“Here,” he said as he handed me a tee-shirt and a cup of coffee, just how I liked it. The coffee I mean.
“What's this?” I grumbled, holding up the shirt.
“Montgomery Farms Landscaping. People have to know you're supposed to be there.”
I sighed. “I'll look so 'rough trade' it won't be funny,” I said and swapped it for the older shirt I'd worn to work in. The job that day was mowing a large expanse, planting some box shrubs along a walk and mulching them. Caleb had loaded the little pick-up before he'd come to get me, so when we got to the site he walked me around as we went over what went where and formed our plan.
He backed the large mower off the little trailer and showed me how to operate it, then sent me to do the lawn while he started to prep the area for the hedges. I was mowing and thinking this wasn't such a bad way to spend the day, if only the thing had a sun shade of some kind. I was thinking about taking off my shirt to even out my tan due to the roofing that had made my back look like leather when I turned back toward Caleb and something seemed off.
He gripped his hand, then just dropped to the grass. I let go of the controls and leapt from the mower, running across the lawn.
He was crumpled on the lawn and I squatted down beside him, trying to remember my first aid. Pulse! Check for – yeah, he had one. No, wait, was that mine? His chest was moving so, duh, he was alive. I lifted his head into my lap and he started to stir. There was some blood on the side of his head. It looked more like a scrape than real damage – maybe from a rock as he fell or something.
“Cal? You with me, buddy?” I asked him.
His eyes opened and he looked up at me for a moment. “Your eyes,” he said slowly. “They always make me think of stormy days. That color of the sky between the clouds before it really rains.”
I smiled at him. “Are you always poetic after you pass out?”
He grunted. “Is that what happened?” He lay still, his head cradled on my thighs. “Oh. I remember, now. I tore my nail on the handle of the shovel,” he said. He looked up at me. “I pass out over blood.”
“Oh,” I said. “Uh, is there some first aid stuff in the truck?”
“Yeah. Behind the seat.”
“Okay, one sec,” I said and helped him to a sitting position before darting to the truck. I grabbed some hydrogen peroxide and bandages, then a water bottle from the cooler in the middle of the bench seat. I didn't want him to look at the finger and pass out a second time. I knelt beside him and took his hand, pouring water over the end of his fingers and trying to rinse the damaged nail. Then I put some hydrogen peroxide on it before wrapping it securely.
“Thank you, Nurse,” he said quietly.
I turned toward him, flippant reply on my tongue, but he was looking at me with an odd expression and it wiped my mind clean.
“What?” he asked.
“N-nothing,” I replied and smiled. “Come on.” I held a hand out and helped him to his feet. “How about I finish digging and you do the lawn?”
“I just have to wrap the handle. You go ahead, I'll be ready for you here by the time you're done with the mower.” I looked at him uncertainly. “Go ahead,” he said and turned back to deal with the shovel. I made my way back to the mower and started going again, but my mind kept circling back to his words. I'm a decent looking guy. My followers online are nice at keeping my ego from deflating too much – most of the time. I'm only one troll away from being told I look vacant or that 'I should smile' more. The thing is...it'd be faker than the persona I put on for live streaming. I'd never be able to act, because I can't put on a fake expression to save myself, not and look at a camera. My point, though, is that of my entire body, my eyes are my weakest feature, in my opinion.
When people talk about noticing someone with blue eyes they use words like 'striking' and 'electric' so you understand just how bright and cool those eyes are to look at. Bright as the sky, dark as the sea or clear as island water. Mine? I'd always thought of them as weak. Watery, but not in the romantic sense. More of the way people think of moist versus damp. Why is that anyway? Why do people hate the word moist? Well, they do. I'm not saying people hate my eyes, but I've never felt them to be impressive.
Then Caleb opens his mouth and says...romantic things. Fuck. I needed a date to bring me back to reality. My feelings for Caleb were getting to be an issue, and I knew there was no way I'd dump Caleb, because I was enjoying hanging out with him too much. I needed something to take the edge off of my growing feelings for him, though. He also needed to stop me from doing things like combing his hair for him, because I can't seem to stop myself.
I tried to turn that over in my head on and off as I finished the lawn, then we worked steadily to plant the hedges, stopping in the afternoon to have lunch.
We were sitting in the shade of a tree, the quiet sounds of a small neighborhood going on around us: birds were chirping, a dog barked somewhere, car doors closed and a few kids were hollering from some unseen space. I was fascinated by the little drops of red-gold where his leg hairs caught the sunlight when he decided to speak to me for the first time since he passed out.
“I, uh, really appreciate you working with me today.”
I smiled tiredly. “I appreciate the chance to be manly. You know, show a gay guy can do stuff even if I don't play sports-ball.”
He chuckled lightly. “You don't have to prove anything to me.”
