Ouroboros, Inc. - 3. Chapter 3
I held my breath in the stands along with everyone else as his shot sailed up toward the rim, bounced around like a pinball and then...bounced out. The buzzer sounded and the game was over, and for the first time – some might say the only time it actually mattered – we'd lost.
“Holy shit! I can't believe that happened! I can't believe that just happened,” Jess said from my right.
“Kincaide will be so pissed,” Finn agreed to my left.
I got up with my two friends and headed down with the rest of the chattering yet subdued crowd. I don't like to play sports as a rule, but I actually like watching them, and I like going to school sports events for the game as much as the hangout. This game marked something of a halfway point for my junior year, given we were now out of the basketball playoffs and this was February.
We slowly got outside and then piled into Jess's car, talking about where to go for something to eat. We weren't actually hungry – or I wasn't at least – but it was always fun to extend the night with a hangout or something. We settled on a local convenience chain that did sandwiches and killer shakes, and the talk quickly turned away from the game itself.
“Can you imagine being Kincaide? School sports legend, but then you blow the biggest shot of the season, and your team is done? I mean, just like that it's all over?” Jess asked.
“Everything always feels like it's over stupid fast,” Finn said. “Every time we get to the end of a school year it's like 'Wait, didn't we just start last week or summin'?'”
I nodded and hummed in reply, slurping up my coffee shake. “Still,” I added, “I can see what Jess means. Kincaide is good, but he's not going to D1 or anything. He's like a big fish in a small pond, and now? You go undefeated, but your first game in the playoffs you lose on the final shot? That's got to get to a guy.”
“Fair,” Finn replied.
“What do you do with something like that? Like, he probably thought he'd be playing a few more weeks – and that can feel like forever. The games won't stop, but then...just like that. Closest I can think of is when I broke up with DeShaun,” Jess said.
We both cut her off. “You broke up with?”
She lifted her chin. “That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.”
We laughed and talked for a little longer, but then Jess was dropping us off, and I was settling in for the night. I glanced at the calendar and was a little surprised – mostly because I'd forgotten – but February was almost over. My birthday was March first, which always snuck up on me because of February having a funky number of days.
I hadn't even made birthday plans. My parents hadn't asked what I'd like for my birthday – a car, duh! Of course there were other things, things you can't ask for as a gift. A boyfriend. Kincaide, specifically. I thought back to the previous fall when we'd just gotten back to school. He was outside with Katie Plumber at one of the picnic tables the school placed in our common area. His letterman jacket was around her shoulders, and he placed an arm around her protectively.
Must be nice.
I got up Sunday morning and wandered down to get some breakfast. I heard the TV in the living room, but I avoided it. My parents had me late in life, and we were very different people. My dad watched a 24-hour news channel – well, news isn't really fair – and he just...wallowed in whatever they had to say.
One time my mom and I had been talking and she was asking me what I thought were the biggest threats facing the country, because she was looking at some mailer from a politician that was asking biased questions.
“Honestly? I think it's for-profit news. It gives people an incentive to make money rather than telling the truth,” I said.
“What's wrong with making a buck?” my dad had asked as he came into the room. “That's what's wrong with you young people. None of you want to work!”
“Well, work for 40 or 50 years only to retire and enjoy maybe ten? What about if you die before that? Was your life worth living then?”
“Of course it was,” my mother said gently. “All the birthdays and anniversaries. You never know how your life will go, but there are always good things to take from it.”
We kept up the talk, but my dad had gotten progressively angrier until he'd dismissed me completely. We don't really talk much anymore. I think we just don't understand each other, and my mom's thinking is somewhere in the middle of my dad and I.
At any rate, I avoided the living room and went in to make myself something to eat. I poured a cup of coffee and paused when I heard the doorbell. That was weird. I couldn't remember the last time someone used the doorbell. You just don't get people randomly at your door anymore. Friends text to say they are there or on the way; others know to come to the kitchen door and just come in, rather than using the front door.
The doorbell sounded off again, and I headed for the door, finding it odd my dad hadn't gotten up from his 'news' to go see what the noise was all about. Passing the living room I glanced in, not totally surprised to find the room empty but the TV still on. I opened the door to a gust of cold air that whipped through my sleep pants and tee shirt like they weren't even there. My nipples were liable to snap off, being hard for all the wrong reasons.
“I,” the delivery person said. Maybe they meant 'hi', but what I heard was just the single sound. “Supposed to drop this yesterday,” he said – I think it was a he. The heavy coat and hat with the lower face covered made it tough.
“Oh. Okay,” I said. “I didn't think anyone delivered on Sunday.”
“Only if you screw it up,” they said. “Here you go.”
I accepted the rectangular package and closed the door, my thanks lost to the cold and falling on their turned back. They waved, so perhaps they'd heard. The box was kind of heavy, maybe thirty pounds or so. I studied the box as I took it back to the kitchen – it had all kinds of writing on it, which was weird. Think of any package you get – it's always a cardboard box, plain brown, and the advertising is on the inside. This one wasn't packaged like that – they just slapped a label on it and sent it out.
The outside made me think of an old movie poster with the graphics and the exclamation points. 'New! Retron Reactor!' said one, and 'Change the world – or reality!' I figured it was some kid's toy with knobs and buttons to play with, maybe a hand crank that made sparks behind a colored bit of clear plastic. But why would anyone send this here?
I checked the label and was surprised to discover it was addressed to me, Heath Miller. The return address was smudged out. I sipped from my coffee cup as I looked at the box, disappointed the coffee was already cooling. I glanced at the pot. There wasn't enough for a new cup, and I wasn't all that excited about making more. So I could go shower and walk to get a coffee – less appealing – or I could open this box and see if there was something that would tell me who'd sent me this gag gift, probably for my birthday.
Dimly I heard my phone ringing, so I dropped all thought of the weird package and headed upstairs. I unplugged my phone and saw Jess had called. With a tap I called her back.
“Sup?” I asked.
“How the fuck do you get your hair to do that? Did you even comb it yet?”
I touched my hair. “Is that why you called? To complain I have better hair?”
She snorted. “I didn't say that.” She started talking about her sister and what a bitch she was being, and I was happy again that I was born so late and that my sibs were all on their own. It's weird to have two sisters and a brother, but not really know them very well.
I carried the phone downstairs and listened to her go for a while, just commenting here and there. Finally she sighed. “Finn asked Gabby out to brunch.”
I looked at my phone. “He did? Gabby who? When?”
“He did. Gabby Aranov. Last night after I dropped him off. Can you believe that fucker has been keeping this from us?”
I chuckled. “Not everyone is as forward as you are.”
“Choices are clear, especially at this school.”
“Hey,” I asked. “Did you or Finn send me something...lame for my birthday?”
“No,” she said derisively. “I'll save your lame gift for your actual birthday. Why?”
I shrugged. “Just weird. This toy showed up this morning.”
“On a Sunday? Sounds sus.”
“Yeah. I was going to open the box and look. If it wasn't you or Finn...could be my cousin and his boyfriend.”
“Your cousin is so fine,” Jess said with a sigh. “Ben is so lucky Brady is gay. I mean I wish he weren't and that he lived closer, because damn.”
