Alex has finally gotten to talk to his future self, but the older Alex refused to give him any helpful information about how he ends up with Heidi instead of Jennifer. When Heidi returned home, Alex and Roger were forced to flee before she saw them.
5:45 p.m. on October 14th, 2017. The MacDonald’s guest room.
Alex and Roger crawl into the guest room and edge the door closed. “This is all wrong,” Alex whispers as he climbs to his feet. “I’m supposed to be popular. My life is supposed to be glamorous. I should be married to Jennifer and going to fancy parties. I’m not supposed to spend my nights at home doing puzzles.”
“At least you’re rich,” Roger replies. “I’m going to be a poor janitor.”
Alex paces. “What good is money if I’m miserable?”
“To be honest, you didn’t seem that miserable.”
“Because of Heidi! She’s clearly brainwashed me somehow. It’s the only explanation for why future-me won’t help me change things. I can’t end up like that, Roger! I should be with Jennifer. She’s the love of my life.”
“Okay, calm down. Let’s get out of here and then figure out our next step.” Roger slides the window open.
Yes. Alex needs to get out of this house. He needs some space to make a plan. There’s still time. He can still change his fate. He follows Roger through the window into the back yard.
Roger pulls the window closed behind them, but leaves it cracked an inch or so. “Just in case we need to get back in,” he explains. Alex rolls his eyes. Roger is so paranoid.
Alex and Roger jump. Mackenzie’s Rottweiler, Yaz, is standing in the door of his bright red doghouse. Yaz lopes toward them, snarling, drool dripping from his fangs. Suddenly, Alex is grateful for Roger’s paranoia. “I think maybe we should go back in right now.”
But when Alex talks, Yaz stops growling. The dog cocks his head, staring at Alex with a confused expression.
“He likes you!” Roger exclaims. “Your voice must sound the same as old-you’s voice. Say something else.”
“Good doggie,” Alex tries. “Is your name Yaz? Like the band?”
Yaz edges forward, sniffs at Alex’s trembling hand.
And then jumps on Alex, tail wagging. Alex falls back, laughing as the dog licks his face. Alex scratches behind Yaz’s ear. “Yes, that’s a good doggie. You’re not so scary, are you?”
But Alex’s voice cracks on the word “scary.” Yaz’s tail stops mid-wag. A low growl rumbles in his throat.
Alex makes his voice deep. “You’re not so scary, are you?”
Yaz wags his tail again. He runs off toward a tall oak tree in the center of the yard, an old homemade tree house perched in the branches.
“Let’s get out of here,” Roger whispers. A six-foot fence of reddish wood planks surrounds the yard. From their vantage point, the boys can see that the house backs against a small park – the perfect escape route. They dash across the grass. But just as they reach the rear fence, Yaz bounds up to them again, a tennis ball in his mouth. He drops it at Alex’s feet.
“You like to play ball?” Alex picks up the ball and throws it across the yard. Yaz scampers after it.
Roger is already flopping over the fence. By the time Yaz returns with the ball, both boys have made their escape. Yaz drops the ball with a whimper.
* * *
Alex and Roger walk out of the neighborhood mostly in silence, each brooding on what they learned about their fates. Roger more-or-less remembers the path the Uber took to Mackenzie’s house, which is good since that ride is a hazy blur to Alex. But when they reach Meander Way, Alex is able to place their location in the geography of the town again. He’s weirdly relieved to see that Larson’s Drug Store still anchors the corner of Meander and Fifth.
Next to Larson’s, where the video rental store used to be, is another of those coffee places named after the Battlestar Galactica character Starbuck. “Let’s get something to drink and regroup,” Alex suggests.
The air in the Starbucks is warm and humid, permeated by a pleasant earthy odor. It’s crowded, the hubbub from the customers and hiss of coffee machines competing with folksy music. As Alex and Roger get in line, Alex sees a little display indicating the current artist playing is called The Leftover Cuties.
For a store dedicated to selling coffee, the menu is surprisingly long, and most of it is in a foreign language – maybe Italian. Words like “venti” and “grande” and “mocha” sound Italian anyway. The woman in line ahead of them seems to speak the language, based on her order: “I’ll have a venti-half-caff-double-espresso-soy-latte.” It makes no sense to Alex, but the cashier appears to understand perfectly.
There is one item on the menu that intrigues Alex, and he orders it when it’s his turn. “I’d like a pumpkin spice latte, please.” Alex isn’t a big fan of coffee, but pumpkin pie is one of his favorites. He’s curious what a pumpkin pie flavored drink would be like.
“Whip cream?” the cashier asks. She’s got pink hair and a diamond stud in her nose. Despite her diminutive size, she scares Alex a little.
“Sure,” he replies. She takes his name and hands the cup to a guy with tattoos on his neck and forearm. Apparently Meander Way has become a rough neighborhood in 2017.
Roger just orders an iced tea. “Green or black?” the cashier asks.
“Black,” Roger replies. “Definitely black.” What kind of tea is green? It is October. Maybe it’s some kind of Halloween special.
The fancy Italian coffee is almost as expensive as the pizza at the mall, exhausting most of their remaining cash. The boys get their drinks and sit at a small table beside a man slumped over a computer thin enough that he could put it in a briefcase. Alex stares in awe at the machine. It makes sense that if they can fit a hundred cassettes worth of songs on Heidi’s little music player, then computers would also be smaller in the future. He wonders if it has more than the 128K of RAM that his Apple IIe has back in 1987.
