FORTY, COUNTING DOWN
Harry Turtledove is an American writer sometimes known as the Master of Alternate History. In addition to writing fiction, he has also edited anthologies, including one on the theme of time travel. This story was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1999 and is a companion piece to his other story in this anthology, “Twenty-one, Counting Up.” Both stories feature the same main character, Justin Kloster.
“Hey, Justin!” Sean Peters’ voice floated over the top of the Superstrings, Ltd., cubicle wall. “It’s twenty after six – quitting time and then some. Want a drink or two with me and Garth?”
“Hang on,” Justin Kloster answered. “Let me save what I’m working on first.” He told his computer to save his work as it stood, generate a backup, and shut itself off. Having grown up in the days when voice-recognition software was imperfectly reliable, he waited to make sure the machine followed orders. It did, of course. Making that software idiotproof had put Superstrings on the map a few years after the turn of the century.
Justin got up, stretched, and looked around. Not much to see: the grayish-tan fuzzy walls of the cubicle and an astringently neat desktop that held the computer, a wedding photo of Megan and him, and a phone/fax. His lips narrowed. The marriage had lasted four years – four and a half, actually. He hadn’t come close to finding anybody else since.
Footsteps announced Peters’ arrival. He looked like a high-school linebacker who’d let most of his muscle go to flab since. Garth O’Connell was right behind him. He was from the same mold, except getting thin on top instead of going gray. “How’s the Iron Curtain sound?” Peters asked.
“Sure,” Justin said. “It’s close, and you can hear yourself think – most of the time, anyhow.”
They went out into the parking lot together, bitching when they stepped from air conditioning to San Fernando Valley August heat. Justin’s eyes started watering, too; L.A. smog wasn’t so bad as it had been when he was young, but it hadn’t disappeared.
An Oasis song was playing when the three software engineers walked into the Iron Curtain, and into air conditioning chillier than the office’s. The music took Justin back to the days when he’d been getting together with Megan, though he’d liked Blur better. “Look out,” Sean Peters said. “They’ve got a new fellow behind the bar.” He and Garth chuckled. They knew what was going to happen. Justin sighed. So did he.
Peters ordered a gin and tonic, O’Connell a scotch on the rocks. Justin asked for a Bud. Sure as hell, the bartender said, “I’ll be right with you two gents” – he nodded to Justin’s co-workers – “but for you, sir, I’ll need some ID.”
With another sigh, Justin produced his driver’s license. “Here.”
The bartender looked at him, looked at his picture on the license, and looked at his birthdate. He scowled. “You were born in 1978? No way.”
“His real name’s Dorian Gray,” Garth said helpfully.
“Oh, shut up,” Justin muttered, and then, louder, to the bartender, “Yeah, I really turned forty this past spring.” He was slightly pudgy, but he’d been slightly pudgy since he was a toddler. And he’d been very blond since the day he was born. If he had any silver mixed with the gold, it didn’t show. He also stayed out of the sun as much as he could, because he burned to a crisp when he didn’t. That left him with a lot fewer lines and wrinkles than his buddies, who were both a couple of years younger than he.
Shaking his head, the bartender slid Justin a beer. “You coulda fooled me,” he said. “You go around picking up high-school girls?” His hands shaped an hourglass in the air.
“No.” Justin stared down at the reflections of the ceiling lights on the polished bar.
“Middle school,” Garth suggested. He’d already made his scotch disappear. Justin gave him a dirty look. It was such a dirty look, it got through to Sean Peters. He tapped Garth on the arm. For a wonder, Garth eased off.
Justin finished the Bud, threw a twenty on the bar, and got up to leave. “Not going to have another one?” Peters asked, surprised.
“Nope.” Justin shook his head. “Got some things to do. See you in the morning.” Out he went, walking fast so his friends couldn’t stop him.
* * *
As soon as the microchip inside Justin’s deadbolt lock shook hands with the one in his key, his apartment came to life. Lamps came on. The stereo started playing the Pulp CD he’d left in there this morning. The broiler heated up to do the steak the computer knew was in the refrigerator. From the bedroom, the computer called, “Now or later?”
“Later,” Justin said, so the screen stayed dark.
He went into the kitchen and tossed a couple of pieces of spam snailmail into the blue wastebasket for recycling. The steak went under the broiler; frozen mixed vegetables went into the microwave. Eight minutes later, dinner.
After he finished, he rinsed the dishes and silverware and put them in the dishwasher. When he closed the door, the light in it came on; the machine judged it was full enough to run a cycle in the middle of the night.
Like the kitchen, his front room was almost as antiseptically tidy as his cubicle at Superstrings. But for a picture of Megan and him on their honeymoon, the coffee table was bare. All his books and DVDs and audio CDs were arranged alphabetically by author, title, or group. None stood even an eighth of an inch out of place. It was as if none of them dared move without his permission.
He went into the bedroom. “Now,” he said, and the computer monitor came to life.
A picture of Megan and him stood on the dresser, another on the nightstand. Her high-school graduation picture smiled at him whenever he sat down at the desk. Even after all these years, he smiled back most of the time. He couldn’t help it. He’d always been happy around Megan.
But she hadn’t been happy around him, not at the end. Not for a while before the end, either. He’d been a long, long time realizing that. “Stupid,” he said. He wasn’t smiling now, even with Megan’s young, glowing face looking right at him out of the picture frame. “I was stupid. I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know how to take care of her.”
No wonder he hadn’t clicked with any other woman. He didn’t want any other woman. He wanted Megan – and couldn’t have her any more.
“E-mail,” he told the computer, and gave his password. He went through it, answering what needed answering and deleting the rest. Then he said, “Banking.” The computer had paid the monthly Weblink bill, and the cable bill, too. “All good,” he told it.
The CD in the stereo fell silent. “Repeat?” the computer asked.
“No.” Justin went out to the front room. He took the Pulp CD out of the player, put it in its jewel box, and put the jewel box exactly where it belonged on the shelf. Then he stood there in a rare moment of indecision, wondering what to pull out next. When he chose a new CD, he chuckled. He doubted Sean or Garth would have heard of the Trash Can Sinatras, let alone heard any of their music. His work buddies had listened to grunge rock back before the turn of the century, not British pop.
As soon as Cake started, he went back into the bedroom and sat down at the computer again. This time, he did smile at Megan’s picture. She’d been crazy for the Trash Can Sinatras, too.
The music made him especially eager to get back to work. “Superstrings,” he said, and gave a password, and “Virtual reality” and another password, and “Not so virtual” and one more. Then he had to wait. He would have killed for a Mac a quarter this powerful back in 1999, but it wasn’t a patch on the one he used at the office. The company could afford the very best. He couldn’t, not quite.
He went to the keyboard for this work: for numbers, it was more precise than dictating. And he had to wait again and again, while the computer did the crunching. One wait was long enough for him to go take a shower. When he got back, hair still damp, the machine hadn’t finished muttering to itself. Justin sighed. But the faster Macs at the office couldn’t leap these numbers at a single bound. What he was asking of his home computer was right on the edge of what it could do.
Or maybe it would turn out to be over the edge. In that case, he’d spend even more lunch hours in his cubicle in the days ahead than he had for the past six months. He was caught up on everything the people above him wanted. They thought he worked his long hours to stay that way.
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” Justin murmured. “And it may do me some good.”
He didn’t think anyone else had combined superstring physics, chaos theory, and virtual reality this way. If anyone had, he was keeping quiet about it – nothing in the journals, not a whisper on the Web. Justin would have known; he had virbots out prowling all the time. They’d never found anything close. He had this all to himself … if he hadn’t been wasting his time.
Up came the field parameters, at long, long last. Justin studied them. As the computer had, he took his time. He didn’t want to let enthusiasm run away with him before he was sure. He’d done that half a lifetime ago, and what had it got him? A divorce that blighted his life ever since. He wouldn’t jump too soon. Not again. Not ever again. But things looked good.
“Yes!” he said softly. He’d been saying it that particular way since he was a teenager. He couldn’t have named the disgraced sportscaster from whom he’d borrowed it if he’d gone on the rack.
He saved the parameters, quit his application, and had the computer back up everything he’d done. The backup disk went into his briefcase. And then, yawning, he hit the sack.
* * *
Three days later, Garth O’Connell was the first to gape when Justin came into the office. “Buzz cut!” he exclaimed, and ran a hand over his own thinning hair. Then he laughed and started talking as if the past twenty years hadn’t happened: “Yo, dude. Where’s the combat boots?”
In my closet, Justin thought. He didn’t say that. What he did say was, “I felt like doing something different, that’s all.”
“Like what?” Garth asked. “Globalsearching for high-school quail, like the barkeep said? The competition doesn’t wear short hair any more, you know.”
“Will you melt it down?” Justin snapped.
“Okay. Okay.” Garth spread his hands. “But you better get used to it, ’cause everybody else is gonna say the same kind of stuff.”
Odds were he was right, Justin realized gloomily. He grabbed a cup of coffee at the office machine, then ducked into his cubicle and got to work. That slowed the stream of comments, but didn’t stop them. People would go by the cubicle, see the side view, do a double take, and start exclaiming.
Inside half an hour, Justin’s division head came by to view the prodigy. She rubbed her chin. “Well, I don’t suppose it looks unbusinesslike,” she said dubiously.
“Thanks, Ms. Chen,” Justin said. “I just wanted to—”
“Start your midlife crisis early.” As it had a few evenings before, Sean Peters’ voice drifted over the walls of the cubicle.
“And thank you, Sean.” Justin put on his biggest grin. Ms. Chen smiled, which meant he’d passed the test. She gave his hair another look, nodded more happily than she’d spoken, and went off to do whatever managers did when they weren’t worrying about haircuts.
Sean kept his mouth shut till lunchtime, when he stuck his head into Justin’s cubicle and said, “Feel like going over to Omino’s? I’ve got a yen for Japanese food.” He laughed. Justin groaned. That made Peters laugh harder than ever.
Justin shook his head. Pointing toward his monitor, he said, “I’m brownbagging it today. Got a ton of stuff that needs doing.”
“Okay.” Peters shrugged. “Anybody’d think you worked here or something. I’ll see you later, then.”
Between noon and half past one, Superstrings was nearly deserted. Munching on a salami sandwich and an orange, Justin worked on his own project, his private project. The office machine was better than his home computer for deciding whether possible meant practical.
“Yes!” he said again, a few minutes later, and then, “Time to go shopping.”
* * *
Being the sort of fellow he was, he shopped with a list. Vintage clothes came from Aaardvark’s Odd Ark, undoubtedly the funkiest secondhand store in town, if not in the world. As with his haircut, he did his best to match the way he’d looked just before the turn of the century.
Old money was easier; he had to pay only a small premium for old-fashioned smallhead bills at the several coin-and-stamp shops he visited. “Why do you want ’em, if you don’t care about condition?” one dealer asked.
“Maybe I think the new bills are ugly,” he answered. The dealer shrugged, tagging him for a nut but a harmless one. When he got to $150,000, he checked money off the list.
He got to the office very early the next morning. The security guard chuckled as he unlocked the door. “Old clothes and everything. Looks like you’re moving in, pal.”
“Seems like that sometimes, too, Bill.” Justin set down his suitcases for a moment. “But I’m going out of town this afternoon. I’d rather have this stuff indoors than sitting in the trunk of my car.”
“Oh, yeah.” Bill nodded. He had to be seventy, but his hair wasn’t any lighter than iron gray. “I know that song.” He knew lots of songs, many dating back to before Justin was born. He’d fought in Vietnam, and been a cop, and now he was doing this because his pension hadn’t come close to keeping up with skyrocketing prices. Justin wondered if his own would, come the day.
