As Joe looked up at the grand Victorian that served as ZZN’s base of operations, he began to have mixed feelings about partying with a bunch of college kids. Though he was in his college-aged body, his mind was firmly planted in his depressive, disillusioned mid-thirties.
Revelers crammed the house, girls clad only in bikini tops raising their red plastic cups as they drifted in and out amongst the sea of brothers and pledges. One particularly well-endowed young lady leaned towards them from the wrap-around porch and beckoned them to come inside.
“Wonder what her father would think of this,” Joe muttered.
“Don’t know, don’t care.” said Nick. “All I know is that I think we made the right choice.”
“Absolutely,” said Jonesy.
Joe knew why Nick had chosen ZZN, of course. They discussed it as they set up their dorm room in Paxton Hall before heading out with Carlos and Jonesy. The two of them had still ended up roomies, the head of housing honoring their long-shot request. Thank God Nick had set The Machine to deposit them back here after their parents had left for Lowell; he wasn’t ready to see his family. Not like this.
“Are you sure we aren’t dreaming?” he had said to Nick as they bunked their beds. “I had a dream kind of like this tonight, the first time we were in college. I woke up and instead of being a freshman here I was a freshman in high school again. It was horrifying. Maybe The Machine knocked us out. Maybe you’re not really here and I’m talking to myself. Maybe–”
“Maybe you’re babbling,” said Nick. “We’re here, this is real, and we’ve just got to get used to it. Now shut up and lift.”
“Do you think this has ever happened before? Besides the tests, I mean? What if this wasn’t the first time The Machine had been built, or used? If it affects the whole world, how many shifts have there been? What if time never progressed past ours?”
“I guess we’ll find out if we end up back at ChronoCorp a dozen or so years from now,” said Nick. “Less talk, more bunkbeds.”
They got the beds together, Nick almost getting a finger smashed between them, and proceeded to secure the beds tight.
“When we end up back at ChronoCorp,” said Joe, tightening a bolt.
“Joe. Joe, listen to me. The idea of this is to change things. What part of that don’t you understand?”
“I don’t want to change things, Nick.” He held back the tears, always close by. “I want my son back. I don’t know why you don’t understand this.”
Nick put his wrench on one of the dressers and sat down on the bare mattress, patting a spot next to him. “Take a seat. Listen: There’s nothing that says doing everything step-by-step like we did before is going to lead to the exact same outcome. There are a million variables between now and the birth of your son. A billion. Let’s say you marry Sandra again. Who’s to say that your firstborn will be Jason?”
Nick was right, of course, but that didn’t stop Joe’s heart from being torn apart. He put his head in his hands and began to cry.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” said Nick softly. “I’ve gotten you into a pretty big mess. But I promise you we’ll make the best of it. Some good will come out of this. I know it will.”
Joe straightened up. He had no choice. Why cry about it? With a few last sniffles, he said: “Zeta Zeta Nu, right?”
“Right. And we can do more. Look at Carlos and Jonesy. They were like us: Full of dreams that went nowhere. We can help them, Joe. We can help a lot of people.”
“But what if things turned out the way they did for a reason?”
Nick stood up, almost bonking his head on the upper bed. “What about free will, right? God gave us free will for a reason. Things aren’t fated, Joe. Things don’t just happen ‘for a reason.’ It’s up to us.”
“It sure feels like we’re the ones playing God. I don’t recall the Almighty ever turning back time.”
Nick raised a finger, a passionate advocate making his closing argument to the jury. “But He could! And who’s to say He hasn’t? We wouldn’t know.”
Maddeningly, like usual, Nick had a point.Joe stood up, stretching his arms over his head and yawning. He felt beat, certainly not ready for a frat party. It did seem that he was eternally fated to do whatever Nick wanted, free will be damned. “So what’s your big thing, then? Stick with the C.S. major? Not go to law school? Go back to the pizza place?”
“Get together with Amy Pappas.”
Joe started, surprised at how quickly Nick spat that answer out. “TV Amy?”
“Yeah . . . she was perfect, man. Perfect.”
“You never really knew her,” said Joe; he just remembered Nick mooning from time to time over some “really tall Greek chick.” “When did you ever talk to her?”
Nick shrugged. “A few times at the Greek Student Association meetings. Big Greek community up here, you know.”
“That’s not the point, Nick. The point is: how do you know she’s perfect?”
“I just do, okay! What do you care? You’ve got your white whale and I’ve got mine. So back off!”
“Hey, take it easy. I just mean you haven’t mentioned her in years.”
“I’m a very private individual,” said Nick.
