WHEN I graduated from high school, my best friend, Matt Cooksey, and I moved to Lubbock, Texas from just outside of Dallas, where we had grown up. We had both been accepted to Everson University—EU—in northwest Texas for the fall semester, me on a full academic scholarship and him half on student loans, the rest on his mom and dad. With what we had together, we could afford to live off campus, and the two-bedroom apartment we had rented and put down the deposit on was tiny, just 325 square feet, but it was livable.
It was only four-fifty a month plus utilities, which, split down the middle, would have let us both only have to get part-time jobs instead of full-time ones, so we could study more and still have time to do something other than work if we weren’t in class. It was a good plan, but Matt bailed on me right before school started because he met a girl and moved in with her instead. It was a crappy thing to do, but I actually understood. The man was in love—he was supposed to give that up for me?
So I had to get a real job instead of the cushy one I had lined up at the campus bookstore, because by that time the dorms were full, so I had no choice but to pay for my apartment alone. Since I had worked all through high school at Ace Graphics and only resigned when I moved to go away to school, I called up my old manager and asked him if he could recommend me for a position at one of the five branches in Lubbock. As I hadn’t yet been gone six months, I was basically a rehire, and on his word, I was employed within two days. I promised I wouldn’t let him down, and he assured me it had never been a concern.
At the new store, they needed an assistant manager since their last one had just been promoted to a store in Houston. I was received gratefully by the branch manager and with reservations by the staff. It made sense; at age eighteen—which I was when I started—I was the youngest one there. Once they got used to me, though, and saw that I wasn’t a flake, they started counting on me to come through, and I was accepted into the fold.
It was my life. I went to school, came home, changed, and fed my cat, Boaz. Then I walked to work. There was no time for anything else, and when I had to cover more shifts than just my own, between work and classes I was a zombie.
By the Friday night before Christmas, I was dead on my feet. I had worked fourteen straight days because one of the project managers—a fancy title for shift leader—Elliot Hogan, had a baby. Technically his wife had the baby, but he needed to be there. And I got that, I did, but I was beat. Usually second-shift duties rotated between our second assistant manager, Rick Burns, Elliot, and me. But with Elliot out, Rick and I were the only ones trading off. Then they fired Alex Chesney because he was doing free work for people he liked, and Rick got stuck covering days until someone else got hired. So we were suddenly down two people, and our manager, who was splitting time between two other centers and us until they got a district manager hired—our cluster of stores was growing in sales like crazy—couldn’t help at all. She was sorry, so sorry; she would have filled in if she could, but she was working her ass off and had a family herself.
My options came down to quitting or sucking it up. Since I needed the money for basic things like eating and keeping a roof over my head, I sucked it up. The overtime was great bill-wise, rent-wise, but not health-wise. By the end of my regular work week when I normally got two days off, I was a card-carrying creature of the night. Now with no break from work at all, my weekends full of studying and homework and ten-hour workdays, I was starting to feel the wear and tear on my body.
The nice lady I was helping was smiling at me as she touched my forearm. Apparently I had nodded off.
“Oh God, I’m sorry,” I said with a weak smile.
“It’s okay, Vincent, you look exhausted.”
I had a moment to wonder how she knew my name, but then it hit me that I’d actually found my nametag the night before and remembered to wear it. “Well, I appreciate you being so—”
“Dude.” A guy wearing an Everson University football T-shirt, huge with no neck, dropped a flash drive on the counter beside me. “I need all four of the slides in the folder marked copies printed out 24x36 and laminated and mounted. Need it by eight tomorrow morning.”
A lot of people needed them done. It was the final for Communication 301, Presentation and Speeches. Everyone had to take that class as a junior, but as a sophomore, I wasn’t there yet. I was still getting all my 201 classes out of the way.
“You got it?” he barked without waiting for my answer. He tapped the counter with his knuckles like that was all he needed to say. Since I was already taking an order from the lady in front of me who was making flyers for her dog grooming business, I picked up the flash drive and tossed it at the closest trashcan.
“Color or black and white?” I asked Mrs. Baker, who would even clip burrs out of a dog’s fur for only sixty bucks. It was a steal, considering it took me three hours to get them out after my friend Darla’s mutt, Bird, got into some. “I think you—”
“Dude, what the hell? I saw that!”
“They’ll look better in color, and I could run one on a glossy stock so you could see what it looks like.”