But he had different worries now. “Thanks,” he said when the guard held the door for him.
He staggered up the stairs; thanks to the stash of cash (a new compact car here, nothing more, even with the premium he’d had to pay, but a young fortune before the turn of the century), some period clothes scrounged – like the Dilbert T-shirt and baggy jeans he had on – from secondhand stores, and the boots, those suitcases weren’t light, and he’d never been in better shape than he could help. The backpack in which he carried his PowerBook and VR mask did nothing to make him more graceful, either.
Once he got up to the second floor, he paused and listened hard. “Yes!” he said when he heard nothing. Except for Bill down below, he was the only person here.
He went into the men’s room, piled one suitcase on the other, and sat down on them. Then he took the laptop out of its case. He plugged the VR mask into its jack, then turned on the computer. As soon as it came up, he put on the mask. The world went black, then neutral gray, then neutral … neutral: no color at all, just virtual reality waiting to be made real.
It all took too long. He wished he could do this back at his desk, with an industrial-strength machine. But he didn’t dare take the chance. This building had been here nineteen years ago. This men’s room had been here nineteen years ago. He’d done his homework as well as he could. But his homework hadn’t been able to tell him where the goddamn cubicle partitions were back before the turn of the century.
And so … the john. He took a deep breath. “Run program superstrings-slash-virtual reality-slash-not so virtual,” he said.
The PowerBook quivered, ever so slightly, on his lap. His heart thudded. Talk about your moments of truth. Either he was as smart as he thought he was, or Garth or Sean or somebody would breeze in and ask, “Justin, what the hell are you doing?”
A string in space-time connected this place now to its earlier self, itself in 1999. As far as Justin knew, nobody but him had thought of accessing that string, of sliding along it, with VR technology. When the simulation was good enough, it became the reality – for a while, anyhow. That was what the math said. He thought he’d done a good enough job here.
And if he had … oh, if he had! He knew a hell of a lot more now, at forty, than he had when he was twenty-one. If he-now could be back with Megan for a while instead of his younger self, he could make things right. He could make things last. He knew it. He had to, if he ever wanted to be happy again.
I’ll fix it, he thought. I’ll fix everything. And when I slide back to here-and-now, I won’t have his emptiness in my past. Everything will be the way it could have been, the way it should have been.
An image began to emerge from the VR blankness. It was the same image he’d seen before slipping on the mask: blue tile walls with white grouting, acoustic ceiling, sinks with a mirror above them, urinals off to the left, toilet stalls behind him.
“Dammit,” he muttered under his breath. Sure as hell, the men’s room hadn’t changed at all.
“Program superstrings-slash-virtual reality-slash-not so virtual reality is done,” the PowerBook told him.
He took off the mask. Here he sat, on his suitcases, in the men’s room of his office building. 2018? 1999? He couldn’t tell, not staying in here. If everything had worked out the way he’d calculated, it would be before business hours back when he’d arrived, too. All he had to do was walk out that front door and hope the security guard wasn’t right there.
No. What he really had to hope was that the security guard wasn’t Bill.
He put the computer in his backpack again. He picked up the suitcases and walked to the men’s-room door. He set down a case so he could open the door. His heart pounded harder than ever. Yes? Or no?
* * *
Justin took two steps down the hall toward the stairs before he whispered, “Yes!” Instead of the gray-green carpet he’d walked in on, this stuff was an ugly mustard yellow. He had no proof he was in 1999, not yet. But he wasn’t in Kansas any more.
The place had the quiet-before-the-storm feeling offices get waiting for people to show up for work. That fit Justin’s calculations. The air conditioner was noisier, wheezier, than the system that had been – would be – in his time. But it kept the corridor noticeably cooler than it had been when he lugged his stuff into the men’s room. The ’90s had ridden an oil glut. They burned lavishly to beat summer heat. His time couldn’t.
There was the doorway that led to the stairs. Down he went. The walls were different: industrial yellow, not battleship gray. When he got to the little lobby, he didn’t recognize the furniture. What was there seemed no better or worse than what he was used to, but it was different.
If there was a guard, he was off making his rounds. Justin didn’t wait for him. He opened the door. He wondered if that would touch off the alarm, but it didn’t. He stepped out into the cool, fresh early-morning air of … when?
He walked through the empty lot to the sidewalk, then looked around. Across the street, a woman out power-walking glanced his way, but didn’t stop. She wore a cap, a T-shirt, and baggy shorts, which proved nothing. But then he looked at the parked cars, and began to grin a crazy grin. Most of them had smooth jelly-bean lines, which, to his eyes, was two style changes out of date. If this wasn’t 1999, it was damn close.
With a clanking rumble of iron, a MetroLink train pulled into the little station behind his office. A couple of people got off; a handful got on. In his day, with gas ever scarcer, ever costlier, that commuter train would have far more passengers.
Standing on the sidewalk, unnoticed by the world around him, he pumped a fist in the air. “I did it!” he said. “I really did it!”
Having done it, he couldn’t do anything else, not for a little while. Not much was open at half past five. But there was a Denny’s up the street. Suitcases in hand, he trudged toward it. The young, bored-looking Hispanic waitress who seated him gave him a fishy stare. “You coulda left your stuff in the car,” she said pointedly.
His answer was automatic: “I don’t have a car.” Her eyebrows flew upward. If you didn’t have a car in L.A., you were nobody. If you didn’t have a car and did have suitcases, you were liable to be a dangerously weird nobody. He had to say something. Inspiration struck: “I just got off the train. Somebody should’ve picked me up, but he blew it. Toast and coffee, please?”
She relaxed. “Okay – coming up. White, rye, or whole wheat?”
“Wheat.” Justin looked around. He was the only customer in the place. “Can you keep an eye on the cases for a second? I want to buy a Times.” He’d seen the machine out front, but hadn’t wanted to stop till he got inside. When the waitress nodded, he got a paper. It was only a quarter. That boggled him; he paid two bucks weekdays, five Sundays.
But the date boggled him more. June 22, 1999. Right on the money. He went back inside. The coffee waited for him, steaming gently. The toast came up a moment later. As he spread grape jam over it, he glanced at the Times and wondered what his younger self was doing now.
Sleeping, you dummy. He’d liked to sleep late when he was twenty-one, and finals at Cal State Northridge would have just ended. He’d have the CompUSA job to go to, but the place didn’t open till ten.
Megan would be sleeping, too. He thought of her lying in a T-shirt and sweats at her parents’ house, wiggling around the way she did in bed. Maybe she was dreaming of him and smiling. She would be smiling now. A few years from now … Well, he’d come to fix that.
He killed forty-five minutes. By then, the restaurant was filling up. The waitress started to look ticked. Justin ordered bacon and eggs and hash browns. They bought him the table for another hour. He tried not to think about what the food was doing to his coronary arteries. His younger self wouldn’t have cared. His younger self loved Denny’s. My younger self was a fool, he thought.
He paid, again marveling at how little things cost. Of course, people didn’t make much, either; you could live well on $100,000 a year. He tried to imagine living on $100,000 in 2018, and shook his head. You couldn’t do it, not if you felt like eating, too.
When he went out to the parking lot, he stood there for forty minutes, looking back toward the train station. By then, it was getting close to eight o’clock. Up a side street from the Denny’s was a block of apartment buildings with names like the Tivoli, the Gardens, and the Yachtsman. Up the block he trudged. The Yachtsman had a vacancy sign.
The manager looked grumpy at getting buzzed so early, but the sight of greenbacks cheered him up in a hurry. He rented Justin a one-bedroom furnished apartment at a ridiculously low rate. “I’m here on business,” Justin said, which was true … in a way. “I’ll pay three months in advance if you fix me up with a TV and a stereo. They don’t have to be great. They just have to work.”
“I’d have to root around,” the manager said. “It’d be kind of a pain.” He waited. Justin passed him two fifties. He nodded. So did Justin. This was business, too. The manager eyed his suitcases. “You’ll want to move in right away, won’t you?”
Justin nodded again. “And I’ll want to use your phone to set up my phone service.”
“Okay,” the manager said with a sigh. “Come into my place here. I’ll get things set up.” His fish-faced wife watched Justin with wide, pale, unblinking eyes while he called the phone company and made arrangements. The manager headed off with a vacuum cleaner. In due course, he came back. “You’re ready. TV and stereo are in there.”
“Thanks.” Justin went upstairs to the apartment. It was small and bare, with furniture that had seen better decades. The TV wasn’t new. The stereo was so old, it didn’t play CDs, only records and cassettes. Well, his computer could manage CDs. He accepted a key to the apartment and another for the security gates, then unpacked. He couldn’t do everything he wanted till he got a phone, but he was here.
* * *
He used a pay phone to call a cab, and rode over to a used-car lot. He couldn’t do everything he wanted without wheels, either. He had no trouble proving he was himself; he’d done some computer forgery before he left to make his driver’s license expire in 2003, as it really did. His number hadn’t changed. Security holograms that would have given a home machine trouble here-and-now were a piece of cake to graphics programs from 2018. His younger self didn’t know he’d just bought a new old car: a gray early-’90s Toyota much like the one he was already driving.
“Insurance is mandatory,” the salesman said. “I can sell you a policy…” Justin let him do it, to his barely concealed delight. It was, no doubt, highway robbery, especially since Justin was nominally only twenty-one. He’d dressed for the age he affected, in T-shirt and jeans. To him, though, no 1999 prices seemed expensive. He paid cash and took the car.
Getting a bank account wasn’t hard, either. He chose a bank his younger self didn’t use. Research paid off: he deposited only $9,000. Ten grand or more in cash and the bank would have reported the transaction to the government. He didn’t want that kind of notice. He wanted no notice at all. The assistant manager handed him a book of temporary checks. “Good to have your business, Mr. Kloster. The personalized ones will be ready in about a week.”
“Okay.” Justin went off to buy groceries. He wasn’t a great cook, but he was a lot better than his younger self. He’d had to learn, and had.
Once the groceries were stowed in the pantry and the refrigerator, he left again, this time to a bookstore. He went to the computer section first, to remind himself of the state of the art. After a couple of minutes, he was smiling and shaking his head. Had he done serious work with this junk? He supposed he had, but he was damned if he saw how. Before he was born, people had used slide rules because there weren’t any computers yet, or even calculators. He was damned if he saw how they’d done any work, either.
But the books didn’t have exactly what he wanted. He went to the magazine rack. There was a MacAddict in a clear plastic envelope. The CD-ROM that came with the magazine would let him start an account on a couple of online services. Once he had one, he could e-mail his younger self, and then he’d be in business.
If I – or I-then – don’t flip out altogether, he thought. Things might get pretty crazy. Now that he was here and on the point of getting started, he felt in his belly how crazy they might get. And he knew both sides of things. His younger self didn’t.
Would Justin-then even listen to him? He had to hope so. Looking back, he’d been pretty stupid when he was twenty-one. No matter how stupid he’d been, though, he’d have to pay attention when he got his nose rubbed in the facts. Wouldn’t he?
Justin bought the MacAddict and took it back to his apartment. As soon as he got online, he’d be ready to roll.
* * *
He chose AOL, not Earthlink. His younger self was on Earthlink, and looked down his nose at AOL. And AOL let him pay by debiting his checking account. He didn’t have any credit cards that worked in 1999. He supposed he could get one, but it would take time. He’d taken too much time already. He thought he had about three months before the space-time string he’d manipulated would snap him back to 2018. With luck, with skill, with what he knew then that he hadn’t known now, he’d be happier there. But he had no time to waste.
