Her voice came crackling over the loudspeaker in an angry snarl. “Who’s this?”
“Hi Gwen,” said Joe into the intercom next to the door. “It’s Joe. Can you let me in?”
“Joe! Are you alright?”
Joe sniffed noisily and gave his nose a swipe with his arm. “Yeah. No. I don’t know.”
“Okay, stay right there. I’m coming down now.”
Joe nodded, as if Gwendolyn could see him through the speaker. But that technology was at least a decade away.
He glanced at his watch, groaning at the late hour. He shouldn’t have woken her up. He should have gone back to his own dorm room and into his own bed like a responsible adult, keeping his worries to himself. But he couldn’t stand the thought of Nick. And Joe knew he wasn’t a responsible adult. Not anymore.
When Gwendolyn opened the door, Joe marveled at how good she looked given the time of night. Dressed in a Navy blue pajama set with furry moccasin slippers on her feet and her hair piled haphazardly on top of her head, she still appeared controlled, beautiful. She was also wearing glasses, big thick ones that would be all the rage among young women in another ten years.
Joe hurried through the open door to spare both Gwendolyn and himself from the chilly wind. The door shut behind him with a soft whump. “Are you sure you’re alright?” said Gwendolyn, “what’s going on?”
Joe sniffed again, corralling some errant snot. He looked around the lobby of Parsons, empty but still too public. “Can we talk in your room?
* * *
Its task complete, the microwave beeped dolefully as though hoping for some recognition for the vital service it performed. Gwendolyn removed the mug of hot cocoa and handed it to Joe, slamming the microwave door shut with her elbow.
Joe eagerly took the mug, enjoying the heat of it on his hands. Gwendolyn sat on the bed next to him with liquid grace. “So what happened?”
The burning liquid felt good on Joe’s lips. He would have preferred coffee, but hot chocolate was a more than worthy substitute. “It’s a long story, it’s complicated, and it’s crazy. And I can’t tell you the whole thing.”
Gwendolyn’s voice was tinged with justifiable irritation. “Then how can I help you?”
Joe looked around the room. “How’d you get a single, anyway?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
Joe took another sip, wishing it was spiked with some whiskey or rum. “It’s Nick . . . .”
“Oh, God. Don’t tell me he and his girlfriend are . . . .” She shuddered. “What’s the signal, anyway? A sock on the door?”
When he realized what Gwendolyn was getting at, he nearly spat out his cocua. “No! Oh God no! Nothing like that!”
“Thank God,” said Gwendolyn, wrinkling her nose. “That is just so gross.”
“Tell me about it.”
Gwendolyn leaned in, her voice hushed and heavy with concern: “So what is it?”
His mouth went dry. It was do-or die-time. Speak now or forever hold his peace. He took a deep breath through his nose, thankful that he didn’t feel like crying anymore. “It’s like . . . it’s so crazy, Gwen . . . .”
Gwendolyn put a hand on his arm. He felt the electricity, the energy, run up his body with a pleasant chill. “Just tell me, Joe. You know I’ll believe you.”
“Imagine if you knew that something bad was going to happen. Something really bad. People dying. Thousands.” Gwendolyn’s hand tighten on his arm. “What if . . . what if you had a chance to help these people . . . not just help them, but save them?”
“I’d take that chance,” said Gwendolyn slowly. “At least, I’d like to think I would.”
“But what if you didn’t? How would that make you feel?”
It wasn’t a fair question. Gwendolyn blinked behind her glasses, trying to make sense of Joe’s ramblings. But Joe would only speak to Gwendolyn in vague terms; he had ruined enough lives with his knowledge from the future. He would not do the same to her.
“I would feel horrible,” she said, especially if . . . especially if people died. Not that it really matters, but how many people are we talking about . . . hypothetically?”
“About three thousand. Hypothetically.”
Gwendolyn exhaled sharply through her nose, her eyes widening as if she could see the disaster herself. “Wow.”
“Now imagine that you had a plan to stop this disaster, you and a . . . a team.”
“You and Nick.”
Joe tried to keep his face impassive, successfully fighting the instinct to scratch the back of his head. “What if this team backed out at the last minute because doing so was too risky and would interfere with their own lives? How would that make you feel?”
