For most of the year, Diner 66 is frequented almost entirely by regulars. It’s in the early fall that the reporter first shows up, the last week of September, just as the leaves begin to turn and the early-bird tourists infiltrate the restaurant on their way north. That’s probably why no one pays him any mind. He seems to float in on the breeze with the others. The out-of-towners don’t know the regulars from the tourists, and the regulars merely assumed he’d leave with the rest of the flock, but he continues to frequent their establishment into late October.
He’s impeccably dressed in his tan trench coat and black leather gloves, the fedora atop his head and the spiral notepad in hand like a journalist from a black-and-white movie of days past. The fifties themed diner seems to swallow him up that way. His outdated dress and odd mannerisms make the locals feel more out of place than he seems to be, despite his anomalous presence.
After most of the through traffic has made its way north and back south again, Clay, like the rest of the locals who frequent Diner 66, can’t help but take notice of him. He spends long hours hopping from table to table, countertop stool to window seat. He always spends money–powdered donuts and vanilla cappuccinos, or bear claws and hot chocolate–and he tips well. Well enough, anyway, for the staff to turn a blind eye to his constantly pestering the customers, though they have a tendency to play along with his often absurd interview questions regardless.
It’s not that Clay has any particular interest in eavesdropping, but it’s hard not to pick up the man’s smooth, unfamiliar voice, like the low hum of a cello cutting through the clanking dishes and quiet laughter of the other patrons’ conversations. Even his stride sets him apart. His movements are fluid and conducted with unusual gaiety as he slides into the burgundy faux-leather booth near the door. There’s something about it that bugs Clay. The man always seems like he’s half-a-second from erupting into emasculating giggles.
“We’ll start with an easy one, shall we?” The reporter asks the woman across from him with a wide smile, pen poised over his notepad. “Would you rather take a trip to the beach, or go skiing?”
“Oh, the beach, definitely,” Cindy Hoffman replies instantly, smoothing her hair back in a way that reminds Clay of a preening bird. “I hate being stuck in the cold all winter.”
He hums sympathetically, his attention undivided as he scribbles detailed notes. When he seems satisfied with the transcription, he turns to Cindy’s husband, his eyes briefly flitting to the uneaten donut on his plate.
“I suppose a more difficult question is in order, then. If you don’t mind, sir?”
“Not at all.” Carl sounds just as pleased to be considered important enough for the article.
“Excellent! Well, then, let’s see here… would you rather save a loved one’s life from cancer, or win the lottery?”
Carl catches Cindy’s look, but he still asks, “Which loved one?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Oh, no contest, then.” Carl forcefully slaps a meaty palm down on the table, rattling the silverware. “The first one.”
“Interesting. Yes, good choice, I should think…”
Clay, watching discreetly from the breakfast bar, can’t help but roll his eyes. Everyone is completely infatuated with the man. It’s part of the dilemma of living in a small town like this one–everyone’s starved for attention. There’s never been anything or anyone in North Park worth making the papers until he showed up. Now, everyone seems to be of the utmost interest and all too happy to oblige this stranger’s odd solicitations, so much so that his interviewees have yet to ask him what it is, exactly, he’s writing about. Maybe they’re afraid the story won’t be as grand and emotionally compelling as they hoped. Clay thinks they’d probably be right.
When Carl and Cindy stand to leave after pleasantries and handshakes are exchanged, the reporter remains behind, his wrist seizing over the paper below like an inspired artist. Then he puts the pen down on the table, drawing himself up with a deep inhalation. His eyes once again return to the donut left on Carl’s plate. He seems to be considering it until he notices Cindy’s lipstick is smudged on the edge of her Coke glass. The reporter picks it up and holds it to the light as if expecting to find flakes of gold in her cheap make-up. Maybe he does. The pen is back in his grasping fingers in an instant.
“What the hell’s this guy think he is now? A scientist?” Clay mutters, turning back to his coffee. The clatter of the saucer when he sets the cup down belies his frustration.
From his right, Paige laughs under her breath. “What’s so wrong with that? He’s just doing his job.”
“What kind of reporter asks such ridiculous questions?”
She shrugs. “Maybe it’s an editorial.”
Editorial, Clay repeats the word in his head. Editorial my ass, he thinks. What could possibly be so important about whether Collin wants a dog or a cat, or if Ms. McGruder would rather win a new car than the Pulitzer Prize? What’s so important about that? He scowls at the yellow stripes of the countertop. That kind of smart-ass questioning is just how people like that reporter, people that think they’re smarter than everyone else, get their kicks.
