Alex and Roger’s visit to the mall to buy a book on stock market history has been foiled by a mysterious absence of bookstores. So the two boys decide to go to their school library, where Roger hopes to find stock market info and Alex hopes to find a yearbook that will tell him whether Jennifer went to the homecoming dance with him back in 1987.
3:45 p.m. on October 14th, 2017.
The school is only about a mile from the mall. As Roger and Alex approach, Alex notices that a metal fence has been built around the school grounds. Alex wonders if it’s to keep students in or something else out. Another thing that’s changed is that an electronic sign has replaced the old sign with the plastic movable letters where upcoming events would be announced. The new sign flashes, “Homecoming Dance Tonight at 8 pm” in bright, sharp colors.
“Look, it’s Homecoming here, too,” Alex says.
The sign wipes to: “Welcome classes of ’87.”
“Class of ’87! That’s us,” Roger exclaims. “Our 30 year reunion must also be tonight!”
“I wonder if we’re going.”
“Why would we want to go back to high school once we escaped?”
Alex shrugs. “I assume we’re the most successful alumni. We could lord it over all the kids who picked on us.”
A middle-aged man with a hefty beer belly and shaved head stands at the main gate, a clipboard cradled in one arm. He eyes Alex and Todd suspiciously as they approach. “You two don’t go to school here.”
“Uh, we graduated a few years ago,” Alex says.
The man squints at him. “You do look kinda familiar. What are your names?”
Alex’s mind races. It probably isn’t a good idea to use his real name. After all, he might be famous in 2017, especially at the ol’ alma mater. He blurts out the first fake name that comes to mind. “Uh, I’m Elwood. Elwood Blues. And this is Jake—”
“—Smith,” Roger finishes, giving Alex an annoyed look.
“You’re not on my list,” the man says, consulting the clipboard. “Non-students need prior approval to enter campus.”
It seems the fence isn’t the only security feature that’s been added in the last thirty years. As Alex is formulating a plausible lie to get past this gatekeeper, a boy waddles out wearing jeans so tight he can’t even get them all the way up to his waist. The crotch sags between his thighs, and the waistband circles him mid-hip, exposing checkered boxer shorts. Alex imagines someone stole the poor kid’s clothes during gym class, forcing him to raid lost-and-found for the best fitting pants he could find. Alex can sympathize – he’s had the same experience.
“‘Night, Mr. Wright,” the kid says.
“Mr. Wright’s my father,” the clipboard man replies. “Call me T-Man, buddy.”
Realization explodes like a Russian nuke in Alex’s head. “Wait. Are you Todd Wright?”
“Yeah,” the man replies. “The Vice Principal.”
Vice principal? But that’s Ms. Pfeiffer. Except, of course, after thirty years she’d be retired. But is her replacement really… “Todd Wright. As in T-Man. The quarterback.”
Todd smiles. “Ah, so you’ve heard about my gridiron exploits back in the day.”
“Uh, sure. And now you’re the vice principal?”
Todd’s smile falters momentarily, but he forces it back in place. “Yeah. I felt a calling to prepare future generations of kids for the kind of success I had.” He squints at Alex. “What did you say your name was? Elwood Blues? That sounds familiar…”
Of course it does. Todd quoted lines from The Blues Brothers all through Junior High, often shouting “I’m on a mission from God!” as he pummeled Alex.
“You know what?” Alex says quickly, “This isn’t our high school. We’re at the wrong place.”
“You’re right,” Roger agrees. “Let’s go.”
They scramble away, attempting to walk fast but casual.
They’ve almost reached the corner when—
Alex freezes, a chill washing over him. Todd shouting his name like that has meant impending torment to Alex for years. He slowly turns around.
But Todd isn’t talking to Alex. He’s talking to a pretty teenage girl who’s sprinting straight toward Alex and Roger, her shoulder-length, brown hair fanning out behind her, and a bulky, purple messenger bag bouncing chaotically against her hip.
“Mackenzie MacDonald,” Todd calls. “Get back here right now.”
“Balls,” the girl says, skidding to a stop right in front of Alex. She shoves something in Alex’s hand – a pink vinyl bag about the size of a lunch bag, featuring a cutesy cartoon cat. “Hold this for a minute.”
Before Alex can reply, the girl – whose name is apparently Mackenzie – turns back to Todd, who is striding toward them. “What can I do for you, Mr. Wright?” she says in a chipper voice.
“Mr. Wright is my father,” Todd says. “Call me T-Man. You know these two?”
