Today's Reading

The fiancée—Avery, her name was, blond and willowy and almost always dressed in something blush or cream or ice blue or whatever color I'd be just as likely to ruin with ink or coffee or ketchup—had been nice to work with, focused and polite, a good sense of herself and what she wanted, but not resistant to Cecelia's suggestions about paper or my suggestions about the lettering. A few times, in our initial meetings, I'd asked about her fiancé, whether she'd want me to send scans to his e-mail, too, or whether she'd want to try to find a weekend meeting time if it'd make it easier for him to come. She'd always wave her slim-fingered left hand, the one with the tiny ice rink on it that looked almost identical to the rings of at least three other brides I'd been working with that spring, and she'd say, pleasantly, "Reid will like whatever I like."

But I'd insisted on it, him being there for the final meeting.

And I'd regretted it later. Meeting him. Meeting them together.

I regret it even more now.

We'd settled on a Sunday afternoon for that final meeting, and now it seems doubly strange to find him here again on another Sunday, my life so different now than it was then, even though I'm in the same store, standing behind the same counter, wearing some version of what's always, pretty much, been my style aesthetic—a knit dress, a little slouchy in fit, patterned, this particular one with tiny, friendly fox faces. Slightly wrinkled cardigan that, until an hour ago, was shoved into my bag. Navy tights and low-heeled, wine-red booties that Sibby would probably say make my feet look big but that also make me smile at least once a day, even without Sibby willing to tease me anymore.

Last year, he'd been wearing what other people call "business casual" and what I'd privately call "weekend-stick-up-your ass": tan chinos pressed so sharply they'd looked starched, white collared shirt under a slim cut, expensive-looking navy-blue V-neck sweater. A double-take face, that was for sure—so handsome half of you is wondering if you've seen him on your television and the other half of you is wondering why anyone would put a head like that on top of what looked like a debate team uniform.

But now he looks different. Same head, okay—a square, clean-shaven jaw; high cheekbones that seem to carve swooping, shadowed lines down to his chin; a full-lipped mouth with corners turning slightly down; a nose bold enough to match the rest of his strong features; bright, clear blue eyes beneath a set of brows a shade lighter than his dark reddish-blond hair. Neck down, though, not so business casual anymore: olive green T-shirt underneath a hip-length, navy-blue jacket, faded around the zipper. Dark jeans, the edges of the front pockets where he has his hands tucked slightly frayed, and I don't think it's the kind of fraying you pay for. Gray sneakers, a bit battered-looking.

M-A-Y be, I think, his life is pretty different now, too.

But then he says, "Good evening," which I guess means he's still got the stick up his ass. Who says Good evening? Your grandad, that's who. When you call him on his land line.

I feel like if I say a casual "Hi" or "Hey," I'll open up some crack in the space-time continuum, or at least make him want to straighten the tie he's not wearing. I shouldn't be deceived by the clothes. Maybe he got mugged on the way over by a rogue debate team captain in need of a new outfit and that's why he looks the way he does.

I settle for a "Hello," but I keep it light and cheerful—buoyant, if you will—and I'm pretty sure he nods. As if he's saying, "This greeting is acceptable to me." I have a fleeting image of how it must have been at his wedding. Probably he did that nod when the officiant said "man and wife." Probably he shook Avery's hand instead of kissing her. I really don't think she would've minded. Her lipstick always looked so nice.

"Welcome to—" I begin, at the same time he speaks again.

"You still work here," he says. It's flat, the same as everything I've ever heard him say, but there's a hint of question, of surprise
in it.

So maybe he knows something of what I've done since I lettered every single scrap of paper for his wedding.

But surely he can't know—he absolutely can't know—why I'd decided his wedding would be my last.

I swallow. "I'm filling in," I say, and it's—less buoyant. Cautious. "The owner's on vacation."

He's still standing right inside the door, underneath the bright paper cranes Cecelia has hung from the ceiling near the entrance.
Behind him, the window displays feature various sheaths of the new custom wrapping paper she'd told me about two weeks ago, the last time I'd stopped in for supplies. It's all so colorful, a springtime celebration of pinks and greens and pale yellows, a cheery haven from the mostly gray tones of the city street outside, and now it looks like a human skyscraper has walked in.

It reminds me of one of those truths about Reid Sutherland.

It reminds me of how he'd seemed a little lost that day. A little sad.
...

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