Jenni felt her pulse quicken again, as a man entered the restaurant, the bell on the door signalling another possibility.
He waved, and made his way to join someone that wasn't Jenni.
Jenni, partly hidden in an alcove, alone on her fabric-covered bench seat, the dim lighting rendering her almost invisible in the throng of couples and friends filling every table.
She flagged down her waiter - a smart but nervous looking young man. Everything he carried seemed perpetually on the edge of toppling. But nothing ever fell. It helped her pass the time though, a background suspense.
She ordered herself some more bread-sticks and a glass of red wine.
The waiter nodded, and off he went again, spotless white top, legs that bred chaos but somehow delivered stability.
As the last of the customers left, and chairs started to be upended onto tables, cleaners with mops appeared, and Jenni resigned herself to failure. Hope can only be dashed so many times.
She cracked the last piece of bread-stick between thumb and forefinger, and watched it explode into a thousand crumbs over the bare tablecloth.
"You should know better," a baritone voice commented from behind her, with quiet confidence.
She turned, and her waiter came into view, to collapse his legs in front of her. Somehow, despite those ungainly legs, his torso remained perfectly poised as he sat upon the soft, fabric covered bench seat in front of her. It was as though he had two body halves connected by some internal gyroscope.
"Sorry. Couldn't talk to you until all the customers had gone, but couldn't really let you know I was the person you were waiting for up-front. You know how it is. Chat-rooms have ears."
Jenni smiled. "Malcolm, I'm assuming."
The young man seemed nervous, but his eyes held hers calmly. Everything about him seemed to be a contradiction. Smart, yet gangly. Nervous, yet direct. Quiet, yet assured. His dark slicked-back hair, and pale gray eyes added to the contrast.
"Joseph. I use Malcolm in the chat rooms. It seems convincingly geeky."
Jenni smiled at this. Joseph, not Joe. Somehow it worked. She looked more carefully at him. Blemishless skin that suggested he was barely out of his teens, yet a bearing that suggested decades of experience that had survived world-weariness and arrived at determination.
He smiled in return, and he became, to Jenni, the most stunning creature on the face of the Earth at that moment. She felt her brain fogging, a slight weakness in her limbs, her lips tingling in anticipation.
He was holding her gaze levelly.
He must see, she thought. He must feel this too.
But instead, he nodded to her empty wine glass. "Some more? I know I could use some. It is my restaurant, after all."
His restaurant? But he seemed too young. The End of The World it was called. It felt to Jenni like both an end to her chat-room existence, and the beginning of a far better reality. But what had he asked? Wine! Did she want more wine?
She nodded her assent, unable to speak or think further than the moment. She knew the dryness of her throat would betray her.
What the hell? she though to herself as he turned and his random legs were, in her mind's eye, clinging naked to her, as she felt the persistent yearning reach of him inside her. She had to subdue a small gasp, but instead blinked the thought away angrily.
For God's sake, Jenni, you have only just met this guy, she admonished herself angrily, but with little conviction. She could feel the rasp of her dress against her breasts.
Why didn't I wear a bra? I always wear a bra. But not tonight. For some reason, it hadn't seemed appropriate.
When Joseph returned, he seemed to Jenni to be walking in a more coordinated way than she had become used to seeing.
She however, felt a mess, awkward about the placement of every part of her body. This must be what it feels like to be his legs, she thought incongruously.
Joseph sat, showing a sincere smile, maybe a slight twinkle as he placed the glass of wine on the tablecloth in front of her, brushing crumbs away from its path. He gave the base of the glass a little push with a forefinger, as though wishing to reinforce its status as a gift from him, Joseph to her, Jenni.
"Thank you," she managed to croak.
It felt stifling, as though the air was being removed gradually from the room.
He sat back, holding his own glass of red wine between cupped hands, swishing the contents absently, gazing into their eddying depths.
"You're welcome." He drew his tongue between his lips quickly, then it was gone. The moment was framed in Jenni's mind.
God, just ask me. I'd let you take me right here in the restaurant if you asked.
This wasn't her. It was as though someone had substituted some brainless romantic-interest TV character into her brain. This is not me.