His computer, throttled down to 56K access to the outside world, might have thought the same. But AOL’s local access lines wouldn’t support anything faster. “Welcome,” the electronic voice said as he logged on. He ignored it, and went straight to e-mail. He was pretty sure he remembered his old e-mail address. If I don’t, he thought, chuckling a little as he typed, whoever is using this address right now will get awfully confused.
He’d pondered what he would say to get his younger self’s attention, and settled on the most provocative message he could think of. He wrote, Who but you would know that the first time you jacked off, you were looking at Miss March 1993, a little before your fifteenth birthday? Nobody, right? Gorgeous blonde, wasn’t she? The only way I know that is that I am you, more or less. Let me hear from you. He signed it, Justin Kloster, age 40, and sent it.
Then he had to pause. His younger self would be working now, but he’d check his e-mail as soon as he got home. Justin remembered religiously doing that every day. He didn’t remember getting e-mail like the message he’d just sent, of course, but that was the point of this exercise.
Waiting till half past five wasn’t easy. He wished he could use his time-travel algorithm to fast-forward to late afternoon, but he didn’t dare. Too many super-strings might tangle, and even the office machine up in 2018 hadn’t been able to work out the ramifications of that. In another ten years, it would probably be child’s play for a computer, but he wouldn’t be able to pretend he was twenty-one when he was fifty. Even a baby face and pale gold hair wouldn’t stretch that far. He hoped they’d stretch far enough now.
At 5:31, he logged onto AOL again. “Welcome!” the voice told him, and then, “You’ve got mail!”
“You’ve got spam,” he muttered under his breath. And one of the messages in his mailbox was spam. He deleted it without a qualm. The other one, though, was from his younger self @earthlink.net.
Heart pounding, he opened the e-mail. What kind of stupid joke is this? his younger self wrote. Whatever it is, it’s not funny.
Justin sighed. He supposed he shouldn’t have expected himself-at-twenty-one to be convinced right away. This business was hard to believe, even for him. But he had more shots in his gun than one. No joke, he wrote back. Who else but you would know you lost your first baby tooth in a pear at school when you were in the first grade? Who would know your dad fed you Rollos when he took you to work with him that day you were eight or nine? Who would know you spent most of the time while you were losing your cherry staring at the mole on the side of Lindsey Fletcher’s neck? Me, that’s who: you at 40. He typed his name and sent the message.
His stomach growled, but he didn’t go off and make supper. He sat by the computer, waiting. His younger self would still be online. He’d have to answer … wouldn’t he? Justin hadn’t figured out what he’d do if himself-at-twenty-one wanted nothing to do with him. The prospect had never crossed his mind. Maybe it should have.
“Don’t be stupid, kid,” he said softly. “Don’t complicate things for me. Don’t complicate things for yourself, either.”
He sat. He waited. He worried. After what seemed forever but was less than ten minutes, the AOL program announced, “You’ve got mail!”
He read it. I don’t watch X-Files much, his younger self wrote, but maybe I ought to. How could you know all that about me? I never told anybody about Lindsey Fletcher’s neck.
So far as Justin could recall, he hadn’t told anyone about her neck by 2018, either. That didn’t mean he’d forgotten. He wouldn’t forget till they shoveled dirt over him.
How do I know? he wrote. I’ve told you twice now – I know because I am you, you in 2018. It’s not X-Files stuff – it’s good programming. The show still ran in endless syndication, but he hadn’t watched it for years. He went on, Believe me, I’m back here for a good reason, and sent the e-mail.
Again, he waited. Again, the reply came back fast. He imagined his younger self eyeing the screen of his computer, eyeing it and scratching his head. His younger self must have been scratching hard, for what came back was, But that’s impossible.
Okay, he typed. It’s impossible. But if it is impossible, how do I know all this stuff about you?
More waiting. The hell with it, he thought. He’d intended to broil lamb chops, but he would have had to pay attention to keep from cremating them. He took a dinner out of the freezer and threw it into the tiny microwave built in above the stove. He could punch a button and get it more or less right. Back to the computer.
“You’ve got mail!” it said once more, and he did. I don’t know, his younger self had written. How do you know all this stuff about me?
Because it’s stuff about me, too, he answered. You don’t seem to be taking that seriously yet.
The microwave beeped. Justin started to go off to eat, but the PowerBook told him he had more mail. He called it up. If you’re supposed to be me, himself-at-twenty-one wrote, then you’ll look like me, right?
Justin laughed. His younger self wouldn’t believe that. He’d probably think it would make this pretender shut up and go away. But Justin wasn’t a pretender, and didn’t need to shut up – he could put up instead. Right, he replied. Meet me in front of the B. Dalton’s in the Northridge mall tomorrow night at 6:30 and I’ll buy you dinner. You’ll see for yourself. He sent the message, then did walk away from the computer.
Eating frozen food reminded him why he’d learned to cook. He chucked the tray in the trash, then returned to the bedroom to see what his younger self had answered. Three words: See you there.
* * *
The mall surprised Justin. In his time, it had seen better years. In 1999, just a little after being rebuilt because of the ’94 earthquake, it still seemed shiny and sparkly and new. Justin got there early. With his hair short, with the Cow Pi T-Shirt and jeans and big black boots he was wearing, he fit in with the kids who shopped and strutted and just hung out.
He found out how well he fit when he eyed an attractive brunette of thirty or so who was wearing business clothes. She caught him doing it, looked horrified for a second, and then stared through him as if he didn’t exist. At first, he thought her reaction was over the top. Then he realized it wasn’t. You may think she’s cute, but she doesn’t think you are. She thinks you’re wet behind the ears.
Instead of leaving him insulted, the woman’s reaction cheered him. Maybe I can bring this off.
He leaned against the brushed-aluminum railing in front of the second-level B. Dalton’s as if he had nothing better to do. A gray-haired man in maroon polyester pants muttered something about punk kids as he walked by. Justin grinned, which made the old fart mutter more.
But then the grin slipped from Justin’s face. What replaced it was probably astonishment. Here came his younger self, heading up from the Sears end of the mall.
He could tell the moment when his younger self saw him. Himself-at-twenty-one stopped, gaped, and turned pale. He looked as if he wanted to turn around and run away. Instead, after gulping, he kept on.
Justin’s heart pounded. He hadn’t realized just how strange seeing himself would feel. And he’d been expecting this. For his younger self, it was a bolt from the blue. That meant he had to be the one in control. He stuck out his hand. “Hi,” he said. “Thanks for coming.”
His younger self shook hands with him. They both looked down. The two right hands fit perfectly. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? Justin thought. His younger self, still staring, said, “Maybe I’m not crazy. Maybe you’re not crazy, either. You look just like me.”
“Funny how that works,” Justin said. Seeing his younger self wasn’t like looking in a mirror. It wasn’t because himself-at-twenty-one looked that much younger – he didn’t. It wasn’t even because his younger self wasn’t doing the same things he did. After a moment, he figured out what it was: his younger self’s image wasn’t reversed, the way it would have been in a mirror. That made him look different.
His younger self put hands on hips. “Prove you’re from the future,” he said.
Justin had expected that. He took a little plastic coin purse, the kind that can hook onto a key chain, out of his pocket and squeezed it open. “Here,” he said. “This is for you.” He handed himself-at-twenty-one a quarter.
It looked like any quarter – till you noticed the date. “It’s from 2012,” his younger self whispered. His eyes got big and round again. “Jesus. You weren’t kidding.”
“I told you I wasn’t,” Justin said patiently. “Come on. What’s the name of that Korean barbecue place on … Reseda?” He thought that was right. It had closed a few years after the turn of the century.
His younger self didn’t notice the hesitation. “The Pine Tree?”
“Yeah.” Justin knew the name when he heard it. “Let’s go over there. I’ll buy you dinner, like I said in e-mail, and we can talk about things.”
“Like what you’re doing here,” his younger self said.
He nodded. “Yeah. Like what I’m doing here.”
* * *
None of the waitresses at the Pine Tree spoke much English. That was one reason Justin had chosen the place: he didn’t want anybody eavesdropping. But he liked garlic, he liked the odd vegetables, and he enjoyed grilling beef or pork or chicken or fish on the gas barbecue set into the tabletop.
He ordered for both of them. The waitress scribbled on her pad in the odd characters of hangul, then looked from one of them to the other. “Twins,” she said, pulling out a word she did know.
“Yeah,” Justin said. Sort of, he thought. The waitress went away.
His younger self pointed at him. “Tell me one thing,” he said.
“What?” Justin asked. He expected anything from What are you doing here? to What is the meaning of life?
But his younger self surprised him: “That the Rolling Stones aren’t still touring by the time you’re – I’m – forty.”
“Well, no,” Justin said. That was a pretty scary thought, when you got down to it. He and his younger self both laughed. They sounded just alike. We would, he thought.
The waitress came back with a couple of tall bottles of OB beer. She hadn’t asked either one of them for an ID, for which Justin was duly grateful. His younger self kept quiet while she was around. After she’d gone away, himself-at-twenty-one said, “Okay, I believe you. I didn’t think I would, but I do. You know too much – and you couldn’t have pulled that quarter out of your ear from nowhere.” He sipped at the Korean beer. He looked as if he would sooner have gone out and got drunk.
“That’s right,” Justin agreed. Stay in control. The more you sound like you know what you’re doing, the more he’ll think you know what you’re doing. And he has to think that, or this won’t fly.
His younger self drank beer faster than he did, and waved for a second tall one as soon as the first was empty. Justin frowned. He remembered drinking more in his twenties than he did at forty, but didn’t care to have his nose rubbed in it. He wouldn’t have wanted to drive after two big OBs, but his younger self didn’t worry about it.
With his younger self’s new beer, the waitress brought the meat to be grilled and the plates of vegetables. She used aluminum tongs to put some pork and some marinated beef over the fire. Looking at the strips of meat curling and shrinking, himself-at-twenty-one exclaimed, “Oh my God! They killed Kenny!”
“Huh?” Justin said, and then, “Oh.” He managed a feeble chuckle. He hadn’t thought about South Park in a long time.
His younger self eyed him. “If you’d said that to me, I’d have laughed a lot harder. But the show’s not hot for you any more, is it?” He answered his own question before Justin could: “No, it wouldn’t be. 2018? Jesus.” He took another big sip of beer.
Justin grabbed some beef with the tongs. He used chopsticks to eat, ignoring the fork. So did his younger self. He was better at it than himself-at-twenty-one; he’d had more practice. The food was good. He remembered it had been.
After a while, his younger self said, “Well, will you tell me what this is all about?”
“What’s the most important thing in your life right now?” Justin asked in return.
“You mean, besides trying to figure out why I’d travel back in time to see me?” his younger self returned. He nodded, carefully not smiling. He’d been looser, sillier, at twenty-one than he was now. Of course, he’d had fewer things go wrong then, too. And his younger self went on, “What could it be but Megan?”
“Okay, we’re on the same page,” Justin said. “That’s why I’m here, to set things right with Megan.”
“Things with Megan don’t need setting right.” Himself-at-twenty-one sounded disgustingly complacent. “Things with Megan are great. I mean, I’m taking my time and all, but they’re great. And they’ll stay great, too. How many kids do we have now?”
“None.” Justin’s voice went flat and harsh. A muscle at the corner of his jaw jumped. He touched it to try to calm it down.
“None?” His younger self wasn’t quick on the uptake. He needed his nose rubbed in things. He looked at Justin’s left hand. “You’re not wearing a wedding ring,” he said. He’d just noticed. Justin’s answering nod was grim. His younger self asked, “Does that mean we don’t get married?”
Say it ain’t so. Justin did: “We get married, all right. And then we get divorced.”
