“Oh, no! He's awake!” Andy said, throwing my door open with a bang and waking me up.
“Andy, I will burn your truck,” I snarled from under the covers.
“Um. I think that's against the law.”
Caleb. And I wasn't showered or moisturized, and my hair was probably the way his looks before I run a comb through it.
“Sleeping. Come back in twenty-four hours.”
I heard the hollow bottom of a paper coffee cup land on my night stand. “It's a new flavor. Chocolate caramel mochachino,” he said quietly, but I could hear the smile in his voice.
“My hair is a wreck,” I said.
“Well, you've seen mine.”
“I haven't showered.”
“I need to have time to put myself together before you see me,” I told him firmly.
He chuckled, and I felt his weight as he sat on the edge of the bed. “You forget. I saw you sweaty and dirty as you planted shrubs and worked with the mulch. Pretty sure you were dirty, your hair wasn't the way you like it and your moisturizer had dried up hours before.”
“Why do you remind me of my failures?” I whined.
He tugged at the top of the blanket, and I let him pull it down so that he was looking at my face. “Ah. There are those blue eyes.”
I stared up at him as my feelings vibrated like guitar strings. “I like yours better.”
He shrugged. “We can agree to disagree.”
I struggled into a sitting position and finger combed my hair, but gave up quickly. “I had a late night.”
“I know. It's why I waited so long to come wake you,” he said with a grin.
I glanced at the bedside clock – only eleven. “It's still sort of early,” I said.
“Not if you want to go hunting for costume stuff.”
I looked at him, and he was doing that thing again where his eyes sparkled. Fuck, could he just turn that off and on?
“I'd better drink coffee while you explain – slowly – what you're talking about.” I picked up the cup and sipped – Oh, God. This may be my new favorite flavor.
“You do like sweet stuff,” he said with a chuckle. “I have a plan. There are six garage sales within a few miles of both a Goodwill store and a Salvation Army store. I figured you would stand a good chance of putting together a tux-like thing for your clock and,” he said with a grin, “while I was sitting home last night I was thinking about your clock and the numbers.”
I groaned. “I tried what you suggested, but I suck at cutting them out. They get too thick or too thin; there are too many curves.”
“I solved that problem,” he said with a smile. “I cut out Roman numerals for you.”
“Roman numerals,” I repeated, as if tasting the words. “I don't see – oh. All straight lines, so no stupid curves! Cal, you're a genius. Have I told you that?”
He chuckled. “I have them in the truck. I thought we could try them later, because we have to get to the yard sales and thrift shops before they close.”
“So...you're saying no leisurely shower?”
“Depends on how badly you want to shop.”
“Damn, Caleb,” I said with a sigh. “You sure know how to motivate me.” I took a large slug of the drink and climbed out of bed. I pulled out fresh underwear, since I assumed he'd be waiting for me in my room as I showered, and I wasn't going to give him another free show – at least, not yet. God, I can't believe I'm even thinking things like that. Aren't I supposed to be trying to be mature about relationships? That thought jarred me, but I'm pretty sure I didn't stumble or anything.
Me. A relationship.
I showered, and I took a few extra minutes, because the idea that Caleb was waiting in my room was hot in certain circumstances that I totally fantasized about. Besides, it would help keep my body in check while we hung out. Wait, was this the date he'd asked for? I should clarify, because I should dress better for that than I would for just rummaging through used clothing bins. Just in case, I pulled out my body shaver and trimmed the hedges from my happy trail on down.
Don't ask me why. I'm not completely certain, and I'm not going to think about it.
I patted my hair dry and pulled on my underwear. I went back to my room and picked up my moisturizer and started on my feet and legs. “So I have to ask, is this the date you had in mind? I have to dress nicer if it is.”
“No. Just hanging out.”
“Okay, jeans and my rough trade tee-shirt then,” I said, grinning as I looked up at him. He swallowed and smiled at me. I realized then my error, unconscious or not – I was in fact giving him a free show of sorts. Last time I'd only been in a towel, but I was probably showing more skin in just my underwear.
Ye Gods, it was good for my self-esteem for someone to look at me like he was doing, though.
