Sixteen years before she was killed, in the aftermath of her parents’ first divorce, Robin Gates found a copy of her obituary.
She was twelve, it was February vacation, and her mother had picked up a shift at the bar to make rent. Robin was supposed to be keeping an eye on her little brother, but Adam was glued to the Ms. Pac-Man machine in the corner—and had been ever since the barkeep handed him a mug full of quarters. If Adam was occupied, Robin was supposed to be up on the stage with her guitar—and a mug of her own to collect tips. But she hated the way the dirty old men leered at her while she played, as if the guitar and the stage made even a sixth grader fair game, so she grabbed a newspaper and sat in a booth near the fireplace. Robin sat and waited.
“Why don’t you do your part?” her mother would ask her. “Why don’t you do your part to keep a roof over our heads?”
“We have a roof over our heads,” she planned to say, “when we’re at Dad’s.” And the biting snark of the retort she’d lined up was enough to make Robin smile.
Until, that is, she caught sight of her name on the front page of the paper—her name, Robin Gates—under the headline “Local Singer Shot Dead.”
Robin Gates, the Chelmsford native whose song “Precious Whore” and its accompanying music video skyrocketed her to international fame in the late 90s—
Late 90s? thought Robin. It’s only 1990 right now.
She was about to check the dateline on the article when the whole paper was torn from her hands. “Hey!” she shouted, but her mother had crumpled the whole thing into a ball before Robin could say “give it back.”
“If you have time to read,” said her mother, “then you have time to play.”
Robin leapt to her feet, then leapt to grab at the balled-up wad of newsprint her mother held high overhead. “I need to finish reading that.”
“Hey,” shouted the barkeep, “no horsing around near the fireplace, for Christ’s sake.”
“Stop it,” said Robin’s mother, twisting this way and that to keep the prize out of reach.
“You’ll split your skull open,” shouted the barkeep, making his way toward them. “Or immolate yourself if you ain’t careful.”
“Stop acting like a child,” said Robin’s mother, nudge-shoving her daughter back into the booth.
“Hey,” said the barkeep, stepping in between them. “Let’s keep it civil, alright? You got family problems, you take ’em outside.”
“No problem,” said Robin’s mother, with a curt little bow to the barkeep.
The barkeep ruffled Robin’s hair and gave her a smile. “Don’t make your ma hire a babysitter, huh? Things are tight enough for you guys as it is.”
She nodded. Then she watched, powerless, as her mother threw the paper into the flames. But Robin had a plan. There was a whole stack of other newspapers where she got that one, and there had to be another copy.
There just had to be.
* * *
Robin played for a half-hour, collected her tips, and then handed over the wad of bills to her mother. Seemingly placated now, the older woman said nothing when her daughter made a beeline for the piled newspapers stacked near the entrance. And the barkeep, that asshole accomplice, had nothing to say either—not even when Robin gathered every paper there was into her arms. All he had to offer her was a shake of his head and a roll of his tired eyes.
As she passed her brother and his video game on the way back to the table, Adam pleaded with Robin not to get them kicked out. “I’m about to beat the high score,” he said. “Don’t ruin everything like you usually do.”
“Fuck you,” she said, speaking the curse aloud for the first time in her life and liking the feel of it on her tongue.
* * *
There wasn’t another copy of the paper she was looking for, but Robin found papers from all over the world in the pile—and from all across time. Nothing else from the future, though, and that’s really what she wanted to see most of all: something to prove she wasn’t insane.
“You’re not,” said a voice from above her.
“Not what?” said Robin, and then she looked up from her reading to see who was speaking to her. It was a waitress—one of her mother’s coworkers, Robin presumed, though this one looked like she was dressed for Halloween. She was wearing a ruffled bodice, a corset, and a skirt far longer than the one Mom was wearing.
“You’re not crazy,” said the waitress. “That’s what you were thinking, wasn’t it?”
“How do you know what I was thinking?” asked Robin.
The waitress laughed. “I watched you dig through that pile like a woman on a mission. And then,” she said, shaking her head as she smiled, “the look on your poor face when you didn’t find it…”
“I didn’t find it,” said Robin, “because it doesn’t exist.”
“Why do you say that?” said the waitress.
“Because you can’t read a paper from the future!” said Robin, at a volume a little closer to a shout than she’d intended. The barkeep, she noticed, had taken a sudden interest in their conversation. He’d drifted over the side of the bar closest to the two of them.
