An overpriced singer, back lit by overpriced pyrotechnics, gave way to an overpriced soda commercial.
Earl belched like a triggered bear trap, liberated his belt and trouser fly. He assessed the damage. Five beers, twenty two honey mustard chicken wings, roughly his body weight in potato chips, and three and a half carrot sticks to ward off the shame. Not bad. The coffee table was covered with splashes and smears, gobs of dips and smatters of crumbs. It looked like a murder scene, only slightly more gruesome.
“Earl?” The door at the top of the stairs flung open. Earl nearly expected a S.W.A.T. team to come rumbling through. “Is it half time yet?”
Francine sounded irked. Earl couldn’t see her from his La-Z-Boy command center in the cozy basement gloom, but he could imagine what she looked like. Face puckered with judgement, haggard hair, frumpy sweat suit, baby Tommy squirming in her chewed nail grip.
“You said at half time you’d throw in the laundry,” she snarled. “Tommy’s spitting up over everything.”
“Come on, Francine?” Earl barked back. “It’s the Super Bowl here.” On the television, a bow-tied cartoon bear was singing the praises of a particular brand of toilet paper. “Can’t it wait?”
“NO!” Francine boomed. Tommy began to cry, loud and unyielding. Banshee scream. Air raid siren. “Unless you wanna wear a puke stained shirt to work tomorrow?”
“Maybe I do,” Earl replied soft as a whisper.
“JUST DO IT, EARL!”
The door slammed. Earl winced, then winced again at the chorus of angry Francine stomps, protesting floor boards, baby wails, and about a half minutes worth of muffled swear words. He sighed, stifled the budding whale song in his gut with a gulp of beer, and gazed across the basement.
Beyond the lovelorn love seat, neglected foosball table, and World War Two era treadmill, the laundry room door was open. Inside, dark and foreboding, a Matterhorn-sized heap of dirty laundry gazed back at him. Beckoned him. Dared him.
Gym sock Everest.
Soiled pajama Mount Doom.
Earl regarded it with the same sour expression he usually reserved for suspicious smells and IKEA instructions. The prospect of prospecting through that festering mess turned his stomach. Or maybe that was just the chicken wings jostling for position? Either way, he decided the laundry could wait.
His attention drifted back to the television, to a bulldozer in a grass stained jersey, vehemently grunting about the 110% effort he was going to give in the second half. The side line reporter interviewing him cringed as he proclaimed there was no “I” in “VICTORY,” splattering greasy spit-gobs of chewing tobacco all over the twenty five yard line.
Earl cracked a fresh cold one, excavated a hamsters worth of mystery fluff from his belly button, and settled back deep into his recliner. He sighed a contented sigh. The third quarter was starting any minute. The linebacker with the mailbox shaped head was smack in the middle of a football themed sexual innuendo, when a large metallic orb winked into existence less than six feet from Earl’s recliner.
Earl sat up so fast his mouthful of beer turned to foam and sprayed out his nose. His ears popped. Something simultaneously hot and cold flip flopped in his stomach. Blood vessels burst in both his eyes. He shrieked, choking back shock vomit as he tumbled out of his recliner and scrambled behind it, cowering there like an abused laboratory monkey.
The orb was roughly the size of a refrigerator, flawless, gleaming chrome, dripping with viscous gunk that resembled petroleum jelly, but reeked like burnt ozone. It thrummed like a virus choked computer, vibrating imperceptibly, just enough to tremble the carpet fibers and irritate Earls fillings.
“Earl?” Francine’s muffled voice called out overhead, followed by the staccato wallop of her approaching footfalls. The door at the top of the stairs creaked open. “Earl? I thought I heard sumthin down here? You okay?”
Before Earl could even whimper an answer, a glowing seam appeared down the center of the orb, perfectly even, as if sliced with a surgical laser from within. The seam opened, birthing a figure and a dry ice fog that snaked out across the basement floor. The figure shook himself off like a dog coming in out of the rain. He was roughly Earl-sized, wearing a painted on jumpsuit that appeared to be made from tin foil. A shiny helmet and visor obscured his face. He looked like an alien luge rider from the intergalactic Olympic Games.
“I’m fine, Francine,” came Earl’s voice, even though Earl hadn’t yet found the courage to open his mouth. “Just got a little excited about the game, is all.”
“Hmm-hmm. You throw in the laundry yet?”
“Doin it as we speak, babe,” came Earl’s voice again, sugar sweet.
The door slammed. Francine stomped away. Earl’s bladder let go. He smacked himself hard in the face to ward off unconsciousness.
His voice was coming out of the man from the orb.
The man swiveled towards him, strolled over, removed his helmet with a hiss of compressed air.
