After hello, p.5
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       After Hello, p.5

           Lisa Mangum
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  “Can’t talk. Eating,” I said. I hadn’t realized exactly how hungry I’d been until we’d walked through the doors of 24 Frames and I’d been hit with the warm, comforting aroma of grilled hamburgers and French fries.

  The bistro was small and unassuming. I would have walked right past it if Sam hadn’t led me directly to the door. A dozen or so tables filled the main floor, and a small bar had been wedged into one corner, a handful of dark wine bottles scattered among the jewel-toned liquids on the back shelf.

  What made me instantly fall in love with the place, though, was the back wall. Painted black from floor to ceiling, the wall held a single row of twenty-four identically framed, black-and-white pictures.

  At first glance, the pictures all seemed to be of the same image: a man caught in mid-stride, walking left to right, one leg extended, one leg bent, his arms frozen in mid-swing. But after the hostess sat Sam and me at our table, I was able to get a closer look.

  I leaned back in my chair so I could see the entire row of images. Now I could see the subtle differences from one picture to the next. The rise and fall of his foot, the extension on his arms, the tilt of his head. I ran my eyes fast over the entire row of pictures, delighted by what I saw. What had once been a series of static images now flickered to life.

  “He’s walking,” I said.

  Sam smiled, glancing up at the wall. “Persistence of vision,” he said. “It’s what makes movies work. The pictures go by so fast, you don’t notice the spaces in between, and your brain fills in the missing information.”

  The framed pictures were obviously photographs and not stills from a movie, but even so, I appreciated the sprocket holes painted above and below each image.

  Taken together, the artwork was the perfect blend of film and photography, motion and stillness.

  Just looking at it made the artist in me happy.

  I reached for my camera on the table and snapped a picture of the back wall. Sam leaned out of the way, but not quite fast enough. I caught the side of his face and the top of one shoulder in the image as well. He was blurry, pale as a ghost against the black wall.

  My thumb hovered over the erase option on my menu, but the more I looked at the picture, the more I liked it. It shouldn’t have worked, but the balance of the ordered row of images next to the smeared blur of Sam was pleasing in an offbeat way.

  “Did you miss me?” he asked, straightening in his chair.

  “Don’t worry, I got the shot.” I turned off the camera, automatically saving the picture.

  Then our food arrived, and for the next twenty minutes I was lost in a haze of deliciousness. Hamburger, fries, soda. The holy trinity of lunch.

  Sam had ordered the same thing, only without lettuce on his hamburger.

  I raised my eyebrow in a question.

  “Lettuce has no taste. It’s like a bad stage magician of the food world. No style, less substance.”

  I laughed. “But it provides texture—a nice crunch. Sometimes that’s enough to make a difference.”

  “Not to me,” he said.

  “So, no texture in your life? You like everything exactly the same?”

  “Nothing is exactly the same.”

  “Explain,” I invited, crunching down through another bite of bun, lettuce, tomato, and hamburger. I finally understood why gluttony was such a popular sin.

  Sam shrugged. “Everything’s different.” He pushed his fork to the center of the table and dragged mine into place next to it. “These look the same. They were made by the same manufacturer. They might have even come from the same box of utensils. But they’re not the same. This one has a scratch on the handle. That one has a nick in the tine.” He lined up the forks like they were soldiers awaiting orders. “They’ve been through the wash enough times that they’ve changed. They’ve been shaped by the hands that have used them, held them. They are different.”

  “But they’re still fundamentally forks. You can still use them—even with a scratch on the handle.” I reached for the fork on the left and speared two fries with it. I took a bite and grinned in pleasure.

  Sam laughed. “Practical. I like that.”

  The warmth that filled my mouth had nothing to do with lunch and everything to do with the blush rising up my neck.

  His brown eyes met mine, and he tilted his head, filing away another flash of information. I knew I should have been embarrassed at having been caught with my emotions all over my face, but I wasn’t. I liked the open honesty I saw in his eyes.

