Reset: Chapter 12: Tuesday, September 4, 2001 (1)

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It was absurd, ridiculous, and childish, but Joe felt it all the same, that familiar surge of dread at the prospect of the first day of school.

All of his knowledge, his experience, and his confidence evaporated, leaving behind a mass of self-conscious jelly as he and Nick walked into Archer Hall to commence their academic career at New Hampshire University for the second time.

Archer’s grand lecture hall, looking more suited to theater than academics, seated three-hundred amidst huge windows flanked by grand columns. But as professors tended to be pretentious sorts who thought every word escaping from their mouths was of great importance, the setting fit. And what was an academic lecture but a type of performance?

He strained to control his breathing. His brain vibrated like a church bell being rung by an excitable abbot, the way it had when The Machine had deposited him and Nick on the field by the Burns Center. More nauseatingly, he felt the world’s strongest case of déjà vu, like his mind couldn’t reconcile the memories of things that had not yet happened occurring at the same time that they did.

“How you feel?” muttered Nick. They were the first words he had said to Joe since yesterday.

“Like my brain’s about to melt.”

“Same here,” said Nick as they took their seats. “For the record, whatever else happens, I’m sorry about this.”

“If this gets any worse, I’m going to start doing coke with you.” The girl sitting next to them looked over, eyes wide.

“He’s a Pepsi guy,” said Nick. “This is a big breakthrough, you know.”

The girl leaned back in her seat. Maybe if I ignore them, her expression said, they’ll go away.

“I don’t know how much more I can take,” said Joe. He pressed his fingers to his temples, probably looking like he was nursing a whale of a hangover, no different from most students in the lecture hall–the three-day weekend had not been kind to NHU’s undergraduate population.

“All I know is that if Brennan begins with that retarded joke about the meaning of the word ‘barbarian,’ I swear I’m leaving.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 12: Tuesday, September 4, 2001 (1)”

Reset: Chapter 11: Monday, September 3, 2001 (2)

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“Are you ready?” said Nick. He held up a rectangular plastic box.

Jonesy grimaced in confusion. “Ready for what?”

“Ready for pain?”

They sat in Paxton’s second-floor lounge around a square table, bleary eyed and downcast. “I’ve got enough of that,” said Jonesy. He lowered his head against the table with an audible thunk. “You should have let me die.”

“Nonsense,” said Nick. He placed the box on the table. “We had to save you for a glorious death on the field of battle.”

“What are you even talking about?” Jonesy muttered.

“Only the greatest board game in the history of mankind.”

“Monopoly?” said Jonesy.

“No, fool! Risk! Does this look like Monopoly?”

The board game Risk

Carlos poked among the pieces in the open box. “Never played it.”

“And that’s what I’m here for,” said Nick, “to bring culture to you Philistines. You are in for a treat. If you like losing, that is. Which I can tell that you do.”

“You make this game sound like such a blast,” muttered Carlos.

Nick unfolded the game board and placed it on the table. “Remember the epic games we used to have?”

“Absolutely,” said Joe. “Back in high school we’d keep games going for days. Weeks, even.”

“Sounds like you needed a life,” said Carlos.

“Says the guy who spends all his time ‘playing the piano,’” said Nick, making a jerking-off gesture with one hand. “I know what you’re really doing in that practice room. Anyway, the rules are simple, but the strategies will take a lifetime to master.”

“No they won’t,” said Joe. “Just get Australia.”

Nick gave the air a karate chop. “Come on! What the hell’s the matter with you?!”

“Nothing’s the matter with me. They’re smart guys. They’d figure it out in two seconds. It’s so obvious”

“One doesn’t learn if they are given the answers. They must figure them out on their own.”

“Okay Sun Tzu,” said Joe.

“Au contraire, smart guy,” said Nick. “I think that was Confucius.”

“What’s so good about Australia?” said Jonesy. “Do they get boomerangs or something?”

“Yes,” said Nick. “And they ride kangaroos.”

Jonesy’s head shot up, his eyes bright. “Really?!”

“No, not really! It’s all about location!”

“Location, location, location,” said Carlos. “If this game’s about real estate, count me out.”

“Then it’d be Monopoly,” said Jonesy.

As though praying for the strength to teach the hard of heart, Nick gritting his teeth and rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Risk touches on every aspect of the human condition,” he said. “You will learn more about each other, and yourself. More than your own mother even knows.”

