8.1 – The (wo)Man With The Plan
The bells rang out over the misty early-October fields that Monday to the din of students rushing to their homeroom classes from the dorm buildings of Pierce Private Academy. The boys, in their slacks and blazers, rushed through stairwells hoping to make it just in time. Among their ranks was a young black-haired boy by the name of Eric Carter.
Eric had only one thing on his mind, though: the sinking worry that filled his heart when he saw Jessie’s empty seat. After admitting his feelings to Jessie, she’d run off and no one had heard from her since. Not even Duncan, her roommate. She never went back that night. They assumed that Jessie would probably show up for class at least, so when he saw that empty chair by the window he knew the bad news he’d have to tell Duncan come lunchtime.
Jessie, on the other hand, was just a few miles away at a little family-owned grocery store. She’d just arrived and was tying her apron around her back when her boss rounded the corner of the back room to greet her.
“Hey Jessie, I’m glad you offered to do the morning shift and all, but shouldn’t you be in school? I don’t want to be an accomplice to you playing hooky.” The owner of the store, a man in his mid-40s by the name of Reginald, was rather laid-back but had a very strong work ethic.
He handled everything in the store from finances to chopping meat to even helping with the simple stocking and cleaning needs every now and then. He was a role model in running a business that everyone on staff looked up to and respected.
“Oh, it’s fine Reggie,” Jessie lied through her kind grinning teeth. “My parents got me permission to take a few days off.”
Reggie faltered under that adorable smile.
“Alright, but don’t make it a habit, OK? I’d feel guilty if I was responsible for your grades going down.”
“My grades are awesome, nothing to worry about.” At least that part wasn’t a lie.
“Well hey, since you’re not usually here weekday mornings, I’m going to give you a list of things to tackle before Ryan comes in this afternoon. While I write, why don’t you start by topping off the drink case and when you’re done, throw those cases of tea on top of the coolers.”
“You got it.”
With no hesitation whatsoever, Jessie began loading up a little green pushcart with cases of sodas, teas, canned coffees, and energy drinks and rolled it out to the drink coolers on the floor. It was usually the first task of her day when she came in in the afternoons so it was hardly anything new to her.
Row by row, cartload by cartload, the long wall of drinks were perfectly stocked and rotated. With everything together, she took her cart back to the back room and began loading up the newly delivered cases of tea onto the cart. They proved to be a little heavy for her, but it was no bother. She forced herself to lift them up and place them on the cart, parking it in front of the coolers before returning to the back room to find a ladder.
She promptly set up the ladder, unfolding its shelf, and took a deep breath. These cases were a little much for her, so lifting them up to a shelf as tall as she was would take a little oomph. She managed it though, placing two heavy cases on the ladder’s shelf before climbing it herself.
Very carefully she managed to reach down and pull the cases to the top of the cooler, struggling more and more with each one as she went and expended her strength. By the time she was on the last three cases, she was spent. With a heavy grunt, she lifted the next case up to her shoulder, taking a breather for a moment before going the extra foot onto the cooler and sliding it into place.
At that moment, she heard a loud group come into the store. From her vantage point atop the ladder she could see it was a group of construction workers, muscular and dirty with their hard hats and toolbelts. One of which, who seemed not much older than herself, bee-lined right for Jessie’s cooler.
“Hi, sorry about this, I’ll be out of your way in just a second,” she said with a fluster to the man who clearly seemed to want a soda from the cooler the ladder was blocking.
He just smiled and said, “no problem, take your time.”
Jessie, being the diligent worker she was and not wanting the customer to wait, went for the other case that was sitting on her ladder’s shelf and brought it up to her shoulder like the rest. The case had to go on top of the last so Jessie lifted it just a few inches higher to the best of her ability, her arm involuntarily shaking in the struggle to lift the case over her head before she finally got the end on top and managed to slide it into place.
Letting out a sigh of accomplishment, she wiped her brow with her forearm. Before she could step down the ladder and move it for the customer though, the man called up to her catching her by surprise.
“Need some help with that?” Jessie looked down to see a wide grin on his face at the sight of the weak little girl struggling with her case, though that thought never crossed her mind.
Jessie shied away at the offer, deflecting it with a simple, “I don’t think my boss would like that very much.”
“He doesn’t have to find out. It’ll take two seconds.”
With that, the man effortlessly took the final case off of Jessie’s cart and lifted it up to his shoulder. Jessie noted that with where she was on the ladder, she was only a few short inches taller than him.
“W-well alright then,” Jessie stammered at the sudden action, knowing she couldn’t talk him out of it. “But by doing this, you’re agreeing that the store isn’t responsible if you get hurt or break something.”
The man just let out a laugh and in one simple movement, he gently set the case in a gap on the cooler and slid it into place. Jessie was amazed at how easily his muscles moved without a hint of struggle in the world, like the heavy case that made her arm nearly buckle was light as a feather. Jessie didn’t know whether to be impressed by him or upset at the sudden awareness of her own weakness.
