Time travel is really freaking weird. You have to climb onto this rickety shuttlebus, the kind at the airport that takes you from your plane to the terminal, with about ten or twelve other people who are also making the jump. Then a driver takes you down a short runway, at the end of which is a kind of lit-up portal that’s just hanging in mid-air, swirling with blue and purple lights and spitting out sparks. Then there’s a bang and a lurch and a momentary sensation of having all of your insides squeezed through a Pringle tube, and the next thing you know, you’re sitting in the same spot you were five seconds ago – an uncomfortable bus seat with a paper-thin cushion the colour of vomit – only now you’re 33 years in the future.
It was Dad’s idea, this whole ‘time travel’ thing. He said we needed to put some space between us and Mum’s slow, humiliating death from Early Onset Alzheimer’s.
‘Time heals all wounds, Jamie,’ he told me one morning over what had become our new father-son ritual of jam on toast and coffee for breakfast.
I elected not to say what I was thinking, but I was pretty sure that old saying only applied if you experienced the passage of time in a linear fashion. What was that thing we used to say in primary school, when the teacher would ask for a demonstration of our mathematical capabilities? One, two, skip a few, 99, 100! But real life doesn’t work like that. You can’t just skip to the end. Skip the pain, skip the scabbing over of the wound, skip the picking and the scratching and the fresh bleeding and simply fast forward to a neat little line of faded scar tissue.
It’s not time that heals wounds.
Not many families could afford the luxury of starting a new life in the future, and we were no different. But it just so happened that Dad’s branch manager at the Temporal Transport Office was looking for volunteer employees to make the jump.
The office was understaffed in the future, apparently.
I remember that first trip to Dad’s work, when we went to pick up our Time Travel Passports. It was like the inside of a bank. Multiple lines of people queuing up in front of a long counter, behind which teal-uniformed men and women signed forms and stamped documents and performed all those other soul-crushing tasks that people do in banks all over the world. Glossy posters lined the walls. Smiling families, smiling pets – even, in one poster, a smiling Planet Earth. The slogan on the wall, engraved in reflective copperplate: ‘The Past is History – Make the Future Your Future!’
The weirdest part about living in the future is seeing people you used to know, the ones who didn’t make the jump. On our first day we visited the local minimart and found that Ronnie, the middle-aged Pakistani man who worked behind the counter, was now an elderly man with a long white beard. Our next-door neighbours’ baby was now married with three children and had just been made Chief Executive Assistant at the local branch of Smithson Shoes.
As for me, I’m back at the local high school. Place hasn’t changed much. On my first day back, I was delighted to find that the banana peel I’d hidden beneath the loose floorboard in Mr. Avenell’s science class back in 2019 was still there, rotted down to a brown skeleton.
I was less delighted to discover that my best friend, Charlie Bignell, had died just a year after I’d left the past. Skinny, blonde-haired Charlie, who had the shoulders of a lifetime gamer and the mouth of a New York comedian. Charlie was a gamer geek, a comic-book nerd, a movie buff, a bookworm, a TV connoisseur and a music aficionado. He had a passion for all of life’s solitary pursuits, anything that required a bowed head and a firm grip. Masturbation was not excluded from this list – he once told me he’d narrowed his record wanking time from two minutes thirty-one seconds to one minute fifty-nine. I took great pleasure in telling him, less than a week later, that I’d smashed his record by fifteen seconds. I didn’t tell him what I’d been thinking about during those 104 seconds.
‘Oh yes, the poor thing,’ said Ms. Tremond, the school receptionist. She was roughly 90 years old back in 2019 and, it appeared, hadn’t aged a day in the intervening decades.
‘I was one of the last to see him, you know,’ she added. ‘He came into the office with a terrible cough. Not a real one, of course. I’ve been around long enough to tell when someone’s simply fishing for a day off. But the poor boy was putting in so much effort, hacking and spitting all over the place, that I was inclined to give it to him. It was either that or let him pretend-cough himself unconscious right in front of my desk. I tried to get a hold of his parents, but Charlie kept insisting he would be ok to make it home on his own.’