“Are you sure you’re not just jealous?” Paige tries not to smile at the grumpy look on his face. “If you want to do an interview, you could just go ask him, you know.”
Clay gives her an impatient sidelong glance. “Why the hell would I want to do that?”
“Sounds like fun to me.”
“Yeah, I bet it does.”
“Oh, sweet love of mine,” Paige sighs theatrically, grabbing the last half of her bagel and dropping a few bills beside her plate. “I love it when you insult me. See you after work?”
Clay gives her an exasperated look, but she still wins a small smile from him, at least.
“Yeah. After work,” he agrees, giving her a chaste kiss. He watches her exit, the little silver bell atop the door announcing her departure, and then returns his attention to the reporter.
He’s eating the donut. The syrupy glaze clings to the fingers of his leather gloves, and when the pastry is gone, he looks down at his hand and blinks confusedly at it, as if he genuinely hadn’t expected the sugar to stick to him. Then he dunks his sticky fingers into Carl’s water glass and wipes it on his coat.
That’s it, Clay thinks, getting up from his seat. He snatches his keys and shoves his EpiPen into his pocket with his wallet. There must be something wrong with this guy, what with his weird mannerisms and strange questions, and if that’s the case, it’s the townspeople’s responsibility to investigate. This stranger’s been here for almost a month and not a single person can even say where he lives. For all he knows, this man might be dangerous.
Clay slides into the booth, setting his coffee cup on the table to stick out his hand.
“Jack,” the man smiles widely. His damp fingers are unpleasantly cold.
There’s an extended silence as Clay tries to figure out an angle. Jack, meanwhile, only continues to smile in that gleeful way, like a man about to leave on a long vacation. Eventually, his gaze once again drifts down to the tabletop, jumping from left over morsel to left over morsel, presumably in search of something to eat. The grin never leaves his face, though. It’s only his eyes that move.
“What are you writing about?” Clay asks at last, if only to get the reporter to stop looking a cat in a field of mice.
But Jack just flaps a hand at him. “Oh, you know. This and that.”
“You ask awfully strange questions, you know.”
There’s a piece of pancake on Cindy’s plate, sodden with syrup. Jack eyes it for only a moment before snatching it up.
“I love sweets,” he explains at the other man’s incredulous look. “Can’t resist them. What about you, Clay? Do you like dessert?”
“I didn’t sit here to talk about dessert.”
Jack’s smile grows. “An interview, then?”
“I don’t want one of your ludicrous interviews either.” Clay rolls his tongue behind his teeth agitatedly. “I want to know what you’re doing here. In my town.”
“Is that so…?”
At last, the expression on Jack’s face changes into something other than blithe indifference. He leans forward with his elbows on the table, chin resting in his hands. His head is cocked slightly in a way that reminds Clay of a young lady enamored with her date, and he can’t help but find it unnerving. Jack doesn’t seem to notice, however; he’s studying Clay’s face. His eyes are glittering with suppressed humor. The smile just barely tugging up the corners of his mouth is one a mother might give a child whose put all his clothes on backwards.
“Well, Clay,” Jack breaks the silence, snapping back into his normal posture so abruptly, like his joints are spring loaded, that Clay jumps. His knees hit the underside of the table and rattle the dishes. “I must be honest with you. I think you already know the answer to your own inquiry.”
He waits, but Jack apparently needs prompting. “Which is?”
“I’m here to ask questions.”
“Yeah,” Clay draws out the word. “But what for?”
“Answers to what?”
“Why, questions, of course!”
“But…” he stops himself. The look on Jack’s face is infuriatingly smug. Clay stands stiffly, leaving his unfinished coffee settled between plates, his jaw flexed in irritation. “Screw you, buddy.”
He drops the other half of the check over Paige’s bills and leaves without another word. Jack’s eyes are on him the whole way out, but he doesn’t turn to look.
Who has time for that kind of nonsense?
Clay avoids the diner for two weeks. The reporter makes him distinctly uncomfortable in a way that he can’t quite describe. No man smiles that much, he thinks resolutely, unless he’s got that much to smile about, and whatever it is that’s got Jack so happy, Clay doesn’t want any part of it. Especially not after being caught in one of his idiotic games.
