I pulled The Hobbit off my bookshelf and half-read it for about an hour, then cracked open my door and stuck my head out into the hall. I could hear Diff’rent Strokes blaring from the TV. It was a good time to make my move. I was almost out of the window when I realized that I was nearly flat broke. Not even enough money for bus fare, and certainly not enough to get into the skating rink. I briefly considered making a raid on Davey’s room, but that would be a bust. He spent his money as quickly as he got it.
Well, fuck it, I thought. Right now, I just wanted to clear out of the house. As an afterthought, I crammed some pillows and a sleeping bag under the bedcovers to make it look like I was asleep if Mom looked in. Then I was out the window, down the downspout and tiptoeing across the back yard.
Once I’d cleared the fence, I broke into a jog. The Skate-O-Bowl was pretty close to the mall, and it would take a while to get there. I settled into a brisk trot and got into the rhythm of running. It felt great! I reveled in the feeling of the air moving in and out of my lungs, the cool air against my face, the solid impact of my feet against the pavement.
As I got into the commercial district, traffic got heavier. This being Kerian County, Pennsylvania, I was subject to taunts, catcalls and general abuse from passing cars. This was a piss-mean place to live. The residents of Kerian County weren’t just open about being assholes, they were proud of it. Right now, I didn’t care. I felt like I could run all the way to California.
Eventually, I started to get winded. I didn’t want to exhaust myself; I was going to have to get home somehow, and it was probably going to be exactly the way I came. I slowed to a fast walk.
Up ahead, I could see the lighted sign for the Skate-O-Bowl. I’m sure it had been the marvel of Weaverville when it had first opened in the late 60’s. Since then, a lot of the light bulbs and neon tubes had burned out. The result was a seemingly random pattern of blinking neon that looked almost psychedelic.
The skating rink was on a piece of property wedged in between a decrepit muffler shop and a strip mall where half of the stores had “For Rent” signs in the windows. There was a small paved area in front of the main entrance, where a mob of kids hung out. From time to time, the doors would swing open, unleashing blasts of disco music.
I scanned the crowd for Missy, but didn’t see her anywhere. Maybe she was already inside. If so, there was nothing I could do until she came out. I did a quick fade to a shadowy part of the lot and kept an eye on the front door.
After twenty minutes or so, I felt a tug at my bladder. There was a small parking lot along the side of the building. I quick-walked through the lot to the back of the building and pissed on the peeling cinder-block wall. It throbbed with the heavy bass of a Bee Gees song.
I hurried back to the front, hoping that I hadn’t missed Missy, when something slammed me in the middle of the back and I went sprawling.
“I thought that was you,” said Brock Crutcher. “Ain’t so tough now, huh?”
“Oh, shit,” I said. This asshole was the last person I wanted to deal with now.
“Yeah, you’re in some shit, all right. Do you know what this is?” He gestured vaguely with his right hand.
“Uh, no. I can’t see what you’re holding. It’s too dark.”
He held his hand up a little higher. The light from the neon sign revealed a homemade gun. It consisted of a piece of copper tubing with a wooden handle duct-taped in place. A stout rubber band was fastened to the back of the copper tube, and a short nail was glued to rubber band. A classic zip gun.
“Let’s see if your pussy karate shit will help you dodge a bullet, faggot.” He pulled the rubber band back.
Suddenly, I felt exhausted. My shoulders sagged, and it seemed like I could barely hold my head up. It felt like I had just sprinted up Mount Everest. I wasn’t really worried that Brock would shoot me. If anything, I was more worried that the damn zipgun would blow up and send shrapnel all over the place. Actually, I didn’t even care about that. If a chunk of metal zoomed straight into my brain and ended this goddamn sci-fi nightmare, I would consider it a blessing. I was that tired.
“Look, I get it,” I told Brock. “I know you don’t think so, but I do. You feel like an outsider; you feel like everyone’s against you; you feel like that just getting out of bed everyday is a waste of fuckin’ time. Believe me, I’ve felt that way for years.”
“What?” he said. Clearly, this was not the response he had been expecting. “Bullshit. This is just some sort of mindfuck you’re pulling on me. Like that karate bullshit.”
“Let me guess,” I continued. “You got held back a time or two in elementary school. You ended up a lot bigger than the other kids in your class. It made you feel different and weird.”
