1. The Catastrophe

The white-haired man sat at the counter with his back to the windows. Through them you could see the train station with trains coming and going, tangles of smoke drifting over the heads of waiting passengers. Out there, the smell of smoke and coffee mingled freely with the stench of fish from the fried food stand adjacent to the coffee shop. At all times the station smelled like a cup of scalded, fishy coffee.

People sought refuge from the stench inside the coffee shop, putting off the moment they’d have to go back outside to board the train. They sat or stood around the room, sipping from paper cups and grimacing.

The barista working that day was not one of the good ones.

The white-haired man said nothing about the quality of his drink. He preferred to come in when one of the other baristas employed at the shop was working—when the coffee was good, it was very good—but now it couldn’t be helped.

He sipped and glanced at his wristwatch.

Beside him sat a girl with blue hair. She had spread papers out in front of her, taking up more than her share of counter space. She tasted the drink the harried barista set in front of her and twisted her lips disgustedly. She shoved her stool back, making it screech, and went to the register where the barista was conducting a transaction.

“This is wrong.” She set the full cup down on the counter.

The barista looked at the cup, then at the girl, then at the woman the girl had edged back. Irritated sighs and shufflings rippled down the waiting line.

“Lattes are mostly milk—” The barista began.

“Are they made of burnt milk? This one is.”

There were tough customers, and there was the blue-haired girl. Exacting, impatient, easily angered. She ordered a complicated drink, vernacular stuffed with high-sounding adjectives like ‘ristretto’ and ‘breve’, a half-pump of this syrup and two pumps of that, and steamed impossibly hot. She tipped well, if one made the drink correctly on the first try. Such a drink was outside this barista’s skill set.

“It’s steamed hotter than we usually…” The barista trailed off, giving up. “I’ll remake it.” She glanced an apology at the woman, who smiled tightly back and sent a hard look at the blue-haired girl’s back.

The barista began steaming milk. The waiting line seethed. The girl returned to her stool.

“There isn’t time,” said the white-haired man without looking at her.

“I know,” she said, hovering over her paperwork, “My train leaves in three minutes.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

The girl was confused, but she shrugged and focused on her papers, scribbling notes in the margins and filling in blank lines distributed through the text.

The barista finished the drink and with a victorious flourish set it before the blue-haired girl.

“Just in time. Thanks,” the girl said insincerely. She stood and began gathering her papers.

“No, I meant you don’t have any more time,” said the man. “The world ends in—” he glanced at his watch again “—forty-eight seconds.”

The girl eyed him incredulously, tucked her papers into a satchel and turned to leave.

Instead she staggered as the shop shuddered violently. The cups atop the espresso machine chattered, dishes below the counter quivered on their shelves. The line of customers quieted and turned inward, murmuring to itself.

Another tremor shook the store. The sky flashed white. Not the blue-white of a summer’s day, but a white-white. As if someone up there had flicked on a light switch.

People pushed out the doors and spread over the sidewalk, shading their eyes and gesturing upward. A searchlight malfunction, probably, or a solar flare.

“Afraid not,” said the white-haired man, as if he could hear their speculations.

The sky then began to melt. It poured down like paint, coating buildings and splashing into the station, covering the trains and platform and swirling against the shop windows. The barista gasped, setting the steam pitcher down with a thud that was covered by her rising scream. The whiteness poured down, consuming more and more of the city. The barista sprinted from the store with the growing throng of exiters, and all were consumed in a downpour of white.

The man at at the counter sipped his coffee. Then he set his mug down and frowned at the blue-haired girl pensively, as if at a troublesome mathematical equation. “You should have left with the others. Resistant to compulsion. Hmm…”

She stood gaping at the tide of white climbing the window panes, pointing silently.

“It would be a waste to throw all of you away,” the man mused. “Someone needs to run the shop…”

She found her voice. “What is happening?”

“Your world has ended,” he told her. “You’re all that’s left, I’m afraid. That makes you an endangered species. In fact…you’re the only one of you anywhere.”

“What did you do? Did you just kill all those people?”

“Heavens. No. Well, some of them but not the whole world. There was an accident, see. I only just found out this world was about to go, myself, so I hurried over to grab this place.”

“Why?”

“I like it. I like to spend time here. And the coffee is good, some of the time.” He gazed into his cup. “Now you really should go. I’m about to move this shop and you can’t exist in another universe besides your own.”

“Where am I supposed to go?”

He raised his eyebrows.

Her eyes widened. She stepped back. “I can’t go out there! I’ll die!”

The windows cracked, all at once.

The man glanced at them musingly.

“Please! I don’t want to die!”

He turned back to the girl. “I can save your life, if you’ll agree to run the shop.”

The girl only paid attention to the first part of the sentence. “Yes, fine! Please don’t let me die!”

“We have an agreement, then?”

“Yes!”

The man smiled. “Done. Hold on to something.”

The light grew outside, pouring through the cracks in the glass, flooding the room with hot brightness.

The shop jolted, then the whiteness turned to horizontal streaks. A screech like the sound of wheels on metal tracks rose out of the walls, the floor, the counter. Every cup and spoon and coffee bean shrieked. The shriek lasted a full five seconds, and then light and noise and time collapsed into heavy, cold darkness.

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