“I’m talking to you!”
“And I’m talking to her,” I said without glancing at him. “You can wait if you want to place an order, but just so you know, we’re done printing oversize for the night since it’s ten already. So if you want it in the morning, I suggest you run over to the Rose Street store that’s open 24/7 and see if they can fit you in.”
“Doesn’t work here anymore,” I said quickly, turning around to my production people behind me. “Luce, bring me the proof on the color copier.”
“I need it!” the jock yelled.
I turned to look at him. “You’re wasting time here when other people are gonna hop in line in front of you at the other location. You need to go there.”
“I need this done!”
“Here you go,” Lucy said from beside me, sliding me the proof for my nice doggie-lady customer.
“Wait, just wait,” another voice said.
I turned, and beside the jock was now a leaner one, an athlete too, I was betting, but built more like a swimmer than the defensive lineman his friend so obviously was. What was nice was that his voice wasn’t reaching the same decibel level as the enraged refrigerator with a head.
Even without anyone telling me, I knew I was right about Pretty Boy’s athletic prowess. He had to play some kind of sport with all those beautifully defined muscles outlined by a T-shirt that clung to bulging biceps and triceps, delts, traps, and a chest that was… God. The man’s hard pectorals should have been cast in bronze. The package was nice; the rest was… well, to be fair, that was damn fine too.
“I actually need it, not him. Just tell us what we have to do to get this done,” the pretty one said.
“Go to the other store,” I told him. “We can’t do it and you’re wasting your time here.”
“Alex told my buddy that any—”
I bristled. “Again, Alex got canned for this very thing. Go. To. The. Other. Store.”
The jock was getting really pissed and it was there in his tone. “You’re kind of a—”
“Luce.” I stopped my coworker before she could leave my side. “Sign ‘go to the other store’ for these guys, ’cause they’re not hearing me.”
She looked at them and signed it for me. It was good to have someone studying to be an auditory therapist on staff and also sometimes fun. She had taught me lots of curse words in American Sign Language.
The jock snarled, “You think that’s funny, you—”
“Don’t,” Lucy warned the big muscle-bound guy. “I get to throw you out if you swear.”
“Everybody calm down,” the pretty boy said, trying to soothe his friend as well as Lucy.
“I am calm,” she snapped.
“You need to help find a solution,” hottie boy told me.
“I did.” I smirked. “Run on over to the other store.”
“You’re kind of a jerk.”
“I heard him make a suggestion,” Mrs. Baker chimed in on my side.
I gestured to her.
“Ma’am,” the jock began. “We—”
“It was just an observation,” she said politely.
“He”—the Neanderthal growled, pointing at me—“doesn’t get how important this is.”
“At least I understand English.” I snickered.
He leaned on the counter, hoping, I was certain, to intimidate me. “Listen, you need to get my buddy’s flash drive out of the trash and do the work for me. At this point you have no choice.”
I was reminded that it wasn’t even his project. All his bullying had been on Pretty Boy’s behalf. I scoffed. “Luce, grab the drive.”
“Scott, get the flash drive Vince just threw in the recycle bin,” she yelled over her shoulder.
“This is your idea of good customer service?” he mocked me.
“Yep,” I sneered, still putting Mrs. Baker’s order into the computer.
“He’s a piece of work,” the hot one, the one who was letting his friend berate me, said to Lucy. “I need you to do this for me.”
“We really can’t,” she stressed. “And even if I wanted to, he’s the boss. What he says goes.”
“How can he be the boss? He’s, like, twelve.” He was indignant. I had to smile. There was no way not to.
“Where the hell is Alex?” the jock yelled.
“For the billionth time,” Lucy replied. “Alex got fired for doing work like this and not charging for it. Elvis has left the building.”
“What do you think?” I asked Mrs. Baker brightly.
The pretty boy leaned onto the counter. “I’ll pay for it; I just have to have it.” Even pleading, moving quickly into irritation, he sounded all deep and smoky, like liquid sex.
“I love it,” Mrs. Baker said, seeing how easily it folded on the paper I had suggested. “So I need two hundred in color and three hundred on a colored paper, I think.”
“Then go to the other store,” Lucy was again telling the guy who would haunt my dreams if I ever got to bed.
“But I need these for—”
“We close at eleven,” she went on. “It’s ten fifteen now. It’s not gonna happen.”