“Huh?” The zipgun started to sag.
“Yeah, and school’s not your thing. You struggle in class, and it makes you feel even more alone and angry. The kids tease you about it – hell, even the teachers, I bet. Would make sense, with all the dicks they got teaching in the schools here. That must suck ass big time, with even the teachers ragging your ass.”
“Yeah,” he muttered.
“So what do you do?” I said. “You lash out, you use your size to intimidate and hurt. Shit, I don’t blame you – I’d probably do the same thing myself if I was in your shoes. But that just makes the problem worse. The kids, and maybe the teachers, they’re afraid of you, but they also hate you. You feel more alone than ever. Then what? You’ll probably start drinking and getting high, if you haven’t started already. That’s a total dead end, believe me.”
“How do you know?”
“’Cause I did it for ages. Damn near killed me a couple of times, but that didn’t stop me. Fucked my life up, but I didn’t know anything else to do. You know, if I had it all to do over again…”
“So what am I supposed to do?” said Brock. “You’re so fuckin’ smart, you tell me.” There was a pause and then he said, “Please.”
“Huh?” I had almost forgotten that I was trying to talk my way out of getting shot. Brock stood there, head hanging down, forgotten zip gun dangling from his hand.
“What am I supposed to do?” he repeated.
“Shit, brother, I wish I had a perfect answer for you. Just remember this: junior high doesn’t last forever. I know it doesn’t seem like that now. It just seems like you’re on an endless train of bullshit, yeah?”
“Problem is, it can be hard to get off of it. But, really, it doesn’t have to be like this, not forever. School doesn’t really mean shit. Education is overrated. Find something you like to do, and figure out a way to make a living off of it. What do you like to do? I mean, what really floats your boat?”
“I like cars…” he said uncertainly.
“Perfect!” I said. “That’s easy! You know how much an experienced mechanic or body shop guy makes? Big bucks, and all without college or bullshit like that. What you should do is go down to the guidance office first thing Monday morning and see what you have to do to transfer to Kerian Vo-Tech. I bet they’ve got tons of car classes.”
“Yeah?” For the first time I’d ever seen, Brock Crutcher cracked a smile. I couldn’t help but smile myself.
“And look, while I’m at it, why don’t you try being nice to people for a change, huh? Try just talking to them, y’know, asking about their day and stuff. Crack a joke. Try helping them or something.”
His face darkened. “I dunno,” he said. “People might think I’m a pussy or somethin’.”
“Hey, I gotta news flash for ya, Brock: everybody pretty much thinks you’re a dick. Your tough guy routine isn’t really paying off, know what I mean? If someone thinks you’re a pussy for acting half-decent, then fuck ‘em. They’re the assholes. Who cares what they think? At least this way you might make some friends.”
Brock’s face crumpled, and for a split second I thought he might cry. Then it clouded over again, and I was pretty sure he was going to shoot me. Then he turned his head away and said, “W-would you…I mean, ya wanna hang out or somethin’ sometime?”
“Get rid of that thing and I will,” I said, nodding at the zipgun.
“Oh, that,” he said absently. “Wasn’t even loaded, anyway.” He wrenched the handle off the pipe and tossed the pieces under a nearby pickup.
I let out a pent-up breath. My system was flooded with adrenaline, and soon I’d probably crash out. My knees felt like they were going to give way and my stomach was in a knot. “Look,” I said. “I’m supposed to be meeting a girl here, and I need to go find her. Catch you on Monday, okay?”
“Yeah, cool,” he said, and turned to leave. “Thanks.”
“Yeah, sure. Thanks for not, y’know, annihilating me.”
He grunted and disappeared into the muffler shop parking lot. I let out another long breath and leaned up against the back of the pickup truck, listening to my heart pound.
“That was amazing,” said a voice behind me.
I spun to see Missy McSween standing between an El Camino and a Plymouth Horizon a few slots down from the truck where I was resting. She was in her surplus jacket and heavy glasses, but she had ditched the knit cap. Her hair was done up in Farrah Fawcett flip, and there were weird blotches of color on her face. At first, I thought it was just the light from the wigged-out Skate-O-Bowl neon sign, but as she moved closer I could see that she had put on makeup. A lot of makeup – even by 80’s standards. It was inexpertly applied, and way overdone – typical of a young woman not familiar with technique.
