Chapter 22

Normally, an early ring of my alarm clock would bother and greatly annoy me in the morning. But today? I sprung out of bed as if I hadn't woken up involuntarily on three or four occasions hours ahead of time. I guess I was anxious about possibly missing the chance to be close enough to put my arms around Dustin and share a few giggly moments with him before work today.

I took a long, hot, shower...fixed my hair, brushed my teeth to get them extra white...

Hehehe, I was almost done with my entire morning routine when I realized that I was fixing myself up like I would way back when I was Dustin's age. Trying to impress the cuties at school...hoping to catch a cute boy's eye and make him mine. And here I am again...a nervous teenager all over again. You never realize how cynical you are about life in general until a boy like Dustin comes along and causes the whole world to explode with color. Excitement. Meaning. I just stared at my goofy little smirk and thanked fate one last time before grabbing my keys and heading out to work.

This 'love' thing? It's almost impossible to shut it off once it gains any momentum on you.

As soon as I walked into the store, Jack gave me a sideways look. "You're awfully early today. I thought you weren't coming in until 12."

I didn't blurt anything out about Dustin. I know that Jack was sort of coming around when it came to us...ummm...being 'together' and all, but I still felt like the less I said about our secret relationship, the better. "I didn't have much to do this morning anyway. I figured, why not?"

"I'll tell you why not...because we work in the mall. That kind of ruins the whole effect. This should be a fun place to hang out, but these days I try to spend as much time away from this place as my work schedule will allow. Even now, I can't wait to wash the stench of this place off of me."

"Hehehe, geez. Issues, much?" I asked.

"Not really. I just...got stuff on my mind, I suppose." He began fixing up the back counter, and I dropped my bag in one of the lower cabinets under the register. "I was talking to Phillip last night, and he wasn't able to get away from the house. He had to text me because he was afraid to talk on the phone. His wife is starting to think he's being 'distant'. I guess he's trying to make amends by spending some quality time with her this week."

"I'm sorry, bud. Secret relationships suck."

"I'll say. But...it's still kind of flattering."

"How so?"

Jack smiled, "Because I'm winning. Hehehe!"

I just shook my head with a grin. "You play dirty."

"The dirtiest." He replied, but as he continued to go on about his sweetheart and the idea of them finding time to spend another long night together soon...I managed to look over his shoulder and see Dustin bashfully walk into view from the front of our store. He sort of peeked in, and my heart began to flutter just as badly as it did when I laid eyes on him for the very first time. Even at a distance...he's the cutest boy on the block.

Jack continued to talk, and I nodded to let him know that I was paying attention. "Uh huh, sure..."

"Eventually, Phillip and I come to some sort of understanding, I think. I mean, I don't want to be the kind of guy that forces him to 'choose', you know? But that's what it's all gonna come down to in the end, isn't it? Oh man, I have to really wonder if I'm the bad guy in all this. But we both really want to be together. That should count for something, shouldn't it? Despite how it looks to other people?" Jack paused briefly, and without even looking over his shoulder, he said, "He's here, isn't he?"


"Hiiii, Dustin." Jack grinned. How did he do that? Jack rolled his eyes and said, "Oh please, Eric. What am I, an idiot? Your eyes just lit up like a pair of exploding stars. Like I said before...you're not nearly as sneaky as you think you are."

"Hey..." Dustin mumbled softly, cautiously stepping into the store. I guess he wasn't really sure what Jack was going to say about us either.

Jack turned around and smiled at Dustin to set him at ease. Then, looking at the visible remnants of his rapidly healing bruise, he said, "You look a little banged up there, champ. You feeling ok?"

Dustin ran his fingers through his soft blond locks, draping the longer side of his golden curtain over the bump on his forehead. "Oh...yeah. It was an accident." He said, shyly. "Ummm...soccer practice..."

Dustin doesn't really know that I talked to Jack about any of this, so...I guess he was covering up in an attempt to protect me. Jack just looked him in the eye, and grinned, "Soccer, huh? Ok." Then he added, "That's a potentially dangerous game you're playing out there. You might want to be a bit more 'careful'."

Dustin nodded. Subliminal message sent, and received. And there was nothing else to be said about it after that.

I noticed Dustin's baby blue eyes peeking around Jack to connect with mine, and he decided to excuse himself. "Well, gee...I've got to get these shelves stocked, don't I? Later, guys."

As soon as he was gone, I smiled at Dustin and he melted instantly. He unexpectedly stepped forward and hugged me tight around the waist. I swear, that boy gives me a buzz of full body tingles every time he touches me. "Hehehe, well somebody is glad to be back at work." I said.

