Rose wakes to the smell of smoke.
She fumbles with the clock for a moment, disoriented and exhausted. It’s 3:45 in the morning, and something is definitely on fire. She stands up far too quickly, fighting through the head rush to do a quick sweep of her apartment. She flips on lights as she goes, checking her curling iron, coffee machine, and stove top.
It takes her only a minute to determine that nothing in her apartment is the source of the smell, but this knowledge does nothing to quell her nerves. The scent is thick in the air, and she can almost taste the ash in her mouth. The fire is not here, but it is close.
It is only now that she registers the music drifting through the paper-thin walls of her apartment. Lizzo is singing her heart out on the other side of her wall.
Rose has only lived in this apartment complex for a week, but that has proved to be plenty of time for her next door neighbor to make an impression, despite Rose’s pointed attempts to avoid her. She wouldn’t consider herself particularly fond of Luisa, but she certainly doesn’t want to see her neighbor burn to death, and considering the volume of the music, it is completely possible that she is unaware anything is wrong.
She only spends a few seconds banging on the door before she begins picking the lock, and she’s in the apartment before she can consider the consequences of trespassing.
While the apartment is not filled with smoke like she’d expected, there’s a kind of haze that has settled over the room, and Rose covers her nose as she follows the sound of the music into what she presumes to be Luisa’s bedroom. The song changes, and can hear Luisa shouting about being “that bitch” through the closed bathroom door.
Rose bursts in, accompanied by a flurry of panic, and is immediately confronted with Luisa. Naked. In the shower. Their eyes meet.
“Luisa!” she shouts at the same time Luisa yells, “Rose!”
“If you wanted to get in the shower with me so bad, you could’ve just asked!” Luisa shouts over the roar of the shower, the thump of the heavy bass.
Rose flushes in spite of herself, whirling around so fast that she stubs her toe on the counter.
“I think your apartment is on fire!” Rose hollers over her shoulder.
Out of the corner of her eye, Rose sees Luisa go dead still.
“Shit! The muffins!”
Rose is halfway across the apartment in seconds, fire extinguisher in hand. The kitchen is filled with smoke, and even from across the room, she can see the flames in the oven. This, however, is not the source of the smoke. A candle has tipped over on the counter and set a dish towel on fire.
She pulls the pin from the fire extinguisher and aims it downward at the flaming towel before spraying it. When she’s certain the flames on the counter are gone, she whips open the oven and meets the cloud of smoke with a blast of whatever the hell they put in fire extinguishers.
It is now that the smoke detector chooses to sound.
Rose is on the kitchen table in one surprisingly smooth movement, turning the device off before the whole building is forced to evacuate in the middle of the night in January.
Luisa emerges, sheepish in a pink bathrobe with a deep cut down her chest, knotted at her waist. Rose is definitely not thinking about how far down Luisa’s bare skin goes, if she has anything on underneath at all.
“I am so, so, so--,” Luisa begins before Rose cuts her off.
“What the hell were you thinking? Baking muffins in the middle of the night? Leaving said muffins unattended while they were in the oven? Leaving candles unattended? Are you even allowed to burn candles in here?”
“Let’s just say the landlady wasn’t doing much reprimanding last time she was here. She was a little… distracted,” Luisa says with far too much smugness for a woman that nearly burned the whole building down thirty seconds ago. Rose could strangle her.
“And the baking? The shower?”
Luisa shrinks a little. “I got in late from a shift and it’s been a really stressful day and one of my patients went into labor two months early, technically one month and twenty two days early, and she had some severe uterine atony which caused a lot of excessive bleeding post-delivery, and I mean, I’ve been an OBGYN for six years, and this is the most blood I have ever seen, I mean there were literally buckets of blood, Rose--.”
Rose’s face must betray her because Luisa laughs a little.
“--anyway, when I’m really stressed out I bake. It’s a serious issue, and there really should be a medical term for it and I got halfway through this batch and my legs were killing me since I’ve been on my feet all day dealing with buckets of blood and I must have got distracted because I completely forgot that I hadn’t pulled out the second batch and I guess I didn’t hear the timer go off and I really am so, so, so, so, incredibly sorry, Rose. I didn’t mean to wake you. I’m sure you have work tomorrow and this was really so inconsiderate of me, I promise I’ll make it up to you. Do you want the other half of the muffins? They’re really good, which you should know from the batch I gave you yesterday.”