“Angry. Confused. Hurt. What’s going on? Who’s going to get hurt? This sounds serious–what’s going to happen? Should we call the police?”
Joe grimaced like he had just sipped vinegar. “You know how you told me I was a mysterious guy?”
“Something like that,” said Gwendolyn.
“There are some things that should stay mysterious. I wish I could tell you everything, I really do, but I don’t want to screw things up.”
“You’re scaring me, Joe.”
He raised a hand, carefully choosing his words. He was a lawyer. Speaking around the issue should be easy. Should. But he never claimed to be a good lawyer.
“Gwen, you have to trust me on this. It’s too dangerous to tell you everything.”
Gwendolyn’s nostrils flared, her mouth curving into a hurt scowl. “Then why did you come up here?”
“Gwen . . . .”
“You come up here in the middle of the night to tell me some weird story that makes me think you’re not right in the head. Like you want help or something, and then you won’t even tell me what’s going on so I can help you, or get you help, and then you try to wave it all away like you’re protecting me. I’d really appreciate some truth right now.”
“Start talking, or you can go.”
“Gwen, I am protecting you.”
She laughed. “Of course you are. Of course. From what?”
“Oh, that’s ridiculous.” She stood up, throwing her arms in the air, eerily echoing Nick’s gesture of exasperation. “Protecting me from you. Like you’re some sort of bad boy or something. This is pathetic.”
I will not get mad, Joe told himself like a mantra, I will not get mad. But this could be his out, his escape hatch. If he wanted to, he could get Gwendolyn so angry she’d toss him out of the room, angry at the inconvenience, angry at his story, vowing never to see him again. Don’t call, don’t write, don’t talk to anybody but my lawyer . . . and he’d be free to embark upon his doomed quest, alone and full of regret, the way he embarked upon every other quest in his life. She was already so agitated, he just needed to give one final push. It would be so easy.
But he raised his hand, very calmly, as if silencing an angry teen: “Tuesday morning. You’ll find out on Tuesday morning.”
Gwendolyn froze mid-diatribe, her arms akimbo. “Excuse me?”
“You’ll find out everything on Tuesday morning. Whether I succeed or not. And you have helped me, Gwen. That’s what I came up here for. Advice.”
“I didn’t give you any advice.”
Joe smiled. “I think you did.” He stood, eyeing her digital clock ruefully. “I’m sorry I bothered you. You have your own life to worry about. But you’ve been a help. A great help. If I don’t see you again . . . I just want to say I’m glad that we were friends, even if it was just for a little while.”
Gwendolyn put a hand to her mouth, the way witnesses to a car crash did when they wanted to look away from the carnage but found their eyes rooted in place. “Oh my God you’re serious.”
“I am,” said Joe, his hand on the doorknob.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to my room.”
“What about Nick?”
“Nick. Right.” His hand lingered on the doorknob as he thought about where he would stay. Carlos and Jonesy’s room was similarly out of the question. The couch in one of Paxton’s lounges, maybe?
“You can stay here if you’d like,” said Gwendolyn quietly.
“I’m not going to hurt myself if that’s what you’re worried about.” He tried to make his voice light, his comment flippant, but the effort fell flat.
“Stay here, Joe. Please.”
“Gwen . . . .”
“I might not be the smartest girl around, but I’m no idiot. You came up here for a reason, and not just for advice.” She took his hand. “You can trust me, Joe. I don’t know who this other girl is, or if she’s even real, but . . .” She put his hand over her heart. “. . .she’s not me.”
It suddenly became hard to breathe. Joe’s heart was poised to burst from his chest and streak through the sky like a comet. He thought he said Gwen’s name, but it sounded like an unintelligible moan.
“I don’t want to be that girl,” she went on, the words spilling out before she could catch them. “Running around with all the wrong guys, divorced and childless, wondering where it all went wrong, wondering why I never just went up to that cute boy in class and said hi, always wondering how things might have turned out. It could be nothing, he could be a jerk, but I don’t want to be kicking myself all those years later for not trying.”
“I don’t . . .” Understand, he started to say. But he did. It was the residual echoes of her future, the future yet to happen but that she remembered anyway.
“Kiss me,” she said. Her eyes were closed, her chin raised up as if to catch snowflakes dancing in the light of an unseen moon.
Gently taking off her glasses, handling them like the priceless artifact they were, Joe did.