It’s baffling to him that there are so many others who continue to willingly subject themselves to Jack’s laughable line of questioning, though, but people do. He catches snippets of conversations throughout town and at work, and despite his desertion of the diner, Paige continues to drink coffee there while she writes. When they find each other after work, she informs him that Jack is still there doing much the same thing.
“I don’t know why you’re being such a baby about this,” she teases him over dinner, but Clay stubbornly refuses to go back.
“I just don’t like the guy. There’s something off about him.”
“Well, yeah,” Paige agrees, “but he’s not going to jump across the diner and kill you or anything. I just don’t see what the problem is.”
It’s a matter of principle, really. There’s just something wrong about a man wandering into town and bugging the locals, asking questions for his own gain and offering nothing in return. It doesn’t seem fair. Besides, even if Jack won’t spill the beans, Clay is more than certain that whatever he’s writing about is as empty-headed as the man doing the writing, so the fact that all these people are lining up to be a part of it is just plain disturbing. Surely Jack will leave soon anyway.
At the end of the second week, however, something else begins to bother him. He’d listened to Jack’s inane questions for nearly three weeks before confronting him. Of course he’d remember a few conversations. So, it’s strange, he thinks, when Collin gets a cat, but perhaps Jack’s question put the idea in his head. That wouldn’t explain Ms. McGruder’s winning a car in a magazine sweepstakes, though, or Cindy’s free airline tickets to Florida, or Carl’s mother’s cancer scare that turned out to be a benign lump.
There are others, too. His neighbor loses his great grandfather’s lighter but finds a thousand dollars sewn into his mattress while searching for it. Paige’s best friend drops twenty pounds in ten days. Oddities begin to pile up, and perhaps it’s because Clay spent so long eavesdropping on the interviews that he’s the only one that puts it together. Now, if only he could figure out what it is, exactly, that he’s put together.
On Monday morning, Clay returns to the diner. He’s not entirely sure what he’s come here to ask, let alone how he’s going to ask it, but the point is that there’s something that needs to be asked and somebody has to do the asking. Besides, he figures, Jack loves questions. Maybe he’ll like answering them too.
He finds Jack engaged in conversation at the back of the diner. The woman across from him is answering a question, something about jail or a coma. There’s a plate full of powdered raspberry donuts in front of him that he’s casually demolishing at a speed normally reserved for competitive eating. One of the donuts is leaking jelly, and this one, he picks up, squeezing it slightly and watching the bright red, sugary substance gather atop it like a kid watching Santa come down the chimney. He’s so intensely focused on the food that he evidently forgets the woman across the table until she remarks on the odd behavior.
“I love sweets,” Jack says with that broad smile. “Can’t resist them. What about you, Becca? Do you like dessert?”
Clay waits for them to finish up the interview. In the meantime, he pays for half-a-dozen strawberry croissants and two cups of hot chocolate, carefully balancing the platter of pastries on his wrist as he approaches the booth once Becca makes her way out. He slides the plate over the previous, now empty, one.
He’s obviously made the right choice. Jack wiggles his fingers delightedly.
“What a pleasant surprise!” He announces, clearly giddy, and immediately begins tearing into the first pastry. “Clay, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
He tries to make himself feel as sure as he sounds. “I want to know how you’re doing this.”
Clay inhales deeply. His fingers drum pensively against the table.
“Look,” he says with the exhale, “I can’t help but notice that these questions of yours–that the answers matter.”
“Well, of course they matter,” Jack says patiently. “Why would I ask them if they didn’t?”
“But I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. That’s why I’m the one asking the questions.”
“But, you,” Clay rubs his hands over his face, “how is it that when you ask someone something, the way they answer the question actually happens?”
“You mean that their choice results in its own fruition.”
“Yes,” Clay affirms, perhaps a bit exasperatedly.
“Oh. Oh, I see.” The bell signaling an order is ready chimes loudly in the emptying diner. Jack, momentarily distracted, pauses with his mouth open. When he sees the plate of roast beef up on the metal counter separating the kitchen, he turns back to Clay, his usual smile in place. “Yes. That’s me.”
They spend a moment in contemplative silence. Jack’s expression remains frozen in place as his hand begins to slide toward another pastry, as if he doesn’t realize it’s happening. The inappropriateness of it jars Clay back into the situation.
When he speaks, it’s clear his sensibilities have been offended.
“Maybe for you.”
“No,” Clay says firmly. “No one can do that.”
