Please let me be your guinea pig.
I am volunteering for service as a test subject in your program. I recognize that this may be a problem, given that no one outside of your university is supposed to know your project exists, and especially given that I am a man with a criminal record. I am not a spy or saboteur; I know what you’re doing only because your theories are correct. The process you have envisioned will work, though imperfectly.
How do I know? Because I’ve been there, Dr. Rafsanjani. I’ve done that. Indeed, in a sense, my entire life, from the age of fifteen onward, has been a byproduct of your experiment.
* * *
I was fifteen years old, sitting in John’s garage, watching him drive nails through a piece of particle board. John was beautiful. Green eyes flecked with gold, thick, wavy black hair, and cheekbones you could cut glass with. But John’s romantic interests lay elsewhere, and with the opposite gender. So: best friends. I kept him close, though not as close as I wanted to.
To my fifteen-year-old eyes, John was perfect. At school, at work, at play, his every action was sure and capable. Even his carpentry was perfect: I watched him set each tenpenny nail precisely in its place, and then drive it through the quarter-inch of wood with a single, surgical tap of the hammer, leaving the head flush with the wood’s surface and the point extruded.
Throughout middle school, John had been a king among us—eager, enthusiastic, a friendly hand on every shoulder. And then, almost from the moment he’d seen her, at the start of our freshman year, he had devolved into a completely different person. He shunned sports and activities. He made no attempt to make new friends. He was as supportive of me as ever, but he had no apparent interest in or time for the rest of the world. Instead, I watched him while away the hours in his garage, hammering out strange, ugly objects, equally inartistic and non-functional. Such as today’s project. I’d dubbed it “Spiny Norman, the Roadkill Hedgehog,” which had earned me a laugh, and a fond grin that had almost stopped my heart.
“So,” I said to him, trying to strike another spark. “All-school assembly on Monday. Our big moment. Class of the year!” Plainfield High School conducted a year-long competition between the four classes in which we earned points for class GPA, attendance, the canned food drive, and all the other assorted bric-a-brac that adults throw at teenagers out of fear that we’d start smoking crack the moment we were out of their sight. The winning class got a day off in May. That year, the impossible had happened. We won it. We, the freshmen.
In August, the three hundred members of the freshman class had stumbled through the doors not knowing which way was up or even how to open our lockers. Then Dani Tannig had entered our lives, swooping in from some tiny, private middle school, a tornado of positivity. By September, she was our class President. By November, we were a well-oiled machine, everybody’s unique talents identified and catalogued. We moved steadily up in the class rankings. With March came Spring Olympics, and when the duct tape fastening Emma Czerznowski to the gymnasium wall came undone and the senior tumbled to the floor, leaving only our own Ashley Jackson still attached, our section of the bleachers dissolved into pandemonium; we had done the impossible. I remembered jumping up and down like a meth-addicted kangaroo, and turning to John to celebrate—only to see him staring silently at Dani in the front row as a dozen people dogpiled on top of her. He had that sad little half-smile on his face. It was the expression he always seemed to wear when looking at Dani.
And John spent a lot of time looking at Dani.
“Never been done before,” I said to him, as he sat cross-legged on the cement, placing another nail. “We made history!”
“Yep,” he muttered. THUNK went the hammer.
I opened my mouth again to speak, but hesitated. I knew I ought not to torture myself. Yet I had to probe at it, the way your tongue prods at a sore tooth. “Big moment for Daniiiii…” I drew my voice out suggestively. He paused for a moment, then glanced up at me. No resentment. Just that sad half-smile.
“Hey, don’t blame me,” I said. “You could be with her, if you’d only put yourself out there. Just… be the guy you were in middle school! Star quarterback, straight A’s. Guys wanted to be you, girls loved you. She’d love you, if you gave her the chance. Just…” My free hand flailed aimlessly at the air.
“Engage again. Be part of the world.” He finished my sentence for me, using exactly the words I’d been about to use. It’s scary how often he does that, I thought. It’s part of the connection we share. It’s proof that we’re meant to be together.
I turned to him, and found those impossibly green eyes locked on mine. “Been there, Eddie,” he said tonelessly. “Done that.”
