“OK,” I said as I approached the intersection. “Where are we going?”
“Anywhere,” said Scott from behind me. “Just head north.”
I shrugged. “OK,” I said as I pulled into the right lane and onto the on-ramp. “What is it you want me to do?”
There was a long pause. Finally, Diane spoke.
“I want you to get me pregnant!”
I whipped my head around to look at her, causing the Jeep to swerve into the adjacent lane and provoking a blare of horns. I immediately swung back and swerved back into my lane.
“What?” I asked when I was back in control.
Diane had looked away. “We… we’ve been trying to get pregnant,” said Scott. “Well.. I’ve been trying to get her pregnant. She and Donna had agreed at some point that when one of them got pregnant the others would as well. Well… Donna is pregnant and we’ve been trying but… it isn’t happening.”
I felt uncomfortable. “So what is it you expect me to be able to do?”
“I want to be first!” said Diane suddenly. “You say you changed your car and everyone thinks you’ve always had it. You can change it so I was pregnant before she was!”
I grimiced. “Wait, when did I wind up back in the 1950’s? Is this really what you want?”
I heard a sigh. “Please Dale, don’t be judgmental. We had all talked about this before we graduated even.”
“We?” I asked. “Was Lisa in on this?”
There was an awkward silence. “Who’s Lisa?” asked Sara, finally.
“A friend of mine.” I said.
“More than a friend?” I heard the echo in her voice.
I sighed. “Yeah, she was. But not any more.”
“That had nothing to do with this!” Diane said angrily. “And that was your fault anyway! You’re the one who decided you didn’t want anything to do with anyone!”
I gritted my teeth. “Let’s not go back into this now, OK?”
“Fine!” said Diane, angrily. She paused. “You’re going to have to deal with this at some point you know.”
“I know!” I said, almost shouting. I turned to look at her. Sara was pointedly staring out the window, probably wondering what she had stepped into. I took a deep breath and looked back at the road. “OK. What is it you think I can do?”
“You changed what car you were driving,” said Scott, apparently eager to change the subject. “And everyone remembers it the way you say you changed it to. So, what else can you change?”
I honestly didn’t know how to answer that question. I wasn’t even sure what I had done. “I don’t know,” I said finally.
Scott sighed. “All this started almost a year ago. Can you… change things so that Diane is pregnant. About seven months. That puts her ahead of Donna. Do that, and we’ll believe you.”
I gave a short laugh. “If you remember it! You don’t remember my old car!” I paused. “Hell, I barely remember I owned the thing.”
Scott sighed. “Can you try?”
I sighed in return. “OK, I’ll see what I can do.” For a long time we drove in darkness, no one saying anything. I started thinking about Diane and about when I saw Donna, six months pregnant. It made me a bit uncomfortable; I had dated Donna for a while after all, but I kept picturing Diane looking the same way. It was the only thing I could think to do.
We were heading north towards Cartersville. After a bit Diane suddenly spoke up. “I should have taken a bathroom break before we left the Vortex, can we stop at the next exit?”
“Sure!” I said. Almost as if it had appeared upon request, an exit sigh suddenly loomed in my headlights. I took it and found myself in a Georgia pine forest, the empty road extending to the left and right. And I knew where I was.
“I know just the place to stop,” I said with a smile. I turned to the right and headed down the road.
A mile later I saw what I knew had to be there. A couple of fast food places, a BP station and, just down the road, a strip mall with a crowded parking lot in front of a sign that said “Boot Scooters”.
I pulled into the parking lot and got out. The others got out as well. Scott was looking at the sign.
“Isn’t… isn’t this near Macon?”
“Yup.” I said, feeling strangely pleased with myself. “We’re down there now.”
“Ugh,” said Diane, struggling to get out of her side of the Jeep. “Scott, can you help me?” She staggered out, one hand under her protruding belly.
“I’m OK,” she said, staggering a bit before gaining her balance. “I’m….” There was a long pause. Her eyes widened. “Oh my God! I’m… I’m pregnant!”
“Congratulations!” I said, trying to repress a smile.
“I’m… Oh my God!” She kept repeating herself.
Sara turned to me, her eyes wide in shock. “Did you… Did you do that!”
“Yes… I think,” I said uncertainly. “Somehow?”
Scott was staring at me. “You can do this? Did this?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I looked at him. “If you didn’t believe me, why are you here? What would you have done?”
He looked away uncomfortably then looked at Diane. She shook her head.
“You deal with it. I wasn’t kidding when I said I needed a bathroom break. I’ll see you inside.” She headed towards the entrance, staggering occasionally from her unfamiliar balance.
Sara looked from me to Scott. “I’ll go with her, make sure she’s OK.” She nodded and followed after Diane.
Scott watched until they were both inside then turned back to me. He was trying to keep his expression neutral but I could see he was embarassed about something.
“What is it?” I asked.
He sighed and looked down. “We… me and Diane and Jeff and Donna.” He paused. “And Lisa.” He sighed. “We were worried about you. You disappear then show up with this fantastical story. What were we supposed to think. You half lost it when you and Lisa broke up, then this? We thought…” He trailed off.
I was becoming angry. “You thought I was crazy or something? You were just humoring me?”
He kept looking at the ground but nodded slowly. “Yeah. We… we were talking about an intervention. Jeff and Donna are at our place. And Lisa.” He looked up at me. “But this…” He waved towards the restaurant. “Us being here… Diane…” He shook his head again. “It’s weird, I know we’ve been expecting for months, but I also know that we weren’t until tonight.”
He looked at me for a long moment. “I’m glad it happened. I’m glad to know you weren’t crazy or lying or something. And…” he paused briefly. “And to be honest I’m kind of scared. What *can’t* you do?”
I was trying to hold it together but inwardly I was seething. “Have I *ever* lied to any of you!” I shouted. “Even Lisa? And she’s the last person who gets to accuse me of lying!”
Scott winced but looked back at me. “Have you ever even stopped to think about what you sounded like!” His voice was rising too. “You show up, start telling stories about places with no one in them then start saying you’re meeting people from other realities!” Now he was shouting too. “What did you expect us to think?””
“I just gave you a son!” I shouted back. “What more do you want from me?”
“A son?” He seemed taken aback. “It’s a boy?”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I was thinking of so I’m sure that’s what it is.” I paused. “So, do you believe me now?”
He shook his head. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” came a voice behind me. “But can we take this somewhere besides a public parking lot?” I turned to see Trenton standing there.
“Oh,” I said, somehow not surprised. I half turned back. “Scott, this is Trenton. I’ve told you about him. Trenton? Scott. I’ve mentioned him to you too.”
Trenton shook his head, still glaring at me. “Yeah, hi.” He waved at Scott. “Let’s go inside. And I don’t know anyone here, so be careful what you say.”
I started to object but Trenton glared at me again. Scott shrugged and started walking towards the entrance. Trenton followed and I, after a pause, fell in behind them.
We got into the restaurant, which looked exactly like I remembered except for the fact that there were people in it now, and got a large booth. We had just sat down when Diane and Sara emerged from the restroom and Scott waved them over.
As they sat down Sara recognized him. “Trenton?”
He nodded. “Hi Sara. Haven’t seen you in a while.”
She glared at him. “Where’s Caleb?”
He shrugged. “Haven’t seen him in a while either.” He pointed at the far side of the booth. “Sit down.”
As she was sitting he turned to me. “What the hell are you doing?”
I looked at him in surprise, spreading my hands. “What?”
He sighed. “I tell you to be careful. I tell you people are after you. And what do you do?” He waved at the rest of the table. “You invite all your friends along on a ride along on the Road. And get one of them pregnant. Nice job, idiot!”
I felt myself becoming angry again. “What? I told my friends. What did you expect me to do?”
“To keep your mouth shut?” He shook his head, then motioned towards Sara. “And I figured you had Lisa with you, not… her.” He shook his head then turned to her. “Where’s Caleb? With someone else. Guess you weren’t so much a ‘must be with’ as a ‘settle for’.”
“What?” It was Sara’s turn to shout.
I echoed her. “Hey, what the hell?”
He looked at me. “What? You haven’t shifted to where she wants to sleep with you? I expected you would have figured it out by now.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Sara looked from him to me.
He smirked. “I didn’t expect you to be here. I figured Dale here was getting kinda horny and since the woman he really wants to be with cheated on him I assumed he had moved himself to where you wanted to be with him.”
Sara looked at me in shock. I shook my head.