I let out a slow breath. “Well, thank you for thinking to ask me for help. I thought, once I'd graduated, that I'd leave everyone at that school behind me. I have to ask, Caleb...where the fuck have you been for the last four years?”
He snorted. “I've been right in front of everyone the whole time.” He sighed softly. “But I've had to rethink a lot of things in the last few months.”
“Like...how much value I place on how people see me.”
I nodded. “That's a tough one, no doubt. No matter how much we try to not be affected by what someone else thinks, we are. People have told me a million times that other people can't make you do anything and that you choose how to respond – but man, that's some next level bullshit.”
“You don't think you have control over your emotions?”
“I know I don't,” I said with a snort. “People put me down and I was angry and sad and defensive and I...well, shut myself off from the people at school. You're only the second person I've let in, and both of you were pretty recent.”
“Oh? Who else earned your approval?” he asked with a grin.
“Bruce Clarkson. He asked for help in dating my sister, and she's been an unholy cunt ever since.”
“So you cut off everyone because of how you thought they saw you?”
He looked at me with interest. “How do you think people saw you? How were you affected?”
“You have to ask?” I replied with a snort. I shook my head and looked down at my hands, then picked stupidly at the fabric of my jeans. “You know how people saw me. Slut. The guy you couldn't hang out with because everyone assumed I was trying to suck everyone's dick. I just felt...smaller and smaller over time. I pulled back from it all because people are assholes.”
His hand entered my field of vision and his fingertips touched my forearm. “I never saw you that way.”
I glanced up at him. “No? How did you see me?”
He smiled a little. “When I got my first plant to cross-breed, it was a small thing. I thought it was huge because I'd never done it, but looking back it was fairly simple. Later I developed my first unique flower, a popular shade of lily that got used for a magazine cover in an industry magazine. I was proud of it, but I always had this favorite. Most people think of it as a weed, but it has a certain shade of blue. I don't share it with anyone, just grow them for myself.” He shifted. “I always thought of you like that. Unique and hidden from people that would appreciate you.”
I turned and looked at him with my jaw slack. “How can you just...Caleb, that's some seriously next-level romantic shit. You need to write poems or something. Can I ask you something?”
“After you answer something for me,” he said. I bit back my curiosity and waited for him to continue. “What did you think of me?”
“Uh. Well, superficial stuff, really. You had money. You could be really cute, but you didn't dress well or comb your hair. Kind of looked like you didn't take care of yourself. That you were super chill.” I cleared my throat. “That I liked your parties. I didn't admit it to anyone, but it was nice to be welcome someplace socially, even if it was a group.”
He nodded his head, then asked, “And now?”
“Oh, come on,” I said with a chuckle. “Are you trying to embarrass me?”
He smiled, but just a little. “Come on.”
I threw my hands up helplessly and chuckled. “You're fucking cool as hell. You look great with a few clothes that fit and your hair is just divine – I have no idea how you keep this up without having a great skin care routine. Look at me! I have to do a lot of work to even look like this!”
He adopted a satisfied expression and pumped his fist, which was silly and endearing all in one – to think my opinion of him meant anything.
“So what did you want to ask me?”
“Why the hell hasn't whoever you were dressing up for asked you out yet? It's been weeks since we got you outfitted, but you haven't mentioned if you got some attention yet. What's the holdup?”
He smiled gently. “I don't know, Hunt. What is the holdup?”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “I don't know,” I said slowly. “Like I said, you look fantastic. Your clothes are a better fit than I expected and your hair is totally on point. I mean, Kari was right and you did benefit from a little accent piece. You should have caught her attention already.”
“Ahhh,” he said knowingly.
He pressed his lips together and said, “You know how I said my condition gets me out of most feelings of anxiety?”
“Yeah. Sounds like a prize to me. Especially not feeling social pressure.”
“Yeah, I hear that a lot,” he said with a sigh. “I guess in some ways it's true. Peer pressure doesn't really affect me in the moment, but I still want to fit in. I don't like being the guy everyone thinks is chill and that's it. Or the freak who passes out if he sees blood. Or, you know, that someone so cool thinks I'm a slob.”
“You did dress like a slob,” I teased. I looked at him. “I thought you did fit in. You played some sports. Lots of people came to your parties.”
“I always felt like the weird kid,” he said quietly. “Couldn't pressure me, but later I'd feel like there was something wrong with me because I didn't react the way other people did, and I'd try to compensate. Then there's passing out at the sight of blood, which is always fun for everyone involved.”
“I didn't even know you did that,” I pointed out.
“Well, to be fair there wasn't a lot of blood to be had in school. But one thing I knew was I didn't want to be the weird, gay kid who passes out. So I settled for the weird kid who passes out.”
