Fifteen. That’s how old I am when Future Me arrives to tell me everything I’m about to do with my life will end in disaster.
Future Me is difficult to resist. She’s beautiful and scary. Everything, in fact, I’ve always dreamed of being. I think of her as a ‘person’, but Future Me isn’t a person – at least not in the way you’re thinking of a person right now.
Future Me’s skin is too smooth. One of her eyes is a flower, and the other a glittering diamond. Her nose is a big, green button sown onto her face and her long, orange hair floats about her head as though she’s under water. She doesn’t wear clothes, but that’s okay because her body doesn’t have the usual parts. Future Me is made up of a strange collection of flower pots, kitchen utensils and wine bottles. Her chest is a waste paper basket with two fairground pinwheels stuck on with craft tape.
“Are you playing Tetris?” Future Me asks, her flower eye turning toward the mess of clothes on my bedroom floor, then to the posters on my walls. The diamond eye stares straight at me.
I’m not playing Tetris. I’m gaping at Future Me. How could I do anything else? She’s amazing.
“I never want you to play that game again,” says Future Me, wandering around my bedroom, touching the framed picture of my mother, spinning my inflatable world globe with her strange fingers. Is one a pencil? Is one a scalpel?
The globe deflates but Future Me doesn’t notice, nor care. The globe was a present from my father.
There’s a poster on my wall, given to me by a lady at a school careers exhibition, of a girl pouring a luminous liquid from a test tube into a beaker. Above her head are the words: “Girls Love Science.” Below: “Do What You Love.”
I don’t love science. I don’t understand how science is a thing that can be loved. I love my computer. I love speaking to it in its own language of symbols and numbers. I love the soft touch of its keys beneath my fingertips. I love its steady, predictable responses to my questions.
Future Me stands before the “Do What You Love” poster for a long time. Eventually she sighs and runs her scalpel finger down it in a long, deliberate sweep. The “Do What” half drops and slides across my floorboards until it hits the leg of my chair.
The “You Love” half slips quietly into the black hole under my bed, never to be seen again.
Future Me turns to face me, her flower eye slowly rotating in its socket. “The world doesn’t always fit together the way we’d like it to, Assa,” she says. “It’s not like Tetris. Better to learn that now than later.”
There’s a stopwatch where her belly button should be. The second hand is ticking forward, and back.
Forward, and back.
“How did you get here?” I ask.
“That’s a very good question,” says Future Me. “Someone else’s future self recently invented time travel.”
“Really?” I say. “That’s incredible! I guess everyone’s future selves will be coming back to visit them now.”
Future Me shrugs. “I doubt it,” she says. “Time travel isn’t a very popular idea in the future.”
I find it difficult to believe that nobody else’s future selves are interested in travelling back in time to meet them, but it’s hard to argue with Future Me.
“The past isn’t very interesting to the people in my time,” says Future Me. “They don’t find it stimulating. In fact, people in the future don’t find much of anything stimulating. And most of that, I’m afraid, is down to you. Get your coat. Let’s go for a walk.”
I know what you’re thinking. “Stranger danger!” But Future Me isn’t really a stranger. I’m not saying she couldn’t be dangerous — she has a scalpel for a finger! — but she’s no stranger. Meeting your future self is like meeting a friend you haven’t seen for a few years. You know everything about them, or you think you do. Either way, you feel safe.
We walk down to the park. The afternoon sun is warm. I’m worried people will freak out when they see Future Me with her crazy hair, weird eyes and spinning pinwheels, but the people we pass don’t seem to notice Future Me at all.
“If it’s not a rude question…” I begin to say.
“Why do I look so awesome?” says Future Me. “In the future we can do what we want to do – be what we want to be.”
“So you can be … anything?”
“Literally,” says Future Me. “See the Frisbee that boy is throwing to his dog? I could use it as my head if I wanted.”
“No way,” I say. “How does it work?”
Future Me shrugs. “How does your smart phone work?”
“It’s kinda like that,” says Future Me.
Mr Oleg’s ice-cream van is there. He’s selling cones to kids who’ve come to feed bread to the ducks. Future Me asks if I’d like ice-cream.
“I’m fifteen,” I say, but Future Me knows how much I love ice-cream.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” says Future Me. So we walk to the van.
“Hello, Mr Oleg,” says Future Me. Mr Oleg looks at me as if I’m the one who spoke. He’s a short, happy man with a bushy moustache. “Hello, Assa,” he says. “How are you today?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” I say, though he should really be talking to Future Me.
