Second chances were funny things, Joe realized, opportunities to see if your regret was warranted. His academic future was a good example of this. While he had enjoyed his English class, Joe no longer felt the drive to major in creative writing. Studying Gatsby and writing poetry scratched an intellectual itch, but he wanted more. History didn’t fit the bill, either, as much as he had enjoyed it. Quite what he did want, he wasn’t sure, but he knew it involved more than pretty words.
He thought these things in the early morning as he waited for his alarm clock to catch up with his consciousness. When it started beeping, cutting through Nick’s rattling snore, Joe slid out of bed and, with the quiet of a burglar, sat at his computer. He didn’t need to worry about waking up Nick. That snoring would drown out an earthquake.
The computer took its time booting up, also seeming to struggle with the early hour. It gave time Joe to think, something he had been doing too much of lately. Sleep had given him no fresh insights into his quandary with Gwendolyn, and no clearer feelings. He would see her in astronomy today, and he knew that the study group would come up. Joe should say no, he really should. If he was interested in finding Sandra he should break off all contact with Gwendolyn. He also knew, as sure as the sun would rise, that he wouldn’t.
It was his weakness. He knew that. He could never stand up for himself. Everybody walked all over him–Sandra, Nick, his parents, his boss, and now even a woman who liked him. It was no way to go through life. No way to be a man. It was a shame that there wasn’t a major that could help him with that.
Men’s studies. The thought made him laugh. Maybe ROTC was the closest thing. Those guys always seemed pretty bad-ass.
His computer brightened into life. Joe opened his email and gave a start. He had a message from Zack Henderson. That wasn’t the shocking thing–all student contact information was available on the university’s internal network. It was the subject line that got Joe’s attention: “Need to speak.”
An involuntary shudder ran through his body. Much like with his aunt, something about communicating with the would-be dead felt like touching a ghost.
The message itself was no more revealing. “If you’re free at 1:00 hit me up.” It was signed with a phone number.
Joe ran through his upcoming day and determined that he would indeed be free at one o’clock. His reply echoed Zack’s brevity: “Call you then.” He noticed, before he logged out of his email, that Nick had not been included on the message.
* * *
Like before, Joe skipped lunch after mythology class. “What’s the matter, Brennan’s jokes made you lose your appetite?” asked Nick, but in truth, Brennan had been tolerable. Joe supposed his feelings had been softened by seeing him in action with the Improv Club. Or maybe he had just grown up.
In truth, Joe was too nervous to eat. The prospect of seeing Gwendolyn tied up his stomach. Even the thought of her made the emotional jumble of his divorce seem like an ocean of calm.
And yet, as he took his customary seat in the back of the lecture hall and saw Gwendolyn enter from a side door, he found that he was honestly happy to see her, confusion be damned.
A sour pang resounded in his stomach, a feeling of betrayal like a swallow of bleach. Yet Joe still couldn’t work out how he could betray a wife–an ex-wife!–he technically hadn’t met yet.
Gwendolyn smiled and waved at him, her bracelets rattling as she led her friends up the steps. She was with her friends, the three girls that had gone to the improv show with them. Joe looked around to make sure that there were enough seats for everyone.
“There you are!” said Gwendolyn, lifting those big sunglasses off of her face. “Let me introduce you to our study group.”
Joe stood as the girls approached. “Nice to meet you.”
“Look at him standing,” said one of them, a short girl with a mass of fiery red hair named . . . Cassandra? Clarissa? Carissa. It was Carissa.
“I told you he was a gentleman,” said Gwendolyn.
“Well, we met you before, or did you forget?” said the red-haired girl.
“I know,” said Joe. “I’m just reintroducing myself.”
“You were hilarious up there,” said another, taller girl. She had long brown hair dark eyes, her beauty somewhat marred by a large port-wine stain that covered the upper-left portion of her face like raspberry jam. Her name, Joe remembered. Jessica.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Joe. “I was nervous as hell.”
“Well, I thought you were fantastic,” said Jessica. All four girls sat down in the row in front of Joe. “So are we meeting after class?”
“I don’t know,” said Gwendolyn, looking at Joe over her shoulder. “That depends on what our fearless leader says.”
“When did I become the leader? You put the group together.”
“And I am leaving it up to you,” said Gwendolyn. “So?”
“Lazy,” said Joe. Gwendolyn let out an offended gasp as her friends all started to laugh. Though she looked a little affronted, Gwendolyn too succumbed to the mirth enough to at least smile.
“I can’t,” Joe said heavily, honestly feeling the regret that sounded in his voice. “I have to meet up with someone.”
“Ooh,” said the third girl, a slender blonde with high cheekbones and wide-set eyes. “Sounds like a date.”
The flush in Joe’s cheeks felt radioactive. He let out what he hoped sounded like a dismissive laugh. “Date. Right. If you consider meeting with a guy a date.”
“Actually, I do,” said the redhead. The girls laughed.
“How about later, then?” said Gwendolyn. “Are you free around six?”
“I hope so,” said Joe.
“Great. I’ll reserve a room at the library. See you then.”
* * *
Zack was waiting where he said he would be, on the tree-lined street in front of his dorm, Victoria Hall. Joe knew he shouldn’t be surprised; people did what they said they would all the time. Otherwise, society would have collapsed long ago. Still, Joe felt like he had found a vein of gold.
His next thought was of concern for Zack. They both looked eighteen, but Joe had enough experience to be Zack’s mentor, or maybe a young uncle. Whatever wisdom he could impart, he hoped it would help Zack, whatever his problem was.
From a distance Zack looked calm, standing tall by a large oak tree with his hands in the pockets of his NHU windbreaker. Only when Joe got closer could he see the strain in Zack’s smile.