"I missed you." He said, and he finally let me go to say, "Do you still wanna go to Smitty's? You won't have to pay. I got some cash on me."

I told him, "Don't worry about it. A deal's a deal. Why don't you go drop your bag off at work and come back so we can grab us that big, gooey, fresh baked, cookie?"

What was he blushing for? Hehehe, he was so friggin' CUTE sometimes! "M'kay! Just...don't go anywhere! I'll be RIGHT back!" Where did he expect me to go?

He hurried back out into the mall to drop his backpack off at his job across the hall. I had to fight my protective urges and tell him not to 'run', but he was already too far away from me for to say it without shouting it all over the mall. Geez, you'd think somebody who had barely healed up from his last little accident would be more careful.

But something about the promise of my love and affection made him just as bold and reckless as the promise of his love makes me.

We're definitely an odd pairing...but at least we match.

Jack walked back over to stand beside me and watch Dustin rush through a swift greeting with his manager and one of his co-workers...so eager to get away from them and get back to me, of all people. He gave me a sly grin, and I said, "Don't! Ok? Just...don't say it."

"What? Hehehe, that boy is absolutely ADORABLE! He is really turning himself inside out over you."

"I hope I'm doing this right."

"Me too." Jack said. "He really is pretty hot, you know?"

I gave Jack an elbow in the ribs. "Hey!"

"What??? What'd I say?"

"You know what you said. Just watch it. Hehehe, I call dibbs."

Jack snickered. "Don't worry. That boy is so crazy for you that I doubt I'd stand a chance even if I tried." Then he said, "You know...I spent every single day of my life, from grade 6 through grade 12, just wishing I could grab myself a sweet and lovable dream boat like that. And here you go...nabbing him when you're 23! I'm pretty jealous, to be honest. It's...kinda cute."

I sighed, "I am so in love, Jack. God, I feel so helpless against his...charms, or whatever. I just...I have to fight so hard not to crumble, sometimes."

I guess he could hear the sincere struggle in my voice, and I was surprised when he put an arm over my shoulder and hugged me close, even giving me a kiss on the cheek to show his support. "You'll be alright, playboy. You're the one guy on Earth who could convince me that something like this could actually work." But he turned to look me in the eye, and he said, "You just make sure that you take care of that boy's heart. You hear me? Hehehe, I'm not gonna let you ruin a pure heart like his."

With a chuckle, I replied, "You should be more worried about whether or not he's going to ruin mine."

Dustin came cheerfully bouncing his way back across the hall and saw Jack hugging me. Hahaha, his enthusiasm dimmed immediately! What the heck was going though that boy's mind?

He looked back and forth between for a second before Jack let me go and stepped out of the picture. The idea that Dustin would be even remotely jealous for a few seconds was hilarious to me. HE'S the untouchable beauty in this fairy tale! Not me!

"Are...are you guys...?" He started, but I didn't let him finish entertaining that awkward thought.

"Come on. Let's go give Smitty the zombie treatment!"

His beaming smile could have blinded the entire mall had it been any brighter. "OK! He's gonna be so annoyed! Hehehe!"

"As he should be!" I said, and gave him a friendly kiss on the top of his head as he hugged me again. "I'll be back in time to clock in." I told Jack.

And Dustin, with a gentle blush, said, "Bye, Jack!"

Can't be mad at Dustin for 'winning', now can I? Hehehe!

I thought that he would have loosened up his death grip on my waist as we walked through the mall, but I think his airy arms had actually constricted themselves even tighter around my middle. And when I looked down at his smiling face, I noticed that both of his eyes were closed. I mean, completely slammed shut...allowing me the complete freedom to guide him right into a brick wall if I felt the mischievous urge to do so. Hahaha! I guess I'll have to keep my eyes peeled for the both of us.

He really did miss being connected to me for those few days. Unless I was mistaken, he actually seemed to be trembling in my embrace. I swear, if he had a puppy tail, it would have been wagging wildly in all directions. Now I just have to put down some newspapers to make sure he doesn't wet the floor. Goodness!

Dustin must have smelled the scent of freshly brewed coffee and pastries, because he finally opened his eyes and released me to happily chirp, "Hiya, Smitty! Can we get the usual, please? I'm paying this time!"

I stepped in and said, "No he isn't. I've got this."

"No, seriously. I wanna buy you something. It's my treat."

"Shhhh...relax. Hehehe, consider this a coming home gift, ok? You can get the next one. Promise."

I could see him swooning with infatuation, and he tried to contain his smile as best as he could. "M'kay. Heh..." His blush deepened, and he had to lean against my shoulder to keep from falling over. "You are SO extra, Eric. I can't stand it. Hehehe!"

