How long can a person spend inhaling the fumes of varnish before it starts to mess with their head? I've been wood staining this damn cedar chest for over an hour, and I still feel as though I'm getting nowhere. Visually, I can see the progress that's happening, but somehow it doesn't seem to be making a difference.

I believe it was Einstein who said that time is an illusion. Did he realize that while locked in a room, breathing in paint fumes? Maybe everything Einstein ever knew was a direct result of a chemical imbalance in his brain, brought on by the exact things I'm putting myself through now. If this is true, I'll be a fucking genius by the time this chest is out of my house.

It's set to be picked up at noon by Mrs. Edmonds, a woman in her mid-eighties who, for all intents and purposes, should have gone to be with the Lord long before now, considering the fact that she's smoked a pack of cigarettes almost every day since she was sixteen. Her husband passed away from tobacco-related cancer two years ago, and she seems to be lost without him. She's commissioned me to carve out and paint so many cedar chests for her that when I picture her house, I imagine every piece of furniture as a chest I made - the kitchen table and chairs, the bed she lays on every night, even the toilet in her bathroom.

Although the varnish is causing me to become lightheaded, I ignore it and push on. The majority of my income originates from selling the things I make, whether at farmer's markets, online, or directly to a customer from my own house, like the newest chest I'm selling to Mrs. Edmonds. And it's not just cedar chests, either.

I have dozens of flower arrangements in a fridge with a see-through glass door upstairs, leaving them to chill so they don't wilt before the bridal party I made them for comes to get them in a couple days. I carve different things (like jewelry boxes, figurines, and, on one occasion, a living room table) out of wood, use sandpaper to smooth the rough edges, and sell them if they turn out well enough, and I once even found a large rock while I was going on a walk one day, brought it home, and proceeded to chip an oval-like shape halfway through the middle of it. It took about two hours, and once I was done, I sanded the rock down, polished it, painted it a dark gray, sketched my real name (which is, by the way, Clayton, though I usually just go by my nickname, Bear) onto it in white charcoal, and now it sits on the table near the front door of my house. I use it to hold my keys and spare change.

My favorite hobby is photography - something people can usually tell the second they come into my house. Most of the walls are covered in photos I've taken, whether of my family, my friends, myself, or things around me. My camera case - and, by extension, my camera - are sitting on my kitchen table right now, in fact. I went out to take a few photos early this morning before I got to work on wood staining.

My second-favorite hobby is shooting, something I tend to get a lot of strange looks for. People seem to have a hard time reconciling the fact that I make most of my money through thoughtful, creative pursuits, with the fact that I can handle a gun better than most men my age (twenty-five) could ever even dream of. If it weren't for my distaste for getting out of bed before seven AM, and my sometimes-more-than-occasional preference towards the male gender, I would probably make a pretty good soldier.

My father had been a gun enthusiast for as long as I could remember, and taught me how to handle a weapon once I turned fourteen, but he had been taking me to shooting ranges long before then. Even when I didn't possess the strength to pick up a weapon, Dad had me learning how to clean and care for them. "Know and respect your weapon" was his motto, and he made a point of saying it to me every single time I had a gun in my hands, whether it was loaded or not. Even now, I can hear my father's voice in my head while shooting.

My vision swimming breaks me out of my thoughts, and I shake my head from side to side, hoping it will help to clear my line of sight. I put the lid back on the can of varnish, set the brush on top of it, and stand up as slowly as I can, hoping to avoid the dizziness I would feel otherwise.

I walk around the entirety of the chest a couple times, checking to make sure I didn't miss any spots, then move into the dining room to grab one of the several fans I have set up in there. This one is mounted atop a tall stand, and has a fully rotational head - ideal for ventilation.

I grab the fan and carry it back into the living room, setting it a couple of feet from the chest and turning it on high. The blast of cool air feels nice, but the fan can only do so much, so I walk toward the window, pull back the curtain, and push on the pane of glass to open it.

There are two men standing outside, in the midst of hauling boxes into the house next door from my own out of the back of a moving van. They both have lean builds, but seem to be pretty decent at heavy-lifting, because they're carrying the boxes inside without much trouble. Ignoring my quest for clean air for a moment, I lean against the windowsill and watch them.

The shorter of the two has a couple of boxes stacked on top of one another, holding them in his arms. His skin is just a shade lighter in color than mocha, and his close-cropped, ebony hair is matted to his head with sweat. The gray, cotton tee-shirt he's wearing has sweat stains along the collar and down the back, and it makes me wonder just how long he and his companion had been working out there before I noticed them.

The second man is tall (though still maybe a foot below me in height) and thin, and something about him strikes me as extremely attractive almost immediately. His hair is short and black, with bright streaks of green running through the spikes he has obviously straightened along the top of his head.

He has a piercing on either side of his full lower lip - both small, silver hoops - and his pale face is heart-shaped, cheekbones and chin sharp with definition. From here, I can't quite tell the exact color of his large, evenly spaced eyes, but they look dark. There is what looks to be a small tattoo on his forearm, though what it's of is lost on me.

He's only holding one box, but it's bigger than his head, and I can see the muscles in his arms straining as he attempts to lock his hands together along both ends.

"How many more boxes do we have?" He breathlessly asks his friend, and the way he speaks surprises me - it wasn't what I was expecting. I had imagined a sound like thunder coming from his mouth, but although his voice is deep, it has a light quality to it, and is laced through with a lisp. There's something strangely pleasant about it, and I'm hit with an odd urge to call out to him, consequences be damned, just to hear him speak more.

"Three or four," his friend replies, and goes to walk inside the house.

