The letter came in a simple black box. Emma looked over and under it. She rubbed her hand over the top and rapped her knuckles on the side. It seemed innocuous enough. She opened it, expecting something to jump out and give her a fright. Nothing happened. Inside was a single sheet of paper. She picked it up, feeling its wispy texture. Apparently, they still used these things in the future. She traced her fingers over the words written on the paper. The handwriting seemed similar to hers, but much neater.
For the entire year, she both anticipated and dreaded this moment. On your eighteenth birthday, you were supposed to get a note from your future self. It could be about anything: a warning; words of wisdom; or advice for the future. Her mother told her that when she received her letter, it said to invest all her life savings in plastics. The problem was that everyone else got the same message from their future selves, and the plastics market crashed into oblivion. Her mother vowed that she would wring her own neck once she got to the right age. Emma read the single sheet of paper with care.
“Dearest Emma,” it began. “I know that at your age that you aren’t likely to listen to anyone. But you know what? Some of us old folk know what we’re talking about. I will cut to the chase. For the sake of your happiness and well-being you should never visit these places…”
Emma looked at the list of places to not visit. They didn’t seem too outrageous. A place at a river under a bridge, a place called The Smoking Harlan, Golden Chances Rehab Center, a video arcade, a Panera Bread next to a hospital, and Misty Hills Cemetery. She could not imagine visiting a rehab center or a video arcade. And she was definitely not going to a cemetery if she could help it. Well, maybe my older self knows a lot more things than I do, she thought. She put the letter back in the box.
Three months later, she stopped the car at the bridge. A sparkling river ran under it. Emma sighed. She should probably move on, but curiosity compelled her to at least take a look. Besides, there were many bridges that went over rivers. What were the chances that this was the one? She looked down over the edge of the bridge railing. She saw only muddy grass and trash.
She found a path down and followed it under the bridge. Insects buzzed among the reeds. The air smelled of sewage and gas. She felt the heat of the sun on her bare skin. Then, she heard whistling. It came from some tall grasses along the embankment. She approached the source.
There, among the grass, she found a brown-haired young man lying on the ground. His eyes were closed and he seemed engrossed in the son escaping his lips. She stepped on a twig, triggering a sharp crack that echoed around them. His eyes opened. He saw her and stood up faster than a meerkat spotting a predator. She stepped back. His dirty white t-shirt clung to his pale arms. His jeans were faded white and torn at the knees. Her heart beat faster. For a moment, they did not say anything.
Emma finally broke the silence. “Sorry,” she said, “I hope I didn’t disturb you.” Mentally, she slapped herself for not thinking of something more clever to say.
His eyes darted around. “Hey, it isn’t really safe here. You should go,” he said.
She was inclined to agree. She mouthed a goodbye and prepared to leave, but something stopped her.
“Say,” she said. “Was that the Andy Griffith Show theme?”
He seemed taken aback. The man looked down towards the ground and scuffed his tennis shoes against the dirt. “Yeah,” he mumbled. His hair fell over his face, partially covering his eyes
A small smile broke on her face. “I like it. It’s a bit old and cheesy, but it’s so catchy!” she exclaimed.
His shoulders relaxed. His head rose up to meet hers. “I’ve been practicing it since I was a kid,” he said with a grin.
“It’s a pretty good rendition,” Emma answered. “I’m kind of a fan of old TV shows.”
The man’s eyes brightened. “Hey, I am, too!” he said.
The air filled with the sound of crickets. Evening began to descend around them.
She cleared her throat. “Maybe…ummm… Maybe you’d like to go out for coffee?”
He blinked, and then looked from side to side. “Sure,” he answered in a low voice.
“Great!” she said. “I’m Emma.” She stuck out her hand.
He took it. “George, nice to meet you.”
Afterwards they went together in her car to the nearest coffee ship. They found that they had much in common. Emma was an aspiring writer and George played in a band. They talked deep into the evening. The sex afterwards was great, too.
Five years later, both stood outside The Smoking Harlan, the hottest cyberpunk bar in town. Bright neon lights adorned its façade, belying its “underground” label. Light rain pattered onto the street, adding to the atmosphere.
Emma rubbed the bottom of her right eye. She looked at the dark colors streaking her fingers. Dammit, the rain was making her makeup run.
“Looks pretty cool, huh?” George asked.
She shuffled her feet. “I don’t know. My note said that I should never visit here.”
“Strange,” he said. “My note said I should definitely come here.”
“And it told you to definitely come to that bridge, too.” She smiled at the memory of their first meeting. The previous years had been good to her. They dated during college. She enrolled in creative writing courses and achieved high grades. He had to give up his band dreams and studied and took a job as an accountant. They eventually moved in together.
“Perhaps it’s some sort of pattern with our future selves. I need to listen to him and you need to not listen to her,” George said. “Let’s go in.” He stepped forward.
She murmured something and followed him. They nodded at the bouncer, who let them in. Inside, the first thing she noticed was the ear-splittingly loud electronic music. She could barely hear herself thing. It was dark, too, with occasional colored lights highlighting the mass of people talking, yelling, and dancing, among other things. She coughed from the clouds of cigarette smoke filling the interior.
George led her to one of the corner bars. Above it, a man and women in glowing thongs pole-danced. At least this place catered to both sexes, she thought. A Mohawk-haired woman in a bright pink leather jacket and stilettos sidled up to them. She said something that Emma couldn’t quite hear.
“WHAT?” George shouted.
“I SAID, DO YOU WANT TO TRY SOME ROXY’S?” the woman in the pink jacket shouted back.
He looked to Emma, who shook her head. He turned towards the woman and shook his head no. The woman didn’t move. Emma took George’s hand and attempted to lead him away. The woman followed.
“C’MON. IT’LL MAKE THE PARTY SO MUCH BETTER,” she pestered.
Emma rolled her eyes as George stuck his hand out and the woman dropped several pills on it. Emma’s eyes grew wide as he put all the pills in his mouth and swallowed. The woman finally left.
Noticing her look, George shouted, “DON’T WORRY, I’M TOLERANT TO THESE THINGS.”
Before she could answer, he headed off to the bar. When he got back with the drinks, she decided not to press further. They were here to enjoy the evening, after all. He led her to an empty table. After the first drink, Emma relaxed considerably. Even the music became tolerable. She watched the people on the dance floor.
George kept on checking his jacket as if he had lost something. Emma was going to ask, but then had a better idea. She grabbed his arm, and without saying a word, dragged him to the dance floor. They danced until both were exhausted. The rest of the evening passed by in a blur. She soon forgot his behavior from before.
They both left The Smoking Harlan laughing. He held her arm tightly. She moved in closer and felt his warm breath.
“How’d you like it?” he asked.
“I loved it. I don’t know what I was afraid of,” she answered.
“You’re okay with what happened before? You didn’t have too much to drink?”
“Nah, it’s fine. You know it takes more than a couple of drinks to get me drunk.” He worried too much. She knew her limits.
“Good, good.” He wrung his hands together. “I, umm, I, ah, wanted to ask you something.”
She stopped in her tracks and let go of his arm. “Is there something wrong?” she asked.
“No. No. Ugh, I’ll just do it.” He fished in his jacket and pulled out a small black box.
Emma’s heart stopped. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
He opened the box and revealed a perfect cubic zirconium ring. “Emma, will you marry me?”
“Of course,” she almost shouted. “It’s about time you asked, you big dummy!” Later that night, she went to sleep dreaming of his giant grin.