It was the second time he visited the small bookstore in a week, but this time Zach had a legitimate reason for making the ten minute walk to Whitelaw Books from his house. The small, two level store stocked both new books with crisp spines as well as old ones with faded inscriptions and worn, yellow-edged pages. He loved the bookstore for its charm and quiet reading area near the back on the second floor.
Zach walked in and took his sunglasses off while discreetly taking a quick look around the store. A few other customers were scattered throughout, browsing and thumbing through books. As expected, he spotted the man leaning casually against one of the bookcases, reading a book cradled in his hands, his back to Zach. Zach had seen him there the last few times he’d been in, hot as hell in an oblivious kind of way, always hunched over a book, and figured that he probably worked at the store. Last time, Zach made eye contact with him and, stunned by the bright blueness of the eyes focused on him, promptly walked into a display of new paperback bestsellers.
He walked over toward him and cleared his throat.
“Hi, sorry to bother you,” Zach began.
The man hesitantly peered over his shoulder and turned around when he realized Zach was speaking to him. For a split second, Zach forgot what he was going to say as those eyes scanned his face.
“I’m looking for a leather bound collection of Shakespeare’s comedies, preferably a set that’s used and a little worn.”
The round blue eyes widened as he spoke, darting from Zach’s eyes to his mouth. Zach was flattered that he was blatantly being checked out by this guy, then realized that he probably just recognized him from Heroes or Star Trek. He seemed a bit shocked, maybe even panicked, but Zach was used to getting a variety of reactions from fans over the last couple years.
“It’s for my brother, his birthday’s coming up.”
He watched as the guy’s attention shifted over his shoulder. Zach turned his head and noticed a woman approaching him.
“Hi, my name is Katie. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Umm, yeah, I was just asking--,” Zach gestured to the guy he was speaking with, except he’d already left by the time Zach’s head turned back around and was halfway down the aisle of books.
“Oh, he’s mainly in charge of stocks and inventory,” Katie explained with a wave of her hand. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and motioned for Zach to follow her.
Within a few minutes, she had helped Zach locate a set of the books he wanted in a store in near Sacramento and arranged for them to be shipped to the store within a week. As he handed his credit card to Kaite, he glanced between the shelves of books, hoping to catch a glimpse of the guy again.
“I feel kind of bad,” he said sheepishly. “I think I may have spooked him before.”
She handed him a pen for him to sign. “Oh. I’m sure he’s okay.” Katie looked at Zach and then tore his receipt from the register. Normally, she didn’t like to bring Chris into the conversation when she was making small talk with customers; he’d told her once that it made him uncomfortable. But there was something about the regret in Zach’s voice that made her want to explain. She slid the receipt and Zach’s credit card across the narrow counter.
“He’s my brother,” Katie said softly. Zach put his credit card back into his wallet and looked at her, waiting for her to continue. “We own the store together,” she said with small smile. “He’s deaf and you probably just caught him off guard. It’s like he’s lost in his own little world whenever he’s got an open book in his hands.”
He dropped his eyes down for a second and then looked back up at Katie.
“Umm. If you think it would be appropriate, could I go apologize for ambushing him before?” he asked, jerking his thumb toward the back of the store. “I sort of just babbled at him and he probably thinks I’m crazy.”
She gave a small laugh. “He’s seen worse, I’m sure. But you’ll find him in the back,” Katie said and pointed to the far right corner of the store.
Zach walked down the furthest aisle but didn’t see anyone. It wasn’t until he got to the very end that he saw a pair of black Chuck Taylors peeking out from behind the tall shelf of books. Zach approached slowly, not wanting to startle him again, until he was standing a few feet away from Chris, sitting in a chair with his shoulders curved and head bowed over the same book he was reading earlier. For a few seconds, Zach felt the urge to reach out and fit his palms to the round of those shoulders. He waited as Chris’ gaze lifted and he noticed Zach. He held his hands out as Chris scrambled to his feet.
“No, it’s okay. I’m sorry to bother you again. I just wanted to apologize for sneaking up on you before. I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
Chris’ eyes were focused on Zach’s mouth as he spoke. They then darted to the front of the store before returning to Zach’s face. Katie had sold him out. Chris shrugged shyly and nodded, and then looked away nervously.
Zach gestured to the book in Chris’ hand. Chris glanced down at the book then back at Zach.
“Philip Roth. That’s one of my favorites.”
Zach mentally congratulated himself when he saw Chris’s eyes soften and his posture relax.
“I think we’re also wearing the same shoes.”
Chris looked down at his feet and then at Zach’s and smiled.