I shook my head. “Love sucks,” I said, my voice dripping with a fifteen-year-old’s profound wisdom.
But John was already face-down in his project again, picking out another nail. “Not so, buddy,” he replied. “One perfect love lasts a thousand lifetimes. Love comes to those who deserve it. And love is worth the wait.” He glanced up at me. “You deserve love, Eddie. And it will come for you, in time. I promise.”
I felt a shiver run up my spine. “But…” I stammered. “…how can you say that, and then act like this? You’re just gonna moon over her? You’re gonna do nothing?”
He sat there, his face a blank slate. “I,” he responded, “am going to do nothing effectively.”
* * *
They screwed us, of course. The administration and teachers. All the world hates a freshman. Mr. Munsch, our chinless principal, used the all-school assembly to award an arbitrary number of points to four seniors—most notably Hank Porter, the star of the football and basketball teams and the son of the most unctuous helicopter parents you’d ever care to meet, for his “contributions to the school.” And it just so happened that Munsch’s points were precisely enough to put them over the top and replace us as Class of the Year.
Dani had leapt from her seat in rage. But when she’d whirled on the podium to confront Munsch, one of the Vice Principals was instantly over beside her, with an iron grip on her upper arm, leaning in close and whispering something in Dani’s ear. Dani’s eyes went wide. And every freshman knew, at that moment, that Dani was locked in, and she wasn’t going to give up until she got what she wanted.
The word went out: We were meeting after school, out on the hillside overlooking the football field. And when we did, we jabbered and squalled with the fury only outraged teenagers can feel. Dire threats were made: vandalism, walkouts, the usual ineffectual flailing. But we all knew that we didn’t have what it took to back up the threats. We were, thanks to Dani, disciplined beyond what you’d have expected from kids our age. But we feared consequences. Nobody was gonna pull a stunt that was going to get them grounded or suspended.
Dani sat, patiently watching us blow off steam. John’s gaze was fixed on her heart-shaped face, her blonde pixie cut, and soft brown eyes. I wanted to be jealous of her, to hate her for occupying his attention so thoroughly. But to hate her was impossible. We’d met in August, and it had taken her maybe two minutes to figure me out completely, including the secret of which my parents were still unaware. Before the day was out she had set me up on a date with Calvin Menzies, who’d have been the perfect match for me had the world not contained John. She’d had no reason to help me, had nothing to gain except a world containing one additional happy, more fully realized person. That’s who she was. Everyone loved her. I loved her. He loved her. I didn’t blame him.
About an hour into the rage-fest, she stood up and spoke: “I propose that we do nothing.” There was a huge, collective groan, and Dani slowly smiled. “I propose that we do nothing effectively.” I remember looking up in surprise at the familiar phrase and turning to glance at John. And there he sat—saying nothing, but nodding, ever-so-slightly.
“When I was up on stage,” Dani continued, “Panegasser grabbed my arm, and she said, ‘Young lady, I know you think you know it all, but you’re fifteen years old. Now sit down and do what you’re told.’” Her smile widened slowly. “So let’s do what they tell us. Exactly what they tell us.”
And Dani gave us the details of her plan.
* * *
We did nothing.
Or, to be more precise: We did exactly what we were told, and nothing more. If called upon to answer a question, we answered it. If specifically told to perform a task, we did it.
But we abolished volunteerism. If a teacher asked the entire class a question, soliciting feedback, we sat staring. When handed dodge balls in the gym, we stood with them in our hands until told to throw them. Dismissed for lunch, we milled aimlessly in the cafeteria until told to sit down and eat.
We broke no rules, disobeyed no instructions. We did nothing for which we could be punished, and nothing for which we could be praised. We became, functionally, a computer program, waiting for input. Until Friday evening, when we hosted the state basketball playoffs.
* * *
The next day, I showed up at John’s house unannounced. On the way up the driveway, I noticed his garage door was half open, and spotted that collection of bizarre knickknacks he’d been building in his free time—some kind of telescoping baton, Spiny Norman, a huge metal spiderweb.
