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I’ll Check You Out

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It’s all Bill’s fault, really.

This morning before Eddie left for class, he swears there is plenty of groceries in the fridge and cupboards. Or so Eddie thinks, because the picture Bill texts proves different. He doesn’t quite understand why Bill can’t leave whatever kitchen creation he’s currently working on. It’s a quick stop at the store, just down the street from their shared apartment, but Bill begs and promises to share his feast with Eddie tonight if he stops after class.

That’s the only reason why Eddie agrees. But Bill — that dickhead — who swears it is just a few things outright lied. Because now somehow Eddie’s cart is full of food and Bill is still texting him sporadic one-word items to the ever-growing grocery list, causing Eddie to run all over the store to retrieve them. Just when he thinks the madness is finally over, his phone chimes in his pocket and Eddie’s fingers clench tighter around the shopping cart.

He’s sure Bill doesn’t need half the things he insisted on, but he’s been watching the Food Network and claims to be on track to becoming a professional chef. It’s admittedly better than the DIY home renovation kick he was on before (RIP to their half bathroom), and Eddie doesn’t have it in him to tell his childhood best friend to fuck off.

That may be changing after his third trip to the spice section. Eddie returns the Garlic Powder and Basil and just grabs All Spice because if the name if anything to go by, it’s all Bill should realistically need.

Of course, it’s the longest and busiest day of Eddie’s week, having finished his classes at six, and he has an online Neuroscience reading quiz due in four hours. He hasn’t even read the chapter title. Finally, he arrives at the check-out counter where there is only one register open with a long line of customers. Because of fucking course.

There’s a single cashier quickly scanning groceries and pausing to bag them all up. Unfortunately, he’s more than a little clumsy and when he tries to bag faster, he ends up ripping the flimsy plastic handles or poking holes through the sides.

“Whoops. Sorry about that.” The clerk tosses the entire ripped bag and its contents into a new blue bag. He smiles at the older woman in front of him and shoots her fingerguns. “Thanks for shopping with us.”

His phone chimes again, two times in quick succession. Eddie can’t stop himself from rolling his eyes. He checks his texts to see four new food requests from Bill, so he responds with an eloquent ‘fuck you’ before pocketing it and returning his attention to the line. He physically has to stop himself from tapping his foot.

He has a better view of the cashier now. He’s a tall, lanky guy maybe around his age with a pair of large, thick glasses settled on the bridge of his nose. His dark hair curls by his ears, partially obscured by the store’s standard issued dark green hat. The yellow uniform is a button-down shirt, and it’s off by one button causing the right side to pull down a little, exposing his collar bone.

Despite shopping here for the past two semesters, Eddie has never seen him here before. Not that Eddie frequents the grocery store or anything. That’s Bill’s job now.

The cashier seems pleasant enough, maybe even too much so. He’s laughing – squawking? - loudly with his head thrown back in response to something the current customer said. Eddie can’t imagine what would warrant a laugh that loud. Even if it’s kinda cute.

As he gets closer to the front of the line, he puts up the divider on the conveyor belt between his groceries and the ones from the woman in front of him. He busies himself by taking his items out of his cart.

The woman has only a few essential items, but she’s clearly impatient. She’s shifting her weight from one foot to the other, and switching from twisting on her gold necklace to checking her wristwatch.

“Good evening!” The cashier greets her, and it seems like his laugh isn’t the only thing that’s loud. “Do you prefer paper or plastic?”

“I brought my own.” She says, holding up a fabric tote bag covered with bright yellow smiling emojis. Her lips are pursed as she sets the tote in the bagging area. It collapses immediately.

The cashier tries to make small talk, but the woman shuts his attempt down with a disgusted scoff. When the total amount due pops up on the screen, she drops exact change on the counter. The clerk scoops up the change and deposits it clumsily into the cash drawer.

After he’s done, he goes to place the items in her bag. Suddenly, she smacks his hands away with a loud slap sound. Surprised, the cashier pulls them to his chest protectively as little red finger marks stain his pale hands. Eddie stares at her as she bags her own items, a frown tugging on the corner of his lips. His own impatience drains from his body.

“Thanks for shopping at—” She snatches the receipt from the man’s hand, nearly ripping it in the process and storms toward the exit.

The cashier lets out a startled, strangled sound that gets caught in his throat. “Okay… did you bring your own bag, too?” He asks hesitantly, as he turns his attention for the first time to Eddie. His blue eyes, magnified by his glasses, go impossibly wide when their gazes meet.

He has gorgeous eyes.

“Plastic is fine.” Eddie scratches the back of his neck and looks to see if anyone is in line behind him. There’s not. “Sorry that lady was such a bitch. She really soured the mood around here.”

The cashier smiles, a wide toothy grin. Eddie feels himself smiling in return. “Forget her. We’ll see if we can turnip around with some a-maize-ing food puns.” He scans Eddie’s vegetables and holds them in either hand for Eddie to see.

Eddie’s mouth must twitch in disinterest, because the cashier continues, “Don’t be salty about my great food puns. I’m clearly on a roll.” He scans the table salt and dinner rolls and they join the vegetables in front of the plastic bags.

The cashier appraises each item before rattling off a different pun without hesitation, completely in line with his monologue, then tosses the food to the bagging area. Eddie is silent, but has yet to put a stop to the shenanigans. It’s strange because he doesn’t normally have a tolerance for stuff like this. Instead, the cashier has his complete and undivided attention.

“Don’t mind me. I’m just hamming it up.” He holds up the lunch meat and displays it like Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune before saying, “Okay I get it. You think I’m just milking it for attention.”