“My mother’s dead,” said Carlos quietly.

Nick’s jaw dropped. Joe felt his own mouth go dry. Had she been dead before? Did their meddling with the universe’s clock cause things to go so haywire so quickly?

“Carlos, I’m so sorry,” said Joe.

“I didn’t know, man,” said Nick. “It was just a joke. I feel terrible.”

Joe had to fight the urge to squirm in the midst of that uneasy silence now shrouding the table, all the while Carlos glared daggers at Nick with his jaw set and his fists clenched under the table.

“His mom’s not dead,” said Jonesy at least. “He’s just being a jerk.”

A smile spread slowly on Carlos’s face.

The mood punctured, Nick slumped with unfeigned relief. They joined Carlos in laughing, maybe a little too enthusiastically.

“Good one,” said Nick, pointing a long finger. “Good one. You got us.”

“Us?” said Joe. “Why am I always blamed for the stupid stuff you do and say?”

“Because you look like the kind of guy who does and says stupid stuff.”

“Not really,” said Jonesy, returning his head to his arms.

“Way to throw the guy who saved your life under the bus,” said Nick. “But enough messing around. There is nothing funny about war. Except for the part where Joe loses.”

Jonesy again raised his head and stared glumly at the board. “Can’t we just play video games?”

Joe patted him on the back. “After last night I think you need to decompress with some good, clean fun.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 11: Monday, September 3, 2001 (2)”

Reset: Chapter 10: Monday, September 3, 2001 (1)

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The phone rang. Joe ignored it. The phone rang again. He opened his eyes a crack. His clock told him that the time was 3:32 in the morning. No time for conversation. But the phone kept ringing. Nick’s rattling snore told Joe that he had no trouble sleeping through the intrusion. With a huff, he reached out and picked up the phone. “Who the hell is this?!”

“Jonesy’s not here! He’s still not here!”

Joe sat up. “Carlos? What’s going on?”

“I got up to piss and Jonesy’s still not here! I’m worried, man!”

“Okay. Did you call the police?”

Nick’s snoring cut off with a tearing sound. “Keep it down,” he muttered.

“No,” said Carlos.

“Give them a call. He’s probably fine. It’s his first weekend away from home. We were all like that when we were kids, you know?”

“When we were kids?”

Something hit Joe on the head. Nick’s grasping hand tugged on his ear before yanking the receiver away. The phone’s cradle fell off of the nightstand, suspended by the cord.

“Carlos. It’s Nick. Call the cops and meet us at Rodger.” Rodger Hall was a huge dorm midway from Danielson Hall, where Carlos and Jonesy lived, and Paxton. “Yeah. Don’t worry about Joe. I think he was drunk. No. I’m joking. Alright. See you there. And don’t worry. He’s probably fine. Later.”

Nick dropped the phone receiver, which passed startlingly close to Joe’s cheek. The whole phone, cradle and all, hit the floor with a loud clatter. “Way to wake the whole dorm up,” said Joe.

Nick swung his long legs over the edge of the top bunk, nearly smacking Joe in the head. “You need to watch yourself. You almost gave the game away.”

“Oh, come on. Like he would’ve believed me anyway.”

“You don’t know that.”

Joe stood and jumped just in time for Nick to hit the floor behind him. “Yes I do,” he said. “And if it comes up, I used to play trumpet in high school, alright?”

“Yeah. Got it. You’re a regular Miles Davis.” Nick flicked on the overhead lights. “Get dressed.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” said Joe.

Nick froze while rummaging through his sock drawer. “I know you’re sad about your son, Joe. I feel bad about that, I really do. Real bad. But this is the situation we’re in now so let’s deal with it.”

Joe pulled a clean t-shirt over his head and started looking for his jeans. “Situation. Right. And I’m the worrywart for thinking that it may not be such a good idea to go messing around with the past.”

Nick barked a laugh and turned towards Joe. “Hey, I’m not the one who told Jonesy to go talk to some sorority girl and offer her a drink. That’s on you, my friend.”

“You’re the one that brought him there in the first place with your stupid phone number game. He looks up to you, Nick. He always did.”

“That’s his problem, not mine. And don’t you try to pass the blame on to me.”

“Pass the blame? Who set The Machine off in the first place?!”

