A shiver runs up your spine. No reasons or specific dates are given. The letter is almost achingly old-fashioned, careful print on weighted paper leaves no little hints it isn't signed in your married name or future rank just a list of, boring, black and white locations.
Your first thought is rather morbid. You wonder when the calamity you're supposed to avoid is coming. You wonder what happens, a hurricane? Nuclear bomb? Earthquake? Tornado, volcano, tidal wave, terrorist, bad sushi? What is it? How many died? Did have a lasting impact on you? It must have to waste the one chance to change your life. Your one goddamn chance to make a difference. What were you thinking?! ... What will you be thinking? Future you could have carefully hidden hints to jumpstart your life.
Your friend Dave wrote where and when he met his wife, what he had said and how he had wooed her he had sketched a picture of her and given him told him the perfect location they picked for a house, and to top it off signed it Dr. David James Holst, MD, New California Central Hospital. A veritable goldmine of information!
Ughhhh... Your dumb self had decided to just send you a list of no-nos. Ridiculous. If you wanted to be a cryptic drama queen you should have left a literal cryptogram like your sister Jane had gotten. She's 23 now and, while nowhere near solving her own cryptogram, has a promising career with the CIA and a fully funded post-doc research team.
The more you look at the list the more irritated you become. But wait. Maybe it is a cryptogram! You hate to think you're copying your sister in your old age, but whatever. You start rearranging. You try and map them out and find a center, you try and see what their abbreviation spells, you rearrange the locations, the letters, the orientation of the paper. Three months in you get frustrated enough to ask Jane for help, and she laughs at you. "It's not a cryptogram nerdo, you just stayed as paranoid in old age as you are now." She copies down my list and tells me we'll keep the family out of these places just in case. You want to scream at her the frustration is so strong. That can't be it! That can't be the one thing you want to tell your past self! Sure you're a bit introverted, you're a bit nervous around people, and of course, you have the common sense to avoid conflict zones and places that have frequent natural disasters. That doesn't mean you're boring! That doesn't mean you have nothing better to write home (yourself) about!
The days pass as you dive back into your research. The frustration is unmanageable. You learn every weather pattern, every faultline, every political climate of your locations compulsively. Your family starts to worry about you. 'You're obsessed' they say. 'Grinding your teeth in your sleep!' they say. Of course you're obsessed it's your future!
Six weeks since you ask Jane for help she visits you to introduce a 'friend'. She's trying to help and as usual it feels more like torture via forced awkward small talk. He's tall, blonde, and some big so-and-so at an insurance company. He's not your type. But he does offer the solution to one of your problems: "The predictive algorithms you've created for weather patterns is the most advanced I've ever seen, and that's literally my job! Would you be interested in selling it?". You are interested and now have the cash flow and steady employment maintaining and updating it to feed your obsession.
It doesn't help. In fact, it makes everything so much. The more you put into it the more you hate it. The more the frustration builds until it's a constant simmering presence that you know isn't healthy. 18 years and 8 months and your future self has driven you to a mental breakdown. You know you should get help, you need to give up on this madness. Just… you sigh. You just have to live with the fact that you are a boring person, to paranoid for your own good. You're suddenly exhausted. The frustration is suddenly gone, and the lack makes you dizzy. This is who you are, you guess, looking at the black and white letter. You're not sure how long you sit there, feeling emptied out. Not long likely, just a few minutes of quiet despair. A few minutes to wallow in your lack of potential. Sitting staring at a list of place you can NEVER VISIT.
A few minutes before your spark relights. Because honestly fuck that. Fuck that. "Fuck. That." you say pulling the letter down from where it's been thumbtacked to your big wall of crazy. It makes a satisfying sound as it tears a bit. Your on your feet again and you feel a maniac grin starts to spread across your face. It's the kind of idea that is maybe suicidal (someone in the future literally warned you away from it) but you honestly don't give a shit. If future you wanted to live a long life you should have been more specific. You buy a ticket for tomorrow and pack before you can stop to think about it. Fuck your future self. You're going.
