Before and After

December 3, 2013

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Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

For Jerry, there was a before — sitting on the train home from Connecticut, where he had been visiting his father, suspended in that agonizing twilight of life in which he was unable to distinguish Jerry from Jerry’s brother, Brian, dreading the next call to Brian so they could argue some more about whether it really was time to send the old man to that place in the brochure Jerry had mentioned several times already, walking home the six blocks from the station in the red, late summer dusk while checking the balance of his stock account on his phone, dreaming about quitting work someday when the number got big enough but knowing that the number never would get big enough because Liddy and Jacob needed to go to college and that place in the brochure wasn’t free either, turning up the driveway to his house, fantasizing how Beth was going to open the door and yell guess what honey and unveil a winning lottery ticket, for some reason oversized like those giant checks they have on TV sometimes, remembering, as he inserted the key into the lock, that he still hadn’t cleaned out the gutters and Beth certainly would be unhappy about that even if she wasn’t going to say anything and he really did like it better when he could see her smile, and seeing, as he stepped into the den, the blank faces of his wife and children as they gathered before the big TV, and thinking how odd a sight that was because he couldn’t remember the last time the family had found anything they wanted to watch together —

and an after — stepping back out into the driveway, where the summer breeze carried the smell of smoky grills and lavender and sumac, which was Liddy’s favorite and he and she had spent a lovely afternoon together to plant them, an afternoon he wished had never ended, and the sound of splashing pools and buzzing mosquitoes, gazing up at the darkening, cloudless sky, where the first bright stars were emerging and the birds circled and danced like the trails of planets and moons and comets and satellites in that astronomy program Jacob was always so excited for him to see on the computer, searching and seeking for the silvery, otherworldly glint of the curved hulls of those ships that had crossed unimaginable distances to come here, ships limned by green lights and threatening to unleash sharp, pale blue rays of lightning that would become so familiar in the oncoming days, all the while noticing neighbors, neighbors who he had smiled at and perhaps exchanged a few words with here and there without knowing anything about their lives, their worries and fantasies and the anguish buried in their histories and the layers hidden under their suburban and harmless façades, neighbors who suddenly felt very close, as close as members of the same species ought to feel when seen through the perspective of light–years and parsecs and time that had slowed down, neighbors stepping out of their houses, too, as they glanced at one another, looking in each other’s faces for answers that everyone already knew would not be there, and then, hearing the uncertain steps of Beth and Liddy and Jacob behind him, and realizing that there was no need for answers, only the desire and strength to endure —

but the moment itself was a hazy blur — the TV screen flickered and figures and words scrolled on the bottom as the President spoke (“…patience and faith… and God bless America…”) against those incomprehensible images, and Jerry would not be able to remember, in all the following years, no matter how hard he tried, the moment when he finally understood that the world had changed, forever and ever, like a sentence that twists and turns, accumulating the detritus of thoughts and feelings and fears and memories and yearnings until one notices that somewhere along the way, a shift irrevocably altered its path and mood and tone so that upon reaching the final, abrupt period, one hesitates, waits, suspends a breath, to remember.

© Ken Liu

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