I decided to go work on my clock face as a distraction. I headed downstairs with the wafting smell of our traditional, favorite birthday dinner – chicken Parmesan – and was heading for the back door when I heard the doorbell. I paused and turned to head for the door, but my mom stepped from the living room to answer it. I turned again to go on my way, but my mother's voice stopped me. Not by calling me, but by what she said.
“Oh! Hi, Nancy. What a nice surprise! And Caleb – my God, ready to graduate, huh? Come on in!”
I turned back to our guests. Caleb's mom had been by a time or two; my parents were friendly with them, if not friends. I think Caleb's dad buys things from the place my dad works at, so they probably know each other from that. I wasn't sure about the moms.
Speaking of, Mrs. Montgomery spotted me and smiled. “Hi, Hunter. Happy birthday.”
“Hi. Thank you,” I said with a little wave and approached them.
“Hunt,” Caleb said and held his fist out. I rolled my eyes and bumped his fist. Such a bro.
“Hey, Caleb. What's up?”
“Well, I felt so badly about that girl – that Madison – and how she was talking to you and upsetting things the other day. You really shouldn't have felt like you had to leave.”
“Oh, it's not a big deal,” I said, but his mother picked right up again.
“It definitely is. You have been to my house for years and there's never any problems, and then she shows up and thinks she can talk that way in front of me and about you? No. It was very...trashy.” She lifted her chin a little defiantly.
“Well, it's all good,” I said, not sure what else to say. I couldn't go back to it being okay or no big deal or she'd start again. Most people do.
“It's your birthday, so we thought we'd just bring a little 'Sorry that happened and happy birthday' gift,” Caleb said with a little smile.
I widened my eyes just a little. “Oh, that's really nice of you, but we don't really do birthday gifts,” I said. It was true – my parents did small things for our birthdays and Christmas, feeling that we got what we needed and earned what we wanted through the year. Not that I'd tell my co-workers that, because those clothes were mine.
He held the envelope out to me. “Then it's more of a 'Sorry that happened' and less a birthday gift.”
I blushed, glanced at my mom and then accepted the envelope. “Thanks, Caleb. Didn't have to, but it's nice of you.”
“I have to run,” his mom said. “I should have never signed up for that church committee – it takes up far too much time and always seems to be inconvenient.”
My mom looked at Caleb. “Have you eaten dinner yet?”
“No. I was just shopping with my mom-”
“Oh, well we have plenty. Hunter and Andrea love chicken Parmesan and we make it every year for their birthday with cheesy garlic bread and mashed cauliflower – what do you think?” my mother asked, hands folded over and looking at Caleb. No pressure, bro.
“Um, sounds great! I can stay for dinner, thanks.”
“Of course.” Mom looked at Mrs. Montgomery, “I'll have Andy run him home later, if that's all right.”
“Perfect! I can get an iced coffee to keep me awake through this meeting!” his mom said and like that, she was gone.
“I'll leave you guys to it until dinnertime,” my mom said, retreating.
“Um, headed to the workshop. Want to come?”
“Sure,” he said with a bright smile. I led him out the back door and out into the cluttered shop where the huge disc that would be my clock face was. I wasn't used to having someone besides Andy to help me, and I wasn't even sure Caleb would be a help.
“Whoa. That's huge. Was it a table or something?” he asked as he looked at the disc.
“No, my dad and I built it for a project I'm working on,” I replied. “I'm going to make this into a big clock face for pictures.”
“Oh yeah? Can I help?”
I was pleasantly surprised at his offer. “Uh, yeah. That'd be cool.”
He helped me move the disc to a couple of sawhorses so it'd be on its back. “So. The face is going to be black and white. I figured I'd paint the face, but I'm not too sure about the numbers and hands. I might have to draw those, but I'm not a good drawer.”
He chewed his lower lip in thought, and it was fucking adorable. I mean it would have been if not for the tangle of hair on his head and his baggy clothes. “I know,” he said. “What about a stencil?”
I perked up. “That might work really well. I can make them ahead of time so I don't have to use them until they are right. You're a genius, Caleb.”
“I know,” he said with playful smugness.
I raised an eyebrow and smiled at him. We worked to patch a few low spots on the disc, then set up some plastic so that we wouldn't spray the tons of other crap in the workshop with white spray paint. Then I accidentally sprayed his hand. I swear. But then he was all 'I have to get revenge', and before you know it, my clothes were ruined, and his sweats were what they always had been.
