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
Illustration by Darryl Elliott
At precisely four oclock, 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 writers
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.
"Im pretty sure I got a B, anyhow," he answered. "Thats all
I really need. Its not like its my major or anything." The prof
could hear him, but he didnt much care. This wasnt 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 littleonly a littleon 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 hed gone a couple
of blocks, it started doing some good. Hed 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 hed 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 wasand 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 wouldnt have to have anything more to do with
him. That suited him fine. He didnt 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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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 chantedand 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 hed 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 didnt 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, whod both been posting in the Trash Can Sinatras
newsgroup for as long as hed been reading it, announced they
were getting married. Justin sent congratulations. He hoped theyd
get on better than his own folks had. His girlfriends parents
were still together, and still seemed to like each other pretty
Thinking of Megan made him want to talk to her. He logged off
Earthlinkhaving only one line in the apartment was a painand
went over to the phone on the nightstand. He dialed and listened
to it ring, once, twice . . . "Hello?" she said.
"Whats the story, morning glory?" Justin saidMegan 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, "Howd your final go?"
"Whatever," he answered. "I dont think its an A, but Im pretty
sure its a B, and thats good enough. Want to go out tonight
"I cant," Megan told him. "Ive got my English lit final tomorrow,
"Oh, yeah. Thats right." Justin hadnt remembered till she reminded
him. "I bet youre glad to get through with most of that lower-division
stuff." She was a year behind him.
"This wasnt so bad." Megan spoke as if telling a dark, shameful
secret: "I kind of like Shakespeare."
"Whatever," Justin said again. All he remember from his literature
course was that hed been damn lucky to escape with a B-minus.
"Ill take you to Sierras. We can get margaritas. Hows that?"
"The bomb," Megan said solemnly. "What time?"
"How about six-thirty? I start at CompUSA tomorrow, and Ill get
off a little past five."
"Okay, see you then," Megan said. "Ive 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 Sierras tomorrow
night, he didnt 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 into the trash
and the silverware into the dishwasher. When he started running
out of forks, hed 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 didnt want
to follow their captains 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
* * *
Freshly showered, freshly shaved, a gold stud in his left ear,
he drove over to Megans parents house to pick her up. Her mother
let him in. "How are you, Justin?" she said. "How do you like
your new job?"
"Im fine, Mrs. Tricoupis," he answered. "The jobsokay, I guess."
One day had been plenty to convince him his supervisor was a doofus.
The guy didnt 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.
Megans mom caught Justins tone. Laughing, she said, "Welcome
to the real world." She turned and called toward the back of the
house: "Sweetie! Justins here!"
"Im 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 hadnt been standing three
feet away, he would have done it.
Mrs. Tricoupis laughed again, on a different note. It didnt 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 Megans mom roll her eyes
up to the heavens. But hed been in only one wreck since getting
his license, and that one hadnt quite been his fault, so he couldnt
see why she was ragging on him.
He didnt 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
longertill, in fact, the old fart in the SUV behind them leaned
on his horn and made them both jump.
Sierras 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, Megans strawberry, Justins
plain. The waiter nodded to her but told Justin, "Im sorry, señor, but Ill need some ID."
"Okay." Justin displayed his drivers license, which showed hed
been born in April 1978, and so had been legal for a couple of
"Gracias, señor," the waiter said. "Ill get you both your drinks." Justin and
Megan didnt 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 didnt 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
"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 youve got to go to work in the morning." Megan stuck out
her tongue at him. "See? I think about whats going on with you." Justin started to get chuffed, but didnt let it show. A couple
of seconds later, he was glad he didnt, because Megan went on,
"So why dont we just go back to your place after dinner?"
"Okay," he said, and hoped he didnt sound slaveringly eager.
Maybe he did; Megan started laughing at him. But it wasnt mean
laughter, and she didnt change what shed said. He raised his
margarita to his lips. At twenty-one, its easy to think youve
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 Sierras 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,
"Youre 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. Hed tried explaining that, but
hed seen it made no sense to her.
She bent down and went pawing through his CDs and put on Ive 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 theyd made more than three records before
they broke up."