“You saw all that?” I asked.
“Most of it,” she said. “I saw you coming from the back of the parking lot, then I saw Brock pop up waving that sorry-ass gun. I tried sneaking around the cars so I could tackle him or something, but by then you had pretty much talked him out of it. That was amazing. You’re like Yoda or something!”
“No Yoda am I,” I said in a horrible Jim Henson imitation. “Just trying to keep from getting blasted, I was.”
“You’re funny,” she giggled. “Let’s go inside for a little bit. Do you skate?”
“Not really,” I said. “Besides, I’m dead flat broke.”
“That’s okay. I’ve got some extra babysitting money. Let’s go in. It’ll be fun.”
She grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the entrance. As we approached the doors, they swung open, letting forth a blast of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.” Looking inside was like getting a glimpse into Hades. The rink was crammed with posturing teenagers. The walls were covered with red shag carpeting. A sagging disco ball sent needles of light bouncing around the room. In front of the snack bar, two boys in Izod shirts with turned-up collars were engaged in a shoving match.
My stomach contracted into a knot. There was no way that I was setting foot in there. Sartre said that hell was other people, but for me, hell was an adolescent roller disco in 1982.
I turned to Missy. “Look, I really just wanted to talk to you.” I said. “Let’s just talk and maybe go in later, OK?”
“OK,” she pouted. “But you’ll have to take me out for couples’ skate later.”
Uh-oh. I told Mom that this wasn’t a date, but it seemed that Missy had other ideas. Well, she probably wouldn’t be so keen on the idea of dating once we had really talked. After all, I was – in my time – old enough to be her father. Maybe even her grandfather, given how young the McSween women were when they got pregnant. I led her back too the muffler shop parking lot. I looked around for Brock, but he was long gone. We sat down on the edge of the cracked sidewalk in front of the entrance.
“So you’re really from the future?” she asked. “I mean really?”
“Yeah. Seriously. I went to sleep in 2019 and woke up on Friday afternoon in Mr. Lucas’ history class. Talk about a mindfuck.”
“I bet. I told my Gran, and she said…”
“Wait, you’ve been telling people about this?”
“Only my Gran,” she said. “She’s cool. Everybody thinks that she’s senile, but she’s the smartest person I know. Except maybe you. I still can’t believe that you talked Brock Crutcher out of shooting you. That was totally tubular!”
I winced. There was a lot of 80’s slang that made me want to puke. Like, gag me with a spoon. I said, “Really, I was just trying to keep from getting shot. At this point, I’m starting to wonder if that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”
She grabbed my arm. “Don’t say that! Just think about what’s happened! You’ve been given an incredible opportunity. Think of the good you could do with the knowledge you have.”
“Yeah,” I snorted. “I’ve already made some sweet comic book deals.”
“So, what do you think did happen?” she asked.
“I have no idea. I’ve been beating my head against the wall trying to figure it out. So far, zippo.”
“Well, let’s try and work this out together. What did you do right before you woke up here?”
“I dunno,” I said. “Nothing special, I guess. I went to Wu’s and had a few drinks. I do that pretty much every night, to be honest. Like I said, nothing special.”
“It’s a bar,” I said. “Well, really, it’s a Chinese restaurant, but they do most of their business selling drinks.”
“That reminds me,” she said. She reached into the folds of her surplus army jacket and pulled out what looked like an olive oil bottle. She wagged it with an impish grin. “Want some?”
“What, do I want to drink olive oil? No thanks.”
“No, silly, it’s booze. I hoarked it from my Da’s liquor cabinet. I just used an old olive oil bottle.”
“What’s in it?”
“Oh, a little of this and a little of that.”
Actually, part of me wanted a drink pretty badly. I figured it was probably going to be the same as when I’d try to drink from Mom’s wine bottle. Still, I could probably force down a little nip, just to steady my nerves. I took a sniff of the bottle, and my stomach clenched. I could smell a wide variety of incompatible liquors: peppermint schnapps, Drambuie, bourbon, tequila. Clearly, Missy hadn’t been too discriminating in her alcohol filching. “No thanks,” I said.
