Evan laughed at the lame joke.
He’d heard the joke before, and it hadn’t been funny the first time. But everyone else laughed. He joined in. He hated his laugh. Too loud. Too high-pitched. When he was sober, it wasn’t so bad — he’d learned to hold it in, lower his pitch. But he was hardly sober, and it rang out now like a woman’s drunken cackle.
As if cued, the small crowd dispersed. Evan was too wasted, and missed the cue: his perennial problem, always missing those damned social cues. He found himself standing alone with the joke teller.
Evan summoned the energy to drain the scotch and swirl the ice in the empty glass.
“I’m gonna go get a refill.…”
He gestured vaguely at the cash bar and walked away. That was the problem with being the last one to leave. You had to make an excuse.
Evan bought his third scotch of the evening, this time a double without soda or ice, and retreated to a corner table to watch the crowd.
The last ten years had wrought havoc on the crowd. At the twentieth class reunion, they’d still looked and acted young. He’d felt young, despite the gray that had crept into his hair. At least half the women had been downright hot, and most of the men could still see their shoes. The dance floor had churned with writhing bodies and tense sexual energy. Ten short years ago.
Now, the intertwined forces of gravity and time were taking over. The few women who still had trim figures seemed artificial, marvels of cosmetic surgery and long hours on Stair Masters. The men’s bellies sagged over their belts; hair had thinned, features had softened. The dance floor was littered with small, stationary clusters of people making small talk.
They look so old. I feel so damned old. Why did I come?
Ten years ago the organizers had gone from door to door and collected childhood snapshots from doting parents of their old classmates. Everyone had howled at the pictures of bare baby bottoms and first teeth and pigtails. They’d trotted out the same pictures this time, but they flickered, ignored, on the big screen at the front of the room. Evan glanced at the pictures, but they brought no laughter, only pain.
I buried Mom five years ago. Gave her a nice eulogy. God, I miss her. Dad would miss her, too, if he remembered her.
Evan watched the sedentary crowd. Bursts of loud laughter came from different parts of the room.
Evan watched Brenda the Cheerleader walk directly toward him. Her Stair Master conditioned body still had all the right curves in all the right places, and her bright blue eyes formed a startling contrast with her raven-dark hair. She could easily be in her thirties, not pushing fifty.
“Evan Johnson.” Evan shook his head to clear it. In the old days, Brenda would never have spoken to him at all. She was popular. He had been a geek. Oil and water.
“Brenda Schmidt.” He bowed, slightly. He was startled to notice what looked like tears in her eyes, but did not have time to ponder. Her open palm swung. He heard a sound like a firecracker, and found himself unexpectedly looking over his right shoulder. His ears rang.
“You pervert BASTARD!” she screamed. “I never liked you, and now I know why!”
The room had gone silent, but for the sound of Stardust from the DJ’s speakers. Evan slowly turned his head to face Brenda. His cheek began to burn through the haze of alcohol. Angry tears ran down Brenda’s face.
“What the Hell was that for?”
“What you just said to me. About my brother.”
“What are you talking about? I haven’t spoken to you all evening. I’ve been over here, listening to John tell a stupid joke.”
“Bullshit!” Brenda shouted. “Other people were right there. They heard every word.”
Evan set his drink down on the bar with a more force than necessary.
“Brenda Schmidt, I didn’t even know you had a brother. I have not said one word to you all evening. I have been over here, minding my own business. And I sure as Hell don’t appreciate having my face wiped off because of your goddamned hallucination.”
“Liar!” she screamed, and turned and stalked away.
“Jesus,” Evan muttered. His face was starting to ache, and he touched it gingerly. He thought he felt welts rising under the hot skin. He reached for his drink and placed the cool glass against his cheek.
“Might want to slow down, big guy.” Evan felt a hand on his shoulder, and looked up to see his oldest friend staring down at him from his six-foot-six vantage. “My old man couldn’t hold much more than you’re putting away, and that man could drink.”
“Cheers, Eric. Privilege of age. Unlimited misery, and the right to an anast- ana- an-es-the-tic.” Evan’s tongue felt thick and uncooperative in his mouth.
“I don’t know, Evan.” Eric didn’t look amused. “You’ve been drinking a lot since your Mom passed. Maybe you ought to cut back a little–”
“God damn it, Eric, you are not my mother or my father. I came here to party with my old friends and remember the good times, but they’ve all turned into old farts. And I’m one of them. Then that cheerleader bitch tries to put my face on the back of my head. I ought to file charges.”
“What was that all about, anyway?”
