THIRTY SECONDS FROM NOW
John Chu designs microprocessors by day and writes by night. His fiction has been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Tor.com, among others. This is his first published story, which appeared in the Boston Review in 2011.
One second from now, the bean bag will thunk into Scott’s left palm. From reflex, his fingers will wrap around it before he’ll toss it back up again. The trick of juggling lies not in the catch but in the toss. The bean bag will arc up from his right hand, but Scott sees his left hand blur now. Phantom left hands at the few places his left hand may be one second from now overlap with each other, and with his real left hand about a foot above the cold tile floor he’s sitting on. The same holds for the phantom bean bags. They overlap each other and the result looks nearly as cubic, red, and solid in the air, stark against the dorm room’s blank walls, as the bean bag does right now resting in Scott’s right hand.
He’s making a good toss. This catch will be easy. His three bean bag cascade looks to him the way he imagines it must look to anyone else, well, if they were near-sighted and missing their glasses.
When he makes a bad toss, translucent Scotts scatter across the room. They reach for the beds on either side of him, lunge for his or his roommate’s desk, and dive over his bed for the closet. They all stretch for the myriad translucent bean bags raining from the stucco ceiling. The bean bags threaten to knock over the desk lamps, bury themselves in the acting textbooks that line his closet shelf and smack against the window blinds. A desperate enough toss and a phantom bean bag may fly through the doorway into the hall.
He does not need his time-skewed senses to know he will eventually make a bad toss. As hard as he tries to keep his sight solid, to make his life predictable, he will drop a bean bag. That’s why he’s sitting on the floor. It’s easier to pick up dropped bean bags that way.
* * *
Five seconds from now, someone will walk past the open door of his dorm room. Scott doesn’t recognize him. He’s just arrived at the university and can barely recognize his roommate, a long-haired rail of a man who left him to eat breakfast in the basement cafeteria. The man who will walk past the door is about the same height as the bulletin board across from Scott’s room. His thick body will block what he’s posting from view. His dark hair will lie on his head like a mane. Looking at the man’s back, Scott sees a rounded teddy bear quality to him. What attracts Scott, though, is the man’s clarity.
Scott can read the man’s T-shirt. It lists films the Department of Media Studies screened at a festival this past summer. Five distinct fingers will splay to hold his flyer in place as the other hand pushes pins into the cork. His actions show none of the uncertainty, the blurriness that everyone else’s shows. It’s been years since anyone has looked so clear to him.
The future is messy. Scott’s senses feed him all possible futures at once. He’s learned to wander only a few seconds ahead. That’s close, but it’s still not normal. This man, though, is a relief to his senses. He makes everything clean. Scott wonders for how long he can ogle the man and if he’ll ever walk by the room again. He untethers his senses, and the future rushes in.
* * *
Thirty seconds from now, the man, when he turns to leave, will see Scott juggling. He will rip the flyer he posted off of the bulletin board. The dorm room door will bounce against the closet wall when he knocks on it. A boom will punctuate the bounce. The man will stare at the door chagrined. Scott finds him even more like a teddy bear from the front.
“Hey, I’m Tony.” He’ll shrug as if to say that he didn’t know his own strength. “How long have you been juggling?”
No alternate phrasings or completely different sentences overlap Tony’s words. Scott hears what Tony will say as clearly as if Tony were speaking to him now.
“Five years.” Juggling taught him control, to work in the now. “Why?”
“My senior project—” Tony’s hands will play with his crumpled flyer. “Can I come in?”
Tony’s smile will be warm and Scott’s a sucker for a warm smile. Scott will nod.
“Here’s the deal.” Tony will toss his flyer into the wastebasket. “I want to be the next Fellini. I need a juggler for my senior project. And I want you.” He will dig a finger into Scott’s shoulder. Phantom bean bags will fall around Scott. “Interested?”
“Don’t know enough about your senior project.” The bean bag may fall two inches to the left of Scott’s left hand. His juggling is blurry, but his words to Tony sound as clear as Tony’s words to him. “Also, the Department of Theater and Dance has a mixer tonight in the atrium of the Center for the Arts. I should find out about everyone else’s projects too. Stop by tomorrow, maybe.”
“Sure.” Tony will look disappointed as he backs out of the room. “Tomorrow.”
