It's the sound of the phone ringing that startles Pete from a restless, shivering half-sleep he fell into only because his body just couldn't stay awake any longer.
He's not sure, but he thinks it might have been better if it was his own phone, not the neighbor's.
Eventually it clicks over to the answering machine, a generic, robotic message because the new tenant hasn't changed it yet.
After the beep, whoever's calling says, "Hey, it's me. I guess you're at work?" Her voice is tinny over the speaker, muffled through the wall. "Um. I just-- I wanted you to know, well, something came up." There is an uncertain pause as Pete stares at the ceiling, eyes dry behind the lids. "I'm sorry, I'm gonna have to cancel."
Unknown tenant's female friend -- girlfriend? sister? -- doesn't sound particularly sorry. As the line goes dead, Pete almost feels bad for the guy.
Pete lives in a shitty two-room apartment in a shitty area of Worcester, MA, a five minute walk from the traffic nightmare that is Kelley Square. He moved here from Chicago four years ago, not to get away from his parents -- they drive him crazy, but he loves them -- but to stop being such a burden for them (he's twenty-seven and at twenty-three had still been living with his parents; how pathetic was that?). Why he chose moving to Massachusetts instead of to a different part of Chicago, he has no idea.
When people ask, he says it seemed like a good idea at the time. It's not a lie.
Mostly Pete spends his days lazing about in his apartment; he doesn't have the energy he used to. Sometimes he plays shitty bass for his band, in small bars with names like The Hotel Vernon and Lucky Dog; he screams himself hoarse those nights, and actually sleeps. Sometimes he works, bartending nights at the Vernon and selling drunks and homeless men beer, malt liquor and vodka at McGovern's Package Store, sight distance down the street from the Vernon. Somehow Bob Bryar owns the Vernon, McGovern's and Harrahy's, another package store five minutes down the road; Pete thinks the liquor licenses are probably in different names, but doesn't ask questions. Bob's a quiet guy, but he's built like a professional linebacker and most people who piss him off leave the zip code pretty quickly and don't come back.
For a long time he kind of forgets he has a neighbor, in the same way you forget you have an arm or leg; it's there, but there's no reason to think of it, so you don't. Sometimes he hears snatches of conversation, sometimes music (always jazz, or Motown, or blues, occasionally punk or hardcore and even Michael Jackson and Prince; no top 40's hits, though, thank god), but mostly the simple sounds of living, movement, bits and pieces of a life that is distant from his own. It's hard to tell through the walls, but Pete thinks he might have a nice voice.
Pete doesn't even know his name until he checks his mailbox, one day, and finds a bill that is not his own.
The bill is addressed to Patrick Stump, and Pete thumbs the seal for a moment before slipping the envelope into Patrick's mailbox.
Patrick Stump, he thinks, and walks away.
The apartment building has a communal laundry room in the basement, small and dark, the cracked linoleum floors dirty and black where they meet the walls, the walls painted what once may have been a light, springy green but is now a color like fungus and flaking in huge chunks from the concrete. Against the far wall stand the washing machine and dryer, almost as old as he is and a color somewhere between wet clay and vomit, covered in peeling stickers, the backs brown where they've peeled off. Half of them are girly and pink, white unicorns with sparkling, pastel-rainbow manes and tails; the other half are huge, dinosaurs of all sorts with their names written across the bottoms in thick black print.
Pete used to think the stickers came from different kids. Then he met the old landlord's daughter, Vicky, who is as much one of the guys as she is one of the girls (maybe more, in fact). He thinks it's a sort of natural Murphy's Law-like protest against a) being named Victoria, of all things, and b) being a very, very sexy specimen of the female species. Pete would hit that, if he didn't know she could kick his ass.
He has laundry to do, though, and he carries it down to the basement in a beaten up old laundry basket, a light dusky pink with one of the handles broken.
He shoves it all into the washing machine without bothering to sort by color, dumps in a cap-load of whatever girly-smelling detergent Ryan's bought this time (Ryan lives on the floor above him, and refuses to use anything the landlord buys; eventually, Andy just stopped bothering), and cranks the dial.
He settles down to wait, iPod playing random music and sidekick open.
He gets into a text-war with Ryan about whether Britney Spears's music was better before or after fame drove her, in Pete's words, batshit insane (Pete says after, but Ryan vehemently believes she was better before), and compulsively pops mints until the washing machine finishes.
The dryer's broken, so he has to lug his wet laundry back upstairs. In the winter he just does it all at the laundromat across the street from McGovern's, but now it's warm and he can hang it out to dry from the clothesline between his fire escape and the next.