Jack tuts disapprovingly. “It sounds like you’ve made a lot of assumptions.”
“It’s impossible,” he repeats, getting annoyed, but Jack merely tips his head toward the front of the diner. Clay hesitantly peeks around the booth, neck craned to see out the glass door and catch a glimpse of the sudden commotion out front.
Becca’s hands are cuffed behind her back. When Clay numbly slides back into his seat, he finds Jack looking quite pleased with himself.
“Okay,” Clay says shakily. “Okay. Okay.” And then, after a moment more, “What the hell are you?”
His earlier hopes are apparently for naught. Jack does not like to answer questions except with more questions.
“Would you rather know that,” he begins while Clay’s heart sinks into his stomach with dread, “or be able to choose the means of your own death?”
The word “death” coming out of this thing’s powdered sugar covered mouth is utterly disquieting. Everything about Jack, in fact, is disquieting. His brown eyes reflect his jubilant disposition. There’s stubble along his jaw. A pink tinge on his cheeks affirms his constant amusement, and his hair, dark shades of mahogany slicked back with pomade, contrasts all of his mannerisms in a way that is roguishly charming. He looks utterly human.
“What if I don’t answer?” Clay ventures, heavily disliking the way his voice quivers.
Jack’s body twitches to life suddenly. His elbows snap to his sides and his shoulders roll back in an instant. Clay’s knees hit the edge of the table again, exactly reminiscent of their first conversation.
“Then I’ll answer for you.”
There’s no way Clay’s about to let that happen. Besides, in this case, the question is an easy one. Nobody ever gets to choose the means of his death, anyway. It sounds more like a curse than a blessing.
“I want to know the answer,” Clay finally responds. Jack’s face lights up excitedly.
“Oh, good! I was hoping you’d pick that one,” he trills. “Alright, Clay, the truth is that I’m a scientist. An observer of sorts.” He pauses here to sip his hot chocolate and, finding the flavor too pleasing to resist, he finishes the cup in one swig. “Long story short, I’m conducting an experiment to learn about human behavior. I ask a question, then I observe both realities in order to see how reliably a human can judge itself.”
“Observe both realities?” Clay repeats, ignoring the rest of the odd wording. He wishes Paige were here. This is far more her field than his.
“That’s right. I watch the reality of this alternative, and the reality in which the other alternative happened instead. Some of you know yourselves quite well. Others. Well.” His eyes slide briefly to the door. Becca is long gone.
Okay, Clay thinks, clinging to the one word mantra. Okay. Okay.
What does all this mean?
Distractedly, he zeroes in on the details of Jack’s face. He’s got crow’s feet from smiling so much. The guy probably shops at Banana Republic for God’s sake.
“So, hypothetically,” the words come slowly, “if you asked me a question, and I answered it, you could tell me what would’ve happened if I’d made the other choice.”
“And a few weeks ago, when Sandra said she’d rather win a million dollars than be able to fly anywhere for free…”
“Tomorrow,” Jack confirms cheerfully. “She found a lottery ticket in her gutter this morning.”
A million dollars. That’s a lot of money. Hell, Carl could’ve won the whole jackpot if he’d been more heartless. And then there’s his neighbor with the thousand dollars, and Ms. McGruder with her new car.
“So, if I asked you to ask me a question –“
“Oh, no, no, no, no,” Jack interrupts emphatically, his finger wagging. “That wouldn’t be very scientific at all. It only works if I choose the questions.”
Of course that would be the case, Clay realizes. Otherwise he’d just be granting wishes. Still, he finds himself considering the words against his better judgment. For the most part, Becca aside, Jack’s inquiries generally seem to run the gamut of favorable outcomes and benign ones. The risk is certainly there. It’s just a matter of the reward.
A million dollars is a lot of money.
He taps his finger against his mug and asks before he can stop himself, “Would you ask me a question, then?”
“That doesn’t sound like a good idea for you.”
“Why?” He goes rigid in his seat. He hadn’t realized he’d been sweating, but the faux-leather clings to his skin through the thin fabric of his shirt. “Are you going to ask me something terrible?”
“I had no intention of doing that, but this is about foresight, Clay, and I’m sure you said you didn’t want an interview.”
“Yeah, well, I changed my mind.”
Jack’s grin widens minutely. Clay pretends not to notice. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure,” he insists, his nervousness fueling his impatience.
