TWENTY-ONE, COUNTING UP
Harry Turtledove is an American writer and editor best known for his work in science fiction, alternate histories, and historical fiction. With well over twenty novels and hundreds of short stories, his work has been nominated for just about every award in the industry. He has won the Hugo, the Sidewise, and the Prometheus awards. “Twenty-one, Counting Up” was first published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in 1999. It is a companion piece to his other story in this anthology, “Forty, Counting Down,” which features the same main character, Justin Kloster.
Justin Kloster looked from his blue book to his watch and back again. He muttered under his breath. Around him, a hundred more people in the American history class were looking at their watches, too. Fifteen minutes left. After that, another breadth requirement behind him. His junior year behind him, too. Three down, one to go.
At precisely four o’clock, the professor said, “Time! Bring your blue books up to the front of the lecture hall.”
Like everybody else, Justin squeezed out another couple of sentences before doing as he was told. He wrung his hand to show writer’s cramp, then stuck the pen in the pocket of his jeans and headed for the door.
“How do you think you did?” somebody asked him.
“I’m pretty sure I got a B, anyhow,” he answered. “That’s all I really need. It’s not like it’s my major or anything.” The prof could hear him, but he didn’t much care. This wasn’t a course for history majors, not that Cal State Northridge had many of those. It was a school for training computer people like him, business types, and teachers. After a moment, he thought to ask, “How about you?”
“Probably about the same,” the other fellow said. “Well, have a good summer.”
“Yeah, you, too.” Justin opened the door and stepped from air conditioning and pale fluorescent light into the brassy sun and heat of the San Fernando Valley. He blinked a couple of times as his eyes adapted. Sweat started pouring off him. He hurried across campus to the parking lot where his Toyota waited. He was very blond and very fair, and sunburned if you looked at him sideways. He was also a little – only a little – on the round side, which made him sweat even more.
When he unlocked the car, he fanned the door back and forth a couple of times to get rid of the furnacelike air inside. He cranked the AC as soon as he started the motor. After he’d gone a couple of blocks, it started doing some good. He’d just got comfortable when he pulled into the gated driveway of his apartment building.
The Acapulco was like a million others in Los Angeles, with a below-ground parking lot and two stories of apartments built above it around a courtyard that held a swimming pool, a rec room, and a couple of flower beds whose plants kept dying.
The key that opened the security gate also opened the door between the lot and the lobby. Justin checked his snailmail and found, as he’d hoped, a check from his father and another from his mother. His lip curled as he scooped the envelopes from his little mailbox. His folks had gone through a messy divorce his senior year in high school. These days, his father was living with a redheaded woman only a couple of years older than he was – and his mother was living with a dark-haired woman only a couple of years older than he was. They both sent money to help keep him in his apartment … and so they wouldn’t have to have anything more to do with him. That suited him fine. He didn’t want to have anything to do with them these days, either.
He used the security key again to get from the lobby to the courtyard behind it, then walked back to his apartment, which wasn’t far from the rec room. That had worried him when he first rented the place, but hardly anybody played table tennis or shot pool or lifted weights, so noise wasn’t a problem.
His apartment was no neater than it had to be. His history text and lecture notes covered the kitchen table. He chuckled as he shoved them aside. “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” he chanted – and how long had people escaping from school been singing that song? He grabbed a Coke from the refrigerator and started to sit down in front of the space he’d cleared. Then he shook his head and carried the soda back into the bedroom instead.
He really lived there. His iMac sat on a desk in a corner by the closet. Justin grinned when he booted it up. It didn’t look like all the boring beige boxes other companies made. As soon as the desktop came up, he logged onto Earthlink to check his e-mail and see what was going on in some of the newsgroups he read.
None of the e-mail was urgent, or even very interesting. The newsgroups … “How about that?” he said a couple of minutes later. Dave and Tabitha, who’d both been posting in the Trash Can Sinatras newsgroup for as long as he’d been reading it, announced they were getting married. Justin sent congratulations. He hoped they’d get on better than his own folks had. His girlfriend’s parents were still together, and still seemed to like each other pretty well.
Thinking of Megan made him want to talk to her. He logged off Earthlink – having only one line in the apartment was a pain – and went over to the phone on the nightstand. He dialed and listened to it ring, once, twice … “Hello?” she said.
“What’s the story, morning glory?” Justin said – Megan was wild for Oasis. He liked British pop, too, though he preferred Pulp, as someone of his parents’ generation might have liked the Stones more than the Beatles.
“Oh. Hiya, Justin.” He heard the smile in her voice once she recognized his. He smiled, too. With exams over for another semester, with his girlfriend glad to hear from him, the world looked like a pretty good place. Megan asked, “How’d your final go?”
“Whatever,” he answered. “I don’t think it’s an A, but I’m pretty sure it’s a B, and that’s good enough. Want to go out tonight and party?”
“I can’t,” Megan told him. “I’ve got my English lit final tomorrow, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. That’s right.” Justin hadn’t remembered till she reminded him. “I bet you’re glad to get through with most of that lower-division stuff.” She was a year behind him.
“This wasn’t so bad.” Megan spoke as if telling a dark, shameful secret: “I kind of like Shakespeare.”
“Whatever,” Justin said again. All he remembered from his literature course was that he’d been damn lucky to escape with a B-minus. “I’ll take you to Sierra’s. We can get margaritas. How’s that?”
“The bomb,” Megan said solemnly. “What time?”
“How about six-thirty? I start at CompUSA tomorrow, and I’ll get off a little past five.”
“Okay, see you then,” Megan said. “I’ve got to get back to Macbeth. ’Bye.” She hung up.
Justin put This Is Hardcore, his favorite Pulp album, in the CD player and pulled dinner out of the freezer at random. When he saw what he had, he put it back and got another one: if he was going to Sierra’s tomorrow night, he didn’t want Mexican food tonight, too. Plain old fried chicken would do the job well enough. He nuked it, washed it down with another Coke, then threw the tray and the can in the trash and the silverware into the dishwasher. When he started running out of forks, he’d get everything clean at once.
He went back into the bedroom, surfed the Net without much aim for a while, and then went over to bungie.com and got into a multiplayer game of Myth II. His side took gas; one of the guys didn’t want to follow their captain’s orders, even though his own ideas were a long way from brilliant. Justin logged off in disgust. He fired up his Carmageddon CD-ROM and happily ran down little old ladies in walkers till he noticed in some surprise that it was after eleven. “Work tomorrow,” he sighed, and shut down and went to bed.
* * *
Freshly showered, freshly shaved, a gold stud in his left ear, he drove over to Megan’s parents’ house to pick her up. Her mother let him in. “How are you, Justin?” she said. “How do you like your new job?”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Tricoupis,” he answered. “The job’s – okay, I guess.” One day had been plenty to convince him his supervisor was a doofus. The guy didn’t know much about computers, and, because he was pushing thirty, he thought he could lord it over Justin and the other younger people at the store.
Megan’s mom caught Justin’s tone. Laughing, she said, “Welcome to the real world.” She turned and called toward the back of the house: “Sweetie! Justin’s here!”
“I’m coming,” Megan said. She hurried into the living room. She was a slim, almost skinny brunette with more energy than she sometimes knew what to do with. “Hiya,” she told Justin. The way she looked at him, she might have invented him.
“Hi.” Justin felt the same way about her. He wanted to grab her right then and there. If her mother hadn’t been standing three feet away, he would have done it.
Mrs. Tricoupis laughed again, on a different note. It didn’t occur to Justin that she could see through Megan and him. She said, “Go on, kids. Have fun. Drive carefully, Justin.”
“Whatever,” Justin said, which made Megan’s mom roll her eyes up to the heavens. But he’d been in only one wreck since getting his license, and that one hadn’t quite been his fault, so he couldn’t see why she was ragging on him.
He didn’t grab Megan when they got into the car, either. At the first red light, though, they leaned toward each other and into a long, wet kiss that lasted till the light turned green and even longer – till, in fact, the old fart in the SUV behind them leaned on his horn and made them both jump.
Sierra’s had stood at the corner of Vanowen and Canoga for more than forty years, which made it a Valley institution. They both ordered margaritas as they were seated, Megan’s strawberry, Justin’s plain. The waiter nodded to her but told Justin, “I’m sorry, señor, but I’ll need some ID.”
“Okay.” Justin displayed his driver’s license, which showed he’d been born in April 1978, and so had been legal for a couple of months.
“Gracias, señor,” the waiter said. “I’ll get you both your drinks.” Justin and Megan didn’t start quietly giggling till he was gone. Megan was only twenty, but people always carded Justin.
The margaritas were good. After a couple of sips of hers, Megan said, “You didn’t even ask me how I did on my final.”
“Duh!” Justin hit himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand. “How did you do?”
“Great,” she said happily. “I think I might even have gotten an A.”
“That rocks.” Justin made silent clapping motions. Megan took a seated bow. He went on, “How do you feel like celebrating?”
“Well, we probably ought to save club-hopping for the weekend, since you’ve got to go to work in the morning.” Megan stuck out her tongue at him. “See? I think about what’s going on with you.” Justin started to get chuffed, but didn’t let it show. A couple of seconds later, he was glad he didn’t, because Megan went on, “So why don’t we just go back to your place after dinner?”
“Okay,” he said, and hoped he didn’t sound slaveringly eager. Maybe he did; Megan started laughing at him. But it wasn’t mean laughter, and she didn’t change what she’d said. He raised his margarita to his lips. At twenty-one, it’s easy to think you’ve got the world by the tail.
He hardly noticed what he ordered. When the waiter brought it, he ate it. It was good; the food at Sierra’s always was. Afterwards, he had to remember to stay somewhere close to the speed limit as he drove up Canoga toward the Acapulco. Getting a ticket would interrupt everything else he had in mind.
When he opened the door to let Megan into his apartment, she said, “You’re so lucky to have a place of your own.”
“I guess so,” Justin answered. He thought she was pretty lucky to have parents who cared enough about her to want her to stay at home while she went through college. As far as he was concerned, the checks his father and mother sent counted for a lot less than some real affection would have. He’d tried explaining that, but he’d seen it made no sense to her.
She bent down and went pawing through his CDs and put on I’ve Seen Everything, the Trash Can Sinatras’ second album. As “Easy Road” started coming out of the stereo, she sighed. “They were such a good band. I wish they’d made more than three records before they broke up.”
“Yeah,” Justin said. However much he liked the Sinatras, though, he didn’t pay that much attention to the music. Instead, he watched her straighten and get to her feet. He stepped forward to slip an arm around her waist.
She turned and smiled at him from a range of about six inches, as if she’d forgotten he was there and was glad to be reminded. “Hiya,” she said brightly, and put her arms around him. Who kissed whom first was a matter of opinion. They went back into the bedroom together.
