keep still, almost; just enough drift for the tips of their shoes to touch. "You should go soon," he says.

"We should probably fix the room up, too."

It only takes a couple of minutes to dismantle the fort. When they've left and she's closed the door to the room from the outside they hold hands along the corridor; in the lift on the way down, they slide away from eye contact, and rest heads on shoulders. They separate when the lift stops.

Outside the hotel, stragglers from the protest march scoop discarded leaflets from the ground. "So," she says, starting the sentence without any end in mind, hoping for an interruption.

"Mm," he says.

"That was nice," she says, and it's half a question.

"Yeah."

"I should get going, anyway."

"Yeah," he says again. "Where did you say you worked?"

She nods across the road. "There, actually. Mondays and Thursdays."

"Oh, right. I'm around this part of town all the time," he says. "We could get some coffee or something. Or go to a park." He looks at her. "Do home-school kids go to parks, or do you just sit in the back yard wearing knee-high socks?"

"We go to parks," she says, and tries to poke him in the side again.

He catches her hand. "They're better for eye-spy."

They don't look away as quickly this time; they pull each other into another blur, just for a few seconds, and then they separate and walk away, trying not to look backward over shoulders and not quite succeeding.