The bell over the door jangled and a gust of cold wind ruffled the newspapers in the rack. Bobby wrapped his gnarled hands around the arms of the chair and heaved himself upright. A stranger stood on the door mat, brushing stray snowflakes from a battered trilby hat. Bobby’s practiced eye took in the three-piece pinstripe suit and pocket watch beneath the black overcoat, and raised an eyebrow.
“Good evening, sir. Don’t trouble yourself, I shan’t be long.” The stranger smiled at Bobby.
“No problem. You take as long as you need.”
Bobby leaned against the counter. The stranger ignored the almost-empty sandwich fridge and headed towards the drinks section. He chose a bottle of lemon-flavoured sparkling water and strode towards Bobby.
“I think this shall be all. How much do I owe you?”
“That’ll be two bucks fifty.”
The stranger handed over the money, the leather of his gloves creaking in the quiet room. He nodded towards the ancient television set behind the counter.
“I suppose you mustn’t get the best signal out here,” he said.
“Naw, it ain’t great. But it’s somethin’ to look at,” replied Bobby.
“It must get awfully quiet.”
The young man looked out of the window at the desolate plains beyond the parking lot. Bobby frowned slightly. It wasn’t just the clipped English accent, or the old-fashioned clothes. There was something sad about him, too. Bobby hobbled back to his rocking chair and lowered himself into his small nest of cushions.
“Well I get a couple of hundred visitors a day come summer. Everybody wants to see Axford, population of one. The photo of the damn sign is all over the Internet. Plus there ain’t a lot of decent gas stations around here, certainly not those that sell food too, so they swing by and I chat to ‘em where I can. It’s quieter come winter but I like the peace.”
“You don’t ever think you might like to move? Closer to family, perhaps?” The stranger fiddled with the cap on the bottle of water.
“I ain’t got none. My wife was the last, and she passed four years back. Naw, don’t you worry about me, young fella, I got all the company I need.” Bobby smiled. I don’t want him feelin’ sorry for me.
“I’m glad you’re so content. Tell me, when did this place cease to be a diner?”
“Aw, that must’ve been ten years back, when we had population forty. When folk started driftin’ away, I turned the diner into a convenience store. The name just kinda stuck though.”
“I think names may be the stickiest of all things in the world,” said the stranger.
He smirked, as if remembering the punchline to some obscure joke. Bobby smiled too, although he couldn’t help noticing that the parking lot was empty – and the nearest town was an hour’s walk away.
“Say, son –”
“I apologise in advance, and this may be a morbid question, but who will change the sign when you’re not around any longer?”
Bobby looked at the stranger and laughed, reminded of a joke about the last man on earth and a ringing telephone. The stranger stared back, that same mild, impassive expression on his face. An oddly comforting winter swirled in his grey eyes. The laughter died in Bobby’s throat.
"What did you say your name was?"
The stranger raised his bottle of water in a silent toast, and turned away from the counter. Behind it, Bobby sat in his rocking chair, eyes closed and a slight smile on his face.
You would swear he was sleeping, thought the stranger.
He opened the door, silencing the jangling bell with a single look. He put his trilby back on, adjusting it to the slight angle he preferred, and crossed the parking lot. The town sign stood beyond the fence beside the deserted highway. The stranger stretched out his hand to cross out the ‘1’, before drawing a zero with his finger.
The man in the pinstripe suit looked back to the Drive ‘n’ Dine. An old man stood at the window and raised his hand in a wave. The stranger nodded, and the old man dissolved into thin air. Satisfied at a job well done, the stranger fetched the scythe from its hiding place among the long grass. He drew a line in the air, parted the fabric of the universe, and walked into infinity.