Cherry Blossom Stranger

 

            Time machine, time machine, take me away, to foreign lands and long-forgotten days.

            7 April 2063; local time: 12:15 p.m.; outside Tokyo, Japan

           I hate writing in my leather-bound journal on trains. The car’s gentle rhythmic rolling rocks me to sleep every time. However, riding in the Gran Class of the recently-remodeled Shinkansen bullet train is akin to gliding on silk, allowing my pen to arc in grandiose flourishes with none of my usual stray swerves. I take a sip of hot tea from my porcelain teacup, nodding in appreciation at the elixir’s floral aromas.

           I’m chronicling my latest adventure, out of necessity as much as for posterity: time travel is confusing! Have I met this person already? Do I meet them later? Have they already told me about this? Can I tell them about that? Hell, half the time I can’t remember which version iPhone I’m allowed to use. Minutiae of my exploits are therefore meticulously detailed for reference later.

           My latest assignment was somber yet swift: I was in Tokyo to pay my last respects to Ichiro, a man I met during the 2020 Olympics. That’s the funny thing about time travel—everybody you meet is essential. Even your one-night stands. His obituary said he was survived by his husband, two adopted daughters, and seven grandchildren; he lived a good life. I placed a bough of aster tataricus—the “I won’t forget you” flower—bound with a white lily on his grave. I find his entry in my journal—“Met an Osaka businessman named Ichiro at the Closing Ceremonies” with a green smiley face next to his name to denote that we fooled around—and write “DECEASED 29 March 2063.”

           I clasp my journal shut. Thinking about Ichiro saddens me. I absentmindedly trace the gold lettering of “Matt’s Journal” with my finger while wondering if he ever thought of me. Being single and on the wrong side of thirty makes me wonder what could’ve been if I had accepted his invitation to visit him in Osaka. I never went, but I’m headed there now, to chase an echo of a future I never had.

           I place my hand against the window and swipe to the right to displace a high-resolution newscast screen. Japan rushes by in a blur. I cast my eyes skyward to see if the Land of the Rising Sun will live up to her name, but the sun is battling a curtain of clouds for atmospheric dominance. I switched into shorts and a tank top before boarding the train, so luck be a sunbeam today.

           I reach for my teacup to find it empty. I’d like a refill, but pushing the “refill beverage” button next to my seat elicits an error message: “Please accept our apologies, but your robotic waiter has been removed for maintenance.” It’s strangely comforting to know machinery still fails in the future, but I’ll have to refill my tea the old-fashioned way. I stand up, stretch loudly and lazily, and take my empty cup to the dining car, passing an elderly Asian man on the way out.

           When I return to the Gran Class car, teacup simmering once more with caffeinated wonder, I notice I’m no longer alone. However, it’s not the Asian man I passed earlier. Instead, an elderly gentleman of American or European descent is reading a book. In my seat. Normally I’d surrender my seat amidst a flurry of eye rolls, but my journal still rests in the adjoining chair. Since retrieving it will necessitate an awkward conversation anyway, I boldly stake my claim:

           “Excuse me, sir. You have my seat.”

           The old man lowers his book to greet my voice. His face is a roadmap of creases and wrinkles, of memories and mirth, of a man who genuinely believes laughter is the best medicine. His thick mane of white hair is carefully gelled into place. His eyes are shimmering teal pools. He smiles slightly.

           “My apologies, young man,” he says. I’m instantly intoxicated by his British accent. He starts to stand, and I’m suddenly chastised at the thought of inconveniencing the elderly.

           “Actually, don’t worry about it. Let me just grab my journal, here, and I’ll…”

           I stop mid-sentence because he has stood, towering a solid three inches above my 5’11 frame. He grabs my journal; after staring at it a second too long, he passes it to me. I’m imbued with an exhilarating energy when the journal touches my hand.

           “Thank you,” I offer weakly.

           “You’re quite welcome, Matt,” he says with a wink. He grabs his book and makes his way to another seat.

           “Wait!” I say, a little too forcefully. The old man turns back to me, his left eyebrow arched in confusion. “How did you know my name?”