“I’ll have a double-choc cone please,” says Future Me. Mr Oleg doesn’t see her at all. “Coming right up,” he says to me.
I look questioningly at Future Me.
“It’s a time travel thing,” she says. “I’m from your future, not his. No one else can see me here because I don’t exist in this time for them. I’m surrounded by a sort of egg.”
“An egg?” I say.
“I exist inside a time egg. No one else can see me. Is it really that difficult to understand?”
“But they can hear you,” I say.
“They see and hear you,” says Future Me. “We are the same person after all.”
Mr Oleg pats down the cone with the back of his ice-cream scoop and hands it over.
“Have you always wanted to be an ice-cream man, Mr Oleg?” Future Me asks. I’m a little embarrassed by her rudeness.
Mr Oleg frowns thoughtfully. “No, not always. When I first come to this country I plan to run casino,” he says. “Great big casino with lights and dancing girl … But, it couldn’t work. Now, I just get by. I try to save so I can go back to my country and bring my mother here. She is old now. I feel bad I cannot look after her, so far away.”
I give Mr Oleg the money for the ice-cream.
“Thank you, Assa,” he says.
“I hope you can go back soon, Mr Oleg,” I say.
He nods. “Maybe next year,” he says. “Maybe year after.”
I wave as I walk away.
“Good day, sweet girl,” he says.
When we’re out of earshot I say, “I did not know that about Mr Oleg.”
“What?” says Future Me. “You thought serving ice-cream to screaming kids was his dream job?”
“Well … yeah.” I say. “What’s not to like about ice-cream?”
We sit by the water and a duck swims over to us wanting to be fed, a string of ducklings following in its wake.
Future Me reaches into her wastepaper basket and pulls out a stale sugar bun. She sniffs it with her button nose and then begins slicing it into small pieces with her scalpel finger.
“So, why have you come back to my time?” I ask.
Future Me throws some bits of the bun to the ducks and they go crazy for it. More ducks swim over. More and more. “Give ‘em what they want,” she says, “and watch ‘em come running.”
I get the feeling she’s not talking about the ducks.
“You are a very special young woman, Assa,” Future Me begins. “A few years from now you will graduate from high school and go to university where your programming genius will become apparent to a professor named Morecombe Unley.”
“Wait,” I say. “Isn’t there a rule about you telling me too much about my future?”
Future Me smiles for the first times since she appeared in my bedroom. “There are no rules, Assa. That’s the only rule. Now, you will find Professor Unley shares your passions for completeness, for utility, and for achievement. He will ask you to help him with a project he’s been working on – a project of global significance.”
“What kind of project?” I love programming more than anything in the world. Professor Unley sounds like someone I would like to meet. I’m going to Google him as soon as I get back home.
The ducks quack loudly, squabbling over the neatly cut blocks of stale bread Future Me throws to them. The half-smile on her face makes me feel she’s enjoying feeding them just enough to make them fight for it.
“You’re thinking right now that you would be incredibly excited to be asked to be part of such an endeavour,” says Future Me. “While I remember such feelings fondly, I must make it very clear to you that you will, under no circumstances, agree to aid Professor Unley.”
My ice-cream is starting to melt. I’m going to have to eat it faster. “Why not?” I ask.
But Future Me freezes, the smile wiped from her face. She drops the tiny pieces of bread into the water, though, to my surprise, the ducks do not come for them. Instead they paddle away as fast as their webbed little feet will take them.
“Do you see that, Assa?” says Future Me, gripping my arm with her dangerous fingers. “There, in the water?”
It’s a bright day and sunlight ripples across the surface of the lake. Looking below into the dark water is difficult, but a lazy movement catches my eye.
A large fish, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, swims idly toward us, light streaming from its wide, fishy eyes as though from battery-powered torches. Its skin isn’t covered in scales as you would expect, but in beads, pearls and cut stones. In place of a tail are two egg-beaters, slowly propelling it toward us. There’s no question it comes from the future. But what is a Future Fish doing here in the lake?
“I want you to slowly back away from the water right now,” says Future Me, deadly serious. “It is very important you do this quickly and without attracting its attention.”
Future Me’s urgency frightens me. Leaving my sloppy ice-cream on the grassy slope, I crab-walk backwards as quickly as I can. Future Me stays exactly where she is, leaning forward and flattening herself on the grass.
