Doug and Judy have both had a secret power all their life. Judy can see every possible future, branching out from each moment like infinite trees. Doug can also see the future, but for him, it's a single, locked-in, inexorable sequence of foreordained events. They can't both be right, but over and over again, they are.
Obviously these are the last two people in the world who should date. So, naturally, they do
Six Months, Three Days is the winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Charlie Jane Anders is an American journalist, editor, and fiction writer. Her novel Choir Boy won a Lambda Literary Award in 2005. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is managing editor of the science fiction website io9.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Locus and Crawford awards and was on Time Magazine's list of the 10 best novels of 2016. Her Tor.com story "Six Months, Three Days" won a Hugo Award and appears in a new short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Wired Magazine, Slate, Tin House, Conjunctions, Boston Review, Asimov's Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy&Science Fiction, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, ZYZZYVA, and several anthologies. She was a founding editor of io9.com, a site about science fiction, science and futurism, and she organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series. Her first novel, Choir Boy, won a Lambda Literary Award.
Read an Excerpt
Six Months, Three Days
By Charlie Jane Anders, Sam Weber
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2011 Charlie Jane Anders
All rights reserved.
The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures.
Judy is nervous but excited, keeps looking at things she's spotted out of the corner of her eye. She's wearing a floral Laura Ashley-style dress with an ankh necklace and her legs are rambunctious, her calves moving under the table. It's distracting because Doug knows that in two and a half weeks, those cucumber-smooth ankles will be hooked on his shoulders, and that curly reddish-brown hair will spill everywhere onto her lemon-floral pillows; this image of their future coitus has been in Doug's head for years, with varying degrees of clarity, and now it's almost here. The knowledge makes Doug almost giggle at the wrong moment, but then it hits him: she's seen this future too — or she may have, anyway.
Doug has his sandy hair cut in a neat fringe that was almost fashionable a couple years ago. You might think he cuts his own hair, but Judy knows he doesn't, because he'll tell her otherwise in a few weeks. He's much, much better looking than she thought he would be, and this comes as a huge relief. He has rude, pouty lips and an upper lip that darkens no matter how often he shaves it, with Elvis Costello glasses. And he's almost a foot taller than her, six foot four. Now that Judy's seen Doug for real, she's re-imagining all the conversations they might be having in the coming weeks and months, all of the drama and all of the sweetness. The fact that Judy can be attracted to him, knowing everything that could lie ahead, consoles her tremendously.
Judy is nattering about some Chinese novelist she's been reading in translation, one of those cruel satirists from the days after the May Fourth Movement, from back when writers were so conflicted they had to rename themselves things like "Contra Diction." Doug is just staring at her, not saying anything, until it creeps her out a little.
"What?" Doug says at last, because Judy has stopped talking and they're both just staring at each other.
"You were staring at me," Judy says.
"I was ..." Doug hesitates, then just comes out and says it. "I was savoring the moment. You know, you can know something's coming from a long way off, you know for years ahead of time the exact day and the very hour when it'll arrive. And then it arrives, and when it arrives, all you can think about is how soon it'll be gone."
"Well, I didn't know the hour and the day when you and I would meet," Judy puts a hand on his. "I saw many different hours and days. In one timeline, we would have met two years ago. In another, we'd meet a few months from now. There are plenty of timelines where we never meet at all."
Doug laughs, then waves a hand to show that he's not laughing at her, although the gesture doesn't really clarify whom or what he's actually laughing at.
Judy is drinking a cocktail called the Coalminer's Daughter, made out of ten kinds of darkness. It overwhelms her senses with sugary pungency, and leaves her lips black for a moment. Doug is drinking a wheaty Pilsner from a tapered glass, in gulps. After one of them, Doug cuts to the chase. "So this is the part where I ask. I mean, I know what happens next between you and me. But here's where I ask what you think happens next."
