Sight and hearing and touch bicker inside my skull, each of my senses yanking me into different realities. I hear a car horn change pitch as it whips past. I see dark blood drip off my hand and dot the linoleum floor. I feel wind blow against my bare arms in uneven gusts.
Stop. What am I doing?
I’m running across the street.
Do any of my senses agree with that?
Yes. I hear the car engines going past, I feel the breeze they make.
Which of my senses is drifting?
Sight. I’m seeing a vision from a couple weeks ago.
Clenching my eyes shut does nothing to block my view of the past: I cradle glass drug vials in the fabric of my shirt like a kangaroo pouch. The security guard I knocked out lies on the floor in the darkness. I’m not a violent person. But we all heard rumors they were going to shut down the drug trial early and… I couldn’t help myself. I run away into the night with as much of the drug as I can carry, thinking Man those guys who got the placebo are lucky bastards.
The drift ends and I open my eyes to the dim sky of morning just before the sun comes up. There’s two lanes of traffic each way and I’m standing still in the middle of one of the fast lanes. Cars screech to a stop, headlights shuddering. I’m lucky I don’t get flattened.
I start running again, toward the train yard on the other side of this street. I know exactly what I’ll see when I get there because I’ve seen it a dozen times before: the rising sun flashing between slow-moving train cars. Once I’ve seen that image, I’ll have caught up with the last of my drifts into the future. After that, I’ll have no value to anyone, be no risk or threat to anyone. Whoever is chasing me, hopefully they’ll believe me when I tell them I’ve run out of the drug, that I can’t see the future anymore. Hopefully they’ll decide I’m worthless and can’t cause any trouble and figure it’s not worth putting a bullet in my head.
Horns blare behind me. I don’t have to look back to know the man chasing me is running through traffic. I keep moving, catch the eye of a woman slowly driving past. She stares at me warily, like I’m some junkie. And I am.
Paid by a pharmaceutical company to be a human guinea pig, I signed the legal forms without bothering to read the paragraph titled “Possibility of Addiction.” Maybe if I’d thrown away the rest of my stash I’d be safe now. But I’ve never shown a lot of self-control when there’s drugs to be had.
“D’you call mom?”
It’s Josh’s voice. My head spins, searching for him. Did he follow me? There’s no one around, just cars flying past, a stretch of empty dirt in front of me.
“No, I…” This time it’s my own voice. “I never told her I lost my job at the restaurant.”
Stop. Where am I?
I just stepped into a train yard.
Which senses agree with that?
I feel the dirt I kicked up blowing against my skin. I see the train cars in the distance.
My hearing is drifting. I’m hearing a conversation with Josh from a few days ago, it's a drift I’ve already caught up to, a moment that’s in the past now.
“Man, she’s not gonna care about that,” I hear Josh say.
“I gotta figure out what I’m gonna do with myself,” I hear my voice say. “I gotta…” I trail off. Even if I wasn’t listening to the past I’d know there’s nothing coming next. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with myself since I was a kid and haven’t come up with anything yet.
“You can stay as long as you want, man, really,” I hear Josh say. “C’mon, there’s a bar just down the street, I’ll buy you a—“
“Looks like you were in the middle of studying, bro.”
“Yeah, I got a test tomorrow. But whatever.”
“You still gonna be an R.N.?”
“Yeah, I’m pulling mad A’s. Gonna start at sixty grand a year.”
“Starting. Goes up from there.”
I can hear the joy and pride in my voice when I say, “Well then sit your ass down and study, fool.”
Yeah, maybe I am worthless. But I deal with my own crap. I’ve never dragged anybody down with me. Never. You can bet I’m not going to drag my little brother down. I can’t say much for myself, but I can say that.
The hiss of train hydraulics replaces our voices. All my senses have returned to now. I run across braided tracks. I look over my shoulder just long enough to see the man with the black tie and black leather jacket make it across the street. He has a revolver in his hand.
Josh sits next to me at a bar that’s lit almost entirely by neon beer signs. He aced that test a few days ago and we’re celebrating. I see us touch beers together but I don’t hear the clink, don’t feel the leather barstool under my butt. I feel my legs running. I feel myself fall and my face smack against dirt, pain flashing sharp through my cheek.