Your research hadn't turned up much when you looked. It wasn't close to a fault line, too far north to really get tornadoes, no hurricanes on The Great Lakes, and not exactly a population dense area. Sure they got floods and storms off the lakes but so did the entire area. From what you read their biggest problem was bad water quality. Was future you really that much of a worry wart? Did you accidentally get lead poisoning? There are no hotels in Flint but you find a lovely AirBnB for just a room in a family home. They welcome you warmly and kindly but firmly reiterate that you can't drink any form of tap water in the city. You feel the first twinge in your stomach as you talk to them. They ask why you're in town and you sheepishly admit you got a list of locations in your 18th letter. You omit the NEVER VISIT line out of embarrassment but moments later the Mrs. tells you how her own letter warned her about trouble in Flint. She ignored it just as you are and this adventure suddenly feels like a terrible mistake but you can't exactly up and run. So you sit and listen.
The upside to being an introvert is that you are a pretty good listener. You sit and listen to the Mrs. recount the water crisis (after sheepishly admitting your ignorance) and you watch as the Mr. carefully pours bottled water to cook, then clean, then wash with. You are booked there for a week, not much competition since there's not much tourism here now. The first part of that week you spend listening. Everyone in Flint knows more about ongoing projects and programs and setbacks than you would think possible. Little one and Little two are the smartest 8-year-olds you've ever met because they sit you down and tell you about innovations in lead detectors and long-term effect studies. They throw around jargon like seasoned foreign correspondents. The more you learn about the amazing people who live in Flint, and how hard they are working the more you feel like a 'tragedy tourist', coming here to make yourself feel better. It sits in your gut in a slimy sort of way and when every you have a moment of pity thinking 'Oh that's terrible!' it squirms sickeningly. The last part of the week you begin to engage. You make the excuse to the Mrs. that you must have put this location on the list for a reason, it must be to help. It's a lie of course, because Flint, Michigan is neatly printed under NEVER VISIT. You ask them to point you in the right direction and there's enough that needs doing they do with only a small amount of chagrin. You carefully explain your skills to the coordinator they point you to and you're put to work gathering statistics and building databases for upcoming cases. You do land surveys and population surveys and your one week trip turns into two, then four, then six. You're not sure if you make a difference when you finally leave, but leave you must.
The University you deferred to next year is calling. It's the next year and classes begin in less than a week. You haven't even moved into dorms and your mother is frantic. It's a strange disconnect going back to worrying about your own small problems. You feel bad at first, worrying about moving your stuff and decorating your dorm properly, you compare it to the suffering in Flint and it feels small. It's an insult to both to keep comparing them and the Mrs. tells you so, bluntly, and firmly. You keep in contact and intersperse your new volunteer work with your classes and your work.
The world moves forward faster than you expect and before you know it you're at the end of your second year and the University wants you to choose a major. "Database analysis would be an excellent choice for you" your advisor says shuffling through your transcripts and class lists, '"it won't be hard for you to find a good job in that field either." they say. You know what they mean. They mean a well-paying job. A cushy job that you don't have to work to hard at or for. It's tempting. So tempting. To just settle in, take the skills you already have and build a house in the suburbs have two point five kids and get a golden retriever. But something tugs at your memory, an announcement for J-term. A structural engineering course with a J-term field course in Cambodia.
You're advisor looks lost and appalled when you tack a structural engineering minor onto a database management major. You have to add summer classes to get the credits for it but you do. You spend the summer studying intently, despite the call of the outdoors and new friends. When your motivation starts to flag you simply look up at your 18th letter wherein neat black and white under Flint, Michigan is written: Cambodia. An entire country you aren't supposed to visit. The list pushes you forward with fervid determination because future you can suck it.
You land in Phnom Penh International Airport with more confidence than you had in Flint. After all, you hadn't died or anything. Sure the first weeks were mildly uncomfortable but you made great friends and had also found a clue for your list. Future you was apparently terrified of water crises. At some point, you develop an extreme phobia to places without clean sources of water…. It was a stretch you get it but honestly, you think this theme may work for you. You have some experience now on how to deal with water crises. It will be fine you think.