"Well, you're pretty 'extra' yourself."

Dustin frowned up a little bit. "Don't say 'extra'."

"What? Why not? You, literally, just said extra."

"Yeah but...I dunno...you don't say it right." He grinned. Oh for crying out loud...there's a wrong way to say it? Dustin saw my expression and hugged himself around my arm again. "It's ok. Nevermind. You can say it if you want to."

"Oh no. Don't do me any favors." I teased. "An old guy like me? Your slang is off limits, I suppose."

"Hehehe, I didn't say that!"

"But that's what you meant."

"Maybe..." He giggled. "...But I didn't say it! That'd be rude."

With a slight gasp, I used my fingers to tickle Dustin's tender side until he laughed and let go of my arm. The way Smitty was looking at us, I figured that we might want to tone down the flirting for a few minutes. I mean...we were being pretty open with our affections here. It can be bothersome to have to keep the opinion of others on our minds at all times...but, better safe than sorry, I guess.

Smitty always grumbled a bit when he served us, but it was obvious that he loved to see us stop by. He made our usual order to perfection without missing a detail. A hazelnut coffee with a shot of vanilla, and Dustin's iced mocha...with a giant chocolate chip cookie from behind the counter. The dough was still warm, the melted chocolate still gooey and scrumptious. Dustin was the one to break the cookie in half, and then he gave me the cutest look. "I've got 'choky' on my fingers. Look." He held his fingers up to show me the smears of chocolate, but as much as I salivated over the idea of sucking it off of his fingers, that was way too much affection to think we could get away with.

"Yeah...I don't think so..." I grinned.

"Whatever..." He said, sucking his own fingers and pushing my half of the cookie in my direction. "Say! I've got an idea!"

"Oh God...not another 'Dustin' idea..." I groaned, playfully.

His jaw dropped, even while he was giggling. "EXCUSE me! What's wrong with my ideas???"

"There's a LOT wrong with your ideas."

"Hehehe! Like what?"

I said, "I don't know. Just a lot. Your ideas always fall just a few steps short of robbing a bank or blowing up an orphanage. No thank you."

"Are you draggin' me dawg?" He smirked.

"I...I don't even know what that means..."

"Forget it. This idea is golden. I'm all halos and angel wings right now. Promise." He said. "You wanna hear my idea?"

With a sigh, I said, "Fine."

"Are you gonna be a punk about it?"

"Just tell me already, before I come to my senses and change my mind."

Dustin takes a sip of his drink, and then he says, "Sleepover!"


"Sleepover! Your place. Tomorrow night! Whaddyasay?"

Giving him an incredulous look, I say, "Dustin...you're just out of the hospital. Don't you want to rest up a bit?"

"All I DID in the hospital was rest! I couldn't do anything else. Even prison has books and board games. I wanna come spend time with you. I want to...be with you this weekend."

It was my turn to turn red in the face, peeking up at the counter tosee if Smitty or any of his other customers were watching us interact like this. Then, once the coast was clear, I secretly winked at Dustin and said, "I know what you want."

Dustin giggled sweetly, biting his bottom lip as he lowered his head to have the longer side of his blond hair shield his eyes from me. With a shaky voice, he said, "Well...yeah. Maybe I want some of that too. Or, like...a lot of that. But I just wanna be around you for a while. You know...without 'other people'. I like the way we get to talk when we don't have to be so careful all the time. It's fun."

That sweet charm of his was penetrating my every defense again. That voice, and that smile, and the glow of those neon blue eyes against the contrast of his light blond hair...his entire aura was a truth serum cocktail that prevented me from resisting its powerful influence.

With the cutest tone of voice, Dustin asked, "So...can I come over? Just for one night. Not the whole weekend or anything."

"The whole weekend?" I said.

"I said NOT the whole weekend! Just one night!" Clever. Don't ever let anyone tell you that teens can't be master manipulators when they want to be. "So...can I sleep over? C'mon, Eric...I won't be trouble. We can cook dinner and stuff. You can teach me something new. It'll be fun."

I tried to put up a strong front. After all, I didn't want Dustin knowing just how much absolute control he had over my heart, mind, and soul. God knows what he'd have me doing if he decided to abuse that power. Hahaha! But, the best answer I could give him was, "I'll think about it. Ok?"

"Is that a yes???" He said, fidgeting in his chair.

I laughed out loud. "I said I'd think about it. And that's that."

Dustin rocked back and forth for a second, his giggles starting up again as he took another sip of his iced mocha drink. Then I heard him mumble under his breath, "That's totally a yes. I know it's a yes."

Sighhhh...so much for hiding the obvious...