“Not one clue. She claims I made some nasty comment about her brother. She has a brother?”
“Oh, come on, Evan. Everyone in our class knew about her brother.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It was in all the local papers, what, two years after graduation? He got hold of a gun, shot both parents, then killed himself.”
“My God. And Brenda…?”
“On a date. Came home and found them all. She and her sister were a wreck afterward.”
“You really didn’t know?”
Evan shook his head. “Two years after graduation I was drowning in classes at MIT. I didn’t follow local news from here. I wasn’t planning to come back.”
“Wow. That’s weird that you didn’t know. It was such big news. Hey, listen, I just spotted Jamie and Pete. Catch up with you later, man. And don’t drink so much.”
“Yeah. Later. And bite me.” Evan wandered over to the full bar and sat down to nurse his drink in privacy.
He felt someone take the seat next to him. He looked up to see Brenda smiling coyly at him. He started.
“Oh, Jeez, Brenda! Listen, I’m so sorry to hear about your brother, I really had no idea….”
A faint wrinkle appeared between Brenda’s eyebrows.
“My brother?” She sounded puzzled.
“Yeah, Eric just told me about him, I was away at college and I didn’t know.”
Brenda smiled. “Evan Johnson, your friend Eric is pulling your leg. I don’t have a brother.”
“You… don’t… have… a brother….”
Brenda shrugged and shook her head, still smiling. “Nope. My folks told me I was supposed to have one, but he died when I was little. It’s just me and my sister. And my sister’s daughters, both married now. Mom and Dad are all goo-goo-eyed over their great-grandkids, especially Ricky. He just turned five.”
“Your mom… and dad….”
Brenda’s smile slowly faded. “Evan, you should switch to soda. You’re getting wasted.” She stood to leave. Evan grabbed her sleeve.
“Let go of me, Evan.” Evan released her sleeve.
“Brenda, something weird….” He rubbed his left cheek, which still felt hot under his hand. “Did you slap me?”
“Did I what?”
“Did you slap me? About ten, fifteen minutes ago?”
“Evan, this is the first time I’ve seen you here tonight. Are you okay?”
“I’m not sure….”
“You should definitely lay off the booze — it’s messing with your head.”
“Yeah.” She turned and walked away. He ordered a plain seltzer from the bartender, and left his drink on the bar.
What the Hell just happened? I need some air. Evan headed through the crowd for the doors leading to the parking lot.
“Doctor Johnson!” The speaker was rotund, with a young face and curly black hair that belied the crows’ feet around his eyes. “What an honor to see you here! We didn’t think you’d make it!”
“No sarcasm, Gabe, I’m really not in the mood.”
Gabe looked flustered. “Sarcasm? Jeez, man, I’m not being sarcastic.”
“Then don’t call me doctor.”
Gabe blinked. “O-kaayy….”
Evan took a calming breath. Still stings, washing out of grad school. You’d think I’d be over that by now.
“So what’s up, Gabe?”
“Well….” Gabe was suddenly diffident. “Hey, I know it’s kitch and all that, but it’s for the kids, you know. I bought a copy on the stands last Spring, and I was hoping I could get you to sign it. For the kids.”
“Gabe, what the Hell are you talking about?”
“Your issue, man.” He handed Evan a magazine in a plastic sleeve, the sort that comic book collectors use. Evan stared at the face on the cover. It was a little heavy in the picture, with a solid white goatee, but it was clearly his face. He’d shaved that goatee years ago, when it had started going gray.
“What the Hell is this?”
Gabe’s nervous smile faded, replaced by confusion. “It’s the March issue of Time. You know, the one that covers your big theory. Not that I understand a word of it, you know, but…”
Evan ignored Gabe’s nervous babbling, and slowly drew the magazine from the sleeve. Evan Johnson, Man of the Year. He flipped through to the article, The Arrow of Time, which described in layman’s terms his theory of closed timelike loops and encapsulated universes.
“Interviewer: So where did you get the idea for this theory? Your colleagues say it’s a pretty radical departure from the mainstream.
“Johnson: I always say it came to me in the heat of inspiration. Literally. I got very sick one semester during graduate school, my second year. None of the clinics wanted me in their offices, and they told me to take aspirin and stay home…”
Evan remembered that semester. It had been chicken pox, and he’d run a fever of a hundred and five. He’d hallucinated vividly and recurrently. Physics and math fever dreams, bizarre, quickly forgotten.
“…when I got back to class, I showed my thesis adviser the doodles I’d started drawing after the fever broke. He got really excited…”
The magazine fell from Evan’s numb fingers.