The pumpkin spice latte does not taste much like pumpkins, but it’s tasty. Not tasty enough to warrant such an exorbitant price, perhaps, although the store seems to be doing robust business. And the beverage does clear most of the remaining alcohol fuzziness from Alex’s head. Enough so that he has come up with a plan. “I know what I have to do,” he tells Roger. “I’m going to go to our reunion tonight, find Jennifer, and find out what happened back in 1987. I’m going to make sure I end up with her, not Heidi. And you deserve better than being a janitor. We’ll sneak into the library and find that book on the stock market for you.”
“No,” Roger says. “I’ve come up with my own plan. This is my chance to get revenge on Heidi for sabotaging my science fair project. While old-you and Heidi are at the reunion and Mackenzie is at the homecoming dance, I’m going to steal that music-playing device. I’ll take it back to 1987, reverse engineer it, and then I can invent it instead of her.”
Alex chews his lip. “Isn’t that a bit extreme? It sounds like everything Heidi has is because of that device.”
“I’d say she deserves it for ruining my life. Besides, what do you care? You’ll be married to Jennifer.”
“Hey, it’s no worse than what you’re doing to Mackenzie.”
“What do you mean?
“Mackenzie is your daughter with Heidi. If you marry Jennifer, she’ll never be born.”
Alex hadn’t thought of that. “Maybe she’ll be my daughter with Jennifer.”
“She won’t have the same DNA. She won’t be this Mackenzie.”
“That’s a good point.” Alex likes Mackenzie. It doesn’t seem right to erase her from existence.
“No, it’s not!” Roger cries. “Are you seriously going to waste your whole life and sacrifice your own happiness for a girl we just met? You have the right to choose your own future. You have free will. It’s your life, you should get to decide who you spend it with.”
The guy with the computer is looking at them. Alex holds up a hand to calm Roger down. “Okay, you’re right,” he whispers. “The whole idea of coming here was to change the future. So let’s change it”
“Good. We’re in agreement then.” Roger checks his watch. “It’s 6:20. We have a little less than five hours until the wormhole is too small to get through.”
“If I remember correctly, the reunion starts at seven. Plus we have to allow enough time to get back to the storage unit. We should split up.”
“That makes sense. You go to the reunion while I break into your house and steal Heidi’s MP3 player.”
“Okay. Meet me at the school at 10 p.m.”
“Will do. Ready Freddy?”
“Ready.” Alex pounds down the rest of his latte.
* * *
6:40 p.m. on October 14th, 2017. Magnolia High School cafeteria.
It’s been thirty years since Alex was a nerdy student who never knew if he was going to be able to find somewhere to sit at lunchtime, but the cafeteria still makes him edgy, even dressed up as it is for the reunion. As senior class president, it was Heidi’s job to plan this event, and she’s almost managed to make the place feel fancy. The circular tables have been covered with black tablecloths, with silver balloons for centerpieces. Black and silver bunting covers the sports plaques and flyers on the walls. A portable wet bar blocks the view of the buffet line.
Heidi is giving instructions to the DJ setting up his equipment on a low stage next to the temporary vinyl dance floor. Alex has volunteered to handle the food for the reunion. It’s one job his wife trusts him with. He slips through the swinging doors into the school kitchen, where red-jacketed servers are bringing cartons of prepared food for heating and staging under the direction of Ashley, the caterer.
“How we looking?” Alex asks.
“All set,” Ashley replies.
“Everything’s organic and made from non-GMO ingredients?”
“And locally sourced whenever possible, as requested. I found some fantastic artisanal goat cheese for the mini-quiches. Want to try one?”
He takes the proffered pastry. The crust is flaky and delicate, the cheese creamy and sublime. “Mm, excellent.” It’s funny; when he was eighteen, he would’ve thought cubes of pepper jack were classy. It wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he found his inner gourmand, inspired initially by concern for his carbon footprint, which lead him to the town’s Sunday afternoon farmer’s market and the discovery of how good produce could be when it wasn’t mass produced. His teenage self would think he was a total dweeb.
Speaking of his teenage self, Alex checks the time on his phone. Roger will try to steal the MP3 player soon. Alex doesn’t know exactly when because he wasn’t with Roger for that part of the journey when they were teenagers, unlike how he knew exactly what time he and Roger would come through the portal – and that older Roger would try to intercept them – or how he knew what time Chase would try to seduce Mackenzie. But he knows what Roger’s plan was, and he knows the attempt is imminent.
It’s a risk to intervene, of course. Changing what happened could have unintended consequences for his history. Alex has spent thirty years planning how to make sure his younger self’s trip to the future goes off exactly the way it did for him. Roger has always wanted to change what happened, but then Roger’s life has not turned out as well as Alex’s. The disagreement has poisoned their friendship for years.
Besides, Alex is afraid that this time young Roger might actually succeed in ruining Heidi’s life. So he’s going to take a chance and try to alter this one thing. If he can just convince Roger to give up on his plan, maybe things will go better for Roger. And maybe Alex and Roger can be friends again today.
Alex peeks out the double doors. Heidi is adjusting the backdrop at the photo booth while the photographer looks on, clearly annoyed. “If my wife’s looking for me,” Alex says to Ashley, “tell her I ran home to get my yearbook. I’ll be back soon.”
Go to Chapter 13