For a moment, Joe felt like a parent again.
He and Nick found the rest of their little gang on the student union building’s second floor, sitting on some sofas near a TV showing a rerun of “The Simpsons.” Nick had finally relented to Joe’s insistence that they reconvene and had reached out to Zack and Carlos to round up the crew for an emergency meeting. Which was really just following through with their original plan, Joe thought, fighting the urge to scream.
Their faces fell when they saw Joe ascend the stairs, as though they had done something bad and were ashamed that dad had found out. Joe sat down in a plush chair, trying hard to ignore the sick, icy feeling in his stomach. “Anyone mind telling me what this is all about?”
“Alright, dad,” said Carlos. He sounded more annoyed than usual, but his focus on the students bustling around them rather than Joe belied his confrontational tone.
As the only one experienced in dealing with children of his own, the barb didn’t bother Joe. “Talk,” he said. “We’re running out of time and if there’s been a change of plans, I think it’s only fair that I should be in on it too.”
Nick grimaced, bobbing his head from side to side. “That’s the thing, really. We sort of did change the plan.”
Relief washed over Joe. He let himself slump forward, shedding his tension like old skin. “Okay. So we’re going with plan B instead of plan A.”
“Not exactly,” said Nick.
“We’re calling it off,” said Carlos.
“Excuse me?” said Joe, feeling his shoulders and neck tighten up again.
“We’re not doing it.”
“For the record, I’d like to state that I am against this decision,” said Zack.
“Me too,” said Jonesy, his voice cracking like a pubescent teenager’s.
“But it’s a four-to-two vote now,” said Quinn. He put his hands together and leaned forward.
“You guys voted without me,” said Joe, his voice drained of emotion.
Quinn shrugged. “We couldn’t find you. And we had to talk. How do we really know this is going to happen? It’s crazy.”
“And what if we don’t make it?” said Game. “We die like the rest, you see what I’m saying?”
“I’ve told them where I stand,” said Zack, eyes never leaving Joe’s. “I’m with you.”
“It’s not fair to them,” said Nick, gesturing to the others. “Put their lives in danger like this? No, I can’t live with that. There’s so much other good we can do without throwing our lives away.”
“Throwing our lives away?!” said Joe. He wanted to say more, but the words would not come.
“It’s like this,” said Quinn. “Let’s say we bet on the Patriots, all put in a little money. We can make a good profit, and turn that into something more by investing or whatever. I’m a business major, so I can figure this stuff out.”
“This way,” said Game, “we all got a shot going forward. We can use all of your knowledge to our advantage and do a lot of good that way. Start charities. Do good.”
“Besides,” said Carlos. “I don’t want to die.”
Joe’s throat had gone dry in a flash, making his tongue feel like sandpaper. “If you’re not sure the attacks will happen, what makes you so sure that the Pats will win the Super Bowl?”
“It’s stupid,” said Zack. “Wishful thinking. That’s what I told them.” He leaned back and gave Game a shove on the shoulder. “I told them.”
“Knock it off,” said Game.
“It’s low risk,” said Quinn. “And if we’re wrong, instead of being dead, we’re just out a couple hundred of bucks.”
“Joe,” said Nick. “Joe, think about it. It’s insane to try to stop this.”
“It’s insane not to try.”
“We took a vote,” said Nick. “Even with your vote in favor of it, it’s four to three. Unless you can convince someone else, we’re not doing this. We have to be the adults here because we are the adults.”
Joe closed his eyes. “Those people . . . those people in those planes and in those buildings. I can still see them Nick. Can you?”
“Yeah,” said Nick, his voice hoarse. “I can. But we can do good in other ways. And there are our lives to think about too.”
“That is so selfish,” said Joe.
“Tell me about it,” Jonesy piped in. Then he shrugged. “But look at me. What am I going to do?”
“Seven of us, we have a chance,” said Zack. “Three? I don’t know. We could round up some other guys . . .”
Joe waved a hand, feeling very tired. “No.”