“Someone's thirsty this morning,” I said with a laugh, and she snorted back at me. Shortly her mom called her and she had to go, so I sent Brady a text just to see if he was behind this. I only saw Brady a couple times a year at big family gatherings, but we got on really well. Jess wasn't wrong either, that Brady was fine. If it weren't for the ick factor, I'd date him. But to be fair, I'd date Bennett, his boyfriend, too. They're a good couple, and even though we get on pretty good, I'm not sure they'd send me this...toy. Or gag gift. They'd be more likely to send me a box of dildos so I could explain things in detail to my parents or something, but I popped a text off to ask him anyway.
Pushing aside thoughts of Brady and Ben, I decided to open the box and moved it from the counter to the kitchen table for more space. It had large copper-colored staples holding the ends closed. I pried those out and opened the flap, tilting the box to get the contents to slide out. What came out of the box is both easy and hard to describe, just because it was so weird.
It was a heavy metal wedge-shaped box with a keyboard on it, but like none I'd ever seen. There were no function keys, which I noticed right away because I game on the PC, and those are really necessary. No numberpad on the right, no arrow keys. The letter layout looked like a regular Qwerty keyboard, but at the right side there were no enter or shift keys. Just a row with Insert, Delete, Home, and End. I ran my hand over the keys lightly, and was surprised when I got back to the four keys I'd noted to see a fifth – Execute.
I put my hands down on the tabletop to brace myself against a wave of dizzyness; things, for just a moment, had felt unsettled. Opening my eyes the...thing was sitting there just as it was before. Five keys where I would have sworn there were four. I picked up the box again, but the shouted ads made little sense to me – Retron Power! Includes one Interdynamic Key System! Improved Memory Loss!
There was a red plastic button in the upper left corner that looked like it might be the power button. With a mental shrug, I pressed it. It began to glow, revealing a snake eating its tail, and the rig began to hum, which surprised me for a second. How did it get power? I picked up the box and emptied a slip of paper and a bit of folded cardboard that took up space, but that was it. No charger, no batteries, no cords of any kind.
With a small snikt sound the top edge of the keyboard opened and a clear panel slid up. It unfolded again and again until it was larger than the keyboard – then it started to display stuff like you'd see from a computer booting up. A flexible screen? That was some serious tech! They had some phones with folding glass, but not on this level. The screen went dark, then the snake eating its tail showed up and the words Ouroboros Inc. appeared at the bottom The snake spun faster and faster, exploding into sparks and ending with a blank screen and a screen prompt.
“Well. What the fuck?” I muttered, confused.
I leaned forward, but nearly jumped out of my skin when my phone rang.
“Cuz. Why are you awake?” Brady asked, his voice laced with sleep.
I glanced at the clock. “It's nine on Sunday. Don't you and Bennett have plans?”
“My plan is to let my boyfriend sleep on me until we want breakfast,” he said with a grin in his voice.
“So what's this weirdo gift you think I sent you?”
“I dunno. Looks like an old computer, sort of. But it has a folding screen, which has got to be too pricey for you to give away.”
“Folding screen? Fancy shit,” he said with a yawn.
“Yeah. Weird keyboard, too. No enter key, no shift, no function keys...it's so weird.”
I heard some rustling and then Ben's voice. “Is there an execute key?”
Glancing back down at the key in question, one I was reasonably sure hadn't been there the first time I'd looked, I nodded. “Yeah. So it is from you guys?”
I heard some whispering, and then Ben was back. “No, we didn't send it. But...this will sound all kinds of fucked up, but I...kind of remember what you're describing. It's like...a dream that I can't really remember clearly anymore, but bits of it are still there. Sort of like if I try to look right at it, it disappears, but otherwise it's just out of my view. You get what I mean?”
“Sort of,” I conceded. “But...sounds sus.”
He sighed. “It's sus as fuck. I don't think about it very much, but I remember it in weird moments, then it's gone. I can say, if I'd seen it, I'd be trying to figure it out – not sending it to you.”
“Well. Come visit.”
There was some quick talking, then Brady was back on. “Next weekend for your party. By the time we got there today, we'd have to turn around.”
“Okay. Next weekend,” I agreed. After hanging up I looked back at the keyboard, then to the screen with the blinking cursor. I wondered what to type? Was it waiting for a password? If it were, wouldn't it prompt 'Password?' or 'Enter password'? Or maybe ask for a log in?
I picked up my coffee cup and instantly moved it from my lips – it had gone cold. Pursing my lips I glanced at the screen, and with a chuckle typed:
My coffee cup has fresh, hot coffee in it.
I thought for a moment, looking over my options and then hit 'Insert'. The cursor blinked a few times, then the sentence disappeared.
“That was anti-climactic,” I muttered. I should probably shower and put this thing away until I see Brady and Ben next weekend, I thought to myself with a stretch. I reached for my coffee cup to carry to the sink, but was surprised to see that it was full and it was steaming. I stared for a moment, glancing at the coffee pot in case I'd sleep-walked and made a fresh pot and poured while I wasn't aware of it, but no. Pot was still nearly empty, yet I had a new cup of fresh brew. I lifted it to my lips and sipped, recognizing the flavor of my dad's cheap coffee.
“What the hell?” I whispered and glanced at the keyboard with its pulsing cursor. “What kind of weird glitch in the matrix is this?”
I went back to the keyboard and placed my cup down on the counter top. I glanced between the cup and the screen and then began to type.
My coffee is a mocha Cappuccino.
I hit the 'insert' key, but the sentence stayed. I frowned, feeling silly – as if maybe someone were watching me, laughing at how I thought I could change things with a this keyboard.
“If insert...what's the difference between insert and execute?” I wondered aloud. I stabbed down on the 'execute' key, and the sentence disappeared from the screen. I widened my eyes and looked down at my coffee, which no longer looked like my dad's cheap coffee. I picked it up and sipped – oh my God. Mocha cappuccino. How the fuck?
I won't say I so much thought about what was going on – like, how things could be happening because of what was typed into this keyboard – but I will say this. There are times when parts of us reveal themselves. They aren't always the things we'd like to come out – in fact, sometimes they are ugly. Sometimes they are mean, either ignorantly or intentionally. So I'm not proud of where my mind went to and what I did next, but I did it. So I guess I have to own it.
“So. This keyboard can change reality,” I said aloud, not sounding at all like a crazy person. I also kind of kept expecting someone to pop out and tell me what a big prank this was and show me how they pulled it off, but another part of me was...hungry. Hungry for things I didn't have.
“Let's start with a nice car,” I said to myself. “Like that hybrid Kyra Ruiz wrecked last year, but in blue.”
After hitting insert I raced to the window to look out into the driveway – and there it was. Oh my God. I was so excited I forgot about the keyboard and the Cappuccino and the thin sleep pants and tee shirt I was wearing – not to mention no shoes and the damn cold – as I ran out to look at the car. It was perfect! I opened the door and sat down quickly, shivering but excited. My first car! I opened the glove box, looked through the little nooks to hide stuff and realized I had no keys. I had no idea where I would have keys. I glanced toward the house, to where I had left that keyboard. I needed keys, and you know what goes well with a car? A boyfriend.