They’d been lovers for only a couple of months. Justin was still learning what Megan liked. He didn’t quite get her where she was going before he rather suddenly arrived himself. “Sorry,” he said as his heartrate slowed toward normal. “Wait a few minutes and we’ll try it again.” It was only a few minutes, too. At his age, he could – and did – take that for granted. After the second time, he asked, “Better?”
“Yeah,” Megan answered in a breathy voice that meant it was quite a bit better. Or maybe that breathy voice meant something else altogether, for she was still using it as she went on, “Get up, will you? You’re squashing me.”
“Oh.” Justin slid his weight – too much weight, he thought, not for the first time – off her. “I didn’t mean to.”
“A gentleman,” she said darkly, “takes his weight on his elbows.” But she laughed as she said it, so she couldn’t have been really mad.
Justin scratched his stomach, which gave him an excuse to feel how too much of it there was. He wasn’t really tubby. He’d never been really tubby. But he would never have six-pack abs, either. Twelve-pack or maybe a whole case, yeah. Six-pack? Real live muscles? Fuhgeddaboutit. Unlike some other girls he’d known, Megan had never given him a hard time about it.
“Shall we go down to the Probe Friday night?” he said. “They don’t have me working Saturday, so we can close the place and see what kind of after-hours stuff we can dig up.”
“All right,” Megan said. She slid off the bed and went into the bathroom. When she came back, she started dressing. Justin had half hoped for a third round, but it wasn’t urgent. He put his clothes on again, too.
The drive back to Megan’s house passed in happy silence. Justin kept glancing over at her every so often. I’m a pretty lucky fellow, he thought, finding a girl I can … Then he clicked his tongue between his teeth. He didn’t even want to think the word love. After he’d watched his parents’ messy breakup, that word scared the hell out of him. But it kept coming back whether he wanted it to or not. He told himself that was a good sign, and came close to believing it.
* * *
The Probe lay a couple of blocks off Melrose, the heart of the L.A. scene. Justin snagged a parking space in front of a house not far away. Megan gave him a hand. “I thought we’d have to hike for, like, miles,” she said.
“Well, we’ve got the shoes for it,” Justin said, which made her grin. They both wore knockoffs of Army boots, big and black and massive, with soles that looked as if they’d been cut from tractor tire treads. Justin made sure he put the Club on the steering wheel before he got out of the car. Things in this neighborhood had a way of walking with Jesus if you weren’t careful.
He and Megan had no trouble snagging a table when they got inside the Probe. “Guard it with your life,” he told her, and went over to the bar to buy a beer. He got carded again, and had to haul out his license. He brought the brew back to Megan, who couldn’t pass the ID test, then got another one for himself.
They both eyed the deejay’s booth, which was as yet uninhabited. “Who’s it supposed to be tonight?” Megan asked. Before Justin could answer, she went on, “I hope it’s Helen. She plays the best mix of anybody, and she’s not afraid to spin things you don’t hear every day.”
“I dunno,” Justin said. “I like Douglas better, I think. He won’t scramble tempos the way Helen does sometimes. You can really dance when he’s playing things.”
Megan snorted. “Give me a break. I have to drag you out there half the time.”
“Proves my point,” Justin said. “I need all the help I can get.”
“Well, maybe,” Megan said: no small concession. She and Justin analyzed and second-guessed deejays the way football fans played Monday-morning quarterback. Their arguments got just as abstruse and sometimes just as heated, too. Megan didn’t drop it cold here: she said, “As long as it’s not Michael.”
Justin crossed his forefingers, as if warding off a vampire. “Anybody but Michael,” he agreed. “I don’t know how they can keep using him. His list is so lame – my father would like most of it.” He could find no stronger condemnation.
A couple of minutes later, a skinny redheaded guy with a buzz cut even shorter than Justin’s, little tiny sunglasses, and a silver lip ring that glittered under the blazing spots sauntered across the stage to the booth. “It’s Douglas,” Megan said. She didn’t sound too disappointed; she liked him next best after Helen.
“Yeah!” Justin let out a whoop and clapped till his hands hurt. A lot of people in the club were doing the same; Douglas had a considerable following. But there were also scattered boos, and even one raucous shout of, “We want Michael!” Justin and Megan looked at each other and both mouthed the same word: losers.
Douglas didn’t waste time with chatter. That was another reason Justin liked him – he didn’t come to the Probe for foreplay. As soon as the music started blaring out, an enormous grin spread over his face. He didn’t even grumble when Megan sprang up, grabbed him, and hauled him out onto the floor. He gave it his best shot. With the bass thudding through him like the start of an earthquake, how could he do anything else?
Tomorrow, he knew, his ears would ring and buzz. His hearing wouldn’t be quite right for a couple of days. But he’d worry about that later, if he worried at all. He was having a good time, and nothing else mattered.
Somewhere a little past midnight, a guy with a pierced tongue drifted through the crowd passing out fliers xeroxed on poisonously pink paper. RAVE! was the headline in screamer type – and in a fancy font that was barely legible; Justin, who’d just taken a desktop-publishing course, would never have chosen it. Below, it gave an address a few blocks from the Probe and a smudgy map.
“Wanna go?” Justin asked when the thundering music stopped for a moment.
Megan tossed her head to flip back her hair, then wiped her sweaty forehead with the sleeve of her tunic. “Sure!” she said.
After the Probe closed at two, people streamed out to their cars. The not quite legal after-hours action – at which Justin saw a lot of the same faces – was in an empty warehouse. He’d never been to this one before, but he’d been to others like it. Dancing till whenever was even more fun than dancing till two, and there was always the chance the cops would show up and run everybody out.
There were other ways to have fun at raves, too. A pretty blonde girl carried an enormous purse full of plastic vials half full of orange fluid. “Liquid Happiness?” she asked when she came up to Justin and Megan.
They looked at each other. Justin pulled out ten bucks. The girl gave him two vials. She went on her way. He handed Megan a vial. They both pulled out the stoppers and drank. They both made faces, too. The stuff tasted foul. The drugs you got at raves usually did. Justin and Megan started dancing again, waiting for the Liquid Happiness to kick in.
As far as Justin was concerned, it might as well have been Liquid Wooziness. He felt as if his head were only loosely attached to the rest of him. It was fun. It would have been even more fun if he’d been more alert to what was going on.
Things broke up about a quarter to five. Justin’s head and the rest of him seemed a little more connected. He didn’t have too much trouble driving back to the Valley. “Take you home or go back to my place?” he asked Megan as he got off the Ventura Freeway and onto surface streets.
“Yours,” Megan said at once. “We’re so late now, another half hour, forty-five minutes won’t matter at all.”
He reached out and set his hand on her thigh. “I like the way you think.”
* * *
His boss knew even less about Macs than he did about other computers. Since said boss was convinced he knew everything about everything, persuading him of that took all the tact Justin had, and maybe a little more besides. He got home from CompUSA feeling as if he’d gone through a car wash with his doors open.
As usual, he sorted through his snailmail walking from the lobby to his apartment. As usual, the first thing he did when he got to the apartment was toss most of it in the trash. And, as usual, the first worthwhile thing he did was turn on his computer and check e-mail. That was more likely to be interesting than what he got from the post office.
At first, though, he didn’t think it would be, not today. All he had were a couple of pieces of obvious spam and something from somebody he’d never heard of who used AOL. His lip curled. As far as he was concerned, AOL was for people who couldn’t ride a bicycle without training wheels.
But, with nothing more interesting showing on the monitor, he opened the message. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting. Whatever it was, it wasn’t what he got. Who but you, the e-mail read, would know that the first time you jacked off, you were looking at Miss March 1993, a little before your fifteenth birthday? Gorgeous blonde, wasn’t she? The only way I know is that I am you, more or less. Let me hear from you.
The signature line read, Justin Kloster, age 40.
Justin Kloster, age twenty-one, stared at that: stared and stared and stared. He remembered Miss March 1993 very, very well. He remembered sneaking her into the bathroom at his parents’ house, back in the days before they’d decided to find themselves and lose him. He remembered not quite being sure what would happen as he fumbled with himself, and how much better reality had been than anything he’d imagined.
What he didn’t remember was ever telling anybody about it. It wasn’t the sort of thing you advertised, that was for damn sure. Could he have mentioned it when he was shooting the bull with his buds, maybe after they’d all had a few beers, or more than a few? He shook his head. No way.
He looked at the signature line again. Justin Kloster, age 40? “Bullshit,” he muttered. He wasn’t forty, thank God. Forty was the other side of the moon, the side old men lived on. Not really old, ancient, but old like his father. Old enough. The only thing that made the idea getting to forty even halfway appealing was that he might do it with Megan. After all, she’d only be thirty-nine then.
What to do about the message? He was tempted to delete it, forget it. But he couldn’t, not quite. He chose the REPLY function and typed, What kind of stupid joke is this? Whatever it is, it’s not funny. He thought about adding Justin Kloster, age 21 to it, but he didn’t want to acknowledge it even enough to parody. He sent the bald e-mail just the way it was.
He walked out to the kitchen and threw a Hungry Man dinner in the microwave. As soon as it started, he opened the refrigerator and dithered between Coke and a beer. He seldom drank alcohol when he was by himself. Today, he made an exception. He popped open a can of Coors Light and took a long pull. The beer slid down his throat, cold and welcome.
As if drawn by a magnet, he went back to the computer. He had no way of knowing when the smartass on AOL who signed himself with his own name would send more e-mail soon, or even if he’d send any more at all. But the fellow might – and Justin spent a lot of time online just about every evening anyhow.
Sure as hell, new e-mail from that same address came in before the microwave buzzed to tell him his dinner was done. He took another big swig of beer, then opened the mail.
No joke, it read. 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 else would know your dad fed you Rollos when he took you to work with him that day when you were eight or nine? Who else 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. Justin Kloster.
“Jesus!” Justin said hoarsely. His hands were shaking so much, the beer slopped and splashed inside the can. He had to put the can down on the desk, or he would have spilled beer on his pants.
Out in the kitchen, the microwave did let him know his dinner was ready. He heard it, but he hardly noticed. He couldn’t take his eyes off the iMac’s monitor. Nobody knew that stuff about him. Nobody. He would have bet money neither his mother nor his father could have told how he lost his first tooth, or when. He would have bet more money his dad couldn’t have remembered those Rollos to save himself from a firing squad.
As for Lindsey Fletcher … “No way,” he told the words, the impossible words, on the screen. Telling them that didn’t make them go away. Lindsey was a cute little blonde he’d known in high school. They’d never even broken up, not in the sense of a fight or anything, but she’d moved out to Simi Valley with her folks the summer his parents’ marriage struck a mine, and they’d stopped dating. A damn cute little blonde – but she did have that mole.
