Three minutes before ten p.m. on October 14, 2017.
Eighteen-year-old Alex MacDonald slow dances with a svelte, forty-seven-year-old blonde woman to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” He can feel his partner’s breasts crushed against his chest, and the sway of her hips massages him in a way he fears could soon become embarrassing. His bushy fake mustache itches, but he doesn’t want to move his hands from the back of her silver, sequined cocktail dress to scratch. Her hands are gently cupping his ass, and he’d like to do the same to her, but he doesn’t want to do anything that might ruin the moment. He can see the disapproving looks from the middle-aged people surrounding them on the portable vinyl dance floor, but screw them. This is the moment Alex has been dreaming of for two years. Or thirty-two years, depending how you count.
The Magnolia High School cafeteria has been transformed for the class reunion. Black tablecloths cover the circular metal tables. Silver and black balloons are tied to sparkly centerpieces. A portable bar manned by a dapper bartender in a red jacket mostly blocks the view of the food service area with its stainless steel counter, sneeze guards, warming trays, and heat lamps.
It’s almost enough that, if he squints, Alex can imagine he’s attending an elegant affair.
Someone shouts his name.
Alex cranes his neck toward a commotion moving through the crowd. Alex’s best friend, Roger Kruger, a chubby seventeen-year-old with a round face framed by an unruly mane of curly brown hair, pushes past a knot of reunion attendees onto the dance floor, his “A-Team” backpack slung over one shoulder. About twenty feet behind him, a man with a bushy beard is in pursuit. Looks like Roger’s scheme didn’t go quite as planned.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” Roger shouts as he stumbles up to Alex. “The wormhole’s going to close soon.”
Alex peels himself from the older woman. “Wait,” she protests, voice trembling, “I… I thought we had a connection.”
Alex takes her hand and stares intently into her pale blue eyes. “Don’t worry, I’m going to fix this. We’ll have our whole lives to be together.”
She smiles, hopeful and confused. Alex thinks she may be even more gorgeous than she was when she was seventeen.
The moment is ruined by the bearded man, who crashes into a couple spinning by them.
Roger grabs Alex’s arm and pulls him toward the exit.
Time to go home.
* * *
7:10 a.m. on October 2nd, 1987 – the day before homecoming.
Eighteen-year-old Alex MacDonald struts down the sidewalk to the beat of Timbuk3’s “Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades,” which blasts through the headphones of the Sony Walkman clipped to his belt. It’s Friday and he’s feeling good. He’s got his aviator shades to keep the morning sun out of his eyes, and his denim jacket to keep the fall chill away. He’s feeling stylish in his neon pink sweatshirt and homemade fingerless yellow gloves, just like George Michael wore in the “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video. Alex figures George Michael gets a lot of girls with that look. Alex runs a small mustache comb through the scattering of hairs on his upper lip. Hopefully, if he keeps it neat, it will grow in thicker.
Roger shuffles along next to him, eating cheese curls from the bag. Roger does not have Alex’s fashion sense. He’s wearing an Ocean Pacific shirt already stained with orange dust and brown corduroy pants. “I think I solved the problem with weight shift,” Roger says, referring to their project for the upcoming science fair. The boys are building a machine to generate a magnetic field that can suspend an object in midair. It was Roger’s brainchild, and it sounds pretty awesome to Alex if they can make it work. Alex is an A student, but his strength is English and social studies where Roger is the math and science genius.
“How?” Alex asks.
“With this.” Roger rubs his hand clean on his pants and retrieves a floppy disk from his “A-Team” backpack. “I wrote a program last night that’ll control the strength of the field dynamically.”
“Bitchin’.” They pass Scarlet’s Convenience Store, their high school coming into view across the graveyard.
Roger grabs Alex’s arm – yanks him back behind Scarlet’s.
“Guess who,” Roger says.
Alex peeks around the edge of the store. Four teenagers lounge among a cluster of tombstones under an old oak tree. Two are jocks in red and black letterman jackets: Todd Wright, whose silky brown hair undulates in the breeze, and beefy Kevin English, who has a distinctive scar cutting down the left side of his massive forehead. Kevin has his arm around Wendy, a wiry girl with close-cropped black hair, leather pants, and smoldering brown eyes.
But Alex focuses on Jennifer Adams. The sunlight turns her mane of curly blonde hair into a fiery halo and brings out the handful of delicate freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks.
“Jennifer’s wearing her cheerleading outfit.” Alex’s eyes drift to the thin arc of pale belly exposed by Jennifer’s red sweater. As she crosses her legs, the red and black pleated skirt brushes her smooth thighs, and Alex feels a flutter in his stomach.
“No doy,” Roger replies. “The cheerleaders always wear their uniforms Fridays before games.”
“Those are my favorite days.”
“Alex, give it up. She’s with Todd.”
“But he doesn’t understand her like I do. He doesn’t love her like I will. Someday she’ll realize that.”
“And that will be the day Todd kills you.”
