Art by Melissa Mead
by Sam Ferree
Sam Ferree wears sports coats for the pockets and has a habit of ending his sentences with "so." He is estranged from reality and divorced from practicality. His work has previously appeared in Sybil's Garage. To learn more about Sam Ferree, visit his blog: scribblersdoorlessroom.blogspot.com.
"At no point in the past or future will your life have any bearing on anything, at all," the redheaded, twenty-something time traveler with a sleeve of tattoos tells me. "That's why it's okay to kill you."
She is sprawled across my leather couch in the exact same position as I found her when I woke up to take a shower. She has muddy, brilliant yellow sneakers and they're propped up on the armrest. I just bought that couch.
"Would you mind taking your shoes off the sofa?" I ask.
"Oh," the time traveler says. She takes her shoes off, walks to the door and puts them down on the mat. "Sorry about that."
"It's nothing," I say.
She is wearing a deep blue suit, but the jacket is hanging on the hook and she has the sleeves rolled up on her white dress-shirt. A green-striped tie hangs undone around her neck.
"So," I say. "You're from the future."
"That's the short of it. And that I'm going to kill you."
"How did you get into my apartment?" I ask. Maybe I should call the police.
She shrugs. "Oh, they gave me a key. Comes with the service."
"Uh, who's 'they?'"
"The Bad Day Company. They run this specific time travel service where people can pay to come back and kill you. Great stress reliever, but a little pricey. I had to pinch pennies for a month between my two jobs to be able to pay for this. And the suit."
"A month?" I say slowly. Once, I sat down, figured it out and got very depressed when I realized I had worked for eight days solid to pay for my now muddied couch. Eight whole days calling people to interest them in car insurance. Not for food or heat or electricity, just that couch. It is a good couch, though.
"A month, yeah." The time traveler puts her hands on her hips and strikes an intimidating pose that I've seen championed by teachers, managers, and girlfriends, the kind that seems to invalidate all my protests.
"Do you know how much rent costs in the future?" she continues. "Life is hard for a twenty-six year old, former philosophy and psychology student."
"So, not much has changed in the future?"
"Bite me." She goes back to the couch and pulls out what looks like a handheld game consol, but not one I've ever seen before. She's playing Tetris.
"I'm going to go take a shower," I say.
"You business majors are all alike," she grumbles.
"How did you know I studied business?"
She rolls her eyes and points at herself. "Psychology major."
"Well," I say, "I'm going to take a shower."
Maybe I shouldn't go to work. In which case I wouldn't really need to take a shower since I usually just stay at home on my days off, but the shower might clear my head.
As I take my shower I try to decide what I should tell my boss. "Sorry, I'm going to die today. I know I should have given you two weeks notice, but I just found out." Better not call at all. So instead I try to decide whether or not to masturbate, but with my soon-to-be murderess in the other room it feels somehow perverse. Just before I turn off the flow I can feel the hot water start to ebb. What luck.
I don't even realize I'm shaving until I cut myself. It's pretty deep, right on the left curve of my jaw bone. This is the last day of my life. Does it matter if I'm presentable? Well, James Dean and Janis Joplin didn't leave beautiful corpses, but they were important and I'm not. Maybe I should ask the time traveler if she's studied Confucius and if he has any advice on the proper thing to do in these situations.
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My apartment is a tiny, single bedroom affair, but luxurious for Chicago. It has hardwood floors--albeit a little scuffed--pretty good heating, and the neighbors are generally quiet.
My room is nearly empty except for a bed and my record collection on the floor. I put on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. I'm not going to work today so I don't need to wear business attire, but the time traveler is wearing a suit so I guess I should be courteous and dress up a little. I settle on a pair of khakis and a maroon shirt that I used to wear to parties. The clothes feel crisp, old, out of use.
Through the window I see it's another cold, gray autumn day and the lamps are still shining even though it's eight in the morning. The air has the slight zest of coffee brewing somewhere. It's the little things.
When I go back to the living room the time traveler is nowhere to be seen. It could have been another mundane waking-up dream. Okay, a little less mundane than the rest, but still.
But then I hear her voice in the kitchen, "I'm in here!"
She's sitting at the tiny, fake-marble table that takes up most of the floor space. There are two bags of McDonalds in front of her.
"I bought us breakfast," the time traveler says.
"So am I," she says, sipping from a styrofoam cup. "I got us pancakes."