She shrugged and took a huge knock. Her shoulders hitched a few times, but amazingly she kept the foul brew down.
“You were at this bar then?” she said thickly. I could tell she was still struggling with the booze.
“Yeah,” I said. “It was just a regular Tuesday night, pretty slow.”
“Who were you talking to?”
“Just talking to Tommy, the bartender,” I said.
“Did you talk to anyone else?”
“Not that I recall. Not too many other people to talk to.”
She continued her questioning. “Was there anyone there who wasn’t a, y’know, regular?”
“No, like I said, it was a pretty slow night. The only thing out of the ordinary was that the old man was hanging around more than usual.”
“Who’s the ‘old man’?” she demanded.
“Well, he’s the guy that really owns the bar,” I said. “Tommy is his son, Tommy Wu. The old man had to flee China after the Commies took over. He came to Seattle and started the place. He doesn’t speak much English, so his son Tommy tends bar and handles the business stuff.”
“So, did you talk to him or anything?”
“Ha!” I said. “No. I’ve been patronizing that guy’s place for, like, fifteen years, and he’s only ever said one damn word to me.”
“What was it?”
“’Doctor.’ Y’see, one night I had gone in there a little after I moved into the neighborhood. For some reason, the old man was working the bar while Tommy was out back doing something. I came in and said something like, ‘Good evening, Mr. Wu.’ He gave me the stink-eye and just barked out ‘Doctor!’ Later on, Tommy told me that he was a very well-respected doctor back in China. I guess he was still pissed about going from being a doctor to running a dive bar.”
“So, you didn’t talk to the old man that night, just Tommy the bartender. What were you talking about?”
I gazed up at the whacked-out neon sign in front of the skating rink. Wu’s had a lot of neon, too. Most of them were beer signs that tended towards the blue end of the spectrum. It gave the place a mellow, jazzy ambiance that I found appealing.
On the wall behind the bar was an amazing collection of rickrack. It was like the decorations of a dozen Applebee’s all crammed onto one wall. I had been coming to Wu’s for years, but it seemed that I noticed something new every time I took a good look at the wall – something I did often while in my cups and contemplating my existence. Only a week or so ago I’d noticed a small taxidermied meerkat curled up among the valves of a French horn.
I thought back to my last visit there. Subjectively, it was only two nights ago. I remember that the place was almost empty. There was no one seated at the tables – hardly anyone ever was. The only other people at the bar were a retired couple named Harry and Rhoda. They practically lived at Wu’s, but they weren’t much for conversation. Mostly they drank vodka tonics and reminisced with each other about the good old days back in Philadelphia.
I had been at the other end of the bar, griping to Tommy about my love life after yet another Tinder date had gone up in flames. I liked to half-joke that Tommy was the best therapist in Seattle – he was sympathetic, patient and made killer White Russians. I had been giving Tommy yet another earful of the history of my damaged love life, from online dating disasters, to my failed marriage, all the way back to classically shitty dates in high school. How I would do things different, and how much better my life would be, if I only knew then what I know now. The standard self-pitying drunk’s lament.
I told this to Missy, and she took another sip of the foul brew in her olive oil bottle. She held it out to me but I shook my head.
“Like, you were really married?” she asked. “What was that like? What was her name?”
“Her name was Jennifer, and being married to her was a fucking nightmare,” I replied. “We had no business being married. We did it for all the wrong reasons.”
“Ooooh, tell me about that!” she said. She pulled the olive oil bottle from her jacket and took another nip.
“Yeah, the sex was good,” I admitted. “But that was pretty much the only thing. That, and we both drank a lot. Hell, ‘our song’ was Jimmy Buffet’s ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?’”
“Sounds like fun to me!” she said. Sure you don’t want to have some?” She held out the olive oil bottle again.
I eyed Missy warily. She had already taken a couple of big knocks off the bottle of evil brew. She didn’t seem drunk, but if she weighed more than ninety pounds, I’d eat that Army surplus jacket she was wearing. If she wasn’t wasted already, she would be soon.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I know it sounds like fun, and it was – at first. But after awhile the drinking didn’t lead to sex, it led to fights. Really, really big ones. Screaming, cursing, throwing shit at each other. You know what I’m talking about?”