"Yeah," Justin said. However much he liked the Sinatras, though,
he didnt 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 shed 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
Theyd been lovers for only a couple of months. Justin was still
learning what Megan liked. He didnt 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
well try it again." It was only a few minutes, too. At his age,
he couldand didtake 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? Youre squashing me."
"Oh." Justin slid his weighttoo much weight, he thought, not for the first timeoff her. "I didnt mean to."
"A gentleman," she said darkly, "takes his weight on his elbows."
But she laughed as she said it, so she couldnt have been really
Justin scratched his stomach, which gave him an excuse to feel
how too much of it there was. He wasnt really tubby. Hed 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 hed known, Megan had
never given him a hard time about it.
"Shall we go down to the Probe Friday night?" he said. "They dont
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 wasnt urgent. He put his clothes on
The drive back to Megans house passed in happy silence. Justin
kept glancing over at her every so often. Im a pretty lucky fellow, he thought, finding a girl I can . . . Then he clicked his tongue between his teeth. He didnt even want
to think the word love. After hed 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 wed have to hike
for, like, miles," she said.
"Well, weve 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 theyd 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 werent 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 couldnt
pass the ID test, then got another one for himself.
They both eyed the deejays booth, which was as yet uninhabited.
"Whos it supposed to be tonight?" Megan asked. Before Justin
could answer, she went on, "I hope its Helen. She plays the best
mix of anybody, and shes not afraid to spin things you dont
hear every day."
"I dunno," Justin said. "I like Douglas better, I think. He wont
scramble tempos the way Helen does sometimes. You can really dance
when hes 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 didnt drop it cold here:
she said, "As long as its not Michael."
Justin crossed his forefingers, as if warding off a vampire. "Anybody
but Michael," he agreed. "I dont know how they can keep using
him. His list is so lamemy 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 Justins, little tiny sunglasses, and a
silver lip ring that glittered under the blazing spots sauntered
across the stage to the booth. "Its Douglas," Megan said. She
didnt 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 didnt waste time with chatter. That was another reason
Justin liked himhe didnt come to the Probe for foreplay. As
soon as the music started blaring out, an enormous grin spread
over his face. He didnt 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 wouldnt
be quite right for a couple of days. But hed worry about that
later, if he worried at all. He was having a good time, and nothing
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 typeand in a fancy
font that was barely legible; Justin, whod 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
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 actionat which Justin saw a lot
of the same faceswas in an empty warehouse. Hed never been to
this one before, but hed 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 blond
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 hed been more alert to what was going on.
Things broke up about a quarter to five. Justins head and the
rest of him seemed a little more connected. He didnt 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. "Were so late now, another half
hour, forty-five minutes wont matter at all."
He reached out and set his hand on her thigh. "I like the way
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
hed 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 didnt think it would be, not today. All
he had were a couple of pieces of obvious spam and something from
somebody hed never heard of who used AOL. His lip curled. As
far as he was concerned, AOL was for people who couldnt ride
a bicycle without training wheels.
But, with nothing more interesting showing on the monitor, he
opened the message. He didnt know what hed been expecting. Whatever
it was, it wasnt 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, wasnt 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 theyd 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 hed imagined.
What he didnt remember was ever telling anybody about it. It
wasnt 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 theyd 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 wasnt 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, shed only be thirty-nine
What to do about the message? He was tempted to delete it, forget
it. But he couldnt, not quite. He chose the REPLY function and
typed, What kind of stupid joke is this? Whatever it is, its not funny. He thought about adding Justin Kloster, age 21 to it, but he didnt 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, or even if hed send
any more at all. But the fellow mightand 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 Fletchers neck? Me,
thats 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 couldnt take
his eyes off the iMacs 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 couldnt 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 didnt make
them go away. Lindsey was a cute little blonde hed known in high
school. Theyd never even broken up, not in the sense of a fight
or anything, but shed moved out to Simi Valley with her folks
the summer his parents marriage struck a mine, and theyd stopped
dating. A damn cute little blondebut 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 wouldnt 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 didnt 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 dont 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 Fletchers neck.
Whoever the other guy was, he answered in a hurry. Justin imagined
him leaning toward his computer, waiting for AOLs stupid electronic
voice to tell him, "Youve got mail!" and then writing like a
bastard. How do I know? he said. Ive told you twice nowI know because I am you, you in 2018.