  I also liked the comfortableness that surrounded me and filled me. Here, sitting across from a new friend in a small, cozy, crowded bistro on a side street of one of the largest cities in the world, I felt at home. Which was strange, since I often didn’t even feel at home when I was at home.

  Sam tapped his fingers on the table in an idle rhythm, but I could tell it wasn’t the tempo of impatience. He was as comfortable here as I was.

  I took the last bite of lunch, closing my eyes to better savor the taste. Wiping my mouth with the napkin, I leaned back in my chair and sighed.

  “Now I’m ready to talk,” I said.

  Sam’s fingers quickened into a drumroll, and he lifted his eyebrows in expectation.

  “No fanfare, please. This is serious.”

  He flattened his hand on the table, cutting off the sound. “Piper,” he said with a nod.

  “Piper,” I repeated. Just the memory of her made my insides quake.

  “She wasn’t happy to see you, was she?”

  “I don’t think she’s happy about anything.”

  “You gave her the book?”

  I nodded. “And she gave me this.” I reached for the rolled-up, autographed photo that I’d set on one of the extra chairs at the table. I smoothed it out and held it up like it was a piece of evidence.

  “A head shot? Classy.”

  “There’s more.” I placed the photograph facedown on the wooden tabletop, pinning the corners with my glass, the salt and pepper shakers, and the edge of Sam’s plate. Words covered the back of the photo, filling the top third of the space, the letters scrawled and slanted. It looked like a crazy person had written it. Which, I reflected, I might have been at the time.

  Sam slipped into the empty chair next to me, leaning forward and angling his head so he could read what I had written.

  “‘Original but familiar. A fresh look at something ethereal. Signed one-of-a-kind. No fakes. Nothing pedestrian. Unexpected and bold. Needs to be emotionally moving. Inspiring but not sappy. Must match décor.’” Sam scrunched up his forehead. “I don’t understand. What is this?”

  I set my elbow on the table and leaned my head against my hand. “Piper’s latest request. Well, demand is more like it.”

  “Are you supposed to give this list to Paul?” Sam ran his fingertips over the words like they were written in Braille.

  I shook my head. I pointed to my chest. “She told me I had to do this for her. Just me.”

  “Why you?”

  “Well, I may have, um, unintentionally made her mad. I think she wants me to do this for her as some kind of payback.”

  “It doesn’t take much to make Piper mad,” Sam observed, picking a stray fry off his plate. “But I wouldn’t worry about it. She thinks you’re Samantha who works at the bookstore. You’re not and you don’t.” He shrugged. “You don’t have to find anything for her. Trust me, she’ll get over it, and you’ll have a great story to tell your friends back home.”

  I hesitated. “There’s more.”

  He lifted an eyebrow.

  “It’s about Paul.”

  He lifted his other eyebrow.

  “She, um, she said that if I didn’t agree to find this for her today, she was . . . she was going to fire Paul.”

  Sam blew his breath out slowly in understanding, the air ruffling the brown hair hanging over his eyes. “And so you said yes.”

  “I had to. If I’d blown her off and called her a psycho—which I was seriousl
y tempted to do—then she would have fired Paul when he got back with Bootsie.”

  Sam looked at me for a long moment. “You don’t even know Paul,” he said quietly, a touch of wonder in his voice.

  I shrugged. “He said he was already on thin ice with her. And if she fired him, then you’d lose your job too. I didn’t want to risk it.”

  “Then, on behalf of both of us, I’m glad you said yes.” He tapped his finger on the words spread between us. “But you don’t have to do this, you know. This isn’t your problem. This is just some crazy request from some crazy celebrity. Let me handle this, and you can walk away, free and clear.”

  I bit my lip. My once-delicious lunch sat in my stomach like a rock. “I can’t just walk away. I told Piper I would do it, and I’m not a liar.”

  “It’s not your responsibility.”

  “I know. But I have to at least try. Besides, I’m afraid that if I don’t bring her back what she wants, she’s going to fire him anyway.”