“Whoa, hey, shh, keep it down.” Nick was waving his hands like he was trying to put out a fire. “I’m a jerk, alright? I wasn’t thinking. I was high, miserable, upset, a total ass, a knucklehead, a buffoon, okay? We can talk about my moral failings later. Let’s just find Jonesy, alright?”

“Fine. Let’s do this. But this isn’t over.”

“That’s the spirit!” said Nick. His hand darted out and slapped Joe in the nuts, making him double over in shock and pain. “Don’t just stand there,” he said, opening the door. “We’ve got work to do.” Continue reading Reset: Chapter 10: Monday, September 3, 2001 (1)”

Reset: Chapter Nine: Sunday, September 2, 2001 (2)

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The day was classic New Hampshire fall, sunny and cool with only a few clouds dotting the sky, like sheep grazing in a field of blue. He thought about taking Nick’s advice and visiting Hollister’s one and only Catholic church, but after walking through the Lower Quad and up the small-hill as if on autopilot, he found himself on Main Street.

His heart ached with nostalgia as he walked by the stores and restaurants he used to frequent, places like Hollister House of Pizza, Phil’s Phelafels, and Smith’s, which served the best breakfast on the seacoast. Then there were bars like Schneider’s Tap and Molly O’Malley’s. Joe remembered stumbling out of Molly’s on his raucous twenty-first birthday and puking on the sidewalk. Nick and Jonesy had been pretty wasted, too, but Carlos hadn’t drunk a drop.

Without thinking, Joe’s feet took him to Farnham’s, Main Street’s one and only coffee-cum-ice cream shop. He had every intention of downing a three-scoop sundae, but standing in line and rubbing a hand on his newly flat stomach, opted for a coffee instead.

He slid into one of the white wrought-iron chairs at an empty table outside the store and idly watched the people going by. He had used to enjoy people-watching, especially the co-eds as they strolled or jogged up and down Main Street. Now, the only woman on his mind was Sandra. His thoughts turned inwards into the confused Mobius-strip of past and present tangling up his brain.

Everything felt strange, unstable. A soft compulsion guided him towards reenacting past events to the letter, like living an echo. Yet there seemed to be no obstacles to deviation, nor any repercussions.

The repercussions would come later, he mused, like little time bombs they were burying without thinking. Take Nick’s obsession with Amy Pappas. What if Nick, in trying to recapture his own lost dreams, ruined hers? What if Amy had been perfectly happy with her life before Nick turned back the hands of the universal clock? Maybe she too had children who were now winked out of existence. At least she wouldn’t know about them, but it didn’t make what Nick did any less wrong.

And what about Zack? Sure, he might go on to become a highly successful football player and do great things with his celebrity and wealth. But he could also end up having a miserable life. There were a million what-ifs, a parade of horribles about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Surely God wouldn’t stand for that. Surely–

The coffee burned his lips. He flinched and tried again, sipping gently. His thoughts turned back to the phone call with his mother. She had been so proud of him despite the fact that he had been at a party where alcohol was being served.

“You looked so heroic, Joey! Your father and I are so proud of you. Isn’t that right, Darren?” Joe heard his father yell something from the distance. “He’s trying to fix a bookshelf, Joey. He can’t talk. Your Aunt Gina is here, though. She wants to say hello. Let me hand her the phone.”

“Hi Joey!” said Aunt Gina. Joe feigned a choking cough to cover up his surprise. Aunt Gina died of stomach cancer in 2003.

I can’t do this, Joe thought as he sipped his coffee and looked down the hill towards campus. I am going to go mad.

“Yo! There he is!” someone yelled. Joe didn’t realize it was directed at him until he felt hands slapping him on his back and chest.

“There he is!” said Zack Henderson. He was with two other guys whom Joe recognized from last night’s party. They pulled over some chairs and sat down, Zack taking the seat opposite Joe’s. “Mind if we join you?”

Joe nodded, grateful for the distraction. “No, please! Um, how’s it going?”

Downtown Durham, New Hampshire

“Man,” said Zack, his eyes wide. He let out a heavy breath and rubbed his head. “Man. I mean, it’s crazy. I don’t even want to think about it.”

“He’s got a new lease on life,” said one Zack’s friends, a square-jawed white kid with short brown hair. “He’s a new man!”

Zack shook his head. “It’s not like that. I’m the same old me. I just feel weird.”

Joe straightened. “Weird?”