I don’t know what’s going on. I’m frightened. My ice-cream runs in little rivulets between the blades of grass and into the lake. The instant the melted chocolate hits the water two things happen. The Future Fish’s torch eyes swivel toward it, and Future Me’s arm flashes out – much further and faster than a normal arm – and skewers the fish with her scalpel finger.
Future Me pulls the fish from the water and clubs it to death with one mighty blow. Springs, pearls and small pieces of plastic fruit fly in all directions. Leaving the dead fish twitching on the grass, Future Me jumps to her feet and runs toward me.
“We need to leave,” she says. “Now! Get up. Go!”
We run toward the road as fast as we can. Future Me is a better runner than she looks. It’s hard to keep up.
“Where are we going?” I cry.
“Somewhere safe!” says Future Me. “Do you know such a place?”
It’s difficult to answer. I’ve never been in danger before. I’d thought the park safe until a moment ago. “Back to the house?”
“No!” Future Me cries. “She’ll be waiting for us there!”
“Who’ll be waiting?”
“Future Me has found us again. This is getting intolerable,” says Future Me.
“There’s a Future You?” I say, and realise this could become confusing very quickly.
“Of course there’s a Future Me,” says Future Me. “You think I have no future? Future Me doesn’t want me talking to you. She’s changed her mind about helping Professor Unley. She’s decided she likes the future the way it is. We need to hide before she comes looking.”
I’m rapidly running out of breath. There’s a bus coming up Manning Road, heading west. “C’mon,” I say. “Follow me.”
I hail the driver and swipe my pass. We take a seat near the back of the almost-empty bus.
“This is good,” says Future Me, her flower eye casting about. “She won’t remember this for a while, and when she does, it’ll take her some time to figure out which bus we’re on. Good thinking, Assa.”
“Listen, Future Me,” I say, adrenaline pumping through every part of my body. “You need to tell me why Future You is hunting us down. What is it I do with Professor Unley that’s so damn important?”
Future Me sighs and looks into her lap. “Remember I told you that no one in the future is particularly interested in time travel?”
“Is it because of what I did with Professor Unley?”
“Yes,” says Future Me. “Well, actually, no. It’s because of what I did with Professor Unley … You see, Assa, Professor Unley isn’t a bad man. When you first meet him, he will be working on a piece of software which helps people find their dream job. Maybe that doesn’t sound world-changing to you, but trust me, finding your dream job is a big deal for most people. A lot of us have no idea what we want to do with our lives.”
“Even adults?” I say.
Future Me nods. “Especially adults.”
“No one really likes going to work though, do they?” I say.
Future Me snaps her fingers, and little sparks fly. Her diamond eye glitters hypnotically. “But they should!” she says. “Do What You Love! Right?”
I shrug. I’ve never thought about it like that. “Does that mean the software would tell Mr. Oleg he’d love to run a casino?”
“It would probably tell Mr. Oleg he would most love to be a tailor, or some such thing,” says Future Me. “But you take the software one step further, Assa, using a similar algorithm to calculate a person’s dream partner.”
“Shouldn’t finding people their dream jobs, and perfect partners, be a good thing?” I say.
“You’d think,” says Future Me. “But the truth is knowing what, and who, we’re going to love robs us of our purpose. People no longer strive to discover these things for themselves. People no longer feel the need to strive for anything. You see, Assa, it’s the chaos in our lives that makes them truly magical. Look at me. I’m pretty damn magical, right?”
I nod. How could I do otherwise?
We’ve come to a stop outside my mother’s surgery. A few people have stepped onto the bus, including a dark and very odd-looking old lady. I don’t get a good look at her before Future Me yanks me roughly down in my seat. All I see are her shiny eyes, like a bug’s, and a sharp little beak where her mouth should be.
“Tell me that’s not Future Me,” I hiss.
“That is not Future You,” says Future Me. “That is Future Me. And Future Me is a real bitch. Did she see us?”
I poke my head above the seat in front of us. Future Her has taken a seat at the front where she’ll get a good look at everyone who gets on or off the bus.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “Is her hair made of worms?” As I’m talking, Future Her’s head turns slowly around to scan the bus. Her head rotates a full three-sixty degrees until it’s facing front again.
“Future You is freaky,” I say.
Future Me rolls her flower and diamond eyes. “Tell me about it.”
“How did she know where to find us?”
Future Me sighs. “She’s Future Me. She has my memories. They may be old and a bit hazy, but she knows we got on a bus so she’s come looking for us.”
“If Future You has memories of this happening in her past,” I say, trying to think this through logically. “Won’t she have memories of what we do next?”