Rose bites her lips to keep from laughing at the comical scene. Luisa is anxious and desperate, if her rambling is any sort of indicator, and standing in the middle of her smokey kitchen, surrounded by burnt muffins in her bathrobe with wet hair while Rose awkwardly clutches the fire extinguisher and the smoke detector. Loose wires hang from the empty hole in the ceiling from the way she’d ripped it far too hastily.
“Let me help you clean the kitchen up,” Rose offers.
“You really don’t have to do that,” Luisa says.
“No, I insist. It’s the middle of the night. You need sleep, and possibly to, uh, finish your shower?” Rose is blushing again.
“Well, if you insist…” and just like that, Luisa is waggling her eyebrows at her and all the anxiety is gone from her expression.
The clean up really is a two person job, and Rose begins wiping down the counter while Luisa scrapes burnt muffins out of her non-stick pans.
“So did you like my muffins?”
“I did. Thank you for the lemon poppy seed batch yesterday. And the blueberry ones the day before. And the chocolate chip cookies on Monday.”
Each batch had turned up on her doorstep unannounced, complete with a ribbon and a note filled with Luisa’s loopy cursive and lots of hand-drawn hearts.
Luisa laughs, buries her head in her hands. “I told you! It’s a real source of turmoil in my life! I am physically unable to stop my excessive baking. Normally, my therapist helps me keep it under control but I haven’t had any time to see her this week, hence the baking.”
“My coworkers thank you.”
Luisa gasps in over dramatic shock. “You mean you’re not even eating them? I am an excellent baker, the best one in the building!”
“I tried them, but I don’t really eat carbs.”
“I guess that explains… that,” Luisa says, gesturing at Rose’s body abstractly.
Rose tries and fails not to read too much into the comment.
“Anyway, thank you for saving my life. Would it be inappropriate of me to ask you to dinner to thank you properly?”
“Will me saying yes keep you from asking?”
“Nope! You know me so well,” Luisa says, and she is abruptly too close for comfort. She can smell the other woman’s shampoo. This is an invasion of personal space.
“I broke into your apartment!” Rose says, both too quickly and too loudly. She grimaces. Luisa leans out of her personal space.
“Don’t worry about it, I’m sure my door will make a full recovery. Don’t know that I can say the same for my smoke detector.” Luisa gestures to the severed wires that dangle above them.
“Sorry about that.”
“You underestimated your own strength. I don’t mind, I like it a little rough.” She winks. Rose’s throat closes up.
Luisa licks her lips, takes a step toward her. Her hair is beginning to dry, and the baby hairs at her temples have begun to curl in little ringlets.
“You’re flustered,” Luisa says, her voice low and warm.
“Don’t sound so surprised. You take great pleasure in flustering me.” She’s aiming for nonchalance, but her voice is far too unsteady, her cheeks far too hot, to give any such illusion.
“You’re pretty when you’re blushing. You’re always pretty actually.”
“Thank you?” Her voice is an octave too high.
Luisa laughs, loud and bright. “I’m not complimenting you, Rose. I’m seducing you.”
It sounds like something cheesy out of a movie, but this doesn’t lessen their effect.
Luisa leans closer. “Is it working?”
Rose takes Luisa’s face in her hands and kisses her pretty lips the way she’s been dying to all night, since the moment she met her. Luisa kisses with the kind of passion that women throw away their lives for, that men write books about, that wars are fought over. Her hands tangle in Rose’s curls, tugging just enough to elicit an embarrassingly needy sound that she’d be more self conscious about if Luisa wasn’t literally devouring her.
When Luisa draws back, her eyes are dark. “I’ll pick you up at 7?”
Rose nods mindlessly, backing herself up against Luisa’s front door.
She licks her lips. “Cinnamon muffins?”
Luisa’s wicked smile is the last thing she sees before she closes the door behind her.