She shook her head, wiping a non-existent tear from the wrinkled skin beneath her eye.
‘Sniffer dogs found him two days later at the bottom of the quarry behind Bleeker’s farm, body all cracked and broken on the rocks. Oh, but I shouldn’t be telling you this,’ she said. ‘You’re just a young lad.’
She gazed at me sideways from the loose cups of her eye-sockets, trying to gauge whether I could be trusted with her precious gossip.
‘Well,’ I said, lowering my voice to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘Technically, I’m forty-nine.’
She let out a raucous cackle and slapped at my arm with a frail hand. ‘Oh, you horrid thing!’
After school that day I had my first run-in with the Tough Fuckers – the first in 33 years.
They were on the town’s main shopping strip, Carruthers Street, which ran like a vein of good-natured consumerism through the centre of town. The men leaned against the bonnet of a battered Toyota Corolla, sharing a hand-rolled cigarette that smelled strongly of weed. Three men in their late forties – taller, wrinklier parodies of their former, vital selves.
‘Ho-ly SHIT!’ said Mike, pointing a stubby finger at me.
‘No way!’ said Lewis, combing a hand through his blonde mullet (which had aged almost as badly as the pot belly sagging over his belt buckle).
‘Well, well, well,’ said Julian, taking a drag on the joint and passing it to Lewis. ‘If it isn’t little Jerk-Off Jamie.’
Julian had grown into the kind of arrogantly handsome businessman that everyone in the low-to-middle classes knows instinctively to despise. He wore a tailored navy suit and polished black wingtips, his hair as black as his shoes. He watched me with calm, ice-grey eyes.
‘We wondered where you’d got to!’ said Mike, grinning across his ruddy, bearded face.
‘Yeah, we missed you!’ added Lewis in a taunting, singsong voice.
Julian watched me silently, his eyes narrowed to slits.
‘Don’t think we’re gonna go easy on you now!’ said Mike. ‘Just cos you’re a kid and we’re adults!’
To prove it he grabbed a fistful of my hair, turned around and pressed my face into the rump of his jeans. There was a squelching sound as Mike ripped out a giant fart, and a smell like garbage juice filled my nostrils. I gagged and tried to push away from him, but he was too strong. He held me there, laughing, rubbing his arse in my face until I was sure I would never get rid of the smell, no matter how many times I showered.
He finally let go and I fell hard onto the pavement. The people walking by kept their heads low, eyes transfixed on the raised screens of their phones. Mike and Lewis cackled hysterically, while Julian watched me with a thin smile, his tongue probing the inside of his bottom lip.
‘Boys,’ said Julian, without taking his eyes off me. ‘Looks like the past just sent us a present.’
They dig up Charlie’s time capsule on a Saturday afternoon. According to Ms. Tremond, he buried it the same day I left for the future: June 21, 2019. The ‘time capsule’ is a cardboard shoebox wrapped in duct tape. A piece of paper has been sticky-taped to the top, bearing the legend: To Be Opened by Jamie Prong, 2052. Two police officers – one of them an APCT (Android Police Constable in Training) – deliver it personally to my door. It takes me fifteen minutes with a pair of scissors and a serrated kitchen knife to hack open the box. Finally, its contents lay sprawled across my bed.
- A bendable action figure of the character Bender, from Futurama. It was Charlie’s favourite toy when he was a kid. Now, apparently, it belongs to me.
- Charlie’s Blu-ray of zBack to the Future, our favourite movie.
- A framed photo of the two of us when we were ten years old, goofing around at a school carnival. Green shirts and pink faces.
- A second photo, also framed. This time we’re fifteen and it’s Charlie’s sister’s birthday. I’m wearing a red hoodie, the hood obscuring half my face. Charlie has one arm slung across my shoulders. I can still feel the warmth of his forearm against the back of my neck.
