“Explain to me why I’m here with you again?”
Paris tightened the laces on his work boots while he mulled over his answer.
“This is your pay off for losing the bet, remember? Because you have nothing to do today… It’s a beautiful day and it would be good for you to get out of the house and meet some people.”
Mike cinched up her new boots, sliding her pants legs down over them.
“Yeah, but I didn’t volunteer for work… This feels a lot like work.”
Paris smiled at her, knowingly –chuckling to himself. “It’s not work. It’s volunteer work –which is like work, but much more spiritually gratifying.” He got up from the upended bucket he was sitting on. “It’ll do you some good to get out around some other people… Even Grace said it would be a good idea.”
“She would…” she huffed while crossing her arms, “I swear Mom wants to torture me. I would have been perfectly fine to stay home and play video games. It’s the summer for Christ’s sake.”
Paris slipped his worn ballcap over his head, offering a hand to help her up.
“Yeah, but then you’d miss the opportunity to help someone, and enjoy the day outside with me, and meet some new people.”
“Goddam boyscout…”She mumbled to herself.
“Eagle Scout…” He corrected her. “with Palm… Now come on, Mike. A little hard work will be good for you.”
She pretended to hate being drafted, but in truth she relished the opportunity to get out from under everyone. At times, she found her brothers to be a little overbearing when it came to her. They took turns watching her like a hawk –even while she was home. She found it stifling.
Mike checked the fit of her jeans. She would have preferred to wear shorts, but Paris insisted that she dress in them for the worksite. As she looked around, she noted that a lot of the volunteers were not as heavily dressed. A lot of them were dressed in shorts and tennis shoes, rather than the heavy jeans she wore. Paris handed her a water bottle with a carrying strap she could loop over her shoulder.
“Remember to drink plenty of water. It’s not that hot today but that can really be deceptive –we’re out here in the desert and you can dehydrate fast if you’re not careful…”
Mike took the bottle from him and draped the strap over her shoulder.
“Yes, Mother…” She said mockingly.
His eyes took on a very serious look, and she was taken aback for a moment. Unlike the Paris she was used to, out here he seemed much more confident and his words carried much a much more authorative tone.
“Just one more thing… You’re my best friend and everything, but out here I take things very seriously. People depend on me to do my job here, and I take a lot of pride in it.”
She found herself staring at him, nodding in acknowledgement.
“O… Okay…” She answered.
He looks so serious…
“I just don’t want you to get hurt, so you need to listen to me out there…”
He took her by the arm, squeezing gently for emphasis. “We have fun, but we also have to put safety first. I mean, I know you are gonna be yourself out there, but if I say something out there as the foreman, I really do mean it. Sometimes I get a little gruff out there and I don’t want you thinking that I’m picking on you or anything…”
She felt a jolt while looking into his eyes. The look there was unfamiliar to her. For some reason he seemed to be overly concerned, but there was something else…
Is he worried about me?
Unlike the Paris she was used to, this new Paris was much different. It was like he had a totally different aura. He put on his workbelt, taking time to adjust it properly so that he could easily reach the pockets and the tools in the loops. After a moment, he slipped the tape measure into its holder and slid the claw hammer into place at his side before turning back to her. He moved with an unfamiliar air of confidence as he gave her a hand putting on her own work belt. His hands moved around her waist as he checked the fit and made sure things were in place.
Mike felt her own unease as he did so. They’d actually gone together the first time Paris volunteered to help his mother with her job at Habitat. But back then, Paris was just as inexperienced as she was with working any sort of construction. Now, years later –Paris was far more confident and experienced. He gave her belt a tug, and she gasped a little in surprise as he did so.
“Just checking. Sorry.”
Mike kept herself facing away from him.
It’s even worse now like this… I can’t keep my eyes off him!
She gulped as she uttered a silent prayer for strength. The two of them walked out from behind the truck towards the work site where the volunteers were starting to gather. Paris handed out the work assignments while everyone looked on. Mike stood among them watching how the crew responded to him. They were a mix of young and old –men and women who were all smiling. Whatever their reasons for volunteering –she could tell they were all a good group of folks, which made her feel easier about being around them –unlike the way things were at the mall.