I ran back inside and eagerly tapped out where I kept the keys for the – my – car and then decided I had to take a minute before I did the next thing. The big thing. Bigger thing. Whatever.
I shut down the keyboard and grabbed all evidence to take to my room – last thing the world needed was my dad getting ahold of this. Once that was done, I headed to the bathroom to get a shower, and as I showered I made a mental list. I had to clear up that acne on my chin and my shoulders. Brady has freckles on his shoulders, and I always thought they were kind of sexy. Should I get them? Maybe I should give myself some abs?
While I washed my hair I ran though a list of cuties at school, but really it was going to come down to one guy – Riley Kincaide. Riley was about six feet tall, very athletic, and there was talk around the school that he might get a scholarship to play basketball, but I wasn't so sure. I'm no expert scout, but the odds are pretty long on people doing much with their athletic skills in terms of getting an education or making a living.
Riley had curly chestnut hair. He shaved the sides and left this incredibly touchable-looking thatch on top. His eyes were kind of a pale blue, like someone had washed out a brighter color and all that was left was this hint of what used to be. His eyes made me think of an old man, actually, after the color just fades over time.
I hadn't ever gotten to hang out with Riley – never been paired as a lab partner, weren't gym buddies, never got to tutor him – or him, me. But after this shower – and a few bits of cleanup on my body – I was going to meet my new boyfriend.
I toweled off and pulled on socks and underwear before clearing a spot on my desk for this new computer thing of mine. While it booted up I got some comfortable joggers on and took a critical look at myself in the mirror. Okay. First the acne.
I have no pimples on my chin or shoulders.
After hitting insert I go back to the mirror to see. Frowning I note the budding pimple farm is gone, but now there is a scraggle of blackheads that looks, if anything, worse.
I have clear, smooth skin on my chin and shoulders.
Rushing back to the mirror, I am more pleased this time. I straighten up and assess my pecs and stomach. Well, I don't think I look too bad. I could give myself abs, but why? Once I make Riley my boyfriend, he's going to like what he sees anyway. Right? I wondered about that for a second. What would it be like to date someone – to be into someone – and then get their clothes off and be disappointed? Is that shallow? Does anyone have a right to some expectation of being pleased when their other half takes off clothes?
Maybe I should at least have some baby abs. Riley works out, so he'd probably find that attractive. Right? But then I was kind of all in on the body positivity thing, and I was actually happy with my stomach the way it was. Okay. Well. Maybe it's something I can look at later. I've never really wanted to be big and muscular, and I've never really been attracted to that. Riley has muscles, and he looks good with them, but they aren't like...a body builder. He's just athletic as all hell.
Okay, so no other body modifications. I glanced down at my crotch. Well. Everyone likes to be a little bigger than they are. Right? But how much is just right? Plus...what if he likes my dick just as it is? I mean when that happens, because as boyfriends, it will happen.
Balls. Okay then, time for the big one. I sat down and popped a few of my knuckles before typing.
Riley Kincaide is my boyfriend.
Once again insert didn't do the trick, but execute? Yeah, that made the sentence disappear from my screen. I waited for a moment, wanting to feel if the planet shifted from me having a boyfriend as hot as Riley, but no. The universe at large barely noticed. I got up, excited and not sure how to act. I grabbed my comb and got my hair in some kind of order, thinking about calling Riley – whose number would be in my phone, right?
My phone buzzed in my hand – not a text, but a Snap.
Oh. He missed me.
Where was I meeting you again?
At WRK, dumbass. 5MIN if you want food.
I thought for a minute. Did I know where he worked? All I really knew is that he was cute and athletic, but outside of that...oh, hang on. That's right – he works over at that crappy ice cream shop. I mean they sell more than that – frozen sandwiches that they microwave and stuff, but just crap really. I let him know I was on my way and I ran out to my new car, sat down and realized I had no idea how to start it. I had no – right, keys! I wasn't used to carrying keys! Not only that, I had no idea where they'd be. I ran back inside and realized things had almost been awful – I'd left the computer-thing on. It was on my bed, and something smelled like it was too hot.
I moved it quickly to my desk, shoving my old keyboard aside, and typed quickly, then shut it down.
My keys are in my pocket.
I patted my pocket, but was confused at not finding some kind of bulge from my keys. I glanced at the keyboard and thought for a second – it had accepted my command, right? I was sure it had. But then...oh. I hadn't told it which pocket. I hunted around for a few minutes in case the machine had a sense of humor, but I eventually found the keys in my coat pocket. Finally ready, I rolled over to the crappy place Riley worked at, called the Milk Bar. The guy behind the counter was rumored to be the son of the original owner, and the place was a dump. They had an ice cream counter, and they had a microwave. They also had a pool table you couldn't use since they never fixed it, and all sorts of weird odds and ends on shelves for people to buy. Considering the dust, that wasn't a big mover for this place.
No, it was the cheap ice cream and the inexplicably delicious grilled cheese sandwiches that kept the place from folding. I walked in and smiled awkwardly at Riley – I wasn't sure how to smile at a guy, never having had a boyfriend. Riley sort of scowled at me and pointed to a chair with his chin. He looked cute in his apron and paper hat, though he seemed tense. He scooped a couple of sandwiches from the grill and headed over to me, plopping down opposite me.
“Hi,” I said, nervously.
“Hey.” He picked up a sandwich and pushed the plate a bit toward me. “What took you so long?”
“Couldn't find my keys,” I said honestly, though a thread of irritation ran through me. “How are you?”
He sighed and shook his head. “How do you think I am?” After a second of confusion I was going to give him some snark, but he continued. “I missed. I mean, I fucking missed, Heath. All fucking year you work so you can get to a moment like that – when someone might see me and help me get out of here – and I miss.” He shook his head and looked up at me. “I mean seriously – how do you think I feel?”
With a slap of shock and guilt I realized that, while so much had changed for me today, I had watched Riley miss the night before – and even commented on how hard it must be for him.
“I'm sorry, Riley,” I said with regret. “I know how hard that has to be.”
He shook his head and looked down. “Katie came over for a while. Wished you had.”
Fuck. “I'm sorry, Riley-”
He waved a hand at me. “We know we can't risk it in front of my dad. I'm just saying.”
We couldn't risk it in front of his dad? What didn't I know? Jesus, how long have I been dating Riley? Okay, focus on him. He's cranky, and I missed a chance to help – even though there was no way I could have known.
“So...I mean, should we talk about better ways to hang out? I mean, I think I can act straight in front of your dad,” I offered.
His jaw tightened. “I just...” He shook his head. “This is harder than I thought.” He looked at me intensely. “Are you okay?”
I tilted my head. “I'm just worried for you.”
He shook his head again. “This whole thing is fucked. It's not fair to Katie, to me or to you.”
On impulse I reached out and touched the back of his hand. He flinched, but didn't pull back. “Riley. I'm here.”
He looked at me for a moment, and then his features softened. “Yeah. You are.” He pushed his lips to one side. “I mean, you're late and all, but you showed up.”
