The first day of summer vacation should be spent sleeping in until noon because you stayed up until four the night before. It should be about a lazy taste of freedom and the release from educational obligations. Unfortunately, my parents don't see it the same way. That's why I found myself in the shower and getting ready for work, instead of lying in bed being mildly aggravated with my boyfriend.
Jack is a reason all on his own for mild aggravation. I love the guy, but that doesn't mean he's perfect. He can be so dense sometimes. He really can't take hints, and while he prefers it if I'm direct with him, it almost feels mean in a way. I mean, shouldn't there be some subtlety? Like, he should know I want to cuddle on the couch with him, right? It's been months since we started being a couple, but he's always hesitating. Kind of knocks the old ego for a loop sometimes.
But when he gets the message and cuddles? God damn. There isn't a better one out there for cuddles.
I checked myself out in the mirror as I dried off. I look good, I think. Not as good as Jack thinks, but hey – I'll take it. At least that’s one thing I’m sure of with Jack – he is attracted to me. He likes me just the way I am, even if he does seem confused about life in general. It may be stereotypical; you wouldn't think him to be an artist to look at him. He's a solid guy with a soft heart – and sometimes a soft head, too.
The magic in dating Jack – the secret – is in the small things. As an artist Jack can be very detail oriented. He’s passionate about his work, especially if I’m his subject. It still blows my mind and definitely is good for my ego. The little things are many – how he smiles when he's pleased me and he knows it. A different smile, with more blushing, when I say the exact right thing to him. He's content not to talk when I'm busy – being near seems to be enough for Jack. He makes little pencil drawings – sometimes of me as a cartoon, sometimes of us the same way. Sweet things like us sitting on a bench at sunset. Us holding hands. Us leaning into each other's shoulder. I keep every one of them, and I'm trying to be artsy myself by saving them into some kind of collage.
I thought about all the small, emotional and lovable things about Jack. There are a million more, and I still had to go to work – but I couldn’t skip over how Jack kisses me. How he holds me. How his cuddles create this bubble where I feel safe – which is jarring, because I don’t feel unsafe at other times, but he can make me feel...desired. Wanted. Sexy. Loved.
I glanced down at what thinking of Jack had caused, then at the clock and grumbled. That would have to wait, or I'd be late. That wasn't my only reason to be cranky. My old manager had gotten promoted, and they moved him to a new store. His replacement, Ken, had arrived two weeks ago, and the difference was night and day. Ken was all about revamping and revitalizing, generally ignoring that things worked just fine before he got there.
The first day he'd asked me why I was behind the customer service desk. I was kind of thrown off my game, not expecting him to challenge my usual work space first thing. From that point it had all been downhill. He thought customers would respond better to a pretty girl in customer service, and I was bumped back out to the registers. When he asked if I had a preference I told him anything but the express line. They start new people there, and there are always jerks who come though with an entire cart of crap and pretend not to notice where they are. Customers get angry, and I am allowed to do zero about it.
So what does he do? Puts me on express every chance he gets. Today I was going to be back in my old spot. There was a woman who usually worked days, but she was out pregnant, and the girl who'd stolen my place was out.
I dressed quickly and ran out to the driveway. Last month my grandfather admitted he shouldn't drive anymore, and he gifted me his old car. It was an ancient Chevy, and while it got me from one place to another, the original radio it came with really can just bite me. Instead of saving for a car, I was just going to get a better radio. Nothing crazy – I didn't want to be one of those guys with a radio worth more than his car.
At work I checked my phone, then turned the ringer off and got behind the customer service desk. I couldn't help but smile as Mr. Maddox smiled at me and moved up to the lottery machine. Mr. Maddox wouldn't let Kimberly-Anne, my replacement, run his lottery numbers. He was very particular and said I was his lucky person.
“Good morning, Derry. How's your mother?” he asked.
“She's well, Mr. Maddox, thanks,” I said. “How are you?”
“Happier than a two-peckered billy goat in a nanny farm,” he said with a grin.
“Okay,” I said with a chuckle. “What are we playing today?” Mr. Maddox and his wife had used my mom as their Realtor when they sold their home and downsized into a condo to be nearer to their family. He was a nice guy and liked to play a lot of three and four-digit lottery games. He pulled an envelope from his pocket and unfolded it, revealing the backside covered in numbers. For the next few minutes I tapped in his wagers, which was easy enough, if time consuming.
