He was too many miles behind.
So he gave up. Put the cameras on the shelf with the rest of the abandoned hobbies. But something about Addie makes him want to pick one up again.
He doesn’t have a camera with him, of course, only his cell phone, but these days, that is good enough. He lifts it up, framing Addie at rest, the bookshelves rising at her back.
“It won’t work,” she says, right as Henry takes the picture. Or tries. He taps the screen, but there’s no click, no capture. He tries again, and this time the phone takes the photo, but it is a blur.
“I told you,” she says softly.
“I don’t get it,” he says. “It was so long ago. How could he have predicted film, or phones?”
Addie manages a sad smile. “It’s not the technology he tampered with. It’s me.”
Henry pictures the stranger, smiling in the dark.
He sets the phone down.
New York City
September 5, 2013
Henry wakes to the blare of morning traffic.
He winces at the sound of car horns, the sunlight streaming through the window. He reaches for the memories of last night, and for a second, comes up with nothing, a flat black slate, a cottony silence. But when he squeezes his eyes shut, the darkness cracks, gives way to a wave of pain and sadness, a medley of broken bottles and heavy rain, and a stranger in a black suit, a conversation that must have been a dream.
Henry knows that Tabitha said no—that part was real, the memory too stinging to be anything but true. That is, after all, why he started drinking. The drinking is what led him home through the rain, to rest on the stoop before going inside, and that is where the stranger—but no, that part didn’t happen.
The stranger and their conversation, that was the stuff of stories, a clear subconscious commentary, his demons played out in mental desperation.
A headache thuds dully in Henry’s skull, and he scrubs at his eyes with the back of one hand. A metal weight knocks against his cheek. He squints up and sees a dark leather band around his wrist. An elegant analog watch, with gold numerals set against an onyx ground. On its face, a single golden hand rests the barest fraction off of midnight.
Henry has never worn a watch.
The sight of it, heavy and unfamiliar on his wrist, reminds Henry of a shackle. He sits up, clawing at the clasp, consumed by the sudden fear that it is bound to him, that it won’t come off—but at the slightest pressure, the clasp comes free, and the watch tumbles onto the twisted duvet.
It lands facedown, and there, on the reverse, Henry sees two words etched in hairline script.
He scrambles out of the bed, away from the watch, stares at the timepiece as if expecting it to attack. But it just lies there, silent. His heart knocks inside his chest, so loud he can hear it, and he is back in the dark, rain dripping through his hair as the stranger smiles and holds out his hand.
But that didn’t happen.
Henry looks at his palm and sees the shallow cuts, crusted over with blood. Notices the drops of brownish red dotting the sheets. The broken bottle. That was real, then, too. But the devil’s hand in his, that was a fever dream. Pain can do that, creep from waking hours into sleep. Once, when he was nine or ten, Henry had strep throat, the pain so bad that every time he drifted off to sleep, he dreamed of swallowing hot coals, of being trapped in burning buildings, the smoke clawing down his throat. The mind, trying to make sense of suffering.
But the watch—
Henry can hear a low, rhythmic knocking as he holds it to his ear. It doesn’t make any other sound (one night, soon, he will take the thing apart, and find the body empty of cogs, empty of anything to explain the creeping forward motion).
And yet, it is solid, heavy even, in his hand. It feels real.
The knocking gets louder, and then he realizes it’s not coming from the watch at all. It’s just the solid thud of knuckles on wood, someone at his door. Henry holds his breath, waits to see if it will stop, but it doesn’t. He backs away from the watch, the bed, grabs a clean shirt from the back of a chair.
“I’m coming,” he mutters, dragging it over his head. The collar snags on his glasses, and he catches his shoulder on the doorframe, swearing softly, hoping all the way from the bedroom to the front door that the person beyond will give up, go away. They don’t, so Henry opens the door, expecting to see Bea or Robbie or maybe Helen down the hall, looking again for her cat.
But it’s his sister, Muriel.
Muriel, who has been to Henry’s place exactly twice in the last five years. And once it was because she had too much herbal tea at a lunch meeting and couldn’t make it back to Chelsea.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, but she is already brushing past him, unwinding a scarf that’s more decorative than functional.
“Does family need a reason?”
The question is clearly rhetorical.
She turns, her eyes sweeping over him, the way he imagines they sweep over exhibits, and he waits for her usual assessment, some variation of you look like shit.
Instead his sister says, “You’re looking good,” which is strange, because Muriel has never been one to lie (she “doesn’t like to encourage fallacy in a world rife with empty speech”) and a passing glance in the hall mirror is enough to confirm that Henry does, in fact, look almost as rough as he feels.
“Beatrice texted me last night when you didn’t answer your phone,” she continues. “She told me about Tabitha, and the whole no-go. I’m sorry, Hen.” Muriel hugs him, and Henry doesn’t know where to put his hands. They end up hovering in the air around her shoulders until she lets go.
“What happened? Was she cheating?” And Henry wishes the answer were yes, because the truth is worse, the truth is that he simply wasn’t interesting enough. “It doesn’t matter,” continues Muriel. “Fuck her, you deserve better.”
He almost laughs, because he can’t count how many times Muriel pointed out that Tabitha was out of his league.
She glances around at the apartment.
“Did you redecorate? It’s really cozy in here.”
Henry surveys the living room, dotted with candles and art and other remnants of Tabitha. The clutter is his. The style was hers. “No.”
His sister is still standing. Muriel never sits, never settles, never even perches.
“Well, I can see you’re fine,” she says, “but next time, answer your phone. Oh,” she adds, taking her scarf back, already halfway to the door. “Happy New Year.”
It takes him a moment to remember.
Muriel sees the confusion on his face and grins. “You would have made such a bad rabbi.”
He doesn’t disagree. Henry would normally go home—they both would—but David couldn’t get away from his hospital shift this year, so their parents had made other plans.
“Are you going to temple?” he asks now.
“No,” says Muriel. “But there’s a show uptown tonight, a kinky burlesque hybrid, and I’m pretty sure there’s going to be some fire play. I’ll light a candle on someone.”
“Mom and Dad would be so proud,” he says dryly, but in truth, he suspects they would. Muriel Strauss can do no wrong.