“Are you ready?” said Nick. He held up a rectangular plastic box.
Jonesy grimaced in confusion. “Ready for what?”
“Ready for pain?”
They sat in Paxton’s second-floor lounge around a square table, bleary eyed and downcast. “I’ve got enough of that,” said Jonesy. He lowered his head against the table with an audible thunk. “You should have let me die.”
“Nonsense,” said Nick. He placed the box on the table. “We had to save you for a glorious death on the field of battle.”
“What are you even talking about?” Jonesy muttered.
“Only the greatest board game in the history of mankind.”
“Monopoly?” said Jonesy.
“No, fool! Risk! Does this look like Monopoly?”
Carlos poked among the pieces in the open box. “Never played it.”
“And that’s what I’m here for,” said Nick, “to bring culture to you Philistines. You are in for a treat. If you like losing, that is. Which I can tell that you do.”
“You make this game sound like such a blast,” muttered Carlos.
Nick unfolded the game board and placed it on the table. “Remember the epic games we used to have?”
“Absolutely,” said Joe. “Back in high school we’d keep games going for days. Weeks, even.”
“Sounds like you needed a life,” said Carlos.
“Says the guy who spends all his time ‘playing the piano,’” said Nick, making a jerking-off gesture with one hand. “I know what you’re really doing in that practice room. Anyway, the rules are simple, but the strategies will take a lifetime to master.”
“No they won’t,” said Joe. “Just get Australia.”
Nick gave the air a karate chop. “Come on! What the hell’s the matter with you?!”
“Nothing’s the matter with me. They’re smart guys. They’d figure it out in two seconds. It’s so obvious”
“One doesn’t learn if they are given the answers. They must figure them out on their own.”
“Okay Sun Tzu,” said Joe.
“Au contraire, smart guy,” said Nick. “I think that was Confucius.”
“What’s so good about Australia?” said Jonesy. “Do they get boomerangs or something?”
“Yes,” said Nick. “And they ride kangaroos.”
Jonesy’s head shot up, his eyes bright. “Really?!”
“No, not really! It’s all about location!”
“Location, location, location,” said Carlos. “If this game’s about real estate, count me out.”
“Then it’d be Monopoly,” said Jonesy.
As though praying for the strength to teach the hard of heart, Nick gritting his teeth and rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Risk touches on every aspect of the human condition,” he said. “You will learn more about each other, and yourself. More than your own mother even knows.”
“My mother’s dead,” said Carlos quietly.
Nick’s jaw dropped. Joe felt his own mouth go dry. Had she been dead before? Did their meddling with the universe’s clock cause things to go so haywire so quickly?
“Carlos, I’m so sorry,” said Joe.
“I didn’t know, man,” said Nick. “It was just a joke. I feel terrible.”
Joe had to fight the urge to squirm in the midst of that uneasy silence now shrouding the table, all the while Carlos glared daggers at Nick with his jaw set and his fists clenched under the table.
“His mom’s not dead,” said Jonesy at least. “He’s just being a jerk.”
A smile spread slowly on Carlos’s face.
The mood punctured, Nick slumped with unfeigned relief. They joined Carlos in laughing, maybe a little too enthusiastically.
“Good one,” said Nick, pointing a long finger. “Good one. You got us.”
“Us?” said Joe. “Why am I always blamed for the stupid stuff you do and say?”
“Because you look like the kind of guy who does and says stupid stuff.”
“Not really,” said Jonesy, returning his head to his arms.
“Way to throw the guy who saved your life under the bus,” said Nick. “But enough messing around. There is nothing funny about war. Except for the part where Joe loses.”
Jonesy again raised his head and stared glumly at the board. “Can’t we just play video games?”
Joe patted him on the back. “After last night I think you need to decompress with some good, clean fun.”“More like detox,” said Carlos. A teetotaler, he had reason to disapprove of Jonesy’s behavior. Apparently, Jonesy had rushed a few frats, smoked too much pot and drank too much cheap booze, and ended up at KPD where he puked all over his shirt and passed out on the front lawn. Some kindly brothers carried him inside and deposited him on the bed. He had been completely unaware of the half-naked girl, or how she had gotten there, though there had been no signs of any hanky-panky.
