I nodded, waved and headed off on my walk home. Truthfully, I don't mind the long walk, and I think better when I don't have to deal with other people. I had laundry to get done, but I was going to post my steampunk cum clockwork costume tonight, and I was looking forward to the rush of approval. Plus, with this project over, I had to turn my eye to the next one. I also had to decide if I was going to go back down the sugar daddy route. Should I call Gary? He seemed okay about the not-having-sex thing, but really not sure I can justify being part of whatever his relationship status was. He might say their relationship is open, but I don't know that outside of his word. Even if it’s true...no. It's just not me.
I thought idly about the gears I'd used for my latest project, and it got me to thinking about how they had once powered a whole item, which made me think of clocks in general. We had one in the attic that had been my grandfather’s, but it didn't work. Cell phones are so common I think most people just check their phone for the time – or the digital clock on a stove or microwave.
But old buildings sometimes have these cool, enormous clocks at the apex of an arch or sticking from the side of a building or even on a post with a clock face on four sides. I don't know how technically useful they are, but they were certainly stylish. I started thinking about doing a different setup than I ever had. If I used a huge clock face – well, if I made one – then what would I wear? Instinctively I knew my more common standard of going shirtless or just in shorts would be incorrect with this. I could do black and white and make it a very vintage looking theme....
“Thought you were gonna hide in the trees?”
I was startled by a small pick-up truck that had pulled up beside me, a grinning Caleb behind the wheel.
I raised an eyebrow at him as I tried to recover. “Well, I thought we'd settled this.”
“Right. That I'm stubborn, too. Guess I fooled you into a false sense of security,” he said, pleased with himself and his rat’s nest hair.
I rolled my eyes and climbed into the truck. I'd just look stupid arguing with him, and besides, he's already here. He pulled back out and headed toward my house.
“You're missing your party,” I pointed out.
“Yeah. It's okay. It'll be there when I get back,” he said. “Did you have a good time?”
“Yeah. Your mom exorcising Madison was totally worth the trip!” I said and laughed.
He chuckled and shook his head. “I'm not sure where she was coming from. We haven't talked that much. Just the last week or two she's been saying 'Hi' all over the place and chatting like we were old friends. Then this party comes up and, you know, I invite anyone who wants to be there – so there you go.”
I nodded. “Yeah. I guess, now that I think about it, when she called out to you earlier you didn't come right to her like you were in a relationship. More like, 'Hey, you made it, join in with everyone', you know? Like, you're welcome, but not special like you'd expect if you were dating. I didn't pick up on that at the time.”
“Yeah. Why would you, though?”
I shrugged. “She had said you guys were dating, so...I guess I just didn't pay attention.”
“What's your plan for summer?”
“Work,” I said with a chuckle. “That and get ready for college. You?”
“A few things, maybe. I have a few plant strains I'm working on that I hope to see some progress on. I'm thinking about some changes that maybe held me back in high school. Maybe lots of things, I guess!” he said and grinned. “Do you regret anything about high school?”
“Yeah. All of it,” I said deadpan.
“What would you change?”
Not have sex with Brett. “Oh. Hard to say what would have made a difference. You?”
“I'm not totally sure yet. I'm still figuring that out.”
He pulled into my driveway and stopped. “Good luck with that, and thanks for the ride, Mr. Stubborn,” I joked.
“Anytime. Sorry about Madison. She was way the fuck out of line,” he said.
I paused. “Well, sort of used to it, but thanks. See you.”
He departed, and I thought about that for a few minutes as I headed back into my house. That was a new side of Caleb, that's for sure. What would he think he should have done differently, I wonder? I know I'd have pegged his wardrobe and haircut choices, but that was me.
“That you, Hunt?”
“Yeah,” I called out.
“Did you use my spot welder?”
“Well, could you put it back?”
“Back where?” I asked, laughing. “I had to pull it out from under a pile of crap!”
“What do you think was holding up that pile, smartass?” my dad grumped. “Come on.”
I followed him into the workshop, and we started moving random bits of junk and tools around, and as we did he asked how my project had turned out and I told him, and then outlined the idea for my next one. We spent the rest of the evening creating a nearly six foot circular face for the clock so all I had to do was add stuff to make the face, numerals and hands.
