Fiction Inspirational Holiday

“Well, Happy New Year!” yells the old man sitting at the bar, turning his shaggy, white-haired head towards the doorway.

I look up from wiping at the countertop to see the last one walk in. A glance at the clock on the wall show it’s only a few minutes to midnight. He’s running late. But then, when isn’t he?

The new arrival gives the old man an irritated glare. He has the features of a young man, but his face is etched by deep frown lines across his forehead and at the corners of his eyes and mouth. “Give me a break. You know as well as I do what the chances of that are.” He perches on the edge of a bar stool, a nervous air about him, like he might have to hop up again any second.

The third member of their little group leans back on his stool, sucking hard on a marijuana joint and blowing a cloud of fragrant smoke toward the ceiling. Long, lank hair falls across his face and hangs down to the open collar of his Hawaiian print shirt. “C’mon, man, let it go already,” he says, blinking as he tries to focus on his companions. “So it was a bad one. Who cares?”

The old man snorts, fluttering his thick mustache. “Who cares? Everybody cares. Or at least they should. Year after year it keeps getting worse. Why, a century ago, right after that war, things weren’t as bad as they are now. All the fear and anxiety and uncertainty. People losing jobs, losing homes. Fighting and division.” He hiccups, one hand fumbling for his glass. “S’ enough to make a fella drink.”

“Exactly,” the latecomer says. “And you know whose job it is to fix it, to make the next year better? Mine.” He stabs a finger at his chest. “I’m supposed to come up with a plan, a way to improve things, to make a happy new year. And you know what? I haven’t got a clue how to do that.”

I shake my head, listening to the familiar argument with half an ear. I work at a strange place; I can’t even tell you where it is or how to find it. It’s just sort of… where you go when you don’t have any other place to be. On the surface, it looks like a seedy bar transplanted from some noir detective story, but no other place in the world gets the sort of customers that come here.

These three—Past, Present, and Future—are regulars, and they’re like this every year. They work for Time, which, interestingly enough, is a tough boss, especially for a concept created to measure the progress of entropy. The Past is always maudlin and regretful; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him happy about the way a year has gone. The Present couldn’t care less; he’s not the brightest bulb, always too caught up in trying to enjoy the moment, whichever moment that is. And the Future… well, I don’t envy him. He has to work the closest with Time, trying again and again to push progress forward, to make a better year than the last one.

He hasn’t been able to for a while now.

“Been talking to the boss, eh?” says Present, trying to toss down a shot of whiskey and spilling half of it down his chin without even noticing. “What, last idea didn’t win her over?”

Future glares at him. “It was a brilliant plan. Combine virtual reality with the Internet, get everybody on board, make them forget how awful the real world is. It should have worked. How was I supposed to know the tech wasn’t ready to handle it?” He grimaces, fidgeting with his glass. “The boss practically tore me a new one.”

“You should have known,” Past says, wagging a finger for emphasis. “Trying to distract people with good things never works. A new tech toy every few months isn’t going to make them think everything’s hunky-dory. They always go back to looking for problems, and there are plenty to find. Human civilization is in the tank. Circling the bowl.” He reaches for his glass, finds it empty, and waves a hand at me, gesturing for a double. “Want my advice, we should just start the Last Days.”

A moment of deep silence greets his words.

“Dude, that’s harsh,” Present says, frowning through a pall of smoke.

Future frowns too, but in a thoughtful way. “You know, maybe that isn’t such a bad idea…”

Here we go again. This is always where the discussion ends up. The end of the world. Only they’ve reached it faster than usual this year. Must’ve really been a bad one. Since I kinda exist outside of Time’s influence, a don’t really pay attention. I pour out another round of shots and slide the glasses in front of the trio.

“You guys know that if we end the world, you’ll both be out of work, right?” the Present says, his face screwed up in concentration, like it’s taking all his brainpower to hold onto that thought.

“Would that be such a bad thing?” the Past grumbles, his fumbling fingers reaching for his glass. “I know you’ve never done a day’s honest work, but some of us get a bit tired of the grind. And with as long as I’ve been working, I think I’ve more than earned retirement.”

He’s probably looking forward to not having to record and catalogue any more of our species’ parade of failures. I get how depressing his job must be, what with never being able to forget all the bad stuff that’s happened. It’s a little sad, how even the constructs of Time can’t seem to focus on the good in the world.

The Future just stares into his drink, nodding to himself, like he’s weighing the benefits of losing his job.

