When a guy gets laid off, he gets to be pretty familiar with the bedroom ceiling. Anything you want to know about mine? Didn’t think so.
You also get to know all the sounds the house makes. Sounds you didn’t know about because you were at the job site all day. But three or four days into unemployment and I know every sound my house makes.
And just for the record, my bedroom closet doesn’t generally make a sound like a hundred AA batteries falling on the floor. But sometimes it does. Like when a time traveling historian uses it as a continuum portal. His words, not mine.
He was pretty surprised to see me. It was mutual, and I was sitting bolt upright on the bed, staring hard at the closet.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Strikes me that’s my line, mister, this being my house and that being my closet.”
“I’m here on business,” the beady-eyed little so-and-so said, as if it were an answer. “And you?”
“I don’t have any business anymore; I got laid off.”
“Oh.” That seemed to settle his hash. “I won’t be staying. I just use your closet as a continuum portal.” See? That’s his phrasing.
“And you are?”
“My name is Quuaz Firp. I’m from quite far in the future. I’m a historian here to plant recording devices in a great many places so that my species can study this era.”
One thing at a time. “Your species?”
“I’m a Filp. We’re from a star nearly two hundred light-years from Earth. I had this human-looking body specially made to host my consciousness while I do my work here. I’ve been assured it will be simple to put my mind back in my own body.” He looked a trifle nervous when he said that, and the more I think about his discomfort the happier I get. Mean of me.
“You’re a Firp from Filp and you’re planting recording devices to learn about my world.” Just making sure I’d gotten it straight.
“Correct. We’re interested in all the sights and sounds of your planet’s last days of sentient occupation.”
Now note what happens here: I’m so intrigued by that last statement that I clean forget to ask how long he’s been using my bedroom closet as a continuum portal.
” ‘Last days.’ You said, ‘last days.'”
“Yes. Your socioeconomic systems are about to break down. This will lead to riots, widespread famine and disease, and, skipping ahead, to the eventual detonation of almost every nuclear weapon on the planet, both mobile and stationary. Things get ugly after that, but only briefly before your race becomes extinct.”
I just stared at him for a while and he gradually became conscious of a small faux pas between new friends.
“That was putting it rather baldly. I apologize. It’s just that, from my perspective, it’s all been done and over for a couple of millennia. Old news, you might say.”
I had to admire his grasp of the local lingo even as I deducted points for tactlessness.
I found my voice again and it was a little angry. “Well maybe I’ll just go warn everyone about this little problem and we’ll avoid it.”
Maybe Firp didn’t know about shrugging because he didn’t do it. “Go ahead; tell anyone you like. Tell them about me. Tell them about the continuum portal in your closet. Tell them that they haven’t taken care of their society, their infrastructure, their horrible weapons, or each other. See how much difference it makes before you’re locked up as a danger to yourself and others. Even if you’re not incarcerated, see if it makes any difference. While you think about where to start, I have recorders to place. I’ll be back later.”
And he walked out of the bedroom and out of the house.
He didn’t come back for a couple of hours, which gave me too much time to think. I thought about telling people about him – you know, some lawfully constituted authorities. But Firp was right about the soft room that awaited my occupancy if I went down that road. And he was right that no one would listen to me anyway.
So I thought about trying to keep him here to suffer Earth’s fate along with us poor saps. But I figured there was probably a bunch of his people back home who would come rescue him. My closet’s not big enough for that kind of nonsense.
I thought about the girls I’d loved.
I thought about my ex-wife and how she’d taken the dog and moved out to be with that coffee shop owner.
I thought about all the time I’d wasted doing dumb stuff.
I thought about people I’d say goodbye to, or do one last nice thing for.
I thought about how much Jack Daniels I had in the house and knew it wasn’t enough.
I thought about the pistol I keep in the nightstand, just in case.
I thought I heard the front door open and close, and it had. Firp was back and seemed in a good mood.
“That’s the last of them,” he told me. “They’re all placed in buildings that are likely to remain standing long enough for our purposes.”
“You leave one of those recorders here?”
He was actually quiet for just a moment. “No. But … we have them in many other residential neighborhoods. It wasn’t necessary to place one here.” Maybe in two hours he’d learned about white lies and the great value we humans placed on them. “Well…” and he started for the closet.
“I,” I began. He turned. “I don’t suppose – maybe I could go with you?”
He gave me the sad look I’d expected. “I’m sorry, but that’s not possible.” He hesitated again, then gave me a level, eye-to-eye look and cowboyed up the hard truth. “Your place is here.”
I’d expected that. “Give all the Filp in the future my best regards.”
“I shall. I’m sorry; I didn’t get your name.”
I told him. All three names, like it says on my birth certificate.
“You shall be remembered.” And I have to admit, the sound of that was comforting.
He walked into the closet and closed the door behind him. There was a racket like maybe a hundred AA batteries falling on the floor.
After that, it was quiet.
The shooting didn’t start for a couple of weeks. And if this record should survive me, let it be known – and I’m not ashamed – that I was too big a coward to wait for the bombs to go off.