But that isn’t what happened. He’d been in bed for three weeks, and useless for another two. He’d spent his convalescence learning to solve the Rubik’s Cube, not doodling. He’d failed most of his classes that semester, and it had marked him. His adviser had told him to find a different adviser. No one else on the faculty was interested in taking him on. He’d dropped out at the end of the next semester.
“Jeez, Evan, you don’t have to mess it up,” Gabe said as he bent to retrieve the magazine. He looked at Evan’s blank stare. “Hey, man, are you okay?”
“Tell me,” Evan said in a quiet, steady voice, “is Brenda here?”
“Brenda Schmidt. Cheerleader. Dark hair, blue eyes.”
Gabe paled. “Oh man, don’t tell me you didn’t know.”
“Tell me.” Evan’s voice remained calm, but his face was pale and sweaty and his eyes were fixed on nothing.
“She died a couple years after graduation. Her brother wasn’t quite right in the head, you know, got hold of a gun, shot her and her parents, then killed himself. Only her sister survived. It was in all the papers….”
Evan’s cheek throbbed.
“Hey, man, you don’t look so good. Maybe you ought to go lie down or something?”
Evan walked away wordlessly, and found a table to sit at.
These guys have decided to mess with my head.
Evan nodded as he pondered the idea. That made sense. It was the only thing that made sense. They’d arranged an elaborate practical joke on him. A pretty cruel one, but some of them had been pretty cruel people.
“You got one Hell of a nerve, coming here tonight.”
Evan looked up, startled, and his face drained of color as his mouth slowly dropped open.
“Why are you here?”
Evan blinked. “Blom… you’re dead!”
Jeff Mellblom stood up straight, his eyes narrowed. “Is that some kind of weird-ass threat?”
“You died. Jesus, you died over twenty years ago, in the Persian Gulf. I went to your funeral!” Evan’s voice rose until it cracked.
“The only funeral there’s gonna be around here is yours, buddy, if you stick around. I don’t know why they ever let you out. They should have thrown away the fucking key.”
Evan stood and swayed. Jeff stepped back and raised his fists. “You want a piece of me, you bastard? You want a piece? I’ll give you a piece!”
He lunged forward, but two of his classmates grabbed him and held him back. Evan felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.
“Let’s go for a walk, Evan.” It was Eric.
“I don’t want to go anywhere.”
“I wasn’t really asking.” Eric’s strong grip tightened, and Evan found himself forced to turn and march out the door. Eric led him to a short concrete wall across the parking lot. His grip relaxed as they walked. They sat. Eric pulled out a cigarette, and offered one to Evan, who declined.
“Since when did you start smoking?” Evan asked.
“Since when did you give it up?” Eric replied.
Evan stared at him in silence.
“Look, Evan, I told you it was a bad idea to come here tonight. It was an accident, I know. You served your time. It should be over and done. But Blom…. He’s still all torn up about it, and a lot of people…. It’s a small town, Evan. There really is no place for you here.”
“Eric.” Evan’s voice was small.
“Look at my left cheek. What do you see?”
“Turn your head a little, I need some light….” Eric whistled. “Wow. Told you, man. Lots of people are still pretty upset. Who laid that on you?”
Evan closed his eyes and took a slow breath.
“What if I told you it was Brenda Schmidt?”
He opened his eyes to see an expression of shock and disgust on Eric’s face. “That is sick, dude. It isn’t funny at all.”
“I’m dead serious.”
“Then you need to see a shrink.”
Eric stared at him in disbelief.
“Why do I need to see a shrink, Eric?”
“That’s it, man. I’ve stood with you through this whole shit storm, and I’ve had a lot of nights where I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I should have listened to myself. You are one messed up motherfucker.”
He stood up.
“Eric. Tell me why I need a shrink. Then you can leave and never come back. But I need to hear it. Please.”
Eric’s eyes glittered, with anger or grief, Evan couldn’t tell. “Fine. You need to see a shrink because Brenda Schmidt didn’t slap you. She’s dead. You of all people ought to know. You spent eight years in prison for killing her.”
Evan stared at the door of the convention center, his face expressionless. He nodded slowly.
“Thank you, Eric.”
Eric turned to walk away, then stopped and dithered uncertainly. “What’s going on in your messed up head, Evan? What are you thinking? What are you gonna do?”
Evan drew a breath and let it out slowly.
“Do? I’m going to slip back in to take a piss and splash some cold water on my face. Then I’m going to take a walk, find a room, and sleep off this drunk. And tomorrow I am going to go see that shrink. You got a recommendation?”