- An envelope. ‘To Jamie—For Your Eyes Only’, it says.
My eyes fall on the last item in the box and I start to laugh. It’s a plastic bag filled with porno magazines. The same porno magazines I dared Charlie to steal from Ben Gilbert’s dad’s sock drawer during a sleepover at Ben’s house. Ben was later grounded for a week, though his dad never told him why. Charlie and I knew why, but we didn’t tell Ben. It was funnier that way.
I open the envelope. Inside is a folded sheet of paper covered in Charlie’s handwriting.
Hey Jamie, writes Charlie, my dead best friend from the past.
This is freaking weird, huh? It’s only been a few hours and I already miss you. Thanks for leaving me here with the Tough Fuckers, you son of a bitch.
Nah, I’m just messing with ya. I’m happy for you. You get to live in the future, man! The fucking future! They better have invented hoverboards by now or Ima shit my pants.
So, listen. There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time. I just never worked out the perfect way to say it. Now you’re 33 years in the future, so I guess I kinda missed my chance.
Thing is. I love you, alright? I fucking love you. In like a ‘more than a friend’ kind of way. Laugh at me if you want. I don’t know when it happened, but it did. You were the best friend a boy could have, but I wanted it to be more than that. And now I’ll never know if maybe you felt the same way.
Fuck, I hope this doesn’t make shit awkward between us. Next time I see you, you’re gonna still be 16 and I’m gonna be some fat 50-year-old who’s probably dying of toe cancer.
They could arrest me just for writing this shit.
Bye, Jamie. I’ll miss you every day.
P.S. You can keep the porno mags. I probably don’t need them anymore now that I’m a massive homo
See you in 33 years, motherfucker! Xoxoxoxo
I carefully fold the letter and slide it back inside the envelope. My heart is doing weird things in my chest. Stomping around like a three-legged elephant running hurdles. Charlie never told me any of this stuff while he was alive. I never even suspected.
Blood pounds in my head, squeezing my brain. The pressure makes me dizzy and the next thing I know I’m grabbing things and throwing them against the wall. The bendy Bender, the Back to the Future Blu-ray, the framed photos shattering with satisfying explosions of glass.
I am screaming. Out of rage, frustration, sadness … I don’t know. I’m screaming so loud, I don’t hear my dad’s footsteps as they pound up the stairs, or the swoosh of my bedroom door being thrown open. I barely feel his arms as they wrap around me, trying to hold me still.
I go on screaming, as if the sound of my anguish could turn back the clock.
Bleeker’s farm is 200 acres of brown dirt and home to a collection of rusted tractor skeletons and a morose looking horse named Bob. Way at the back of the farm, past the old tractors, past Bob, there is a crumbly cliff-edge, followed by a steep drop into a pit filled with jagged chunks of white stone. This is the quarry where a boy named Charlie Bignell lost his life, 32 years ago.
A pebble breaks loose under my foot and tumbles, clattering, down the rugged cliff face. I can imagine it: the elevator drop in Charlie’s belly as the ground slipped out from under his feet. The quick, but endless, plummet through unbroken air. The bone-jarring crunch as his body met the rocks below. Instant lights-out.
‘Jesus, Charlie,’ I say out loud. ‘What were you doing out here?’
There is a rumble of tyres behind me. I spin around, shielding my eyes against the midday sun. A large car is trundling across the dirt towards me. For a moment, I think it’s one of Farmer Bleeker’s tractors, miraculously returned to life. But then I recognise the pitted, bug-grimed licence plate. The red paint job that’s faded to the pink of a plastic fire engine left out in the sun.
The car lurches to a stop with a painful groan.
‘Well, isn’t this a pretty fuckin’ picture,’ says Mike, jumping down from the driver’s seat. He pats his belly, making a meaty, slapping sound. ‘Got another fart brewing for ya! I had a burrito at lunch so it’s gonna be a stinky one.’