Justin went to the kitchen, opened up his dinner, and carried it and a couple of dish towels and (almost as an afterthought) a knife and fork back into the bedroom. He put the towels in his lap so the dinner tray wouldn’t burn his legs and started to eat. He hardly noticed what he was shoveling into his face. What do I say? he kept wondering. What the hell do I say?
That depended on what he believed. He didn’t know what the hell to believe. “Time travel?” he said, and then shook his head. “Bullshit.” But if it was bullshit, how did the guy sending him e-mail know so goddamn much? The truth, no doubt, was out there, but how could anybody go about getting his hands on it?
The line made him decide how to answer. I don’t watch X-Files much, he typed, but maybe I ought to. How could you know all that about me? I never told anybody about Lindsey Fletcher’s neck.
Whoever the other guy was, he answered in a hurry. Justin imagined him leaning toward his computer, waiting for AOL’s stupid electronic voice to tell him, “You’ve got mail!” and then writing like a bastard. How do I know? he said. 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. Believe me, I’m back here for a good reason.
“Believe you?” Justin yelped, as if the fellow sending him e-mail were there in the bedroom with him. “How am I supposed to believe you when you keep telling me shit like this?” His fingers said the same thing, only a little more politely. But that’s impossible, he wrote, and sent the message.
Okay. The reply came back almost instantly. But if it is impossible, how do I know all this stuff about you?
That was a good question, what his grandfather called the sixty-four dollar question. Justin would have been a lot happier had he had a sixty-four dollar answer for it. Since he didn’t, being flip would have to do. I don’t know, he wrote. How do you know all this stuff about me?
Because it’s stuff about me, too, said the fellow on the other end of the computer hookup. You don’t seem to be taking that seriously yet.
Justin snorted. “Yeah, right,” he said. “Like I’m supposed to take any of this crap seriously. Like anybody would.” He snapped his fingers and laughed out loud. “I’ll fix you, you son of a bitch. Hassle me, will you?” His fingers flew over the keyboard. If you’re supposed to be me, then you’ll look like me, right?
He laughed again. That’d shut Mr. Mindgames up, by God. Except it didn’t. Again, the reply came back very fast. Right, wrote the stranger who claimed to be his older self. 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.
“Huh,” Justin said. He hadn’t expected to have his bluff called. He hadn’t thought it was a bluff. He typed three defiant words – See you there – sent them off, and shut down his iMac. It was still early, but he’d had enough electronic weirdness for one night.
* * *
Like Topanga Plaza, the Northridge mall was one of Justin’s favorite places. He’d spent a lot of time at both of them, shopping and killing things at the arcade (though Topanga, for some reason, didn’t have one) and hanging out with his buds and just being by himself. He’d been especially glad of places to be by himself when his parents’ marriage went south. Northridge had just reopened then, after staying shut for a year and a half after the big quake in ’94. If they’d let him, he would have visited it while it was in ruins. Even that would have beat the warfare going on at his house.
He parked in the open lot on the south side of the mall, near the Sears. Everyone swore up and down that the new parking structures they’d built since the earthquake wouldn’t come crashing down the way the old ones had. Maybe it was even true. Justin didn’t care to find out by experiment.
His apartment was air-conditioned. His Toyota was air-conditioned. He worked up a good sweat walking a hundred feet from the car to the entrance under the Sears façade that was also new since the quake. Summer was here early this year, and felt ready to stay for a long time. Global warming, he thought. He opened the door. The mall, thank God, was also air-conditioned. He sighed with pleasure at escaping the Valley heat again.
He walked through the Sears toward the entryway into the rest of the mall. None of the men’s clothing he passed looked interesting. Some of it was for businessmen – not particularly successful businessmen, or they wouldn’t shop at Sears. The rest of the clothes were casual, but just as unexciting.
An escalator took Justin up to the second level. The B. Dalton’s was on the right-hand side as he went north, not too far past the food court in the middle of the mall. He paused a couple of times to eye pretty girls sauntering past – yeah, he was seeing Megan all the time and happy about that, but it didn’t mean he was blind. One of the girls smiled at him. He wasn’t foolish enough to let himself get distracted. Not quite.
Past the food court, on toward the bookstore. A guy was leaning against the brushed-aluminum rail – a blond, slightly chunky guy in a black T-shirt, baggy jeans, and Army boots. He’d been looking the other way. Now he swung his head back toward Justin – and he had Justin’s face.
Justin stopped in his tracks. He felt woozy, almost ready to pass out, as if he’d stood up too suddenly from a chair. He had to grab the rail himself, to keep from falling down. He didn’t know what he’d expected. That the other guy’s e-mail might be simple truth had never crossed his mind.
He wanted to get the hell out of there. His older self also looked a little green around the gills. And why not? He was meeting himself for the first time, too. Justin made himself keep going.
When he got up to himself-at-forty, his older self stuck out a hand and said, “Hi. Thanks for coming.” His voice didn’t sound the way Justin’s did in his own ears, but it did sound the way he sounded when he got captured on videotape.
Both Justins looked down at the hands that matched so well. “Maybe I’m not crazy,” Justin said slowly. “Maybe you’re not crazy, either. You look just like me.” He studied his older self. Despite the buzz cut that matched his own, despite the Cow Pi T-shirt, he thought himself-at-forty did look older. But he didn’t look a lot older. He didn’t look anywhere close to the age he was claiming.
“Funny how that works,” his older self said with a tight smile.
He was sharper, more abrupt, than Justin. He acted like a goddamn adult, in other words. And, acting like an adult, as if he knew everything there was to know just because he had some years under his belt, he automatically ticked Justin off. Justin put his hands on his hips and said, “Prove you’re from the future.” Maybe this guy was a twin separated at birth. Maybe he was no relation, but a double anyhow. Maybe … Justin didn’t know what.
His older self reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a little blue plastic coin purse, the kind only a grownup would use. Squeezing it open, he took out a quarter. “Here – this is for you.” He gave it to Justin.
It lay in Justin’s hand eagle side up. Justin turned it over. It still looked like any other quarter … till he saw the date. He thought his eyes would bug out of his head. “It’s from 2012,” he whispered. “Jesus. You weren’t kidding.” Four little numbers stamped onto a coin, and the reality of what he’d just walked into hit him over the head like a club.
“I told you I wasn’t.” His older self sounded like an adult talking down to a kid. That helped convince him, too. Himself-at-forty continued, “Come on. What’s the name of that Korean barbecue place over on Reseda?”
“The Pine Tree?” Justin said. He liked the restaurant. He’d taken Megan there once, and she’d liked it, too.
“Yeah.” Himself-at-forty sounded as if he’d needed reminding. Did that mean he didn’t go there in 2018? Before the question could do anything more than cross Justin’s mind, his older self went on, “Let’s go over there. I’ll buy you dinner, like I said in e-mail, and we can talk about things.”
Justin was hungry – he usually ate dinner earlier – but that wasn’t tops on his list. He came out with what was: “Like what you’re doing here.”
His older self nodded. “Yeah. Like what I’m doing here.”
* * *
As often as not, Justin and whomever he was with turned out to be the only Caucasians in the Pine Tree. He and Megan had been. He and his older self were, too. The waitresses were all Korean; none of them spoke a whole lot of English.
Himself-at-forty ordered marinated beef and pork they could cook themselves at the gas grill set into the tabletop. He ordered a couple of tall OB beers, too. Justin nodded at that. God knew he could use a beer right now.
As their waitress wrote down the order, she kept looking from his older self to Justin and back again. “Twins,” she said at last.
“Yeah,” himself-at-forty said. Justin wondered if he was lying or telling the truth. Damned if I know, he thought as the waitress headed back to the kitchen. He wanted to giggle. This whole business was too bizarre for words.
Instead of giggling, he pointed at his older self. “Tell me one thing,” he said in deep and portentous tones.
“What?” Himself-at-forty looked alarmed. Heaven only knew what he thought would come out of Justin’s mouth.
Justin leered at him. “That the Rolling Stones aren’t still touring by the time you’re – I’m – forty.”
“Well, no.” Now his older self looked irked, as if he couldn’t believe Justin would come out with anything as off-the-wall as that. Don’t have much fun at forty, do you? Justin thought.
Here came the waitress with the beer. She hadn’t asked either of the Justins for his driver’s license. A good thing, too. Justin wondered what kind of license his older self had, or if himself-at-forty had one at all. But he had more important things to worry about. After the waitress went off to deal with a party of Koreans at another table, Justin 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 took a big sip of his OB.
“That’s right,” himself-at-forty said. Again, he sounded as if he knew everything there was to know. That rubbed Justin the wrong way. But, goddamn it, his older self did know more than Justin. How much more? Justin didn’t know. Too much more. He was sure of that.
He drank his glass empty, and filled it from the big bottle the waitress had set in front of him. Pretty soon, that second glass was empty, too. Justin killed the bottle pouring it for a third time. He waved to the waitress for another beer. Why not? His older self was buying. Himself-at-forty hadn’t even refilled his glass once yet. Terrific, Justin thought. I turn into a wet blanket.
Not only did the waitress bring his new beer, but also dinner: plates of strange vegetables (many of them potently flavored with garlic and chilies) for Justin and his older self to share, and the marinated beef and pork. She started the gas fire under the grill and used a pair of tongs to put some meat on to cook for them. As the thinly sliced strips started sizzling, Justin pointed at them and said, “Oh my God! They killed Kenny!”
“Huh?” His older self clearly didn’t remember South Park. Wet blanket, Justin thought again. Then a light came in his older self’s eyes. “Oh.” Himself-at-forty laughed – a little.
Justin said, “If you’d have said that to me, I’d have laughed a lot harder.” He decided to cut his older self some slack: “But the show’s not big for you any more, is it? No, it wouldn’t be. 2018. Jesus.” He made a good start on the new OB.
His older self grabbed the tongs and took some meat. So did Justin. They both ate with chopsticks. Justin wasn’t real smooth with them, but he looked down his nose at people who came to Asian restaurants and reached for the knife and fork. They could do that at home. Himself-at-forty handled the chopsticks almost as well as the Koreans a couple of tables over. More practice, Justin thought.
After they’d made a fair dent in dinner, Justin said, “Well, will you tell me what this is all about?”
His older self answered the question with another question: “What’s the most important thing in your life right now?”
Justin grinned. “You mean, besides trying to figure out why I’d travel back in time to see me?” Himself-at-forty nodded, his face blank like a poker player’s. Justin went on, “What else could it be but Megan?”
“Okay, we’re on the same page,” himself-at-forty said. “That’s why I’m here, to set things right with Megan.”
“Things with Megan don’t need setting right.” Justin could feel the beer he’d drunk. It made him sound even surer than he would have otherwise. “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?” That was the beer talking, too. Without it, he’d never have spoken so freely.
“None.” Himself-at-forty touched the corner of his jaw, where a muscle was twitching.
“None?” That didn’t sound good. The way his older self said the word didn’t sound good, either. Justin noticed something he should have seen sooner: “You’re not wearing a wedding ring.” His older self nodded. He asked, “Does that mean we don’t get married?”
