Jeff blinked, and then dropped his head back to the crimped notes in his lap.
"Sorry Mutt. It's raining outside, if you haven't noticed."
Caitlin frowned. Or tried to. A brief surge of relief shot through her spine when she realized that Jeff hadn't seen the wince cross her face.
"Jeffrey, who the hell references Mutt and Jeff anymore?"
She received a shrug.
"My mom. Habit I picked up from her. I mean, c'mon: I'm not a short guy. How many chicks out there are taller than me?"
"That you even know which one is tall and which one's short is scary . . ."
Caitlin glanced back at the screen, her voice trailing into the hollow beat of rain. "Doesn't even work; Mutt was a guy." Jeff had his back turned to his employer, squeezing what books he could into the few spaces left on the shelves. He turned at this last mutter, unexpectedly thrilled by the flush he saw in her cheeks. Until he realized it was no longer in response to him.
It was doubtful she even remembered the existence of another person in the store.
"Lose another auction?" he called in his cheeriest voice.
Initial attempts at burning a hole in the screen with her eyes failed, so Caitlin decided to try it on her employee. Unfortunately, he had ducked behind a stack of books and the stubborn paper proved just as resistant as the glass.
"Those were some good finds! They weren't in the best condition, but we could've made a lot of money after fixing them up."
"Sucks," was all the sympathy she received. It was enough.
"And what are you doing hiding in the back of the store?"
The air conditioner drone reached a piercing pitch as it battled the heat from outside. Caitlin ground her teeth as Jeff's voice cut through the noise.
"I'm catching up on our inventory. Your little online buying spree is making us fall behind. Too many books."
"Oh." She clawed a few stray strands of dirty blond hair out of her eyes. It always got in the way when she let it get as long as Jeff's. But she detested short hair. "Well, make sure you write everything down while you go. It's gotten messed up before."
"Wasn't me. Must've been one of the other employees," Jeff leveled a stare at his boss, the fluorescent lights catching the lens of his glasses.
"Well if you aren't going to fix the roof, how about moving the damn air conditioner?"
"Whenever it stops raining," he had already returned to his books, not bothering to look up this time.
At this obvious termination of the conversation, Caitlin had little else to do but return to her computer. Or not. Gazing at the hated outbid screen, she realized that a return would only lead to the destruction of someone or something, and, as such, it might be a good idea to get some real work done.
"I'll be in the back," Caitlin announced as she jumped off her chair.
Jeff grunted unintelligibly. He also sat in the aisle blocking the back. She stopped before him and waited. He showed no sign of moving so she pushed her way past, brushing against his back as she went.
"Call me if someone comes in."
Her usual admonition. Though in this weather, she couldn't imagine anyone would.
With Jeff's final benefaction, Caitlin disappeared into the workshop. When in doubt, she turned to restoration--when she had the option. The rare book business mostly relied on the curiosity of tourists. Book restoration was an even more specialized business, and not many people in the area wanted it done. Those few who even thought about it would bring in old family Bibles--interesting for the family, but not for Caitlin. Fortunately, opening the store up to the online population increased business on both fronts, and lately Caitlin had been finding herself in the back more often. Her current project was, oddly enough, local, and had been dropped off two days ago. The owner had said there was no need to hurry and just asked to be informed when she had finished. Just how she liked it.
She dropped into her grandfather's green swivel chair and pulled this latest project from one of the desk drawers: a three volume, first edition Great Expectations. Caitlin couldn't help but run a hand down the pebble-grain cloth of the cover, enjoying the rough, just barely moldy feel of its ancient weft. Beautiful. Unfortunately it was in abysmal shape even for being one hundred and forty some odd years old. Passed down from owner to owner, the poor thing had been neglected and abused. Now it was time for her to make it all right.
Caitlin went to work in silence, first peeling off the titling label from the spine, then grabbing her knife and pulling the signature, severing damaged pages from spine. Her tongue slipped from between her teeth as the knife deftly cut through cords, tape, and lining. The owner wanted the book restored as completely as possible--no easy task with the amount of tears, stains, and mildew. But God, she loved the challenge of putting a book right--returning it to the way it was supposed to look. Every finished tome left her feeling supremely accomplished. Books were interesting. After all, it was what was inside--the words, the stories--that was truly important. But some just needed restoration. They cried out for it in indignation against their past treatment. Their outsides begged to mirror the intricacies of their contents. At least if their owners truly loved them.
This particular book, however, would have to wait a bit longer before its true self could shine through.
Caitlin's hand jerked as Jeff's bellow cut through the thin curtain. She cursed as a bit of the glue she had been preparing splotched onto a page of Dickens. Extra work. Extra annoyance. Maybe it was time to speak with her employee about professionalism. After the customer left.