Eddie lets out a thinly veiled snort. He shakes his head and finally looks down to his shoes, trying his best to hide his smile. Was this guy for real?

“Ooh. Was that a laugh I heard? Are my jokes ap-peel-ing to you?” He pauses to use the scale to weigh the bananas. He looks up at Eddie to ridiculously wiggle his eyebrows.

Eddie finally cracks at that, a full laugh, and concedes, “You’re quick on your feet. Definitely less cringey than I thought this would be.”

“I’ll count that as a win. Feel free to join in!” The cashier slides the can of Campbell’s noodle soup across the scanner. “Don’t be chicken.”

“Are you allowed to branch out to knock-knock jokes? Or does the store limit you to food specific puns?” Eddie asks as the man starts to bag his items up.

The line behind him is still empty, and the cashier works slower now and seems more focused. Eddie tries not to stare at his long, slender fingers wrapping around the canned goods. The clerk uses one of those long fingers to shove his glasses back up his thin nose. The movement pulls Eddie’s attention to the smattering of freckles peeking out from beneath the rims of his glasses.

“I’m gifted with all forms of comedy. I also make scientific puns,” He places the last item in the plastic bag. “But only periodically.”

Eddie does groan at that one, but instead of pained, it comes out amused. He refuses to dwell on it. “And you were doing so well.” Eddie inserts his debit card in the chip reader and waits for the machine to approve the payment.

“Did it brighten your day a little?” When Eddie nods, a grin slowly spreads across the clerk’s face, so wide it makes his eyes crinkle in the corners. “Good. Will I be seeing you again—?”

“Eddie.”

The cashier’s voice is oddly soft for the moment they’re sharing, “It’s nice to meet you, Eddie.”

At the sound of his name, Eddie’s heart thunders in his chest. He reaches out to take his receipt, and just misses brushing their fingers together before the man retracts his hand.

His gaze flits up to the man’s name tag. Written on the black background in perfectly neat handwriting is the name Stanley. “It’s nice to meet you, too, Stanley.”

“What?” The man looks surprised and covers up his name tag with both hands. Eddie momentarily gets distracted by the long digits again before his brain catches up to the conversation. “Oh, my name’s not Stanley.”

Eddie frowns, unsure what to do with that information. “Then why does your name tag—”

“Stan the Man is in the floral department, over by the greeting cards. He really knows his plants. And birds. But we don’t sell those here.” He scratches the back of his neck. “I couldn’t find my name tag so he let me borrow his.” Not-Stanley pauses before adding with his fingerguns, “I guess you could say he rose to the occasion.”

A small smile returns to Eddie’s lips, and he starts loading his arms with blue plastic bags. “Okay, then whose name tag is Stanley wearing?”

“Stan’s off the clock. He’s great at finding my name tag though. Just last week he found mine from under the couch on the living room floor and just wore it instead.”

“Oh, so you and Stan?” Eddie leans back, letting his arms drop. The weight of the bags pulls his arms down to his sides. There aren’t many platonic reasons why your clothes or your name tag would be on someone else’s living room floor.

The cashier looks up, eye brows raised at the sudden distance between them. “Me and Staniel? Roommates!” He declares cheerfully. “Best friends since childhood. Besides, I think Patty in Customer Service over there would beat me up for stealing her boyfriend.”

Cute cashier nods over to the Service Counter, where a young woman with short brown hair and glasses is flipping through a magazine.

“She’s tougher than she looks.”

The smile returns to Eddie face and he collects the rest of his bags. “So if you’re not Stanley, then what is your name?”

“Guess you’ll have to come back to find out.” The cashier winks and turns away from him. Eddie turns to find a line of customers behind him, and the man is assisting the next one.

He smiles when he hears the cashier isn’t playing their game any longer. He selfishly thinks it was just for him. He heads out the door, wondering the name of his charming Mystery Man.

When Eddie returns home, Bill is scrubbing dishes in the sink and a delicious scent lingers in the air. Yeah, he could definitely get behind this new hobby, especially if it meant Bill was cleaning up more around the house.

He spares a passing look of pity to their non-functional half bathroom Bill ‘improved’ three months ago. The toilet now works like a bidet and Eddie certainly didn’t ask for that surprise. At least this new hobby comes with actual perks.

“You can put these away, and I’ll take a plate of whatever smells good.” Eddie says as he deposits the grocery bags unceremoniously on the kitchen countertop. “I’ve got that reading quiz to finish by ten.”

“It’s crown roast with apricot dressing, but the meat stuck to the pan.” Bill doesn’t look up from the pot he’s scrubbing with steel wool. His tongue pokes out and he’s staring in concentration.

Eddie peeks inside and yeah, it definitely stuck to the bottom. “Have fun with that. Doesn’t Bobby Flay or whoever offer tips to prevent shit like that? Cooking spray or something?”

“You can talk shit or you can eat.” Bill finally looks up at him over his shoulder, his fingers still gripped around the water sprayer, brandishing it like a weapon. “You don’t get both.”

Eddie thinks for a minute, then snaps his mouth shut and busies himself by grabbing a plate. He steps around Bill to grab a bottle of water from the refrigerator as well.

“Did you get everything I texted you?” Bill fills the pot with water and lets it soak. He peers into the plastic bags. “I want to make sea food stuffed salmon fillets on Saturday.”

Eddie steels Bill with a look, as he piles his plate with even more steaming food. “What the fuck? You didn’t send anything about fish.”

