Reset: Chapter Four: Saturday, September 1, 2001 (1)

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“. . . mistake.”

Joe opened his eyes. Below him was not a cold tile floor, or even puffy white clouds, but bright green grass. A warm breeze tickled his neck. A fly buzzed in and out of his ear, contemplating whether it should land.

He was on his hands and knees, gasping for air like someone climbing out of an endless sea. For an absurd moment he thought he had grown extra fingers, but it was just double-vision, as though the shaking of The Machine had sent his eyeballs into permanent motion.

I can’t be dead, he thought, my head hurts too much.

Coughing rang out in front of him. It was Nick, lying spread-eagled on the ground, face towards the blue sky. The first thing Joe noticed was Nick’s hair, no longer short and conservatively styled but the wild jet-black mop he had when they were kids.

Joe tried to say something, but could only reply with a cough of his own. He had a brief second to catch his breath before his stomach lurched, expelling its contents onto the grass. When it was over, Joe felt better, like the Earth had regained its solidity.

Haltingly, he got to his feet. His vision returned to normal and he felt a bit stronger, though his knees shook like after a near-death experience.

Joe grabbed Nick by the arm; for some reason, Nick was wearing a black Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and a pair of green cargo shorts instead of his stylish navy-blue suit.

“Nick! Are you alright?!”

Nick groaned as Joe pulled him to his unsteady feet. He rested a hand on Joe’s shoulder, stooped down, and retched onto the grass, narrowly missing Joe’s shoes. They were a pair of black Chuck Taylors. Joe thought that was weird; what had happened to his Florsheims?

“Oh, wow.” Nick rubbed a forearm across his mouth. “That was gross.”

Joe looked around. Based on the soccer nets standing at each end of the grassy expanse, they must be at some kind of athletic field. Sure enough, a track circled them, its packed red dirt standing out against the green. On three sides were woods, on the fourth a hill leading up to a red brick building. “Are we . . . is that the Burns Center?”

Nick turned in a slow circle, his face slack with shock. At the end of his revolution Nick’s gaze darted towards Joe’s midsection. A smiled popped onto his face. “Your gut! Your gut, Joe! It’s gone!”

“My what?”

Nick laughed, boxing lightly at Joe’s flat stomach. “Your gut! Oh my God, Joe! It worked! It worked!” He laughed again, walking around with his arms raised like a triumphant boxer over his defeated foe.

When he stopped he straightened his back and rolled up his sleeve. “Look at my shoulder. Look at it!” He reached over to pull Joe’s up as well. “Yours too. Those lame tattoos we got are gone! This alone makes it all worthwhile!”

Sure enough, the scales of justice they had stupidly, and drunkenly, gotten inked on their shoulders after passing the bar exam were no longer emblazoned on their skin. “How did we get here? And your hair . . . Are we . . . are we dead, Nick?”

“It worked! Sanjay was right, the magnificent bastard! Don’t you get it? It worked!” Nick whooped, pumping his fist. “I’d say we’re more alive than ever!” He did a cartwheel on the grass, nearly kicking Joe in the face as he twirled through the air.

He landed, red-faced and huffing, and put his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “Remember freshmen orientation? Remember how we skipped it to toss the Frisbee around?”

“Freshman what? Like college?”

“Yes!”

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“That was years ago. Why are you. . .” But Joe stopped as his stomach turned to ice. He knew what came next.

Nick pointed to a yellow object in the grass. “There’s the Frisbee!

The realization crept up on Joe with the ruthless calm of a killer. He chose his words carefully, trying not to sound as crazy as he felt. “Are you saying we’re back in college?”

Nick gave him a shake. His eyes were fevered. Up close, Joe noticed that he had no wrinkles around his eyes and none of the stubble that permanently shaded his cheeks. “Think about it, Joe. The Machine was called the Chrono-Displacer. Think!

Joe opened a mouth gone dry, leaving his voice a rasping croak. “Are you saying that thing was a time machine?” Continue reading Reset: Chapter Four: Saturday, September 1, 2001 (1)”

Reset: Chapter Three: Now (3)

The lights blazed into life one after the other like dominos across the ceiling of the cavernous chamber, illuminating a massive, gleaming bulk. Joe blinked as details coalesced in the antiseptic glow.

Nick smiled with childlike glee. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Nick’s excitement was not contagious. Even in the light, Joe did not know what he was looking at. The thing before him seemed to grow from the floor, curves and flourishes coexisting with harsh right angles. It had a fluid, organic aspect that made Joe think of a metal flower sprouting from a computer. What looked like closed petals arose from its center, reaching halfway to the high ceiling.

“What is it?” said Joe.