I rolled my eyes, thrilled to be talking to him, but also mixed-up, because he was so real. Riley Kincaide had problems, too. How dumb am I that I never thought about that?
“Okay. So. Hangout plan,” I said. “Basketball is over for now. Are you doing something next?”
He shifted in his seat. “I like baseball. I thought about track, just for all the running, but...Heath, what if sports isn't my ticket? What am I going to do?”
“Well.” I licked my lips. “We control what we can. Work. Save. What about grades?”
“You know my grades are shit,” he scoffed. “I'll graduate because they don't want to get their percentages hurt, not because I'm smart.”
“Okay, we can argue about smart later, but we know you're a hard worker – look what you put into sports,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about. “Now we put some of that to your grades – and I'll help. I'm not a genius, but if I can help then...at least we get to hang.”
He glanced at the clock on the microwave and stood up. “You're kind of all in on a guy you haven't dated long; someone not even out of the closet.”
I stood and thought of what I'd typed into that machine. “I asked for this.”
My first thought was to go home and change Riley's home life, but when I got back to my room I couldn't get the machine to turn on – and there was some kind of melted-plastic smell. I opened the window for a minute to air the space out and then started going over the box and looking for instructions, in case I needed to order parts or something, but all I found were ads talking up the device and how improved it was.
My phone started to buzz, and I answered without thinking.
“You're a shitty boyfriend,” she said. I glanced down in surprise at Katie Plumber's face looking back from my screen. “Riley was busted up last night, and where were you?”
“Uh, he and I talked today, and he thought it was better I wasn't there,” I told her, feeling unsure where she got off talking to me like this.
“Of course he said that! How dumb can you be? Yes, his dad is a homicidal fuck, but he could have snuck out to be with you instead of me trying to hold him together when he thinks his whole future just disappeared! Honestly? You need to do better. A fuck of a lot better.”
Annoyed, I glared into my phone. “Number one, you don't decide how Riley and I do anything. Number two, I know I should have done something, but there is...it wasn't possible. I talked to him, and he understood.”
Her eyes bulged. “Do you really think he's going to yell at you right now? Like he's made this huge, dangerous, life-altering decision to be with you, and you think he's going to let you know how mad and hurt he was?”
“I mean, we're dating, so yeah, he's supposed to tell me!” I snapped.
“Oh, really? And what if you'd dropped him, huh? What does he have left then?”
“I'm not dropping anyone – except you!” I snarled and ended the call. Jesus Christ! I know Riley and Katie are friends, but where the fuck does she step off to me like that? I've been dating Riley for less than a day and she...wait. How long have we been dating? I looked at the machine and wondered exactly what had happened. Like...if I change reality with this machine – if I insert something – then shouldn't it be seamless? Like would I even remember changing reality?
Like warming my coffee only altered the coffee, no reason to think it was always warm. But if I insert a boyfriend in my life – a straight boy who is now my boyfriend – then wouldn't my brain catch up and know how long we were dating, how we started and details like that?
I got up and walked over to the keyboard and looked at the weird layout. I kept studying the 'Insert' and 'Execute' keys. How were they different? I recalled how I'd typed in that Riley was my boyfriend, but ‘Insert’ hadn't done the trick where ‘Execute’ had. What did that mean?
“Heath! Dinner!” my mom called out.
“Okay, coming!” I called back, but I stared at the keys, thinking that the answer was just out of my reach.
I waited at the end of the block, watching Riley as he hurried toward my car in the cold. I was tempted to move the car closer, but he'd been really clear that we take no chances with his father being able to see us together. It left me with mixed emotions – anger, sorrow and a desire to protect this guy who could probably beat the crap out of me. Still, I felt better once he got in the car with me.
“Good morning,” I said with a grin.
He glanced at me, the corners of his mouth moving like he was trying not to smile. “Morning.”
“I thought we could stop for coffee on the way?” I asked as I pulled into traffic.
“Uh. I'm good.”
I glanced at him. “I'm buying.”
“Oh, well I'll have one then,” he said with a grin.
I chuckled. “So which class is your worst?”
“Like which one do I hate most or...?”
“Which one are you failing the hardest?”
He frowned. “I never said I was failing.”
“But you did say your grades weren't good,” I pointed out.
“Yeah. Doesn't mean I'm failing,” he grumbled.
“And which class are you not failing that hard?” I asked, teasing.
“You're a dick,” he said, shaking his head and smiling a little.
“I know. It's a talent.”
He rubbed the side of his face. “I have a paper due in ELA.”
“Oh, English Language Arts. Do you think they named it that to make it sound more creative and less boring?”
“Maybe,” he conceded. “But I'm falling asleep reading this book.”
“Which one did you get?”
“Lord of the Flies,” he replied.
“You...you're bored reading that?”
“Well, yeah,” he said. Waving a hand, he continued, “It's basically that we're all animals and unless we have something to prop us up we won't have any morals and stuff. It's kind of fucked up.”
I laughed. “Riles! That's the whole point of the story!”
“But it's bullshit,” he said irritably. “It's like thinking you have to be religious to have morals. People are like 'Well, how else would you know right and wrong? People would just run around killing each other,' and I'm like...people do that already, for one. For two, most of us don't run around killing other people because we're not psychopaths.”
I laughed harder. “But Riles! If you said this stuff or wrote it down for an essay, you'd be passing.”
“I am passing. Why do you think I'm failing everything? I'm just not doing, like, college level work. Like...average grades, I guess.”
“Well, you're not supposed to – not yet. But that was a dead on take on the book. The teacher would love a student getting it – you could totally get a scholarship.” I looked back at the road and said, “I don't know what makes you think you're not smart, but you are.”
“So...Katie called me last night,” I said as I pulled into the drive thru line.
“Christ,” he groaned.
I turned toward him. “Look, Riles...if you were going to describe how we got together, what would you tell someone?”
“Like if someone asked you, hey – how did you guys get together – what would you say?” I waited, only glancing ahead to make sure the line hadn't moved as I waited.
He fidgeted for a minute. “I'd have to tell them...that my best friend told me I can't be afraid to explore all of who I am.”
He waved his hands aimlessly. “Yeah. Being Bi isn't, like, something people think is a thing. I've been safe and dated girls, liked more than a few of them. But, you know...things run their course. I've always liked...some guys. Katie told me I had...should explore that side of myself.”
I grunted and moved the car forward a space. “So she feels responsible for whatever happens because you took her advice.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
“And she cares for you. Didn't you guys date?”
“Me and Kate? Nah. Her folks are almost as bad as mine. I help her hide who she's dating from her parents 'cause they'd rather have old trailer trash me than Marco Suarez, who she's really seeing.”
“You need to stop that,” I said with a sigh and placed a hand over his.
“Putting yourself down. You're not dumb. You're not trash.”
He shrugged, but made no other reply.
“So, continue with how you'd tell someone how we met.”
He chuckled. “Why? You were there.”
“I want to know what you'd tell other people,” I said with a grin. I actually just wanted to get a clue how long we'd been together at this point. I pulled the car forward and placed an order for our coffee, and got a couple donuts too. Powdered donuts are seriously underrated.