“We get married, all right,” his older self answered grimly. “And then we get divorced.”
Ice ran through Justin. “That can’t happen,” he blurted.
He knew too goddamn much about divorce, more than he’d ever wanted to. He knew about the shouts and the screams and the slammed doors. He knew about the silences that were even deadlier. He knew about the lies his parents had told each other. He knew about the lies they’d told him about each other, and the lies they’d told him about themselves. He had a pretty fair notion of the lies they’d told themselves about themselves.
One of the biggest lies each of them had told him was, Of course I’ll still care for you just as much afterwards as I did before. Megan wasn’t the only one who envied him his apartment – a lot of people his age did. What the apartment meant to him was that his folks would sooner give him money to look out for himself than bother looking out for him. He envied Megan her parents who cared.
And now his older self was saying he and Megan would go through that? He sure was. His voice hard as stone, he squashed Justin’s protest: “It can. It did. It will.” That muscle at the corner of his jaw started jumping again.
“But – how?” Justin asked, sounding even in his own ears like a little boy asking how his puppy could have died. He tried to rally. “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.” He took a long pull at his beer, trying to wash the taste of his parents out of his mouth. And he hadn’t smiled back at that girl in the mall. He really hadn’t.
With weary patience, his older self answered, “You can fight about sex, you can fight about money, you can fight about in-laws. We ended up doing all three, and so…” Himself-at-forty leaned his chopsticks on the edge of his plate and spread his hands. “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.”
Justin poured the last of the second OB into his glass and gulped it down. After a bit, he said, “You must have wanted to do that a lot.”
“You might say so.” His older self drank some more beer, too. He still sounded scratchy as he went on, “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 Justin couldn’t make himself sound as if he believed it. Divorce? He shuddered. From everything he’d seen, anything was better than that. In a small voice, he asked, “What will you do?”
“I’m going to take over your life for the next couple of months.” His older self sounded absolutely sure, as if he’d thought it all through and this was the only possible answer. Was that how doctors sounded, recommending major surgery? Justin didn’t get a chance to wonder for long; himself-at-forty plowed ahead, relentless as a landslide: “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.” Now Justin regretted pouring down two tall beers one right after the other. He needed to think clearly, and he couldn’t quite. “You’ll be taking Megan out?”
“That’s right.” Himself-at-forty nodded.
“You’ll be … taking Megan back to the apartment?”
“Yeah,” his older self 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. Still…” Justin grimaced. “I don’t know. I don’t like it.” When you imagined your girlfriend being unfaithful to you, you pictured her making love with somebody else. Justin tried to imagine Megan being unfaithful to him by picturing her making love with somebody who looked just like him. It made his mental eyes cross.
His older self folded his arms across his chest and sat there in the booth. “You have a better idea?” he asked. He must have known damn well that Justin had no ideas at all.
“It’s not fair,” Justin protested. “You know all this shit, and I’ve gotta guess.”
With a cold shrug, himself-at-forty said, “If you think I did this to come back and tell you lies, go ahead. That’s fine. You’ll see what happens. And we’ll both be sorry.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.” Justin shook his head. He felt trapped, caught in a spider’s web. “Everything sounds like it hangs together, but you could be bullshitting, too, just as easy.”
“Yeah, right.” Amazing how much scorn his older self could pack into two words.
Justin got to his feet, so fast it made him lightheaded for a couple of seconds – or maybe that was the beer, too. “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, planting his feet with exaggerated care at every stride.
Night had fallen while he and himself-at-forty were eating. He drove back to his apartment building as carefully as he’d walked. Picking up a 502 for driving under the influence was the last thing he wanted. One thought pounded in his head the whole way back. What do I do? What the hell do I do?
* * *
He’d just come out of the bathroom – the revenge of those two tall OBs – when the telephone rang. He wondered if it was his older self, calling to give him another dose of lecture. If it was, he intended to tell himself-at-forty where he could stick that lecture. “Hello?” he said suspiciously.
But it wasn’t his older self. “Hiya,” Megan said.
“Oh!” Justin shifted gears in a hurry. “Hi!”
“I just called up to say I think you’re the bomb,” she told him, and hung up before he could answer.
He stared at the telephone handset, then slowly set it back in its cradle. “God damn you,” he whispered, cursing not Megan but his older self. “Oh, God damn you.” He had a girl like this, and himself-at-forty was saying he’d lose her? I can’t do that, he thought. Whatever it takes, I can’t do that.
Even if it means bowing out of your own life for a while? Even if it means letting him stick his nose in? But his older self sticking his nose in didn’t worry Justin. His older self sticking something else in …
I don’t have to make up my mind right away. I’m not going to make up my mind right away. This is too important. And if my older self can’t figure that out, tough shit, that’s all.
Justin checked his e-mail even before he brushed his teeth the next morning. Himself-at-forty hadn’t started nagging, anyhow. There was e-mail from Megan, though. Everything else could wait, but he opened that. It said, The bomb. ;-)
He grinned and shook his head. But the grin slipped a moment later. I can’t let her get away from me. Knowing she might … He ground his teeth. He didn’t just know she might. He knew she would. He’d never thought of being blind to the future as a blessing, but knowing some of it sure felt like a curse.
At work, his boss chewed him out for not paying attention to anything going on around him. He couldn’t even blame the guy; he wasn’t paying attention to anything going on around him. Too many important things spun through his mind.
He gulped lunch at the Burger King four doors down from the CompUSA, then went to the pay phones around the side of the building. He fed in a quarter – not the one from 2012; he was saving that – and a dime and called Megan. “Hello?” she said.
“Hi. I think you’re the bomb, too.” It wasn’t I love you – it wasn’t even close to I love you – but it was the best he could do.
Megan giggled, as if she’d been waiting by the telephone for him to call. “I bet you say that whenever you phone a girl who isn’t wearing any clothes,” she answered – and hung up on him again.
He spluttered, which did him no good. He reached into his pants pocket for more change to call her back and find out why she wasn’t wearing any clothes – or if she really wasn’t wearing any clothes. But that didn’t matter. He had the image of her naked stuck in his head – which had to be just what she’d had in mind.
As he walked back, he realized he’d made up his mind. I can’t lose her. No matter what, I can’t lose her. If that meant letting his older self fix things up – whatever there was that needed fixing – then it did, and that was all there was to it.
* * *
Despite deciding, he took another day and a half to write the e-mail that admitted he’d decided. All write, dammit, he typed. 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.
After he’d sent the e-mail, he looked at it again. It wasn’t exactly gracious. He shrugged. He didn’t feel exactly gracious, either.
An answer came back almost at once. Himself-at-forty must have been hanging around the computer waiting for him to say something. You won’t be sorry, the e-mail told him.
Whatever, Justin wrote. His hands balled into fists. He made them unclench. How do you want to make the switch?
Meet me in front of the B. Dalton’s again, himself-at-forty replied. 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?
Justin sighed. Whatever, he said again. Packing didn’t take anything like two hours. He thought about bringing the iMac along, but ended up leaving it behind and taking his PowerBook instead. It was old, but it would do for games and for the Net. He scribbled a note and set it by the iMac’s 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.
Once he’d stuffed everything he thought he needed into a pair of suitcases, he put them in the trunk of his Toyota and headed for the mall. He’d gone only a couple of blocks when he snapped his fingers and swung down to the Home Depot on Roscoe first.
Even with the stop, he still took his place in front of the bookstore before his older self got there. This time, seeing himself-at-forty made him grim, not boggled. “Let’s get this over with,” he said.
“Come on. It’s not a root canal,” his older self said. Justin shrugged. He’d never had one. Himself-at-forty went on, “Let’s go do it. We’ll need to swap keys, you know.”
“Yeah,” Justin said. “I had spares made. How about you?”
“Me, too.” His older self grinned a lopsided grin. “We think alike. Amazing, huh?”
“Amazing. Right.” Justin abruptly turned away and started walking toward Sears and the lot beyond it. “This better work.”
“It will.” Himself-at-forty sounded disgustingly confident.
The two Toyotas sat only a couple of rows apart. They were almost as much alike as Justin and his older self. Justin moved his things into the other car, while himself-at-forty put stuff in his. They traded keys. “You know where I live,” Justin said. “What’s my new address?”
“Oh.” His older self gave it to him. He knew where it was – not as good a neighborhood as the one the Acapulco was in. Himself-at-forty went on, “The car’s insured, and you’ll find plenty of money in the underwear drawer.” His older self patted him on the shoulder, the only time they’d touched other than shaking hands. “It’ll be fine. Honest. You’re on vacation for a couple of months, that’s all.”
“On vacation from my life,” Justin exclaimed. He glared at his older self. “Don’t fuck up, that’s all.”
“It’s my life, too, remember.” Himself-at-forty got into the car Justin had driven to the mall. Justin went to his older self”s Toyota. Still half wondering if this were some elaborate scam, he tried the key. The car started right up. Justin drove off to see where the hell he’d have to wait this out.
* * *
Sure enough, the Yachtsman and the apartment buildings on the block with it were older and tireder-looking than the Acapulco and its surroundings. It wasn’t a neighborhood where guys sold crack from parked cars, but it might be heading that way in a few years. The one bright spot Justin saw was the Denny’s on the corner. If he got sick of frozen dinners and his own bad cooking, he could always eat there.
He found his parking space under the apartment building. When he went out to the lobby, a mailbox had KLOSTER Dymo-taped onto it. He checked. His older self hadn’t got any mail. Justin went inside and found his apartment. The door key and dead-bolt key both worked. “Well, what have we got?” he wondered.
When he discovered what he had, his first impulse was to walk right out again. The TV just plugged into the wall: no cable, not even a VCR hooked up. The stereo had to have come out of an antique store. It played cassettes and vinyl, but not CDs. He could play CDs on the PowerBook, but even so …
He opened the underwear drawer, more than half expecting BVDs and nothing else. But under the briefs lay … “Christ!” he exclaimed. How much was there? He picked up wad after wad of cash, threw them all down on the bed, and started counting. By the time he was through, he’d had almost as much fun as he’d ever had in his life.
Close to seventy grand, he thought dazedly. Jesus. All at once, he stopped doubting his older self’s story. Nobody – but nobody – would spend, or let him spend, that kind of money on a scam. The bills weren’t even crisp and new, as they might have been if they were counterfeits. They’d all been circulating a good long while, and couldn’t be anything but genuine.
“Okay,” he said, fighting the impulse to count them again. “I’m on vacation. Let the good times roll.” He did recount a couple of thousand dollars’ worth, just for the hell of it.