* * *
About nine hours from now, the roommate will be downstairs partying with friends. He will have mentioned something to Scott about either jello shots or kamakazes and Scott will have said no. The dorm room will be dark and empty when its door unlocks. A hand will fumble for the light switch. It’ll be Tony’s. His other arm will be around Scott, trying to slow his breathing.
“What happened to you, anyway?” Tony will set Scott’s keys on the closest desk. When Scott pulls away, Tony’ll let go of him. “One moment, you’re standing by yourself in a corner of the atrium. The next moment, you can’t breathe.”
Scott will have already plucked his bean bags, sitting next to his keys, from his desk. Seated on the floor between the beds, he’ll juggle.
“I didn’t expect so many people at the mixer,” Scott will say.
He doesn’t do well with crowds. A bad trait for an actor. The multiple alternate selves fill a room and their cacophony sounds like the chaos of all future conversations heard at once. That noise is not the certainty of rehearsed lines and preset blocking on stage. It’s what he’s worked so hard to avoid and what he doesn’t hear when he’s talking to Tony.
Tony will sit on Scott’s bed. His gaze will follow the bean bags up and down.
“Better now?” Tony will lean forward, his hands on his thighs. “I can stay for a while if you want. To make sure you’re OK.”
“You don’t need to do that.” To Scott, the bean bags look nearly as sharply defined as Tony. “I’ll be fine.”
“Of course, I don’t need to do that.” He’ll open his palms to Scott. “I don’t need to do anything.”
“You don’t even know my name.”
“Which is…?” Tony’s face will hang, expectant.
“Scott.” Right now, he’s staring at Tony, but about nine hours from now, he will be studying the bean bags as they arc through the air. “For now, I just need to be alone and juggle, OK?”
“Fine, Scott. But you haven’t seen the last of me yet.” Tony will point his finger repeatedly at him. “I will get you into my movie.”
Tony will back out of the room again.
* * *
Four days from now, Scott will have his jacket on, his juggling gear in his backpack, when the dorm room door will rattle with polite knocking. It’ll be Tony. His right hand will clutch a paper bag. The smell of roasted chicken and cornbread will waft through the doorway.
“Hey, Scott.” Tony will smile and the rest of the world will dim a little. “Doing anything tonight?”
This will be the third day in a row Tony has stood at Scott’s door trying to have dinner with him. Right now, parsing the future, Scott wonders why Tony’s so insistent. Maybe they will have also talked elsewhere. He can’t hear those conversations unless he also goes there to listen. Or maybe Tony will need a juggler really badly.
“Getting a quick bite down in the basement, then I’m going to Juggling Club.”
Tony will look disapprovingly at Scott, but he will only be able to keep it up for a second before he’ll smile. The power of Tony’s smile worries Scott.
“You don’t want to do that.” Tony will hold up the paper bag. “Real food. They’re serving yellow stuff and brown stuff in the basement. I checked. Besides, I have to tell you about my senior project.”
Scott will look back at the room and sigh. His roommate will have used the floor as his closet. In four days, he will know exactly what his roommate has scattered on the floor. Right now, to Scott’s time-shifted gaze, clothing of some sort lies smeared over the tile like a gray carpet. Tony is unusual in that Scott can envision him distinctly even four days ahead. The yellow and black checkerboard of Tony’s button-down shirt is hideous, but on him, it almost looks good.
“Scott, you know that you don’t come close to blocking the door, right?” Tony will pretend to jump to see over Scott. “I can see past you just fine. Just tell me none of that underwear is yours.”
Scott will step aside and they will sit opposite each other on the tangle of sheets and blanket covering his bed to eat chicken, cornbread, and greens. The juices will dribble down his chin. The sweet, salty, tender chicken is everything he already misses about real food.
“The movie is about a charismatic, womanizing director.” Tony will gesticulate with his fork and a piece of cornbread. “The conceit is that the world is a circus. We’ll shoot in black and white…”
Scott will listen intently, facing Tony at first. As the conversation wears on, they’ll talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the Jazz Age. Tony’s gaze will invite Scott and he won’t refuse. He’ll find himself resting against Tony’s chest, within the embrace of Tony’s arms. The Juggling Club will meet then break for the night without him.
* * *
About two weeks from now, Tony will swap rooms with Scott’s roommate. Tony will have suggested that this will be more convenient for everyone. No games with ties on doorknobs to show who is where.
Movie posters will cover the walls. Scott does not recognize most of them yet. Maybe he will in two weeks. Right now, studying the walls that will be, he recognizes only Roma, La Dolce Vita, and 8½.
