They walked back to Paxton in the fading autumn light, Nick with his hands in his pockets and his head held low. Joe felt hopeful for the first time in days. They had allies, confidants, friends. It was exciting to think that something he had planned was actually going to work out. But there was still so much work to be done. Joe was hungry, yes, but more than eating, he needed to think.
“Want to eat something?” said Nick as they approached the student union building, with that psychic power known only to siblings and best friends.
“We don’t have time to eat,” said Joe.
“You can’t think on an empty stomach. At least I can’t.”
Joe looked up at the building on the hill and shook his head. Jonesy and Carlos had said they were going there to eat too, but Joe didn’t feel much like talking to them. “Nah, I’m alright.”
Nick traced Joe’s line of sight. “You can’t avoid them forever.”
“Why would I be avoiding anyone?”
Nick shrugged. “Do you think we can really do this?”
“Just go eat,” said Joe, perhaps snappier than he intended.
“Don’t get all bitchy, man!”
“I’m not getting bitchy!” said Joe. “But if you’re hungry, eat! Don’t starve on account of me.”
Nick hesitated, slowing a half-step behind Joe, wading in thought. “I don’t care if we eat or not. I just want to talk. That’s all.”
Joe nodded, smiling. They walked the rest of the way to Paxton in silent contemplation.
* * *
“Wow, the Internet sucks in the year 2001. I can’t find a goddamn thing.”
Joe looked over his shoulder at Nick, flexing his fingers as if he wanted to strangle his computer.
“I feel your pain,” said Joe. “Search engines aren’t as robust as they used to be. Will be.”
Nick looked back. “Are we ever going to get used to this?”
“No,” said Joe. “And you’re not the only one. I can’t find anything about upcoming flights. Nothing that rings a bell, I mean. I found United flight 93 leaving from Newark on Tuesday morning at eight o’clock, en route to San Francisco. That’s got to be it.” Joe passed a hand across his eyes. “I wish I paid more attention.”
“Don’t beat yourself up,” said Nick. He reached a long arm and patted Joe on the shoulder. “Those were crazy times. Besides, how would you know your idiot best friend would send you back in time. How would you study for that? You’d drive yourself mad.”
“I mean more attention to detail in general.”
“Ah,” said Nick.
“I might still be married, or . . .” He stopped, feeling another shudder of self-pity welling in his gut.
Nick cleared his throat. “I really screwed things up, didn’t I?”
“Yes you did,” said Joe.
“You’ve been saying that so much lately, I’m starting to think that you actually mean it,” said Joe.
“Yeah,” said Nick. He swallowed hard. “If I didn’t think it would’ve helped you out, I wouldn’t have done it.”
“Helped me out. Right. Otherwise, you’d have duped me just like you did the rest of the universe.”
“What do you mean ‘duped’? I didn’t dupe–okay, you’re kind of right. But listen: I knew how unhappy you were–”
“Who said I was unhappy?! And what gives you that right, anyway?!”
“Nothing,” said Nick, shaking his head vigorously. “Nothing. It’s psychological projection.” He put a hand on his head then thrust it at towards Joe. “The miserable one thinks everyone else feels the same way. It’s stupid, I know. Childish I was a drug addict, remember? But that’s the way it is and, for what it’s worth, I’m really sorry. Like, unbelievably sorry. Jason was . . . is? . . . a great kid. But for the record, you were totally unhappy.”
“Alright,” said Joe. “Fine. You win. Things weren’t going according to plan. Are you happy?”
“What plan?” said Nick.
Joe twirled a hand. “You know . . . the life plan. Job, family, children, grandchildren, and so on.”
“Whose plan is that?”
“Are we really going to do this now, Nick? Your libertarian, stick-it-to-the-man shtick?”
“Then when? When’s the ‘perfect time’? That’s the thing with you: you’re always waiting for the perfect time. There is no perfect time!”
“I don’t do that,” said Joe, tapping absently at his keyboard.
“You are too! Look at Sandra, right? You could have avoided so much of this if you just apologized to her after–”
“Don’t go there now, I’m warning you. I punched you before and I’ll punch you again.”
Nick lowered his arms slowly like the volume slider on a mixing board. His voice was softer, thoughtful. “Of course.” He shook his head and turned back to his computer. “We’ve got all the time in the world, after all.”
Nick was right, of course. Missing opportunities was Joe’s defining feature. He had made an art of bad timing. It was hypocritical to get angry by the truth, especially when it came from Nick, a man who bared his faults for all the world to see and at least had the good sense to laugh about them. Joe . . . Joe just liked to pretend he was something he was not.
Joe cleared his suddenly congested throat. “Why’d you do it, anyway?” he asked quietly, almost not wanting to know the answer.
Nick turned back to his computer, speaking in a mocking, high-pitched tone. “‘Are we really going to do this now?’”
“When would be the ‘perfect time,’ Nick?”
“Touché.” Nick hung his head, and stayed that way for five seconds, ten seconds, thirty . . . Joe thought he was crying, but Nick started to talk in a clear, quiet voice: “Remember that summer I went to Greece?”
“That was every summer, Nick.”
“The last time.”
Joe tried to recall the timeline, which was easier than he thought because Nick’s trip was closer in time than it had been in their former present, which made the memory clearer, even though Joe’s soul was older, which all threatened to make Joe’s head explode.
Nick had gone to visit family in Greece every summer when they were kids, up until they were fourteen or so. That year, Nick came back from his annual trip a different person, sullen and angry, in a funk that didn’t pass until well after the New Year. And after that, Nick had always seemed a little different.
At the time, Joe didn’t pry. All teenage boys were sullen and angry, right? Joe sure was. And Nick had always had an edge. But all the same, Nick had never been back to Greece since.
“Yes I do,” Joe said.
“When you’re a kid, nobody believes you, you know? But as an adult, away from home and on your own, you get a chance to shape your own life, for better or for worse. This is the last time I felt hopeful about the future.” He lifted his head and turned towards Joe, although his focus was on some indiscriminate spot, light years away.
The weight of Nick’s unspoken words hit Joe like a bullet train. “Who was it?” he rasped, clearing his throat. “An uncle?”
Nick shook his head. “Cousin.” He smirked, showing a little of the old Nick Christakos insouciance. “As if that makes it any better.” He turned back to his computer and resumed his typing.