Regardless, the shout would not rush her hand, and Caitlin took her time returning to the front. Before rising from her seat she made sure each leaf was free and ordered, quickly scanning her notes on which would need touchups. She listened absently to some murmured talking--the unmistakable sound of two male voices--then looked up archly as Jeff pushed through the curtains and approached her bench.
"Leaving the store unattended I see," she raised an eyebrow in what she hoped was a disappointed manner.
"He's looking for Caleb," Jeff said simply.
Caitlin allowed herself a sigh before continuing. "And what did you tell him?"
"That I'd get the manager."
"All right. Let him know I'll be out in a minute. Then get back to cataloging."
A nod, the whisper of a curtain, and again Caitlin heard murmuring voices. She slipped the free leaves into a small shoebox and rose from her seat, scratching furiously at her hand and the glue that had somehow splashed it. She stopped and stared at the red skin in bewilderment. It had to be washed.
Shuffling past shelves stacked with books, Caitlin made her way to the bathroom, filing furiously through her brain to think of who would come looking for Caleb. Every name she rifled through should know better. Unless it was someone come to torment her. That wouldn't surprise her. If not that, what could he possibly want? That, Caitlin realized, rubbing her hands through the ratty dishtowel, would have to wait until she saw who it was. No point jumping to the worst. There could be a million reasons why someone would come looking for Caleb. Still, she couldn't manage to think of any good ones.
Caitlin slipped into a silent store. Jeff had returned to his chore and the customer browsed the collection, his back to the green curtain from which she emerged. There was something immediately and hauntingly familiar about that back. She knew those barely slumped, broad shoulders that pushed against a drenched and clinging t-shirt. She recognized the metal-studded belt looped through a pair of worn jeans, and could almost put a finger on that brilliant, close cut blond hair that was tilted down towards some book cradled in careful hands. He shifted as she opened her mouth to speak, and it was when she saw his arms--casually powerful drummer's arms--that she knew who stood before her. And she had no idea what to tell him.
She crept closer without a word, only mustering her voice again at the last second.
"You were looking for Caleb?" She asked, almost close enough to breathe down his neck. She didn't, though. That would be going too far. Wouldn't it? The book he was examining dropped to the floor with a spine-damaging clack. He whirled on her, his green eyes flashing: first in retaliation, then recognition, then confusion.
All of it passed in an instant as a wide grin spread across his face. Unlike with most people, his grin always touched his eyes. He hadn't changed since the last time Caitlin had seen him, still holding onto the casual attractiveness of a youth just barely beginning to pass. Caitlin could only feel ashamed that she couldn't say the same for herself. He kneeled to retrieve the dropped book, and any reaction on her part was belayed. Speaking as he rose, he seemed as excited to see her as she was to see him.
"Lemme guess . . . Karen."
"Caitlin, actually." Her voice sounded wrong when addressing him, and she noticed his smile slip a bit at this unexpected name. Her attention shifted suddenly to the small rivulet of water that ran down his cheek, pooling in a glistening droplet on his chin. He made a slight face and raised his hand to knuckle the drop from his stubbled jaw, as if to wipe away this distraction and concentrate on the sight before him. She couldn't help but notice the lack of any rings.
"But you are Caleb's sister, right? You look just like him. Well, except prettier. You know, in a girl's way. I'd swear his sister's name was Karen, though."
Caleb's sister? Sure. Caleb was gone, she could be his sister.
"Yeah. I'm his sister."
A loud clap sounded from the back of the store as something fell to the floor. This was accompanied by a mutter that sounded like an apology. Caitlin continued. "But not Karen. Caitlin. It's always been Caitlin." Smile. "And you must be Brandon."
Brandon, for his part, no longer looked so sure of things. Before he could think through this shift more deeply, Caitlin jumped in again. "Caleb showed me some of his college pictures. Not always the most flattering." His shoulders un-tensed a bit and his face once again opened up. She paused. "But he did always think very highly of you." Brandon's brilliant grin once again surfaced, and Caitlin, in turn, relaxed considerably.
"So is he around?"
"He, um, actually moved out to California."
A shadow passed over Brandon's features, revealing a disappointment so naked that Caitlin wished she could take back what she had just said. She hoped the smile she'd just earned wouldn't be her last--but her course was set.
"Huh. I could've sworn someone told me he owned the store."
"He did. But then he just got the travel bug or something. Up and left for Cali. Asked if I wanted to take over things here."
"Yeah, it was really sudden but he really likes it out there." She bit off anything more, afraid she'd blurt out another "really."
Brandon responded with a twisted smirk. "San Fran?"
"Outside of San Diego, actually. In the mountains."
"Yeah, I'm really sorry." Forget him.
"Well damn. I was hoping to run into him again." Brandon scratched his left arm idly. He did that when he was uncomfortable, she remembered. "Catch up, hang out a bit. It's been awhile."