“What the fuck, Caleb?” I demanded. “Look at my clothes!”
“That's nothing. You should see your hair!” he said with a laugh.
“What are you laughing at? Have you looked at your own hair? Like this morning?” I snapped. I pulled my phone from my pocket and flipped on the camera. There was a streak of white across my forehead and stuck to my hair. “My hair!”
“Well, yeah. I mean, fair's fair, right?” he said, still smiling.
I glared at him. “Look at my face, Caleb. This is my mad face.”
His smile vanished. “I thought we were playing.”
“You thought...for Christ's sake! Look! At! My clothes!” I looked down myself as if to follow my own directions. “They're ruined!”
“I'm sorry, Hunter. But they're just clothes. It's not like you're hurt,” he said.
I widened my eyes. “You did not just say that.”
“What? About the clothes?”
“I picked these! They're...they're....”
I narrowed my eyes. “Why do you seem to not get that I'm pissed off?”
His expression turned regretful. “I have Ataraxia.”
I paused, my pissed off level dropping to a simmer. “What's that? Is it fatal? Should I be calling you an ambulance?”
He shook his head ruefully. “No,” he said softly. “It means I don't experience anxiety and stress the same way other people do. Sometimes it means I screw up socially. Like...right now I feel bad because I've upset you, but I don't understand the upset. Like it doesn't stress me. If I understood, I wouldn't do it again because I'd know not to.”
I tried to process that. “You don't feel stress?”
“I do. But it's different.”
“Like when I play a sport. In a big game, in a spot where people feel pressure or anxiety to do well. I don't feel that. What I do feel is when everyone looks at me because I did something stupid or awesome in that moment. I don't sweat big tests, but I feel bad when I don't do well.” He looked up at me. “It's not that I don't feel stuff, but I do it differently.”
I looked at him with a calmer mindset. “So. You didn't feel the social anxiety someone else would have when I started to get mad?”
He shook his head. “It wasn't until I figured out that you were actually mad.”
I crossed my arms. “I'm still mad. I liked these clothes.”
“If we start soon, maybe we can get it out of your hair.”
My eyes went wide. “My hair!”
And that is how I ended up with my head hanging over the utility sink with Caleb Montgomery trying to get paint out of my hair. He looked it up online and was using olive oil and a fine comb, because that's what you do with oil-based paint according to The Google.
“It's coming out, a little bit at a time,” he said as he pushed his fingers through my hair to get new parts of it to stand away from my head so he could comb it out. If it weren't for the position it'd feel kind of nice, but I can't imagine what that oil is going to do to my hair.
“How much more is in there?” I whined.
“Little more,” he said softly.
He seemed to be stroking my hair a lot.
“More combing, less stroking my hair.”
“I am, I am,” he said hurriedly.
“My back is sore being bent over like this! What are you doing?”
“Rubbing your back?”
“Okay! Jeez.” His fingers delved against my scalp, gently bringing strands up to be combed out and remove the spray paint. Again...it might feel nice if not for my back and the stupid oil running down my forehead and dangling from between my eyes. It got worse when it managed to slip down and run to the tip of my nose. Now it tickled a bit, and I hate that feeling of something dangling from the tip of my nose. It's like when you have a runny nose and you can't get a tissue right away and there's this drop of liquid snot hanging from your nose. I shivered at the thought.
“Okay. I think I got it all,” he said.
“Thank God.” I stood up and ran the back of my hand across the end of my nose and shivered again. Ugh. I know it's oil, but now snot is in my head. I mean liquid snot. Fucking gross. “I need a shower.”
I headed upstairs with Caleb trailing behind me. I don't blame him, what else was he going to do? Sit with my parents? I wasn't happy with him, but I wouldn't punish him like that. I could punish my sister since she'd wanted his dick, but was now 'in a relationship'. I liked that idea.
I opened her door to find her sprawled across her bed much as I'd left her. “Andy. I'm showering, paint in my hair, liquid snot, don't want to talk about it. Entertain Caleb for me, would you? Thanks, dear,” I said and turned to Caleb. “Excuse me, I just have to – ugh! It's running down my neck! Ugh!”
I zipped across the hall to grab my towel before practically sprinting to the bathroom. Soon I was standing under the hot water with a head-full of shampoo, hoping the combination of paint and olive oil wouldn't ruin my hair. I mean, what if those things react and make your hair fall out or turn olive drab? Huh. Olive drab hair. Maybe it's a military thing. I'm not a military thing. Ugh.