But tonight, it was her.
The restaurant was quiet and still. Any remaining waiters had gone home, and even the cleaning staff had finished mopping around them. It was just the two of them, the lights dimmed such that she knew her pupils must be dilated. At least that might hide how helpless she felt.
"Thanks for coming, " Joseph started, business-like now. "I didn't mean to thrust this upon you, but... it became obvious that the situation has slid further than I thought."
She just saw his lips moving, the slight sticking as they went from closed to open. So inviting.
She nodded, dumbly.
"The complexity has become too much. If anyone's going to survive, we need to - well, simplify things."
Jenni felt as though nothing could be simpler than this moment. The words seemed irrelevant. There was one, simple truth.
"Yes," she said. "We need simplicity."
Joseph nodded, serious. "I know. I know how you feel."
He reached forwards, putting his glass onto the table, and ran two fingers down a strand of her hair, looking all the while into her eyes with tenderness.
"There are a very few that will rebuild this world with a new simplicity. Entropy has its limits, and the burgeoning complexity must be arrested. And soon. The natural order of the universe is being wound like a spring to breaking point."
He sat back again, and licked his lips again, looking down into his lap, his hands twisting around each other. This time, he seemed remote, apart from her.
No, she thought, Come back to me.
Slowly, he looked up again, and his hands came to rest. There was no humor in those gray eyes, but a tinge of sadness.
"The rest will die. A retrovirus. It has been dormant for two years, but slowly, each person's DNA has become epigenetically altered. Within the next few hours, it will become nonviable, and one by one, people will simply stop breathing."
She heard the words. She was appalled. Somehow, she knew that none of her family or friends would make the cut. Everyone that she knew would be gone.
"There will be small groups of people that will remain. We have identified the survivors, and they have already been administered a vaccine. A thousand people in a hundred countries. A hundred thousand out of six billion people. It is started."
He stood up. And there it was.
Her eyes rested on the taught fabric of his trousers.
This time, it was Jenni who licked her lips.
Death in one sentence, but love in his actions. Jenni felt guilt, shame, and desire wrapped up in this one moment. But that moment calmed to a singularity of certainty.
He wanted her too.
She realized there were silent tears trickling down her face.
She arose, feeling herself pressed against him, her body yearning for this more than anything she had ever wanted.
They kissed, the cool of her tears spreading across their cheeks, the soft salt tang increasing the urgency.There was no romance, there was the frenzied desire of contact, such that she found herself pressed into the fabric bench seat, a soft stale tang of thousands of patrons filling her nostrils.
And there he was. His face, above her, a soft shadow in the haze of ambient light. Their eyes met, his questioning, hers acquiescing. There was no time for the game, only the rushed, hurried fumblings that might come of teenage experimentation.
As she felt him first teasing at the flesh of her, and then slowly meet her inside, she took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, releasing the tension of the world to a single point of sensation.
They made love in near silence, but for the occasional release of breath to signify the growing intensity they shared, a quiet point of certainty in a world that screamed of a coming chaos.
And somewhere, the first of the living stopped breathing.
When they were done; When they had taken themselves from the soft, wet fabric of the bench in the alcove; When she had righted her clothing, feeling the echo of him inside her still; He turned.
Buckled up his trousers, his legs again their uncoordinated selves.
And made his way without a word, from her towards the door that led to the dark world beyond.
It was then that she realized.
He loved her. This was his final gift to her.
"I am not one of them, am I?" she said sadly.
He stopped, turned, looked at her carefully for a long moment.
"Only the most essential, the most suitable may remain."
There was a waver to his voice. He turned, carrying on towards the exit, his discombobulated legs seeming to travel in a blur of directions now.
She laughed at the ridiculousness of it. She should have felt betrayal, but she felt only acceptance.
It was what it was.
"You will miss me," she said quietly.
As he closed the door behind him, softly through the final chink of air, he gave his final words to her, his lover.
"No, Jenni. I am sorry. It is you who must miss me."
The bell on the door jangled one last time as the door shut, leaving Jenni stunned.
She felt a trickle of wet run down her leg, and for the first time, realized in her, the promise of life.