His younger self went as pale as he had when he first saw Justin. Even at twenty-one, he knew too much about divorce. Here-and-now, his father was living with a woman not much older than he was. His mother was living with a woman not much older than he was, too. That was why he had his own apartment: paying his rent was easier for his mom and dad than paying him any real attention.
But, however much himself-at-twenty-one knew about divorce, he didn’t know enough. He’d just been a fairly innocent bystander. He hadn’t gone through one from the inside. He didn’t understand the pain and the emptiness and the endless might-have-beens that kept going through your mind afterwards.
Justin had had those might-have-beens inside his head since he and Megan fell apart. But he was in a unique position, sitting here in the Pine Tree eating kimchi. He could do something about them.
He could. If his younger self let him. Said younger self blurted, “That can’t happen.”
“It can. It did. It will,” Justin said. The muscle started twitching again.
“But – how?” Himself-at-twenty-one sounded somewhere between bewildered and shocked. “We aren’t like Mom and Dad – we don’t fight all the time, and we don’t look for something on the side wherever we can find it.” Even at twenty-one, he spoke of his parents with casual contempt. Justin thought no better of them in 2018.
He said, “You can fight about sex, you can fight about money, you can fight about in-laws. We ended up doing all three, and so…” He set down his chopsticks and spread his hands wide. “We broke up – will break up – if we don’t change things. That’s why I figured out how to come back: to change things, I mean.”
His younger self finished the second OB. “You must have wanted to do that a lot,” he remarked.
“You might say so.” Justin’s voice came harsh and ragged. “Yeah, you just might say so. Since we fell apart, I’ve never come close to finding anybody who makes me feel the way Megan did. If it’s not her, it’s nobody. That’s how it looks from here, anyhow. I want to make things right for the two of us.”
“Things were going to be right.” But his younger self lacked conviction. Justin sat and waited. He was better at that than he had been half a lifetime earlier. Finally, himself-at-twenty-one asked, “What will you do?”
He didn’t ask, What do you want to do? He spoke as if Justin were a force of nature. Maybe that was his youth showing. Maybe it was just the beer. Whatever it was, Justin encouraged it by telling his younger self what he would do, not what he’d like to do: “I’m going to take over your life for a couple of months. I’m going to be you. I’m going to take Megan out, I’m going to make sure things are solid – and then the superstring I’ve ridden to get me here will break down. You’ll live happily ever after: I’ll brief you to make sure you don’t screw up what I’ve built. And when I get back to 2018, I will have lived happily ever after. How does that sound?”
“I don’t know,” his younger self said. “You’ll be taking Megan out?”
Justin nodded. “That’s right.”
“You’ll be … taking Megan back to the apartment?”
“Yeah,” Justin said. “But she’ll think it’s you, remember, and pretty soon it’ll be you, and it’ll keep right on being you till you turn into me, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” his younger self said. “Still…” He grimaced. “I don’t know. I don’t like it.”
“You have a better idea?” Justin folded his arms across his chest and waited, doing his best to be the picture of inevitability. Inside, his stomach tied itself in knots. He’d always been better at the tech side of things than at sales.
“It’s not fair,” himself-at-twenty-one said. “You know all this shit, and I’ve gotta guess.”
Justin shrugged. “If you think I did all this to come back and tell you lies, go ahead. That’s fine.” It was anything but fine. But he couldn’t let his younger self see that. “You’ll see what happens, and we’ll both be sorry.”
“I don’t know.” His younger self shook his head, again and again. His eyes had a trapped-animal look. “I just don’t know. Everything sounds like it hangs together, but you could be bullshitting, too, just as easy.”
“Yeah, right.” Justin couldn’t remember the last time he’d said that, but it fit here.
Then his younger self got up. “I won’t say yes and I won’t say no, not now I won’t. I’ve got your e-mail address. I’ll use it.” Out he went, not quite steady on his feet.
Justin stared after him. He paid for both dinners – it seemed like peanuts to him – and went home himself. His younger self needed time to think things through. He saw that. Seeing it and liking it were two different things. And every minute himself-at-twenty-one dithered was a minute he couldn’t get back. He stewed. He fumed. He waited. What other choice did he have?
You could whack him and take over for him. But he rejected the thought with a shudder. He was no murderer. All he wanted was some happiness. Was that too much to ask? He didn’t think so, not after all he’d missed since Megan made him move out. He checked e-mail every hour on the hour.
* * *
Two and a half mortal days. Justin thought he’d go nuts. He’d never dreamt his younger self would make him wait so long. At last, the computer told him, “You’ve got mail!”
All right, dammit, himself-at-twenty-one wrote. I still don’t know about this, but I don’t think I have any choice. If me and Megan are going to break up, that can’t happen. You better make sure it doesn’t.
“Oh, thank God,” Justin breathed. He wrote back, You won’t be sorry.
Whatever, his younger self replied. Half of me is sorry already. More than half.
Don’t be, Justin told him. Everything will be fine.
It had better be, his younger self wrote darkly. How do you want to make the switch?
Meet me in front of the B. Dalton’s again, Justin answered. Park by the Sears. I will, too. Bring whatever you want in your car. You can move it to the one I’m driving. I’ll do the same here. See you in two hours?
Whatever, his younger self repeated. Justin remembered saying that a lot. He hoped it meant yes here. The only things he didn’t want his younger self getting his hands on here were his laptop (though it would distract himself-at-twenty-one from worrying about Megan if anything would) and some of his cash. He left behind the TV and the stereo and the period clothes – and, below the underwear and socks, the cash he wasn’t taking along. His younger self could eat and have some fun, too, provided he did it at places where Megan wouldn’t run into him.
This time, his younger self got to the mall before him. Thoroughly grim, himself-at-twenty-one said, “Let’s get this over with.”
“Come on. It’s not a root canal,” Justin said. Now his younger self looked blank – he didn’t know about root canals. Justin wished he didn’t; that was a bit of the future less pleasant to contemplate than life with Megan. He went on, “Let’s go do it. We’ll need to swap keys, you know.”
“Yeah.” Himself-at-twenty-one nodded. “I had spares made. How about you?”
“Me, too.” Justin’s grin twisted up one corner of his mouth. “We think alike. Amazing, huh?”
“Amazing. Right.” His younger self started back toward Sears. “This better work.”
“It will,” Justin said. It has to, goddammit.
They’d parked only a couple of rows apart. His younger self had a couple of good-sized bundles. He put them in Justin’s car while Justin moved his stuff to the machine himself-at-twenty-one had been driving. “You know where I live,” his younger self said after they’d swapped keys. “What’s my new address?”
“Oh.” Justin told him. “The car’s insured, and you’ll find plenty of money in the underwear drawer.” He put a hand on his younger self’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine. Honest. You’re on vacation for a couple of months, that’s all.”
“On vacation from my life.” Himself-at-twenty-one looked grim again. At twenty-one, everything was urgent. “Don’t fuck up, that’s all.”
“It’s my life, too, remember.” Justin got into the car his younger self had driven to the mall. He fumbled a little, finding the right key. When he fired up the engine, the radio started playing KROQ. He laughed. Green Day was the bomb now, even if not quite to his taste. It wasn’t music for people approaching middle age and regretting it. He cranked the radio and drove back to his younger self’s apartment.
* * *
The Acapulco. He nodded as he drove up to it. It looked familiar. That made him laugh again. It hadn’t changed. He had.
After he drove through the security gate, he found his old parking space more by letting his hands and eyes guide his brain than the other way round. He couldn’t remember his apartment number at all, and had to go the the lobby to see which box had KLOSTER Dymo-taped onto it. He walked around the pool and past the rec room hardly anybody used, and there it was – his old place. But it wasn’t old now. This was where his younger self had lived and would live, and where he was living now.
As soon as he opened the door, he winced. He hadn’t remembered the bile-colored carpet, either, but it came back in a hurry. He looked around. Here it was – all his old stuff, a lot of it things he hadn’t seen in half a lifetime. Paperbacks, CDs, that tiny statuette of a buglike humanoid standing on its hind legs and giving a speech … During which move had that disappeared? He shrugged. He’d been through a lot of them. He fondly touched an antenna as he went past the bookcase, along a narrow hall, and into the bedroom.
“My old iMac!” he exclaimed. But it wasn’t old; the model had been out for less than a year. Bondi blue and ice case – to a taste formed in 2018, it looked not just outmoded but tacky as hell, but he’d thought it was great when it came out.
His younger self had left a note by the keyboard. In case you don’t remember, here’s Megan’s phone number and e-mail. Don’t screw it up, that’s all I’ve got to tell you.
He had remembered her e-mail address, but not her phone number. “Thanks, kid,” he said to himself-at-twenty-one. There by the phone on the nightstand lay his younger self’s address book, but having things out in the open made it easier.
Instead of calling her, he walked into the bathroom. His hand shook as he flipped on the light. He stared at the mirror. Can I do this? He ran a palm over his cheek. Yeah, I look young. Do I look that young? What will Megan think when I come to the door? What will her folks think? I’m only a couple of years younger than they are, for Christ’s sake.
If I come to the door wearing his – my – clothes, though, and talking like me, and knowing things only I could know, who else would I be but Justin Kloster? She’ll think I’m me, because I can’t possibly be anybody else. And I’m not anybody else – except I am.
He was still frowning and looking for incipient wrinkles when the telephone rang. As he hurried back to the bedroom, he hoped it would be a telemarketer. I’m not ready, I’m not ready, I’m not … “Hello?”
“Hiya? How the hell are you?” It was Megan, all right. He hadn’t heard her in more than ten years, but he knew her voice. He hadn’t heard her sound bouncy and bubbly and glad to be talking to him in a lot more than ten years. Before he could get a word in, she went on, “You mad at me? You haven’t called in two days.”
By the way she said it, it might have been two years. “I’m not mad,” Justin answered automatically. “Just – busy.”
“Too busy for me?” Now she sounded as if she couldn’t imagine such a thing. Justin’s younger self must have been too caught up in everything else to have time for her. At least he hadn’t blabbed about Justin’s return to 1999. “What were you doing? Who were you doing it with – or to?”
She giggled. Justin remembered her asking him questions like that later on, in an altogether different tone of voice. Not now. She didn’t know she would do that. If he changed things here, she wouldn’t. “Nothing,” he said. “Nobody. Things have been hairy at work, that’s all.”
“A likely story.” But Megan was still laughing. He remembered her doing things like that. He remembered her stopping, too. She said, “Well, you’re not working now, right? Suppose I come over?”
“Okay,” he said, thinking about baptism by total immersion. Either this would work, or it would blow up in his face. What do I do if it blows up? Run back to 2018 with my tail between my legs, that’s what.
But Megan didn’t even give him time to panic. “Okay?” she said, mock-fierce. “Okay? I’ll okay you, mister, you see if I don’t. Ten minutes.” She hung up.
Justin ran around like a madman, to remind himself where things were and to clean up a little. He hadn’t remembered his younger self as such a slob. He checked the refrigerator. Frozen dinners, beer, cokes – about what he’d expected.
He waited for the buzz that would mean Megan was at the security door. But he’d forgotten he’d given her a key. The first thing he knew she was there was the knock on the door. He opened it. “Hi,” he said, his voice breaking as if he really were twenty-one, or maybe sixteen.
“Hiya.” Megan clicked her tongue between her teeth. “You do look tired. Poor baby.”
He was looking at her, too, looking and trying not to tremble. She looked just like all the photos he’d kept: a swarthy brunette with flashing dark eyes, a little skinny maybe, but with some meat on her bones even so. She always smiled as if she knew a secret. He’d remembered. Remembering and seeing it in the flesh when it was fresh and new and a long way from curdling were very different things. He hadn’t imagined how different.
“How tired are you?” she said. “Not too tired, I hope.” She stepped forward, put her arms around him, and tilted her face up.
