Duncan lives and writes in South Portland, Maine, where he works from home while catering to the needs of three small mammals (two of them human). Find more of his stories at www.duncanwhitmire.com and follow him on Twitter at @duncanwhitmire.
Five Hundred Years and Back
Steven will probably quit when he gets to the new office. He’ll probably never even make it all the way there. Instead, he’ll leave a Steven-shaped hole in the side of the building, which maintenance will never get around to patching up.
He walks into his new office. There are four social workers in this one cramped room.
They say hi.
Steven’s boss, Kyle, comes over and pats him on the shoulder. There is smattered applause mixed with thumbs-ups.
“No pressure today,” Kyle says. “Just get yourself settled. You have any questions, you just ask one of these guys.” The guys Kyle points to are all women, middle aged, about fifteen or twenty years older than Steven. Kyle is old, too, but he’s been working in special education his whole life and isn’t very formal. He’s wearing a polo shirt. Steven didn’t know not wearing a tie was an option, but maybe it’s only because Kyle’s in charge. It’s hard to tell from the women if they’re wearing the female equivalent of ties.
When it’s time for lunch Steven thinks about going home. He could go home and disappear as if by magic, and people would think, isn’t it strange he got promoted and then vanished the same day? People would always remember his promotion, the inexplicability of his disappearance. If he stays another day, another month, he’ll fail.
He goes five hundred years into the future. In the future people ride around on boats, but it isn’t like the movie Waterworld. The boats are clean, and there is plenty of land so evolutionarily improbable, gilled people don’t have to dive for dirt. People are in boats because it makes more sense. On land there are gigantic swarms of bugs that don’t kill you, but they bite and it itches. The swarms are so thick meteorologists give visibility forecasts, like with fog.
Steven settles into the rear cabin of a big boat.
“Welcome to your quarters,” the steward says. You’d think five hundred years from now people would talk differently, but it turns out with everything written down, things stayed more or less the same.
Steven’s room is small. There’s a bed, and a TV in the wall. The TV gets one channel that they produce on the boat. It’s mostly sitcoms and dramas and reality shows about living on boats where shenanigans ensue.
No one will ever look for Steven five hundred years in the future. To do so they’d have to tell their children to tell their children to tell their children to look out for him. The kids would rebel and look for other people: people who were five-foot-ten instead of five-foot-five, people who were skinny instead of stout, black instead of white. The descendants would gather on a different ship in a different ocean, Ouija board atop cabin table, communicating with their ancestors, telling them they think they found the guy, but his name is Rafa and he doesn’t know anything about disappearing in 2016.
Steven walks out onto the deck. The sky looks greener, which is probably the result of gasses. It still smells like ocean. One time when he was thirteen, Steven went to the beach with his foster family. This was Foster Family number two. There was a dad named Davis, who seemed nice, and a mom named Carol, who liked to meditate and taught Steven breathing exercises. They got a divorce after Steven had lived with them for a year and he wound up never seeing them again. In school he would see their bio-kid, Dillon, but Dillon was a jerk so they didn’t hang out much. The beach they went to was called Isle of Palms, in South Carolina. Davis, Carol, and Steven made a huge sandcastle and Dillon said he was going to get a bucket of water to make a moat, but instead he dumped the bucket onto the tower of the castle and the whole thing melted into a blob. Carol said they could rebuild it but nobody really wanted to, and so they went swimming, which is what Dillon had wanted to do in the first place.
The ship sails toward the Appalachian Coast. The steward gave Steven new clothes, but the clothes are ill-fitting and dressy. They look like the clothes he’d had for his job five hundred years ago.
For dinner you can either have a sandwich delivered to your room, or you can eat in the cafeteria with the others. The sandwiches are fishy and the bread is salty, but if you go to the cafeteria the food’s a little better. Steven looks around and Everyone is skinnier than him because he’s from the Fat American Past.
He sits with a table of strangers.
“There’s a rumor,” an old woman wearing a tiara leans in and whispers to him, “we’re meeting up with another ship tomorrow.”
The others wait for him to register shock or glee or giddiness.
“I’m new,” Steven says. “I don’t know how to react to that information.”
A moment passes before they all laugh. They laugh like caricatures of old, rich white people on the Titanic. Like a cover of The New Yorker. Steven looks around. You’d think in the future we’d all have brownish skin and vaguely Asian features, but it isn’t true, at least not on this ship.
“Meeting another ship is good news, son,” one of the men says. “Sometimes we go years without seeing anyone.”
“I like it because it reminds me there are still other people out there.” The woman who says this looks out the window, forlorn, as though she, and not Steven, remembers a time when you could drive down an interstate and pass total strangers at a rate of hundreds per hour.
“We’ll tie up to the other ship, and then we can come and go as we please. You can hop aboard the other ship if you like their destination better, although I’m pretty sure we’re close to the Blue Ridge Islands, so I don’t see why you would. They’re probably just coming from their landing.”