Two days later and you know it is NOT fine. You knew that lack of infrastructure was the main issue at fault here, hence all the structural engineers, but the scale of it is astounding. Worse it's not just the infrastructure that needs help. Explaining to the people of in rural villages what they want to do is nigh impossible, or so it seems. They object to foreigners, they object to taking water samples, they object to moving pipes, and they most of all object to being told what to do. Which is infuriating (but to be fair you also object to being told what to do, strongly enough to fly to Cambodia) and makes everyone tense. It isn't like Flint, where Little one and Little two knew everything.
The lack of infrastructure also meant lack of rural schooling so communicating your idea of potable water becomes meaningless jargon in translation. A week in with everyone on edge and all you can think to do is show not tell. You take samples from the river and carefully filter the water, giving them the clean water to drink, showing them the substrate filtered out. Then you repeat it, but this time before you give them the water you mix the substrate back into the clean water giving it back it's murky look. They generally refuse to drink this re-contaminated water, and while it certainly doesn't fix anything it provides a starting point for discussion. There's not much more you can get done in three weeks other than provide and help set up supplies. You can't even keep in contact with the people here like you do with the Mrs. so you get incontact with WHO, make a donation, offer to volunteer, ask about their work in Cambodia and if they've considered a solar powered options on a larger scale than a solar ball. The end to your trip is just as unsatisfying as the last.
You go home at the end of J-term to complete your classes and suffer that same disconnect, thankfully shortened by experience. You find it's easier if you stay busy. You finish University with no more travel and substantially more studying. You design a learning computer system that compares the value of businesses by dollar invested. It's not new but it's streamlined. You use it to invest in stocks and then to donate to good charities.
You're 23 when you graduate and you realize there's nothing to stop you from going back to the places you've been. You visit Flint and get to see the astounding progress. A new pipe system, new governor, and a new water source make for much better progress than you made in your short-term stay. Still you visit and do what you can. The Mrs. is glad to see you if nothing else. "Anywhere else on your list?" She asks eyes crinkling with mirth. She's teasing but there are a few more locations on your list. You suddenly feel overwhelmed and she must see it on your face. "Now none of that dear." She says sternly, groundingly. "No one said you had to do it all at once. It doesn't say that in your letter does it?" She asks. You shake your head. That's right, you don't have to do it all at once, in fact you're not supposed to be doing it at all. Bolstered you move forward.
You may move forward to quickly considering that on your next trip to Cambodia you get shot at. It's enough to spook you. You vow never to tell your parents, they already are unsure of this crazy lifestyle you've picked up.
You settle for a little while. You get your masters. You get a Ph.D. Your list gathers dust for a while. It gathers dust until there is an earthquake in Nepal. Specifically with an epicenter in Bagmati, Nepal the same location listed as number three on your NEVER VISIT list.
Your well enough established, and your work portable enough that you can pick up and go immediately. Geologists say the area is still unstable, you are wont to agree with science so you pick a native geologist and go with them. They point out dos and don'ts and you assess structural damage and add that into their data pool. This is not quick trip. You spend the next three years in Nepal trying to devise cheap but reliable ways to earthquake proof houses. You learn the most for ancient Nepalese people as it turns out. They were the experts at earthquake proofing and your solutions are based on.
You absorb the beautiful culture and nature all around you and use it to conquer the last of your social anxiety. You'll probably never be brash, you think, but at the very least you can be bold.
You're 31 when you meet your spouse. You sit next to them on the flight from Nepal and spill your water all down their front. It's astoundingly awkward and you fumble all over yourself trying to help, the only saving grace is that they are just as awkward as you and keep breaking into nervous laughter. When you both are back under control they ask you where you're headed. "Home for a wedding. My best friend from high school is getting married." Your small talk evolves over the 15-hour flight to something with depth and meaning. You take them with you to Dave's wedding.