Zack waved a hand. “Nothing. I don’t know how I can thank you though, man. I don’t think I was ready to die.”

“He’s ready to play!” said Zack’s other friend, a hefty black kid with a broad nose and a bushy goatee. He slapped Zack on the shoulder. “Ain’t that right, dog?”

Zack smiled. “Ready to play. First game next Saturday. You coming?”

“Me?” said Joe. “Uh, yeah. Sure. I wasn’t planning on it, but I kind of guess I have to now.”

“That’s my boy! That’s my dog!” said the big guy, nearly knocking Joe over with a friendly pat on his back.

“Yo, easy!” said Zack. “That’s Gamiel. We call him Game. He’s a nose tackle. Don’t know his own strength. And that’s Quinn. He’s a backup QB.”

“Gentlemen,” said Joe, nodding at his new acquaintances.

“Hah!” said Quinn. “Gentlemen!”

“Don’t know how much we’re going to play,” said Zack. He shrugged.

“You’re going to play, dog!” said Game. “He’s good, yo. You should see him play. He’s good.”

“Starting as a freshman,” said Quinn, grinning. “Lucky bastard.”

“It ain’t luck,” said Game. “It’s skill. Skill and hard work. He’s good.”

“I’m sure you are,” said Joe. He had never really palled around with jocks before, typically viewing them all through the prism of the assholes he knew in high school. Yet his old preconceptions were steadily receding. He found that he liked these guys.

Zack looked at his watch. “Hey, we’re going to grab some dinner. You coming?”

Joe held up his cup of coffee. “This is dinner. But thanks.”

“Suit yourself, ,” said Zack. He stood, pointing at Joe with a serious cast to his face. “We’ll keep in touch, alright? And say hi to Nick for me.”

“Nick. Right.” He nodded his goodbye at Game and Quinn and watched them saunter down to Middleton Hall with the easy confidence that young men seemed to possess in abundance.

Joe laughed to himself. Technically, he fell in that category as well. So why did he feel as ancient as the sun in the sky? Continue reading Reset: Chapter Nine: Sunday, September 2, 2001 (2)”

Reset: Chapter Eight: Sunday, September 2, 2001 (1)

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Foster’s Daily Democrat and the NHU Courier used the same photo on their front pages, Joe and Nick flanking Zack Henderson as he rested his arms over their shoulders, angled oddly on account of Nick’s height. One of the partygoers, an overzealous junior named Marissa Bowen, happened to be the editor-in-chief of the Courier. She always carried a camera with her and had taken the picture and their statements. She had also called the Democrat so the story could get wider release. Marissa’s goal, based on the Courier’s headline “Frat Row Nearly Claims Another,” was to strike a blow against NHU’s Greek scene. She was surely disappointed when the Democrat’s feature, “Freshmen Save A Life,” echoed none of her scathing commentary. In both stories, Joe and Nick provided bromides about coincidence, being in the right place at the right time, and doing the right thing, although Nick couldn’t resist throwing in this particular bon mot: “It’s almost as if we were meant to be here.”

Joe could have strangled him.

* * *

Joe saw the headlines the next morning when Nick threw the papers onto Joe’s chest, waking him from his deep sleep on the bottom bunk.

“Look at that!” Nick yelled. “Front page news! Not the lead story, but good enough for rock n’ roll. Damn, we look good, even you!”

Joe sat up and blinked, looking at the newspapers. “What time is it?”

“Time for church,” said Nick. “I’m going with Amy.” He stripped down and wrapped himself in a towel, skinny as he ever was. “Make sure you call your parents.”

The headlines sank in after his third read. Joe tossed the papers on the floor. He had so much he wanted to say to Nick, things he should have said last night, but instead could only muster: “What happened to your hair?”

“What do you mean, ‘my hair’? That’s all you can talk about? My hair?”

Gone were Nick’s flowing black locks, in their place a short and very stylish hairdo. Almost too stylish, as in a decade or so ahead of its time.

Joe flopped back down, turning towards the wall. “Never mind.”

“Amy likes it short, alright? When she asked what the deal was with my hair, I told her I was getting it cut tomorrow.” He strode over to Joe’s bed and gave him a shake. “Things are working out,” he said excitedly. “We saved a life, right? Some good has come out of this already!”

Joe grunted.

“That’s all you can say? All that talk about wanting to do something bigger with your life and that’s all you got? I don’t get you sometimes.”

