Drabblecast 308 – Happy Old Year

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

cover for Drabblecast 308, Happy Old YearThe night I met Elsie I was up on the roof of my apartment building with a bottle of Kentucky Gentleman, because it’s sort of like bourbon, but cheaper, and better at blotting out reality. Technically it wasn’t “my” building anymore since I’d been evicted and had to be gone by morning if I didn’t want sheriff’s deputies to dump all my possessions out on the sidewalk. Joke was on them — what possessions? Everything I could sell, I already had, in a vain attempt to keep up with rent. What remained was so crappy I couldn’t even give it away on Craigslist.


Happy Old Year


Tim Pratt

The night I met Elsie I was up on the roof of my apartment building with a bottle of Kentucky Gentleman, because it’s sort of like bourbon, but cheaper, and better at blotting out reality. Technically it wasn’t “my” building anymore since I’d been evicted and had to be gone by morning if I didn’t want sheriff’s deputies to dump all my possessions out on the sidewalk. Joke was on them — what possessions? Everything I could sell, I already had, in a vain attempt to keep up with rent. What remained was so crappy I couldn’t even give it away on Craigslist.

From my perch on the edge of the roof, feet dangling over the sidewalk eighty feet below, I saw people on neighboring rooftops whooping it up, drunk and laughing in the dark, but my building had never been much for parties, so I was all alone. The place was like an eight-story mausoleum, full of old people on fixed incomes. They were probably asleep already, not bothering to stay awake for midnight. Who cares about ringing in another new year when you’ve already seen seventy or eighty of them go by?

Me, I’d only seen about forty years come and go, but I wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect of starting the next one.

I didn’t see the woman on the roof with me until the first premature firework went up, ten minutes early, and I nearly fell off the roof, because she was right beside me on the edge — I could have reached out and touched her shoulder. She was wearing a party dress, as bright red as her long wavy hair, and her face was so heavily made up it was impossible to tell if she was pretty underneath it or not. I bet she was close to my own age, and doing her best to look younger.

“Hey,” she said. “You planning on jumping?”

I gave it some thought. Finally I said, “No, I don’t think so. But mostly because I’m afraid it would hurt.” I had some pills in my place downstairs, from when I had my first back surgery. Probably not enough to kill me, but enough to get me mellow while I cut my wrists, maybe. I was considering my options.

She grunted. “That’s some vile whiskey you’ve got there. If you can even call it whiskey. Want to share?”

I didn’t want to share. I didn’t want company at all. I tipped the bottle back and drank the last few burning swallows, then turned the empty upside down, letting a couple of drops patter down to the sidewalk far below. “Sorry, lady. It’s all gone.”

“I’m no lady. My name’s Elsie. That was rude, Dave. You shouldn’t be rude to strangers. You never know when you’re talking to a bad fairy or a wise old angel in disguise.”

“How’d you know my name was Dave?”

She laughed, and it was musical, but then, so is death metal, in its way. “Your name’s really Dave? I guess it was bound to happen eventually. Listen. Even though you were rude to me, let’s kill the old year together. It’s New Year’s Eve, and that’s got me thinking about regrets, what might have been, that sort of thing. Does it affect you the same way?”

“Sure I think about my regrets. But I do that every day.”

“Still, New Year’s — a time for new beginnings. Suppose someone came along, one of those bad fairies or wise angels, and offered you a deal. Like, say, you could give up your future, and instead of ringing in this crappy New Year, you could return to an old year. Any old year of your choice.”

“What? Like go back in time?”

“Sort of. Return to any New Year’s Day you’ve ever experienced, back in the body you had then, in the place you were then, but knowing what you know now — with your full mind and memories, able to make new choices, and do things differently. See disaster coming and avert it. See opportunities coming and seize them.”

“A do-over, huh? I think I remember who won the World Series for most every year in the past thirty or so. Wouldn’t be hard to make money.” Not having any money was the most pressing of my current problems, though not the one that weighed on me most.

Elsie hmmed. “It’s a shame you can’t remember who won the Superbowl — it comes a lot earlier in the year, so you wouldn’t have to wait as long to get rich. What do you say? If someone offered you that deal, would you take it?”