           He smiles and nods towards the journal in my hand. “Your name is on the cover.”

           “Oh, haha, yes, of course, sorry,” I stammer.

           “Anyway, good day, Matt,” the old man says.

           Without thinking, I blurt out, “Join me. There’s room for both of us here, and we’re still two hours out of Osaka.”

           I don’t know why I’ve invited this old man to sit with me. I loathe small talk with strangers, but a curious force moves my tongue.

           “Friendships are forged on trains, right?” I add.

           The old man stares at me with a peculiar, burning intensity, like he’s searching my soul for an answer to a question unasked. Just before I wither under his gaze, he breaks into a sly smile.

           “Actually, it’s love affairs,” he corrects.

           I chuckle. His flirtation leaves me flustered and flattered.

           “Well, in that case you better buy me a drink,” I fire back.

           “I hope you like whiskey,” he says, producing a flask from his back pocket. I act unmoved, but I’m impressed.

           “What kind?” I ask as he hands me the flask.

           “Jim Beam.”

           “Jim Beam?!” I say in mock disgust. “Sorry, I only drink Crown Royale.”

           I try to hand the flask back, but he’s digging in his other back pocket. He produces another flask.

           “Crown, for the diva,” he says with a winning smirk.

           I can’t help but laugh. We trade flasks as he takes a seat opposite me. We unscrew the tops and go to cheers each other.

           “What should we cheer to?” he asks.

           “To coincidence?” I suggest.

           “Coincidence is a myth,” he says coyly.

           “OK, umm…how about to…meeting strangers on the train?”

           “Too Hitchcockian. We need something celebratory, mate!”

           I’m stumped. What would I cheer to if I was already drunk?

           “To boys, booze, and bloody good times,” I say, affecting my infamously bad British accent. My ridiculousness catches him off guard, but he smiles affectionately.

           “To boys, booze, and bloody good times!” We clink our flasks together and take a generous swig. The Crown burns and I try not to choke in front of my well-seasoned guest, but he witnesses my struggle with bemusement.

           “Something wrong?” he asks, licking his lips in satisfaction.

           “Err…it’s a bit strong,” I confess.

           “My husband thought the same,” he says with a chuckle. “Mix it with your tea.” He senses my apprehension, so he adds, “Trust me, it will taste fine.”

           Despite the ludicrous suggestion, I pour the whiskey into my cup. Surprisingly, the smooth creaminess of the Crown blends seamlessly with the floral earthiness of my tea. The old man observes my satisfaction with a smile.

           “This old geezer knows a trick or two,” he says.

           “It’s surprisingly good.”

           The old man takes another swig from his flask while I carefully pour more Crown into my tea.

           “Does this ‘old geezer’ have a name?” I ask.

           “I’m Liam,” he says.

           Liam. Such a beautiful British name.

           “Pleased to meet you, Liam,” I say as we shake hands. Both our hands tremble slightly upon first contact, but he transitions into a firm, masculine grip.

           “The pleasure is all mine, Matt.”

           “Are you from England? I love your British accent!”

           “I am, yes. Liam from London, at your service” he says with a slight bow. He has charm in spades. “And where might you be from?”

           “I was born in Korea, but I grew up in Seattle.”

           “Seattle,” he says, knowingly.

           “Have you been?”

           He takes a second to collect his thoughts. An uncomfortable confession feels imminent.

           “Yes, I met my husband there. But he…”

           I glance at Liam’s left hand. He’s still wearing his wedding band. His husband must’ve…

           “…passed away,” he concludes.

           “I’m sorry,” I say.

           Liam’s gaze turns towards the window. He swipes away an infomercial to once again reveal the Japanese countryside. A bullet train headed towards Tokyo approaches, and we both watch it sprint past in the opposite direction. After it passes, Liam speaks again, though his gaze remains firmly fixed out the window.

           “It’s OK. It was many years ago now.”

           I want to say something comforting, but nothing comes to mind. After an uncomfortable silence, we both try to speak.

           “You look like…” he starts, as I’m asking, “So, why are…”

           “Beauty before age,” he says, his hand extended towards me. Despite his melancholia, he still oozes charm.

