“Oh. And the best thing, the very best thing of all is there’s time now,” he says, gazing happily down at the destroyed clock.
“There’s all the time I need and all the time I want. Time, time, time.” He claps his hands together and sighs. “Ah, there’s time enough at last.”
And that’s when the world shatters.
Well, more accurately, his glasses shatter, but what difference does it make? He’s all alone in the world, with limitless time and limitless books and no way to read them. It’s not fair- it’s not fair at all. There was time now. All the time he needed, wasted because of a few shards of broken glass.
But Henry Beemis is used to miserable and unbearable circumstances, so he does what he’s done for his entire life- he survives. With blurry reference points and his hands stretched out in front of him he finds food and bottled water that he’d set aside earlier. When it rains, he drags his couch and blankets under the roof of one of the few surviving buildings. He thinks back to the books, carefully stacked and organized in the remains of the library, and remembers checking the roof for leaks and finding none. He might not be able to read them anymore, but he’s glad they’re safe.
And that becomes his life. He wakes up and eats breakfast, squinting at the cans to try to figure out their contents. He folds his blanket and readjusts his cushions, and then he explores. He might not be able to see much other than basic shapes and colors, but he’s adjusting. He doesn’t return to the library.
He still puts his glasses on every morning, out of habit if nothing else. This morning, though, they’ve been knocked out of their usual position, balanced on the back of the couch. He crawls around on his hands and knees until he feels their familiar shape in his hand, and then gingerly places them on his nose.
And he can see.
Not very well- these aren’t anywhere near as strong as his prescription -but still. Well enough to realize that this whole time he’s been living inside of an optometrist's display room.
He spends the rest of the day trying on glasses. The display shelves fell down in the explosion, and most of them are cracked or broken, but only a few of them are completely shattered. He can’t find his exact prescription, and anything more than a few feet away is still blurry around the edges, but none of that matters. He can see.
He goes back to the library then, and he sometimes still can’t make out the words on the pages, but this time it’s because his eyes are cloudy with tears. He reads day in and day out, stopping occasionally for food or water or to clasp the books to his chest and weep with happiness and gratitude. For the first time in his life, he is happy.
Days turn into weeks, which turn into months, which eventually turn into years. Henry’s routine grows stale, and the silence around him begins to feel claustrophobic. He doesn’t miss Helen, or his boss, or even most of his coworkers, but he finds himself thinking fondly of other people he knew- the woman who ran the local bakery, or the bus driver he used to see every morning on his way to work.
As loathe as he is to admit it, Henry is lonely.
He begins to read about nuclear weapons, first out morbid fascination, and later out of a compulsion to prove to himself that the world hasn’t ended. Humans might be doomed to extinction, but the planet will eventually be okay. He learns about blast radiuses and nuclear winters. He learns about small, isolated islands, far enough away from the rest of the world that they might have survived. He learns about nuclear fallout and radiation poisoning. He learns that there might be reasons why he feels sick all the time, besides a diet of canned food.
When he finishes reading the entire contents of the library for the second time, he packs up his favorite books and heads towards the coast, to larger cities with larger libraries.
Every city he visits has the same smashed landscape- the same burned wreckage from buildings, the same grocery stores with canned goods that Henry has to salvage from the rubble. Sometimes parts of the libraries are left intact, and sometimes they’ve been completely destroyed. He’s stopped reading books on radiation- now he learns languages and navigation techniques. He reads every manual he can find on ship maintenance and survival skills. He finds a sailboat, large and sturdy enough for the ocean, and in good enough shape for him to be able to repair it. He packs and unpacks and packs again, trying to fit as many books as possible.
And that spring, nearly six years to the day since the fatal disaster that changed the course of his life, Henry Beemis sets sail for Easter Island.