It was getting late, Joe was getting hungry, and he still couldn’t force his thoughts into any defined shape. Three thousand people were going to die in two days’ time and all his idiot friends could think about was getting rich and getting laid.
They’re the idiots, he thought bitterly, yet here I am, wandering campus like an answer would fall from the sky.
He found himself, once again, on the road that lead to the next town, outside a small Italian restaurant on the fringes of Hollister that Joe knew wouldn’t be open a year from now. He had circled downtown six or seven times by now, conspicuously avoiding the throngs of nighttime revelers who hooted and laughed and yelled obscenities at him, at passing cars, at each other. During one circuit he saw a very tall, very attractive girl in a miniskirt squatting down in the alley between two buildings to pee. In the future, this girl might have been his stockbroker, or his accountant, or the teacher of his children, but for now, she was just another party girl at a party school.
The thought had angered him, because it made him think of Jason, which in turn made him think about Nick. Nick made him think about Amy, who made him think about Gwendolyn, finally leading his thoughts to Sandra. And thoughts of Sandra brought him back to Jason, starting the cycle anew.
There was no question about what he had to do, he had thought at one time. But like a parasite worming its way into his body, Nick’s honeyed words burrowed into his mind like worms: Gwendolyn . . . she’s perfect for you . . . forget Jason . . . Not just Jason. Jason and three thousand other doomed souls. But hey! What did they matter next to his personal happiness!
He smacked his fist into the rough brick of the building behind him. The pain that followed was sharp and welcome. He left behind a small smear of blood as he lifted his hand, painting a world he didn’t belong in with a little piece himself.
God damn you Nick! Joe kicked his leg, venting his rage at a garbage can minding its own business by a telephone pole. It toppled with a bang, vomiting trash violently all over the road.
A window opened overhead with a sound like a sword being unsheathed. “The hell’s wrong with you, buddy? Want me to call the cops?”
“Sorry,” Joe muttered, ignoring the barrage of curses, too ashamed to look up at the speaker. He ducked his head and ran around the corner to the hill leading back up to Main Street.
It was cold; Joe rubbed his arms for warmth, wishing he had his jacket. September days were pleasant in New Hampshire, but September nights still had teeth.
Cold, hungry, tired, depressed, confused . . . Joe finally felt one-hundred percent like a teenager, all vestiges of wisdom and maturity sublimating into the chilly night.
9/11 . . . the thought of reliving that day, knowing it was going to happen, made Joe crazy. Crazier, he supposed, although at this point it was just a matter of degrees. If you’ve already lost most of your marbles, what difference did a few more really make?
But it was a moot point. All of it. There wasn’t anything he could do by himself. He had never felt so helpless, not even when Aunt Gina had died, or when he heard the final divorce decree, the judge tearing everything he had built for himself and his family to pieces. If God was really, there and had given him a chance to do good, He would surely be disappointed with His creation’s lack of conviction.
It was the knowing that was the worst part. Why couldn’t Nick have turned on The Machine without telling him about it? Being sent into the past without any advanced knowledge of the future actually did sound like paradise. Would his path have differed from what it had been the first time? Probably. Gwen’s had, hadn’t it?
I gave it the old college try, he thought, literally and figuratively. It made him smile for a second. And then, just like the teenager he had once again become, Joe sat down on the curb and wept, not caring about the partiers’ comments as they passed.