Socks and jeans in place, I started to moisturize the rest of my skin while Caleb told me about the ads for the various yard sales. “The one I think we should check out first is an estate sale. Guaranteed older stuff, might find things for the time period of a tux or something.”
“Good thinking,” I replied and pulled on my Montgomery Farms Landscaping tee-shirt.
“I like that shirt on you,” he said.
“I look so butch,” I said with a grin. “Come on, let me grab some toast or something and we can get going.”
As it happens there were leftover sausages from whatever my dad had for breakfast, so I sliced some in half and put them on toast and we dashed out the door. We ended up going to the closest place first, which was a yard sale rather than the estate. They mostly had junk, though, and none of the clothes were that cool. They did have some braided tie-backs for curtains that I thought I could use for something, so I bought those.
Back in the truck I complimented Caleb on his outfit. It wasn't one I'd picked out, but he'd been asking me for my opinion on other things, and I guess he'd gone shopping on his own. He had on a sleeveless tee in a pastel green color with white athletic shorts that, frankly, showed his legs off. The colors worked well on him, and I enjoyed the little flashes of golden-red as his fine hair caught the attention of the sunlight. The little anklet just topped off the whole look.
“It makes my mom happy,” he said, though his tone wasn't quite pleased.
“I have to be honest,” I said, feeling as though I were making a mistake. “I don't like the way your mom was talking to you about your new clothes the other night.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like...okay, so you know I didn't like your ill-fitting attire, right?” I asked, smiling and trying to make it a joke. He smiled, so...so far so good. “But instead of just being happy that you looked so nice, she was kind of....”
“Rubbing my nose in it?”
“Well, yeah, I guess you could put it that way.”
He snorted. “That stuff usually sails past me because of my resistance to anxiety,” he said. “But she was actually being pretty rotten if you consider she knew I've liked you for a long time.”
God. He's liked me for a long time. That is so cool and so scary all in one. I cleared my throat. “Um, why is that?”
“Why do I like you?”
“Um. Hah. Well, you can tell me if you want, but no – I meant why it made what your mom was saying so much more rotten?” I'm not sure I could sit still and listen to him be romantic about why he liked me – because he would. He was unconsciously the most romantic guy ever. Ever.
He sighed. “Because she's told me plenty of times I'd have to dress nicer to get your attention. I just thought she was being mean.”
“Oh,” I said, smiling a little.
The estate sale was creepy. We were literally walking through someone's house. It almost felt like we were waiting for someone to ask what we thought we were doing and to get out before the police were called. I did find this ratty band uniform, though and I started to think about using the braiding to make adornments and other frippery for a military-like uniform. As it happens there was even a hat for the uniform, though the pants were missing. Who keeps part of a band uniform?
“Are you thinking of a new costume?” Caleb asked as we climbed back into his little truck with my purchases.
“Yeah,” I said, putting the bag between my feet on the floor. “I have an idea for a toy soldier costume. I can use this band coat as a base, even though it's falling apart, and use the braided material for frippery. I'll need to make a hat, and since these pants match the jacket, I can use them for material.”
“Frippery,” he said as he pulled out into traffic. “I love how your mind works.”
I chuckled. “If you saw what a swirling mess it is most of the time, you wouldn't be impressed.”
He looked at me briefly before turning back to the road. “Why do you do that? Put yourself down?”
“I just...I'm just being realistic.”
“No. I compliment you and you shut the idea down. You think I actually agree with you when you call me a genius? I just accept a nice compliment and move on. Accept my compliment, damn it,” he said and grinned at me.
“Okay!” I said with a laugh and threw my hands in the air. “It'll be your fault if I get a raging ego.”
“Hey, everyone has to have goals,” he teased. We spent the day going to yard sales and hitting thrift stores, and he didn't complain once. We had a nice lunch sitting out at a sidewalk table, and it was goddamn great. He was nice to be around, and even though I was really wondering what he might pull for this date, I was able to put that away most of the time and just enjoy him.
We hit the jackpot at a thrift store in downtown Binghamton. A white tux-like jacket with black trim, a pair of pants and the funkiest black and white shoes you ever saw. I got overly excited with my finds and was equally pleased that Caleb shared my enthusiasm. When we got back to my house we went to the workshop, and he explained his ideas for the numerals he'd made for me.
