Tall Thicket, Texas. Home to Tall Thicket State and Woodpeckers football, for those who even fucking cared. Texans or not, most Thicketers knew the Woodpeckers sucked. No one with any talent came to East Texas to play ball, and honestly, the student body didn’t care. In 1993, they had other things on their minds.
Cameron Lord definitely did. Transferring junior year from the massive University of Texas hadn’t been his Plan A, but after the way he fucked up sophomore year in Austin, well, he needed a fresh start. His dad insisted he was lucky Tall Thicket wanted him, and Cameron had argued enough with his dad recently.
Besides, TTSU had a great psych department. So that worked out, probably. When Cameron had graduated high school near the top of his class, everyone figured he’d become a surgeon like his dad, but now…
Well. Fuck it. Just, fuck it, right? Psychologist was close enough, and it’d be less pressure, and he kind of knew about the field firsthand now.
What seemed entirely unfair, honestly, was that despite how much money Cameron’s dad was saving by sending him here, he expected Cameron to hold down a part-time job. On one hand, that was great. Cameron liked his independence, and he hated his dad, so not having to ask him for much suited him fine. On the other hand, if these meds didn’t pan out…
If these meds didn’t pan out, Cameron would be losing a lot more than a part-time job. Like, oh, his mind?
After two months on them, he felt different. Not better, just different. More detached. Less moved by emotions. That was probably okay, but Cameron couldn’t tell otherwise.
Living off-campus would be nice, at least, right? He’d been in the dorms his two years at UT; at least now he had some space. His therapist, Lynette, had suggested to Dr. Lord that Cameron have somewhere to get away from over-stimulating social situations, so while he still had a roommate, he had his own bedroom with a lock on the door.
Of course, she’d also suggested he walk everywhere because he maybe shouldn’t drive on his current chemical cocktail, but Cameron refused to give up his chopper. He and his dad had built matching ones together when he was sixteen, and it was all he really had left of that part of his life, now he’d blown up their relationship. At least he still had a cool ride.
For all the good it would do him.
His apartment was a stone’s throw from campus, and walking would’ve been easier than driving a bike in the January-molasses kind of traffic moving across the sprawling grounds. By the time he’d done orientation, gotten his books, and settled in, he was convinced he should have bought sensible walking shoes instead of his heavy Doc Martens.
His dad was always telling him to choose substance over style, but what about when style had the most substance? Sometimes form followed function. Wasn’t that better than ugly practicality?
Which seemed to prove Cameron wasn’t cut out for a surgeon’s job. Psychology seemed like a better fit, personal understanding of mental illness aside.
To emphasize the point, Cameron had observed Tall Thicket was home to some improbably good-looking student bodies. The boy who’d been ahead of him at the bookstore had stolen his breath for a good ten seconds and left him light-headed. A girl who sat beside him at orientation had flustered him until he dropped his pencil. Overall, it was a pretty, pretty school—spectacularly landscaped grounds notwithstanding.
Too bad the meds he was on kind of killed his sex drive, along with numbing any other excitement he might feel. Some would argue that was for the best.
With classes starting next week, there was little for Cameron to do with his weekend besides hunker down and settle in, familiarize himself with the town. It wasn’t as dinky as the one-stoplight towns around these parts, but it was a lot smaller than Austin. He’d still been finding cool new spots there when he left. Here, a bike ride down the main drag would take him past just about everything that mattered.
Might as well get out there.
“Going out?” Mike, Cameron’s new roommate, asked as Cameron strode out his bedroom toward the front door.
Cameron grunted in Mike’s direction and shrugged. What did the guy want from him? They had to live together, and if Cameron had his way, that would mean a lot of ships-in-the-night action, not a buddy flick.
“Have fun.” Mike seemed untroubled by Cameron’s attitude and turned his attention back to his grainy recording of Seinfeld.
With two raised fingers, Cameron saluted briefly and headed out. Within moments he was pulling his long hair back into a low ponytail and settling a black helmet on his head. Then he was on his bike and pulling out of the parking lot, turning onto University and then blazing toward the four-lane highway with a roar. Within moments he’d left behind the landscaped campus for the endless rows of mom-and-pop shops intermingled with chain shops.
