“When I Was Your Age” by Darren French is the First Prize-winning story in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category in the 13th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of the awards, see the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. To see a complete list of winners and read the first-place winners in each genre, click here. For an extended interview with our grand-prize winner, click here. For a selection of advice and inspiration from the winners, click here.
When I Was Your Age by Darren French
“When I was your age, back before all this happened …” Grandpa begins, but I roll my eyes, turn on my Strip computer—one of the old zoogity types that graft to your temple—and tune him out. Like most people born before the Accident, he doesn’t get that time doesn’t matter anymore. Which is why he took me out for my birthday in the first place.
I go to grab another slice of pizza, but before my fingers can close around the crust, the slice disappears. Our booth and Tony’s Restaurant is gone, too, and now we’re sitting on a park bench on a warm summer’s day.
“Jee—Gah,” Grandpa blurts. “God-damn-it. I can’t stand this crap. When are we now?”
I shrug, shut off my computer, and watch the ducks swim in the pond down the hill from us. On the other side of the pond, a girl in black shorts and a neon-yellow top jogs past. As she runs up the hill away from us, she becomes a swirl of black and yellow and flesh-tone hues, like wet paint on canvas. A second later, she’s gone, leaving only a faint ripple in the fabric of space-time.
“2019. It’s 2019. What do you bet? Incredible. I was two-years-old in 2019.” Grandpa furrows his brow and looks over his shoulder. “But this isn’t Chicago … where do you think we are?”
“There aren’t any places anymore, Grandpa. No years, either.”
The park disappears, and now we’re sitting on a couch in a living room. A pirate stands in the corner looking confused, while some show called Leave It to Beaverys on a screen built into a giant television console that must weigh as much as a car.
“I remember this show,” Grandpa says. “Used to watch it on Netflix when I was a kid.”
I nod and look up at the pirate. “I’m Nico. This is my grandpa, Ethan Stevens,” I say, gesturing with my head.
The pirate inches toward us along the wall like a prison escapee, keeping as much distance between himself and the TV as he can. He looks at Grandpa.
“Do you know where the Black Lady is?” he says, which I figure must be his ship. “What kind of witchcraft is this? Where did Barbados go?”
Grandpa looks up at the pirate and sighs. “I don’t know when or where anything is anymore,” he says.
The pirate slumps onto the couch on the other side of grandpa, and they discuss things that aren’t here anymore. I use the opportunity to get up and see if there’s any food.
I find a fridge upstairs in what originally might have been a burial chamber or crypt or something. A girl in a sequined dress and shoes with wheels rolls around the gold coffin. I grab a couple of chicken wings from the fridge and look at the pictures painted on the walls: men in skirts and men with animal heads, and strange symbols. I forget what they’re called.
As I eat my chicken and look at the pictures, the girl disappears. Other people come and go, and after several minutes, someone behind me says, “Beautiful, aren’t they?”
I nod and look over my shoulder. He’s about grandpa’s age, with slicked-back silver hair. He looks dreamily at the pictures, adjusts his glasses, and glances at me.
“Leo Robinson,” he says, holding out his hand.
I shake it. “Nico Stevens.”
Leo nods, stuffs his hands in his pockets, smiles, and looks at the pictures. “There are benefits to the Accident, aren’t there?”
“Huh?” I say.
“Well, look at us here, gazing at hieroglyphics. Never thought I’d do that.”
I shrug, but nod. “Can you read them?”
“Not a word. But they’re great to look at, right?”
“I love the artist’s style,” I say. “Bold colors, and everything looks flat. Never seen anything like it before.”
“When I grew up, people weren’t really interested in the art of it. Just the history.”
“Too bad,” I say.
Leo nods, but he soon begins to melt and swirl. A second later, he’s gone. I look at the hieroglyphics for another minute, and then take the playground slide back downstairs.
In the living room, which is now the inside of a horse-drawn carriage, Grandpa’s still talking to the pirate. All I hear is, “shattered the space-time something-or-other,” before Grandpa hears me and turns around. “‘Bout time. Where you been?”
“There isn’t any time or—”
“Or places, anymore. Yeah, yeah.” Grandpa sighs, turning back to the pirate. “See what I mean?”
The pirate nods, knowingly.
“We should get back home,” Grandpa says to me. “Your parents will be worried.” He furrows his brow. “How do we get home again?”
I sigh and tell Grandpa and the pirate to hold each other’s hand so they don’t get lost in the next shift. A moment later, the stagecoach melts away.
“What did I tell you?” Grandpa says. “It’s easiest on the kids. They don’t know any different.”
I roll my eyes, turn on my computer, and pull up an article on Egyptian hieroglyphics.