His stance shifted, and when it did I saw his muscles bunch under the fabric of the T-shirt. He was built powerful and sleek and I shuddered just looking at him.
The want was almost overwhelming.
Jesus, I was tired.
“Sweetheart?” Mrs. Baker said in concern.
I had to tear my eyes away from rippling muscles and golden skin and….
“You look pale,” she continued.
I so needed to get laid.
Taking the paper selection book Lucy passed me, I opened it for Mrs. Baker. “I would suggest a pastel since you’ve got a lot of pictures there.”
“You’re not listening to me.” The jock’s voice was rising again.
“No, you’re not listening to me,” Lucy corrected him.
“Here,” Scott Chun, my design guy, said, passing the flash drive back across the counter to the object of my desire. “You’re lucky he threw it in the recycle bin and not in the regular trash. There’s only paper in there.”
“I need to get this—”
“There are greasy hamburger wrappers in the other one.”
“Okay,” Pretty Boy said, in that everybody-calm-down way, “we simply need to come to some kind of understanding about—”
Scott coughed. “Oh man, our Epson—”
“Our oversize color printer,” Scott explained tightly. I heard the irritation infuse his tone. “We’re running it until we close. You think you’re the only guy who waited until the very last minute to get their posters done for that class? Everybody did. You better get over to the university store before—”
“Can’t you guys just—”
“Ours is running, and it’ll be running ’til we walk out. Seriously, we’re only telling you to go to the university store so you actually have a chance of getting it done for tomorrow.”
“I like the pink,” Mrs. Baker told me.
I looked over my shoulder. “Mike, grab me the proof off the black and white.”
“There are all of you here and no one can run my damn posters?” Pretty Boy demanded.
“Again, there’s only one oversize machine,” Lucy told him. “And it’s running until we close. It’s going as fast as it can, but we won’t be able to get yours out tonight. So, as Vince said, as I said, as Scott said… you need to go to the university store.”
“Here, boss.” Mike yawned, coming up beside me and passing me the double-sided flyer on carnation-pink paper.
“This looks good, huh?” I asked Mrs. Baker.
“I love it.” She smiled at me. “You’ve been such a help.”
I smiled back. “I’ll have it by noon tomorrow.”
“Perfect.” She was still beaming at me.
“I can fold it too.” I waggled my eyebrows at her.
“Is it a lot more?”
“Pennies, and you don’t hafta screw with it.”
“I wanna talk to the manager,” Pretty Boy barked at Lucy, finally at the end of his rope.
“You know you already did,” she told him. “Come on. You have your flash drive; I would suggest hurrying before their queue fills for the night.”
I was almost certain the guy I wanted to do bad things with, aka Pretty Boy, was looking us all over, memorizing our faces for when he made his complaint to my boss. His head moved, but since he was wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses, it was hard to tell what he was seeing. And seriously, sunglasses at night? I wondered vaguely if all this trouble over him understanding things was simply because he was stoned.
No one was paying attention to him anymore. Scott was walking away, Mike was checking the production log, and Lucy was getting ready to close her register.
“You get off on this?” he accused.
“Man, I so don’t give a crap about you,” I assured him snidely. “If I had time, if you had showed up earlier, we would have run it. This is so not personal.”
“Well, it is now.”
I rolled my eyes, because who talked like that? Well, it is now. Why did there have to be drama when there was such a simple solution? I hated people who bitched just to hear the sound of their own voices. Go do something about it, don’t stand around and whine. Christ.
I left him there with his buddy, both of them fuming, and went out to help a customer waving at me from the self-serve department. He didn’t know how to add a picture to his Facebook page. Normally we didn’t help with that kind of stuff, but other than our oversize, and color, it was dead, so I had time. When I got back, the two football players were gone.
“‘But I need it’,” Mike whined for my benefit.
“‘But you can’t have it’,” Lucy bantered back, shaking her head and pouting for me. “So sorry, Vin.”
“God, what a douche,” I grunted.
“I know, but that’s the kind of shit Alex would pull on those nights you weren’t here. That’s why we got stuck pulling all that overtime. He would stay and do that crap for those guys. Everyone he was trying to impress… girls too! All the cute model types playing with their hair in front of him. God, I wanted to puke,” she growled.
“Oh!” Scott made his voice high as he walked up beside us. “Thank you, Alex, you’re so sweet. You want me to blow you in your car?”