“As a judge. I’m either off my rails, or I’m stuck in the Twilight Zone. I honestly have no idea which. There was a Twilight Zone, right? You know what I’m talking about?”
Eric stared at him. “You mean the TV show? Yeah. Scared me to death as a kid.”
“Yeah, well it’s scaring me to death right now. Go on, go back to the party. I want to sit out here alone for a minute.”
“Okay, Evan. Do what you said. See that shrink.”
Evan sat on the wall under the parking lot lights as Eric walked across the lot and vanished into the convention center. The moon was rising, a thick crescent that seemed dim and distant. It must be getting late.
I’ve never smoked a day in my life. And neither has Eric.
But Eric had drawn the cigarette smoke into his lungs with the slow relish of a lifelong habit. That was more disturbing than anything he’d seen yet. Everything else could be explained away as a vicious practical joke. But he knew Eric, knew him like a brother, like a part of his own body. This wasn’t an act. He’d lost his mind, or he was stuck in the Twilight Zone.
Evan rose and walked back to the convention center. He stepped through the doors, and was startled — but somehow not very surprised — when a cheer went up, and he was dragged up to the podium on the stage. A microphone was thrust into his hands. A chant rose from the crowd, “Speech, speech, speech!” He blinked and tried to think through the fog of scotch in his head.
Who am I now? Somebody popular. I can probably get away with saying anything.
“My good friends” he shouted into the microphone, slurring a bit. The class cheered. “I’d love to stand up here and talk, but … I … have … to … pee.” He crossed his legs as he silently mouthed the last word, and the crowd went wild.
“Pee, pee, pee!” they chanted.
Evan handed the microphone back to Doug, the class president, then staggered off the stage and toward the restroom. He made it just in time. He fell to his knees in front of one of the pristine porcelain bowls, and his stomach heaved. He was thankful to be alone.
He felt better afterward. He made his shaky way to the sinks, where he rinsed his mouth and splashed cold water on his face. He heard the door swing open, and a moment later, someone else was bent over one of the bowls. Evan kept his face buried in the sink and the clean smell of fresh running water.
Hell of a night for everyone, I guess.
The other made his way to the sinks and buried his face in cupped hands full of cold water. They both looked up at the same moment, and saw the other’s reflection in the wall-length mirror behind the row of sinks. Both froze, water dripping from their faces.
The other spoke first. “Who the fuck are you?”
He’s like a twin brother.
Evan stared at his own likeness reflected twice in the mirror. The other was thinner, and the lines in his face were deeper and gave the face a hard and bitter look. A twin who spent eight years in prison, maybe.
“I’m Evan Johnson. Who the Hell are you?”
“No, no, no.” The other shook his head, his eyes fixed on Evan’s reflection. “I don’t think so, buddy. I’m Evan Johnson, and I don’t know who the fuck you are. I don’t know what the fuck you are.”
The door swung open, and Evan Johnson walked into the room. He was heavier than the other two, almost portly, and wore an expensive suit. He had a self-absorbed air about him and only glanced at the other two as he strode to the latrine. He planted his legs well apart in a stance of confident conquest, and let out a loud sigh.
“Nothing like a good piss to clear the mind, eh, boys? Garrison Keillor even wrote a poem about it. Good man, Keillor.” He zipped up with far too much showy motion, and turned to find the other two staring at him with open mouths, water slowly dripping from their faces.
“What?” he demanded. He glanced down to look for unsightly splashes or a shirt tail hanging out. Finding nothing, he glowered back at the other two, and finally saw the two faces he was looking at. His own face went white. “Oh my God.”
The door swung again, and the three turned.
“Come on, I’m sure no one is in here!” They heard giggling feminine protests. An obviously drunk Evan Johnson backed into the restroom, grinning fecklessly while trying to hold onto the flailing arms of the woman they couldn’t see.
“Oh, Evan, come on. We’ll get a room. Go do your business.” She finally broke free, and the drunken Evan blew her a kiss and stumbled back against the wall, smiling blissfully. He slowly turned to find three copies of himself staring at him. The smile slid from his face and his eyes widened.
The door swung again, and Evan Johnson stepped in.
“Ah, gentlemen, here you are!” This version was not drunk at all, nor did he seem surprised or confused by the other four faces. He was heavyset and sported a neat goatee, gone white.
“Relax, gentlemen. You aren’t crazy. This is all quite real, but it’s … let’s call it temporary. It isn’t part of the main sequence. Not yet.”
“Who the fuck are you, professor, and what are you talking about?” the thin, hard-bitten Evan snapped.