           “Sorry, I was going to ask why you were headed to Osaka.”

           His mood instantly lifts. “I’m going to the Osaka Cherry Blossom Music Festival,” he says, triumphantly.

           “The what?”

           “The Osaka Cherry Blossom Music Festival,” he repeats. “It’s an outdoor music festival. A load of international bands and local talent play near the bay, and wind turbines blow cherry blossoms across the crowd.”

           “Oh wow, that sounds amazing!”

           “I’ve been going for years. I proposed to my husband the first time we went. Coldplay performed that year.” His smile fades slightly. “You’re probably too young to remember Coldplay.”

           I must dance delicately here. Coldplay are amongst my favorite bands, but in 2063, they haven’t been relevant in decades.

           “Actually, I’m very familiar with them. My grandfather had an antique iPod, and he let me listen to it when I was a kid. I grew up with post-millennium pop and rock.” It’s not my most convincing lie, and I scramble to recall any contemporary pop stars from the current decade in case Liam suspects fabrication. Thankfully, my response is satisfactory.

           “A young man with fine taste!”

           “Did they play ‘Lovers in Japan’?” I ask, eager to move the conversation away from my falsehood.

           “…how did you know?” Liam looks confused. The song wasn’t one of Coldplay’s big hits.

           “Because the song is called ‘Lovers in JAPAN,” I say with a playful smirk.

           “Oh, right,” he says, looking relieved. “Yes, they did. Smashing tune, that!”

           “Aces all the way.”

           “That song came on right as the turbines started blowing cherry blossoms over the crowd. It was breathtaking. I asked him to marry me before the song was over, and he said yes.”

           I smile at Liam warmly. It’s a beautiful image, proposing to the man you love amidst a burst of cherry blossoms, and I can’t resist inserting myself into the fantasy. Jubilation hangs in the air, the sun is setting, and cherry blossom petals fall from the heavens as Coldplay rock the crowd into a frenzy. A perfect man twirls me into his arms. He leans in to kiss me, and…

           Liam breaks me out of my reverie:

           “Say…I know you probably have your own plans in Osaka, but if you’re free and don’t mind hanging with an old codger, I’d love to take you to the festival.”

           “I’d love to go!” I say enthusiastically. Dancing amongst the cherry blossoms sounds like a dream come true. But then I remember: “I don’t have a ticket.”

           “Let me take care of that,” he says. He whips out a mobile device I don’t recognize and starts typing quickly. “Press your thumb here,” he says, flipping the phone towards me. The phone scans my thumbprint and makes a satisfying “beep”.

           “OK, all set. You have your ticket now.”

           “How much do I owe you?”

           “It’s on me.”

           “No…please, let me pay for the ticket,” I plead.

           “Give me a hand-job in the washroom, and we’ll call it even.”

           I freeze until Liam bursts into laughter.

           “Jokes! Although if you’re game…”

 

           We reach Osaka just before 3:00 p.m. The sun defeated the clouds, bathing the city in an amber glow. Liam grabs his small tote and I grab my journal, and we disembark the train. I try to hail a cab, but Liam is already climbing into what looks like a giant metal wheelbarrow. He notices my confusion.

           “Electric rickshaw,” he tells me. “They run on rails all throughout the city. Get in.”

           I’m barely aboard before Liam pushes a button on the interactive touchscreen, sending us towards Osaka Bay with sickening speed.

           The festival is already under way when we arrive, and after we cross through the main gate by placing our thumbs on a robotic scanner, I take in the grandiosity before me. A paved walkway adorned with strings of paper lanterns dips gently into a large valley, where bands perform on makeshift stages near the water. A massive crowd has already formed. To our left, a large grove of cherry blossom trees sway gently atop a hill. Only a few petals sprinkle down; the turbines must be off.

           Liam grabs my hand and leads me past a long row of food stalls to a converted temple to our right. A male Japanese automaton greets us, informing us the festival is not responsible for any lost or stolen items, but Liam charges past, leading me to a row of lockers lining the wall. He reaches into his tote and pulls out a change of clothes.