She noted that there were other kids her age among the group –none of whom she recognized from her own school. She got assigned to work on stringing electrical wiring, along with an older woman –a retired nurse from Escondido, named Peggy. She was a stout woman with large hands for her size, and a deep southern twang. As they worked together, Mike learned that she was a transplant from South Carolina who stayed in San Diego after retiring from Balboa Naval Medical center. Having retired at forty seven, she worked part time as a nurse at the VA hospital in Mission Valley.
“Ah say part time… but that’s part time for a nurse…”
Mike nodded as she scooted along the floor threading the wire through the studs. Peggy held the other end of the flexible conduit. Mike cut the ends like she was shown and fed the wire into the empty receptacle where the outlet could be wired later. She was surprised at how much wire had to be run for just the plugs alone and a little thankful that Peggy liked to tell stories while they worked together. She tried to focus on the job, but she became easily distracted when she would hear Paris close by.
“Sugah… You got it bad…” Peggy laughed.
Mike looked down as she brushed a wisp of hair behind her ear –trying to concentrate on the job at hand. “I know… It’s really embarrassing.”
“Does he know?”
She clipped the end of another wire. “I don’t think so. I mean we’re close and everything and we’ve known each other for a long time –but I don’t think he thinks of me that way.”
“Well I ask because it looks like you’ve got competition.” She said, pointing behind her.
Mike turned to see a strawberry blonde girl standing behind Paris while he worked at putting up a window frame. The blonde girl was perhaps Paris’s age, or at least in his age group, with perfectly tanned skin. She was amply endowed up top – with a tight, lean body. Her hair was done in a ponytail.
As she watched, it seemed to her that her t-shirt was just a hair tighter than it should be for the task at hand, and her shorts were just a smidgeon higher than they should be. It was if the whole outfit was a statement of her sexuality, while at the same time plausibly deniable as being such –like something she practiced at.
“Ah swear… Natalie’s been nosing around here since she started. It never fails… We get high schoolers who come here during the summer break looking to pad their college resumes. The only problem is, they bring their hormones with em’” Peggy huffed. “Poor Paris gets the brunt of their advances because he’s in their age group and he acts so responsibly. He’s a natural target…”
She noted right away that Paris was focused intently on the task he was working at –while Natalie was focused intently on him. She couldn’t hear the conversation, but she could tell be the girls’ body language that she was not talking about anything job related. Mike turned back to the wire in front of her, pausing to wipe her brow with her free hand.
“Paris doesn’t belong to me.” She said flatly. “We’re best friends… but I’m not his girlfriend.”
Peggy paused for a moment, smiling a crooked smile. “Hehehe… It sounds like you wanna be, though…”
She huffed at Peggy’s keen observation. “I wouldn’t know how… I… I’ve never been a girlfriend.”
The two of them scooted along the floor to the next receptacle’s marked location. Mike concentrated on the task at hand, and tried to push the image of that girl out of her mind. At once she realized that he was at the age where he should be interested in girls –but she had no idea what he might have preferred. Most of the conversations they’d had together about girls was the nonsensical guy conversations about what who would like to do with who or how sexy this star or that star was –nothing that would give her any indication of the type of girl that he would actually prefer if he were seeking a real, live girlfriend.
A painful twinge on the side of her foot, snapped her mind back to the present. The boots she’d been wearing had been rubbing against her feet harshly for most of the morning and what started as mild discomfort was rapidly becoming more pronounced. She suspected that she might be developing a couple of solid blisters. She shook it off and returned to the task at hand.
Periodically, Paris would come over to where she was and checkup on them. He complimented the two of them on working well together –even going so far as to say they were a lot further along than what he’d expected. He would do the exact same thing to other groups working. Paris was very good at providing motivation and direction to the people working the project house. On the job site, he had just the right combination of charisma, determination and experience to make even the least experienced of them feel like a seasoned team member.
“He’s really lucky.” Peggy observed.
“How’s that?” Mike replied.
“He’s found something he’s really good at and really enjoys so early in life and he’s doing a great job at developing it into a calling. “
Mike looked over at him pensively. “I think you’re right… Peggy. I’ve never seen him like this before. He’s so different from the way I know him.” She sighed.
