The smell of burnt popcorn hung in the air. The office itself wasn’t the finest in New York already, and now the smell made Joseph feel self-conscious. He wasn’t a young man, not anymore. That title had left him on his thirtieth birthday, ten years ago. At that time, those who once called him young did so no more, he becoming a man of imminence in the world.
Joseph never considered that the book would become a best seller, let alone the source of social scrutiny and near religious fanaticism. He was a man of simple taste and style, and so he left his office as it had always been: a simple wood-floored loft with brick walls, eclectic furniture and art, and a simple shaggy red rug in the center. That was how it looked when the book was first published, and that was how it’d stayed. The only real difference now was that people would schedule with his assistant just to meet with him in that little room, to hear him speak and scratch hasty notes on a clip board or notepad.
Joseph opened the window to his office, waving a stack of inked pages to waft out the odor. He always liked to have a bowl of popcorn on his desk when he was expecting a guest; it helped to cool the tension. If you feed someone, he thought, they usually feel more at home. Hopefully, the stink would be gone by the time his appointment arrived, and he’d have a fresh bowl of buttery snack ready on the corner of his desk.
His phone buzzed. Joseph turned, fell into his chair, and grabbed the receiver.
“Mr. Caine,” the voice said from the speaker, “your four o’clock is here.”
Joseph looked at his watch. It was 3:35 PM.
“Could you tell him to wait until four? I’m not quite ready.”
Silence on the other end. He waited a moment, cleared his throat, but the silence only grew more awkward.
Then it became concerning.
“Chris?” Joseph said into the static receiver, but no sound came from the other side. Instead, the door to his office creaked open slowly.
Joseph lowered the receiver from his ear and leaned to look at who was coming in. Through the doorway slithered a lithe, green snake. It must have been six feet long, and it continued across the floor, onto the rug, and coiled its way up the leg of one of the chairs until it came to a rest in the seat.
“Sorry I’m early,” the snake said in a clear, unbroken North American accent, “but I had another appointment come up, so I needed to come to you sooner.”
Joseph’s jaw hung open. Slowly he returned the phone receiver to its station.
“Y-you’re Mr. King?” Joseph said. The snake nodded, leaning back in the chair much like a man would.
“Care for a drink?” Joseph said, too shocked to think of another course of action than he normally followed.
“That would be splendid,” Mr. King replied. Joseph retrieved a bottle from his mini-fridge behind the desk and leaned out handing the drink to the snake.
“Could you open it for me?” Mr. King said, “Thanks.”
Joseph twisted off the cap and handed the beverage to the snake. With a quickness as if it had taken it by hand, the snake extended its tail, clasped the perspiring beverage, and started sipping.
Joseph watched in confused awe as the snake sat coiled in his guest chair, drinking. He could hear dust settling on the ceiling fan in between the sounds of swallowing and sighs of refreshment from the snake.
“Mr. King,” Joseph said staccato, unsure what was appropriate for a situation that more than anything called into question his sanity.
“Mr. Caine,” The snake replied, gesturing with the cola bottle.
“What are,” Joseph began, and, cutting himself short, started again, “Who are you, exactly?”
“Was that not clear?” The snake said. “I had my agent set up the meeting, you see.”
Joseph felt a cold sweat running down the back of his neck. Come to think of it, he couldn’t recall how this appointment had been set, or how he knew to expect anyone today. He attempted to be nonchalant and said,
“What was it you wanted to discuss? Your agent wasn’t very clear over the phone.”
“Ah, yes,” The snake said, “He is a bit of a lout. Well, to put it bluntly, I am here because I need you to make a decision. One that could change the world forever.”
“What?” Joseph said.
“It may be hard to grasp, but it falls to you. Only you can handle this burden.”
“This is ridiculous!” Joseph said, “That book was a fluke. I never meant to have any effect. I won’t be told I’m responsible—”
“This has nothing to do with the book, Mr. Caine,” the snake said, setting down the soda and wiping its mouth.
“Then why me?”
“Well, it was random, like a lottery drawing. I don’t make the rules, Mr. Caine. I just pull the strings.”
Joseph grabbed his phone receiver and pressed it to his head. He dialed, but found no tone. It was dead.
“That won’t work until I’ve gone, Mr. Caine,” Mr. King said. Joseph ran to the door and tried the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. Then he noticed; there wasn’t any sound outside. He was in downtown New York, there was always noise from the street. He ran to the window and saw cars and people on the road, still as statues. Nothing outside the room moved. He fell into his chair.
“What are you?”
The snake said nothing.
“What do you want from me?” Joseph said loudly.
“You must choose. Today, either your life will be changed forever, or someone else’s will be. You have to choose which.”
“I can’t say.”
“…Will someone die?”
“I can’t say.”
Joseph rang his hands. Then he stood up quickly, knocking over his chair.
“How could one life change the world forever?” Joseph said. “If I died or someone else, what difference would that make!”
“Please,” The snake said, “Calm down, and try to understand. One life would make all the difference. It has always been so. Either yours, or someone else’s. A single change, a tiny turn, and the entire world is made or undone. You are not the first person I’ve approached. And you won’t be the last.”
“How could you possibly know any of this? You just some snake!”
“I’m not just some snake,” it said, “I’m Mr. King. I don’t have to prove myself to you!” The snake pointed its tail threateningly at Joseph. “You have to prove yourself to me. Now choose, or things will become unstable.”
As Mr. King spoke the light in the room dimmed slightly. The desk started to rattle.
“What is happening?” Joseph said, his palms slick with icy persperation.
“I can’t hold this moment forever” Mr. King said. “At some point, a decision will be made. You have the chance to make the choice. Do it.”
“But you haven’t even told me what I’m choosing!” Joseph realized he was on his knees, as if pleading before the snake. He tried to stand, but his limbs felt like jelly.
“I have told you everything you need to know,” Mr. King replied. “A great change is coming. Choose it for yourself, or for someone else.”
Joseph felt a cold draft, and looked behind him. The back of the room was gone. So was the outside world. It was all swallowed up in a profound darkness, which was still growing, filling the space around him. Everything shook, as if the room was suddenly a deep sea vessel, tossed on the waves.
“Choose!” Mr. King shouted with the authority of a father.
“Take the other man!” Joseph yelled. “He’s the one you want! Don’t take me, take the other man!”
Joseph was huddled on the floor, arms wrapped over his face, cowering. But the shaking had stopped. The light had returned. And faintly, through the window pane, Joseph could once again hear the sounds of the street.
Slowly, Joseph rose from the red shag carpet. Mr. King was still there, coiled in the chair across from him. He wasn’t sure, but Joseph could have sworn the snake was smiling.
“Thank you,” Mr. King said. “I’ll be on my way now. But I’ll be back later.”
“What are you?” Joseph said.
“Like you said,” Mr. King replied with a hint of irony as he uncoiled, headed toward the door, “I’m just some snake.”
As the snake turned the doorknob, Joseph stood.
“Wait!” he called. The snake stopped.
“Yes, Mr. Caine?”
“Did I make the right choice?” His voice cracked.
The snake paused, swaying slightly in the doorway.
“Perhaps it’s better not to know,” Mr. King said. And with that, he was gone.