And the scary thing is, she sounds like she means it.

“You don’t have to say it back. I know it’s soon. I just wanted you to know.”

She nuzzles against him.

“Are you sure?” he asks. “I mean, it’s only been a week.”

“So what?” she says. “When you know, you know. And I know.”

Henry swallows, kisses her temple. “I’m going to take a shower.”

He stands under the hot water as long as he can, wondering what he’s supposed to say to that, if and how he can convince Vanessa that it isn’t love, it’s just obsession, but of course, that isn’t really true, either. He made the deal. He made the terms. This is what he wanted.

Isn’t it?

He cuts the water off, wraps the towel around his waist, and smells smoke.

Not the scent of a match lighting a candle, or something boiling over on the stove, but the char-black smell of things that aren’t supposed to be on fire, and are now burning.

Henry surges out into the hall, and sees Vanessa in the kitchen, standing at the counter, a box of matches in one hand, and the cardboard box of Tabitha’s things burning in the sink.

“What are you doing?” he demands.

“You’re holding on to the past,” she says, striking another match and tossing it into the box. “Like, literally holding on. You’ve had this box as long as we’ve been together.”

“I’ve only known you a week!” he shouts, but she presses on.

“And you deserve better. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to live in the present. This is a good thing. This is closure. This is—”

He knocks the matches from her hand and pushes her aside, reaching for the tap.

The water hits the box in a sizzle, sending up a plume of smoke as it douses the flames.

“Vanessa,” he says, gritting his teeth, “I need you to go.”

“Like, home?”

“Like, go.”

“Henry,” she says, touching his arm. “What did I do wrong?”

And he could point to the smoldering remains in his kitchen sink, or the fact it’s all going way too fast, or the fact that when she looks at him, she sees someone else entirely. But instead, he just says, “It’s not you. It’s me.”

“No, it’s not,” she says, tears sliding down her face.

“I need some space, okay?”

“I’m sorry,” she sobs, clinging to him. “I’m sorry. I love you.”

Her limbs are wrapped around his waist, head buried in his side, and for a second, he thinks he might have to physically pry her off.

“Vanessa, let go.”

He guides her away, and she looks devastated, ruined. She looks the way he felt the night he made the deal, and it breaks his heart at the thought that she will walk out feeling that lost, that alone.

“I care about you,” he says, gripping her shoulders. “I care about you, I do.”

She brightens, just a little. A wilting plant fed water. “So you’re not mad?”

Of course he’s mad.

“No, I’m not mad.”

She buries her face in his front, and he strokes her hair.

“You care about me.”

“I do.” He untangles himself. “I’ll call you. I promise.”

“You promise,” she echoes as he helps her gather her things.

“I promise,” he says as he leads her down the hall, and out.

The door shuts between them, and Henry sags back against it as the smoke alarm finally begins to ring.

New York City

October 23, 2013


“Movie night!”

Robbie flings himself across Henry’s sofa like a starfish, long limbs hanging off the back and sides. Bea rolls her eyes and shoves him over. “Make room.”

Henry plucks the bag from the microwave, bouncing it from hand to hand to avoid the steam. He dumps the popcorn into the bowl.

“What’s the movie?” he asks, rounding the counter.

“The Shining.”

Henry groans. He’s never been a fan of scary movies, but Robbie loves a reason to scream, treats the whole thing like another kind of performance, and it’s his week to choose.

“It’s Halloween!” defends Robbie.

“It’s the twenty-third,” says Henry, but Robbie treats holidays the way he treats birthdays, stretching them from days into weeks, and sometimes into seasons.

“Costume roll call,” says Bea.

Dressing up, he thinks, is just like watching cartoons, something you enjoyed as a kid, before it passes through the no man’s land of teen angst, the ironic age of early twenties. And then somehow, miraculously, it crosses back into the realm of the genuine, the nostalgic. A place reserved for wonder.

Robbie strikes a pose from the sofa. “Ziggy Stardust,” he says, which makes sense. He’s spent the last several years working through Bowie’s various incarnations. Last year it was the Thin White Duke.

Bea announces she’s going as the Dread Pirate Roberts, pun intended, and Robbie reaches out and picks up a camera from Henry’s coffee table, a vintage Nikon currently playing the part of paperweight. He cranes his head back, and peers at Henry through the viewfinder upside down.

“What about you?”

Henry’s always loved Halloween—not the scary part, just the excuse to change, be someone else. Robbie says he should have just become an actor, that they get to play dress-up all year round, but the thought of living life onstage makes him queasy. He’s been Freddie Mercury, and the Mad Hatter, Tuxedo Mask, and the Joker.

But right now, he already feels like somebody else.

“I’m already in costume,” he says, gesturing at his usual black jeans, his narrow shirt. “Can’t you tell who I am?”

“Peter Parker?” ventures Bea.

“A bookseller?”

“Harry Potter having a quarter-life crisis?”

Henry laughs and shakes his head.

Bea narrows her eyes. “You haven’t picked anything yet, have you?”

“No,” he admits, “but I will.”

Robbie is still fiddling with the camera. He turns it around, purses his lips, and snaps a photo. The camera gives a hollow click. There’s no film. Bea plucks it from his hands.

“Why don’t you take more photos?” she asks. “You’re really good.”

Henry shrugs, unsure if she means it. “Maybe in another life,” he says, handing each of them a beer.

“You still could, you know,” she says. “It’s not too late.”

Maybe, but if he started now, would the photos stand on their own, judged good or bad on their own merits? Or would each and every picture carry his wish forward? Would every person see the picture they wanted to see, instead of the one he made? Would he ever trust them if they did?

The movie starts, and Robbie insists on turning out all the lights, the three of them crammed together on the couch. They force Robbie to leave the bowl of popcorn on the table so he can’t throw it at the first scary moment, so Henry doesn’t have to pick up kernels after they’re gone, and he spends the next hour averting his eyes every time the score whines in warning.