“I did too!” Bill’s head whips up, as his hands reach for his phone. “Check the last three texts I sent you. Eddie! That’s the most important part of the dish!” He holds up their text conversation, with Eddie’s last message having been previously unread.

“Sorry, man. I think I got most of everything else though.”

Bill shrugs, sets his phone back down, and flexes his fingers. “It’s okay. I’ll stop by the store tomorrow after school and get the missing stuff for the recipe. Their meat department has a wide selection, so it’s actually better if I go anyway. It's no big deal.”

“No!” Eddie says, choking on his last bite of food. Bill stares at him, arm rising up to pat him on the back. Eddie coughs and swallows forcefully. “I mean, it was my mistake. I’ll go back on Friday and pick up the ingredients. Just make out an actual paper list, cause knowing you the list will triple by then.”

“But you hate grocery shopping.” Bill opens the fridge and places the milk inside. “You sent me, like, twelve angry emojis when I asked you to stop today.”

“That doesn’t sound like me.” Bill reaches for his phone to show him the texts again, but Eddie turns away from his questioning gaze and his proof. “Well maybe I decided I liked it. I’m allowed to change my mind, Bill.”

“You don’t find it therapeutic like I do.” He could hear the confusion in Bill’s voice. “I mean, I love going to the store and trading recipes with the employees behind the counter. You probably hate how the cans are covered in dust and how everything isn’t washed before it’s set on the shelves. Aren’t you freaked out by all the bacteria?”

Now Eddie is definitely thinking about that. He shoves another bite of roast in his mouth and pushes the intrusive thoughts of uncleanliness away. “Listen. It’s my fault I forgot the fish. You shouldn’t have to make another trip because I forgot some stuff. That’s all. This is really good by the way. I can taste... all the spices and shit. It’s delicious.”

Bill stops what he’s doing and comes around the bar to look at him. The patented Denbrough smile is creeping up on his face. His voice is low and teasing. “Did something happen at the store today, Eddie?”

“No. Nothing, dude. Just excited about vegetables and seafood or whatever.” Bill isn’t buying it, but Eddie pushes past him, pushes down the embarrassment and all the thoughts of the cashier. “It’s homework time. Write me a list, yeah? I’ll go after British Lit on Friday.” He practically closes his bedroom door in Bill’s face.

“You’ll have to tell me eventually. I know where you live!” Bill says from the other side of the door, then taps twice on the wood for emphasis. He pauses before hesitantly adding, “I’ll leave the list on the counter for you.”

Eddie allows the smile to creep back onto his face. “Thanks, Bill.”

Two evenings later, Eddie is back in the grocery store filling a basket with odds and ends, pausing to cross the items off the paper list. He is taking his time because when he first walked in, he didn’t see his Mystery Man at any of the check-out lanes. Maybe he was on his lunch break or in the bathroom.

He makes it a point to swing past the floral department, hoping to catch a glimpse of the infamous Stan. If anything, he’ll know what kinds of people Mystery Man hangs out with. There’s a stocky boy with the beginnings of a beard arranging roses in a large red vase. As he nears, he can see his name tag reads Ben in chunky, green letters. He briefly wonders if the real Stanley is here somewhere, if it’s his day off, or if Ben is actually Stan, especially if no one gave a shit about wearing the correct name tags in this store, but Eddie continues to the checkout counters.

Two lanes are open today, but neither is run by Mystery Man. Eddie frowns, wondering if the guy only works late evenings or something, or maybe he has the night off and is getting ready for a date. It is a Friday after all. A cute, charismatic guy like him, Eddie wouldn’t be surprised if he was already someone’s boyfriend.

With a long-suffering sigh, Eddie gets into the lane with the longest line, still holding out hope the guy would make an appearance. He cranes his head around, attempting casual, but probably missing the mark. There’s a long hallway where the employee’s break room must be and from where he stands, he has a good view of the time clock and a schedule written on a whiteboard, but without the man’s name, it's no help.

By the time he checks-out, Mystery Man is still missing. Instead, he’s helped by a young woman with fiery red hair. She scans his items leisurely, like she’s endlessly bored with the task. He looks at the clerk’s name tag to see Bev written in wispy red ink and little hearts in the corners.

“Were you looking for someone?”

“No. Just admiring the scenery.” Eddie answers too quickly. He realizes how stupid he sounds and tries to correct himself. “Anyway, who would I be looking for?”

“I don’t know.” She smiles kindly, but doesn’t look up to meet his eyes. “I was just thinking maybe you wanted to tell me.”

“I-- I don’t...” Eddie gives a final glance around the store before giving up. “I don’t know. Maybe I am.” He sighs, but the woman lifts her eyebrow encouraging him to continue. “I met someone here the other day who I was hoping to see again.”

“I normally work in the bakery, so I’m not on the front lines often. Still, I can try to help you.” Her voice is comforting. She hums, “Was that someone a customer or an employee?”

Eddie debates telling her or dropping the subject completely. He wasn’t normally the type to divulge all his secret thoughts to random strangers. He doesn’t want to look creepier than he knows he already does. But the possibility that she may know the Mystery Man’s identity is far too promising. “An employee. He, uh... he checked me out Wednesday night.”

“Did he?” Her lips quirk up.

“Not like --” Eddie feels the heat rise to his cheeks. He angles away from her to insert his debit card into the machine to pay. “Like he rung up my groceries. He was funny.”

Another hum. She begins to bag his groceries, working quickly. “I know exactly who you’re talking about. And honestly, it was probably both.”

He fumbles his wallet, nearly dropping it at Bev’s admission. The confirmation that Mystery Man was flirting with him makes lightning thrum through his veins.