He paid for his tickets, then smiled. “I almost forgot!” He pulled out ten dollars, made a show out of looking to either side and then slid it across the counter to me. “My grandson helps me pick out my numbers, but you’re my lucky clerk. I hit for a nice win last week – just don't tell anyone it's a tip.” He winked and walked away from the counter. I looked side to side without moving my head and pocketed the ten. We weren't allowed to accept tips, but Mr. Maddox wasn't a big believer in stupid rules, as he'd told me.
I watched him join his wife, who was now at a checkout, and noted a cute guy just a little younger than me with them – probably his grandson – and a pretty girl about the same age. Idly I wondered about the parents of those kids, as they were very different. He had dark blond hair that shone with a few early summer highlights and a very slender build. The girl was physically above average and looked like she exercised regularly, whereas the boy might struggle to put on weight. She was above-average tall with long, dark hair – next to the guy she looked Amazonian.
I worked the morning steadily, and the only real downside was Tonya, the bookkeeper. She was cranky as hell, unhappy that I was working the counter, because she missed her friend Georgine, the one who was out on maternity leave. I know this because she told me about five billion times how much she missed George and that I didn't do things the same way. I hadn't had to work with Tonya much before; I'd been nights and weekends, while day shift was all hers. Then she'd get fussy and strict about how I did minor things. Did she think making me miserable would get George back any faster? Christ, she and Ken should get married.
I took my lunch break at ten, bought a sandwich from our deli, and sat outside to eat. I checked my messages and was rewarded with a few lines from Jack – basically grumbling about having to go to work as well. He worked at a hot dog place that was relatively well known and had cheap eats, but had crappy politics. Jack said he just kept his head down and did his job, but he was looking around for something else.
I glanced up from my phone at Luke Benson, former boyfriend and tentative friend. Kid was a hot mess, but I'd come to realize he wasn't evil – just messed up. Aren't we all?
“Sup? Why are you out of bed?” I asked.
He plopped down beside me. “Dad took a week off, and he decided to get grocery shopping done early in the week. Plus Jared woke me up before he left for work, just for shits and giggles,” he said and stretched out as if speaking of sleep were enough to remind his body that it was awakened too early. “Jack working today?”
“Yeah. He texted to bitch,” I said, my lips curling in amusement. Glancing at Luke, I responded to his look of curiosity. “He had to work today, too.”
“Oh, gotcha. I don't start until next week.”
“Where did you get a job?”
“The grocery store a few blocks over. You'd think stores would spread out more instead of competing for the same customers,” he opined.
After all these months, I liked Luke better than I had when we'd been dating. He'd grown comfortable with me and was pretty supportive of Jack and me being together.
“Haven't seen Jack around for a week or two. Where are you hiding him?” Luke asked, grinning.
I tilted my head side-to-side. “Mostly hanging out on my couch,” I told him. “We've been bingeing a few shows. Popcorn, something to drink and a nice snuggle. You know?”
“Sounds good,” he said with a smile. “Things good, then?”
“Yeah. Why?” The unasked follow-up question: What have you heard?
“Just asking,” he said and held up a hand. “I haven't seen Jack, so I figured he's busy. I miss having him around some.”
I pursed my lips. “I don't know how to take that,” I admitted. Jack had once had a pretty large crush on Luke – maybe even loved him. Although I rationally knew Jack loved me, maybe even was crazy about me, I could still be a little insecure.
Luke looked chagrined. “Bad way to say it. Jack's a friend – a great friend, but that's all. He practically lived with us for years, so I notice he's not around as much. That's all. It's different. Uncomfortable.” He hesitated. “Kind of like when my parents divorced. Everything was different, yet still awkwardly the same. I don't know. Maybe I just need to sleep more.”
I sighed to myself for being stupid. Of course Luke wasn't trying to steal Jack. “Has Jack always been kind of...spacey?”
Luke tilted his head in thought. “Um. I guess you could say that. I always thought he was just polite, but I guess if he was crushing then maybe he was just blanking out or something. Why? Is something wrong?”