I figured he needed a hobby. I’d read online that disc golf was the sport of choice for slackers, layabouts, and nothing-doers. I’d hatched a plan for an impromptu trip to the local course, hoping to delight him, to surprise him. As I walked up to his porch, the front door opened—and there he stood, with a newly purchased bag of golf discs slung across his shoulder and a grin on his face. We really do share the most astonishing connection, I thought.
An hour later, we stood on the concrete tee box overlooking the steep slope down toward the first “hole”—in actuality, a pole with a basket attached—and I told John about the previous evening’s basketball game. “So, most of the crowd’s cheering for Porter,” I said, “but in the freshman section of the stands, we know that Jerric’s the real star, even though he’s the only freshman on the team. I mean, some people say he might be good enough to play in the NBA one day.”
“He will,” John replied. He stepped up to the edge of the tee box, his eyes locked on the goal down below, braced his legs, twisted his body inward, disc cradled in his right wrist, sinews outlined against his tee shirt—a work of art, a marble statue of an athlete. I forgot to breathe. Then he uncoiled with explosive force and perfect control. The disc arced outward to the right over the slope, then gradually began to slide back left, toward the target. It drifted downward and nestled in the grass perhaps ten feet from the goal.
I gave him a long look. “You’ve done this before.”
He grinned back. “Been here. Done this.”
I stepped up to the tee, continuing my story. “So, halfway through the first quarter, we’re already down six. Porter’s doing his usual bull-in-a-china-shop routine down low, and Jerric’s running the offense from the point just as smooth as you’d like, but there’s something missing.” I inhaled, disc in hand, then took a running hop-step toward the edge of the box. I reared back and grunted as I hurled the disc, which sailed off to the left and landed over by the tennis courts.
“Anyway,” I continued, as we ambled in the direction of my errant throw, “when you know what to look for, it’s easy to figure out what Jerric’s doing. He’s running the offense exactly as it’s written up in the playbook, X’s and O’s—going exactly where the diagrams tell him to go, passing to exactly who the diagrams tell him to pass to. But that’s all he’s doing. He’s not playing that wild, manic game he plays. He’s playing Dani’s game. And it’s ruining everything. Because when Jerric improvises, everything around him changes. Everybody else on the team plays off of him. They become, like… I don’t know…”
“A jazz ensemble,” John piped in.
“Yeah! Yeah, I was just gonna say that. Like, the pattern breaks down, and you don’t know what’s gonna happen next.” I bent over to pick up my disc. “But with Jerric just being an X in a diagram… it’s all stale. Predictable.” I set my feet, reared back, and threw. The disc soared off to the right and disappeared into the brush.
“And so Coach Boyle goes nuts, and pulls Jerric, and puts Ramirez in. And Ramirez… well, nobody will ever call HIM predictable. Or talented. And minutes later, he drives to the hoop. And he collides with Porter, and Porter goes down—and you can see his knee bend the wrong way as he hits the floor. And the whole place is silent as they stretcher him off. Except for daddy dearest, of course.”
“Who’s a psychopath,” John mumbled.
“More or less. Mr. Porter gets in Munsch’s face about how his son’s future is wrecked, how he’ll never get a scholarship now. And then he starts in on Dani, how she’s destroying the school, calling her every name you can think of. And finally they have to have security come and throw him out. So, yeah. We lost. And people aren’t happy.” We finally arrived at the bushes, and with some effort I pulled my disc clear. “Nobody minds if we wreck the school academically. But mess with the sports teams? God help you then.”
I set my feet as best I could in the undergrowth, reached back, and exploded outward. And for once, my release was perfect, the disc was level. I got my wrist into it, and the disc soared, high and straight and true, toward the post as John let out a long, low whistle of appreciation.
Up and up, the disc climbed. Up the slope and up over the goal, and further still, onward and upward, back toward the tee box. It finally came to rest back where we had started, three strokes ago.
John grinned ruefully and put an arm around my shoulders, causing my heart to skip a beat. “Buddy,” he said, “I think it might be best to take a Mulligan on this one.”
