Hess sipped his tea as he read the news by the early morning light shining through the bay window of their squat house. Alan ran into the room wearing his gray school uniform to stand attentively at his side. Hess shuffled the paper, pretending not to notice the boy.
Across the table, Elza hid a smile in her tea, watching the people pass by their window. They had bought the house for that window. Impractical as hell in the middle of a city noted for its crime, the thing nevertheless provided a perfect picture of the world for their enjoyment.
“Good morning, sir,” Alan said in the high-pitched voice of a nine-year-old.
Hess moved as if startled. “Good morning, Alan. How did you sleep?”
“Very good, sir.”
“Would you like me to grab you a cup of tea and some toast?”
Alan's shoulders slumped. “Uh, yes, sir. That would be nice.”
“Quit teasing him,” Elza said.
Hess reached into the pocket of his vest and pulled out two coins. “Almost forgot our deal. I owe you something from the bakery for getting good marks at the academy.” He placed the coins on the table.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Enjoy it, Alan. You worked hard for it.”
Alan scooped up the coins. “I don't mind studying, sir. I like going to school.”
“Keep it up and you'll land a nice job that'll allow you as many sweets from the bakery as you can eat.”
Alan turned to go and hesitated. “Sir, when I am older, if I do well in my studies and land a nice job like you say, then I want to adopt an orphan off the streets like you and the madam. Maybe a couple of them.”
“You're going to make a good man,” Elza said.
“Thank you, madam.”
“Spend every cent, Alan,” Hess said.
When the child scampered from the room, Elza turned back from the window. In this world the body she wore was plain and plump. “If one of our fosters ever took after you, it's this one.”
Hess returned his attention to the paper. “Thirteen people died in a fire yesterday.”
She returned her attention to the window. “Third fire this month. That should motivate the city council to pass stricter building codes.”
“Everything they do is reactive. All it would take is a little foresight to prevent these tragedies.” Hess crumpled the paper and threw it into the fireplace. “They can't look more than a few days into the future.”
“What do you expect from them, Hess? We've seen the consequence of every action a thousand times, but the brightest of them are little more than children. Besides, you don't really want a world without conflict. Do you?”
“Definitely not. The second Iteration was a disaster.”
“Not entirely,” Elza said. “There are a few moments from that Iteration I always hold in my memory.”
Hess moved his seat next to hers. Outside, people rushed to and fro, off to work or running chores. Alan would probably be at the bakery by now. The boy had been starving to death a year ago. The turning point in his life had been when a sudden blizzard prevented him from returning to the slums after a day spent begging. Alan should have frozen to death that night. Instead, two Observers saw him from their bay window and let him stay the night in their spare room. He waited out the snow a few days, then agreed to stay on as a serving boy in exchange for room and board. After a while, Hess had insisted Alan get an education.
He leaned towards Elza. “Did you know Alan calls us his parents?”
“I haven't heard it,” she said.
“Just to his friends.”
“Have you been spying on him?”
“Elza, I am an Observer. What do you expect?”
“An Observer doesn't take in strays.”
“You didn't object.”
“Hess, I stopped objecting long ago. It never did any good.”
As he opened his mouth, creation began to rumble and scream, announcing the end of the world. Elza turned to him, wincing at sirens audible only to Observers. “I guess that's it for this one. The timing is a bit inconvenient. I was hoping to see how Alan turned out.”
Hess looked out the window, at the world in motion, ignorant that its end was seconds away. Alan was probably biting into a pastry or sucking on a hard candy. He reached out for Elza's hand. “Do you really want to see how he will turn out?” The sky opened. It was as if the Creator had torn away a wall, exposing them to whatever existed beyond the world. Just a thought would send them free of the world. “Because I think we can.”
She smiled at him. “Find me fast.” Elza vanished.
As the rumbling and screaming grew in volume, he stared out the window. At least Alan dies happy. Hess stepped out of existence.