The Road to the Future is a Dirt Path

Written By: Will  Shadbolt

When my little brothers and I were younger, our family used to stay out at our beach house in Laurel for two weeks. I remember staring out the car window, watching as New York City’s lights faded into suburbs which then faded into lines of trees, and shaking in my seat in anticipation. My dad came out for one of those weeks but never had enough vacation days to stay the whole time, leaving my mom to deal with Chris, Evan and me.

We were a restless crew, falling into fights almost every day. Insults, even punches would fly, and one of us would invariably end up sitting in the corner, glaring at the others.

To cope, mom took us to our favorite spots: the beach, summer camp at Atlantis Aquarium, Splish Splash, and the carousel in Greenport. When both mom and dad were present, we’d go to wineries, and as the parents tasted wine, we three ran around what little space we had outside and play freeze tag. But we couldn’t stay at those locations forever. And even if we were occupied, that was no guarantee we would leave each other alone. Our mom had to get creative to prevent melees.

That’s why we started going for walks around the neighborhood.

Despite how banal that sounds, our little-kid selves loved it. Those jaunts fostered our imaginations.

Up our street, to one side, houses gave way to brush and branches and bramble and formed a curtain of green. But there was a brown break: a small dirt trail that we used to go down to reach “the future.” The future looked suspiciously like the present, with nary a robot or alien to be seen, but Chris, Evan and I had read Narnia and pretended that that path was our wardrobe.

In the future, there was a cul-de-sac with a fenced off circle of grass in the middle. “That’s our house a hundred years in the future,” I’d say. That this would have meant our house was demolished “decades ago” never entered our minds; to us, being in the middle was an honor.

“That house is the big tree across the road!” said Chris.

“And there’s the river,” said Evan, indicating a storm drain.

We walked a little further before returning home, where our mom got a chance to relax as we collaborated on what the future held. What jobs would we have a hundred years from then? Evan, by virtue of being the youngest, would be a hobo, Chris and I decided. Chris would be a film director. As for me, I wanted to be a videogame designer. (We naturally assumed that we wouldn’t just be alive that far in the future, but that we’d still be of working age.) That kept us busy until at least after dinner, upon which time we reverted to attacking each other and our mother’s vocal cords got another workout.

As we went to other areas, we incorporated them into our vision. We’d often walk a few blocks to reach the Peconic Bay. The water sparkled a mix of green and blue, and snails and seaweed intermingled near the shore. Salt hung in the air. A ten-minute walk along the sand brought us to a tiny stream flowing out from the reeds. We wanted to trample back there and explore where it came from but mom said no, so instead we decided to christen the area like 18th century explorers and called it our beach, but in the future.

Back at home we crafted fantastical stories and maps to go along with our world. Long Island inexplicably changed shapes to resemble a world out of a fantasy story, complete with a desert and magical forest. Maybe instead of being a hobo, Evan would be a hero to save the North Fork from some evil force.

At least one of those maps was torn up in the ensuing fights.

But we kept creating maps and stories, no matter how badly one of us treated the other two. The next day at Atlantis summer camp, Chris and I would move off from the rest of the group during expeditions into the marshy islands to discuss heroic matters and what our roles would be if Evan did in fact grow up to be a hero. “You would be the villain,” Chris said to me. Looking back now, we can’t help but laugh.

Each summer we’d go out to Long Island a year older but just as excited. Our cartography skills, though, were used less and less, until one day, I found that when we visited wineries, I no longer had to make due with freeze tag: I could drink the wine.

Now, in the actual future, when Chris and Evan aren’t doing projects for classes, they’re working summer jobs. After a year spent overseas teaching, I have a fulltime job. Luckily, our future selves have, much to our parent’s relief, outgrown screaming and brawling.

No matter the distance, diverging interests, or busy workloads, we’ve managed to stay close. Our imaginative efforts ensure there’s always something to talk about.

“What if you broke up this monologue here and then moved this line here?” Chris said to me the other day.

“That could work, but I don’t know how well this would look on screen,” I answered.

“It would work, trust me.” Chris now studies in film school, well ahead of schedule to become a film director. I’ve abandoned videogames for books, but as a kid my favorite part of games was always the story, and anyway now the two of us collaborate on screenplays and short stories, with Evan providing critiques. It’s difficult to think of us ever being at each other’s throats. Back during those lazy summer days, when we looked up from a paper we were all drawing on and told our mom we were working on the future, we were right.

A few weekends ago, the whole family, including aunts, uncles, a grandma and our little cousin, McKenzie, all congregated out in Laurel for the weekend. When Evan, Chris and I weren’t talking about videogames or ideas or old memories, we found ourselves in our mom’s old role by entertaining McKenzie at the beach.

“Let’s dig a hole to the ocean,” she cried out.

“Why stop there?” I asked. “Why not dig all the way to China?”

She giggled and dug for a bit in the sand close to the waves. Just as we were about to hit water, she threw a handful the wrong way and hit my open mouth. I bent over spitting, as she apologized. Evan saved the day by jumping into my spot and digging until a layer of brown water appeared at the hole’s bottom. Triumphant, McKenzie jumped around and only stopped when she saw me still trying to clean my mouth. “I can help,” she said. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a doctor so I can help people.” The three of us looked up at each other and smiled. Who knows where she’ll be a hundred years from now?