The diner hummed, packed with people eating a quick meal before heading out to New Year’s Eve parties, leaving only one seat at the counter. The man entering took the last seat next to a tall, thin woman nursing a cup of tea and waiting on her meal.
“Happy New Year,” he said as he sat down.
“Hmph.” The woman offered as a non-acknowledgment of his sentiment.
“Sorry,” he said. “Hi, I’m—” she cut him off with a raised hand.
“You’re you, I’m me, pleasetameetcha, blah blah blah.” She picked up her tea and sipped while he ordered. “This isn’t a bar, so don’t try chatting me up.”
“Sorry,” he said again. “You have plans for tonight? Watching the fireworks over the lake?”
She let out a heavy sigh. “You just don’t know when to stop, do you?”
“Probably not.” He took a sip of the bitter coffee the diner served and looked at her again. “It’s just that you seem a little down, and the fireworks are always breath-taking.” He shrugged. “It won’t fix anything, but it might take your mind off it for a while.”
“I suppose that’s what you’re doing tonight?” she asked.
“Every New Year,” he answered. “There’s just something about the play of light reflected off the lake that makes it so… I don’t have the words for it.”
“A romantic, huh?” She paused as the waitress sat her plate in front of her. “Or just trying a different tack?”
“No, I’ll cop to being a romantic.” He chuckled. “It’s not manly or cool, I know, but I can’t change who I am.”
“Fine.” She talked between bites of food, less annoyed by the intruder than she wanted to be. “So don’t change.”
“What do you like best about New Year’s?” he asked.
“I don’t.” Her answer was curt, around a mouthful of salad.
“I see.” He said it like someone had just told him that an invisible pink unicorn was walking through the diner. “So how do you celebrate the new year?”
“I don’t.” She popped a bit of steak in her mouth, hoping he’d get the hint that the topic was off-limits.
“Ever?” he asked. “I mean, you must have, at some point. With family, when you were younger?”
She was ready to tell him off, but realized she didn’t want to. Not yet, anyway. “I… used to.” She took a sip of her tea. “About seven or eight years ago I stopped.”
“What happened?” His green eyes had an open curiosity that she found difficult to ignore.
“I… got drunk one New Year’s Eve and tested a prototype machine before it was ready.” Her face turned to the half-eaten plate in front of her. She pushed it away, her appetite gone.
“Did… did someone get hurt?” The curiosity turned to concern.
“No, it just… didn’t work as expected.” Her expression turned sour.
"So your experiment failed?" Curiosity returned to his face. "Did the prototype get destroyed? Can you try again?"
"I didn't say it failed." She sighed. "It just worked in an unexpected fashion, which I might have been able to foresee had I been sober when I fired it up."
"Well, that's a good reason to not drink while experimenting, it hardly seems reason to give up celebrating at all," he said.
“If you had to....” She sighed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Fair enough.” He ate in silence for a minute, then put down his fork and turned in his chair to face her. “What I like best about it is a fresh start. A whole new year to try again, start over, or start something new.”
"It's arbitrary." Her appetite had returned, and she picked at her plate. "If it was a Solstice, then yeah, days are getting longer or shorter depending on which you choose." She cut another bite of steak and popped it in her mouth.
"There's no reason," she said after swallowing, "that the change from December to January should be any different than the change from March to April."
"But the year is changing, marking another trip around the sun." The man ignored his cooling plate and continued to face her.
"Do you really think the year makes the difference?" She frowned. "Maybe for you it does. For me, it's always the same. Tomorrow's just another day."
"Another day, another year." His eyes smiled.
"So you really think 2020 will be different from 2019?" Her brown eyes locked on his.
"Probably," he said. "Likely better."
"A romantic and an optimist, huh?" She chuckled. "That's an odd and unlikely combination." Her voice dripped sarcasm.
"You said you stopped celebrating New Year's Eve seven or eight years ago." His eyes turned curious again. "What have you done since?"
She frowned. "Every year, for the past seven? Yes, seven... years I sit here on December 31, in this seat, and have a steak dinner before going home and going to bed."
"That would be sad, if it was true." His eyes narrowed. "Since this place only opened last year, I know that's not the case. But, you want to keep it private, I understand."
"You really don't," she said, "but thanks for trying, anyway." She left a fifty-dollar bill on the counter and walked out.
Once back in her third-floor walk-up she locked the door, changed into pajamas, and set some music playing lightly on the stereo. She plugged in her phone. December 31, 2019 10:03 PM the display showed. Will I just cease to exist in 2020? What happens for them?
She soon fell into a fitful sleep. As she slept, she relived starting the machine in her dream. Even in her dream she experienced the hazy excitement of what it would mean if her machine worked. She tried to stop her dream self, but to no avail.
"Stop!" she screamed. "It doesn't work the way you think!" Her dream self ignored her. The dream continued with the machine humming to life and then a blinding light.
She woke in the morning and looked at her phone. It showed her morning list of top tweets. The first was an all-caps greeting from the president, wishing a happy New Year to his "enemies" and the "fake news." She knew it by heart. As much as she had hoped for a different year, it was the same. She locked the phone, the display showing January 1, 2019 8:04 AM.
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