“He never told me his name.” Eddie knows she probably wasn’t allowed to give out any personal details of her coworkers. He tacks on, hoping she gets where he’s going without verbalizing it. “Please?”

“I’m not going to tell you. You know I can’t.” She looks up at him then. Her green eyes sparkle with mischief. “Besides, where’s the fun in that?”

Eddie nods, feeling mortified. He has never been this bold before. This woman was absolutely going to tell his Mystery Man that he asked for him. What if Mystery Man was just being friendly with him and Eddie took it too seriously? They would have a good laugh about the stupid love-sick stalker.

There was no way Eddie could come back here ever again without looking like a fool. He swallows thickly, thinking he might throw up. He hoped his body would have the decency to wait until he was outside.

His breathing picks up, and his hand instinctively reaches for his fanny pack that he stopped carrying years ago. The realization that he doesn’t have his inhaler at a time when he might actually need it causes his vision to swirl. He flinches and reaches for his bags, ready to run out of the store, but Bev grabs his wrist.

Something about the gentleness of her touch makes him pause and look up at her. “Hey. You’ll have better luck on Monday or Wednesday. Sometime after five.” She winks.

She looks nothing but sincere now, and Eddie rethinks his panic. The simple touch allows his anxiety to lessen, his breathing to slow. He nods. Monday it is then.

“What’s up, Bill!” Eddie walks through the door of their apartment, finally finished with his late Monday afternoon classes. The first thing he sees is a long, thin slip of paper on the table where they keep their other bills. He recognizes it instantly. He narrows his eyes as he storms into the kitchen. “Did you go to the grocery store today?”

“I needed basil and paprika.” Bill’s leaning over the stove, salting the water for homemade pasta like a scientist in a chemistry lab. “And since I was there, I grabbed a few other things for stuffed tortellini.”

“A few?” Eddie flings his hands out looking at the sea of empty blue bags littering their floor. “I was supposed to go to the store tonight, dickhead. Now he’ll think I stood him up!”

Setting the salt shaker down, Bill turns to him. He leans against the counter and cracks open a can of Coke. “Eddie, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are you meeting at the store?” Eddie doesn’t answer. “I didn’t even know you were seeing someone!”

Eddie shrugs, feeling only a little ridiculous. “I’m not…”

Bill takes a long drink of his Coke. “Does this have anything to do with your sudden interest in shopping?” He gives Eddie a knowing look.

Eddie hesitantly nods, “There’s an employee there --”

“Wait! It's not the sexy guy from the meat department, is it?” Bill fumbles his soda can, the liquid sloshing over the sides of the metal.

“What?”

“Mike.” Bill says, like Eddie is supposed to know who he’s talking about. “Dreamy smile. Really strong, athletic build, looks like he would have no trouble picking you up and fucking you against a wall?”

What?” Eddie is so confused. Why is this the first time he is hearing about this? “Who? You’re… Since when have you been thinking about Meat Department Mike? Better question, why are you fantasizing about fucking him up against the meat counter?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought about that image before. I don’t know Eddie; the metal might be too cold and I’m not really into exhibitionism.” Bill shrugs, his lip quirking up at the corner. “Don’t judge me. As a writer, I daydream a lot, especially while I grocery shop. And Mike is hot. Like really hot. Anyway, we’re talking about you here. Is that a yes or a no on Mike?”

“It’s not about Mike!” Eddie flings his arms out in exasperation. “I’ve never met Mike! He sounds like some goddamn love interest in a romance novel.”

“Good. Then I call dibs.” Grinning, Bill raises his eyebrows and motions him to continue. “So, your guy…?”

“I don’t know his name. He wasn’t wearing his name tag. Nobody from the store will tell me. They’re acting like it’s some big secret.” Eddie concedes, covering his face with his hands.

“Maybe I’ve met him?” Bill offers.

He thought about asking Bill before now, but knew the odds were slim. Bill normally isn’t that observant. Eddie peeks out from between his fingers to look at Bill, finally asking, “He’s a cashier up front. The tall one, with the black curly hair?”

Bill squints at him, like he’s trying to remember. “I don’t think I’ve — wait! The one with the thick glasses who does the fingerguns after he hands you the receipt?”

Eddie nods, feeling a little disappointed this revelation didn’t come with a name.

“What?! Bill laughs. “Eddie, he’s like the human equivalent of Bambi. Tall with gangly limbs. Always knocking into things, or dropping them, and ripping the bags. That’s what does it for you?”

“And his never ending food puns.” Eddie sighs, shaking his head incredulously. “I’m really, embarrassingly into it.”

“Well he is definitely single. Don’t give me that look! He does fingerguns, Eddie.” Bill says like that alone is supposed to deter him. It does not. In fact, it might make Eddie like him even more. “Do you really think there’s someone else out there that finds that attractive? You really think he’s seeing someone?”

“Don’t be a dick.” Eddie pouts, picking at the hem on the bottom of his shirt. “He wasn’t there on Friday afternoon when I went. And you know what Fridays are reserved for Bill? They’re date nights. What if he requested it off because he’s meeting his boyfriend or something?”

“Just ask him if he’s single! It took a few trips for me to casually work it into the conversation with Mike. Proud to report he’s single cause he and his boyfriend broke up three months ago. But I’m planning on asking him to come over for dinner next week, so…”

Eddie crosses his arms over his chest, mirroring Bill’s stance. “God, did you start this Top Chef shit just to impress Meat Department Mike?”