I started laughing.
“Ohmygod, Alex was such an ass,” Mike griped as he took the meter reads off the machines. “I mean, no cute girls ever paid for shit while he was working.”
“Well, I don’t charge hot guys,” I chimed in.
“Yes you do,” he snapped irritably. “That’s the thing about you, Vince. You don’t jump in and say ‘Oh yeah, sure, we’ll do that even though we all have school the next day and we’re tired and we all have homework. Yeah, no problem.’”
Lucy scrunched up her face. “Worst of all, Alex couldn’t even run any of the machines. So he’s saying yes when we’re saying no because we know what’s in production, and he has no clue! Then on top of that, he can’t help because he was hired from the outside and he didn’t know how to do shit.”
“So he’s overruling us on what to take in, and then he’s like ‘Okay, now you do it.’” Scott sounded very bitter.
“God, I hated that guy,” Mike said, clapping his hand down on my shoulder. “And I know you’re workin’ like a dog, but I for one have enjoyed the hell out of having you here all the time.”
“Me too,” Lucy agreed.
“Me three.” Scott grinned wide. “It’s Friday. After this, let’s go get a beer. At least we don’t have to be up first thing in the morning.”
I squinted at him. “It is Friday—what’s with all the posters, then?”
“They have to be up in the hall before 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning to be graded.”
“Yeah, they’re graded over the weekend.”
“Since all four professors have to look at them together, they take the weekend instead of trying to make time during the week. Their aides check to see who has it put up by nine tomorrow morning, they record it, and then sometime either on Saturday or Sunday, they lock themselves in and whatever is in the exhibition hall gets graded, whatever isn’t gets a zero.”
I nodded. “Got it.”
“So? Beer?” Mike prodded.
I needed to let them wind down from their week, even if that meant I would be going home alone. “Well, you guys can, but I—”
“No,” Scott cut me off. “You’re going, too, Vinnie.”
“I forget sometimes that you’re just a pup.” He smiled, ruffling my hair. “Let’s do this. We’ll go to Mario’s, and you can have pizza and Pepsi, and the rest of us can have pizza and beer.”
I turned and smiled at him because it was really nice. They were all over twenty-one except me and could have gone somewhere and drank. I didn’t; I couldn’t. Normally they didn’t include me. We were work friends, and we didn’t hang out otherwise.
“You coming, Vince?” Scott checked.
Yes I was.
ON THE way home from the pizza place a little after one in the morning, I had to walk by the twenty-four-hour location of Ace Graphics. It was the one located on Rose, close to the college, that I had sent the football players to earlier. There were windows along one side of the building, and when I looked in to see who I could flip off, just to be a dick, I saw Monica Wrigley running toward the automatic doors at the front entrance to cut me off.
“Hey.” I waved at her as she stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of me.
I smiled at the desperation in her voice. “That would be me.”
“Oh thank God,” she sighed deeply. “We called everybody, and nobody’s picking up, and we’ve got so much… just… please come look at the oversize printer before Sawyer’s head explodes.”
I chuckled, and she rushed forward and put her arm though mine, making sure I couldn’t get away. “What’s it doing?”
“It’s not doing anything. That’s the problem.”
The store I worked at could easily fit inside the one we walked into at least twice. It was why it was called “the big store” compared to our compact one. When I looked to the back, I saw Sawyer Downey, the assistant manager of that branch, striding toward me.
“I’ll take you for the blueberry pancakes you love, I swear to God.”
“I just ate.” I smiled at him, lifting the strap of my messenger bag with the Israeli Paratrooper insignia on it over my head.
“I’ll take that.” Monica beamed at me. “You wanna give me the coat too?”
I was wearing my green military jacket with the stiff collar that was big enough for me to wear two layers under if I needed to. As it was the third week in December, it was more than cold enough to wear it.
“No, it shouldn’t take that long,” I said as I walked behind the counter with Sawyer. “What did you try?”
“I cleaned the print heads and ran diagnostics. The print quality says it should be fine, but I’ve got nothing coming out.”
I moved around him to the main computer to check the network connectivity.
“How do you know how to do all this?” Sawyer asked, close to me, his breath on the side of my neck. “You’re just a baby.”