“Alright then!” Jack wastes no time grabbing his pen. He tips the notepad up toward him, obscuring his scribbles. “Let’s start with a fun one, shall we? Something very simple. If you could choose between falling in love or finding something you’ve lost, which would you pick?”
Clay’s posture droops at the question. He’s relieved and disappointed by the options. “But I’m already in love.”
“Paige. My girlfriend.”
“The–oh, I see, the woman you–oh,” Jack draws out the vowel. His hand rises up to his mouth in a rather dainty and theatrical display of awkwardness. “How silly of me! I guess I’ll just have to save that one for later. Let’s see here.” He trails off momentarily, tapping his chin. Clay can easily imagine the light bulb clicking on above his head when he sticks his finger up in a moment of inspiration.
“I’ve got it. Would you rather marry the woman you’re dating now, or lose her to another man?”
“What?” Clay jolts halfway out of his seat, knocking over a half-empty glass of water. The waitress gives him a pointed glance and he slowly lowers himself back down. “What kind of a question is that?”
Jack looks mildly offended. “Well, I thought it was an interesting one.”
“Yours to make,” he replies lightly.
Some choice. Clay wrings his hands in his lap. He should’ve kept his mouth shut. So much for a million dollars, he laments, because this is certainly going to be his last question. He’s suddenly glad that Paige isn’t here despite his earlier wish.
It’s not that he doesn’t love her, he reminds himself, woodenly sipping his hot chocolate and watching Jack coo over his dwindling plate of sweets. It’s not a matter of love, though. It’s a matter of life. Which is long. At twenty-six, he can reasonably expect to live for another fifty years, and to be with the same woman for the entirety of it is something he hadn’t considered. Forever is a long time to be tied down, and then, there would eventually be kids. He’d be stuck in this town without ever getting to see what else the world had to offer.
But that’s not fair, is it? What would Paige pick? Clay chews his tongue irately. Damn Jack, he thinks, and his damn questions. He and Paige have been dating for nearly two years, and while he’s enjoyed it, how could he reasonably assume that would remain true for the next five decades? There are a lot of people in the world. Not to mention possibilities, places to see, people to meet. If something like Jack can exist, there’s no telling what he might be barring himself from. If he marries Paige, he’ll never get the chance to find out.
“I pick the second one,” he finally mutters.
“Oh?” Jack gradually lowers the croissant just before it reaches his mouth. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
Clay tenses, immediately defensive, “I love her, but how can I be sure that I will when I’m thirty, or forty, or fifty-years-old?”
“That’s a good point,” he concedes after a moment’s thought.
And then he resumes eating. Clay waits for something to happen, some Adonis to drop out of the sky, but there’s nothing but the scraping of forks against plates and the quiet chatter of the sparse diners. Jack is licking his fingers clean.
“So?” Clay asks impatiently.
“So? Would you like another one?”
“No! I just–is that all?”
“Well, I mean, are you going to finish your hot chocolate?”
Bordering on furious now, he shoves the mug across the table. Some of the liquid sloshes up over the rim of the cup, but Jack doesn’t seem to care.
Clay yanks his jacket on and leaves without another word.
It takes three weeks. Three agonizing weeks. Clay wishes it would’ve been over with the moment he answered the question, but no. Time passes sluggishly in a daze of anxious paranoia. It feels to him that he spends the next twenty-one days wading through corn syrup.
It begins with the text messages, or so he thinks. He never finds concrete proof. Still, when Paige’s phone buzzes against the dresser at three in the morning, his hand immediately reaches for it, typing in her password at a near frenzied pace.
She merely raises an eyebrow at him. She’s barely visible in the dark, hopefully missing his panicked expression, and he replaces the phone back on the nightstand. It’s her sister.
The one reassurance doesn’t help. Each time her phone vibrates, an alarm bell in his head rattles along with it. After a few days, it’s enough to make her angry, and they fight for the first time in six months when she finds him scrolling through her text messages again. He’s on the couch, hunched over the screen. Paige stands on the other side of the coffee table and waits for him to notice.
When he does, she says impatiently, “Are you finished?” Her tone suggests that he promptly say yes. Clay nods, but his apologetic look hardly abates her frustration. “What has gotten into you?”
Clay puts the phone in her waiting hand and keeps his eyes in the table. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that a few weeks ago, you were so distant I wasn’t sure you cared anymore, and now you’re acting like I’m the one who’s about to disappear on you.”