I shook my head slowly. “It just seems like he's got to be told stuff. I don't know. I'm probably being stupid.”
Luke tilted his head a bit. “I think with Jack you have to ask for what you want. He's not always...there. He's creative, kind and a great brother – but I think he's not sure where he fits. Or something. I don't know – why would I know anything? I almost drove him away by not seeing what was there.”
“Boys.” I glanced up and stood as I recognized Luke's dad.
“Hi, Mr. Benson.”
“Done already?” Luke asked.
“Just needed a few things. Derry, haven't seen you or Jack in a bit. You guys should come visit once in a while, you know,” he said. There was something about his tone that rankled – like I was responsible for his not seeing Jack. Well, so what if I was? Mr. Benson isn't dating Jack, I am.
“We will,” I said, swallowing my thoughts in the very best retail way. They headed off, and I sighed before heading back into work.
“What number were we?” Jack asked.
“Eighty-four,” I replied.
“Eighty-four. Eight four.”
“Oh,” he said. “Hard to hear.”
He wasn't wrong. Flubberbuster Burger was a small chain in our area, but they had some new chicken sandwich that had people losing their shit. They were known for burgers, but it seems like everyone is adding a chicken sandwich to their menu. I mean, it was good, but I'm not sure about all the fuss. Jack liked them a lot, so we had met up when I got out of work.
“Look,” said this woman on a phone a few feet away. “I thought I'd be nice and bring food since you're watching my babies, but you're asking me to spend real money, now!”
Jack sipped his drink loudly.
“Imma punch you in the throat,” the woman said, and I buckled over laughing. She glanced at me and smiled. “Now you got some boy laughing in here 'cause I'm going to beat you. Lord have mercy.”
“They're going backward,” Jack whined. “What was our number? Eighty-four?”
“Aww, you remembered our number!” I teased. “Maybe you're not getting Alzheimer's just yet.”
He raised his eyebrow at me. “I'm not sure who you are, but you're kind of cute,” he said.
God, this is the Jack I enjoy so much. “Hah,” I scoffed and he stepped in close behind me.
“When is your next practice?” he asked.
I thought for a moment. “I can't remember,” I admitted before pulling my phone out to look at my calendar. “Thursday.”
“Good, I don't have to work.”
Jack grabbed our bags and we picked out a table near the window. “How bad was Ken today?” Jack asked.
“They were short at customer service, so I filled in there,” I said. “I may get more shifts there until Georgine comes back. Christa called out – not sure what's up with her.”
“Mike,” he said, meaning the owner of the shop he worked for, “is telling us he wants us to go put out political signs around town. I'm really not comfortable with that, especially given what the guy believes.”
“Well, quit,” I said.
“I can't. I have car insurance to pay and gas to buy,” he said with a sigh.
“Well, put the car away for now until you find a new job, and I'll haul you around,” I said, thinking this sounded reasonable.
“I like my freedom,” he said. “But I will start looking. Hey, I wonder if Flubberbusters is hiring?”
“Probably,” I said with a shrug. He pulled out his phone and flipped through some screens while I finished my sandwich.
“Here it is,” he muttered, and I assumed he applied for a job while I stole some of his fries. I almost suggested he come to work at my store, but only because it'd make my day more tolerable. Ken would be a jerk to him too, if he got hired. Instead I waited while he finished up and then he looked up at me, blinked as if he'd forgotten I was with him, and then smiled at the discovery.
“Your food is getting cold,” I told him. He glanced down, again seeming to be pleasantly surprised. My phone buzzed and I thumbed open the text app. Jared.
Can you guys come for dinner tonight?
Jared would typically check with me to see if Jack and I had stuff scheduled. He said that way Jack couldn't forget or feel conflicted. I appreciated that he was so respectful of the relationship Jack and I were building.
I'll check. We're eating burgers now, what time were you thinking?
Like 6:30. Tell Jack, would you? GTG.
Huh. Jared wasn't into using much shorthand, like GTG – got to go. It wasn't unheard of for us all to hang out, either. Maybe his dad mentioned something to him? After all he'd just said this morning that he hadn't seen much of us. I knew he meant Jack, but still.
“What's up?” Jack asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked and putting my phone down.
“Your phone buzzed. You got all frowny. What's up?”