Automatically, his arms went around her. Automatically, he brought his mouth down to hers. She made a tiny noise, deep in her throat, as their lips met.
Justin’s heart pounded so hard, he was amazed Megan couldn’t hear it. He wanted to burst into tears. Here he was, holding the only woman he’d ever truly loved, the woman who’d so emphatically stopped loving him – only now she did again. If that wasn’t a miracle, he didn’t know what was.
She felt soft and smooth and warm and firm. Very firm, he noticed – a lot firmer than the women he’d been seeing, no matter how obsessively they went to the gym. And that brought the second realization, almost as blinding as realizing he, Justin, was alone with her, Megan: he, a forty-year-old guy, was alone with her, a twenty-year-old girl.
What had the bartender asked? You go around picking up high-school girls? But it wasn’t like that, dammit. Megan didn’t know he was forty. She thought he was his going-into-senior-year self. He had to think that way, too.
Except he couldn’t, or not very well. He’d lived half a lifetime too long. He tried not to remember, but he couldn’t help it. “Wow!” he gasped when the kiss finally ended.
“Yeah.” Megan took such heat for granted. She was twenty. Doubt never entered her mind. “Not bad for starters.” Without waiting for an answer, she headed for the bedroom.
Heart pounding harder than ever, Justin followed. Here-and-now, they hadn’t been lovers very long, and neither had had a whole lot of experience beforehand. That was part of what had gone wrong; Justin was sure of it. They’d gone stale, without knowing how to fix things. Justin knew a lot more now than he had at twenty-one. And here he was, getting a chance to use it when it mattered.
He almost forgot everything the next instant, because Megan was getting out of her clothes and lying down on the bed and laughing at him for being so slow. He didn’t stay slow very long. As he lay down beside her, he thanked God and Superstrings, Ltd., not necessarily in that order.
His hands roamed her. She sighed and leaned toward him for another kiss. Don’t hurry, he thought. Don’t rush. In a way, that was easy. He wanted to touch her, caress her, taste her, forever. In another way … He wanted to do more, too.
He made himself go slow. It was worth it. “Oh, Justin,” Megan said. Some time later, she said, “Ohhh, Justin.” He didn’t think he’d ever heard her sound like that the first time around. What she said a few minutes after that had no words, but was a long way from disappointed.
Then it was his turn. He kept having the nagging thought that he was taking advantage of a girl half his age who didn’t know exactly who he was. But then, as she clasped him with arms and legs, all the nagging thoughts went away. And it was just as good as he’d hoped it would be, which said a great deal.
Afterwards, they lay side by side, sweaty and smiling foolishly. Justin kept stroking her. She purred. She stroked him, too, expectantly. When what she was expecting didn’t happen, she gave him a sympathetic look. “You must be tired,” she said.
Did she think he’d be ready again right then? They’d just finished! But memory, now that he accessed it, told him she did. He clicked his tongue between his teeth. He might look about the same at forty as he had at twenty-one, but he couldn’t perform the same. Who could?
Had he thought of this beforehand, he would have brought some Viagra back with him. In his time, it was over-the-counter. He wasn’t even sure it existed in 1999. He hadn’t had to worry about keeping it up, not at twenty-one.
But Megan had given him an excuse, at least this time. “Yeah, day from hell,” he said. “Doesn’t mean I can’t keep you happy.” He proceeded to do just that, and took his time about it, teasing her along as much as he could.
Once the teasing stopped, she stared at him, eyes enormous. “Oh, sweetie, why didn’t you ever do anything like that before?” she asked. All by itself, the question made him sure he’d done the right thing, coming back. It also made him sure he needed to give his younger self a good talking-to before he slid up the superstring to 2018. But Megan found another question: “Where did you learn that?”
Did she think he had another girlfriend? Did she wonder if that was why he could only do it once with her? Or was she joking? He hoped she was. How would his younger self have answered? With pride. “I,” he declared, “have a naturally dirty mind.”
Megan giggled. “Good.”
And it was good. A little later, in the lazy man’s position, he managed a second round. That was very good. Megan thought so, too. He couldn’t stop yawning afterwards, but he’d already said he was tired. “See?” he told her. “You wear me out.” He wasn’t kidding. Megan didn’t know how much he wasn’t kidding.
She proved that, saying, “I was thinking we’d go to a club tonight, but I’d better put you to bed. We can go tomorrow.” She went into the bathroom, then came back and started getting dressed. “We can do all sorts of things tomorrow.” The smile she gave him wasn’t just eager; it was downright lecherous.
Christ, he thought, she’ll expect me to be just as horny as I was tonight. His younger self would have been. To him, the prospect seemed more nearly exhausting than exciting. Sleep. I need sleep.
Megan bent down and kissed him on the end of the nose. “Pick me up about seven? We’ll go to the Probe, and then who knows what?”
“Okay,” he said around another yawn. “Whatever.” Megan laughed and left. Justin thought he heard her close the door, but he wasn’t sure.
* * *
He couldn’t even sleep late. He had to go do his younger self’s job at CompUSA, and himself-at-twenty-one didn’t keep coffee in the apartment. He drank cokes instead, but they didn’t pack the jolt of French roast.
Work was hell. All the computers were obsolete junk to him. Over half a lifetime, he’d forgotten their specs. Why remember when they were obsolete? And his boss, from the height of his late twenties, treated Justin like a kid. He wished he’d told his younger self to keep coming in. But Megan stopped by every so often, and so did other people he knew. He wanted himself-at-twenty-one out of sight, out of mind.
His younger self probably was going out of his mind right now. He wondered what the kid was doing, what he was thinking. Worrying, he supposed, and dismissed himself-at-twenty-one as casually as his boss had dismissed him believing him to be his younger self.
His shift ended at five-fifteen. He drove home, nuked some supper, showered, and dressed in his younger self’s club-hopping clothes: black pants and boots, black jacket, white shirt. The outfit struck him as stark. You needed to be skinny to look good in it, and he’d never been skinny. He shrugged. It was what you wore to go clubbing.
Knocking on the door to Megan’s parents’ house meant more strangeness. He made himself forget all the things they’d say after he and Megan went belly-up. And, when Megan’s mother opened the door, he got another jolt: she looked pretty damn good. He’d always thought of her as old. “H-hello, Mrs. Tricoupis,” he managed at last.
“Hello, Justin.” She stepped aside. No, nothing old about her – somewhere close to his own age, sure enough. “Megan says you’ve been working hard.”
“That’s right.” Justin nodded briskly.
“I believe it,” Mrs. Tricoupis said. “You look tired.” Megan had said the same thing. It was as close as they could come to, You look forty. But her mother eyed him curiously. He needed a minute to figure out why: he’d spoken to her as an equal, not as his girlfriend’s mother. Gotta watch that, he thought. It wouldn’t be easy; he saw as much. Even if nobody else did, he knew how old he was.
Before he could say anything else to raise eyebrows, Megan came out. She fluttered her fingers at Mrs. Tricoupis. “See you later, Mom.”
“All right,” her mother said. “Drive safely, Justin.”
“Yeah,” he said. Nobody’d told him that in a long time. He grinned at Megan. “The Probe.”
He’d had to look up how to get there in the Thomas Brothers himself-at-twenty-one kept in the car; he’d long since forgotten. It was off Melrose, the center of youth and style in the ’90s – and as outmoded in 2018 as the corner of Haight and Ashbury in 1999.
On the way down, Megan said, “I hear there’s going to be another rave at that place we went to a couple weeks ago. Want to see?”
“Suppose.” Justin hoped he sounded interested, not alarmed. After-hours illicit bashes didn’t hold the attraction for him they once had. And he had no idea where they’d gone then. His younger self would know. He didn’t.
He had as much trouble not grinning at the fashion statements the kids going into the club were making as Boomers did with tie-dye and suede jackets with fringe. Tattoos, pierced body parts … Those fads had faded. Except for a stud in his left ear, he’d never had more holes than he’d been born with.
Somebody waved to Megan and him as they went in. He waved back. His younger self would have known who it was. He’d long since forgotten. He got away with it. And he got carded when he bought a beer. That made him laugh. Then he came back and bought another one for Megan, who wasn’t legal yet.
She pointed toward the little booth with the spotlight on it. “Look. Helen’s deejaying tonight. She’s good!”
“Yeah.” Justin grinned. Megan sounded so excited. Had he cared so passionately about who was spinning the music? He probably had. He wondered why. The mix hadn’t been that much different from one deejay to another.
When the music started, he thought the top of his head would blow off. Coming home with ears ringing had been a sign of a good time – and a sign of nerve damage, but who cared at twenty-one? He cared now.
“What’s the matter?” Megan asked. “Don’t you want to dance?” He thought that was what she said, anyhow; he read her lips, because he couldn’t hear a word.
“Uh, sure.” He hadn’t been a great dancer at twenty-one, and hadn’t been on the floor in a lot of years since. But Megan didn’t criticize. She’d always liked getting out there and letting the music take over. The Probe didn’t have a mosh pit, for which Justin was duly grateful. Looking back, pogoing in a pit reminded him more of line play at the Super Bowl than of dancing.
He hadn’t been in great shape when he was twenty-one, either. Half a lifetime riding a desk hadn’t improved things. By the time the first break came, he was blowing like a whale. Megan’s face was sweaty, too, but she loved every minute of it. She wasn’t even breathing hard. “This is so cool!” she said.
She was right. Justin had long since stopped worrying about whether he was cool. You could stay at the edge till you were thirty – thirty-five if you really pushed it. After that, you were either a fogy or a grotesque. He’d taken fogydom for granted for years. Now he had to ride the crest of the wave again. He wondered if it was worth it.
Helen started spinning more singles. Justin danced till one. At least he had the next day off. Even so, he wished he were home in bed – not with Megan but alone, blissfully unconscious. No such luck. Somebody with enough rings in his ears to set off airport metal detectors passed out xeroxed directions to the rave. That told Justin where it was. He didn’t want to go, but Megan did. “You wearing out on me?” she asked. They went.
He wondered who owned the warehouse – a big Lego block of a building – and if whoever it was had any idea what was going on inside. He doubted it. It was a dreadful place for a big party – concrete floor, wires and metal scaffolding overhead, acoustics worse than lousy. But Megan’s eyes glowed. The thrill of the not quite legal. The cops might show up and throw everybody out.
He knew they wouldn’t, not tonight, because they hadn’t. And, at forty, the thrill of the not quite legal had worn off for him. Some smiling soul came by with little plastic bottles full of greenish liquid. “Instant Love!” he said. “Five bucks a pop.”
Megan grabbed two. Justin knew he had to grab his wallet. “What’s in it?” he asked warily.
“Try it. You’ll like it,” the guy said. “A hundred percent natural.”
Megan had already gulped hers down. She waited expectantly for Justin. He remembered taking a lot of strange things at raves, but that had been a long time ago – except it wasn’t. Nothing had killed him, so he didn’t suppose this would.
And it didn’t, but not from lack of trying. The taste was nasty plus sugar. The effect … when the shit kicked in, Justin stopped wishing for coffee. He felt as if he’d just had seventeen cups of the strongest joe ever perked. His heart pounded four hundred beats a minute. His hands shook. He could feel the veins on his eyeballs sticking out every time he blinked.
“Isn’t it great?” Megan’s eyes were bugging out of her head.
“Whatever.” When Justin was twenty-one, he’d thought this kind of rush was great, too. Now he wondered if he’d have a coronary on the spot. He did dance a lot more energetically.
And, when he took Megan back to his place, he managed something else, too. With his heart thudding the way it was, remembering anything related to foreplay wasn’t easy, but he did. Had he been twenty-one, it surely would have been wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. Megan seemed suitably appreciative; maybe that Instant Love handle wasn’t altogether hype.
