“I’ve been waiting for you.”
The young man jumped. He hadn’t seen the older man leaning against the brick wall of his apartment building. A cigarette hung from his mouth. He was dressed well enough, but his hair was long and unkempt, and he clearly hadn’t shaved in several days. He was a stranger, yet the young man thought he felt familiar, too.
“Do I know you?”
“Yes, you do.” He let the young man stare for a few moments, trying to place the older man in the dwindling light of a summer evening. “But you probably won’t remember. Not yet.”
The young man nodded, as though it made sense to him. “So. You were waiting for me?”
“You’re going to meet a friend, right?”
“Yes…” the young man responded slowly.
“You’re going to talk about your girlfriend.” It wasn’t a question, but the young man didn’t notice.
“Maybe. I don’t know what we’re going to talk about. How do you know any of this? What are you, some kind of psychic?”
The older man took a long drag off his cigarette and then blew the smoke out before replying. “Would it help if I were?”
“Yes. Yes, I think so. Though I’d have about a hundred questions for you.”
“Oh. Well, I’m not a psychic.”
“Who are you, then?”
“No. No, I don’t think so. Either you figure it out, or you don’t. All you need to know is that you shouldn’t meet your friend.”
“What? Why not?”
“I… Hmm. This is more difficult than I imagined.” The older man was talking to himself; that much was clear. But what was he talking about was anything but. Finally, he turned his attention back to the young man. “You won’t like the consequences of the conversation.”
“I haven’t even had the conversation! How could you know what happens after? What do you think could happen?”
Another moment of hesitation passed. Then, “People will get hurt. Not could. Will. People you don’t want to get hurt. You’re just going to have to trust me. I don’t think I should say anything else.”
“So you came here just to give a stranger some vague warning?”
“Oh, I know you. You just don’t recognize me. But I know you.”
“Fine. Whatever. The vague warning?”
“What do you want me to say? What would you believe? I’m pretty sure you won’t believe the truth.”
“Crazy old man,” the young man muttered to himself as he stomped back into his apartment building.
* * *
The older man watched him go back. Whatever he believed, he was going to miss his conversation with his friend. That should be sufficient.
The older man waited. The young man did not come back out. But neither did the older man’s memories change to include this encounter; he still remembered the conversation with his friend.
A split then, not a change. No paradox was created because a branch formed when he first stopped the young man. That would have to be enough, knowing that somewhere, things had worked out differently.