“C’mon, guys,” Present looks back and forth between his counterparts, swaying unsteadily in his seat. “We aren’t really considering this, are we? If we take this to Time, with all of us onboard, there’s no going back. She’ll go for it, hard.”

This is typical, too. The Present, with his live-in-the-moment attitude, his inability to remember what’s come before or imagine what might come next, is the only one who isn’t deeply depressed. Of course, the drugs and booze must help with that.

“I know you can’t think of anything but what’s right in front of you,” Past tells Present with a glare. “So just try to think of how content you’ll be when the end happens, and you don’t have to do anything ever again. Absolute chill, man.” He says the last with a poor imitation of Present’s airy tone.

Present blinks at him. Then a grin slowly spreads across his face. “Whoa.”

Past perks up, a glint of desperate eagerness in his eyes. Like he thinks he might finally have a chance to convince the other two. “Think about it, fellas,” he says, leaning closer. I can smell his whisky breath from across the bar. “No more fear and suffering. No more strife and division. Everything, just gone.” He knocks back his drink with relish. “Who knows? Might make way for something better.”

Future rubs at his chin, only a hint of uncertainty left in his expression.

A frown crosses my face. It’s not my place to get involved in my patrons’ business. But something tells me these guys are about to make a mistake. I can tell how down they are, and they clearly have their reasons. I just can’t help thinking about all the people that will most definitely be affected by their decision. I know I’m not one of them anymore. Haven’t been for a long time. Still, it seems kinda sad for everything to end, for all those lives to cease, for all that potential to just… go away, and all because Time has had a bad run.

I don’t remember a lot about my life before this place, but I do recall that there was some good mixed in with the bad. There were moments of sadness, but there were moments of joy. There were bad times, but there were good times. Maybe I was like everyone else, and I tended to focus more on what went wrong than what went right, but there were still those times that made life worth living. Maybe all these guys need is to remember that.

I look over at the three, where they sit there, lost in contemplation of the fate they’re pondering. “You know,” I say, striking a casual tone. “It’s always great to see you guys in my bar.”

Past, Present, and Future turn their attention on me. There’s something unnerving about being the sole focus of the aspects of Time, even if it’s momentary.

“What’s that?” Future says, a distracted frown on his face.

“It only happens once a year,” I continue, polishing a glass with studied nonchalance. “All three of you in here, drinking and talking. It warms my heart.” I look from one to another, catching each gaze briefly. “I look forward to it all year.”

“Look forward…” Present repeats, like he has no idea what the words mean.

“Yeah, it’s a little something people do,” I say. “No matter how bad things get, they always seem to expect that sooner or later something good will happen. That things will improve, even if it’s only a little thing, a brief moment of respite. They look forward to it.” I glance pointedly at the Future. “You ever experience that?”

He smiles. “All the time, actually. It’s part of my job.”

“Well, if you bring about the end of the world, you won’t have that anymore, will you?” I shrug. “None of my business, but wouldn’t it be a shame to have nothing to look forward to?”

“Hold on here,” Past says, his tone angry now. “Not everybody has stuff to look forward to. Some of us can only see what’s happened, and believe me, there’s not much there to like.”

“But there is something, right?” I point out. “There’s always something good about the past. Something… nostalgic. A little memory that makes you feel all warm and cozy. Am I right?”

“Well… I suppose.” Past looks like someone’s pulling his teeth. “But there’s so much bad stuff…”

“Hey, as long as there’s the possibility of more good, why take a chance on ending it all?” I set the glass down in front of him and pour another round. “You can look forward to the future,” I slide a glass in front of Future, “enjoy the present,” I slide a glass over to Present, “and remember it in the past.” I set the last shot in front of Past.

Future leans back, looking almost relieved. “You know, he’s got a good point.”

“Right on, man,” says Present, fumbling with a match as he attempts to light up a fresh joint.

Only Past still looks unconvinced, lips pursed like he’s just sucked a lemon. “I don’t know. It’ll be a whole ‘nother year before we can make a new proposal to Time. What if things just keep getting worse? What if we have another year like the last one, eh?” He glares at me, eyes narrowed.

I smile. “Then you can look forward to starting the Last Days next year.” I raise a glass. “To a happier New Year.”

Past glowers a second longer, then sighs and nods.

All three of them lift their glasses to mine, bringing them together with a soft clink, just as the clock chimes midnight.

December 31, 2021 16:06

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