“You sure you’re not still on coke?” Joe said.

“What do you mean, ‘coke’? What’re you talking about?”

Joe shot upright, his shoulder smacking Nick in the nose.

Nick reared back, hand to his face. “Hey! Watch the schnoz alright?!” It wasn’t bleeding, though Nick, who did have a rather large nose, kept checking his fingers for blood.

“How’d you know it would work?” Joe asked.

“Why are you so mad?”

“Just answer me: How did you know The Machine would work?”

“We’re not in a courtroom, Matlock. It’s too early for this. Just calm the hell down, alright?”

“Answer me!”

With a sniff and one last swipe, Nick left his nose alone. “Sanjay said they’d tested it in short bursts, like five or ten seconds, alright? I already told you this!”

“Oh. So they went back to when The Machine still existed. Smart.”

“Of course they’re smart. They invented this. What’s your point?”

“Nothing,” said Joe. He flopped back down on the bed.

“I don’t get you sometimes. Maybe you need to come to church, get a little Jesus in your soul. Maybe that’s your problem.”

Nick waited for a reaction. Getting none, he left for the shower. When Nick returned to change into his suit they both stayed silent like feuding lovers. They might as well be married, Joe thought. He spent more time with Nick than he ever had with his wife. Ex-wife. It still stung to think of Sandra like that.

Nick left Joe still in bed, determined to stay there all day, but his plans were thwarted by the ringing of the phone.

He answered the call and proceeded to have a surreal conversation with his mother. Continue reading Reset: Chapter Eight: Sunday, September 2, 2001 (1)”

Retro Inspiration

Video games are a part of modern culture. Whether you like it or not, they are here to stay.

I know I've written about the downsides of gaming in the past. But I've also written about the creative aspects and how, at least in my mind, they really are a type of art, particularly in the music department. But what I haven't talked about much is that, while I'm definitely a casual gamer these days, how much I love what are now called "retrogames."

Seriously. If I'm going to fire up a game, it's going to be an old NES, SNES, Genesis, or PC title from the 80s/90s. There are some PlayStation 1 and 2 games I have a fondness for, the PS2 being the last system I was really in to. I got a Wii as a gift, and do own a DS, but aside from a handful of games on each, I haven't touched them in years.

But a funny thing happened on the way to adulthood: Many of these games remain an inspiration. 

Especially in my writing.

I've made no secret that I'm an aspiring author. I'm serializing my short novel Reset, chapter-by-chapter, on this blog every Sunday, and I've shared the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published novel The Rust Man. I'm also working on a new novel as we speak, and have a previously finished one I want to clean up.

What I haven't talked too much about is my inspiration for these things. I do consider myself peripherally attached to both the Pulp Revolution and the Superversive movements, though both represent ideas that I found myself holding long before the movements came into being.

On the PulpRev side, while I haven't read that many of the Appendix N, the ideals behind the "old" stuff appeal to me, as does the sense of fun, adventure, and "anything goes," unconstrained by genre labels or conventions and served with a healthy slice of heroism and goodness.

And as far as Superversive, let's just say that I'm not a fan of nihilism. At all.

So where do video games come in? Continue reading “Retro Inspiration”

Reset: Chapter Seven: Saturday, September 1, 2001 (4)

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Zeta Zeta Nu was a madhouse, though tamer than Joe’s assumptions about frat parties had led him to believe, tinged as they were by movies and TV. He had never been invited to any in college, of course. He wasn’t a partier the way Nick was, but even Nick didn’t start his carousing until law school.

A Snoop Dogg song Joe hadn’t heard in years blared from unseen speakers, making him feel ancient as he bounced like a pinball among the bodies of beautiful young people. Jonesy and Carlos were lost to him; Nick’s shaggy head, towering over most partiers, served as his beacon, leading Joe to a staircase near the back of the house.

Someone shoved a red plastic cup into Joe’s hands. He brought it reflexively to his lips, the scent of cheap beer filling his nostrils. Technically, he was underage, but given the absurd impossibility of the situation he drank it down.

“Thanks!” he told no one in particular as a belch escaped him. He should have been more careful, he knew, as stories of date-rape drugs in drinks flashed through his mind. But the responsible adult part of his brain was on the fritz, and he really didn’t think the kind of person who would spike a drink would be looking to drug a guy like him. And even if they were, well, maybe the drugs would help him forget everything.