“I get it. It's kinda scary to put yourself out there.” Ignoring his question, Bill reaches out and rubs Eddie’s shoulder. “You have to steer the conversation to get the answers you want. You said he does food puns when he’s ringing you up? Maybe it’s the writer in me, but try grabbing some items as a conversation starter. Get in on his game and figure him out.”

Eddie doesn’t think he’s creative like that, even if he’s already thinking about what he could buy that would prompt his Mystery Man to ask for his phone number. He briefly wonders if buying a telephone be too forward. Do they even sell telephones in a grocery store?

“Well, I can’t do it tonight anymore. It’s late and there’s no point in going if you already bought enough food to last us until next weekend.” Eddie frowns, hangs his head, and glares at all the groceries still sitting on the counter. “Any chance we can eat everything you just bought so I can catch him on Wednesday?”

Bill turns toward the counter, reaches out and smacks the carton of eggs with an open palm. They tumble forward and down, splattering on the tile floor in a thick, slimy mess of yellow. He stares deadpan at Eddie. “Oh, no. The eggs.”

“What a shame.” Eddie smiles, laughter bubbling up in his throat.

It turns out they do, in fact, sell telephones at grocery stores. But they are ridiculously expensive for both outdated technology and also a college kid’s budget. Eddie and Bill are lucky that Bill’s biggest fan of his new hobby is none of than Sonia Kaspbrak, who was delighted that they started paying closer attention to nutrition instead of the ‘garbage in the cafeteria’. She started sending them a monthly food allowance, which goes a long way to cover their expenses. However, that’s all beside the point.

Eddie arrives at the store at 4:50 on Wednesday evening, his Mystery Man is not at the check-out counter. It’s okay, he thinks, trying to dampen the panic he feels starting to spread in his chest. He did arrive a little early.

He stops to grab a basket for his items, and walks the perimeter of the store. He passes the bakery and thinks he sees a flash of red hair, but he blinks and suddenly its gone. Before he heads on his way, he picks up a slice of apple pie and holds it up to inspect it. He makes an agreeable sound and places it in his cart.

As Eddie passes through the bread aisle, he gets a clear view of the front of the store. He hears the cute cashier before he even sees him. He wonders if he spoke to Bev since Friday, or even earlier today. He just hopes he could trust her to keep Eddie’s secret safe.

A few crossed off items later, Eddie stands in front of the meat counter, looking at cuts of pork. He crouches down closer to the slabs of meat showcased behind the glass. He’s a little lost as to what to look for. Back in Derry Sonia did all the cooking and didn’t share any of her tips (not that she had many) with her son. Bill was the recipient of those special texts.

Suddenly a face appears on the other side of the glass. Startled, Eddie pulls back.

“Hey man, I didn’t mean to scare you.” The tone is conversational, belonging to a tall, broad shouldered guy with muscular arms. Eddie doesn’t even have to glance at the name tag to know whom he’s speaking to. “Is there something I can help you find?”

Eddie stands straight up again before answering. “What exactly am I supposed to be looking for in a pork chop? Are there standards or something?”

Meat Department Mike laughs, exposing perfect white teeth. “Let’s start off with some easy questions and see where that leads us. Do you prefer thinner cuts?”

“Um...” Eddie stalls by looking back down at the counter. He misses the way Mike looks him over and shakes his head in amusement. “...No?”

“A very confident answer.” Mike declares and moves over marginally and spreads his arms out to the meat in front of him. “So, we’re looking at thick cuts. What do you plan on doing with them?”

Eddie furrows his eyebrows, unable to hold Mike’s gaze. “...Eat them?”

“Oh, man. You sure you don’t want to just hit up Applebee’s or something?” Mike laughs. “I don’t mean to doubt your abilities, but if you’re cooking to impress someone I’d go with pasta over pork. It’s too easy to dry the meat out if you aren’t careful. Nothing worse than bone dry meat.”

“I’m picking up some things for my roommate.” Eddie explains, rubbing the back of his neck. “He’s the executive chef in our house. If you couldn’t already tell.”

“Oh, I certainly hoped.” Mike is undeterred. “What’s your roommate planning on doing with them?” Eddie opens his mouth to reply. “Don’t tell me your answer is going to be ‘cook them?’” Mike imitates the same questioning intonation, leaning his arms on the countertop. Eddie closes his mouth. “Do you know if he’s going to grill, pan-sear, or broil?”

Eddie shrugs, “We don’t have a grill. Maybe pan-sear? That sounds familiar. I’d text him but he’s still in class for another hour.”

“How about I just select something for you both. Two cuts? Or are you and your roommate hosting company?”

“It’s just us, so two should be fine.” Eddie finally chances a look at Mike, and is surprised that he really does look like the love interest in a romance novel. Eddie wonders how soon he’ll be seeing Mike in their own apartment. He spaces out while Mike does his thing and finally presents him with two little packages.

“Let’s hope you and your roommate don’t burn your place down.” It’s meant to be playful, and Mike presents the packages with a mega-watt smile.

Eddie smiles back gratefully. “Thanks. See you around.”

There’s a ‘Thanks for not busting my chops’ line that zings through Eddie’s brain in Mystery Man’s loud voice followed by his unmistakable laughter. Eddie feels the heat creep up his neck, and even though no one is watching him, he brings his hand up to cover his growing smile.

With two pork chops down, Eddie crosses the last items off his list. He takes a deep, steadying breath and heads to the front. For the first time, he notices the store is relatively empty. That should buy him some time with Mystery Man.

“I’ll check you out.”