           “You’re already dressed for the occasion, but I need to switch into a vest,” he says, discarding his shirt. I don’t look away in time.

           “Keep staring, Mattie,” he says with a smile.

           I roll my eyes dramatically and make a big production of turning the other way.

           “All done,” he says. He’s changed into a black tank top with a Union Jack design. His biceps bulge out. He clearly maintains an effective workout regimen, even at his advanced age.

           Liam starts digging through his tote again. “Can you open that locker over there? I just need to grab a few things and then we can head out.”

           These lockers are unlike any from my time in that they lack obvious locks, keys, or even handles. I’m baffled, but a small scanner where I’d imagine the locker’s door to be provides a clue. I place my thumb against it, and the locker opens with a cool hiss.

           “Perfect!” Liam says. He hands me his tote, and I throw it and my journal into the locker. “I just need my phone and…these!” He holds up a tiny plastic bag of pills. Those are one of two things; I err on the side of caution.

           “Medication?”

           “No! Molly!”

              Of course.

           “Care for one?” he asks.

           I’ve done my fair share of drugs at music festivals across the decades, but they fuck me up much harder this far into my future. I flashback to a particularly potent pill I took at a circuit party when I time traveled to San Francisco Pride 75. I was high for days! I couldn’t remember where my time machine was, let alone navigate back home, nearly stranding me in the future. I’ve been much more cautious ever since. Liam senses my apprehension, though, and he’s having none of it.

           “I’m not trying to roofie you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he says, disgustedly. “If I wanted to drug you, I would’ve slipped it into the whiskey.”

           That cheeky monkey! “Give me that!” I say, reaching for the bag.

           “Tut-tut,” he admonishes. “We’ll do one now, and we’ll split the last one towards the end.” He hands me a pill.

           “To boys, Brits, and bloody good times,” I say, holding my molly aloft.

           He smiles and taps his pill against mine.

           “To boys, bands, and bloody good times,” he corrects.

           I place the pill in my mouth. Surprisingly, it’s not bitter like the pills back home. Drug dealers are apparently much more sympathetic to our complaints in the future. I’ve barely had a chance to swallow before Liam grabs my hand.

           “Osaka awaits!” he says.

 

           The Osaka Cherry Blossom Music Festival is a sea of Japanese music fans. We bump against them as we gently meander through the crowd to the various stages overlooking Osaka Bay while waiting for our roll to kick in. Giant virtual cartoon images dance in the sky to the beat of the music, perfected by a technology I’m unfamiliar with. Similarly, lasers of every hue burst over the crowd with an intense beauty that puts my era to shame. Liam points a few bands out, and I nod approvingly, though I don’t recognize any of them.

           At some point, a light breeze shifts and the beautiful stench of the food stalls hits my nostrils. I haven’t eaten since I left Tokyo, and I’m famished. Liam must be reading my mind, because he leads me back towards the entrance of the festival, where I buy us fish and chips. The flaky fried fish and piping hot fries are delicious, and it takes every ounce of willpower not to lick my greasy fingers in gluttonous satisfaction. While I’m wiping my hands with a paper napkin, Liam points to the hill with the cherry blossoms.

           “We can’t see them from here, but there’s miniaturized wind turbines up there that blow the blossoms down to the crowd,” he says.

           I feel like he’s mentioned this before, but my attention scatters. My brain is suddenly buzzing, like someone flipped a switch in my mind. I feel good, happy, content.

           “They turn them on during the closing set,” he continues.

           I try to will the turbines on with my mind, to cause a supernova explosion to burst in front of my eyes, but nothing happens. Instead, the lanterns on the walkway illuminate with bright halos. Noise from the crowd drifts into my ear and ricochets in my cranium like an eternal echo. I’m slightly nauseous, but I’m overwhelmed by an urge to jump up and down. I sway uneasily.

           “It’s a wonderful sight,” Liam says. We both stare at the blossoms in silence.

           Eventually the tsunami of serotonin ebbs just enough for me to speak. “I’m rolling,” I blurt out while dropping my remaining fish and chips to the ground.