Missy sighed. “Yeah. I do.” I could well believe it. Rumor had it that the cops were out at the McSween place about once a week for domestic disturbance complaints.
“Yeah,” I continued. “It was a shit-show pretty much from the beginning.”
“How long were you married?”
“Well, it seems like several ice ages, but actually it was a little over two years.”
I sighed. Did I really want to tell a thirteen-year-old about this part? Not really, but at this point I figured I was in for a penny, so I might as well go in for a pound. “No kids, but there was a pregnancy. Stillborn.”
Missy’s face dropped. “Oh, I’m so sorry! That must have been awful!” She slid over until she was pressed up against me.
I took a deep breath and said, “For a while, it looked like the baby was going to make things better. We stopped – okay, we didn’t stop fighting, but a lot of the anger that had been between us seemed to dissipate. We were just so focused on trying to make things good for the baby. We did all of the first-baby stuff: buying baby clothes, fixing up a nursery, putting together a crib. We were going to call her Esmerelda.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
“Yeah, it was the name of Jennifer’s grandmother. Actually, I’d thought it was a terrible name, but I knew how much it meant to Jennifer, so for once in my life I kept my stupid mouth shut.”
Missy nodded. “But Esmerelda didn’t make it.”
I felt a sudden tightness in my throat. I didn’t think I could talk, so I just shook my head. Missy slipped her arm around my shoulders and gave it a squeeze.
I coughed and shook my head. “Yeah, it was tough on both of us,” I said. “Things really fell apart fast after that. Like the end of ‘The Blues Brothers,’ where the car just sorta falls apart all at once. Have you seen it?” Actually, I wasn’t even sure if the movie had come out yet.
She nodded. “Yeah, great flick.”
“That car was our relationship after Esmerelda.” I said. “Just went to hell in a matter of days. We blamed each other for the baby not making it. I bitched that she was secretly smoking and drinking during the pregnancy; she ragged me about my genes. We both started hitting the bottle really hard. We were in separate apartments a month after that.”
“That’s so sad,” she said. She swiveled and gave me an awkward hug. It lasted for a long time. I could feel the heat from her body radiating through the layers of the surplus jacket. There was a stirring in my personal area. I coughed and pulled back.
“All right, Sherlock,” I said, trying to sound stern. “Any more questions?”
“Yeah, I’ve got a zillion,” she said. “But I guess the biggest is: what do you think it means? I mean, about why you came back here.”
“I dunno. At first, I thought I was tripping. I mean, really having an acid flashback. But it was too intense, too real. Then I thought I had died, and this was the afterlife. That I was being punished.”
“Is it really so bad?” she asked, scrunching up her face. With the layers of makeup, she looked like one of those paintings of crying clowns on black velvet, like you see at either the cheapest flea markets or hippest boutiques.
I laughed. “No, it’s not so bad. I mean it could be worse, right? Besides, now that I’ve got a sympathetic ear, it seems a little more tolerable.”
Se beamed. “I’m so glad you think so!” she chirped, and gave me another long hug. “Do you want to know what I think?”
“I think you were sent back here for a purpose. You know so much! You could help a lot of people out. Just like you did with Brock.”
Uh, I dunno how much I really helped Brock.” I wasn’t entirely sure that guy could be helped; I was just trying to keep from getting beaten up or shot.
“You could help me out,” she said shyly.
“Well, yeah, sure. I mean, you were cool enough to listen to me – what can I do for you?”
She giggled. “You could show me how to be a woman.”
About a dozen asinine thoughts zipped through my head in an instant; She wants me to help her learn how to walk in high heels. She definitely needs some advice on makeup. She wants to know the pros and cons of tampons versus pads. All of these thoughts were carefully avoiding the big thought that was also there and also absolutely dead accurate.
“I want you to…to be my first,” she said, and pressed up against me. “You know?”
I knew. “Uh, wow,” I said; I was very articulate when surprised.
“I want my first time to be with someone who knows what he’s doing,” she said. “I want it to be good. Not with some fumble-fingered boy who’s going to hurt me because all he knows about sex is from a Penthouse he swiped from his da.”
“Jesus, Missy – I don’t know what to say.”
“Just say yes,” she breathed. “Please.”