“These guys? Oh yeah. We’re good friends.”
“Uh huh. And where are you running off to in such a hurry?”
“I’m supposed to meet Sierra to work on our science fair project. I’m late ‘cause auditions for the school play ran long.”
That answer seems to mostly satisfy Todd. “All right. Well, slow down. No running on school grounds.”
“Isn’t the sidewalk technically off school grounds, T-Man?” Mackenzie asks.
“Still. Wouldn’t want you to fall or something.”
“Whatever you say, T-Man.” Mackenzie gives him a little salute.
After making sure Todd has returned to his post at the gate, Mackenzie turns back to Alex. “Thanks for holding that. Mr. Wright is such an asshat.”
Alex hands the bag back to her. “What’s in there?” he whispers. “Drugs?”
“What?” She looks shocked. “No. Coke. As in Coca-Cola. I’d get detention for bringing a soft drink on campus.”
Detention for a soft drink, Alex thinks. Yet there’s unlimited Coke at the mall. The future has a weird relationship with soda.
Mackenzie sticks out her hand. “I’m Mackenzie by the way.”
Alex shakes her hand. “I’m Alex; this is Roger.”
“Huh, my dad’s name is Alex.”
Alex involuntarily squeezes Mackenzie’s fingers, eliciting a yelp.
“Sorry.” He releases her. “Your dad is Alex MacDonald?”
“Yeah, you know him?”
“I may have met him once or twice.”
“You do look kinda familiar. But I haven’t seen you at school before.”
“We graduated a couple years ago,” Roger interjects.
A muffled burst of bouncy music startles Alex.
“Sorry, hold on.” Mackenzie turns away, digging for something in her purse.
Roger uses the distraction to grab Alex’s arm and pull him a few steps away. “Dude, that’s your daughter!” he hisses.
“I know!” Alex replies.
“And she’s kind of a Betty.”
“Dude, that’s my daughter!” He can’t quite wrap his head around the idea. In his imaginings about his future, he hadn’t spent much time picturing what his kids might be like. Sure, he assumed he’d have a family some day; it just wasn’t foremost in his mind. He wonders what kind of girl Mackenzie is. Is she cool? Is she a brain? He squints at her, trying to see if she resembles Jennifer. She’s certainly pretty like Jennifer.
“Hey,” Mackenzie says, interrupting his musings. “You guys wanna chill in the graveyard with me and my friends?”
“I thought you had to work on a science fair project,” Alex replies.
“Nah,” Mackenzie says, “science fair is lame. I just told that to get Mr. Wright off my butt.”
Roger grabs Alex’s arm again and turns him away from Mackenzie. “This is a bad idea,” Roger whispers. “What if she realizes who we are?”
“Who would suspect someone’s a time traveler? Besides, we could use a friend who knows their way around 2017.” He turns back to Mackenzie. “Sure. We’d love to chill with you.”
“Great. Come on.” Mackenzie heads across the street toward the graveyard, Alex dropping in beside her. Roger shoves his hands in his pocket and follows several yards behind.
* * *
Alex realizes there are more tombstones than there were in 1987. It makes sense, of course, but it’s still a little disturbing. Mackenzie leads them toward four teenagers hanging out under the old oak tree, which is now considerably larger, some of the branches drooping down to the grass under their increased weight. A dark scar suggests the tree was hit by lightning at some point in the past. The teens are bizarrely quiet, all staring at little plastic squares in their hands. You’d think someone would have brought a boom box at least.
The closest boy turns toward them. He appears Mexican, with spiky black hair and large brown eyes. But what draws Alex’s attention most are the giant round openings in his drooping earlobes and the tattoos covering his forearms, like he’s some crazy mix of motorcycle gang member and jungle tribesman. Most of all, he looks like trouble. Alex’s step falters.
But Mackenzie runs ahead and kisses the strange looking boy. Apparently he’s her boyfriend! Could it be his daughter’s a delinquent? Alex decides to reserve judgment until he knows more. He and Jennifer certainly wouldn’t have raised the kind of daughter who would date a wastoid.
“AFT, Mac,” the boy says. “What took you so long?”
“There were a lot of people auditioning,” Mackenzie replies, as Alex and Roger tentatively edge up to the group.
“I don’t know why you’re wasting your time with school plays. If you wanna be famous, you should start a YouTube channel or something. I mean, Sierra has a million Instagram followers.”