           “Already?!” Liam asks with a laugh. He wipes his chin with a napkin and tosses his chips into a bin before taking my hand. “We better go dance, then!”

 

           Liam’s roll hits shortly thereafter. He’s in his element, awash with glee, expertly weaving in and out of the crowds with the sprightly spirit of someone one-third his age. It’s refreshing to witness, and I try to match his boundless enthusiasm as the music swirls into an auditory kaleidoscope of euphoria. We both dance with wild abandon as a minute, an hour, a lifetime flies by in a flash. When Liam bites into his last molly, offering me half, I can’t believe it’s already time to indulge once again. I’m already in a warm cocoon of bliss…and didn’t we drop only an hour ago? I foolishly search the sky for a clock to confirm my suspicions, but all I can see is Hello Kitty and an orange cartoon monkey dancing to the music. Liam stares at me with amused curiosity.

           “Hey, Matt. You OK?”

           I can’t speak, so I smile stupidly and nod my head.

           “Hahaha, let’s do another half now,” he says, gently placing the magic candy in my mouth. Here we go! An hour later, the extra half hits and I blast into the cosmos.

           Eventually the Japanese headline act takes the stage. The crowd surges, but Liam is unimpressed.

           “C’mon, I want to show you something,” he says. He grabs my hand and pulls me in the opposite direction of the crowd, the paper lanterns leading us back to the now-abandoned festival entrance. I’m coated in sweat, and though my body still buzzes with a twitchy urgency, it’s a relief to catch my breath after dancing nonstop for hours. I sit atop an empty picnic table and take deep, deliberate breaths in an attempt to center my thoughts. I glance out at the water and watch the sun sink three-quarters below the horizon, setting Osaka Bay aflame with Wildberry Skittle hues.

           Suddenly, the unmistakable sound of a tack piano floods my ears. Each note rings like a bell, hypnotizing me. It’s so beautiful I almost cry. It’s the opening to “Lovers in Japan.” Is the headliner covering this ancient tune? I crane my neck towards the stage, but the symphony comes from behind me. I swivel around to find Liam, grinning like an idiot, playing the Coldplay tune on his mobile device. It sounds crystal clear, so I close my eyes and twirl to the majesty of the music. My arms are stretched to the side as I spin in messy, anticlockwise circles, forgetful of everything except this moment, right here, right now…

           Something lands softly on my nose. I open my eyes to find the intruder is a cherry blossom. Another one lands on the ground near my feet. Then another one. And another one. And another one. I look towards the heavens and gasp as a blizzard of blossoms rides a gentle breeze towards the bay. The crowd explodes in ecstasy as they’re coated in pink snowflakes.

           I’ve barely absorbed this wondrous sight when Liam grabs me with his free hand and spins me around to slow dance. I place my head on his shoulder and it feels so right. I never want this moment to end, but when the song concludes, Liam places his index finger below my chin to gently tilt my head up. His teal ponds transfix me as he leans in. I know what’s about to happen, and I make no attempt to stop it.

           Liam kisses me tenderly on the lips. I should be repulsed—he’s double my age, and then some—but it feels right. He gently presses his tongue into my hungry mouth, and I reciprocate with as much animalistic passion as my body can muster. We stand there, locked in eternal embrace, cherry blossoms raining down all around us, as all of time—past, present, and future—stands still.

           Liam pulls away and takes a step back. A rush that has nothing to do with the molly bathes me in rapturous radiance. Liam looks down but quickly meets my eye again. He’s crying, but his beautiful smile indicates they’re tears of joy.

           “Matt…” he starts.

           He pauses, his smile giving way to a horrified contortion. A gasp escapes his open mouth, and he clutches his heart in pain as his body buckles. I manage to catch him in my arms before he hits the ground.

           “Are you OK?” I stupidly ask. No, of course he’s not OK! He’s having a heart attack! Find a medic! I try to react appropriately, but my roll paralyzes me.

           “Matt…no…I…”

           He breathes deeply but winces. My mind races, but my body refuses to act, leaving me to cradle him in my arms. I don’t know what to do. He’s dying. I start crying.