“Well, I obviously care a lot then,” he tries to lighten the mood, but in the face of her anger, he may as well have told a knock-knock joke to a brick wall. She shakes her head, shoves her phone in her pocket, and grabs the car keys.
He makes no move to stop her. Paige pauses with one hand on the doorknob, the other on her hip. “You’d better figure yourself out, Clay, because I sure as hell can’t.”
He’s in the middle of asking her where she’s going when she shuts the door. The fight only exacerbates his worries. He turns her drawers inside out in search of a different brand of condoms, or new lingerie, or anything incriminating, but there’s never anything there. He apologizes at the end of every argument. He buys her flowers. He absorbs the tones and lilts of her voice, commits her jokes to memory, studies her face while she sleeps, right up until the end of the third week when she sits him down, her lips set in a grim line.
“We need to talk.”
It’s over, she says. She’s fallen in love with someone else.
Long before that moment, Clay knows he’s made a mistake. He storms into the diner early the next morning, his hands fisted resolutely in the pockets of his leather jacket, and takes a seat at the counter. It feels as though he’s been emptied out and filled with cement. He can hardly turn his head when the door chime announces the entrance of a new patron, and when Jack at last arrives in a flurry of good cheer, he hardly makes it four steps before Clay is grabbing him by the sleeve of his coat and sitting him down in a booth.
“I’m hungry, Clay.” Jack is smiling, but his words don’t sound very friendly. Clay wisely orders a dozen assorted pastries and two mochas. It’s only after the food arrives that Jack speaks again, and whatever emotion he’d hidden beneath his plastic smile seems to dissipate at the first sugary bite. “So, what can I help you with? Are you here for another interview?”
Clay is hardly in the mood for games. His tone is blunt. “I want my girlfriend back.”
“That’s not what you said a few weeks ago,” Jack answers easily.
Clay slams his fist against the table, ignoring the looks of the waitresses. “I don’t care! How could I have known which choice to make? You tricked me.”
“Why, Clay.” Jack gives him a sympathetic look as he tears a sugar cookie in two. “I don’t know anything about that, remember? I’m just an observer.”
There is no reply. Jack dips the cookie into his drink, watching fascinatedly as the coffee drips from the sweet, forming a thin layer of buttery oil on the top of the liquid in his mug. When he takes a bite, his eyes light up, and he becomes immediately engrossed in repeating the process. It’s apparent he’s not going to answer.
“I want another question,” Clay says firmly.
“That’s not really what you want.”
“Yes it is! I want to fix this!”
Jack still doesn’t look up from his food. “Fine, then. If you could pick between being you, or being the man your girlfriend is in love with, which would you choose?”
Clay slams his hand on the table again. He shoots the staff a glance that has them quickly turning away. “That’s not fixing it.”
“I thought you said you just wanted to be with her.”
“It’s not the same!”
Jack shrugs. He doesn’t look concerned in the slightest. “So, you pick you, then?”
“I really wish you’d stop doing that,” he remarks nonchalantly, waving a hand at Clay’s fist still pushed into the tabletop.
“I wish you would just give me a choice that makes any damn sense.”
“It’s hardly my fault that you don’t know yourself.”
When Clay’s hand comes down again, Jack’s smile fades. Just a little. He wipes his gloves on a napkin and laces his fingers together. If he’s angry, his tone doesn’t reflect it.
“I’ll level with you, Clay, and ask you outright. What is it that you think you want from me?”
“I already told you,” he replies through gritted teeth. “I want my girlfriend back.”
“I don’t have to be a scientist to tell you that’s obviously not true, not that you would know,” Jack continues before he can be interrupted, stopping Clay’s ready retort. “Would you rather kill your girlfriend’s lover and win her back, or leave things as they are?”
He trails off. This is yet another bad idea, but it’s not like he has a choice. The available decisions are bleak: rely on Jack’s questions to resolve the situation, or walk away. Clay puts his head in his hands, pressing his palms into his eyes to try and soothe a headache, and attempts to think through the rapidly escalating stress. He can hear the scraping of empty plates around him. The kitchen staff shouts in the background. The diner fills over the next ten minutes, the breakfast crowd multiplying as it nears close to eight in the morning. Jack mumbles quietly to the waitress, and Clay feels the table vibrate as she sets down another full platter.
It feels like there should be an obvious answer to this question, he thinks irritably, but there isn’t. Paige’s lover wouldn’t be the only one getting hurt if he died, and Clay has no intention of killing anyone. But he won’t lose her either.