Earl stood up on legs that felt like empty garden hoses. On the television, a football colossus collided with a camera man, sending him flailing through the air like a crash test dummy. Seventy five thousand fans groaned in unison. Earl didn’t even notice. He was far too busy slack jaw gawking at the orb man’s face.
“Like lookin’ in a mirror, huh?”
It was like looking in a mirror. Except for a couple extra crow’s feet around the eyes, and a tad more salt and pepper dusting the hair, Earl and the orb man’s face were identical.
“How?” Earl stammered. His heart was pounding so hard he thought Francine might hear it.
“I’m you, dummy,” orb-Earl chuckled. “From the future!” He enunciated like a bad radio actor, chuckled some more. “You don’t look so hot. Sit down, before you fall down Earl, wudja?”
Earl flopped into his recliner, massaging his forehead with a sweaty palm. Future Earl slid aside a plate of chicken bones and sat down on the coffee table across from him. His metallic suit not only looked like tin foil, it sounded like it too, loud and crunchy. It grated Earls’ already frazzled nerves. Future Earl helped himself to a beer, chugged sloppily. He drained it and belched.
“Oh man, I miss these,” he sighed to the empty bottle. He set it down, bringing his attention back to Earl’s slack face. “We don’t have beer anymore when I’m from. You need grain to make beer, you know. Clean water too.”
Future Earl helped himself to another. A handful of potato chips.
“Uh,” Earl stammered. His head hurt. “You mean where you’re from?”
“Nope,” Future Earl belched. “You know exactly where I’m from Earl. I’m you, remember? I’m from right here. Born fifteen miles away. Went to high school down the street. Met Francine at the burger joint around the corner.” He laughed. “Geez, I guess we’re not very well travelled are we?”
Earl just stared. The vein in his forehead throbbed like a runaway fire hose.
“It’s the when I’m from that concerns you Earl. Concerns both of us. Everyone actually.”
“The when?” Earl asked dreamily.
“Yep. The future. The year 2087 to be exact.”
Earl pointed accusingly at the giant, humming mirror ball. “Time machine, huh?”
Future Earl nodded. Smiled. Winked.
Migraine threatening to split his skull in half, Earl struggled to do the math.
“But? Wait. Wouldn’t that would make you—
“One hundred and two years old,” Future Earl said with a toothy smile, revealing to Earl that at some point in the future, he definitely must have gotten his teeth capped.
“How?” Earl asked. “One hundred and two? How is that possible?”
“Uh, let’s see. Nervous system upgrade, new kidneys, nano-lungs, polymer heart, muon catalyzed fusion Botox,” Future Earl rattled off the list on the fingers of his shiny glove. “Listen Earl, the list goes on and on, but none of that matters. What really matters is the reason I’m here. The very future of the human race depends on it.”
Star bursts filled Earl’s vision. He realized suddenly he’d been holding his breath. He let it out with a whoosh of honey mustard tinged air.
“Okay,” Earl said, stealing a sideways glance at the time machine. “So what’s the reason? Why are you here?”
Future Earl leaned in ominously, steepled his fingers beneath his chin.
“To ensure sure you do the laundry, Earl.”
Earl’s face twitched, erupted with a bark of crazed laughter.
“To ensure I do the laundry?”
Earl just stared. Drool pooled in the corner of his mouth, ran down his chin.
“Listen Earl,” Future Earl began. “I know how crazy this sounds but you’ve gotta believe me. I’ve been up and down our timeline, solved hundreds of seemingly more important problems, over and over again. This is it. This is the event that begins the chain reaction that destroys the World.”
“Me. Not doing the laundry.” Earl said dryly. “Destroys the World?”
Future Earl nodded.
“Come on?” Earl chuckled. “That doesn’t even make any sense. I was just about to do the laundry, okay? I was getting up to do it right before you got here.”
“No you weren’t Earl,” Future Earl said, waggling a shiny finger. “Don’t lie to yourself here. You were going to put it off, and put it off, and forget all about it. Later, when Francine finds out you didn’t do it, the two of you are going to get into an argument over it. An argument that grows into the biggest argument of your lives. You both say stuff you can’t take back. Neither one of you apologizes. Francine’s anger festers. Tomorrow afternoon Francine runs into Boyd Buckingham. You remember him?”
“Yeah,” Earl snorted. “He’s that creepy little ginger kid we went to high school with.”
“Well, he’s not a little kid anymore,” Future Earl snorted back. “These days he’s a tech millionaire, soon to be billionaire. The two of them go for coffee. Next week dinner. Dinner in Paris, Earl. He’s considerate, attentive, fit. Everything you are not.”
Earl sat up a little taller, sucked in his gut.