I sit down and she hands me a bag with three soggy, sweet cakes inside. There are two cups of Starbucks coffee. It's the most I've eaten for breakfast in a long time.
"So how do I know you're from the future?" I ask.
"There's going to be a catastrophic earthquake in San Fran tonight," she says, negotiating the words around a mouthful of syrupy pancake. "Thousands will die."
"Aren't you morally obligated to do something about that?"
She gives me that look again. "Stop an earthquake?"
"Fair point," I admit. I nibble at the spongy cake and say, "You're the same age as me."
"Yup," she says. "You have the option of meeting up with you at any time in your life. I chose to meet you when you're twenty-six. Some people kill you when you're an old man or a child, but that just seems weird. I'm afraid of what it would say about me if I killed you when you were just a little kid."
"What it would say about you…?"
She points at herself again. "Psychology major."
"Oh." I sip my coffee. Sumatran. Good choice. "But, uh, won't this be murder?"
"Nah." She waves a hand and then begins to pour sugar and cream into her own cup. "They had a court ruling on this a couple years back… or a couple years ahead for you. Since you won't ever do anything that's worth while you're exempt, so to speak."
"Are there many people like me? That don't have any bearing on the past or future at all?"
She shakes hear head, thinks about it for a moment and then shakes hear head again. "No. Just you."
That's good to know.
"So, uh, why haven't you killed me yet?"
She holds up her cup of coffee.
"Because we're eating. Besides, I like the past. I might as well relax and enjoy myself a little. And besides again, I haven't decided how to kill you yet."
"You haven't?" I feel this could get ugly fast.
"Nope," she shakes her head. "I mean, at first I thought I'd just poison you or something--relax. Drink your coffee. But I've always really wanted to shoot someone. Would you be okay with getting shot?"
"Well, I guess that wouldn't be terrible."
"If it's in the heart."
She smiles and then throws out her arms a bit, like she's showing off or going in for a hug. "What do you think of the suit?"
"It looks good on you," I say, trying to keep up.
"It's hideous. I bought it secondhand."
"If you say so."
She rests her chin on her fist and sighs. I didn't realize how small she is until now, probably only a few inches over five feet tall. Her hair is dyed too; I can see the blonde at the roots. She looks at me like an indignant know-it-all teenager and just for a moment I feel like a clueless father. Or the clueless boyfriend about to get dumped. Or just clueless.
"You don't really put up much of a fight, do you?" she says and it might be an admonishment or it might be disappointment.
"About the suit?"
"About anything. I mean I didn't have to try to convince you that I'm a time traveler or that I'm going to kill you."
"Well, the first just seemed too outlandish not to be true. Besides, I'll find out if you're lying when the news comes on tonight."
"Do you believe in God?"
"Er, well, I guess so…" She studied philosophy. This is not good at all.
"That's good." She smiles and winks. "And the second?"
"You believed so easily that I'd kill you."
"Well, what if I put up a fight?"
She laughs so long and hard that I think she's trying to embarrass me and succeeding. "Oh, no," she says. "I studied Judo for years. And anyway, if you try to hurt me one of the Bad Day guards will show up and beat the crap out of you. If I don't first."
"How do they know if I try to hurt you?"
She shrugs. "Do I look like an engineer? Let's go to the arcade."
She instructs me to drive to the nearest mall and I give her my coat because she didn't dress for the weather. It's colder than I thought it would be and when the sun rises the city only turns a brighter shade of gray. I've always liked days like this. When I can, I just stay inside and read or listen to music and jerk off and it's a good day. All my ex-girlfriends said I was wasting my life, but I always enjoyed myself. Considering the current situation, I suppose they were right.
We arrive at the mall and cross the short walk covered in cigarette butts and crushed Coke containers to the entrance. As we walk up to the empty arcade I ask, "So, is there any chance I could convince you not to kill me?"
She shakes her head. "I've had a really bad day."
"You seem pretty chipper to me."
"I've had a really bad day."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"No. And anyway, there's only so long you can talk your way out of death."
"I suppose I should feel lucky that I'm even given the opportunity."
"That's the spirit."
The time traveler buys a handful of tokens from the clerk who looks about our age. He has dark rings under his eyes and a five o'clock shadow. He looks like he's about ready to crawl out of his skin just to get out of the stupid red-and-white striped uniform. The music is loud, repetitive techno. The air is stale popcorn and too sweet candy. If I had to work here everyday, I'd probably look like him too.