He’d never been in a spot where he could spend all the money he wanted, do whatever he felt like doing. If he wanted to go out and get a VCR, he could – and he intended to. He could charge right down to Circuit City or Best Buy or Fry’s and …
“Uh-oh,” he muttered. If he went to any of those places, there was some chance he’d run into Megan. His older self didn’t want him running into Megan for a while, and his older self had left him all this money to play around with so he wouldn’t. He shrugged. He could go over to Burbank or out to Simi Valley or wherever and get a VCR. Then he could charge right down to Blockbuster and rent enough tapes to keep him from getting too …
Uh-oh. He didn’t say it this time, but he thought it. Megan was liable to show up at either of the local Blockbusters; she liked watching movies on video as much as everybody else did.
“Okay,” Justin said, as if somebody were arguing with him. “I’ll find some video place out in the boonies, too.”
That made him happier. He had time to kill – nothing but time to kill – and movies were a great way to kill it. But he couldn’t watch movies and play computer games all the damn time. I can go down to … But that thought stopped before it was even half formed. He couldn’t go to the mall, not to Northridge, not to Topanga Plaza, not even to the half-dead Promenade farther down Topanga or to tacky Fallbrook. Megan visited all of them.
“Shit,” he said in a low voice. And he really couldn’t go to any of his favorite restaurants, because where would himself-at-forty be taking Megan? To one of them or another, sure as hell. What would she think if she were with his older self and then saw him come in by himself in different clothes? Nothing good, that was for damn sure.
Great, Justin thought. I can do whatever I want, as long as I don’t do it in any of the places I usually go to. Or I can just sit here in this miserable apartment and jack off. He suspected he’d end up doing a lot of that. Thinking about Megan immediately made him want to do more than think about Megan: he was, after all, twenty-one.
Down, boy, he told himself. Himself didn’t want to listen. While he was holed up here by his lonesome, himself-at-forty would be taking Megan out, taking Megan home, taking Megan to bed. No, he didn’t like that worth a rat’s ass. He tried again to imagine Megan being unfaithful to him with somebody with his own face. He came a lot closer to succeeding this time.
He paced out to the kitchen. Even looking at the bed turned him on and pissed him off, regardless of whether it had cash strewn all over it. When he opened the refrigerator, he found a couple of six-packs of microbrews along with fresh vegetables and other things he was unlikely to eat. He tried to unscrew the cap from one of the beers, only to discover it didn’t unscrew. That meant he had to rummage in the drawer till he came up with an opener. Once he got the cap off, he threw it at the wastebasket – and missed. He had to bend down and drop it in – and even then he almost missed again.
Sighing, Justin sipped the hard-won Anchor Porter … and made a horrible face. “People pay a buck a bottle for this?” he said. “Jesus! Gimme Coors Light any day.”
When he opened the freezer, he found steaks and chops and chicken in there. He supposed he could do up the steaks in a pan on the stove, but chicken was out of his culinary league. Fortunately, there were also several frozen dinners. He didn’t know what he would have done if his older self had turned into a total foodie.
Like hell I don’t know, he thought, and grinned. I’d just eat out all the time. With that Denny’s right at the end of the block, I might anyway.
After watching network TV that night, he realized he would have to get a VCR ASAP if he wanted to stay anywhere close to sane. He ate bacon and eggs and hash browns at the Denny’s the next morning, then drove over to an electronics place he knew on Ventura Boulevard in Encino – only twenty minutes’ drive from the Yachtsman, but not a place where he was at all likely to run into Megan. He bought the VCR, put the box in his trunk, and headed to a Blockbuster a few doors away to get some tapes.
His address came up on their computer system. “You do know we have locations closer to your home, sir?” the clerk said.
“Yeah.” Justin nodded. “This is near where I work.”
He’d never been a great liar. He was, at the moment, wearing a Dilbert T-shirt and a pair of baggy shorts. The clerk raised an eyebrow. But Justin’s credit checked out okay, so that was all she did.
Having lugged the VCR into his apartment, he discovered, not for the first time, that being a computer-science major didn’t make the damn thing easy to set up. He fumed and mumbled and cussed and finally got the gadget acting the way it was supposed to. With Deep Impact on the TV and a Coke in his hand, life looked better.
He put his feet on the coffee table and belched enormously. Nothing to do but kick back and watch movies for a couple of months? Okay, I can handle it, he thought. Then he snapped his fingers. “Potato chips!” he said out loud. “Doritos. Whatever.”
* * *
That day went fine. The next day went all right. By the middle of the afternoon on the third day, he was sick of movies and computer games and hoped he’d never see another nacho-cheese Dorito as long as he lived. He went into the bedroom and picked up the phone. He’d dialed four digits of Megan’s number before he remembered he wasn’t supposed to call her.
“God damn it,” he muttered. “This is so lame. What am I going to do, stay cooped up here till I get all dusty?”
His older self wanted him to do exactly that. His older self had left him plenty of money so he would do exactly that. But what good was the money if he had trouble finding places to blow it? After staring at the walls – and the TV screen, and his laptop’s monitor – for two days straight, his affection for his older self, which had never been high, sank like the Dow on an especially scary day. He’d never understood people saying money couldn’t buy happiness. Now maybe he did.
He wanted to talk with his girlfriend. Hell, he wanted to lay his girlfriend. Himself-at-forty was telling him he couldn’t do either. Himself-at-forty, the son of a bitch, was probably doing both. Justin was no better at handling frustration than anyone else his age. The hornier he got, the worse he got, too.
If he couldn’t talk to Megan, he damn well could talk to his older self. He dialed the number at his apartment, which felt funny. He never called there. Why would he? If he wasn’t home, who would answer? A burglar?
But somebody was home to answer now. And, after three rings, somebody did. “Hello?” Himself-at-forty sounded as if he were talking from deep underwater.
“Hi,” Justin said cheerfully; he had all he could do not to say hiya, the way Megan did. “How are things?”
“Things are fine,” his older self answered after a longish pause. He still sounded like hell; if he hadn’t been ridden hard and put away wet, Justin had never heard anybody who had. Another pause. Then himself-at-forty tried again: “Or they were till you called. I was asleep.”
“Now?” Justin exclaimed in disbelief. He looked at his watch: half past two. He didn’t think he’d been asleep at half past two since he was three years old and quit taking naps. “I called now ’cause I figured you wouldn’t be.”
“Never mind.” His older self yawned, but seemed a little less fuzzy when he went on, “Yeah, things are okay. We went to the Probe last night, and—”
“Did you?” Justin broke in. He didn’t like the way that sounded: him stuck here in this miserable place, himself-at-forty having a good time at his favorite club. No, he didn’t like that at all. “What else did you do?”
“That after-hours place,” his older self answered. “Some guy came through with fliers, so I knew how to get there.”
Yeah, you’d have forgotten, wouldn’t you, you sorry bastard? Aloud, Justin said, “Lucky you. And what else did you do?” He could imagine Megan in his older self’s arms, all right. Now he could. He’d had plenty of time to try. Practice made perfect, dammit. He could hate what he imagined, too.
“About what you’d expect,” himself-at-forty said. Christ, he sounded arrogant. “I’m you, remember. What would you have done?” Justin sighed. He knew what he would have done, by God. But no. He’d stayed here by his lonesome – by his very lonesome – so his older self could do it instead. He sucked in a long, angry breath preparatory to telling himself-at-forty where to head in. Before he could, his older self went on, “And when I took her home, I told her I loved her.”
“Jesus!” Justin yelped, forgetting whatever else he might have said. “What did you go and do that for?”
“It’s true, isn’t it?” his older self asked.
“That doesn’t mean you’ve got to say it, for Christ’s sake,” Justin answered. He shook his head in disbelief, though his older self wasn’t there to see it. His parents must have said they loved each other once upon a time, too, and how had that turned out? “What am I supposed to do when you go away?”
“Marry her, doofus,” himself-at-forty said, as if it were just that simple. “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,” Justin snarled. “I’m sure not having a good time, I’ll tell you.” He belched again. No surprise – how many Cokes had he poured down since he got to this place? Too many. With the carbonation, he tasted stale nacho cheese.
His older self took a deep breath, too, and said, “Look, chill for a while, okay? I’m doing fine.”
That only made Justin angrier. “Sure you are. You’re doing fucking great. What about me?”
“You’re fine. Chill. You’re on vacation,” himself-at-forty answered. If he didn’t know everything, he didn’t know he didn’t know everything. “Go ahead. Relax. Spend my money. That’s what it’s there for.”
When his older self mentioned the money, Justin forgot how chuffed he was, at least for a little while. “Where’d you get so much?” he asked. “What did you do, rob a bank?”
“It’s worth a lot more now than it will be then,” his older self told him. “Inflation. Have some fun. Just be discreet, okay?”
Which brought Justin back to square one. His older self kept trying to blow him off, and he didn’t want to put up with it. “You mean, get out of your hair.”
“In a word, yes.” Himself-at-forty sounded as if he was having trouble putting up with Justin, too.
“While you’re in Megan’s hair.” No, Justin had no trouble at all seeing pictures in his mind, pictures nastier than any he could have pulled off the Net. He sighed, trying to make them go away. “I don’t know, dude.”
“It’s for you,” himself-at-forty said. “It’s for her and you.”
That, goddammit, was the trump card. If Justin-now was fated to break up with Megan, he didn’t see that he had any choice other than letting his older self set things right. He hated the idea. Every minute he spent in this miserable apartment made him hate it more. But he couldn’t find any way around it. Get married and get divorced? That was worse. “Yeah,” he said, and hung up.
* * *
Every minute he spent in that miserable apartment … from then on, he spent as little time as he could there. That worked better than staring at the TV and the PowerBook’s monitor and, most of all, the four walls. When he was out and doing things, he didn’t think about himself-at-forty and Megan … so much.
Getting out would have worked better still if he’d been able to go to the places he really liked, the local malls and the movie theaters and coffeehouses and restaurants where he’d gone with Megan. But he didn’t dare. He couldn’t imagine what he’d do if he saw her and his older self together. And what would himself-at-forty do? And Megan? Those were all terrific questions, and he didn’t want to find out the answers to any of them.
So he went to places where he could be sure he wouldn’t run into Megan or anybody else he knew. He killed an afternoon at the Glendale Galleria. He killed a whole day at the enormous Del Amo mall down in Torrance, which was supposed to be the biggest shopping center this side of the Mall of America. By the time he’d trekked from one end of it to the other, he believed all the hype. He hadn’t come close to hitting all the stores that looked interesting.
He grabbed some pizza down there, and stayed for a movie after the shops closed. That turned out to be a mistake. Sitting in a theater by himself was the loneliest thing he’d ever done, much worse than watching a movie on the VCR without any company. All the other people there seemed to have somebody else to have a good time with, and he didn’t.
And he was sure Megan would have loved this flick. She’d have gone all slobbery over the male star, and he could have had a good time teasing her about it. And she would have told him he only went to movies for the special effects – and they were pretty damn special. And then they would have gone back to his place and screwed themselves silly.
