“. . . mistake.”
Joe opened his eyes. Below him was not a cold tile floor, or even puffy white clouds, but bright green grass. A warm breeze tickled his neck. A fly buzzed in and out of his ear, contemplating whether it should land.
He was on his hands and knees, gasping for air like someone climbing out of an endless sea. For an absurd moment he thought he had grown extra fingers, but it was just double-vision, as though the shaking of The Machine had sent his eyeballs into permanent motion.
I can’t be dead, he thought, my head hurts too much.
Coughing rang out in front of him. It was Nick, lying spread-eagled on the ground, face towards the blue sky. The first thing Joe noticed was Nick’s hair, no longer short and conservatively styled but the wild jet-black mop he had when they were kids.
Joe tried to say something, but could only reply with a cough of his own. He had a brief second to catch his breath before his stomach lurched, expelling its contents onto the grass. When it was over, Joe felt better, like the Earth had regained its solidity.
Haltingly, he got to his feet. His vision returned to normal and he felt a bit stronger, though his knees shook like after a near-death experience.
Joe grabbed Nick by the arm; for some reason, Nick was wearing a black Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and a pair of green cargo shorts instead of his stylish navy-blue suit.
“Nick! Are you alright?!”
Nick groaned as Joe pulled him to his unsteady feet. He rested a hand on Joe’s shoulder, stooped down, and retched onto the grass, narrowly missing Joe’s shoes. They were a pair of black Chuck Taylors. Joe thought that was weird; what had happened to his Florsheims?
“Oh, wow.” Nick rubbed a forearm across his mouth. “That was gross.”
Joe looked around. Based on the soccer nets standing at each end of the grassy expanse, they must be at some kind of athletic field. Sure enough, a track circled them, its packed red dirt standing out against the green. On three sides were woods, on the fourth a hill leading up to a red brick building. “Are we . . . is that the Burns Center?”
Nick turned in a slow circle, his face slack with shock. At the end of his revolution Nick’s gaze darted towards Joe’s midsection. A smiled popped onto his face. “Your gut! Your gut, Joe! It’s gone!”
Nick laughed, boxing lightly at Joe’s flat stomach. “Your gut! Oh my God, Joe! It worked! It worked!” He laughed again, walking around with his arms raised like a triumphant boxer over his defeated foe.
When he stopped he straightened his back and rolled up his sleeve. “Look at my shoulder. Look at it!” He reached over to pull Joe’s up as well. “Yours too. Those lame tattoos we got are gone! This alone makes it all worthwhile!”
Sure enough, the scales of justice they had stupidly, and drunkenly, gotten inked on their shoulders after passing the bar exam were no longer emblazoned on their skin. “How did we get here? And your hair . . . Are we . . . are we dead, Nick?”
“It worked! Sanjay was right, the magnificent bastard! Don’t you get it? It worked!” Nick whooped, pumping his fist. “I’d say we’re more alive than ever!” He did a cartwheel on the grass, nearly kicking Joe in the face as he twirled through the air.
He landed, red-faced and huffing, and put his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “Remember freshmen orientation? Remember how we skipped it to toss the Frisbee around?”
“Freshman what? Like college?”
“That was years ago. Why are you. . .” But Joe stopped as his stomach turned to ice. He knew what came next.
Nick pointed to a yellow object in the grass. “There’s the Frisbee!”
The realization crept up on Joe with the ruthless calm of a killer. He chose his words carefully, trying not to sound as crazy as he felt. “Are you saying we’re back in college?”
Nick gave him a shake. His eyes were fevered. Up close, Joe noticed that he had no wrinkles around his eyes and none of the stubble that permanently shaded his cheeks. “Think about it, Joe. The Machine was called the Chrono-Displacer. Think!”
Joe opened a mouth gone dry, leaving his voice a rasping croak. “Are you saying that thing was a time machine?”
“Yes!” Nick shook Joe harder, making his head bob as if in constant agreement. “Yes! Isn’t it great?!” He let go and turned towards the hill, pointing. “If I’m remembering things right, it’s about ten o’clock. Jonsey and Carlos should be coming down the hill to toss a football around.”
Jonesy and Carlos. The remaining members of their college coterie. The four of them had been thick as thieves, but drifted apart shortly after graduation the way young men always did. Joe couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken to either of them. Three years ago? Five? Not that it particularly mattered.
He started to sweat and his breath grew short. His vision narrowed and he feared he may faint on the grass. He grabbed Nick by the arm. “How do we get back?”
“Don’t tell me you forgot the way to our dorm.”
“Not to our dorm, Nick. Home! How do we get back home?!”
Nick threw off Joe’s arm. “What do you mean, ‘home’? We are home! Where else would we go?”
“Are you telling me we’re stuck here?”
Nick wasn’t listening. He was frantically patting his pockets. “Where are my cigarettes? Wait a minute. I don’t have any cigarettes. I don’t even want cigarette. You know what this means? I haven’t started smoking yet!” Again, he whooped with joy.
“You’re scaring me, Nick.”
“I don’t think you understand what this means, Joe. We have been given an opportunity to correct all of the mistakes in our lives. This is a gift from God, or from ChronoCorp, whomever you want to believe in, and I don’t think we should waste it.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“Think about the things you could have done differently! You always said you wanted to do something great with your life. This is your chance! Maybe you don’t marry Sandra, maybe you do. Who knows? You’re getting a second bite at the apple, Joe! A second chance! A do-ver!”
“That’s what I’m worried about!”
“Worried? About a second chance?”
Now Joe shook Nick. “My son you idiot! What about my son?! He’ll never be born, Nick! He’s gone forever! You killed him!”
“Whoa, hey, what do you mean ‘killed’? I haven’t killed anybody.”