“A lot of times, guys are so fixated on this or that that they miss the chance to do the one thing that really fulfills them. It’s a shame –most of the time it means they spend half their lives chasing everything but their dreams.”
The older woman patted her on the shoulder. “You should make sure that you don’t don’t make the same mistake.”
“Yeah… But I’m not really interested in building houses.” She replied.
Peggy laughed and slapped her on the back. “I wasn’t talking about houses. Come on… I think it’s time for lunch.”
Mike got up from the floor along with Peggy and headed towards the tent that was set up. She inhaled sharply upon taking the first step. Having spent several hours scooting on the floor, she didn’t notice just how much the new boots had bitten into her feet. What was a little irritation while working mostly on her knees turned into a painful experience when standing on her feet. She took an unsteady step forward and found that it was manageable; but it would get worse if she walked in those boots for the rest of the day.
She looked around quickly to see if Paris was anywhere around. The last thing that she wanted was his attention at this moment –which puzzled her. Peggy noticed her discomfort almost immediately and leaned in to whisper to her.
“New boots… ?”
Mike gave her a worried nod.
“Come on… We’ll head to the trailer for a few minutes and I can help you take care of this. Believe it or not, it’s not the first time we’ve had to help a volunteer with blisters.”
Thankfully, Peggy exercised a certain amount of discretion in helping her to the trailer, walking with her instead of making her lean on the older woman. It was as if she realized that Mike didn’t want to cause a stir and silently honored her wishes. The trailer was a small worksite office storage room and kitchenette rolled into one –self contained and mostly private. There was a small room towards the back with a few chairs that they used mostly to get cool when things got too hot outside. The interior air conditioning kept out the balmy sun quite nicely.
Mike sat down quietly while Peggy gathered a low bucket some water and ice from the cooler. Peggy slipped silently into her full on caregiver mode and helped her off with her shoes. Luckily, there were only a few scratches along with a lot of friction burns and some swelling. Peggy swabbed the scratches and poured the cool water into the bucket along with the ice.
“Twenty minutes with your feet in the bucket and that ought to help with the swelling. Did you bring another pair of shoes?”
“Uh… I brought a pair of tennis shoes. Paris said that there was going to be a bonfire this evening out at Mission Beach.”
“Yeah. It’s sort of grown into a tradition when we work to enjoy an evening. Most of the adults stay till it gets dark, then the kids stay till late. It’s a nice way to unwind after a day like this. Stay here. I’ll go get them.”
“Don’t tell Paris…” She asked. “I don’t want him to see me like this. I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Peggy snickered as she got to her feet. “Mike… I think it’s a little too late for that. He’s standing in the doorway over there.”
Her heart sank. Sitting where she was towards the back of the trailer, the door to the room obscured the rest of the trailer from her field of view. Paris apparently had slipped in behind the two of them. Peggy gave her a quick wink and got up to get her shoes. Mike plopped her head into both her hands and sighed heavily in defeat.
“You got that right. You never will hear the end of it…” He chuckled.
She found that the barb, which was nothing out of the ordinary –hurt coming from him. Rather than retort anything, she kept her head lowered with her face in her hands –fearful of letting him see her expression. Without realizing it, she’d come to understand a little more of what was going on. Though she didn’t want to admit it to Peggy –she knew exactly what it was.
She felt a cold soda can touch her hand. “Come on, Mike… It’s not like this is the first time we’ve had someone get a bad blister here…”
Mike accepted the drink but continued to look down while she wrestled with her own emotions and her embarrassment. “Thanks.”
“How did you know I was here?” She asked. She tried to make it sound like small talk, but she wasn’t sure if it was working.
“I saw Peggy take you over to the trailer. By the way you were walking, I pretty much figured what happened. Let me guess –you didn’t break in those boots.”
“Break them in?”
“Yeah… You know -soak them in water and then walk around in them while they dry off. You pretty much have to do that with any pair of new work boots or else they’ll chafe your feet mercilessly until they’re broken in.”
“I didn’t break them in…”
“See? Well at least from now on you’ll know what happens if you don’t do that. It’ll save you all the pain next time.”
