People didn’t annoy George as much once he learned to time travel.
“Mind over matter,” his favorite extreme performers always said, interviewed on the morning talk shows. Walking on beds of nails, sleeping on hot coals, eating a hundred hot dogs in five minutes without choking to death — those were the sort of mortality-defying stunts he enjoyed. But only as a spectator. George didn’t risk his own life doing such foolish things. He couldn’t. He didn’t have the time.
Death walked by George’s side, urging him to make every moment count. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor a writing career. He couldn’t afford to dawdle.
George had little patience for slow drivers, old people, small children throwing fits in public. All of them completely clueless that they were in his way. Not to mention his coworkers, too self-absorbed to ask him about his life, his projects, his dreams, or to wonder about his invisible companion: the Grim Reaper who stood beside him not with a sharpened sickle but a lash, whipping George into action.
But of course, they couldn’t see the shrouded specter. They had no idea what George did when he wasn’t chained to his desk, filing insurance claims. He didn’t brag about it, despite his modest success thus far in token-paying publications. George’s office mates didn’t ask, so he didn’t tell.
Instead, they bemoaned their workloads and expected George to listen with rapt attention. They’d call him on it when his mind started to wander.
“Are you even listening, George?”
“Of course I am.” He’d blink at them, refocusing, while the paper cup’s soggy bottom leaked lukewarm water into his hand.
Once he learned to time travel though, they really didn’t irritate him as much.
If he concentrated on the future while he was stuck in rush hour traffic — or blocked in an aisle at the supermarket by an octogenarian in a wheelchair, or unable to sleep during a red eye flight thanks to a tantrum-throwing three-year-old screaming at her dear mother — George would close his eyes and project himself mind over matter into the future. It was as simple as that. And just as impossible to explain. All he knew was that it only worked with irritations. He’d never be able to win the lottery with this gift.
In the future, automobiles would be outlawed due to pollution from the manufacture of electric vehicles; the government wouldn’t allow anyone to live past his or her sixtieth birthday due to a bankrupt social security system; and due to overpopulation, children under the age of ten would become illegal contraband, sold on the black market. Weird stuff, most definitely, but it truly helped to alleviate George’s present tension.
The present tense seemed almost perfect in comparison.
When it came to his bothersome coworkers, all he had to do was attend their funerals. That’s the best thing about the most annoying people, George came to realize: they were going to die someday. So when he found himself trapped at the water cooler with a whiner for more than twenty minutes, George would simply project himself forward through time to admire the flower arrangements beside his coworker’s open casket. And when he or she abruptly reprimanded him, demanding his full attention, he would smile.
“Make every moment count,” he’d say.
Death’s whip would crack in George’s ear. His expression would falter, barely noticed by his slack-jawed fellow employee — amazed that George had anything of substance to share.
“You never know when it will be your last.”
Future tense also gave George a newfound appreciation for the cars blocking his route home. So many makes, models, colors. So much ingenuity in their designs. He started memorizing them, quizzing himself during the sluggish drive home. Audi? No. Definitely an Acura.
At the supermarket, he began helping the senior citizens load their carts — not to speed up the process and send them on their merry way, but to enjoy the moments he spent with what would eventually become an endangered species.
The same went for the screaming kids earning the enmity of everyone on board those red-eye business flights. George made a new habit of singing the most ridiculous songs at the top of his lungs, contorting his face either to entertain or frighten the tykes into subdued whimpers, earning grateful looks from their dear mothers.
George would miss them all.
But Death didn’t grant George a moment to bemoan the future’s losses. Nor was he ever allowed to become complacent in his own life. He knew he could be snatched from it at any moment, without warning. That’s the one sure thing mere mortals can hold onto: you’re only guaranteed the split-second you’re living. Maybe not even the breath you’re breathing.
If you’re lucky.
His own mortality kept George up at night, forcing him to make his mark on the world so there would be something worthwhile left for future generations. He was more than a life insurance clerk. So much more. He was a time-traveler, for one thing.
And he was an author. Writers write, but authors finish what they start. And he’d finished over a dozen manuscripts already, working into the wee hours on his trusty laptop.
The paranormal romance eBooks he self-published with minimal editing — revision only diluted a writer’s voice, after all — and template-generated cover art would outlast him, he knew. There would be an audience for his novels as long as ePub, Mobi, and PDF formats existed long into the future.
He had a hunch they would.
Death coiled his whip and hissed. Posthumous fame waited for no one.
George got back to work, but he knew he could escape Death whenever he wished. All he had to do was close his eyes and concentrate.
Mind over matter.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day, speculative fictioneer by night, and an active SFWA member. His short fiction has appeared in more than 90 publications, including Cosmos, Nature, and the Wastelands 2 anthology. His self-published reprints can be found wherever eBooks are sold.