I stared at the walls of my apartment and checked my email again. Nothing. How had it gone bad so quickly? Just six months ago, I’d received the phone call I’d been waiting for the past decade. An agent had called – a highly successful agent who had worked with best-selling authors – to tell me he was interested in representing my work. But it had been two months now, and I hadn’t heard from him. I’d tried calling and emailing him, but he hadn’t responded. I glanced up at the calendar above my desk. 2005. I was thirty-two years old. Young by a writer’s standards, but after ten years of hard work, and with the hope of the expected breakthrough, this felt different than the earlier rejections.
I wandered out onto the balcony. I was a writer, but only by night. During the day I worked at a local high school helping kids with special needs. I loved the kids, but the school life wore me down. I didn’t know if it was the florescent lights or the tediousness of the routine or what it was, but every day I went to school it felt like my soul was dying. I loved the kids, but my hope of getting off the merry-go-round seemed lost.
The door to the balcony creaked open, and a man stepped onto it. He looked vaguely familiar. He had a shaved head, and tucked his hands into his pockets as he looked at me.
“I remember this place,” he said, smiling softly. “Are you still at Florida Fitness?”
“I, um, yeah.” I probably should have reacted more strongly to a stranger, but as I studied the older man, he looked, well, he looked like me.
“Who are you?” I said.
“I’m the ghost from Christmas future, dummy.”
“Good to see that I was so bright at thirty-two.”
“Well, the extra year hasn’t made a difference.”
“If I’m you…” I paused. It felt like a dream, and I was having a hard time getting my tongue to work properly. “So, I stopped working out, then?”
“I work out. Just not as often,” he said with a sniff. “I’m busy.”
He smiled for the first time. “Living the dream. Writing. Happily married. Just published my first book. Three more next year.”
I slumped down on one of the chairs on my porch. Happily married? I’d married when I was twenty-five, but it had barely lasted a year, though we’d tried to make it last. We’d ended up as friends, but marriage seemed as remote as getting a book deal.
“So is this a dream?”
He smiled. It was unnerving to watch your future self smile the same way you did. “Yes. Something like that. Tell me, how are you doing?”
I didn’t know what to say. “Well, my agent has apparently dropped me. I’m stuck in a job that is mostly soul-sucking. I’m single. I have a few great friends, but…”
“How are you doing with the depression?” he said.
“It comes and goes. Some days are harder than others. I thought that this agent might be a way to something better, you know? But…” I shrugged.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I-I don’t know. Keep writing, I guess. I don't have much else.”
He smiled, and I longed for the peace of that smile. My life wasn’t horrible. I had a steady job. I was able to coach. I had a few terrific friends. But I couldn’t replicate that smile. It suggested that more was possible.
“Keep writing,” he said. “It gets better.”
“So you’re me?” I asked. “In the future?”
“How old are you? Err, how old am I?”
I whistled softly.
“I’m not old, pal,” he said.
“Yeah, well.” I stopped, not wanting to offend the older version of myself. “Do we have kids?”
“Why not? Doesn’t everyone your age, well, my age, have kids.”
“But we’re married.” I bit my lip. My ex-wife was a wonderful person, but we’d been bad together. It was not a good memory. “And… and it’s good?”
He laughed. “Yes. We met the girl of our dreams. We’ve been married for seven years. She’s kind and smart and beautiful.”
“All right!” I felt a jolt of exhilaration rush through me, only to crash as I thought about my current prospects. “You’re here to tease me, aren’t you?”
He scrubbed his shaved head. “No. My purpose is to encourage you. Ask me your questions.”
“I, well, okay. I’m still writing, right?”
“Yes! You just published your first book. People love it. You have three more due for release this year.”
“Do I have an agent?”
He shook his head. “No. Erin recommended that we publish it on our own. The industry has changed, Steve.”
“Yes. We got back in touch with her this year. She still works as an editor, but she’s also a best-selling author now. She read our work and that was her suggestion.”
“I don’t get it. So we have boxes of books downstairs—”
“No!” He chortled. “The world has changed. Everything is done digitally now. We publish them ourselves.”
I struggled to grasp this new idea. Everyone knew that if you published books on your own you were a phony. A charlatan. “So now—”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “What matters is that you have talent. And that people like your work.”
I still didn’t understand what he was saying, not exactly, but I couldn’t ignore the peace that emanated from him in fresh waves.
From me, I reminded myself.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“For a bit of wisdom. You’re hurting right now. You think that life will always be this difficult. That you will always be alone. That your writing will never be good enough.” He moved forward and rested a hand on my shoulder. “We cannot see the future, and no one knows why certain things happen to us. It will be a while before you find success as a writer, but you must not stop. Everything you learn will one day pay off. The same is true of your quest for love. Stay humble. Be aware of your failings. Never believe you have it all figured out, and love will you. Find us.”
“What about my job? I love the kids—”
“We have worked many jobs, but you were born to write. Do what you must to pay the bills, but remember your calling. Things are never as they seem. In two years, you will move and find yourself surrounded by people from all over the world. You will experience a re-birth, and within a short time, you will meet the woman of your dreams. Your career will change. Your life will change. And through it all, you will write. And when you are ready, you will do the one thing that has called to you since you were a small boy.”
I swallowed. “It’s just… it’s just so hard to accept.”
He rubbed my shoulder. “I know. Our future is always shrouded. If it were not, we would not stay humble. But don’t worry, things are going to get better. Better than you ever imagined.”
I sighed and shook my head. “My wife, she’s—”
“The best thing that ever happened to us.” He closed his eyes briefly before opening them. “Whatever you imagine about being with someone, she is the treasure. And no, we did not earn it, just like we have not earned the praise from people who like our writing. Yes, we have mended the soil, but God has managed the till.”
I frowned, confused. “So if it isn’t us, then—”
“It is us!” he said, placing his hands on the wooden balcony. “But it is us and so many other things, things we can’t identify, things that will one day infuse the series that allows you to write in your own voice for the first time.”
“I… I do not know what to do.”
My older self smiled. “Just keep writing. Continue to pursue kindness. Do not let those around you dictate who you are or what you will be. Accept criticism. Do not be afraid to look in the mirror. None of these things will give you money, but they will guide you. One day soon, you will be asked about these choices and they will inspire people, much like your work will inspire them.
“Writing is not about the books you sell, but the vision you give to people. The vision you have for humanity. A vision that reminds us we can be better. That we can be loving and kind and empathetic. Never forget that.”
“But, my depression—”
“Will always be there. It will never leave. God gives us all burdens, and this one is ours. Be honest about it. Tell others about your struggles. Weakness is strength, and vulnerability is everything. Let it shine through your work.” He paused. “Most importantly, do not write in fear. Fear of what others will think. Fear of what they may say. Fear that you may expose yourself too much. Conquering fear is the pathway to your voice. And it is your voice that will affect others in ways you cannot comprehend.”
The vision of my older self slowly began to fade.
“Wait! I have so many questions! Don’t go!”
The image flickered. “Remember what I said. Stay true to yourself. Things get better.”
“What book should I write next? I don’t know what I’m doing!”
The image faded away and I leaned on the balcony, unsure what I’d just seen. Had it been a dream? A daydream to help me take my mind off my troubles? I wasn’t sure. I stood and headed inside. Whatever it was, my resolve was clear.
I sat down at my desk and opened my laptop. That the agent had dropped me didn’t matter, neither did anything else. It was time to write.