He went back to the place that wasn’t his: a long haul up the San Diego Freeway, which had plenty of traffic even after eleven at night. When he got there, he masturbated twice in quick succession. It wasn’t the same – it wasn’t close to the same – but it let him fall asleep.
The next morning, he drove out Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the ocean and spent the day at Zuma Beach. That would have been better with Megan along, too, but it wasn’t so bad by itself, either: nothing to do but lie there and watch girls and keep himself well greased with sunscreen. It let him get through another day without being too unhappy.
But, in spite of all the sunscreen, he came home with a burn. He was so fair, he could sunburn in the moonlight. Hot and uncomfortable, he couldn’t fall asleep. Finally, he quit trying. He put on some shorts and a T-shirt and went out front to watch TV. That experiment didn’t last long: nothing there but crap of the purest ray serene. After about twenty minutes, he turned it off in disgust.
“Now what?” he muttered. He still wasn’t sleepy. He walked back into the bedroom and got his car keys. He was an L.A. kid, all right: when in doubt, climb behind the wheel.
Driving around with a Pulp cassette in the stereo and the volume cranked made Justin feel better for a while. But he wasn’t just driving around. His hands and feet figured that out a little before his head did. The conscious part of his mind was surprised to discover they’d sent him down his own street toward his own apartment building.
If he parked between the Acapulco and the building next to it, he could look between them and see his bedroom window, a foreshortened rectangle of light. The curtain was drawn, so light was all he could see, light and, briefly, a moving shadow. Was that his older self? Megan? Were they both there? If they were, what were they doing? Like I don’t know, Justin thought.
“I’ve got spare keys,” he told himself in conversational tones. “I could walk in there and…”
Instead, he started up the car and drove away, fast. What would he do if he did walk in on himself-at-forty and Megan? He didn’t want to find out.
The sunburn bothered him enough the next day that staying in the apartment and being a lump suited him fine. The day after, though, he felt better, which meant he also started feeling stir-crazy. He went out and drove some more: west on the 118 into Ventura County. Simi Valley and Moorpark were bedroom communities for the Valley, the way the Valley had been a bedroom community for downtown L.A. when his parents were his age.
I could be going to Paris or Prague or Tokyo, he thought as he put the pedal to the metal to get on the freeway, and I’m going to Simi Valley? But, in fact, he couldn’t go to Paris or Prague or Tokyo, not without a passport, which he didn’t have. And he didn’t really want to. He just wanted to go on living the way he had been living. He’d spent his whole life in the Valley, and was in some ways as much a small-town kid as somebody from Kokomo or Oshkosh.
Justin didn’t think of himself like that, of course. As far as he was concerned, he stood at the top of the cool food chain. And so, when he’d pulled off the freeway and driven the couple of blocks to what his Thomas Brothers guide showed as the biggest shopping center in Simi Valley, he made gagging noises. “It’s not even a mall!” he exclaimed. And it wasn’t, not by his standards: no single, enormous, air-conditioned building in which to roam free. If he wanted to go from store to store, he had to expose his tender hide to the sun for two, sometimes three, minutes at a time.
He almost turned around and drove back to his apartment. In the end, with a martyred sigh, he parked the car and headed toward a little mom-and-pop software store. It turned out to be all PC stuff. He had Virtual PC, so he could run Windows programs on his Macs, but he left in a hurry anyway. They’d go okay on the iMac, which was a pretty fast machine, but they’d be glacial on the old PowerBook he had with him.
The Wherehouse a couple of doors down was just as depressing. Grunge, metal, rap, bands his parents had listened to – yeah, they had plenty of that stuff. British pop? He found one, count it, one Oasis CD, filed under THE REST OF O. Past that? Nada.
“Boy, this is fun,” he said as he stomped out in moderately high dudgeon. He spotted a Borders halfway across the shopping center and headed toward it. Even as he did, he wondered why he bothered. The way his luck was running, it would stock a fine assortment of computer magazines from 1988.
Behind him, somebody called, “Justin!” He kept walking. Half the guys in his generation – all the ones who weren’t Jasons – were Justins. But the call came again, louder, more insistent: “Hey, Justin!”
Maybe it is me, he thought, and turned around. A startled smile spread over his face. “Lindsey!” he said. Sure as hell, Lindsey Fletcher came running up to him, rubber-soled sandals scuffing on the sidewalk. He opened his arms. They gave each other a big hug.
“I can’t believe it,” Lindsey said. “What are you doing up here? You never come up here. I’ve never seen you up here, anyway.” She spoke as if one proved the other.
She’d always liked to talk, Justin remembered. He remembered the mole on the side of her neck, too. It was still there, a couple of inches above the top of her T-shirt. “How are you?” he said. “How’ve you been?”
“I’m fine.” She looked him up and down. “God, you haven’t changed a bit.”
“Yeah, well,” Justin said, a little uncomfortably. He knew how little he would change, too, which she didn’t.
“What are you doing up here?” Lindsey asked again.
“Whatever,” Justin answered. “A little shopping. Hanging out. You know.”
“Here? It’s a lot better in the Valley.” She looked astonished and sounded wistful.
“Yeah, well,” he said again: he’d already discovered that. “Something new.”
“Slumming,” Lindsey told him. “But as long as you’re here, that donut place over there isn’t too bad.” She pointed. “I mean, if you want to get something and, you know, talk for a little while.”
“Sure,” Justin said. Like a lot of the little donut shops in Southern California, this one was run by Cambodians: a middle-aged couple who spoke with accents and a teenage boy who talked just like Justin and Lindsey. Lindsey tried to buy; Justin wouldn’t let her, not with his older self’s money burning a hole in his wallet. They got jelly donuts and big fizzy Cokes, sat down at one of the half dozen or so little tables in the shop, and proceeded to get powdered sugar all over their faces.
“What have you been up to?” Lindsey asked, dabbing at herself with a paper napkin.
“Finished my junior year at CSUN,” Justin answered, pronouncing it C-sun the way anybody who went there would.
“What’s your major?”
“Computer science. It’s pretty interesting, and it’ll pay off, too – I’ve got a summer job at the Northridge CompUSA.” Which my older self is welcome to. Half a beat slower than he should have, Justin asked, “How about you?”
“I’ve been going to Moorpark Community College kind of on and off,” Lindsey said. “I’ve got a part-time job, too – pet grooming.”
“Ah, cool,” Justin said. “You always did love animals. I remember.”
She nodded. “Maybe I’ll end up doing that full-time. If I can save some money, maybe I’ll try and get into breeding one of these days.” She sipped at her Coke, then asked, “Do I want to know about your parents?”
“No!” Justin exclaimed. “God no! Let’s see … I think you’d already moved here when my mom came out of the closet.”
“Oh, Lord.” Lindsey’s eyes got big. “That must have been fun.”
“Yeah, right,” Justin said. “Somebody shoot me quick if I ever set out to discover myself.” He turned his mother’s favorite phrase into a curse.
Lindsey didn’t ask about his father. The bad news there had been obvious while she still lived in the Valley. After some hesitation, she did ask, “What about you? Are you … seeing anybody?”
Justin had just taken a big bite of jelly donut, so he didn’t have to answer right away. When he did, he did his best to make it sound casual: “Uh-huh.”
“Oh.” Lindsey looked disappointed, which was flattering. And Justin couldn’t have sounded too casual, because she asked, “Are you serious?”
“Well, it kinda looks that way,” he admitted. And then, not so much out of politeness as because he didn’t want to think about how he wasn’t seeing Megan right this minute and his older self was, he said, “What about you?”
Lindsey shook her head. A strand of her short blonde hair – she’d worn it longer in high school – fell down onto her nose. She brushed it away with her hand. “Not right now. Not so it matters, anyhow, I mean. I’ve gone with a few guys since I got up here, but nobody I’d want to settle down with. You’re lucky.”
She sounded wistful again. She also sounded as if she really meant it. She’d never begrudged happiness to anybody else. Justin would have had trouble saying the same thing – he was mad as hell thinking about himself-at-forty having a good time with Megan. And how lucky was he if his older self had to come back from 2018 to try to straighten things out? But Lindsey didn’t – couldn’t – know about that, of course.
He finished the donut in a couple of big bites. “I better get going. I have to be at work before too long.” He could almost feel his nose getting longer, but the lie gave him an excuse to get away.
“Okay.” Lindsey stood up, too. “It was great to see you. I’m glad you’re doing so well.” She sounded as if she really meant that, too. Nope, not a mean bone in her body. She gave him another hug, this one a little more constrained than the one when they first ran into each other. “Listen, if you ever want to just talk or anything, I’m in the book.” She made a face. “I sorta wish I wasn’t, but I am. I get more damn telemarketers than you can shake a stick at.”
“Always at dinnertime, too,” Justin said, and she nodded. “They ought to do something about ’em.” He didn’t know who they were or what they could do, but that didn’t stop him from complaining. He headed for the door. “So long.”
“So long, Justin.” Lindsey followed, but more slowly, making it plain she wasn’t going to come with him once they got outside. He headed for his car. Lindsey walked in the direction of the Wherehouse he’d already found wanting. He looked back toward her once. She was looking toward him. They both smiled and waved. Justin pulled out his keys, unlocked the Toyota, and slid inside. Lindsey went into the Wherehouse. Justin drove back to the Valley. For some reason he couldn’t quite fathom, he didn’t feel so bad once he got there.
* * *
He kept feeling halfway decent, or even a little better than halfway decent, for a while afterwards. The driving need to call up either his older self or Megan and find out how things were going went away. What that amounted to, of course, was finding out whether anybody in the whole wide world cared if he was alive – and a good-sized fear the answer was no. Lindsey Fletcher cared. Justin didn’t think of it in those terms – on a conscious level, he hardly thought of it at all – but that was what it added up to.
And so, over about the next ten days, he found things to do and places to go that let him kill time without seeming to be doing nothing but killing time. He drove over to the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which had gone from the coolest place in the world to semi-ghost town in one fell swoop after the ’94 quake. He beat the parking hassles at the new Getty Museum looming over the San Diego Freeway by taking a cab there – spending my older self’s money, he thought, feeling half virtuous and half so there! He found a pretty good Japanese restaurant, Omino’s, on Devonshire near Canoga. It’d be a good place to take Megan once himself-at-forty got the hell back to 2018 where he belonged.
“Superstrings,” Justin muttered in the apartment that wasn’t his. He’d fought his way through his physics classes; he couldn’t say much more than that. He wished he knew more. His older self did, dammit. That was definitely something to think about when he planned his schedule for his senior year.
Before so very long, though, he started muttering other, more incendiary, things. His decent mood didn’t last, not least because he didn’t fully understand what had caused it in the first place. The apartment in the Yachtsman started feeling like a prison cell again. Going out stopped being fun. Minutes crawled past on hands and knees.