He looks tired, his brow furrowing, but says nothing, following close behind the other man. I consider waiting for them to come back out, and this plan is ruined before it even begins by a knock on my front door. Mrs. Edmonds, I'll bet. Hopefully the chest is dry enough for her to take home, because I'm not sure how much longer I can stand the smell before it causes me to pass out.

I force my eyes from the scene outside and open the door to find that it is, indeed, Mrs. Edmonds, the strong scent of her floral perfume assaulting my nostrils, though at this point, any smell other than that of varnish is a welcome one.

Her long, gray hair is curled today and covered by a sun hat, and she's wearing a jacket over a dress with a pattern of large red and green flowers on it - an outfit I'm sure her husband bought for her before he passed away. According to the stories Mrs. Edmonds has told me, he loved seeing her in dresses, even as she got older.

Before I can offer a greeting, Mrs. Edmonds speaks in her smoke-wrecked voice,

"Have you seen those two men out there? They look amazing! I almost didn't want to come inside."

Fighting the urge to laugh, I politely reply,

"No offense, Mrs. Edmonds, but I think, perhaps, they might be a bit too young for you."

"Nonsense, Clayton, dear," she says, and I try not to wince at her use of my real name. I've always hated hearing it used, but since I have a business, I can't exactly have people call me by my nickname - that would be incredibly unprofessional. "As long as women keep birthing out men that look like that, I'll take my chances that they'll have an interest in females such as myself. It's a law of nature."

I'm pretty sure the guys moving in next door are gay, (or that at least the one with the black and green hair and the lisp is), but I know enough not to say this to Mrs. E, my best customer, and instead respond with,

"I have no doubt, Mrs. Edmonds. Do you want to come in and take a look at the chest? I just finished it."

She steps inside and walks right toward the chest. She's been in my house so many times, she doesn't need me to play tour guide anymore. She could probably find her way around here in the dark, she knows it so well.

She bends down slowly and runs a finger along the top of the chest, testing the varnish, as she always does. I silently pray to God that the chest is dry, and He must be listening, because when Mrs. E pulls her hand back, her finger comes away clean. She stands up straight once more, turns back around to face me, and says,

"Excellent work, as usual, dear." She opens up the green handbag she's carrying with her and takes out her pocket book. "That's fifty dollars, right?"

"Right," I echo with a nod, taking the money she hands me and sticking it in the pocket of my "work jeans", which are stained with dark spots of varnish, and remnants of other projects I've worked on over the years. "Why don't you head outside, and I'll get this in your car?"

After she agrees and walks out, I realize my mistake - this chest is heavier than the ones I've made for her previously. I'm not a weak man, by any means, but carrying this much weight might just prove to be a bit difficult.

It takes three tries, but I eventually get the chest lifted up and in my arms. I step slowly toward the door, making sure I won't drop it, then make my way outside.

Mrs. Edmonds is already in her car, but she's opened the back for me, so I can put the chest inside. I pause briefly, considering how I can make this work, then attempt to put the chest down in the car. It starts slipping out of my hands and I lift my knee up against it, getting it upright again quickly.

"Shit," I mutter under my breath, knowing Mrs. E can't hear me. Her ears still work, but not like they used to. "How am I going to do this?"

As I'm debating with myself, I hear the sound of footsteps coming up behind me, and I recognize the voice of the guy I had been watching earlier before I actually see him.

"Need some help?"

The way he sounds causes sparks to shoot up and down my spine, and I hope to God I'm not blushing when he steps in front of me.

"If it's no trouble," I respond, smiling.

He jerks his head in acknowledgment, saying,

"It's no trouble at all. I've been doing this all day. I'm a box-lifting machine - use me."

He returns my smile and takes one end of the chest. Our fingers brush together as I move my hands, but he shows no sign that he noticed it. I'm close enough now to see that his eyes are brown, like my own, and the tattoo on his forearm is of a three leaf clover, the stem pointing towards his wrist. It's outlined and filled in with black, rather than green, and there is a white Celtic knot inside of each of the leaves. It's a small, but intricate tattoo, and I find myself wondering just how long it took to complete, and what his reasons were for getting it in the first place.

He seems to notice, but says nothing, focusing, instead, on the task at hand. We get the box inside Mrs. Edmonds car without much trouble, and after thanking the two of us, she leaves, exhaust spilling from the tailpipe of her car - her husband was the one who handled the vehicle repairs in their family.

"So what was the deal with the chest?" He asks me once the car has disappeared around the corner.

"I made it for her," I respond with a shrug. "I've made a lot of those cedar chests for her."

"You made that?" He asks, surprised, and when I nod, he says, "I hope she paid you for it."

"She did. I'm Bear, by the way."

"Dan Rodgers," he says, then adds, "that's a nickname, I assume?"

I nod.

"Yeah. My real name is Clayton Piatt."

He looks me over, eying me up and down.

"It doesn't really fit you." His voice is quiet. Polite.

A silence falls over us for a couple of minutes before he breaks it.

"Well, I should get inside. My roommate probably thinks I got lost." He offers me a shy smile, and I'm able to see that his teeth are pearly white and evenly spaced. Oral hygiene seems to be important to him. That's good to know. "Nice to meet you, Clayton."

"You, too, Dan. I hope to see you around."

He looks over his shoulder at me as he moves to walk back inside.

"You probably will. It would appear we're next-door neighbors." And with that, he's gone.

I find myself waiting until I see him go into the house before turning back around and heading into my own. Maybe I'll go through the photos in my camera from this morning, if I can find it in myself to focus on anything more than the sound of my new neighbor's voice, and the feel of his fingers accidentally brushing against mine.