HOW THE FUTURE GOT BETTER
Eric Schaller’s fiction has appeared in such magazines as Sci Fiction, Postscripts, Shadows & Tall Trees, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and been reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best of the Rest, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year. His illustrations can be found in Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen and Hal Duncan’s An A to Z of the Fantastic City, among others. He is coeditor of The Revelator. This story was first published in Sybil’s Garage #7 in 2010.
The FoTax process. “Your taxes fo’ nothing,” is how Uncle Walt defined it. He stole that joke from a late-night talk show. But even though he didn’t bother to read the brochure, he had caught at least one TV special and knew that Fo stood for photon and Tax for tachyon. “Now pass me another roll,” he said, “a warm one from the bottom of the bucket.”
Mom always insisted that everyone sit down as a family for dinner, but had consented to eating a half-hour earlier than usual so we could watch when FoTax went live. Five-thirty in the pee-em, would you believe it? “Might as well be eating lunch twice,” is how Uncle Walt phrased it, but he said it soft so that Mom couldn’t hear, and out of the corner of his mouth just in case she could lip read. “Hey! What about that roll? A man could die from hunger at his own table.” Little sister Susie, Suz to the family, passed him the bucket and let him dig for his own roll. He probably fingered every one, muttering the whole time: “Cold and hard as a goddamn rock. Probably break a tooth and wouldn’t that be just my luck. There’s a sucker born every minute and, by God, this time that sucker is me.” Took him so long to find his roll and butter it that, by the time he got around to taking a bite, we were already talking about ice cream. “Hold your cotton-picking horses,” Uncle Walt said. “What’s the future got that we ain’t got now?” But he powered through his chicken, coleslaw, and dessert and long-legged it to the living room before anyone grabbed his favorite lounger.
Mom played with the settings on the new Sony receiver by the TV set, squinting at a pamphlet in her hand labeled READ THIS FIRST. “Set it five minutes ahead,” big sister Elizabeth called from her seat on the couch between Dad and Gramps. Elizabeth insisted upon being called by all four syllables of her given name but, to her credit, had memorized the instruction manual as soon as it was out of its plastic wrapper. Probably memorized the Spanish edition too, just in case. “Setting the time closer to now reduces the chance of gray spaces and ghosting,” she said. “Don’t forget to tune to channel one-hundred-and-thirty-one.”
She might have said more but was interrupted by a frantic knocking at our apartment door. It was the Willard family, Pa Willard in the lead, Ma at his elbow, and all the little Willards, indistinguishable from each other with their chocolate-smeared mouths and cherubic curls, peering through the bars of their parents’ legs. “Can we join you?” Pa Willard asked. “Our receiver didn’t arrive.” Ma Willard shot him a dirty look. “You forgot to sign up,” she said. Before the argument could escalate, and the Willards were always arguing, Mom said, “Come on in. Everyone’s in the living room. Suz, would you grab some more chairs for the Willards?”
Which is why, when FoTax went live, there were fourteen of us crammed together in one small room. Our TV was seven feet on the diagonal, and the Willards might have come over even if Pa Willard had remembered to order their receiver. Last anyone knew they still had their old 42-inch model. As you might guess with both families together, and even granting that Grammy started to nod off as soon as she settled into her chair, it was kind of noisy. But everyone went quiet and stared at the TV screen when the little green numbers on the receiver flickered to six o’clock.
But nothing happened.
All you could see was the blue of an empty channel.
“What a gyp,” said Uncle Walt. “You made me rush dessert for this?”
“Maybe it’s not set to the right channel,” said Elizabeth. “One-hundred-and-thirty-one is what the manual said.”
Mom reacted like she had just been called stupid, but got up and checked the setting again anyway. “One-three-one,” she said. “See, it says one-three-one.”
Then without preamble or warning, while Mom tapped her finger on the illuminated part of the screen that, to her credit, did display the proper channel designation, an image abruptly replaced the blue background.
An image of us.
