“Whoa. You guys are pretty cool,” said Jonesy.
“I know,” said Nick, smiling at the smaller boy as he picked gooey cheese off of a breadstick.
Jonesy was short and slight with shaggy brown hair and a round cherub’s face, looking like an overgrown toddler. He’d eventually start to look somewhat more grown-up, but Scott Jones would never lose that boyish roundness.
So far, the day and their conversation was progressing as it had all those years ago as they sat at the Hollister House of Pizza in downtown Hollister, New Hampshire, home of New Hampshire University, the Granite State’s finest, largest, and most expensive institute of higher learning.
They ate as they spoke in a cautiously open manner, the two pairs of friends feeling each other out. Joe felt more like an outside observer than an actual participant, the words and actions coming unbidden. He had no way of remembering verbatim what had been said over a dozen years ago, yet he somehow knew that this was it.
“So you guys went to high school together?” asked Carlos. He was taller than Jonesy, with an angular face and a tight-lipped set to his jaw. His hair, shaved nearly to the scalp, would progressively grow longer and puffier as the years went by.
“Yeah. And law school too,” said Joe, before the realization hit him that this was not a part of the original conversation.
Carlos and Jonesy looked at him like he was having a stroke or something, but there was no cosmic jolt, no tolling of a divine bell marking his anachronistic error.
“Going to go to law school,” said Nick, poking Joe with his elbow. “We’re going to law school. That’s the plan. Right?”
“Right,” said Joe. He took a hasty gulp of soda.
“Wait a minute,” Carlos said to Nick.
“Didn’t you just say you were into computers?”
“Yeah? So? Ever heard of a patent attorney?” said Nick.
Carlos said nothing. He picked up a slice of pizza and took a desultory bite.
“My brother’s in law school,” said Jonesy.
“Let me guess: he hates it,” said Nick.
“How’d you know?”
“Magic.” He took a swig of soda. “Everybody hates being a lawyer.”
“Then why do you want to go to law school?” asked Carlos.
“Good question,” said Nick. “Joe?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He wanted to get up and leave. But Jonesy and Carlos were good guys and for some reason he wanted to make sure they all still became friends. Acting like things were normal helped keep him from thinking about the enormity of his situation. “I guess I never really thought about it.”
“Which is pretty stupid for people who want to be lawyers,” said Nick, “but I digress.”
“Well I know what I’m going to do,” said Carlos. “And I know why I’m going to do it. I’m going to be a composer.”
“Yeah, for video game music,” said Jonesy. “Games I’m going to design.”
Joe, who knew that Jonesy ended up writing business software and that Carlos would soon switch his major to business and become a major player on Wall Street, said nothing.
But not Nick. Nick was always one step ahead of everybody. “Then let’s make sure that happens! Maybe we’ll join you and found a company together. You’ll need lawyers. What do you say, Joe?”
“Joe’s an idea guy,” said Nick. “He likes to write. Right?”
“Right,” said Joe flatly.
“Cool,” said Jonesy. “So why’d you guys come to NHU?”
Nicked shrugged. “The weather. The beaches. The bar scene. The same reasons everybody comes here.”
“I’m serious. You guys are from Mass. In-state tuition’s high enough in New Hampshire. Out-of-state must be crazy.”
“We just really wanted to get out of Lowell,” said Nick. “Everybody we went to high school goes to UMass. We needed a change of scenery.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. He was getting annoyed with Nick’s upbeat unconcern. Nick was normally glib, but he had been high as of late. Now, completely sober and fully aware of things, he acted like just as much of a dilettante. It was highly annoying and honestly quite shocking.
“Well, I’m from Hollister, and I still went here,” said Jonesy. “It’s a cool place. I think you’ll like it.”
“I’m from Manchester,” said Carlos. “Half of my high school ends up here. My sister too, but she loved it.”