I though she was just making chit-chat, of course. If I’d realized she was serious… I’ll be honest. I probably would have answered the same way. I didn’t have a lot to live for, and the past was another world, one where the future was still full of grand possibilities instead of horrible actualities. “Of course I’d take it.”

“Consider it offered, then. What year would you go back to?”

“What, the best year of my life?”

“Or the one you regret the most, sure.”

That was easy. “The year I turned thirty. I had a fiancée, and –”

“Easy, there, Dave, I don’t need the whole story, just ‘The Year of Our Lord’ followed by four little digits.”

I named the year I had in mind. Elsie scooted closer and put her arm around me. Her touch was repulsive — her arm felt like it was made of sticks wrapped in gelatin, or like a tentacle threaded with cartilage — something about it just wasn’t right. But I didn’t dare shake her off, because I was well on my way to drunk and sitting on the edge of a rooftop, with a long fall down. Maybe I wanted to die, sort of, but not that way.

“Okay then,” Elsie said. “Let’s watch the fireworks. And then we’ll count down.”

That’s just what we did. People on a neighboring rooftop began to shout “Ten! Nine!” But Elsie waited a couple of seconds before she began her own ten count, like her sense of time was better than theirs, even though she didn’t have a watch or phone or anything with a clock. She counted softly. “Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two –”

I didn’t hear her say one, because I was wrenched backward. It was a physical sensation, or at least I thought so, but when I looked around, I was standing still, not sprawled on my ass. I was standing outside in the cold, on my old friend Tom’s balcony, and my last serious girlfriend Meghan was just pulling back from our midnight kiss. She was tipsy and red-cheeked, and her breath smelled like champagne, and she was beautiful in a shiny silver top and a black skirt, with a party hat perched at a jaunty angle on her head. “Whoo!” she said. “We survived another year!” She planted another kiss drunkenly off-center on my lips.

Elsie had done it. She’d sent me back ten years. (Or possibly drugged me and given me a powerful suggestion leading to an intense hallucination. I couldn’t immediately rule that out.) But if it were true, if this was really happening, if I had a chance to do things over again… I could fix things.

I could stay home and make up with Meghan after our huge fight in March instead of storming out drunk, and meeting a girl at a bar, having unprotected alley sex, and bringing home a curable but unpleasant STD that I passed on to Meghan during our inevitable make-up sex, getting my ass justifiably dumped when she found out.

That break-up was the first in a chain of bad decisions and bad luck that left me a jobless graphic designer living alone and scrambling for freelance income in a city I hated a decade later. I could fix it.


So I did. I took care of Meghan. I treated her so well she actually got suspicious about my motives, but when I told her my New Year’s Resolution was to put our relationship first, she believed me, and I could tell it touched her heart. We got married in the summer, and though honeymooning in Vegas wasn’t her first choice, I convinced her. I had to — that was the only place where I could place a legal bet on the World Series.

She was pissed that I’d bet so much, basically my life savings… until I showed her the winnings, and promised I was done gambling forever after that, since I was never going to do better. Even after taxes, we had more than enough to buy a beautiful place in a nice building, with a view of the water and her favorite bridge.

New Year’s Eve approached. In my first go-around, I’d spent that night heartbroken in a bar, singing “Auld Lang Syne” with a bunch of strangers, then puking in the gutter outside, and only realizing the next morning I’d had my wallet stolen by one of my new friends.

This time, Meghan and I threw a party for all our friends in our new place. We had ten kinds of cheese and a champagne fountain, which was ridiculous and the greatest thing ever. About ten minutes before midnight, I excused myself to go to our gorgeous bathroom, with the tub big enough to seat three comfortably. I pissed, humming to myself, and managed not to scream when I turned around and saw Elsie sitting in the dry bathtub. She was wearing a sea-foam green dress that time, and big pink star-shaped plastic sunglasses.

“Dave! Had a good year?”

“I… I almost thought I dreamed you,” I said.

“I am awfully dreamy. So, the time has come. What year do you want to relive next?”

“What do you mean?”