           “Matt…I love you…thank you…” His breath is ragged, but the drugs have neutered his fear. I try to think of something to say, something I can do. This can’t be happening! I’m rolling way too hard for this!

           He grunts loudly and his body lurches. His teal eyes finally betray his fear, but just for a second.

           “…for one last day together,” he concludes.

           Liam smiles weakly as the sun dips below the horizon and the light leaves his body. The cherry blossoms have stopped their beautiful snow shower. I sit there, stunned, as tears stream down my face like raging rivers. I want to lie down and cuddle with Liam’s lifeless body, but a nagging voice in the back of my mind tells me to flee. You’re not from this era, you’re loaded up on drugs, and you’re cradling a dead man in your arms…how will you explain that to police?

           I’m heartbroken, but there’s nothing I can do for Liam. I kiss him on the forehead and whisper, “I’m sorry,” before mustering every ounce of willpower to stand…

 

            8 April 2063; local time: 9:01 p.m.; Seattle, Washington

           “…and then?”

           I’m at Chrysta’s condo. I’ve known her my whole life, though she’s an old woman now. We’re on her couch, and I’m relating the story over a mug of hot cocoa. Her cat, Nancy Sinatra, purrs affectionately as she slithers between Chrysta’s legs.

           “I grabbed our stuff from the locker and ran like a coward, all the way back to the Osaka train station,” I say.

           “While you were still high?!” Chrysta asks.

           “While I was high, yeah. Took the first train back to Tokyo, rolling my ass off the whole time. Locked myself in the bathroom and cried most of the ride.”

           “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, dear!” Chrysta lovingly touches my leg with one hand and absentmindedly stirs her hot cocoa with the other.

           “The worst part was I had so much molly coursing through me that I wanted to find a night club in Tokyo and dance it off.”

           “You didn’t…”

           “No, I checked into a hotel and used one of those Sleep Machines. First time using one of those, and it knocked me out instantly, even with all those uppers. Came here right after. I’m still a little jittery, so I was hoping to crash here before heading back to my time.”

           “Of course! I’m just glad you’re OK. But poor Liam!”

           “I know. I just met him, and he died in my arms like that…” I trail off.

           “At least he died doing something he loved,” Chrysta adds.

           “I wish I knew more about him. He felt so familiar…”

           Chrysta suddenly stops stirring her drink and goes quiet. This does not go unnoticed, but before I can call her on it, she changes tack and asks me to help her to bed. There’s something strange about her request, but she peers at me over her spectacles with a seriousness that warns me this is a battle I won’t win. I sigh wearily.

           “C’mon, Miss Daisy, let’s get you into bed.”

 

           I want to write about Liam once Chrysta is tucked neatly in bed and I’m settled in her guest room. My journal isn’t in my pocket, and for a horrifying second, I wonder if I left it back in Osaka. But a familiar leather corner peeks out of Liam’s tote. I must’ve put it there when I was leaving the festival. I open the bag and dump the contents onto the bed. My journal plops out, plus Liam’s shirt, his two flasks, and his wallet.

           Curiosity compels me to peek inside his wallet. I find his ID on the inside flap. The picture looks exactly like him, only ten years younger. I check his birth year: 1988. At least he lived a long life. I continue rooting through his wallet, finding cash, credit cards, and a picture of a him with an older Asian man. It feels dishonorable to reduce Liam to such banalities. I close the wallet but notice one last picture tucked behind his ID. I pull the old, yellowed, folded photo out and immediately look away in disbelief.

              I’m seeing things! It can’t be! I take a deep breath to calm my nerves, but when I turn back, the same surreal image chills me to the bone. It’s a picture of me. My hair is flecked with additional grey, suggesting it was taken five years in my future. I’m standing next to a tall, brown-haired man in a black tank top with a Union Jack design. His arm is around me, and we both have genuine, life-affirming grins on our faces as cherry blossoms float around us.

           I turn the picture over and read the inscription, written in green ink: “He said yes! 9 April 2022.” A single tear and a stray cherry blossom strike the back of the picture at the exact same time.