The waitress took a seat opposite Robin and pulled the stack of papers toward her. “But,” said the waitress, “what if you can?”
“You can’t,” said Robin. “I just imagined it.”
“But what if you didn’t?” asked the waitress. She was thumbing through an issue of the Boston Globe from 1918. “What if, in here—in this place—you can see the future?”
Robin was about to ask what made this place—this dive—special, but then she thought of the headline again. Local Singer Shot Dead. And so, instead of asking her question, she just said: “I don’t want the future I saw.”
“Are you sure?” asked the waitress.
“The newspaper said I was going to die,” said Robin.
“We’re all going to die,” said the waitress with a chuckle, and she rubbed at the back of her neck.
“It said I was going to be shot.”
The waitress said nothing for a second, just nodded somberly as she stared down at the table. Then she looked up and faced Robin again. “What else did it say?”
“It said I’m gonna be famous.”
The waitress smiled. “That doesn’t sound so bad,” she said. “Famous for what?”
“For my music,” said Robin.
“And do you like playing?”
“Hey,” shouted the barkeep, who was rounding the corner of the bar now. “Ada, what’d I tell you about sticking to your section?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the waitress. “Just thought the kid could use some cheering up.”
“You let her mother worry about that,” said the barkeep, collecting the newspapers now and tossing the whole lot into the fire. “And you get back to where you belong.”
The barkeep stalked off, grabbing the mug of quarters off the Ms. Pac-Man machine as he stepped back behind the bar. Then he shouted: “Last call.”
The waitress frowned as she stood. “Sorry, kid,” she said. “Wish I could’ve helped a bit more, but…” She trailed off, nodding over her shoulder at the now-flustered barkeep.
“Well,” said Robin, “I think Mom’s picking up another shift tomorrow. Maybe I can find you in your section. I didn’t even realize this place was that big. Looks so small from the street.”
“Bigger on the inside,” said the waitress with a wink, but Robin didn’t catch the reference.
“So, maybe tomorrow?” she said.
The waitress looked across the room at the barkeep. And now, if Robin wasn’t mistaken, it looked like the waitress might be ready to cry.
“Ada?” said Robin, not entirely sure she’d gotten the waitress’ name right.
“Maybe,” she said. Then she turned to face Robin one last time, and any tears that might have been there were all gone. “But, just in case we don’t catch up,” she said, “I want you to remember this one thing.”
“What?” said Robin.
“You know now what your future is supposed to be,” said the waitress, “but when have you ever done things the way you were supposed to?”
* * *
When Robin, her brother, and her mother made the hike out to the bar the next afternoon, they were startled to find a padlock on the door and a sign in the window.
“What do they mean by ‘closed permanently’?” asked Adam. “Do they mean, like, forever?”
Mom was too busy staring through the window and mumbling to herself to answer her son, so Robin told Adam: “Yes, stupid. That’s what it means.”
“But I was so close,” whined Adam. “I’d finally figured it out! I just needed, like, two more quarters.”
Robin’s mother told her to go check the side, so that’s what Robin did next. And though that door was locked too, Robin lingered for a moment when she saw a single garbage can they seemed to have left behind. And she lingered for one moment beyond that when she saw two words scrawled out on the lid in what looked like charcoal: OPEN ME.
Robin lifted the lid from the trash can and couldn’t believe what she saw. There, sitting atop a heap of ash, was a sliver of the newspaper she’d read the night before. It wasn’t much more than the headline—the rest had been burned away—but she finally saw the date.
September 29, 2006. That was the day she was going to die.
Robin started to cry. How could it be real? Just how?
She was shaking her head in disbelief when she saw a second scrap of newsprint that had survived the fire. She fished it out of the refuse, read it once to herself, then read it once more aloud—not even caring now if Adam or Mom overheard her.
Gates died just outside her apartment building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She spent her final moments in the arms of Hannah Hamilton, the on-again off-again girlfriend who Gates called “the love of her life” and whose photo graced the cover of the singer’s final album “A Hand That Will Never Be a Fist.”
“The love of my life,” Robin said to herself. And then she said it again. And, as absurd as it was, just the idea of love made her sniffle back the last of her tears and wipe her eyes with her sleeve.
She was going to die, yes. But first she was going to fall in love.