“How many of you contracted chicken pox in your second year of graduate studies?”
Thin Evan’s eyes narrowed. “How the fuck did you know about that?”
“In a moment. All of you?” Four heads nodded.
“How many of you went on to study closed timelike loops after you recovered?”
Four heads shook in bewilderment. The professor nodded and smiled with satisfaction. “Twenty-four years. As I expected.”
The portly Evan in the expensive suit stepped forward. “I want an explanation. Now.” His tone did not invite argument.
“Or I kick the shit out of you,” added thin Evan.
The disheveled Evan slowly slid down the wall and passed out.
Professor Johnson scowled at thin Evan. “We seem to have some time. Short version, then. We’re all from separate micro-universes extended randomly into the future from the real present, which lies approximately twenty-four years in our common past — right around the time we were all suffering from chicken pox. Each of us represents who Evan Johnson might become twenty-four years from that moment, depending on certain events and choices. When those choices are actually made, one of us will continue to exist, and the others will all vanish. Actually, all of us will vanish shortly, because our current existence is only temporary. A Johnson Resonance.”
Several of the Evans around him blinked. The professor blushed.
“The name doesn’t matter. We’re like tiny droplets of water kicked up by a speedboat moving through the water, flung into the future a little way in front of the boat before we evaporate.”
“Why are there only five of us?” asked Evan in the expensive suit.
Professor Johnson nodded. “Good question, and I don’t know the answer. My theory is that it’s how choices are actually made. I think of it as a playoff, and we’re the last five contestants standing, out of countless billions who started. One of us will be chosen as the Evan-to-be, and the speedboat will turn in that direction. The other four will become … might-have-beens.”
“So what the fuck am I doing here?” thin Evan burst out. “Why in God’s name would my life make it to the finals? My whole life is completely fucked up. I’d never choose this life!”
The professor looked at him sadly. “I said this is how choices are made. I didn’t say we did the choosing.”
The door swung again, and a five-year old boy walked in. Evan saw the dark hair, the bright blue eyes, the strong jaw, and immediately thought of Brenda Schmidt. The boy looked at the five adults in the room, confused.
His eyes lit on thin Evan, and grew wide. Thin Evan growled at the boy. The child’s lip started to tremble, all his attention focused on the Evan who had killed Brenda. Brenda’s sister’s grandkid. Brenda’s sister — the one who had survived in all five futures. Evan felt his head go light, and the room grew dim.
The boy’s name. What is his name? Brenda told you. Robert? Rick? Ricky.
“Ricky,” Evan called softly.
The boy’s eyes turned to Evan, and he suddenly ran to him and threw his arms around his leg. The light returned. Evan’s head pounded from the scotch. He was alone in the restroom with the little boy.
Evan heard a timid knock on the door, and it pushed open a crack. Brenda Schmidt looked in, embarrassed.
“Ricky?” she called. “Are you in there? Oh, I’m so sorry. Is there a little boy…? There you are, Ricky. Your mother told you not to run away from me like that.”
“I thought I heard voices in here.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Nothing, Brenda. It’s been a strange night. I had too much to drink, and I was talking to myself.”
“They say talking to yourself is a sign you’re going crazy.”
“Nah. Only if you argue with yourself. And lose.”
“Listen, Brenda, I’m pretty hungry, and Ricky doesn’t look like he’s going to let go of me any time soon. Would you like to get something to eat?”
Brenda smiled. “I’m starving. The restaurant is closed, but I think the bar serves sandwiches and fries until two.”
“You want some fries, Ricky?” The boy nodded fiercely. “Okay, then let go of my leg, and we’ll get some fries.”
Evan slowly opened his eyes in the darkened room. Sweat soaked the mattress, and the stink of illness sang in his nostrils. His mind seemed clear, however, and he realized he felt pretty good.
Fever finally broke.
He slowly levered himself out of bed and made his way through the cramped apartment to the refrigerator.
I actually feel hungry. Maybe a glass of milk.
The milk was fresh, left by his landlady who lived right across the hall. He poured a small glass and sat at the tiny table. As he sipped it, he found himself doodling abstract designs on a scrap of paper. Odd designs, geometric shapes that might be resonance modes in an outer electron shell, but weren’t. He shook his head.
Too much like problem sets in quantum. I need something a little less challenging.
His eye fell on the Rubik’s Cube puzzle that a friend had given him for Christmas. It would be a good way to pass the time while he recovered. He crumpled the scrap of paper and pitched it into the trash. He finished his milk, and took the cube back to his bed.
Plenty of time for coursework later. Plenty of time.