I looked over at her. Her big blue eyes were locked on mine, gazing at me with an intensity I had not seen in years. The thin fabric of her white t-shirt was limned with her erect nipples. Despite the awful makeup and the form-blurring jacket, she looked good. Fresh, young and beautiful. Not at all like the bar bags and casual hookups that had been the entirety of my love life for the past five years. It had been ages since someone like Missy had been into me. Oh God, this would be so easy.
“I can tell you want to,” she said, sliding her delicate white hand up the leg of my Toughskins. My adolescent hormones were now going full blast. I had an erection you could demolish a subway with.
I came so damn close. I reached out to touch her face, but at the last possible microsecond, I pulled back and jumped to my feet. My hard-on was wrenched rudely to the side. It hurt like hell.
“Oh, girl,” I said. “You don’t know what you’re doing to me.”
She started to reply, but I cut her off. I knew that she could push me over with a word if I let her. “Look, Missy, look. Please, you gotta understand. I look like I’m a thirteen-year-old kid, but up here…” I tapped my forehead. “Up here, I’m fifty goddamn years old. It just wouldn’t be right, y’know? I’ve done a lot of sleazy things in my life, but taking advantage of a thirteen-year-old girl is not one of them.”
“But you’re not a fifty-year-old, either, Scott! Just look!” she gestured at the darkened storefront of the muffler store, which showed our reflections in the crazy neon glare. Just two naïve junior high kids, on the cusp of doing something really stupid.
I knew I had to get the hell out of here, fast. If I didn’t, she would talk me into doing her right here in a muffler shop parking lot. Yeah, that would be a romantic memory for her to carry the rest of her life.
I had to go, but without hurting her or pissing her off, either.
“Look, I know, I know,” I said. “You can tell that I want to. But you’re thirteen for Christ’s sake. You don’t want to end up pregnant, do you?”
“No,” she pouted. “I don’t know. I thought you would take care of the, y’know, protection. You’re responsible like that.”
How little she knew.
Finally, I said, “Look, okay, I’m not saying yes, but I’m not saying no, either.” I wasn’t entirely sure if that were true or not. “This is just too much for me right now. I gotta…I gotta just work it through, okay? I need to go. I need to take a walk.”
“Oh. Okay.” Suddenly, she looked very small. No longer a teenage temptress, she now looked like a disappointed cartoon mouse. I wanted to give her a hug just on general principles, but that would be a huge mistake.
“You know, you just proved my point,” she said.
“You’re a good man. Most guys would have just, y’know, done it.”
“I’m not a good man,” I told her. “I just…don’t want to fuck you up.”
“Will you come back later?”
“Probably not, no,” I said. “Why don’t you go inside and find your friends?”
I just wanted to get the hell out of there. I turned and began limping back towards home.
About half a block down the street, I made the mistake of turning back to look at Missy. She was still sitting on the sidewalk in front of the muffler shop, knees drawn up to her chin. She saw me looking at her and hollered, “You’re a good man, Scott Gray!”
How little she knew.
I waved and turned back towards home. It was slow going. I had a monstrous case of blue balls. A deep, steady pain had settled in the pit of my stomach, making each step feel like I was getting kicked on the inside. I briefly considered actually trying to find a bush or something to masturbate behind, just to relieve the pressure. The only thing that stopped me was the thought of what would happen if I got caught.
I got turned around, disoriented by trying to cut through the neighborhood by the junior high. Pretty soon, I had made my way back to Deere Street and was following the route I had taken home after my rude awakening on Friday. By the time I got to the highway overpass, the dull-knife pain in my lower belly had abated a bit.
I came to the edge of Bitch Hill Cemetery. I glanced up at the dark expanse spreading up the slope. No way was I going to cut through there tonight. Ballbreaker was sure to be on patrol – Saturday night was prime vandalizing time. Besides, it was just too creepy. Who knows what might be lurking in the old boneyard?
An almost-full moon rode above the crest of Bitch Hill. Rafters of clouds drifted across its face cycling the cemetery through shadow and light. It gave the place a Halloweenish ambience.
From the corner of my eye, I saw something moving among the tombstones. My heart leapt into my throat; there’s nothing quite as scary as seeing something lurking in a moonlit graveyard.
My immediate, primal reaction was to run – who wouldn’t? I forced myself to wait and watch. I saw that it was a small figure walking casually between the rows of grave markers. Then I noticed the figure was wearing a hat.