A pretty Black girl wearing a sleek dress and oversized sunglasses holds her plastic square at arm’s length and puckers her lips toward it. The square emits a loud click. “One point three mill. But whatevs.”
An Asian girl wearing a neon tank top, furry boots, and a plastic flower in her hair glances up from her plastic square just long enough to give Alex and Roger a quick once over. “Did you find these guys at the auditions?”
“That would explain their outfits! JK,” the Mexican boy laughs. Alex is starting to think his initial impression was correct – he isn’t going to like this guy.
“This is Alex and Roger,” Mackenzie says. “They saved me from T-Man.” She introduces the Mexican boy as Chase, the Black girl as Sierra, and the Asian girl as Jasmine. “And this is Noah,” she finishes, indicating the remaining boy, who’s wearing some kind of sweat pants without elastic and a tie-dyed T-shirt, like a hippie from the sixties.
Noah puts his hands together as if praying. “Namaste.”
“Uh-huh,” Alex replies. Though Noah is the only white kid among Mackenzie’s friends, it seems he speaks a foreign language. Their school has become a real-life Benetton add over the last thirty years, Alex thinks. Which is pretty awesome, actually.
Jasmine points at Alex’s Walkman. “Is that a cassette Walkman? Fierce.”
“So you guys are, like, hipsters,” Chase says.
“Right, hipsters!” Sierra chimes in. “That explains why you wear watches.”
“Yeah, sure,” Alex says, glancing down at his Swatch. “I guess knowing the time is pretty hip.”
“Your hipster ‘stache could use a little work, though.’’ Chase says. “Ha ha... JK.” Alex involuntarily touches the wispy hairs on his upper lip. Yep, he is pretty sure now that he doesn’t like Chase.
But Mackenzie sits on the grass beside Chase and gets her can of Coke out of the pink vinyl bag. Following her lead, Alex and Roger sit, leaning against one of the older tombstones. Roger retrieves the Slice and Mr. Pibb from the A-Team backpack.
“OMG,” Jasmine squeals. “Artisanal soda. Tight. I’ve never heard of Mr. Pibb or Slice – and I’m kind of a foodie.”
“Hold them up,” Sierra says.
Alex and Roger hold up the cans. Sierra raises her little square toward them and it produces another click.
Roger leans over and whispers excitedly to Alex. “I think that’s a spy camera!”
“They all have them,” Alex observes. “Maybe they’re in a photography club or something.”
Sierra swipes her thumbs across the back of the camera. A moment later, the other kids laugh in unison. Alex realizes they are all staring at their own spy cameras. They begin poking and swiping at the slim devices. Alex notes that each kid's device is decorated with individualized graphics.
“What’s going on?” Alex whispers to Roger.
Roger scoots over to where he can casually peek over Noah’s shoulder.
After a few moments, he scoots back to Alex. “It looks like the cameras are also tiny portable fax machines! They’re sending messages to each other. They must have some kind of radio modem.”
“So they’re typing out messages and faxing them to each other?”
“But they’re all sitting right here. Why don’t they just talk?”
“You’re missing the point. Imagine the computing power in those tiny little gadgets.”
Alex looks at the kids, all absorbed in their fax-modem-cameras. “I like talking the old fashioned way,” he grumbles. “With my voice.”
Noah holds out his device. “Alex, Roger, get in on this. Show me your snapcodes.”
“Uh, we don’t have those.” Alex points at the device.
Noah looks confused. “A snapcode or a phone?”
“It’s a phone too?” Roger whispers. “Gnarly!”
“That’s right,” Alex says. “We don’t have portable phones.”
“Dude,” Noah replies. “There’s hipster and then there’s just insane.”
“Yeah,” Chase chimes in. “Did you guys just escape from a cult or something? JK!”
Chase reminds Alex of Todd, though they look nothing alike. And just like Todd, Chase seems adept at triggering Alex’s temper. He can feel the heat rising in his neck as he turns on Chase. “Hey, what’s your problem?”
Chase holds up his hands. “Chill out, man. I said JK.”
“So? I can say letters too.”
“No. JK. You know, just kidding?”
Alex is thrown by that. Naturally there’d be new slang in 2017. “Oh. Yeah. Of course I know what JK means.”
“All right then. NHF.” Chase turns his attention back to Mackenzie, casually draping his arm over her shoulders. Apparently he feels the issue with Alex is settled. But as Alex pops the tab on his Mr. Pibb, the anger churns in his stomach.
He definitely does not like Chase.
Go to Chapter 9