He looks up upon hearing the familiar voice and there stands his cute cashier, in all his frizzy haired glory, leaning back against the conveyor belt. His shirt is properly buttoned this time, but his shoelaces on his left sneaker are untied.

Eddie takes in the sight of him, and his voice comes out a little breathlessly. “Hey.”

As Eddie approaches, the cashier takes his position behind the counter. Eddie begins to unload his cart, and immediately the groceries glide towards the scanner.

“We’re having a continuation of our real-life meat-cute!” Mystery Man laughs as he holds up the pork chops. “You look radish-ing, as always Eddie.”

“Whatever.” Eddie hides a smile, pleased that the cute cashier remembers his name after an entire week. At the very least he’s not acting any differently since Eddie’s conversation with Bev. Maybe she didn’t throw him under the bus after all.

Mystery Man slides the pack of chewing gum slowly across the scanner, taking the moment to shamelessly look Eddie up and down. “Oh, sorry. Was that pun too Extra? I can stop if you want me to. After all, your fish is my command.”

Eddie thinks to check the clerk’s name tag. He looks down to see Bev written in the same red ink, but the heart has been messily erased and replaced with a winky face in the top right corner. The image stares back at him tauntingly.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Eddie lifts up an eyebrow inquisitively, talking mostly to himself in an astonished whisper.

Unaware of Eddie’s current crisis, the cashier continues. “I mean, kinda. That’s what puns are, Eds. But I can stop. I don’t carrot all. Just say the word, but it looks like you’re still enjoying this berry much.” He slides the blueberries through the scanner.

“Not the puns. The name tag.” He gestures to it helplessly and sighs at the man, more fond than he’s willing to admit. “I’ve met Bev before.”

“So, I’ve heard.” The clerk giggles as he picks up a toothbrush. “Well, it’s pretty obvious I’m not Beverly. I was in a brush this afternoon and Bev in the bakery gave me hers. After all, she wouldn’t leave me pie-and-dry in my moment of need. She’s been my best friend since middle school.”

“Oh.” Eddie feels his throat get tight. He wonders how much of their conversation she divulged when she clearly reported back to him. “She didn’t mention that to me.”

“She also let me know I may have a special visitor tonight.” Mystery Man winks at him. “She was right.”

So, everything. Bakery Bev told the cute cashier everything.

“How do you know she was talking about me?” Belatedly Eddie thinks he may not have been referring to him. Maybe it’s a trap to get Eddie to admit he came here again with the specific intention of talking to the cashier again.

“Who else would she be talking about, Eddie-Spaghetti?” He smiles. “It’s okay. I wanted to see you again, too. You’re cute, cute, cute.” He rings up the Cuties brand oranges.

Eddie fully snorts this time, feeling more than a little flattered at the compliment. The Cute Cashier’s admission works to soothe his nerves. It wasn’t something Eddie was just reading too much into. They’re actually flirting.

It gives him the push to ask, “Okay, not-Bev. Can I ask what’s with all the jokes? Are you a comedian or something?”

The man’s eyes light up. “Yes, I actually am!”

“Like professionally?” Eddie sets the last of his groceries from his shopping cart on the end of the conveyor belt.

“You butter believe it. I perform in Friday open mic nights across town. I do a fin-tastic job if I do say so myself.” He slides the sea scallops across the scanner followed by a loaf of Italian bread. “But there are a lot of people bread-er than me.”

“But you’re actually really funny.” Eddie giggles. He doesn’t miss the way the man’s lips turn up at the corners, or the way he bites his lip to keep that smile in check. “What are you doing here when you could be doing that full-time?”

“It’s a sacrif-rice I must make.” In addition to the pun, he’s slipped into a thick Italian accent which is just as ridiculous as one would expect. “Bills don’t pay themselves when you’re a full-time student. Gotta bring home the cheese.”

Eddie leans against the counter, pressing into the cashier’s space just a little. “Let me guess – theatre major?”

“How’d you know?” The clerk eyes the popcorn and lifts an eyebrow. “It must mean we’re super corn-patible!”

“Are we?” Eddie muses. He looks the clerk over slowly, just as he did to him earlier. His blue eyes are still huge behind too-big glasses, and his front teeth are prominent when he smiles. He’s like a human caricature. Eddie’s kind of smitten with him. Eddie holds up the ginger before handing it over. “Is your entire standup routine rooted in food puns, too?”

The clerk looks delighted. “Eds gets off a good one! No, I take that a little more seriously. This is for fun. Keeps my mind sharp.” Shredded sharp cheddar cheese rings up on the computer.

Eddie begins the process of paying for his items. “So, how often do you play this game with customers?”

“You’re my only audience, babe. I only do it with you cause you’re a cutie.” He holds up the bag of Orange Cuties again before placing them in the plastic bag along with the paper receipt. Eddie’s heart absolutely does not speed up at the compliment. “Are you sure you can curry all of this?”

“I’ll be fine.” He wants to stay and talk a little longer, but there’s a line behind him now. At least Eddie feels better after their interaction today. There’s definitely something here. “See you again next week, not-Bev.”

“Hope so, Eds.” The cute cashier shoots him his trademarked fingerguns before returning to his duties.

Eddie succeeds in holding in his snort. He will never admit to Bill that he finds it endearing. He’ll take that secret to the grave, thank you very much.

He can’t remember the last time he’s had this much fun with a gorgeous guy before. Certainly not when he lived in the homophobic town of Derry with Bill and was still in the closet. Definitely not when he had thrown himself into his nursing program coursework and locked himself away from all the dorm parties and boys drenched in the smell of cheap booze.

