It is the kind of place that takes years to visit, and still there always seems to be another alley, another set of steps, another door.
Perhaps that’s why she hasn’t noticed it before.
Set off from the curb, and down a short flight of steps, there is a shop half-hidden by the line of the street. The awning was clearly once purple, but has long faded toward gray, though the shop’s name is still legible, picked out in white lettering.
The Last Word.
A used bookstore, judging by the name, and the windows brimming with stacked spines. Addie’s pulse thrills a little. She was certain she’d found them all. But that is the brilliant thing about New York. Addie has wandered a fair portion of the five boroughs, and still the city has its secrets, some tucked in corners—basement bars, speakeasies, members-only clubs—and others sitting in plain sight. Like Easter eggs in a movie, the ones you don’t notice until the second or third viewing. And not like Easter eggs at all, because no matter how many times she walks these blocks, no matter how many hours, or days, or years she spends learning the contours of New York, as soon as she turns her back it seems to shift again, reassemble. Buildings go up and come down, businesses open and close, people arrive and depart and the deck shuffles itself again and again and again.
Of course, she goes in.
A faint bell announces her arrival, the sound quickly smothered by the crush of books in various conditions. Some bookstores are organized, more gallery than shop. Some are sterile, reserved for only the new and untouched.
But not this one.
This shop is a labyrinth of stacks and shelves, texts stacked two, even three deep, leather beside paper beside board. Her favorite kind of store, one that’s easy to get lost in.
There is a checkout counter by the door, but it is empty, and she wanders, unmolested, through the aisles, picking her way along the well-loved shelves. The bookshop seems fairly empty, save for an older white man studying a row of thrillers, a gorgeous Black girl sitting cross-legged in a leather chair at the end of a row, silver shining on her fingers and in her ears, a giant art book open in her lap.
Addie wanders past a placard marked POETRY, and the darkness whispers against her skin. Teeth skimming like a blade along a bare shoulder.
Come live with me and be my love.
Addie’s refrain, worn smooth with repetition.
You do not know what love is.
She doesn’t stop, but turns the corner, fingers trailing now along THEOLOGY. She has read the Bible, the Upanishads, the Quran, after a spiritual bender of sorts a century ago. She passes Shakespeare, too, a religion all his own.
She pauses at MEMOIR, studying the titles on the spines, so many I’s and Me’s and My’s, possessive words for possessive lives. What a luxury, to tell one’s story. To be read, remembered.
Something knocks against Addie’s elbow, and she looks down to see a pair of amber eyes peering over her sleeve, surrounded by a mass of orange fur. The cat looks as old as the book in her hand. It opens its mouth, and lets out something between a yawn and a meow, a hollow, whistling sound.
“Hello.” She scratches the cat between the ears, eliciting a low rumble of pleasure.
“Wow,” says a male voice behind her. “Book doesn’t usually bother with people.”
Addie turns, about to comment on the cat’s name, but loses her train of thought when she sees him, because for a moment, only a moment, before the face comes into focus, she is certain it is—
But it is not him.
Of course it is not.
The boy’s hair, though black, falls in loose curls around his face, and his eyes, behind their thick-frame glasses, are closer to gray than green. There is something fragile to them, more like glass than stone, and when he speaks, his voice is gentle, warm, undeniably human. “Help you find anything?”
Addie shakes her head. “No,” she says, clearing her throat. “Just browsing.”
“Well then,” he says with a smile. “Carry on.”
She watches him go, black curls vanishing into the maze of titles, before dragging her gaze back to the cat.
But the cat is gone, too.
Addie returns the memoir to the shelf and continues browsing, attention wandering over ART and WORLD HISTORY, all the while waiting for the boy to reappear, to start the cycle over, wondering what she’ll say when he does. She should have asked for help, let him lead her through the shelves—but he doesn’t come back.
The shop bell chimes again, announcing a new customer as Addie reaches the Classics. Beowulf. Antigone. The Odyssey. There are a dozen versions of this last, and she’s just drawing one out when there’s a sudden burst of laughter, high and light, and she glances through a gap in the shelves and sees a blond girl leaning on the counter. The boy stands on the other side, cleaning his glasses on the edge of his shirt.
He bows his head, dark lashes skimming his cheeks.
He isn’t even looking at the girl, who’s rising on her toes to get closer to him. She reaches out and runs one hand along his sleeve the way Addie just did along the shelves, and he smiles, then, a quiet, bashful grin that erases the last of his resemblance to the dark.
Addie tucks the book under her arm and heads for the door, and out, taking advantage of his distraction.
“Hey!” calls a voice—his voice—but she continues up the steps onto the street. In a moment, he will forget. In a moment, his mind will trail off, and he’ll—
A hand lands on her shoulder.
“You have to pay for that.”
She turns, and there’s the boy from the shop, a little breathless, and very annoyed. Her eyes flick past him to the steps, the open door. It must have been ajar. He must have been right behind her. But still. He followed her out.
“Well?” he demands, hand dropping from her shoulder and coming to rest, palm open, in the space between them. She could run, of course, but it’s not worth it. She checks the cost on the back of the book. It isn’t much, but it’s more than she has on her.
“Sorry,” she says, handing it back.
He frowns, then, a furrow too deep for his face. The kind of line carved by years of repetition, even though he can’t be more than thirty. He looks down at the book, and a dark brow lifts behind his glasses.
“A shop full of antique books, and you steal a battered paperback of The Odyssey? You know this won’t fetch anything, right?”
Addie holds his gaze. “Who says I wanted to resell it?”
“It’s also in Greek.”
That, she hadn’t noticed. Not that it matters. She learned the classics in Latin first, but in the decades since, she’s picked up Greek.
“Silly me,” she says dryly, “I should have stolen it in English.”
He almost—almost—smiles, then, but it’s a bemused, misshapen thing. Instead, he shakes his head. “Just take it,” he says, holding out the book. “I think the shop can spare it.”
She has to fight the sudden urge to push it back.
The gesture feels too much like charity.
“Henry!” calls the pretty Black girl from the doorway. “Should I call the cops?”
“No,” he calls back, still looking at Addie. “It’s fine.” He narrows his eyes, as if studying her. “Honest mistake.”
She stares at this boy—at Henry. Then she reaches out and takes back the book, cradling it against her as the bookseller vanishes back into the shop.