Lewis leaps out of the passenger door, his boots hitting the dirt with a thump. He tilts his head to the sky and howls like a wolf, his mullet streaming in the summer breeze. The back door of the Corolla opens, and Julian climbs out. He is wearing the same tailored navy suit and polished black wingtips.
‘Afternoon, Jamie,’ he says with a nod. His expression is lazy, unreadable – the face of a bored kid sticking pins into a rat’s eye.
‘Come on, guys,’ I say, hoping it’s possible to reason with these adult versions of my childhood bullies. ‘Why don’t you just let me leave, huh?’
Lewis giggles like a hyena high on helium.
‘Fat chance, kid!’ he says. ‘We’re the Tough Fuckers! We ain’t in the mercy business.’
‘Gonna fuck you up, boy,’ says Mike, with a deranged grin. ‘Just like your little friend!’
Julian flashes him a dark look. ‘Shut the fuck up, Mike!’
Mike gulps, his face turning the colour of an undercooked ham steak.
‘You just forget you heard that, shithead,’ says Julian. He bends down and scoops a large rock from the floor, weighing it in the palm of his hand.
Mike and Lewis each scrabble in the dirt for a suitable rock.
‘Aim!’ says Julian.
Mike and Lewis raise their rocks in the air.
There is a metallic clicking sound.
‘Drop ‘em,’ says a raspy voice.
The three men turn around. There, standing behind them with a rifle stock pressed to his shoulder, is Farmer Bleeker. I didn’t even know the old bastard was still alive. A battered straw hat is pulled down low on his grimy forehead, its brim dripping with sweat.
‘We don’t want any trouble, old man,’ says Julian, flashing his most winning smile. ‘Just go about your business and we’ll go about ours.’
‘I don’t want no bloody trouble either!’ says Bleeker, his voice a hacking cough. ‘That’s why I want the three of you off my fucking property!’
There is a momentary standoff. Maybe Julian is thinking he can rush at the old man, wrestle the gun off him. But he eventually thinks better of it. A wise decision – legend has it, Farmer Bleeker once shot a snake off his wife’s neck from sixty metres away.
Mike and Lewis drop their rocks and head towards the Corolla, their tails tucked between their legs. Julian holds up his hand and, smiling, lets the rock tumble from his palm.
‘Be seeing you, kid,’ he says, and strolls away with his hands in the pockets of his expensive, tailored pants.
‘You wanna do what?’ says Dad, staring at me over the top of his holographic newspaper.
‘Come on, Dad,’ I plead. ‘When have I ever asked you for anything?’
‘Well, that’s true, but bloody hell.’ He takes a bite of toast and munches it, staring into space. ‘This is a big ask, mate.’
‘It’s illegal, for one thing.’
‘I could lose my job.’
‘Not to mention you could cause the destruction of the entire universe.’
I give a bleak little nod. Dad stares at me for a few seconds. Then he swallows, and I watch the lump of toast make its way down his oesophagus.
‘Well, I guess I’m always on your bloody back about getting up and doing something with your life,’ he says finally. ‘And I can’t really think of anything more important than this.’
He takes another bite of toast and washes it down with a big slurp of instant coffee.
‘Alright, mate. Just let me finish me brekkie first.’
Dad walks briskly through the foyer of the Temporal Transport Office, looking snazzy in his official, teal uniform. The foyer is packed with angry passengers shouting and arguing with the AAOs (Autonomous Android Officers) manning the long counter. Apparently, Dad explains, there was a hiccup during the most recent transportation and a bus-load of luggage was accidentally sent ahead to the year 3064.
There is a doorway at the back of the foyer, with a grid of thin, red laser beams in place of a door. Dad taps his staff ID against a small holographic pad on the wall. The laser beams switch off and Dad hurries me through the now open doorway, the lasers zapping back into place once we’re through.
‘Never smart to dawdle through that thing,’ Dad explains quietly. ‘They say it’s completely safe. But Derek in Accounting’s missing half a hand, and I think I bloody know why.’
He leads me through a break room, where a small cluster of officers dressed like Dad are gathered around an aluminium folding table with a deck of holographic cards.