"Well," Judy says. "There are a million tracks, you know. It's like raindrops falling into a cistern, they're separate until they hit the surface, and then they become the past: all undifferentiated. But there are an awful lot of futures where you and I date for about six months."
"Six months and three days," Doug says. "Not that I've counted or anything."
"And it ends badly."
"I break my leg."
"You break your leg ruining my bicycle. I like that bike. It's a noble five-speed in a sea of fixies."
"So you agree with me." Doug has been leaning forward, staring at Judy like a psycho again. He leans back so that the amber light spilling out of the Radish Saloon's tiny lampshades turn him the same color as his beer. "You see the same future I do." Like she's passed some kind of test.
"You didn't know what I was going to say in advance?" Judy says.
"It doesn't work like that — not for me, anyway. Remembering the future is just like remembering the past. I don't have perfect recall, I don't hang on to every detail, the transition from short-term memory to long-term memory is not always graceful."
"I guess it's like memory for me too," Judy says.
Doug feels an unfamiliar sensation, and he realizes after a while it's comfort. He's never felt this at home with another human being, especially after such a short time. Doug is accustomed to meeting people and knowing bits and pieces of their futures, from stuff he'll learn later. Or if Doug meets you and doesn't know anything about your future, that means he'll never give a crap about you, at any point down the line. This makes for awkward social interactions, either way.
They get another round of drinks. Doug gets the same beer again, Judy gets a red concoction called a Bloody Mutiny.
"So there's one thing I don't get," Doug says. "You believe you have a choice among futures — and I think you're wrong, you're seeing one true future and a bunch of false ones."
"You're probably going to spend the next six months trying to convince yourself of that," Judy says.
"So why are you dating me at all, if you get to choose? You know how it'll turn out. For that matter, why aren't you rich and famous? Why not pick a future where you win the lottery, or become a star?"
Doug works in tech support, in a poorly ventilated sub-basement of a tech company in Providence, RI, that he knows will go out of business in a couple years. He will work there until the company fails, choking on the fumes from old computers, and then be unemployed a few months.
"Well," Judy says. "It's not really that simple. I mean, the next six months, assuming I don't change my mind, they contain some of the happiest moments of my life, and I see it leading to some good things, later on. And you know, I've seen some tracks where I get rich, I become a public figure, and they never end well. I've got my eye on this one future, this one node way off in the distance, where I die aged 97, surrounded by lovers and grandchildren and cats. Whenever I have a big decision to make, I try to see the straightest path to that moment."
"So I'm a stepping stone," Doug says, not at all bitterly. He's somehow finished his second beer already, even though Judy's barely made a dent in her Bloody Mutiny.
"You're maybe going to take this journey with me for a spell," Judy says. "People aren't stones."
And then Doug has to catch the last train back to Providence, and Judy has to bike home to Somerville. Marva, her roommate, has made popcorn and hot chocolate, and wants to know the whole story.
"It was nice," Judy says. "He was a lot cuter in person than I'd remembered, which is really nice. He's tall."
"That's it?" Marva said. "Oh come on, details. You finally meet the only other freaking clairvoyant on Earth, your future boyfriend, and all you have to say is, 'He's tall.' Uh uh. You are going to spill like a fucking oil tanker, I will ply you with hot chocolate, I may resort to Jim Beam, even."
Marva's "real" name is Martha, but she changed it years ago. She's a grad student studying 18th century lit, and even Judy can't help her decide whether to finish her PhD. She's slightly chubby, with perfect crimson hair and clothing by Sanrio, Torrid and Hot Topic. She is fond of calling herself "mallternative."
"I'm drunk enough already. I nearly fell off my bicycle a couple times," Judy says.
The living room is a pigsty, so they sit in Judy's room, which isn't much better. Judy hoards items she might need in one of the futures she's witnessed, and they cover every surface. There's a plastic replica of a Filipino fast food mascot, Jollibee, which she might give to this one girl Sukey in a couple of years, completing Sukey's collection and making her a friend for life — or Judy and Sukey may never meet at all. A phalanx of stuffed animals crowds Judy and Marva on the big fluffy bed. The room smells like a sachet of whoop-ass (cardamom, cinnamon, lavender) that Judy opened up earlier.