“Well, I'd have to tell them that Katie – Kate – was pushing me to tell her who I liked, and then one day you walked into where I work, and I waited for you to come to the counter by yourself...and asked you out.”
“Aww, were you intimidated by my friends?” I teased.
He snorted. “I didn't want to be publicly rejected. So I just told myself...if he walks up by himself, I'll ask him out. If he doesn't, I won't.”
“Wow,” I said, pulling up to the window to get our stuff. “So you let us dating hang by total chance?”
“I figured if the universe wanted it to happen...?” he chuckled.
I handed him his coffee and donut and pulled up into the parking lot. Eating donuts while driving is messy, and the powdered sugar gets everywhere. I turned toward him.
“I wanted this,” I told him. “I'll admit I'm surprised it's with you, but I'm happy it's you.” I paused. “I will ask you, though, that if you're not happy with me – or if you are happy – that you tell me. I don't know why things 'ran their course' with other people you dated, but I'd like us to work out. It’d also be nice not to have Katie yell at me.”
“Kate,” he said absently. “She's trying to get people to stop calling her Katie.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I guess that was kind of my fault. I vented to her, mostly because I wanted...I thought you should be there, even if it wasn't a good idea. Even if I know it was a bad idea.”
“Is your dad...I'm just not clear – is he a bigot? Will he see us and just think we're together? What is it?”
Riley looked down at his coffee and slowly nodded his head. “It's me.”
I tilted my head in question, but waited.
He looked up at the clock on my dashboard. “We're going to be late.”
Startled, I realized he was right and wrapped my donut in the bag for later. “This isn't over, gorgeous.”
The corner of his mouth tugged as if he were fighting off a smile. “Stop.”
I let whatever was on his mind rest for now as I drove us to school. I pulled into a parking spot, shut the car off, and looked at Riley, who had a dab of chocolate on the tip of his nose from his donut, and that made me smile.
“Little bit of chocolate,” I said, pointing at my own nose.
“Ugh,” he said, wiping with his napkin.
“We can finish our talk later?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
He studied my face, his eyes making tiny adjustments. “If you want.”
I took his hand. “I want to know everything, Riles. What makes you happy, what hurts you. If we're doing this boyfriend thing, I'm fucking doing it.”
His eyes looked like they were wet, but through some force of will they wouldn't overflow. “We haven't dated that long, Heath. You might not-”
“But I do,” I said, cutting him off. “Look. If you can tell Kate, you can tell me. I promise I'm going to be telling you a lot, too. Being in a relationship kind of means being each other's best friend. I know Kate's earned who she is with you, and I'm not trying to push her out. I have friends, too. But this,” I said and held our hands up, “Us is something different. I want us, Riles.”
His cheeks flooded with color. “Riley is too much to say?” he dodged.
“Pet name,” I said, leaning forward.
“So I should call you Heather?”
“Only if you want to never be kissed,” I said with a grin.
He raised an eyebrow and then said, “Oh,” before he met me halfway. It was a good kiss, an honest one. Not filled with passion, but also not seriously awkward. We climbed from the car and parted, heading to our homerooms.
“You look disgustingly happy for a Monday,” Finn said in a bored tone.
“What can I say? Kissing Riley puts me in a good mood,” I said with a grin.
“Ugh, not more about him,” Finn said with a chuckle.
“Well, have to talk about something, since you didn't tell us about Gabby, now did ya?”
“Bro,” he said seriously, and then launched into his defense. I saw Jess third period, and she spent what little time we had to talk bitching more about her siblings. I told her Brady and Ben were coming that weekend for my birthday, and she promised to not try and convince them to change teams. Of course that totally means she will try, no matter what she says about letting people be who they are – I guess it only applies if they don't make her horny.
I sent messages to Riley during the day, making sure I was giving him a ride to work after school. He didn't have to work Tuesday, so I also scored getting him to come to my house after school and was looking forward to that. After the day was over and I dropped Riley at home, I went to my own job, a crappy little convenience store, where I spent my shift seeing a lot of people look like they were being inconvenienced to be there.
Tuesday afternoon I was in the library, using the quiet to finish my homework before Riley came over, when Kate sat down beside me.
I glanced at her and sighed internally. “What? Here to yell at me some more?”
She pressed her lips together. “I'm just looking out for him.”
“Well, that's kind of my job as far as our relationship goes – and we're not in a three-way with you.”
“Right until you hurt him, then I'll rip your eyes out,” she said calmly.
I leaned back in my chair and frowned at her. “Where do you get off with all this meddling? You do know he has to talk to me, and I can't just psychically know what he wants or how he feels, right?”
She sighed, leaned back and crossed her arms. “I know. I told him he has to tell you, but he's not there yet. He's still in that 'I can't believe he likes me back' stage. I mean, why wouldn't you like him?”
I shrugged. “Who people like is pretty subjective, but...I do. A lot.”
She put a hand flat on the table. “It's hard for me, because we've known each other practically all our lives. We've had each other's back more times than I can count. I'm always going to do that for him, because he's always going to do that for me.” She paused. “But...you're right. He's not in the middle of my relationship, either. He's...not as strong as everyone thinks. I hope you're ready for that.”
“I've got him,” I said.
She stood. “Let's see if you can keep him.” Then she left.
After school I took Riley to get coffee before we went to my house. We walked in, kicking our shoes off and hanging coats in the mudroom, and went into the kitchen, which was filled with a good smell. My mom turned from her place by the stove.
“Hi, how was school?” Her gaze moved to Riley. “Hello, how are you? I'm Heath's mom.”
“Hi. Um, Riley Kincaide,” he said, giving her a small wave.
“School was good,” I said, moving to her and giving her a peck on the cheek. “Riley and I have ELA papers due, so we thought we'd brainstorm and work on them a little.”
“Good idea,” she said. “When is the paper due?”
“Friday,” I said. “We have the same teacher, but different times.”
My mother looked to Riley. “My son loves essays, because he loves to argue,” she said with a grin.
“I do not!” I said, just to prove her point, grinning as I did so.
“Riley, won't you join us for dinner?” she asked.
“Oh, uh, yeah. Thanks.”
“Come on, Riles. Let's do this thing,” I said, sipping from my coffee cup and leading him up the stairs to my room. I tossed my bag on my chair, set the cup down and rifled through my bag until I pulled out my school-issued laptop. I plugged it in to charge and turned toward Riley, who had set his bag down by my bed but was looking around the room.
“So,” I said, taking a step toward him, “Kate and I talked. We agree you're mine and you have to talk to me.”
He rolled his eyes. “Glad you two are getting along so well.”
“She did threaten to claw my eyes out if I hurt you, so I promise to only hurt you if you ask me to.”
“Ha. Ha.” he said, his cheeks growing red.
“Now,” I said. “We were talking about your dad and what we can- awk!”
Riley slipped his hands under my armpits and casually tossed me on my bed, then kind of jumped on me, but not romantically. He was more or less lying on his back, adjusting and twisting to keep me covered and busy. Meanwhile I struggled under him, laughing and telling him to get off me.
“I get you under me and all you can tell me is to get off?” he teased.
Having him on me had made my dick twitch, but now it was full-on interested at his words, and I wrapped my arms around his chest from behind.