Mystery Man with his easy jokes and charming, dorky demeanor is exactly Eddie’s speed. The perfect guy for Eddie. Now he just needs to find a way to get the Cute Cashier to ask him out.

 

Eddie walks into his apartment later that week to see Bill cooking for an audience. He glances at the doorknob and there is no rubber band, sock, or anything dangling that would indicate Bill wanted to be alone, so he continues into the shared living space.

Even though both men have their backs turned to him and he’s only met the man once, he already recognizes —

“Meat Department Mike, right?”

“I didn’t realize I was famous in this house.” Mike turns to extend his hand out, but when he sees its Eddie, he laughs heartily and retracts his hand. “Well now this is starting to make sense. What’s up Pork Chop?”

Bill looks incredibly lost during this exchange, but pleased nonetheless. He continues to season the steaks, choosing to let the conversation unfold.

“Not much. Might hit up Applebee’s later.” Eddie drops his backpack on the couch and sits down at the counter next to Mike. “I didn’t know you made house calls. You must be wholly dedicated to your profession. Is there a sign-up sheet for that incredibly specific service somewhere?”

“Oh yeah, but I’m booked up for the foreseeable future.” Mike reaches out and strokes the back of Bill’s hand with his fingertips. “Besides, multiple sources tell me you’ve got it bad for Trashmouth.”

“Trash-what?”

“Fingerguns.” Bill helpfully supplies. Eddie’s eyes widen as he glares at his friend.

“We all call him Trashmouth — by his request, it’s his stage name — because of all the garbage jokes that spew from his mouth.” Mike laughs, “Don’t get me wrong, he’s a funny dude when he tries. But part of his process is that he lacks a filter and he’s always pushing the limit.”

“Which explains the food puns.” Bill interjects, then turns to the stove to check on the boiling potatoes.

“So how long have you known—” Eddie trails off, hoping Mike will complete the sentence.

“Oh, no way I’m falling for that.” Mike takes a sip of his red wine. “I’m under strict orders from Beverly to keep his name under wraps. Just know we’re all rooting for you though.”

Eddie runs his hand through his hair. This is officially the worst kept secret in all of existence. Bill, Bev, Mike... was Patty from Customer Service in on it, too? “Jeez, does everyone know about this? Is the entire store laughing at me?”

“Not laughing, my man. More like silently cheering. And not everyone. Just,” Mike starts naming them and ticking them off on his fingers. “Bev, Stan, Ben...”

“Even Flower Department Ben knows?” Eddie shrieks. “We haven’t even met yet!”

“He’s Bev’s boyfriend, so it’s expected that he knows. When you and Trashmouth get your shit together, you and Bill can join us and we’ll all go out for drinks sometime. It will be great.” Mike claps him on the back.

Eddie huffs, not as embarrassed as he feels he should be. “You seem to have your shit together Mike. What would you do to get someone to ask you out?”

In front of him, Bill makes a wounded noise. Eddie rolls his eyes. Bill doesn’t have his shit together. Bill spent most of his morning yelling at not-quite poached eggs and bargaining with the Food Gods to bless him with the perfect hollandaise sauce for his Eggs Benedict.

“I’m pretty direct. I wouldn’t be in that situation. I asked for Bill’s name the first time I met him. Then I asked for his number when I found out you weren’t my competition. Really should’ve led with that, babe.” Mike shoots the auburn-haired boy a wink. “But I do have Bev’s advice, which she so generously offered in ‘the off-chance that you should ask’.”

Mike waits for Eddie’s approving nod. “She said since you both insist on playing games, you should buy two things and two things only. Lube and condoms. Then as he rings you up, ask him if he wants to hang out after his shift.”

“Direct, yet playful.” Bill nods. “I approve.”

“You’re more of a wine ‘em and dine ‘em. Not that I’m complaining.” Mike tells Bill. He shakes his head, and returns his attention to Eddie. “No, I think if you actually did that, Trashmouth’s brain would short circuit.”

Eddie believes it. His own brain nearly short circuits just from listening to that plan. That’s more direct than the combination of everything else Eddie has ever done in his life.

“He’s a really sweet guy, Eddie. You two would be good for each other. He’s into it just as much as you are.” Mike takes another sip of wine. “I think he’s holding back on asking you out because he wants a clear sign that you’re interested and he needs to convince himself that he’s not going to mess it up.”

Being direct is admittedly not Eddie’s strong suit. He has never been great at being brave, especially when it comes to relationships. Maybe he could be, just this once, for his Mystery Man though.

Orange you glad to see me, Eds?”

“We both know that pun is overused. It’s expired.” Eddie pauses his movements and meets the cashier’s gaze. “I refuse to accept it. In fact, I’m returning it. You’re better than that.”

“You can’t return it!” Cute cashier scoffs, barely holding his expression before he dissolves into a fit of giggles. “I’ll admit that pun was low-hanging fruit. They can’t all be grape.”

“Since when did you start telling dad jokes?” Eddie leans against the counter, just pressing into the clerk’s space. He notices for the first time all the freckles didn’t just dot on the other man’s cheeks, but cascade down the side of his face and spill across his nose. “I expect top-quality puns from this store. I might to start shopping somewhere else.”

Soda-manding!” The cashier gently moves the two liter of Coke off to the side. “I can step up my material.” He pushes the Fresh Step cat litter through the scanner. “Get egg-cited, Eds. I’m bring my A game.”

“Are you always like this?” Eddie laughs, sweetly looking up at him through his lashes. “Is this how you talk to your friends in public?”

