Alex and Roger tried out their science fair project for the first time in the MacDonald’s basement rec room. But something went wrong when Alex accidentally leaned on the keyboard, and the science project is not behaving as predicted…
6:58 p.m. on October 2nd, 1987.
Alex and Roger stare at the strange image floating between the two vertical posts of the science project. On the television behind them, Nina Blackwood introduces the Pet Shop Boy’s “Opportunities” video.
“Is that... a Playboy?” Alex points to a magazine on the cement floor visible between the posts. A padlock rests on a folded slip of paper beside the magazine.
Roger edges around the science project. Behind it is only the carpeted floor of the MacDonald’s rec room. The Playboy and padlock are nowhere in sight.
Meanwhile, Alex has ventured closer to the front of the science project. The Playboy is in a square of light, as if illuminated by the light from the rec room’s overhead lamp spilling through the opening between the copper-wrapped poles. Alex’s shadow falls across the magazine. Alex waves his hand. The shadow waves in sync. “It’s like a window… or a portal.”
“Yeah, but to where?” Roger goes to the couch, where Alex’s dog, Bananarama, has left an old tennis ball. Roger tosses the ball through the portal. It bounces against the wall of the room on the other side, giving off a metallic clang that echoes oddly. The ball rolls to a stop by the Playboy. “It seems safe,” Roger says. “Try putting your hand through.”
Alex takes a step back. “You try putting your hand through.”
The standoff is broken when Bananarama leaps forward, toward the ball.
“Bananarama, no!” Alex shouts—
But it’s too late. Bananarama goes through the portal to the odd room on the other side. Picks up the ball. Leaps back through.
Alex grabs Bananarama, hugs her. The dog drops the ball and licks his ear.
Roger shrugs. “Banana seems okay.”
Alex’s father shouts down from upstairs again, “Alex! Jennifer is here.”
Alex checks his Swatch. It’s nearly seven. “Crap, our study session.”
“Go ahead,” Roger says, with a dramatic eye roll. “While you’re pointlessly drooling over Jennifer, I’ll try to figure out the hole we just made in the universe.”
* * *
When Alex enters the living room, Jennifer is already sitting on the couch, her social studies book and notebook open on the coffee table. She’s changed out of her cheerleading outfit into skin-tight Jordache jeans and a neon pink sweater. “Hi Alex,” she says, “How’s the science fair thingy going?”
“I’m pretty sure the judges won’t have seen anything like it.” He sits down as close to her as he dares. Which is about three feet away. It’s close enough that he gets a whiff of her Loves Baby Soft, and suddenly all thoughts of out-of-control science projects and strange portals in his basement fade away.
Realizing that he’s been staring, Alex quickly opens his own social studies book. “Okay, we’ve got a test on the Trojan War on Tuesday. Do you know who fought in the Trojan War?”
Jennifer lets out a gulping sound and her shoulders heave. A tear leaks from the corner of her eye, tracing its way down the soft, perfect skin of her cheek. “It’s okay!” Alex says, feeling a confused panic rise in his belly. “That’s a hard question. It was the Greeks and the Trojans. Do you know who won?”
“The Trojans?” Jennifer tries.
“No, that’s kind of tricky because the war is named after the Trojans. But it was actually the Greeks.”
Jennifer covers her face with her hands and sobs.
Alex raises a hand to comfort her, but pulls it back. Crying girls, especially beautiful ones, are unfamiliar territory for him. Jennifer has never shown this intensity of emotion over history in their prior study sessions. “What’s wrong?” Alex asks, “Are you descended from the Trojans? The war was a long time ago.”
“It’s not the Trojans.” Jennifer says, recomposing herself. “Todd dumped me.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Alex’s mind races. Todd and Jennifer broke up? It’s like a dream come true – but he has no idea what to do.
Jennifer looks at him, exasperated. “It’s the day before Homecoming, Alex!”
Alex doesn’t follow her point, but feels like he has to say something. “That’s true....”
“Todd was my date for the dance! Now who will go with me? Everyone else already has their dates.”
Alex thinks of the two tickets in his wallet. “I’m sure not everyone....”
“It’s hopeless. I’m going to miss my senior year Homecoming Dance.”
Alex stares at the sobbing girl. He’s frozen, unable to ask the question he really, really wants to ask.
Alex’s dad sticks his head out from the kitchen. “Alex, did you offer your friend a drink?”
Alex turns to Jennifer. “Do you want something to drink?”
“I’ll get you a drink.” Alex dashes into the kitchen.
Alex gets a glass from the cupboard, nearly dropping it in his haste. He fills it at the tap, belatedly realizing he should put ice in it.
As he turns to the refrigerator, his dad is blocking his way. “Why aren’t you asking that girl to the Homecoming Dance?”
“Dad, she’s a cheerleader. And I’m... me.”
“You heard her, she’s desperate. She’d go with a diseased orangutan.”
“Sure, but would she go with me?”
“Alex, I know they promote celibacy in that health class of yours, but you do know that nobody actually stays celibate on purpose.”
“Oh, I think some people—“
“Go out there and ask her!” Bud pushes Alex back into—
The living room.
Jennifer is packing up her backpack.
“Uh, are you leaving?” Alex asks. Does his heart normally pound this loud? What are the symptoms of a heart attack, anyway?