She forces me to play every game in the store, soundly defeating me each time, until she finally arrives at the first-person-shooter zombie games where she seems content to stay for a time. Within five minutes she proves herself an excellent marksman and I suppose I should be thankful for that. Still, my character dies about as often as the zombies.
"You're not even trying," she says, gunning the heads off of three zombies wielding crooked and rusted farming equipment.
"I think the gun is defective," I say. The music and the popcorn stink are distracting me a little. My cell phone rings and I figure it's my boss so I don't answer.
"You're not even trying," she mutters, missing a head shot for the first time. The game laughs momentarily as an axe hits my side of the screen and I die again.
"Sorry," I say. She shoves more tokens at me. "I just don't really enjoy games."
"What, didn't you have a childhood?"
"Yes, and I didn't like games then either."
"Because I get bored with them too quickly."
"Because you lose all the time," she says, but not in a snarky tone, just as-a-matter-of-fact.
"I used to work at a video game store," she says after another massacre and spending two dollars resurrecting me. "Thought it would be fun because I love video games. But it turns out a job is just a job."
"I've never understood the appeal," I say and die again. "It must be better when you win."
"It's not about winning, it's about playing," she explains and resurrects me. "The best games are the ones that go on forever and are always challenging. The best are the ones where you can see your progress toward an achievement and each one is better than the next. It would be wonderful if life were a video game. Wouldn't that be magnificent if life had 'Chapter Complete' signs?"
"'Chapter Complete' signs?"
She sighs with great anguish and hands me more tokens. "It's like if you do something really cool and after that moment your whole life is better. If every time that happened a little sign popped up that said 'Good Job! Move on.'"
I try to think of a time when that would have been nice to have, an indication that I was getting somewhere, making progress. Graduation? That fits. Getting a car? Sure. But those are things that happen to pretty much everyone. Maybe the time I saw Tommy Flanagan in concert. That would have been nice, I suppose. But afterwards it would have felt kind of empty. What next?
The final boss dies quickly under an impressive barrage of fire from the time traveler. A maniacal laugh erupts from the arcade machine as the credits begin to role.
"Boring game," the time traveler announces.
I glance at my watch and am surprised to see it's nearly six. At this time of the day I'd be home by now and probably listening to music, making dinner, doing something. At least I would have been off work. That should be liberating, really. Should a chapter complete sign have popped up in front of me when I first saw the time traveler? Or should she see one when she finally kills me?
"So, did you get fired from the video game store?" I ask. "Is that why you're having a bad day?"
She gives me the finger. "I quit that job years ago. And I said I didn't want to talk about my day. Do we understand each other?"
She stares at me for a moment then laughs.
The time traveler asked me to pick my favorite restaurant and I told her that I usually cook all my meals myself. She didn't seem so much surprised as exasperated and instructed me to drive recklessly for a good ten minutes before ordering me to stop at a tiny cinder block establishment called the Deadwood.
"You told me to drive recklessly," I tell her. She's sitting in the passenger's seat holding onto the door and dashboard as if she never intends to let go.
"How are you still alive?" she asks very slowly.
The parking lot is half full and so is the bar. It is smaller on the inside than it looked from without. We sit down at an empty table and she orders us a large vegetarian pizza and a round of beer.
"Do you always drive like that?"
"Usually only when no one else is in the car with me."
Our beers arrive first. The bar smells like a carpet warehouse and hard alcohol. After a few minutes of sipping I begin to wonder.
"So, if you know that never in my life will I affect anything at all, how do you know that you'll affect anything either? Or anyone else, for that matter?"
"I know I'll affect something," the time traveler says hesitantly.
"What?" I ask.
"They never tell you specifically…."
"The guys who know all about this time travel bullshit," she snaps. "As I was saying… they never tell you specifically, but if you know the right people you can usually get a clue. A hint at destiny. Most people go through life content with the fact that it's just you who doesn't matter."
"Isn't that some purpose then?" I ask, suddenly hopeful.
"Only indirectly," she mutters.
Better than nothing. "So why are you so important?"
She begins to speak then stops. Instead she flags down the one waitress, an exhausted-looking young woman with orange dreadlocks. The time traveler orders another beer, looks at me, laughs, and then orders shots of tequila.
We both get drunk faster than we intend. Very soon it is well past nine, the pizza is gone and the drinks keep mysteriously appearing.