“What do you mean, ‘what is it’? This is what we’ve been working on! Or the contract for, at least.”

“I know. But what is it?” Continue reading Reset: Chapter Three: Now (3)”

Reset: Chapter Two: Now (2)

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The cigarette almost fell from Joe’s open mouth. “You’re insane.”

The night was muggy. A summer rain had come and gone, leaving the air sticky and thick. Away from the office’s air-conditioned splendor, Joe’s back and armpits quickly slicked with sweat.

Nick exhaled a cloud of smoke in Joe’s face. “What do you mean, ‘insane’? Haven’t you been listening?”

“Yes, I’ve been listening. I don’t have much choice because you never stop talking. And that’s why I think you’re insane.”

“Then why don’t you listen?” Nick leaned forward and pressed his fingers against his temple.

“You’re ears are down there.”

“Who cares about my ears?! Never mind my ears! First my nose, and now you’re talking about my ears! What’s with you?!”

“I’m more worried about your brain, to be honest” said Joe. He dropped his cigarette and ground it under his heel. “I think, if you really want a second chance or whatever, you should quit working here, go work at the pizza place and forget this other stuff.”

“Go back to Lowell?” Nick waved a hand. “Forget it. I’m not talking about second chances. I’m talking about a do-over.”

“Which sounds like a second chance to me. But forget it, Nick. There’s no such thing.” Joe looked at his watch and groaned. “Let’s just get back to work. I, for one, don’t feel like losing my job. I’ve got bills to pay, after all.”

“Yeah, yours and Sandra’s.”

“That’s a low-blow,” said Joe.

“Maybe. But it’s true and you know it.” Nick took one last puff of his cigarette and put it out on the side of the building. “Come to the basement with me. Come on!”

“We’re not supposed to be down there, Nick! It’s maximum security. Top secret! And I sure as hell don’t have clearance.”

“Where are the guards?” asked Nick, hands in the air. “Where’s the security? Where are the guys with the guns?”

“It’s locked with a keycard!”

Nick pulled something from his pants pocket and waved it under Joe’s nose. “You mean this keycard?”

Annoyed, Joe waved Nick’s hand away. “What the hell?! When’d you become a thief?”

“Not a thief, Joe. I’m the ‘tech lawyer,’ remember? I work with those dudes a lot. Sanjay gave me a tour of The Machine so I’d understand it more when I review the contract. Plus, I’m actually interested in this kind of stuff.” Nick shrugged. “I guess he forgot to take his keycard back.”

“Right,” said Joe. He had to smile. Whoever had said that age mellows a man had never met Nick. “Forgot.”

“And I think you should see The Machine too so you know what the hell it is you’re reading about.”

“I know what I’m reading about.”

“Okay, smart guy,” said Nick. “What does The Machine do? That’s right–you don’t have a clue.”

“You didn’t give me a chance to answer,” said Joe, but his heart wasn’t in the protest.

“And I’m sure it would have been a brilliant answer, really dazzling, A-plus stuff. But we don’t have all night. Come on, let’s go. I’m telling you, you’ll thank me. I promise.”

“I doubt it,” said Joe. But he went. Continue reading Reset: Chapter Two: Now (2)”

Reset: Chapter One: Now (1)

Hi everyone. For the next few weeks, I’m going to do something different: On my “off” days, I am going to post chapters of a shorter novel I’ve written called Reset. I’m thinking Tuesdays and Fridays are good days for this. Below is the first chapter. Enjoy!

As the door slammed shut in his face Joe wished, not for the first time, that he could have a do-over.

“What’d I do now?” he said, rather pathetically, to the door.

From the other side he heard his ex-wife’s heavy sigh. “God, just go away!”

His first instinct, as always, was to meekly turn around and heading back to his car. But this morning would be different; Joe could feel it. Gathering his courage, he squared his shoulders before the door like he was facing an angry judge about to pass sentence. “Tell me why you’re upset.”

The door opened just enough for Sandra to stick out her snarling face. The morning sun shone on her hair, making it glow like burnished copper. She was beautiful, even with that scowl twisting her mouth. Then something caught her attention and the scowl melted, replaced by a sorrowful smile.

Jason, their four-year-old son, had wandered over to investigate the commotion. Joe had just dropped him off after their weekend together and was in the process of solidifying next week’s plans when some unknown trigger had set Sandra off.

Sandra ruffled the boy’s hair, dirty blond just like Joe’s. A nice color. He hoped that most of his other, less-desirable traits had passed Jason over. “Go back inside, honey,” said Sandra, “Mommy will be right with you.”

“I wanna see Daddy,” said Jason, trying to muscle past Sandra’s leg. His little hand pushed on the door.