“No,” says Future Me, shaking her head so that her floaty red hair swishes back and forth. “She doesn’t have those memories yet because we haven’t made our next move. Our time eggs are still in flux.”
Time travel logic is more complicated than I’d thought. “So what is our next move?” I say. “Future You can’t hurt us can she? I mean, she’s us, right? She’d only be hurting herself.”
Future Me’s diamond eye darkens, and her flower eye wilts a little. “Future Me is a powerful woman who’ll do anything to keep the future the way it is. She’s also completely insane. She’s tortured me before. She’s very good at it and the pain is excruciating, but she enjoys it. She looks back on those times with fond memories.”
“It’s so … sad,” I say. “I can’t believe I end up being such a sadistic old crone.” I want to cry.
“It doesn’t have to turn out this way,” says Future Me. “At the next stop I’m going to draw her off. She’ll follow me. She won’t imagine, after everything I’ve been through to get you alone, I’ll just walk off and leave you on a bus, unprotected. You get back to the house. I’ll meet you in a couple of hours. Okay?”
Reflexively my hand grips Future Me’s shoulder. “What if I never see you again?”
“You will,” says Future Me. “That’s a promise. Everything’s going to work out fine.”
“How can you know that?” I hiss, a little desperate. “I don’t want to be tortured.”
“I know it,” says Future Me, “because you told me so.”
The bus is slowing. Future Me stands up and walks to the front without a backward glance. The doors open and she steps off and walks quickly up the street.
Future Her also stands, in her stooped, evil-looking way. Once again her head rotates around upon her hunched shoulders, scanning the now empty bus. This time her black, bug eyes fix on the back seats and I duck my head down again. Has she seen me? Is she coming for me now, to take me? Torture Me? Peck me with her cruel beak until I’m screaming and bloody?
Why hasn’t the driver closed the doors? Why is everything so damned quiet? I hear footsteps slowly approaching from the front of the bus. I slip down off the seat and try to fold myself underneath it, but my body seems massive and the seat is so small it offers no cover at all.
The footsteps slow and come to a stop at my seat. I can’t look. I have tears in my eyes. My blood is pounding so loudly in my ears I can hear nothing else.
Nothing else except, “Excuse me?”
It doesn’t sound like a voice I’d expect to come from Future Her. It sounds like a man’s voice.
I look up. It’s the bus driver.
He smiles. “Sorry,” he says. “This is the last stop on my route. You have to get off now.”
I leap up and hug him, tears streaming down my face. “Oh, thank God!” I say.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “There’s something very wrong with me.”
“If you need a ride somewhere, I’ve got my car back at the depot—”
“No,” I say, wiping a tear from my eye. “It’s fine. Thank you. I can walk from here.”
My house is only four or five blocks away. Its late afternoon. Soon Mom will be home and maybe, just maybe, everything will return to normal and I’ll never see Future Me, or Future Her, ever again.
My mother is on her second glass of whiskey when I arrive home, and the look on her face tells the story of her day.
My mother is a regional oncologist – a cancer specialist who treats people in small towns in our area. Every day she talks to people who are either very sick, or dying. Must be a bitch of a job. We don’t talk about her work at home, it’s kind of an unwritten rule.
This evening she looks like hell.
“Bad day, huh?” I say.
My mother is one tough lady, but even tough ladies have their moments. Her eyes are red, her cheeks wet.
She nods and wipes her nose on the back of her hand.
This is when I usually tell her about my day. She’ll laugh at something, I can never tell what it will be, and then things will be better. But this evening I don’t want to talk about my day. I just want to forget it all.
I’m going to offer to make dinner, but instead I hear myself say: “Mum, your job … are you doing what you love?”
I’m horrified with myself. It’s Future Me’s influence, I’m certain. Clearly this is not the time to be asking a question like that. But Mum just smiles bitterly, tips back her head and pours the whiskey down her throat.
“I saw a little boy today, Assa,” she says. “Sweetest kid.” She stops and wipes her cheek. “Really, really great kid.”
“And did you help him?” I ask, because that’s the incredible thing about my mother. She can save your life. I mean, you watch TV shows about heroes with super powers flying around, doing crazy stuff and saving people. But my mother can actually do it for real. And it’s totally amazing.
“No,” she says. “I didn’t. There was nothing…”
I want to hug her, but Mum picks up her glass and hurls it across the kitchen. It hits the tiled floor and shatters. There’s a moment of silence, then she flings her arms around me and squeezes me even tighter than she did the day my father died.