“Yeah. I’m too bummed to study right now,” Jennifer says. “I’ll have plenty of time for that tomorrow while everyone else is at the dance.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, before you go...” His legs have gone numb. He’s definitely having a heart attack.
Jennifer’s tears have streaked her blue eye shadow down her cheek. For some reason it’s unbelievably sexy. “Yes?”
“I just want to ask... well...” Alex can feel his knees wobbling. Literally wobbling.
And then the panic drains out of him… taking any confidence or boldness he might have had with it. He holds out the glass. “Did you want this water?”
* * *
Alex trudges back down into the basement and flops on the couch. Animotion’s “Obsession” video is playing on MTV.
Roger is typing urgently at the computer. “I think I figured out what happened.”
Alex sighs. “Todd dumped Jennifer.”
“I think we opened a tunnel through space-time – a wormhole.”
“She doesn’t have a date to the Homecoming Dance. This could be my big opportunity.”
“I’m pretty sure the other end of the wormhole is attached to my device sometime in the future.“
“But if I ask her to go with me and she says no, I’ll be ruined. I’ll have to change my name and move to Canada. I’ll have to learn French.”
Roger stops typing. “Alex, are you listening to me? We created a time machine!”
That breaks through Alex’s fog. He turns back toward Roger. “A time machine? For real?”
“Well, more of a time portal. I don’t know how to control it.”
Alex turns around, kneeling on the couch, and regards the science project. “So where... or rather, when does it go to?”
Roger grabs a dusty pair of binoculars from the bookcase. He uses them to peer through the portal. “That Playboy is dated September, 2017. That’s 30 years from now.”
“Thirty years. In the future.”
“Man, I’m going to win the science fair for sure!” Roger does an awkward jig.
“Forget the science fair!” Alex exclaims. The reality of what they have is sinking in. Time travel – like in Back to the Future. Except the science project takes them forward, which is a lot safer. You can’t screw up your life by going forward in time. “Let’s find out what 2017 is like,” he says excitedly.
“You mean go through it?” Roger takes an involuntary step back. He looks anxiously at the science project. “But what if the future is a post-apocalyptic wasteland like in The Road Warrior, filled with, like, gnarly radioactive mutants and stuff?”
“Or maybe it’s filled with awesome stuff like flying cars and robots,“ Alex says.
“You mean robots like the killer replicants in Blade Runner?”
“I mean pleasure bots like Pris in Blade Runner.”
“Pris was pretty hot...” Roger admits.
“You can find a pleasure bot and I can find out if Jennifer will go to the homecoming dance with me.”
As they’ve been talking, a scheme has formed in Alex’s mind. “I’ll plan to ask Jennifer to the Homecoming Dance tomorrow morning, and when we go into the future I can find out if she said yes. Then I’ll know if I should ask her.”
“That seems like a lot of work just to find out Jennifer’s going to break your heart.”
“Roger, I’m talking about true love. My whole life could depend on knowing Jennifer’s answer.”
“What if the ozone layer’s gone in 2017? What if there’s acid rain that will melt our skin off? What if Russia’s nuked the U.S. into oblivion? It’s majorly risky.”
“We could also get a book on stock market history and get rich.”
Roger considers that. “Then again, what’s a little risk in the name of science?”
* * *
8:15 p.m. on October 2nd, 1987.
Alex and Roger have gathered supplies for their expedition and reconvened in the rec room. “Did your mom say you could sleep over?” Alex asks.
“Yeah,” Roger says. “She’s playing bridge with her friends. She doesn’t care.”
“I told my parents we were going to play Dungeons and Dragons all night. That should keep them from coming down here.”
Roger hands Alex a raincoat and safety goggles. “Good. Put these on.”
“Is this really necessary?” Alex asks as he slides into the raincoat.
“If there’s acid rain in the future, you’ll thank me. Protect your head.” Alex pulls up the hood of his raincoat. Roger is wearing a floppy-brimmed rain hat with flowers on it. Clearly something he borrowed from his mom. “What provisions did you get?”
Alex pulls two cans of soda from the brown paper bag he brought down from the kitchen. “I got some drinks in case the water’s no good. Mr. Pibb for you, Slice for me. Also, I got my dad to give me my allowance early so I have twenty-five dollars in cash.”
“Good, I have ten. Hopefully they still use the same money in the future.” Roger puts the food and drink into his “A-Team” backpack.
Fully equipped, Alex turns toward the science project. He notices there’s about an inch gap between the bottom edge of the time portal field and the plywood box that forms the base of the device. He doesn’t remember that gap from earlier. There is a similar inch differential between the top of the portal and the top of the posts. “Does it look like the portal’s getting smaller to you?”
Roger’s head jerks toward the science project. Blood drains from his face. “You’re right. The magnetic field must be degenerating.” He grabs a tape measure, measures the opening. He does some quick calculations on his calculator watch. “Uh-oh. At this rate, it’ll collapse in about ten hours.”
“More than bogus! Alex, I don’t know what keys you hit on the computer. I can’t recreate the wormhole. Once it closes, it’s gone forever.”
“So this is our only chance to see the future?”
“Looks that way.”
“Then we better not waste it. My future happiness depends on Jennifer going to that dance with me. Ready freddy?”
Roger looks at him, clearly anxious. But he says, “Ready.”
Alex nods and steps through the wormhole.
Go to Chapter 6