“Later, honey,” said Sandra. “Daddy has to go to work.”

“Is the TV on?” said Joe, trying to look into the house. “I thought we talked about not letting him watch too much TV.”

“It’s always the same thing. It’s always been the same thing.”

“Don’t do this now!” Joe snapped. He held out his hand for Jason. The boy gave it a half-hearted whack. “Daddy has to get to work, my man. I’ll see you later. Listen to Mommy and be good, alright?”

“Bye Daddy! See you later alligator!” said Jason. He turned and ran towards the living room and the television’s glowing embrace.

“Don’t call him that,” said Sandra.

“Call him what?”

“‘My man.’ That’s not his name.”

“It’s a term of endearment, Sandra.”

“He’s started calling everybody ‘man.’ I don’t want him to do that. Why is this so hard to understand?”

“Alright. Okay. I’m sorry.”

“I don’t care about your apology. You’re always ‘sorry,’ but nothing happens.”

“Alright I’ll bite: what’s this really about?”

“Nothing.”

Joe spread his hands. “I’m trying to make the best of this, Sandra. And it’s tough when I don’t even know what I did to get you upset.”

The look she gave him broke his heart in places he thought had already scabbed over. “It was my birthday, Joe.”

Her birthday. Joe’s clenched his jaw like he was bracing for a punch. They were supposed to meet up yesterday for a quick celebration. He was going to make a cake with Jason and have Jason write in the card to show how good he’s gotten with his letters. But then he got the email from his boss Charlie on Saturday. Leftover Red Sox tickets from a client that had rescheduled their meeting. Charlie was giving them away on a first-come-first-served basis. And Joe, miracle of miracles, had been the first, so the tickets were his. He and Jason had gone to the game, and then out for ice cream, and then to the Aquarium, and had made such a grand day out of it that he had forgotten all about Sandra’s birthday.

Instead, he said: “That’s why you’re mad? We’re not even married, anymore, Sandra.”

“Goodbye, Joe,” she said, again slamming the door dangerously close to his nose.

But the doorknob did bury itself in his gut, that rapidly expanding paunch which depressed Joe to no end. He had been so skinny as a young man without even trying. Now it seemed like every calorie became a lifelong friend.

He grunted, stepped back, and almost tripped off the stoop. That would be just his luck, falling and cracking his skull on the driveway of the house he used to share with his wife and son, blood staining the asphalt like some sacrifice to the gods of American family law. But he managed to catch his balance, waving his arms in the air like the world’s goofiest bird, to live to fail another day.

For whatever reason, he almost wished he had hurt himself. It would cut through some of the numbness. The thought made him laugh. What was he, some Goth teen, wanting to hurt himself just to feel something?

He walked back to his car, muttering and shaking his head; anyone walking by would think he was either drunk or crazy. Maybe he was crazy and didn’t know it. Why else would he have said something so stupid, so counter-productive, to the ex he was trying to win back? The devil?

Joe shrugged. Maybe.

His car was a used Honda Civic. He had to downgrade from the Benz in order to pay child support, as well as maintain his own apartment in the city. Sandra still made more than he did, but the gods decreed that he, as the father, must pay, so pay he did. Sandra also had physical custody of Jason, so the nice house in Sudbury was hers and he was relegated to bachelor living in Boston, just with none of its concomitant benefits.

Hey baby, want to come to some pudgy mid-thirty divorced guy’s swinging pad? I’ve got half a pizza in the fridge and a six-pack of Sam Adams . . .

Joe could feel his blood pressure rising, so he tried to redirect his thoughts towards something benign. But couldn’t let go of his own foibles. It was a holdover from his Catholic upbringing, he supposed. Lingering guilt.

But it was something to feel badly about. He always let his mouth run free while his brain played catch-up. He really had just been angry with himself about the whole birthday thing; why take it out on Sandra? Couldn’t he have just said “I’m sorry”?

Sandra wouldn’t have bought his apology anyway, Joe knew. And she would have told him so. “I don’t care about words. I care about actions,” she’d say, and he’d feel like a dope, an idiot, an incapable weakling. So out of pride he had lashed out, like he always did. And that was one of the reasons they were divorced.

Things can change, though. Eventually. Maybe someday he’d find the strength to change himself, and then he could change Sandra’s mind.

He started his car. Children’s music blared out of the speakers, something peppy and hopeful; his ear caught the words “happy” and “family,” and he almost started to cry. He turned the stereo off with a jab of his finger and took what he didn’t realize would be his last look at the house as he backed onto the road.

Joe sighed. “Count your blessings,” his mom used to say. So he did. He still had a job, at least.

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“I hate this job, I swear to God.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter One: Now (1)”