Its not X-Files stuffits good programming. Believe me, Im back here for a good
"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 thats 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 didnt, being flip would have to do. I dont know, he wrote. How do you know all this stuff about me?
Because its stuff about me, too, said the fellow on the other end of the computer hookup. You dont seem to be taking that seriously yet.
Justin snorted. "Yeah, right," he said. "Like Im supposed to
take any of this crap seriously. Like anybody would." He snapped
his fingers and laughed out loud. "Ill fix you, you son of a
bitch. Hassle me, will you?" His fingers flew over the keyboard.
If youre supposed to be me, then youll look like me, right?
He laughed again. Thatd shut Mr. Mindgames up, by God. Except
it didnt. 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. Daltons in the Northridge mall tomorrow
night at 6:30 and Ill buy you dinner. Youll see for yourself.
"Huh," Justin said. He hadnt expected to have his bluff called.
He hadnt thought it was a bluff. He typed three defiant wordsSee you theresent them off, and shut down his iMac. It was still early, but
hed had enough electronic weirdness for one night.
* * *
Like Topanga Plaza, the Northridge mall was one of Justins favorite
places. Hed spent a lot of time at both of them, shopping and
killing things at the arcade (though Topanga, for some reason,
didnt have one) and hanging out with his buds and just being
by himself. Hed 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 theyd let him, he would have visited it while it was
in ruins. Even that would have beat the warfare going on at his
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
theyd built since the earthquake wouldnt come crashing down
the way the old ones had. Maybe it was even true. Justin didnt
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
He walked through the Sears toward the entryway into the rest
of the mall. None of the mens clothing he passed looked interesting.
Some of it was for businessmennot particularly successful businessmen,
or they wouldnt 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. Daltons
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 pastyeah, he was seeing
Megan all the time and happy about that, but it didnt mean he
was blind. One of the girls smiled at him. He wasnt 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 raila blond, slightly chunky guy
in a black T-shirt, baggy jeans, and Army boots. Hed been looking
the other way. Now he swung his head back toward Justinand he
had Justins face.
Justin stopped in his tracks. He felt woozy, almost ready to pass
out, as if hed stood up too suddenly from a chair. He had to
grab the rail himself, to keep from falling down. He didnt know
what hed expected. That the other guys 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 didnt sound
the way Justins 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
Im not crazy," Justin said slowly. "Maybe youre 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 didnt look a
lot older. He didnt 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 youre from the future." Maybe this
guy was a twin separated at birth. Maybe he was no relation, but
a double anyhow. Maybe . . . Justin didnt 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. "Herethis
is for you." He gave it to Justin.
It lay in Justins 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. "Its from 2012,"
he whispered. "Jesus. You werent kidding." Four little numbers
stamped onto a coin, and the reality of what hed just walked
into hit him over the head like a club.
"I told you I wasnt." His older self sounded like an adult talking
down to a kid. That helped convince him, too. Himself-at-forty
continued, "Come on. Whats the name of that Korean barbecue place
over on Reseda?"
"The Pine Tree?" Justin said. He liked the restaurant. Hed taken
Megan there once, and shed liked it, too.
"Yeah." Himself-at-forty sounded as if hed needed reminding.
Did that mean he didnt go there in 2018? Before the question
could do anything more than cross Justins mind, his older self
went on, "Lets go over there. Ill buy you dinner, like I said
in e-mail, and we can talk about things."
Justin was hungryhe usually ate dinner earlierbut that wasnt
tops on his list. He came out with what was: "Like what youre
His older self nodded. "Yeah. Like what Im 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
"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 Justins mouth.
Justin leered at him. "That the Rolling Stones arent still touring
by the time youreImforty."
"Well, no." Now his older self looked irked, as if he couldnt
believe Justin would come out with anything as off-the-wall as
that. Dont have much fun at forty, do you? Justin thought.
Here came the waitress with the beer. She hadnt asked either
of the Justins for his drivers 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 didnt think I would, but I do. You know too muchand you
couldnt have pulled that quarter out of your ear from nowhere."
He took a big sip of his OB.
