In Shady Leaves of Destiny by Fred Coppersmith

“Do you want to know the future?” she asks, even though it’s obvious she already knows the answer. “Do you want me to tell you when and how you’re going to die?”

He shrugs. “Sure, why not?”

All of this is part of their dance, after all, the end of what has been a very long courtship. He knows exactly what she is going to say, but there is a certain comfort in finally hearing her say it.

In hearing her say exactly how she is going to kill him.

“I will feed you poison,” she says. She hands him a cup of tea with a sad smile. “There was a time I would have considered knives more appropriate, of course, or strangulation—so many other methods—thinking perhaps you would be too clever for simple poison.”

He nods and takes a sip. “If I were clever,” he says, “do you really think I would have come here today?”

Now it is her turn to shrug. “Perhaps,” she says. “Either way, I think it’s the inevitability that appeals to you.”

She blows cautiously on her own cup but does not drink.

She isn’t wrong, it occurs to him. With their long and strange history, she knows him so well. In this particular moment, she may even know him better than he knows himself.

“Mm,” she says, and the smile returns. “I knew you long before I even knew your name. Or my own. Sometimes I think the very first thing that I ever knew was you. And this moment.”

She raises the cup to her lips and drinks. He smiles and returns the gesture, emptying his own cup until there is nothing left but the hint of tea leaves at the bottom, the whisper of a stain on the white porcelain.

“Before I could even walk or speak,” she says, “before I could put words or action to my visions, I knew how you were going to die. And I knew that I would be the instrument of your execution.”

She stares at him for a very long time after that, as if trying to read something in his face. But she will find nothing there that she hasn’t seen a thousand times already, just as he has seen her face in a thousand identical visions of his own. She will find there only acceptance, satisfaction, eagerness even.

He has known this moment was coming for exactly as long, his entire life, and it has never once occurred to him that he might try to escape it. It isn’t so much that he wants to die, but the certainty of his death—the inevitability of it, as she says—has always been the one star by which he’s steered his life.

“It’s funny,” she says at last. “We’ve only just met, you and I.”

He has never wondered why they share these visions. Why this gift—and it is a gift, he thinks—has entangled them across the span of so many years. Why two strangers, whose paths likely never would have crossed otherwise, were granted this singular glimpse of their shared future. This moment happening, finally, now.

From the moment he was born he has known the moment he will die. It has given his life structure, meaning, purpose. The why of it has never mattered in the slightest to him.

“It’s the only thing that’s ever mattered to me,” she tells him. She sips again at her tea, but this time she does not smile. “Knowing this was going to happen, rehearsing it a thousand times and knowing in my heart that there was nothing I could ever do to change it…”

She stares at him again and sighs. “It has haunted me,” she says.

It is not the word he would have chosen. But more troubling, he suddenly realizes it is not the word he would have expected her to choose, either. It is a word that she has never used in any of his visions, not once—and that, he thinks, is impossible.

“Wait… what?” he asks.

“I lied,” she tells him. “There is no poison in your tea.” She swallows the last of her own cup and places it on the table between them. “Or in mine,” she adds. “Just in case you were wondering about that.”

His eyes narrow, and he stares at her, then back at the cups side by side on the table. The suddenly harmless cups on the table.

“But… no,” he says. “That isn’t how this is supposed to work. You’re supposed to—”

All his life he has known, with absolute certainty and clarity, how this final moment of his life would play out. She can’t just cheat him of that. She can’t just… choose not to kill him.

Can she?

“But that’s exactly what I’ve done,” she says. “I was so sure this had to happen that I never once questioned it, until just now. I was pouring our tea and I thought, what if I just… didn’t? What if, instead of poisoning you, instead of succumbing to the moment like I always thought I had to, I simply walked away from inevitability?”

He stares at her, and for the first time since he walked through her door, he does not know what is going to happen next.

“But I don’t understand,” he says. “Then how and when am I supposed to die?”

“I have no idea,” she tells him. “No idea at all.”

She smiles, and this time, at last, there is no hint of sadness in it.

“I guess you’re just going to have to find that out for yourself.”

Fred Coppersmith’s fiction has appeared previously or is forthcoming (depending on who you believe) in such places as Stupefying Stories, Bourbon Penn, and Mythic Delirium, among others. He toils by day in the wilds of academic publishing and also edits the quarterly zine Kaleidotrope.