She pulled down the glasses and peered at me over the rims. “It’s New Year’s Eve. The deal was, you gave up your future, and every New Year’s Eve, you get to pick what year to visit next. So what’ll it be? Dave the horny sixteen-year-old, putting his older-man wiles to work on cheerleaders? Or that year you were pretty much drunk all the time, that probably had its good moments. Or –”

I shook my head. “My life is good now, I fixed it, I just want to — keep going forward.”

“Ah. So on to next year, then. Just flip the calendar page? Normal linear time? Disappointing, Dave. But if that’s what you want. I won’t make you listen to my countdown this time. Go kiss your girl.”

“Are… did you want…” I almost offered her a drink, told her to join the party. Maybe I should have. But before I could figure out what I wanted to say, she sank down in the tub, like she was vanishing under water, even though there was no water in there, and then she was gone.

I stumbled out of the bathroom, feeling like I’d just narrowly avoided a fall from a great height. I got to Meghan and grabbed her tight and was just leaning in to kiss her when the clock struck midnight —

And I was wrenched forward in time. I rolled over on a gritty gray sidewalk, next to a puddle of my own puke, outside a bar full of strangers, some of them still singing. I reached into my pocket. No wallet.

I was in the year I’d asked for. But all the good work I’d done with Meghan was undone. I was in the original year, the new timeline I’d created gone as if it had never existed.

And the year ahead of me had been the first worst year of the rest of my life.


I was able to avoid some of the original pitfalls, though I landed in some others. I laid off the booze and actually held on to my job, so that was better. Meghan was no more sympathetic to my letters and phone calls than she had been in the first timeline, but something about my insistence that we belonged together must have been too disturbing, because she got a restraining order against me, which she didn’t do the first time around.

I left her alone, but it was hard, so hard. When the time came, I went to Vegas, and spent what little savings I had on a bet that made me rich enough to blot out everything else. I stayed in a suite in the casino hotel, gradually giving back all the money I’d won, but living high in the process. I slept with so many prostitutes, snorted so much coke, drank so much good whiskey — why not? It would all be erased, right?

On New Year’s Eve, I stayed in my room, alone, and Elsie sauntered in. “This is boring. No party?”

“What do I have to do?” I said quietly, sitting in a leather chair, sober for the first time in months. “To break the curse. Should I give to charity? Be a better person? Use my knowledge of the future to help people, go back and warn against terrorist attacks, or hurricanes, or –”

“Dave. That’s not what’s happening here. I didn’t come to save your soul or give you moral instruction or work for the betterment of Dave-kind. I don’t care what you do. We made a deal, that’s all — I got what was left of your future, and in exchange, you got an all-access pass to your past. So when to this time?”

I licked my lips. “The — the year I met Meghan. We –”

“Just the numbers, Dave.”

I told her. She nodded. She counted down from ten, silently, just moving her lips, and I was jerked backward.


That’s pretty much how I spent the next… I lost count. Maybe thirty, forty years.

Bouncing around my twenties, mostly, from the time I met Meghan, during our good years. I paid attention to who won the Superbowl, and horse races, and which stocks skyrocketed, so I could get richer sooner when I returned to earlier years. I still say the expression “money can’t buy happiness” is a lie rich people tell poor ones to keep them quiet, but anything gets old after a while.

When I got bored with those variations, I took some forays back to college, blowing off homework in favor of parties and epic road trips and hitting on girls I’d always considered way out of my league. I found out I could fall in love with women other than Meghan. It was great, but it was terrible, because everything was written on water, and nothing mattered at all. No matter what I did, good or bad or indifferent, was meaningless. The damage to my liver was undone each year, but so was every human connection and friend and lover I made.

Still. I got by on hedonism for a while. Until one year, when I got a girl pregnant in February and actually had a little time with the newborn before Elsie showed up, standing behind my sleeping wife and baby, asking, “When to this time, Dave?” Preparing to erase my family from the timeline.

That’s when I told her to take me back to my last real year. The year I met Elsie.


I lived through it okay. Pretty much the way I had the first time. I didn’t want to change things too much, because I wanted to be in the same place on December 31st.