It's never a mistake to go into the workshop with my dad.
As we cleaned up he chuckled and held up a metal flower.
“What's that?” I asked.
“Oh. Old project. Something I was making for your mother,” he said with a little nostalgia in his tone. “It would have been a whole bouquet, but that was the year the pipes froze under the house, and these flowers are actually quite a challenge to make. By the time things settled down, they'd been set aside.”
“I'm going to go get cleaned up,” I told him, heading to my room.
My parents were the epitome of suffocatingly goofy romance. My mother's name was Nora, but my dad had always called her Rose. I remember when I was a little kid I had a hard time understanding who this Nora lady people would ask for was; I thought my mom's name was Rose. Well, I thought her name was Mom, but then later I thought her name was Rose.
My dad loves to tell the story of how he would take my mom to this cheesy restaurant where they had mini-jukeboxes at each table and he'd play the same damn song every time. I mean, you'd think it'd get old. When my parents discovered streaming music, nobody was happier than my dad, because he'd play Bette Midler's 'The Rose' for every celebration of my mom – birthdays, anniversaries, Mother's Day...Tuesday meatloaf surprise.
I admit the lyrics are nice, and it's a pretty song for its day – and with all the music just open to us, like, an open pipe of music choices, it's cool. The story is even cool the first few times you hear it. But by the tenth time or so, you know. He calls her Rose because of the song – got it. I guess even romantic things can get worn out.
I uploaded the new pictures of the steampunk-slash-clockwork photo set, admiring them for a second before changing out of my clothes and getting a shower. After I'd moisturized to my satisfaction, I went down to have dinner with my parents.
“Where's Andy?” my mom asked as she put a dish of vegetables on the table.
“Out with Bruce,” I said.
“Didn't she go to the party with you?” my dad asked.
“Yeah. She wasn't feeling well.” I scooped some veggies and grabbed a sweet potato.
“So why didn't she come home?” my mother asked, taking her seat.
“I don't know. I guess Bruce is taking care of her,” I said, then felt stupid. That wasn't a smart thing to say.
“She, uh, seems to be seeing a lot of this Bruce guy.”
If you only knew. “Yeah, I guess.”
“What do you know about him?”
I swear if ever there was a time in my life I'd say 'The devil made me do it', this was the time. “I know he's straight.”
There was a short silence. “I'm going to call her. She should come home for dinner,” my dad said.
I stabbed some chicken and started my meal.
“I saw your new pictures. They came out really well,” my mom said.
I wiped my mouth. “Thank you. It was a lot of work, but I was really happy with the results.”
“Have you decided what to do next?”
I spent the next few minutes talking to my mom about my ideas, and then Dad came back and they both asked about the party and that sort of thing. I was just clearing the table when Andy got home.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” she said quietly. She headed upstairs and, as soon as I was done, I followed her. I leaned in her doorway and watched her as she held a stuffed animal in a death grip, lying on her side. I crossed over to her and sat on the floor and leaned on the side of her bed.
“Still feeling like crap?”
She shrugged lightly, barely a wiggle. “Not as much as this afternoon.”
“That's good. Where's Bruce?”
She waited a beat before answering. “Home.”
I waited a few moments. “Are you okay?”
A tear welled up, first one side then the other. “No,” she whispered.
I slipped up to sit beside her and started to comb my fingers through her hair. I didn't ask, but just waited for her to decide when it was time. My sister doesn't break often, and it gets a lot worse if you push her. If I give her some time and just remind her I'm there, she can usually talk to me. I have to admit, I wasn't expecting what she said, though.
“He told me he loves me.”
I have to admit being impressed with how steady I kept my hand. “And he said he wasn't stupid,” I said quietly. This also means my sister is going to lose her shit, probably on me.
She turned slightly to look at me. “When did he say that?”
“At the party. I told him not to let you hear him call you his girl. He said he was nice, but not stupid.”
She looked away and resettled her head on her pillow. “Why do you think he likes me?”
“Probably for your ability to make him laugh,” I said seriously.
“Hunter,” she said, her tone carrying a warning.