"My last boyfriend," she says and struggles to put salt on her left hand for the next shot. "My last boyfriend used to say 'I like tequila. I just don't like all of the friends he brings with him to the party.'"
"Everyone has a tequila story," I say. The distance to the bathroom seems suddenly insurmountable. I try to plot the most efficient route there in case I have to make a quick dash for the toilet.
"Yeah?" she asks and downs a shot. She settles back into her chair, assuming a quiet, thoughtful expression. Evidently she is a shrink-drunk. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."
I briefly consider not taking the shot in front of me, but decide that it's probably necessary to conclude the evening. Besides, I won't have to endure a hangover tomorrow. She waits patiently as I salt my hand, take up the lime and down the tequila. The crowd at the bar is a little louder now and the jukebox is on full blast so the time traveler brings her chair around next to mine to listen.
"This was a few years ago. My girlfriend at the time, Lydia, forced me to go out to this house party. I don't like house parties, but Lydia said I was going and I was going to have a good time whether I liked it or not.
"We got there and Lydia dragged me into the kitchen to meet the host. His name was Timothy and they went way back, evidently. This man was a giant, six-and-a-half feet tall and he was wearing business casual, like he'd just gotten back from the office. We shook hands and he offered Lydia and me tumblers of expensive tequila from Mexico. Lydia told me earlier that he travels a lot for business, that he made a good living and that he nearly went to the Olympics for chess. I don't know exactly what he does, but he's some sort of freelance worker. Maybe he was a journalist or a consultant.
"After Lydia went to the dance floor, Timothy took me aside in the kitchen. He asked me how long we had been together. 'About a year,' I told him. 'Oh,' he said. 'That's about how long we were together.' I didn't know that they were old lovers, but I guess it made sense. We had a few more rounds of the tequila before he disappeared to entertain more guests.
"I don't really remember much after that except that Lydia passed out on a spare bed and Timothy slurred that I could sleep on the couch. In the middle of the night I woke up feeling warm and wet and it sounded like it was raining inside. There was Timothy, standing over me, pissing on my chest. He was too drunk to even realize what he was doing and passed out on the floor. I cleaned myself up in the shower and the next morning Lydia and I left. She dumped me a week later and I never told either of them about the pissing incident."
Instead of laughing, like most people do when they hear that story, the time traveler says nothing. She gestures toward the shot in front of me, vodka this time, and we make a silent toast. The bar is getting more crowded and the music is slowly drifting down the timeline into the sixties.
"Yeah," the time traveler says. "People like that are always pissing on us."
"What about you?" I ask. Telling the story took a lot out of me. I don't feel drunk so much as tired, exhausted even, but not in the way that I'd like to sleep. The music, the cracking laughter, the crashing pool balls and the roar are giving me a migraine.
"What's your story?" I ask.
The time traveler shrugs. "Not much to tell, really. It was a New Year's party over at my friend Amber's, the one who works at Bad Day. She helped develop the company doing the time-investigating shit to make sure you were the guy that doesn't matter. She knows stuff, see.
"Anyway, we all had too much tequila--for this is a tequila story. Everyone else was passed out except for me and Amber. I've known Amber for a long time and between the alcohol and the blackmail material I have on her I managed to weasel out what I wanted."
She stops. Over her shoulder I can see the muted TV on CNN. Images of unimaginable destruction flash one after the other with a "San Francisco" subtitle below.
A few minutes pass and I ask, "So what did she say? Why is your life meaningful?"
The time traveler looks up and smiles then looks back down at the table again. "She said… well, it doesn't matter."
"Not to you."
"Well," I say, "I suppose very little will matter to me soon."
"That's right," she says. "That's the attitude. Let's get out of here. We're going to take a taxi."
"I can drive."
"We're going to take a taxi."
We arrive at my apartment close to midnight and the time traveler rushes into my bathroom to vomit. We're both drenched from a sudden and torrential downpour that I can still hear banging and splattering against my windows. While the time traveler is away I inspect my door, realizing suddenly that I didn't have to use my key to get in. The lock is broken.
I do a quick circuit around my apartment, double checking each room--except the bathroom where I can hear my murderess violently retching--to see if anything was stolen. All my records are still there, the TV, the radio, the bed, my clothes, my kitchen utensils, all my books, and my couch are still there.
When the time traveler emerges from the bathroom, I'm still in the living room going over lists in my head. She seems remarkably cognizant and composed, though her eyes are a little red. She's still wearing her muddy sneakers, but I don't bother to tell her as she collapses onto my couch.