He tossed the empty cup aside as he caught up to Nick, who was delicately maneuvering his long legs to avoid stepping on a boy and a girl passionately making out on the steps. “Leave room for the Holy Ghost!” he said, pulling the boy’s head back and cackling as he walked upstairs.

“Excuse my friend,” said Joe, almost stepping on the confused girl’s fingers. “He was conceived at a frat party. Makes him kind of sensitive.”

“Are you drunk?” drawled the boy.

“No. Just annoyed.”

Snoop Dogg gave way to OutKast as Joe reached the second-floor landing. He knew he was still old at heart because he found himself admiring the house’s architectural beauty instead of the female beauty around him, wondering what it would look like cleared out and cleaned up. And then he thought, since when are the mid-thirties considered old? Deep in these thoughts, Joe walked face-first into a tall blonde’s bosom.

He felt a wetness on his head that spilled down his forehead and into his eyes, and for a heart-stopping moment feared he was bleeding. The smell and taste of beer as it dripped into his mouth provided some relief. But it wasn’t the beer shampoo that worried him.

He sputtered apologies as he backed up, getting a good look at the victim of his unintentional collision. She must have been a basketball or volleyball player, towering over him by about a foot. And she did not look happy.

“Thanks a lot, jerk!” she snarled, shoving Joe aside with a sweep of her arm. He bumped into a knot of people, sincerely hoping they didn’t notice.

They noticed. “Yo, what’s going on?” said one very tall, very fit specimen of young man in yellow wind pants, a ZZN tank top, sunglasses, and a dopey visor on his head. His face was flushed, but he seemed steady on his feet.

“This guy spilled my drink,” said the Amazon.

Joe’s heart sped, not looking forward to a pummeling his first day as a college man reborn. But the guy just looked at Joe and shrugged. “Get her another one, dude!”

“Right,” said Joe, assuring the girl he’d be right back with another drink. He dove back into the crowd, swimming through it towards where Nick stood by a table where two boys wearing backwards Red Sox caps played beer pong.

ru-frat-party

Someone grabbed his arm. “You alright?”

Joe turned and saw Carlos. “Yeah. Just trying to find the roof deck.”

Carlos jerked a thumb behind him. “The stairs are that way.”

“Thanks. Let me get Nick.” Carlos nodded.

Joe was about to call to Nick but the words dissipated when he saw whom Nick was talking to. Amy Pappas.

Joe had never met her, of course. But he recognized her from the news, where she had become a reporter and then an anchor for a television station in Boston.

She looked the part, even back then. Or now, Joe corrected himself. She was tall and slender with curves in all the right places, with a long neck and big brown eyes. Her hair was dyed some unflattering shade of blonde that had been fashionable when they were in college, her eyebrows betraying the true color of her hair. Joe never really understood Nick’s fascination with her: the Greek part or the tall part.

Whichever part, Nick had abandoned their heroes’ quest to correct what he viewed as a grave past injustice.

“Son of a bitch,” he whispered.

“Who?” said Carlos.

“Look at this guy,” said Joe, trying to sound more animated. “All this talk about the roof deck and he starts talking to the first pretty girl he sees.”

“He’s got to get that number, right?” said Carlos.

“I see a lot of pretty girls here,” said Jonesy, who had found them amongst the mass of partiers.

Carlos shrugged. “Good for him. He’s got balls. Me, I could use some fresh air.”

Big balls,” said Jonesy. He looked at Nick like a teenage girl staring at the heartthrob du jour. Which, at this time, had been the Backstreet Boys. Or N*Sync. Was Joe really doomed to relive the boy band craze?

Joe grabbed Jonesy by the shoulders and pointed him towards the towering blonde who stood waving her empty hands while talking to a friend. “Tell you what, Scott: go get that girl a drink and strike up a conversation.”

“You think? What drink?”

“Beer,” said Joe.

“What kind?”

“Cheap.” He gave Jonesy a push. “Tell her you saw some asshole spill hers and thought she might like a new one.”

“Okay. Hey, how’d you know my name?!”

“You told me,” said Joe.

“I did?”

“Just go get that number. Go!”

Jonesy sailed into the crowd, his small body bouncing around but staying upright. Joe smiled as he saw him grab a cup from somewhere, walk over to the angry girl and offer her the drink. The girl’s glower turned to a smile as she accepted it. Jonesy started talking and pointed back at Joe. The girl laughed and ruffled Jonesy’s hair like he was a small child. Which he was, come to think of it.

