Free Dinner

“Are you happy?” the stranger asked. The two men sat in a run down lunch diner that served better food than it had any right to.

Martin Spencer put a big piece of steak in his mouth during the man’s question, and could not answer. He took his time to finish chewing and let the question hang. The silence allowed him to appraise the unknown man that treated him to dinner. The stranger sitting across from him was a portly man, with short blond hair. It was combed neatly, with a part down the left side. His face was clean shaven. Mr. Spencer thought it was a stark contrast to himself. He was a relatively lean man, with a full beard and receding hairline. They were both wearing suits, but Martin grew self conscious. His own suit seemed drab and sloppy in comparison to the crisp dark suit of the stranger.

“Let me stop you there. You bought my attention with this steak dinner. I’m not obligated, nor am I planning to buy anything you’re selling. I’m just here for the food, honestly.” Martin looked the man directly in his light coffee brown eyes, while he said his piece. When he finished, he looked down at his plate again and cut into the steak to  prepare his next bite. Pink flowed out of the meat.
“I’m not selling anything. There are just some details I need to check into.” The well dressed man pulled a small red notebook with the number two embossed in gold on the cover, and a #2 pencisl out from the inside of his suit. He flipped the small pad open to a blank page, readying himself to write.

“What are you, police? Why is a cop buying me dinner?” Mr. Spencer washed down the bite in his mouth with a gulp of soda to ask the question.

“No, not an officer. You could call me a Social Worker of sorts. As for buying your dinner? I bought your attention, just as you said. So, tell me, are you happy?” Martin felt the stranger’s eyes on him as he asked his question.

“What does that even mean? That’s kind of a broad question. What, like right now? Yeah, I guess. I mean, I like steak.” There was a clinking sound as Martin moved his cup of ice over to the edge of table, hoping to catch the waitress’ attention for a refill the next time she walked by.

“It was meant to be. Are you happy, in the broad sense? Work, love, life.” Martin noticed the caseworker sitting patiently still, as he waited for an answer. Not at all what Mr. Spencer was used to when interviewing new hires. There was no nervous tapping of the pen on the table, nor the notepad. There was no fidgeting.

“Yeah I’m doing pretty good. Today at least, I’ve got no complaints. Can’t be down about free food, right?” Mr. Spencer’s steak was getting smaller as their conversation continued. He noticed that the stranger had yet to write anything down.

“It’s interesting that you mention today as an example.” The man closed his blank notepad and put it away, back into his suit pocket. The waitress replaced Martin’s cup with a freshly filled cup of soda and ice.

“I eat pretty quickly, and I’m just about done with my meal here.  If you have a point, you might want to get to it. What kind of ‘Social Worker’ are you, exactly?” Mr. Spencer picked at the french fries while he asked. The steak was almost gone.

“Fair enough. Let me start by saying that claiming you were happy today, of all days, already told me what I needed to know. I know that you’re lying. You’ve been on the verge of tears all day, even if you can’t explain why.” The caseworker waved away any protest before Martin could find the words. Martin was completely surprised that this stranger knew what was plaguing him all day.

“No sense trying to deny it, or wasting time arguing about it. You know what you know, and I know what I know, we can just leave it at that. My job is to check in on people from time to time, and see how they’re doing. I make sure all deals are paying out properly.”

“Deals? Like what deals? I haven’t had any shady dealings. No offense, but you seem pretty shady.” Mr. Spencer was almost done with his drink again, and had lost interest in the remaining french fries.

“None taken. I guarantee that anything involving me is most definitely shady. Although shady does not have to mean dishonest. Here’s the thing. You haven’t made any bargains, but someone did on your behalf.”

“What do you-” Mr. Spencer began, but was interrupted.

“Let me finish. You’re obviously done eating, and I don’t want to take up anymore of your time than I need to. Imagine a couple deeply in love. Destined even, and I mean that literally. They would do anything for each other.” The blonde man leaned in over the table as he told his story, keeping his voice low.

     “Things go wrong though, and unfortunately that particular story doesn’t have a happy ending. However, she manages to make a deal. All she wants is for him to be happy, no matter what happens to her. Even at great personal sacrifice.”

“Well, that’s interesting enough. So how does the guy get made happy? What happens to her?” Martin expressed genuine interest.

“It’s not easy. There’s all kinds of complications. The short explanation is that it required a whole new timeline to be created.”

“Wait. A NEW timeline? That can’t be a real thing?” Confusion flooded Martin’s face.

“Like I said, it’s not easy to put together. It is, however, very easy to undo. All it would take is for her and him to meet again, and touch. A hug, a handshake, anything. This timeline would cease, and things would go back to normal. Everything that happened, would… happen. Good and bad. You asked what happened to her. She’s out there. She’s not happy, but that was part of the deal. You were miserable all day today. That’s probably because in another timeline, today is your wedding day. You’re unhappy. That’s not the deal. I’m just doing my job by checking in with you.”

“But you said that it ends badly, and you only talk about her. What happened to him?” Martin felt himself surprisingly emotionally invested in this tale.

“That’s not what I’m here to talk about, but I will say that whatever ‘worst case scenario’ you can come up with, might come close to being accurate. The only thing I’m here to discuss is your happiness. So if you’re not happy now, you need to figure out what happiness is actually worth to you. Is it worth that ‘worst case scenario’?”

The alarm went off at 6:30am. Mr. Spencer reached over deliberately, and silenced it. Sitting up in the bed, he turned and planted his feet firmly on the floor and rubbed his face with his palms. He grabbed his cellphone off the nightstand and began dialing, disconnecting the charger.
“Hey Bill, yeah it’s me, Martin. Listen man, tell the boss I’m not coming in today. No, not sure when. No, I’m not sick. Look, I’ve got a lot to do, just tell him I’m unhappy.”
Martin hung up the phone and stood up to begin gathering the few belongings he was going to take with him on his search for her.

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