“It would be totally worth it for one day with Jennifer.” Alex pictures how it would go, a fantasy he’s replayed countless times. Jennifer would look into his eyes and be inexorably drawn to him. He’d take her in his arms. Without a word, they’d kiss. It would be electric, two souls joined forev—
Roger gives Alex a shove. “Come on, lover boy, they’re distracted. Try to walk casual.”
Roger and Alex mosey along the edge of the graveyard. Alex tries to keep his eyes on the sidewalk in front of him, but he just can’t resist a sidelong look at Jennifer – and it just so happens that Todd looks toward them at that exact moment. Alex and Todd lock eyes. And Todd grins.
Todd flips Jennifer’s cheerleader skirt up, exposing the black cotton cheer panties beneath.
“Hey spazz,” Todd shouts, “take a picture. You can whack off to it later.”
“Todd!” Jennifer cries, pushing her skirt back down.
Todd spreads his arms innocently. “What? They need something to do while everyone else is at the Homecoming Dance.”
Alex feels heat rising in his chest. He tries to fight it back down, focus on the sidewalk again.
“Those queers are probably going to the dance together,” Kevin chimes in.
“Or maybe Roger’s going to make them dates with his computer like in ‘Weird Science,’” Wendy adds.
“But is he going to make girls or boys?” Kevin laughs.
“Or sheep,” Todd says. “I hear computer nerds like sheep. Baa! Baa!”
“Face,” Wendy chortles.
Alex glances at Roger. Roger’s cheeks are pink with humiliation. And Alex feels the heat rising again. Alex stops.
Roger grabs his arm. “Just ignore them....”
But Alex can’t. A shadowy darkness creeps into the edge of his vision as his fury takes over. He turns toward Todd, fists clenched. “Maybe he’ll make a boyfriend for Jennifer – one with a penis more than two inches long.”
Todd’s brow furrows. “What do you mean? Are you saying I have a small penis?”
“Better give him a brain, too,” Alex shouts.
This elicits a giggle from Jennifer. She quickly stifles it, but it’s too late.
Todd’s face goes crimson. “You are so dead, geek!”
And with that Todd charges toward them. Alex stands his ground for half a second, but all the anger has vanished, replaced by a sinking terror that lodges in his gut. Roger bolts toward the school. Alex follows a heartbeat behind.
Alex runs as fast he can, but Todd is an athlete and Alex... is not. Plus, the Walkman bouncing on Alex’s hip throws off his gait. He’s gasping for breath before he’s halfway down the block, a sharp pan in his side. Hearing Todd’s footsteps closing behind him, Alex veers right, into the graveyard, weaving among the tombstones.
It does no good. Todd tackles him – sending Alex skidding face-first into a muddy patch of dry grass. Alex rolls over, the taste of earth and blood filling his mouth. He tries to wriggle away, but Todd straddles him, the bigger kid’s weight pinning Alex to the ground. Alex’s right arm is trapped under Todd’s knee, while his left is tangled in the Walkman cord. “Future’s So Bright” still blares from the headphones that have pulled free from Alex’s ears, the music tinny and small.
The other teens scramble up. Roger has pulled to a stop a dozen feet away, chest heaving, shifting from foot to foot nervously, unsure what to do. But the others have forgotten about him. They’re more interested in Todd and Alex. “Kick his butt, T-Man!” Kevin shouts.
Todd grabs Alex’s flailing left arm and pins it to the ground. “You wanna see how big my dick is?”
Alex tries for a defiant expression, hoping it will hide how terrified he is. “Do I need a microscope?”
Todd growls, and smacks Alex’s forehead, slamming his head back into the dirt. The ground is soft, so it doesn’t hurt much, but Alex feels the mud ooze into his moussed hair.
Jennifer steps up, hands on her hips, her brow furrowed in anger. She’s even cute when she’s mad. “Todd Wright, you leave him alone.”
Todd looks up at her, scowling. “But Baby, did you hear what he said?”
“So what. You’re acting like a thug. Save that for the football field. You’ll need it to beat the Eagles tomorrow.”
Todd’s shoulders slump and he reluctantly climbs off Alex. Jennifer gives a happy little hop and kisses Todd on the cheek. “Good boy. Now, come on. I want to get a jaw breaker before biology class.”
Jennifer skips away. Wendy and Kevin follow, clearly disappointed that they didn’t get to see Todd pummel Alex. Before Todd joins them, he spits a loogie that lands in the center of Alex’s muddy, neon-pink sweatshirt. “We’ll finish this later, freak,” Todd hisses.
Alex lets out a long breath and watches Jennifer’s skirt swish back and forth as Todd catches up to her and the other kids heading toward Scarlet’s.
Roger shuffles over and extends a hand to help Alex to his feet. “You better get cleaned up,” Roger says. “Calculus starts in twelve minutes.”
Alex picks the grass from his hair and repositions his headphones. The next song on the Timbuk3 album begins: “Life is Hard.” Alex and Roger trudge toward Magnolia High in silence. Looks like it’s gonna be another typical day of high school.
Go to Chapter 2