“No!” I shouted, causing a few adjacent tables to look at us. “I wanted someone to talk to. Someone who knew what was going on. I didn’t… I wasn’t looking for that!”
He smiled and shrugged. “Yeah, right.”
I was about to reply when a waiter showed up, probably attracted by the noise. We all ordered something to drink and Diane insisted she needed an appetizer. Order in, the waiter left and I turned back to Trenton I was about to ask what he was doing here but Sara interrupted me.
“You brought me here!” she said, anger clearly showing in her face. “Just so you could sleep with me?”
“No!” I said, again louder than I intended. “I didn’t think of you that way. I was just thinking about you as I was heading back to town because you were the only other person I had talked to about this!”
That seemed to hurt her more. “Oh? So there’s something wrong with me?”
“No!” I shouted, then looked around. “No. It’s just that… you were with Caleb… I don’t know…” I trailed off, shaking my head.
Trenton laughed then looked at Sara. “Nah, he wasn’t after you. Not yet anyway. If he was, you wouldn’t even question him.” He laughed. “Trust me. Ask Jessica.”
I turned back to him. “OK, fine. Let’s drop these distractions then. What the hell are you doing here? I can’t believe you just randomly showed up.”
He immediately turned serious, shaking his head. “No. I was following you.” He shrugged. “You’ve apparently obviously realized that you can do whatever you can imagine. So I wanted to see what you would do.” He shook his head again. “You could have patched things up with your girlfriend. Instead, you get your best friend’s wife pregnant and drag your co-worker along. I can’t tell if you just *haven’t* figured this out yet or if you’re just an idiot.”
By this point everyone was staring at me. I shifted uncomfortably then looked back at him. “OK then. I guess I’ve proved to myself and everyone here that I can change things.” I glanced at Diane. “So what am I missing?”
He sighed. “I told you,” he said, talking slowly and enunciating carefully as if speaking to a child. “You and I and Caleb aren’t the only people who know how to do this sort of thing. If you do too much, it attracts the attention of others. And *they* aren’t always as willing to work with newcomers as I am.”
“Yeah, you said.” I was looking at him in annoyance. “The ‘Men in Black’ or something will come after me.”
“You aren’t taking this seriously enough,” he replied. “But call them that if you like. There are people who work for governments, or corporations, or any kind of group with an agenda, that would love to have someone like you helping them make sure things work out the way they want. And they won’t just be after you. They’ll go after your friends.” He gestured around the table. “Or that ex-girlfriend of yours. What would you do if she was threatened?”
“Wait…” Scott interrupted. “There are other people who can do this? A lot of people?”
Trenton shrugged. “Yeah. Thousands. Most of them don’t quite realize what they can do. Some of them get stuck in the Between -that place Dale here and Caleb discovered- and never got back out. Some wander off so far that they leave our time stream completely and wind up in another. That’s what happened to your friend Nichole; she’s from somewhere a *long* ways off.”
“I can do that too?” I asked in surprise. “Change something that big.”
He sighed, leaned back and stared at the ceiling for a long moment, then looked back at me.
“OK,” he said with a sigh. “OK. I give you everything. I tell you the whole deal. And you promise to keep your mouth shut and keep your changes low-key? I don’t want you attracting too much attention because that leads them to you and to us at the Vortex. OK?”
“Us?” I said.
He nodded. “Yeah.” He looked around the table then to Scott and Diane. “And if you two want to keep your friend safe, you will keep this quiet as well.” He turned to Sara. “And the same for you if you are still worried about Caleb.”
“You know where he is?” she asked. “Is he OK?”
Trenton waved a hand. “Yeah, he’s fine.” He smiled. “Better than you could imagine.”
He turned serious again. “I’m not kidding. Keep it to yourself.” He looked around the table. The four of us looked at each other, then nodded.
“May as well,” said Scott. “I suppose you could just make us forget that any of this had happened if we didn’t.”
He grimaced. “Yeah, well, it isn’t that easy. Not now.” He looked at me. “You ready for this.”
I felt an unexpected smile on my face. “Hit me.”
He hesitated, then nodded. He took a long drink from his beer, took a deep breath, then leaned forward.
“OK, I’m not a teacher. I’m not a guru. I’m just a guy who discovered that he could do something most people couldn’t. Fortunately, I also figured out that if I could do it others could as well and so started looking out for them, both the ones like me who were keeping it low-key and the ones who were actually trying to change the world.” He shook his head. “Those are scary.”
“In what way?” asked Scott asked suddenly.
Trenton glanced over at him, annoyed at being interrupted. “How about the last election season for one. Wonder how that year-long mess came about? That’s what happens when a bunch of people like us are trying to change things on a big scale.”
Scott started to say something else, then stopped when Trenton held up a hand. “We’ll get there. Trust me.” He turned back to me.
“Anyway, I did find some other people who could do the same things as me. Actually, I went looking for them and so I found them. I wasn’t the first one. We call ourselves ‘Travellers’ since we can travel places. There are probably still others out there that we don’t know about. I’d say about one in five thousand people actually have the ability to do this and only about one in five thousand of them ever do anything with it.”
“So it’s something genetic?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Can’t tell and we obviously haven’t gone talking to too many scientists about it. Some of us have been able to train others to do this, but not always. Can’t tell if the successes are just luck or because those people had the ability anyway and just needed training.”
He sighed. “Of course, we don’t very often run into someone who finds an Exit and immediately starts broadcasting it all over the Internet.” He glared at me for a minute. “Think before you do anything like that again, OK?”
He took another drink, then continued. “Now, we don’t create things. Not really. What we do is go to the place where what we want exists. When you first start it’s easiest to get there by taking a physical highway exit; your mind seems to easily interpret that as ‘I’m getting off at the exit that leads to the place where what I want exists’.”
I nodded slowly, understanding coming. “When I found that first Exit, I desperately needed a coffee and a bathroom. So I found one.”
He nodded with a smile. “Yeah, that was a basic change. But you for some reason didn’t quite make the full transition and wound up in the Between. Basically a frozen moment in time. No one was there to see it so time wasn’t passing.”
“Some kind of Schrodinger effect?” asked Scott.
Trenton shook his head. “I don’t know what that is, but it it makes sense to you, fine.”
“So how did… this happen?” Diane was still rubbing her belly as if she couldn’t believe it.
He shrugged. “I assume you mean besides unprotected sex?” She flushed and he laughed. “Easy, Dale here just pulled off at an Exit where you were pregnant. That’s really all there is to it.”
She frowned. “So… there’s another ‘me’ out there who is disappointed that she isn’t pregnant?”
“Not exactly.” He finished off his beer and waved the waitress over as he thought. She brought more drinks for us and by the time she left he had decided how to proceed.
“This is always the tricky part to explain and I’ve never come up with a good description. Basically think of a street. Or an Interstate. There are lots of lanes and they all go to the same place. But you can be in the left lane or the right lane. The same road, but a different part of it, OK?”
“I… guess?” I said. I wasn’t sure where he was going.
“OK,” he said, continuing. “Think of her not being pregnant as the left lane and her being pregnant as the right lane. All you did was change lanes. It’s the same road, the same ‘time-line’ if you want to call it, just a small detail has changed. And you’ll find that almost everyone else will not realize that anything has changed. When you go to work tomorrow all your co-workers will think you have been pregnant for months.”
“But we know!” said Sara suddenly. “Why won’t anyone else?”
He pointed at me. “You know because you were with him when he made the change. You were part of it. Now people like us,” he pointed to himself and again at me, “will notice a lot more. If something major changes we’ll wake up, look at the paper and go ‘wait, that’s wrong’.” He stopped and glared at me. “And *that* is why you have to be careful. I doubt anyone is keeping track of what kind of car you drive or if your friend is pregnant, but change something that makes the news and someone will start looking into it.”
He hesitated, then looked at Scott and Diane. “Of course, if one of your co-workers, or someone you know, happens to have the ability as well, then they *will* remember you as not being pregnant and will quickly figure out what is going on and who had to be the one who changed things. So be careful.”
I had been letting what he had said sink in and spoke up suddenly. “OK, what about Nichole then. I think I would have remembered this part of the country being called Hispaniola.”
He nodded. “Yeah, that’s the last thing. Remember how I was talking about changing lanes? That’s what happens when you get off of one road and onto another. Change things too far and you’re in a completely new reality. To everyone in your old reality you simply disappear and in the new one no one will know who you are. It isn’t like staying home where people will just remember things the way you created them.”