"He's a really sweet guy." Judy cannot stop talking in platitudes, which bothers her. "I mean, he's really lost, but he manages to be brave. I can't imagine what it would be like, to feel like you have no free will at all."
Marva doesn't point out the obvious thing — that Judy only sees choices for herself, not anybody else. Suppose a guy named Rocky asks Marva out on a date, and Judy sees a future in which Marva complains, afterwards, that their date was the worst evening of her life. In that case, there are two futures: One in which Judy tells Marva what she sees, and one in which she doesn't. Marva will go on the miserable date with Rocky, unless Judy tells her what she knows. (On the plus side, in fifteen months, Judy will drag Marva out to a party where she meets the love of her life. So there's that.)
"Doug's right," Marva says. "I mean, if you really have a choice about this, you shouldn't go through with it. You know it's going to be a disaster, in the end. You're the one person on Earth who can avoid the pain, and you still go sticking fingers in the socket."
"Yeah, but ..." Judy decides this will go a lot easier if there are marshmallows in the cocoa, and runs back to the kitchen alcove. "But going out with this guy leads to good things later on. And there's a realization that I come to as a result of getting my heart broken. I come to understand something."
"And what's that?"
Judy finds the bag of marshmallows. They are stale. She decides cocoa will revitalize them, drags them back to her bedroom, along with a glass of water.
"I have no idea, honestly. That's the way with epiphanies: You can't know in advance what they'll be. Even me. I can see them coming, but I can't understand something until I understand it."
"So you're saying that the future that Doug believes is the only possible future just happens to be the best of all worlds. Is this some Leibniz shit? Does Dougie always automatically see the nicest future or something?"
"I don't think so." Judy gets gummed up by popcorn, marshmallows and sticky cocoa, and coughs her lungs out. She swigs the glass of water she brought for just this moment. "I mean —" She coughs again, and downs the rest of the water. "I mean, in Doug's version, he's only forty-three when he dies, and he's pretty broken by then. His last few years are dreadful. He tells me all about it in a few weeks."
"Wow," Marva says. "Damn. So are you going to try and save him? Is that what's going on here?"
"I honestly do not know. I'll keep you posted."
Doug, meanwhile, is sitting on his militarily neat bed, with its single hospital-cornered blanket and pillow. His apartment is almost pathologically tidy. Doug stares at his one shelf of books and his handful of carefully chosen items that play a role in his future. He chews his thumb. For the first time in years, Doug desperately wishes he had options.
He almost grabs his phone, to call Judy and tell her to get the hell away from him, because he will collapse all of her branching pathways into a dark tunnel, once and for all. But he knows he won't tell her that, and even if he did, she wouldn't listen. He doesn't love her, but he knows he will in a couple weeks, and it already hurts.
"God damnit! Fucking god fucking damn it fuck!" Doug throws his favorite porcelain bust of Wonder Woman on the floor and it shatters. Wonder Woman's head breaks into two jagged pieces, cleaving her magic tiara in half. This image, of the Amazon's raggedly bisected head, has always been in Doug's mind, whenever he's looked at the intact bust.
Doug sits a minute, dry-sobbing. Then he goes and gets his dustpan and brush.
He phones Judy a few days later. "Hey, so do you want to hang out again on Friday?"
"Sure," Judy says. "I can come down to Providence this time. Where do you want to meet up?"
"Surprise me," says Doug.
"You're a funny man."
Judy will be the second long-term relationship of Doug's life. His first was with Pamela, an artist he met in college, who made headless figurines of people who were recognizable from the neck down. (Headless Superman. Headless Captain Kirk. And yes, headless Wonder Woman, which Doug always found bitterly amusing for reasons he couldn't explain.) They were together nearly five years, and Doug never told her his secret. Which meant a lot of pretending to be surprised at stuff. Doug is used to people thinking he's kind of a weirdo.