“Gotcha,” I said.
He twisted around until he was more or less on top of me looking down. He cupped the side of my face with one hand, and just like that we were into a full on make out. When he pulled back, I rolled toward him and pressed us back together, though before long we were out of breath. I propped my head on my hand and looked down at him.
“Damn. You're good at that.”
He smiled. “You need some work.”
He laughed as he pulled me down, and I resisted, demanding to know what he meant. That led to tickling and teasing, which eventually drew my mother up from downstairs.
“What in the world are you boys doing?” she asked, opening the door.
“Riley was insulting me,” I said and poked him in the ribs.
“You deserved it!” he said, giggling.
“Neither one of those things sounds like getting an English paper done,” she said.
“My laptop needed to charge,” I said, struggling to the end of the bed and walking to my desk. “It needs another fifteen minutes or so.”
“Well...try to keep it down,” she said. “I was watching a show, and all I could hear was you two.”
“Okay, Mom. Sorry,” I said as she exited the room and headed back downstairs.
“Does your mom work?” Riley asked, putting his hands behind his head as he lay sprawled on my bed, shirt pulling up to show a line of skin.
“Part time. She retired, but got restless at home after I started first grade,” I said. “They had me a little late in life.”
He looked at the door and back to me. “Think she knows that we were...?”
“Nah.” I climbed up the bed and cuddled into him, laying my head on his chest. “So. You'd distract me with a make out rather than talk about your dad?”
His hand settled on my back, and he started to rub back and forth between my shoulder blades. “My dad is the kind of guy you read about, but unless you are in the military or work with people in the military, you may not really know. He's the kind of guy who got his girl pregnant just before deploying to Afghanistan. He's the kind of guy that married his girl, then was gone. He's the kind of guy that his girl divorced while he was overseas. He's the kind of guy who came home as someone different than the person who'd left.” He paused and said, “He's the kind of guy whose ex dropped a kid on his door and left.”
I twisted my head to look up at him, but he didn't look back down at me.
“He's the kind of guy that gets angry for no reason. He's the kind of guy that wakes up screaming sometimes. Sometimes he wakes you up because he's hitting you. Sometimes he doesn't wait for you to fall asleep before he starts with the hitting.” He closed his eyes. “Sometimes I hate him for how much pain he causes, and sometimes I feel so bad for how much he's lost.”
I shifted up his side and stroked one cheek until his wet eyes opened and focused on me.
“So no. I don't like to talk about my dad. Because I haven't figured out what will set him off. And I know...I just know I'm going to look at you or reach for you, and he's going to go off. And I don't want that, Heath,” he said, shaking his head, and the tears finally leaked from the corners of his eyes as he whispered, “I don't want that.”
I kissed him once, gently. “You don't have to,” I said and held him until he stopped asking, or until I did. I wasn't sure where one of us ended and the other began on that one.
“Oh, basketball, eh? Maybe you can teach Heath,” my dad said.
“Maybe, yeah,” Riley said, giving my dad a small smile.
“Heath never went in much for playing sports, though he does enjoy taking in a game with his old man from time to time.”
“I like some sports,” I said. “I'm just not very good at them, so I don't have much fun. Riley, though, is really good, Dad.”
“Will you play a spring sport?” my dad asked.
Riley's head bobbed. “I like baseball, so I was thinking about that. Or running to build my stamina.”
“So many nuances in baseball,” my dad mused and we talked throughout dinner of the tiny complexities that made up a major league game. Eventually I drove Riley home, though the last thing I wanted to do was leave him with his unstable father. I stopped a few blocks away, as he'd instructed me to, and then I kissed him hard.
“What was that for?” he asked.
“To keep you warm while you walk to your house,” I said flippantly.
He smiled and looked down for a moment. “I'll be okay, you know? You don't have to worry.”
“My birthday is Saturday. The party. My cousin and his boyfriend are coming up. Maybe you guys could all stay over?”
“Uh, yeah. I'll see.”
I squeezed his hand, he returned it, and then he was walking, trudging through the cold, and I wanted nothing more than to stop him, to take him with me and protect him. If only I could get that damn machine to work again!
I tinkered with the machine through the week, not really knowing what to do except look for something obvious. But to be honest, I was too wrapped up in other things to think about it very much. I was with Riley most of the time, giving him rides and talking to him, and it wasn't just to make sure he was okay. I won't deny I felt for his situation with his dad, and even a bit for his dad, given what he'd gone through. But the more time I spent with Riley, the more I knew who he was. Before he'd just been a pretty, athletic guy that I was fruity for. I was fruity for a few guys in school; he hadn't been that special.
But now...he was real. Real Riley made me laugh, and I made him laugh. We had intense discussions about politics and books and....just things that mattered. Big things. Things were just better when he was around, when he was part of whatever I was doing. Jess also did her part to distract me, but I was starting to get tired of hearing her complain about her family all the time. I mean I get it, I guess? Family can suck sometimes, but damn, girl.
Finn was already fading in his feelings for Gabby. I'm not that surprised. Finn – I love the boy – but he's lazy. He puts zero effort into dating someone, then gets surprised when they dump him. I spent an entire gym period trying to explain how he needed to get off his ass, and he sort of seemed to get it, but who really knows?
Finally Saturday rolled around, and Brady showed up with Ben around noon.
“You're both idiots,” Ben said, and we all laughed, locked in a three way hug. There was a little time spent with my folks, since Brady was family, and then we went up to my room. We were going to talk about Riley – or I was going to tell them – but Ben zeroed right in on the machine.
“Heath, is this what you called about last week?” he asked, reaching for it but not quite touching.
“Yeah. It quit working, but I had some weird shit happen with it. Does it look like what you were thinking of?” I asked him.
“Yes and...no,” he said as if in a trance. “It's weird. I...remember, but I don't. It's like it's caught between a memory and a dream.”
“What do you mean?” Brady asked. Ben pulled his hand back and shook his head. Brady put an arm around his shoulders. “Babe?”
A shiver ran through Ben's frame. “Brades. You remember last fall when I was having trouble sleeping?”
“And you ended up sleeping on me all day, and I asked you out? Yeah, I think I remember,” Brady said with a grin.
Ben's mouth curled with a smile at Brady, but fell away quickly. “I...do you remember that morning you came to pick me up for the first time and...did I tell you my gramp was in the hospital?”
Brady frowned. “Uh. I sort of feel like...maybe? But I don't remember going to the hospital or anything, and we'd have gone, so...weird, huh?”
Ben shook his head. “Weirder.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
We settled on parts of my bed, and Ben started to tell his story. “I wasn't kidding when I said I feel like what I'm going to say is somewhere between a memory and a dream. Because some things feel like I remember them, and other things are like...like you can't get your hands on them, like dreams when you first wake up and how they fade the longer you're awake.”
“Okay. So what are you, like, remembering?”
Ben pressed his lips together and looked down at the bed, not meeting our gazes as he spoke. “I sort of 'remember' not being able to sleep because I was having a nightmare. My sister was having the same one. Every time it was the same thing – my shit-stain of a father would kill us in an apartment we'd never seen before.”
“That's fucked,” I said softly.