Stop. One of my senses is drifting.
I’m in a bar. My touch is drifting…
No. I’m running from that guy in the black tie and black leather jacket, he’s one of those undercover government agents or corporate assassins or whatever they are. I’m on the ground and I have to get back up.
I struggle, trying to get my feet under me, worse than blind because my eyes are telling me I’m already sitting up. It messes with my equilibrium, makes me feel like I’m going to puke. I’m pretty sure I'm on my hands and knees now.
I remember what Josh said to me in that bar. I can almost read his lips. He keeps saying I’ve been such a great brother to him, and I’m smart and a good guy, why don’t I ever take care of myself?
I stop listening when I spot the two men behind him. They both turn their heads away as soon as I look their direction. They’re dressed in plaid shirts, jeans, boots, no different than anyone else. But their hair is cut short and neat, their chins clean-shaven. Their boots have no scuffs or dried mud, like they just walked out of the shoe store in them. Their beers are still full.
I throw money on the bar and tell Josh that when we get up from the stools we have to go straight to the car and just get away. He knows sometimes I run a little behind on repaying personal loans, so he doesn’t question. He just nods and when I stand up and beeline it for the door he’s right on my heels.
When my vision comes back to now I’m staring at the ground, on my hands and knees. I get up and make it to the rows of motionless train cars. I run between them, swerving and dodging. I don’t think about which way I’m going, I’m trying to get lost. I stop, leaning against a train car and panting to catch my breath. Rusting metal scratches the back of my head.
“I only have one vision of the future left!” I yell, head turned to the dim morning sky in hopes my voice will carry. “It’s here in this train yard! I’m all out of the drug!” I wait for a response. None comes. “I can’t see the future anymore so I’m not worth anything to you or anyone! And even if I told someone they’d never believe me! You can let me go, I can’t cause any trouble!”
I hear nothing but the distant street traffic. The sky is quickly turning blue. The first sliver of orange sun cracks the horizon.
“Hey, brotherman,” a voice whispers in my right ear, “I heard how it works.”
I spin toward the voice, slap at someone who’s not there.
Stop. There’s no one there. Either my hearing is drifting or my sight is.
No, not my sight. It agrees with my touch, I didn’t feel anyone when I tried to hit the person I heard next to me. My hearing is drifting to the past again.
“How what works?” I hear my own voice say. “Wait, you mean the drifts?”
“Yeah, man, yeah,” the voice replies. What was his name? That real weirdo at the pharmaceutical company’s testing facility. The guy with the rotting teeth and blonde beard who talked constantly and no one wanted to room with. “Our scientist friends figure you can only drift to times in the past or future that you were or will be taking the drug. Like, the drug connects your now brain to your past brain or future brain. But your brain’s gotta be plugged in at both ends.”
“Yeah? How’d they work that out?”
“I dunno, they sure weren’t expecting this side effect from erection pills or heart attack medicine or whatever the drug was supposed to do.”
“So then how come we can only see a few days in the future? We’ve got like four more weeks we’re supposed to be in this drug trial.”
“Think I figured that out, brotherman. You seen them real serious lookin’ guys in suits showed up all a sudden?”
“Yeah, who are those guys?”
“They’re like the CIA or something. They’re shutting this whole thing down.”
“Wait… they’re going to cut us off?” I can hear panic rising in my voice. “Where’d you hear that? Who said that?”
To my right is a train car, not hooked up to any others. It’s not moving anytime soon, so I crawl under it. I lay flat on my stomach against the wood ties, between steel tracks.
Someone tackles me. The man who’s been chasing me has caught—
No. Stop. Where am I?
I’m still under the train car.
How do I know that’s where I am?
I can see the light peeking in and I can smell the axle grease.
My touch is drifting. It’s a hug I feel, the muscular squeeze Josh attacks me with whenever we haven’t seen each other in a long time.
The hug ends and I feel my arms stretched out in front of me, my hands on someone’s shoulders and his on mine. This is something I do only with my brother, after one of his tackle hugs. My touch has drifted to the moment I showed up at my brother’s door.
