The Old Future

In the old future, Sandra waited until the very last moment and then she called Will. She sat at home, festering, the rotten anger building up inside her and heating her through until she burned with it. Everything in the house was infuriating. The art on the walls, the stack of unopened mail on the end table, the mug from his coffee that morning when he’d drunk it, scarfed down breakfast, and left. All without talking to her. Mornings had been hard lately. In the old future, things changed.

In the old future, he answered the phone. He said her name and his voice was soaked with relief. She let it bleed into her, holding the phone to her ear and sagging in the comfort where everything was okay. They both said they were sorry in a rush and laughed, words tumbling into each other, their voices woven on the phone connection, both their forgivenesses tightly spun in the air between the house and his work. He came home at once, didn’t even stop for the usual drink with Mike before he got on the train. She picked him up at the station instead of letting him take the bus. In the car he put his hand on her knee and even when they got out and walked into the house she could feel the heat pressed to her skin, the print of his hand still warming her.

In the old future they got into another argument in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do about dinner. Their voices, so recently entwined, knocked and hammered at one another again. Finally Sandra cried. She was so tired of hearing her own shrillness and seeing his face crumpled in frustration. She never cried, but now she did. He melted when she did. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, shoulders shaking, and he knelt in front of her. His fingers lit on her arms, tentative, pulling her to him. When she looked up there were tears on his face too. “It’ll be okay,” he said to her. “We’ll be okay. We don’t need to fight.” She cried harder from the torrent of wonder, just imagining that things would change. They would be okay.

In the old future, they skipped dinner. They clung to each other and undressed each other and dissolved into each other in the kitchen. They fell asleep on the floor and Will was almost late for work the next day. He kissed her before he left, leaning over while he pulled on yesterday’s pants, his lips holding hers. After he left she could still feel him on her. She spent the day in a daze. Long minutes passed while she stared at her cereal, or at the papers in front of her, or at the blank black screen of the television. Her whole body was lighter now. She nearly floated.

In the old future, Will came home and nearly crushed her in an embrace. They ate dinner in bed that night, flicking crumbs at each other. Laughing.

In the old future, everything was okay. They lived together and they loved each other. Maybe they had some children. Only sometimes did they have moments of passion, but they always forgave each other.

In the old future, Sandra called Will and he picked up the phone. Everything was okay. The old future might have been true until he didn’t answer.

In the new future, the one that is true now, Will did not pick up the phone. Maybe he saw her name appear on the screen and he clicked “Ignore” because he wanted more time to mull the fight over before they talked. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe he was already with Mike at the bar. In the new future, he went for a drink with his friend and then went home with Mike to sleep on his couch. He woke up in the morning and left for work. He was probably short of sleep from sleeping on the lumpy couch with snores drilling at his ears, and that’s why he didn’t look when he crossed the street toward the office. The driver of the car that hit him didn’t stop. They called Sandra from the hospital. She’d been angry that Will had never come home.

In the old future, everything could have been okay. The old future will always be okay, because it isn’t true. Sandra lives in the new future now.

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After the Yellow Moon (Painting Futures)

Later, Mason thought that perhaps his paintings showed all sorts of moments. He recognized the coffee cup in Starbucks that he picked up by mistake and the brush of someone’s fingers against his hand. He saw his painting spread across the street when he walked to work, cramming a bagel into his mouth and leaning on the ache in his shins like any morning. Then, of course, he burned himself on his coffee and sighed with the pain and the stain spreading. He tripped over the sore stiffness in his legs and hit someone’s face with his elbow. The hospital bills and the apologies spilled out after. He began with an ordinary moment, but the painting didn’t show him the hurt that colored it.

When Mason was working, and his brush dabbed and smudged the world together, he couldn’t feel it at all. There had been no heartbreak in the oily light of the yellow moon. When he squinted his eyes to watch the coffee cup take shape, he didn’t have any sense of the spill, of the heat searing his flesh, of the warmth in his cheeks as all thirty people crammed into Starbucks turned to watch him curl in pain and swear like a stained sailor. That only happened in the moment. All he could do was watch it turn into something he hadn’t expected, hadn’t meant to draw and paint and smudge into being.

He kept painting at least once a week, for a while. For months, even. Mason painted the next man, and the one after that, and when he met them he recognized the strokes of their faces from the lines his hand made with the long straight handle of the brush. Afterwards their paintings stayed in his closet, facing the wall. They were easier, hidden away.

He painted getting “let go” at work and the stumbling stutters of three job interviews all in a row after that. He painted a night so steeped in whiskey that the canvas nearly oozed its acrid stink. He only assumed, later, that the shapes on that canvas had happened to him at all. He didn’t recognize the faces or the street. He barely remembered that night at all, except that he’d painted it, so it must have happened.

Author: Vinegartom Image created using Adobe P...

When his paintings came to pass, it was always in a way he didn’t expect. He’d thought, in a vague hopeful way, that perhaps he was getting a promotion. When he finally got a new job, he had never painted that congratulatory call. He smiled at a new coworker, but his brush never traced the answering grin. His canvases stretched from one tragedy to the next, big and small. There was one canvas that ended up with Alan’s face on it. Mason hoped, with a painful twist in his breath just to think it, that it meant they would see each other again. He realized, eventually, that it must have been his tragedy that happened without him.

After a long while painting, he recognized the pattern. His dreams started bring him to his studio and to tell him to paint a car crash, his mother in a doctor’s office, Alan’s death. Mason put his canvases away. Now he waits to see what the future looks like. He doesn’t paint anymore.

