“Future Proofed”

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Jianan Liu

Newton Darrow first learned of his impending death while skimming the newspaper.

Aside from the fact that it was his name staring back at him in thick typeset black, it was an unremarkable sentence. He was a copyeditor, and every day he read predictions of plane crashes, train derailments, volcano eruptions, stock market plunges, hockey upsets — and sudden deaths. Par for the course from the Premonitions Monitor, which published the foretellings and fuzzy feelings of anyone who claimed them, although he’d found that no one ever had warm fuzzy feelings and foretold receiving a fresh apple pie, or that the thyme and rosemary would bloom a day earlier than normal.

He reread it for the details, which were as few as chocolate chips in a corporate cookie. There was a horrible pressure in my head, the impression of red velvet and flickering orange lights. A short unimpressive man with stupid glasses will die tomorrow — I can’t make his name out clearly. Newt Darren or Darak or something like that.

He looked across the desk at the man who’d made the prediction, Fletcher Foss, who spent his days at the Monitor drinking a rancid rotten-honey tea, its leaves draped over his forehead to more easily receive visions from the universe. Foss shrugged. “Bad luck,” he mouthed.

“You really think my glasses are stupid?” Darrow mouthed back.

“I wouldn’t want to die in them.”

Darrow sagged in his chair. No one actually believed in any of that catastrophe that was in the Monitor, not truly; but if Foss had already internalized it, he felt a shred of hope slip away like a kite.

He pushed aside the stacks of paper on his desk, where they impaled themselves on his cactus, and leaned desperately over to Foss. “Tell me how it happens.”

“What’ll you give me?”


“Look, Daryll — ”


“Derek, the Monitor pays me $15.23, plus sales tax, for every prediction I come up with. I get an extra $50 fee on commission if I’m half right, and three times that if I’m all the way right. I wasn’t looking at the details ’cause I was on the clock, and, you know — ” he tapped the side of his temple. “I thought I was getting a nuclear plant meltdown on the other channel and those make bank. Turned out just to be a Chernobyl rerun.”

“I’m on the only clock there is!” Darrow shouted. “Death!”

“Whoa, whoa, it wasn’t anything personal.”

“What else did you see?”

“I gotta be paid for my time, Daniel.”

He yanked a wad of random bills from his wallet and threw them at Foss. Foss made a show of picking them up and flicking through them one at a time before tucking them into his breast pocket.

“When?” Darrow growled. “Why?”

“It’s your funeral, man.”

“It is!”

Foss scratched his nose. “The reception was scuffed — like those little buggy antennae on old TVs. And I was tired. But you were, uh, sitting down, you were talking, I think, about your sister? And I’ve seen the pictures, and your sister’s hot. Opposite of you. So I was thinking then, if she’s single, then she probably needs someone with a steady job. Someone future oriented … ”

Somewhere about halfway through, Darrow had stopped listening. “My sister,” he muttered, standing as though he were in a dream. He vibrated for a moment, then bolted for the revolving doors — dancing around the faintly glowing light of their oracle imported from Delphi — with a yelp of “I don’t have life insurance!”

For mutually beneficial reasons, the Die On Your Own Time (DOYOT) insurance offices abutted those of the Monitor — in fact, several seers had been recruited as the best salespeople there were. The smell of lawyers, fear and bleach filled the air as Darrow raced down the hall and stumbled to a stop outside the closest help desk. He paused and frowned. During the pandemic, regulators had insisted the glass partition be completely closed off and a two-way speaker system installed; DOYOT, realizing the benefits of a plague for their bottom line, had simply pasted stickers onto the window. “Excuse me?” he tried, leaning close to one. “Excuse me, I’d like to try — ”

“WHAT?” the woman on the other side shouted, muffled. She had short, curly blond hair and wore a pinstripe blouse. “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

“I want to buy life insurance!”



“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. “That’s the other department!”

He followed her pointing finger around the corner to a dreary corner office. A single table sat in the middle of the beige room; there were death certificates in the in-tray and form condolences in the out-tray, along with a half-eaten piece of cake between them. On the far end of the table sat a woman with short, curly blond hair in a pinstripe blouse.

“Life policy,” she said. “You crash, burn, drown, fall, get sick, get shot, get stabbed, get hit by a train, get decapitated, et cetera, we pay out your benefits. Not to you, though. You wouldn’t be the first person to ask.”

“No,” he said. “No, that’s OK.”

“Then sit.” She gestured. “What’s your name?”

“Newton Parcivalus Darrow. And I want the biggest policy you have. As much as I can pay in.”

She nodded. If the request fazed her she didn’t show it. “Just a moment, Mr. Darrow.” She left the pre-deceased to fidget, jumping in his chair each time the sickly yellowish light flickered. And the cake on her desk — that was red velvet, wasn’t it? A wave of nausea made his head spin, and if he could have figured out which way was up he’d have run for the hills before she returned, a roll of newspaper in her hands. “I’m sorry, Mr. Darrow, but we can’t sell a dead man an insurance policy. If it’s any comfort, dead people don’t need money.”

“But I’m not dead,” he protested. “I’m sitting right here.”

