Twenty-one, Counting Up
By Harry Turtledove

Illustration by Darryl Elliott
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 remember 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 into 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 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 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 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, 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 on 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 at 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?

"Twenty-one, Counting Up" copyright 1999, Harry Turtledove