It's a gorgeous day, the air warm and lazy like honey, like molasses. The sky is an enormous blue bowl overhead, big in a way that makes him think of Regina Spektor, and the city is surprisingly quiet. He climbs out the window onto the fire escape, listening to the squeak of the pulley as he hangs his laundry from the heavy white string using the clothes pins he keeps a small box of just inside the window.
Despite the quiet, he can feel the city around him, buzzing with life just under the surface. It settles beneath his skin like soft cotton, and for a long time he lays out on the fire escape, feet dangling over the edge.
He falls asleep with the narrow bars digging into his back.
When he wakes, the sun is sinking slowly below the horizon, and the city rolls out from beneath the hill like water. The sky is awash with color, and the city is a contrast of purple shadows and orange glow, windows afire with sunset like liquid gold. Kids run screaming and laughing through the streets, and beyond the highway he can just see Kelley Square, interlocking lines of cars that glitter sharp and dangerous, horns blaring a staccato heartbeat.
He snorts, swinging his legs up over the edge and heaving himself to his feet.
To his surprise, the other line between his and Patrick's fire escape is hanging with clothes. Pete doesn't normally sleep heavily, if he sleeps at all, so he can't really help it if he stares for a long moment.
You can learn a lot from a person's laundry, Pete's noticed. Ryan, for example, has an obscene amount of scarves and dresses like Pete's grandfather; somehow, he makes it look fashionable. Ryan's boyfriend Brendon, who is quite possibly the most energetic person Pete has ever met and likely ever will, wears straight-legged girl jeans ("I have my mother's hips!" he will wail, until Ryan kisses him just to get him to shut up), and girl shirts and hoodies in either dark or obnoxiously bright colors.
Patrick, apparently, wears jeans, lots of polos and ratty old band T-shirts (Pete notices a Saves the Day one, a startling contrast against the Prince shirt right next to it), and some of the ugliest jackets Pete has ever seen.
Also interesting is the dinner Pete can smell wafting from Patrick's open window. He can see a small sliver of the dining table, and it is elegantly set, fancy plates and glasses with thick red wine that glimmers in the light from the candles Pete sees, flickering tongues of flame dripping red wax.
He also doesn't want to intrude, so he takes his laundry off the line and scrambles noisily into his room. His jeans snag on a nail, and he knocks his knee against the windowsill. "Fuck!" he says, and winds up in an inelegant heap on the floor.
From the doorway, Gabe laughs at him.
"Fuck you," Pete says, and climbs to his feet.
Gabe cackles, filling the doorway not because he's so broad but because all nine or so skinny feet of him are slouched against the doorframe. "Sorry," he says, all sly grin and white, white teeth. "I'm all Bill's tonight."
Pete fakes a shudder, grinning. "Yeah, no, then," he says, and laughs. "I don't feel like being bitch slapped."
Gabe laughs like a hyena, shoving his hands into the pockets of his trademark purple hoodie.
He stays just long enough for them to get into a serious debate on the merits of American vs. British accents in gay porn. On the way out the door he pauses to hump Pete's leg and plant a very loud, very wet kiss on his mouth before cackling again and loping off down the hallway.
Pete lays awake that night to the sound of Patrick fucking his girlfriend.
It is at once the strangest and hottest experience of his life.
He chews on his lip for most of it, but Patrick's voice soars golden and smoky over his girlfriend's, and it curls through Pete's veins, thick and sweet like honey. His hand is around his cock before he realizes he's moved.
Patrick comes on a high note that shivers down Pete's spine, and Pete comes so hard he thinks he blacked out for a minute.
He wonders what Patrick looks like.
It's another sleepless night for him, and he spends the night writing desperately in his notebook. The words are spilling from him, ripped like bile from his gut, and his wrist is aching but he can't stop writing.
His skin feels tight, thin, stretched too far over the bones. He thinks he might burst at the seams if he moves too quickly.
The night drags by, marked only by the tick-tock of the clock and the occasional bark of a dog and, once, even a siren. It screams along his nerves, sharp needle-ache through his skull.
Around 5:30AM he hears movement from Patrick's apartment, and he looks up in surprise. It is the deliberate movement of someone attempting quiet, too-loud and hesitant; he hears the sound of cloth on skin, the soft click of heels, the metallic rustle of keys.
The quiet click of the latch as someone closes the door.
Pete frowns, moving to his own door. He opens it quietly, and the girl whirls at the sound.
For a long moment they stare at each other.
Her skin is pale, her hair short and choppy and half-way between dye jobs. She's pretty, in a simple way. She chews desperately at her lip, and ducks her head when she leaves.
He glances at Patrick's door.
Suddenly, Pete doesn't want to write anymore.
It's nearing 9:00, Pete feeling drained and raw and staring blindly at the wall as thoughts whirlwind around each other in his head, when he hears Patrick begin to stir. He hears sheets rustling, whispering against skin, and the sudden stillness that means Patrick has noticed his girlfriend is gone.