Dave had finally found his wife. 13 years of waiting was apparently enough though because he had quickly convinced her to marry him. She must have had something about him her 18th letter because it only took her 3 months to be wooed. You find the whole thing rather funny but then again, most people do try listening to their letter. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say.
You spend a year back home getting to know you, you getting to know them.
When they are notified about an unknown outbreak in Zamora, Ecuador you feel a thrill run up your spine. They go as a member of Doctors Without Borders and you go to lend a hand with geoprofiling the spread of the unknown outbreak. You stay and help set up temporary shelters and sort water supplies. You comfort sick patients and calm stressed doctors. You work more with WHO and DWB to prevent the disease from spreading. You write grant proposals to charitable organizations and outreach letters to churches and religious groups. You fall in love with your spouse. When a vaccine is found it's a bitter victory. There is nothing to be done for the already ill, but there is a permanent way to stop the spread.
You both fly home with more gray hairs than you started with, more tired than you were before. You propose at age 36 and your spouse says yes. You don't settle, but you also don't go to the last location on your list. You return to Ecuador for your wedding, you marry on a beach both the Mrs. and the Mr. attend, Little one and Little two are busy with their law firm and medical practice respectively. The coordinator who showed you the ropes comes, your University advisor and several of your professors, the geologists and a few Nepalese builders come. Everyone the both of you know in Ecuador comes and somewhere in the chaos is your parents, his parents, Jane, and The Holst Family.
It's chaos and you think you will never be happier.
You and your spouse run smack bang into happiness as happiness is running away from a foster home. You don't so much as rescue happiness as refuse to give it back. Happiness isn't quite the baby delivered by stork, but you and your spouse didn't really want one of those anyway.
Happiness grows and grows and grows until you think they'll topple over from the added height, then they and learn and learn and learn until you realize that they outsmart you in just about any subject. You get to see them receive their 18th letter and feel a strange sort of relief that it's not very specific. You're not sure why but it releases a tension you didn't think you were carrying. You think they would regret it if they didn't explore their life a little.
Your happiness goes to college and meets their spouse. They have their own happiness and you learn once again that you can be happier. It's when your first grandchild gets their 18th letter that you go in search of your last location. The only location to be given in longitude-latitude coordinates.
When you had first looked, forty plus years ago, it had registered as Dublin, Ireland but now GPS was accurate enough to tell you it's actually "O'Donoghue's Pub" a strange and rather inert seeming place. You gave up decades ago trying to guess what would happen. A dozen or more trips to every other location on your list made you ambivalent about the threatening nature of NEVER VISIT. So naturally, you and your spouse take a vacation there. You check into a lovely little bed and breakfast in the center of town and decide to spent the day wandering. You meander up the uneven cobbled streets and stop to buy trinkets for friends and family at home. You don't rush, you don't even particularly try to get to the pub yet right before sunset you find it.
It turns out it wasn't even the pub you were looking for. On the wall in the side street, you're on is graffitied in large bubble letters 'I had quite the adventure, in spite of myself'. You can't help but laugh. You laugh long and hard until you cry with laughter and your spouse looks at you doting but not getting it. You insist on visiting a bookstore and the pub itself before I explain.
It's a quick trip to get the necessary supplies and you settle comfortably into the relatively bustling pub. "Will you explain to me now what you found so funny?" They ask as I pull out my purchases and lay them on the table.
You grin. "Do you remember my 18th letter?" You ask and they nod almost immediately. It had ceased to be an obsession by the time you had met them but it had still been worth mentioning.
"All that time," You say, "I spent trying to figure out what the locations meant and why I could never visit. I resented not getting a good 18th letter, so finally, when I gave up on figuring it out I decided to go to those places specifically, because if my older self had wanted me to stay away I should have explained it better. At first, I traveled in order to spite my future self." Your spouse's laughs, eyes crinkling quiet charmingly.
You carefully shuffle the supplies you bought moments ago. "So my love," You say, gesturing to the basic paper and a history book, "would you like to never visit somewhere new?".