But his real age told. Despite the drug, whatever it was, and despite the company, he couldn’t have gone a second round if he’d had a crane to get it up. If that bothered Megan, she didn’t let on.
Despite his failure, he didn’t roll over and go to sleep, the way he had the first night. He wondered if he’d sleep for the next week. It was past four in the morning. “Shall I take you home?” he asked. “Your folks gonna be worried?”
Megan sat up naked on the bed and shook her head. Everything moved when she did that; it was marvelous to watch. “No problem,” she said. “They aren’t on me twenty-four-seven like some parents. You don’t want to throw me out, I’d just as soon stay a while.” She opened her eyes very wide to show she wasn’t sleepy, either.
“Okay. Better than okay.” Justin reached out and brushed the tip of her left breast with the backs of his fingers. “I like having you around, you know?” She had no idea how much he wanted to have her around. With luck, she’d never find out.
“I like being around.” She cocked her head to one side. “You’ve been kind of funny the last couple days, you know?”
To cover his unease – hell, his fear – Justin made a stupid face. “Is that funny enough for you?” he asked.
“Not funny like that,” Megan said. He made a different, even more stupid, face. It got a giggle from her, but she persisted: “Not funny like that, I told you. Funny a different sort of way.”
“Like how?” he asked, though he knew.
Megan didn’t, but groped toward it: “Lots of little things. The way you touch me, for instance. You didn’t used to touch me like that.” She looked down at the wet spot on the sheets. “I like what you’re doing, believe me I do, but it’s not what you were doing last week. How did you … find this out, just all of a sudden? It’s great, like I say, but…” She shrugged. “I shouldn’t complain. I’m not complaining. But…” Her voice trailed off again.
If I’d known then what I know now – everybody sang that song. But he didn’t just sing it. He’d done something about it. This was the thanks he got? At least she hadn’t come right out and asked him if he had another girlfriend.
He tried to make light of it: “Here I spent all night laying awake, trying to think of things you’d like, and—”
“I do,” Megan said quickly. She wasn’t lying, not unless she was the best actress in the world. But she went on, “You looked bored in the Probe tonight. You never looked bored in a club before.”
Damn. He hadn’t known it showed. What was hot at twenty-one wasn’t at forty. Been there, done that. That was what people said in the ’90s. One more thing he couldn’t admit. “Tired,” he said again.
Megan nailed him for it. “You never said that, either, not till yesterday – day before yesterday now.” Remorselessly precise.
“Sorry,” Justin answered. “I’m just me. Who else would I be?” Again, he was conscious of knowing what she didn’t and keeping it from her. It felt unkosher, as if he were the only one in class who took a test with the book open. But what else could he do?
Megan started getting into her clothes. “Maybe you’d better take me home.” But then, as if she thought that too harsh, she added some teasing: “I don’t want to eat what you’d fix for breakfast.”
He could have made her a damn fine breakfast. He started to say so. But his younger self couldn’t have, not to save his life. He shut up and got dressed, too. Showing her more differences was the last thing he wanted.
Dawn was turning the eastern sky gray and pink when he pulled up in front of her parents’ house. Before she could take off her seat belt, he put his arm around her and said, “I love you, you know?”
His younger self wouldn’t say those words for another year. Taking my time, the socially backwards dummy called it. For Justin at forty, the words weren’t just a truth, but a truth that defined his life – for better and, later on, for worse. He had no trouble bringing them out.
Megan stared at him. Maybe she hadn’t expected him to say that for quite a while yet. After a heartbeat, she nodded. She leaned over and kissed him, half on the cheek, half on the mouth. Then she got out and walked to her folks’ front door. She turned and waved. Justin waved back. He drove off while she was working the deadbolt.
* * *
He finally fell asleep about noon. The Instant Love kept him up and bouncing till then. At two-thirty, the phone rang. By the way he jerked and thrashed, a bomb might have gone off by his head. He grabbed the handset, feeling like death. “Hello?” he croaked.
“Hi. How are things?”
Not Megan. A man’s voice. For a second, all that meant was that it didn’t matter, that he could hang up on it. Then he recognized it: the voice on his own answering machine. But it wasn’t a recording. It was live, which seemed more than he could say right now. His younger self.
He had to talk, dammit. “Things are fine,” he said. “Or they were till you called. I was asleep.”
“Now?” The way himself-at-twenty-one sounded, it might have been some horrible perversion. “I called now ’cause I figured you wouldn’t be.”
“Never mind,” Justin said. The cobwebs receded. He knew they’d be back pretty soon. “Yeah, things are okay. We went to the Probe last night, and—”
“Did you?” His younger self sounded – no, suspicious wasn’t right. Jealous. That was it. “What else did you do?”
“That after-hours place. Some guy came through with fliers, so I knew how to get there.”
“Lucky you. And what else did you do?” Yeah. Jealous. A-number-one jealous.
Justin wondered how big a problem that would be. “About what you’d expect,” he answered tightly. “I’m you, remember. What would you have done?”
The sigh on the other end of the line said his younger self knew exactly what he would have done, and wished he’d been doing it. But I did it better, you little geek.
Before his younger self could do anything but sigh, Justin added, “And when I took her home, I told her I loved her.”
“Jesus!” himself-at-twenty-one exclaimed. “What did you go and do that for?”
“It’s true, isn’t it?”
“That doesn’t mean you’ve got to say it, for Christ’s sake,” his younger self told him. “What am I supposed to do when you go away?”
“Marry her, doofus,” Justin said. “Live happily ever after, so I get to live happily ever after, too. Why the hell do you think I came back here?”
“For your good time, man, not mine. I’m sure not having a good time, I’ll tell you.”
Was I really that stupid? Justin wondered. But it wasn’t quite the right question. Was my event horizon that short? Holding on to patience with both hands, he said, “Look, chill for a while, okay? I’m doing fine.”
“Sure you are.” His younger self sounded hot. “You’re doing fucking great. What about me?”
Nope, no event horizon at all. Justin said, “You’re fine. Chill. You’re on vacation. Go ahead. Relax. Spend my money. That’s what it’s there for.”
That distracted his younger self. “Where’d you get so much? What did you do, rob a bank?”
“It’s worth a lot more now than it will be then,” Justin answered. “Inflation. Have some fun. Just be discreet, okay?”
“You mean, keep out of your hair.” His younger self didn’t stay distracted long.
“In a word, yes.”
“While you’re in Megan’s hair.” Himself-at-twenty-one let out a long, angry breath. “I don’t know, dude.”
“It’s for you.” Justin realized he was pleading. “It’s for her and you.”
Another angry exhalation. “Yeah.” His younger self hung up.
* * *
Everything went fine till he took Megan to the much ballyhooed summer blockbuster two weekends later. She’d been caught up in the hype. And she thought the leading man was cute, though he looked like a boy to Justin. On the other hand, Justin looked like a boy himself, or he couldn’t have got away with this.
But that wasn’t the worst problem. Unlike her, he’d seen the movie before. He remembered liking it, though he’d thought the plot a little thin. Seen through forty-year-old eyes, it had no plot at all. He had a lot less tolerance for loud soundtracks and things blowing up every eight and a half minutes than his younger self would have. And even the most special special effects seemed routine to somebody who’d been through another twenty years of computer-generated miracles.
As the credits finally rolled, he thought, No wonder I don’t go to the movies much any more.
When Megan turned to him, though, her eyes were shining. “Wasn’t that great?” she said as they headed for the exit.
“Yeah,” he said. “Great.”
A different tone would have saved him. He realized that as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Too late. The one he’d used couldn’t have been anything but sarcastic. And Megan noticed. She was good at catching things like that – better than he’d ever been, certainly. “What’s the matter?” she demanded. “Why didn’t you like it?”
The challenge in her voice reminded Justin of how she’d sounded during the quarrels before their breakup. She couldn’t know that. His younger self wouldn’t have known, either – he hadn’t been through it. But Justin had, and reacted with a challenge of his own: “Why? Because it was really dumb.”
It was a nice summer night, clear, cooling down from the hot day, a few stars in the sky – with the lights of the San Fernando Valley, you never saw more than a few. None of that mattered to Megan. She stopped halfway to the car. “How can you say that?”
Justin saw the special-effects stardust in her eyes, and the effect of a great many closeups of the boyishly handsome – pretty, to his newly jaundiced eye – leading man. He should have shut up. But he reacted viscerally to that edge in her voice. Instead of letting things blow over, he told her exactly why the movie was dumb.
He finished just as they got to the Toyota. He hadn’t let her get in word one. When he ran down, she stared at him. “Why are you so mean? You never sounded so mean before.”
“You asked. I told you,” he said, still seething. But when he saw her fighting back tears as she fastened her seat belt, he realized he’d hit back too hard. It wasn’t quit like kicking a puppy, but it was close, too close. He had a grown man’s armor and weapons to pierce a grown woman’s – all the nastier products of experience – and he’d used them on a kid. Too late, he felt like an asshole. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
“Whatever.” Megan looked out the window toward the theater complex, not at him. “Maybe you’d better take me home.”
Alarm tore through him. “Honey, I said I was sorry. I meant it.”
“I heard you.” Megan still wouldn’t look at him. “You’d better take me home anyhow.”
Sometimes, the more you argued, the bigger the mess you made. This looked like one of those times. Justin recognized that now. A couple of minutes sooner would have been better. “Okay,” he said, and started the car.
The ride back to her folks’ house was almost entirely silent. When he pulled up, Megan opened the door before the car stopped rolling. “Goodnight,” she said. She started for the front door at something nearly a run.
“Wait!” he called. If that wasn’t raw panic in his voice, it would do. She heard it, too, and stopped, looking back warily, like a frightened animal that would bolt at any wrong move. He said, “I won’t do that again. Promise.” To show how much he meant it, he crossed his heart. He hadn’t done that since about the third grade.
Megan’s nod was jerky. “All right,” she said. “But don’t call me for a while anyway. We’ll both chill a little. How does that sound?”
Terrible. Justin hated the idea of losing any precious time here. But he saw he couldn’t argue. He wished he’d seen that sooner. He made himself nod, made himself smile, made himself say, “Okay.”
The porch light showed relief on Megan’s face. Relief she wouldn’t be talking to him for a while. He had to live with that all the way home.
* * *
He wished he could have walked away from his younger self’s job at CompUSA, but it would have looked bad. He’d needed a few days to have the details of late-1990s machines come back to him. Once they did, he rapidly got a reputation as a maven. His manager bumped him a buck an hour – and piled more hours on him. He resisted as best he could, but he couldn’t always.
Three days after the fight with Megan, his phone rang as he got into his – well, his younger self’s – apartment. He got to it just before the answering machine could. “Hello?” He was panting. If it was himself-at-twenty-one, he was ready to contemplate murder – or would it be suicide?
But it was Megan. “Hiya,” she said. “Didn’t I ask you not to call for a little bit? I know I did.”
“Yeah, you did. And I—” Justin broke off. He hadn’t called her. What about his younger self? Maybe I ought to rub him out, if he’s going to mess things up. But that thought vanished. He couldn’t deny a conversation she’d surely had. “I just like talking to you, that’s all.”
Megan’s laughter was rainbows to his ears. “You were so funny,” she said. “It was like we hadn’t fought at all. I couldn’t stay pissed. Believe me, I tried.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Justin said. And I do need to have a talk with my younger self. “You want to got out this weekend?”
“Sure,” Megan answered. “But let’s stay away from the movies. What do you think?”
“Whatever,” he said. “Okay with me.”
“Good.” More relief. “Plenty of other things we can do. Maybe I should just come straight to your place.”