Tony’s stuff will dominate their room. All Scott has brought with him to school are his clothes, a laptop, and his juggling gear. He sees Tony’s stuff as clearly as he sees Tony. Cases of lights, cameras, and lenses will sit against their own wall. A refrigerator will hum between their desks. Reference texts will fill Tony’s closet, along with hangers of perfectly pressed clothes. To make space for everything, they will have bunked their beds, not that they expect both beds to get much use.
The shirts they’ll wear will become sticky with sweat as they move Tony in, and the smell assaults Scott. After they’ll have finished unpacking, Tony will take off his shirt as he struts to the refrigerator. He’ll hand Scott a beer. Scott will stare back at him puzzled.
“You’ve never had a beer before?” His face will contort into an incredulous scowl. “This is the perfect drink after moving lots of heavy boxes. Trust me. You’ll love it.”
Scott will be so parched that he barely notices any bitterness. Astringency rides on bubbles that explode in his mouth and flow down his throat. His second sip will be a chug.
“Hey, don’t drink it all at once.” Tony will hold his own bottle out to him. “To my, among other things, best buddy.”
Scott will nearly choke on the beer. Tony will pound Scott’s back. When Scott’s finished coughing, he’ll find Tony’s left arm around his shoulders.
“What’s the matter?” Tony will squeeze Scott’s shoulders. “Didn’t you ever have a best buddy before?”
Scott didn’t. High school was an acting exercise. Camouflage. Pretending he never heard all the things people might say. Pretending he never saw all the things they might do. Pretending he was what everyone else expected.
* * *
About four weeks from now, Scott will be on the floor in his pajamas, juggling, waiting up for Tony. The door will rattle against the jamb several times before Scott hears a key inserted into the lock. Scott likes to keep the door locked. Tony always assumes the door will be unlocked. Scott, through his time-shifted sight, has seen Tony forget the door will be locked several times already in the two weeks since they started living together.
“Where have you been?” Scott will stifle a yawn. He will catch his bean bags then rub his bleary eyes. “I need to tell you something.”
“I’m starting production of my movie.” Tony will drop his backpack on his desk. “Are you OK?”
Tony will wrap himself around Scott on the floor. His lips will touch Scott’s neck. Well beyond the point when Tony ought to have been a scattered, transparent ghost, the hair on his arms will be crisp, sharp, and distinct. Scott will share with Tony the secret he’s never shared with anyone else.
“Something I want you to know about me.” Scott’s words will be slow as much from fear as from tiredness. “I sense future sights, sounds, whatever while I sense the present.”
“You know the future?” Tony will laugh. “Tell me that one of these days, I’ll get all the locations for my movie sorted out.”
“I don’t know the future,” Scott will say. “It’s like my body is jet-lagged compared to my senses, and all possible futures stack on top of each other.” Scott will lean back into Tony. “Wherever I am, I experience all the things that may happen there. The more likely it is, the clearer and stronger it is. When I’m near you, the future clears. I never see alternative yous.”
“I never see alternative yous either.” Tony’s whisper will brush Scott’s ear and undercut its gently mocking tone. As Tony stands, he will squeeze Scott’s shoulder. “You’re tired. Get to sleep.”
* * *
Some 50 days from now, Scott will wake to the door crashing back and forth against the jamb. This will not be the first time Tony will return without his key. Nights when Tony needs the juggler on set, this will not be a problem, but the juggler is not a large part.
Scott will stumble to open the door. Tony will march in, forcing Scott back until he is crushed against the bunk beds.
“What the fuck is the matter with you?” Tony will launch his backpack towards his desk. When it lands, a sheaf of paper will scatter and a few pens will crash to the floor. “How many times do I need to tell you? When I’m not in, the door stays open.”
“I don’t want anyone to sneak in while I’m asleep.” Scott’s voice will be small. They will have been building to this conversation for weeks. “We’re not supposed to leave the door open.”
“If you can actually see the future,” Tony will say, folding his arms across his chest, “shouldn’t you know if someone is going to sneak in while you’re sleeping?”
Scott will roll his eyes. He will have lost count of how often he has explained this.
“I don’t want my senses any further ahead than they have to be. And I never see what will be. I see everything that may be. Well, you I always see clearly, but you’re special.”
“You stupid motherfucker. You’ve got it all worked out, don’t you? You get to be a special snowflake but never have to prove it.”