A plaid porkpie hat.
In a flash, I realized where I had seen that hat before: hanging on the junk-laden back wall of Wu’s bar. The man was Dr. Wu, but thirty-five years younger.
“Son of a bitch!” I spat. I ran up to the fence and vaulted nimbly over. My thirteen-year-old body was still in fine condition. The figure leaned up against a cracked obelisk, crossed his arms and waited for me to get there.
Sure enough, it was the Asian man I had been seeing over the past two days.
“Dr. Wu, I presume,” I said.
“At least you get my title right this time,” he said.
What the…what the hell? Did you do this?” I demanded.
“No, you do this,” he said poking me in the chest with a finger that felt like an iron rod.
“What do you mean I did this? I have no idea how this happened! This really fucked with my head, man!”
“How’s the saying? ‘Careful what you wish for?’ Is that it?”
“I didn’t wish for this!” I shouted.
“Yes, you did!” he shouted back. “Every night, you in my bar, complaining. Oh, my life so bad, boo hoo hoo. I wish I could do over again. I wish I knew then what I am knowing now. All that. Well, you get this amazing wish come true, now you complain more. You ingrate!”
“Hey, I was just, y’know, talking. Blowing off steam.”
“How your steam now, whiny boy?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question, so I said. “How the hell did you do this, anyway? How is that even possible?”
Dr. Wu snorted derisively. “Yeah, you white people think Chinese doctor all herbs and incense. There more to our learning than you can imagine, barbarian.”
“So why did you do this?”
“Because I like you. Want to help out. You now have whole life to live over. Fix all mistakes before they happen. What amazing gift I give you.”
“I didn’t want that!”
“Yes, you did. I hear you myself. I say myself, Scott Gray pretty OK guy. I help him out. Give him wish.”
“Jesus! You could have at least given me some warning or something!”
“I give you warning, it might not work.”
That sounded like bullshit to me, but I wasn’t going to call him on it. For all I knew, he could turn me into a newt if I really pissed him off.
“So, what happens now?” I asked. “Do I have to stay here forever? I’m not sure if I can deal with ‘N sync again.”
“You got to choose now,” said Dr. Wu. “This your last chance. I been here keeping eye on you, but I can’t stay any longer. You must choose now: go back to Seattle 2019, or stay and grow up again. Not like you really grow up first time.
I opened my mouth to respond indignantly, but then I shut it with a snap. Of course I want to go back, I was going to say.
But did I?
I thought about what I would go back to: a body that was starting to fall apart after decades of abuse and neglect. A job that gave me no satisfaction and offered no prospects for advancement. A social life that was mostly limited to hanging out in dive bars and pounding too much cheap booze.
Maybe Missy was right. I could use this insane opportunity to avoid the mistakes that led me to an unhappy life in 2019. I could help people like Brock in ways that others couldn’t. Maybe help Missy – starting with convincing her that it was okay to wait a few more years to have sex.
Yeah, I could fix my own life and perhaps compensate for some of the collateral damage I’d caused while fucking up the first time around. There was a sort of cosmic justice in the idea.
On the other hand…the thought of re-living the cultural sewage explosion of the 80s and 90s was terrifying. Just the thought of those inane “Wassup?” Budweiser ads made me want to gnaw off my own arm. Sure, I could probably parlay my knowledge into some bucks, but was it worth going through Spice Girls mania again?
I just didn’t know.
“I just don’t know,” I told Dr. Wu.
“You need to decide now,” he said. “I tired of hanging around this quadrant.”
“I…I…” I stammered. I’d never thought I’d have to make a decision this momentous, especially on such short notice.
“I thought so,” said Dr. Wu. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin. “We let fate decide.”
He held up the nickel, showing the profile of Jefferson. “Heads, you stay.” He flipped the coin over, revealing two images of Jefferson, superimposed. “Two heads, you go.”
“You’ve got a three-headed nickel?” I said. “I’ve never heard of that. That’s totally weird.”
“I got lots weird stuff you never heard of. You ready now?”
I nodded. He sent the nickel spinning up with a flick of his thumb. The nickel spun into the moonlit sky, rising quickly, slowing, then seeming to hover in midair forever.
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