* * *
It was the basketball game that made the difference. The following Monday, Munsch caved. The intercom announcement was all smiles and rainbows. In recognition of the outstanding achievements of the students throughout the year—especially our state basketball quarterfinalists!—the day off awarded to the Class Of The Year award winners would, just this once, be extended to all students in all grades, to be celebrated the following Monday.
The collective roar of joy from a thousand teenage throats must have been audible from space. And we freshmen were heroes, the subject of high-fives and noogies of affection from hundreds of overjoyed juniors and sophomores. Even the seniors eyed us with grudging respect.
I was skipping down the hallway after fifth hour (not good for a gay kid’s image, but at that point I couldn’t have cared less) when I spotted John. He was staring at Jerric, marching down the hallway with Dani perched atop his broad shoulders and a proprietary grin on his face. She laughed, stooping occasionally from her perch to bump fists with passersby.
John watched, his expression unreadable.
* * *
Monday. Our day off. The weather was miserable: low, gray skies and one of those diarrheic spring drizzles that you get in the Midwest. The seniors were off boozing somewhere, as seniors will. The freshmen were gathered in Connors Park, enjoying one another’s company: tossing Frisbees, shooting hoops, grilling burgers and hot dogs, all in defiance of the weather. The whole freshman class, save only John.
Over at the center of the amphitheater, underneath the concrete band shell used for outdoor concerts, Dani was holding court, delivering some sort of impromptu speech to a growing crowd. Freshmen, yes, but also sophomores and juniors, and a number of kids I didn’t know. Many of them were wearing letter jackets and paraphernalia from other area schools. I wandered over to join her ever-expanding circle of admirers. As I did so, I glanced up at the band shell. Somebody had erected a strange brace of some kind near the top, a latticework of steel wires. With a start, I realized I’d seen the net before—in John’s garage.
“…which is the problem, of course,” Dani’s face was cheerful, but had that little crease in the middle of her forehead, and was ranting perkily at her audience. “They think that just because we’re kids, that they don’t have to worry about our votes. Well, we don’t have votes, but we DO have things they want. Things they need. We just have recognize what those things are.”
I glanced over my shoulder, and there, in the distance, was John. He was crossing Murray Street, headed in our direction, and carrying a black Hefty bag full of God only knew what. He reached the curb, and then turned toward the intersection with Ramis street, marched off several carefully measured paces. He reached into the sack and pulled out Spiny Norman. I watched him glance down at the street, then at a nearby storefront, then back down at the street, then place Norman points-up in a precise spot in the southbound lane.
Dani was still speaking. “…with a curfew, of course. They don’t want us cruising around on the streets after hours. They’d prefer not to have to deal with us.” A murmur of assent from her listeners. The summer curfew for teenagers: the hot-button issue in local politics. It had passed the city council by a narrow margin and was to take effect in three weeks. “They say we should be at home doing homework. In June.” That earned her a laugh, but I wasn’t listening. Because John was on the move again, headed right for us, his face stern and full of purpose. And I was suddenly afraid.
“Now, there are exceptions to the curfew, of course. Kids on their way to and from work. Because pretty much every business needs teenagers for summer employment; otherwise they’d have to pay minimum wage and health benefits to full-time employees. They want us to serve as cheap labor; they just don’t want to see us wandering the town having a good time afterward.” Another murmur of assent, louder this time. “What they really want is a world without teenagers. Well, what if we got organized, and gave it to them? What if, instead of giving them what they want, we give them nothing?” John was coming closer now. And I thought about him watching Dani being carried around on Jerric’s shoulders. And I thought about her being the center of attention, and about John standing off at a distance, outside of the glowing circle that surrounded her, unable to speak to her. For nine long months. And I saw John reach into the bag, and withdraw that telescoping steel baton I’d seen him working on, and felt an icy claw clutch at my heart, and I moved to intercept him—
—and I heard a voice beside me. “Well, that’s real nice, you little bitch. But what about my boy, eh?” Mr. Porter, Hank’s dad. Nothing of the helicopter parent remained, no trace of the amateur schoolroom lawyer. His collar was unbuttoned and tie askew, his breath reeked of alcohol, and his eyes were wild.
