As Bea talks about mirrored chambers and glass domes full of stars, sugar clouds, the plume from pillow fights, and murals made of a thousand strangers’ notes, Addie brightens, and Henry thinks it must be hard to surprise a girl who’s lived three hundred years.

So when she turns to him, eyes bright, and says, “We have to go,” there’s nothing he’d rather do. There is, of course, the matter of the store, the fact he is the sole employee, and there are still four hours until closing. But he has an idea.

Henry grabs a bookmark, the store’s only piece of merchandise, and begins writing on the back side. “Hey Bea,” he says, pushing the makeshift card across the counter. “Can you close up?”

“I have a life,” she says, but then she looks down at Henry’s tight and slanting script.

The Library of The Last Word.

Bea smiles, and pockets the card.

“Have fun,” she says, waving them out.

New York City

September 5, 2013


Sometimes Henry wishes he had a cat.

He supposes he could just adopt Book, but the tabby feels indivisible from The Last Word, and he can’t shake the superstitious belief that if he tried to extricate the ancient cat from the secondhand shop, it would turn to dust before he got it home.

Which is, he knows, a morbid way of thinking about people and places, or in this case pets and places, but it’s dusk, and he drank a little too much whisky, and Bea had to go teach a class and Robbie had a friend’s show, so he’s alone again, heading back to an empty apartment, wishing he had a cat or something waiting for him to come home.

He tests out the phrase as he walks in.

“Hi, kitty, I’m home,” he says, before realizing that it makes him a twenty-eight-year-old bachelor talking to an imaginary pet, and that feels infinitely worse.

He grabs a beer from the fridge, stares down at the bottle opener, and realizes it belongs to Tabitha. A pink and green thing in the shape of a lucha libre from a trip she took to Mexico City last month. He tosses it aside, opens a kitchen drawer looking for another, and finds a wooden spoon, a dance company magnet, a handful of ridiculous bendy straws, looks around, then, sees a dozen more things strewn around the apartment, all of them hers. He digs up a box of books and turns them out, begins filling it again with photographs, notecards, paperbacks, a pair of ballet flats, a mug, a bracelet, a hairbrush, a photograph.

He finishes the first beer, opens a second on the edge of the counter, and keeps going, moving from room to room, less a methodic procession than a lost wander. An hour later, the box is only half-full, but Henry’s losing steam. He doesn’t want to do this anymore, doesn’t even want to be there, in an apartment that somehow feels both empty and cluttered. There’s too much space to think. There’s not enough to breathe.

Henry sits between the empty beer bottles and the half-filled box for several minutes, knee bouncing, and then surges to his feet, and goes out.

* * *

The Merchant is busy.

It always is—one of those neighborhood bars whose success owes more to its sheer proximity than to the quality of its drinks. A local institution. Most of the people who frequent the Merchant refer to it simply as “the bar.”

Henry weaves through the crowd, grabs a stool at the edge of the counter, hoping the ambient noise of the place will make him feel a little less alone.

Mark’s on shift tonight, a fifty-something with gray sideburns and a catalog smile. It normally takes a good ten minutes to flag him down, but tonight, the bartender comes straight to him, ignoring the queue. Henry orders tequila, and Mark comes back with a bottle and a pair of shots.

“On the house,” he says, pouring himself a matching glass.

Henry manages a wan smile. “Do I look that rough?”

But there’s no pity in Mark’s gaze, only a strange and subtle light.

“You look great,” he says, just like Muriel, and it’s the first time he’s said more than a single line, his answers usually limited to drink orders and nods.

Their glasses knock together, and Henry orders a second, and a third. He knows he is drinking too much too fast, piling liquor on top of the beers from home, the whisky he’d poured at work.

A girl comes up to the bar, and glances at Henry.

She looks away, and then back again, as if seeing him for the first time. And there it is again, that shine, a film of light over her eyes as she leans in, and he can’t seem to catch her name, but it doesn’t matter.

They do their best to talk over the noise, her hand resting at first on his forearm, then his shoulder, before sliding through his hair.

“Come home with me,” she says, and he’s so caught by the longing in her voice, the open want. But then her friends come along and peel her away, their own eyes shining as they say Sorry, say You’re such a good guy, say Have a great night.

Henry slides off the stool and heads for the bathroom, and this time, he can feel the ripple, the heads turning toward him.

A guy catches his arm and says something about a photography project, how he’d be a perfect fit, before sliding him his card.

Two women try to draw him into the circle of their conversation.

“I wish I had a son like you,” says one.

“Son?” says the other with a raucous laugh as he twists free, escapes down the hall and into the toilets.

Braces himself against the counter.

He has no idea what’s happening.

He thinks back to the coffee shop that morning, Vanessa’s number on the bottom of the cup. To the customers in the store, all so eager for his help. To Muriel, who told him he looked well. To the pale fog, like candle smoke, in all of their eyes.

He looks down at the watch on his wrist, glinting in the bathroom light, and for the first time, he’s certain that it’s real.

That the man in the rain was real.

The deal was real.


He looks up and sees a guy, glassy eyed and smiling at Henry like they are the best of friends.

“You look like you could use a bump.”

He holds out a little glass jar, and Henry stares at the tiny column of powder inside.

He was twelve the first time he got high.

Someone handed him a joint behind the bleachers, and the smoke burned his lungs, and he almost threw up, but then everything went a little … soft. Weed made space in his skull, eased the nervous terror in his heart. But he couldn’t control the places it took his head. Valium and Xanax were better, dulling everything at once, but he’s always stayed away from the harder stuff, out of fear—not the fear that something would go wrong. Just the opposite: the fear it would feel right. The fear of the slip, the slide, of knowing he wouldn’t be strong enough to stop.

It’s never been the high he craved, anyway, not exactly.

It’s just the quiet.

That happy side effect.

He tried to be better, for Tabitha.

But Tabitha’s gone, and it doesn’t matter, anyway.

Not anymore.

Now Henry just wants to feel good.

He taps the powder onto his thumb, has no idea if he’s doing it right, but he inhales, and it hits like a sudden, jolting cold, and then—the world opens. The details clear, the colors brighten, and somehow everything gets sharp and fuzzy at the same time.