  “Piper isn’t going to fire my brother; she relies on him too much.”

  “Are you sure about that?”

  Sam’s silence stretched past confidence and into uncertainty.

  He looked over the list of requirements again. “So what is it she wants, exactly?”

  “Artwork. Something that she can hang over her fireplace.”

  “A one-of-a-kind?”

  “Signed.” I tapped the paper and exhaled in frustration. “I don’t have the kind of money it’ll take to buy a signed, one-of-a-kind piece of artwork that is inspirational and moving and original and fresh.” I leaned back in my chair. “I barely have enough money to cover lunch.”

  Sam waved his hand, his attention still on Piper’s list. “Don’t worry about lunch.”

  “I can’t let you pay—”

  “We had a deal,” he reminded me. “Lunch is on me.”

  “The deal was Vanessa’s story in exchange for lunch. You never finished the story.”

  Sam pushed aside the salt and pepper shakers and flipped over Piper’s photo. “This is the better trade. I’ll tell you Vanessa’s story over dinner.”

  My heart lifted in hope. “And what makes you think we’ll be having dinner together?”

  Sam rolled up the photo and handed it back to me. “Because a job like this will take all day.” He signaled the waitress to bring the bill. “And because you’ll need my help.”

  Chapter 10


  Help? The word felt slippery in his mouth. Why had he offered to help? He should have just said he would do it alone. He worked alone. He liked working alone. Alone didn’t invite complications. Alone meant no one got hurt. He shut down that thought before it could take root and refocused his attention on Sara.

  It didn’t matter what he thought or felt. Sara needed his help. Paul needed his help. That was all there was to it.

  She was looking at him through squinted eyes as though, if she concentrated hard enough, she could bring him into focus.

  “Relax,” he said, trying to take his own advice. “I’m sure we can find something for Piper before she does anything drastic.”

  Jess stopped by the table, her hair pulled back, a pen holding the bun in place. Her name tag was pinned crookedly below the 24 Frames logo embroidered on her white shirt. “How was everything?” she asked, setting down a black folder next to Sam’s plate.

  “Wonderful, as usual,” Sam said. He fished out a few crumpled bills from his bag and tucked them into the folder. Then he reached out and swiped two pink sugar packets from the square black container on the table. “I’m taking two, okay?”

  “Two?” Jess’s eyebrows rose, and she clucked her tongue in mock disapproval. “I don’t think I can let you do that. Especially since you never made good on your bet from last time.”

  Sam grinned and dropped the packets into his bag. “When have I ever let you down, Jess?” He withdrew a small, white envelope and handed it over.

  Sara leaned forward, a line of curiosity wrinkling her forehead. “What is it?”

  Jess caught her breath, holding the envelope in both hands as though it were made of gold and lined with diamonds. “You didn’t.”

  “I did,” Sam said, leaning back. His grin was effortless.

  “How in the world—” Jess shook her head. “No, I know better than to ask.”

  Sara looked from Sam to Jess. “Open it!” she said as eagerly as a kid at Christmas.

  Jess laughed and jerked her head toward Sara. “Where did you find this one?”

  “She found me,” Sam said quietly. “But she’s right. You should open it.”

  With slightly trembling fingers, Jess lifted the flap of the envelope and withdrew a slim, white rectangle. Her mouth opened, but no words came out, just a soft exhalation of joy.

  “What is it?” Sara asked again, her voice reverent.

  “A front-row ticket to The Glass Menagerie. There’s a revival of it on Broadway, but tickets have been sold out for months. It’s my favorite play.” She looked at Sam with tears in her eyes. “I can’t take this. It must have cost you a fortune.”

  Sam shrugged. “Just the cost of a sugar packet, really.” He stood up and slung his bag over his shoulder. He leaned toward Jess and brushed a kiss to her cheek. “Check the envelope. I think you missed something.”

  She looked down and withdrew a second ticket. Her gasp was loud in the small bistro. She threw her arms around Sam’s neck and pulled him close.