Dani turned to face him. “Oh, hello, Mr. Porter,” she said, still pleasant and unruffled. “Were you saying something about Hank?”
“That’s right. My Hank.” He sneered. “My son, who could have been a champion! Who could’ve had a college scholarship! And who they’re now telling me might never even walk without a limp again…” He reached into the front of his pants, and pulled out a sleek and deadly length of oiled black steel. “…just because some fifteen-year-old bitch decided she had a point to make.”
And then there was stillness, and silence. Porter raised the pistol in both hands and pointed it at Dani, who was staring, paralyzed, twenty feet away.
There was a clicking sound, a blur in my peripheral vision, a shining arc of steel and a resounding crack of metal against metal. Porter’s gun was knocked upward into the air; it went off with a BANG, the bullet shooting skyward. It impacted the band shell with a crack, dislodging a huge chunk of concrete, which plummeted earthward only to be arrested by the steel net. I turned to my right just as John, his eyes ablaze, brought his telescoping steel baton back down, then across in a backhand slash into Mr. Porter’s face. There was a sickening crunch, and Mr. Porter was flat on his back in the mud, bleeding from the mouth.
The stillness ended, and screaming chaos filled the void, kids running in every direction, sliding in the muck. Through the intensifying rain, I could see Dani, one kid among dozens, scrambling away in a blind panic toward Murray Street. As she stepped off the curb, a speeding black Honda Civic rounded the corner from Ramis Street, headed straight for her. Then it ran directly over the nail-studded plywood, blowing out the driver’s-side tire. The car hopped the curb and skidded to a stop on the grass of the park.
Dani stood in the middle of the street, looking back at the chaos in the park. Two minutes ago she had been the belle of the ball. Now she was dazed, disoriented. And she was staring at John, who had come racing after her, and who was staring back with a manic intensity. And the impossible happened: John actually spoke to her.
“Dani. Dani, please. I need you to come with me.” And in that moment, he was back. The old John, the John I’d longed for—decisive, vigorous, in control.
“Do I… do I know you?” Her brow furrowed. “I don’t know you, and I know everybody…”
John swallowed and shook his head. “I’ve… had to keep a low profile.” His eyes pleaded. “Look, I don’t… Dani, there’s no time. You’re in danger. I can’t explain, but you HAVE to come with me.”
But now there was a green Chevy coming, this time in the northbound lane, the breaks squealing, the tires hydroplaning on the slick road. And John couldn’t possibly have seen it; he had his back turned. But nonetheless, at the last moment, he somehow launched himself forward in a desperate dive, knocking Dani backward, out of the street and onto the sidewalk beyond. Then, a blur of metal, sweeping John away. And I heard myself scream.
Dani scrambled back to her feet, her face horrified, clutching at her open mouth with skinned and bleeding palms. John, stretched prone in the road, right leg bent at a sickening angle, lifted up his head to meet her gaze.
And the world turned white, and there was a crack like the splitting of reality itself.
And all I knew was the sensation of rain on my skin and the smell of ozone. And when the dancing images on my retina faded, I spied my two friends, yards apart on the pavement, flat on their backs, each staring sightless up at the grey sky, rivulets of water running down their faces.
The ambulances came. One raced for the hospital, sirens blaring, and the other departed in silence for the morgue.
* * *
Tuesday. Visiting hours.
I stared down at John in the hospital bed. His leg, encased in plaster, was elevated above him. An IV line ran from the drip by the headboard to his left forearm. He stared at the ceiling, saying nothing.
I’d cried my eyes out in the waiting room the night before. Now I sat beside him, sharing his silence and his pain, for several long minutes. At length, he turned his head toward me, and his eyes, clouded with painkillers, met mine.
“There’s no point in dragging it out,” he said. “You’ll just keep standing there. For five minutes. For thirty minutes. For two hours. Loyal and patient, in perfect silence, waiting for me to speak.” He licked his lips. “I’ve seen you do it.” Paused. “There’s no one like you, Eddie. You’d wait forever, if you had to. And that’s what keeps me going. Every time around. It’s your example. Your patience. Every time around, I tell myself—look at Eddie. Be a little more like Eddie. Eddie wouldn’t ever give up on a friend.”