“Then I don’t know,” said Zack. He breathed out heavily. “I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry, dog,” said Game. “But that’s the way it is. I love people too, man, but I’m not ready to die for strangers.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. “Go. Do your thing.”
“Come on, man . . .”
Joe cut him off with a raised hand. “Do your thing, guys. I just . . . I can’t look at you anymore. I’m sorry.” But he wasn’t sorry. They made him sick. All of them.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Jonesy, staying seated as Carlos and Game and Quinn stood. “Not without you.”
Shaking his head, Carlos pointed at Nick. “I don’t know why I even believe him, but I’ll take my chances on gambling over dying any day. I think you guys are both crazy. I wish I’d never met you.”
Joe nodded, opening his eyes. “You and me both.”
Carlos opened his mouth, started to wag a finger, but in the end said nothing and walked away alone.
Quinn shook his head and flashed a rueful, handsome smile. “I’m sorry, but I can’t risk it all on a crazy story like this.” He held out a hand. Joe didn’t shake it.
“Come on, man, don’t be like that,” said Game. Joe remained motionless, disgusted by the betrayal.
But was it a betrayal? He had convinced five teenage boys to get on airplanes bound to crash into large buildings in a bid to overpower dangerous, murderous terrorists fueled by religious fervor and the promise of carnal delights at the end of their suicidal journey. Maybe he was the crazy one.
“Joe,” said Zack as his teammates walked away. “Come on. We’ll figure something out.”
“I don’t–” said Nick.
“I’m not talking to you,” said Zack. “Joe, you hear me man?”
“Yeah. No. Thanks.” He patted Jonesy on one thin knee. “You too. I need to be alone. I’ll think of something.”
Zack stood, motioning for Jonesy to follow. “Come on. Let’s you and me get some food.” He then trained a finger at Nick. “I never want to see you again. You may have saved my life, and I will never forget that, but I don’t ever want to see you again.”
“Never.” Zack turned and Jonesy, with a final shrug at Joe and Nick, followed the larger boy towards the stairs leading down to the food court.
Nick sat slowly in Jonesy’s seat. “Joe–”
“How could you??”
“Joe, we have our own lives to think about.” Nick pointed to himself as he said this. “I’ve got a chance to lead a normal life and turn things around. You do too.”
“Normal? How can life ever be normal for us?”
“For starters, we won’t be incinerated upon impact. I’m sorry, that was tasteless. But what about Gwendolyn?! She’s perfect for you.”
“No. What about Jason–”
“Forget Jason, Joe.” The words hit like a kick to the nuts. “Forget him. He’s not going to come out the same. Think of the variables. How could he?”
“How could anything happen?! History either repeats itself or it doesn’t!” said Joe.
“Big things? Probably. More likely than not. You releasing the exact same sperm into the exact same egg?”
“I mean, something you eat could–”
“Something Tom Brady eats could rupture his appendix. Something Drew Bledsoe eats could keep him from getting injured. Then you guys would be out a bunch of money and there will still be the blood of three thousand innocent people on your hands.”
“There’s no need to be so dramatic about all of this.”
Joe shot up from his chair and backed away from Nick. “You need to get the hell away from me. I can’t even believe you.”
“What do you mean, you can’t believe me? I’m making perfect, logical sense.” He accentuated these adjectives by slamming a fist into his open palm.
“I wish I hit you harder,” said Joe, continuing to back away. He bumped into a passing girl, almost knocking the both of them over.
“Watch your step,” said Nick.
“Kiss my ass,” said Joe, trying to help the protesting girl catch her balance. She threw off Joe’s arms and hurried away. “Look what you made me do.”
“There’s no reason we can’t be reasonable about this.”
“I’m done,” said Joe. “I’m done! You’re done? I’m done!”
“Joe, come on.”
As he walked away he wanted to scream, to rage, to flash his middle fingers at Nick and call him all sorts of horrid names. But his adult instincts overrode his anger and he just kept walking, not looking back at the friend he’d probably never see again.
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