Jonesy shot Carlos a nasty look, as though he had already grown tired of Carlos’ nannying. “I told you, I’m fine.”
“I don’t know,” said Nick. “All that partying and you still didn’t get the girl.”
“I would have remembered it if I did,” said Jonesy. “I hope.”
Nick shrugged. “Well, you’ll find out in a few years when you get that call to give a sample,” said Nick. “Hope you have a diaper budget saved up.”
Jonesy laughed along with them, but he looked spooked. Good, thought Joe. A little fear might keep him out of trouble.
“This game always looked complicated,” said Carlos as Nick distributed the starting armies and cards.
“Complicated? Please. Even Joe can figure it out,” said Nick.
“Boring, too,” said Carlos.
“You’ll like it,” said Joe. “Trust me.”
Jonesy lifted his little clear plastic box of green troops. “Can I be blue?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Nick. “Blue is my color.”
“What’s so special about blue?”
“This blue isn’t just any blue,” said Nick. Reverentially, he held the box of unsuspecting blue soldiers up to the light like a sacred relic. “This blue is blue like the blue on the Greek flag.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Here we go again.”
“Yes we do, thank you very much.”
“Were you born in Greece or something?” said Carlos.
“He wishes,” said Joe.
“Then why don’t you move there?” said Carlos.
Nick dropped the last of the cards in front of Carlos. “You’re Mexican, right?”
“What’s it to you?” snapped Carlos.
“So I’d imagine you like Mexican culture. The food, the music, et cetera. Do you speak Spanish?”
“Look, man. I’m as American as anyone. My family’s been here for generations.”
“Mine too. All I’m saying is that you have a connection to the motherland, right?”
“Motherland? This is my motherland.”
“Then you pass the test,” said Nick solemnly. He placed a hand on Carlos’s shoulder. “You are a true American, able to play the most American board game of all time.”
“Even though that’s, like, a picture of Napoleon on the box,” said Jonesy.
Slowly, Nick placed the box of red soldiers before Carlos. “I hereby entrust you with the red army.”
“Like the Soviets?” said Carlos. The look of confusion on his face made Joe snort a laugh.
“No, not like the Soviets. It’s red like the blood on the stripes of Old Glory, stained with the sacrifice of the brave patriots who fought and died to make this the land of the free for your people, and for mine.” He shrugged. “Or it can be the red of the Mexican flag; I really don’t give a rat’s ass. It’s all the same to me.”
“If it’s all the same to you,” said Jonesy, “I can be blue then, right?”
Nick, who realized the rhetorical corner he had backed himself into, relinquished the blue army with a sigh.
* * *
“Son-of-a-bitch!” yelled Nick. He had just rolled three ones while trying to attack Jonesy in Iceland.
“Suck it!” said Jonesy, pumping a fist.
“Ties go to the defender,” said Joe. “You lose two.”
“I know the rules!” snapped Nick, removing two of his black troops. “I practically invented the rules.” He snatched the dice back up, ready for another go. “Don’t get cocky,” he said, glaring at Jonesy.
“You stay in Great Britain,” said Jonesy.
“Great Mitten,” said Joe.
“We always called it Great Mitten,” said Joe.
“What do you mean ‘why’?” said Nick. “Didn’t you ever watch The Three Stooges?”
“No,” said a thoroughly confused Jonesy.
“And you call yourself a man,” said Nick. “We’re going to have to teach you everything.” He shook his head sadly and rolled the dice. Once again, three single pips stared back at him. “Oh, come on!”
“Anyway, it’s Great Mitten,” said Joe.
“That’s lame,” said Carlos. Mired down as he was in central Asia, the hardest continent to maintain control over, he wasn’t enjoying himself.
“You’re lame,” said Nick. “It makes perfect sense.”
“If you’re an idiot,” said Carlos. “Which I must be for playing this game.”
“You’re the idiot for getting into a land war in Asia,” said Nick.
“Is that a racial comment?” said Carlos.
“I don’t know. Do you want it to be?”
“You’re just cranky because you think you should be practicing,” said Jonesy. “Live a little.”
“He’s right,” said Nick. “You stay right there in Schlongolia.”
Carlos clenched his jaws and thrust his chin forward; with his bulging eyes, he looked rather intimidating, small frame be damned. “What’d you call me?”