  He gently untangled himself and stepped back. “I couldn’t send you to the play alone, could I? You should take Donovan.” Sam looked over at Sara. Her eyes were wide, a sparkle of light glinting beneath the green.

  Jess brushed her wrist across her cheek and made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a cry. She grabbed the black box from the table and dumped the contents into Sam’s bag. “I hope you find something good,” she said with a smile.

  “I always do,” Sam said.

  Another customer waved for Jess’s attention, and she carefully stashed the tickets in her apron pocket, gave Sam one last hug, and then hurried back to her tables.

  Sam held the door for Sara and they stepped back into the bustling flow of people. He took a deep breath, noting the layered scents he’d come to love: a deep undertone of exhaust, the light organic scent of people and sour trash, and the high acrid zing of electricity dancing along the top.

  “Are you sure you want to do this? You can still walk away, you know. I’m sure Piper won’t care if I’m the one to bring her back what she wants. And, as you pointed out, if Paul gets the ax, so do I.” He flicked his lips upward in a smile. “And since I happen to like my job, I have way more at stake than you do.”

  “I told you before—I’m not walking away.”

  “Why not? This is so clearly not your problem.”

  She looked down at her feet. “Maybe not, but I still feel responsible.” She swallowed. “I know I don’t have to do this for Piper, but if I don’t, then, on some level, I feel like she’ll be disappointed in me. And I hate that. I know that probably makes me sound crazy, but I just . . . I just don’t want it to be my fault. Especially when I could have done something to prevent it.” She shook her head, her hair shivering over her shoulders. “I don’t expect you to understand.”

  A point of cold threaded its way through Sam’s belly, reaching up through his chest. He swallowed hard, forcing his thoughts to stay still even as his body continued to move forward.

  “You don’t sound crazy,” he said, grateful that his voice didn’t break.

  “Really? Because I kind of feel crazy.”

  He shrugged, the cold fading deeper into his bones to the point where he could almost ignore it. “That’s New York for you. This city inspires its own kind of crazy.”

  She laughed, light and clear. “I like it, though. So, do you think we can do this? Can we find what we need and save your job? Together?”

  He smiled. “Count me in, partner.”

bsp; A matching smile appeared on her face as fast and as bright as lightning before she tucked it away. But the glow remained in her eyes. “In that case, partner, do you have a plan for how we can find whatever it is that will make Piper happy?” she asked.

  “I don’t know of anything that will make Piper truly happy, but I think I know where we should start looking.”

  “Where’s that?”

  “St. John’s Cathedral.”

  “Are you saying we’re going to need a miracle?” she said, a hint of teasing in her voice. “Divine intervention?”

  “Not exactly.” He grinned. “Though it couldn’t hurt. C’mon. It’s not far.”

  They paused at the corner as a large red double-decker bus barreled past, the tourists on the top deck snapping pictures right and left. Sam shook his head. The pictures would probably all turn out blurry, but that was tourists for you. Too busy to stop and actually see the sights.

  Sara reached for her camera and aimed it after the departing bus.

  “What?” she said, a little defensively. “I liked the color.”

  “I didn’t say anything.” Sam held up his hands.

  After they had crossed the street, Sara stashed her camera back in her shoulder bag. “So that thing with Jess—what was that all about?”

  “It’s what I do,” he said, lifting one shoulder and one side of his mouth.

  She shook her head. “You help strangers with impossible tasks?”

  “I help friends with adventures.”



  She hesitated, looking back toward the front façade of 24 Frames. “Am I in an adventure, then?” she asked. She ran her fingers through her hair, pulling the strands into a smooth column and then brushing the entire thing over her shoulder. He wondered if she knew what that did to the line of her neck.

  “At the risk of sounding like a motivational poster, life is an adventure.”

  “And the price of an adventure is a sugar packet? What’s the story behind that?”

  Sam’s half smile grew. “A few months ago, I told Jess I could get anything I wanted, and usually for less than the marked price. She didn’t believe me, so I explained that it was all about trading.”

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