“Good. I’ve got a little notebook where I’ve been writing possibilities as they occur to me…”

Over the next few years they tried many things. They tried world travel—a compass that could take her anywhere, instantly—which just led to unhappiness and disorientation in assorted faraway locales. They tried fame and art—with a violin once won from the Devil in a fiddling contest—that propelled her to the heights of musical stardom, but the sycophants and hangers-on and embezzling accountants and obsessed fans destroyed her enjoyment of the music, and was troubled by the fact that her abilities were magical, and not the result of personal accomplishment. They tried meditation—a prayer wheel that offered insights into the structure of the universe whenever it was set spinning—but she did not find the realization of her own fundamental insignificance in the incomprehensible vastness of creation to be particularly pleasant. They tried revenges, none lethal but all unpleasant, against everyone who’d ever wronged her—an opportunity for him to get rid of various cursed objects, though she brought them all back, of course—but she didn’t have the right temperament to take real and lasting pleasure in the suffering of others.

Eventually they just started trying things at random: a ring that made her invisible, a cloak that let her transform into a bat, a whistle that let her summon winds, a seashell necklace that enabled her to swim to any depth in the sea, with no need for air or worry about pressure. That one almost worked. She stayed gone for nearly two years, but when she returned, she said the sea was full of wonders, but it was cold and dark and there was no one to talk to, essentially the Arcadian wood all over again, only with squid instead of squirrels.

There were moments of happiness, even whole intervals of happiness, but eventually the engines of her joy brought with them darker consequences that tainted even the memory of the pleasures that had gone before.

“You know,” she said, leaning over, elbows on the counter, chin in her hands, “it’s gotten so I enjoy the day before I come here more than I enjoy what comes after. Each time, you see, I think, ‘Maybe this time we’ll get it right.’”

“Ah yes. The pleasure of anticipation. Alas, I don’t know of anyone who’s figured out a way to bottle that.”

“It gets a little less potent, though, every time we fail.” She stared into her glass of tea and sighed. “I think we’re getting to the end of the line for me. It’s been years, you know. I know there are more things we can try—I got a glimpse of your storage room once, I know it goes back, all the way back, full of treasures—but I just don’t have the strength for many more disappointments. I’m beginning to think I can never be satisfied. I’ve also been feeling way too obsessive and self-centered in recent years—who am I to privilege my own happiness above all else, even if Aristotle does say it’s the only real goal? What if it’s a fundamentally delusional goal—if trying to capture perfect happiness is like trying to catch the moon in a butterfly net? Maybe I’m just aiming too high. Freud said his objective was to transform hysterical misery into common unhappiness. My unhappiness is probably pretty garden variety. I should be content with that.”

“I wouldn’t give up yet. There’s one thing we haven’t tried.” He leaned over the counter, putting his face closer to hers. He’d been thinking about this. It seemed so simple—could it possibly be the answer? Perhaps the right answers were always the simple ones.

“What’s that?” She was looking into his eyes. This was the moment, if ever there was a moment.

“True love,” he said, and leaned forward, and touched his lips to hers.

They kissed for a moment, then each pulled back, more or less simultaneously; he was, perhaps, a hair faster. They regarded one another for a long moment.

“Well. That wasn’t any good, was it?” he said.

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, but he wasn’t offended. “No. Whatever the opposite of chemistry is, that’s what we’ve got, Mr. Grinde.”

“A shame. It would have been a pretty ending, I thought.”

“I don’t know. True love cures all? It’s a little too pat and tied-up-with-a-bow for my tastes, really. But then —” she gave a modest laugh, a sound that reminded him why he’d mistakenly thought he must be in love with her —“we’ve already established that I’m difficult to please.”

“Right,” he said briskly. “Then there’s only one thing for it.” He took a deep breath. This was plan B, but in a way, it was even simpler than his true love gambit. “I’d like to announce my resignation.”

She looked startled—finally, a new expression, looking out-of-place on a face that generally seemed to expect the worst or hope for the best and nothing much in between. “You’re giving up the shop?”

“I’m giving you the shop. No, listen: you like to help people. The keeper of this shop does little else. You are bored easily and require new and interesting things to engage your interest—this shop has wonders so vast even I’ve never been able to uncover them, antiquities from every age of legend, and tangibles that will someday be the center of new mythologies. It’s impossible to be bored here. Boil all the details away and I think happiness, for you at least, is having your basic needs met, plus useful work that engages the body and mind, plus the occasional fine wine, orgasm, or fudge brownie. Don’t you see? Giving you the shop—it’s perfect.”

She shook her head. “I’d feel guilty if you left, just to make me happy. That would spoil it all.”

“Nonsense. I never much considered my own happiness, or even the concept of happiness, before I met you. My life was the shop; the shop was my life. But hearing of your exploits, even when they disappointed you, made me want to go out and experience the world, to have adventures, even if they are, as you say, periods of discomfort and inconvenience punctuated by too-few-and-far-between moments of joy. I’ll leave gladly. Is that your only objection?”

“Almost. But you forget—I’m a social creature, too. Too much time alone and I vanish into my own head. The shop is a wonderful place, but spending all my time behind the counter, by myself… I’d be miserable.”

“Hmm,” he said, thinking, I know you so well, pleased with how she’d led him exactly where he wanted to go. “There’s another possibility. There are, after all, other sorts of partnerships, besides the romantic.”

She cocked her head. “You mean…”

“Go into business with me. The shop is big enough that we wouldn’t get under one another’s feet, but small enough that we could always find each other if we wanted company. With two of us here, we could even take turns going out into the world from time to time, to bring back new acquisitions, or just to…I don’t know…see films. Ride ferris wheels. What have you.”

Ms. Stuart ran her finger in little swirling designs on the surface of the display case, brow knit up fiercely. “It’s…an appealing idea. Truly. But what if it doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t make us happy?”

“Eunie,” he said. “If there’s one thing you’ve learned by now, I’m sure, it’s that if one approach fails, you can always try another.”

“It would be sort of ironic if the only way I could successfully buy happiness…”

“Was by selling it to others?” Martin smiled. “Indeed. Do you accept, then? A partnership?”

She took a breath, stepped back, walked around to the far end of the counter, and stepped behind it with him. Together, side by side, they gazed toward the front door of Antiquities and Tangibles, where the delicate bell over the door just waited for someone to come along and make it sing out. “We’ll give it a try,” she said.

He linked his arm with hers. “I think this might be the happiest day of my life. How about you?”

“Time will tell,” she said. 

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