“What’s out there?” I asked, suddenly intrigued.
He shrugged. “Whatever you can imagine. Be careful though. You don’t want to go somewhere where you can’t survive and you don’t want to go so far you can’t find your way home.”
“So I can get anything or go anywhere I want, just by thinking about it and taking an Exit?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yeah, and after a while even the Exit won’t be needed. Just drive down the Road.”
“The Road?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He stood up. “That’s what we call it.” He gestured at the table. “I figure you owe me for the beers. I’ll let all of you talk it out. See you back at the Vortex.” He gave a final nod and walked out the door.
The rest of us sat looking at each other for a long while. Sara was the first one to speak.
“So… if Caleb could do the same things that you and this Trenton says he can do, what happened to Caleb?” She looked at me questioningly. “Why didn’t he come back for me?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe he wound up in one of those places where things are completely different,” suggested Scott. “And he couldn’t find his way back home?”
She shook her head. “Trenton sounded like he knew something about him. I don’t think he’s lost.”
“Then what?” I asked. She didn’t reply, but I could see she was upset and thinking about something.
“Maybe you should undo… this.” Diane said suddenly. “I… I don’t want to get you into trouble.”
“No!” said Scott, turning to her. “No, we can’t!”
“But what if he’s right?” She was looking directly at him. “What if someone knows! What will happen then?”
Scott shook his head. “You heard what he said. One out of five thousand out of five thousand. How many people with this ability can there possibly be in Atlanta?”
“At least three,” she said. “Dale, Caleb, and Trenton. And Dale and Caleb even worked for the same company.”
“We drive a lot too,” I said, still trying to digest what I had learned. “It sound as if that makes it a lot more likely to occur.”
Scott kept shaking his head. “We can’t take that chance!”
Diane looked at him. “*We* aren’t taking it. Dale is!” She turned to face me. “What do you want to do?”
I sighed. “From what he said it sounded like anyone who knows you who has this ability will already be remembering you as both pregnant and non-pregnant. Undoing it now may make it worse.”
“Exactly!” Said Scott. “He leaned forward, placing a hand on her belly. “Please, baby! Let’s go through with this.”
She sighed and looked down, then nodded. He leaned back with a smile.
“Now,” he said, rubbing his hands together, “what else can we do?”
“I’m doing as little as possible!” I said. “Trenton here zeroed in on me almost immediately after I posted something. And someone wiped my phone, remember? And put a GPS tracker on my car. Someone is already looking at or around me. I think I need to keep a low profile for a while and I can’t do that if I start making changes for everyone.”
Scott looked hurt. “Come on now!” he said. “Just a few changes! Think of how much better you can make things! For you as well as us!”
“Earlier today you thought I was crazy. Now you want to take advantage of me?” I shook my head. “Let’s let things be for a week or so, see if anything shakes out, and *then* we can start talking about more changes. OK?”
He seemed to be angry but took a deep breath. “OK, OK. You’re right, I guess.” He sighed. “And you’ve already done something for us.” He looked at Diane again. “But do think about what you can do with this, OK?”
I nodded slowly. “OK, yeah. Sure.”
“Caleb found someone else, didn’t he.” Sara spoke up suddenly.
“What?” I asked at the sudden topic change.
“He found someone else. Or caused someone else to find him.” She shook her head. “I should have said ‘Yes’ to him.” She leaned forward, tears appearing in her eyes.
“Why didn’t you?” asked Diane. “Was it because of how he got the ring?”
She nodded. “Yeah. It felt too much like he had stolen it. I just… I just couldn’t take it.”
Diane tilted her head. “Couldn’t you have said yes anyway, but not taken the ring? Wouldn’t that have worked?”
“I don’t know!” Sara wailed. “I just… I just couldn’t.” She lowered her head to her hands. “I was so stupid.”
I was looking at her and started thinking about her and Caleb. I barely knew Caleb, only ran across him at the office once or twice, but I had worked with Sara for a while. As I thought, I realized that I had never actually seen the two of them together.
Diane was still talking. “How long had you known Caleb?”
“About two years?” said Sara. “He helped me get the job there.”
“So… you started dating almost immediately?”
“Yeah.” She seemed confused. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“I don’t remember seeing you two together that much.” I said. “That’s why I was so surprised when you first told me about you two.”
She shrugged and shook her head. “We… he… thought it would cause problems at the company if everyone knew we were dating.”
“Why?” I asked. “It isn’t against any policy that I know of.”
She shook her head, then paused. “It wasn’t, but I thought, it just seemed…” Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember. “It made sense at the time.” She lowered her head.
I looked over at Diane and tilted my head towards Sara, an eyebrow raised. She nodded slowly. She had already figured out what I was just starting to realize.
“You and Caleb did a lot together?” I asked. She nodded, head still lowered.
“And went to the Vortex a lot?”
She nodded again. “Yeah, it was his favorite place.”
I glanced back at Diane who was now watching us both closely. Scott looked between us, apparently realizing from the change in tone that we were on to something but hadn’t caught up yet.
“You told us about the two times you met Trenton down there. Anything happen any other time?”
She shook her head. “No… nothing. I…” She stopped and looked up, confused. “I… don’t really remember many other things there.”
“Do you remember what you ordered?” Diane asked. “Or what other places you went? What else you did?” Scott had looked at her as she spoke and I suddenly saw his eyes widen as he realized what we were saying. His head snapped around towards Sara.
I could see the confusion on her face. “I don’t… We… I can’t…” Her head snapped up, eyes wide. “I *didn’t*! That bastard! That god-dammed fucking bastard! I’ll rip his face off! What a shit!”
She had been shouting and the restaurant was looking at us. She took a deep breath and turned to me, face red and still shaking. “You! You knew this, didn’t you! You knew what he did!”
“No!” I said, raising my hands. “Hell, I didn’t know what any of this was until recently. But something didn’t sound right, and I really *didn’t* remember ever seeing you two together. Then, when Trenton mentioned how we could remember things the way they were before…” I trailed off, holding up my hands.
Diane nodded, reaching a hand out for Sara. “As soon as Dale said he had never seen you two together I knew what must have happened. Dale’s too good at details to miss something like that.”
Sara was shaking her head, now crying openly. “I can’t believe… I can’t believe he did that to me!” She grimaced. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Diane took Sara’s hands in hers as she cried silently. The waitress came to see what was going on but Scott waved her away, and the two of us looked awkwardly at each other.
After several minutes Sara gave out a heavy sigh and sat up. She blew her nose loudly on a napkin, wiped her eyes, and turned to me.
“Thank you,” she said, quietly.
“Um… you’re welcome?” I said, somewhat surprised. “…Why?”
“Because I remember now,” she said. “I remember what happened. And you, all of you,” she turned to Diane and Scott and nodded at them, “helped me to remember.”
“What happened?” asked Diane, gently. “If you feel like talking about it.”
Sara grimaced for a moment, closed her eyes, then sighed. “Yeah, it’s fine. It’ll help with all this.” She waved her hands in the air.
She took a deep breath then continued. “I wasn’t dating Caleb when this started. I just happened to be at the office one day when he came in and had to tell me about the strange exit he found. Sort of like you did the other day.” She gestured towards me.
“Anyway, I didn’t think much about it then. A few days later he shows up with this backpack full of stuff and wants to show it to me. He says we should go down to that Mexican place just down the road from the office.”
“El Toreodors,” I said.
She nodded. “Yeah, there.” She let out a snorting laugh. “I thought of it as an after work beer with a co-worker. He apparently thought it was a date.”
“Wait…” interrupted Scott. “I thought you said he helped you get the job.”
“Seriously?” she said. There was a pause as confusion crossed her face. “Yeah, I did say that, didn’t I?” She shook her head then looked back at me. “You have no idea how badly this has messed me up. It’s like I remember two completely different things, as if they both happened. It’s just that one happened first, if that makes sense.”
I nodded slowly. “Yeah, I get it. I think.”
She took another deep breath then continued. “He showed me a bunch of crap he had brought back. It looked like he had raided a K-Mart or something. Tried to give me some of it.” She laughed.
“Anyway, a few day’s later he asks me out again. Says he’s figured out what he had found and wanted to explain it to me. I agreed and met him downtown at the Vortex. That’s when I first met Trenton and he basically said the same thing he just did to you.”
“Really?” asked Scott. “You could have mentioned that earlier!”
“I didn’t *remember* it earlier!” Sara almost wailed. “I didn’t remember until… whatever you did.”