Brady moved closer, putting his hand on Ben's shoulder.
“It is fucked,” Ben agreed quietly. “It kept happening, and we were getting less and less sleep. Then Grandpa had to be taken to the hospital really early in the morning, and Cait and I were sitting up and trying to figure shit out. We...looked through an old photo album gramps has, and we saw the apartment. From our dreams.”
“No fucking way.”
“Are you serious?”
Ben nodded. “Totally serious.” He took a deep breath and looked at each of us. “So Brades comes over, and he offers to stay with me, and I fell asleep on him. I had the dream again, but this time...I had control of myself. Like...I think I was in the room – yeah. I saw my dead body, which is just as fucking creepy as it sounds. But then I went to the living room where my mom and Cait were dead, too. There was a noise or something I heard in another room, and I found a computer.” He paused and looked over at my machine. “A lot like that one.”
We all looked at the machine, and I wondered to myself how it could be the same machine – how could it appear in a dream?
“What happened then?” Brady asked.
“My head gets mixed up...I feel like there was this whole life where Brian – my father – killed us all, and another where my grandparents raised us. This...thing...was waiting for some kind of...resolution. Like...both worlds were somehow existing at once, and it needed to be told which one to dump.” Ben swallowed and closed his eyes. “I remember thinking my grandpa would be okay in the world that I died in, but then I realized that maybe I could make a third world where my grandpa was okay and my family was alive. Like...I didn't have to accept the choices I was given, you know?”
“Yeah. I mean, that's great thinking under pressure,” I said.
“I mean I'm saying this to you like it happened, but....”
“Did anything else happen?” Brady asked.
Ben chuckled and ran his fingers through his hair. “Yeah. One other thing that sticks with me. It's stupid, but I figured if I could make the world the way I wanted...” he looked at Brady.
“Did you...what? I have no idea what you did.”
“I typed something like Brady loves me,” Ben said, grinning and starting to laugh.
“Oh yeah? Well I went over that morning with the idea I was going to ask you out, so there,” Brady said, poking Ben repeatedly in the ribs.
“Wait, though. What happened when you told the machine you wanted Brady?” I asked, chuckling at them but wondering, since I'd done something similar.
Ben frowned lightly. “It gave me some error. Like when you try to save the same file name, you know? The computer says a file with that name exists already or something.”
“See? Brady said. “I already was in love with your dumb ass, so the computer couldn't make me fall for you.”
The idea set my mind to wondering about how I'd entered something so similar about Riley, but I still felt like I was missing a piece.
“But,” Ben said, pushing Brady away. “I do kind of remember seeing this thing one time before that.”
“You do? When?” I asked.
“Remember I just said there had been two, like, realities?”
“One where you died and one where you lived with your grandpas?”
“Right. So. I kind of recall my gramp having this thing,” he pointed to the machine, “but it caught fire. I had wanted to try it out, but didn't get the chance. Now I wonder...” he looked to either of us, “Could the original reality be that I’d died, and when my gramp had that...he changed reality? I mean...my grandpas, they love me and Cait. I mean so much, dude. You don't even know.”
I looked at the machine. “I think I believe you, Ben.”
“Why? Wait, you mean you used it?” Ben asked.
I nodded, turning back to them. “I was just goofing around, and I typed in that my coffee was hot and all of a sudden – it was! I mean it had gone cold, but then it was like new. Then I changed it to a Cappuccino, and it was like magic.”
They both glanced at it and then back. “Anything else?” Ben asked.
I blushed. “Well, like you, I wished for a particular guy...and we're dating.”
We descended into a serious discussion about free will and if Riley was gay or not. Finally, in the middle of the argument, my mind popped up with a question about the 'Insert' and 'Execute' keys.
“Ben...in your dream...when you made the new reality the real one...did you hit 'Insert' or 'Execute'?” I asked.
He looked perplexed for a moment and then said, “I think I tried 'Insert', but it didn't work. 'Execute' did.”
I pursed my lips. “Why do you think it worked like that? I mean....”
“If this is real,” Ben said. “IF it's real, then...my gramp doesn't remember anything different. I remember some things...weird fragments. You remember it all. And actually...maybe the way it works is, if you insert something into this reality, it's something new? Like...”
“My car!” I interjected.
“Your car?” Brady echoed.
“Yeah!” I said with excitement. “I hit 'Insert' to get my car! So it was something I didn't have before! But maybe 'Execute' just...puts something into motion that's already there? Or like the, I don't know, like it could already happen, and it just smooths things over so it does happen instead of having to change things? Like Ben, if you put in there that you wanted Brady to to be your boyfriend, you wouldn't have had to 'Insert' – you'd 'Execute' because he'd already wanted to be your boyfriend anyway. Just like me and Riley.”
“But that's not what I put in,” Ben pointed out.
“Right, you wanted him to love you, but he already did – so the system or whatever said 'Hey, can't make that file because it's already there'. Make sense?” I asked excitedly.
Ben and Brady looked at each other. “Yeah, it kind of does,” Ben admitted.
“Which means...Riley was already interested in me. In fact,” I said with triumph, “I asked him how he'd tell other people how we met – because I didn't know how we'd met. He told me I went to the place he worked with my friends, and he'd told himself that if I walked up to his counter alone, he'd ask me out. So in one reality, he didn't ask – this one. But in another reality, I walked up and he asked. So the only thing that had to change was me walking up – he was already into me and willing to ask me out.”
“For such a fucked up conversation, that kind of makes sense,” Brady said.
“Trouble is, the damn thing doesn't work!” I said dejectedly. I went on to explain the situation with Riley's father and how I wanted to help Riley.
Ben was tapping his fingers on the bedspread. “You know this is like a total ghoul thing to say, but what if Riley likes you for who you are partly because he is who he is?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Like...his trauma is part of who he is. What if...you change that part...he's not as likely to like you?” Ben shrugged. “I don't know. I mean, what makes sense here? What else changes if you keep changing things?”
“But if he can fix that, he should. Right?” Brady asked.
We batted it around, but of course in the end the answer was yes. How could I call myself a decent person if I left Riley to his dad as he was?
We gathered around the machine, which still refused to start. We flipped it over and spotted the recessed Allen-head bolts that held the case together.
“I think I have a few of those from putting my desk and chair together,” I said, digging into a drawer. “Here!”
We tried a few of them, and miraculously, one worked.
“There's stickers on both ends,” Brady said.
“Yeah, something about if you open it you void the warranty,” Ben replied.
“I don't know who sent it and there's no contact information to get in touch with them for parts, so...open it,” I said with a shrug.
Brady pulled his car key out and snapped the sticker on both ends and popped the case apart. Downstairs the doorbell rang, but my folks were home – if it was a friend they'd send them upstairs. We flipped the internals over to look for the melted piece, but the inside was...nothing like what I could have been prepared for. I was thinking a switch for each key, some circuit boards and maybe some wiring – but this was absolutely beyond. There was a platform for the keys, but under each key was a rod that ran to a complex set of gears.
Downstairs the bell rung insistently, suddenly followed by a banging on the door. That was fucking weird, and I was thinking about going down when Ben exclaimed, “Found it!”