After locating the center of the circle and marking it, we used a string and pencil to make a circular mark near the edge, then he put a mark at the cardinal points, and then we further marked where the hours would be. Once we had those in place we used a straight edge to pencil in the lines we wanted and then used marker to mark the places where the numerals would be, then filled in the ring. Once done we were able to attach the numerals with spray adhesive – and oh my God. I get so excited when a vision starts to come together, and this one was with Caleb, so it was all kinds of extra.
“We just need hands, now,” he said.
“Well, that and I have to figure how much alteration these clothes will need – the suit, I mean.”
“I have a shirt my mom rented for me for a formal wedding last year. We couldn't return it because someone spilled wine on me and it stained the back. With the jacket you wouldn't see it, though.”
“Perfect!” I said, my voice getting high, and he chuckled at me.
“I guess this makes you happy?”
“Yes! Thank you so much for doing this with me,” I said earnestly. “Usually Andy helps me, but I'm pissed at her.”
He raised an eyebrow. “For helping me with you?”
I cleared my throat. “I may not have minded so much, except she's a hypocrite.”
“Not minded much?”
I felt hot in the face. “Okay, I'd probably have still killed her. I mean...I really, really like you, Cal. That doesn't mean everything that has kept me safely on the sidelines just...goes away. She knows this.”
He nodded his head slowly. “Yeah, I can see that. So...are you working next Friday?”
“During the day. I have to open Saturday,” I said.
“Okay. So. Date next Friday night?”
I picked at my lower lip. “How should, um, how should I dress?”
He smiled. “Comfortably. It's not a job interview; it's a date.”
“But, no. Seriously, Caleb,” I said, trying to sound practical and not at all like I was fishing for what he was up to. “If we're going out to a restaurant then I should dress differently than if we were going, I don't know, to pick apples or something.”
He took a step toward me and for a moment my heart did flips as my mind flashed a heads up that he looked like he was going to kiss me. I was trying to stay cool and ignore the pressure I felt in my groin at the thought of being kissed. Or the way my lips felt like they were making an attempt to be magnetic and pull his lips to mine. I even had to still my hands from reaching for him.
“You wanted a date where someone put effort into things; you want romance.” He studied my face, his eyes moving slightly over my features. “That's where we're going.”
Ffffuuuuck. “B-but where is that, exactly? Should I be thinking tie and jacket or jeans with a nice button up?”
Oh. Oh no. There was that little smile. My heart went from flips to palpitations and was considering a seizure. No, wait, seizing meant it would stop. What goes faster than palpitations?
“Whatever you wear will be perfect, because you'll be there.”
My muscles released and I know the only thing keeping my mouth shut was shock. He just romanced the fuck out of me, and the date hadn't even started.
“So...today is only Sunday. You want to wait a week? I thought you'd been waiting four years?” I tried to sound flippant, but I think I sounded desperate. Fuck. Did I sound desperate?
“I have to finish getting everything ready,” he said, still smiling. “I want it to be perfect.”
“I thought you just said it would be perfect because I was there?” Jesus, did I just say that?
The corner of his mouth curled up in his crooked grin. “For me? Totally. This date is already a success to me. But I want to make it perfect for you.”
“What?” he asked gently. “Is this too much romance?”
I whimpered. It was, just a little! “How can you just...say things like that? You have no hesitation, no blushing, no....”
“No anxiety,” he said with amusement. “Although you have come the closest to making me feel anxious that anyone ever has.”
I stared at him.
“I'll talk to you later,” he said with a smile. He turned and I watched him, wondering why I wasn't chasing him and demanding to know what he was up to, to kiss him, to...just to keep him close. But I know what he's up to. My name may be Hunter, but he's the one stalking me – my heart. He had my emotions in chaos as if he'd stuck them in a blender with the top off. There goes my heart – splat! My self-respect – splat! Self-preservation – splat!
My door opened and Andy stuck her head in. “Was that Caleb I just heard?” she asked coquettishly. Suddenly I had an emotion I could nail down.
“You hypocritical bitch,” I snarled softly.
She raised her chin. “You started it.”
