The last room is filled with stars.
It is a black chamber, identical to the one before it, only this time, a thousand pinprick lights break through the obscurity, carving a Milky Way close enough to touch—a majesty of constellations. And even in the almost dark, Henry can see Addie’s upturned face, the edges of her smile.
“Three hundred years,” she whispers. “And you can still find something new.”
When they step out the other side, blinking in the afternoon light, she is already pulling him on, out of the Sky and on to the next archway, the next set of doors, eager to discover whatever waits beyond.
New York City
September 19, 2013
For once, Henry is early.
Which, he figures, is better than being late, but he doesn’t want to be too early because that’s even worse, even weirder and—he needs to stop overthinking it.
He smooths his shirt, checks his hair in the side of a parked car, and goes inside.
The taqueria is bright and bustling, a concrete cavern of a place, with garage door windows and a food truck parked in the corner of the room, and it doesn’t matter if he’s early, because Vanessa is already inside.
She’s traded the barista apron for leggings and a print dress, and her blond hair, which he’s only seen pulled up, hangs in loose waves around her face, and when she sees him, she breaks into a smile.
“I’m glad you called,” she says.
And Henry smiles back. “So am I.”
They order using slips of paper and those little pencils Henry hasn’t seen since he played mini-golf one time when he was ten, fingers brushing as she points to tacos and he fills them in. Their hands touch again over the chips, legs skimming beneath the metal table, and each time it’s like a tiny burst of light inside his chest.
And for once, he isn’t talking himself in and out of every single line, isn’t chiding himself for each and every move, isn’t convincing himself that he has to say the right thing—there’s no need to find the right words when there are no wrong ones. He doesn’t have to lie, doesn’t have to try, doesn’t have to be anyone but himself, because he is enough.
The food is great, but the place is noisy, voices echoing off high ceilings, and Henry cringes when someone scrapes their chair back over the concrete floor. “Sorry,” he says. “I know it’s not fancy.”
He picked the place, knows they probably should have just gone for drinks, but it’s New York, and cocktails cost twice as much as food, and he can barely afford even this on a bookseller’s wages.
“Dude,” she says, stirring an agua fresca, “I work in a coffee shop.”
“At least you get tips.”
Vanessa feigns shock. “What, they don’t tip booksellers?”
“Not even when you recommend a good book?”
He shakes his head.
“That’s a crime,” she says. “You should put a jar on the counter.”
“What would I say?” He raps his fingers on the table. “Books feed hungry minds. Tips feed the cat?”
Vanessa laughs, sudden and bright. “You’re so funny.”
She sticks out her tongue. “Fishing for compliments, are we?”
“No,” he says. “Just curious. What do you see in me?”
Vanessa smiles, suddenly shy. “You’re … well, it sounds cheesy, but you’re exactly what I’ve been looking for.”
“And what’s that?” he asks.
If she said real, sensitive, thoughtful, he might have bought it.
But she doesn’t.
She uses words like outgoing, funny, ambitious, and the more she talks about him, the thicker the frost in her eyes, the more it spreads, until he can barely make out the color beneath. And Henry wonders how she can see, but of course, she can’t.
That’s the point.
* * *
They’re at the Merchant a week later, he and Bea and Robbie, three beers and a basket of fries between them.
“How’s Vanessa?” she asks, while Robbie looks pointedly into his drink.
“She’s fine,” says Henry.
And she is. He is. They are.
“Been seeing a lot of her.”
Henry frowns. “You’re the one who told me to get Tabitha out of my system.”
Bea holds up her hands. “I know, I know.”
“It’s new. You know how things are. She’s—”
“A carbon copy,” mumbles Robbie.
Henry turns on him. “What was that?” he asks, annoyed. “Speak up. I know they taught you how to project.”
Robbie takes a long swig of beer, looking miserable. “I’m just saying, she’s a carbon copy of Tabby. Waifish, blond—”
It’s a long-running sore point between them, the fact that Henry isn’t gay, that he’s attracted to a person first and their gender second. Robbie cringes, but doesn’t apologize.
“Besides,” says Henry. “I didn’t go after Vanessa. She picked me. She likes me.”
“Do you like her?” asks Bea.
“Of course,” he says, a little too fast. He likes her. And sure, he also likes that she likes him (the him that she sees) and there’s a Venn diagram between those two, a place where they overlap. He’s pretty sure he’s safely in the shaded zone. He’s not really using her, is he? At least, he’s not the only one being shallow—she’s using him, too, painting someone else onto the canvas of her life. And if it’s mutual, well then, it’s not his fault … is it?
“We just want you to be happy,” Bea’s saying. “After all that’s happened, just … don’t go too fast.”
But for once, he’s not the one who needs to slow down.
Henry woke up that morning to chocolate-chip pancakes and a glass of OJ, a little handwritten note on the counter beside the plate with a heart and a V. She’s slept over the last three nights, and each time, she left something behind. A blouse. A pair of shoes. A toothbrush in the holder by the sink.
His friends stare at him, pale fog still swirling through their eyes, and he knows that they care, knows they love him, knows they only want the best for him. They have to now, thanks to the deal.
“Don’t worry,” he says, sipping his beer. “I’ll take it slow.”
* * *
He’s half-asleep when he feels her run a painted nail down his back.
Weak gray light spills through the windows.
“Hm?” he says, rolling over.
Vanessa’s got her head on one hand, blond hair spilling down over the pillow, and he wonders how long she was leaning like that, waiting for him to wake up, before she finally intervened.
“I need to tell you something.” She gazes at him, eyes frosted with that milky light. He is beginning to dread that shine, the pale smoke that follows him from face to face.
“What is it?” he asks, rising onto one elbow. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just…” She breaks into a smile. “I love you.”