I wanted to be mad at Caleb, but it was hard when I knew he hadn't meant it and he had a condition that made it hard to understand when he'd crossed a line. On the other hand...when is painting someone play time? I mean what sort of weirdness goes through his head? I paused and wondered on that. Weirdness can be fun. It won't be if my hair falls out, but I'll try not to think about that.
I brushed my fingers through my hair and looked at my hand after. No hair. I let out a breath. Okay, now I wouldn't think about it.
I shampooed my hair four times and it felt kind-of normal, so I finished up. The mirror was too foggy to check, but the one in my room had better lighting anyway, so I dried off, wrapped the towel around my waist and crossed back to my room.
“Did it all come out?”
“Gah! What are you doing?” I put a hand to my chest and then quickly grabbed the towel to keep it in place. “Jesus, Caleb! You scared the shit out of me!”
“I hope not. You just showered after all,” he said with a grin. He stood up and walked over to me, and I took an involuntary step back as I wondered what the heck he was doing. He reached up and touched my hair, smoothing it down and...I pulled my head back.
“What are you doing? That's weird.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I was seeing if there was any paint left.”
I pushed my tongue around in my mouth, moving my jaw as I considered. “Well,” I said cautiously. “Is there any left?”
“Lean down a bit,” he said while placing a hand on the top of my head and tilting my head forward. I was six foot, so I probably had him by three inches. I obliged as he brushed my hair with his fingers and I closed my eyes.
“That feels nice.”
He pushed my head back gently. “What did you say? I didn't hear you.”
I looked at him in confusion. “Did I say something?” Oh, God. I didn't actually say that out loud, did I?
He was quiet a moment. “Maybe not.”
I looked at his face while he looked calmly back. His eyes were a bright shade of green, made more striking by his pale skin and golden-red hair. Oddly, he didn't seem to have any freckles. I thought all red-heads had freckles. He also had very nice skin and I wondered what he used for a routine.
I started out of my thoughts. “What?”
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like what?” I paused, not sure where this would lead. I decided to strike first. “You don't have any freckles.”
He tilted his head to one side. “Yeah, I know.”
“It's just.” I waved my hands in the air, then grabbed quickly for the towel to keep it in place. I needed to get dressed. “I thought it was a rule. Red hair equals freckles.”
I walked to my dresser and pulled out a pair of underwear, then slipped them on under my towel. Thus covered I felt better about patting my hair dry and getting to some moisturizer before we were called to dinner. I walked to my mirror and looked at my hair. “I think all the paint came out, huh?”
I grabbed my favorite moisturizer and sat down on my padded stool so I could start with my feet. I'd seen my dad's feet, and those heels of his could probably be used to sand wood. No, thank you. It was too quiet, so I filled the silence. “You have great skin, what's your routine?” I put a generous amount of moisturizer on my hand, smashed it between my palms and started to rub it into my skin, slowly working it into my calves and knees, needing a bit more to get my thighs done right.
“I wonder when dinner will be,” I said as I applied cream to my arms and then rubbed the excess into my stomach. I picked up a great product for keeping my pores clean and went at my face. I glanced in the mirror to see Caleb staring at me. I stood up.
“What are you staring for?”
He took a breath. “I'm sorry. About the clothes. I didn't know they were so important to you.” He frowned lightly. “I should have. You always dress very well, so it makes sense you'd like clothes. I just...got caught up in the moment. I'll replace them.”
I had trouble swallowing for a moment. People say they are sorry without meaning it all the time – I even did it, so I know what I'm talking about. It's rarer that someone says it and you can tell they mean it. Sometimes it feels like you should jump on that person for showing a weakness like real emotion – it's almost like an instinct. It tasted like power, and I wanted power over boys like Caleb. Straight boys who found boys like me amusing at best.
Except...Caleb was nice. He offered to help on my project – leaving out the way that ended. He was sincerely apologizing – doing the one thing those fucks at school never considered. Being mean right now wouldn't get me even with any of them, no matter how good it might feel for a split second – in the end it would be like kicking a puppy.
“That's okay, Caleb. I guess I got you pretty good, too. But...I appreciate you apologizing.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” I said. I arranged my moisturizers so I'd have them handy. He'd been watching me apply them, so he probably wanted to know which ones he should use. His skin was really nice, though, so I thought maybe just something for – well, I don't know. He had great skin. Maybe feet and legs? His legs had actually felt pretty good, too. Maybe just feet? Maybe his feet were like my dad’s, which is scary.