“You've never been done dirty the way Brett did me. I was already in negative numbers on the scoreboard before you started playing,” I said, stalking toward her. “All I got you was a date with a guy you were already sleeping with. The horror! You had to say more than 'Thanks for the dick.' Even more of a horror, you liked him back! How could I be so cruel to you?”
“Shut the fuck up!” I screamed so loudly my throat hurt. “You wanted to get even? You stopped talking to me. You stopped helping me with my photo shoots. You told our parents I had an Only Fans. Then after you'd done all that, punishing me for weeks, you decide you have to help Caleb. In what version of reality is any of that an equal response?”
Her mouth moved a little and then she said, “Well, you don't have to cry about it.”
And fuck her, because I was crying. So I grabbed my Nair from the shelf, screamed louder than I had before, and charged her. She screamed back and I sprayed. Such a waste, I don't think it got on her hair at all. We were actually having a knock down fight when my mother came racing up the stairs, getting between us and shoving us apart.
“You're dead to me!” I screamed, or tried to. My throat really hurt. I stumbled back into my room and slammed my door behind me. I threw my can of Nair across the room and opened my mouth in a wordless scream, trying to express the torturous swirl inside me – hope, lust, anger, confusion, fear, self-loathing, anticipation, hurt from betrayal and a complete loss of self-control. Suddenly I felt tired; overwhelmingly, bone-deep tired. I fell into bed, pulling my blankets up until I was cocooned.
Sleep wouldn't come, though. The emotions kept hitting me like a toxic tide. I thought back to Brett – pretty as a person could be had been what I'd thought. I'll never forget how he'd made me feel at first. The thrill of just hanging out, of touching, of kissing, of our naked bodies pressed together for the first time. So many firsts. We had hung out like I did with Caleb to start with, but later we just met up so I could blow him. I'd wanted to. It was sex with cute, pretty, athletic Brett.
But eventually I wondered what it would feel like if he blew me. I started to get frustrated that we weren't hanging out much. Don't boyfriends want to spend time together? Or was that just me? Shouldn't he want to get in my pants, too? Shouldn't we still go on dates or do other stuff? He always seemed to be too busy for me, but then...he'd texted that we should try something different and that he was waiting for me in his basement. Different, he'd said. It wouldn't be just him getting a blow job, even though I liked that. Maybe it was my turn?
It was different, that much was true. As much as he liked blow jobs, he wanted to fuck me. I was...ambivalent about it. It still seemed like he was getting something and I wasn't, but then again I'd heard plenty about guys who liked taking a dick. So I'd tried. And tried. But it hurt. Oh God, had it hurt, and I told him to stop, and I told him to stop. I'd had to leave, because he was angry and demanded to try again, but I couldn't. I'd pulled on my pants and forgotten my underwear and socks – I just ran.
My parents had been concerned by my change in behavior, my withdrawing. In the end I think they chalked it up to teen hormones, because I tried to be normal at home. But I told Andy. She knew how hard I'd taken this...relationship. It's taken me a long time to develop a sense of who I am, but now Caleb was unraveling me one nerve ending, one emotion at a time.
And I wasn't sure how to feel about it, only that I had a lot of conflicting emotions. I lost track of time, even though I was keenly aware of its passing. I did eventually doze in my cocoon, only to be woken in the evening by my dad.
“Hey, kid,” he said, sitting on the edge of my bed.
“Hey,” I said tiredly. My voice was scratchy, little more than a whisper.
“Mom says you might have blown your throat out with your volume tonight,” he said quietly.
“Maybe,” I agreed.
He cleared his throat. “I saw the work you guys did in the workshop. The clock is coming together. I did a bit for you, thought I could contribute.”
I adjusted my head to look at him. “What did you do?”
He gave a silly tilt of his head from side-to-side. “Why don't you come down and grab a plate of dinner, and then we can go to the workshop and I'll show you.”
“Dad,” I grumbled.
He chuckled. “It'll be good for you.”
I climbed from bed and followed him to the kitchen, deliberately not looking at my sister's door. He'd put a plate in the microwave already, so he'd been pretty confident he knew how to get me out of my room. I ate, and while it was good, I refused to enjoy it on general principle. I don't know what principle, but I wasn't in the mood. After putting my dish in the dishwasher I pulled on sneakers and followed my dad out to his shop.