“So what happened?” asked Diane, after glancing sharply at Scott.
Sara winced. “After that dinner we got ready to leave. Caleb invited me up to his place and I turned him down. He got really angry, you know how guys get sometimes.” Diane nodded, Scott and I glanced at each other then nodded in embarrassed agreement. “Anyway, he started off with how I was turning him down after he introduced me to this great new world. Then he said he could have me any time he wanted. That got me worried, so I just left and went back to my car. I had my gun in my purse so I wasn’t too concerned, but I wanted to get away from him.”
“You carry a gun?” Scott seemed surprised by that.
“Yeah,” she said, seeming surprised by the question. “We all do. I’m sure Dale has one too.”
“Dale?” he turned to stare at me.
I shrugged. “I drive around with a car full of drugs. I have to be ready on the off chance someone decides they want them for themselves.”
He gave me a disturbed look. “Really?”
“Scott, we live in Georgia. In Atlanta. Half the people you meet probably have guns in their cars.”
He shook his head. “Yeah, I guess. I just never realized you had one.”
“You never went shooting with me and Lisa?”
That seemed to shock him. “Lisa carries a gun too?”
I nodded. “Yeah, she’s actually a lot better at it than I am.”
“Guys?” said Diane, looking between us. “Can we get back to this?”
“Sorry.” I said, glancing over at Sara. “Go ahead.”
She took another drink. “OK. Anyway, I got in my car and left. I was driving home, thinking about how maybe I should switch offices, when I suddenly decided I was in love with Caleb.”
“Just like that?” asked Diane.
She nodded. “Yeah, just like that.” Tears appeared in her eyes again. “It made total sense at the time. I didn’t even question it until, well, now.”
“So what happened.”
She lowered her head again. “I drove to his place and spent the night with him. It just felt like we had been together forever and it was a normal thing. I didn’t even question it. Not until now anyway. We… I spent the next couple of weeks with him.”
“Then what happened?”
She shrugged. “One day when I got home from work he wasn’t there.” She shook her head. “When I went back to his place he wasn’t there. I couldn’t get in touch with him. After a day or so I just went back home. That’s when… that’s when I came to the conclusion that he had left me because I had turned him down when he asked me to marry him. He didn’t. He just disappeared.” She shook her head and started crying again. “He did this to me! Why!”
Diane and Scott both looked at me. I felt sick to my stomach. I could have done the same thing. Hell, I had thought about it. “Yeah,” I said finally. “I realized I could do that. When Trenton said something earlier about wondering why Sara was here and not Lisa… I realized I could get Lisa back. But it didn’t seem right. I just… couldn’t.”
“So why did you bring me into this!” Sara looked up at me, almost spitting the words out.
“What?” I was taken aback. “You called me! I didn’t do anything!”
“Oh, so I just happened to call a co-worker I’ve barely interacted with just as he’s running into some major shit?”
“No!” I said. “I wasn’t trying to… I didn’t…” I stopped. “Look, if I was trying to act like Caleb I wouldn’t take you out with my friends and tell you exactly what I was doing. That would kinda defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”
“Unless that’s your plan? To make yourself look innocent?”
Scott laughed cynically. “Trust me, Dale doesn’t think that far ahead.”
“Hey!” I said.
He shrugged. “Just telling it like it is. You can set up a gaming campaign in more detail than I could ever have the patience to do, but when it comes to your real life you couldn’t make a decent decision if your existence depended on it.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean!” I said, getting angry.
“You know what, and who, I’m talking about,” he said. “Remember why we met with you tonight.”
I glared at him. “You wanted me to get your wife pregnant. Since you couldn’t apparently.”
I saw him flush in anger at that. He started to stand up, then thought better of it. He drew a deep breath then let it out in a long sigh.
“OK,” He said. I could see he was still angry but he was trying to calm down. “You’re right. That was uncalled for.” He looked over at Sara, who was now looking from one to the other of us wide-eyed. “Trust me, Dale wouldn’t have deliberately done something like that. If anything,” he glanced at me, “if anything he was probably thinking about all of this and who knew about it and probably thought of talking to you. That may have been enough to trigger you calling him.”
“What? You’re saying he can do this by accident? You think what Caleb did to me was an *accident*!”
“No, no!” he said. “OK, Caleb no. Yes. No. Wait…” He paused, trying to straighten out his thoughts. “It sounds like Caleb was deliberate. I think Dale didn’t do anything. At least nothing deliberate.”
She held his gaze for a moment, then let out her breath. “OK, OK. I guess you’re right. It wouldn’t make sense to do to me what you just helped me realize someone else had done to me. That’s really bad timing. And I’m a bit upset and on the edge right now.”
“Yeah,” I said, trying to get my own self back under control. “We’re all getting on edge.” I looked up at Scott. “Sorry.”
“Yeah,” he said in return. “It happens.” He looked over at Diane. “Your chance to get in an insult or two while we’re at it.”
She shook her head uncomfortably. “I’ll pass. I think we’ve had enough emotions for one evening.” She patted her stomach. “I probably shouldn’t get too excited anyway.”
Scott looked surprised for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” He looked around. “Maybe we should get out of here.”
We waved the waitress back over. She looked at us with a carefully neutral expression as we paid our bills and I noted a few other curious looks as we left the restaurant. We got back into the car and I pulled back out onto the highway.
We drove in silence for a while. “Where should we go now?” I finally asked.
“Well, everyone’s car is still at the Vortex,” said Scott from the back seat. “And Jeff, Donna, and Lisa are still at our apartment. Assuming they’re still waiting on us.”
“And I kinda guess I need to get home,” said Sara. “Though I’m not sure I really want to be alone right now.” She looked over at me. “Not that kind of ‘not being alone’.”
“Hey!” I said. “I’m not doing anything.”
“We’ve got a sofa,” said Scott. “You’re free to crash on it if you just want a place for tonight.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll think about it.”
We drove a bit further. I had been thinking about where I needed to go when I saw an exit sign ahead. An idea occured to me.
“Hang on,” I said to no one in particular. “I’m going to try something.”
I heard an intake of breath from Sara and an “Oh God!” from someone in the back seat but I was concentrating on my thoughts. I knew exactly where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be there. I held that thought as I took the exit, looped around the curve and pulled to a stop at the red light at the end of the ramp.
“What?” Sara asked. “Where are we?”
“14th street,” said Diane from behind me. “How did we get here?”
“I told you I had an idea,” I said, turning right at the light and heading for the Station. “Looks like it worked.”
“You can just go anywhere!” Sara said a bit too loudly. “That’s… how?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” I said as I pulled off the road and into the parking entrance. “I just decided this was where I wanted to be, took the exit and… here we are.” I swung into the parking garage and headed back towards the elevator entrance to Diane and Scott’s apartment.
“Wait!” said Scott suddenly from the back seat. “Our cars are still at the Vortex!”
“Are they?” I said with a smile. I saw the parking space I knew would be there, just beside the elevator, pulled into it, and killed the engine.
“Yes, we…” he stopped. Sara gasped and I heard Diane let out a short laugh. I was parked between their cars; Sara’s on the right and Diane and Scott’s on the left.
“Now you’re starting to scare me,” said Scott in a quiet, even voice. “You don’t need to show off.”
My smile faded. “I just wanted to see if I could do it.”
“Don’t!” he said. “That’s…” he trailed off.
“I caused your wife to become seven months pregnant,” I said. I had expected a different reaction. “Moving your car should seem trival compared to that.”
“Is there a limit to what you can do?” Sara asked, staring at me.
“I don’t know.” I said. “I’m almost afraid to try.”
“Remember what Trenton said,” said Scott as he got out of the car. “You don’t want to do anything big enough to attract attention from anyone.”
“Yeah, I remember,” I said as I got out on my side. “But literally no one would have noticed a car moving from one parking lot to another.”
“How about a car going from Macon to Atlanta in five minutes. Does your company have GPS trackers on you or something?”
“No,” I said. As soon as I did though I remembered the box Trenton had pulled from under my old car. I immediately knelt down and looked under the Jeep. I didn’t see anything suspicious, but if it was hidden I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell it apart from a normal part of the Jeep.
“What?” asked Diane, getting out with the aid of Scott.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just suddenly getting paranoid.” With that in mind, I pulled my bag out of the back, then opened the glove box and pulled out the Glock, still in its case. Scott was walking to the elevator with Diane and didn’t notice, but Sara saw me and nodded slightly.