For an instant, Tony will blur and scatter. Scott, now sensing almost two months ahead, has never seen Tony do this before. Tony, like everyone else, has multiple potential futures. Until now, however, Scott has never seen them.
As translucent Tonys scatter around the room, so do translucent Scotts. One Tony slams a Scott against a wall, punching his stomach. Another hits Scott where they stand. Some step back toward the closets, the desk, and Tony’s film gear, turning away from Scott. Others stare at Scott stunned. Only one lays his arms around Scott, gently stroking his back.
Scott and his future self both feel all these alternatives at once. His mind reels from the shock of pain breaking against his nose. A salty, metallic taste slides down his throat, even though he may not bleed that night. Tony’s potential punches to his torso stun, and even if they never happen, they will still knock the wind out of Scott about 50 days from now. Simultaneous with the pain, Tony’s phantom gentle arms caress him. Phantom whispers, like the rustle of leaves, soothe him.
An instant later, Tony will snap back into focus. As the phantom Tonys collapse back into the real one, the phantom Scotts collapse too.
Tony will stare at Scott, his jaw slack. His gaze will sweep over Scott, taking in the grimaces, tears, and the body twisted with pain from the futures that Tony will not have chosen.
“I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.” Tony will caress Scott, his arm moving smoothly across Scott’s back. “I’ll never even think about hurting you again. I promise. The actors who I picked have been real assholes, but I shouldn’t take it out on you. I’m sorry.”
Tony will be unusually attentive that night. He won’t press, though, when Scott refuses the attention.
* * *
Three and a half months from now, both closets will be empty. Tony’s gear will be stacked in black boxes almost exactly where Scott is sitting right now. The future Scott will be sitting on the bottom bunk, cross-legged, folding his shirts. His pants will already be packed in the suitcase sitting on his desk. The refrigerator will be empty and unplugged, its door ajar.
The dorm room door will swing open and clang against the wall. Tony, wrapped in his winter coat, will look like the snowman a five-year-old might make. As far as Scott’s time-shifted sight has shown him, Tony will have been true to his word. He will not have hurt Scott.
Tony will reach for a box of lenses, then stop. “Are you ashamed of me?”
Scott will look at up him. “What?” He will drop his cast T-shirt from the Theater and Dance Department’s fall musical onto his lap. “Why would you think that?”
“You never bring any of your friends here.” His gaze will sweep past him like a final exam. “You do have other friends, right?”
Scott will look at his bean bags on the desk, his acting texts sitting on the closet shelf, and climbing gear lying on the closet floor. “Sure. But this is the room where I don’t have to work to untangle my senses. Bringing my friends here would make it like the rest of the world for me.”
Tony’s face will twist into a frown. He’ll pull his chair from his desk and sit in it backwards facing Scott. Tony’s arms will rest on top of the chair back.
“It’s ironic that I have to talk to you about the future.” He’ll take a deep breath. “You know this will end, right? It’s winter break.” He’ll shrug. “After the spring semester, I’ll be gone, but you’ll still be here.”
“You’ve met someone else?”
Tony will laugh. “No, I only direct like Fellini. Six months from now, I’m going to graduate. You should keep your options open.”
Scott’s brow will furrow. He’ll look at the boxes of gear, stacked ready to go. “You’re moving out?” He’ll pick up his T-shirt and twist it in his hands.
“No, of course not, Scott. And you’re not moving out either.” Tony will sit next to Scott, his hand on Scott’s thigh. “If you want to keep fucking, I’m completely willing. As much and as often as you want. But us, it’s going to end in six months. You have lots of possible futures and they probably don’t involve me. Just saying…”
Scott’s eyes itch. His T-shirt will be a pretzel in his hands.
“Can you leave me alone for a moment?”
Tony will nod. He’ll stand, avoiding the top bunk, his face apologetic. His hands will slap onto his topmost box of gear. With a grunt, he will heft it out of the room.
* * *
Right now, the bean bag thunks into Scott’s left palm. His eyes still itch and he feels the grief he’ll feel again at the end of the semester. A ghost Scott moves to shut the dorm room door. If he closes the door, he and Tony will never meet. Tony will never learn how to hurt Scott in a way that only he can be hurt. Tony will never hurt him in a way that anyone can be hurt.
Scott sighs. All he’s done for years is hide. He’s already lived that kind of hurt. He throws a bean bag into the air and waits for the man with the flyer to arrive. He’s seen the movie of his life. Now, he’ll live the whole thing.