The man who sat down across from Eddie Carter with eleven minutes to go was very obviously not his girlfriend.
“Anna’s gonna be running a little late, Eddo,” he said, straightening his coat. “She had some trouble picking out the right shoes and all the taxis were filled up. She’d call you, but she left her phone back in the room and she’s pretty sure that if she goes back to get it, she’ll miss all the empty taxis and by the time she gets back they’ll be full again.” He looked around, nodding. “This is a nice restaurant. Very forties art deco.”
Eddie narrowed his eyes. “Did she send you ahead to tell me?”
“No, I just know. Sort of my thing, knowing things, you know? Like how I know you’re Edward James Carter, and you were born in Murraysville, Pennsylvania, and growing up you had a best friend named Pete who fell off a grain tower and died while you watched, and how you didn’t start hitting puberty till you were fourteen and you had this secret irrational fear that you were turning into a girl.”
Eddie’s face went pale.
“Listen, man. Mister. Whatever. I don’t know who you are, or what you’re about, but I don’t like being blackmailed. It’s never happened to me before, but if that’s what you’re doing, I don’t like it.”
The stranger spread his hands affably in front of him.
“No, not at all! You’ve got it wrong. I like you. I’m just telling you these things so that when I tell you the world is going to end in ten minutes you’ll believe me.”
“The world is going to end.”
“Yeah, this one at least.” He looked at his wrist. There was no watch there. “Well, nine minutes now.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You’re going to propose tonight. You’re touching the engagement ring you got her. In your pocket. From Zales.”
The incredulous smile dropped off Eddie’s face. Of course he was. The most beautiful diamond ring he’d been able to find. All for her. And for a minute all he did was stare at the stranger. The man looked normal enough, slight facial hair covering high cheekbones and eyes that had seen a lot. He thought, I still don't believe you, but what he said was different.
“How does it end? Nuclear?”
“Nah, it ends like no way you’ve ever been told it would. Like a magic trick. There you see it, there you don’t. Only, you don’t actually get to see it after it's gone, because you go with it. I'll see it, but there’s only one of me.”
“You’re going to watch the world end.”
“Done it before. Hundreds of times. A world a day, sometimes. Today it’s yours. Nice enough, when you look around. It would be a nice one to go out in.” He leaned in, giving Eddie a believe-you-me kind of look, “There were some others, Eddo, that were begging to be put down. Horrible places.”
“Uh huh. So, you’re telling me this because I can do something about it?”
“No, no. See, I’m like the foreman on a demolition job. I come in and see that everything is in order, everything’s set to go. All paperwork, really.”
“Oh, right. So why tell anyone? I mean, if nothing can be done -”
“Well, I can’t save the place, but I can do something for someone.”
The words hung in the air, and someone near them started tapping a glass as they offered up a toast.
“You want to save me.”
The stranger edged in closer. From here, Eddie saw the toll time had taken on him. This man was deceptively old.
“Listen, I can tell you still don’t really believe me. And that’s all right. It’s important for you to keep the hope, otherwise you’d be a miserable puddle of despair right now, and neither of us wants that. What I’m trying to do here is offer you a chance to stay alive. You would replace me, do what I do. You don’t have to go down with the ship, and heck, you can stay around as long as you like. See a whole lot of interesting things, and I can finally get some rest.”
“How much time is left now?”
“And until Anna gets here?”
“Is there any way you can, I don’t know, show me?”
The man sighed and looked around the restaurant. “If that’s really how you want to play this, I can do that. But I’m only going to show you a taste, because I don’t want you to go into a seizure and make all these nice people choke on their food. You still want it?”
Eddie nodded and licked his lips. He was nervous, and a moment later when the man reached across the table and put a palm to his temple, he was nothing.
Light and dark, up and down, negative and positive, infinitesimal and infinite, none of those comparisons meant anything anymore. Eddie saw through someone else’s eyes a place that wasn't a place at all, but rather, the absence of one. It hurt to look at, but at the same time it was the most wonderful thing. Unimaginable. The closest sensation he could compare it to was staring up into the sky from the bottom of a pool, and even that was way off. A split-second might have gone by, or a hundred thousand years. Time didn’t exist when nothing could experience its passing.
And then Eddie was back in the restaurant, and there were only five minutes to go.
“Holy God.” He’d been convinced.
The man across from him gave him a knowing nod. “That was be-tween the last world and here. But it’s like that every time. I’m going to need an answer, Eddo.”
Eddie closed his eyes and thought. The world was ending and here he was being offered an escape hatch. How many people would ever get this chance? He could be a true world traveler, see things the man in front of him hadn't even dreamed of...but he’d have to watch each of them wink out of existence, and he’d have to do it alone. It was a sad thought, and for the first time Eddie looked at the stranger with veiled pity. Then there was Anna. If he left, she would die alone, wondering where he’d gone, with no one but a stranger to greet her as it all fell away. He didn’t think he could let that happen. In the end, Eddie only asked one question.
“How many other people before me have you asked to take it on? Your job?”
The stranger closed his eyes and smiled, as if he’d been expecting the question. “Tens, hundreds. I haven’t kept count.”
Eddie nodded. “I’m sorry, mister, but my answer-”
“-Is the same as theirs. Yeah. You know, I knew you wouldn’t do it.” The stranger got up, and wiped at the lapels of his coat. Eddie thought he saw a tear roll out of one of the deep eyes, but it was just as quickly gone.
The stranger looked at him wistfully, then past him.
“Eternal life just ain’t the promise it used to be. But I’ll survive.” He turned to go, then turned back. “It’s only a matter of time, you know. You’ve got three minutes, and she’s getting out of the cab right now. Make it count, Eddo.”
“Yes. Uh. Thank you.”
The stranger smiled and walked down the aisle, past the maitre’d, and out the front door. Barely a moment passed before Anna walked in, long locks of curly red hair falling over a forest green dress. She was magnificent. Eddie saw her searching for him, head darting left and right as she did it. He grinned, because at that moment he knew why he’d chosen to stay. Finally spotting him, her own face opened up into a smile, one of relief and comfort. She hurried over to his table, and slid into the space which had been occupied by the stranger only a moment before.
“Sorry I’m late, Eddie, I -”
“They look lovely, Anna.”
He was pointing at her shoes. They were dark brown, high heels with golden bows on each toe. She gave him a puzzled look. “What? Oh, yeah. You know, it was these darned shoes, that’s why I was-”
Before she could finish, Eddie was out of his seat and kneeling beside her.
“Anna Moss, I’ve waited my entire life for this moment. And now that it’s here...well, there’s just not enough time for me to say what I wanted to. Will you marry me?”
Her lips were trembling. She covered them with her hands, and her eyes were wet and shining. “Oh, Eddie. Yes, I’d love to.” He slid the ring from his pocket onto her finger and brought her into his arms. He put his lips to her ear. “If it’s you or forever, I’ll always choose you,” and though she didn’t know what he knew, Eddie was sure she could feel what he meant.
She kissed him. And like that, his lips on hers, their world ended.
The stranger watched it go, shoulders slumped, and let out a big sigh. He might have been crying, but when he turned away and began the walk between worlds, a grin began to tug at the corners of his mouth. Where Eddie Carter’s world used to be, there remained only amemory, and a rising wave of wondrous, perfect laughter.