When he finally looks up, Jack is tonguing the inside of a Bavarian cream donut in a rather suggestive way. He’s holding it above his head like he’s emptying a pitcher of water into his mouth. His trench coat separates slightly around the middle button, and it only takes a moment for Clay to realize that Jack is naked underneath it. The absurdity almost makes him laugh, but it’s hard to find anything funny right now.
“I would never hurt her like that,” he interrupts the spectacle before him.
“Really?” Jack removes his tongue from the pastry. He licks the sugar from his lips thoughtfully. “It’s funny you should say that. In another reality, your answers actually led you to kill her. Oh, don’t give me that look,” he chides, tapping Clay on the nose with a sticky finger like he’s teasing a child. “You had a reason. It’s a long story, but it involved the misinterpretation of some romantic poetry, and then there was this bear at the zoo, and she contracted this strange disease that–oh, nevermind,” Jack cuts himself off, forgoing the rest. “I’m sure you can figure it out from there.”
Clay can’t, of course, but he’s not concerned with trying. “I would never do that.”
“You have no idea what you’d do.”
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“But you di-id!” Jack singsongs in a wavering, high-pitched voice. “There’s no point in arguing about it, anyway. What’s your choice?”
Clay flexes his fingers around his mug, not quite meeting the eyes of the man across from him. “I don’t think those are very fair choices.”
“If choices were fair, they’d be easy to make, Clay, and I wouldn’t have a study at all.”
“I won’t choose.”
“Then I’ll choose for you.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Oh?” Jack tilts his head. “And why is that?”
“Because, if you did that, then you won’t know what I would’ve picked. It doesn’t fit in with your experiment.”
Jack stops eating. A pastry drops from his grasp and rolls. The corner of his mouth twitches. Like a marionette’s, his hands slide off the table and into his lap, and Clay wonders not for the first time if Jack is not, in fact, in control of his limbs.
“That’s very clever of you,” he admits. His shoulders convulse in an attempted shrug, but he doesn’t seem to notice the unnatural movement. “Tell you what, Clay. I don’t particularly like this situation you’ve created, but I’ll admit that your deduction is reasonable, given what you know, so I’ll offer you one last question and not a single one more than that. Do you accept?”
Clay nods, satisfied with both the option and that he’s taken Jack down a peg. Men like that, who think they can manipulate others so easily, deserve to be outsmarted once in a while.
“Alright, then. Let’s shake on it. No funny business, now, this question is very simple,” Jack explains, and after they’ve shaken hands, Jack’s fingers clenching and unclenching like ungreased hinges, he asks, “Would you rather die by the end of the week, or have you and Paige fall happily in love at the cost of someone else’s life instead?”
The question is immediate. “Who?”
“No one you know.”
“I thought you said I couldn’t choose my death,” Clay points out suspiciously, but Jack just smiles benignly at him. His eyes have started drifting to the pile of powdered donuts on the table again.
“Like I said, it’s a very simple question.”
The answer is easy, then. “Fine. I pick the second option.”
Once again, Jack returns to his food, and Clay waits once more to see if he’ll say anything else, but he seems completely uninterested in him, now. There’s powdered sugar forming a ring around his mouth. Some cream filling dots the corner of his lips. When he catches Clay looking at him, he grins widely.
“I love sweets,” he says. “Can’t resist them. What about you, Clay? Do you like dessert?”
Clay shudders. He shoves his mug away and stands. “You can finish that.”
“Oh, how kind of you!”
Jack’s giggling follows him out the door.
The same evening, Clay answers the door to find Paige outside, her eyes red-rimmed and wet with tears.
She’s made a mistake, she says. Clay replies that he knows a thing or two about that. At his insistence, they find new places for their breakfast dates, far from Jack and Diner 66. On Wednesday, four days later, they have breakfast in bed. On Thursday, they drive into the city to get brunch at a white tablecloth restaurant. Paige makes a joke about marriage, and Clay’s hand slides over the small box in his jacket, dampening the velvet against his sweaty palm. It’s still in his pocket when they get home. They have plenty of time now, he thinks, with the rest of their lives ahead of them, and there’s not telling what might change. There’s no need to rush an uncertain future. He leaves the ring in the drawer of his nightstand.
On Friday, they have a celebratory picnic in unusually warm weather.
Clay is picking her a flower when he’s stung by a bee.
Too bad he’s lost his EpiPen.