‘Afternoon, John!’ says an officer with a huge grey moustache, looking up from the game. ‘Didn’t know you were rostered on for the Sunday shift!’
‘Just catching up on some files, Alan,’ says Dad, with an uneasy smile.
‘Files?’ says Alan, furrowing his eyebrows. ‘What files?’
‘Um…’ Dad’s never had much of an imagination. I can see his brain whirring behind his eyes. ‘Uh… holographic files?’
‘Ah.’ Alan nods. ‘Yes, of course. Those holographic files won’t sort themselves.’
He offers me a pleasant smile, his eyebrows almost covering his eyes. ‘Well, off you go.’
‘Cheerio,’ says Dad, barely containing his sigh of relief, and we’re on our way.
He takes me through a series of laser-beamed doors until, finally, we reach a large steel door that’s vacuum-sealed with thick strips of black rubber like the world’s biggest fridge. Dad scans his ID and the door swings open with a fwoosh.
We step through the doorway and onto a long stretch of tarmac, both of us blinking in the harsh orange glare of the evening sun. The time-portal is hanging there in mid-air, like a smudge on the lens of your eye, flashes of blue and purple light rippling across the silver buttons on Dad’s uniform.
‘I hope you know what you’re doing, mate,’ says Dad, looking grim. He wraps me up in a hug and squeezes tight.
When we pull apart, I step into his cupped hands and he raises me towards the lip of the portal.
‘Love you, Dad,’ I say, looking over my shoulder.
‘Love you too, Jamie,’ he says, and shoves me into the past.
Running. Legs pumping. Knees clicking. A stitch digs a finger into my right side, wriggling between my ribs. The air in my lungs screams, burning like I’ve breathed in a mouthful of chili flakes. I have to make it in time. I have to. The fate of the world depends on it. Well, no. But the fate of my world depends on it.
The sun blazes on, a sizzling yellow ball hanging directly above my head. I don’t remember the sun ever being this big before. Sweat pours from my scalp, down my face, stinging my eyes.
I keep running.
Right now, on the other side of town, Charlie is telling Ms. Tremond he’s sick and he wants to go home. She’s calling his parents to see if one of them can pick him up.
Fuck, the stitch is growing. It’s not a finger between my ribs anymore. It’s a fucking sewing needle. I keep running.
Now he’s telling Ms. Tremond he’ll ride his bike home. Ms. Tremond is giving him a doubtful side-eye. Well, ok, she says. If you’re sure …
There’s no way I’d make it to the school in time. Not without a car or a bike. Luckily, I’m not aiming for the school. I’m heading in the opposite direction. Towards the outskirts of town. Towards Bleeker’s farm.
I pass the Jacaranda pub, with its verandah full of whistling drunks. It’s a fifteen-minute walk from here to Bleeker’s. I don’t know how much time I have. Somewhere in the distance I hear the roar of an engine and a familiar screech of tyres.
The stitch has reached my heart. The stitch has my heart in a headlock and is holding a knife to its throat. I’ll do it, says the stitch, the blade of its knife nicking the outermost layer of my heart. If you don’t slow down, I’ll fucking do it!
I keep running, my cookie-dough legs flopping and flailing. Finally, I reach the wooden railing surrounding the farm. I clamber over it, hauling my lifeless legs like I’m dragging a couple of car tyres behind me. I can see the quarry – the deadly cliff edge, the empty space beyond it. A glance over my shoulder shows me the very last thing I wanted to see. A plume of car exhaust trailing into the sky.
The Corolla is coming.
I race towards the quarry. Any minute now my legs are going to fall off. I stagger to a halt at the edge of the cliff, where yesterday – 32 years in the future – I was almost stoned to death by the Tough Fuckers.
I can hear it now, over the roar of the Corolla’s engine: the sound of raucous laughter, like crows squabbling over a strip of carrion. I can hear something else as well. The rattle and squeak of a bike, pushed well beyond its capacity.