"Thats 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 didnt 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 hadnt 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 didnt remember South Park. Wet blanket, Justin thought again. Then a light came on his older selfs
eyes. "Oh." Himself-at-forty laugheda little.
Justin said, "If youd have said that to me, Id have laughed
a lot harder." He decided to cut his older self some slack: "But
the shows not big for you any more, is it? No, it wouldnt 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 wasnt 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 theyd 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: "Whats
the most important thing in your life right now?"
Justin grinned. "You mean, besides trying to figure out why Id
travel back in time to see me?" Himself-at-forty nodded, his face
blank like a poker players. Justin went on, "What else could
it be but Megan?"
"Okay, were on the same page," himself-at-forty said. "Thats
why Im here, to set things right with Megan."
"Things with Megan dont need setting right." Justin could feel
the beer hed drunk. It made him sound even surer than he would
have otherwise. "Things with Megan are great. I mean, Im taking
my time and all, but theyre great. And theyll stay great, too.
How many kids do we have now?" That was the beer talking, too.
Without it, hed never have spoken so freely.
"None." Himself-at-forty touched the corner of his jaw, where
a muscle was twitching.
"None?" That didnt sound good. The way his older self said the
word didnt sound good, either. Justin noticed something he should
have seen sooner: "Youre not wearing a wedding ring." His older
self nodded. He asked, "Does that mean we dont get married?"
"We get married, all right," his older self answered grimly. "And
then we get divorced."
Ice ran through Justin. "That cant happen," he blurted.
He knew too goddamn much about divorce, more than hed 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
theyd told him about each other, and the lies theyd told him
about themselves. He had a pretty fair notion of the lies theyd
told themselves about themselves.
One of the biggest lies each of them had told him was, Of course Ill still care for you just as much afterwards as I
did before. Megan wasnt the only one who envied him his apartmenta 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
And now his older self was saying he and Megan would go through
that? He sure was. His voice hard as stone, he squashed Justins
protest: "It can. It did. It will." That muscle at the corner
of his jaw started jumping again.
"Buthow?" Justin asked, sounding even in his own ears like a
little boy asking how his puppy could have died. He tried to rally.
"We arent like Mom and Dadwe dont fight all the time, and we
dont 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 hadnt smiled back at that girl
in the mall. He really hadnt.
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 upwill break upif we dont change things. Thats why
I figured out how to come back: to change things, I mean."
Justin poured the last of the second OB into his glass at gulped
it down. After a bit, he said, "You must have wanted to do that
"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, Ive never come close to finding
anybody who makes me feel the way Megan did. If its not her,
its nobody. Thats 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 couldnt make himself sound as
if he believed it. Divorce? He shuddered. From everything hed
seen, anything was better than that. In a small voice, he asked,
"What will you do?"
"Im going to take over your life for the next couple of months."
His older self sounded absolutely sure, as if hed thought it
all through and this was the only possible answer. Was that how
doctors sounded, recommending major surgery? Justin didnt get
a chance to wonder for long; himself-at-forty plowed ahead, relentless
as a landslide: "Im going to be you. Im going to take Megan
out. Im going to make sure things are solidand then the superstring
Ive ridden to get me here will break down. Youll live happily
ever after. Ill brief you to make sure you dont screw up what
Ive built. And when I get back to 2018, I will have lived happily ever after. How does that sound?"
"I dont know." Now Justin regretted pouring down two tall beers
one right after the other. He needed to think clearly, and he
couldnt quite. "Youll be taking Megan out?"
"Thats right." Himself-at-forty nodded.
"Youll be . . . taking Megan back to the apartment?"
"Yeah," his older self said. "But shell think its you, remember,
and pretty soon itll be you, and itll 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 dont
know. I dont 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.
"Its not fair," Justin protested. "You know all this shit, and Ive 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. Thats fine. Youll
see what happens. And well both be sorry."
"I dont know. I just dont know." Justin shook his head. He felt
trapped, caught in a spiders 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 secondsor maybe that was the beer, too. "I wont say
yes and I wont say no, not now I wont. Ive got your e-mail
address. Ill 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 hed 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?
"Twenty-one, Counting Up" copyright 1999, Harry Turtledove