Joe pointed to the plastic army figurines on the territory in question. “Mongolia. Schlongolia. It makes perfect sense.”
“Not to be confused with the Schlongo,” said Nick, pointing to the appropriately rhyming central African region.
“Of course,” said Carlos, relaxing his face. “What was I thinking?”
“You weren’t,” said Nick.
Jonesy rolled a four and a five in defense of Nick’s next attack. “You lose two!”
“I’m not blind, you know,” said Nick. He controlled Africa and all of Europe save Iceland, and he really wanted Iceland. Jonesy, who had conquered all of North and South America and had an outpost in Iceland, was not sufficiently powerful to expand into Nick’s territory, but Nick wanted to nip that potentiality in the bud. “Cheater.”
“So what’s Iceland called then,” said Carlos.
“Iceland,” said Joe. “But it is close to Skankdinavia.”
“Which itself is relatively close to the Urine Mountains,” said Nick, pointing at the Ural territory.
“Which is near Vachina,” said Joe.
“I think I can guess where that is,” said Carlos.
“Now that I think of it,” said Nick, rubbing his chin with a philosopher’s gravitas, “Schlongolia’s proximity to Vachina is oddly appropriate.”
Carlos pointed at New Guinea, where Joe had amassed most of his forces. “Let me guess: New Guinea-pig?”
Nick snapped his fingers. “He’s a natural!”
“Joe and I are still working on our revised atlas of the world,” said Nick. “For example, what would one call Peru?” He regarded the board with a frown and passed the dice to Carlos. “Well, I’ve lost enough troops for one turn. Here you go. Choose wisely.”
“Thanks,” said Carlos. He looked glumly at his position on the board and added his few bonus troops to Mongolia. “I’ll pass. No matter what I do, I’m pretty much screwed.”
“Yup,” said Nick. “Not that it matters. Joe’s going to win anyway.”
“Why?” said Jonesy. “Look at me!”
“Your empire of the Americas is almost impressive, but it makes no difference. He has Australia,” said Nick.
“I have Australia,” said Joe.
“How long does this game take?” said Carlos.
“It’ll go a lot quicker if you quit complaining and take your turn,” said Nick. “I’m sorry. I just get emotional about Risk.”
“He really does,” said Joe. “It’s kind of a problem.”
Carlos shrugged and handed the dice to Joe. “Maybe he needs a new hobby.”
“I agree,” said Joe. “Maybe something harmless, like drugs.”
“Depends on which ones we’re talking about,” said Nick.
Joe stationed his bonus armies on Indonesia to shore up the entry point into his Australian empire. “Spoken like a true expert. Anyway, once you win a few games, you’ll start to have fun.”
“I won’t hold my breath,” said Carlos.
“How’re things going with that girl?” said Jonesy.
“What girl?” said Nick. “Amy?”
“I guess so.”
“Great, just great,” said Nick distractedly. He kept his eyes on the board as Joe shook the dice. “What’s your move?”
Joe kept shaking the dice. “I’m more interested in the girl.”
“Why’s everybody got to be so nosy?”
“The phone number game was your idea,” said Jonesy, “and you’re the only one who got one.”
“Out with it,” said Joe, still shaking the dice.
“Everything’s fantastic, alright? I went to church with her yesterday then we went out for breakfast with a bunch of her friends. We’re practically married, is that what you want to hear? Roll the friggin’ dice already!”
“So are you dating or something?” said Jonesy.
“Yeah,” said Joe, leaning forward, “are you?”
“What are you, twelve? She’s a cool chick, alright? What’s with all the questions?!”
“Just curious,” said Joe. “What’s her major?”
“What does she want to do with that?”
“Communicate with people, smart guy. TV or something. Reporting.”
“Does she want kids? A family?”
“What do you mean, ‘kids’? I haven’t gotten that far yet!”
“Yet?” said Carlos. “Come on, man. You can’t fall this hard for a girl you just met.”
“Says common sense,” said Carlos.
“You did say you’re practically married,” said Jonesy.
“It’s a joke!” said Nick. “A figure of speech! Does everyone take everything literally around here?”
“Carlos is right,” said Joe. “Maybe you should take it slow.”
Jonesy shrugged. “I don’t know. She looked pretty hot.”
“She is,” said Nick. “And why?”