Yellow Moon Future

He couldn’t find himself in the painting. Mason knew he was there. He’d felt the shapes of his head and his shoulders somewhere, and he felt the curve of the light slipping against his skin in the tender smudge of yellow. It could have been anywhere though, anywhere tucked into the details of the trees and the buildings. He’d painted a slow yellow moon precarious on the horizon, fat and round against the deep blue-black of the sky. When he looked at the painting, he tried to look for himself. The moon kept pulling his gaze back, though. It almost shone from the canvas. Sometimes he was amazed at the light that came from the smeared shapes of oil and pigment.

There – maybe he was there, in the corner. What was he doing? Mason squinted, leaned, and smiled. There he was, definitely. Now that he’d found it, it seemed obvious. The light trickling down the side of his neck was a ridge standing out from the painting. It would be bumpy and hard when it dried. He – the him in the painting, the little one – was curled against a tree, fitted into the waves of the trunk. The leaves spread out over him in points of light, like a string of Christmas decorations pinned up on the sky. When he looked, Mason could see his head bent and his arms clenched around his knees. He wondered what he was doing, what he was feeling, when this would happen.

The Moon as seen in Hockessin, Delaware.

As it turned out, it was only the next week. Once the paint dried and he could run his hand across the wrinkly-smooth surface of it, the moon was hanging heavier in the sky. He drove out to see Alan. When he pulled up to the house and got out of the car, the balance of the light on the trees and the shape of the leaves on the sky was suddenly and differently familiar. In his painting he hadn’t noticed that forest there, but when he saw the trees he could see his own strokes curling up the sides and pressing in the shadows. When he got into the house he knew something was wrong.

Alan made him a cup of tea. Mason was fidgeting, at once, his fingers moving to scoop the sugar and turn and pour, as he usually did. His heart tapped a rapid tattoo against his ribs. He watched the steam puff and billow over Alan’s shoulders and thought it might spill down his hunched back, the bony spine that curved toward Mason while the rest of his body reached away. Alan poured, stirred, and turned to bring the cup over to the table. When he sat down, Alan looked into the shimmering surface of the tea and said, “Listen, honey, I want to talk to you about something.”

When it was over and the silence had stretched too long, Mason escaped. He curled and bent like Alan had, like a leaf withering and twisting on the ground in the autumn, like he was trying to fold into himself or wrap around the edge of pain in his throat where he wouldn’t let the tears come. He walked, without thinking, not toward his car. He got to the edge of the trees and listened to the creak of the forest, the chirp of the birds and crickets, the timid crunch of his shoes on the bits of forest carpeting the ground. He nearly walked into a tree. It loomed over him, leaves tipping and straightening in the night breeze like uncertain dancers. Mason knelt and leaned, fit himself against the curve of the tree and nestled into it like a lost lover. He stayed there, huddled against the tree, until he realized that he had painted these moments. A canvas at home was splashed with the colors and the beauty of this heartbreak. He closed his eyes then against the glitter of light on the edges of leaves, the fat yellow moon, the forbidden glow of the windows half-hidden.

Empath

In the future world, everything is quiet and clean. In the town where you used to live, there are empty roads that stretch back and forth, from one house to the next. People sometimes walk across them, busy steps and down-tilted eyes. They have things to do. Often they are going to visit Brian, because they need his advice. He’s an empath. Those are rare these days, and the town is lucky to have one.

Katie, for instance. She needs Brian’s advice. Her husband is upset and she wants to know why. It’s difficult for her when he shouts and sulks. Once she knows what to do, everything will be simpler. Life will settle into regularity once more.

Brian smiles to see her, and with a touch of hesitation she echoes the smile. It feels thick and foreign on her face, and she wonders if she has to smile every time. Happiness is usually something that curls inside her. There’s no reason to express it, not if she can just hold it to herself.

She tells Brian what’s been going on – “He said a lot of things in a very loud voice. I don’t like it, it hurts my ears. Then he walked really fast out of the room and slammed the door. I don’t understand why he’s so loud sometimes, I don’t like noise.”

Brian nods as she speaks, and explains. “He’s angry. If you tell him that in the future you won’t make the same mistake again, he’ll stop being loud.” It is hard for him, to put his vision of the world into terms that the people can understand. He could tell Katie that her husband is angry, that he feels betrayed. That if she says she’s sorry, he will forgive her. But if he told her that she wouldn’t understand and it wouldn’t be true. That husband might be betrayed and angry, but Katie can’t understand it to feel sorry. If she could her husband wouldn’t be able to imagine her remorse, and it would be a useless apology.

There are often little disputes like this, and people come hurrying to Brian so he can tell them how to fix things. It gives him something to do. The story of a bewildered fight unfolds before him again and again, the shrill ring of their voices and the burn of anger spread before him. It falls to him to see these things, to feel the anger.

The main reason for Brian to help is with the problems the town faces as a whole. There are empaths in the government, writing and rewriting the laws. Some of them judge the cases that can’t be decided locally, and some of them run the prison system. When the town has to deal with a crime, or maybe a big decision, they call on Brian.

He always finds it difficult to understand the problem so clearly and be helpless before it. It’s impossible to explain to them why things are happening, and he can’t judge their problems through his understanding. He can try to make the most people happy, which isn’t anything they normally think of. When people need to make a collective decision they often don’t even know where to start.

Brian likes his job. It’s satisfying, and fulfilling. It gives him a sense of having made lives better, of having solved the obstacles to happiness that trip everybody up. It makes him pleased with himself, and very sad. It’s hard to understand why his job is important and know that nobody else does. It’s painful to deal with people’s lives and know that they can’t imagine his own. It’s lonely to be the only person, in a small town of a few thousand people, who feels that much. To feel that deeply. To hurt, and know that nobody else can know possibly that.