His younger self would have slavered at that. He liked the idea pretty well himself. But, being forty and not twenty-one, he heard what Megan didn’t say, too. What she meant, or some of what she meant, was, You’re fine in bed. Whenever we’re not in bed, whenever we go somewhere, you get weird.
“Sure,” he said, and then, to prove he wasn’t only interested in her body, he went on, “Let’s to Sierra’s and stuff ourselves full of tacos and enchiladas. How’s that?”
“Fine,” Megan said.
Justin thought it sounded fine, too. Sierra’s was a Valley institution. It had been there since twenty years before he was born, and would still be going strong in 2018. He didn’t go there often then; he had too many memories of coming there with Megan. Now those memories would turn from painful to happy. That was why he was here. Smiling, he said, “See you Saturday, then.”
“Yeah,” Megan said. Justin’s smile got bigger.
* * *
Ring. Ring. Ring. “Hello?” his younger self said.
“Oh, good,” Justin said coldly. “You’re home.”
“Oh. It’s you.” Himself-at-twenty-one didn’t sound delighted to hear from him, either. “No, you’re home. I’m stuck here.”
“Didn’t I tell you to lay low till I was done here?” Justin demanded. “God damn it, you’d better listen to me. I just had to pretend I knew what Megan was talking about when she said I’d been on the phone with her.”
“She’s my girl, too,” his younger self said. “She was my girl first, you know. I’ve got a right to talk with her.”
“Not if you want her to keep being your girl, you don’t,” Justin said. “You’re the one who’s going to screw it up, remember?”
“That’s what you keep telling me,” his younger self answered. “But you know what? I’m not so sure I believe you any more. When I called her, Megan sounded like she was really torqued at me – at you, I mean. So it doesn’t sound like you’ve got all the answers, either.”
“Nobody has all the answers,” Justin said with such patience as he could muster. He didn’t think he’d believed that at twenty-one; at forty, he was convinced it was true. He was convinced something else was true, too: “If you think you’ve got more of them than I do, you’re full of shit.”
“You want to be careful how you talk to me,” himself-at-twenty-one said. “Half the time, I still think your whole setup is bogus. If I decide to, I can wreck it. You know damn well I can.”
Justin knew only too well. It scared the crap out of him. But he didn’t dare show his younger self he was afraid. As sarcastically as he could, he said, “Yeah, go ahead. Screw up your life for good. Keep going like this and you will.”
“You sound pretty screwed up now,” his younger self said. “What have I got to lose?”
“I had something good, and I let it slip through my fingers,” Justin said. “That’s enough to mess anybody up. You wreck what I’m doing now, you’ll go through life without knowing what a good thing was. You want that? Just keep sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong. You want to end up with Megan or not?”
Where nothing else had, that hit home. “All right,” his younger self said sullenly. “I’ll back off – for now.” He hung up. Justin stared at the phone, cursed, and put it back in its cradle.
* * *
Megan stared at her empty plate as if she couldn’t imagine how it had got that way. Then she looked at Justin. “Did I really eat all that?” she said. “Tell me I didn’t really eat all that.”
“Can’t do it,” he said solemnly.
“Oh, my God!” Megan said: not Valley-girl nasal but sincerely astonished. “All those refried beans! They’ll go straight to my thighs.”
“No, they won’t.” Justin spoke with great certainty. For as long as he’d known – would know – Megan, her weight hadn’t varied by more than five pounds. He’d never heard that she’d turned into a blimp after they broke up, either. He lowered his voice. “I like your thighs.”
She raised a dark eyebrow, as if to say, You’re a guy. If I let you get between them, of course you like them. But the eyebrow came down. “You talk nice like that, maybe you’ll get a chance to prove it. Maybe.”
“Okay.” Justin’s plate was as empty as hers. Loading up on heavy Mexican food hadn’t slowed him down when he was twenty-one. Now it felt like a bowling ball in his stomach. But he figured he’d manage. Figuring that, he left a bigger tip than he would have otherwise.
The waiter scooped it up. “Gracias, señor.” He sounded unusually sincere.
Driving north up Canoga Avenue toward his place, Justin used a sentence that had the phrase “after we’re married” in it.
Megan had been looking at the used-car lot across the street. Her head whipped around. “After we’re what?” she said. “Not so fast, there.”
For the very first time, Justin thought to wonder whether his younger self knew what he was doing when he took another year to get around to telling Megan he loved her. He-now had the advantage of hindsight; he knew he and Megan would walk down the aisle. But Megan didn’t know it. Right this minute, she didn’t sound delighted with the idea.
Worse, Justin couldn’t explain that he knew, or how he knew. “I just thought—” he began.
Megan shook her head. Her dark hair flipped back and forth. She said, “No. You didn’t think. You’re starting your senior year this fall. I’m starting my junior year. We aren’t ready to think about getting married yet, even if…” She shook her head again. “We aren’t ready. What would we live on?”
“We’d manage.” Justin didn’t want to think about that even if. It had to be the start of something like, even if I decide I want to marry you. But Megan hadn’t said all of it. Justin clung to that. He had nothing else to cling to.
“We’d manage?” Megan said. “Yeah, right. We’d go into debt so deep, we’d never get out. I don’t want to do that, not when I’m just starting. I didn’t think you did, either.”
He kept driving for a little while. Clichés had women eager for commitment and men fleeing from it as if from a skunk at a picnic. He’d gone and offered to commit, and Megan reacted as if he ought to be committed. What did that say about clichés? Probably not to pay much attention to them.
“Hey.” Megan touched his arm. “I’m not mad, not for that. But I’m not ready, either. Don’t push me, okay?”
“Okay.” But Justin had to push. He knew it too damn well. He couldn’t stay in 1999 very long. Things between Megan and him had to be solid before he left the scene and his younger self took over again. His younger self, he was convinced, could fuck up a wet dream, and damn well had fucked up what should have been a perfect, lifelong relationship.
He opened the window and clicked the security key into the lock. The heavy iron gate slid open. He drove in and parked the car. They both got out. Neither said much as they walked to his apartment.
Not too much later, in the dark quiet of the bedroom, Megan clutched the back of his head with both hands and cried out, “Ohhh, Justin!” loud enough to make him embarrassed to show his face to the neighbors – or make him a minor hero among them, depending. She lay back on the bed and said, “You drive me crazy when you do that.”
“We aim to please.” Did he sound smug? If he did, hadn’t he earned the right?
Megan laughed. “Bull’s-eye!” Her voice still sounded shaky.
He slid up to lie beside her, running his hands along her body as he did. Strike while the iron is hot, he thought. He felt pretty hot himself. He said, “And you don’t want to talk about getting married yet?”
“I don’t want to talk about anything right now,” Megan said. “What I want to do is…” She did it. If Justin hadn’t been a consenting adult, it would have amounted to criminal assault. As things were, he couldn’t think of any stretch of time he’d enjoyed more.
“Jesus, I love you,” he said when he was capable of coherent speech.
Megan kept straddling him – not that he wanted to escape. Her face was only a couple of inches above his. Now she leaned down and kissed him on the end of the nose. “I love this,” she said, which wasn’t the same thing at all.
He ran a hand along the smooth, sweat-slick curves of her back. “Well, then,” he said, as if the two things were the same.
She laughed and shook her head. Her hair brushed back and forth across his face, full of the scent of her. Even though she kissed him again, she said, “But we can’t do this all the time.” At that precise moment, he softened and flopped out of her. She nodded, as if he’d proved her point. “See what I mean?”
Justin wished for his younger self’s body. Had himself-at-twenty-one been there, he would have been hard at it again instead of wilting at the worst possible time. But he had to play the hand he’d been dealt. He said, “I know it’s not the only reason to get married, but isn’t it a nice one?” To show how nice it was, he slid his hand between her legs.
Megan let it stay there for a couple of seconds, but then twisted away. “I asked you not to push me about that, Justin,” she said, all the good humor gone from her voice.
“Well, yeah, but—” he began.
“You didn’t listen,” she said. “People who get married have to, like, listen to each other, too, you know? You can’t just screw all the time. You really can’t. Look at my parents, for crying out loud.”
“My parents are screwing all the time,” Justin said.
“Yeah, but not with each other.” Megan hesitated, then said, “I’m sorry.”
“Why? It’s true.” Justin’s younger self had been horrified at his parents’ antics. If anything, that horror had got worse since. Up in 2018, he hadn’t seen or even spoken to either one of them for years, and he didn’t miss them, either.
Then he thought, So Dad chases bimbos and Mom decided she wasn’t straight after all. What you’re doing here is a lot weirder than any of that. But was it? All he wanted was a happy marriage, one like Megan’s folks had, one that probably looked boring from the outside but not when you were in it.
Was that too much to ask? The way things were going, it was liable to be.
Megan said, “Don’t get me wrong, Justin. I like you a lot. I wouldn’t go to bed with you if I didn’t. Maybe I even love you, if you want me to say that. But I don’t know if I want to try and spend my whole life with you. And if you keep riding me twenty-four-seven about it, I’ll decide I don’t. Does that make any sense to you?”
Justin shook his head. All he heard was a clock ticking on his hopes. “If we’ve got a good thing going, we ought to take it as far as we can,” he said. “Where will we find anything better?” He’d spent the rest of his life looking not for something better but for something close to as good. He hadn’t found it.
“Goddammit, it’s not a good thing if you won’t listen to me. You don’t want to notice that.” Megan got up and went into the bathroom. When she came back, she started dressing. “Take me home, please.”
“Shouldn’t we talk some more?” Justin heard the panic in his own voice.
“No. Take me home.” Megan sounded very sure. “Every time we talk lately, you dig the hole deeper for yourself. Like I said, Justin, I like you, but I don’t think we’d better talk for a while. It’s like you don’t even hear me, like you don’t even have to hear me. Like you’re the grownup and I’m just a kid to you, and I don’t like that a bit.”
How seriously did a forty-year-old need to take a twenty-year-old? Unconsciously, Justin must have decided, not very. That looked to be wrong. “Honey, please wait,” he said.
“It’ll just get worse if I do,” she answered. “Will you drive me, or shall I call my dad?”
He was in Dutch with her. He didn’t want to get in Dutch with her folks, too. “I’ll drive you,” he said dully.
Even more than the drive back from the movie theater had, this one passed in tense silence. At last, as Justin turned onto her street, Megan broke it: “We’ve got our whole lives ahead of us, you know? The way you’ve been going lately, it’s like you want everything nailed down tomorrow. That’s not gonna happen. It can’t happen. Neither one of us is ready for it.”
“I am,” Justin said.
“Well, I’m not,” Megan told him as he stopped the car in front of her house. “And if you keep picking at it and picking at it, I’m never going to be. In fact…”
“In fact, what?”
“Never mind,” she said. “Whatever.” Before he could ask her again, she got out and hurried up the walk toward the house. He waved to her. He blew her a kiss. She didn’t look back to see the wave or the kiss. She just opened the door and went inside. Justin sat for a couple of minutes, staring at the house. Then, biting his lip, he drove home.
* * *
Over the next three days, he called Megan a dozen times. Every time, he got the answering machine or one of her parents. They kept telling him she wasn’t home. At last, fed up, he burst out, “She doesn’t want to talk to me!”
Her father would have failed as White House press secretary. All he said was, “Well, if she doesn’t, you can’t make her, you know” – hardly a ringing denial.
But that’s what I came back for! Justin wanted to scream it. That wouldn’t have done any good. He knew as much. He still wanted to scream it. He’d come back to make things better, and what had he done? Made them worse.