Everyone agrees with this conventional wisdom. Steven hates them and wants them to sink and drown in the Titanic’s boiler room. He takes a deep breath. Maybe he doesn’t hate them so much as resent them. They might as well be grandparents, aunts, or uncles, taking him under their wing. He will board the other ship to spite them, will tattoo an iceberg on the back of his neck for them to see as he walks away.
He is the only one to board the other ship. On his new ship, everyone rubs cream over their insect bites, saying they always look forward to land until they get there. Steven nods. People are never happy with anything.
In the future there is no money. You either work on the ship, or if you don’t want to work you donate blood, marrow, a kidney, hair, et cetera.
Steven doesn’t want to give blood, which you have to do every week, so he applies to work, and the only position available is custodian. Steven pictures himself swabbing the decks of the southbound frigate, the wind in his hair and the sun darkening his skin. Except it isn’t like that. He is sent below decks to clean bathrooms and empty waste and clean things out for recycling. The hum of the engines makes his skin vibrate.
“First day!” his boss keeps saying. The first time it was like a greeting but after that Steven wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be. His new boss is a short, skinny guy who might be thirty-five or forty-five or fifty. There is no way to know. His hair is long, but grayish. His hands are splotchy red from years of handling chemicals.
Steven cleans five bathrooms and after each one the boss pops in and shouts, “First day!” and then goes on his way. Steven doesn’t know if he’s saying Steven’s done a good job or a bad job.
There is something soothing about toilets, some inspiration from a long time ago. Smooth surfaces and round lines, and when you’ve slowly drawn a rag along the rim and collected all the little hairs stuck to the edge, the whole thing is clean and bright, shiny metal.
But the trash and recycling services are the worst. Very little can actually be thrown away, so everything has to be sorted out and cleaned and passed along, and more than anything it’s a sticky job, smelling of sugar and fermenting fruit, and sometimes little flies try to go in Steven’s nose.
He finishes and washes up. On the boat you can’t just shower with fresh water. If you want, you can rinse down with seawater they pump up through hoses, but most people opt for this powder you dust all over your skin and then light on fire. People stand on the deck, burning the dirt off their skin, the flames warm but non-threatening, the glow relaxing. Steven gets the kind that smells like cedar and then takes a nap.
When he wakes up he calls down to the custodial office and tells them he won’t be in tomorrow morning. He calls the donation office and they ask him to come over for a blood draw. “We’ll be taking a look at all of your organs,” the woman mentions before hanging up.
Slipping past the horizon, the sun casts an orange wake across purple sky and water. Steven sleeps in one bed, another patient next to him. The surgeon prods the flesh of Steven’s abdomen before lining up the scalpel and pulling the blade down into his flesh. On the ship’s deck, long swollen shadows vanish, obliterated by the golden flames of passengers, flaring up like candles.
The anesthesia triggers memories, which drop Steven backward in time. He’s usually better about guarding against it, but the drugs are very powerful in the future. Going backward in time is like falling in a dream. You have the sensation in your stomach and confusing darkness swirls past you, and then when you’re going to hit the ground you snap awake and there you are.
Steven is in the top bed of a bunk bed he had when he lived with Foster Family number one. The snores of the two other boys have almost-but-not-quite synchronized. His right side aches, but whether from the time travel or something else he isn’t sure.
Steven looks at the clock and sees he has an hour until it’s time to get up and get ready for school. He lies down on his left side, moving the pillow from under his head to between his knees, which he curls to his chest.
Steven doesn’t have the energy to travel forward yet. He tries to fall asleep and hopes that if he achieves perfect relaxation he’ll fall further back because while not ideal it would be better than this. But it’s impossible to relax.
The sun rises and the other boys wake up.
Steven is bored as he watches them from his bunk because he has seen this day before and knows what they’re going to do. Glen groans awake like he’s been asleep for years and will be a zombie for hours to come. Marco bolts out of bed and runs to the bathroom so he can have the first shower. The parent here is just a dad, Mr. Marple. No mom and no staff. Mr. Marple appears at the door and is as bored by Steven as Steven is by him. He’s going to tell Steven it’s time to get up even though there is nothing for Steven to do because the other boys are already in the bathroom.
Just to show that he has already done this day and knows what is going to happen, Steven starts saying what Mr. Marple would say, a second before he can say it.
“Steven,” Steven says. “Rise and shine and show God your glory!” He tries to intone it the way Mr. Marple does, not like the song but like he’s a coach or a drill sergeant or a preacher, but he’s not good at sounding like that and it comes out flat.
Mr. Marple’s lips press together, turn white.
Steven doesn’t have enough energy to disappear again, but he stops time for just a second so he can catch his breath. He knows what’s about to happen here, what he’ll tell the social worker when he gets to school.
Steven, in a cramped fluorescent office, lifts his shirt and winces as the woman’s pen scratches across her paperwork. He looks at the social worker. The social worker looks at him. Steven imagines her later, after he leaves, making a phone call, hanging up, staring out the window like she too has seen this all before.