Clusters of students milled along the sidewalks and waited at corners to cross. Cameron watched them hungrily, the numbness inside growing teeth and gnawing at him. He longed for the belonging of kids hand-in-hand striding over the crosswalk at least as much as he despised it. Easier to dismiss it altogether, though.
Easier never to want what he couldn’t have. Better. Safer.
Lynette talked about comfort zones and stepping outside them, but Cameron wasn’t certain he could survive that much change all at once. Not right now.
Waiting at the stoplight, he caught a glimpse of golden hair through the plate glass window of a pizza place and his chest seized up. Was that bookshop guy?
Oh man, it was.
Bad idea, right? Such a bad idea. Cameron wasn’t hungry, and that guy was probably straight, and this was East Texas.
The NOW HIRING sign beckoned, and Cameron sighed and gave in. He had only so much willpower to get him through a day, and most of that was focused on basic human tasks like not driving into oncoming traffic and keeping his balls clean.
He eased across traffic and parked diagonally right in front. He wiped suddenly sweaty hands on his ripped jeans and plaid shirt and then hung his helmet from the ape-hangers.
So what if he was going to mix work and play a little?
So what if he was purposely attempting to get a job somewhere with a devastatingly attractive co-worker who’d fuck his head right up?
Self-destruction was in vogue. He’d wear it well. More to journal about, right?
Cameron wasn’t dressed for success, but what did it even matter? It wasn’t Wall Street. They probably weren’t picky, even if he could just hear his dad moaning over the situation.
Inside, the place was filled with customers. How had Cameron even spotted the golden boy from the road past all these people? Friday night dinner had to be prime time.
The blond man stood in front of the ovens, behind the counter. He held a metal spatula that he clanged against something metal above him before he shouted. “Bell, large supreme pie.”
He then slid a box on the counter in front of him. A woman, presumably Bell, joined the line at the cash register. The man squinted past the heat lamps into the lobby. Their eyes met and his brows rose briefly before he gave a quick nod and then spun around to retrieve another pizza out of the oven.
The place was slammed. As soon as one phone was answered, another rang. The woman answering the phones looked older than the rest of the staff, as if she was in charge. She handled putting people on hold with brutal efficiency, taking down orders on paper slips she stacked until someone came from the back to snatch them away, apparently to fulfill them.
For a second, Cameron considered backing out. Just turning around and walking out. He’d worked at the video store during high school, and Friday nights had been like this, but… Man, food service seemed like a whole other animal. Way more intense.
Though fewer shouting matches so far, at least.
As much as Cameron wanted to bail, the way the blond guy seemed to recognize him—had he, though, or was Cameron reading in?—galvanized him. He stood his ground, waited until he was at the counter, and then licked his lips, suddenly nervous. If he hadn’t been medicated, it would’ve been too much. As it was, he copped a swagger and grinned at the folks behind the counter.
“Saw y’all are hiring. Need help?”
“Oh, um.” The young lady at the front counter crouched down, shuffling papers. She pulled out a pad of job application forms with the company logo in the corner. Ripping one off, she handed it to him and gave him a wide, toothy smile. Her lashes fluttered over her pinkening cheeks. “Need a pen?”
The woman at the phones slung one on her shoulder as she leaned forward, squinting at Cameron. “Hey, kid, you eighteen?”
“Twenty,” Cameron countered with a smile he didn’t feel and a challenge he did. He took the application from the girl and held out his hand for a pen, although he had the sense the manager was inclined to skip to the part where she stopped being short-handed.
The metal clang rang out again as the blond man shouted another name and order. A box appeared on top of another. He paused, looking between Cameron and the manager, then whirled around to grab another pizza out.
“Can you start now? Wash a dish or fifty?” The woman smiled. There was a gap between her front teeth. Her hair was frizzy, probably with the heat and humidity. “Minimum wage, but all the pizza you can eat.”