“Private. Right.” Joe sat back down on the bed, looking at the clutter in their room. Consciously or not, they set it up exactly as they had during their first foray through college: The beds bunked and pushed into the back-right corner, the two dressers side-by-side under the windows, their TV and stereo system in the entertainment center Nick’s parents provided against the wall opposite the beds, Joe’s bookshelves on either side. He was sure they’d eventually string the Christmas lights Nick had brought around the ceiling and the doorframe to save them from the glare of the fluorescent overhead lights. As one of the few people to have knowingly traveled back in time, Joe felt rather depressed that repeating the same steps came so naturally.
“Go after her, Nick. I want you to be happy. No point in wasting this chance.”
“Same to you,” said Nick quietly. “What’s Sandra up to? I mean, when we were in college?”
Joe shrugged. “She’s still in high school now.”
Joe shook his head. “Outside of Detroit. Then she did undergrad and law school at Harvard while we were at Northeastern. That’s where I met her.”
“After we took the bar. Right. And ironically, you met her at a bar. You know what this means, don’t you?”
“I wasn’t smart enough to get into Harvard?”
Nick picked up his wrench and finished tightening the bolts on the bunked beds. “No. Well, yes, but that’s not what I’m getting at. I mean, you have to go to law school again. Otherwise, how’re you going to meet her?”
The realization hit him like a punch in the gut. “Oh.”
“Don’t get all down on me, Joe. We’ve got a few years. We’ll think of something.” Nick looked at his watch. “Time to jet.”
“Carlos and Jonesy wanted us in their room at five. Remember? Hop to it, my man. Tonight, we get to be heroes.”
* * *
They had spent the rest of the evening listening to music and playing video games. Joe remembered being better at them when he was younger.
“You suck,” Jonesy yelled over the music. “I thought you said you’d played this before?”
“I never said I was good,” muttered Joe.
“God, I love this song!” said Nick. he sang along in his tuneless but charming way.
“You guys should listen to real music,” said Carlos, taking the controller from Joe.
“Like what?” said Jonesy.
“Like let me guess,” said Nick, ticking off points on his hand. “Boulez. Stockhausen. Adams. Stravinsky.”
Carlos blinked in surprise. “Yeah. How’d you know?”
Nick gestured around the room, towards a stack of CDs laying on Carlos’s desk. “I’m either the second coming of Sherlock Holmes or I’m a goddamn fortune teller.”
“Nothing gets by him, alright,” said Joe.
“I’m hungry,” said Jonesy.
“Man, all you think about is food,” said Carlos.
Nick waved a hand. “Don’t worry about eating. You don’t want to be bloated when we start talking to the ladies. The food you will always have with you; I will only be around for a short while.”
“Yeah!” said Jonesy. “I want to see some babes!”
“You’ll do more than see,” said Nick. “In fact, let’s make a pact right now. Each of us is going to get a phone number tonight, alright?” He directed a pointed look at Joe. “Of a girl. How’s that sound?”
“Let’s do it!” said Jonesy.
“I got a girlfriend back home,” said Carlos. “She’d kill me if she knew I was going to some frat party.”
“You just have to get it,” said Nick, “you don’t have to use it. But if you do? Well, I can’t speak for these other guys, but my lips are sealed.”
“How about you?” Jonesy asked Joe.
“Kiss my ass,” he said, folding his arms and leaning back in his chair.
“Wow! That’s not very nice!” said Nick.
“He’s just mad because I whupped his butt at Mario Kart,” said Jonesy, who was currently running rings around Carlos.
“I’m just not in the mood,” said Joe.
“Yeah, lay off man,” said Carlos.
“One phone number,” said Nick. “One.”
“Come on! It’s no fun unless we all do it,” said Jonesy.
“So if everybody jumped off a bridge, you’d do it too?” said Joe.
“Okay dad,” said Jonesy.
“Ha ha! He called you ‘Dad,’” said Nick, giving Jonesy a high-five. Joe shot him a look that should have made his hair fall out.
* * *
They left for ZZN house at nine, Carlos annoyed as Jonesy followed Nick like an excited puppy dog. Joe just felt hollow. Hollow, and a little creepy.
Nick clapped Joe and Jonesy on the back. “It’s show time, boys,” he said, pushing them towards the front steps. “Can’t wait to see that roof deck. Just remember: be careful up there.”
As they walked into the depths of the party, jostled by dancing kids, Nick’s words echoed in Joe’s head: Tonight, we get to be heroes. A sense of purpose swelled within him, and for the first time that day his spirits lifted. Squaring his shoulders, he marched forward into destiny.
And check out my Instagram here.