“Why don't you like me?”
I looked up sharply at him in the mirror, and then turned around to actually look at him. “What are you talking about?”
He looked puzzled by my question.
“Why would you think I don't like you?” I asked, feeling silly.
“You've been coming to my house for years for the stress relievers, but you've never invited me over. No birthdays, not even just to hang out. I invited you every time we had a party.”
I felt slightly uncomfortable as though something were lurking to strike me from within my response. “Well, yeah, you have invited me. But everyone was invited, not just me. I thought those parties were by your parents for...well, everyone.”
He looked at me with his green eyes, which seemed so much more...visible to me. They were standing out oddly, as if I were noticing them for the first time in a new light.
He nodded. “Okay.”
“Caleb,” I said, taking a few steps toward him, and then feeling a little conspicuous just in my underwear. I crossed the room to my dresser and pulled sleep pants out and pulled them on before turning back to him. “Not 'okay'. You just said a lot there. It's leaving me confused.”
“Firstly that you thought I didn't like you. When I said we don't do gifts at birthdays, we don't do parties either. We usually don't have anyone but family around. A special dinner and some dessert, but not much in the way of gifts. My parents are pretty generous throughout the year, and they don't like the idea of giving something out of requirement. They’d rather do it as they please.”
He nodded his head a few times. “Well, that makes sense. I mean, it's weird not to give a birthday gift, but when you put it like that, I guess I understand.”
I stepped closer, only a few feet apart. “Caleb...was I wrong about something? Is that why you thought I didn't like you?”
He sighed, but it was odd, because it wasn't like someone who was stressed or feeling stupid. He was just calm Caleb, letting out a deep breath.
“It's just, I've known you forever. You've been to my home, but I think this is the first time I've been to yours – and I kind of barged in. My mom thinks I'm nuts to bring you a gift for Madison being a cuntball, but-”
“Wait, your mom? I thought she was pissed at Madison? Wasn't this her idea?”
He tilted his head. “She is pissed at Madison. Or was. But I said we should do something nice to make up for it. But she pointed out it wasn't like you and I were close and I was thinking a lot about that. I mean, I guess I understand – I'm weird. I'm not close with anyone because I'm weird.”
I frowned. “I never noticed your condition, Caleb. Honestly. I just always thought you were super chill.” I hesitated. This was becoming oddly personal and I wasn't enjoying the feeling of being on defense in my own bedroom. “Besides. I didn't really like any of the boys at our school. After Brett...the only invite I had was to the general party at your place. I wasn't special, so let's not pretend I was.”
He frowned lightly and looked off in the distance for a moment. “Brett Hosten?”
Of all things to seize on. “Yes. After him, no straight boy – or even the gay ones – wanted much to do with me.”
He was quiet for a moment, and I decided I was done with this weird conversation. I heard him grunt out a 'Huh', but by then I was pulling on a shirt, and then my mother was calling us down to dinner. I greeted Bruce, who was downstairs with my sister – maybe why Caleb had been waiting in my room. My parents carried some conversation, and my dad made a stupid joke to Bruce about a shotgun.
Talk about the horse having left the barn.
I suppose it was because I'd never been in such proximity to Caleb for such a long time, but being right next to him I noted his hands, which were fine – not thick, like you might expect from a sports-playing jockish fellow. I guess he was right, now that I look back on him, in that he played some sports but wasn't ever really in that clique. You are in it by definition, but not so much in practice. I suppose every group has its tiers.
Bruce was kind of engaging, and I again low-key wished he were gay. Caleb started talking about the clock we'd worked on, and everyone started laughing when he told them about the paint. Worse, they laughed harder when he tried to say he'd been sorry to have ruined my clothes. Jesus, I was starting to feel bad for him at this point.
I leaned to him as my dad started to tell Bruce about why he called our mother Rose. “That's very sweet of you to apologize, but stop, okay? You were right – I can get more clothes.”
He looked at me doubtfully. “You were pretty mad.”
I chuckled lightly. “Yeah. I guess it's hard to stay mad at you.”
He smiled, and I swear to Christ his eyes sparkled like a fucking cartoon character. It was a twinkle – maybe a trick of the light from the kitchen table light bouncing off his bright eyes, or maybe...maybe...I was seeing things. I'm pretty sure his eyes never sparkled like that before.
Just how much paint did I inhale?