I dive behind a small cluster of bushes just as Charlie Bignell, my best friend, drops his bike with a clatter and vaults over the wooden railing. It hurts my heart just to see him, but I push that feeling away for now. I need to concentrate. Charlie rushes towards Bleeker’s house and screams for help, skinny arms waving above his head. There’s no answer from inside the house. Either Bleeker is in town selling his milk or he’s at the Jacaranda, trading his milk money for scotch.
The Corolla bursts through the farm gate, blowing the rotten wood off its hinges. Charlie glances towards the barn at the other end of the farm. There’s no way he’ll make it, but he makes a run for it anyway. The Corolla bounces across the hillocky dirt, bearing down on Charlie like a demon from hell.
‘Yee-ha!’ shouts Mike from the driver’s window.
‘Run, little bitch!’ shouts Lewis, his head hanging out of the passenger window.
Julian sits in the back, his long dark hair pinned behind his ears, one corner of his mouth curled up in an expression of mild amusement. He looks so much younger than his future self. Younger, even, than I remember him.
Young, but still an evil dick.
The Corolla’s engine revs like a chainsaw and the car speeds towards Charlie. There is nowhere left for Charlie to run. He glances over his shoulder, eyes wide, face streaked with tears and dirt. The quarry is a giant mouth full of broken teeth, waiting to eat him up. Charlie throws his arms in front of his face.
If this whole adventure has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t underestimate the importance of time.
I have one infinitesimal moment to act.
I leap out from my hiding place and knock Charlie out of the way of the oncoming car. The tyres skid on the loose, pebbly earth and then the Corolla is rocketing off the edge of the cliff, soaring through the air above the quarry. Time seems to slow, and I see Julian’s face through the rear window. He is staring at me, eyes wide, lips parted in an expression of pure shock.
Then the car dips out of sight. There are several seconds of silence followed by a mighty crash as the Corolla, along with everyone inside it, is smashed to bits on the jagged stones below.
‘What the fucking fuck?’ says Charlie, pushing me off him and giving me a hard stare. ‘Jamie? But you went to the future!’
‘I did go to the future,’ I say, ‘but I’m back. I’m back from the future.’
Charlie’s eyes widen. ‘Great Scott.’
We grin at each other, each of us taking a moment to catch our breath.
‘You were dead, Charlie.’ I’m lying beside him in the dirt, panting for air. ‘They killed you. Here. Today. I stopped it.’
‘You came back,’ he says, his voice faint, ‘to save me?’
I nod, laughing at how dramatic it sounds.
‘But … how?’
‘Shut up, motherfucker,’ I say, and I take his face in my hands and kiss him full on the lips.
‘Whoa!’ Charlie splutters, pushing me away. ‘What the fuck? Did the future turn you gay?’
I kiss him again, and this time he doesn’t resist. Vacuum-sealed warmth and wetness, the grit of dust on Charlie’s tongue. I never want to spend another second of my life not kissing him.
After five, ten, fifteen minutes, our lips part and we sit together, staring at the ground. Faces red, chests heaving. Charlie breaks into an awkward chuckle. His lips are swollen and shiny with spit, like I know mine must be.
In silence, we help each other up and dust ourselves off.
‘So, what happens now?’ says Charlie. I’m not sure what he’s referring to. The kiss? The fact that I’ve left my dad in the future and so have nowhere to live? Or the possibility that I may have unravelled the very fabric of the universe by altering the past? Maybe all of it.
‘Let’s just take it day by day,’ I say, holding out my hand. After a moment’s hesitation, he takes it. ‘It’s not the end of the world.’
I glance towards the sky, worried for a moment that I could have jinxed it. But no – the sky hasn’t yet cracked in half like the shell of a dropped egg, birds haven’t started flying backwards, up is still up and down is still down and I’m standing here on a sunny day with the boy I love.
I throw my arm around Charlie’s shoulders, just like the photo from when we were kids, and we walk together into the future.
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