Justin thought about calling his older self to complain: he thought about it for a good second and a half, as a matter of fact. Then he laughed a bitter laugh that lasted a lot longer. He knew just what his older self would say. Live with it. He could tell himself that and save the price of a phone call. It wasn’t quite fuck off and die, but close enough for government work.
Besides, he didn’t really want to talk to himself-at-forty. He wanted to talk to Megan. His older self had given him all sorts of reasons why that wasn’t a good idea. Justin had only one reason why it was: he was going out of his tree because he couldn’t. Eventually, that swamped everything his older self had said.
He felt as if he’d just pulled off a jailbreak when he dialed her number. Her father answered the phone. “Hi, Mr. Tricoupis,” he said happily. “Can I talk to Megan, please?”
Instead of saying Sure or Hang on a second or anything like that, Megan’s father answered, “Well, I don’t know, Justin. I’ll see if she wants to talk to you.”
I’ll see if she wants to talk to you? Justin thought. What the hell’s going on here? But he couldn’t even ask, because a clunking noise meant Mr. Tricoupis had put the phone down. He could only wait.
After what seemed like forever but couldn’t have been more than half a minute, Megan said, “Hello?” He needed no more than the one word to hear that she didn’t sound happy.
But he felt something close to delirious joy at hearing her voice. “Hi!” he burbled. “How you doing?”
Another pause. Then, very carefully, Megan said, “Justin, didn’t I tell you last night not to call here for a while? Didn’t I say that?”
He knew what that meant. It meant his older self wasn’t as goddamn smart as he thought he was. By the look of things, it also meant he’d have to bail himself-at-forty out instead of the other way round. He wondered if he could. He and Megan hadn’t had any great big fights, which meant he had no sure feel for how to fix one.
Silly seemed a good idea. “Duh,” he said, the standard idiot-noise of the late ’90s, and then, “My big mouth.” That wasn’t just an apology; it was also the title of an Oasis song Megan liked.
“Your big mouth is right,” she said, but a little of the hard edge left her voice – either that or wishful thinking was running away with Justin. She wasn’t going to let him down easy, though; she went on, “Do you have any idea how far over the line you were? Any idea at all?”
“Definitely maybe,” he answered: an Oasis album title that had the added virtue of keeping him off the hook.
He wasn’t sure Megan had noticed the first title he used, but she definitely noticed the second; he heard her snort. “You’re funny now,” she said, as if fighting to stay mad. “You weren’t funny last night after the movie, believe me you weren’t.”
Which movie? Justin wondered. He could hardly ask; he was supposed to know. He couldn’t even waste any more time cursing his older self, not when he was trying to jolly Megan back into a good mood. “Charmless man, that’s me,” he said. It wasn’t just him – it was also a track on a recent Blur CD.
“Justin…” But Megan was fighting back laughter now. “What am I supposed to do about you?”
“Roll with it, my legendary girlfriend,” Justin said: one Oasis song, one from Pulp. “I’m just a killer for your love. Advert.” Two from Blur. He didn’t know how long he could keep it up, but he was having fun while it lasted.
With that, Megan gave up the fight and giggled. “Okay,” she said. “Okay. I didn’t think you could do anything to make me forget last night, but you did. How did you manage?”
“Only tongue will tell,” he answered gravely. “Worked a miracle.” That set Megan off again. She recognized Trash Can Sinatra’s titles, sure enough, and there probably weren’t three other people in the San Fernando Valley who would have.
“I’ll see you soon, Justin,” she said, and hung up.
But she wouldn’t be seeing him, dammit. She’d be seeing his older self. Justin started to call his old apartment to tell himself-at-forty what he thought of him, but held off. He didn’t see what good it would do. He wasn’t quite ready to throw his older self out of his place on his ear, and nothing short of that would make a nickel’s worth of difference. I’ll wait, he thought. For a little while.
* * *
He didn’t have to wait long. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang. He hurried into the bedroom from the kitchen, hoping it was Megan. He’d just picked up the phone when he remembered she didn’t have the number here. By then, he was already saying, “Hello?”
“Oh, good. You’re home.” His older self sounded half disappointed Justin hadn’t walked in front of a truck.
“Oh, it’s you,” Justin answered, still wishing it were Megan. Throwing himself-at-forty out on his ear suddenly looked more attractive. He went on, “No, you’re home. I’m stuck here.” He looked around the little bedroom, feeling like a trapped animal again.
His older self had gone into dictator mode: “Didn’t I tell you to lay low till I was done here? 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,” Justin said. “She was my girl first, you know. I’ve got a right to talk with her.” As talking with Lindsey Fletcher out in the wilds of Simi Valley had, it reminded him he was alive.
But himself-at-forty didn’t want to hear any of that. Maybe he wasn’t a dictator; maybe he was just a grownup talking down to a kid. Whatever he was, he sure sounded like somebody convinced he knew it all: “Not if you want her to keep being your girl, you don’t. You’re the one who’s going to screw it up, remember?”
“That’s what you keep telling me.” Justin was getting sick of hearing it, too. “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.”
“Nobody has all the answers.” His older self sounded as if he believed that. Justin didn’t; like The X-Files, he was convinced the truth was out there, provided he could find it. And then, throwing gasoline on the fire, his older self added, “If you think you’ve got more of them than I do, you’re full of shit.”
That did it. Justin wanted to turn his head real fast to see if he had smoke coming out of his ears. “You want to be careful how you talk to me,” he ground out, biting off each word. “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.”
If that didn’t scare the crap out of himself-at-forty, Justin didn’t know what would. But if it did, his older self didn’t show it, damn him. Instead, he kicked back with both feet, like a mule: “Yeah, go ahead. Screw up your life for good. Keep going like this and you will.”
And that scared the crap out of Justin. Himself-at-forty had to know it would. It was the only weapon he had, but it was a nuke. Justin tried not to let on that he knew it, saying, “You sound pretty screwed up now. What have I got to lose?”
Maybe, for once, he got through to himself-at-forty, because his older self, also for once, stopped trying to browbeat him and started trying to explain: “I had something good, and I let it slip through my fingers. You wreck what I’m doing now, you’ll go through life without knowing what a good thing was.” And then he trotted out the ICBMs again. “You want that? Just keep sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong. You want to end up with Megan or not?”
There it was. Justin did want that. He wanted it more than anything else in the world, and he couldn’t let on that he didn’t. If himself-at-forty was bluffing, he’d just got away with it. “All right,” Justin said, though it was anything but all right, and he didn’t think he sounded as if it were. “I’ll back off – for now.”
He got the last word by hanging up. Then he masturbated again. It made him feel good, but it didn’t come close to making him feel better.
* * *
He rented Titanic and watched it several times over the next few days, which certainly went a long way toward keeping him out of circulation. He wasn’t watching it for the romance. Christ, no. Jack died. He wanted his life with Megan to go on and on, even if he couldn’t stand Celine Dion.
What he watched obsessively was the way the enormous liner took on water and sank after it hit the iceberg. Here in this apartment that wasn’t his, as far out of the loop as he could be, he felt he was taking on water, too.
Running into Lindsey Fletcher, sitting down with her and eating messy jelly donuts and talking, had let him believe for quite a while that he wasn’t alone in the world. He cared about Megan a lot more, but talking with her on the phone didn’t satisfy his people jones nearly as long. For one thing, talking on the phone was like looking at a picture of a great dinner – pretty, yeah, but not the real thing.
And, for another, he’d had the row with himself-at-forty just afterwards. He might have stayed happier longer if he hadn’t. The main reason – the only reason – he’d gone along with his older self and this whole craziness was that he couldn’t stand the idea of losing Megan, of having to go through a divorce. If his older self could smooth things out now, make sure that never happened, great.
But if his older self was fighting with Megan, was making her angry at him … Where the hell did that leave Justin? He’d already saved the day once, which made him want to gallop back into the scene like a knight in shining armor coming to rescue the fair maiden. Would he rescue her, though? Or would he gallop in and screw things up, the way his older self said?
He didn’t hop into his car – which was actually his older self’s car – and drive over and throw himself-at-forty out of his rightful apartment. But he couldn’t stand staying here and doing nothing, either, not for very long he couldn’t.
After a bit more sitting on his hands, he hit on a compromise – or, to look at it another way, he found an excuse for doing what he wanted to do anyhow. I’ll call Megan, Justin thought. I did some good the last time. Maybe I can do some more now. And then I’ll brief my older self on what we talked about, so he doesn’t get caught short.
Man is the rationalizing animal.
Justin felt good, felt alive, felt part of things again, as he dialed the phone. It rang a couple of times, then somebody picked it up. “Hello?” Hearing Megan’s voice made him smile big and wide. It also made him horny as hell.
“Hiya!” He gave her back her own favorite greeting.
Silence, about fifteen seconds’ worth, on the other end of the line. Then Megan said, “Justin, this is way over, I mean way over, the top. Didn’t I tell you not two hours ago that I didn’t want to see you any more, I didn’t want to talk to you any more, I didn’t want to have anything to do with you any more? Didn’t I?”
“But—” Justin heard the words, but he had a hard time making them mean anything.
Megan didn’t give him much of a chance, either. She went on, “Didn’t I tell you that if I ever changed my mind, I’d call you? Didn’t I? I don’t want to be on the phone with you any more, Justin, I mean I really don’t.” She sounded furious, bigtime furious.
“Wait a minute,” Justin said frantically. “What—?”
He was trying to say, What are you talking about? But he never got the chance. Megan filled in the blank for him: “What about the sex? I already told you, I don’t care how good it was. I don’t care that it got better the last couple weeks, either. I don’t want you treating me like I was twelve years old, and I do care about that. Now get out of my life, goddammit. Goodbye!” The phone crashed down.
Slowly, like a man in shock – which he was – Justin hung up, too. I don’t care that it got better the last couple weeks, either? One day, when he had time to think about it, that would be a separate torment of its own. Right now, it was just part of the general disaster.
“What do I do?” he asked, as if the bedroom could tell him. What he wanted to do was call Megan back and explain, really explain, but that wasn’t gonna fly. If he got in even two words before she hung up on him, it’d be a miracle.
“E-mail!” he exclaimed, and ran for his PowerBook. He wrote the message. He sent it. Less than a minute later, it came back, with PERMANENT FATAL ERROR at the top and an explanatory paragraph underneath saying that she was refusing all mail from his address. “Jesus!” he cried in real anguish. “I’ve been bozo-filtered!” That added insult to injury, and none of this, not one single thing, was his fault.
He knew whose fault it was, though. Anguish didn’t last. Rage replaced it.
* * *
The phone rang four times before his older self answered. “Hello?” He sounded groggy.
Justin didn’t much care how he sounded. “You son of a bitch,” he snarled. “You goddamn stupid, stinking, know-it-all son of a bitch.”