He swallowed. Stared at me. When he resumed speaking, his tone had changed. It had the feeling of lines in a carefully rehearsed play. Perhaps over-rehearsed; perhaps a play whose run had outlasted its entertainment value.
“Once, thousands of years ago,” he began, “a boy met the perfect girl. She was brilliant, beautiful, magnetic. She had an idea that would change the world. He fell in love with her. To his amazement, she fell in love with him as well. They spent one magical year together. Then, at the end of that year, she was murdered in front of his eyes, while he stood there doing nothing.
“The boy grew up to be a man. He adopted her idea as his own. He resolved himself to prove worthy of her memory, to fight injustice, to help the voiceless assemble and organize in their own defense. The man studied law. He became a labor lawyer. Working with her idea, he became a very effective one. He organized groups of workers whom it had never been thought could be organized, won rights for them that had never been imagined. Migrant workers. Professional wrestlers. And most notably, adjunct faculty at major universities.
“One day, in his old age, the man was approached by a brilliant scientist, a physicist named Hashemi Rafsanjani. Dr. Rafsanjani had once been one of those adjunct faculty members he’d saved from a life of poverty. And now, decades later, Dr. Rafsanjani had made a ground-breaking discovery. He had uncovered the secret of time travel. It turned out that matter could not be moved backward through time, but energy could—including the electrical impulses in a brain that, collectively, constitute a human mind. But there was no recall button; it was a one-way trip. And that being so, no member of Rafsanjani’s project was willing to be the pioneer—to do so would have meant giving up career, family, everything. They needed a different kind of person, one with less to lose.
“In gratitude for all the man had done, Dr. Rafsanjani offered him a gift—the chance to be the world’s first time traveler. He offered the man a chance to travel back, his consciousness intact, to his own youth, to have a chance to relive his life from any moment he chose. The man chose August 12 of his freshman year of high school, some fifty years before. The day he’d met that special girl. And he and Dr. Rafsanjani worked out a neural trigger that would send the man’s consciousness back in time. A neurocircuit was to be implanted in his cerebral cortex. At the moment of his death, the man’s consciousness would be sent back across the decades to that day in August, where he’d have his second chance.
“An unprecedented surgery was performed, the man’s brain reprogrammed with the new instructions. He recovered for several weeks. He thanked Dr. Rafsanjani for his gift. Then he went straight home and drank poison. He awoke as a fifteen-year-old boy, determined to save the girl he’d loved.
“And he tried. Lord, how he tried. He planned for the day of her death. But he didn’t save her. When that day in May came, she wasn’t killed by her original assassin. Instead, she was run down in a freak auto accident.
“So the man—a boy again—jumped off of a tall building, having failed in his second chance. And it was at this point that he discovered that Dr. Rafsanjani had made an error. You see, the trigger for the man’s trip back in time—his death—was imprinted electronically upon his consciousness, as was his destination date. So, when he hit the pavement below, he woke up again, eight months younger, on August 12.
“And so, he went around again. And again. Every time, trying new strategies. Anticipating different threats. And it never made a difference. Every time, Eddie… every time they reached that day in May, the girl died.”
I looked down at John. I looked into those green eyes, and I saw. The clouds in them were not caused by his medication. His face was young, but his eyes were old. Older, and more full of pain than any eyes I’d ever seen.
“I don’t need to ask if you believe me,” he said. “I know for a fact that you do. We’ve had this conversation before. Many times.”
I could barely make my lips part. When I finally did, I asked him, “But… why choose to do nothing?”
“Because that’s the only way out, Eddie. If I interact with her, her behavior changes. The threats reconfigure around her, become unpredictable. And when that happens, I can’t prepare.” He stared up at the ceiling. “Believe me, Eddie, I have tried everything. I have run against her for class president. I’ve sabotaged our efforts to win the class competition. I’ve tried to talk her out of fighting Munsch’s plan. I’ve murdered Munsch and Panegasser before the assembly. I’ve burned Connors Park to the ground on Sunday night. None of it makes a difference, except to change the specific way she dies.” He turned his eyes back to me. “But if I don’t interact with her, Eddie… then the threats line up the same way. Predictably. I can plan for them. I can do nothing effectively.”