The smell of cut wood filled my senses, immediately smothered by the acrid smell of paint. I followed him over to a space he'd cleared on his bench to find two wooden clock hands measured out for my clock face.
“I really liked the work you and Caleb did,” he said. “I figured this was the last part you needed, besides a costume. So I meas-” I hugged him. I didn't cry, but I hung on him as only a child can to their parent, I think.
Or maybe the way only someone who trusts the other person not to let them fall can.
Dad and I started working on trying to attach the hands, but the wood was delicate and the minute hand cracked in half. I decided I'd probably pose right in the middle, so it didn't matter that there was only an hour hand pointing to midnight.
“So,” he said quietly as we admired the completed clock. “Your mother and I sat your sister down, and after four years, she finally spilled her guts.”
I felt uncomfortable. Just because I was legally an adult didn't suddenly mean I didn't fear my parents judgment.
“So. You know,” I said, my voice sounding hollow to my ears.
“Hunter, maybe I never explained some of these things to you...I probably didn't. I'm not very good at that sort of thing, and I always pushed it off onto your mother. But you know Rose, she just pushed me forward to be a good dad...but sometimes there's a few things that I still don't do – or do well – once she's pushed me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Son, there are always things we regret. Things that we wish we'd done, or people we wish we hadn't.”
“Dad. Please do not tell me you're about to tell me a story about you losing your virginity to the wrong person,” I said, horrified.
“What? No!” he said, sounding confused and amused all in one. “It was actually my fourth girlfriend, and she was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, let me tell you.”
“Oh my God,” I groaned, putting my face in my hands. “Make it stop!”
He put a hand on my shoulders. “Brett was a mistake, Hunter. Everyone makes them. The key, as with any mistake, is to learn from it. Brett was also not your fault.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “Some people take from others and never learn to give. Some people cannot see being equal as correct. That's not a mark against you. People don't walk around with neon signs saying they're not good for you.”
I closed my eyes. “How much did she tell you?”
“Just how worthless he made you feel. It explained some things we'd thought were just...teenage moodiness. I can understand how a miserable experience so young would color your ideas of relationships.” He paused and I opened my eyes, relieved they didn't know about the sexual side of things. “Hunter, while it's important to learn from mistakes, it's also important that we learn useful things and not, well, the wrong things. I'm afraid you've taken an extreme view on relationships and how doomed they are before they begin.”
“I'm going to kill her,” I grumbled.
“Son...you're a good person. Sometimes other people will take advantage of you because of that. Don't let that change you – because them taking advantage says more about them than it does you. It doesn't make you a fool, and if you recognize signs of it happening again, you can take steps to get out of that situation. Don't let one bad person – one bad experience – change who you are or who you can be with someone else.”
I opened and closed my hands reflexively and pursed my lips.
Switching tacks my dad said, “If it means anything, I think she finally feels bad for what she's done. It was definitely over the line, but then she's always had that prickly personality and you...well, you normally slide between her thorns. I don't think she expected you to push her in any direction, so she overreacted.”
“You think?” I covered my face with my hands to hide the welling of emotions.
“I do,” he said calmly. “I also think you are, as well.” He pulled my hands from my face and bent a bit to put himself in my view. “Caleb seems like a nice person. You can't ever know for sure if you don't give him a chance. He's not Brett, and neither of you is fourteen.”
I sighed. “Yeah. I know.”
“So. Give him a chance, then.”
I looked away, blushing. “I agreed to a date.”
“Good,” he said. He started walking to the door. “I guess you have to finish doing whatever you're doing for the rest of your set for your photo shoot, and if it's not too skimpy maybe your mom will help with the sewing.”
I winced. “Is that a hint I owe mom an apology?”
“No, no,” he said with a thread of gentle amusement in his tone. “Just that she'd probably like to know her son is okay.”
I nodded. He opened the door to the outside and paused, looking back over his shoulder.
“One thing though, Hunter. If I ever meet this Gary guy...I will become a member of the 'Fathers who own shotguns' club. We clear?”
My cheeks flared with heat. “Yeah.”