We caught up with them at the elevator. “What are we going to tell the others?” I asked.
“The truth?” suggested Diane.
I shook my head. “Keep it low, remember? The three of you already know what is going on. We don’t need two more.”
“Three,” said Scott.
“Oh yeah, Lisa,” I said. “Why did you have to bring her into this?”
“Because we were worried about you,” he replied. “We didn’t know any of this was actually real then. We thought… maybe if you could talk to her and get some closure out of it.”
“Closure?” I said, incredulously. “Closure? You thought *that* was what all this was about?”
He sighed and looked to Diane, then back to me. “After you left last time we, all of us, talked about it. We thought your talking about ‘alternate worlds’ was just you rationalizing some world where Lisa and you were still together. You know, instead of talking to her.”
“You know,” I said, turning around and walking back towards the car. “I don’t have to listen to this.” I opened the door, stopped, and turned back to see the three of them still looking at me. “And since I can really do that ‘alternate worlds’ stuff, and if I had wanted to create a world where she and I were still together, then I would be in one. But I’m not Caleb!” I aimed that last comment at Sara. I opened the door and got in. “Tell them… tell them whatever the hell you want.” Scott yelled something and started towards the car, but I backed out and peeled out of the garage and away.
I knew I was over-reacting but I couldn’t help myself. They said they wanted to help. What did they know? I shouted incoherently as I stopped for the red light, causing the occupants of the car next to me to look over. I gritted my teeth until the light changed and I pulled out and left onto the on-ramp.
I felt my eyes stinging as I drove. I knew I shouldn’t have taken off like that. Scott and Diane and the others were trying to help. It wasn’t the first time I had done something like this to them either. Hell, I did the same thing to Lisa the last time I saw her. The main reason I hadn’t talked to any of them for so long was because I was so embarrassed about what I had said and done that I didn’t want to face them.
“And they’re still trying to talk to me, the angry, crying idiot,” I said, more tears appearing. “What does that say about them. Or me.”
“What?” came a voice from my right. Then, “Are you OK?”
I glanced over in surprise, though I should have known who was there. Nichole was looking at me with slight concern.
I screamed, incoherently and in undirected rage, then whipped the car to the right across several lanes of traffic, prompting several screeching tires, blaring horns from the cars I was cutting off, and a surprised shriek of terror from Nichole.
I hit the emergency strip going too fast and the Jeep swerved on the gravel. I slammed on the brakes and brought it to a shuddering stop, half on the emergency strip and half on the dirt and grass beyond. I yanked up the hand brake, threw my head back against the headrest, and let out a long, unvocalized wail. Months… years of emotions, thoughts, feelings, guilt, and anger that had been pushed down for so long final found an opening for release and they all came out at once.
I don’t know how long I sat there, closed eyes looking towards the roof of the car, thoughts and images rushing through my head. I may have yelled more. I know I was sobbing. I felt sick.
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder and I jumped upwards. Nichole was still in the car, looking at me with a frightened but worried expression.
“Are you all right?” she asked hesitantly. “Is… something wrong?”
I turned red; I certainly had not wanted anyone to see my meltdown. “Yeah, yeah… I’m fine,” I lied. “I just… had a really stressful day.” I fumbled open open my bag, which had been sitting in the passenger seat but was now wedged between the two of us, looking for something to wipe my face with.
I saw the gun case. My breath caught, but almost without thinking I reached in and unzipped it, then pulled out the Glock and it’s magazine. Without thinking, I pushed the magazine into place and worked the action.
“What are you…” Nichole started to speak then trailed off, looking at me. I stayed, staring at the loaded gun.
I had looked at it like this once before. There was a reason that I hadn’t touched it in so long until all this started. Then, I had been interrupted by a phone call telling me I had gotten the job with ExoMed. I had told myself that things would be different after that.
I turned the gun around until I was looking down the barrel.
Things weren’t different.
“Dale… what is it?” I heard concern in Nichole’s voice.
I sighed, lowering the gun to my lap. “Apparently I can change anything I want,” I said to the air in front of me. “Why can’t I change myself?”
“Please Dale,” I heard her say. “Don’t do this to me.”
I looked at her. “What?” I said, a bit louder than I had planned.
She winced and hesitated before she spoke. “I don’t know you Dale. We’ve barely met. But I told you I worked with a doctor. I worked with people who were going through what you seem to be going through.”
She paused then continued. “I don’t know how you feel. I don’t know what has happened to bring you to where you are. But I know what despair is.” She laid a hand on my arm. “I spent years or more in that place. No one around. Nothing there. Occasionally someone would appear, but none of them would help me. I had almost given up. Then you were there, and you said you would help me.” She leaned forward. “Let me help you.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. In what seemed like fortunately at the time, headlights suddenly appeared behind me, followed by flashing blue lights.
“Shit,” I said. I shoved the Glock back into my bag and found a handful of napkins I had dropped in there at some point. I blew my nose, wiped my face and had them tossed into the back seat before there was a tapping at my window. I rolled it down.
There was a Georgia State Patrol officer standing outside the car. I glanced over and saw another officer outside of Nichole’s window. “Sir, is everything all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, voice still raspy from the screaming I had done earlier. “Yeah. Sorry, had a coughing fit and had to pull over.”
He glanced at Nichole, then back to me. “Can I see your license?”
I frowned. “Sure?” I reached over, rooted through my bag, found it, and handed it out the window.
He studied it for a minute then looked back at me. “Would you mind stepping out of the vehicle?”
“Sure!” I said nervously.” I slowly reached over, opened the door, and stepped out.
“You too miss,” said a woman who had come up on the other side of the car. Nichole glanced at me and I nodded. She got out.
“Where were you going?” he asked, relaxing slightly and lowering the gun he had.
“I was helping her get home,” I said, tilting towards Nichole.
“Where’s ‘home’,” he asked.
Down on the south side.
He grimaced. “Then why are you heading north?”
I tried to smile. “Well… we were going to my place first.”
He sighed and nodded to his partner. She looked at Nichole. “Will you come back here with me, please?”
Nichole looked at me and I nodded. She then followed the other officer towards their car behind me.
The officer looked at me. “Sir… have you been drinking?”
I hesitated, then shrugged. “I had a couple of beers earlier, yeah.”
“How long ago?”
“An hour or two.”
He sighed. “Please wait here.” He walked back towards his car. I could see Nichole talking to the other officer there. I thought about jumping back into the Jeep and racing away, then I remembered Trenton telling us that he had followed us down to Boot Scooters. I probably couldn’t shift away from someone chasing me. I stood there until he returned carrying something.
“Breathe into this, please,” he said, holding a tube out towards me.
“A breathalyzer?” I asked. “You think I’m drunk?”
“Just breathe into this.” I could tell he was annoyed. I sighed and did as instructed.
He looked at the display then held it out towards me again. “Again,” he instructed. I sighed and blew into the tube again.
He again looked at the display and sighed, then packed the device away.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
He glared at me. “No problem, sir.” He made an exaggerated show of examining my license.
After a bit the other officer returned with Nichole. Nichole went back to the far side of the car while the officer went up to her partner, looked at me, shook her head, then returned to their car.
The officer with me handed me my card back. “OK then. Just be careful from now on, OK?”
“That’s it?” I asked, feeling annoyed.
“Is there a problem, sir?” the officer asked.
I hesitated, then shook my head. “No, no problem. Have a good evening.” He followed his partner back to their car. I watched after him for a moment then got back into the Jeep.
Nichole was already in her seat, seat belt in place. “Is everything OK?” she asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, sure. Let’s get out of here.”
I started the Jeep and pulled back onto the highway. I drove in silence for a while. Finally, I asked. “What did she ask you?”
Nichole shrugged. “If I was with you willingly. If you had done anything to threaten me. Where I was from.” She paused. “I gave my street address, but said it was down south. She seemed to accept it.
I nodded, breathing a sigh of relief. “Thanks.”
She shrugged. “It’s the truth. More or less. I have learned a few things while I was in that place.”
I nodded again. “No, really. Thanks. That could have gone bad very fast.”
“It was already bad,” she said. There was a pause. “Tell me what it is.”
I sighed. “Where do I start?”
“At the beginning.”
I sighed again. “Look, I barely know you. We… the only reason we know each other is because I can go someplace that I can’t even understand and I offered to help you. And you come and go at random.”
“I what?” she asked.