Doug and Judy meet for dinner at one of those mom-and-pop Portuguese places in East Providence, sharing grilled squid and seared cod, with fragrant rice, with a bottle of heady vinho verde. Then they walk Judy's bike back across the river towards the kinda-sorta gay bar on Wickenden Street. "The thing I like about Providence," says Doug, "is it's one of the American cities that knows its best days are behind it. So it's automatically decadent, and sort of European."
"Well," says Judy, "It's always a choice between urban decay or gentrification, right? I mean, cities aren't capable of homeostasis."
"Do you know what I'm thinking?" Doug is thinking he wants to kiss Judy. She leans up and kisses him first, on the bridge in the middle of the East Bay Bicycle Path. They stand and watch the freeway lights reflected on the water, holding hands. Everything is cold and lovely and the air smells rich.
Doug turns and looks into Judy's face, which the bridge lights have turned yellow. "I've been waiting for this moment all my life." Doug realizes he's inadvertently quoted Phil Collins. First he's mortified, then he starts laughing like a maniac. For the next half hour, Doug and Judy speak only in Phil Collins quotes.
"You can't hurry love," Judy says, which is only technically a Collins line.
Over microbrews on Wickenden, they swap origin stories, even though they already know most of it. Judy's is pretty simple: She was a little kid who overthought choices like which summer camp to go to, until she realized she could see how either decision would turn out. She still flinches when she remembers how she almost gave a valentine in third grade to Dick Petersen, who would have destroyed her. Doug's story is a lot worse: he started seeing the steps ahead, a little at a time, and then he realized his dad would die in about a year. He tried everything he could think of, for a whole year, to save his dad's life. He even buried the car keys two feet deep, on the day of his dad's accident. No fucking use.
"Turns out getting to mourn in advance doesn't make the mourning afterwards any less hard," Doug says through a beer glass snout.
"Oh man," Judy says. She knew this stuff, but hearing it is different. "I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," Doug says. "It was a long time ago."
Soon it's almost time for Judy to bike back to the train station, near that godawful giant mall and the canal where they light the water on fire sometimes.
"I want you to try and do something for me," Judy takes Doug's hands. "Can you try to break out of the script? Not the big stuff that you think is going to happen, but just little things that you couldn't be sure about in advance if you tried. Try to surprise yourself. And maybe all those little deviations will add up to something bigger."
"I don't think it would make any difference," Doug says.
"You never know," Judy says. "There are things that I remember differently every time I think about them. Things from the past, I mean. When I was in college, I went through a phase of hating my parents, and I remembered all this stuff they did, from my childhood, as borderline abusive. And then a few years ago, I found myself recalling those same incidents again, only now they seemed totally different. Barely the same events."
"The brain is weird," Doug says.
"So you never know," Judy says. "Change the details, you may change the big picture." But she already knows nothing will come of this.
A week later, Doug and Judy lay together in her bed, after having sex for the first time. It was even better than the image Doug's carried in his head since puberty. For the first time, Doug understands why people talk about sex as this transcendent thing, chains of selfhood melting away, endless abundance. They looked into each other's eyes the whole time. As for Judy, she's having that oxytocin thing she's always thought was a myth, her forehead resting on Doug's smooth chest — if she moved her head an inch she'd hear his heart beating, but she doesn't need to.
Judy gets up to pee an hour later, and when she comes back and hangs up her robe, Doug is lying there with a look of horror on his face. "What's wrong?" She doesn't want to ask, but she does anyway.
Excerpted from Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders, Sam Weber. Copyright © 2011 Charlie Jane Anders. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very well done 'stream of consciousness' writing. Doesn't give you a chance to stop reading. The fact that you start to care for the characters and hope things end well for them, even when you know they can't, shows a great deal of skill from the author. I had never read anything from this author before but I will be looking for more.
Just won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.