The blond man dropped the pizza on the table, then ran a roller slicer through with lightning speed. His lithe muscles flexed under the fitted golf shirt. It was probably just the heat that made his cheeks rosy. Or was it?
“Yeah, sure, I can wash dishes tonight. I need a uniform for that?” Cameron tried his best not to stare at the hot boy, especially not in front of potential colleagues. What was he even doing?
Why was he doing this to himself?
He’d never even washed dishes, except at home. The video store had been more with the Be-Kind-Rewind and less with the suds.
“Nah, but you’ll want an apron. Tim, you got an extra apron back there for our new hire?” She glanced over at the blond guy who gave a quick nod before shouting another name.
He peeked into the back and then back to his boss. “Yeah, there’s one on the dough table. Might also need boxes later if this keeps up.”
“Shoot.” She grimaced but set the phone on the stand and then threw open the door to the right of the counter. “Well, you’re hired, um… What’s your name?”
“Cameron.” He stepped through the counter door and sized up the other employees. At least his dad couldn’t ride his ass about this now. He met the manager’s gaze and shrugged one shoulder. “Thanks, um…?”
“Nina. Cameron, great name. Don’t think you’ll need a hat for dishes, but we’ll get you one of those, and the shirt and apron. Pants are just plain black. Docs are good; anything with support will do for shoes.” She started toward the back, giving the phones a swift glance. “I’ll just show you the back quick.”
She pointed at the blond guy. “That’s Tim. At the counter is Lisa.”
She walked back to behind the ovens where a harried looking young lady was frantically making pizzas. “This is Heather. Heather, Cameron. He’s going to do dishes.”
Heather looked at Cameron briefly, went back to her pizzas and then looked back again, eyes roving more slowly. “Cool.”
There was a man facing the back wall shoving dough into a machine. It came out oblong. He ran it through again and the dough was round.
Nina scooted past him. “That’s John.”
John turned. His eyes were bloodshot like he’d been smoking not too long ago, but he seemed to be working industriously. “Great, someone else to suck up hours.”
Nina rolled her eyes. “He’s real fun.” She showed Cameron the bathroom, then the walk-in fridge, then around to the sink. Beside it stood a pile of pizza pans almost as tall as he was.
There was a clank from the front and Cameron caught a glimpse of Tim dropping another pan in a growing stack. He gave Cameron a brief smile and gestured with the metal spatula at a table against the wall where an apron lay. “There’s a dishwasher apron in the bathroom that’s more heavy duty. Just gets hot. Up to you. It’s clean.”
“Hot enough already. Thanks.” Cameron shot Tim a look, half-searching and half-bitter. He already kind of hated him. Tim. What a fucking wholesome sounding name. He was probably a real nice boy.
If Cameron had learned anything, it was to mistrust nice boys. You thought they were your friend. That you could trust them. Be real.
Then they freaked out on you and threw you to the wolves.
Turning his back on Tim, Cameron beelined for the apron and pulled it on before rolling up his sleeves and remaking his ponytail at the base of his neck to keep the wild, wavy strands under control.
“Great. Ask Tim if you’ve got questions. Soap’s up top. Sprayer powers out most everything. Don’t burn yourself. Gotta get back to the phones.” Nina flashed him a smile as she patted his shoulder. “Get you to fill out the paperwork later so we can get you paid. I’ll show you the time cards too.”
If Tim was offended by the cold-shouldering, he was too busy to show it. He turned to the ovens and got back to work. A radio played the college radio station. It wasn’t loud enough to be heard in the lobby; it was barely loud enough for Cameron to hear over the sprayer.
What he could hear was the rhythmic clank of metal on metal when Tim pulled out a pizza, signaled he was calling a name, and the thump of another pan dropping into the pile. He could also hear Tim calling a name pretty clearly, which was surprising, given how loud everything was. Pretty good projection. Probably a jerk.
Jerk with a good voice though. Strong. Clear.
Cameron couldn’t help being a little intrigued, especially when he glanced over at every call to see Tim moving nimbly around his station, his muscles stretching and bunching under his uniform shirt. He looked way better in it than he had any right to.