—Matthew Craven

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One Direction Solo Singles

Ah, 2011. Think back to that magical year when LMFAO were the reigning clown princes of pop, Katy Perry continued to spin off number ones from Teenage Dream, and Adele blew everyone away with that voice. It wasn’t that long ago, but these memories feel like a lifetime has passed. But the surest reminder that we’ve left 2011 firmly behind are the five solo releases by former members of One Direction.

One Direction were the penultimate ‘10s boy band. Cobbled together by pop mastermind, Simon Cowell, for the U.K. edition of his X Factor franchise, the fivesome proved greater than the sum of their individual parts when “What Makes You Beautiful” stormed to number one in the U.K. and made the top five in the U.S. Successive songs sent their teeny-bopper fan base into a frenzy, with nine of their first ten singles landing in the U.K. top ten. Additionally, in an era of eroded sales, they sold millions of albums. And they perfectly synthesized killer pop hooks, cutesy music videos, and social media savvy (band member, Harry Styles, was the most-followed Briton on Instagram for a time) to become the biggest pop band on the planet…

…until Zayn Malik dropped a bombshell in 2015 by leaving One Direction to “be a normal 22-year-old.” Malik’s retirement was short-lived, however, when he released his solo debut, “Pillowtalk,” a year later. One Direction soldiered on without their fallen comrade, but Malik’s instant success sowed the seeds of the group’s current hiatus. Eighteen months later, each member of One Direction has released a solo single.

But how do their solo singles stack up against each other? Let’s examine each debut single to determine which member of One Direction has the most promising prospects.

5) Strip That Down—Liam Payne featuring Quavo

Co-written by Ed Sheeran and sampling god-awful, turn-of-the-millennium Shaggy hit, “It Wasn’t Me,” Liam’s solo single finds him singing generic “Let’s fuck because I’m famous” fare. The sparse, hip-hop-lite production unintentionally thrusts Payne’s indistinct, weak vocals to the forefront, leaving a feature by Quavo (a third of American hip-hop group, Migos) to perform most of the vocal heavy-lifting. Liam is beautiful to look at, and for that reason alone, I hope he has a long, storied solo career, but this is an unpromising start.

 

4) This Town—Niall Horan

Horan’s acoustic, singer-songwriter-y debut stands in stark contrast to 1D’s polished pop, with lyrics lamenting the memories of lost love all around town. The glacial tempo and overly familiar subject material reduce Horan’s debut into the auditory equivalent of a plain donut: decent but boring. Much better is follow-up single, “Slow Hands,” which slinks with the same subtle sexiness that made Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” such a treat.

 

3) Just Hold On—Louis Tomlinson and Steve Aoki

Tomlinson’s debut single finds him in pensive mood as he asks rhetoric questions like, “What do you do when the chapter ends?” and “Where do you go when the story’s done?” against a dancey soundscape painted by EDM-maestro, Steve Aoki. Tomlinson’s uplifting vocals single-handedly save the song from crash-landing into maudlin wasteland.

 

2) Pillowtalk—Zayn Malik

Malik had the advantage of being first out of the gate, but “Pillowtalk” would’ve sizzled regardless of release-order. The song marries echo-y vocals about fucking with lush production that splits the difference between R&B and electronica; a trippy, carnal video staring Malik’s model-girlfriend, Gigi Hadid, sealed the deal. Songs about sex are rarely sexy, but Malik hit a sweet spot, milking “Pillowtalk” into a transatlantic number one. Follow-up single, “Like I Would,” and its Tron-inspired video was another ace.

 

1) Sign of the Times—Harry Styles

Sadly, not a cover of the similarly-titled Prince track, Styles’ debut is, instead, an ambitious piano power ballad that encapsulates the best of British music from the Beatles to Bowie. The track’s lavish production sprawls across nearly six minutes, allowing Styles vocals to unleash at increasingly impressive range as he implores, “we’ve got to get away from here.” This is an epic, grandiose debut that blows anything he did with One Direction out of the water. Styles was long suspected of being the Justin Timberlake of One Direction; “Sign of the Times” all but assures him a successful solo career.