“You aren’t always here,” I said. I felt as if I had been hit so many times over the last few days that I didn’t care anymore. “Sometimes you’re in my car, sometimes you aren’t. I don’t even know what is going on anymore.”
She was silent for a bit. “Do you enjoy having me here with you?” she asked.
The question caught me by surprise. “Sure,” I said finally. “I guess.”
She nodded. “I told you I worked with a doctor. I was… am… an alienist. I helped people who came to us whose problems were of the mind, not the body. Perhaps I can help you?”
I sighed again. “But… I’m sorry, but I barely know you. I don’t even know *how* I know you, really.”
I saw her smile. “Then what better person to talk to than someone who you don’t know? Who can’t judge you?” She paused. “And someone you know you can leave behind whenever you want.”
“I wouldn’t do that!” I snapped.
She nodded again. “I know. That’s why I’m offering to help you.” When I stayed silent, she spoke again. “Look, you obviously can’t talk to someone here. I’m from the outside. I can give a completely unbiased opinion. Why not trust me?”
“I could just abandon you.” I said. “I could leave you here, in my world.”
I sighed. “No. I wouldn’t.” I paused. “What do you want to know?”
“What is angering you. What is driving you. What it is that you are hanging on to that you can’t let go of.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” I tightened my grip on the wheel and stared ahead. I didn’t know where I was going, but since any exit I took would be the one I wanted it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to continue this conversation but I was afraid of where the next exit I took would take me.
There was silence. Finally, I spoke. “I’ve been this way for a long time. It doesn’t matter.”
“It obviously matters,” she said. “Else you wouldn’t have been staring at the barrel of a gun a few minutes ago.”
“I put it down!” I said angrily.
“This time,” she said. “And I’m guessing the times you’ve done it before.”
“Why do you care?” I felt my eyes stinging again.
“Because I need you to get me home.”
I gritted my teeth. “Fine,” I yelled. “Let’s go home!” An exit sign appeared ahead and I started turning towards it.
“No!” she shouted, reaching over and shoving the wheel in the other direction. I fought her for a second, but the swerving of the car threatened to cause us to wreck and I pulled back onto the road.
“What are you doing!” I yelled. “Do you want to go home or do you want to kill us both.”
“The way you’re acting right now, if you take that exit, then you will kill yourself. Which will kill me too. So, either tell me what is going on with you or pull over and let me out.”
We drove in silence again for a while. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I said again, finally.
She muttered something under her breath. “Look, I don’t care about you, OK? I’m not going to judge you. I’m not a date you need to impress. But I’m someone who needs you. And if I have to fix you in order to get home, I will!”
“I don’t need fixing!”
“Oh, so looking down the barrel of a gun is normal for people here?”
I sighed. “OK, fine. I tell you my mess then we take you home, OK?”
“If that’s what you want?”
“It’s apparently what you do.” I sighed. “OK, when I was growing up, I was never really good at meeting people, OK? Or talking to them. Or… anything. My mom basically never spent any time with me and all my dad ever did was sleep on the couch. Unless he was complaining about how he wished I was good at football or something.”
I sighed. “A game. People throw a ball around and try to get it to the other end of a field while the other team tries to stop them.”
She hesitated. “OK, we have something similar. Go on.”
“Anyway, I spent most of my time in my room reading, or playing games by myself, or… anything other than talking to other people.”
I paused, waiting for her to say something. She didn’t. After a while I continued.
“So, when I went to college, to Tech, I was happy to get away. I didn’t get along with most everyone there, but I did meet people who were sort of like me. We liked weird things like games and science fiction and that sort of stuff. Me and Scott and Jeff and Diane and Donna and… and Lisa.”
I sighed. “I actually dated Donna for a while. It… didn’t really work out. She was one of our game players. That was something I was good at. Running games like D&D and Traveller and such. Donna dated me for a while, but it turned out she was really interested in Jeff. He was my roommate at the time. So she kept suggesting that she and I and him go out with her roommate on a double date. But she wanted to hang out with Jeff and leave me with her.”
“Lisa was her roommate?” she asked.
I nodded. “Yeah. I was kinda annoyed.” I laughed. “We were all at a pizza place, both she and Jeff made some excuse to leave, and Lisa and I were left there.”
She shifted in the other seat. “That must have been awkward.”
“It was, kinda. She apologized to me and told me about how Donna had been wanting an excuse to see Jeff. But she had just been dumped by her boyfriend and Donna had dragged her along.”
“So what happened?”
I hesitated. “We went back to her place and had sex all night.” I shrugged. “Donna never came home. I guess she and Jeff hit it off right away too. Neither Lisa or I wanted to be alone so…” I shrugged again.
“But you hit it off?”
“Yeah, that was the weird thing. When we weren’t… fucking each other as hard as we could we talked. And it turned out we liked a lot of the same things.” I laughed. “It turned out she had been interested in the stories that Donna had been telling her about our games and had wanted to play, but her ex thought those things were silly. So she hadn’t said anything. She asked if she could start going to our games and I said sure. Of course.”
I paused, remembering, then continued. “It worked out. Better than I could ever have imagined. She and I started doing everything together. It seemed like everything she liked I did too, and the same for her. She told me that she had always been afraid to say anything because everyone else would think she was weird. I had felt the same way. She was the only one I ever really felt like I could be myself and not have to worry about what someone else thought.”
“Sounds like things were good for you then. What happened.”
I sighed again. “I was good at running games and designing worlds and that sort of thing. I wasn’t so good at studying. I’d never had to do that before. Back in high school I could basically ignore everything, put in minimal effort and still graduated in the top of the class. At Tech? Not so much.” I sighed. “I failed out.”
She touched my arm. “That must have hurt.”
I nodded. “It did. I hung out at campus with the others for a while, but they were always in classes or having to study or whatever. Then I got the job at ExoMed and I was busy most of the time. I started only being able to see Lisa on weekends.”
I sighed. “Then… she told me she was pregnant. And it wasn’t mine.”
Nichole seemed surprised at that. “What!”
I was silent a long time. “She had been working with a lab partner for a while. He asked her out one weekday night. She did, not having anything better to do. They talked a while, had a few drinks, and she went home with him. She claims it was only that one time, but… she got pregnant.”
Nichole touched my arm again. “I’m sorry.”
I shrugged her off. “She claimed it was because she didn’t know what was going on with me. She was tired of me ignoring her. I wasn’t! I just… I guess I was just embarrassed because I had failed out and they hadn’t.” I sighed.
“Then what happened.”
“She told me. Said she would get rid of the baby. That she wouldn’t do anything again except with me. I…” I paused a long time, now crying openly. “I called her a slut. Said she only wanted me around so she could be married to someone who graduated from Tech and could support her and her babies and since I failed out she didn’t want me anymore. I told her to go have fun with her lab partner and stalked off.”
We drove in silence for another long time. “You didn’t believe her?” she said finally. “She could have been being honest.”
“If she loved me why would she do that!” I shouted.
“Because you ignored her?” she responded.
I sighed. “Yeah, I get it. I get that.” I paused. “Scott, Jeff and even Donna told me I was wrong. Donna told me how upset Lisa was when she came back to their room that night. But… I didn’t care. I told them to leave me alone and left.”
“Is that when you started ignoring them?”
I didn’t know how she knew that. “I guess.” I paused for another while. “I didn’t see any of them for a while. Didn’t answer when they called. I’ll admit… I didn’t know if I was mad or embarrassed. I did go to a party for one of our friends about nine months later. Lisa was there. She came up to me, told me she had ended the pregnancy. Swore that she hadn’t been with anyone since then. Said that she still loved me.”
“What did you do?”
I lowered my head. I didn’t say anything until I heard her gasp and looked up to see that I had almost run off the road. I pulled back into my lane.
“I told her to just go find anyone else. That I didn’t want her around anymore. Told her, and everyone else, to leave me alone. Then I left.”
I don’t know how long we drove along in silence after that. Finally, she spoke. “How long ago was that?”
“About a year and a half.”
“Have you talked to any of your friends since then?”
I hesitated at that. “Yeah. Until this all started a couple of days ago. After I first ran into you, actually. I called them. I didn’t know who else I could talk to. It… hasn’t gone well.”
She looked at me curiously. “Why?”
“They think I’m crazy. They think this all has something to do with me and Lisa.” I laughed. “She’s engaged to someone else now! Did I mention that? And they want me to talk to her!”
“Why don’t you?”
I sighed. “Why bother.”