I frowned. “I did not get frowny.”
He pointed at me. “Yep, you did. Still doing it.”
“That's because you're making me frown, now,” I stated and took one of his fries. He moved a hand to prevent me from taking more, but he watched me. I waited, wondering what was going on in his head.
“You going to tell me?”
I rolled my eyes. “Jared wants us to come to dinner tonight. But I didn't frown!”
“Do you not want to go?”
“I said we would,” I replied. Well, I hadn't actually said that. Now I was committed, though.
He looked down, picked up a stray loop of onion and chewed. Glancing back to me he asked, “Do you not like Jared?”
I sat back and crossed my arms. “He's all right. I don't even mind Luke, really. His sister though?” I shuddered.
“Hmm,” he grunted in agreement. “She's mostly always been like that. Once in a while I think she's going to be nice, but it's really just less annoying – but it seems almost nice in comparison to her normal attitude.”
I snorted and he chuckled, which got us both to laughing. “Jared has actually been cool,” I allowed, and Jack smiled.
He shook his head. “Jared's Jared. He can really get under my skin, but I love the guy.”
“Oh. Best friend crush, huh?” I asked, teasing though trying to hide it.
“What? No!” he said quickly.
“I know. Luke was just an appetizer, right? Jared's the whole meal?” I couldn't stop myself from smiling at him, and he narrowed his eyes at me.
“You're being evil. Why are you so evil to me?”
“Lack of cuddles,” I said breezily.
“Oh, yeah, right!” he said with a chuckle, his cheeks turning red. “Seriously, though. You did frown.”
“I wasn't conscious of frowning,” I told him. “I wouldn't read into it.”
“You like Jared though, right?” he pressed.
I tilted my head. “I just said he was cool. What are you worried about?”
He moved his hands as if bouncing an imaginary ball back and forth between them. “Boyfriend, best friend? Be great if they didn't hate each other.”
I snorted. “I never said anything about hating him.”
“Then why the frown?”
I sighed. “You're like a dog with a bone sometimes, you know?”
He looked at me steadily. He knows me too well, and I growled at him. “He asked us to dinner tonight.”
“And I asked, do you not want to go?”
“I already agreed! Why are we covering this again?”
“Because going seems to be an issue!” he replied, getting frustrated with me.
I sighed and leaned forward. “I'm just wanting you to myself, that's all.”
He blushed. “Are you working tomorrow?”
“In the morning,” I said morosely. “Georgine is out for maternity, but I don't know if the girl that called in today will be in tomorrow. Probably stick me on the express line again.”
“Luke just got a job a few blocks away. I bet you could get hired fast just because you have experience,” he said.
I grunted. “And work with Luke?” I paused and shook my head. “I shouldn't say that. He's being nice.”
“Well, maybe you should, then.” His tone was tentative and I felt bad. I was a little uncomfortable around Luke, having dated him and knowing how much my boyfriend had been in love with the guy. But why should I let those insecurities win? Why would I stay miserable at a job when I could work where Luke did? It wasn't like Luke and I were an item, and Jack loved me, damn it.
“Yeah, I will,” I decided. “Options, right?”
He smiled at me. “I've been thinking about using that new stuff you gave me for a drawing,” he said.
I raised my eyebrows. “Not using your pencils? What changed?”
He grimaced a little. “I'm used to pencils, and if I want to continue and maybe do something professionally with art, I should be learning other methods. Otherwise I'll get stuck doing caricatures on some boardwalk somewhere for tourists, right?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. When I saw it I just thought...you know, art. When I think art, I think Jack.”
He smiled warmly. A shiver ran up my spine.
“I could use a subject,” he said, still keeping his smile in place.
“I'm not posing nude,” I joked, even though we'd had the discussion before. It felt weird to think of someone looking at me without any clothes.
“There is a famous pose,” he said as he looked intently at me. “It's seated, and the viewer is looking at the subject’s back. The subject has their head turned to one side, over the shoulder so you see their face in profile. There is a sheet puddled around the bottom of their back, no shirt. What do you think?”
I studied him for a minute. “Not nude?”
He shook his head, then his cheeks flushed. “I do want to draw you, though.”
