EXPIRATION DATE

He was out in the crisp, thin air of the Smokies when he found the universe’s expiration date.

It was just hovering there, kind of floating if you will, a tag the same as the kind you might get a government warning against removing from your average mattress.

He’d been hiking so long in an off-limits thicket of Clingman’s Dome with barely enough oxygen to sate his lungs’ appetite that he figured he must be hallucinating.

But when he pulled and tugged, and yes even hung in midair from this floating tag, he was convinced.

It was a simple tag, efficient. All it had on it was:

PRODUCT: UNIVERSE

And below that, a “BEST BY” date that corresponded to two weeks in the future.

Naturally, he figured that should the tag be removed, whoever was in charge of throwing away the universe wouldn’t know just when it had expired, so he pulled on the tag some more. Bit at it, ripped at it, even hacked at it with his pocket knife, but nothing worked. That tag was stubborn.

And so he went home. Didn’t tell a soul what he’d seen for fear of ridicule. Kept it to himself and sat and worried over it till it got so he was always sweating. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day he was thinking about that expiration date. There was no escaping it. It wasn’t an expiration date for him, or the Smokies, or even the world itself, but for the whole universe. If the whole universe was about to be tossed in the trash, then what way out was there? And why did he have to be the one with the privileged information?

He stewed like that for a whole week, till his head was always hot from thinking, till his eyes were black from lack of sleep, till he knew that he couldn’t live like this anymore, for the last week of his and everyone else’s life.

So he went outside.

He sat in his rickety old chair on his rickety old porch and he watched. He listened. He heard his heart pumping just as fast as it could, watched the goldfinch across the street build her nest as the morning dew evaporated on his lawn. Saw the nearby willows sway in the breeze, pockets of light shining through and dancing in the field over chipmunks whose default setting was scurry. Watched the petals of a daisy dip way down low and threaten to graze a nearby anthill as a chubby honeybee plied its trade.

He saw things, and he heard things, and he felt them in his bones. He breathed and watched and waited and didn’t have a care in his soul for what was going to happen.

Another week went by after that, with his heart and soul lifted and fluttering on the breeze. And try as he might, he couldn’t locate the Great Garbage Can they’d all be thrown away into. Everything carried on just the same as before.

So he hiked back to Clingman’s Dome and pushed on through those thickets. Checked his compass and the angle of the sun both, but try as he might he couldn’t find that tag again. Here was the clearing where he’d found it, all the nearby landmarks the same, but it was gone. Removed. Maybe never there in the first place.

But that deep calm of his didn’t go with it. No, it stayed and hasn’t left once. Probably never will.

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