“You don’t know anything about her,” said Joe. He turned to Carlos. “I’m attacking Siam.”
“It’s Siam-I-Am,” said Nick. “And yes I do know plenty about her, thank you very much.”
“Does she have a family?” said Joe.
“Of course she has a family! What do you think, she just fell out of the sky?”
“That sounds possible, the way you talk about her.”
“Just roll the dice already.”
“Did she leave a family behind?”
“Technically, yes, but she’s from Portsmouth so they’re like twenty minutes away, not in a parallel universe or whatever.”
“So she did,” said Joe.
“For your information, she did not.”
“And you know this for a fact?”
“Pretty much,” said Nick.
“‘Pretty much’ isn’t the same as an unequivocal ‘yes.’ You should know that. Did she like her previous life?” Joe paused, stilling his hand as well. “In Portsmouth, I mean?”
“What the hell are talking about, and what does it have to do with this game?” said Carlos. He raised a hand. “Actually, I don’t care. But if you’re going to keep arguing like this, I’m out.”
“No, don’t go,” said Nick. “I’m sorry. Let’s finish this game. I’ll stop talking, I promise.”
Joe snorted a laugh. “That’ll be the day.”
“Listen, I–right.” He made a zipping gesture over his mouth. “Your turn.”
Joe rolled the dice. Three sixes. Carlos, defending Siam, groaned. “So when’s this supposed to get fun?”
“I don’t know about you,” said Joe, “but I’m having a blast.”
* * *
Nick slammed the door behind him. “What the hell was that all about?”
Sitting at his desk, Joe shook the mouse of his computer, an ancient, noisy desktop monstrosity, and waited for the screen to flare back to life. He hadn’t quite gotten used to the technology of the past, already it felt liberating to not be tethered to a smartphone.
Nick hovered over Joe, shaking the back of his chair. “Well?”
“You do realize that you pressed God’s reset button just so you could have a chance with a girl, don’t you?”
Nick had the decency to look ashamed. “Yeah.”
“Was Amy married? Did she have any children?”
“I don’t think so. Maybe.”
“Maybe. Was she happy back then? Or in the–dammit, you know what I’m trying to say.”
Nick waved his arms in the air as if directing airplanes to land, knuckles nearly scraping the ceiling. “How the hell am I supposed to know that?!” With a huff, he fell onto their couch, covering his eyes with one arm. “What does it matter?”
“You and I may very well be the only people on Earth who know about this, but you do realize that you just consigned billions of people to death.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Genocide,” said Joe, busying himself sorting through emails. “You’re like the next Hitler. Worse than Hitler.”
Nick shot up. “What do you mean ‘worse than Hitler’? I love Jews! And what about all the people who haven’t died yet, huh? What about them, smart guy?”
Thinking about Aunt Gina, Joe kept his mouth shut.
Nick stood. “And maybe, maybe she wasn’t happy. Maybe I’ve given her a second chance at life, and billions of other people besides. Did you ever think about that?”
Slowly, Joe turned in his seat to look at Nick, not as a friend but as an outside observer, an alien strolling through a human zoo. Nick may be a tall specimen of homo sapiens, imposing in size, but he looked weak, brittle, like a hollow colossus ready to crack at the slightest tap.
Anger gave way to pity. It would be cruel to press the rightful point he had and administer that final, shattering blow. He felt sorry for Nick, Nick who hadn’t lost a son that he loved, Nick who had consigned the Earth’s seven billion people–and however many untold infinites who may exist in other corners of the universe–to re-live the last decade-and-a-half, Nick who had wielded the terrible power of God with the mind of a petulant child. Whatever wound he had been trying to paper over with women and drugs was so deep that just then Joe couldn’t muster an ounce of rage towards his friend.
He sighed and turned back to his computer. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
Nick had no instant retort; he just stood like a sentinel tree with his arms folded, staring at the back of Joe’s head. “You know,” said Nick at length, “I’ve been thinking about this too. The only thing I almost regret–and I think I would have done it if I hadn’t been out-of-my-mind high at the time–the only thing I regret is not setting that thing back farther. I’ll be right back; I have to pee.”
Nick turned and shuffled slowly out of the room, leaving Joe staring blankly at his computer screen, wondering what to make of that.
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