Mercy almost started crying harder when she thought how much easier it would be to explain everything to Mom. Women understood how messed up they were. They knew their bodies were uncontrollable vessels of perpetually battling hormones. A woman could be giddy with happiness one minute and completely devastated at the crippling power of some perceived fear the next. She could not explain everything to Dad. She couldn't tell him how she felt about Mom, about her desperation to have sex with Joel, her overwhelming feeling of failure about her music and her fear that her life was a pointless string of disappointments. Mom would have understood, let her voice her shopping list of worries and then shared a secret smoke with her and told her that life for a woman was much harder than a man could ever realize. Dad would blame himself because he was sensitive and then she'd feel even worse.

She almost surrendered. She almost told Dad that she wasn't feeling well and that she'd rather just go home and curl up in bed with a book. Spend tomorrow at the bookstore helping Pete.

The bookstore. Where she had seen that guy.

Since high school, Mercy worked a few days a week at a local bookstore called Rune Books. Pete Harwinski started the place in the eighties and managed to keep it profitable through all the publishing scares. He created an online presence to make his place known for the people who prided themselves on shopping only at privately owned shops. He'd recently added free Wi-Fi and was building a coffee bar with a few plush chairs for costumers who didn't want to buy books but liked scrolling the Internet in such ambiance. Since graduating, Mercy worked there six days a week. She'd probably end up serving coffee by the end of next week. Not very impressive for someone with a Bachelor's in Literary Theory with a minor in English Literature.

The store was never very busy except around Christmas, but Pete made enough to keep the business going and pay Mercy twelve dollars an hour. She lived at home and didn't really care about the money. She worked there because Pete was such a nice guy, a second father, really, and because she'd always loved books. She could sit in the store, breathing in the sweet intermingling aromas of new and old books and read all day long.

The small size of the store and the way the towering shelves of books obscured what dim lighting there was always intimidated newcomers. Most newbies wanted the latest bestseller from whoever, but some were on a mission to get a rare hardback copy of some novel published in the sixties or seventies.

Maybe two-dozen regulars frequented the store every few days or so on what seemed like a rotating schedule. Most were nice, some weird. She knew all their names, too, all except for the guy she had just seen in the diner. She should have recognized him immediately. He usually came into the store every three or four days an hour or so before closing. He never returned her hellos. He went right to the far end of the store, opposite the cashier counter. He never seemed to find anything to buy. Pete called him "the perpetual browser."

Mercy was reorganizing a shelf of horror paperbacks from the eighties with their flashy covers of gory monsters and blood-soaked landscapes when he caught the man peering around the corner of the bookcase at her. She asked if she could help him. His eyes did some kind of weird jiggle or something and he said no. A moment later, he was running out of the store like he had forgotten some urgent appointment.

That had been a month ago. Since then, he had been in the store but always like a ghost, hidden from view, only felt as some kind of different presence. Not threatening, exactly, but certainly strange.

He probably wanted to ask her out.

Perish the thought.