“Andy,” I said with a sigh. “Why does anyone like anyone else? In twenty years he'll have a nice pet name for you like Rose, and your kids will be really confused as to how come people are calling you petunia or Budweiser.”
“God, you're a dick,” she said with a small smile. “We won't be Mom and Dad.”
“They're not bad people.”
She glanced up at me again. She sighed. “I like him.”
“Wow. Do you feel like you just ripped your own guts out?”
“Asshole,” she muttered. A few beats later she said, “I'm inviting him to our birthday.”
I let out a low whistle. “This is serious.”
She snorted. “He'd just show up anyway with flowers or chocolates.”
“Nah, he knows you better than that. A power tool.”
She laughed and wiped her eyes. “This is all your fault.”
I leaned in. “Everyone deserves romance, Andy. Even Bruce.”
She looked up. “I thought you were going to say even me.”
“Well, you do. But it's also a reminder that Bruce deserves some too, so...enjoy it.”
She looked away, settling her head and sighing. “Why don't you just date him?”
“He likes my sister. Seems trashy,” I said and laughed. “But he does have a great ass.”
She snorted. “Yeah. He's asking me to confirm that. I'm like...really?”
It should be a rule that you don't have to do jack shit on your birthday. No school, no work- nothing. But no, the world is definitely imperfect. I should have taken the day off, but after I'd whinged to the manager about upping my hours when school let out, I couldn't complain. I mean I could but that might not go over all that well. I consoled myself by running into Andy's room, jumping on the edge of her bed and screaming 'Happy birthday!' at her.
“Asshole! I should have strangled you with the umbilical cord!” she snarled.
I headed downstairs before she could retaliate by messing up my hair or something.
Mom had gotten up early and made pancakes. She put a sliced-banana happy face on it, and I couldn't help but smile.
“Thank you,” I said, hugging her.
“Eighteen. It doesn't seem real,” Dad said as he came into the room. “Happy birthday, Hunter.” I hugged him as well and we sat down at the table.
“Did I hear your sister? She's not usually awake this early,” my mom said.
“Threatening to kill me, so yeah – it was her,” I said.
“Dad will pick you up after work so we can have your birthday dinner,” mom said as my sister appeared.
“Loser,” she said, shoving my shoulder I just snickered. My dad dropped me off at work on his way to his own job, and I walked over to get a coffee before heading to my store. I was working with the manager, Will and Kari this morning, because we had a big display to create, so that should make the time go by. Unless I had to work with my manager. Then it could be a very long day.
I said my hellos and wandered into the back room to wash my hands; my barista had managed to get the outside of my coffee cup sticky. I was tempted to check on my stash and buy myself something, but it was even odds Anita would catch me, so I'd buy them tomorrow. I checked my reflection, wrapped a paper towel around my cup and headed back to the sales floor.
“Hunter Stadtlander,” Anita said in an ominous tone. Anita was the master of facial expressions. When you work in retail you need a stone face to listen to some of the crap stories that I don't get paid enough to deal with. No receipt? Anita. The color looks different at home? Anita. Women named Karen? Anita. She had that one on now, and I have to admit it made me a little nervous.
“Morning, Anita,” I said cautiously.
“Yes, it is,” she replied. “So we have a policy here, Hunter. You may be familiar with it. We aren't allowed to reserve items from the sales floor for the staff.”
Fuck. “Yeah, I know. But in fairness, it's a stupid rule. I work here specifically for the discount.”
“Most kids do,” she said. “Which doesn't change the rules.” She pulled out a piece of paper and placed it before me. “I've spoken to you about this repeatedly, Hunter. I personally don't mind you dumping your paycheck into the store – but you have to follow the rules like everyone else.”
I stared at the paper. “You're writing me up? But...I never....” I was at a loss for words. I mean, yeah, she'd spoken to me about it but...she seemed more resigned to it as an antic rather than an actual problem. I told her as much.
“I know everyone does a garment from time to time – but you're just out of control. That latest stash – how did you even find time to work with that pile of clothes?”
I frowned lightly. “How did you even find my stash?”
She dropped her chin to look at me. “Hunter. The bathroom doesn't need to be stocked with that much toilet paper.”