“Look at this, Mr. Darrow.” She laid out a copy of the Premonitions Monitor in front of him. “As of Prop 31 two years ago, everything in this newspaper is true from the moment it’s printed. And it clearly says that you’re dead.”

“It’s wrong all the time. There wasn’t a five-plane pileup on the London runways on Monday.”

“Didn’t vote for the proposition, huh? It’s very simple, Mr. Darrow. The Monitor always predicts a plane crash, so anyone getting on a plane is forewarned that there will certainly be a plane crash and therefore can’t sue. And since the paper never reports there wasn’t a plane crash, it never contradicts itself. Under Prop 31, you’re dead, and I’m sure you understand the contradiction in selling life insurance to a corpse.”

He patted his cheeks, his nose, his arms. All present, slightly fleshy — maybe Foss was right about him being short and unimpressive — and warm. “You’re talking to me. How can you be talking to me if I’m dead?”

“I can talk to dead people.”

“No one can do that. I work at the damned magic and fortune-tellers’ newspaper and no one can do that!”

“You said it, Mr. Darrow. I’m talking to you. If I couldn’t talk to dead people I wouldn’t be able to speak to you, because you’re dead. But since I can talk to you, I must be able to speak with dead people. Do you think I should go to the hospital about it? I didn’t know I could do that and it’s starting to make me feel a bit light-headed.”

“I … I wouldn’t know.”

She shook her head. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t. It’s not as interesting from your end, is it?”

He should have gone home. But home meant braving the streets, meant braving his dark red Toyota — velvet red! — with the broken headlight. All the traffic statistics they’d crammed into his head as a 16-year-old danced in front of his eyes. Foss said it would happen today, he thought. I’ll just go back to the office, try to make it to midnight. It’s so dreary that nothing could possibly hurt me there, and if I die it’ll only be of boredom and at least that can’t hurt. Right?

No one in the office would meet his gaze when he returned to his chair. He sat staring straight ahead, twisting a paperclip and unwilling to take any riskier moves than that, until someone clapped him on the back. He jumped a foot in the air and spun around, but it was only Foss, blithe and blasé Foss. He had his hands clasped behind his back and an unusually serious expression. “Darcy,” he said.


“Darian. I was eating lunch, and I had another vision. Of you, man.”

Darrow nearly tripped over his tongue to get the words out. “And?” After all, Foss’ answer couldn’t get worse.

Foss shrugged. “It was just for a second. I think it might have been the mustard fumes from the soup. I got the really strong stuff, you know, the kind that makes you feel like they just hosed down your sinuses.”

Darrow reached forward and grabbed Foss’ shirt by the collar. “If it’s the soup you need,” he said, “then I’ll buy you another.”

He dragged the taller man down the stairs three at a time. He barely noticed a thing about the café, some dimly lit Italian place with enough candles set into the wall that the floral rose wallpaper was darkened and scorched. It took some time to impress upon the waiter the sheer urgency of the situation, that the precise number of mustard seeds floating in the broth was a matter of life and death, but finally, with a glare that said a very large tip would be left — or else — the yellowy bowl was placed in front of Foss.

Slowly, agonizingly, like he was picking the worst lottery numbers of all time, Foss plucked one of the mustard seeds out and held it in front of his nose. He closed his eyes and rolled his head around on his shoulders. “Oh, yeah.”

“You see it?”

“No, it’s just the mustard kick — ” He froze. He pitched forward and slammed both his hands against the table, rattling the silverware. “I see it.”

“What? What do you see?”

“What’ll you give me?” He chuckled at Darrow’s horrified look. “$15.23 a prediction, and they don’t print duplicates.”

Darrow cast about for anything, anything at all. His mind was fried, marinated all day in the stew of fear and anxiety. “My sister,” he said. “I’ll get you a date with my sister. Just tell me what’s going to happen!”

“And you’ll say only nice things?”

“You’ll be an angel on God’s green earth to her.”

He rubbed his hands together. “I think you’ll be crying. Ugly crying,” he said. “Your face is all wet. Not a stoic way to go out, especially if you know it’s coming.”

Darrow seethed. “Show some respect for me — for the dead.”

“Hey, hey, I’m just the middleman. You — you know,” Foss said, “it’s so strong you might be able to see it yourself. Could be something rubbed off on you from so long working at the Monitor.” He walked around the table to place the bowl in front of Darrow, the steam rising from it thickly and more viscous than it had any right to be. “Something’s strong, at least. Take a whiff. And tell me what your sister likes.”

Something swirled deep within. In the olden days, people had read fortunes and futures from tea leaves, spices in broth, hadn’t they? Darrow shot a glance at Foss beside him, then steeled himself and leaned toward the concoction. “She’s a gummy-bear designer.”

“Bright colors?”

“No. She sees too much of them. Wear grey, black or brown if you must — ”

The salad knife entered his back just above his heart. He fell face-first into the soup, so that it coated his face. His eyes burned, latching onto the wavering, flickering flame of the candles and the cloying, velvety rose-red that pressed in around him. Foss twisted it, twice.

“Sorry, Darby,” he said. “But the future’s gotta happen — and it’s triple pay for me when it does.”

Charles Bonkowsky is a rising senior studying political science and creative writing. He is the president of Columbia’s Science Fiction Society and a journalist for the undergraduate newspaper Bwog.