“You selfish . . .” Joe let go of Nick because he needed his hands to cover his face. He would not let Nick see his tears. He would not.
But he would hear them. Joe had a cry that sounded like a donkey, a braying laugh that erupted in percussive barks. He tried to control it, but then he would see Jason’s innocent face looking at him as they watched the ballgame, or hugged Joe’s arm as he read a bedtime story, and the sobs would be ripped out of him like nasty, rotten teeth.
“Hey, Joe. I’m sorry.” Nick sounded scared himself. He put a hand on Joe’s back.
“He’s gone, Nick. He’s gone.”
Nick began to pat Joe’s back with gentle taps like a father consoling a baby. “You don’t know that. Let’s say you and Sandra get together anyway. He could . . . you know . . .”
Joe lowered his hands and looked at Nick, his eyes wide and incredulous. “And what do you think are the odds of that happening?”
Nick spread his hands. “I’m just saying it’s not impossible.”
“Of all the times, Nick, of all the times to set The Machine, of all the places to take us, you picked our freshman year of college? How could you be so selfish?”
“I was high!” said Nick, as if that explained everything.
It did explain some things, like the red eyes, the nosebleeds, the more manic-than-usual disposition. “You were on coke again, weren’t you?”
“Guilty as charged. But look: I’m not addicted yet!” He smiled, charming as always. Joe wanted to punch him. “See? Golden opportunity!”
Shaking with rage, Joe started to cry again. He squatted down and covered his face with his hands.
Nick folded his tall frame next to him as best he could. “Jason may be back there in the present still, in an alternate reality or something. We don’t know. I know that’s cold comfort, but it’s better than nothing!”
“You don’t know?”
“Not exactly.” Nick cleared his throat. “There are lots of theories about time travel and alternate universes. Sanjay wasn’t sure which was true, but you’ve probably heard of some of them, like this one, where every decision each of us makes splits the universe into alternate realities. Like, whether you eat that piece of pizza or don’t, whatever you don’t do happens in the parallel universe.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of that,” said Joe, sniffing.
“Well, somewhere else, we didn’t set off The Machine and–”
“I didn’t set off The Machine, and we might still be at ChronoCorp messing around with that contract and complaining about our sad and miserable lives.”
“I wasn’t sad or miserable.”
“Oh yeah, you were the picture of contentment. You can’t fool me, Joe. It takes one to know one. So what do you say we stop crying and get on living? We’ve got a lot of catching up to do!”
Joe breathed deeply. If they were well and truly stuck here, there was wisdom in Nick’s words. The best way to go about getting Jason back was to get Sandra back. Again. It made his brain hurt.
He stood. Nick followed, slapping him on the back. “That’s the spirit!”
Joe sniffled, wiping his eyes with a hand. “So what wasn’t Sanjay sure about?”
“Jonesy and Carlos should be coming soon.”
“Not sure about what, Nick?”
“The time travel. Do you have to make such a big deal about everything? Let it go.”
Joe didn’t like the way Nick avoided his eyes. He pulled him by the arm. “So there are no parallel universes. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?”
“We think. Didn’t you read the contract?”
“It’s a theory, right? It’s all theory.”
“Technically, it’s a hypothesis, but yes, right. The idea was that The Machine could be used in war. Avoid military disasters and all of that? Would you let go of my arm?”
Joe did. Nick made a show of rubbing it as if Joe had been administering the mother of all Indian sunburns.
“Let’s say that some general or whatever screwed up and guys start getting blown up left and right,” said Nick. “Once the top brass caught wind of it, they could fire up The Machine, set things back a few minutes, save all those lives and make the right choice. How could you not have read the contract?”
“Because it’s boring as shit,” said Joe. But it made sense, and was totally brilliant. But something still didn’t add up. “Wouldn’t everybody know what happened?”
Nick grimaced as he scanned the hill. “Where are they?”
“No! The people who tested it, they set everything back a few times a couple of seconds or whatever. The hypothesis was that only whomever used The Machine, or at least knew it was going to be used, would keep their memories after it set things back. The rest of us wouldn’t.” He shrugged. “I guess that part’s true. Wish I could tell Sanjay.”
“‘Set things back’? What do you mean ‘set things back’?”
“It’s just a hypothesis, Joe, let it go. This is all really high-level stuff. If it’s above my pay-grade, it’s certainly above yours.”
“No. You were just talking about parallel dimensions. Now you’re saying ‘set things back.’ What does that mean?”
“I see them!”
Nick was waving his hands around, but the gestures seemed subdued. “It’s like this: The hypothesis, and that’s all it is okay, was that it wasn’t like we were going back in time in a DeLorean or whatever, but that time would be set back for the entire world. Or universe, whatever you want to call it. And only those who needed to know would know.”
“So no parallel worlds.”
“We don’t know that!”
“No alternate realities.”
“Just a hypothesis!”
“It’s a one-way trip.”
“Goddamn it, I didn’t say that!”
“So no Jason somewhere out there. He’s gone for good.” Joe snapped his fingers. “Winked out of existence in a flash of light.” The tears returned with renewed force. He sank back to the ground, falling on his hands and knees.
Over his honking sobs Joe heard a voice. “Everything alright?!”
“Hey! Yeah!” Nick waved at two figures jogging down the hill. “Just like I said,” he said quietly to Joe. “Things are happening the same way. Who’s to say Jason won’t be born again?”
“What’s going on?” someone said. It was Carlos. “He okay?”
“Him?” said Nick. “Yeah! I mean, no! He just found out he lost somebody very dear to him.”
“Oh. Um, I’m sorry. Do you need help?”
Nick looked down at Joe. “No, I think . . . I think he just needs to be alone right now.”
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