He swallowed. “Granted, it always seems like there’s another threat lurking behind the ones I solve. They keep piling up on me, and the first time I miss one, she dies. The lightning bolt—that was new. This is the furthest I’ve ever gotten.” He licked his lips. “Gotta make a lightning rod. I’ll need a bigger garbage bag the next time around.”
I shook my head. “John… look, obviously, I don’t know. But the way you’re explaining it… it doesn’t sound like there’s anything you can do. It sounds like destiny. Like she’s supposed to die.”
He rounded on me, those ancient eyes flashing anger, and I recoiled for a moment. Seeing this, he closed his eyelids and spoke softly. “Eddie, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that. It’s just…” He reaches into the air above the bed, clutching at something invisible, then lets his hands fall limply back to his sides. “…it’s just that, you know, maybe you’re right. Maybe the big events in our lives are fixed. Maybe nothing we do matters.”
“So, if that turns out to be true,” I asked, my voice soft, “what will you do?”
“I’ve been without her for hundreds of… years, cycles, whatever you want to call them. Playing the do-nothing game. If I ever decide that it’s hopeless… well, then I will go back to her. I will spend that one magic year with her. And then I will spend that year with her again. And again, and again. Forever. Eternity with the girl I love.” He offered me a soft smile. “Pretty close to heaven, don’t you think?”
“But John,” I said, “you have a whole life in front of you before the cycle starts again.”
He smiled sadly up at me. “Not exactly.” And his eyes drifted to the bedside table, where a syringe lay, empty, the plunger depressed. I picked it up and saw a bead of liquid still hovering at its tip.
“Morphine,” he explains. “A bad mix for my painkillers. They leave the storage closet unattended from 10:43 to 10:49 on Sunday night. Every time. I stashed it under the mattress. They always bring me to the same room.” He smiled. “You took your Mulligan back at the golf course. Now I’m taking mine.”
I grabbed at the call button, hoping to summon a nurse, but his hand intercepted mine and grabbed my wrist. Even flat on his back in traction, he was far stronger than me. “Please don’t,” he said, calmly, as I struggled to free myself. “If you do, they move me to the psych ward and put me on suicide watch. I spend six weeks talking the doctors around, saying how much better I feel. Then, the day I’m released, I do it anyway, with a razor blade, in my bathroom at home. And that leaves my parents to find the body. This way’s better.”
My struggles subsided, my shoulders slumped. “Thank you. I injected it into the IV bag, which is on a slow drip. We’ve got time to talk.”
A cold knot swelled up in my throat, and then the tears came. “John,” I blubbered, “there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Go ahead, Eddie. It’s nothing I haven’t heard you say a thousand times before. But you’ve earned the right to say it.”
“I love you,” I whispered, between blubbering sobs.
He still had my wrist in his hand. He shifted his grip, placed my hand between his. “I know you do, Eddie. I know.” And maybe those ancient green eyes were just a little brighter for a moment. “And I can’t love you back, not in that way. I’m sorry. I’m in love with someone else, and I always will be. But you need to know this: love is coming for you, Eddie. I met him, you see. That first time around, the time I lived out my whole life. He’s wonderful. He’s worthy of you. And as great as each of you are alone, you’re even better together.” And his smile was so wide, and so genuine, that I couldn’t help but feel my spirits lift, if only a little. “We had dinner, you know? Often, down that first timeline. You, and he, and I. We took vacations together, saw the world. All throughout our lives. Until the three of us were old, old men. And it was wonderful. But all that time, and all those years from then to now—I wished for more, Eddie. I dreamed about what it would be like for it to be four of us, living out our lives together. Would you like that, Eddie?”
And it wasn’t what I’d wanted. But I heard myself say, “Yes, I’d like that, John,” and I realized that somehow, it was true. I loved him, and above all else, I desired his happiness.