“See? No problem,” he said with a smile, turning to look her in the eyes. The smile sent an instant shiver down her back and a tinge of red to her face.
In that instant she remembered that same smile on his face. It was the same look she’d gotten from Daniel right before he kissed her. That same smile. That smile that seemed to say everything was alright in the world as long as he was with her. Thoughts and memories rushed through her head all at once culminating in the thought: ‘Oh my god, he’s flirting with me.‘
Jessie was hit with a wave of awkward panic and, coughing her voice down a step to make it sound manly, broke her gaze and said, “Uh, th-thanks man.”
It took her all of a second to collapse the ladder and rush to the back room, hiding out of sight in the employee bathroom to calm down. ‘Was he checking me out when I was on top of the ladder, bent over like that? Why does every guy look at me like that?! I’m a guy! I’m not supposed to be checked out by another guy!‘
Jessie looked at herself in the mirror, taking in her large green eyes, full blushing cheeks, and shaggy auburn hair. ‘Do I really look that feminine? Maybe I should work out or something, to look more manly like him. I wonder how much work goes into shaping defined biceps like that, that could so easily lift the case… oh no, now it sounds like I was checking HIM out! I’m so confused!!‘
She let out an audible groan at the thought, almost yelling as a sharp pain shot through her gut right then. It’d been annoying her on and off since Saturday but the best idea she had was that she got food poisoning at the amusement park.
Jessie was startled as a knock rapped on the door.
“Jessie, you alright in there? I heard you yell…” Reggie called through with concern.
“J-Just a second!” Jessie quickly ran the sink and splashed some water on her face to hide the tears that she was surprised to discover loosed themselves from her eyes.
She patted her face with a paper towel before opening the door to find Reggie standing there with a worried look.
“Sorry, I’m fine, my stomach just really hurts. It’s been bugging me all weekend. I must have eaten something bad when I went to the amusement park or something, heh.” She tried to casually laugh it off, but it didn’t lift any of Reggie’s worries.
“Are you sure you’re good to work today? If you need to go home, Jennifer and I can hold down the fort until backup arrives,” he offered.
“No, I’m fine. Really. I guess I am feeling a little nauseous though, now that I think about it,” she realized. ‘Probably from that guy out there,’ she mentally added.
“I’m sure it’ll be out of my system soon, I’ll be fine,” she said, dodging the topic and walking past Reggie towards her next task. Reggie, however, followed along.
“Heh, maybe it’s your period…” he cautiously threw out with a laugh, trying to get a laugh out of Jessie to cheer her up.
Instead, she froze in place.
“No… it can’t be…” she muttered under her breath, more to herself than Reggie.
“Sorry, that was in bad taste. Just trying to cheer you up is all,” he said trying to save face. “Y’know, ’cause you’re a little girly looking and all, and… I think I’m just gonna shut up now.”
He started to make for the meat cooler in the opposite direction but Jessie stopped him by calling out, “Do I really look that girly? Be honest with me here.”
Reggie sheepishly turned to face her but couldn’t look her in the eye, knowing there was no way out of the grave he was digging.
“Well… yeah, honestly. It’s just you’re so…” he trailed off, looking her over. The adorable way she stood with her arms in front of her, one hand wrapped around her elbow. The adorable way she pouted with worry about her appearance, biting her lip and looking up at him, barely able to maintain eye contact. The way her slightly long hair framed her adorable blushing face. “I can’t really put my finger on what it is, but it wouldn’t hurt to get your hair cut, I guess. It’s getting a bit long.”
“You think so?” she asked, pulling a lock down in front of her eyes.
“Yeah. It’s up to you, but if you want people to stop calling you a girl, it might help to lose the hair. That’s just an idea, though. You don’t have to if you don’t want to. For all I care, you can grow it out and rock a ponytail like Jen so long as you keep working like you do,” he said with a shrug.
Jessie thought about it for a minute; about all that’d happened to her in her life. If it wasn’t being confused for a girl on the streets, it was happening at work or school. People had always mocked her at school and wherever she went, calling her a girl, a faggot, a weirdo, and even the occasional cross-dresser. Images of all of those moments flashed before her eyes.
And then there was Pierce. The school itself wasn’t so bad to her, but she still had a teacher who gave her the nickname ‘Princess’ before manipulating her into having gym with the girls. ‘What kind of teacher does that? Could that be considered bullying?‘ she thought.
Then came the memory of the weekend. Her so-called ‘friends’ wanting to get with her, and the piano guy kissing her… ‘My first kiss was even taken by a guy!! I told him my name was Jessica for crying out loud! This has to end!‘
“You’re right. That’s a good idea. I’m a man and I should look like a man,” she said, resolve burning strongly in her eyes before another cramp made her grab her abdomen and wince.