“Honey,” she says in my ear. “I hate my work. I hate having to tell someone they may only have a year, or a month to live. I hate seeing the look on a mother’s face when I tell her there’s nothing anyone can do for her little boy. Sometimes I wish…”
She lets go and holds me at arm’s length, looking me right in the eyes. “Sometimes I wish I was doing anything but this.”
“But …” I say. “But sometimes you can help. Sometimes you can save them!”
My mother smiles, not bitterly now, but genuinely. “Yeah,” she says. “Sometimes I can.”
“And that makes it all worthwhile,” I say. “Right?”
Mum sighs. “It squares the ledger, Baby,” she says. “I suppose that does make it worthwhile. But the answer to your question is no, I’m not doing what I love. If everyone only did what they loved, the world would be a terrible place that I, for one, wouldn’t want to live in.”
She kisses me on the cheek. “But I have learned, through a lot of heartache, to get by, to love you, and to love my life. It’s not as easy as just doing whatever I’d like, but life isn’t about how we manage when everything falls into place, Assa. It’s about what we do when everything falls apart.”
“It’s the chaos in our lives that makes them truly magical,” I say.
My mother looks at me thoughtfully. “That’s a very mature thing to say.”
“Yes,” I reply. “I suppose it is.”
I’m asleep, or at least trying to be, when Future Me clambers in my bedroom window later that night, looking as though she’s been hit by a bus. Half her floaty hair has been torn out, one of her pinwheels is missing and she’s covered in spatters of something dark and sticky.
“Are you okay?” I say, switching on my bedside lamp.
“Oh, this?” says Future Me, indicating her missing parts. “Happens all the time.”
I get the feeling she’s being sarcastic. “Seriously?”
Her diamond eye glimmers at me darkly from the shadows of my bedroom. “I’m okay,” she says, “for someone who’s just killed her future self.”
“What?” I cry. Then quietly, “You murdered me … her?”
Future Me covers her face with her hand. “It all happened so fast,” she says, wearily. “I suppose it’s more like suicide than murder. That’s what they call it when you kill yourself, right?”
“Shit!” I say. “You killed me!”
“There wasn’t any other way, Assa,” says Future Me. “Future Me was insane. And besides, she wasn’t you. You are responsible for the person I became. I’m the one responsible for how she turned out.”
“Well,” I say, putting my hand on my heart and feeling it race beneath my fingers. “At least I know how I’m going to die.”
“No!” says Future Me. “This isn’t how we die. This isn’t what’s going to happen at all. You’re not going to help Professor Unley. The people of the world aren’t going to get everything they want on a silver platter.”
“But how can you be so sure? How do you know I won’t repeat the mistakes you made? How do you know I won’t screw it all up just like you did?”
“Have a little faith in yourself, Assa,” says Future Me. “The reason I know you’ll get it right this time, is because you told me you would.”
“When?” I say. “I’ve never met you before in my life.”
Future Me smiles. “But I’ve met you. Not long from now, I will visit you at university, when you’re twenty and working with Unley. And then again when you’re eighteen, in your first year – all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Both times I’ll try to warn you of the dangers of what you’re about to do, and both times Future Me will hunt me down before I’m able to explain exactly what needs to be done – and more importantly – why. But I knew I’d manage to get the message across eventually.”
“How did you know that?”
Future Me looks at me with something like love in her eyes. “Because the next time you meet me, while I’m yammering and stammering and blurting words out all over the place, you will tell me to be quiet. You will put your arms around me,” she says, and she draws me into a loose, but warm embrace. Even so, it feels a little strange. It’s a difficult thing, to accept comfort from yourself, “Like this.”
I rest my head against her trashcan heart and close my eyes.
“Then you’ll say, ‘Don’t worry, Future Me. Everything’s going to turn out fine.’”
I close my eyes and let her hold me in her sticky embrace. “And you believed me?” I say.
Future Me laughs softly. “If you can’t trust yourself in this life, Assa,” she says. “Who can you trust?”
I shake my head. “How can I trust you? You just killed me.”
“It’s true. Your past can catch up with you when you least expect it, but the future should always be your friend.”
We sit like that for a long time. When I wake up in the morning, Future Me is gone. I lay in my bed, between the warm sheets, wondering what my new future will bring. Life can be difficult – and maybe it doesn’t always turn out the way we’d like. But it can also be magical if we let it. Future Me showed me that.
And when we cross paths next, I aim to return the favour.