I glanced over and saw her staring out of the window. Finally, she spoke. “Because she meant something to you. And you still mean something to her. Otherwise she wouldn’t want to talk to you. And your friends wouldn’t be trying to help you. The only person who is locking other people out in all of this is you.”
“Oh, thanks!” I said, angrily.
She sighed. “You’re a good person, Dale. Otherwise you wouldnt have tried to help me. Trust me, you’re the only Traveller I’ve met in years who even offered to help me. If you’re willing to do that, why don’t you let your friends help you?”
I broke into open tears again. “Because I failed them! Because I got fucking angry and stupid in front of them and now they hate me! Because I’m an idiot!”
She shook her head. “The only person who hates you is you. From what I’ve seen and from what you’ve told me they’ve been trying to reach out to you and you keep pushing them away. You say they’re your friends? Why not assume they *are* your friends and listen to them? Or at least talk to them.”
“They don’t want to talk to me.”
She sighed. “I bet they do.” She paused, then smiled. “Take me to meet them and say what you told me. I bet they support you. If they don’t, then you can just leave. If they do…” she paused and smiled. “If they do, you can help me find my husband.”
I sighed and lowered my head. “I wish… I wish I had someone as dedicated to me as you are to Nathaniel.”
She laughed at that. “I think you do. You just need to realize that.”
There was another long silence. Was she right? I didn’t know. I wanted it to be true, but then couldn’t decide if it was or if it was just something I had created. I struggled to control my thoughts.
Nichole had stayed silent and I finally spoke. “OK, let’s see where this goes.” An exit appeared ahead of me. Trying to keep my thoughts neutral, I pulled off onto it.
I emerged from the exit on 14th street. I glanced over to see if Nichole was still with me and was unsurprised to see that she had vanished again. With a sigh, I drove back to Scott and Diane’s complex and pulled into the parking garage.
The parking space between Scott and Diane’s and Sara’s cars were still there. I was a bit surprised to Sara’s still there. I pulled into the space.
I sat there for a while. Did I really want to go through with this? Not really, but I had decided I finally had to end all of this. Everything would work out or… or I could go somewhere else. I sighed and got out of the Jeep.
I went to the elevator and rode up. I hesitated again before leaving the elevator but walked down the hall and to Diane and Scott’s door and knocked.
There was a brief wait then the door opened. “…Dale?” It was Scott, apparently surprised at my appearance.
I nodded. “Yeah. I… I’m sorry.” I shrugged. “I’m an asshole, I know.” I shrugged. Can I come in?”
He hesitated. “Lisa is here.” He said finally.
“Good.” I said. “I… I need to talk to her. And the rest of you, I think.”
He shook his head. “I thought you didn’t want to talk to us?”
I lowered my head. “Yeah. I…. I was wrong.”
He looked at me curiously but stepped aside. “Yeah, sure. Come on in. Everyone will be glad your’e here.”
I walked in slowly. Scott closed the door and looked at me as Diane came into the foyer.
“Oh!” she said in surprise. “Hi Dale…” She paused. “We… kinda assumed you weren’t coming back tonight.”
I lowered my head. I really didn’t want to go through this, but I realized I finally had to. “Sometimes you just have to rip the band-aid off,” I said, looking back up at her.
“What?” she asked.
I sighed. “Never mind. Look…” I turned to Scott, “what all did you tell everyone?”
“Everything,” he said. I must have looked surprised. “Look, if we told them anything else we would have looked crazy. So we had to tell them everything we know. Now that you’re here… I guess you can fill in the gaps.”
“Yeah,” I said, taking a deep breath. I felt sick to my stomach. “OK, let’s get this over with.” I started walking towards the living room but Diane stopped me.
“We’re all around the kitchen table,” she said.
I shrugged. “Kinda crowded in there?”
She shrugged back. “The beer is in there.” She patted her stomach. “Not that Donna or I are having any.”
I smiled slightly at that. “Yeah, I guess. Over here, right?” Without waiting for a response, I walked down the short hall and into the kitchen.
A murmur of voices stopped as I stepped in. Jeff and Donna had been sitting at the table and looked up in surprise. Sara was standing to one side, tapping something on her phone. And Lisa was sitting on the counter, leaning forward with a beer in hand.
“Look who showed up…” said Scott, walking up behind me. Diane stepped beside me and settled into an empty chair beside the table with a groan.
“Hey, Dale…” Jeff sounded uncertain. “We were… just talking about you!” He stood up and held out a hand. “Good to see you!” I reached out and briefly shook the hand, never taking my gaze off of Lisa. I hadn’t seen her in well over a year and while I should have been focused on something else, I couldn’t take my gaze off of her left hand.
“Hi Dale,” she said, flatly. She looked down, following my gaze, and held up her hand. “Yeah, I’m… engaged. I guess you heard.”
“Yeah,” I said, breaking my gaze and looking away. “It’s… it’s good to see you again. How… how have you been?”
“Good,” she said, a little too expressionlessly. “I’m good.” She hopped off the counter and came over, giving me a quick hug. “How have you been?”
“Fine,” I said. “Fine. Can’t complain. Much.”
She tilted her head at me in a way I knew too well. “Well, some things about you haven’t changed.” She turned and walked towards the refrigerator. “Want a beer?” she asked over her shoulder?
“Yeah,” I said, looking anywhere but at her. “Yeah. You know what I like.” I winced as I said it.
She opened the refrigerator without comment. “You and your bitter beers,” she said with a sigh. She pulled a bottle out and, opening it with the opener on the side of the refrigerator, came over and handed it to me. “Glad to see you again.”
I nodded, feeling awkward. “Yeah. Yeah. Me too.”
She glanced away then returned to her place on the counter. “So,” she said after she had hopped back onto her seat. “Diane and Scott say you’ve been having quite the adventures lately.” She smirked. “I would never have guess that Diane was the one of us you would get pregnant, but here we are… right?” I didn’t need to be paranoid to hear the sarcasm in her tone.
I felt my eyes sting again, but after the meltdown I had earlier there wasn’t much left in me. Instead, I just sighed heavily.
I looked down. “OK, first everyone… first I have to say… I’m sorry.” I felt sick, but looked up. “I… I know I can be an ass a lot of the time.” Scott started to say something, but I held up my hand. “OK… most of the time. But I just wanted to say…” I paused, blinking, then continued. “I just wanted to say that… I’ve never been happier than when I was with all of you.” I was crying openly now. “I… I appreciate all of you. And I want to thank you for being my friends. Even though… even though sometimes I don’t think I deserve it.” I laughed. “OK, most times I don’t.”
There was an awkward silence. Finally, it was Lisa who spoke. “Dale…” she looked away, then back. “Dale, you’ve always been a wonderful person. The only one who doesn’t know that is you. I don’t know what happened to you, or when but…” She paused again for a long moment before continuing. “Look, when you’re happy, when things are good, there isn’t a person more fun to be around than you.” She looked around the room and I could see a few of the others nodding. “But… when something doesn’t go right? You’re miserable. And you do your best to suck all the positive energy out of the room that you can.” I started to say something, but she held up her hand. “No, listen me!” She hopped off the counter and walked over to me, then took both of my hands in hers.
“Dale, listen to me. I know you better than anyone. I loved you. But you…” she sighed. “But you treat every minor setback, every minor thing, as if it is either a direct affront from the gods or a total and complete personal failing. We want to be your friends but you…” she looked away, released my hands, and took a step or two away. “You act like things either have to be perfect or that you have personally failed at existence. Do you know how hard that is to put up with?”
No one else said any thing but I could see that every eye in the room was on me. Even Sara had put down her phone. I leaned my head back against the wall and closed my eyes. I should have been embarrassed. I should have been trying to get myself under control. But I couldn’t. Part of it was because I now knew that I could get away any time I wanted, but the other was because I realized that if I didn’t confront this now, it would haunt me forever.
That said, I somehow couldn’t say anything. “I’m sorry,” was all I got out. I slid down the wall until I was sitting on the floor and lowered my head to my knees.
I sat there in silence for a long time. No one said anything, though I heard people shifting uncomfortably. Finally, I looked up and pulled myself to my feet again but kept looking down.
“You’re… right.” I took a deep breath. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
“And would you *please* stop saying that!” Donna snapped. “My god, that’s like half of what you say.”
I looked up at her feeling both anger and embarrassment. Lisa glanced over at Donna and I saw Scott holding up a hand towards her. I started to say something but she interrupted.