What he said wasn’t helping. She felt trapped while her feet were in the water. At that moment his attention wasn’t wanted because she felt like she was acting like the blonde girl earlier, sniffing for attention.
“I didn’t want you to know…” She blurted out before she could catch herself. In surprise, she clamped her hand over her own mouth.
Paris looked puzzled for a moment. “Why?”
“I’m not helpless. I didn’t want you coming to my rescue for this.” She kept looking at her feet, unsure if she was doing it because she was irritated with herself or whether or not she was just jealous over seeing that girl fawning all over him.
“I don’t want to be that girl that can’t do anything and has everyone fawning all over her. I don’t want to be that kind of -”
“Hold it right there…” He interrupted.
His tone had changed completely. Normally gentle spoken, his tone had changed in an instant. It startled her so much that she was forced to look in his direction.
“Firstly –I didn’t come in here because you were a girl. I came in here because one of my workers was having trouble. If Peggy brings someone to the trailer, I would have come over here no matter who it was. That’s what a foreman does…”
“But—“ she protested.
“Don’t interrupt me. Secondly, I came here because my friend is having a hard time. It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or not. You’re my best friend and I was a little concerned. That’s all. What made you read all this extra stuff into it?”
Mike looked off to the side, suddenly embarrassed at her own behavior.
“Oh…” Paris said. “I guess this is about Natalie…”
Mike bit her lip silently rather than answer him.
“I hit the nail on the head, didn’t I? You’re jealous, aren’t you?” Paris crossed his arms and leaned against the doorframe smugly.
What the hell am I doing?
“Stop it.” She barely spoke the words loud enough for anyone to hear.
She turned even further away from him so as not to look too closely. She knew that smirk –and she didn’t want to see it. Paris was normally very humble, but he had his moments. She knew that seeing that smile would melt her resolve and so she turned away.
“Look at me.” He said.
His tone was completely different than what she expected. He spoke very softly and clearly without a hint of ego.
“Mike… I can’t help who comes to talk to me while I’m working. Believe it or not –this isn’t the first time a volunteer has done that to me. It kind of comes with the job. They make a sport of it –let’s see which one we can get all flustered. It’s not like they don’t care about the work or anything like that; but out there I’m the guy in charge which comes with a certain allure. Doesn’t mean that that type of stuff gets to me.”
She could tell by his tone that he was being straight with her. Paris had a way of sidestepping excuses by being very direct. It was part of what she hated about him and admired it at the same time. She could never quite manage to be as honest to anyone else but him. He always had a way of seeing past her facades.
“It’s not like you owe me an explanation.” She huffed. His honesty had a way of dissipating her anger that she couldn’t deny.
“Noooo. Again, that’s where you’re wrong... I asked you to come and it wouldn’t be right to ask you to give up your day only to spend it flirting with someone else right in front of you. But by the same token, I’m the supervisor out there and so I can’t just ignore a volunteer.”
Mike turned back towards him as he spoke. She honestly couldn’t tell what her expression looked like. His expression turned to one of concern upon seeing her. She felt that same tightness in her chest as she looked at him
I can’t hide anything from him.
At that moment, she realized her expression must have been a fearful one. Unlike other people, Paris was as close to her as a brother. All of the walls she put up for the sake of interacting with others he already knew. With him she couldn’t hide or fake her feelings or bluff, and that troubled her. Her heart sank for a moment as she admitted to herself she was scared of not having that kind of security. Even more so, she was scared of the prospect of sharing him with someone else.
“I don’t understand my own feelings.” She admitted. “And it’s worse that you can see them when I don’t want you to. There are times when I don’t want you to know what I’m feeling because I don’t understand it myself and I can’t hide them from you. That’s why I didn’t want you to see me like this…”
“Why don’t you want me to see?”
“Because what if you liked her? I know what you’d do. You can’t help yourself. You’d stop yourself from seeing her. Even if you didn’t hold it against me, I’d know that I made you give something up that you didn’t want to give up. How can I make you stop seeing through me?”
She suddenly wanted to cry again, but this time she managed to keep it together. Paris looked at her seriously for a moment as he mulled over what he was going to say next.
“You’re so stupid sometimes, Mike…” He dropped to a crouch just in front of her, and put his hands on her knees covering hers.