I knew someone would come looking for me. I knew I was being hunted. Why did I go hide out at my brother’s house? He has a future. Even before all this I never had one. Why did I put my kid brother in danger? I don’t hurt anyone and I don’t let anyone get hurt because of me. That’s the one thing I’ve always been able to say for myself. Or at least I could before I went to hide out at Josh’s place.
I feel the rough wood of the railroad ties under me. All my senses have returned to now. The train to my right clangs and hisses and slowly starts to move. The sun is directly behind it. As soon as I crawl out from under here I’ll stand up and watch the rising sun flash through the gaps between train cars. Then that vision will be in the past, too. After that, I’ll never again see out of tomorrow’s eyes.
I climb over the steel railroad track, get to my feet. There it is, right in front of me: train cars slowly moving past, the burning orange curve of sun flashing in my eyes.
Stop. Am I really here?
I hear the clank clank of train wheels. I smell sour dust drifting in the breeze. I feel the warmth of the sun with each flicker of light on my face. All my senses tell me the same thing.
Yes. I’m really here. I’ve caught up to my final vision.
I hope the man in the black tie and leather jacket heard me yell to him, and he’ll believe my lie about having run out of the drug. I hope he’ll believe this is my last vision of the future, which is the truth.
But I’ve realized something. The scientists were just guessing you could only drift to times in the past or future when you’re still taking the drug. Maybe they were right and that’s how it works. Maybe the other test subjects only saw a few days into the future because that’s when those guys in suits took their drugs away.
Or maybe your brain doesn’t have to be plugged in at both ends. Maybe there’s only one limit to how far into the future you can see, and that’s how long you’re still alive. Maybe the other test subjects could see anything that was going to happen right up until the point in the future when they felt what I feel now – the barrel of a gun pressed against the back of my head.
I look across to the passenger door of Josh’s Buick, which has just swung open. I’m in the driver’s seat, engine idling, and he’s climbing in after getting a couple of Cokes and some hot dogs from a gas station. We’ve been driving for more than 24 hours, ever since we ran from that bar. The sun will be up soon.
Stop. Where am I? Where am I, really?
I hear the clangs of metal wheels against metal tracks, gaining speed. I taste dust and grit in my mouth. I feel the gun barrel against the base of my skull.
I’m in that train yard.
My sight is drifting to a moment in the past.
I see my hand shove a few vials of the drug into my pocket. I’ve got at least a month’s worth. I look up to see if Josh caught me hiding the drugs, but he’s too busy trying to sit without spilling the hot dogs. My eyes catch movement over his shoulder. A man is running our way from the far end of the parking lot. He wears a black tie under a black leather jacket and he’s carrying a revolver.
I could throw the car in reverse and get out of here, but he’s parked his car sideways across the exit. I’d have to run up over the curb. But I haven’t seen this moment before. I don’t know if we’ll spin out and get rammed by another car. I don’t know if the man will shoot us through the windshield.
But could he even kill me? I’ve still got a vision of the future I haven’t caught up to, yet. I can’t die before I see my last vision, can I? I’ve got a month’s worth of the drug left. I can just avoid my last vision until then and I’m safe for at least that long, right? I could drive to the top of Canada or the bottom of Argentina by then, get away where they’ll never find me.
But what about Josh? Anything could happen to him. He’ll only be safe if I leave him. So long as we’re together, they’ll…
No. Even if I leave him behind, they’ll still be searching for me, and they’ll use him to find me. I don’t doubt they’d hurt him, kill him, to track me down. But there’s nothing I can do about that now. He’ll have to go on the run with me. For good. No nursing school for him ever again.
I’ve ruined my little brother’s life.
I look the other direction to see if there’s another exit to the parking lot. Instead, what I see is a way out. A way to make this whole thing come to an end. I tell myself it might work out okay for me, that maybe when I tell them I can’t see the future anymore, they’ll let me live. But I know I'm lying to myself.
Josh and I meet eyes, and confusion twists his face, because I throw open my door and yell for him to drive away as I jump out. There is no exit from the parking lot ahead of me. Just an unbroken curb and a four-lane road.
And beyond it, a train yard, where the sun is about to come up.