“I’m sorry,” himself-at-forty said. Of all the useless words in the world right now, those were the big two. “I tried to—”
“I just tried calling Megan,” Justin said, interrupting his older self the way Megan had interrupted him. “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.” He didn’t say anything about the refused e-mail. Somehow, that hurt even worse, too much to talk about.
“I’m sorry,” his older self said again. “I—”
“Sorry?” Justin yelled. If he hadn’t had a buzz cut, he might have pulled his hair. “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. You think you can get away with that, you’re full of—” He hung up on himself-at-forty even harder than Megan had hung up on him.
He hadn’t been in a fight since middle school, and he’d lost that one. It didn’t matter. He stormed out of the apartment, slamming the door behind him. He ran down to his car – no, to his older self’s car – and headed to his old apartment, his proper apartment, as fast as he could go.
That meant somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes. He was still incandescent when he got there. He turned the key in the lock to the security gate and drove into the Acapulco’s parking lot. His own car, the one himself-at-forty had been driving, was still in its space.
“You thought I was kidding, did you, you bastard?” Justin’s lips skinned back from his teeth in a savage smile. “I’ll show you who was kidding, asshole.”
Finding a parking space out on the street took another minute (a well-trained Southern Californian, he never thought to use one of the empty ones in the parking garage; those weren’t his). Then he stormed up the steps into the lobby, opened the security door, and charged toward his apartment.
Click! One key in the dead bolt. Click! The other in the lock. The door opened. Justin slammed it shut behind him. “All right, you fucker, now you’re gonna get it,” he growled.
No one answered. Justin strode into the bedroom. It was as empty of life – except his own – as the front room and kitchen had been. He checked the bathroom. He checked the closets. He checked under the bed. He didn’t take long to decide he was the only one in the place.
But his older self hadn’t taken his car. “He can’t have gone far,” Justin muttered: again, the Southern California assumption that nobody without wheels could do much. Justin scratched his head. Was himself-at-forty running for his life? Hopping a cab? Waiting for a bus? None of those made much sense.
But the chair in the bedroom was pulled a long way out from the desk. You couldn’t use the iMac with the chair out there. You could sure as hell use a laptop, though. What would a laptop from 2018 be able to do? Justin didn’t know, but the mere thought was plenty to make him salivate.
His older self had said coming back from then to now was a matter of good programming. If he had a machine like that, if he had the program on the hard drive, could he go back the way he’d come?
“How should I know?” Justin asked nobody in particular. But the apartment felt very, very empty. Maybe his older self had fled where he couldn’t hope to follow for nineteen years.
Or could he? He knew some things he wouldn’t have if his older self hadn’t come back and … And screwed up my life, Justin thought. He knew going back in time involved superstrings and programming. The combination wouldn’t have crossed his mind in a million years – no, in something close to nineteen years – if himself-at-forty hadn’t returned to 1999 to meddle.
And he knew the thing could be done in the first place. Knowing that was half the battle, maybe more than half. He’d never let himself get discouraged. No matter how bleak things looked, he wouldn’t give up and decide he was chasing something impossible.
And … A slow smile stole over his face. He had a nest egg now that he hadn’t had before, thanks to the cash his older self had left behind. He hadn’t blown very much of it. If he made some investments and they worked out, he could be sitting pretty by the time he got to the frontiers of middle age.
“Inflation,” he said, reminding himself. “Gotta watch out for inflation.”
Himself-at-forty had said his stash of cash wouldn’t be worth nearly so much in 2018 as it was now. Whatever he put the money into, he’d have to make sure rising prices didn’t erode it into chump change.
What he had to do right now was get his hands on the cash, which was still sitting back at the other apartment. Then he’d have to figure out how to put it into his bank account without getting busted as a drug runner or money launderer. You could put only so much cash in at a time, or else the bank had to report you to the Feds. He knew that. But what was the upper limit? He had no idea. I’ll find out on the Net, he thought, and put it out of his mind for the time being.
As he drove over to the other apartment, something else struck him: I can get rid of this car. That’ll bring in some more money to help set me up.
All that assumed his older self wasn’t hanging around in 1999. Justin didn’t know himself-at-forty wasn’t, not for a fact. If his older self did remain here in the twentieth century, Justin still intended to punch his lights out the first chance he got.
He was loading twenties and fifties and hundreds into shopping bags, feeling a lot like a gangster, when he thought, I can move out of this apartment, too, and get back whatever security deposits my older self paid – part of them, anyway. In spite of the handfuls of greenbacks he was taking out of the drawer, every dollar felt important.
He wondered what his quarter from 2012 would be worth, and whether it would be worth anything at all. But then he shook his head. “I’ll keep it,” he declared, as if someone had told him not to. “It’ll remind me what I’m shooting for.”
More than a little nervously, he took the cash down to the car. He managed it without getting mugged. He didn’t think he’d ever driven so carefully in his life as on the trip back to the Acapulco. He’d never watched the rear-view mirror so much, either. Don’t want to get rear-ended now. Oh, Jesus, no.
As he parked in front of the apartment building, a nasty thought hit him. What’ll I do if he just walked away for a few minutes and now he’s back in my place? Punching his older self’s lights out still seemed like a good plan.
But the apartment was empty. With a sigh of relief, Justin stashed the bags of cash in the little closet in the hallway that led from the living room back to the bedroom. Then he put a couple of pans by the door. He’d have to get the lock changed, but in the meantime at least he’d have some warning if his older self was still around and tried to come in.
“Have to get the rest of my stuff out of that other place, too,” he said. But, for the time being, that could wait.
He quickly went through the apartment, looking for whatever his older self had left behind. Finding a laptop from 2018 – if himself-at-forty had had one with him – would have been the grand prize. He didn’t. But he did find a statement from a bank he wouldn’t have patronized if a stagecoach had run over him. When he saw how much it was for, his eyes bugged out of his head: about as much as he had in those bags in the closet.
And it’s mine, too, he thought dazedly. If he’s gone, it’s mine. I can prove I’m Justin Kloster just as well as he could. I know my mother’s maiden name just as well as he did.
For a moment, thinking of only one thing at a time, he actually felt grateful toward his older self. A twenty-one-year-old guy with six figures’ worth of money in the bank and with a plan to get ahead … What couldn’t he do?
I can’t have Megan. His joy blew out. Cash was great, but without his girl? Whatever his older self had done there, he’d screwed it up bigtime. And he’d said he’d never found anybody else who came close to her.
Maybe I can get her back, Justin thought. Maybe in a couple weeks, or when school starts again and I see her. Or something.
He shoved the thought aside. He couldn’t do anything about it now.
Himself-at-forty had seen to that. Justin started getting angry all over again.
And he didn’t get any happier when he looked at what was in the refrigerator. It was all stuff he’d have to cook if he wanted to eat it: even worse stuff than had been in his older self’s other place when he first got there. What were you supposed to do with ginger root or hoisin sauce? He didn’t know, and he wasn’t interested in learning. But then he started to laugh. He could afford to eat out, by God.
Eat out he did. Yang Chow was odds-on the best Chinese place in this end of the Valley. He devoured kung-pao chicken and chili shrimp, with a Tsingtao beer to put out the fire from the peppers. No sign of his older self when he got back.
Justin called the other place. The phone rang and rang. After it had gone on ringing for more than a minute, he hung up again, nodding. His older self wasn’t there, either. The more he wasn’t there, the more convinced Justin was that he’d gone back to 2018.
“He should have stayed there, the son of a bitch,” Justin said. “Maybe Megan and me would have made it. Shit – even if we didn’t, I’d still have the good memories he did. What have I got now? Not one damn thing.”
Before he went to bed, he changed the sheets and bedspread. He didn’t even want to think about what had happened on the ones he threw in the clothes basket.
* * *
He slept late the next morning, which annoyed him. He had a lot of stuff he wanted to do that day: formally leave the other apartment, close his older self’s banking account and move the money to his own, sell that other Toyota and put the proceeds from the deal in the bank, too. He was just heading out the door when the phone rang.
“Jesus!” he said, and hurried back to the bedroom. Maybe it was his older self. That would screw things up. Or maybe it was Megan. That would do anything but. “Hello?”
It wasn’t himself-at-forty. It wasn’t Megan, either, dammit. It was his boss at CompUSA, and he sounded pissed to the max. “Where the hell are you, Kloster?” he shouted. “That graphic-design outfit is coming in this morning to order their new Macs, and they don’t want to deal with anybody but you.” He said something under his breath about “Macintosh primadonnas,” then went back to bellowing: “What are you doing there when you’re supposed to be here?”
Justin had forgotten all about his CompUSA job. Evidently, his older self had been holding it down pretty well. With all the money he had, he was tempted to tell his boss to stuff it, but he didn’t. That would look bad on a résumé. He gave the best excuse he could think of: “I must have forgotten to set my alarm last night. I’ll be right there.”
His boss promptly tempted him to regret his choice, roaring, “If they show up before you do, you’re toast!” and hanging up hard.
He did get there first, and had enough time to review things before the graphic designers trooped in. Before they trooped out again, they’d bought about fifty grand worth of computers and peripherals, and his boss was acting amazingly human. Said boss even took him to lunch at a Mexican place not nearly so good as Sierra’s – though he wouldn’t have wanted to go there now – and didn’t say boo when he ordered a margarita to go with his enchilada and rice and refried beans.
After lunch, he was upgrading system software on one of the iMac demos when he heard footsteps behind him. He turned around to see who it was; the Macintosh ministore inside the CompUSA didn’t get nearly the foot traffic he thought it deserved. “Lindsey!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, you told me where you worked.” She looked nervous. “I just thought I’d come over and say hi. Hi!” She fluttered her fingers at him in an arch little wave, then quickly went on. “I don’t want to make trouble or anything. I know you said you were seeing somebody.” By the way she stood on the balls of her feet, she was poised to flee if Justin barked at her.
But that, right this second, was the last thing he wanted to do. “I was, yeah,” he answered, and watched her eyes widen at the past tense, “but we just broke up. Somebody came between us, I guess you’d say.”
“Oh, my God!” Lindsey exclaimed, and then frowned anxiously. “I hope you don’t mean me. She wasn’t, like, jealous ’cause you went up to Simi Valley and ran into me or anything? That’d be awful.”
“No, no, no,” Justin assured her. “Had nothing to do with you. It was another guy. An older guy.” The first and last parts of that were true, anyway. The middle? He wasn’t so sure.
“That’s terrible!” Lindsey said. “You must be all torn up inside.” She reached out and put a sympathetic hand on his arm.
“I was bummed,” he admitted – about as much as a male his age was likely to say. “It’s really nice, that you came all the way from Simi to see me.” They both laughed, even though Justin hadn’t quite made the joke on purpose. Lindsey smiled at him. He wasn’t always fast on the uptake, but something got through. He set his hand on hers. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe it won’t work out too bad after all.”