“There he is,” said Zack, walking forward to shake Joe’s hand with one quick pump. “Aren’t you cold?”
Joe shrugged. The breeze was a little brisk, but the sun was shining and the sky was clear. “I’m used to it.”
“You’re a local,” Zack said as they walked towards downtown. “Makes sense.”
Joe had to move in double-time to keep up with the taller young man. “Is everything alright?”
Zack shook his head, holding his uneasy grin. “You won’t believe me if I told you. Actually, maybe you will. Don’t know why, but I’ve got a feeling.”
Joe nodded. He agreed with Zack. That was part of the problem.
Cresting the small hill to Main Street, they crossed over to Farnham’s and took a table. Students and Hollister residents walked and jogged and strolled down the street, none of them quite understanding the vague wave of unease that would flare up now and then when they’d run into a new face that seemed somehow familiar, or avoid stepping into oncoming traffic, or when their conversations felt less like spontaneous interactions and more like script recitals. Or maybe they were having disturbing dreams, dreams of disasters yet to happen, disasters that may never happen, but eerie all the same, and just a little too real. And then they would shake their head, chalk it up to something they ate, and proceed living the life they swore was a blank page waiting for them to fill. Joe wished he had that same ignorance.
He was projecting his own feelings onto others, he knew. That was his burden, his and Nick’s, as the only bearers of the weird knowledge that time was not a constant and could, in fact, be subverted. But unlike what the scientists and the writers thought, there were no individual seats on the train. All of existence was in it together.
“What’re you drinking?”
Dazed, Joe looked up at Zack. He stood with a hand on the back of his chair. “I’m sorry?”
“Coffee? Tea? Just a water?”
“Oh. Nothing, I’m alright.”
“I’m going to get you a coffee. How you like it?”
“Black coffee coming up.”
He emerged moments later with one steaming paper cup of coffee in his big hand. He set it on the table in front of Joe.
“Thanks,” said Joe. “You’re not getting anything?”
Zack sat down. “I’m staying away from caffeine.”
“You didn’t have to–”
“Least I could do.”
“Listen, Zack, you don’t owe me anything. I mean, I know what happened, but . . .”
“You can say it,” said Zack. “You saved my life. I don’t care what we look like. As far as I’m concerned, we’re family now. Us and your friend Nick.”
“God help you if Nick is family.”
Zack tapped his head with his fingers. “The crazy thing . . . the crazy thing is that up here I feel like I died. I’ve been having these dreams . . . crazy dreams, you know? Like I don’t belong here.”
Joe hid his mounting unease with a sip of coffee.
“I grew up in the South, you know?” said Zack. “Went to church every Sunday, singing, dancing, all that stuff you’ve probably seen in the movies. I even sang in the choir.” He gave a little laugh. “When the preacher would talk about Heaven, what’s it like, what’s waiting for us there, I’d think he was crazy. Like he was just making stuff up. The older I get, I start thinking all of that Jesus stuff is crazy. But I still believe, you know? Part of me can’t let go.
“But these dreams, man, these dreams.” Despite the cool, sweat ran down Zack’s head and into his eyes. He whisked it away with a finger. “It’s like I’m there. It’s like . . . I’m sorry to drag you out here. I know I sound like a crazy man.”
“No you don’t. Not at all. Something pretty crazy happened to you. It’d be crazier if you were just carrying on like normal.”
“Thanks. I needed to hear that. But get this: My grandparents are dead, alright? They both died when I was like five. Car crash.”
“It’s alright. I remember them well enough. But every night since you saved my clumsy ass, when I sleep, I am with them. Not just dreaming about them. With them. Other people, too. People in my family I didn’t even know I had. And the feeling I get . . . it’s just like the preacher said it would be, like there’s like this light, and a sea like frozen glass . . . .”
Listening to Zack made him sad that he had no spiritual core. It was like listening to someone speak a beautiful language he would never understand. He took another sip of coffee.
“And then I wake up, and bang,” said Zack, giving the table a smack. “I have this shaking in my head, this buzz. Like my brain’s going to turn into jelly and come out my ear or something. It’s like this every night and every day.”
Joe swallowed hard. “Is your head buzzing now?”
Zack shook his head. “It takes a few hours, but it goes away. Seems like it’s been easing up, quite honestly. But I feel like I cheated death, you know? Like it’s still waiting for me somewhere with his sickle or whatever.”
“Yeah, that curvy thing. That’s what I said.”
“A sickle is a small one. The Grim Reaper carries a scythe. You know, to cut the wheat?”
“Yeah, I grew up on a farm. What’s this have to do with anything?”
“Nothing,” said Joe. “I’m just . . .” A lawyer, he almost said. “Nervous.”
“It’s cool. I don’t blame you. This is all so messed up. But I feel like I can trust you. Like you would understand. I don’t know why.”
Zack looked at Joe expectantly, the way Jason would look at him when he needed reassurance after a nasty fall or a bad dream. It broke Joe’s heart. He had to remember that, despite his size and physique, Zack Henderson was still a boy, a very spooked eighteen-year-old who was looking for some guidance.
“You must really think I’m crazy now,” said Zack, breaking Joe’s gaze. “That’s enough bending your ear. Thanks for coming out, man. I can leave you alone, but I feel better telling you all that. And thanks for listening.” He stood. “This stays between you and me, alright?”
“What if I told you that you’re not crazy?” Joe said slowly, sure he would regret these difficult words later.
“That’d make me feel real good.”
Joe sighed. “Sit back down,” he said. He took another fortifying sip of coffee and started to talk.
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