“Of course I wouldn’t let someone come between us. That girl I’ve known for a couple of weeks. You –I’ve known you my whole life… I’m not really interested in anyone else, don’t you get it? I’m only interested in being with you…”
Don’t say something like that… Why did you have to go and say something like that?
Paris got up and plopped into the chair next to her, sighing. He rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together as he turned towards her. Their eyes locked for a moment, which made her feel suddenly self conscious, only she couldn't look away. After a moment, he turned his eyes towards the floor and took a deep breath.
"I was glad you lost the bet. This way I could make you come here with me. I wanted you to see... Paying off a bet was just an excuse to get you here." He confessed.
"I don't understand." She said.
Paris dipped his head, not looking directly at her as he spoke. "I know you're not into this kind of thing, but I was really happy that you did come to help out... Before the accident, this was just something I did for a little extra money and to help out my mom at first. I wasn't serious about it. When you were gone I was lost... I was just aimless. I thought it was my fault, so I took it out on myself. If it wasn't for Peter and your Mom and Dr. Rigby..."
I didn't even realize he might have had a hard time... I just thought he would always be all right. I was just sleeping, but he had to live through all of it.
"Peter convinced me to keep working at this. He told me how much you would have wanted me to do something with my life --something that would make me happy. He used to tell me you'd be disappointed if I just gave up. You know --thinking of it that way really saved me..."
He turned to look at her with an earnest look, as if he they were kids again sharing their greatest treasure.
"Now that you're here... I wanted you to see just that I didn't waste the chance you gave me... I just wanted you to be proud of me..."
The thought never occurred to her that someone --that he, would think so much of her. She'd never really thought of herself as being that important to someone. She didn't have a poor self image or anything, but by the same token how often does someone think of themselves in terms of how others see them? Paris was her closest friend --that was all she needed to know. In her mind she thought of him before almost everyone else except for her family.
Her hand found it's way to his, and she squeezed it tightly. Sitting together, her hand looked markedly smaller in his. His hands were rough from the day's labors, but that didn't matter. She wanted him to feel her support in a way that words could not express. She wanted to say something --anything to go along with her feelings, but everything just seemed to die in her throat. He squeezed her hand in return and it seemed he was afflicted in a similar fashion.
"I've always been proud of you... Even when you're at your worst..." She found herself saying.
"I didn't need to come here to see that... But I'm glad that you asked me to come. I've missed so much. It's good to see you didn't spend all that time simply fucking around playing video games or something worthless like that."
Paris snorted a chuckle at her remark. "Now see... that's just wrong. I'll have you know I spent plenty of time fucking around while you were in a coma. I've just got better time management skills than you --so it only looks like I've done nothing but work."
She suddenly felt an overpowering urge to throw him off his game. Without letting go of his hand, she hooked her other arm under his, grasping his hand with both of hers and trapping his arm close to her chest. He looked like he was ready to jump ten feet straight up in the air, but her body kept him trapped. She leaned forward laying her head on his shoulder and holding on. She sighed softly, refusing to let go.
Paris gulped hard. "Mike... What are you doing?"
"Paying you back for making me come here..." she replied with a crafty smile.
Paris shifted in his chair as she continued to lean into him. It surprised her just how much doing it did not bother her. In fact, she found the situation strangely calming. Paris tightened up stiff as a board, but did not try to pull away from him. The muscles in his arm tightened with his discomfort, allowing her to feel the stark contrast to her own arms which were much smaller and softer. She squeezed him again and snuggled closer.
"Mike..." He protested.
"Mmmnnn, Mmmnnn..." She reproached. "You have to stay like this until I'm through. My feet hurt terribly and you embarrassed me, so take your punishment like a man."
This will teach you....
She closed her eyes and held onto him, smiling the entire time. Without realizing it, she'd come to terms with the understanding that she was jealous. Paris was good to her and she really didn't want to lose his attention. There was something about him that was deeply comforting to her. She couldn't lay a finger on any one thing in particular, but she was sure that she wanted more of it. As she lay her head on his shoulder, she felt this growing urge to possess him.
Oh my God... I'm falling in love with him!