I opened my mouth and then closed it. Shit. I'd ruined Will's great hiding place. And she'd found my stash, and I was being written up. Well...fuck.
“Nothing to say?” Anita asked.
“Um. I thought you'd never find it?”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “That's the best you have, huh?”
I sighed. “Well, honestly, you've busted my stash so many times in the last year, I didn't think it was something that really bothered you that much.” I held a hand up. “I mean, I do know it's against policy, but it always feels like this is one of those things that's against policy...sort of? Like, a flexible policy in practice if not in the letter of the policy? You know, like spirit of the law versus the letter of it?”
She shook her head. “Are you going to law school?”
She cracked a small smile. “Well, if I'd found your stash, you'd be getting written up.”
I looked at her in confusion.
“Believe me, after I saw all that toilet paper, I went looking. But,” she said with a sigh. “It seems your co-workers thought it'd be nice for your birthday if they bought you your stash, with a generous clearance price code from their manager.”
I hate to admit, it took me a second to process that. “What? My whole stash? They couldn't have found it all. Is it too late to add stuff?” I asked, laughing at her expression.
“Happy birthday,” she said sourly, balling up the form in her hand. My co-workers joined in and gave me a card with everyone having signed it. It was pretty cool. Of course the two bags stuffed with my stash was fucking awesome.
I thanked them all individually and made a note to get thank you cards because I think something that thoughtful deserves something better than a verbal 'Hey, thanks!' The rest of the work day was fairly mundane – only one Karen all day. We had people wandering in to look, mostly leaving with nothing. Kari passed the time with me, talking about her brother and the weird thing he had with his friends.
Later I was rebuilding a display with Will when he half-turned to me and said, “So why are you single? Do you prefer it? Are you dating and never mentioned?”
“God, Will,” I said, faking a huff. “Why do you say things like that? Are you teasing me with your straightness?”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “You have never checked me out, so don't go there,” he said and laughed.
“I wouldn't say never, exactly,” I replied, trying to be coy. He just laughed at me. “It's because I was outed early, and boys are essentially hard-wired to be assholes so...if I was talking to a boy they'd mercilessly tease them.” I paused. “Sorry about screwing up your stash spot.”
He shrugged. “I mostly said it to see if you'd climb on top of the bathroom to hide things. Like – will Hunter go that far? I'm thinking of telling you the HVAC is a great place, next.”
“I take it back, you stay straight,” I said with a snicker.
He chuckled softly. “It’s funny how we see other people.”
“What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “If you're like me, you figure if I know something, everyone else must too, right? I mean, except for your parents and electronics, right? My dad and the cloud – he's obsessed. I'm like, 'Dad, it's just someone's server,' and he's all convinced it's something else. I don't even know if he knows what he means.”
I chuckled. “My dad is great at hands-on things, but you get him to a touch screen and he's like 'What sorcery is this?'”
We both laughed and moved to the next display, which was actually one that needed assembly along with adding clothes.
“But think about it. When I was in middle school I was watching Power Ranger reruns because my older sister was in love with the pink ranger. So I thought everyone knew about the Power Rangers, except...people my age really didn't. It was all Pokemon, which I knew, but I was like...guys? Power Rangers?”
I schooled my features to neutrality. “So. Who are the Power Rangers? 'Cause I have no idea what you're talking about. Are they like Smokey Bear? He's got a ranger hat.”
“You're a dick,” he said, laughing. We worked quickly to place shelves and then decorative strips that attach to the face of each shelf before heading to the back to work the stock out that would be on the display.
“It just makes me wonder is all,” he said as we entered the back room. “Was it every guy that backed off from you, or was it just some loud assholes, and you figured everyone had backed off? I'd like to think I'd have kept hanging out with you – but you may be right about teenage boys being assholes.”
“I am right,” I said firmly. “It's like a whole...brain-hasn't-matured-enough-to-not-be-a-dick thing. Even once we do mature at like twenty-five, we must have a ton of asshole bullshit to unlearn. Maybe guys don't really get their shit together until they hit, like, thirty. I should find someone that age.”
“Gonna get a sugar daddy, eh?” He chuckled again and we headed to the front with our boxes of clothes.