"You have a lot of painkillers in the bathroom," she tells me, propping herself up on the couch.
"I get headaches," I say.
"Three bottles of aspirin? You do realize you're suicidal, right?"
"Someone broke into my apartment," I say.
"Oh? Is anything missing?"
What would someone want to take from my apartment? Furthermore, what could he or she have taken that I couldn't have easily replaced? The records would've taken some effort, but I didn't have anything priceless or one-of-a-kind.
When I turn my attention back to the time traveler, her coat is on the floor and her shirt sleeves are rolled up as far as they'll go, revealing again the sleeve of tattoos on her right arm. She sits exactly as I found her that morning, except now she's holding a gun in her left hand.
"What did you want to do with your life?" she asks me in the analytical tone she used at the bar, but now there is a slight softness to her voice. Tenderness, maybe. That might be too strong of a word.
The gun is not as distracting as I thought it would be. Maybe the zombie first-person shooter softened me up, but I really hope that she's as good of an aim drunk as she is sober. Still, it's the way she asked the question that makes it hard to answer.
I shrug and try to think back a few years. "I kind of wanted to open my own music store. Used records and CDs, vintage material and all. But nobody really wants to buy that stuff anymore."
She nods slowly. The time traveler runs her hand over the leather. "It's a good couch," she says, "You know, I really wanted to be a psychiatrist, but life got in the way and I could never pass the exams. So I work as a manager at a pizza place and weekends at a local library. Funny, huh?"
"Rent's expensive in the future," I say.
"Rent's expensive in the future," she says.
The rain is still coming down hard. I can hear it drumming on the windows. We both sway slightly.
I have to ask, "What did your friend, Amber, tell you yesterday?"
The time traveler looks at me suspiciously. "How do you know it was yesterday?"
"You had a bad day."
She looks at the gun, then back at me, then begins to laugh. In between her laughter and her gasping she manages to say, "I… you're going to love this… so I… I have to kill you… and then I… have a break down… bang some guy… have a kid… who's supposed to be a great… musician…!"
She slowly regains control of herself. Eventually she murmurs, "It's better than nothing, I guess," but I can barely hear her over the rain.
It's a shitty apartment. The walls are paper-thin and the rent is unpardonable. People get robbed all the time, but no one ever has their apartment broken into and has nothing stolen, not that I've heard of anyway. And I didn't have to take the couch apart to get it through the door; two people could manage it easily.
"Do you mind if we do this on the balcony?" I ask slowly.
Eventually she says, "You don't even try, do you?"
"Do you mind if we go out on the balcony?" I repeat, because I'm not sure if I can stay in this room, by this couch, among this worthless shit much longer.
She follows me out to the tiny concrete veranda that doubles as an exit on to the fire-escape. The rain falls on us like a hurricane. She says, "You and I, we could've done better, you know."
"You could've done better," I say.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean that you could've done better and I couldn't have," I say. The rain is cold, the wind is freezing, but I feel so warm.
"I could always decide not to kill you," the time traveler says.
"Sure you could. But I've still been killed a couple thousand times and I'll be killed again and again until god knows when."
She says, "But I could decide not to kill you. That would be something, right?"
"Oh, sure," I say, "the failure-cow who's supposed to give birth to the next Kurt Cobain decides not to kill me. Good for me."
There is a faint metallic click over the storm. The rain is warm like a morning shower before a day of work. Like routine. Like someone is pissing on me.
"I never wanted to do this," she says and I look at her. She is pointing the gun at me and her voice is stony, analytical, acquiescent. "You seemed like a nice guy."
"You care," I say, looking her in the eye, "Good job. Move on."
The sky pisses on us both. We stand there and this feels like déjà vu, like I have been here before and I will be here again and again and again and again and again. She points the gun at my head and I tell myself that she was wrong and that I am somehow, indirectly, pushing her along to the next part of the game.
Good job. Move on.
This story was first published on Friday, June 3rd, 2011
My good friend and fellow writer, Christian Yetter, gave me the idea for this story, which he prefaced with his customary, "Wouldn't it be awful if..." This story started as a fun piece of black comedy and later evolved into a meditation on the sense of powerlessness and uncertainty I felt on the verge of graduating with an English degree. I wrote "Apology" while living in Germany under the patronage of the Baden-Württemberg Stipendium.
- Sam Ferree
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