“Then I guess we’re one big happy family,” said Nick. He elbowed Joe playfully. “Joe’s the mom.“Do you play basketball?” Jonesy asked Nick around a mouthful of breadstick. “Are you on the team?”
“What makes you think I play basketball?” said Nick. “What are you trying to say?”
“Just asking,” mumbled Jonesy.
“Take it easy, I’m just messing with you. I don’t have a high enough melanin content to play basketball, but maybe I should give it a shot anyway. Get it? Shot?” Nick turned to Joe. “What do you think? Should I play basketball?”
Joe’s mouth moved and the words came out, automatic reactions to the echoes of conversations past. He was starting to remember this one. It made his head hurt. “You’re awful at sports.”
“What do you mean ‘awful’? I’m a pretty good skater.”
“Skateboarding’s not really a sport,” said Joe.
He could have mouthed Jonesy’s next words. “Yeah it is. Ever heard of the X-Games?”
“There you go!” said Nick, sticking to the script.
“We should do something tonight,” said Carlos excitedly.
Nick, leaning back in the booth, raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? ‘Something’? Sounds vague and mysterious. I like it. What do you have in mind?”
Joe could have spoken Carlos’s next words too: “How about a movie? Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is out.”
“Overrated,” said Nick, waving a hand.
“How would you know? It came out yesterday.”
Nick, sucking soda through a straw, coughed, sounding for a moment like he was about to choke and die. “Kevin Smith, I mean,” croaked Nick, trying to clear his throat. “Kevin Smith. Not a fan. Pass me a napkin.”
“Let’s go anyway,” said Joe. They had gone to see Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that night, and Nick had liked it very much. He laughed until he was out of breath and had kept screaming, “I’m gonna pee my pants! I’m gonna pee!”
“Why?” asked Nick in a surly tone.
“I just think some things are meant to be.”
“Like what? Seeing a movie? Like this is our destiny or something? What difference does it make if we see a movie or do something else? Maybe I don’t want to see a movie.”
Joe clenched his teeth and picked his words carefully. “If some things don’t happen, then maybe other things won’t happen.”
“Just a hypothesis,” said Nick.
“You don’t know that.”
“What do you mean, ‘you don’t know’? Stop being such a baby.”
“I have no idea what you guys are talking about,” said Carlos, “but we don’t have to see a movie. It was just a suggestion.”
Conversation ceased as they tucked into the pizza, the only communication the smacking of lips and the occasional belch. The food had already started to get cold, which was just as well for Joe, taking one bite and setting his slice aside. His unease had murdered his appetite.
“What would you rather do?” Jonesy asked Nick.
“Glad you asked.” Nick straightened out and leaned forward, making the rest of them do the same. “Let’s rush a frat!”
“No way,” said Carlos. He leaned back, crossing his arms. “Bunch of jerks sitting around drinking. I don’t want to get kicked out of school. My parents would kill me.”
“I’m game!” said Jonesy.
“You are?” said Carlos.
Nick clapped his hands and rubbed them together like a mad scientist. “Excellent! You’re the deciding vote, Joe. What do you say?”
“I still say movie. What else is playing?”
“I don’t know,” said Carlos.
“Can’t you check?”
“How? I haven’t unpacked my computer yet and I don’t feel like walking all the way back to the dorm or wasting money on a payphone just to check some dumb movie.”
“I think what Joe meant to say is ‘yes.’ I think we could do some valuable good if we rush. And I know just the frat for us.”
“Sounds like you’ve been planning this for a while,” said Joe.
“Zeta Zeta Nu.”
“Let’s do it!” said Jonesy.
“I never would’ve guessed you were into this,” said Carlos.
Zeta Zeta Nu. Something about the name poked Joe’s memory. He could see the letters, ZZN, as they appeared on the banners and the t-shirts and the posters around campus, in the newspapers, and on TV. But why?
“Why them?” asked Carlos.
“For starters, it’s easy to pronounce. And second, I’ve heard those guys have a really nice roof deck.”
And then Joe remembered.
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