I concentrated on what I was doing, because Sawyer lived to give me crap about my age. He was thirty and the assistant manager of his store, and I was nineteen and held the same position at mine. He had started off not liking me at all until he realized I didn’t want to be at the big branch. I was happy where I was at the smaller one. Once he knew I wasn’t gunning for his job, everything changed and settled. Now we were friendly, and I’d even had Thanksgiving at his house—with a lot of other people he invited—and his wife and daughter.
“You know how I know what I’m doing, Downey?”
“I actually pay attention,” I teased him before I looked over at the printer as the first swipe of color hit the paper.
“Oh yes,” he laughed thumping me on the back hard. “Blueberry pancakes and eggs and bacon and—”
“No.” I smiled. “Gotta go home. Tomorrow I’m actually off, so I get to sleep in for once.”
He nodded. “Sunday then, breakfast at my house. Kimi’s making biscuits and gravy for my family, and she told me to ask you.”
I adored his wife. She would sit and talk to me and ask about my love life and school and actually listen without commenting. “That sounds good. What time?”
“It’s a date.”
He squeezed the back of my neck and then tousled my hair again.
“You gotta do that?” I griped.
“Yeah, kid,” he said as he smiled at me, “I do.”
I would forgive him because of the smile.
On the way out, I saw the same two football players who had given me grief earlier at my store walking in. Neither of them said anything as they passed me. I walked on, out of the store and down the sidewalk. Minutes later I heard my name yelled. Turning, I found the pretty one jogging toward me.
As a rule I had no use for football players. They were big dumb jocks who, if I was lucky, ignored me, and if I wasn’t, knocked me around.
In high school I got called “faggot” a lot, and sometimes “queerboy,” and with it I was shoved up against my locker or whichever one was closest. There were the times when I was tripped and pushed and even run into during PE. Two ribs were bruised once, but really, the online stuff was the worst. The Facebook crap used to hurt because I was frustrated that it even showed up, but almost worse was the fact that in the time it took to shoot a video of me and put it on YouTube or post some picture of me, we could have been talking and working it out. Why didn’t anyone ever want to just work it out? Why the bullying? And who had that kind of time to be so deliberately mean? They all needed to get a life. My grandmother always said to stay strong; Matt used to say the same. The thing was, though, I was in no danger of hurting myself, killing myself, because I had a whole world to look forward to.
My plan was to become a botanist/genetic engineer and create a species of plant, some hybrid of wheat and oat that would grow really fast, so I could feed the world’s hungry. It was the whole hierarchy of needs thing that we learned about in Psychology. I figured if everybody was fed, if everybody had somewhere to live, then we could move on to the whole peace on earth thing. The problem now was that everybody wanted us all to get along, but people were still starving and living on the streets. It made no sense to me. My plan was to fix that. Not alone, of course. Me and my team and my really hot, brilliant, kind partner who adored me and wanted to screw me into a mattress anytime he got an extra minute away from helping me solve the world’s famine problem. If I was dreaming, I was going to go big. Funny that everything, all of it, came rushing at me when I heard the football player yell out my name.
He ran up to me and stopped a few feet away.
“You fixed the printer in there.”
I squinted at him. “Yeah?”
He shrugged. “My stuff was up next, so I just wanted to say thank you.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
The corner of his mouth lifted and curled. “You look surprised.”
“I am,” I said softly.
“So, uhm,” he said, taking a step closer. “Sorry about before, all right?”
“You look like you wanna ask something.”
Tipping my head, I smiled. “Seriously, what’s with the sunglasses? Are you hiding from your fans?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
He took a step that brought him into my personal space, making it so I had to tip my head back to look up at him. “It’s Vince, right?”
He swallowed hard, and I heard him inhale. “You were really an ass.”
It was not news. Even when I purposely tried to be decent, I came off sarcastic or snide. People I never met before in my life thought I was conceited and rude. Most of it was that I was shy, but I could own being more sensitive than I needed to be a lot of the time by attacking when maybe listening was the better approach. I was a work in progress.
Once I knew you really well, I was better, and Matt’s mother always said I was one of the sweetest people she knew, but I had known her since I was eight, so it was different. The first impression I made was never good.
“This is your chance to say sorry.”
“You were really not listening,” I said instead of apologizing.
He grunted. “Okay. See ya ’round.”
My eyes stayed glued to him as he looked me over from head to toe before turning and jogging back to the store. I was smiling as I turned for home. It was true: truth was stranger than fiction.