Or most of us anyway. The vantage point looked to be above and a little behind from where we were sitting. But you could see Uncle Walt’s balding head protruding above his lounger, the shoulders and hair of Dad and Elizabeth and Gramps on the couch, and, beside them, Mom sitting rigidly in one of the wooden chairs brought in from the dining table. Two of the golden-haired Willard kids shared another wooden chair beside her. In the image, they, or rather we were all watching the TV. You could see just about one-third of the TV screen, and on that image of the TV there were tinier versions of us clustered around a still tinier version of the TV. And on that miniature TV … well, you get the picture.
Suz, surprisingly, was the first to notice the difference between the image on TV and the positioning of those of us clustered around it. “Hey, Mom,” she said, “you’re sitting down in the TV picture. On a chair.” Which of course was true. But just as true was the fact that here, in the real world, Mom was still standing beside the TV where she had been checking the channel.
“That’s because it’s the future. And in the future Mom’s already sat down again.” Elizabeth said this using her most infuriating know-it-all voice, as if she had also seen the same thing but hadn’t bothered to say a word because it was all so self-evident.
“What if I chose not to sit down?” said Mom, suddenly inspired as she looked at the seated image of herself on the screen. “What if I continued to stand here by the TV?” Even as she said this, before she had finished speaking, her image on the TV started to turn gray and fade away like smoke.
“Hey, you’re ghosting,” said Elizabeth, genuinely excited. “I read about that. Maybe you’ll disappear altogether.”
“Oh, I don’t like that,” said Mom. She sat down in the nearest empty chair, and the image of her on TV came back clear and sharp.
“I want to ghost too,” said one of the Willard kids, already making a move like he was going to jump out of his chair and dance around the room.
“No you don’t,” said Ma Willard, and shot him a look that could freeze, and did.
Uncle Walt was the next one to make a discovery. “You know what?”
“What?” Mom said. She didn’t look at him but kept her eyes fixed on her seated TV image.
“I was wrong.”
“You wrong? Now that I find hard to believe.” Uncle Walt was Mom’s younger brother and, according to her, had been so spoiled while growing up it was a wonder he didn’t stink all the way to China. “Not that I find it hard to believe you were wrong, mind you,” Mom said. “But that you would admit it. That I find hard to believe. Please tell, and I hope to God someone is recording this.”
“I was wrong about the future. It does look better.”
“Better than what?”
“Better than now.”
“In the future, I got a beer.” Uncle Walt gave a little nod like he had just scored a major debating point, but was too polite to rub it in. He was right. The TV version of Uncle Walt was reclined in his lounger, an extra pillow behind his head, just like the real version here in the living room. But on the TV, in the cup holder of his lounger, was a silver can of Coors Light.
Uncle Walt got up, went to the kitchen, and returned brandishing his Coors Light like it was the Holy Grail. He triumphantly popped its top and settled back into his lounger. Now there was absolutely no difference between the version of Uncle Walt on TV and the one in our living room.
We watched then in silence, waiting to see if we could pick out anything else, waiting to see what we would do next, even trying to make out what was being shown on those screens within screens within screens that should, by rights, show us the future in five-minute increments. In some ways it was like a What’s Wrong With This Picture game where you study two seemingly identical pictures and try to discover the differences. Only here they didn’t tell you how many differences there were.
And that wasn’t really fair.
Pretty soon Mom started talking about the obits with Ma Willard. Dad told Pa Willard about the funny noise our refrigerator made, sometimes squealing like there was a mouse trapped inside it, and Pa Willard responded with the obvious, “Well, maybe there is a mouse trapped inside it.” Elizabeth told the Willard kids a ghost story, with Suz adding atmospheric wailings at the appropriate moments. Gramps asked Gramma if she wanted a bedtime martini, then laughed when all he got in response was a colossal snore.
Uncle Walt wasn’t the sort to say he was getting bored with a program, at least when he was one of the stars. But after about fifteen minutes, he leaned over to me and asked, “Isn’t there a new episode of ‘Nut Jobs’ on?”
I tried to remember what day of the week ‘Nut Jobs’ ran, and if they were maybe already into repeats. I was just about to check the listings when I saw it. I spotted a difference. Me. Not Suz. Not Uncle Walt. And certainly not all four syllables of Elizabeth.
“No,” I told him. “‘Nut Jobs’ isn’t on. But there’s something just as good.”
“How do you know?”
I pointed at the TV.
Five minutes into the future we were already watching it.