“She leaves you Earl,” Future Earl snapped. “Divorces you. Takes Tommy with her. Buckingham is a terrible step dad. Cold. Never there. Tommy resents all three of you, grows up rotten. He inherits the company when Buckingham dies. Immediately gets outta space-commerce. Takes on military contracts. Weapons manufacturing. Research and development.” Future Earl sighed, shook his head. “To make a long story short, he ends up test firing some kind of experimental dark matter bomb in the thermosphere that knocks the Earth off its axis, resulting in a gravity disruption, oxygen crisis, and the deaths of just under sixty three billion people.”
Earl was holding his breath again. He let it out. With it came a steaming spray of vomit that splashed all over Future Earls shiny shoes.
Future Earl groaned. “Guess I shoulda seen that coming.”
Earl heaved, retched, dry-heaved, and eventually flopped back in his recliner, wiping his sloppy, tomato-red face on the sleeve of his shirt. Shakily, he rose.
“Okay. I’ll do it right now,” he said. “The laundry. No problem. That’ll fix it then, right? Fix the future?”
Future Earl discreetly picked up a handful of potato chips, deposited them in an almost imperceptible fanny pack.
“That’s the theory,” he said. “By doing the laundry, you should be able to avoid the fight with Francine. Tomorrow, when she runs into Buckingham, she’ll remember she loves you and spurn his advances. You stay together, you both raise Tommy lovingly, and you ensure he doesn’t turn into a tyrannical megalomaniac.”
Earl nodded frenetically. “Okay, okay, I can do that.” He ushered Future Earl over to the time machine, which began thrumming louder as they approached. “So that’s it? I do the laundry and we’re done? Will I see you again?”
Future Earl smiled, clapped Earl on the shoulder.
“Quick lesson on quantum mechanics for you, Earl. Once I leave, if I was to return even a nanosecond later, I’d still be returning from the future. The year 2087. The year 2087 that has now been altered by our interaction here today. Whether you believe it or not Earl, you’ve already been altered, which will in turn create a future you conceivably much different from me. Maybe even a future you that never travels back into the past and has this conversation with you? Mind blow, huh? Does any of that make any sense?”
Earl bobbled his head, even though Future Earl might as well have been speaking Japanese.
“Chaos Theory buddy,” Future Earl continued. “Butterfly effect. Everything we do has implications for the future. Maybe you stub your toe on the way to the laundry room and we never achieve interstellar space flight? Maybe you re-direct the flight plan of a mosquito, and a grade 17 Oppenheim-Richter earthquake annihilates New Canada?” He chuckled. “Can’t worry ‘bout any of that now though, can we? Just get that laundry done, Earl. Five star Laundromat quality. Save the World.”
Earl’s head kept bobbling.
“Yep. The only way you should see this handsome mug again is in the mirror in seventy years.”
Earl laughed in spite of himself.
Future Earl snapped on his helmet and shook Earl’s hand before struggling inside the time machine through the luminous seam.
“Okay, uh, bye,” Earl called out. “Have a good….flight?”
A tin foil shiny thumbs up appeared in the opening, disappearing inside as the time machine soundlessly sealed. “It’s gonna work this time Earl,” came Future Earl’s muffled voice. “I can feel it.”
Something flip flopped inside Earls stomach again, and with a dry pop and a whoosh of air, the time machine vanished, leaving nothing but a small charred smudge in the basement carpet. Earl’s eyes watered. His nose began to bleed. Dark and clotty. He mingled it with the blotted vomit and chicken wing seasoning on his shirt sleeve as he shambled towards the laundry room.
Earl smiled despite his rolling guts and the pounding in his head.
He was about to save the future.
Earl reached the base of laundry mountain and was about to dig in, when a rough hand clamped onto his shoulder and spun him around, bringing him face to sternum with a seven foot tall humanoid, comprised entirely of sparking wires, whirring sprockets, and rusty metal.
“EARL!” The robot barked, loud and analog. Bullfrog croak. Laryngectomy patient. It released him with a hydraulic hiss and Earl fell backwards into a pile of questionably stained baby blankets.
“Wha?” Earl mumbled. “What are you?!”
“I’m you, dummy,” the robot said. A compartment slid open on its stomach, revealing a human brain encased in smudged glass, bobbing around in thick goop, the color and consistency of maple syrup. “From the future!” The compartment slid shut. “The year 2087 to be exact.”
Earl craned his neck. Behind the robot, a Buick-sized, red glowing hexagon hovered two inches above the basement carpet.
Earl pointed at it accusingly.
“Time machine, huh?” He whimpered.
Future Robot Earl clink-clank nodded. Clink-clank smiled. Clink-clank winked.
“What do you want now?” Earl sobbed. “Why are you here?”
Future Robot Earl’s legs telescoped, lowering him closer to where Earl cowered in the dirty laundry.
“To ensure you use fabric softener, Earl. For the love of all humanity, to ensure you use fabric softener.”