“No, no… you listen for once!” She was angry herself. “You always do this. You do something stupid. You insult us, your friends. You act like anything bad that happens is a personal attack on you. And when anyone calls you on your bullshit you break down and start crying and start saying ‘I’m sorry!’ and everyone gives in to you, again, because they feel bad for hurting you.”
I tried to say something but she stepped closer and kept talking. “No! It’s *your* turn to listen to *us* for once! OK, maybe you have some new supernatural ability. Maybe you’ll leave and we’ll all think you’re wonderful and you’ll be having a three-way with me, Lisa and Diane and we won’t notice a thing. But *you* will! You will know. And every time you keep acting the way you are you’ll just keep pushing everyone you know away from you again.” She stepped back with a snort. “Erase me. Erase us. I don’t care. Just don’t think you can keep coming back to us crying and expect us to put up with your bullshit any longer.”
Everyone else in the room looked around uncomfortably at each other but no one said anything. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach and for a long moment I didn’t know what to even say.
“I’m…” I started then caught myself and stopped. I thought. “What do you want me to do?” I said, finally.
Again, everyone looked at each other. The silence extended to the point of being awkward when Scott finally spoke up. “Um… Diane had a thought. She had been thinking that…” He stopped as she pointedly stared at him.
“What?” I said in a flat voice. I didn’t know what to think. I had avoided them for so long because I had been afraid of this; afraid of the few people I called friends telling me this. Had I really lost everyone?
Diane sighed. “Dale, have you…” she paused. “Have you ever talked to anyone?”
I narrowed my eyes. “What do you mean?”
She winced. “I mean… like, a… therapist or something?”
I felt myself becoming angry again. “What! Oh, so I’m crazy now?”
She actually stepped back, holding up her hands. “No! Not… not like that.” She winced again. “Look, it’s just that some people just… need something to help keep them stable.” I took an involuntary step forward as she said that, and she took a couple of steps back towards Scott.
“No, look. Listen.” She glanced around at the others as if looking for reassurance, then continued. “Look, no one is saying there is something wrong with you. No one is calling you crazy. But… look, trust me. I work at a hospital. I see and talk to a lot of people. It isn’t something to be ashamed of. It isn’t anything ‘wrong’ with you. It’s just that some people just need a little… help.”
I swallowed hard. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
She sighed. “Look, I do pharmacy, OK? I know some people think turning to drugs are a bad thing…”
Sara interrupted her with a laugh.
Diane glanced in her direction. “Not *that* kind of drugs!” She took a moment to gather herself. I wanted to say something, but I was too distracted to think of what to say.
“Look,” she continued. “We’ve all noticed how much you’re drinking now…”
“Oh!” It was my turn to interrupt. “So I”m an alcoholic now too?”
“No,” she said, waving a hand. “Not that. You just… ‘self medicate’ a lot. We can tell it’s because you’re trying to make yourself feel better. I’m just saying there are medicines you can take that may make you a bit more… even.”
I was swinging back to angry again. “So what is all this then? Some sort of ‘intervention’ or something? Look, I’m not crazy!” I waved a hand at Diane. “Or am I the one imagining that!”
The others looked at each other for a moment. Finally, with a sigh, Jeff grabbed a chair and pulled it into the middle of the room and sat backwards on it, facing me, leaning on the chair back.
“Look, Dale,” he said with another sigh. “Those of us here know you better than anyone. I was your room mate for years. You dated Donna. You lived with Lisa for over a year. Scott is your best friend. Sara works with you. Diane… well… you got her pregnant!” There was a faint laugh at that. “We know you better than anyone. If we weren’t your friends we wouldn’t be talking to you at all. But…” He turned and looked at the others. Donna nodded to him and I noticed Lisa pointedly look away.
“Listen. You may think we’re giving you a hard time or something, but be honest with yourself. You were the one who decided to avoid us for over a year. Then, when you have no one to turn to, you come back to us and try to act like nothing has changed and get upset when it has.” I started to say something but he held up a hand. “Yeah, I get that something has changed with you. If what Scott, Diane and Sara just told us is true then, wow!” He waved a hand in their direction. “Then you can get whatever it is you want. You don’t need us. But if you want to stay friends with us, then you need to be someone we can be with without having to worry that whatever we say will set you off or send you crying in the corner.”
“Look, I said I’m sor…” I cut myself off. “OK, fine…”
Jeff looked at me dubiously. “Dale, we’re serious. We, all of us, we want to support and help you, but you’ve got to try to help yourself as well. We can’t fix you and we can’t keep carrying you. You have to do that.”
I looked down again. I was angry. Seething. How could they say they were my friends and then treat me like this.
Because they were right. I knew that. I just didn’t want to admit it.
Jeff started to say something else but I held up my hand. There was a long silence as I continued to stare at the floor, gathering my thoughts. Finally, I spoke.
“None of you are wrong,” I said, continuing to look down. “OK, sorry. You’re right. I… I wish I wasn’t like this. I do. I just…” I looked up at them again. “I just don’t know how to fix myself.” I laughed. “Weird, isn’t it. I can apparently change anything but myself.”
They looked at each other again. Diane nodded slowly. “You really need to think about what I suggested,” she said. “I think it would help.”
I nodded, sighing. “OK. Thanks.” I stood there for a moment.
“Look, guys… all of you.” I looked around at them. “I appreciate all of you. I really do. I… just didn’t think about how I was acting would affect any of you. Actually I… didn’t think. I’m sorry.” I looked at Donna and shrugged.
“I know I can’t do anything overnight, but…” I felt myself becoming emotional again and tried to fight it. “Look, all I can do is say I’ll try. I’ll do my best. I can’t promise that I’ll change overnight. All I can do is try. And if I can’t…” I sighed. “I guess I’ll understand.”
Donna rolled her eyes. “And work on playing the martyr too, OK?”
I grimaced. “Sorry.” I winced again. She sighed and shook her head.
“What do you want me to do then!” I almost shouted.
Scott stepped forward. “It’s OK Dale, really.” He sighed. “I.. we just wanted you to know how we felt. And we wanted to tell you before you decided to erase everything.” He held up a hand before I could say anything. “We know what you can do now, and we’re all a bit scared of it.” He looked at Lisa. “OK, very scared of it. We know you can do anything to us now. But…” he shrugged. “But that’s why we all wanted to say this to you. No matter what you change, we think you’ll remember. So it’s up to you, really. If we are your friends like you say we are… how much do you care about your friends.”
“Oh!” I snorted angrily. “So all this is about protecting yourselves?”
“No!” said Donna. “But you can’t blame us for thinking about it.”
“OK, OK…” I said. I sighed. “Let me… think about all this, OK? I’ll… see what I can do.”
“I can give you a name…” started Diane.
I waved her off, thinking about Nichole. “I think I know someone, actually.”
She looked at me curiously, but when I didn’t elaborate she didn’t question me further. “OK. I hope they can help.”
I nodded. “Yeah, me too.”
There was a brief pause then Scott clapped his hands together. “OK, then! So… who needs another beer?”
I shook my head. “Actually… I think I’ll head back home.” I looked around. “Thank you, all of you, for supporting me. I’ll… do what I can to be a better friend from now on.”
There were a few glances around but finally Donna nodded. “You will. I believe in you.” She came up and gave me a quick kiss on my cheek. “I belive in you Dale.”
I felt tears again and nodded. “Thanks.”
I started towards the door then looked up to see Lisa looking at me. I walked over to her.
“Can I… talk to you for a moment?”
She looked uncomfortable but nodded. “Sure.” She followed me towards the door.
“So…” I asked when we got there. “Can you tell me about him?”
She turned red and looked away. “Dale, I really don’t want to talk about that.”
I shrugged. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a scene. I just… want to know.”
She sighed. “His name is Sam. Samuel.” She laughed. “He hates being called that. We met in a hiking club.”
“You’re hiking again?” I smiled. “Good. I need to go out again.”
“You should,” she said, nodding. “There are some good trails up in North Carolina, you could…” she trailed off.
I smiled again. “It’s fine. Look, are you happy with him?”
She looked uncomfortable again and looked away. “Yeah,” she said finally “Yeah, I am.”
I nodded. “Good. Good. I’m glad. I just want to ask one thing of you.”
She looked back at me with a worried expression. “Yes?”
“If he ever does anything to you. If he ever hurts you. Call me, OK?”
Conflicting emotions crossed her face but she finally settled on a smile. “Sure. I will. Definitely.” She reached out and gave me a deep hug. “Goodbye, Dale.”