“Wow,” said Carlos. “I didn’t think he had it in him.”

Joe looked at Nick, deep in conversation with Amy. “You’d be surprised.”

* * *

The roof deck was rather nice after the clutter and commotion of the house, commanding a view of downtown Hollister and the forests beyond. The town felt secluded despite its proximity to larger cities like Dover and Portsmouth and the sea; if you stood on Main Street and looked in any direction, all you saw were brick buildings, old houses, and trees.

A few stars were visible, the music softer, and Joe could almost call the atmosphere relaxing if it weren’t for a boisterous crew of football players and ZZN brothers standing in one corner. Joe knew they were football players because he saw him. Zack Henderson, beer bottle in hand, smiling and nodding at what a friend had said.

Zack was a big, solid black guy, about six-foot-two and covered in muscle. He was slated to play running back for the NHU Lions. He had a shaved head and an easy smile, standing with his free hand against the railing. Two crates of Keystone Light were on the ground by his feet.

A cheer arose from the group. They clinked bottles and drank. One of the guys busied himself getting another beer. Joe’s heart lurched as he saw Zack sway, steadying himself against the railing.

“Nice up here, huh?” said Carlos. Joe didn’t respond. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Fine,” said Joe. He kept his eyes on Zack, planning his next move.

“You’re sweating, man. You sick or something? Let’s go. It was stupid to come here anyway.”

“No,” said Joe, grasping Carlos by the shirt. “No, I need . . .”

“Take it easy! Need what?”

Joe let his hand drop, feeling strangely numb. He blinked away the sweat that dripped into his eyes. What time was it? What time did it happen?

Zack staggered again to more cheers and someone yelling, “Drink up, boys!” Joe walked towards the group.

“You know those guys?” said Carlos after him.

Joe’s focus sharpened; he became hyperaware of every sensation. Each footfall echoed like the steps of a giant. Each breath sounded like a dragon’s growl. Yet he seemed no closer to the drinking, smiling Zack Henderson, tilting his bottle back as he edged closer to the railing, closer . . .

He heard Nick’s booming voice. “Hey, there you are! Guys! I’d like you to meet someone!”

“Nick,” said Joe, quickening his pace across the roof deck. “Nick, get over here!”

He was running. Dimly, he realized Nick ran with him. Zack leaned back to drain his bottle. One of his laughing, smiling friends stepped back, elbowing Zack in the stomach. Spitting beer, Zack bumped into the crates at his feet, losing his balance and tipping over into empty air.

Joe leapt and somehow, miraculously, caught Zack by his arm. But Zack was bigger and heavier, and Joe felt himself pulled towards the edge, his thighs bumping into the railing, ready to be tipped into the void. So this is how it ends, he thought, death by good deed.

And then his forward momentum halted because Nick had has arms around Joe’s waist and his feet braced against the railing. Joe’s shoulder was nearly pulled out of his socket, but he held onto Zack’s arm and pulled with one hand on the railing for balance.

Black and white hands.jpg

Somehow they pulled Zack high enough for him to grab the railing and hoist himself back onto the deck. Awareness of the near-catastrophe dawned on his inebriated friends, a collective gasp rising into the night like a burst of flame. Carlos and the others ran over to see what had happened. One of those people was Amy Pappas.

Zack’s friends crowded around where they knelt, thanking Joe and Nick profusely, patting them on their backs and shoulders and heads like they had completed some daring play. Zack Henderson breathed heavily, sweat pouring down his face and his eyes cartoonishly wide. He was shaking and looked about to cry.

“You’re alright, you’re alright,” Joe kept saying, patting the bigger man on the chest. “It’s alright, we got you.”

“Saved my life,” said Zack, nearly hyperventilating. “Saved my life. Saved my life.”

“Nice catch,” said Nick, patting Joe on the shoulder. “Football joke, get it?” He turned and smiled at Amy, giving her a thumbs up. She beamed back at him, and Joe understood why Nick had really wanted to come here. Saving Zack Henderson’s life was just a bonus, a means to the end of winning the girl of his dreams. Joe thought deeply and seriously about throwing Nick over the edge instead.

Chapter 6                                                Table of Contents                                                 Chapter 8

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