On the fourth evening, the telephone rang as he walked in the door from his shift at CompUSA. His heart sank as he hurried into the bedroom. His younger self would be flipping out if he’d tried to call Megan and discovered she wouldn’t talk to him. He’d told his younger self not to do that, but how reliable was himself-at-twenty-one? Not very. “Hello?”
“Hello, Justin.” It wasn’t his younger self. It was Megan.
“Hi!” He didn’t know whether to be exalted or terrified. Not knowing, he ended up both at once. “How are you?”
“I’m okay.” She paused. Terror swamped exaltation. When she went on, she said, “I’ve been talking with my folks the last few days.”
That didn’t sound good. Trying to pretend he didn’t know how bad it sounded, he asked, “And?” The word hung in the air.
Megan paused again. At last, she said, “We – I’ve – decided I’d better not see you any more. I’m sorry, Justin, but that’s how things are.”
“They’re making you say that!” If Justin blamed Megan’s parents, he wouldn’t have to blame anyone else: himself, for instance.
But she said, “No, they aren’t. My mom, especially, thought I ought to give you another chance. But I’ve given you a couple chances already, and you don’t know what to do with them. Things got way too intense way too fast, and I’m not ready for that. I don’t want to deal with it, and I don’t have to deal with it, and I’m not going to deal with it, and that’s that. Like I said, I’m sorry and everything, but I can’t.”
“I don’t believe this,” he muttered. Refusing to believe it remained easier than blaming himself. “What about the sex?”
“It was great,” Megan said at once. “I won’t tell you any lies. If you make other girls feel the way you make – made – me feel, you won’t have any trouble finding somebody else. I hope you do.”
Christ, Justin thought. She’s letting me down easy. She’s trying to, anyhow, but she’s only twenty and she’s not very good at it. He didn’t want to be let down easy, or at all. He said, “What about you?”
“I’ll keep looking. If you can do it for me, probably other fellows can, too,” Megan answered with devastating pragmatism. Half to herself, she added, “Maybe I need to date older guys, or something, if I can find some who aren’t too bossy.”
That would have been funny, if only it were funny. Justin whispered, “But I love you. I’ve always loved you.” He’d loved her for about as long as she’d been alive here in 1999. What did he have to show for it? Getting shot down in flames not once but twice.
“Don’t make this harder than it has to be. Please?” Megan said. “And don’t call here any more, okay? You’re not going to change my mind. If I decide I was wrong, I’ll call your place, all right? Goodbye, Justin.” She hung up without giving him a chance to answer.
Don’t call us. We’ll call you. Everybody knew what that meant. It meant what she’d been telling him anyhow: so long. He didn’t want to hang up. Finally, after more than a minute of dial tone, he did.
“What do I do now?” he asked himself, or possibly God. God might have known. Justin had no clue.
He thought about calling his younger self and letting him know things had gone wrong: he thought about it for maybe three seconds, then dropped the idea like a live grenade. Himself-at-twenty-one would want to slaughter him. He metaphorically felt like dying, but not for real.
Why not? he wondered. What will it be like when you head back to your own time? You wanted to change the past. Well, you’ve done that. You’ve screwed it up big-time. What kind of memories will you have when you come back to that men’s room in 2018? Not memories of being married to Megan for a while and then having things go sour, that’s for sure. You don’t even get those. It’ll be nineteen years of nothing – a long, lonely, empty stretch.
He lay down on the bed and wept. He hadn’t done that since Megan told him she was leaving him. Since the last time Megan told me she was leaving me, he thought. Hardly noticing he’d done it, he fell asleep.
* * *
When the phone rang a couple of hours later, Justin had trouble remembering when he was and how old he was supposed to be. The old-fashioned computer on the desk told him everything he needed to know. Grimacing, he picked up the telephone. “Hello?”
“You son of a bitch.” His younger self didn’t bellow the words. Instead, they were deadly cold. “You goddamn stupid, stinking, know-it-all son of a bitch.”
Since Justin was calling himself the same things, he had trouble getting angry when his younger self cursed him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I tried to—”
He might as well have kept quiet. His younger self rode over him, saying, “I just tried calling Megan. She said she didn’t want to talk to me. She said she never wanted to talk to me again. She said she’d told me she never wanted to talk to me again, so what was I doing on the phone right after she told me that? Then she hung up on me.”
“I’m sorry,” Justin repeated. “I—”
“Sorry?” This time, his younger self did bellow. “You think you’re sorry now? You don’t know what sorry is, but you will. I’m gonna beat the living shit out of you, dude. Fuck up my life, will you? You think you can get away with that, you’re full of—” He slammed down the phone.
Justin had never been much for fisticuffs, not at twenty-one and not at forty, either. But his younger self was so furious now, who could guess what he’d do? What with rage and what had to be a severe case of testosterone poisoning, he was liable to mean what he’d said. Justin knew to the day how many years he was giving away.
He also knew his younger self had keys to this apartment. If himself-at-twenty-one showed up here in fifteen minutes, did he want to meet him?
That led to a different question: did he want to be here in 1999 at all any more? All he’d done was the opposite of what he’d wanted. Why hang around, then? Instead of waiting to slide back along the superstring into 2018 in a few more weeks, wasn’t it better to cut the string and go back to his own time, to try to pick up the pieces of whatever life would be left to him after he’d botched things here?
Justin booted up the PowerBook from his own time. The suitcases he’d brought to 1999 were at the other apartment. So was a lot of the cash. His mouth twisted. He didn’t think he could ask his younger self to return it.
As he slipped the VR mask onto his head, he hoped he’d done his homework right, and that he would return to the men’s room from which he’d left 2018. That was what his calculations showed, but how good were they? Only real experience would tell. If this building still stood then and he materialized in somebody’s bedroom, he’d have more explaining to do than he really wanted.
He also wondered what memories he’d have when he got back to his former point on the timeline. The old ones, as if he hadn’t made the trip? The old ones, plus his memories of seeing 1999 while forty? New ones, stemming from the changes he’d made back here? Some of each? He’d find out.
From its initial perfect blankness, the VR mask view shifted to show the room in which he now sat, PowerBook on his lap. “Run program superstrings-slash-virtual reality-slash-not so virtual-slash-reverse,” he said. The view began to shift. Part of that was good old-fashioned morphing software, so what he saw in the helmet looked less and less like this bedroom and more and more like the restroom that was his destination. And part was the superstring program, pulling him from one point on the string to the other. He hoped part of it was the superstring software, anyhow. If the program didn’t run backwards, he’d have to deal with his angry younger self, and he wasn’t up to that physically or mentally.
On the VR screen, the men’s room at the Superstrings building had completely replaced the bedroom of his younger self’s apartment. “Program superstrings-slash-virtual reality-slash-not so virtual reality-slash-reverse is done,” the PowerBook said. Justin kept waiting. If he took off the helmet and found himself still in that bedroom …
* * *
When he nerved himself to shed the mask, he let out a long, loud sigh of relief: what he saw without it matched what he’d seen with it. His next worry – his mind coughed them up in carload lots – was that he’d gone to the right building, but in 1999, not 2018.
His first step out of the men’s room reassured him. The carpeting was its old familiar color, not the jarring one from 1999. He looked at the VR mask and PowerBook he was carrying. He wouldn’t need them any more today, and he didn’t feel like explaining to Sean and Garth and everybody else why he’d brought them. He headed downstairs again, to stow them in the trunk of his car.
As he walked through the lobby toward the front door, the security guard opened it for him. “Forget something, sir?” the aging Boomer asked.
“Just want to put this stuff back, Bill.” Justin held up the laptop and mask. Nodding, the guard stepped aside.
Justin was halfway across the lot before he realized the car toward which he’d aimed himself wasn’t the one he’d parked there before going back to 1999. It was in the same space, but it wasn’t the same car. He’d driven here in an aging Ford, not a top-of-the-line Volvo.
He looked around the lot. No Ford. No cars but the Volvo and Bill’s ancient, wheezing Hyundai. If he hadn’t got here in the Volvo, how had he come? Of itself, his hand slipped into his trouser pocket and came out with a key ring. The old iron ring and the worn leather fob on it were familiar; he’d had that key ring a long time. The keys …
One was a Volvo key. He tried it in the trunk. It turned in the lock. Smoothly, almost silently, the lid opened. Justin put the computer and the VR mask in the trunk, closed it, and slid the keys back into his pants pocket.
They weren’t the pants he’d worn when he left his apartment that morning: instead of 1990s-style baggy jeans, they were slacks, a lightweight wool blend. His shoes had changed, too, and he was wearing a nice polo shirt, not a Dilbert T-shirt.
He ran his left hand over the top of his head. His hair was longer, the buzz cut gone. He started to wonder if he was really himself. His memories of what he’d been before he went back and changed his own past warred with the ones that had sprung from the change. He shook his head; his brain felt overcrowded.
He started back toward the Superstrings building, but wasn’t ready to go in there again quite yet. He needed to sit down somewhere quiet for a while and straighten things out inside his own mind.
When he looked down the street, he grinned. There was the Denny’s where he’d had breakfast right after going back to 1999. It hadn’t changed much in the years since. He sauntered over. He was still on his own time.
“Toast and coffee,” he told the middle-aged, bored-looking Hispanic waitress.
“White, rye, or whole wheat?”
“Wheat,” he answered.
“Yes, sir,” she said. She brought them back with amazing speed. He smeared the toast with grape jelly, let her refill his cup two or three times, and then, still bemused but caffeinated, headed back to Superstrings, Ltd.
More cars in the lot now, and still more pulling in as he walked up. There was Garth O’Connell’s garish green Chevy. Justin waved. “Morning, Garth. How you doing?”
O’Connell smiled. “Not too bad. How are you, Mr. Kloster?”
“Could be worse,” Justin allowed. Part of him remembered Garth being on a first-name basis with him. The other part, the increasingly dominant part, insisted that had never happened.
They went inside and upstairs together, talking business. Garth headed off into the maze of cubicles that made up most of the second floor. Justin started to follow him, but his feet didn’t want to go that way. He let them take him where they would. They had a better idea of where exactly he worked than his conscious mind did right now.
His secretary was already busy at the computer in the anteroom in front of his office. She nodded. “Good morning, Mr. Kloster.”
“Good morning, Brittany,” he said. Had he ever seen her in all his life? If he hadn’t, how did he know her name? How did he know she’d worked for him the past three years?
He went into the office – his office – and closed the door. Again, he had that momentary disorientation, as if he’d never been here before. But of course he had. If the founder and president of Superstrings, Ltd., didn’t deserve the fanciest office in the building, who did?
The part of him that had traveled back through time still felt confused. Not the rest, the part that had been influenced by his trip back to 1999. Knowing such things were possible – and having the seed money his time-traveling self left behind – wouldn’t he naturally have started getting involved in this area as soon as he could? Sure he would have – he damn well had. On the wall of the office, framed, hung, not the first dollar he’d ever made, but a quarter dated 2012. He’d had it for nineteen years.
He sat down at his desk. The view out the window wasn’t much, but it beat the fuzzy, grayish-tan wall of a cubicle. On the desk stood a framed picture of a smiling blond woman and two boys he’d never seen before – his sons, Saul and Lije. When he stopped and thought, it all came back to him, just as if he’d really lived it. As a matter of fact, he had. He’d never got over Megan. His younger self, who’d never married her, was a different story – from the way things looked, a better story.
Why, he even knew how the image had been ever so slightly edited. She could be vain about the silliest things. His phone buzzed. He picked it up. “Yes, Brittany?”
“Your wife’s on the line, Mr. Kloster,” his secretary said. “Something she wants you to get on the way home.”
“Sure, put her through.” Justin was still chuckling when his wife came on the line. “Okay, what do you need at the store, Lindsey?”