I know I was blushing at that point. “Well, maybe someday.” The truth was we'd not even seen each other naked in a sexual sense. Being naked in front of someone took more bravery than I had – especially if it was to be saved and maybe seen by others.
“I look forward to it,” he said in a strange tone that I wasn't able to parse. It was important, that tone. Important to him. Meaningful. Maybe I could come up with more words that mean the same thing if I think about it.
“So. Dinner with Jared?” I asked.
He smiled. “It'd be good to see them. I haven't hung out with him in a few weeks, and he's starting to get back at me for when I didn't like him shutting me out while he was dating.”
I felt guilty, then angry for feeling guilty. “Sorry, I guess.”
He tilted his head. “I love you.”
I looked back at him and saw that he was seeing right through me. I sighed and gave him a little smile. “I love you, too.”
“What time is dinner?”
“Okay. Want to go by the grocery store? See if they are hiring?”
We left my car in the lot and rode together. We held hands as I talked to him about the song I was working on as a solo for the singing group I was involved with for the summer. My voice was shifting into a lower range, and I was working on my transition from tenor to baritone. The show we were working on was a review of 'FM Staples', which confused me at first. I don't get my music through the radio very much, and I didn't realize the title referred to the FM radio band. Some of the songs were really old and others were fairly recent. I wasn't a fan of mine, initially.
“Your Song”, by Elton John, seems like something a middle schooler would write about eternal love. I say that because what the hell does anyone in middle school know about it? Granted, some of the stuff was way out of date, and listening to the original recording didn't do it any favors. I listened to a few live recordings and started to feel some of the energy, and then I did the obvious thing and thought about what it would be like to sing this to someone I loved. I could feel my emotions filling out the words and making the vocals more intense and realized with some amusement that Jack was my muse as much as I was his.
Then I stumbled on a soundtrack from a movie I'd never heard of where they sang a version that was radically different, though with the same bones underneath. It set me to experimenting with lengthening certain sounds and shortening others, to make the song my own. So now “Your Song” is becoming “My Song.”
“I can't wait to hear it,” Jack said with a grin. “I love listening to you sing.”
I gave him a crooked smile, feeling odd and yet good at his praise. Once in the grocery store I asked Lacy Franklin, a girl from school, if the store did online or paper applications.
“Oh, they're trying to set things up online, but it screws up. Let me take you to get one,” she said. I thanked her and followed her to a door next to the customer service desk, where she knocked. The lady that opened the door looked frazzled.
“What do you need, hun?” she asked impatiently.
“Derry needs an application,” she said, pointing at me.
“Okay, give me two shakes,” the lady said.
Lacy turned back to me. “JoAnne is really nice, but ever since they caught the girl behind the counter stealing last week, she's been doing the bookkeeping and the customer service desk,” she explained.
This was perfect! “I have experience with the desk at the store I'm at now,” I said to her.
“Gotta run. Good luck, Derry!” she said as she headed back to the register area.
“Okay,” JoAnne said as she pulled the door open again. She smiled at me and said, “Lacy ran off and left you, huh? Here's the application, sweetie.”
“Thank you,” I said, and then thought maybe I could get in with JoAnne if I touted my experience. “I work over at the store on East Branch right now, but there's a new manager and he took me from the customer service desk.”
She paused visibly. “Oh really? Why did he do that? Fill it out while you talk, handsome,” she said.
“Do you have a pen I could borrow?” I asked. She grabbed one from the counter beside her, and I started to fill out the form.
“Ken thinks that people prefer a pretty girl behind the counter, so he moved me back to registers. I liked the CS desk, though. I have my regulars, and the lottery players liked me.”
“I hate lottery,” she grumbled. “It takes way too much of my time.”
“It does take time,” I conceded. “Do you know if this store is hiring?”
“I think so. Gary – the store manager – is usually looking for good help. How long have you worked on East Branch?” she asked, looking at what I was writing on the form.
“A year and a half. I started on the registers and then got bumped to CS. My old manager was pretty good. I'm not happy with the new one, so I'm looking around.” I handed her the application, and she looked over the form.
“Don't steal my pen,” she said, holding her hand out while she kept looking at my application.
“I hate losing pens,” I said, handing it back.
She smiled at me and waved my app, and we said goodbye. I felt good. It was one of those times where you could hope things were lining up for the better.
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