“Sorry, what?” I asked, feeling my jaw unhinging again.
He looked at me with an expression I couldn't process. “So here we were, last party of school, and I had to do something. I had to change because it would only get harder from here on out. I tried. I did. I succeeded a little, but I knew I needed more time to get to know you, and for you to get to know me. So...I asked your sister for some help.”
“You – excuse me?”
He nodded, blissfully unaffected by my suddenly pissed state. “She told me where you worked, gave me your Instagram, and gave me an in to spend time with you on something you'd enjoy – making my slob ass over.”
“That duplicitous cunt,” I growled.
He raised an eyebrow. “Uh. I'm sensing I stepped in something.”
I pursed my lips and rode my fury. “My sister has been punishing me for weeks because I helped Bruce figure out how to date her – just by giving him some very small hints. I don't date because...because I made a complete fool of myself and I still...I'm not....” My fury left me, deflating like a sex doll with a slow leak. I knew this would happen. Caleb actually seems to be implying he likes me, and despite my own firm ideas from just the night before, I was going to waffle.
Insecurity is a bitch.
“What is it?” he asked, not unkindly.
I nodded to myself a few times. Fine. Spill this and have done with it. “Because I got played by Brett for a complete fool,” I said. “He said he loved me. Things were very one-sided. I blew the guy more times than I can count over that summer and into the first month of school. I wasn't complaining, but I was wondering why I wasn't getting a little reciprocation. He told me he liked to watch me after he was done, which he didn't seem to. Not really. Then he...we tried to have actual sex, and it fucking hurt. I didn't go through with it and...he dumped me a few days later. His father got reassigned or new orders or whatever they call it when you’re in the military. He told everyone I molested him; sucked him off while he was sleeping and stuff like that.”
I looked at him. “My life at school was a living hell. It was a cesspit of angsty, pimpled assholes making me feel more worthless by the day. I didn't try to date anymore. I wrapped myself up in my art and thought about going to school and ending up in New York City. Maybe working in the theater. In a big city where I could be myself. Where I could become someone and not be at the whim of some...crowd of jerks with bad breath and no fashion sense.”
He was quiet for a few minutes, letting me calm down. Spilling that out hadn't felt good. It felt like a boil that had been lanced, and maybe it would feel better later, but for now it just felt like I was oozing pus.
Eventually, he did speak. “Hunt. If I can bring your attention back around to my problems,” he said. I looked at him and he had a small smile on his face. God, it was such a nice smile.
“What problems?” I asked softly, not trusting myself.
“I'm gay. You heard that part, right?”
I blinked a few times. “I think that went past me when you told me about my sister. My soon to be deceased sister.”
“Okay, well now that you're back on that...the person I was trying to impress was you.”
I rubbed my forehead. “Me?” My thoughts swirled at his confirmation. He liked me. He's gay and he likes me. What now? Should I just lean over and blow him and then go home for dinner? But Caleb wasn't like that, he wasn't Brett – but that rational thought didn't mean my emotions just agreed and stopped, you know, emoting or whatever it is they do. Fucking feelings.
“Cal...I don't know about...I mean, I like you – a lot. But I....”
He let the silence hang for a bit, because the calm bastard wasn't affected, I guess. But maybe he got more than I thought, considering what he said when he chose to break the silence.
“I think I get that you're afraid of dating. Or maybe suspicious of anyone that may want to date you. Maybe even you're just sus of people in our age group.” He looked at me and I nodded for him to continue. “So I'm just going to ask you to do one thing for me.”
I licked my lips. “And what's that?”
He smiled that little smile again, a secret, personal smile that seemed to be...for me. “One date.”
He nodded. “Let me take you for one date. If it works out, you let me take you on another one. If not...well, that would suck way harder than you know. But at least I took my shot with you.”
I looked down at my hands. “One date?”
“Just one. A chance to earn a second one.”
I was a little sore that night and I spent some extra time in the shower, and my heart was glad because it pissed off Andy. But the day kept swirling endlessly in my mind, and I kept stumbling over parts of my day, replaying them and still feeling as though Caleb had jumped out from behind something and startled the living shit out of me.
I lay in the semi-darkness of my room staring at my ceiling, wondering that I could still so plainly feel the emotions of the afternoon almost as if they'd never stopped.
After he'd asked that afternoon I'd looked at him as emotions swept through me and crashed inside like the ocean crashing on a rocky shore. Did I dare do this? Could I take the chance? He looked so...honest. He is honest, more than most. I loved hanging around with him. If I didn't do the date, I'd lose the friendship we have developed – and I didn't want that to go away. Besides that was the conversation I'd had with Keri and Nicole, about giving him a shot if he were available. I knew I was going to college in Binghamton in the fall, and maybe distance would break this summer friendship that was struggling toward a romance, but I didn't want it to end. Not yet.