The clerk grabs two items at once, making perfect eye contact as he slides the items through the scanner. “Olive the thyme.”

“Okay. The two for one is a little impressive.” Eddie admits. “This time I picked up some things I thought would trip you up.”

“Yeah, do you even have a cat, Eds?” The man raises his eyebrows at Eddie, who refuses to blush despite knowing he’d been caught. “Well, did I foil your plans? I’m im-pasta-ble to beet.”

“I don’t believe that.” Eddie leans on the counter even further to squint at the name tag. In plain yellow cursive: Mike. “Pretending to be Mike from the meat department today?”

Cute Cashier raises his eyebrows, clearly impressed. Seems like Mike is a little better at secrets than Bev has been. “So, you caught me again. Yeah, have you met Mike? He’s helped me out of some of my wurst situations. That’s weird. He’s never mentioned meeting you before.”

“So, you talk to your friends about me?” He notices a red flush appear on the cashier’s cheeks. Eddie bites his lip. “If you can talk to Bev about me, then I can talk to Mike about you.”

Sweet-heart,” the cashier scans the bag of brown sugar. “Did you just admit you do the same?”

Eddie ignores the question. “Only Mike will keep my secrets, cause he’s dating my roommate, Bill.”

“Bill?” The cashier looks at the line behind Eddie. He looks like he’s going to say something, then shakes his head. After a second he rethinks and leans in closer anyway and whispers, “He’s the foodie with the huge dick, right?”

“Didn’t need to know that about my best friend, Trashmouth.” There’s no heat in Eddie’s tone as he tries out the nickname and glances up to catch the man’s reaction.

He throws his head back and laughs long and loud before continuing to bag up the groceries. “That’s fair enough, Spaghetti. I’m sure he’s great ‘cause Mike has a definite type in his guys. What’s your type, Eds?” It's out there before the man realizes, like the words just slip out of his mouth. He tries to backpeddle. “I mean—”

To his own surprise, Eddie answers immediately. “Tall, funny, and handsome. Mysterious – like I’d have to work really hard just to get his name. What’s your type?”

“Big brown eyes. Thick, curly hair. More specifically I’m a sucker for a man who’s easily impressed by food puns. And who’s ass looks great in black skinny jeans.”

The cashier hands Eddie his receipt. Eddie reaches for it and their fingers brush together. The touch feels electric.

“Back to work, Trashmouth!” Patty calls out. She continues flipping through a travel magazine without so much as looking up at them. There’s a smirk reminiscent of Bev’s plastered on her face.

The Cute Cashier hangs his head, his hat toppling onto the scanner. His curls spill out everywhere. His responding voice sounds pained. “You’ve got it, Patty.”

“Until next time, Trashmouth.” Eddie smiles. He reaches up and tucks a stray curl behind the man’s ear. “We’ll pick up where we left off, yeah?”

As he walks away, Eddie makes a conscious effort to swing his hips just a fraction more. Before going out the sliding entry doors, he turns back. The man’s mouth is parted, and when his gaze slides back up and meets Eddie’s eyes, he groans.

“You’re killing me, Eds.”

 

“We meat again.” Cute Cashier drops his voice and whispers conspiratorially, even though they’re alone. “I’ve bean thinking about you.”

“And here I thought you were only thinking about my skinny jeans.”

“Oh, Eds. We can certainly taco ‘bout that. You’re absolutely gourd-geous in those jeans, babe.” He twists the pumpkin pie filling around to find the barcode. “I’d love to just peel them off of you.”

“See, I’ve been thinking, too.” Eddie slides the chicken fingers a little closer to the scanner, “I’ve been imagining your long fingers and what they could do in another, more intimate setting.”

Trashmouth looks like he can’t decide if he’s more delighted or turned on. Maybe Mike is right and his brain short circuited. If so, he reboots quickly. “I’m imagining all the pasta-bilities right now. I’m absolutely willing to go 50 Shades of Grain on you, especially if that’s what you’re into,” he slides English muffins through the scanner.

“As it turns out, I’m a sucker for cute comedians.” Eddie reaches over to grab the bug spray, “It's so hard to keep my hands Off! of you, but we’re in public so for now, I’m going to have to keep it Clean.” A Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser tumbles into the pile of rung up groceries.

“What if I don’t wanna keep it clean, Eddie?”

Eddie’s gaze flits down to the name tag, a hastily scrawled Richie written there today. “Then you butter do something about it this time, Richie.” This time, the man doesn’t correct him, and instead a smile spreads across his face. Eddie’s mission is temporarily forgotten in his surprise. “Really? Richie?”

The man closes his eyes like he’s super affected by the way Eddie says his name. Eddie can relate. He nods again, “Richie Tozier. It’s nice to finally meet you, sugar.”

And Eddie absolutely did not buy that last item just to hear the way the word would sound coming from Richie’s mouth. There’s no proof of that.

“I get off in an hour. Would you want to grab a drink with me?” Richie shyly looks back down and resumes scanning Eddie’s items, like he didn’t expect the invitation to tumble from his mouth.

“I’d love to.” Eddie gestures to the blue plastic bags. “But I need to take my groceries home. I can meet you somewhere after?”

“I don’t want to pressure you.” Richie still can’t meet his gaze, like he can’t believe Eddie would’ve said yes. “You can pass on the opportu-nut-y. I mean, if you have other plans.”

There’s one item left for Richie to scan and Eddie hands it to him, letting his fingers wrap around the other man’s hand. Eddie doesn’t move away or speak until he looks up at him.

“It’s a date, Richie.”