When the time came I sat on the roof with a bottle of bad booze, and Elsie appeared, just like before, all in red. “Hey,” she said. “You planning on jumping?” If she remembered she’d met me before, she didn’t show it. Maybe this was the first time again, for her. Maybe I had the advantage.

My mouth was dry with hope, but I did it just like I had the first time. Said the same lines. You better believe I remembered them. But when she asked for a drink, I offered her the bottle instead of drinking it myself.

She wrinkled her nose. “Kidding. Like I’d drink that shit.” She scooted closer to me, though, and then just sat in companionable silence, not making me an offer, not musing on regret.

I’d done it. I’d avoided offending the bad fairy.

As the people on the roof next door began to count, she put her horrible arm around me. “I’ve got the weirdest feeling, Dave. I can’t explain it, but I just feel like… you and me don’t have a future. Or, at least, you don’t.”

“What –” I said, and then she shoved me off the edge of the roof.


I’d considered that as a possibility. That living up until the moment of my last terrible decision would mean my end — that I’d given up my future, and choosing to give up my past would leave me nowhere to go… except nowhere. Even as the sidewalk rushed up to meet me, I didn’t mind the prospect of nowhere. I was okay with that. I’d had enough of my life.


That would have been a good ending. I would have been okay with being dead.

After the crunch of impact came nothingness. Maybe it was death, but if so, it wasn’t the same death other people get, I don’t think. At least I hope so, for their sakes.

I was motionless, in the dark, paralyzed but never sleeping, aware of every passing moment. Everything was silent, but somewhere in my head I heard the ticking of a vast clock, counting every second and minute of my dead year.

After 525,200 minutes (or so), I started to hear something else: thumping and scraping.

After 525,230 minutes, the darkness above my face was wrenched away, and Elsie peered down at me, gripping a camping lantern in one hand and the handle of a shovel in the other. She wore a party hat and sparkly make-up on her face, though there was dirt smeared on her nose and chin. “Hello, Dave. Nice coffin you’ve got here.”

I tried to speak, for the millionth time in that silent year, and for the first time, I managed a groan.

“Hey,” Elsie said. “Hey Dave. Hey.” She put a noisemaker in her mouth and blew. The cheap paper toy blatted, unfurled, and hit me in the face, though I barely felt it. “Happy New Year. When are you going this time?”

My voice was a dry croak, my tongue heavy in my mouth, a dead thing, a foreign object. “I won’t choose. I quit. I give up.”

She clucked her tongue. “No fair. We had a deal.”

“Why are you doing this to me?”

Elsie shrugged. “I’m sure I had my reasons when I started, but who remembers after so long? At this point, well… Why do people kiss when the clock strikes twelve? Why sing Auld Lang Syne? Why make resolutions you’re never going to keep anyway? Why eat collard greens and black eyed peas on New Year’s Day? Tradition, Dave. You’re my tradition. You picking the next year is your tradition. But if you won’t choose… I’ll have to choose for you. Some things you do just because you’ve been doing them a long time, and habit is a powerful thing.”

Over her head — in the night sky above the graveyard — fireworks burst into colors and shapes.

“Ten,” Elsie said. “Nine. Eight. Seven.”

I closed my eyes and said “No, no, no,” over the sound of her voice as she finished counting down.

Then I was wrenched backward in time.

I gazed up at a ceiling, I think, though everything was blurry. I tried to move, but my arms and legs just bobbed, barely in my control. The room was dim, but not entirely dark, lit by some colored lamp outside my field of view. Above my upturned face, shapes dangled on strings: a fish, a smiling whale, a seahorse, a starfish. From some other room I heard a champagne cork pop and a man’s voice, simultaneously familiar and strange, cry out “Happy New Year!”

I opened my mouth and began to cry like the baby I was.



A Drabblecast original. Pocket Pulp Project
Episode Art:  An anonymous art donor
Read by:  Matt Hayes

Twabble:  “Eternity was tedious. He would dream of oblivion. Friends was on TV again. It was the one where Ross & Rachel take a break. ”  by  ROU Killing Time