“One date,” I’d said.
God help me, he grinned like he'd just won something.
The rest of the day had been filled with a weird tension for me. I was conscious of every movement he made, every word and gesture. I was looking for subtext in the mundane and it was like circling a drain, feeding on one stupid thing after another until I'd over-analyzed him asking if I wanted water to asking me to put my seat belt on.
So I stared at the ceiling and I thought. I thought about Brett and that whole, sad situation. I thought about how exciting being with him had been – the thrill of sex, the fulfillment of sharing the secret of our nudity, and the comfort of finding someone who felt as I did. I'd followed my heart – and my dick – and it had definitely led me astray. There had been highs, though. There had been such highs. But there had been lows as well, bottomless lows.
So I wasn't sure at all of trusting my heart or my head, much less my dick, when it came to Caleb. Those thoughts carried me to sleep.
I worked the next few days, preparing for inventory and trying to accomplish daily sales at the same time. After we transmitted our final sales for the day the store would be closed overnight and in the morning we would start a special program where we walked through the store and counted everything. Because I didn't want to screw anything up, and because they had bought the whole thing a few weeks before, I hadn't accumulated a stash.
It was Anita, Will and me doing the inventory, and by dark o'clock I was dragging. Thoughts of Caleb had been twisting me in knots. I'd tried to lose myself in the work, but it didn't take up all my mental time.
Anita, goddess that she is, had brought in her coffee maker from home. We popped pods in at one to get a shot of caffeine before we tackled the stockroom, which was always a bit of a challenge. Anita went outside to smoke, and Will and I sat on the counter to sip our coffee.
“So, your sister still mad at you?”
I snorted. “Not as mad as I am with her. Trust me, she knows I'm not on speaking terms with her.”
“Oh?” he asked, perking up. “What happened?”
Well, since I can't trust myself about Caleb, why not ask Will? “Hey, Will...remember how we were talking about my reasons for not dating?”
“Well...there's this guy. He's talked me into one date. I'm...I can't trust myself. My instincts about people seem to be shit. So...looking for a second opinion.”
“Oh. Okay. Tell me about this brave soul that would like to challenge themselves by dating you.”
I glared at him.
He grinned back. Smug bastard.
So I tried to be concise yet comprehensive about Caleb; all the little things he'd done, like bringing me coffee, how we'd hung out and got along so well – my projects, shopping, helping him at work. I even confessed to finding Caleb very attractive, now that I could see him better. I didn't mention having seen him nude for a moment, but that shouldn't be a factor. Right?
Will sipped his coffee as I spoke. Anita wandered back in and made me back up and start over again, which was totally not the plan. Of course I had to put things in context with Anita and give her the broad strokes of why I don't date. It was kind of embarrassing, and I was starting to feel like people wouldn't understand my fears or reasons.
“Well, I can tell you one thing – at the high school age, most boys are jackasses.” She shrugged and pursed her lips. “They can't help themselves. Some of them never grow out of it, because they feel safe in the mob. If the finger is pointed at someone else to be laughed at, it's not pointed at them. I completely get why you'd leave those people out of your list of possibilities.”
Will cleared his throat. “So, uh, Caleb has been a bit of a hot topic here,” he said, giving me a somewhat embarrassed smile. “To be totally honest, Hunter, he's been nothing but nice to you. He's taken his time to get to know you and let you know who he is. He let things develop without putting pressure on you until he reached the point where he thought it was time to give you the choice to take a step forward with him.” He paused and smiled crookedly. “That doesn't speak of the small-minded boys you don't like.”
“I hate to say it, but college boy has a point,” Anita said. “Who am I kidding? I don't like to agree with any men, especially my husband. But a man that will bring you coffee just because? That's rare. Let's also not forget, he needed some help and you went along – not because you love lawn work, but because you like being around him. I don't care what anyone else thinks, that's a thing going on right there.”
“A thing?” I asked, feeling as if agreeing with her would be too much commitment, require too much energy, and I wasn't ready to let go of my fears yet.
“Yeah,” she said, frowning. “A thing. Like you two have a thing for each other. And probably your things have a thing for each other because with men? It always come down to their thing in one way or another.”
“Wow,” I said, rubbing my hands on my thighs. “Maybe we should count some more stuff, huh?”
“That's the secret to getting you to work? Oh, honey, that was what you call a strategic error right there,” she said with a grin.
Will patted my shoulder. “I say you go on that date and allow for the possibility that this could be a good thing.”
“It could be a train wreck.”
“It could,” he said with a nod. “But that's not what I said. I said allow for the possibility that it might be a good thing.”
“Maybe you're right,” I said with a sigh as we headed back to tackle the stock room.