She couldn't think of anything else to say. He looked so disappointed; all Caitlin wanted was to make everything better for him. Just like in college.
"Well," he smiled again--not the open, beaming smile of earlier, but still enough to warm the room, "at least I got to see his store. My ex and I would drive by this place when we were in town and I always thought it would be neat to see what was in here. He never wanted to stop, though."
"He?" It was out of her mouth before she could stop.
"Yeah," Brandon affirmed absently. "If you talk to your brother tell him I stopped in. And if he comes back to visit, he should look me up. I finally moved down here, 'bout half an hour east. Do you have a pen and paper?"
This wasn't right. It wasn't how they were supposed to act out the scene. This moment--while she never truly thought possible--was supposed to go down as something more like . . . well, like Pip and Estella. At the end of book. But suddenly it could never happen. Thrown off by a casually dropped "he." After so many years of distance enforced by some halfhearted "she." It took some shuffling, but she managed to locate a small pad and garishly pink pen. These she tossed on the counter. Brandon strode over, smiled at the pen, and wrote two numbers on the pad.
"The first is my apartment. At least I think. If it's screwed up he can always call the second. That's my cell."
"Well, it was nice meeting you. Maybe I'll stop in again some time."
"You too," it didn't quite make sense, but it was all she could muster.
"Nice meeting you!" Brandon called back at Jeff, who waved in return.
Amazingly, this was done in silence. Jeff had been silent through the entire conversation. Then Brandon was out the door and trudging through the rain. Caitlin watched the water pound onto him, running down his back and between his shoulders, drawing the already damp shirt closer to his body. Jeff walked over to the counter, watching the retreating memory with his silent employer. It was over, and she wasn't even sure what had happened.
"You're Caleb's sister now? That's sick."
Caitlin didn't respond.
"So that's him, huh? Good enough looking, but not quite the radiant perfection I was expecting. No better than any of the other suckers you've dumped."
"What do you know?" Her teeth had a hard time unclenching.
"Nothing," Jeff let out a harsh laugh. "Absolutely nothing. I didn't just lie to an old friend. You guys were close in college? How'd you lose touch after?"
"Close enough," she muttered. "You lose touch with a lot of people after."
"Obviously. Looked like he finally wanted to get a bit closer, though. You gonna call?"
"No. He was looking for Caleb."
"Well, there isn't much of a difference."
"Besides eight years and the fact that's he's now a woman? No. No difference at all." She fell silent for a moment before finishing. "Caleb's gone."
"Whatever," he shrugged, before adding cryptically. "You know, some people like both. If nothing else he seems like a good friend to have. I'm not quite sure why you had to lie to him."
"Get back to inventory. I don't pay you for life advice."
Another shrug and Jeff withdrew. "No. If you did, I'd kiss up a lot more."
Caitlin headed for the curtains and the solitude of the back. Jeff stopped her one more time before she could fade away.
"Seeing him again, do you wonder if you did the right thing?"
She stared darkly at him, but for he seemed sincere enough that she thought a moment before answering.
"Almost every day."
She shook her head.
"This is who I am."
Jeff nodded and returned to his books as if expecting nothing less.
# # #
The rain stopped shortly before closing time, its merciless hammering of the air conditioner there and gone without warning. Jeff had said little the rest of the day, only extending his usual offer of coffee or dinner, although tonight it was little more than half-hearted formality. Caitlin followed her familiar course and turned him down.
Outside the heat had persisted, had won out over the drenching showers. They closed early on Sunday and hours of light still remained in the day. Great waves of steam rose from the damp macadam and Caitlin drove home in a shimmering fog, the sun twisting and shining through the haze. A haze that stayed with her even after she reached her apartment (After everything that had happened, he was gay.) and remained through a bath and dinner, fading only when she shut off the television and looked out at the final few minutes of daylight. The world she saw was not the one she had left, the strange mix of clouds and vapor turning the last of the sunlight a greenish yellow and bathing everything outside in its ochre tint.
So why had she done it?
A cool breeze played into the open balcony doors through which she stared. It retreated much too quickly to provide any great relief, yet those few seconds had brought with them the scent of something old and familiar. Of summers that had been separated from the rest of the year and of possibilities not yet lost. A peaceful nostalgia for the way things once were. Caitlin couldn't help but smile as the cool breath encircled her. When it left, she felt as if it had taken a piece of him with it.
Pulling the folded paper out of her pocket, Caitlin held the two numbers before her eyes wondering at their meaning. She didn't let them go even as she picked up the phone; though once she had dialed, she allowed her hand to drift down onto the couch.
It rang only once.
"Yeah?" A tired voice answered.
"Jeffrey. What are you up to tonight?" Caitlin closed her hand over the scrap of paper. It crumpled between her fingers and fell to the floor, carried finally off by the wind.
Copyright © 1999-2008 by Amarillo Bay. All rights reserved.