There is a long moment of silence, and then Patrick calls, "Anna?" His voice is so small it breaks Pete's heart.
Biting his lip, Pete doesn't bother to put clean clothes on. He grabs his wallet and keys, shoves them into his pockets, and flees the apartment.
He finds himself at the coffee shop on Green St., Good as Gold. He's not sure how he made it through Kelley Square alive, a feat typically requiring a great deal of brain power, but whatever. He staggers through the door, drapes himself across the counter, and makes doe eyes at Jon Walker, Shift Manager.
"J Walk," he moans, "I need caffeinated goodness. Stat."
Jon raises an eyebrow and makes him the most amazing frothy, girly cappuccino ever. Pete asks Jon to marry him. Jon smiles, slow and lazy.
"I think Spencer might have a problem with that," he says, scratching idly at his beard as he slides into the chair across from Pete. His hair flops into his eyes.
Pete shudders, clutching his coffee protectively to his chest. Spencer is a prissy bitch, and he's fucking scary. Pete would rather swim naked in a tank of lobsters than he would piss off Spencer Smith.
Jon laughs, low and smooth and sliding calm over Pete's skin. "So, Pete Wentz," he says, "when was the last time you slept?"
"Yesterday," he says, which isn't a lie. He must look more strained than he thought, though, because Jon gives him a look, and he mumbles, "Afternoon, a couple hours," into his cappuccino. "I fell asleep on the fire escape."
It's not the first time Pete has done that, and Jon laughs again.
Jon doesn't push.
Pete returns an hour later to his apartment and feeling better in that way only Jon Walker can make you feel better. Half-way up the street he can hear old-school Backstreet Boys blaring from Ryan and Brendon's window, and below the window he laughs as the people across the street shout, "Turn that shit off!"
He can see Brendon dancing around on his fire escape in just a pair of skinny-leg girl jeans. Brendon's response is a cheerful, "Fuck off, asshole," and as he hangs their laundry out to dry he sings, voice rising high and clear even over the volume.
Grinning, Pete throws an empty beer can from the ground at Brendon's legs. The boy glances down, crows with laughter, and scrambles down the fire escape. Upon reaching the ground he throws himself at Pete, latching onto him like a monkey. He giggles, planting a wet kiss on Pete's nose and sings along with the Backstreet Boys' "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely."
Laughing, Pete butchers the harmony, rough and completely off key.
Two years ago, Ryan and Brendon had decided to run away together; they were madly in love, and they don't talk about it much but Pete knows their parents were less than supportive (to put it mildly). Spencer, who's been Ryan's best friend since almost before they could talk, had refused to let the two leave without him. Pete's not sure why they chose to come here all the way from Vegas, or how they found the apartment, but he thinks the last probably has something to do with Bob being good friends with Andy.
Pete and Brendon had bonded almost immediately over the Backstreet Boys. Brendon told him he used to cry over the music video for "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely." Pete laughed and called him a girl. Brendon had pouted, so Pete treated the three of them to coffee at Good as Gold. It was here that Spencer met Jon, and Pete still says it was love at first sight.
The boys had barely been eighteen.
Sometimes watching them makes Pete jealous. Here they are, not even old enough to drink (well, except for Jon), and totally, world-shatteringly in love. Pete, though, is twenty-seven and has tried and tried, ripped his soul out for people he loved, and they've all, every last one of them, left him in the dirt.
The two of them climb up to Brendon's room, and Brendon turns off the music. As he hunts through his DVD collection, Pete belly flops onto the couch, burying his face in the rough fabric of the cushion and breathing in the scent of Ryan's girly air freshener.
("Glade Plug-Ins are not girly," Ryan had sneered, the little bitch.
Pete had stared. "Ryan," he said, "it's White Tea and Lily. That's pretty fucking girly."
Ryan had scowled.
From the couch, Brendon giggled. He said, "He bought it ‘cause the picture was pretty."
"It smells good," Ryan snapped, and stormed out onto the fire escape.
Pete laughed at him.)
"Brendon," Pete moans, voice muffled, "give me a backrub."
"Yeah, hold on." There is a cry of victory, and the sounds of Brendon putting in whatever DVD he chose.
Pete is entirely unsurprised when he hears the beginning of Disney's Aladdin.
"Dude," Brendon says. "You're still wearing a shirt. Who are you?"
Pete groans, mumbles, "Die," and proceeds to move not an inch.
He can almost see Brendon shrug, and then all fifteen pounds of Brendon Urie is straddling his thighs. And, oddly enough, vibrating.
He lifts his head enough to say, "Brendon. How much Red Bull have you had." It's not a question.
Brendon stills. He says urgently, "Sh! The movie's starting!" and sets about working the knots out of Pete's back with a fierce sort of determination that is entirely uncalled for.
