Paradox

“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.”

“Try me.”

“No.”

“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.

Waiting Room

The hospital waiting room was chilly and bright. There were only a few people sitting in the plastic chairs. He looked around. A woman was holding up a hand wrapped in a towel. Two young men sat together. One looked a little pale, but it wasn’t obvious what was wrong with him. Other than these three, and the nurse stationed at the reception desk, the place was empty. Slow night, he decided, as he sat in one of the many unoccupied chairs in a corner of the room.

After a couple of minutes, the nurse walked over to him. “Can I help you, sir? Are you sick or hurt?”

He shook his head, but said nothing.

“Then why are you here?”

“Is this not a waiting room? I wait.”

“Wait for what?”

He shrugged. “I just wait.”

The look of confusion on her face was impossible to miss. But she said nothing more as she walked back to her desk.

He saw her pick up the phone and speak briefly with someone, so it was no surprise when the security guard showed up. A short conversation later, complete with several gestures in his direction, the guard walked over to him.

“Sir, unless you have some business here, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.” The guard’s manner was firm, but not menacing.

“I do have business here.”

“Which is?”

“I am waiting.”

Impatience began to show through the guard’s attempt to stay calm. “Waiting for what?”

“This is a waiting room, yes? I wait.” He was getting impatient himself at having to answer the same questions over and over.

“Sir, it is for people to wait until they see a doctor. Or friends and family of someone who is here to see a doctor.” The guard looked at him for a moment. “Do you have someone here you’re waiting for?”

He shook his head again. “Not here. Not yet.”

“You’re waiting for someone who is coming in? Where are they now?”

“On the way.” He cocked his head to one side, trying to pick out… Ah, there it was. The sound of an ambulance pulling up. “Here now. Waiting is almost over.”

The first ambulance was followed by two more. The previously quiet area was now bustling with people in white coats and wearing hospital scrubs. The guard left to take care of more pressing duties elsewhere. Several people were wheeled in on gurneys, each surrounded by a number of doctors and nurses working furiously.

No one was paying him any attention, so no one stopped him from walking over near one of the gurneys. Through the huddle of people, he could see a young girl, perhaps eleven, laying there. They had stopped pushing the gurney to work on her right in the waiting room. Their urgency was palpable.

When a nurse stepped away, he moved in. He clasped her hand. Her eyes snapped open, and she stared at him. A smile touched her lips as her eyes drifted closed again.

Someone yelled to get him out of there. He was pushed to the side. It was done.

When the security guard came back to question him, he was already gone. The waiting was over.