And his eyes were ancient again, but his smile was broad and bright, a thing eternally young. “Every time around, Eddie,” he said. “Even knowing what’s coming. Even knowing I’m likely to fail. Every time around, it’s you, Eddie. Keeping me sane. Keeping this endless cycle from turning into hell.” His words were beginning to slur; the drugs were kicking in. “Even when I know what you’re going to do, what you’re gonna say… it never gets old, Eddie. Not to me.” Through my tears and against my will, I found myself smiling back.
He shuddered, winced. “Ah.” he said. “Here it comes. I know this feeling. Been here. Done this.”
“You truly do love her.”
He nodded slightly.
“Go get her.”
He smiled. His grip slackened. The age lifted from his eyes, leaving the irises half a shade paler.
That’s how the doctor found us, an hour later, when they re-entered the room. My right hand between his.
And in my left hand, the empty syringe.
* * *
The rest of it, Dr. Rafsanjani, you can discover through a simple Internet search for my name.
I was, very briefly and very horribly, a celebrity. The psycho fag teenager who killed his best friend, on whom he had a gay crush. I became the subject of every homophobic rant by every deranged right-wing lunatic in America. They tried me as an adult. They convicted me. And I spent thirty years in prison. Doing nothing.
And I assume that at some point in those thirty years, I was supposed to meet the man with whom John claimed I was destined to fall in love. I have no idea who he was, or what became of him. I suspect I never will. And I am content with that. I believe, as John did, that one perfect love lasts a thousand lifetimes. I’ve had mine.
But here’s the kicker, Doctor Rafsanjani. What happened to me after John died wasn’t a curse. It was a blessing. Because it told me what I needed to know.
In John’s original timeline, I grew old in freedom and found love. In this timeline, I didn’t. The discovery of that syringe in my hand changed my life. And if the events of my life and death aren’t fixed, then nobody’s are—including Dani’s.
It’s not hopeless, Doctor Rafsanjani. Somewhere, amidst all those traps that await Dani on that fateful day, there’s a way out. And John, cycling back over that single year in his life, over and over again, has to be made aware of that, lest he give up the fight.
Doctor Rafsanjani, please make me your guinea pig.
Please give me the surgery you gave John in that other timeline. Put the neurotransmitter, with its fatal flaw, in my head. Send me back to August 12. Send me back to John, to travel that endless loop with him. To warn him. To prepare him. To keep him company. To be the one unpredictable element in his universe, the one thing that can break the pattern. To be there. To do that.
Please let me spend that one magic year—and someday, all the years that follow—with John. And with Dani. And perhaps even with that other man. The one I’ve yet to meet.
Eternity, with the people I love. Pretty close to heaven, don’t you think?
Steve DuBois is a high school teacher from Kansas City who received his first professional publishing credit from Fabula Argentea in 2015. He has subsequently been chosen as a shortlisted finalist for the James White and Baen Fantasy Adventure Awards, and has published over twenty short stories in such periodicals as Allegory, Deep Magic, and NewMyths.com. His author page is www.stevedubois.net.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Been There, Done That”:
Time-travel-themed pieces are notoriously difficult to write in part because there are so many of them out there, and it’s hard to craft something that hasn’t been done before. They’re also difficult because of that so-called grandfather paradox (What happens if you go back in time an accidentally kill your own grandfather?). Steve DuBois’ story is really more of a time-loop story, a theme that also has been done a lot and used in several TV series, although such stories usually loop over a much shorter period of time.
Back in July 2016, we published (and republished it in our 5th Anniversary Anthology) “The Low, Long Tomorrow,” which had a time-travel theme in which the character attempted to save someone from dying, the same theme as in “Been There, Done That.” You’d expect, given that we like to publish different stories, that we might have turned down this piece.
The reason we chose to publish Steve DuBois’ story is that takes both time-travel and time-loop stories to a different place, gives wonderful depth to all of the characters, and makes us believe it might even be possible. It’s both heartwarming and heartrending, and despite the open-ended nature of the story (and that we tend to decline stories that lack a strong resolution), we found this one so well done (and it’s not really open-ended) that turning it down would have been a disservice both to us and to the author.
Side note: Steve’s previous publication with us, “Thump Dumps a Chump,” was also reprinted in our 5th Anniversary Anthology.