Brendon is not what one would call subtle.
Pete decides not to point out that they're already five minutes into the movie. Instead, he melts bonelessly into the couch, half dosing and half listening as Brendon sings every song in the movie.
When they get to "A Whole New World," Brendon sings Jasmine's part, and hits the high notes perfectly.
It's dark when he returns to his apartment.
The two of them watching Aladdin had turned into a group movie marathon when Jon and Spencer stumbled in from god only knew where and Ryan returned from the Canal Grocery & Deli with food for the week. Pete lost track of all the movies they watched, but he does remember the list included The Labyrinth, Titanic, Beauty and the Beast, Chicago, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. If the movie had songs, Brendon sang along with them; sometimes, Jon accompanied him.
There is music floating out from the cracks around Patrick's door.
In Pete's apartment, he takes a quick piss and then leans out the window, looking down at the city. Worcester at night is a black hollow, dotted with glaring neon signs and the burning, soft stars of street lights. Below, cars fly by on the highway like comets, trailing ghostly impressions of tail lights, and the sounds echo back to him, threatening to swallow him whole.
He turns to walk over to his desk and trips over nothing when he realizes that he is hearing Patrick singing, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar.
Patrick's voice hits him like a punch to the chest, knocking the breath from him so that he has to grasp desperately for a chair, incapable of more than gaping blankly at the wall separating their apartments. It is shimmering cascades of music and notes that swirl around him, silver and crystalline and sweeping him up like dust in a gale.
Blindly, he stumbles to the wall, hands spread like starfish across the wood as he falls to his knees, and the grain is rough against his forehead, the soft pads of his fingertips.
He presses as close as he can, as though the music is in the wood and by touching it he can somehow absorb even a piece of it into himself.
He doesn't cry, but it is a close thing.
After Patrick has gone to bed, hours later than he normally does, Pete stands breathlessly in the center of his room until a siren screaming by on the highway startles him from his daze.
He swallows so thickly he almost chokes and walks clumsily over to his desk. He finds a pile of index cards in the drawer and on one scribbles hey on one side and are you okay? on the other in thick black sharpie.
His hands are shaking as he climbs outside and hangs it with a pin from the clothes line.
Pete works nine to four at McGovern's on Monday. As per usual, it is hell.
Thank god for Hayley, with her adorable and her perky and her burning red hair. She's a small thing, shorter even than Pete (which is saying something), but she's a spitfire; she handles Bob's enormous Chevy Tahoe like it's nothing and works so quickly with the returnables that Pete barely needs to help. She drives around Kelley Square, the back of the truck filled with the crystal clink of box upon box of empty beer bottles from the bars in the neighborhood, and rolls the windows wide open even in the winter, radio cranked as loud as she can get it and playing Etta James or The Cure, New Found Glory or Jimmy Eat World. Pete likes it when she sings along with the radio.
Four o'clock couldn't roll around quickly enough, and Pete is gone the minute Travis shows up for the next shift. He's too drained to give more than a half-hearted greeting and wave; he has the feeling Travis is going to call Gabe or Bill, but Pete'll worry about that when one or both of them shows up at his apartment.
He stops across the street in the same triangular parking lot as the laundromat, because the tiny little Vietnamese joint at the far corner will give you five of the best California egg rolls you will ever have for the grand total of two bucks, including tax. He buys four orders of them and eats them on the way back to the apartment. He drinks milk right out of the carton.
It had looked like rain this morning so he'd latched the window, and the room is hot and stuffy. He climbs out the window and kind of collapses on the fire escape, letting the breeze drag cool fingers across his skin.
Patrick has clearly done laundry, because there is clothing hung out to dry next to the little sheet of paper.
Pete's heart is suddenly in his throat as he reaches for it.
It says, simply, No.
He chews his lip for a moment, scrapes his belly against the windowsill in his rush to crawl back inside, and grabs the paper bag of left-over egg rolls, still warm, on his way out the door.
Patrick's door reads 3b in tarnished old brass as he knocks. He hears a muffled, "Just a minute!"
The wait feels like a small eternity, and Pete shifts restlessly in place. Finally, though, the door opens, and Patrick is nothing like Pete expected.
He is short and a little chubby, with square-rimmed glasses and reddish blond hair half-hidden under a gray fedora. He's got creamy white skin, eyes like storm clouds, and sideburns Pete can only describe as epic.
Patrick is also wearing argyle, shorts, and knee-high white socks.
Pete thinks he might be in love.
He also thinks he's maybe been staring too long, because Patrick raises his eyebrows and says, "Yes?"
"Hi," Pete says. He grins sheepishly. "I'm Pete, from next door? Um." He hefts the paper bag like a prize. "Do you like egg rolls?"