“I gotta run... but I’ll see you around,” Zach offered weakly. He kind of hated how nervous he was at the moment.
Chris nodded and Zach turned to leave. After a couple steps, he stopped and spun back around.
“My name is Zach, by the way.”
With his right hand, he clumsily signed his name. An awkward moment passed and he felt consumed by idiocy so he began to retreat down the aisle again. Suddenly, he heard his name, uttered hesitantly, its sharp consonants dulled and rounded, but it was unmistakably his name. He turned and Chris had taken a few steps toward him.
“Chris,” he said, barely above a whisper, and then signed it.
Zach watched those hands, admiring the ease and familiarity with which it formed those five letters. With a grin, Zach looked up and saw that he was smiling too.
“Chris,” Zach repeated. “It was nice meeting you.”
They stood for a moment longer before Zach reluctantly shuffled away, giving Chris a small wave as he left the bookstore.
A few days later, Zach was flipping through the latest Stephen Hawking book and waiting for Katie to finish with a customer when he felt someone watching him. He looked up and saw Chris leaning with his shoulder against a wall, his arms crossed casually, right ankle crossed over his left. Chris’ eyes shone with mischief as he smirked at Zach.
With a smile, Zach put the book down and crossed his arms, jutting his hip out to the side. “What?” he asked playfully.
Chris shrugged as he pushed himself off the wall and walked behind the register. He pulled a black and white marbled notebook out from under the counter and took the pen in his shirt pocket out. He flipped the book open to a clean sheet and wrote something on the lined page before rotating it. Zach walked over to the counter with a grin.
I wouldn’t have guessed you were into physics.
Zach laughed and looked up at Chris. He noticed a faint blush coloring his cheeks, making his eyes appear even bluer.
“Hey, I’m well-rounded in my reading material. And it’s more about the mysteries of space than for the physics.”
He watched as Chris’ eyes moved from studying his mouth to his eyes.
Zach leaned forward on the counter and knitted his eyebrows together. He felt a bit foolish all of a sudden. “I just assumed that you can read lips.... Sorry, I don’t know, when I came in the other day I didn’t think to ask...” He ducked his head, but saw Chris lean forward on the counter too, scribbling something in the notebook.
It’s alright. I can, but it’s not the easiest skill for everyone to pick up. I can understand most of what someone says through lipreading. Some consonants are harder to differentiate.
Zach nodded and thought for a moment. “You can sign too, right?” Chris nodded back in reply.
Zach’s fingers gently stole the pen from under Chris’ hand. He propped himself on his elbow to write in the notebook.
Teach me the sign for ‘book’?
Chris read it and a brief moment of hesitation fluttered across his features. His tongue darted out to lick at the corner of his lip as he looked at Zach and then down at his own hands, instructing him to watch. Chris brought his hands together, palms touching as though he was praying, his fingers pointing away from him, and before turning and opening his hands so that the palms were now facing up.
Zach stood up straight and slowly copied the motion. “Like opening a book.” He did it again and looked up at Chris nodding in approval.
He reached for the pen and began writing again. Chris spent the next few minutes teaching Zach how to sign random objects he saw in the store. Katie showed up as they were giggling over Zach’s inability to master the sign for “shoelaces.”
“Boys. You’re scaring off the other customers,” she said and signed teasingly.
She placed a gentle hand on Chris’ shoulder as she slipped passed him to retrieve Zach’s book order from the shelf behind the register. She placed the paper bag with the books on the counter before quietly leaving. Zach barely noticed as he was watching Chris write something. He took the pen from Chris’ hand and began jotting in the notebook.
What time do you leave work? Get coffee with me?
He watched as Chris’ read what he wrote, eyes blinking rapidly and then blushing furiously. For a moment, Zach’s heart stopped and he waited for Chris to respond. He nearly panicked when Chris took a small step back and shoved his hands in his pockets. With a small tilt of his head, he looked at Zach and lifted a finger, asking him to wait, before walking off to the back of the store.
Chris returned a minute later with a grey cardigan and Zach watched as he headed straight for the door. He pushed it open a bit and gestured for Zach to follow him. Without any hesitation, Zach bolted up from where he was nearly draped over the counter and started toward Chris. He stopped when Chris’s face broke out into a huge grin, pointing frantically at the books Zach had forgotten on the counter. Shaking his head, Zach backtracked and grabbed the handle of the paper bag and hurried to the door. He laughed as Chris held the door open and purposely let go just as Zach was about to walk through.
Zach maybe, just a little bit, might have considered himself a romantic then when a flutter of anticipation rose in his stomach and he briefly wondered what the sign for 'kiss' was.