I looked back into the bowels of the machine, spotting a series of small domed shapes with radiation symbols on them, and one was melted to slag. Shit. Was that thing radioactive?
“Shit, is that thing radioactive? Did you have some kind of nuclear meltdown in your room?” Brady asked.
I heard hard footsteps coming up the stairs, and then the door burst open, and a man with a trimmed white beard appeared in a long coat flapping in an a imaginary breeze.
“Stop!” he bellowed – and for just a moment he looked young, very young. But then he was back, tall and imposing, white hair trimmed well giving him an air of authority. We all jumped back from the machine.
“Who the fuck are you?” Ben asked.
“I ask myself that frequently,” the older man said. “For now I'm tech support – didn't you read the label? You broke the seal!”
“It, uh, didn't have any return or contact information,” I said, voice growing stronger. “Are we going to die? Is this thing radioactive?”
The man reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a paper. He shook it out and examined it. “You are...Heath Miller?”
“Yeah,” I replied warily.
He looked at Brady and Ben as if looking over reading glasses, like my dad does. “And you are?”
“None of your business?” Ben said.
“Oh,” the fellow said, straightening. “Bennett. Bennett Turchin. You're something of a marvel, aren't you? That would make you Brady. Brady Andersen.”
Brady and Ben looked at each other and then back to the guy. I was kind of wondering if we were getting pranked for just a second.
“Well, step aside.” The fellow moved to the machine, reached into this pocket and withdrew a long pair of black gloves that should have been too big to fit in that pocket, popped them on and reached into the machine, turning the melted nuclear...whatever, deftly withdrew it and held it up before him. “Damn. Damn, damn.”
“Uh, you want to tell us what's going on?” Brady asked.
The fellow withdrew a bag from his pocket and dropped the nuclear thingy in, sealed it and dropped it into his pocket.
“Well, it's all very technical, but in essence,” he said, as reaching back into the same small pocket he withdrew a new...nuclear thingy...and twisted it into the socket where the old one had been, “time has been broken by you opening this device, and unfortunately I have to repair things.”
He sat down and popped the cover onto the machine.
“What do you mean?” I demanded. “Everything was fine! I was just going to try and get help for Riley!”
He flipped the machine over and made a tisking noise. “I told them Allen-bolts were too common. Everyone buys from Ikea, so everyone has a bunch of these things.”
“Mister whoever you are – tech support – what are you talking about – stop what-” My sentence was cut off because I could no longer speak or move. The fellow pressed the button and the screen began to unfold from the machine, and as it did he stood to face us.
“The Retron gives choices. In doomed splinters of time a Retron can be useful for observation while not damaging a healthy time stream.” He put a hand to his chest. “I admit to being a soft touch. Sometimes I just have to move someone to a place where they may be happy. No guaranteed outcomes, you know.”
His face flickered from young to old again.
He looked toward Brady and Ben. “Bennett Turchin. Your grandfather so loved you and your sister – and your grandfather Turchin – that when he had the chance, he changed reality. And do you know why it worked? Why he had the Retron in the first place in a healthy time line?” He leaned forward and touched the tip of Ben's nose with his finger. “Love.”
He turned and looked at the machine. “You've been naughty.” He paused. “Yes, Brian was a mess, but many of those were his own choices.” He paused again. “Not much of an excuse, and I don't think the others will agree.” He stiffened. “I think Drake's results speak for themselves.” He placed his fingers on his chin and rubbed. “Well. You may have a point, there.” He threw his hands in the air. “Who'd believe them anyway!”
He turned and looked at me critically. “Are you sure?”
I tried to move my lips, but nothing seemed to cooperate.
The fellow put his hands on his hips. “Well. Fine. Have it your way.” He sat down and typed a string of code into the machine then stood again. “I have to take this little beast with me. However, I'm a bit soft in the heart, as you may have heard me say.” He took a step toward me, and my heart, which didn't seem to be moving, but also felt like it was beating a thousand beats per second, fluttered as he did so. Or did it?
“Some things are fixed points in time. Vesuvius. Wars. Lady GaGa. Other things are more flexible. This timeline is damaged, so I have to prune it back – but if you're mindful, you may yet find what you desire so well.” He paused. “War is a terrible thing. If it were in my power to take away its pain – for all and for good – I would. But war is part of your species nature, just as is peace. I cannot interfere too far in one direction – things must always be by your choice.”
He turned and looked at Ben. “But choice gave you your grandparents. Gave you love and support beyond measure. And when confronted with protecting them, you considered – were even resigned – to sacrificing yourself. You're impressive, Bennett Turchin.” He turned his gaze back to me. “Let's just see how you do.”
He struck the execute key, and the world shook. My vision twisted, and for a moment I felt more sick than I could ever remember. I felt like my legs would throw up and my chest was cramping, even though those things were backward.
“Heath? You okay?”
I took a slow breath and opened my eyes. A wave of disorientation hit me, and I closed them again, gripping the table in front of me.
“Brain freeze?” Jess teased.
“This shit's more freezer burnt than anything else,” Finn complained.
I opened my eyes again, the nausea and cramping fading, and I looked around.
“Seriously – you okay?” Finn asked.
“Never should have eaten here,” Jess grumbled.
We were in the Milk Bar. I pulled out my phone and checked the date. It was a few weeks before the big sectional game where we hoped to have a big win to celebrate. I shook my head slowly. This has already happened.
“Come on. Let's get some real food,” Jess said as she stood.
“Finn,” I asked slowly, wondering if I were crazy. “How are things with Gabby?”
Finn's eyes went wide. “How do you...?”
“Gabby? Gabby who?” Jess demanded.
Finn turned to defend himself from Jess’s demands, but my mind did a little flip, and I turned in my seat. There behind the counter with that silly paper hat was Riley Kincaide. He looked away from me, and I felt a moment of...stickiness? Like...my body was planning on leaving with Finn and Jess, who were both standing and moving toward the door. I felt like I was supposed to be there, right behind them...but something was off.
Things must always be by your choice. Where had I heard that?
Whoever that fellow was from Tech Support, he'd reset everything. I had no car, my birthday was a few weeks out, and Riley hasn't yet missed his shot. The guy had taken all that away. For a moment something deep inside me trembled, part ready to continue as things had gone originally – or me making a different choice.
With just a keystroke Tech Support had taken an entire reality away. No more Riley. No car. No reality changing machine. I glanced at Riley and he looked away. I stood, my legs wobbling a moment and realized...Tech Support never said there couldn't be a new beginning.
I looked at Riley again, and his gaze met mine, and I knew. I knew. This was the past, or a past. Or maybe our...reality had been rolled back to the point where I could still make a difference – no, a choice. I pushed back against the pull of following my friends and walked to the counter where Riley stood.
“Hi, Riles,” I said.
He tilted his head. “Riley is too much for you to say?”
“It's called a term of endearment,” I said, smiling a little.
He returned the slight smile. “Hey, um, Heath would you...uh....”
“Yes. I would.”
Riley rubbed the back of his neck and blushed. “That was kind of quick.”
I reached out and put my hand over his. “I'm here.”
He tilted his head again and softly said, “Yeah. Just in time.”
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