“Did that already,” I said, just to shock him. “It didn't work out.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “I'd date a cougar myself. I'm in my prime and so is she, you know?”
“Just wear a condom so you don't end up with a kid who calls you daddy and a wife he calls grandma.”
He burst out laughing. “Seriously. Why don't you date? I mean, middle school was a ways ago. Now that you graduated, you could have different options.”
“I don't know,” I said. “I'm kind of used to doing things my way. I don't know if anyone could ever affect me enough to change.” Besides, I'd changed the first time and look what that had gotten me.
He snorted, but said nothing.
“Just reminds me of something my dad has pinned up by his desk.” He glanced at me with a little smile. “'If you don't like change, you'll like irrelevance even less.' Not sure who said that.”
“Oh, a quoting game? Um, 'Even though we are all in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars.'”
He wrinkled his brow in thought. “Sounds familiar. Who said that?”
Adopting a stuffy accent Will said, “'Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea.' He replied 'If you were my wife, I'd drink it!'”
I burst out laughing. “Nice.”
We spent the rest of our shift trading quotes and having a good time. I never really looked at Will much before today, but damn...great personality. I kind of do wish he was gay.
“You actually did invite Bruce?” I asked, smiling and letting my jaw hang open all at once.
“Close your mouth,” she muttered.
“But Andy! This is-”
“Hunter, I swear to God if you finish that sentence you won't have to worry about not having sex because you won't be able to – ever.”
I just laughed instead and hugged her, much to her aggravation. Letting her go I took a step back. “Seriously, Andy – this is a good thing. He makes you happy, let him!”
She looked up at me and narrowed her gaze into something predatory. “Okay. On one condition.”
I crossed my arms. “Why is your happiness a negotiation? Why are you going to punish me?”
“Punishing you makes me happy,” she said with a devilish smile. “Don't you want to hear my condition?”
I stared at her for a minute. “Okay. I'll hear it, but that doesn't mean I agree.”
“Oh, no,” she purred, which was an intimidating sound. “Once I say it – it's on.”
I stared at her. “Fuck it. Be miserable.” I turned to leave her room.
“So sad Brett still controls you.”
I stopped. Every muscle in my body locked up and indignation rose like vomit. I turned slowly to look at her, sitting smugly.
“What...did you say?”
“I know what you said,” I snapped. “How can you...why would...” I snarled, “That's just mean, even for you.”
“Yes!” I said, stepping closer. “I admit and I apologize for aiding and abetting your love life and I'm so sorry it's worked out better than either of us could have hoped, but to drag Brett into this...to...fuck you. Just...fuck you.”
I turned and stalked across the hall to my room and slammed the door. I crossed my arms and stalked across the room to my window, where I looked without seeing. Also, it feels weird to stalk with your arms crossed. Everything is weird.
This is all Bruce's fault.
I had successfully put aside the guys in school, outside the occasional jerk-off, so that I could get through high school and move on to something better. I don't think I missed out on much. There were one or two out guys, but no one that had appealed to me. Truth is Brett left me in a bad way. I felt stupid and taken advantage of. I felt like a slut for having enjoyed it and like I lacked dignity for wishing I could have him one more time. How pitiful is that?
Andy had her reasons that more or less boiled down to not wanting to dance to anyone's tune – not society’s, not a man’s. Her mistake was in thinking she could take what she wanted and there'd be no consequences. Bruce was a solid choice for sex – he was nice looking and mild mannered. He'd also been single at the time. Andy had taken him for a test drive and was sure feelings wouldn't enter into the equation because she deemed it so. I really think I'd love for someone to be so romantic for me, but here she was pissing all over it.
Not only that, one day she's kind of tender and okay with it, and the next she's hunching like Quasimodo and reminding me of my biggest humiliation. Should I have interfered? Probably not. Was there any way I was going to completely resist Bruce being romantic? Not a chance. Now she saw this as a carte blanche for fuckery.
I growled and picked up my tablet. My steampunky post had done really well, and I scrolled through the messages: 'Sexy!' And 'I love you' and 'Why are you so gorgeous?' Usually that would make me feel a little better, but it didn't now. It was all fake – who were these adoring people anyway? Where were they?